Steve Hughes hails from parts unknown. Well, that isn’t entirely true. He holds no real fixed address. If you live on Her Majesty’s Isle and wait long enough in a local record shop, you might see him cackling with glee as he discovers a rare Venom record while he winds through on tour.
Steve is a man both intrigued and bewildered by the world around him; a world equal parts probability, uncertainty and absurdity. His story fits the same mould. Sydney born and bred, Steve started thrash outfit Slaughter Lord before he became the founding drummer in black metal stalwarts Nazxul until, naturally, he fell into comedy instead. Steve ventured to Britain nearly ten years ago (on a whim) to kick start his comedy career; it's where he’s remained ever since. Devin Townsend remarked at one of his recent shows that he refrained from producing the sequel to Ziltoid the Omniscient for so long because “metal isn’t funny.” That couldn’t be further from the truth when Steve Hughes is hoisted up as metal comedy exemplar.
Our oft-championed heavy metal comedian won vaunted acclaim from peers, critics and rivetheads around the globe pillorying the inherent ridiculousness of modern culture; a culture that sells us effeminate coffee and expects “maximum work for minimum wage.” He almost certainly leaves all his audiences enlightened, in stitches or swirling in a cosmic combination of both. As sagely and casually as he carries himself and his mammoth wit, he’s unmistakably the greatest ally of the profane.
No Australian comic would dare disparage the hallowed, red-tinted soil of his birth; for Steve Hughes, Australian culture is compelling fodder for comedy as much as anything else. There’s political correctness for the sake of sparing one’s feelings and then there’s comics such as Reginald D. Hunter, Bill Burr and Steve - valiant upholders of the phrase “The truth hurts…” uproariously appended with “…and sometimes it’s funny. Very funny.”
He’s returned to Australia to perform at various comedy festivals in 2012 - both Melbourne and Sydney. Most recently he played to a near-packed out main room in the Melbourne Town Hall for over an hour and a half, blithely ignoring his set times much to the delight of his audience. As we talked he was presumably sat down with a cigarette in a Sydney park (possibly near the Utopia metal store) - his already razor-sharp sense of observation has caught a pack of youths and raised his ire.
“Why do these fuckwits have to jump skateboards everywhere,” he begins spluttering. “Just ride it you fucking cunt. I’ll have to get away from this fuckwit. Anyone who wears a baseball cap on an angle needs to be beaten. Put it on backwards, put it on the front…but hanging it off to the side like you’re in Good Charlotte? You’re fucking useless.”
Once he composed himself, the calm quickly evaporated. Steve is notorious for his hernia-inducing comedy rants in which a “black ball of hate emerges” in his gut making him feel “physically ill” until he’s expressed it, preferably in front of an adoring audience. “A friend of mine asked me to watch that new [reality singing] show the Voice,” he recalls. “I said to her ‘Don’t make me watch it! ‘You like me now, you won’t like me by the time it’s over!’ I told them…I warned them. They didn’t listen.”
Is this the kind of red-eyed bloviation that punters can expect from his new show which he reluctantly entitled “Big Issues?”
“I always find this question very strange,” he says, quizzically.
“It’ll simply be my personal opinions about what’s going on in the world. It’s not going to change into some kind of surrealist comedy or whatever. It’ll be me telling stories with added punchlines so it’s not a completely horrifying monologue.
“Whenever I come back to Australia, I always find its turning more and more into some kind of weird, rule-obsessed police state. It always seems to grant me the opportunity of about a million more things to talk about,” he continues.
“I mean, I can’t be the only person on Earth that wonders why there’s thirty police at Redfern station with drug dogs at eight in the morning. The British have them too, perhaps at nine o’clock at night at Leicester Square – Britain’s still a democracy as far as I’m concerned. They can’t go into your house without a warrant, why are they allowed to search you without a warrant? They’re just students at Newtown University, mostly – they’re trying to do something productive and you’re treating them like fucking criminals?
“They need a warrant to get into your house but they don’t need a warrant to get into you! That’s interesting, isn’t it?” he says, mockingly.
Fear as a method of social control is nothing new. In fact, it’s old as language and violence itself. The use of terror to immobilize terror sounds not only counter-intuitive but serves as the cornerstone of foreign and military policy in the Western world. In Steve’s view, trading freedom for increased policing and monitoring isn’t “comfort and security, I think of it as oppression and slavery.”
“They keep on telling me that the world is violent. But you can’t fucking tell me that Australia and Britain was more violent now than it was in the seventies and eighties. Because I was fuckin’ there. I remember walking around Blacktown and looking at the Robin Hood Inn; you could fucking walk in there but you sure wouldn’t be walking the fuck out of there. You’d get bashed - for what? For walking in there!”
He fleetingly plugs his stream of consciousness to ask me my age.
“Oh, well, I’m forty-five.” He confesses. “I remember when Australia was fun!”
“I mean, people say we need speed cameras and that; I drove 20,000 miles across England last year and you can tell when people are speeding, but…nothing’s happening. I’ve been to every town in Britain, no one’s getting bashed –well, I mean, surely someone’s getting bashed, somewhere."
I tell him that tabloid newspapers in Australia are just as ravenous as they are in Britain for stories about young men with disposable income who happen to spend it on status substances - you know, cocaine – and end up in scraps.
