Brann Dailor of Mastodon on the ideas and imagery behind the new album, ‘Hushed and Grim’

MASTODON: Bill Kelliher (left), Troy Sanders, Brann Dailor, and Brent Hinds. Photo by Clay Patrick McBride


On Halloween eve, Mastodon unleashed its 8th proper studio album, Hushed and Grim (Reprise). The album’s sprawling 15-songs distill the group’s legacy as the pride of Atlanta metal, and a force of nature the world over, into a punishing, real-time reflection on death, sorrow, and reclamation.

From the moment the album’s first single, “Pushing the Tides” arrived, the brutal power on display made it clear that Mastodon was coming out of the gate strong. Guitar players Bill Kelliher and Brent Hinds, drummer Brann Dailor, and bass player Troy Sanders channeled their anguish over the loss of their friend and former manager Nick John, who died from cancer in 2018, into a serpentine musical saga.

Within weeks, “Pushing the Tides” was nominated for a “Best Metal Performance” Grammy. In the meantime, the group has remained on the road playing shows across the U.S.

Dailor took a few minutes between tour stops to talk about how the ideas and imagery behind Hushed and Grim came together to form an emotionally hefty and gorgeously articulated new chapter for Mastodon.

Over the years we’ve had conversations about each new Mastodon album, and there’s often an element of the band confronting death—losing someone close—and dealing with it in a real-time kind of way. I recognize this in Hushed and Grim, but the album also feels empowered.

When you start writing an album, maybe you find out that you have less control than you imagined you did. It just starts to unfold, and maybe in the back of your head you’re thinking, “We need to be heavier, faster, and crazier.” Then the things that you naturally gravitate toward are slower, darker, and deeper. Then you think, “Maybe this is actually the vibe.”

It starts to reveal itself, and it really is the manifestation of what we’re going through during that moment in time. Nothing happens in a vacuum. When you’re creating something, the emotions that you’re experiencing with whatever you’re dealing with in life will ride in tandem with that.

Going into Hushed and Grim, We weren’t feeling too good as a group. So during the writing process, wallowing in those feelings led to what the album sounds like. Anything that sounded remotely happy was kicked out immediately. It was like, “No! I’m not happy. Get rid of that.”

Maybe by the end of the album it becomes empowered — it gets there eventually. For me, it’s a tough listen. It puts me back in these places that weren’t fun to go through, but it was necessary to get through it.

I don’t know what’s going on with us, but for the last bunch of albums, I don’t know if we’re cursed or something … I don’t believe in curses, but I’ll just say it to be fun. From Crack the Skye on, it seems like every time we go into the writing process somebody close to us fucking dies. So word to the wise, don’t be close friends with anyone in Mastodon.

In that pure songwriterly way, Hushed and Grim has multiple meanings. I first saw it as a pandemic reference. … In the early days of the pandemic I even heard someone describe Atlanta’s streets as “hushed and grim.”

Actually, I stole it from Gone With the Wind. I’ve had the title in the back of my head for a long time.

Gone With the Wind was my sister’s favorite movie, and we used to watch it every time it came on. I just really liked that phrase. It’s on a title card halfway through the film, after Sherman burns Atlanta to the ground. You see this massive crane shot over downtown Atlanta, and you see thousands of dead soldiers. Scarlett is running around tending to the wounded that are lying in the street.

Sometimes when a tragedy takes place it’s not people running around screaming. It’s quiet and there’s this acceptance that something terrible is happening, and it’s quiet. When our former manager Nick John had gone into home hospice care we all flew to L.A. to see him one last time, and to say goodbye. He was asleep in a hospital bed, his mom was there, his sister, his wife and some close friends. “Hushed and grim” was the perfect phrase to explain the feeling in that house that day.

So the Atlanta connection, the connection to Nick John in that specific circumstance, and the fact that I felt like it encapsulated the sound of the album being quieter, melancholy, and more sparse really resonated with me. … At least it’s more sparse than maybe we’ve ever been. We’ve hinted at it over the years, but this one really goes in on that slower, more methodical, take-our-time kind of thing.

From the beginning, when I was first hearing the riffs, writing the stuff with the guys, and putting it together, I had this black and gray color palette that I felt was lending itself to the album. I could see black and gray with a touch of gold. That’s the initial conversation I had with Paul Romano about doing the cover. I didn’t have anything else but the color palette.


