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Stars Wars: Why Metalheads Love Those Movies

May 4 is Star Wars Day, so Metal Hammer talks to Robb Flynn of Machine Head, Bill Kelliher from Mastodon and Iced Earth's Jon Schaffer celebrate the movies. First published in issue 253

To quote its iconic opening credits, the legend of Star Wars was born “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...” Premiered to humongous queues on May 25, 1977 and greeted by gushing reviews, the film’s simple yet triumphant tale of good versus evil, of David and Goliath armed with lightsabers and Death Stars, would revolutionise the cinematic world and the whole entertainment industry.

The original Stars Wars trilogy, later controversially expanded upon by three prequels, also helped to shape the young minds of three American kids destined to grow up not as they had dared to daydream, as opportunistic yet good- hearted bounty hunters, Imperial Stormtroopers or even as Wookies, but as mainstays of the international heavy metal scene. 

Perhaps this was due to the film’s bombastic soundtrack by classical composer John Williams. Maybe it was the scale of the battle scenes, or the otherworldliness of its characters and settings. But, like all of the best music, Star Wars transported its viewers away from the boredom of everyday lives. However, it speaks volumes that two of these kids’ three bands went on to specialise in telling stories via the medium of music. Somehow, someway, something most definitely rubbed off. 

“There’s a riff for a new Mastodon song I wrote that’s low, heavy and insidious, and after playing it to the guys, Brann [Dailor, drums] said, ‘Wow, that’s like Darth Vader’s Imperial March theme,” laughs guitarist Bill Kelliher, a lifetime fan of the series. “It felt like the ultimate compliment. That is among the best-known pieces of music ever written... and it’s fucking evil.” 

Bill requires little convincing of Star Wars and metal’s compatibility. “Fuck no!” he exclaims animatedly. “Darth Vader, all in black, with that disturbing presence of his? He’s the king of black metal! Star Wars has been a force – excuse the pun! – for over 30 years and it’s still incredibly popular. People still buy the toys, including me, and they go to see the new movies; it’s withstood the test of time, and then some. 

“When they re-did the Star Trek movies [from 1987-1994], bringing in a new crew with Captain Picard, that wasn’t metal,” continues Bill. “That wasn’t cool. Star Wars will always be cool. Vader has become a symbol of evil, he’s not Mickey Mouse... he’s almost like Satan. He’s like someone to look up to – if he had a metal band, the rest of us would just have to forget it!” 

Star Wars was already “taking over the world”, as the guitarist puts it, when Machine Head’s Robb Flynn got to see the movie. “We waited in line for two hours and it blew my mind. Afterwards, I went to every Saturday matinee 30 or 40 times, watching it over and over again. I snuck in a tape machine to record its entire audio so that when I wasn’t at the theatre, I could listen to it. I learned every single word of dialogue. I was obsessed!” 

Iced Earth guitarist Jon Schaffer was just eight or nine when Star Wars turned his life upside down. “As an American kid in the 70s, Kiss and Star Wars were just... it, man,” he recalls. “I’m such an enormous fan, I’ve thanked Darth Vader and random Star Wars characters on our records,” he grins. “I went back and saw the movie every weekend for as long as it was in the theatres, maybe 20 times; I would mow lawns or shovel snow to raise the money. I’ve seen it that many times again as an adult.” 

Bill first experienced Star Wars at a drive-in at a similar age to Jon. “It was all my dreams come true in a movie,” he says. “It made me want to be the prince that saved damsels in distress. I had a crush on this girl on my school bus and I’d dream she was in danger. I would ride up on my steed and save her, and she’d fall in love with me. I didn’t know anything about love or sex at the time, but Star Wars made me want to be Luke Skywalker. Later on, when I became a bit older and more streetwise, Han Solo was my role model.” 

Robb and Jon have no doubt that their adulation of the power and drama of the Star Wars trilogy influenced the way that they would eventually come to write songs. “I’d listen to that soundtrack album [of the first film] ’til it was scratched and unplayable,” recalls Robb. “Then I’d go and buy it again.” “Sure, the Star Wars music affected me,” Jon nods. “I always try to do things very theatrically. I had been so into the movie when I was young that its sense of epic grandeur influenced me very deeply. As a kid I was also into Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar, which was another influence on my style. I went and saw that musical several times, it’s so powerful. So you throw in Alice Cooper, Iron Maiden, Kiss, Black Sabbath and Blue Öyster Cult and that makes for one hell of an explosive cocktail in your head.” 

To Bill, the parallels between Star Wars and the scale of the presentation at a metal show are obvious. “In the movies you’d say, ‘Woaaaaah – look at the cool ship and all those lasers... what the fuck!’. It’s the same when you go to a concert, or at least that’s what we aim for.” 

For Jon, the essence of Star Wars is simple. “It’s like a western set in space – the good guys taking on the bad guys – with explosions all around. I’ve read all of the spin-off books that expand upon the framework of the original story and those really inspired me when writing Iced Earth’s own Something Wicked story [a fictional saga used as subject matter for several of the band’s albums]. 

“Both tales are different but the similarity is that you can take anything that’s happened in human history, give it a twist and apply it to Something Wicked, Star Wars or even Star Trek,” he elaborates. “Or you can create your own scenario and use the Something Wicked storyline to burrow deeper within. It’s all about imagination.” 

It was the simplicity of the original Star Wars films that drew in Bill Kelliher. “Those early movies were so easy to understand,” he points out. “Right from the start you identified the good guys and who the bad guys were, with the droids in almost every scene helping to explain what was happening Now, with the special effects and extra characters, it’s much cloudier.” 

