Mike’s Metal Life, by Ken Rosenberg
Before we grow up and discover our own aesthetic sensibilities, we are acculturated by our parents. For young Mike Lang, this meant training as an audiophile: high-quality equipment and, thanks to all the ‘80s rock, spandex—lots of spandex. Neon guitars and ostentatious hip thrusting was not for Mike, but the love of thrashing and long haired rock gods would endure. Around sixth grade, Mike began to develop his own taste in music. While his dad would “flirt with metal,” Mike was destined to settle down and marry the genre. “For about a year straight, I binged on Metallica,” Mike said. Then, “it got to the point where I was finding bands myself,” he said. Of course, taking those first steps is always a bit awkward. There was some punk, even some rap—but, with metal, Mike was stalled for some time. Despite knowing Ride the Lightning like the back of his hand, he was hesitant to go further.
“Metal is deep,” Mike explained. “It’s a question of how far down you are willing to go. You can’t just dive in and expect to hit the bottom—you have to work your way through.” Once, when grounded from the computer, which effectively limited after-school interaction, Mike decided that he wanted to learn how to play the guitar, just like his girlfriend at the time. Angst, fandom, and a girl: all the components necessary to transform a high school kid into a garage band rock star. Soon, he made another music-minded friend, Mike Sholty, and they formed a band.
Back then, life was easy. The band needed a name. They practiced in a basement on Mayor Drive and became, fittingly enough, The Basement Mayors. Then, the two Mikes needed a drummer. Mike found a cheap set at a garage sale and threw another friend onto the drum throne. They needed to record their jam sessions, so they dredged up an old ‘70s tape deck with a basic record function. What music would they play? Sholty’s love of Weezer pushed them toward plenty of covers but, eventually, they began to write their own music. “I wish I still had those tapes; we were really awful, but it was a good way to learn. We were just bunch of kids cutting our teeth on musical instruments, seeing what it was like to be in a band.”
One of the pitfalls of childhood friendships is the likelihood of growing apart. As his friends’ tastes went down the path of indie rock, Mike felt metal calling back to him. “I kept wanting to go heavier,” he said. Still, at this point, Mike hadn’t really moved past Metallica into harder metal, what Mike dubbed “The Land of Harsh Vocals and Screaming.” He made a new friend, Kyle, who gave him a metalcore mix tape and taught Mike metal-writing sensibilities: how to write catchy riffs, how to get a feel for the scales and rhythms, and how to piece things together. “The band was good for teaching me how to write,” Mike said, “but also how to really listen to metal, to go beyond the aggression—that wall of sound—and figure out core structures, themes, and moods that we wanted to get across in our own music.” The result: When Legends Die, a traditional metalcore band that was all about the guitars. “Everything was super riffy,” Mike said. “We were two guitar players writing music. We wrote for ourselves and filled in the blanks with the other parts of the band.” They let their band mates play almost anything they wanted. “We had a vocalist, Derek, but—even today—I still have no idea what his lyrics were about.” Only with metal could that happen so easily.
Metalcore is a specific subgenre that, according to Mike, features “some pretty important sonic signatures.” Beyond that, though, there are plenty of Christian overtones; common in the Midwest, it is essentially “death metal for Jesus.” The “-core” suffix identifies the hardcore influence—or, at least, it did. Now, it’s almost derogatory among metalheads. “Most of the Hot Topic folk you see with the swoopy haircuts and tight jeans, they’re metalcore. The community at large tends to shun them.” In terms of fashion, Mike compromised, wearing baggy jeans and studded wristbands—but no swoopy hair. Actually, Mike found a way to eschew the norms of both the system and its rebels. Two to three days a week, he would go to school wearing a suit. “It was my version of ‘f*** the system’,” Mike said. Ironically, as a nonconformist, he started a trend of his own and ended up with a couple of followers. “Suit days,” as Mike referred to them, were independent of other scheduled events. If there was a gig that day, he would go in a suit.
As a key member of When Legends Die, Mike played a bunch of shows around Kokomo, Indiana, the town where he went to high school. On one occasion, they played at the armory—something that was anticipated as a particularly “metal” performance. “Being around all of those guns would have been so metal,” Mike said, “but we ended up in the gym, just a room with bad acoustics where kids play basketball.” Contrary to convention, they also played at a lot of churches. At the high-school level, metal was about angst, identity, themes of brotherhood and, of course, girls and love—nothing darker than that. “Midwestern metal culture is so non-threatening, it’s ridiculous.”