Song-for-song, the variety goes beyond a lot of what Mastodon has done in the past. Was it your intention to make an album that’s a little more complex?

No, I think that’s the result of having more time to work on it. There was no tour looming. In the past, there’s always something we have to go and do. I don’t want to say that it rushes things, because early on we wrote Leviathan in like three months. But we had a lot of time with this one. We worked on it, and kept coming back to our garden of songs and watering them and watering them. We poured over these things like a barista in a San Francisco coffee shop [laughs]. We really took our time making sure certain parts are what we wanted them to be, building on bridges, and getting into the nooks and crannies that maybe we wouldn’t have discovered if there was a hard time constraint.

Even during Crack The Skye, it was like, “Ok, we need to go play Bonnaroo now.” It’s a mind shift to go from writing and pouring over new songs to practicing “Crystal Skull” and “Blood and Thunder.” So it’s the result of being able to stay in writing mode longer, without any hope of going on tour, ‘cause that wasn’t happening! It was like, “In fact, your industry will be the last one to come back. So now, we’re out here trying to figure it out while staying safe and making sure that our tour can happen. Just yesterday we had a scare with a false positive. This could all be taken down so easily, and everybody goes back home and loses hundreds of thousands of dollars.

That’s the general mood everywhere right now.

Yeah, it’s all hanging on by a thread, but we’re hoping for the best. Getting back to your question, we’re probably most known for complex arrangements. Anytime we come up with something that’s lesser than, people are surprised. But if a simple song reveals itself and we dig it, we’ll go for it. We don’t put on the idea that we have to be proggy all the time, or that every song has to have a thousand riffs, and within those riffs there are hundreds of little riffs. A lot of the time we’re taking stuff away, saying to ourselves, “My God, this song has five bridges. What is going on here?”

It also feels like the band has mastered working at West End Sound and Ember City Studio. Emperor Of Sand through Hushed and Grim encapsulates an era for Mastodon’s sound that has developed since the studio was built. You know how to get the best possible results out of that room.

Yeah, we’re comfy-cozy in there. And if we didn’t have the studio we wouldn’t have been able to make the record. We couldn’t fly to L.A. or anywhere else to record because of the pandemic. Getting David Bottrill to say yes and come to Atlanta and live there for three months while we worked on it was paramount.


The album’s cover is a departure for Mastodon, both in color and orientation — it’s kind of a landscape image.

Yeah, it has Nick John as the Green Man in the middle of the tree. It is expansive; that’s the middle panel of a nine-panel piece by Paul. We were both on the same page as far as having a twisted tree be the main focus, and that it would reveal the seasons as you go around. So the panels are the different seasons. And there are all sorts of Easter eggs in there that Paul takes from the lyrics and song titles, and whatever any of the band members offer. He always fits everything in somewhere. There’s a reference to Jakuchu’s “Elephant and Whale” diptych in there. There’s all sorts of fun stuff in there. I wanted the fan base to know when they saw the cover art that, at least in my perception, they were getting something different. So we wanted it to be a departure, and to look different from the rest of the album covers, while reflecting the mood of the album.

Nick John as the Green Man: I tend to think of the Green Man mythology as being about regeneration, or it being about a new beginning. Is that part of what you are projecting with the artwork?

My whole made up afterlife mythology was that your soul enters the heart of a living tree. In order to say goodbye, it lives there for a whole calendar year, and experiences the seasons to reflect on the life that you had. And that’s how you’re able to say goodbye to the natural world.

… As if we needed any more afterlife mythologies, here’s one more for you! [laughs]

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Mastodon unveils new video for ‘Pushing the Tides’


Before the weekend gets underway, be advised that hometown metal titan Mastodon has rolled out a new video for the song “Pushing the Tides.”

It’s the first look and listen to the upcoming ninth album, Hushed and Grim, out October 29 via Reprise Records, just in time for Halloween. It’s a scorcher, too—a new number with a touch of that old Leviathan vibe right out of the gate.

The album was produced by David Bottrill (Peter Gabriel, Rush, Tool) and features a guest appearance by Soundgarden guitarist Kim Thayil. More info coming soon. In the meantime, press play and click the album cover below, courtesy of Paul Romano (Remission, Leviathan, Call of the Mastodon, Blood Mountain, Crack The Skye), for pre-order info.

