I interview a wide range of women who work in the music industry for Girls Don’t Like Metal, from music journalists and publicists to academics and, of course, musicians. This week, I had the opportunity to talk to the lovely and talented Rae Amitay, a unique interview subject, in that she embodies several of the roles women take on in the industry. In addition to a career in music writing (she is a full-time staff writer and social media manager for Metal Review), Rae is also a session and touring drummer. She brings unparalleled flair and charisma to her video interviews, and her dynamic strength characterizes her drumming. As an artist and a member of the press, Rae is an incomparable voice in the metal scene, as she is able to draw from more than one perspective on the industry.
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When did you first begin drumming? When did you know that you wanted to devote yourself to drumming as a career?
I started drumming during my freshman year of high school. I’d recently decided to give up competitive figure skating (that’s “metal,” right?), and that had taken up so much of my life that I was left really unsure of what to pursue next.
It was a rough patch, in a very teen angst sort of way, and I spent the vast majority of my newly discovered free time walking around my neighbourhood, listening to albums I picked up from the Record & Tape Exchange. This ended up being an unbelievable opportunity for me to explore new genres, both within and outside of metal.
Out of the blue, I came to the realization that I wanted my next move to be something musical. When I was much younger, I’d been a classically trained pianist, but I felt confined by the antiquated material, and that experience ended up making me a wreck of nerves and resent the whole learning process. I’d always had a sincere interest in playing the drums, but I’d never had the chance to try it out.
Convincing my parents was a bit of an uphill battle, but eventually they relented and I joined a band three weeks later, after telling their guitarist that I’d been playing for “about a year.” I’m not sure how persuasive I was, but I ended up performing with a few different projects and by the time I was 16, I was absolutely convinced that if there was any way I could play drums as a career, I needed to pursue every avenue possible in order to make that happen.
Have you always known that you specifically wanted to be a metal drummer?
Oh, definitely not! When I first started at 14, I was playing alternative rock almost exclusively. I’d just sit down and play through Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins albums, and I was content with that. Dave Grohl and Jimmy Chamberlin are both enormously skilled players, so trying to emulate them was my first singular focus. Even though my favourite bands at the time were predominantly metal, I never attempted to learn those songs because I wasn’t sure of what I wanted out of my drumming.
It wasn’t until another drummer at my high school posted a video of himself playing “Pushit” by Tool that I decided to give more complex songs a shot. I learned “Pushit” too, and it opened up a whole new realm of drumming for me. When I was 16, I bought my first double bass pedal (a DW 7000) and started messing around with developing speed and independence.
Once I had enough skill to start playing songs I’d deemed “impossible” a few years earlier, I took a bit of a break from playing metal in order to develop more versatility. In preparation for my Berklee audition, I started playing massive amounts of music by Herbie Hancock, Guthrie Govan, Lettuce and a bunch of other killer fusion bands. Metal was placed on the back burner for a while, but I never stopped listening to it.
In the end, that’s what ended up being my deciding factor in prioritizing metal drumming — being able to perform the music you love most adds an incredible new dimension to an already deeply personal connection to your performance, and that’s what I wanted above all else. I still play a lot of alternative rock, pop and funk/fusion, but I spend the majority of my time with metal. That’s such a vast category of music anyway and so much of the metal out there incorporates aspects of Latin, jazz and world music influences.
You pursued a formal musical education, earning a degree from the Berklee College of Music. This is something many metal musicians don’t necessarily do (most are autodidacts or get private lessons). How has this education changed you as an artist?
I fully believe that formal musical education is completely unnecessary in order to become an unbelievable player. However, it has given me some great advantages that I’m very thankful for. Going to Berklee has taught me volumes about the music industry and the classes that I’ve taken in social media direction and creative promotion have been invaluable. Having the opportunity to learn from drumming legends such as Mike Mangini, Dave DiCenso and Rod Morgenstein has also been an honour and something I would never take for granted.
In the end though, Berklee’s greatest gift has been providing me with the tools to match my indefatigable motivation to pursue opportunities. It was never a matter of knowing what I wanted to do, as I was already certain, but Berklee showed me how to go about opening doors instead of knocking tentatively on them.
Of course, having the knowledge is only half the battle; it’s like that old adage, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” Well, Berklee will lead you to the water, but there’ll also be a bunch of highly dedicated musicians right behind you, ready to take that water away if you don’t act fast. That kind of pressure, coupled with the intense focus on music theory, can take the joy out of studying music for some. As I said, I think school is inessential in becoming an accomplished musician, but Berklee offers an extensive education in every fathomable area of the music industry, not just in the realm of performance.
