English professor and Miami native, Dean Swinford has embarked on the first serious literary treatise concerning death metal with Death Metal Epic I: The Inverted Katabasis. The young novella is picking up endorsements and accolades from both literary and musical circles. Reared in Florida with a solid education in '80s metal in particular, it is no coincidence that the book is set in the Sunshine State during the1980s metal boom.
Tackling this subject matter could easily deviate into the realm of "fanboy cheesiness," but Swinford presents a meditative angle of personal growth and evolution through the protagonist David Fosberg who, not unlike many in the same position, finds himself in a dead-end job, filled with musical acumen and lured by the promise of riches in the guise of a Eurotour, because in Europe, he says, "everyone loves metal."
We spoke with Dean about his first book (of a proposed metal trilogy), academia, and the evolution of the genre. He's a passionate and articulate gentleman who'll impress with his background in medieval and modern literature and with his knowledge of metal album liner notes. And the Miami-Dade Mayor has the audacity to declare the age of the book dead. Oh well, Florida, right?
New Times: Let's start with a little bit of your background. First, for any reader who believes death metal is for meatheads, let's talk about your academic upbringing.
Dean Swinford: I'm an English professor with research interests in Medieval and early modern literature. My first book, Through the Daemon's Gate, is about medieval dream narratives and their influence on the astronomer Johannes Kepler.
I finished my Ph.D. at University of Florida and wrote my doctoral dissertation while at Ghent University in Belgium on a Fulbright Fellowship. I grew up in Miami and studied English at FIU as an undergraduate.
The great thing about going to FIU was that I spent about a year of that time in London on study abroad trips, and that gave me lots of time to travel around Europe.
Now, for any stuffy pencil-pusher out there with reinforced elbow pads, tell us about your love affair with metal and how it has evolved since it first channeled into your ears.
The book deals with, as you say, a "love affair with metal," but it also pokes fun at it, too. I think that's a theme of the book that can apply to any kind of pop culture fixation. You know, someone might like some real housewife show, but also realize that it is stupid. So, I guess writing the series is a way to play with that tension.
The protagonist, David Fosberg, has built his life around this music, but he's starting to wonder if that's the best life for him, or even if it is a sustainable life. If I'm still trying to justify the literary value of metal, I'd say this theme isn't that different from what Chaucer says about poetic glory in The House of Fame.
I suppose I can blame my older brother for getting me into music. He's ten years or so older than me. My parents forced him to share a room with me when he was in high school and I was in kindergarten. As a result, I spent my early years listening to Van Halen and Bad Company 8-tracks. Later, Mötley Crüe's Shout at the Devil lured me in. I liked it, but also felt like it was a little scary. They wore pentagram-emblazoned headbands, shoulder pads covered in spikes.
It attracted and repelled me at the same time. In high school, I had a punk rock phase that ended when I heard Napalm Death one day on WVUM. After that, I'd pore over liner notes of the first death metal albums I bought, Sepultura's Arise or Terrorizer's World Downfall, and head to Yesterday and Today Records on Bird Road to buy albums from whatever bands were thanked or mentioned. At FIU, I had a metal show on the college radio station.
Terrorizer - "Ripped to Shreds"
Instead of starting a band, you've written a book. If you were to start a band, what instrument would you play and what would be the musical direction of the outfit?
If I were to start a band today, it would sound like Youth of Today, but have lyrics about grown up things, like contributing to an IRA or properly maintaining your gutters. Refinancing to a lower interest rate. I would call it Unyouth.
The bands in the book, though, are based on projects I worked on in the early nineties. Katabasis is loosely based on a project that I put together with a friend of mine when we were at FIU, but I never did more than make some demo tapes. It had layers of ambient keyboards and lyrics taken from myths, the sagas, and so forth.
The narrative is set in a time when all the good metal was coming out, interestingly enough, from Florida. I have found that at different points in time, Florida has been at the forefront of musical trends. How would you compare the Floridian metal scene of the late '80s with the way it has evolved into the present?
There are consistently good bands from the area. Torche is good. But the book's not really about music in that way. I'm interested in the thoughtful, esoteric dimension that often seems to be neglected when most people talk about metal.
For example, I really like this new group called Obscura. Their latest album Omnivium is, according to the liner notes, based on a work by the philosopher Friedrich Schelling. In what other pop music genre can a band release a concept album about a philosophical treatise?
Beyond that, I'm most interested in the characters. How does the friendship with David and Juan develop? How do they each change as a result of the band's tour? And, really, how do these guys from Miami, which is a very weird place to grow up, make sense of the world beyond the city? In the book, they hate Miami, but their shared experience as outsiders from Miami is the basis of their friendship.
Obscura - "Vortex Omnivium"
Is it nostalgia, or are there any particular outfits coming from the state (or anywhere for that matter) now that have captivated you like that era did?
I still get excited about new bands. No doubt. I guess at the moment, I am most into bands like Mournful Congregation, Officium Triste, and Evoken. I like a lot of the Profound Lore releases. I'm also pretty excited that Sleep reunited, and hope that I can catch them in concert. What really attracts me to that particular era and subculture, though, is that sense of a huge shift, even if, in retrospect, it may seem that the shift had more to do with marketing than any real transformation or change.
"Epic" usually means just that, an "epic," but clocking in at a little over 140 pages, this is more of a novella, though there is a continuation forthcoming. Do you have an outline that you're working from, or are you riding this story until it lets you off at an unknown destination?
The plan is for three volumes when it is all done. I'm working on the follow up, The Goat Song Sacrifice, right now. Part of the reason for breaking it up is that each part deals with separate themes and also metal subgenres. While the first book deals a lot with death metal and David's escape from Florida, the next one is about the period when black metal appeared as the next big thing and it was marketed as something "truer" or more real than what it replaced.
It shows David trying to work within those constraints while also trying to start a life in Europe. It's about the problems someone who never wanted to fit in has when he finds himself trying to fit in.
I like to visualize characters based on descriptions and I rarely have the chance to ask an author who they imagine their character look like, who does David Fosberg look like to you?
I spent a lot of time looking through old CD booklets while writing the book. I'd say that he looks like a composite of people in various band photos paired with a memory I have of myself when I was 20 or so. A lot of the characters are composites with features of people I know and images taken from CD booklets and magazines. I like to read those old Marvel Universe comic books with my son. They're like an encyclopedia of every Marvel character. I make entries like those of my characters and keep them with my drafts.
Officium Triste - "My Charcoal Heart"
This is a groundbreaking effort in the sense that there really hasn't been a "death metal" novel and let alone one treated with the reverence you have brought to the table. What are your thoughts on this without likening yourself to "political mavericks?"
As a writer, I think there is a lot of interesting material in the world of metal. Plus, I wanted to use the different features or motifs of the genre, things like elaborate liner notes and cookie monster vocals as well as the H.P. Lovecraft influence that comes through in the lyrics, to tell a story that resonates with readers who may or may not know anything about the music. I wanted to write something that the 20-year old version of myself would have wanted to read. I worked at the Borders on US1 when I was in college and this is the kind of book that I would have been excited to discover.
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