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Mastodon: Live at Georgia Aquarium

Mastodon celebrate their 21st anniversary among the sharks at the Georgia Aquarium.

On Thurs., July 15, Bill Kelliher, Brent Hinds, Brann Dailor, and Troy Sanders play a live-streaming show amid the aquarium’s most elegant predators.

$19.99 (advance). $24 (day of show). T-shirt and poster bundles are available as well. $1 from each poster sold will be donated to the Georgia Aquarium.

The performance will be available on-demand for 72 hours starting July 16 at Midnight Eastern time. Your ticket will grant you access to this replay window.

In the meantime, Mastodon’s latest offering, “Forged by Neron,” appears on the soundtrack for Dark Nights: Death Metal Sonic Metalverse motion comic. Press play below.

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Ecryptus, the Dark Side’s original Sith metal lords, emerge from the shadows with ‘Rancorous’

ECRYPTUS: (left to right) Allen Keller (Lord Tenebris), Danny Ryann (Dan Solo), Justin Brown (Lord Abraxas), and Mike Michalski (Lord Crypt). Photo by Emily Harris.



A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, an early incarnation of the group now known as  Ecryptus was born as a melodic death metal band hellbent on exploring the blackened depths of the cosmos. It was the early aughts, and the group’s singer and guitar player Mike Michalski took lead of this ragtag band of thrashers who knew from the beginning that they wanted to do more than write what he calls “pretentious love songs to Satan.”

One day, while wandering around the annual sci-fi and fantasy Sodom and Gomorrah that is Dragcon the group came face-to-face with an ancient order of Force-wielding rockabilly punks with a penchant for theatrics—Grand Moff Tarkin. Featuring Atlanta artists and underground impresarios Jim Stacy and Shane Morton, GMT pushed the Star Wars theme to the extreme, with an array of spot-on costumes, props, and a legion of stormtroopers to do their bidding.

In an instant, Ecryptus emerged with an arsenal of wholly new and sinister Star Wars-themed black metal to serve the Dark Side.

“Grand Moff Tarkin did their thing with unapologetic campiness,” Michalski says, “but we wanted to make serious songs and treat the source material how many bands treat Tolkien. So we thought, how can we hint at the Dark Side of Star Wars without getting completely sued?”



In 2008, Ecryptus unleashed the Astral Crusades EP, breathing life into the group’s campaign for Darth metal supremacy with songs such as “Imperial Revenge,” “Abandon All Hope,” and “Execute Order 666.” More than a decade later, the “Rancorous” b/w “Execute Order 666 MMXVIII” 7-inch summons a supernatural whirr of cosmic grind, making their transformation to the Dark Side complete.

“Ecryptus,” according to Star Wars lore, was the name of the cavern deep below the surface of the planet Korriban where the ancient Sith species first encountered the Dark Side of the Force. Most of the songs the group has recorded and played live deal with the more horrific scenarios that are woven throughout the Star Wars canon that people only familiar with the films might have never thought too deeply about: being sentenced to death by Rancor, being frozen in carbonite, enslaving an entire planet of wookies, and so on.

“Rancorous” opens with a mighty roar before a spiraling assault of blast beats and demonic incantations rise over searing guitar leads that burn with the heat of Vader’s red lightsaber. On the flipside, “Execute Order 666 MMXVIII” resurrects what has become Ecryptus’ unofficial anthem with a new recording, celebrating the 10-year anniversary of Astral Crusades’ release. The song chronicles Anakin Skywalker’s perspective of executing Emperor Palpatine’s “Order 66” to slaughter the Jedi. “Making the Emperor say “666” was fun,” Michalski says.

The line up at the time of recording the “Rancorous” single featured Michalski, aka Lord Crypt, performing alongside bass player Lord Tenebris, born Allen Keller of Degradations, drummer Dan Solo, aka Danny Ryann (ex-Gigan), and guitar player Ryan Lamb. Lamb moved to Orlando shortly after the songs for the 7-inch were recorded. Lord Abraxas, aka Justin Brown (ex-Synapse Defect), now plays guitar.

