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INTERVIEW – Nick Calpakdjian, Metal Down Under director

| 2 October 2014 | Reply

INTERVIEW – Nick Calpakdjian, Metal Down Under director
By Shane Pinnegar

Nick Calpakdjian, Metal Down Under 01

Australia is far more widely known for our unique brand of pub rock than for our contribution to the world of Heavy Metal, but writer/director Nick Calpakdjian set out to prove that our metal legacy is indeed strong by producing the largely crowd-funded Metal Down Under DVD.

Available now from JB Hifi and other outlets, the film is divided into three ‘episodes’, and features over 40 interviews with band members, industry folk and scenesters, who attempt to explain the significance and influence of extreme metal from this country.

Calpakdjian says the initial response has been great.

“Really good, actually. I’ve had a couple of pretty positive reviews in Rolling Stone mag and Heavy magazines, and getting lots of responses on social media from punters that helped fundraise for the actual film by preordering the DVDs and becoming members. A lot of people are saying… well I guess because the film [covers] so many years I’ve got different responses from different age groups of people.

“I’ve got a lot of people saying, ‘it was so good to look back on the ‘80s and remember what I was a part of and see the people I was mixing with back then,” [as well as] a lot of the younger generation saying, ‘I didn’t know metal existed before ’99,’ or something like that. Yeah, it’s getting a good response from a lot of different people.

“I think I never really thought of an exact target market at the start,” Calpakdjian continues. “I thought it would always be more interesting for further back I went, just because I guess my place is in the middle. I started listening to Allegiance in ’91 or ’92. Now, I’ve explored it and there’s as much music before that point as there is after it. So I thought the further back I went the more interesting it would be to myself.

“Then, I thought the people that had started to listening to metal in the 2000s, and hardcore and punk and things like that, I reckoned that they wouldn’t know what existed in the ‘80s or in the ‘90s, so I’m sure they would be quite surprised that there were bands like Alchemist and Damaged doing things every bit as incredible or more than what is going on today.”

Metal Down Under DVD cover

The very nature of the underground scene that metal was (and still largely is) in this country led to many independently released albums, most of which never received a major label push. Consequently, many of these releases are now semi-obscure to a certain extent. Calpakdjian says the truth is even deeper than that.

“Yeah, that’s right, but a lot of the bands didn’t even really record proper albums. A lot of the guys that I met only did a series of demos or mini-albums. No one was ever quite happy with what they recorded. They weren’t that interested in distributing it as far as they could because it was their live shows that I guess what people really were knowing them for. People would often say, ‘yeah, that album didn’t sound so great [but] if you ever saw them live they just killed it.’

“I think the scene in Australia in the ‘80s and probably the early ‘90s – before recording equipment became more readily available, and then also before the expertise in local producers and engineers really got up to scratch with what was going on overseas – I think Australia was all about getting out on the road and playing live because if you could cut up onstage, then people respected that.”

One very obvious point made in Metal Down Under is that bands who were local heroes in Perth or other capital cities often never made it to the rest of the country, and vice versa. Calpakdjian says there is a vast untapped history of metal around the country.

“I think so. I think it made for an interesting look at how the different scenes evolved independently of each other. What was going on in Perth might have been markedly different than what was happening in Brisbane or Adelaide. Melbourne and Sydney, often we could get a lot more crossover of music because it’s a lot quicker and cheaper because you can drive between.

“But I guess Perth being so isolated, it’s always had its own thing going on and evolved in its own way, and it still does. Now, I guess it is much cheaper and accessible for bands to travel. Then again, you’ve got Soundwave not turning up to Perth this year – still a lot of touring bands don’t make that trip across the Nullabor. I think some of the regions within Australia will always evolve just a little bit differently to each other. I think that makes it a more exciting country full of music.”

As anyone who has been buying records since before 1990 can attest, the term ‘Heavy Metal’ itself has evolved greatly over time. Back in 1987 Metal was as much about Poison and Whitesnake as it was about Slayer and Metallica. Going back further, in 1981 AC/DC and Def Leppard were at the cutting edge of ‘Metal’. For the purposes of Metal Down Under, though, what was Calpakdjian’s definition of the term, and how far into heavy rock was he prepared to go to tell the story?

“Yes, that’s a good question, mate,” the director says, pondering for a moment. “I didn’t really have any strict criteria of what had to be included in a band to be classified as ‘metal.’ I think I might’ve made it easy on myself early on by just quickly glancing at AC/DC and Buffalo and these early bands that we’re not really going to consider metal today, but at the time they were the heaviest thing going around. I guess as long as the music was heavy, if the music had big, driving riffs it was a little bit… not commercial but a little bit alternative. It wasn’t really – it could be heavy, but pop, I guess.

“Yes, that’s a really good question and one that I think people will argue forever: what is and what isn’t Heavy Metal. I think what we thought was heavy back then we can say is heavy metal. Looking back you go, ‘oh, okay, well, hard rock turned into heavy metal, and heavy metal turned into trash, and trash into death, and death into whatever else there is now.’

