MARCH 30th 2012

Metaltitans would like to present an interview with Photographer Brian Lew who last year release a great photobook Murder in the Front Row. During the early 1980s, when heavy metal was defined by MTV and mile-high hair, San Francisco’s small community of dedicated headbangers scorned image and instead risked life and limb in search of the ultimate in musical thrills. Locals Exodus and Los Angeles transplants Metallica reigned in small clubs like the Old Waldorf, The Stone, and the infamous East Bay bastion of heaviness, Ruthie’s Inn. Thrash metal upstarts Slayer and Megadeth found a second home in the Bay Area, while a homegrown breed of tempo-crazed teenagers like Legacy, Possessed, Death Angel, Heathen, and Vio-lence brought Bay Area thrash metal to critical mass.

1. Hi, Brian. Can you tell me the feeling you have when you hold the book in your hands???

To finally hold the book in my hands after working on it for a year and a half was intense.  It’s like our high school yearbook, because we were all teenagers, Harald, me, AND the bands, when most of the pictures were taken.  The book shows when most of us were still kids and now some of those people are no longer alive. To be honest, it was emotional because a lot of shit has happened since those days.

2. Who came up with the book title Murder in the Front Row?

We came up with some early titles that seemed cheesy, like 'Kill A Poser'.  Credit for the title has to go to Ian Christie of Bazillion Points, who is also a huge Metal fan and knows the history.  As soon as he suggested ‘Murder In The Front Row’ it felt right, especially since we wanted to honor Paul Baloff and Exodus.

3. I wanted to ask why it took this long to release a gem of a book like this? Was there a legal or licensing red tape to go through?

No, there were no legal or licensing problems.  To be honest, we've just been too busy with life over the years! We've had other priorities and the right opportunity never presented itself until Bazillion Points came along. The timing of the book was not planned at all and I’m glad we waited, because there’s so much more interest in those old Metal Days now, with the Big 4 shows and all of the new Thrash-style bands.  It was very important to Harald and I that Bazillion Points are fans of the music and know the history and appreciate it.  They are not the typical publisher who would only want to do a "Metallica book". They understood that the real story was about the entire Bay Area Scene and not just one band; Metallica are huge but they’re also only part of the story.  For the record, all of the bands featured in the book have told us they love it, including the guys in Slayer and Metallica.  I looked at the book page by page with Dave Mustaine and Dave Ellefson a couple of weeks ago when Megadeth played here. It was cool. Knowing that the bands like the book is the most important thing because they understand that this book was not done out of greed. Harald and I wanted to honor the old scene and that time in our lives.  It’s our yearbook and it’s awesome that most people seem to get that.

4. Can you tell me the thought process when going through all your photos what stayed and which photos were cut from the book? Do you have a favorite photo that stands out?

We spent a week with Ian Christie in San Francisco scanning all of our negatives on an insane $30,000 scanner.  Almost all of the photos in the book are from the original negatives and we only scanned the old prints if the negative was damaged or lost. Thankfully the negatives for most of the photos are still safe.  Since Harald and I have been looking at the photos for so many years, it was best that Bazillion Points made the first picks about what they thought should be in the book since most of the photos were new to them. Then Harald and I either agreed with their choices or said “No” and we suggested others. It was a very easy process because we were all on the same wavelength; there were no egos or bullshit. The whole experience was awesome and felt like we were putting together a Metal fanzine like back in The Day.

I think my favorite photo in the book is one by Harald that’s next to the title page. It shows Kerry King on his knees at Ruthie’s Inn, trying to play a solo, while caught in a dogpile of fans AND he’s wearing his full-on nails!  Nobody got stabbed.  We were just kids having fun and sometimes the fun was violent.

5. What inspired you to bring a camera into a concert? Was it common back then to do that? Were you ever hassled by security for taking photos at the epicenter?