Because of all the clubs and activities he had signed up for to build up his resume for college applications, Mike’s senior year of high school frequently necessitated sixteen-hour days on campus. That took him away from metal. After that, though, Mike had an opportunity to delve even deeper into metal. Once again, the girlfriend factor would fuel Mike’s growth as a musician. His then-girlfriend, now wife Mel, pushed him toward a metal-loving underclassman, Bryce. “We clicked really quickly and became really close friends,” Mike said. “We were all about discovering new bands. When I came back home for Christmas, I dumped about 70 gigabytes of music on him.”
Together, they formed Deschain (the last name of the protagonist in Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series). For Mike, previous efforts at music creation were more about riffing in a garage and hoping everyone would remember their parts. As a member of Deschain, though, he began to learn composition on Guitar Pro and even began working on drum parts, as well. The switch in bands also came with a shift in aspirations. “I really wanted to play melodic death metal,” Mike said. Their first album was to be about a pirate lord and his explorations. “It was our way to deal with death and all those other metaphysical issues that 18-year old dudes think about.”
Life, such as it was, pushed Mike away from writing music; it was another year away from metal. But, then, Bryce joined Mike in Bloomington. “That was where it all really took off for me” Mike said. “I thought I had hit a plateau but, really, I was just walking into the gate.” Bryce found them another guitarist. Under Mike’s guidance, they formed The Metal Underground, an IU-based club for metal fans. The goal was to get recommendations, hang out, and go to concerts together—everything you would expect to have in a good music scene. That’s where they met Jeff; he introduced Mike to black metal, a subgenre with long track times and low production values that “goes for atmosphere, more than anything.” Black metal goes back to Norway; its roots are colored by church burnings and explicit anti-Christian attitudes. For Bryce and Mike, who are both Christian, “it was wall number two. Musically, it was rough to listen to and, ideologically, it wasn’t ‘safe’ anymore. This is the threat people talk about when they speak about the ‘dangers of metal.’” Regardless of the history, Mike was hooked by the sound.
While “still a very melody-minded person,” his desire to write black metal gripped him in much the same way as his previous enthrallment. For a class project, Mike recorded a demo for a black metal song, that was his first foray into recording, something he now does regularly for his band. “I don’t claim to be great at it,” Mike said, “but it’s something I really like to do and it’s fun.” Once metal was injected into his curriculum, Mike began to apply it everywhere he could. For a video game culture course, he wrote a paper on the similarities between the cultures of early hackers and metal fans. Then he signed up for credits in independent study—and focused on metal. Eventually, through office-hour visits with other scholars, Mike met fellow metal enthusiast Mark Deuze. “We really hit it off,” Mike said.
Also around this time, Deschain released their first album Upon the Open Throne. Then, over the following summer, Mike mixed and mastered their second album, which evidences more black metal influences.
“The borders and boundaries of metal are so interesting to me,” Mike said. “What is and is not considered metal is such an interesting process of negotiation. People get really into drawing all these lines but, in the end, it’s all sort of arbitrary.” His first paper for Mark looked at different exemplar metal communities, analyzing how people forge identities and what makes a music scene. This was a precursor to working on space- and place-related research. Mike’s latest work is a longitudinal study of Viking metal; he attempts to analyze how, via the Internet, global influences affect the construction of spaces that were previously defined more by geography. Many media scholars find joy in bridging the gap between hobbies and research. As a scholar of space and place, studying metal communities is simply Mike’s lens of choice. “There are a million lenses one could choose, but metal is what brought me here. It’s natural for me to adopt this perspective.”
Mike will be moving to New York to attend NYU for his doctoral studies and he is excited about the metal scene there. “There are shows every night in New York; there’s a great metal scene in the city,” Mike said. “New York death metal is renowned and there’s a burgeoning black metal scene, too. It’s going to be a whole new world to explore.”
It’s a great opportunity, but it does come with some sacrifices. Recently, he helped pick his replacement for Deschain. “One of the things that’s really cool about metal is that there’s a fluidity in the membership of bands,” Mike said. “Just because you don’t have one of the founding members anymore, doesn’t mean the band is dead—at all. As long as you’ve still got people who accurately represent the sound, you’re okay.” Mike will still help with audio production, which is easily done remotely. He will also pursue some solo projects, something which is not uncommon in metal; lots of black metal bands are one-man affairs. “This will give me a chance to explore some ideas I’ve had” Mike said, “to do some things I wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise.”
