Q&A: Iraqi Metal Band Acrassicauda on Moving to Brooklyn, Their Ongoing Green Card Struggles, and Shredding on James Hetfield's Guitar
"I know there are a lot of metal bands that are trying to live like they were already living in war but what I'd say is: you guys have a better life than we did."
In 2002, with an U.S.-led invasion looming, it seemed unlikely that four young Iraqis, reared on Metallica, Megadeth and Slipknot, would be able to perform--much less succeed--as the country's first heavy metal band. Yet for three years, under both Saddam Hussein and U.S. occupation, Acrassicauda, named after a black scorpion found all over Iraq, channeled their desolate, war-torn surroundings into blistering thrash metal, trading certain concessions--a mandate to write a pro-Hussein song and bans on long hair and headbanging among them--for the opportunity to perform.
As documented in the Vice film Heavy Metal in Baghdad, death threats and increased violence forced the group to flee Iraq for Syria in 2006. Since then, the group has earned refugee status in the United States, and will finally see the years-in-the-making March 9th release of their first EP, Only The Dead See The End Of The War. Over the course of a 40-minute phone interview, drummer Marwan Jasam and singer/guitarist Faisal Mustafa were candid and honest about the band's unique history. Their reticence about discussing their much-chronicled past was far outweighed by their enthusiasm any time the conversation came back to metal. The newly minted Brooklyn residents spoke to us on the heels of their first public U.S. show at Europa tonight.
At the end of Heavy Metal In Baghdad, you were living as refugees in Syria and forced to sell your equipment to pay rent. What's your living status now?
Marwan: Some of us moved [to the States] in 2008 and the rest of us moved last year. Every refugee has an one-year limit to apply for his green card. Two of us have already been here more than a year and applied, but no one in the band has a green card yet. It's a lot of procedures that go on and on and on nonstop and you just keep going both ways. You can't lose your life because of a lot of procedure and keep feeling depressed about it.
How difficult has the transition been from the Middle East to the U.S.?
Faisal: It's hard. We had to fit in the mold and adapt to a lot of different traditions and cultures. Let's put it this way: say you're a fifth grader and your parents move a lot and you have to change schools every day. You gotta make new friends every day. New bullies will find you every day. This whole atmosphere that revolves around you changes. Now magnify that one hundred times.
M: But there's always music. That's the consolation for us.
F: We really don't wish that anybody could go through our experience. I know there are a lot of metal bands that are trying to live like they were already living in war but what I'd say is: you guys have a better life than we did. Maybe now we have friends and supporters around the world but [for a long time], we couldn't have this document to travel, so people sympathized with our situation and traveled to us. Now it's our turn to give back the favors: good music, a good story, a good book.
When you were living in Iraq and Syria, did you ever have conversations about recording in America or was that not even on the radar?
M: Definitely. We started thinking about that ever since we found out what the quality level should be of professional recordings. If you look at our background, we've never recorded in a professional studio in the past. We're still learning from a lot of things. Good people have been surrounding us and they showed us how to record and go on with the music as much as you can as long as you dig more deep. When we thought about how cool it would be to have some American record company or American studio to record with by a real professional [Alex Skolnick of Testament, who produced the band's EP] who used to do records we'd get on bootleg or in the black market, that was one of our little fantasies.
How much do you keep up with the current conditions in Iraq? Do you feel things have gotten better or worse since you left?
F: Since the day that we left in 2006, we lost contact with a lot of people. Even if you're talking to your family, they can't give you a lot of details. Even if they're in the shittiest place, they can't give you the worries. It's a matter of conscience that they have like, Okay, this kid has left his own homeland and chased his own dream. I'm not going to keep giving him every single detail on which explosion has been happening nearby or whose neighbor's car has been exploded so far. And we quit searching the news since 2006 because every time we watch, we keep worrying.
What's your reaction when you read things that are distorted or untrue?
M: We get angry, but that all feeds the mechanism of creating new songs and ideas. We feed on that. We're very blessed to be able to transform all this negative energy into music.
Speaking to the New York Times last year, you expressed concern for the fact that people might care more about your backstory than the actual music.
F: Yeah, people might dig us for the story but if I was going to a metal festival, I wouldn't buy a ticket to hear some storyteller talking about something. However, the film was awesome and a lot of people liked it and thought it was inspirational. But still, it's about the music.
Bad Brains would always talk about being portrayed as a "black hardcore band" rather than just a "hardcore band." Are you okay with being known as the "Iraqi metal band"?
F: For now, we're mostly going on as the "Iraqi heavy metal band" because people are trying to figure out the name; it's too long [laughs]. The only consolation that we used to have in the beginning was that there were some people that knew us musically better than they knew our backstory That gave us more relief and the strength to go on. But now that we have the EP and are going to start touring, hopefully people will start recognizing the whole thing.
Just getting the EP done seems like a minor miracle and...
F: There are no miracles, my friend.
True. Tell me about the feeling inside the studio though when it was finally finished.
F: I remember it was three or four o'clock in the morning. We didn't have much time to record the EP; we had four days to do four songs. We were basically editing while we were playing. We closed the door and cranked it up as loud as we can and we just started headbanging and playing air guitar. Alex [Skolnick] is one of our biggest influences in heavy metal and he's down there headbanging with you. That was amazing and will stick in our heads forever. We came out with such a big basket of knowledge and it was such a great treat for us.
What about getting a guitar from James Hetfield after seeing Metallica perform?
F: Oh man. Dude, that was the moment. Hetfield knows how to stab you. How do you say it? Get your weak side. I grew up on Hetfield. I grew up on the shape of his guitars. I even made some silly wood shapes of his own guitars [growing up]. It was the moment, after growing up on their DVDs and how much they inspired us, when Hetfield told me "This is for you. I want to hear some new riffs." That was indescribable.
Did it make it on the EP or is it framed in gold on your wall?
F: [Laughs] I wanted to frame it but people kept telling me, "No, dude. He told you to shred it." I want to use it on the new record.
Does your immigration status make it harder for you to find jobs and do all the non-musical things New York musicians have to do to survive?
M: It's a struggle, but it's good as long as we get to perform and people hear our music. New York is so on-the-go all the time; it's work, work, work, work and you wind up spending half of your life in the subway. We do have part-time jobs doing different gigs, but we keep reminding ourselves that it's about the band. That's why we're here. We're not here to wait tables. We're not here to do catering. We're not here to sit behind the desk. We're here because we're musicians and we love music so much. We just want to raise the two horns up and say, "Hell yeah."
Besides the horns, what can we expect from an Acrassicauda live show?
M: Sweaty. Violent. Brutal.
F: You better know how to headbang, dude.