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Despite loss of thrash metal scene in Bay Area, musicians find reasons to keep playing

on May 11, 2016

It’s a Saturday evening in South San Francisco, and four friends have gathered at what looks like a renovated but shabby old administration building oddly placed between newer GenenTech offices. A simple sign out front hangs low with the words “Hit Wall Studios,” and a distant rumbling of an electric guitar solo can be heard coming from an upstairs window.

Neal Engelhaupt used to sing and play guitar for the band Mirros. Nick Young and Sergio Vaquerano-Ramirez were in a band called The Last Nova. And Doug Richardson plays drums for a band called ourfathers. The four used to tour with their respective bands; now most of them are married, one has a 3-year-old son, and three of them work high-level tech jobs. But tonight the group is collaborating on some new songs to see if they can make their way back into the heavy metal music scene, an iconic genre that has roots in the Bay Area.

The rehearsal space is cramped, similar in size to a freshman dorm, and costs $600 a month to rent, a drastic increase from the $200 dollars it used to cost 10 years ago. There are amps, cords, foot pedals, sound mixers, cases of guitars, a drum set, and empty beer bottles cluttering the room. The walls are soundproof, and the extra layer of padding makes the room look even smaller. And their band is so new it doesn’t even have a name yet.

The musicians gracefully maneuver around the gear and find their spaces. A bead of sweat begins to drip down Young’s face as he opens up his worn-out guitar case covered in tattered stickers. It is not long before the musicians’ leather jackets are taken off and replaced with tight-fitting tanks. Engelhaupt takes the lead as he begins to strum his silver matte guitar.

The group practices for three hours—the music is loud, with a thunderous beating of drums, furiously fast guitar solos and distorted lyrics. Each musician plays instinctively, without much direction from Engelhaupt, the songwriter for tonight’s session. Energy is high as the four intensely focus on the quick cadence.

When they are done, Richardson says he will use the tape from the session to make a demo and release it online to see the reaction from listeners. The other three nod in agreement and plan for the next rehearsal, but they all understand that this time there will be no record deals, no year-long tours and it will be harder to find venues for performances. The metal scene has dramatically shrunk in the Bay Area since the time when heavy metal was alive and vibrant.

“The Bay Area is kind of like a metal factory with its own brand and style,” said Young. “And nothing makes me happier than playing some good quality rock with my buddies.”

. . . . .

In the early 1980s, the Bay Area was at the center of thrash metal music, one of the many subgenres of heavy metal. What defined the thrash genre was its faster tempo, the use of low-register guitar riffs and the double bass drum, and its overall aggression. Some of the biggest thrash metal bands of all time include Metallica, Testament, Exodus and Death Angel, all of which have strong roots in Northern California.

During that decade, heavy metal became incredibly popular around the world; kids were growing their hair long, flashing the devil horn sign with their hands, and playing air guitar. But critics called it unsophisticated music for unsophisticated people, religious groups feared the music glorified evil and Satan, and heavy metal artists were sued after parents blamed them for causing suicides. Heavy metal artists often sing about topics like murder, criminals, the problems with a capitalist society and materialism, the unreliability of authority figures, and the idea that the world isn’t well. During the Ronald Reagan administration, the Recording Industry Association of America began to affix “Parental Advisory” warning labels to the front of albums warning against the music’s explicit language, graphic violence and sexual content.

But even if being a “metalhead” meant some people considered you a low-life, there was something about the Bay Area that made it a hub for metalheads and fueled bands like Metallica (originally from Los Angeles and later El Cerrito), Death Angel (from Daly City) and Exodus (from Richmond) to success. Fans and musicians say several factors made the Bay Area the place to be: There were many metal venues and clubs where bands could perform; the genre was accepted by younger kids who became loyal fans; and there were numerous places to practice and record.

When Michael Butler was playing bass guitar in Exodus in the late 1980s and 1990s, they were playing sold-out shows in large venues. “When I first moved here there a million places to play, and we played every night of the week at a different club. There were six clubs on Haight Street, four clubs on 11th Street, five clubs in North Beach,” he said. “Now there is nowhere to play.”

Regularly playing in front of an audience allowed metal bands to expand their fan base. “If you look at Metallica, they got big because they were excellent at harnessing an underground fan base and having those fans turn other people into fans,” said Brad Dollar, music producer and sound engineer at Oakland Zoo Labs, a native of Richmond, California, and a former guitarist who played in metal and punk rock bands. “This goes against the music industry’s agenda of wanting to sell music, not create a grassroots movement of people. The Bay Area is this special place where the people just don’t give a fuck, and this is why it is so hit-or-miss whether a band is able to ‘make’ it or not.”

This network of young fans was how new bands got exposure and became a vital part of youth culture. “During the 1980s, thrash metal was signed only to independent labels rather than major companies, it was heard only on college radio metal shows, not on commercial stations—on business grounds alone, it deserved to be called ‘underground’,” said Deena Weinstein, a professor of sociology at DePaul University who is well known for her research on heavy metal music.

Popular live music venues in the East Bay and San Francisco included Ruthie’s Inn, On Broadway, The Stone and iMusicast. These venues made it easy for metal bands to get on the bill because owners knew they would bring a large crowd of young kids. And because the clubs offered all-ages shows that ended before midnight, parents felt comfortable allowing their kids to attend during the week.

All-ages venues were vital in keeping the thrash metal music scene alive because the majority of the fans were young teens who sought out the genre as a way to rebel and feel accepted by other fans. Soshannah Flach, a San Francisco native and devoted metalhead, has numerous memories of being part of the old music scene. “I remember as a young girl with my boyfriend hanging out in the back alleyway of the clubs helping the bands get their gear inside,” she said. “It felt so cool to be a roadie assistant and hang out with the musicians and feel connected to them.”