“What!” he exclaims in incredulity. “I can’t believe it. What; you put a young guy, under pressure and in the spotlight, pay him thirty-five thousand dollars a week when he’s from a working-class background and people are surprised he bought a bit of cocaine? How surprising!” he says sarcastically.
“When did Australians suddenly become surprised there was Australian blokes getting drunk and having a fight?” he says in relation to headlines involving bored football players’ indiscretions emblazoned on tabloids.
“When did this shock everybody? They’re acting though it’s just turned up! I mean, Australians used to base their entire identity on the fact that if they didn’t have a fight they’d be thought of as a bit of a poofter!
“’Oh, isn’t it shocking’ - No, it’s always been here!”
“They’ve made up ideas when none of us think for ourselves any more. Like anyone who takes drugs must become a drug addict. Some people take drugs and they think ‘Oh well, I’m not going to do that again.’ More people stop than become addicts.”
In the last couple of years, heavy metal labels have been falling over themselves (as much as they’re liable to) releasing comedy records by heavy metal comedians (self-identified more often than not; that often applies to both “metalhead” and “comedian”) such as Brian Posehn (The Sarah Silverman Program, Just Shoot Me, Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job), Jim Florentine (That Metal Show) and the self-described “tranny metal bastard’ Andrew O’Neill. Metal isn’t only the subject of standup, but also animated sitcoms such as Metalocalypse which both parodies and pastiches while promoting metalhead culture to a broader audience. Steve doesn’t own a computer and stays away from the internet, especially in an age in which one “can Google your toothbrush from space,” which means Steve isn’t hard-wired into the comedy culture circuit, concealed from much of this new “metal comedy” - but that might be a blessing in disguise.
“I’m friends with Andrew, of course, living in Great Britain," he tells us. "Andrew is from a slightly different era of heavy metal that I’m from, him being younger and so forth. He does a different type of comedy really, he does more storytelling and sort of eccentric ideas about it. I’ve only heard one of his albums.
“I’m not particularly a fan of Brian Posehn…or that kind of comedy. I’m not usually a fan of that comedy. I more like comedy that’s trying to say something. Not particularly political but at least it gets you involved in the guy’s life. In the sense of Louis C.K., Bill Burr or Patrice O’Neal, who sadly just died. He was just coming into his own too.
“He was a fucking master of a comic. Have you seen the ‘Elephant in the Room' [special]?’”
I said I had.
“Oh, fuck! Fucking incredible.” Steve said, over-awed just thinking of it. He takes a cheeky jab at himself: “It’s one of those ones where you think ‘Fuck, I can still get better!’…Louie C.K. is brilliant too. He’s fuckin’ old school. He’s like underground death metal in the 80s!”
The point gives him pause for thought.
“I think that’s why metalheads sort of hate mainstream society - the fakeness of it. I mean, telling us to support the troops [deployed] in illegal wars…everything’s false. Let’s have [the show] The Voice so you can con people into thinking you don’t care what the singer looks like. It’s all false shit. It’s like listening to the new Metallica!”
The metal greats of yore might be resting on their laurels, sipping on Cristal in multi-million dollar mansions forgetting whatever inspired “One” in the first place (and possibly voting Republican) but Steve stays “true” to black metal and the old school underground, spinning new records from some sterling, ripper bands.
“I just ran into the bass player from Nazxul,” he tells us. “I just bought the new Blut aus Nord - Desanctification album…I think it’s better than the other one. I got the new Killing Joke too. I just like abstract, fucked up black metal. Like that band Arcana, you ever heard of them? The guy has been making epic, middle-eastern, and medieval fucked up noise/ambient stuff. I really like that new Tryptikon album too.”
I tell him if it’s got Tom G. Warrior as front man, you can’t really steer yourself wrong. Steve erupts in a manic glee and says - “Tom Warrior fuckin’ emailed me!”
“He emailed me! I know the guys from Enslaved and they were touring with Tryptikon but I couldn’t go to the gig. Tom Warrior put one of my comedy [clips] on his site! So I talked to one of the Enslaved guys and I said if he wanted any of my CDs, just let him know. The next day I get an email from Tom Warrior that said ‘I just wanted to write you…’ and I’m going ‘Fucking hell, you’re Tom Warrior!’ I used to listen to you in 1984 up in the bush! But yeah, that Tryptikon album I think is fantastic, it’s fucking brilliant. I mean that’s what’s great about metal, there’s always good new music somewhere.”
With new music releases outpacing the rate at which any sane individual would be able to listen to them all – a sort of “metal future shock” if you will – good metal will always be lurking around somewhere, it’s just a matter of ferreting it out amongst the rot of what internet click-trolls want you to hear. A metalhead might not be the first to mine space water on asteroids but they will find profoundly excellent bands after doing some painstaking detective work.
“If you’re really into something, somehow you always find it,” Steve says. “If you’re intense enough and you look hard enough I think the universe just goes ‘yeah, alright, have you heard this?’ - ‘nope!’ - ‘thanks very much…’
“I love looking for music. I mean, what else are you going to do? Go to the footy? No way, I’d rather go searching through second hand record shops.”
And to be quite honest, dear reader - who wouldn’t?
Steve Hughes will perform at the Sydney Comedy Festival on the 4th of May.