The Man Behind the Metal | Music Feature | Chicago Reader

The Man Behind the Metal 

If it's heavy and it was recorded in Chicago, there's a good chance Sanford Parker was at the mixing board.

Sanford Parker

Sanford Parker

john sturdy

American metal is thriving like never before, and Chicago has one of the country's strongest scenes. Almost every small to midsize venue in the city regularly hosts metal shows: the Empty Bottle, Bottom Lounge, Subterranean, House of Blues, Reggie's, the Logan Square Auditorium, Double Door, the Beat Kitchen. Metal Shaker—true to its name—books almost nothing but metal. Even the Hideout, with an established identity as a home for rootsy music and indie fare, gets in on the action from time to time. Local labels like Seventh Rule, Hawthorne Street, Hewhocorrupts Inc., and Battle Kommand specialize in heavy music. Emperor Cabinets, which builds lustworthy gear for metal bands nationwide, has its workshop in Humboldt Park. Metal-themed burger joint Kuma's Corner is so popular it's a serious pain in the ass to get a table. Specialty record store Metal Haven is in the process of shutting down, but it's stayed in business longer than the Virgin Megastore or Tower Records thanks to Chicago's metalheads.

Veteran bands like Cianide and Macabre—born during the city's first wave of death metal, which had its heyday on the south side in the late 80s and early 90s—are still kicking. Newer groups like Pelican, Nachtmystium, Yakuza, and Lair of the Minotaur have achieved international recognition, and up-and-comers like Indian, Sweet Cobra, and Raise the Red Lantern seem headed that way. Out in the suburbs, young deathcore bands like Oceano and Born of Osiris are posting impressive numbers.

Many of these groups have something in common besides being local: they've worked with producer Sanford Parker. (His own groups Buried at Sea and Minsk have also done pretty well for themselves.) Parker is a big part of the reason Chicago metal is well-known worldwide. When he moved up in 1998 from Florida, where he'd been recording bands at home as a hobby, the metal scene here was tiny. His big break was engineering Pelican's self-titled debut EP in late 2001. The band hadn't intended to formally release it, but Hydra Head loved it and put it out in early 2003. Parker hasn't looked back since. These days time at his Ukrainian Village studio, Volume Recording, the Ukrainian Village studio he co-owns, Semaphore Recording, is in high demand, and he's doing fly-in gigs all over the country, from Yob in Oregon to Zoroaster in Atlanta to Unearthly Trance in New York—more and more bands are looking for the organic mix of grit and atmosphere that he's already brought to so many albums.

What did you know about Chicago's metal history before you moved here from Florida?

Honestly, I was more intrigued with the whole Wax Trax industrial scene from this city. . . . That's what drew me here. In about the mid-90s, I started getting into more aggressive music that had elements of that industrial sound—Neurosis, Buzzov-en, and bands like that. Since I've been here, I've definitely learned more about [Chicago] metal history. Now I'm friends with a lot of those bands that helped form the whole metal scene back in the late 80s and early 90s.

How has the scene changed since then?

When I first moved here, there wasn't [much of] a metal scene. The Fireside Bowl did a lot of punk, hardcore, and metal shows. Outside of that, there was really no other metal venue, or any venue for any sort of extreme music, unless it was a house show or something. The south-side death-metal bands—Cianide, Cardiac Arrest, Morgue—have always been around. But as far as the north side it was mostly geared toward indie rock and more experimental types of music. About five or six years ago, there were some bands like Pelican and Buried at Sea, which I started doing around that time. That drew some attention toward the metal, or "heavy," scene. Out of that a lot of other bands started to form.

What are the differences between the north-side and south-side scenes?

The south side has always been where the immigrants moved to. It's mostly working class. So the south-side scene is more like extreme metal—grindcore, death metal, stuff like that. Whereas the north side is more open, more a modern type of heavy music. You get the whole art scene and all that stuff too.

How did Chicago metal change in ten years from one venue to a thriving scene with many successful bands and venues?

When I first moved here, Chicago was a hardcore city. There were a lot of hardcore bands—Charles Bronson, Los Crudos, Kungfu Rick. A lot of those bands started to break up and die out. They either started getting into heavier music or disappeared altogether. Over time, a lot of bands started getting influenced by the more modern heavy bands, like Isis, Mastodon, High on Fire, and Neurosis. That started to draw a lot of attention to that style of music. Clubs started to see that kids actually came out to these shows. The Double Door and the Empty Bottle—when I first moved here, if you were a metal band, you did not play the Empty Bottle. That was a total indie-rock hipster scene. . . . Now, Nunslaughter played there a few months ago. So it's totally changed.

A lot of it had to do with a good friend of mine, Bruce Lamont from Yakuza. He started bartending there five or six years ago. They would do metal shows every once in a while, and people would drink four times as much as the hipster crowd. They would tip better, and they were generally nicer. . . . Now a metal show at the Empty Bottle is a regular thing.

Do you think Chicago metal has a certain sensibility?

