Leila Abdul-Rauf is an active and passionate guitarist and vocalist. She is one of the two primary singers for San Francisco’s Hammers of Misfortune, along with Joe Hutton, and also plays guitar with them. One band is not nearly enough to keep her busy, and so she is also the vocalist/guitarist for Vastum, and has contributed not only her her voice and guitar playing to Amber Asylum, but also piano and trumpet. At one point in her life, Leila was an academic, pursuing graduate studies, before deciding to devote her life to heavy music — making her a woman after my own heart. Leila actually first caught my ear when she served as the vocalist for Bastard Noise (2007-2008), and I have followed her career ever since. I knew I wanted her to be a part of Girls Don’t Like Metal after I read her excellent interview with Feminist Headbanger, where she displayed all the guts and eloquence I could have hoped to see from a woman of her talents and convictions. It’s an honour to have her as a part of this series.
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How did you come to fall in love with heavy metal? What was your entry point into the genre, and how did you come to the realization that metal was where you wanted to build your career?
My entry point was purchasing Carcass’s Tools of the Trade EP cassette at the age of 14 from Tower Records (R.I.P.). This was around 1990, when you discovered new music by looking at intriguing album covers and hoping the records you took a chance on were good. Throughout that decade, I immersed myself in a lot of extreme music, mostly in the industrial, punk, hardcore and prog genres. I started playing music at a very young age, reading music for flute and trumpet in elementary and middle school, then studying theory and composition in high school.
My metal guitar days didn’t come until much later, when I was in my mid 20s. I was a graduate student at Purdue University in Audiology and Speech Sciences in the late 90s and early 2000s when I decided I wanted to focus on playing music again; specifically, I wanted to put a metal band together. In 2002, after a few years of being disenchanted with academic life, I made a very difficult decision to drop out of a PhD program to focus on being a recording and touring musician. I realized it was the only thing getting me out of bed every morning. I spent the following year roaming the continent, followed by a series of failed collaborations and relationships, until I decided to start a new life in San Francisco in late 2003.
You have been a part of several projects (Hammers of Misfortune, Amber Asylum, Vastum, Saros) over the course of your career. Vastum and Hammers both released albums last year; Saros and AA released new albums in 2009. Which projects are you currently active in (including any I may have missed) and how do these musical outlets differ from each other?
Saros disbanded in late 2009. We weren’t sure at first about an official break up, because we all liked each other and enjoyed playing together, but needed a break at that point. So we publicly announced it as a hiatus. However, the band lost creative momentum and so after a long while, it was just understood that we wouldn’t get back together. The other three bands I am very active with, Vastum and Hammers play live often, and though I’m not playing live with Amber Asylum at the moment, I’ve been working on recording the next album. I also have some experimental and industrial recording-only projects in the works as well with Mark Pistel (Meatbeat Manifesto, ex-Consolidated, ex-Disposable Heroes) and Per Åhlund from Stockholm, as well as working on an ambient solo album.
Needless to say, no two bands or projects I’m involved with are anything alike: Vastum plays death metal; Amber Asylum plays some sort of filmic, neo-classical, dark ambient fusion; Hammers is eclectic metal with a lot of 70s rock, folk and prog influence. I’ve set up my life in such a way that I free up enough time to do as much music as possible, and satisfy my various creative urges so I don’t feel too stagnated in any one genre. Metal was my starting point when I moved to San Francisco in 2003, but since then, I’ve been inspired by many talented people along the way in other genres, though keeping mostly within the dark and atmospheric realm.
While the Bay area has classically been known for being a hotbed thrash bands, the scene has recently taken on an entirely new direction and currently supports some incredibly innovative groups, including Hammers, Worm Ouroboros, Grayceon, etc. What is it about the scene is SF, and stretching north into the Pacific Northwest (home of Agalloch, Christian Mistress, etc) that fosters so much exceptional music?