“Yeah, I think I just made it easy on myself by showing that AC/DC were there at the start. Buffalo was there at the start. They were hard rock verging into heavy metal, Buffalo, with the Black Sabbath influence and that kind of thing, but I didn’t dig way too deep into that territory.”

Metal Down Under shoot 02

Another key facet of Heavy Metal culture is the camaraderie aspect, to a certain extent that you don’t find in other genres. Calpakdjian says he felt a responsibility to get the film right not only for the bands, but also for fans who have followed the music.

“Yeah, I think that’s one of the biggest things that I struggled with through the film. I think it’s probably one of the criticisms that the film has received is that it doesn’t actually get everybody in every band in every subgenre that’s ever been linked with heavy metal into the film. There might be a record label that existed in the mid-‘90s that didn’t get a look in the film or earlier than that.

“I think what I did get right or what the film does get right is it does show that people involved in heavy metal are passionate people, that they did form long-lasting friendships with other band mates, promoters, record-label type people, managers, whatever. I suppose I tried to create that sense that heavy metal was a community whether you would get involved yourself in a band, or if you considered yourself an Australian heavy metal fan.

“I tried to make the film feel like, even if my favourite band wasn’t represented, I’d still feel like I was a part of that film because I did invest in the heavy metal thing and I still do. I’ve been in bands. I’ve been a fan. I put out albums, whatever. I hope that that sense of belonging is still in the film even if one person, or band or moment in time didn’t make the cut.

In telling the story of an entire musical movement, there’s always plenty of support people behind the bands, many of whom the fans never even meet. Calpakdjian was adamant that their story was as important as the musicians themselves or the fans, and consequently the likes of Hot Metal Magazine editor Robyn Dorrian, Publicist Chris Maric, DJ Andrew Haug and plenty more are included.

“I tried to make the point early on when I started contacting people about making the film,” he explains, “that I wasn’t just going to talk to bands backstage about how good they are and how great their music is. We all know that – otherwise people wouldn’t be buying the albums and listening to the music and going to the gigs.

“I wanted to show both sides of what it is to be ‘heavy metal.’ One side is to be in the band. On the other side is to be a fan. That can be going to shows, helping put up posters, videoing events, starting magazines, starting online things and websites, participating in forums and that kind of thing. Without that side, the bands would have no-one to play to and no-one to sell their CDs to.

“For me, I think the storyies that Greta Tate from Metal For Melbourne told, and Lee Wilson when he was recording all those early shows. They’re every bit as interesting as Segression touring the US or Psycroptic touring Europe and what they got up to.

“I think every person has a part to play in building your scene, if you want things to last 40 years. I think I had a responsibility to try and pull as many of those people in, so – if I grew up in Sydney I might not have known Metal For Melbourne existed. Or if I grew up in Perth, I maybe didn’t know that promoter in Brisbane was putting on an event every year. Yeah, I think that an important thing to do in the film was to make sure that it just wasn’t a who’s who of the bands in Australia.”

Metal Down under shoot 03

On that note, Calpakdjian says which bands were included was often dictated by his interviewees telling the story.

“Oh, yeah. I could spend hours explaining to people why a particular person or band isn’t in the film. [Perth bands] Trilogy and Black Steel were both bands that were mentioned, [but] I couldn’t weave a story together because only one or two people might’ve brought them up in their interviews.

“I guess because I decided not to have voiceover or narration in the film, I wanted to let the people that were in it tell the story. It became a little bit more challenging to try and include more because unless I had a direct story to follow with a number of people, it wasn’t going to be entertaining viewing to listen to one [person] talk about one band for four or five minutes.

“I guess there’s a number of factors that played into that,” Calpakdjian says, elaborating about his decision not to use a narrator to propel the story along. “My background is very keen observational filmmaking. We’re very used to following a story whether it’s political or social issues or whatever and letting the story unfold in front of the camera and not really trying to push the story in a certain direction. I’ve always had that feeling in the back of my mind. [Even though,] obviously, this isn’t that type of film – it’s a pop culture film.

“The second reason was I never felt like I was the authority figure on Australian heavy metal. This is not my story to tell! I don’t claim to know everything there is to know about Australian heavy metal history. I felt that if I brought my voice or a third person’s voice into the film as a voice of God, [saying] ‘this is what the truth is about Australian metal,’ then I just think it wouldn’t be as real or as honest because it just becomes another layer of subjectivity.

“I know that it’s not purely objective because I edit the film together,” he hastens to add. “I think if I brought that third-person voice in, then it’s just adding a layer of authority that I don’t feel I have the authority to do so. I thought if I can get the people in the film to tell their story. Then I could honestly cut them together in a way that I think best represents them and my understanding of the theme by talking to all the people that I did talk to during the research that I did do. Then it would be a more honest and complete film. I think creatively it’s just a little bit more interesting if you let the characters in the film tell you what the story is rather than the ‘Morgan Freeman voice.’”

We discussed the camaraderie of the metal community earlier, but in a surprising (to some – I was spat on by rock fans who disliked the heavier metal of Iron Maiden and Motorhead, who featured in patches on my own denim jacket in my school days) segment in Metal Down Under, John Vincent from the band Renegade talks about the abuse they got from more traditional metal fans. As metal itself got more extreme, so the divide between it and older metal became wider.