I think so. I think a lot of it has to do with the open-mindedness of bands like Tortoise, Shellac, and the Flying Luttenbachers. A lot of those types of bands have always had this thriving experimental vibe to them. That has a huge influence and impact on the way people approach music here. They tend to think outside the box as far as what should be metal: "What should this riff sound like," "What kind of drum beat can I play with this," or "Screw it, we don't even need a vocalist."

Is being in the same city as Steve Albini and Electrical Audio an influence for you?

It definitely creates influence. I use his studio quite often. He and I are really good friends. It's nice having that place. That also is one center of the community. People look at that as an establishment. That's where amazing music is made.

You're a busy producer now. Was there a breakthrough record for you in terms of visibility?

That Pelican EP was definitely a big eye-opener. It pointed a lot of people in my direction. The Nachtmystium thing [Assassins] would be one of late that people have really liked. I get a lot of people hearing that record and seeking me out. There's been a few here and there, like the Rwake record [Voices of Omens]. But it all started with the Pelican EP.

As a producer would you say that you have an identity?

I try to go for a more organic sound. I'm not into overly processed drums and real midrangy, high-end guitars. I try to go for something with a little more life to it, something that sounds a little more real. I try to create atmospheres within music as far as using effects and delays. I've even started building a reputation as "the synth guy." I have bands coming in all the time wanting me to do synth stuff on their records, which is kind of funny because I'm not a keyboard player at all. But I do have a decent collection of analog synthesizers and crazy pedals.

Do you look up to any producers?

There's a lot of people that I admire. I would say that one of the reasons that I'm in this business is Billy Anderson. The first time I heard Neurosis's Enemy of the Sun, my mind was blown. How the hell could anyone make something as dense and heavy as that? And then I heard Buzzov-en's Sore, and it was the same thing. And then I heard Eyehategod's Dopesick. They all had one thing in common: Billy. That opened my eyes as to the effect somebody behind the boards could have on a recording.

You mentioned that you were into the Wax Trax scene. There's not really anything like that now in the city, is there?

No. It's pretty much dead. My goal right now is to bring that back. I've got a couple projects that are coming out this year. One of them is called the High Confessions, featuring Chris Connelly on vocals. He sang for Ministry and Revolting Cocks. He also did Murder Inc. and even worked at the Wax Trax record store. He's been involved with that scene since he was 19. I've got Steve Shelley from Sonic Youth playing drums. It's pretty much my take on that scene from a more experimental standpoint.

This other project I have called Circle of Animals that also features Bruce Lamont is total straight-up Killing Joke, Swans, early Ministry, Foetus-type of stuff, total throwback to the early-90s industrial movement. Every song features a different drummer: Dave Witte from Municipal Waste, John [Merryman] from Cephalic Carnage, Steve Shelley played on it, Zack [Simmons] from Goatwhore. I had a lot of friends come through and lay down drum tracks. I would create loops and write the songs from that.

The new Twilight record [Ed.—Twilight is a black-metal supergroup featuring Parker alongside members of Isis, Nachtmystium, Leviathan, Krieg, and the Atlas Moth] is highly influenced by the whole industrial scene. The new Nachtmystium is pretty much off the chart as far as that goes. All these records I mentioned, you can definitely hear that strong Wax Trax presence in them.

The bands you are most famous for producing have an organic sound. The Wax Trax sound was a lot more rigid. Did you have a change of heart at any point?

No. I'm trying my best to incorporate the two together, trying to create a machinelike sound but with an organic vibe, a human element. None of the stuff that I do is MIDI. I did not want to sit there and program drum beats. I wanted a live drummer to come in and play a beat, and I would totally manipulate the drum sounds to where they sounded like machines.

What's a typical day like for you?

I show up to the studio at noon, and I go home around midnight every day. That's pretty much it [laughs]. I practically live in this space. I love it. I wouldn't have it any other way. This is the best thing I could ever think of doing. I consider myself to have the best job in the world. I show up, I hang out with awesome people for 12 hours, and I make really cool music. I can't really argue with that.

I'm going to ask you about some of the Chicago bands you've worked with.

OK.

Pelican.

I've known those dudes for a long time. They used to be called Bloody Tusk back in the day. When I first met them, they were just four kids that played grindcore at house shows.

I was doing this abrasive noise project called Decomposing Baby. I would play the Fireside every once in a while. We would just play for 15 minutes, break a bunch of shit, and that would kind of be it. But I wanted to something more legitimate, so I put an ad in the paper looking for a band. I got a couple of really terrible responses, but one that I did get was from this guy Laurent [Schroeder-Lebec]. He was like, "I've got this project called Pelican that we've been working on. We're looking for a vocalist or keyboard player or third guitarist or whatever." He played me some of the riffs, and I thought they were super cool. Back then, they were definitely more of a stoner rock, Goatsnake type of vibe. So we jammed for a while. I don't think I ever got to the point where I attempted to do vocals for them. I had written some keyboard stuff and some third-guitar stuff, but I never got to the vocal part of it.

