In a few short years, Steel for Brains has become one of the most respected websites in this global metal community that we call home. Steel for Brains’ founder Jonathan Dick is regarded as one of the best interviewers out there, and he’s spoken to a lengthy list of metal’s legends and fascinating figures across the music spectrum. Jonathan’s work features not only on SfB, but elsewhere around the web too, and all of that makes asking him a few questions about parenting, well, kind of nerve-racking, to be honest.
Still, if you’ve met Jonathan online or in person, then you’ll have already discovered he’s a hell of a nice guy. He’s open, honest, hilarious, and certainly passionate about music, but more than that, he’s a dedicated and really inspirational dad. Jonathan lives in Birmingham, Alabama, with his partner and kids, Solomon (9), Elijah (6), and Hannah (4), and we are beyond thrilled that he could find some time in his busy life to chat with us at Full Metal Parenting. It was, and is, a total privilege.
You’re a well-respected writer in the metal world these days, but what was your pathway into metal in the first place?
Metal kind of came to me in a weird way. I was raised in a very fundamentalist Christian household, and both my parents were pretty convinced that anything released after 1975ish was of the devil. It was a good and bad thing because it made me dig deeper into a cross section of rock’n’roll, the stuff from the 50s, 60s, and early 70s, that I might otherwise have skipped over. It was weird like I said, though, because Metallica would obviously be off limits, but I could totally jam out to Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Chuck Berry or whatever from that era.
When I was around six, so that would’ve been 1988, the family took a road trip to New York. On the way we stopped to stay with my aunt in Mt. Union, Pennsylvania, this tiny little brickyard town at the foot of the Poconos. I had two cousins I’d never met before who were a good bit older than me, and they were straight 80s heshers with permullets, patch vests, and everything. I had the privilege, I guess you could call it, of sleeping in their room while we stayed there. I just remember going to sleep while staring at the Guns ‘N Roses poster that hung right above the bed and being equal parts scared shitless and fascinated at the same time. My cousins also had a gigantic Iron Maiden poster in their room, and I swear I thought Eddie would crawl out of the thing and eat my brains or soul or something in the middle of the night. All that before I even heard the damn music. Hahaha. When I did, though, that was it. I mean, I’m six and the wealth of my music knowledge is almost solely gospel music, Motown, and rock from the 50s and 60s, and then in comes Bruce Dickinson sounding like a fallen angel crawling its way back up to the surface from the mouth of hell.
I’ll never forget watching my oldest cousin Jamie just throwing “horns up” during the last minute or so of “Hallowed Be Thy Name” and me just sitting there thinking that for all the time I’d spent in church (and even by six I’d spent my fair share of time under the steeple), I’d never seen a spiritual experience that seemed so authentic. From that point on it was like a smuggling operation for me trying to listen to heavy metal any and everywhere I could. Skating rinks, friends’ houses, the car radio when my mom or dad would go inside to the bank or wherever. Once my older brother was old enough to go out and buy his own tapes and had mastered the art of hiding all of it from my parents, I got into the whole grunge thing he was listening to at the time. That kind of brought introspection to the music for me at least, and with stuff like Alice In Chains holding on to that heavy as hell sound as opposed to a band like Nirvana or Pearl Jam, I just pretty much dove headfirst into all of it in ’91, and it’s been a well-soundtracked descent into hell ever since.
You’re obviously a busy man, writing for various sites, keeping Steel For Brains updated, and being dad to your brood. Do you have any firm rules about what is work time and what is family time?
I started SfB in late July of 2012, and before that I’d never written about music outside of just stuff I’d jot down about an album or song that really hit me. Because of the short time period, I’m still very much in the infantile stage of learning how to juggle all of it, to be honest. That said, family time is a non-negotiable, and it’s something I’ve had to remind myself of especially lately as more opportunities present themselves. Because I could recently feel things sort of tipping to the other side where I was putting more energy into things that weren’t “being dad,” I’ve imposed a rule on myself where I’m only allowed an hour a day for work stuff at home while the kids are awake.
Doing the split custody thing places even more value on the time I spend with my kids, and if that means wiping an ass when I could be transcribing (essentially synonymous tasks), then that’s perfectly fine with me. That time is the only thing I’m completely unwilling to sacrifice. I can sleep an hour or two less, I can wake up earlier, skip a meal to write, or whatever. I can’t get back time with my kids, and we need each other infinitely more than we need anything else.
Following on from that, time is short, and it gets even shorter when you’re a parent. So, has that changed how you listen to, or even appreciate, metal these days?
I think it really has in a lot of ways. I think what I appreciate most about metal has largely remained intact and unchanged, but I think the context of that appreciation has changed drastically. I’m not the only one in this boat by any means, but I’ve had to kind of re-learn how to listen to and absorb music since I’ve been a parent.
