Angela Boatwright has been a heavy metal fan her entire life; as a ten-year-old, she worshipped KISS and Ozzy Osbourne, and as a teenager in the late 1980s, she would go to metal shows and find ways to get backstage, meet the bands, and get photographs with them. In the 1990s, she won an autographed guitar off the radio, signed by members of Skid Row.
Later she began working as a commercial photographer for brands like ROXY Quiksilver. “I was financially stable, and I wanted to do a personal project,” she says. “I was really close with a lot of current heavy metal bands in the mid-2000s. My friend Mike Conte, from the heavy metal band Early Man, said, ‘Well, why don't you just come on tour with us? You can take pictures,’ and it sounded like a lot of fun.”
She gathered up her life savings and hit the road in 2008, touring almost nonstop for the next four years with Early Man, Toxic Holocaust, Black Tusk, Skeletonwitch, and other thrash metal bands, becoming close with the musicians, filming them for a documentary, and taking thousands of photographs of their lives on- and offstage. The longer she stayed on tour, the more she started to understand the passion behind the music, what types of people are drawn to the touring lifestyle, and what it ultimately does to them. “I was really influenced by Penelope Spheeris’s 1988 documentary, The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years. These were the bands that are going to be the next Metallica, I thought.”
Or not. The record industry had changed so drastically by the early 2000s that making money as a hardworking heavy metal band meant shows nearly every night, selling merch for much-needed cash, and spending months if not years on the road. Now, more than eight years later, Boatwright caught up with some of the band members to see how they remember this time; some of her subjects are still touring, others are no longer playing with their bands, and still others continue to look for ways to balance a steady paycheck with a need to shred.
SCOTT HEDRICK, guitar, Skeletonwitch: I started playing in a band for fun, that was the only reason. I was a college student. I was probably 17 or 18 years old, and it was something fun to do on the weekends or between classes.
DERRICK NAU, drums, Skeletonwitch: We had a period where we did some backyard shows around Athens, Ohio, but we didn't really have the singer, and we didn't really have an identity musically or visually. I think I was around 17 when we actually got a cohesive band together. I was into metal, so I wanted to play metal. I was young and full of energy.
SCOTT: I've toured basically for the last 15 years, off and on. A heavy year would be maybe nine months of touring, three months off. A light year would be maybe three or four months on tour.
DERRICK: Our music was always about playing loud and fast, with a lot of energy. I don't think that we played loud, fast music to exhibit anger or aggression or anything like that. A lot of what we were doing was about having fun, and having fun with our audience. We had a lot of melody and a lot of tongue-in-cheek elements. We were fast, loud, precise, and fun.
JAMES MAY, drums, Black Tusk: We were playing somewhere in Europe, and I remember looking down at the end of the show and there was blood all over the stage—a guy in the front row had gotten hit with a bottle, and it didn't even seem to faze him. I guess that’s the sign of a good show.
SCOTT: One thing I will never forget was at a small dive bar in Louisville, Kentucky, watching a crowd just go completely berserk and destroying a venue. There was a guy moshing, completely naked, and he got turned upside down, and another dude was ramming his shoe through the ceiling tile, and the owner and her daughter ended up topless somehow. This was on one of our earliest tours, and I thought, "My God, is it going to be like this every time we go out?"
“It was just complete trashy pandemonium. I questioned my own existence, and I also questioned ever returning to the city of Louisville again.”
DERRICK: We didn’t make money on tour, nor did we have money to spend. We didn't have a lot. We were young; I was especially young. You didn't have a lot to worry about.
Unfortunately, with the state of the recording industry the way it is, we made most of our money playing shows and selling merch, which required us to be on the road a lot. The band was as thrifty as possible, and at times that was frustrating, but it was a good thing to do. We were probably well known as a band that likes to have fun and goof off and get rowdy and have fun on tour, but we were also pretty tight as far as business goes.
JAMES: As the band got bigger, we got to where we actually had per diems on the road. I remember it started off as like $5. Do I buy cigarettes or food? That’s not even enough to get cigarettes nowadays. Now it's worked its way to a nice decent number that one can actually live off of, $20 to $25. I’ll spend it on food or maybe some sort of little trinkets. I have a rubber-duck collection. If I see rubber ducks, I'll buy those.
SCOTT: Skeletonwitch is at a bit of a crossroads today, because we finished our last record for the label; we're very happy to be released from that contract. I want us all to be more secure financially, more set up in our lives, so that the band can exist only as a creative endeavor. I don't want to worry about how much merchandise we sell or how many people come to the shows. The fact that it will make money should be a bonus, but not a stressor. I want to do less shows, bigger shows. I want it to be something that goes back to it being fun.
MIKE CONTE, guitar and vocals, Early Man: I had an uncle who was a really huge metalhead. He was into Pantera and Megadeth and all the heavyweights that you're into when you live in Dayton, Ohio. The door to all of that was opened by me hearing 14-year-olds cover those songs in a basement to perfection. I was like, "Oh, this is what religious experience means." The crunchy guitar riffs? Got it. Filing that away as the only thing I care about.
