We at the Deciblog have spoken to Dr. Vivek Venkatesh a few times already, learning about his work and his simultaneously academic and visceral interest in the more extreme forms of metal. Last October, we had the opportunity to speak with him again, this time in preparation for an article that focuses on the intersecting paths of academic study and metal. He told us about his first ever Grimposium, hosted in April 2014 by his home institution of Concordia University in Montreal, and he discussed his own career as a scrutinizer of metal culture.
How did the Grimposium turn out?
It was fantastic. It was beyond my expectations, and I think the university didn’t know how to deal with the publicity we were getting, because we were covered locally, nationally, in radio, TV, newspaper… It blew up in the best possible way. I’ve put in an application here at the university for a second Grimposium, which is going to be radically different from the first one.
The intention at the beginning was to bring together a group of academics who I had worked with in the past three years to write up some research I was doing on metal studies. Very quickly it became less about us as academics and more about the scene. [We got Decibel EIC] Albert down to deliver an opening panel; Dan Seagrave displayed some of his work and some of his films; David Hall, a filmmaker from London, Ontario, showed some of his work that he’s been doing in terms of extreme metal documentary making. The calendar of the metal gods aligned because we were able to watch Carcass, Gorguts, Voivod and Satan over the four days that my invitees were here in Montreal. Despite my aversion to community, this was a really nice celebration of the chosen community around extreme metal in Montreal.
The Montreal area seems to have a huge music scene.
In the last five years or so, with the growth of the Heavy MTL festival, we’ve seen a much bigger and much more commercial exploitation of the metal scene. The way I wanted to organize Grimposium was as a reaction to all of that. My view of extreme metal has always been one that focuses on individual over the community. I’m in a privileged position to be able to write about and to be able to philosophize and to be able to speak both to academics as well as to the general public about the false notion of community that resides in scenes like metal scenes. For me, extreme metal has always been about individuality and I think the commercialization of metal music especially and heavy music in general tends to wash away some of that individualism.
What got you involved in academia?
My foray into teaching happened because, to put it bluntly, I fell in love. I fell in love with a girl in Singapore. I was living in Singapore, and we had this sort of whirlwind affair and about three weeks after we started dating she moved back to Canada when her student exchange ended. She’s from Montreal originally. I had just finished my undergraduate degree and I found out that the only way that I’d be able to get a paid vacation long enough for me to be able to explore whether this relationship was going to go anywhere was if I became a teacher. So I took on a teaching certification [program] and I became both an elementary and a high school teacher in math and English. In Singapore, that job comes with an excellent salary and about eight weeks of paid vacation.
So whenever I had time, I take off to come to Canada. When we finally decided to move in together here in Montreal, I had already had some experience in teaching and I said to myself, “I don’t know if I’m going to remain a teacher for the rest of my life, but let me see if there’s an opportunity to do some graduate work,” and one thing led to the other and six years later I had a doctorate in cognitive science.
I really enjoy the freedom that being a researcher gives me, especially at a university like Concordia, where my metal studies program of research is supported entirely by the university. I’m only now getting funded for some aspects of that work from the federal government, because I’m making links with xenophobia and hate speech in social media and I’m trying to look at how racism is propagated in an online environment. So I use certain paradigm cases that I’ve noticed in the black metal scene and in the death metal scene.
But I don’t force the issue very much in metal studies. If I want to write about solipsism in black metal, I go out and collect the data and I do it. The university’s really open to that.
What are your current teaching duties?
In the last three years, I was promoted to the role of associate dean at the school of graduate studies, so that comes with a much reduced teaching responsibility. I teach a multivariate statistics course [at the] PhD level. I teach a seminar on the scholarship of teaching and learning, and it caters to engineers, chemists, physicists, people in the hard sciences who are interested in taking on teaching careers. And [I designed] a new course, run for the first time in January of 2015 by one of my students, looking at various aspects of how social media can be used as a pedagogical tool and also some of the ways in which it’s already being used “in the wild” as a way to promote certain activist ideals.
What do you think of the wide stereotype of metalhead as low-brow, Neanderthal-level thinker?
You’re gonna find assholes everywhere. I think that the variety of expressions of fandom in metal are the kinds of varieties you would see in society in general. In a sense, metal has been welcoming to every stratum of the modern, post-capital society, so you get skinheads as much as you’re going to get white collar who are going to be meeting at small bars and listening to a metal band. You see that in Montreal fairly often.
