Steve Hughes: Metal Comedy is Serious Business (well, not really)

He’s the metalhead comedian and he’s here to destroy everything you think you know about the world. The cool thing is he’s got Dio as his soundtrack. Who is he? He’s Steve Hughes: Conspiracy Realist.

Dressed simply in black pants and shirt, Steve Hughes doesn’t really look like an affront to the building he stands in. The ornate council chamber of Melbourne’s Town Hall is literally the den of all governmental iniquity – and a long-haired metalhead armed only with his wit and a microphone was desecrating its supposedly sacred principles. But no one was upset – their chorus of laughs seemed as if they all loved it.

“You can’t say anything any more, you might get offended,” he waxes with an incensed passion. “Nothing happens when you get offended. No one will go home tonight and say ‘Steve said something that offended me…and then I got cancer.’” Such a line sums up the take on life and comedy of Steve Hughes, arguably the metalhead’s answer to the late foul mouthed rabble rouser George Carlin and possibly even fringe philosopher and author Robert Anton Wilson. Reginald D. Hunter, a fellow comedian at another show praised him highly – “He’s one of the top five comedians in the world,” he proclaimed. “If I wasn’t doing this show for y’all, I’d be over at his right now.”

Standing around after his show, Steve met me just outside the council chamber – no artist’s entrance to be seen, he was essentially one of us. We shook hands and he asked me who I represented. I told him.

“Metal as fuck?” he said with astonishment. “Shit, I’ve always wanted to be metal as fuck,” he heartily cackled. And for all intents and purposes; he really was. As we made our way down the marble-lined staircases, catching up with fans it became starkly apparent. The casual comedy fans were already on to their next show. You could tell who where the metal fans; not only in dress but in attitude. Only they somehow knew he'd be sticking around after. “Were you really in Primordial?” one eager eyed fan asked.

“Yeah, I was, for a little bit,” Steve replied in the midst of rolling a cigarette. “I slept on the guitarist’s couch for a week when I was in Dublin. I was also hanging around the guys from Croo…er, Cruck…Oh bugger me, how do you say it-“

Cruachan,” I offered.

Without a beat, he thanked me and continued on with his anecdote, right until we had all made it to the foyer and it was time to part. We settled into a darkened room to talk. We both agreed that it was “very heavy metal.”

Steve Hughes tried his hand at metal in Australia, growing up in Sydney. He was the drummer in black metal outfit Mortal Sin and Naxzul among other failed ventures. As a strident opponent of censorship, an issue brought to the forefront in the “Black Mass” affair of 2010, I asked what he thought of the entire saga.

“Oh who knows,” he says, taking a pause to lick his almost-finished cigarette. “Someone’s trying to [censor] metal down here [Melbourne] as well. What are they going to do? There’s only about 400 metalheads in this country anyway!” He laughs, an example of his observational style of humor shining through.

Very simply, he decided that he would relocate to Britain and try his hand in comedy instead. Though it seemed like a risky decision, he took a reasoned approach to his decision as his life in Australia was reaching the “limit” of what he sought to accomplish.

“I don’t think it was a gamble,” Steve muses. “When I went to [Britain] I thought to myself – ‘Right, the worst thing that will really happen is that it doesn’t work, I ring my brother, borrow a grand and come home.’ I mean I had to get off the dole; I was lucky enough to have a British passport as well so that was good. But, at the end of the day that’s the worst thing that could really happen. I mean, it could happen anywhere. I thought well, nothing’s really going to pay off here. There’s only a certain level or degree you can go to here on anything".

“I mean there’s a variety of reasons; the sports obsession for example. Other things; factual things like there’s twenty-two million people living on a continent the size of Europe who like going outdoors and then you think, well, there’s more risk here! I’ve already been in bands and that for years and nothing happens.

“I mean you could be [Australian rock group] Powderfinger in this country but once you’ve played all the entertainment arenas in the five cities, that’s it! You’re done. There’s only so much work for certain people in these areas. So no, I thought I’d take the risk over there after years of being in bands that it’s just an uphill battle.

“I mean will it ever change? Will [Australian punk rock legends] the Hard-Ons ever get any recognition? Through what they’ve added to the musical culture of the country over twenty-seven years? Give them something, Australia! No, no, they won’t give them anything because they aren’t kicking footy balls.”

Distancing himself from Australia has allowed him to see it objectively – skewering the culture as both a native and an outsider holds up a unique mirror in front of Australia and gives us all license to laugh. He rails against our sports obsession, our strange preoccupation with looking as masculine as possible despite having laws that treat us like children and of course, the cultural cringe.

“We have a whole culture built on a strange dichotomy; people keep saying that ‘Australia’s shit’ but once you agree, they’ll turn around and say, ‘What do you mean Australia’s shit?’” It’s the double edged sword of trying to be patriotic. I mean all countries find stuff from other countries more exotic. Granted, because it just is, to any sort of human. But you’ve got the added bonus of isolation here,” he laughs.

But metalheads from Australia ought to make the trip outside to Europe; he insists – especially if you’re a metal collector. Professing that most of his collection was stolen, he luckily re-collected it back by perusing various shops in England.

“Yeah, they got stolen; these were original originals – I got them when they came out,” he reminisces. “I travel around England so much I get to visit all these towns with second hand record stores and I just love finding shit!” he says, the glee on his face unrestrained. “But people know about metal now; I saw an original copy of Sodom’s In the Sign of Evil for one quid…but the next time I went there they realized what it was and it was up to 29! They sussed it out, the fuckers!