The 7-inch arrived pressed on a multi-hued galaxy of vinyl colors: Cauterized Saber Wound, Mace Windu Purp Surp, Ghrey Rey, Opening Crawl Rotten Banana, Gamorrean Guard Mucus, Sarlacc Puke After Trying To Digest Boba Fett, Luke’s Lame-Ass Saber, and Dagoba Green.

Ecryptus. Photo by Emily Harris.

Live, the group takes the stage sporting sith-corpse paint, robes, armor, Dragoncon-acquired lightsabers, and their friend Scara Slayfield wearing her best “Hutt Slayer” Princess Leia outfit, serving drinks to the stage, and adorning the monitors.

The group recently finished recording material for a new EP that’s due out in the Spring of 2021. More recent Ecryptus songs draw inspiration from the expanded universe—characters from Star Wars comic books, novels, and video games.

The forthcoming EP is tentatively titled Kyram Beskar’gam, and, if you watched the The Mandalorian—and you know you did—you already know the title is Mando’a for “Death Armor/Metal.” The new EP will feature songs with titles such as “Cauterized Saber Wound Massacre,” “Planetary Enslavement,” “Compulsion to Disintegrate,” and “Digested over 1000 Years.”

“With each new release, we give in to our anger,” Michalski says, “and become more the Dark Side’s servant …”

In the words of Darth Vader, “You don’t know the power of the Dark Side!”

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Mastodon: ‘Fallen Torches’

Mastodon‘s latest single, “Fallen Torches,” is a longtime staple of the group’s repertoire, but has remained unreleased until now. The song—one of the first recordings made in the Mastodon-run Ember City Rehearsal Studios in Atlanta’s Capitol View neighborhood—is the opening number on Medium Rarities, a 16-song compilation gathering odds and ends from the past 20 years of the group’s history—7-inch singles, “White Walker” from the Game of Thrones soundtrack, instrumental outtakes, and various live recordings including a scorching rendition of Metallica’s “Orion.”

“Fallen Torches” also features a guest vocal growl courtesy of Scott Kelly of Neurosis. True to Mastodon form, the song could embody the perfect metaphor for American politics, the global climate crisis, human interaction eroding in the face of the internet … Or not. When taken at face value “Fallen Torches” is a white-hot neckbreaker driven by mammoth riffs and rhythms that rival the almighty white whale behind Mastodon’s classic 2004 LP Leviathan. Meaning lies in the ears of the beholder, albeit quite ferocious.

Medium Rarities is out September 11 via Reprise Records. In the meantime, check out another brand new Mastodon scorcher, “Rufus Lives,” which appears on the Bill & Ted Face The Music soundtrack.

Medium Rarities photo courtesy Reprise Records

Alcoholic Polyneuropathic Freaks In Hell! A conversation with Jake Benedict of Misanthropic Aggression

FREAK SCENE: Misanthropic Aggression is Tyler Peacock (left), Chris Hammer, and Jake Benedict.
Photo by Alison Benedict.


“Alcoholic Polyneuropathic Freaks in Hell” — it’s a phrase that captures a colorful, albeit accurate, snapshot of most Georgians’ mental state as we grapple with the realities of returning to life after sheltering in place over the last month. It’s also the title cut from Misanthropic Aggression’s latest 7-inch on Boris Records.

On the heels of releasing 2018’s Inability to Cope EP, bass player and lead vocalist Jake Benedict, drummer Tyler Peacock, and singer and guitarist Chris Hammer are back with three-songs that plunge the group’s blend of hardcore, thrash, black metal, death metal, and crust punk into much greater depths. Benedict’s low rumble and Hammer’s demonic shriek create an urgent tension over Peacock’s staccato rhythms. After live-streaming a 7-inch release party on April 20, Benedict took a few minutes to talk about the new songs and finding Misanthropic Aggression’s sound.

The Alcoholic Polyneuropathic Freaks In Hell 7-inch is Misanthropic Aggression’s first new release since 2018, correct?

Yes! The first thing we did after releasing Inability To Cope was to write the song “Blacklisted.” I had already written the guitar riff, so we started arranging it. We worked for about a year and wrote “Black Listed,” then “Retirement From Life (Last Day of Work),” then “Alcoholic Polyneuropathic Freaks In Hell.” Chris came up with the title for that one.

That song feels timely, as many Georgians are struggling with Governor Kemp easing up on the shelter-in-place order. 

