Tales From the Metalnomicon: Do You Have Anything to Declare?

Welcome to Tales From the Metalnomicon, a new twice-monthly column delving into the surprisingly vast world of heavy metal-tinged/inspired literature and metalhead authors... No fences, no borders. Free movement for all...It's about fucking time to treat people with respect.

So railed Propagandhi on the incendiary Today's Empires, Tomorrow's Ashes track "Fuck the Border," but as those who delve into the compulsively readable, endlessly fascinating new book Do You Have Anything to Declare? will quickly learn, whatever conceptual merits that song may or may not possess, those lines are no closer to becoming a reality today than they were back in '01 -- and may very well be considerably further away. Within its pages veteran music journalist/Decibel mainstay Kevin Stewart-Panko and "Vitriol Records head honcho/rent-a-guitarist" Justin Smith glean the best, baddest, and ugliest border crossing stories from more than seventy-five touring bands and musicians, including the Dillinger Escape Plan, Fear Factory, Atheist, Zoroaster, Tomas Lindberg, and Rich Hoak.

It's an eye-opening, engrossing, funny, scary, gritty, perspective-shifting reading experience -- essential, really, for any connoisseur of underground music, gut-level geopolitics, or, more generally, sacrificial tribulation.

Last week Stewart-Panko and Smith were gracious enough to submit to the following short Metalnomicon grilling...

How long was this idea of exploring band border war stories percolating before you realized it might have the makings of a full-blown book?

KEVIN STEWART-PANKO: I actually tell the story of what finally cemented the idea of doing this as a book. It’s in the first chapter and involves myself, fellow metal hack Jay Gorania and Cephalic Carnage’s John Merryman shooting the shit about the band’s border experiences while driving through Texas. That was 2010. But I guess this sort of thing has been something in the back of my mind most of my life. I’m mulatto -- my father is a lily-white Canadian farm boy and my mom is dark-like-night, straight outta da Caribbean -- and growing up I experienced a lot of fucked up, ignorant shit while crossing the border into the U.S. with my parents. We’d get a shit-ton of attitude from border guards about the whole mixed marriage thing and their racially mixed offspring on a far-too regular basis. Sure, a mixed marriage may have been a lot rarer in the late 70s and 80s, but you can’t tell me you’ve never watched the fucking Jeffersons! More than a handful of times while going from Canada to the U.S., my brother and I have been asked straight up if my parents were actually my parents. Chronicling something pertaining to border crossing was probably something that was bound to come out of me at some point and it’s probably no surprise that it came out in the context of music and touring.

JUSTIN SMITH: The idea [for me] began in the summer of 2010 while I was touring in Canada. Kevin and I spoke in Toronto about the mayhem and aggravation involved in crossing the border and some of the problems we had dealt with a few years prior...The conversation eventually turned into this project and, through a lot of seemingly fruitless activity, a book.

There are a ton of great/insane stories in here. Were you surprised by the eagerness of various musicians to participate?

KSP: I can’t say I was surprised at all. Talk to any touring musician or listen on the periphery to the conversation between a bunch of bands and that’s one topic that will generally come up. A lot of people were more than happy to share their stories and were pretty surprised no one had done something like this before.

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Was there any particular story early on that made you think, "Yeah, we're actually onto something here"? KSP: Originally, we were going to limit our focus on the ongoing trouble bands have in getting into Canada, which is widely recognized as the most difficult country to deal with for touring musicians. We had somewhat grandiose plans of discussing the issue almost academically, tracking down former or current frontline border employees and all this other crap real journalists would do. However, near the beginning of the interview process, I spoke to Steve Flynn of Atheist and he told me an absolutely incredible story involving a twenty-four hour experience the band had while on tour in Europe. That story totally altered the direction of the book towards more simplicity and entertainment value where we just collected and grouped all sorts of border crossing stories as opposed to trying to go all Noam Chomsky on anyone’s ass.

JS: I think the amalgamation of the idea and the stories we knew from friends and acquaintances had a lot of potential to be something people could relate to or at least have some interest in. As things took shape and the chapter topics began to make more sense, it turned into something a lot funnier and more ridiculous than I expected.

Did anyone perhaps not want to participate for fear of winding up flagged in a Border Control database or somesuch?

KSP: I don’t know if the bands who declined to participate wanted to do so because they were afraid of something coming back to haunt them or they were just embarrassed at their own stupidity/gall/insanity/whatever or they’re just people who don’t bother to check their email regularly and missed my initial message of introduction. I could give a list of those who declined or ignored, but what good what that do? It was their decision to keep their stories under wraps and you gotta respect that. On the other hand, some people didn’t want to participate because they felt their stories were just plain ol’ dull. For years, I had heard about how Shai Hulud used to successfully cross the Canada/U.S. border back in the 90s by having the religious/Christian member of the band be driving with a bible visibly placed on the dash. I contacted guitarist Matt Fox about that, asking him if he wanted to share that story in more depth and detail. He had no idea what I was talking about and informed me they’ve never had problems crossing any border.