“Yeah, I don’t think that’s really stopped,” Calpakdjian says. “I think within a genre of music as it splinters, you get people that are quite passionate about what they like, and they want to just continue their like of something, [by] distancing themselves from a subgenre that they don’t think is part of what they want to do. You get others that couldn’t care less. They might like their particular type of music. Then if someone else comes up, like doom-thrash-grunge-grindcore, and that’s what they want to do, that’s what they want to do.

“John from Renegade, when he was talking about what’s happening today with the whole metalcore thing [in that] a lot of people just can’t stomach it for whatever reason, he just puts it out there and says, ‘you know, we dealt with that shit in the ‘80s. It’s pretty old and not worth thinking about. If you really got nothing else to care about in your life other than what we do that you hate, then that’s a pretty boring way to live. You might as well just get busy with stuff to do like doing and listening to and move on with that.’

“I thought John was quite funny. He was honest – he said, ‘we struggled to begin with. We had four people turning up and not really paying attention. It took a long time to win the crowd over.’ To me, that’s why they should be in the film because they tried to make a style of music that no-one else was making. They struggled and it took a while for people to take hold – then, they were remembered.

“I remember Jason from Blood Duster,” he continues, “saying that they were a big influence on what him and his band were doing because they were doing that whole crossover thing as something new. I think for me, if you’re going to make something artistic, then you might as well go out on a limb and put yourself in a position where you could fail miserably, because if you don’t, then you’re probably going to be remembered for doing something quite good. You’d rather be remembered for doing something good than fail for doing the same as everyone else.”

To recap on how the film got off the ground, I asked Nick to explain the funding process. Firstly, he says he looked into getting an Arts Grant, or funding from a TV Network to get the movie made.

“The reality is I’ve been down the funding road for films before. I knew that this film would just fall into the ‘too niche’ basket if I went to the main broadcasters. I’ve been working with filmmakers for 12 or 14 years. All of my credits, they’re as an editor. If you want to get any funding in films, then you need to be a producer, basically – they don’t look at you until you’ve got that credit.

“I had got some funding from Film Victoria for another documentary series with a production company. That was great. We got a good amount of money to research and write, but the series didn’t get picked up. The treatment is sitting on the shelf. I thought, ‘I’d rather just get off my ass and see if the metal community wants a film like this. If they do, the money will come. If they don’t, then the money won’t come and we won’t make the film.’ Enough money came in to make me feel like someone out there wanted this film made. I thought it was worth investing my time and money and see what comes of it.

“I guess I would’ve thought there was [more] interest in it. I would’ve thought there was interest from a broadcaster like the ABC to broadcast it once it’s actually finished [as a historical document of the times.]

“It’s under consideration by SBS at the moment,” he continues, a hopeful tone entering his voice. “It came back from ABC as ‘too niche.’ I would challenge that though, given that they had bought the Metal Evolution series and the Metallica doco. I don’t think heavy metal is as ‘too niche’ for the ABC as it seems. They’d rather make and broadcast documentaries about people that go bird watching and wine tasting. That’s more Australian culture than heavy metal apparently!

“But that’s all right. I’ve been funded – I’ve worked for many funded ABC documentaries. I just got the feeling that this film wouldn’t be funded by the Australian government, so I thought I’d make it myself, show them on the other side how many thousands or how many people want this film by DVD sales and download and things like that. Then the film gets made at least.”

After making that realisation, the producer had to reach out to the audience and sell them the project ahead of its being made: no easy task.

“I did a number of [crowd funding] campaigns.” He explains. “The main fundraising that we did, was basically I sold pre-orders of the DVD which raised about a third of the budget. I added a membership pack, which was a pre-order of the DVD, T-shirt, name in the credits, that kind of thing. That was another third [of the funding]. Then the Pozible campaign, which is the final third which involves all of those kinds of reward package stuff in a six- or eight-week campaign to get the mark with the money.

“All the money came online. I had a couple of people from within the metal community donate various sums of money to get it pushing along. We raised about 15 grand online. Then, I put close to 10 grand of my own money into the film plus my time – so I need to sell a couple of hundred DVDs so I can break even!”

Regardless of what the stuffy-shirts at the ABC think, Metal Down Under IS a historical document, and it’s essential viewing for anyone who has a vested interest in the extreme metal scene in this country or beyond. Calpakdjian even says if it sells well enough, he’d consider making a follow-up.

“Yeah, I would. I’ve had a few people that I contacted while I was making the film that never got back to me and I thought should’ve been in the film. Now, the film is out, I’m suddenly emails like, ‘oh, I’d love to be involved.’ I’m, ‘well, it’s printed!’

“A few people have asked would I make a sequel,” he continues, “[but] I don’t think I’d do a sequel. I think I would re-imagine how I put this film together and kind of expand it out, because the time periods would still be the same. I think we could just afford to explore some of the different moments and people and bands that just didn’t get to make it this time and I think would add to it, too. I’d up the three episodes to five or six or something like that, make it a lot more rounded.”

Now that’s something to throw the horns in the air for!

Category: Interviews

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