From the Skater's to the Photographer's Eye: An Interview with Randy Blythe of Lamb of God About Photography
Randy Blythe has been to hell and back. During the past four years, he has seen his massive metal band Lamb of God go from Grammy winners to questionable in the wake of his trial for manslaughter in the Czech Republic. And while this sort of thing could break an average man, Blythe has emerged on top, quite possibly because of things like his camera, moments alone in the still night of Prague, and his own creative drive. We talked to Randy Blythe about his forthcoming book and love of photography, so famously exhibited on Instagram, and how it helped him cope with the tribulations of the past few years.
Noisey: How did you get into photography?
Randy Blythe: It was entirely accidental. My dad when I was little got me a super easy, I mean this is pre-digital, a dummy camera for kids. Only a complete moron could screw it up, and of course I did. (laughs) I wanted to do it, but I wasn’t any good at it.
Fast forward to 39 years old, about four years ago, I decided I had enough of being on the internet, and mobile phones and all that stuff in general. So I decided I was gonna take a year off from the internet and mobile phones, and I mean totally. Not allow myself to use it at all. I would use a computer to make music, but no telecommunication skills other than a telephone line. If anyone wanted to interview me, they had to do it on tour or from a hotel phone, I was just not going to carry a phone with me. So I was telling my friend Jamey Jasta, the singer of Hatebreed, about this while we were on a plane, that I was going to completely unplug for a year and write a book about it. So I tell him the whole deal, asking him what he thinks about the angle, and at the end he goes “okay, here’s how we’re gonna do the movie.” So he takes my book idea, threw it out, and “you’ll do a documentary.” So I was like, okay cool. So I figured I could film a lot of it myself, and I asked a lot of film guys I know “what’s a cheap but not too cheap digital camera that can do high-def video” and they told me Canon ELS-60D which is a prosumer camera, not quite the pro level.
All of the sudden one day, I was in my kitchen and I was looking at my french press, which has kind of a domed chrome top, and I saw my reflection in it. I happened to be playing with the camera and said “well let me try and use this what it was actually made for, not video, let’s see how it works.” I put it on automatic, I pointed the lens at it, looked through the viewfinder, press click, and then I looked in the back of it at the picture and was like “that is fucking cool.” (laughs) And that was the end. Unplugging from the documentary, which I’d still love to do, was delayed when I was forcibly unplugged and spent a little time in a gated community in Europe a little while ago. I got arrested and had to keep my internet and learn to keep up with lawyers and crap.
But photography was totally accidental, my first picture was of my coffeepot and I was like “wow that looks cool.” Unlike film, and I’m starting to get into film, I don’t have to wait to develop. I think it’s a really good learning tool in a monetary sense, you can suck a long long time as a photographer, and I think especially with film it can get really expensive while you learn just how to frame things and exposure, developing film is expensive. I’m not downing film at all, it just makes it economically feasible to shoot way more photos than I would have by now. I forgot who said it but someone said “your first 10,000 photos are your worst.” But now it’s like with digital your first 100,000 are your worst! (laughs)
Absolutely. What kinds of cameras have you been messing with? Have you been going all out with light kits and wide lenses and all that kind of stuff?
I have an old Fuji, I can’t even remember what it is, I wish I had it with me right now. I’ve been shooting mostly 400 speed black and white film, which I’ve been told is pretty forgiving. Our publicist, Maria Ferraro, her uncle was a big time photographer dating back to WWII. He’s passed on, but he had a Rolleiflex, one of the square format ones. Maria has loaned me that, and I’ve shot several rolls of that film, haven’t developed them yet. That’s all a really new process to me. But the Rolleiflex, it’s crazy. You pop the top and you look in and it’s a mirror. It shows a reverse image, and after the holidays I’m really looking to get the film rolls developed and see what I got.
A fascinating idea to me is almost an ouroboros, the idea of a photographer taking a picture of you and you being inspired to take a photo yourself. Are there like certain photographers that you liked their work?
I know what my aesthetic is instinctually, so I started researching a lot of the french guys like Cartier-Bresson and Brassai who is actually Hungarian. But they worked large format stuff in Paris a lot in the 30’s. Particularly Brassai stuff he did that book Paris by Night, and it’s just incredible that he captured this stuff in the 30s, like prostitutes and all that stuff. I’m a big fan of that stuff, I’m a big fan of Cartier-Bresson because from what I understand, he’s the father of photojournalism and really street photography. I’m really into that slice of life stuff he did.
I also have a literary fascination with Paris of the 20’s, the ex-patriots and Hemingway and all them. And shortly after that era, I’m just fascinated by Paris of that time. So I’ve learned a bit about them and bought some photo books around them.
Is there a camera that you'd like to explore?
What I really want is a Leica Monochrome M. It’s digital, but it’s the only one that shoots true black and white RAW files, because when you shoot RAW you get everything, and if you edit in black and white you have to convert. But apparently the grey scale on the Lyca Monochrome M is dialed in incredibly. I’m lusting after that but it’s like $7000 for a body and $4000 for a lens and I’m in Lamb of God not Led Zeppelin (laughs). Right now, I shoot primarily with a Canon 5D mark 3, the full frame stuff. For street photography I use a Fuji XE2, and it’s quiet and small and for capturing stuff on the street it’s good to be as unobtrusive as possible. Sorry, I got excited talking about the Leica and got off topic.
As far as other photographers I like, there’s Paolo Pellegrin, he’s Italian I think and I like his stuff, I have one of his books. I don’t know much about professional photographers, but I like to shoot with professional photographers and because I’m in a band I’m lucky enough to work with them quite a bit. I bug the shit out of them when they’re shooting me. I carry my camera and I’m like “what does this do? What does that do?”
