Interview with Metal author and scholar, Dr. Keith Kahn-Harris
Tell us a bit about yourself! When did you first embrace the Metal as a young person?
My relationship with metal as a young person was quite complicated. When I was 9 or 10 I started getting into the NWOBHM stuff that was around at the time – that dates me! I’d listen to Radio 1’s Friday Rock Show, read Kerrang and saved up my pocket money to buy albums. But I didn’t really have any friends who were into it and I started to get embarrassed about liking metal as my parents and other people around me thought it was ridiculous. So I repudiated metal when I was about 12 years old and threw my records away, which obviously I regret now!
In my mid-teens, I started getting back into it. This was the late 80s and I was into indie/alternative music (a lot harder edged than it is now) and I listened to the John Peel show on the radio. That’s how I discovered Napalm Death, Carcass, Bolt Thrower etc. That led me on to thrash and death metal and – eventually – back to the NWOBHM.
What was your first foray into Metal academia?
Metal academia didn’t really exist when I started! I began my PhD in sociology in 1996 at Goldsmiths College. My plan to do a doctorate on extreme metal started when I was an undergraduate at Cambridge University. That’s when I discovered popular music studies. By the time I started my PhD there were a few articles on metal, as well as pioneering books by Deena Weinstein and Robert Walser. But no one had really looked at extreme metal much and I didn’t know anyone else doing research on metal at the time.
Do you consider your work in Metal academia to be a pleasant side project from your main lines of work or are they intertwined?
Metal studies was certainly the centre of my life when I was doing my PhD! And I’ve published a lot of stuff on metal since I got my PhD in 2001. I’ve never wanted metal to be the beginning and end of my working life – too many other things interest me, and besides, even today it’s a pretty small field. Today, metal studies is part of my working life but certainly doesn’t occupy the majority of it. However, that doesn’t mean that it’s not as important as the other stuff I work on. I try to treat my entire portfolio of work as equally important. That said, I don’t get paid for the metal stuff I do so that means it sometimes gets squeezed to the margins at times.
Why do you think there has been a big increase in the field of Metal studies?
The broader context of the growth of metal studies is the wider growth in specialist academic sub-disciplines. Punk studies, hip hop studies and so have also grown significantly over the last couple of decades. So in a sense, the growth of metal studies seems to have been inevitable in a world where academics are getting more and more specialised.
At a more micro level, the growth of metal studies is also due to the hard work of a number of pioneers who kickstarted the discipline. Niall Scott and Rob Fisher organised the first ever international conference on metal in Salzburg in 2008. That attracted well over 100 people (including me) and the contacts that were made at that conference formed the basis of networks that persist to this day. The conference organised in Bowling Green University by Jeremy Wallach in 2013 was also hugely important. Then there are people like Karl Spracklen who have been important in starting the journal Metal Music Studies and the academic respectability that comes with it.
Conferences and networks are enormously important in the growth of academic disciplines. They make the field visible and this encourages potential graduate students to think about metal studies as a research specialism. Conferences also encourage more established scholars to devote more time to metal rather than other work – myself included.
Above and beyond all that, the majority of metal studies scholars are extremely passionate and committed about metal itself. In some cases, metal academia has provided a way for groups that are otherwise marginal in metal culture to articulate critiques of metal that are based on love of the genre. Feminist and queer approaches to metal have been massively important in metal studies and have had some impact on metal scenes themselves.
Could you share with us some of the highlights of your travels to the various academic conferences?
It’s no exaggeration to say that conferences have pushed me to keep working on metal when otherwise I might have left metal studies behind after I published my book in 2007. I’ve been hugely inspired by the people I’ve met and the papers I have heard. Some of the best moments have been when non-academics have participated and helped me understand metal better. The 2013 Bowling Green conference had a panel of metal scenesters from Toledo, Ohio and the 2017 Victoria conference featured the organiser of a festival in British Columbia – they were all inspirational and gave me further insights in what it takes to contribute to a metal scene. I also enjoyed getting to know the Puerto Rican metal scene courtesy of an invitation by Nelson Varas Dias to a conference there.
Another exciting episode was when, at the 2013 Bowling Green conference, some of the feminist scholars on a panel on women in metal scenes, were critical of my work. They argued that, in discussing sexism and misogyny in metal, I had underestimated women’s agency. Serious engagement and critique like that is exactly what a scholar hopes to achieve in publishing a book. That said, I attended a local metal show on the evening of the panel and a singer of one of the bands introduced a song with the word ‘this song is about fucking sluts!’. After that, a fight broke out in the moshpit. So I thought, ‘hmmm…maybe I wasn’t completely wrong’!
What advice would to give a young scholar of Metal to try to advance the field of Metal Studies?
I think it’s vital that metal scholars don’t just read the burgeoning academic literature on metal. There is a lot of work out there now, but any kind of scholarship benefits from a wider perspective. So, my advice would be to ground oneself in a wider academic discipline and to contextualise metal within a broader landscape.
The other thing I would say is that the aim of doing scholarship in metal shouldn’t just be to talk about the music you love (although that can certainly be part of it). Rather, it’s to ask tough questions about metal and help us understand what metal means in a complex world. That means challenging yourself to think about metal differently, to expose yourself to forms of metal and metal scenes about which you know little.
Aside perhaps from the obvious answer of funding, what is the biggest challenge for you as a sociologist to develop the study and understanding of Heavy Metal?
Well funding matters in that, since I rely on other work financially, there is a limit to the amount of time I can spend on metal. I don’t really have the time to do extended fieldwork and interviews anymore, which makes me anxious that I am ‘missing’ something. There is a wider intellectual challenge here in that, metal has spread across the world to such an extent that it is very easy to either lose sight of common features of metal scenes globally, or to do the opposite and assume that what is true for the scene you know best is always true elsewhere. The relationship between online and offline culture – not that you can make a complete separation between the two – is also a very difficult issue. I always have to remind myself that the slice of metal culture I see online is inevitably partial. So balancing the need for both micro and macro perspectives on metal is very very difficult.
Lastly, what is your current project that you are working on?
Metal-wise I am working on two things at the moment. The first is a special issue of the journal Metal Music Studies on metal, Jews and the Holocaust that I am co-editing with Dominic Williams. I am currently writing my own contribution to the issue. The other project is co-editing the book series Emerald Studies Metal Music and Culture.
As for a bigger piece of work, I have a whole collection of conference keynotes and other lectures and articles that I want to combine into a book. However I keep putting it off, partly because of pressure of other work, but also because I can’t decide what sort of book I want it to be. I have been moving away from purely academic writing for some years now and my last 4 books have all been aimed at a hybrid scholarly-popular audience. I want to do something similar for my next metal book but haven’t quite figured out how.