Yeah, because you’ve been at home for like a month, drinking too much, and you feel like you’re in hell!

We played with Sanguisugabogg at 529 on March 11, 48 hours before the shit hit the fan. The morning after, I got an email saying my son’s school is canceled effective Monday. He hasn’t been back since.

When we played on March 11, COVID-19 was already here. People were wigging out, about half the normal crowd was there, and people were already wearing masks. They were high-elbowing instead of high-fiving. It was a trippy night.

You know there’s a problem when even the crust punks are washing their hands!

Big time! There was a line out the bathroom door all night, just to use the sink!

“Retired From Life (Last Day Of Work)” is the second entry in a catalog of anti-active shooter songs. “Active Shooter Syndrome (A.S.S.)” from Inability To Cope was about the Mandalay Bay shooting in Las Vegas. I heard the news about it and wrote that song. “Retired From Life …” is about the poor guy who worked in the security shack at the FedEx facility in Kennesaw, maybe six-seven years ago. Basically, he was shot in the gut with a shotgun and lived, but he’s had 80-90 surgeries since then.

I thought about how lyricists like Chris Barnes from Cannibal Corpse write. As a kid, it was terrifying to read first-person perspective songs about being murdered. To twist it in with the urban style that we’ve always had I did a first-person narrative about being killed on the job. I was almost afraid to do it because it’s pretty controversial. But the lyrics are so clearly anti-shooter that it won’t come across like we were glorifying it. But it is supposed to be horrific.


Have you published the lyrics?

The lyrics aren’t posted anywhere yet. I’m such an amateur when it comes to actual music industry stuff. After the records are produced, your PR campaign starts. So as soon as you send off the masters the records get pressed. Then Perfect World Productions, who’s doing our PR, sends out press kits. Once the records come in they get sent out for distribution. Boris Records has distribution through MVD. That takes an additional four weeks. I didn’t know all that, and when we picked the April 20 release date I was working off of my DIY experiences: ‘The records will be here and we’ll get in the van and go!’ The 4/20 release date isn’t official. The distributor’s release date, and the reason it’s not on Spotify or anywhere else yet, is June 8. That’s when I think we’ll post the lyrics.

As soon as we finished this one we turned around and finished a new song for the next record. I want to write about COVID-19, but I need to approach it carefully. It’s a slippery slope talking about this virus; you could easily upset people’s political sensibilities, and I don’t want to be seen as a political band. So I’m figuring out how to approach it lyrically.

That’s tough. The anti-active shooter songs — talking about real-world incidents of gun violence — can easily be construed as being about gun control. It doesn’t get more political than that!

Yeah, it could be taken that way. Personally, I see a pattern of antisocial narcissism at work in these shooters — lonely, loser-types, incels who are incels because they have no personality. I noticed that a lot of them have these traits in common. That’s kind of what made me want to chronicle these incidents, and have more than one song about the subject. The title, “Active Shooter Syndrome,” is a play on “active shooter situation.” In my opinion, there seems to be a syndrome here.

What has changed for the group between these two releases?

It’s a cliché, but we’re figuring out our sound. We had this idea to mix five musical genres: punk, thrash, death metal, black metal, and crust. The first release leaned heavily toward punk and hardcore — we had the cover of SSD’s “Boiling Point.” There were hints of death metal, especially in the long musical section in “Herd Rejector/Unbound Descent,” which Chris composed. There are some sludgy parts, some death metal parts. With the new release we went for more of a first wave black metal sound. If you listen to the long section right after the first chorus in “Alcoholic … ,” it has a second wave, almost Gorgoroth or golden era Dark Thrown back-and-forth going on. Real grim black metal. There’s a lot going on in that song, and I don’t want to sound like I’m tooting my own horn, but I’m really proud of it.

MISANTHROPIC AGGRESSION: Chris Hammer (clockwise from left), Jake Benedict, and Tyler Peacock.
Photo by Chad Radford


Tell me about the sample at the beginning of “Alcoholic …”

Chris did that. It’s the voice of James Dickey, who was a poet laureate in ‘66. He wrote Deliverance.

The lyrics for that song are two-pronged. I have developed alcoholic polyneuropathy, I guess from drinking liquor for 13 years. I’ve started getting real bad tingling in my hands and feet, my skin and scalp crawl, I break out in hives. So the lyrics are about my personal experiences with it, but it’s also a warning to learn better coping mechanisms than substances. It’s definitely in keeping with my amateur psychology that I like to incorporate.