I can’t just sit for an afternoon strolling through the new Thou/The Body collab while my kids are painting the walls with Clorox and trying to shave the dog. I have to allot myself time, usually late at night, to just sit down with an album and take it in. I think it’s helped in a lot of ways because the experience isn’t circumstantial. It’s set aside, and there’s a kind of anticipation and almost a reverence for it that’s similar to but nowhere near as crucial as the time I set aside for my kids.
Some parents find the arrival of kids really changes their tolerance for metal’s nastier content. Do you ever find yourself steering away from work you may have enjoyed in the past, or do you think about violence or the views of some of metal’s more prejudiced artists differently now you’ve got kids?
I was just thinking about this the other day, actually. I used to do the whole “Man, if I have kids, I’m gonna just play them the best fucking music and there will be no censorship in our household” horseshit. Oh yeah, and then I had kids along with a healthy dose of reality. If the lyrics are discernible enough where I know – I KNOW – my three-year-old daughter who is eerily just like her father in almost every way will go to school and serenade her classmates with lyrics about who the hell knows what, then yeah, I’m not gonna risk that. Funny enough, at least generally speaking, I don’t have to worry about the metal I play as much as I do the pop and rap. There are so many songs I’ve always loved and I guess just not realized what the hell they’re saying until I’ve had my kids with me. After about six Prince songs where I was spending ten minutes after each track undoing what they’d just heard, I pretty much decided to start thinking before pushing ‘Play’.
As far as violent content, man, that’s a tough issue for me and one that I really wrestle with as a parent. Look, metal is violence. It’s auditory violence at its most abrasive. It’s hard for me to say, “Well, I can’t play this for the kids because it’s talking about violence,” because at that point we just wouldn’t listen to almost anything considered extreme. This would include some rap, pretty much all of metal, and even some country. I mean, shit, do you not let your kids listen to a country artist who wrote that one song about a rodeo because you don’t support what’s obviously nothing short of the despicable romanticizing of animal abuse? Best of luck in that endeavor. I honestly approach all of it from the perspective that says if you’re not willing to answer questions the kids will eventually have with this song or this artist when they hear it, then table it for the time being. If they’re not ready for that answer, then wait until you think they are. But for fuck’s sake don’t lie to them and don’t pretend it doesn’t exist.
Burzum has come on the shuffle a couple of times, and I’ve let it play through. Same with George Jones. Same with Miles Davis. One day they’ll ask questions. One day those questions will go from “How does her voice do that” to “What is he saying” to “Why are they saying that?” At the end of the day you’re pretty much left with three options: you can avoid any art or artist deemed offensive and just bypass any meaningful conversation with your kid, you can vilify the artist and the music outright and just hope your kid will be dumb enough not to see what a hypocrite you are, or you can approach the issue head on, play the music, and then be prepared to answer the inevitable questions that will come. What a great opportunity to actually be a good parent instead of the gutless ones who think avoidance of the uncomfortable is anything more than passive neglect.
It’d be fair to say that my arrival at parenthood was a complete surprise, but it wouldn’t be far from the truth to say my son’s birth gave me a sense of hope where I had none. I wasn’t feeling very positive about humanity at all, but now, I do hope for a brighter future for my son. Given we’re both fans of some powerfully grim metal, how to you experience that juxtaposition between enjoying dark, end-times music yet still finding light in your life with your kids?
There are two things that hold as much literal importance to my life as oxygen does: my kids and music. It’s funny that with both I’ve been able to see myself grow up (finally) and separate the wheat from the chaff with what’s really valuable in my life. Extreme music was invaluable in helping me understand the necessity of balance with existence and how embracing the dark is just as essential to the mind and consciousness as embracing the light. My kids are the other side of that, or they certainly represent the other side of that balance for me. It’s a lot like looking at a giant oak where you’ve got this vast, unseen root system that’s buried in the ground, and then you’ve got this equally as vast and complex combination of foliage, branches, and a trunk that’s absolutely gorgeous, and that’s what’s typically seen, but just because it’s afforded visibility doesn’t make it any more stunning than the roots that give it life. That’s the duality for me. Extreme music helps me see the cold, dark reality of the world we live in, and my kids provide an insurmountable hope in spite of that. I desperately need both to survive.
Some of the elements I used to enjoy or take really seriously about metal seem downright ridiculous now I’m a parent. I mean, I’ve got school lunches to make, and who cares about Satan when there’s knees to bandage and bedtime stories to be read. Are there elements of metal that have come to be superfluous or even silly for you as a parent?
I think once you’ve had another human being make it a point of their day to explain the minutiae of their bowel movements to you with the earnest hopes of making you proud as their parent, then so many things just seem immediately and irreversibly superfluous. I used to take so much of that stuff seriously, and it was a big deal for me at that time to maintain that image or whatever the fuck. Satanism is just as fucking silly as Christianity. Granted, the marketing for the former is at least more interesting or fun than the latter, but any theism people want to hang their hat on is just silly as shit to me.
