On January 11th, artist Emily Harris is presenting a multifaceted thesis exhibition titled “Dispossessed,” exploring the heavy metal subculture in Atlanta. This will coincide with premiere of her full length documentary Atlanta Metal. She aims to dig deeper into the culture, rather than just aim a spotlight on Atlanta’s metal scene, as the documentary asks pointed questions about stereotypes within the culture. We got the chance to catch up with Harris and discuss her exhibition and the state of metal in the Dirty South.
What inspired you to use metal heads as the focus of your visual medium?
Emily: I have been a metalhead since I was about 14. When I started grad school, I was in my early 30s, and I guess you could call it sort of a mid-life crisis. I was hungry to revisit my youth a bit and recall the feeling that metal music, hanging with my friends and going to shows gave me back when I was a teenager. I didn’t know many metal heads in town and I found that by making the local metal community my thesis focus, I was able to find friendship and also relate to people based on our bond to metal.
What kind of metal did you grow up on ? Hows does it differ from what you listen to today? What are your guilty pleasures?
Emily: Well, the first music I got into really was punk, with bands like Fugazi, Bad Religion and the sort. I knew of metal but didn’t know much about it, then I got Metallica’s Master of Puppets on CD and my life was changed forever. It was the 90s, so you had a lot of bands like Nine Inch Nails, Rage Against the Machine, Stuck Mojo, Sevendust, Metallica and Megadeth. I would say those were some of the big ones for me then. I still listen to some of that stuff, but as metal has progressed, so has my collection. As I got older, I got into the more extreme stuff like black metal. As far as my guilty pleasure, I like old school 80s hair metal. It’s super cheesy, but man is it fun to sing along to!
What do you think separates the Atlanta scene from that of cities like New York, Tampa, San Francisco or Chicago?
Emily: I can’t speak for the other cities because I am not as connected to their scenes, but I do know that certain cities have fostered certain movements in metal, like the Bay area Thrash scene of the 80s, or Tampa’s 90s death metal scene. My goal is to help push the Atlanta scene and hopefully bring some recognition to some of the great bands we have here! I think Atlanta has a strong sense of community although it is a big town and very spread out.
Any subculture carries a certain conformity in their non-conformity; what does the Atlanta metal scene tend to conform to?
Emily: Certainly, you are right, and I touch upon that a bit in my thesis paper. You know, it is hard to say completely, because everyone I know in Atlanta’s scene is all so vastly different. The one thing I enjoy is the southern hospitality. Not everyone is friendly, but the ones that are really radiate that southern friendliness.
What stereotypes do you think are most prevalent in regards to metal today?
Emily: I am working against the stereotypes, but I think overall “the stoner” would be the most common. I am glad to see that “the groupie” is no longer a dominant stereotype for women; at the very least, we are working against it. Also, possibly the alpha male meathead types linger around a little too.
What’s a bigger issue in the Atlanta metal scene gender or race? Is it homophobic?
Emily: For me, it would be the gender issue, but only because I am a woman. I have been accepted and respected for the most part, which is awesome, but I do think it is harder for a woman to be taken seriously when you are approaching a group of guys. Atlanta’s scene is predominantly white, but we do have quite a few other races mixed in and everyone is friendly; there is no racism here, at least not that I have seen. I haven’t seen anything homophobic, but I also don’t know many gay metalheads.
How prevalent are drugs in the Atlanta metal scene?
Emily: Atlanta is a big town, so drugs are going to be prevalent no matter what scene you are in. Mostly I see a lot of drinking, but as for the others, I choose to plead the 5th.
It seems like every decade, Atlanta had its one or two mainstream bands that broke big, and various bandwagons reared around them – ranging from the 80’s with Hallows Eve to Stuck Mojo and Sevendust to now Mastodon. Where do you think this cycle sits today in terms of the Atlanta scene?
Emily: You are right, every decade seems to foster a new hit band. Mastodon still dominates, but there are other bands coming up from our underground scene that are becoming big, like Lazer/Wulf. I think a lot of that southern sludge/doom mixed with rock elements seems to be popular down here with
bands from Savannah too, like Kylesa and Baroness. So we will have to see where it goes!
Do you make any note of the divide of Atlanta bands, where the bulk of the “metal” bands in town seem to have all come from a punk rock background, whereas the suburban metal bands just play metal and take more influence from 90’s era Pantera?
Emily: Haha, I just got into some discussions about this recently. I think the Atlanta scene has a big crossover with the punk scene, something that is unique to Atlanta. I think a lot of people that are into punk originally get into metal later in life because it is more musically challenging and sometimes has more to
offer them mentally. As far as the city versus the suburbs, it’s hard to say, because a lot of the bands that live in the burbs play in the city all the time. I guess it just has to do with their influences.
Why do you think thrash and death metal are more popular in Atlanta than black metal, when that might not be the case in other cities like New York?
Emily: Yeah, we don’t have a huge number of black metal bands here. I think thrash and death metal are the most popular styles of metal and people gravitate to the bands they grew up on and are influenced by. Maybe because we are in the South and it’s warmer and sunnier than New York, where people are more distant and disconnected – but that might be a silly answer.
What approach are you taking with the art show, Dispossessed, and how is it connected to the documentary?
Emily: For me, the thesis was both challenging and exciting. The show itself I wanted to be engaging and not in a typical quiet gallery setting, because the work is about metal music, and therefore I really wanted to have some of our local metal bands play. The photography portion highlights my love for the people in this scene, because this project is about our connection to metal music and consequently to each other. There will also be artifacts documented by myself of objects from people in the local community. My film, Atlanta Metal, which will also be premiering, gives some focus on different aspects and struggles within our community, and in the metal community as a whole. Really, the whole project and the upcoming show is a 3-year-long journey.
Disposessed opens at The Masquerade Atlanta on January 11th from 6-11pm, with Atlanta Metal screening at 7pm.