“The great thing is you can always tell when some poor bloke’s wife has told him to get rid of his collection; one day you’ll go to your favorite store and there’ll be 4 Metallicas, 6 Slayers and the complete Iron Maiden!” he laughs. But then he turns serious. "But you have to be there on the day it happens otherwise they're gone!"

Known as the “heavy metal comedian,” Hughes prides himself on the tag – he loves the music and he loves the culture and has no reservations about it, even calling one of his shows “Heavy Metal Comedy.” In recent years, metal has arguably gained some prominence in mainstream culture, partly thanks to Guitar Hero and metal parody shows such as Metalocalypse. But is metal an easy target for comedy?

“If I can get to a size where I can pull some decent crowds,” he says without any irony, “I think I want to write a whole show about metal. I think people would know enough now. I remember I never would be able to do that many jokes about heavy metal because I was going in front of ‘normal’ people crowds – as opposed to the ones from death metal world – some of the references they just wouldn’t get.

“Now I think I could make it absolutely hilarious but at the same time, by never putting shit on it. When it’s made by people who don’t understand it and they just want to make a parody of it and tell other people that metal is stupid, then metalheads aren’t going to like it. ‘You can’t put shit on metal, you don’t even like it.’ We can laugh at it – we know the stupid bits and some of the stupid bits, we like!

“I mean I don’t care if some German guy from Running Wild wants to look like a pirate and put a parrot on his shoulder – I’m not going to buy any of his records but I’m grateful he basically says ‘I don’t give a fuck what you think!’”

Basically, if you’re not from within the metalhead culture, you won’t get it – and Steve agrees. That’s part of the appeal.

“You can’t hang shit on that because they won’t understand it. There’s just a part of heavy metal that other people don’t get. Which is great! That means they won’t come in all the time. If too many people started listening to it, they’d ruin it. It’s the one form of music that stays underground and it always has an underground somewhere, lurking. You can always go up for fresh air if it gets too shit!

Despite an intimate bond with all forms of metal, extreme metal is definitely his favored style – but he also sought to probe beneath the surface and the artifice of metal and the “scene;” parts of which seem to like certain bands just to be accepted; as is the universal criticism of any “true” metalhead seeking to separate themselves from the “untrue.”

“I’m metal through and through,” he stridently says, “But I could never just be simply a headbanger. I had to expand my horizons and get into other stuff. I realized and I’m sure you have too that there’s a lot of headbangers out there who just want to be ‘scene’ people as well; the amount of people that truly like extreme music is very slim. I mean truly like it. I mean I like extreme music like Morbid Angel and Blut aus Nord and some Mayhem stuff, you know. There’s some noise stuff out there and I really like, like it.”

He looks me in dead in the eye in all seriousness: “I don’t just like Morbid Angel because they’re the coolest death metal band on Earth; I fucking like it!”

Steve has been labeled as “confrontational” – but in reality, it’s only confrontational if you have an ideological axe in your hand. He takes on the “givens” of modern society such as the nanny state, conservatism and political correctness which has earned him the tag of being a “conspiracy theorist,” which he used to great comic effect; his show for the Melbourne International Comedy Festival was entitled “Conspiracy Realist" almost as if in defiance.

“It’s not confrontational; there’s no point in making it confrontational,” he explains while shaking his head. “If you set out to make something confrontational you’re just being a bit of a dick. Whether people choose to see it as controversial is up to them; especially when people like me and you that come from a background of heavy metal and hear what the things that the bands sing about, it’s not really that controversial. Looking at some of the politics in punk bands in Dead Kennedys, Discharge and you have the same in black metal with Satanism, church burning and gore and chaos and horror films; in death metal you have the Evil Dead, guts and blood and beers and drugs and more chaos: and when you see that you think, ‘Well, it’s hardly confrontational.’

Now almost dying for a cigarette, I ask him if his views, just like metal will appear less subversive over time.

“Well, more people are thinking about this anyway; because it’s affecting their lives. It’s actually starting to creep into their fucking life. I mean, they’re all adults, right?”

Before I can ask him something else, he proudly announces that he’ll be bringing out a solo album. Of comedy?

“No, of metal!” he beams. “It’s called Eternum – which is the name of the band. Just finished it. Six tracks. Did everything myself. I did all the drums and singing…I got some lead solos done – one from the guy from Azuul and Johannes from Wolf! He was out here and happened to come to the comedy show and I was hanging out with him and he agreed to do a solo for me. He’s so metal, he’s awesome.

“Then he invited me to Wayne Campbell’s house – the original drummer from Mortal Sin. He goes, ‘Do you want to come?' I'm like 'DO I?’ Then I asked him what he was doing Thursday, he said nothing so that’s how I got him to do a solo. It’s for a song called ‘Hailing the Gods’ where I use all the names of old albums and songs and stuff. It’s like hailing the originals,” he smiles. “I wanted every fucking metal cliché in this – Marshalls, fire, chains, skulls, bullet belts; just everything.

“People are going to look at it and say ‘It’s a bit cheesy isn’t it?’ You're fucking damn right it is!

And that’s what its all about – melding the brains with the heart – if it gets your head banging or in Steve’s case, your belly laughing, then they’ve really done their job.

Steve will be appearing at the Factory Theatre in Sydney, AU from the 27th to the 30th of April.