At the end of “Alcoholic …” we take a hard left turn into a weird death metal theme, which is a riff that I wrote. Sometimes I’ll write parts for Chris, but in this song, the whole end, I said, “You do whatever the hell you want, man. These are the parts I wrote. This is the subject matter. Run with it.

Impetigo is a gore-grind band from Illinois, from the late ’80/early ‘90s. They rule, and their vocals have a real strong influence with all the echo and trippy, kind of rubber banding in and out that you hear.

ALCOHOLIC POLYNEUROPATHIC FREAKS IN HELL: Artwork by Warhead Art.


Who did the artwork? 

The artwork was done by a Ukranian artist who goes by Warhead Art. He’s done three pieces for us — he did the centerpiece. Chris did the layout. The art is in the middle, and there’s a frame with little stars in the corners. Chris did those, and hand-drew the “Alcoholic Neuropathic Freaks In Hell” logo around it. The stars represent the synapses misfiring in your body due to alcoholic polyneuropathy. It’s what causes the pain, which I thought was a cool idea. The photo on the back with the bricks was taken at the ruins of an old civil war-era mill — Nickajack Creek — up near Smyrna. 

The idea was to keep it real simple. No lyrics sheet, no insert, no thank you list. It’s just three songs. The whole thing is influenced by the old Amoebix, Anti Cimex 7-inches; real simple, old-school hardcore shit.

Mass Destruction Metal Fest IV feat. Repulsion, Nuclear Assault, Vimur, and more Nov. 5-7, 2021

Mass Destruction Metal Fest IV is bacK! A Rippin Production’s rescheduled annual metal fest is set to take over the Loft at Center Stage Friday through Sunday, November 5-7, 2021. Mass Destruction has been upgraded to a three-day gathering—current weekend pass holders will be allowed attend all three days.

Bands on this year’s lineup (so far) include Vio-Lence, Repulsion, Nuclear Assault, MonstrosityMassacre, Evoken, CenotaphUsurper, Thornspawn, MALIGNANCY, CruciamentumWITCHTRAPESTUARY, Antichrist Siege Machine, Vimur, Suffocation, Cirith Ungol, Exciter, Akhlys, Derkéta, Impur, and Maiestas.

Tickets are available now. $55-$175.

In the meantime, read “Vimur finds truth in the abyss: ‘Triumphant Master of Fates’ takes black metal to a grand scale”











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Vimur finds truth in the abyss: ‘Triumphant Master of Fates’ takes black metal to a grand scale

MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE: Vimur takes black metal into the void with ‘Triumphant Master of Fates.’ Photo by David Parham.

The cover art for Vimur’s second album, Triumphant Master of Fates features a painting by Portland, Oregon-based artist Adam Burke (of Nightjar Illustration), depicting a mountainous landscape divided by a river of blood. Standing atop a mountain, a lone traveler gazes into a massive black hole that has formed in the sky, radiating beams of light back at the viewer. It’s an arresting image that, like the cover of a 1950s pulp sci-fi novel, captures a climactic moment plucked from an epic journey.

For Vimur, Burke’s painting illustrates a moment of reckoning on a quest to find deep knowledge, a reverence for the expanding cosmos, and a vision of arcane knowledge, imperceptible when viewed through the lens of humankind’s earthbound senses. It’s also an enticing entry point that sets the tone for the Atlanta black metal outfit’s dive into a much older, colder, and infinitely larger universe than the Norse mythology hinted at with 2014’s Traversing the Ethereal Current and 2016’s Exegesis EP.

“The themes on the new album are all about seeking truth regarding the micro, the macro, the inner, the outer, darkness, and light; they’re about totality and all of its many dimensions,” offers the group’s singer, guitar player, and founding member, Vaedis Eosphorus. “In the past, I feel like I was just knocking on the door of concepts rather than fully opening the door and letting them come into me — come through me. I was exploring rather than exuding,” he says. Read the full story at CL ATL.

