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Shut up and go play
Black Tusk talks tenacity, touring and the intricacies of quilt metal
Tuskers May, left, Athon and Fidler (Photo: Geoff L. Johnson)

In the upcoming documentary film Slow Southern Steel, Black Tusk bassist Jonathan Athon talks about metal players who grew up in the Deep South, and gamely tries to explain — because he was asked — what makes them stand out.

“Everybody grows up Southern Baptist down there,” he says, “and as soon as you hit teenage years, you start tellin’ your parents to fuck off.”

Opines another musician in the movie: “There’s something about gravy and sweet tea that just kind of slows you down.”

There’s no argument that many of the metal bands from Georgia, the Carolinas and hereabouts have refined the music – it’s sludgy, gritty and humid, and it’s punk–infused while retaining the mandatory balls–out, wall–of–sound attack.

But what makes it Southern? Does metal really still have a lot of ‘splainin to do by coming up with yet another sub–genre?

A widely–read piece in Spin magazine even tried to further compartmentalize things.

“When that Spin thing came out, they were calling the three bands – Baroness, Kylesa and us – the Savannah Sound,” says Andrew Fidler, Black Tusk’s guitar player.

“They were trying to call it some sort of grunge–revival type thing, like what happened in Seattle in the ‘90s. Basically, they were fishing for a story, to see if that was going on in Savannah.”

On the eve of the release of Set the Dial, Black Tusk’s fifth full–length album, and its second on the national label Relapse, Fidler and drummer James May are discussing fame and frustrations over lunch at Carlito’s Mexican restaurant.

Even the publicity wags at Relapse have taken to trumpeting Black Tusk’s music as “swamp metal.”

“We actually came up with that years ago, as a response to ‘What do you guys sound like?’” explains Fidler. “It applied a lot more to our earlier records than I think it does now. We’ve kind of gone away from it.”

In their seven years as a band, the trio has gone to great lengths to avoid repeating themselves musically. Each Black Tusk album has shown strong structural and sonic development.

“A guy asked me in an interview yesterday ‘What do you feel about creating a whole new genre, swamp metal?’” says May. “I said man, that was an accident. We didn’t know how to do interviews then, so it was ‘Oh my God, they’re asking us what we sound like?’”

Labels, definitions and the myriad sub–genres don’t mean anything to these guys. “It’s easier for someone to put a tag on it, put you on the shelf,” Fidler points out. “We’re not really that. That’s not really what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to make something that’s broad, across the spectrum – maybe it’s metal, maybe it’s punk rock, maybe it’s rock ‘n’ roll. It’s all that just mashed into our sound.”

Adds May: “We should have called it quilt metal, because it’s a whole bunch of different things, put into one thing. That’s really what it is, quilt metal.”

Baroness is gone now, its last two Savannah–based members – John Baizley and Summer Welch – having moved to Pennsylvania more than a year ago. Kylesa is always on the road, frequently in Europe or Japan, where American metal (swampy, sludgy, Savannah or otherwise) is valuable currency.

That leaves Black Tusk as the city’s premiere pounders of slow Southern steel.

Athon couldn’t make our lunch interview because he had to work – during the band’s increasingly less frequent breaks, he does custom carpentry (Fidler is a landscaper, and May hires on with each of them when help is needed).

They’ve been off the road now for eight months, tinkering with Set the Dial. “This is the longest we’ve been at home since we’ve been a band,” Fidler explains. “All three of us, we’ll call each other and go ‘Dude, can we go on tour already?’ We’re jonesing, ready to go.”

Saturday’s show at the Jinx, Black Tusk’s home away from home, is the second date on the massive Set the Dial tour.

They’ll be back in Germany soon, and an inagural trip to the Far East is being set up for early next year.

The guys love their hometown, their beer and their barbeque, but they live in the tour van. They have good friends, they say, in every city in America.

It took a while. Determination – keeping your steely eyes on the prize – is key. Fidler borrows a phrase from his buddy Scott Hedrick of Skeletonwitch: “Quit your job, forget your relationships. Get in the band, shut up and go play. That’s what you have to do.”

“If you’re not one hundred percent into this, or you think you’re gonna be rich tomorrow, or that you might ever be rich, give it up, kid,” laughs May.

“You start living a different life. You’re not normal any more. You’re not always at Christmas or Thanksgiving, you can’t make it for weddings. Having a girlfriend is extremely hard. At first you’re like ‘I asked for this?’”

Set The Dial was produced by Seattle studio vet Jack Endino, who worked on Nirvana’s Bleach, and seminal records by Soundgarden, Mudhoney, High on Fire and many others.

“He’s a good rock ‘n’ roll producer,” Fidler says. “That big sound that we’re trying to get, that warm sound, he’s perfect at recording it.”

Endino was on top of a wish list the members of Black Tusk drew up when Relapse asked who they’d like to produce their new record.

He was immediately taken by the demos they sent him – and, May stresses, he knew exactly how to get what they were after.

“Athon wants it to be bass–heavy, which works for us,” he says. “There’s a certain guitar tone that we have to have for it to cut through that bass. The drums are gonna have to be big to cut through all of that wall of noise.

“Straight off the bat when we’re recording with somebody, they have to go ahead and accept that.

“If you don’t want to record big, then we’re working with the wrong person.”

At the Jinx show, they’ll have vinyl copies of the album (on black, clear and yellow vinyl) for sale. Metal albums tend to sell far better on vinyl than CD, because of the elaborate packaging (the cover art, by Baroness’ Baizley, is almost as cool as the music inside).

And then the road beckons. The goal, both musicians say, isn’t to get rich and famous, just to do what they love and lay quilt metal over as many people as possible.

“I don’t want to be just getting by; I want to be comfortable,” May stresses. “Because just getting by is one hospital visit away from having to get a job.”

Black Tusk

With Slave Grave, Dead Yet?

Where: The Jinx, 127 W. Congress St.

When: At 11 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 22

Cover: TBA