After six years in Bloomington, it is certainly time Mike gets that chance. Everyone in the department knows of his scholarship. Anyone who goes into Tracks, one of the local music stores (on Kirkwood), will see Mike’s influence in the metal albums he selected while working there. The Bishop, a venue downtown, still has a Deschain poster. Dozens of students had their time in Bloomington enhanced, however briefly, by The Metal Underground. “It takes a lot of work to get into metal,” Mike said. “You have to work to find the bands. You have to work to get over those mental blocks. You have to work to become a part of the community—and you have to work to become skilled at playing.” Thanks for all that work, Mike. Bloomington wouldn’t be the same without it.
Blog Report Card, by Blog Writer Emerita Nicky Lewis
This week I was given the assignment to submit a ‘blog report card.’ Revisiting the posts of the past semester has been a real treat. Looking back at what we’ve done as a blog team over the past two years has been a true joy. All of the stories we’ve done, all of the people who have shared parts of their lives; it serves as a great reminder of how interesting and diverse our department really is. In turn, it has made the jobs we have as blog writers that much easier.
With Mike and Ken at the helm, the tone has changed and so has the writing style, but the content is what always shines. I couldn’t bring myself to ‘grade’ the blog and its crafters since I left my writing post. The blog is its own entity now, and isn’t married to a particular writer or style. It belongs to the department and the faculty, staff, and students that continue to make it great.
With Mike moving on, another writer will come in. The structure and story themes may change, but hopefully, it will continue to be an informal and intimate look into our wonderful graduate community. Great work this year Harmeet, Mike, and Ken… here’s to you and long live the blog!
Grad Blog Book of Sayings
Every now and then during our discussions we have crystallizing moments when a principle that has been guiding the sensibilities of the Telecom grad blog gets articulated. One such moment occurred on April 16 and the spirit of that day got us thinking about a grad blog book of sayings, an unadorned compilation of articulations of grad blog sensibilities. We will capture them when they are articulated or re-articulated in free flowing discussions, as opposed to reconstructing them from memory. We will not attribute the sayings to particular individuals, as they arise from conversations over time. But we will make an exception this one time because it is Mike Lang’s last blog post and his articulation on April 16 sparked the idea of starting a grad blog book of sayings.
10 Minutes on Monday, by Mike Lang
My radio squawked as I shoved the last canoe into the current for the evening float trip. “Mike Lang, you have a phone call on line one, Mike Lang, you have a phone call on line one.” Knee deep in the Tippecanoe River, I plodded back to the truck, soaked shoes swooshing and squishing beneath me. “Thanks, give me a few minutes to get to a phone.” The evening air was thick with heat and humidity, and a layer of sweat and grit clung to my body like a second skin, my summer skin, my camp skin.
For four years I’ve spent my summers hanging out with kids at YMCA Camp Tecumseh, teaching them to build fires, play guitar, identify plants, and make friendship bracelets. However, as any camp director will tell you, activities come second to personal growth. If fun is your only objective, take your kid to an amusement park. As such, embedded in every activity is a subliminal purpose that ranges from facilitating friendships, to developing patience, to overcoming fears. We call them second level skills, and at the end of the week when the armada of minivans and SUVs descends on camp, most of the campers have developed them without ever knowing it.
I climbed into the beat up Ford Ranger and rumbled up the hill to the lodge. The phone’s line one light blinked steadily as Professor Harmeet Sawhney waited on the other end to offer me a job. I could count the amount of interactions I’d had with Harmeet on one hand prior to that call, all of them enjoyable, but most of them taking place in the cocktail party environment where you smile and laugh and keep conversations long enough to seem polite, but brief enough to avoid saying anything substantial. I picked up the receiver and pressed the flashing button. “Hello.” As expected Harmeet explained in his polite and thoughtful way that Katie Birge was leaving and the blog needed a new writer. I’d be working alongside blog veteran Nicky Lewis, we would meet every Monday to come up with story ideas, and we would write stories that captured a certain sensibility. There was also a 10 hour a week RA assignment in it for me. As Harmeet filled me in on the details, my mind wandered to my students from T101 the previous semester; the inside jokes, the creative projects, the office hour chit chats. I entered academia with an eye towards teaching. Did I want to give all that up to write for the blog? I tuned back in as Harmeet asked, “So Mike, do you think you want to write for the blog.” It’s now or never. “I’ll do it.”