I’ve written about this – how in the early 80’s most academics, even sociologists, were reluctant to have a very nuanced view around how the psychology and sociology of metal fans may or may not be as stereotypical as they’re made out to be. So metal fans were [seen as] the lowest strata of society – they were suicidal, they were violent, they were aggressive – and more and more we found that those kinds of stereotypes are just not true. You’ll find those kinds of people in every sphere, and depending on how the community is defined and how the community boundaries are defined, you either come to know those kinds of people or you’ll see it taken away. I think I’m particularly interested in how a community of, let’s say, black metal fans – and I don’t mean the sort of popular, commercialized versions of black metal but I mean black metal that harkens to, perhaps, depressive and suicidal lyrics, the black metal that is very focused on nature and Scandinavia – how does the community that forms around the fandom of black metal where the whole notion of fandom is rejected, where black metal artists in fact ask their fans to just piss off, they’ll release their record in, like, ten copies on a tape and if you don’t have it, fuck off, that’s it. We’re not going to engage with you. That irony isn’t lost on me. I’m interested in what kind of people are interested in those communities and how people engage in those communities. Because you really have only the hyperreality that you’re creating in your mind about what it means to be a fan of, let’s say, Xasthur or Leviathan. That to me has more significance in better understanding the nuances of the modern day metal fan.
Do you feel any connection between interest in heavy music and your desire to teach?
Yes, what heavy music and the philosophy around heavy music has given to me, as an ethos, is the constant struggle to be recognized as an individual. I keep coming back to that because it’s something that I repeat often in my classes, whether it surrounds statistics or whether it’s about the scholarship of teaching and learning or social media. I engage students in projects that help them to put a little bit of themselves into those projects. If I were to talk about it in more philosophical terms, I like to see a separation between a phenomenon and the person who’s discussing that phenomenon.
So in getting students to work on research material, whether it’s communities of metal fans or a suicidal individual, I have them engage with the phenomenon without trying to impose any preconceived notions that other may have had on it. You’re allowing multiple voices to actually talk about the phenomenon. That’s something that I keep trying to do even in my own work.
I find that the broad field of metal studies, right now, looks very incestuous and what we need to do is involve more people in the scene, more producers of music, consumers of music, promoters of music, get their voices heard when they write about the scene. I think journalists and writers do that in a very good fashion. When you look at the longevity of a magazine like Decibel, and you compare that with some of the more run-of-the-mill [outlets] that report metal news, you can see how Decibel gives a voice to people in the scene in a way that the others don’t. That’s something that transfers a lot into my work.
I feel it’s a struggle. In some sense, I will be a whore to the grant money. If they will give me money to explore hate speech in social media, I’ll do that. But I will go to Norway and collect data at Inferno because the far right movement is very much a part of my work. So, yeah, I’ll be a whore to it, but I’ll also find ways to incorporate my metal studies work into that project.
Are there any performers you think of as particularly erudite?
One is Luc Lemay, who is the guitarist and singer for Gorguts. I had an opportunity to engage with Luc over the last couple of years and I know him fairly well. He was, in fact, supposed to be at Grimposium, he was gonna give a talk about improvisation in metal music but unfortunately he was on tour [ed. note: our bad]. We did manage to catch him [playing] though, in Montreal. The date fell around the Grimposium date, so we all went to watch him. But Luc comes across as someone who is very intense and very passionate about how music is a language and is a way of life. When I think about metal, it’s not something that I can switch on or off. I’m constantly thinking about what I’m going to be listening to next. Yesterday morning it was pretty cloudy here, and I said, ‘Oh I have to put on some old school death metal and take a walk in that fog,’ because that’s the only way I can engage in what I like to call the hyperreal experience of metal. I’m not going to go and slaughter ten people randomly on the street and enjoy old school death metal. I want to walk in that fog and imagine doing it, you know? And Luc really knows how to engage people in conversation around how music is a very powerful language.
The other peson who I find very eloquent is Daniel Mongrain, another Quebecois. Dan used to be in Martyr and is now currently the guitarist for Voivod. Dan is also a teacher. In fact, he teaches classical jazz and guitar at a school here in Quebec. The last time I spoke to him he was on his way to Japan, I was on my way to watch Emperor in Japan and we were on the same flight. Dan comes across as someone who is very wise. He’s very young but he has a lot to say about how the Quebec scene needs to respect itself a little bit more. We’ve given birth to some of the greatest death metal bands and technical metal bands ever, and in the face of commercialization and 50-60,000 people descending into Montreal to watch Metallica and whoever else in August, we need to have a way to promote the roots of our metal scene. So when Voivod gets selected to open for Metallica at Heavy MTL, I see it as a sign, as a big Fuck You to the commercialization of metal, and I think that that’s important. I think that we need to keep fighting the morass of safe music. And Dan and Luc are people who talk about that really well.