It’s funny; I feel like there’s exceptional music being made in almost all areas of the world, people just don’t write about them. Many metal blogs seem to focus on the Bay Area and West Coast for some reason, and all of the bands you mentioned above happen to be a specific group of people who also know each other personally, so it makes sense that they influence each other. I suppose living in the Bay Area makes it easier to know all of these bands personally, so you’re held to a higher standard by your friends. Other bands that I think deserve mention from the bay area and Northwest are Acephalix, Anhedonist, Ritual Necromancy, Disemballerina, Mortuous.
Because the Bay Area is so often written about by journalists, people from all over look to it for new trends and such. Journalism has a lot of influence on how people perceive arts and culture. It’s actually very difficult to be a touring musician in the bay area, with such high rents and having to rent practice studios, but perhaps that weeds out mediocrity.
Your guitar-playing has often been hailed as being some of the best in any metal sub-genre. How did you first come to your instrument, and can you describe your approach to the guitar?
Thank you; that’s really kind of you to say. I started playing when I was 13. Though I’m self-taught, I had a strong foundation in music theory throughout my childhood from learning other instruments like trumpet (I was formally trained from ages 11-13), flute and piano. Teaching myself guitar was a bit of a rebellion against this formal training. It was something I wanted to do for myself without anyone interfering with the learning process.
I played in a slew of punk and hardcore bands, starting when I was 16 continuing into my 20s. Although I had a lot of support and praise from my band mates during this period, I knew deep down that I wasn’t that great of a player and could improve on many skills, things like tightening up my rhythm, palm-muting, solos, etc. I made the biggest improvement in these areas throughout my late 20s, later dropping out of grad school, and prior to forming Saros in 2003. It was only then that I felt I was good enough to play guitar in a metal band.
Fast forward to the present, and I’m grateful to be playing in a band like Hammers of Misfortune that forces me to keep my chops strong. I still feel like I’m more of a solid rhythm player than soloist. I also know how to write a solid melody, so I make up for the lack of sweep-picking by writing memorable catchy solos, like the solos in “The Grain” and “Grey Wednesday” on the recent Hammers of Misfortune record 17th Street.
Speaking of your skills on flute, trumpet and piano, how does being a multi-instrumentalist change your relationship to the music you write and perform?
It definitely gives me a big-picture perspective in songwriting and performance. I’m conscious of creating breathing room for other instruments and vocals in a way that someone who only plays one instrument may not think about. It also creates endless possibilities for writing, either by including more instruments, or creating multiple versions of songs, something that Kris and I often do in Amber Asylum. No matter what genre I’m working in, I always strive for authenticity in creating a (usually dark) mood. It’s even seeped through into the new Vastum album that’s being worked on now, where I was able to infuse a little more of my atmospheric side this time than on the first album Carnal Law.
In a great interview with Feminist Headbanger, you stated that you felt that there was currently a backlash against feminism and the fight against injustice in general, that such positions had become uncool. Why do you think that feminism, and specifically feminism in heavy metal, is suffering from this backlash?
This backlash is something that has been around for a long time, since the ’90s were over. “Feminism” in the ’90s became a fashion statement, and like any fashion statement, it will eventually go out of fashion. In this case, we are talking about ethics, not clothing, but ethics in this day and age unfortunately have become commodified, like music, hairstyles, etc. It’s a by-product of capitalism; everything is consumable and replaceable.
Heavy metal itself also is a replaceable and consumable fashion for many people. It’s just a phase in their teens and 20s until they “grow up” and get “real” jobs that help them continue to consume and replace things in their empty lives. Everything meaningful — including feminism, which to me is the simple belief that all people are created equally and deserve equal respect — suffers from this same kind of backlash: relationships, creativity, even basic intelligence.
Moreso than in most genres, to have one’s music referred to as “girl music” or “girl metal” is a grave insult, implying that it is somehow weak and less valuable. How do you think that identifying something as feminine has come to have negative connotations on the metal community?