Over the course of two semesters I’ve somehow managed to write 40 stories. I polled the incoming class on which weapon would best suit their needs in case of the zombie apocalypse, and defended beer in an epic beverage showdown. I’ve talked skateboarding, basketball, and cougar encounters with Paul Wright, and learned the ins and outs of the Rugby World Cup. I’ve made videos, taken pictures, and spent hours conducting interviews. In many cases, the blog brought me to unexpected places. My interview with Rob Potter on geocaching eventually led to a final paper for one of my seminars. The blog gave me an excuse to finally visit the farmer’s market, and the blog introduced me to a man I wish I could have known. In other cases, the blog gave me an opportunity to learn. I learned about audio engineering (twice!), mountain climbing, saving money, and independent game design. In many ways, the blog has kept me plugged into the department during the weeks of thesis writing when I had no one but my computer for company.
We have been incredibly fortunate to have never missed a deadline, but it hasn’t always been easy. I’ve lost stories to hard drive failure, and interviewees have flaked out on me. Nearly every Sunday this year has been devoted to the blog much to the chagrin of my wife, and in many cases, the desire to teach rises up on occasion to scorn me. The stories on the T101 and the T205 AIs were the most difficult. Envy gnawed at me as I listened to their stories of AI camaraderie, student creativity, and hilarity and hardship that accompany every class. Every time I walked past the T101 AI meetings in Mark Deuze’s office, a little part of me would rise up to rebel. Why did I choose this over teaching? Why did I take this job, only to slave over stories week after week that most of the department would only spend 10 minutes with on Monday morning? Is any of this even worth it?
Sitting here, writing my last post, I find myself asking the same questions, but the answers are coming more clearly. At the staff meeting before the start of every week at Camp Tecumseh, our executive director reads evaluations written by parents of campers who had just been to camp. Like pros, the parents read right through their kids’ excited descriptions of their weeks, writing in glowing terms about their child’s personal growth. As a staff, we get pumped up when the kid who selfishly hoards food stores so ridiculously large they could restock the Kroger snack aisle decides to share the wealth with the cabin on his own accord. We get even more excited when a parent writes to tell us that that same kid is now sharing his Xbox controller with his little brother and they are bonding like never before. As a writer, I’ve worked my tail off on these stories and get excited when they turn out well. However, in many ways, the stories themselves aren’t as important. It’s that second level that really matters. In numerous cases I’ve sat in Harmeet’s office talking about the blog’s sensibility, the department’s ‘signature’; and the factors which make Telecom special and unique, and this is the second level conclusion I’ve come to:
The blog breaks down the stuffy professionalism of the academe and infuses the department with personality. We are blessed to have a faculty loaded with leaders in the field, and graduate students who will no doubt take their place, and while the world celebrates them for their achievements, the blog celebrates them for their humanity. The blog doesn’t treat the department as a group of individuals, but as a group of friends. I haven’t worked all year for 10 minutes of skimming on Monday mornings. I’ve worked for the conversations the blog facilitates, the laughs it generates, the opportunities to meet people it presents, and the quirkiness it inspires. Our department is special because we aren’t afraid to be human. We may be giants, but we aren’t too big for our britches. We may be smart, but we aren’t afraid to laugh with one another. We may be busy, but we aren’t too busy to help each other out. In my mind, the blog is a fundamental piece of our department culture, and from that perspective, two semesters of AI work is a small price to pay all the fun I’ve had.
In the fall I’ll be starting my PhD program at NYU and somebody else will be taking over my blog responsibilities. As such, I’d like to thank Nicky Lewis for showing me the way, holding my hand as I learned the ropes, and establishing the precedent that made my life a million times easier; Ken Rosenberg for his brilliant ideas, wonderful conversation and constant desire for improvement, even when the wall seemed too high to climb. I’d like to thank everyone who lent me their time and their stories, hopefully I did them justice. Lastly, I’d like to thank Harmeet Sawhney, not only for taking me on as both a blogger and a research assistant, but for everything in between. I couldn’t ask for a better editor, mentor, and friend. Thank you.