The first EP was more or less a demo plus something for me to work on as far as vocal arrangements and whatnot. We started recording the EP, and they started playing shows out, just the four of them. The response was really great. People would make comments like, "Wow, that's crazy you don't have a vocalist, but that's really cool." Shortly after finishing the EP, we came to a mutual agreement that we really didn't feel vocals were needed. I started getting busy with other stuff, so they remained as a four-piece and decided to go instrumental. Obviously that took off.

Being an instrumental band was the smartest thing they could've ever done, because it allowed them to cross over to a lot of people who wouldn't give the time of day to metal bands. And the incestuous indie-rock community that makes up the whole Chicago scene—people that would frequent the Empty Bottle and go to Tortoise and June of 44 and Joan of Arc shows—instantly fell in love with them. They started having this mass appeal outside of the metal community. Then Hydra Head took notice. The funny thing is, the EP was originally a demo. It was never meant to be released. Hydra Head was like, "We want to put it out, but exactly how it is."

Lair of the Minotaur.

I just finished a new record with Lair of the Minotaur. Again, another really good band. Steve [Rathbone] used to be in a band called 7000 Dying Rats; they still kind of do it from time to time. They would play the Fireside Bowl all the time. The shows were pretty legendary, just chaos, people going crazy. They were a pretty notorious party band. Steve wanted to do something a little more metal, so he ended up getting D.J. [Barraca] on bass and Larry [Herweg] on drums. When they started playing, the more indie-rock type of kids were really digging it. It was this old-school metal sound, but it had some sort of crossover appeal to it. And same thing: They came in, recorded a demo. Next thing you know, Southern Lord's putting it out. We even tried to remix it. We sent it to Greg [Anderson, label head, also of Sunn 0)))], and he denied it. He was like, "No, I want to put out the original." We're like, "Dude, that was a demo." He was like, "I don't care. I love it, I want to put it out." And that was that [laughs].

Yakuza.

Yakuza is definitely one of those bands that have become a staple of Chicago. They've always had sort of a crossover. They're an interesting band because they're all from the south side. When you go to their shows, it's a really strange mix because you get these diehard south-siders that only come up for Yakuza. You never see them except for Yakuza shows. Bruce is also heavy into the local jazz and experimental scenes, so you get a lot of those people, plus you get the north-side people coming out. Yakuza shows are very cool. . . . We just finished a new record with them back in December, so that's coming out sometime in the spring.

Finally, Nachtmystium.

Nachtmystium is a little different. Blake grew up in the 'burbs. He definitely had a strong foothold in the metal scene, but only recently has he gained a foothold in the local indie-rock scene as well. He also took up part-time shifts at the Empty Bottle, working there. He has a lot of people come and go, so there's always this element of a new person involved, which is kind of cool. This time around, the lineup is completely different from Doomsday Derelicts, which was completely different from Assassins, which was completely different from Instinct: Decay. So you always have this different vibe going on with each album. I would this say this one more so than any of the others [laughs]. We threw any concept of what a metal record should sound like out the window and went with what we wanted to do. People are going to be very shocked when they hear this album [laughs].

What up-and-coming Chicago bands deserve notice?

Raise the Red Lantern. Three of the guys in the band do this guitar-cabinet company called Emperor. They've gained a lot of popularity all over the world. They're definitely a band that I would highly recommend checking out.

This band Indian—they've been around for a while. They started shortly after Buried at Sea got going. They were highly influenced by what I did, but they have definitely taken it in their own direction now. Will Lindsay, who played in Middian and Wolves in the Throne Room—he moved to Chicago and joined Indian. He's added a whole new element to the band. Their sound is light years beyond what it originally was. Those guys are going to be doing some really cool stuff this year.

This band Sweet Cobra—they've got a new record coming out on Blackmarket Activities. They've been a staple of Chicago for years.

There are a lot of bands. It's hard to keep track. It seems like every time I go out to a show, I hear about some new band.

Does Kuma's have any concrete place in Chicago's scene, or is it just a tourist destination?

No, it definitely has become an institution. Unfortunately now it's so popular that you can't go there without at least an hour and a half wait, sometimes three hours. . . . If you go on a Monday at, like, three in the afternoon, you might be able to get a spot at the bar [laughs].

I interviewed [northwest suburban deathcore band] Oceano, and they're very young. I asked the singer about Kuma's, and he didn't know what it was. It astounded me that someone associated with metal in Chicago wouldn't know what Kuma's was. Is there a separate youth-metal scene in Chicago?

There is. The whole suburban metal scene has nothing to do with the city. There are so many young metalcore type of bands that come and go from the 'burbs on a weekly basis that never get picked up on the radar of the city because they just play VFW halls out there.

I can definitely see why [Oceano's singer didn't know about Kuma's]. Kuma's is not really a place for a family trip. Your mom wouldn't be like, "Hey kids, let's go to Kuma's tonight." Although you do see it—it's kind of funny when I do go in there and see an old lady order a Darkthrone burger. It makes me laugh every time.   

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