In October 2012, The Walt Disney Company bought out the production company of Star Wars creator George Lucas for a whopping $4.05 billion, later announcing that three new films were planned for release. The first of these, Star Wars Episode VII, is due in 2015 and casting sessions for a pair of minor roles were recently held in the UK. 

The movies are big business, and metal has taken inspiration from the public’s locust-like appetite for Star Wars merchandise, via the sales of action figures and T-shirts, also the big-budget promo clips that were made by rock bands in the 80s and 90s. 

Jon Schaffer grins: “It’s funny you mention that, because I remember seeing Queensrÿche’s video for Queen Of The Reich...” 

Ah yes, in 1984 Geoff Tate and company made a full-blown sci-fi pastiche promo, complete with a Star Wars-style scrolling- down written intro: 

“In the millennium after the fourth great war, the world was in chaos...” Check it out here. “I was still in high school, I must’ve been 15 years old and I thought: ‘Dude, this is so fucking cool!’, with all of that wicked riffage going on,” Jon chuckles. “You look at it now and although it’s still one of my favourite Queensrÿche songs, the video is completely terrible. But back then... ‘This is Star Wars, man – it’s badass!’.” 

Down the years, all three musicians have spent thousands of dollars buying up as much Star Wars memorabilia as possible. “As a kid my room was a shrine to Star Wars. There wasn’t an inch of space that wasn’t covered in posters or shelves full of action figures,” reveals Robb. “I had a seven-foot cut-out of Darth Vader.” 

Bill jokes that his own room of Star Wars trophies has become too enormous. “I’m going to have a Star Wars wing added to the house,” he laughs. “I’ve got a pinball machine... I’m such a Star Wars freak I’ve actually dreamt about finding toys at garage sales.” 

Jon’s collection is “so huge that it’s hard to describe”. When pushed to nominate his most prized Star Wars possession he replies: “I’ve a set of replica helmets taken from the original moulds, also replicas of the original lightsabers. But I also have a full Darth Vader costume that I’ve never worn – I keep promising to one day put the thing on for Halloween.” Bill has revealed his fondness for Luke Skywalker and Han Solo, but Robb and Jon have a more obvious favourite character. 

“Vader will always be my dude!” chirrups Robb, then adds with mock outrage: “I’m super-pissed that I’m not Darth Vader on this Metal Hammer cover!” 

Jon is in firm agreement. “Vader is the one that I feel the most for. He was unable to control his emotions and got himself into serious trouble, but he eventually redeems himself. That’s the crux of the story: there was always that seed of good inside him. 

“But I also find myself relating to Han Solo,” he adds. “He’s a pirate who prides himself on his independence, and he doesn’t mind telling people to go fuck themselves.” 

Another parallel between Star Wars and the world of rock ’n’ roll is those love-’em-or-hate-’em prequels, which can easily be likened to the bands that undertake stodgy, pointless reunions for the sake of one last payday. 

“I see that correlation,” Jon nods. “When you first discover a band and it has such an impact on your life, everyone wants to experience that again and again. You can enjoy their records, and you should, but you’ll never get back that same feeling. “My favourite Iron Maiden album is The Number Of The Beast, but it’d be foolish to expect them to make the same record again – if they tried to, it’d fail,” he continues. “Iced Earth fans often demand that we go back to a certain period in our history. I tell them, ‘I’m glad you love those records but I’m no longer in the mindset of the 22-year-old that made them – if I was, that’d be bad!’. I hope the Disney people take things forwards and not backwards when they reboot Star Wars. It could be great, and I hear they’re reusing the team that did such a killer job bringing Star Trek back to life, but you must also consider the possibility that it could turn out disastrously.” 

Considering his childhood obsession with Darth Vader and his love of the original trilogy, it comes as no surprise that Robb Flynn is decidedly nervous about Disney’s next cinematic move in the Star Wars universe. Unsurprisingly, he had mixed feelings about the prequels too, citing 2005’s Revenge Of The Sith as the best of the second trilogy. 

“I hated The Phantom Menace because it was too long and there was way too much character development, ”he fumes. “I liked Attack Of The Clones because it had awesome battle scenes.” Bill doesn’t hold out much hope for the new movies either. “I don’t blame the producers for making them, but it’s like a cash-in,” he says. “In any walk of life as you get older, younger people come in [and take over]. It’s amazing that Lemmy made it to 67 [68 by the time this story is printed – Ed] but everybody has to stop eventually. Bands like Black Sabbath – that’s a tough call. They’re a great band, but with members leaving... is it still Sabbath? I hate to say it but Jeff Hanneman dead and Dave Lombardo gone, is it really Slayer anymore? 

“The Star Wars franchise is milking it, too. I saw The Phantom Menace the day it came out and tried to put myself back into the mind- frame of that eight-year-old, but it left me with mixed feelings. Who were these new characters? What was going on in the movie? It didn’t come close to the originals.” 

But does Bill really expect us to believe that he won’t be joining the queues in 2015? “Oh man, of course I will. It’s Star Wars... I’ve gotta see it for myself.” 

37 years later, despite its recent hiccups, this series continues to inspire incredible devotion. The bottom line is that, like metal, Star Wars is for life. 

“A lot of metal bands could learn a lesson from Star Wars,” sums up Robb. “It’s about being unique and making people care.” 

The Imperial March

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