Having kids has just driven that point home for me. The whole true or underground or cult thing is another one of those aspects of metal that has utterly bored the tits off of me. I just don’t care. Why are people caring? Why am I caring that other people are caring? I love to hear someone talk about how some music or artist is “fucking real,” and then watch that same person gag when I just tell them about the time my son took a volcanic dump on me while I was holding him in line at the grocery store. But yes, the band you were mentioning who seemed to “legit know their Left Hand Path shit” are real. Could you hang on a second while I go clean this ass magma off myself using nothing but a sink the size of a sandpail and a few paper towels in this public restroom over here?
I really want to hear more stories about things that are real. Please, son. Come stay at my house when I’ve got one kid whose idea of snuggling is contorting around me while I’m trying to walk, another who’s shooting me in the face with some rubberband and marble contraption while asking questions like “Does it rain in our eyeballs” or “How did you first know you were real,” and then another who’s screaming the lyrics to “Frozen” while trying on her eighth ensemble of the day. All at the same time. That shit’s real.
Many metal fans who are parents have experienced a few disapproving gazes, perhaps because of the way they look, or because of how metal’s image or content is commonly understood by mainstream society. Things have certainly loosened in that regard over the years, and I think society is generally more welcoming of families in all shapes and sizes. But that’s also a reflection of where I live, and my country’s culture around parenting. How’s it been for you? Have you ever been aware of any dim looks or muttered comments cast your way because you happen to be a metal fan and a dad?
I’ve lived in the bible belt of the US my entire life, so the disapproving gazes are so prevalent and entrenched by now that I don’t think I really even notice them anymore. I do remember wearing this Vital Remains shirt a few years back, and I just happened to make a quick run to the store with my oldest who was like maybe two or three at the time. The front of the shirt was pretty non-confrontational, but the back had “WHERE IS YOUR GOD NOW?” printed in gigantic white, distressed font. I heard a lot of whispered “Oh my god, did you read that?” and other things, but the best was probably in the checkout line when this mom standing behind me just flat out said to her daughter: “Ugh, that poor baby doesn’t even realize its daddy is going to hell.” It’d be cool to act like I was some badass dad who turned around and was like “Blah, blah, blah, something about going to hell being awesome, and you’re a square, etc.,” but I honestly just didn’t and don’t give a shit.
Same with reactions I’ve gotten as a middle school teacher who’s covered in tattoos, or when I’m at my son’s soccer game and another parent is so blatantly staring at the Baphomet tattoo on my leg that I have to laugh. People are weird, man. It’s like, the woman telling her daughter that I’m going to hell was holding a package of hamburger meat in one hand and some KY in the other while her daughter thumbed through some issue of Cosmopolitan where the highlighted feature was I’m sure something about how animals jerk off and what we can learn from them to improve our sex lives or whatever. Stop teaching your kid to fucking judge people or talk shit about people. Christ. What a vapid existence. But I think it is getting better. Slowly.
That mentality is a first cousin to things like misogyny and prejudice and other kinds of oppression that all have that common genesis of ignorance. It’s not complex. It’s not touchy. You’re just an ignorant fuck trying to excuse or mask your shit behavior with terminology. Being a good parent, thank fuck, isn’t contingent upon what is or isn’t dangling between your legs, and it certainly has fuck all to do with what might be on your body. That shit’s just indicative of superficial parenting to me. Hey! Stop teaching your kids to value things that have no goddamn value to start with, and just teach them to place merit in those things that do, like human connections and authentic interactions with other people regardless of what they look like.
Metal’s always celebrated its community, but it hasn’t spent much (if any)time talking about the joys of family. That’s obviously because having kids doesn’t seem particularly counter-cultural or rebellious, but I think there’s something really metal about having kids, namely a chance to inspire a new generation with new ideas. How do you see your role in that regard? Are you drawing any lessons from metal to pass on to your kids?
Fuck the noise. If I hope to pass on anything I’ve learned from metal and punk to my kids it’s that very simple concept. Fuck the noise. Be you and nothing less. Put no effort into anything that might detract from who you are when the door is closed and no one’s looking. It’s really unfortunate that having kids is viewed with utter contempt by so many people nowadays. But it’s like anything else, really. People will call you a square if you like “this thing over here that I don’t like or I’ve been told not to like, but this little thing over here is okay because I’ve been told it’s okay, or I read something somewhere that made me feel like it was okay.” What it boils down to is that age old problem of being an unoriginal shithead who has the individual wherewithal of a worker bee. My kids rule. Having kids rules. Just because you have kids doesn’t make that so, though. Parenting is hard work. The hardest fucking work I’ve ever known hands down. I can talk to Ian MacKaye all damn day about hardcore and not bat an eye, but the second I start talking to my middle child about why some people make fun of his older brother who has Asperger’s and why we have to be beautiful people in spite of the oftentimes ugly world we live in, I’m a novice.