It is particularly rare in heavy metal to see a female drummer (though there are awesomely talented ladies out there — Stef MacKichan of Mares of Thrace and Mercedes Lander of Kittie come to mind)? Who are your role models?
They’re both great examples, that’s for sure. My role models in metal are pretty diverse and there are so many drummers that I admire. As far as emulating a certain style, the few that immediately come to mind are Hannes Grossmann (Obscura, Blotted Science), Chris Adler (Lamb of God), Gavin Harrison (Porcupine Tree) and Danny Carey (Tool). They’re some of my favourite players and I’ve modelled quite a bit of my style after watching and listening to them. I haven’t met Hannes or Danny, but Chris and Gavin are truly humble and kindhearted, which adds to the respect that I have for them. I think it’s special when you can look up to a musician not just for the work they do, but for their character as well. Some of my greatest influences when I first started playing were Jimmy Chamberlin (Smashing Pumpkins), Vinnie Colaiuta, Josh Freese, Steve Smith and Rod Morgenstein (Winger, Dixie Dregs). I’m currently studying with Rod, and he’s one of the finest examples of someone who is both an astonishing player and an unbelievably good person.
Do you ever find being a woman who performs, and writes about, heavy metal challenging?
Yes, but so far I’ve actually run into more adversity with my music journalism. As a metal performer, the main issue I’ve encountered is that some groups are hesitant to take a woman out on the road with them as a member of the band, whereas they’re typically fine with a woman selling their merchandise or managing their tour. I think they worry that they won’t be able to act like themselves, complete with shameless bodily functions, beer for breakfast and the banishment of proper hygiene, but I know what I’m signing up for! Being crammed in a van with a bunch of sweaty guys isn’t glamorous, but I’m comfortable with that lifestyle.
I’ve found that one of the greater challenges I’ve faced has been my age, combined with my gender. There’s no way around the fact that I’m young, so all I can do is present myself with the highest possible level of professionalism and consistently prove that I can hold my own.
As for the writing, often times people will criticize my reviews with the sole complaint that since I’m female, I must not understand the depth or magnitude of whatever album I’m reviewing. I remember one comment I received was along the lines of, “No testosterone = No taste in metal.” I didn’t even bother responding, but misogynistic and tragically misguided comments like that are commonplace, especially online where there’s no accountability.
As irritating as that might be, there have been advantages, too. I’ve received more attention for my playing and writing than I believe I would have if I were a man. I have mixed feelings about this, but as long as I’m putting forth my strongest efforts, I’m glad that people are noticing.
People are still fascinated by women in male-dominated fields, and while I hope that one day the scales even out, the public interest shown towards women in metal is something to be used to our advantage. What you’re doing with this column is raising awareness without being degrading. So many publications sell issues by printing “Hottest Chicks in Metal” features, and that whole idea doesn’t sit right with me. I don’t judge the women who choose to participate, as it’s a high-profile opportunity for their projects to gain exposure, but I wish magazines didn’t have to resort to that kind of marketing in order to get people to read about women involved in the genre.
How did you come to fall in love with heavy metal?
That’s a really tough question to answer specifically, but I think it all started because of my mom’s fascination with Beethoven, Stravinsky and Mussorgsky. All of those composers had a penchant for minor-key tonality and there’s a certain frenetic quality to their compositions. I listened to their music from the time I was born, so the transition into darker contemporary material was a natural progression.
Basically, I’d take recommendations from older kids I’d see wearing metal shirts, and by the age of 12, my favourite bands were Strapping Young Lad, Deftones and Darkthrone. Those bands are mind-blowingly different from each other, but for some reason they all resonated with me in a profound way. After that, my life became a nearly non-stop pursuit to acquire as much metal as possible, and that hasn’t stopped!
I’d say that my favourite genres, without stumbling into the mystifying realm of micro-genres, are still death metal and black metal, but there are countless bands that I love that don’t fall neatly within those classifications. There’s a feeling I get from listening to, and performing, metal that I can’t get from anything else; it’s intoxicating and inimitable.
In addition to your work as a session and touring drummer, you also work as a metal journalist, most notably for Metal Review. How did you make the transition from artist to member of the press? Do you ever find it difficult to integrate these two parts of your career?
The transition happened fairly seamlessly. I was writing sporadically for a guitar-centric website and I was approached by a member of the Metal Review staff about potentially becoming a part of the team. I submitted some of my work and the rest is history! I’ve been writing reviews for Metal Review since I was 19, and I can feel myself developing a stronger sense of my voice with every piece. At least I hope so! I’ve discovered some of my favourite new bands through working for the site and many people on the Metal Review staff have become close friends.