I took a photography class in high school, so I was taking photos as a hobby. There were a few people who took photos at concerts, but what you should understand about the photos in Murder is that we were just taking photos of our friends. It was not like we met the bands when they were on tour. This was before any of the bands, and that includes Metallica, Slayer, and Megadeth, were even touring. This was at least a couple of years before they started to become big. These bands, although they started in L.A., had a hard time getting shows down there at the time (1982-84) so they came up to the Bay Area because there were 5 or 6 clubs where Metal and Punk bands could play. Everyone knows that Metallica moved to the Bay Area because they bonded with the Bay Area Metal scene immediately, but few people know that in the very beginning Slayer and Megadeth both came up here and would spend a weekend or 5 days playing shows.  They basically became local bands during their stay and they bonded with us too. Club shows were different back then; there was no “security”. Maybe the bartender and the bouncer at the door who took tickets, but at Ruthie’s Inn the bartender would serve underage kids alcohol after a certain time. Ruthie’s Inn was in a rough part of Berkeley and was more like a clubhouse than a concert venue.

6. Looking at some of your work you have a great feel for the camera did you have any training in photography?

I had no training; I’ve never been a "professional" photographer by any stretch of the imagination. I took the photos in the book when I was a kid! I was an 18-21 year old Metalhead kid having fun and so was Harald.

7. While photographing thrash music I need to know how did you survive the mosh pits as you must have gotten bounced, kicked and thrashed around trying to get in close getting some of those wicked shots you did?

It was just part of it. Again, we were just kids and getting pushed around while trying to take pictures was part of the fun. Also, pits and the crowd action was different in the beginning; it was before the jock types got into Metal bands and brought that dickhead element to shows. The early shows were crazy but the people in the scene were respectful at the same time; we took care of each other. That changed as the bands and shows got bigger and the mainstream assholes started showing up.

8. You were able to take many backstage photos of thrash legends like Metallica, Exodus, Death Angel, Megadeth and nowadays it is next to near impossible to get that exposure.   How did you get your foot in the door???

What readers should realize about Murder is that we were ALL just kids, the fans AND the bands.  When I first met Metallica and Exodus we were still all under 21 years old. We were just kids who worshiped Metal and we became friends because of Metal.  Those guys just happened to be in bands.  As I said earlier, we met most of these bands before they had started touring and when they only had a demo tape out.  They were no different than us.  In the Bay Area back then it was never THE BANDS on a higher level than THE FANS; it was a small community of friends and we were all part of a gang. I think you get a sense of that in a lot of the photos in Murder; we were just kids having fun. In most of the photos everyone is smiling or laughing. It’s not like pictures of Metal kids today, trying to look tough and hard.. Back then hardly anyone threw the horns!  The Metal hand sign back then was flipping off the camera.  Metal was very serious to us, but we it was also fun… most of the time drunken fun.

9. Can you tell us a little bit about Whiplash and how that came about?

I had been writing for a couple of Metal fanzines, including Ron Quintana’s legendary ‘Metal Mania’ in S.F..  Then my friend Sam Kress inherited some money and traveled to England to explore the Metal Scene there; this was in 1982. While he was there he met different bands and their managers, including Venom and Mercyful Fate. When he got back from his trip we decided to do Whiplash and the connections he had made on his trip helped us to get content and also introduced us to people who could distribute us. We were both 20 years old at the time.

10. Do you still own any of your old film cameras?

Yes, they’re in my closet gathering dust.

11. Do you still go to shows and take photos?

I do still go to a lot of shows, mostly Metal, but I haven’t taken photos at concerts in years. Two of my favorite “new” bands are Landmine Marathon and Black Cobra. Neurosis and the Melvins are two of my all-time favorite bands now. I also like bands like Agalloch, Red Fang, and Tombs. I still listen to a lot of the underground Metal stuff.

12. Are there plans to release another book in the near future?

To be honest, any future book would be Harald’s project. My photos from those days are basically all in Murder. My Old Metal story has been told.