‘Decline of Western Civilization’ director Penelope Spheeris on the pain of reliving the past, and the noble cause of helping others

Penelope Spheeris photo by Suzanne Allison

Between December 1979 and May 1980, director Penelope Spheeris shot The Decline of Western Civilization, documenting the exploits of Black Flag, the Germs, X, the Circle Jerks, and the denizens of L.A.’s early punk scene. The film spawned two sequels, 1988’s The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years, and 1998’s The Decline of Western Civilization III—each offering a look into the lives of musicians in various states of desperation. Spheeris’ Decline trilogy changed the world’s perceptions of punk and metal forever. Although she achieved mainstream success directing later films such as Wayne’s World, The Beverly Hillbillies, and The Little Rascals, it is her work with Decline that defines her career.

Spheeris took a few minutes to talk about the pain of reliving the past, reconnecting with her daughter, and the noble cause of helping other people.

The mark of a truly timeless work of art is that you can revisit it 35 years later and find new meaning and relevance, maybe in wholly different ways than what you originally intended. How has the meaning of The Decline of Western Civilization changed for you?

Having done the films so long ago—I really shied away from watching them for so many years. I asked my daughter if she would come to work for me. She said she would but only if I released the Decline movies first. I thought, ‘Oh God, what a nightmare.’ But what has been very gratifying is to experience other people watching them 20 and 30 years later. That, for me, is astounding. When I look at them, I don’t think that I did something profound, but that is what other people say. I was just making movies about subjects I was interested in. They kind of turned out, all these decades later, to be interesting to other people. It’s been a real weird trip, I’ll tell you that.

I get the impression that you feel some anxiety over these films. Why do you say it was a nightmare to revisit them?

Anxiety … That’s an understatement. I have a lot of anxiety over these films. If you think about it, as a filmmaker or as any kind of creative person, you want to have the product of your creativity seen by other people, and hopefully appreciated. For me, so many of the movies I’ve done—certainly Decline I and III, not so much with II—were not really ever seen on a legitimate platform. Decline I was bootlegged to death. People passed it around like underground contraband for decades because it wasn’t in distribution. It was extremely painful for me to go back and deal with these movies because, on a subconscious level, they brought up a lot of pain. That pain was that people couldn’t see my work; people who seemingly were interested in it.

That happened with a film I did with Sharon and Ozzy, We Sold Our Souls for Rock ‘n’ Roll. Nobody got to see it. It happened with Dudes, which I did with Jon Cryer and Flea. It happened with The Boys Next Door that I did with Charlie Sheen. I had a long history of making movies that didn’t get seen. On the other hand, when I would do a comedy, it would definitely be seen. Especially Wayne’s World.

The thing to be said is that it’s hard to hide truly brilliant work. Even without distribution, I found a bootleg of Decline I in Omaha, Neb., in the early ’90s. That film put a face on punk rock for me and many others. It also made my relationship with the music more complicated—I had to put my life’s situation into context. I learned more about myself from Decline than I did from Wayne’s World—even though Wayne’s World is a fun movie.

Yeah, and the anxiety that comes along with putting out a box set is that, like you, I personally identify a lot more with the Decline movies than I do with the studio comedies. So I wanted it to be done right. When I am dead and gone, I want the right piece of physical items there to represent what they are. Once you do it, it’s done. It’s not like I can redo that. So that’s why there was so much trepidation involved with doing it. Now it’s like okay, you did it. Now you can die.

That has to be sort of rewarding.

What’s rewarding is that it’s no longer bearing down on me like a big dark cloud. For that, I really have to thank my daughter. Without her, I would have just died without doing it. I swear to God. It was just painful. Just watching the movies brought up so many memories, and she kept coming up with more pieces for the extras, which included a lot of interviews with me and with people I know from way back in the day. It was just hard to look at it. It’s like having your life flash before you. I just like to keep moving forward. I don’t like to look back. That’s why they never got put out before.

When you look back over the films—all three of them—are there subjects that stand out for you, or that you walked away from with some insight?

For Decline I, when I look at that movie I think, jeez, it’s pretty amazing that so many elements of today’s young people’s lives originated way back then. Now everybody has their tattoos and tight jeans and they have their haircuts, and it all started back then. So many social trends and philosophical ways of thinking started back then. So, for those reasons, I’m glad I was able to document all of that.

I don’t think there’s a profound lesson to be learned in Decline II except for trying to make it for the wrong reasons is stupid. That’s a pretty easy one.