It hasn’t been difficult to combine the two aspects of my career, but I think being a musician has made me a more diplomatic writer than some of my peers. It’s rare that I’ll review an album that I absolutely can’t stand, because I empathize with the amount of work that goes into creating music. I endeavour to find redeeming qualities in everything I write about, because I’m not in the business of publicly condemning bands for their work. If I wasn’t trying so hard to make a career in music, maybe I’d treat my writing differently. As it stands, I would rather pass on reviewing a terrible album instead of taking an opportunity to rip someone’s effort to shreds. That said, I’ve reviewed plenty of disappointing albums by bands I love and I’ve written about them accordingly.
You’ve had the opportunity to interview some fantastic artists in your work as a journalist. Do you have any particular favourites?
Devin Townsend, hands down. This will make me sound like the biggest fan girl on the planet, but I love everything he does. Sure, there are some of his albums that I prefer over others, but he’s my favourite voice in metal. He’s such a dynamic and explosive character onstage that I wasn’t sure how he would be in an interview setting. Turns out, he’s one of the calmest and genuinely nicest people I’ve met in the metal world. He was my first in-person interview too, and I was nervous as hell. I think he could tell, so he made small talk with me and we joked around for about five minutes before the camera started rolling. That was an interview that I never wanted to end. Afterwards, I was bouncing around and hugging my videographer. I don’t think I’ve ever geeked out that hard before, nor do I think I ever will again. People say you shouldn’t meet your heroes, but if Devin Townsend is one of them, I’d highly recommend it!
Michael Amott and Sharlee D’Angelo from Arch Enemy were also superbly nice guys. Michael is heavily involved with Arch Enemy’s online presence and we chatted about the importance of social media for a while. Not even ten minutes after our interview ended he was following me on Twitter, both through his personal account and Arch Enemy’s. He didn’t have to do that and it was a really gracious gesture that completely made my day.
You’re very active on Twitter both personally, and you do social media work for Metal Review as well. How do you think social media is changing the way that metal bands, press and fans interact?
Social media is an easy and advantageous way to facilitate communication between labels, bands and their fans. Labels can promote each band on their roster, as well as drawing attention to specific albums in their catalogue. Ever since Facebook modified their interface in order to compete with band pages on MySpace, people use Facebook not only as a means to promote their music, but also to host Q&As with fans, sell merchandise and provide pictures and status updates while they’re recording or on tour. For example, Michael Amott is highly interactive with his fans on Twitter. He’ll retweet and answer their questions, which provides his followers with more information, as well as giving some of them a moment in the spotlight.
It’s also easier to get in touch with bands directly, as opposed to going through the usual PR channels. There are interviews that I’ve arranged via Facebook with a band member, and the lines of communication are readily available like never before.
It’s much easier now for people to feel connected with bands, and I think that’s a great thing, but also a bit detrimental. Part of what makes certain groups so fascinating is their seemingly untouchable status. The rapidly growing popularity of social media has acted as a massive equalizer, which humanizes musicians, often to the point of shaking off some of their stardust. Of course, there are still a great number of acts intentionally shrouded in misanthropic secrecy, but the age where musicians remained on a pedestal after stepping offstage is fading into nostalgia.
What advice would you have for a woman, or anyone, who wishes to become a metal drummer or journalist? What piece of advice has been most helpful to you?
This might sound cliché, but don’t worry about how being a woman is going to affect you in this industry. Just try your best to be great at what you do and things will fall into place.
If metal drumming is your passion, go after it. I would advise not taking the undemanding route of wearing corsets and heels to get noticed, because while that’s an easy way to get a following, it’ll inevitably pigeonhole you as “that hot chick drummer” no matter how technically virtuosic you are in comparison to your male counterparts. There’s nothing wrong with playing up your strengths, but if you’re operating under the assumption that your greatest asset is your looks, you’re selling yourself short and hurting your musicianship.
My biggest piece of advice for aspiring writers would be to listen to as much music as possible, because having a wealth of material to draw from will enrich your reviews, as well as make you a more reliable source of information. Draw inspiration from your favourite metal scribes without copying them. It can be hard to develop a personal writing style, but the only way to do it is to write as often as you can.
Whether your passion pulls you in the direction of creating music or writing about it, remember to love the process. Money and recognition are great, but if that’s all you’re seeking to attain, you’re cheating yourself out of a genuinely fulfilling career. It’s crucial to remember that if you don’t thrive off the struggle, and you’re solely looking to make a living or garner recognition, you’ll stop growing.
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Rae Amitay is a touring/session drummer, music journalist and social media consultant currently living in Boston, MA. She studied at Berklee College of Music, and received her degree in Professional Music, with an emphasis on drum set performance and music business. When she isn’t writing or interviewing for MetalReview.com, she is playing drums, thinking about playing drums or blast-beating on any surface available to her.