Heavy music taught me that invaluable lesson of individualism at its most fundamental level, and if I can impart that to my kids then I’ll consider myself at least partially successful as a parent. It’s tough now because of this incredibly prevalent idea of false autonomy that so many people are heralding as authentic self-assertion. I don’t want my kids to think their identity is derived from some artificial connection they’ve made with whoever, regardless of fame or sense of security that connection might seem to provide.
For me, heavy music has always rooted itself in the invariable sense of self-reliance without regard to the peripheral bullshit that will, most assuredly, rear its ugly head and try to convince you that you’re someone or something you’re not, regardless of whether that’s positive or negative. I want my kids to discover who they are in a world that’s constantly trying to tell them what they are. I think heavy metal did that for me in a lot of ways and hopefully they’ll find either that or some other guide to that self-discovery.
Metal’s always something I’ve turned to help me manage life’s frustrations, and parenting can be incredibly frustrating at times. I’m wondering if, like me, you’ve found metal to be a panacea and outlet for managing the innumerable challenges that parenting brings?
Absolutely. Parenting, in my experience, has been the ultimate lesson in failure. I’m sure that sounds strange, but it’s really an abundance of failed efforts and these fragile but no less powerful victories that occur kind of in spite of all that you’re trying to do. For me, the most frustrating aspect of my parental situation is the fact that I put such an enormous amount of pressure on myself and, in turn, my kids to not second guess themselves because I see that in me a lot, and it’s something that’s been the impetus for my own battle with mental illness. It’s that same initial catalyst that didn’t necessarily bring me to metal but rather brought it to me when I needed it most.
I see shades of that self-doubt in them, and I immediately try to stifle it with a kind of vicarious sense of where I think I’ve failed. It’s frustrating, and when it inevitably causes me to question who I am as a dad, I typically do two things: 1) redirect all that frustration into something physical outside with the kids and 2) have a soundtrack of something heavy and loud while we do it. I try to be cautious about letting anything that’s a redirection of my own issues detract from my time with them, because they are so much more important and precious to me than any hangups I might have in my head. It also helps to have a partner who doesn’t just vocally support that mindset but is in the “trenches” with you trying to figure it out with you and expressing a kind of unified front of love and genuine support. Kids need to see that, man. I think they need to see compromise without conformity, and luckily my partner and I have that kind of relationship where I can be that vulnerable with my own personal issues and yet still held accountable for how I am as a father. It’s invaluable, and I’m so grateful to her for that.
One last question, and this is the most important one of all! Here’s your chance to recommend your Top 5 metal discs to soundtrack the joys, frustrations, laughs and loves of parenting.
Haha. Oh man.
I’d have to say the first one that pops into my head is Judas Priest’s Screaming for Vengeance and specifically the song “Devil’s Child” because I’m constantly singing that to my daughter when she fits the bill, so to speak.
Halford’s vocal dramatics are only equaled by Dickinson, so we kind of rotate this one and Powerslave. I think that’s another one of things that’s pretty exclusive to heavy metal – that flair for the theatrical, and that’s something my kids latch onto along with their dad. I mean, if you can’t air guitar and clutch the invisible citrus to “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” or “You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’” then you probably don’t like metal. Just wanna throw that out there.
Mastodon’s Leviathan has quickly become an album I associate more with my kids than anything else, oddly enough. I think it’s because I played it incessantly with my oldest when he was a newborn, and it’s just kind of stuck. All three of them now know the tracklisting and each has their own particular song they like to jam when we’re in the truck. We typically all coalesce in headbanging solidarity to “Iron Tusk,” though.
Not sure if it’s metal or not, but AC/DC’s Highway to Hell is one of those I find myself playing a lot as a parent just because of that title track, man. It’s especially poignant now because when I first heard it, that song was like the ultimate sneer at all the “oppression” from parents I thought I was enduring. Now I just laugh and turn it up louder and sing along with the kids. I mean, if I can’t stop them from rebelling, I might as well provide a decent soundtrack while they do so.
Metallica’s Black Album is another one that I’ve learned to appreciate in a different way thanks to my kids. I know that’s like the go-to Metallica album to shit on, or maybe it’s a second or third after St. Anger and Lulu, but yeah. When I play “Enter Sandman” for my kids and my six-year-old son does the prayer part, man, that’s just the best damn thing. He’s into it. I’m into it. We have a 140-piece invisible drumkit and a five-necked guitar in that truck, and we are the greatest pretend band on the planet for that whole record.