For instance a guy named Travis Shinn, who came and shot me for the past two days for Metal Hammer, I carried my camera and did a lot of shooting with him, we’re friends. I like Scott Uchida out of LA, he’s another photographer that works with Slash and all these rock guys. But when I’m anywhere near him, even if he has to shoot me he’s like “okay bring your camera, I’m gonna bring my light rig and show you how to light a model.” There’s a guy in Dublin, Ireland named Dara McDonagh, he shot Lamb of God. All these guys I’ve met because they’ve shot my band, and now when I see them I pick their brains. They’ve taught me so much.
I’m still learning about photography, and I was shooting with my buddy Travis and I was picking his brain and he said “Don’t learn too much. I like your photography. It has this innocence that might get lost if you learn too much.”
Would you say the reason your shots are the way they are because you didn’t learn it out of a textbook?
Yeah. I’ve learned a few things from pro photographers who follow my Instagram. Early on when I was posting stuff, one of them was like “do you know the rule of thirds?” and I’m like “no, what is that?” (laughs) And so they were like “you’re kind of instinctually doing it. and it made total sense. But I do pay attention to it now and that’s about it. I do like things that look fucked up sometimes too, so like really there’s no such thing as a perfect exposure. I like things to look messy or real. Once again over-editing can kill that or smooth out. Sometimes it’s fun to overedit for super bizarre shit. I prefer shooting in black and white, there’s no pretty window dressing to take away from it. The strength of a photo’s composition is really displayed in black and white.
Two things really changed the way I perceive the world around me, at least in the urban enviornment. One is skateboarding, because once I started skateboarding as a kid I started perceiving everything from a skater’s eye. Then when I started shooting, I look at everything from a photographer’s eye. I’m constantly framing things whether I have a camera or not. Which can be problematic at times.
When did you start skating?
Hmm, I’m 43 and I started seriously when I was 12 I think?
I’ve always thought this, and it’s funny you stumbled on it. Guys around your age that grew up in that era of skateboarding popularity, how much those Powell Peralta videos and the music in skate culture, how much that made people take a left turn in life in general.
It completely did. American hardcore came to me from skateboarding. I didn’t know anything about American punk rock, I thought it only came from England because somebody gave me a Never Mind the Bollocks tape when I was eleven. So I was like “that’s punk rock! Punk rock is from England and it’s an English thing!” I started skateboarding about a year later pretty seriously, I had a banana board in the 70’s like everyone, but I started skating with real skaters and they got me into Black Flag and Bad Brains and all that stuff. And Thrasher Skate Rock Vol 3 had The Accused, COC, The Faction, all these crazy bands on it. Skate rock, that’s what it was and brought me into the American hardcore scene with skateboarding.
And I bet those Thrasher and TransWorld Skateboarding mags probably influenced your eyes coming up, I’d imagine?
Absolutely man. I used to read every Thrasher. Pushead had a column every issue called “Frantic Scribblings” or something like that, and I would check out Pushead’s art. And they’d have interviews with bands like Samhain, who I shot recently. They did a reunion and Glenn is famously not too into photographers, but he’s my buddy and I sent him an email through London, Samhain’s drummer. “Glenn, you’re doing these Samhain shows, you need to let me to photograph these just to document it because it’s probably the last time it will happen.” He gave me the word back “it’s cool.” I sent him a bunch of my photos first to show him my style, and was like “look, this is what I do, this is my style check it out.” So I went out and shot four shows with him. Halloween in DC was just mindblowing, so I got a whole bunch of Samhain photos I need to edit and get to him.
What’s going on in Lamb of God now, and how are you adjusting now that it seems like the nightmare is in the rearview?
Lamb of God is playing a bunch of big gigs this year, and sooner or later we’ll write an album. What the guys have been writing sounds pretty monstrous thus far. In the immediate we’re going to Soundwave in Australia in February, which will be warm and awesome. It’ll be our third Soundwave. Going to Indonesia after that for a few days, hopefully I’ll get some time to surf. We’ll be doing some bigger gigs in the summer too. We had to take some time off because the tour cycle took about three years, like writing recording touring, and then I got arrested. The whole legal thing took over a year of my life, during which we toured in the states and afterwards we finished up the touring cycle. It was a rough, rough year so thank god it’s behind me. So we got done touring South Africa in January and I started working on my book, which should come out sometime in 2015, it’s being edited now. It’s a book called “Dark Days,” which is basically about what happened over in the Czech Republic. My editor sent me back the manuscript, so I have to approve edit that by January. So that should be out sometime in the summer maybe, not sure how long it’s gonna take.
What else is going on with you?
I have a gallery exhibit photo show in New York on May 2nd at Sacred Art Gallery in Soho. So I’m gonna be showing there, gonna be busy between now and then with printing, making everything print ready which is something I haven’t worked with a lot. I’m composing a new piece for the Richmond Ballet, last year a friend of mine choreographed a piece for the Richmond Ballet, and I did the music. Had Alex from Testament add some guitar parts, because he’s really great. It’s really cool to do music for the ballet because they don’t fucking know who Lamb of God is, they don’t give a fuck about heavy metal, but they dig the stuff I did. My buddy is choreographing another piece, and he wanted to use me again and they were totally stoked. Creativity is in overdrive.
Do you think in the wake of all those troubles happening, was photography one of the things keeping you sane?
Absolutely. I was in the Czech Republic in Prague really laying low. Because the paparazzi there would follow me; once the trial started they were in my face every day. I went around and shot everywhere in Prague, particularly at night because I like shooting at night in an urban environment. And Prague is a magic city, completely gorgeous. I was there for probably one of the worst reasons you could be there and I still fell in love with the place. Thousands of photos in Prague. It really did help me get out of my head, just sitting there thinking “fuck I might go to prison” I’d go nuts. But getting out and being creative helped me be even keyed, it always has.