JOEL GRIND, lead vocals, Toxic Holocaust: There's a camaraderie between bands that tour. Especially with the kinds of music we play, the more underground type stuff. There's not a lot of money to be had, so there's not really any other motive than the love of the music.
When you're starting out, you make money from merch sales. As you start to progress and you get a bigger fan base and stuff, there is some money to be made from the actual shows, but for the most part it still comes down to the merch, because when you buy the products from the labels—the CD and vinyl sales—the companies charge so much for each copy that there really isn't enough markup to really make a profit on the music, which really sucks. It's so backwards.
“You're there for the music, but what it really comes down to is the T-shirt sales, you know?”
JOEL: I think our fans are really cool because they're super loyal, almost sometimes to a fault. Because if anything ever changes with the band, it's like you get roasted over the coals. For instance, when we changed our logo, I never heard the end of it. But that means that there's passion there and that they actually care. Man, it's really hard to even describe what it’s like to have people that actually care that much about your music. It's great.
PHIL ZELLER, bass, Toxic Holocaust: Certain fans, they can be real punishers. They're asking you 12 questions until Tuesday when you don't want to talk to anyone and you're trying to be polite. But generally, who doesn't like to be adored? I never had a problem with taking a minute to sign somebody's record or take a photo. There was never a time where I turned people away for stuff like that.
MIKE: One thing I didn't like about touring is there's a very sports-like, competitive element to the bands—who's going to make it to the top first? I wasn't thinking about music like that. When you run into these really competitive people, it's really odd and it sucks. So some interactions with other bands were great and very meaningful, and some of it I think, Thank God it's over.
SCOTT: Skeletonwitch has gotten to a point now where it makes some money. The last tour we did was the first time in the US that we had a small van; we have bunks, we have a driver, we have a shower. We have a dedicated driver who's not also playing the shows, and that enables us to drive overnight. I will wake up early in whatever city we're playing—I've become a bit of an avid runner and have run a couple marathons—and I’ll take the opportunity to finally actually see some sights in the cities we’re touring in.
MIKE: Being on tour is extremely, extremely monotonous. I think we were just so bored out of our minds sometimes. Once, I saw a plant on the wall in a Holiday Inn, like a Holiday Inn Express, that looked exactly like my hair—I had really long hair that was like dreading really badly in the back at the time—and I put that plant on my head and walked around the hotel. The security people came out and they're like, “We've been watching you on security footage walk around with this plant on your head.” It was four in the morning, and they were super cool about it. I'm sorry I don't have any Mötley Crüe confessions to make.
SCOTT: Our singer, Chance [Garnette], we kicked out on the road after learning about his terrible, abusive behavior. I do not talk to Chance. I mean, if he reached out to me, you know, I don't think I'd ignore him, but I highly doubt he will ever reach out to me, just knowing the guy as long as I have.
Derrick and I are still very good friends. We hang out like a couple times a month. We go get ramen all the time. He and I have ramen dates. He texted me today when I posted about going back to school for my composing work, and he told me he was proud of me and that he was excited to see what I was going to do and that we should get ramen soon.
JOEL: After years of touring, I got a little bit burned out; this was about 2013. I decided I needed kind of a change. I needed to do something that was music-related, so I started a recording studio, where I would be mixing and mastering music for other bands. Took a little while to start to build up that, but now it's 2019, six years into it, and it's become really successful. The studio is great, because it still involves music and there’s still a creative aspect to it.
MIKE: I met my wife, Emily, on tour in Los Angeles. Our kid is now three, and we live in the deep valley in Los Angeles. I'm a production designer for TV commercials, movies, those types of things that happen here in Los Angeles. I'm happy. Never thought I'd say it, but I'm happy. I'm a 44-year-old happy guy, with short hair now. Who would have known? Who could say?
DERRICK: Since I left the band, I went back to school. I had two years to finish up my degree, which I did. I graduated in 2013. I used to paint miniatures when I was a kid, and I do that on the computer now for animated features. I was fortunate enough to land a job working at Nickelodeon. I worked there for about three and a half years. Now I work at DreamWorks Animation, working on feature films. I don't play in a band now, but I often fantasize about it. Music is still a huge part of my life.
PHIL: One day, I got an email that said Joel had decided he was going to play bass in the band, and that I was done. I didn't take that very well at the time, but I'm a grown-up. I just always assumed that the machine was going to keep going, but really it's Joel's entity, and that was the decision he made, and I'm not bitter. It was probably the best thing for me, because I was so reliant on touring for money, and also so self-destructive at the time.
I'm taking a lot more responsibility for myself these days than I used to. There's things I miss, things I definitely don't miss. My day-to-day life may be boring now, but it’s so much better than what I was putting myself through.