For the musicians who are still practicing today, they say going to other bands’ live shows was important to them: It let them support each other and created a melting pot of artists. “It’s always inspiring to see metal bands live because they leave you breathless and motivated to push yourself as a musician,” said Engelhaupt. “The Bay Area used to be the breeding ground for thrash metal bands.”

“This place has a significant history of art, music and culture, so part of seeing a show here is also about continuing the tradition of making music in an environment with such rich history,” agreed Richardson.

And there was another way fans helped the metal scene grow—before people started using digital services like iTunes, Spotify and Pandora to discover new music, during the 1980s metal bands traded demos (recordings of unreleased songs) via a method called “tape trading.” It was an efficient and inexpensive way to share new music and to create a fan base. This unofficial method of distributing tapes created an underground network of heavy metal fans: Pen pals would send each other music back and forth.

Metal music zines, magazines and early blogs such as the NorCal Music Sampler also helped create a community of hardcore metal fans. “The NorCal Music Sampler had a huge local following and posted the dates of shows and listed the phone number for every music venue for bands to get in touch with the owner,” said Dollar. “It created a local community and was a big part of my childhood.”

But by the early 1990s many of the “curfew shows” had disappeared. As rents increased, clubs sought liquor licenses and increased the entrance age to 21. Ruthie’s Inn, On Broadway, The Stone, Underground SF, The Keystone, the Fab M—all famous clubs known for their frequent metal shows—have since closed due to the demand for condos and apartment buildings, increased rents, and the lack of audience for the genre.

“There’s not much metal happening here anymore, The Stone has been turned into a strip club. On Broadway closed its doors and the Fab M now host DJ nights and private parties,” said Flach. “These were places that I would go to and make friends and build a community. Going to a metal show, I felt like I was with my tribe.”

“If I was in an up-and-coming metal band now, I would be highly discouraged and disappointed that there is no longer a music scene in the Bay Area,” said Butler. “Newer bands that are writing original music are probably going to be playing on a Tuesday or Thursday night and at the end of the bill, which is not a favorable position because you’re likely to have little to no audience.”

With the rise of grunge in the early ’90s, the thrash metal music scene began to slowly dissipate from the Bay Area. Around the same time, Capitol Records, the first record company based on the West Coast, dropped all their metal bands, including Megadeth and Exodus. Exodus broke up 1994 but later reformed in the early 2000s. Metallica started to shift away from playing thrash metal to hard rock. The underground tape trading disappeared, shifting to emails and online music sites.

“There was no foundation left. A lot of people stopped playing music and people had their bands fall apart,” Dollar said. “People became very isolated to where they were at, whether it was San Francisco, Oakland or San Jose. Many venues had closed, all-ages shows had evaporated and the young people who were here that were making music had moved away because of the increase of rent and cost of living.”

“It was during the time that Nirvana surfaced and grunge music became big that thrash metal’s success ended,” agreed Butler. “Once that happened, every other type of music was dead. But heavy metal has some of the most loyal fans, so it just pushed the scene even more underground than it already was at that point.”

Bryan Matheson was owner of one of the last all-ages venues in the Bay Area, iMusicast, which from 1999 to 2005 produced live webcasts from its concert hall in Oakland. By creating a unique hybrid of a webcast studio, recording studio, video sound stage and concert venue, iMusicast was able to bring DVD and streaming media production services within reach of independent record labels and artists. Through six years of hosting concerts, iMusicast became part of a vital East Bay music scene, enjoying enormous support and goodwill from fans, local bands and national touring acts. The majority of the bands that played were a mix of punk rock and metal.

“We had about two to five shows a week, four to five bands a night, and crowds of 600 to 800 people every time,” said Matheson. “The day we closed was an emotional night because a lot of kids had made this place their home.”

And it wasn’t just happening to the metal scene: All live music venues were facing a challenge from the Internet. “I think the current infrastructure is there is an animosity to music. People became disinterested in music. Now you can listen online instead of going to a concert, and art is so sensitive and responds to that,” said Dollar. “There is no longer a supportive community in San Francisco or the Bay Area now. This place has such a transient overflow with not very many natives, meaning it is harder to create what existed in the 1980s with metal music.”

One of the few East Bay venues that still books metal acts, the Oakland Metro Operahouse, recently faced some financial issues. The venue has already moved locations once due to an increase in rent and had the task of raising $20,000 by March 24 to soundproof its walls.

The Stork Club, located in downtown Oakland, also hosts metal bands but concert-goers must be over 21, there are no curfew shows and there are strict guidelines a band must adhere to in order to be booked: All members of the band must be 21 and over, there must be at least 20 to 45 minutes of material to perform and shows typically start around 10 pm.

Representatives from the Stork Club and the Oakland Metro Operahouse did not return interview requests.

But for the band finishing up their rehearsal in South San Francisco on that April night, there are still reasons to keep playing despite the loss of the metal scene that once existed here. They still want to do it for the love of playing music; they say it is an essential part of their personas.

Once everyone has finished putting away their instruments and the door to the rehearsal studio is closed, the four friends hang outside for a few moments laughing and discussing how the night’s session went. All are excited to have come back together and hope to reignite a fire within the music genre that bonded them together.

“The future of heavy metal in the Bay will probably continue to be as it ever was: underground. There are always peaks and valleys to music genres,” said Engelhaupt. “I would only imagine it will grow more in the coming years, as it has the most hardcore devoted fans.”


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