For me, Decline III is the most important film of my entire career. It made me realize that I don’t want to be working in Hollywood anymore. There are more important things in life, and I should go help homeless kids, which is what I have done. If you go see it, bring a Kleenex, because it’s a heartbreaker. It was so hard to get it released because it is extremely sad. It reveals some really terrible domestic situations that happen with young kids that make them leave their homes and go live in the streets. Those are my buddies. Those are my family — the Decline III kids. Those are the people I’m close to.

There’s a kid named Eugene in that first film. I don’t have the same kind of anger in me, but I found him to be such a compelling character. How did you find him, and do you ever cross paths with him? Do you know how his life turned out?

He was friends with the HB kids—Huntington Beach, surfer punks. I saw Eugene up on the Slash office’s roof and I asked if he would be interviewed for the film. He kept saying no, but finally I talked him into it. He was 14 years old at that time. And he is very compelling. That’s why he starts the movie out. Today he lives in Berlin. I just sent him his 50 year-old birthday present. He’s a very good friend. He’s a folk singer. He’s known now as Euge From the Coast. He’s very happy in Berlin, and we email each other about once a week.

How have these films played a role in your relationship with your daughter Anna?

We sure do know each other a lot better after spending four years in the same room together!

Were the two of you estranged before this project?

In a way. When she was Four years old, her father died from a heroin overdose. So I raised her as a single parent. I think it wasn’t until it hit me in the face that addiction is extremely genetic. Five years ago, she had a drug problem that could have ended very tragically. We were fortunate enough that it didn’t. She wrecked a car with a kid in it. But she did a really good job with rehab and I said, “You have to come to work for me.” I wanted to keep an eye on her and make sure she didn’t relapse. She said she would do it, but we had to do Decline. You never know if something is bad or good until some time has passed. It was the most horrible thing in my life to deal with my daughter having that problem. But from out of that mess came this thing that people appreciate quite a bit—this box set for the DVDs.

She had been in touch with so many of the people who’ve been in the movies. She’s quite in touch with the people from Decline I and II. Whereas I’m the Decline III woman here. Those are my friends.

Honestly, Anna deserves 90% of the credit for the movies being seen again. I did the movies way back, but they would have never been seen in this form by so many people if she hadn’t virtually put a gun to my head and said you have got to do this. It was daunting and horrible. I would avoid it at all costs. She was down there with three editors at one time, sorting things out. She would have to drag me down to the editing room because I didn’t want to deal with it. For that, I am extremely grateful that she made me do it. She was so smart about so many things. She uncovered a lot and was like an archaeologist. A lot of the old tapes and old formats wouldn’t even play. She had to go and borrow chunks of equipment from friends—a DAT player—because nothing else would play them. She just kept going and going and going.

I could definitely see the evolution with the punks between Decline I and III. In Decline III, each individual was so much more tolerant, and kind, and not mean to the people that might be different from them. So there was some sort of evolution going on there. Flea is in Decline III and describes the original L.A. punk scene as being like an experimental art scene. Whereas in Decline III, even though everybody looks the same, physically, it’s not an art scene anymore. It’s pure and dire survival, and there ain’t no room for art in that world.

I think about those scenes from the first film and how all of the Black Flag guys lived in that church. That seemed dire…

It was fun dire. They were embracing their homelessness. They just had a different take on it. It wasn’t hurtful for them. It was fun. For the kids in Decline III, it’s painful.

What I learned from Decline III in getting to know those kids and their background: We don’t have any more noble assignment in life than helping our children and doing the right thing for them. These kids come from alcoholic and drug-addicted families that fought all the time and threw them out in the street.

It doesn’t make me feel good to sit down and have lunch with some major studio executive. Who gives a shit? It’s so vapid. What makes me feel good is being a foster parent. Staying in touch with my Decline III buddies, and going to these various cities and selling posters and donating the money to homeless shelters for kids. That, to me, is what makes life good. The rest of that jerk off stuff is so unnecessary. It’s funny to me that people get into such a frenzy to come to Hollywood and say “I have to make it in Hollywood!” Are you kidding me? No, you don’t! I guess I can say that because I kinda sorta made it, but not really. It doesn’t have any meaning next to helping people.

— Chad Radford

A version of this interview previously appeared in Creative Loafing.