Maryland Deathfest is the biggest extreme music festival in North America. For over ten years, it happens every Memorial Day weekend in Baltimore. Fans travel from all over to rock the fuck out, and MDF’s fierce independence inspires beloved, defunct bands to reunite. Still, the festival does not attract a lot of mainstream attention, which is partly why filmmakers Tom Grahsler and Alicia Lozano decided to make a documentary about it. Longtime metalheads both, they got access to the festival, its organizers Ryan Evan, as well as darlings of the scene. The end result is Welcome to Deathfest, a documentary that’s screening TOMORROW AT 9PM for free as part of the Maryland Film Festival. I recently talked to Tom and Alicia over Gchat about metal, their documentary, and my contribution to their film.
Disclosure: Tom and Alicia are good friends of mine. I watched and provided feedback on an early cut of the documentary, which is why I’m thanked (along with many others) in the end credits.
BYT: Woohoo! Let’s do this.
Tom: Alright nerds.
BYT: For those that are unfamiliar with Maryland Deathfest, can you describe what makes it so special for you?
Tom: I think the really amazing thing about MDF is that it is a truly independent music festival. There are no corporate sponsorships, no beer sponsors, no magazine sponsors. That means that they have to do all of the work themselves, with a skeleton crew that they hire. This approach is a reflection of the community that they serve and came up through. Heavy metal fans have an uncanny bullshit detector.
Alicia: I’m baffled by how Ryan and Evan (the organizers) are able to pull this thing off with minimal outside help. They build this thing from the ground up right out of high school, and have been making it bigger and bigger every single year. From a music perspective, they are able to get incredible bands to reunite just for them. Bolt Thrower is the perfect example: they haven’t played in the US since 2009, yet hopped the pond from England for last year’s MDF. That’s impressive sway
Tom: Can I say bullshit? Should I say bullshit?
Alicia: Who cares?
BYT: Yes, you can say whatever the fuck you want. I’m including this part, too.
Tom: That’s the spirit.
BYT: Watching the documentary, it seems like MDF can be logistically challenging, both in terms of what Ryan/Evan’s work, and you shooting the festival. What was your biggest challenge as filmmakers when you were at MDF?
Alicia: Trying to be in all places in one time.
Tom: I was just going to say that! Just as MDF is about the DIY spirit of the community, Welcome to Deathfest was done ourselves. I work for a production company in DC that was kind enough to lend us the resources to create the film, but beyond that, we were on our own. At any given time our film crew was three people, tops: camera Operator (Jon Michael Shink and Matthew Gribben, respectively), Alicia in a producer/logistics role, and me running sound and directing.
Alicia: Right, and that turned a little chaotic when our camera man, the very talented JM Shink, blew an ear drum on night two. Thankfully he was able to pull through for the Down interview, but we had to rope in a second camera at the last minute (THANK YOU, Matty!).
Tom: YES! Matt Gribben literally saved our project. We knew that bands were playing that we wanted to film, plus our interview subjects were also moving targets. In the meantime, Evan, Ryan, and Brigette are putting out fires all over the festival, keeping things running smoothly and keeping bands and fans happy. We were regularly shooting for 10 hours straight.
BYT: Speaking of your interview subjects, which musician surprised you the most and why?
Alicia: I think everyone was surprising in their own way. Pig Destroyer was utterly charming, Phil Anselmo (of Down) was hilarious and so passionate, Matt Pike (of Sleep) was great just riffing on metal and music in general, and Karl Willets (of Bolt Thrower) was also fantastic and very candid.
Tom: Joe Denunzio from Infest was surprising for me. Infest is such an intense and passionate band. Joe is an intimidating guy, but IRL he is the nicest guy in history, like someone’s really friendly dad.
Alicia: I was going to say Karl was an especially excellent get because they don’t do media interviews. We got an exclusive sit down with him.
Tom: We believe that we have the first interview with Bolt Thrower on US soil in close to – what is it, Alicia, 10 years?
Alicia: Erm, no.
BYT: GET YOUR FACTS TOGETHER, TOM!
Tom: Haha, I thought that was it!
Alicia: Maaaaybe 2009, but you would have to check.
Tom: STRIKE IT FROM THE RECORD!
BYT: NOTHING GETS STRICKEN!
Alicia: We can safely say that the last time bolt thrower played in the US was in 2009, and as a rule the band does not give interviews, so it was a major surprise.
BYT: Given that Welcome to Deathfest is being screened for the Maryland Film Festival, what do you think of the relationship between Deathfest and the city of Baltimore? How do you think it’s evolved, if at all?
Alicia: Deathfest could not exist anywhere else. It is singularly a Baltimore event: its location on the east coast is intrinsic to its influence on the music scene; it’s easy for people to get to, yet big enough to draw fans from throughout the world; it’s hosted in a completely urban setting that requires intimate relationships with the city council, fire department, and neighboring businesses. One of my favorite scenes in the movie is the fire marshal enjoying the outside tent and saying how much he liked Bolt Thrower the night before. Having said that, we do know there were issues and miscommunications that resulted in the Venom set being cut short. I think that’s just what happens with such a huge event in the middle of a city.
Tom: Despite that unpleasantness on the last night of MDF last year, they are going through with it again this year. I don’t imagine they could have burned bridges too badly if they were allowed to expand.
BYT: I was going to bring up Venom’s set, actually. There’s no way you could have known that would have happened, and while it sucks for the crowd, it’s a powerful climax to the doc. How do you reconcile a dramatic movie moment with a negative impact on MDF itself?
Alicia: Well, I don’t think it’s our place to reconcile anything. It’s what happened. We’re just observers.
Tom: Exactly. We told Ryan and Evan from the beginning that we aren’t in the business of making a marketing video for them.
Alicia: Right, we’re not their PR team. We happened to be in the right place at the right time to catch it on film.
Tom: It is a bit tough because after spending months following these guys around, you develop bonds, and here I am sticking a camera in their face on probably the worst night in the history of MDF. Matty, our second camera guy, had a back injury and trooped through all the other demands we had on him, so I was actually on camera [during Venom’s set]. We thought we were just filming b-roll, that the movie was finished, and we had a good photo op. Suddenly [the festival] all goes to hell in front of us. What are we gonna do, stop rolling? In the end, I know that they understood what we were doing, too.
BYT: Good point. Ok, I know we’re running out of time so I have just two more questions. Who are you most stoked about seeing at this year’s fest?
Tom: I am really excited for Agalloch. I’m listening to their new record right now, actually. Thanks NPR First Listen!
Alicia: Unfortunately I’m only going to opening night and the pre-fest party Wednesday because of a previous engagement, but I’m psyched for Coffins. The Inquisition on headlining night will be interesting given all the gossip surrounding whether or not they are neo Nazis.
Tom: Yeah, that’s a tough bog to wade through…
BYT: Last question. I’m thanked at the end of Welcome to Deathfest. On a scale of 1 to 666, with 666 being the highest, how would you score my input toward the final film?
Tom: I’d give it a solid 333. You definitely helped guide the project in the right direction, but your input wasn’t explicitly evil. If it were a 666 you would have had to guide it in an evil direction, like recommending that we add in a computer-generated sidekick for the kids.
Alicia: And if it were 420, we would need more Sleep and Melvins footage.
Tom: Exactly. We didn’t even get to cover Weedeater!
BYT: Agreed on all counts. I’ll take the 333. Thanks for taking the time to Gchat with me!
Alicia: No no, thank you!
Tom: Thanks buddy! This was lovely.