I don’t think femininity has come to have negative connotations in the metal community; it simply has always had them, since the beginning of rock music, period. People really haven’t changed very much. You’re either a singer (i.e. male) or a female singer. With male as the default gender, you’re altering the “authenticity” of the genre by sticking “female” or “girl” in front of it.
For metal musicians who are female, it’s a double-edged sword: you don’t want to have to hide your gender, but at the same time you don’t want to be marginalized as a “female” musician because then you’re held to this different (often inferior) standard. I think this is what a lot of people have a hard time understanding, and makes a lot of the recent internet trolling on this topic basically pointless: some people get it, and most people don’t. The trollers are kind of like the people that write comments on Yahoo news articles: disproportionately right wing, completely dumb and following no string of logic. You just have to save your energy, move on and ignore them.
What are some specific challenges you have faced as a woman and a musician in the metal scene? How have you overcome these challenges, and how do you continue to fight them?
I feel lucky to be surrounded by exceptionally talented people who respect me for who I am and what I do. Any challenges I’ve come across throughout my life — like not being properly credited for my work, or not taken seriously — have been valuable lessons that taught me about which people I should invest my time in and which I should avoid.
I’m not much of a fighter these days. Save for going on tour, I actually feel pretty cut off from the metal scene, or any music scene. I don’t make much of an effort to be social in general. Since I’ve moved into my own place a couple of years ago, I’ve grown to be a bit of a recluse, despite living in such a social place like San Francisco. I don’t partake in any online social media save for checking email. I have a small handful of friends and family that I stay in touch with. I am much happier this way.
I only hear about new music from playing shows or being introduced to music from close friends or bandmates/collaborators, whose tastes I identify with. I guess you can say I’ve gotten to the point where I control my environment so intensely that I only deal with people I absolutely trust, so I’ve shielded myself from the challenges you are asking about. Even when I’m on the road, I try to find a quiet place to rest, listen to music or just be by myself before going on stage.
What are some of the themes that come up again and again in your own music? What ideas and concepts are you obsessed with?
These ideas have evolved for me over the years, and are also dependent on whatever project I’m working with. For instance, Dan and I come up with the lyrical concepts in Vastum. He is obsessed with psychoanalytic theory and Bataillan philosophy, which overlaps with my obsession with so-called “deviance” in general, and previous study in abnormal psychology and linguistics. Together, our lyrics involve relationships between sexuality/eroticism, violence, the unconscious, animality, desire, emotions, religion, corporeality, etc.
There is some overlap here with the concepts I was writing about in Saros, such as mysticism, dreams, emotional loss, and the relationship between the individual and their landscape. I would say that I had more of an intellectual approach to lyric writing in Saros, and more of a visceral mood-based approach to Vastum lyrics. For instance, there is a new song for which I wrote lyrics on the upcoming Vastum album called “3AM in Agony” which I think might be the first death metal song ever written about chronic urinary tract infections caused by sexual activity from a woman’s perspective.
What is the most crucial piece of advice that you could give to a young woman, or anyone, who was interested in building a career as a metal musician?
To anyone, I would say don’t be afraid to answer to anyone but yourself, or to make exactly the kind of music that speaks to you. Don’t make praise or approval from others the driving force for your creativity; people can see right through that and it will actually come through in your music whether you realize it or not. True artists suffer for what they do (i.e. sacrificing a high-paying full time job or comfortable lifestyle to make time to record and tour) because they have no other choice; it’s simply who they are to make the music they make.
As humans, we all know and understand what it means to be in pain. Art and music are a way of channeling this pain and bringing it to a higher place. Also, I find it’s necessary to be in complete solitude for an extended period of time to channel genuine creativity. You need days by yourself without interruption to get the juices flowing. Don’t be afraid to turn down those parties or concerts on Friday or Saturday nights if you are feeling creative, because you don’t know when you’ll get that feeling back.