‘Welcome To Deathfest’ Goes Behind The Scenes At Baltimore’s Annual Metal Festival

By Christopher Porter

Metalheads love rituals, and Maryland Deathfest is the best one this side of goat sacrifice. Held in Baltimore every Memorial Day weekend, this extreme metal event—the most important in the U.S.—pulls in fans from across North America and bands from around the world. But even as it enters its 12th year, Maryland Deathfest is still run by the same two guys who started it—Evan Harting and Ryan Taylor—with no corporate sponsors.

The story of Deathfest’s DIY growth and success is what attracted D.C. residents Alicia Lozano, 32, and Tom Grahsler, 29, to make the documentary Welcome to Deathfest. The film is scheduled to show in Baltimore this Friday at the Maryland Film Festival as well as May 21 at the Maryland Deathfest Pre-fest Party at Ottobar.

Bandwidth caught up with Lozano and Grahsler to discuss the ritualistic allure of Deathfest.

Bandwidth: What prompted you to make a documentary about last year’s festival when there were already three “Maryland Deathfest: The Movie” docs from the previous years? Was there anything in particular you were trying to do differently from those other films?

Tom Grahsler: There have been other films about Deathfest in recent years, but none that have looked at MDF from an outsider’s perspective. Those films consisted of concert footage that was really great for diehard metal fans that are familiar with the bands and the scene in general. We decided to make a film that would be accessible to folks that aren’t necessarily metal fans but are interested in the culture. We really looked at the nuts and bolts of running a festival and tried to capture the human element of the organizers, the bands that play and the fans that attend.

B: Ryan, Evan and Deathfest coordinator Brigette Lisbon seem remarkably cool in the face of adversity. Did you have to leave any screaming blowouts with, say, the venue’s owners on the cutting-room floor?

Alicia Lozano: Ryan and Evan are total pros. They’ve been running MDF for going on 12 years and have pretty much faced every obstacle during that time. While last year’s fest was rife with challenges, the team that runs the festival dealt with everything calmly and professionally. Even when they had to pull the plug on Venom, something we were “lucky” to capture on film, it was handled smoothly. Our biggest challenge from a filmmaking perspective was trying to be in all places at one time: from interviewing bands, to shooting live sets, to talking to festival goers, to, of course, getting the behind-the-scenes footage. Our ultimate goal wasn’t to present one side or another, but instead to paint a complete picture of what it’s like to run the fest and to attend it. I hope we achieved that in the final product.

“Metal really is one giant community of awesome.”

B: Were there any issues getting audio or image rights for any of the bands, or is everybody pretty cool about those things because Deathfest isn’t corporate in the least?

AL: Ryan and Evan have awesome reputations within the metal world. They are known as total professionals, which is why they are able to get incredible bands like Bolt Thrower to reunite. Because they are thought of so highly, we were granted unprecedented access to bands. We spent a solid 45 minutes with Down inside their tour bus, got an exclusive interview with Karl of Bolt Thrower and were allowed to film unforgettable sets by Carcass, Sleep and so many others. My only regret was putting our cameras away before Antaeus took the stage—that was one of my favorite sets from the whole fest.

B: What’s your favorite part of the doc and your favorite part of Deathfest?

AL: It’s really hard to pick a favorite part of this experience, besides seeing Antaeus. Haha. As a journalist, I would say getting to interview people like Phil Anselmo, Jimmy Bower, Matt Pike and Karl Willets was pretty incredible. But beyond that, we also met some really awesome people. The MDF crew, Josh Sisk, Albert Mudrian, Kim Kelley, dudes in Pig Destroyer—Scott Hull is so much fun to watch shred! The whole experience was mind-blowing. I can’t wait for this year’s fest! Metal really is one giant community of awesome.

TG: My favorite part of the film was the scene where we interviewed the teenagers from Saskatchewan. The fact that these kids drove 16 hours each way to attend a concert speaks volumes about the level of dedication these fans have to their scene. For a lot of people, heavy metal is an escape from day-to-day life. Those kids were the among the only people in their town to be into heavy metal. They feel like outsiders at home. When they get to MDF, suddenly they are members of this larger community that gets them and supports them. I was glad that we were able to capture the joy and enthusiasm of those kids.

My favorite part of MDF as a whole is the ethos that the community upholds. The fact that these guys can throw a festival of that scale with no corporate sponsorship continues to amaze me. It would certainly be easier for them to just accept some sponsorship money and let someone else do the groundwork, but that’s just not who they are. And it wouldn’t do justice to the community they serve.

  • bob

    There is no way in hell anyone drove from Saskatchewan to Baltimore in 1 hours. Simply impossible. It took them much longer than that (and it’s awesome that they did the drive).

    • Tom Grahsler says they drove 16 hours, not one hour. But yes, it does sound pretty dang tough to do that (Google Maps says the drive would take 33 hours). Maybe the kids exaggerated that one… Haha! -Editor

      • bob

        Yeah, I meant to type 16 the first time. I remember hanging outside our hotel last year drinking with some youngsters that said they drove from fucking Wyoming… good to see the kids still have that kind of enthusiasm!

        But yeah, 30 plus seems much more likely. Maybe they took turns and drove 16 hours each, hah!?