Metal Army caught up recently with Brian Lew, co-author of the excellent Murder In The Front Row book that we reviewed recently. The book is a visual document of the early days of Bay Area Thrash metal, which still has ripples being felt the world over today. In addition to the book, Brian is still in the photo pit at many shows today and blogs about his experiences. Although he doesn’t like to be thought of as a historian of the scene, he was cool enough to share some keen insights the book uncovered with us.
MAA: What led you and Harald Oimoen to come together an Murder In the Front Row?
BL:That comes with a bigger back story. Harold and I have known each other since we were teenagers. We met at these early shows when because we were both taking pictures .We always talked about putting a book together. The timing of the book kind of just happened naturally. Harald was talking to some people who suggested Bazillion Points. And I have a blog and unbeknownst to me Ian Christie had been reading my blog for a couple of years. Harald contacted Ian and he said ‘why don’t you do a collaboration with Brian?’ So Ian suggested that Harald and I do the book together and it was really Bazillion Points putting us together. Now we’ve known each other over thirty years, but we hadn’t really been in touch with each other that closely until we put this book together. Now we totally reconnected as brothers and friends because of this book.
MAA: Why did you pick up a camera the first time?
BL: For me this all started when I was in High School. At the time I was taking an elective class in photography. So I had access to a camera. At the same time I had started to go to all of these metal shows. Back then you didn’t need a photo pass, even for big for the big shows. You could go into an arena or an open air event with a big telephoto lens and just take pictures. But for the underground bands and the club shows it was a completely eye opening experience for me. You could go to these small shows, see some great bands, stand against the stage, not get crushed by 10,000 people and actually focus a camera and take these photos. As with everything surrounding this book, everything that happened was all luck. I had access to a camera, I was going to all these shows, I made friends with all of these bands. It all happened by luck.
MAA:Why did you start the Whiplash fanzine back in 1982?
BL: For a lot of young kids may find it hard to comprehend, but the closest thing to a fanzine today is a blog. Back then if you were passionate about something you had to do a fanzine. Early on I was writing for early fanzines. I became friends with KJ Doughton who ran the original METALLICA fan club. He had a fanzine called Northwest Metal. After the whole tape trading/pen-pal scene I met KJ, I wound up writing a few things for his fanzine. At the same time I had met Ron Quintana with Metal Mania and I wrote for them. My friend Sam Kress and I were realizing we could do this too. That is where Whiplash started. We had the drive and felt like we could do it to. We wanted our own outlet to do this. To do a fanzine, it’s not like now where anyone who can type and post and has a computer can do a blog. We wanted to do it right. It wasn’t just a matter of typing up the text. There wasn’t even a word processing program back then. We had to take our handwritten notes and typed notes to a print shop and it was typeset. There wasn’t even a Kinko’s. It was a print shop and we would typeset it. We had to do the layouts and everything. What drove us into Whiplash was our passion for the scene and these bands. It was our life! For Sam Kress and I, it was our attempt a doing a fanzine and we were inspired by these other guys. Metal Mania was a huge influence on us because Ron Quintana was and still is a corner stone of this scene. At the same time there were all of these other fanzines from all over the world. I grew up in the suburbs and to get these fanzines was amazing. All these people from all over the world like and all over different parts of the US, we realized we were all a like. We were into the same bands and the same things. With the Internet now you can find out about something with a click of a button. It was almost like a religious experience like ‘Someone in Holland knows about EXODUS?’ It was a mind-blowing realization that these fans, these other people were like us all over the world.
MAA: Some of your photos are some of the best known, iconic shots associated with these acts? How does that make you feel?
BL: To be honest I still don’t have my head around it. METALLICA is always the band people want to talk to me about since they are the biggest band of our generation. They are not just the biggest metal band, but they are like the LED ZEPPELIN of our generation. It still bugs me out to hear “Seek and Destroy” on the FM radio stations. For METALLICA, since they are the most in the public eye I’m still too close to it. A lot of this happened when we were just still kids. That was the other thing too, what Harald and I wanted to present in this book. Any other publisher besides Bazillion Points would wanted to do a book just about METALLICA. That would be the most mainstream, that would sell the most books or whatever. But to Bazillion Points credit, Ian Christie is a fan and he knows the history of metal. He realized there was a bigger story there. Harald and I wanted to make sure the one band we wanted to pay homage to was EXODUS. Not that we had anything against any other bands. Within the scene EXODUS were the heart and soul of the scene. But EXODOS and especially Paul Baloff was the personification of our entire scene. That whole East Bay, Ruthie’s Inn, Oakland, Berkeley thing. Violent, but with a sense of humor and attitude. I don’t know if outside of the Bay Area that people will appreciate that. Every local scene has a band that would be the main band. In our scene it was EXODUS, they always symbolized the old scene for me and Harald. We wanted to pay homage to that. That is where the title of the book came from, the line is from “Bonded By Blood”. Gary Holt was the first band person to sign on and wanted to contribute something. It was very important to me to have Gary involved. He was there from the beginning. It was also important to have ALEX SKOLNICK and ROBB FLYNN also contribute something which means a lot. Gary is like king of the scene, like the godfather so to speak. Alex and Robb grew up in the scene and they went on to their own success. Any other book would have wanted something written from a METALLICA member which would have been amazing, but we couldn’t do it with the schedule. On the other hand I’m happy to get these three guys involved because they don’t get the props. It’s really cool. The band that can trace their roots and DNA straight back to the original scene with their music is MACHINE HEAD because of VIO-LENCE and Robb Flynn. Robb and Phil Demmel met at Ruthie’s Inn. They were fans before they started playing, before they were friends. Someone like Robb Flynn started playing guitar because of the scene. It worked out really great to have three representatives of all three waves of the original scene.
