Why don't more jazz people play metal? (A story about SH.TG.N)

A while back, when I was still a jazz piano student at the Conservatory of Ghent, I started getting back into some intense metal music. John Zorn’s Naked City settled the transition. Then came The Dillinger Escape Plan. Then a bunch of other things. It’s around that period I decided to start SH.TG.N.

I asked myself questions about what jazz musicians would consider okay to do, what they think is “cool” and what they think isn’t. Often when someone talks about something being cool it’s somehow in absolute terms – as if something was just cool or uncool – while it’s obviously environment dependent. And, sure enough, jazz being music that exists solely thanks to its willingness to absorb and digest all sorts of music – starting with the creoles freely mixing classical music with work songs and blues -, over time more and more types of music got assimilated by jazz musicians (though arguably so much under the sole leadership of Miles Davis).

As I pondered those questions, I realized hip-hop was still hip for a jazz musician to play. Drum’n’bass and other forms of electronic music had become hip as well. Drummers could sure shine in both of these things. But somehow not only did everyone shy away from metal but it was somehow shunned. Now I wanna be fair, some adventurous people did dare getting their hands dirty and give it a go. As I mentioned before, you had John Zorn with Naked City and Moonchild. You also had Zu, Shining. But other than that, the scene seemed pretty empty.

Call it spirit of contradiction or playful desire for being unhip/uncool – but it’s on that thought that I decided to start SH.TG.N. I thought “what’s with all the snobbish ignorance that keeps jazz and metal apart? let’s get those two married!”.

I kept listening to stuff and thinking about this. Once I went for an afternoon at my piano teacher’s home (his name is Erik Vermeulen, check him out he’s amazing). We used to have those days in that time where we talked for hours about music and played together, and he’d teach me. And I mentioned my current fascination with metal and how I believed people were missing on some amazing music out of pure ignorance and/or snobbishness. I told him about The Dillinger Escape Plan. He asked me to put it on, which I did, and he loved it. He was open enough to hear it – unlike too many – and that’s perhaps what makes him one of the best musicians I know in my opinion.

Anyway, the idea was slowly sprouting in my mind while I took a hitchhiking trip to Poland (in winter: bad idea, what with all the snow storms and stuff), carrying a little Moleskine music notebook in my pocket. I wrote a bunch of little riffs and rhythms on the road.

When I finally got back home I put together a band. I asked my college roommate Wim Segers – with whom I used to play melodic percussion duets (piano, vibraphone, marimba) in the living room (fun for the neighbors) – if he would like to join in. So we got an eclectic jazz drummer and bassist, a rock guitarist, a classical percussionist, and me. I made copies of my little notes and we started playing them. All were just a few seconds long. We enjoyed making these extremely short pieces and combined them together to make some slightly longer pieces. That’s how we got started.

This is something I like about the prog community by the way. I find an intellectual honesty I tend not find elsewhere. Not too much concern with “hipness”. Pure openness: I’ll listen to it and if it surprises me and is quality stuff I’ll be happy, no matter the label people put on it. Seems to me like a good way to approach most things.


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