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Dez Fafara: How Coal Chamber saved LA and why nu metal rules

The Coal Chamber frontman remembers the birth of nu metal and how it shifted music

Much has been written of the flannel-sporting, ragtag tribe of artists who would collectively forge the grunge movement in the early-90s, and how the emergence of that scuzzy, stripped-down sound heralded the withering death of glam metal. By now we’ve all seen the retrospectives featuring the pouffy-haired refugees from the '80s lament the arrival of Kurt Cobain and how those jangly opening chords of Smells Like Teen Spirit brought a swift and bitter end to their fame and fortunes. Very little has been said however, of the ragtag tribe of artists who wandered into the smouldering ashes of the Sunset Strip and rebuilt LA’s decimated rock scene, collectively forging a punishing new style of metal that was every bit as mainstream-friendly as grunge, drawing deeply from influences as diverse as Black Sabbath and Run D.M.C. — the movement simply known as nu metal.

Coal Chamber were one of the first new bands to enter Hollywood’s heavy metal vacuum — a pale and dreary club circuit that had stood as America’s metal Babylon only a couple of years prior. We recently caught up with frontman Dez Fafara, who recalls a grim prognosis for Tinseltown’s rockers. 

“The scene was relatively dead,” he tells Metal Hammer. “We were coming out after the hair metal thing was done and killed off. But there was a sense that something new was forming among the bands at that time. Up in LA there were the Deftones, Coal Chamber and later on, System of a Down. I’m the one who found Static-X when they were playing in front of fifteen people. We would all go to shows every single night and play with each other and create this new scene together.” That scene would be nu metal.

Like the late '80s scene in Seattle, there was more than just a sense of unity among that first wave of bands, but an exhilarating diversity that at once distinguished and inspired the bold new sounds. Likewise, each of the nu metal pioneers brought their own special brew to the table. 

“There was a big camaraderie thing between the bands, and we were all doing something unique. Deftones were doing something entirely different from what System were doing, with their Armenian influences. Coal Chamber had a way heavier sound with a gothic feel; we were one of the only bands who understood Bauhaus and The Cure as well as we understood Black Sabbath and Ride The Lightning. So we watched everybody come up and get signed and eventually we signed with Roadrunner Records. The rest was history.”

Today, one can hardly get halfway through the phrase 'nu metal' without attracting some snarky rebuff. Just like grunge, the first wave of nu metal was invariably followed by a vapid, overly-polished and homogenous wave of bands only too happy to churn out whatever saccharine-tasting pulp would score them a record deal. Worse, the term would find liberal usage among the media and fans, who used it interchangeably with rap rock, alt-metal and whatever radio-friendly guitar-centred music was shifting units at the time.

Dez however, insists that in the early days, the phrase 'nu metal' carried no nasty connotation. 

“My guitar player (Meegs Rascón) said it best: 'nu metal' was a great term until the second wave of bands came in and we all got put into that ‘nu-metal thing'. At that point, even among us, it became a dirty word. Right now, they call Devildriver ‘groove metal,’ and there aren’t many other bands that get called that. So if ten or twenty other bands come out and have that groovy feel and they get big and suddenly ‘groove metal’ becomes an ugly term, do you hide from it? Of course not – it’s something you started. I feel proud that I was part of the scene. I have no room for the fucking purists, so I don’t give a shit. I know that we all did something special and we helped save LA.”

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