I can't personally recall another book that deals with these issues in depth. Were there any particular authors or works you used as literary touchstones for what you were trying to accomplish?

KSP: The model I kept referring back to was Steven Blush’s American Hardcore. Not because I particularly agreed with his conclusion that hardcore ceased to be hardcore after 1986 or whatever, but because I really enjoyed the format where the relevant bits and pieces of the interviews he did were used to drive the narrative along and, for the most part, tell the story and explore certain threads. Each of the chapters in our book has a different theme -- crossing into Canada, experiences with drug dogs, touring Europe and the borderless Schengen Zone, etcetera -- and parts from all of the seventy-five interviews we did were sectioned off categorically and structured in such a way that a coherent overall story was -- hopefully -- told in support of that chapter’s topic.

JS: From my angle, no. I have been interested in border study in a historical sense for some time, and in that way I wanted these chapters to reflect the experiences of the people therein -- in terms of all of the interviews in each section -- as well as a snarky, informed introduction to each. This formula seems to move it along and allow for more compartmentalized reading as a opposed to something that has, say, a long, involved fictional narrative. So keeping our sense of humor intact while giving these ideas about free movement and nationalisms as determined by geographical borders was really important, and I think gives it a more asshole perspective than stuffy scholastic perspective. Also, the slow growth of the literary side of Vitriol Records has been really motivating for me to actually work on writing, getting it out, and attempting to more actively couple music and the ideas behind it.

You're both touring road warriors. Did you learn any useful lessons for your own future travels researching and writing this book?

JS: I think the best thing to keep in mind is that diplomacy always gives you better odds than a middle finger or snide attitude. Given this makes sense in most situations where you do not want to get immediately arrested, it would be good to make that diplomacy a habitual behavior.

KSP: Basically, be prepared. I could go on for hours about what situations you need to be ready for, but you just need to have all your bases covered as far as paperwork, manifests and all that jazz. The funny thing is I’ve seen it happen where bands will adequately prepare and have no trouble time after time. Then, the one time they decide to slack is the one time they get stuck in the customs or immigration with the guy who just found out his wife has been cheating on him with the entire neighbourhood and that dude is going to take his misery out on any vulnerable target that comes across his desk. And that just happens to be your band. Oh yeah, try not to be an argumentative jerk.

As a corollary, what's the single best piece of advice you wish someone had told you before you crossed your first border?

JS: If you would relax and stop acting sneaky, you have a better chance of not being stuck in a hotel in North Dakota drinking 40's and watching Black Hawk Down while awaiting to attempt to recross in twenty-four hours.

KSP: That’s actually a tough one to field from my position because I’ve been pretty unscathed crossing borders. When I have been pulled aside for secondary inspection or to have my car x-rayed or whatever, well, I can guarantee the border people aren’t going to find anything sketchy going on or on my person. Like, a border guard may not understand why a friend and I drove to Philadelphia to attend Decibel’s 100th Issue show, then drove home right afterwards without doing the normal travellers’ thing and staying overnight, but it’s not like we’re doing anything untoward. Doing something like that might be strange to some people who aren’t music/metal nerds, but it’s not against the law to be a music/metal nerd.

We've seen dozens of awesome bands denied entry to the U.S. last minute over the past decade. Obviously, the comfort and well-being underground metal/hardcore bands are probably not a huge priority for policymakers, but what, if anything, do you think could be done to ease the process?

KSP: Having people on the front lines who actually have some sort of understanding of underground culture, including how much money isn't changing hands here. There are stories in the book of bands who’ve been pulled aside for inspection by one person and ended up dealing with another person later in the process with some inkling of this little world of ours or at least what’s involved in being a musician or in a touring band. That person would just be like, “Yeah, whatever, go ahead. Sorry my colleagues are such squares.” As well, Canada needs to loosen up a bunch, especially when it comes to the whole thing about a DUI from 10 years ago being considered a serious offence somehow related to a dude playing in a band, travelling on a tour bus or in a van that he never drives and being in the country to play, at the most, a small handful of shows. A lot of refusal at the Canadian border stories come because of some unrelated minor crime that someone committed years and years ago, not because of anything anyone had been caught doing at the moment, like trying to smuggle a bag of weed or something. Man, if you try that shit and get nailed, it’s your own fault.

JS: I don't think it is easy to relate the economics of being in a DIY band to any official or normal but if the understanding existed that bands are coming to play for people who want to see them, and are not in fact evading tax justice or certain arrest -- most of the time -- it would ease a lot of tension. Clearly this is a nebulous wish that someday this would be understood, but it is doubtful.

For more information, visit Vitriol Records.

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