I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Behind the Metal

by Kristen Bialik
May 4, 2014

Metal music is all about persona. Why else would the unmasking of KISS have been such a big deal? How else would GWAR exist? Even metal artists who don’t look like pig-spawned aliens have a certain theatricality to them. It’s there in everything from the full-face makeup to the studded leather jackets. It takes an admirable level of commitment, building this persona. Don’t we all love the idea of these characters existing off stage? I picture members of Slipknot mildly struggling with their Honey Nut Cheerios every morning, gripping milk-filled spoons that won’t break through their clown masks. I like to think that occasionally, Cradle of Filth members wind up spot treating spaghetti sauce stains on their leathers at an Italian restaurant, or that Ozzy Osbourne snacks on bats when he takes the dogs out at night (which, I think might actually happen once in awhile).

Even if you don’t will breakfast battles or mid-day spiked leathers on these artists, the perception is generally that their lives are wild, drug-fueled romps into chaos. Either because we love their music, their performances, or just for the sake of consistency, we forget, willfully or otherwise, that these musicians are just people backstage, fighting off nerves and goofing around with their friends. Even though nothing really happens, the collection of heavy metal show backstage antics is oddly just as compelling as the shows themselves. There’s something fascinating and strangely endearing about seeing the rowdy performers palin’ around after the show.

One of the best parts is how goofy they all are. Cradle of Filth is crab walking and doing poor Eastern European accents. A 1970s Black Sabbath is dancing to “Blue Suede Shoes” with a wide push broom and then using it to fake out breaking their teeth. GWAR’s moments get a little weird, but who didn’t see that coming? It was hard to tell through the slurring and stone agey helmet pressing his painted cheeks in, but I’m pretty sure one GWAR member actually used the phrase “techno toejam destructo pee-pee pants.” Then his horned band mate comes around the corner with some British tea-drinking impressions and blows a microphone boom.

So I guess those last two were actions you’d actually expect. Then again, the GWAR footage is taken before they’re about to play their show, when they’re just getting into character. The process of transformation into their stage persona is visible, and they’re straddling the lines in all their warrior-wear glory. You can see both sides tugging at them during the interview. How should they answer the answer the questions? As their stage persona or as their everyday selves? What results is a weird hybrid persona that’s equal parts feigned accents, verbal threats, and direct communication. They’re also pretty drunk, so any hybrid identities might be more binge-related than time-related.

I think they’re all a little drunk, but a lot of the other bands in the collection are shown in the process of winding down, of reliving and reveling in the performance. Motley Crue laughs about the audience affection behind raw meat missiles, about fake sock penises, and their parents moshing with the best of them. Slipknot rinses gross food down with water. And Judas Priest’s Rob Halford talks about the weather. They’re acts of downtime, acts even of (dare I say it) boredom. The voices, the drinks, the eating challenges, they’re what we do with friends in between our own wild nights and performances.

Having swapped out the leather for jeans and a t-shirt, the artists are often shown in shockingly ordinary clothes. Slipknot’s backstage dressed in Batman tees, MLB baseball caps and cowboy hats. Monowar is rocking a simple black sleeveless tee, and Judas Priest’s Rob Halford is in a collard fleece jacket and a bucket cap. Maybe it’s more a testament to the power of their music, but the fleece and bucket hats don’t undermine the metal. Yeah, you best believe there’s a skull and crossbones on that bucket hat, but Halford doesn’t need skulls. It could just as easily have been a kitten. The metal comes from the earnestness when he says, “You just want to give everybody a good earful of racket and make ‘em feel good.”

And maybe it’s not the most “metal” statement ever made, but it’s definitely a statement of genuine passion when he says, “We’ve always led ourselves by our hearts.” Halford says this when he’s “unmasked,” in the everyday state of ordinary antics. It’s clear he’s not performing. The heart is the inciter of costumes, of raucous racket, and even of the backstage chortles from friends sharing their boredom in a strange city.

Kristen Bialik is a writer, teacher and graduate student of Journalism and Mass Communication. In her spare time, she's a baker of pies and maker of stories.