MAA: Was it important to you and Harald to present a warts and all view of those times?
BL: When we first started one of the first things we decided that we didn’t want a lot of writing in the book. Early on we did not want the book perceived as a history book. We did not want to be perceived as experts. A lot of books play out with people pumping up their own egos saying things like ‘I was was there and you weren’t there’ and we didn’t want that. We wanted it to be a time capsule. If you were there you would be reminded and if you weren’t you could get the vibe of it from the pictures. It was sort of like a yearbook and that is a general description of the vibe of the book. When you look at a HS yearbook the captions are there with the pictures and testimonials. And there of pics of people hanging out, but why are they there. So by just looking at the picture you can get a feel for the vibe. Bazillion Points got it right way, what we wanted to do. With the writing, because it was so spare the intros that Harald and I wrote are very personal. We both wear our hearts on our sleeve. That is a very sacred time for us. Sometimes you will see a photo and it was like ‘Whoa! There is Cliff Burton and he is hanging out with a bunch of anonymous dudes’. At the same time we made a point of trying to identify everybody in the photos. As often as possible if we knew someone in the photo we tried to name them. It goes back to that yearbook vibe. That was Harald’s idea and I hadn’t even thought about it. It goes back to that yearbook vibe. It’s been cool because people I haven’t talked to in years bought the book. And they showed their kids the book and their names are in the captions. It means a lot to them. We went for a more minimalist approach and it worked out.
MAA: Aside from bringing you and Harald together, what else made the Bazillion Points relationship the right one to put this book out?
BL: The Bazillion Points guys are passionate about it and above all they know music, not just metal. The the thing I loved when I first got to know Ian Christie, the thing I love about him the most is he’s a total freak for details. Ian, Harald and I were talking about hating when you get a book and the details are wrong. You just know there is wrong stuff in there like dates of shows, the venue is wrong, wrong captions and who is in the pictures. The minutiae stuff normal people don’t give a shit about, really matters to me and pisses me off when it’s wrong. Ian is the same way. If we didn’t know the show details for a photo, we just didn’t identify it. The just shows the attention to detail they have and it shows in every book they do.
MAA: Everyone has opinions about the Big Four and EXODUS. Who are the truly underrated bands from the Bay in you opinion?
BL: That is hard for me to say to be honest because I am so close to it. Like EXODUS, not that they haven’t gotten their due, but hey way they influenced everyone in the scene. METALLICA moved up here. They became a local band, but they came from Los Angeles. EXODUS was 100%, East Bay born and bred. METALLICA was very important and they influenced bands globally. EXODUS influenced more of the local bands. From EXODUS you can draw a direct line to MACHINE HEAD. From EXODUS you get BLIND ILLUSION and Les Claypool went on from there and formed PRIMUS. I don’t think that line of influence is even known, that PRIMUS came from Bay Area Thrash. And Larry LaLonde was in POSSESSED and then went on to PRIMUS. And how many bands have PRIMUS influenced? It wasn’t like a contest to me. It wasn’t who’s best, who’s worst. To me, in my head it’s about the scene. To me the scene is bigger than any band in my mind.
MAA: Bay Area thrash is over 30 years old. What was the catalyst in the Bay Area that made this music happen?
BL: You can see some photographic evidence in “Murder”…that the “crossover” happened here at least two years before it happened anywhere else. I grew up in the burbs, about forty-five minutes away. When I started to hang out with guys like Ron Quintana who grew up in San Francisco, they were always more opened minded than us. They were listening to THE RAMONES in 1980. Growing up in the burbs, THE RAMONES were the last punk band I would have given a shit about. The original East Bay people and San Francisco people, they were listening to the punk stuff earlier on before the rest of the country. I think the Bay Area, maybe because of the “Summer of Love” for what ever reason, was more open, more liberal and maybe it’s a hippie influence. Like sort of a “live and let live” sort of thing. But I think people in the Bay were first to listen to other aggressive forms of music earlier than other areas were. In the early 80s, EXODUS listened to a ton of DEAD KENNEDY’S in 83-84. When SLAYER and MEGADETH first came up here for the first time and visited The Bay for the first time they were just playing local shows, there weren’t on tour. They would spend a weekend or five days up here and just play five shows and then just hang out here. They would become a local band for the week. I can’t speak for them, but that had to have influence on them. I’m sure they were listening to punk already too, but they saw a metal scene where there wasn’t that animosity towards punk. They heard EXODUS listening to that music and went back home with that. There was a little of that rivalry between the styles, sure. I was resistant to punk in the beginning because I just didn’t get it. There definitely was that rivalry between the metal heads and the punks like everywhere else. But I think that line broke down earlier here than it did other places. I remember going to see MOTORHEAD and seeing punks with the liberty spikes. And I was like ‘What the hell? What are they doing at MOTORHEAD?’ I didn’t get the correlation in my teenage brain, but punks were looking for fast and aggressive music and we were looking for fast and aggressive music. Once that light bulb went off in my head that was it. So in 1984 when I heard GBH and DISCHARGE it made total sense. Again, this may be getting a bit away from what Harald and I wanted out of this book. We don’t want to be thought of as experts about the scene at all. But in my own personal opinion I can say that might be the reason the Bay area scene developed the was it did. It was a little more open minded, a little bit earlier than other places.
(Special thanks to Brian Lew, Harald Oimoen and Bazillion Points. You can buy Murder In the Front Row here.)
by Keith (Keefy) Chachkes