Acrassicauda are the first metal band to emerge out of war-torn Iraq, and they're coming to Seattle to fire off their petrified, ear-splitting mass of Slayer/Metallica-bred rock. When they formed in 2000, Iraq didn't accept their music. Acrassicauda (also the scientific name for a black scorpion common in Iraq) were persecuted. Fundamentalists and militants accused them of worshiping Satan and made death threats against them. Their practice space was bombed. War was everywhere. Iraq was crumbling around them, but the band continued, willing to die to make their art.
In 2007, Vice filmed a documentary about their situation called Heavy Metal in Baghdad. The film brought the band exposure, but it also brought more heat and threats. Eventually, it became impossible to find a single place that was safe to perform or practice in. Fearing for their safety, they fled the country, making it to Syria, then Turkey, and finally to the United States, where our government granted them asylum.
The fact that this band exists is a testament to their perseverance and will, and to triumphing over hate, closed-minded stupidity, and repression. Acrassicauda wanted to play heavy metal music, and they were willing to do whatever it took to make that happen. Their debut EP, Only the Dead See the End of the War (produced by Alex Skolnick of Testament), is out on Vice Records. Destruction never sounded so good. Drummer Marwan Riyadh spoke.
How close did you come to dying in Baghdad?
Right before I left the country, I had gone by the practice space to say good-bye. I parked the car on a busy market street, and not even one block away, another car blew up. The explosion and heat were so strong, the lenses of my glasses blew out. I saw bodies flying, and the spark, and the blast. I felt close to death then. Two minutes later, guitarist Faisal Talal's brother called and said his wife had given birth to a baby. We were hiding, because we thought another bomb was coming. After that, I went back and finished the song "Message in Baghdad," describing what I had just seen, and thinking about the baby being born. The death from the bomb, then new life arriving. Iraq taking lives and giving lives.
Where are you now?
Anaheim. Orange County, California. We've been here for a month and a half. Living in a studio facility where like 50 bands practice.
How would you describe Baghdad when you were there?
The situation was different. The country was either on the verge of war or recovering from war. It wasn't normal. It was just something everyone worked around. It wasn't stable, but it was home. You had to find a job when you were like 11 or 12 years old to support your family and yourself. The band was constantly on the run.
What's the correct pronunciation of your band?
Acrassicauda. Like you're saying whiskey and soda. Acra-si-coda.
Do you enjoy whiskey and soda?
Not necessarily. When we're on tour, we're trying to recover the whole time. Sometimes, drinking is not a great idea.
What do people drink in Baghdad? How do people get fucked up?
Well, they don't really do drugs in Baghdad. It's a constant fear and sobriety down there, which is no good. That puts you on edge. People get edgy there. But there is alcohol. There's one drink called arak. It's similar to absinthe or sambuca. Some people do glue. They party hearty.
Does Acrassicauda do glue?
No. We don't sniff glue. We sniff gas sometimes by accident when we're at the gas station. Not to be cliché or anything, but we get our buzz from playing music.
Did the Iraq government come out and officially say, "Heavy metal is illegal"?
They didn't necessarily say illegal, but they gave us trouble. It was forbidden. When we played, people would be like, "What the fuck are you doing?" Sometimes they would relate it to satanic worshiping— because of the way the music sounds, the singing and stuff.
What do the fundamentalists there think is so bad and evil about metal music?
They think it's Americanized. Western music. Satanic. But we're not satanic.
I take it you couldn't exactly advertise your shows?
We had to be very careful how we got word out. We would make flyers and hand them to only people we knew and trusted.
What's it like now? Has it changed?
It has definitely changed. Bands there can say they play metal music and are proud of it. Metal doesn't have to be a secret anymore. And people support it.
You guys were going against everything there.
Yes. Not only the government, the whole society. But we still did it. I don't know if it was because we were fucked up in the head, or we liked the challenge, or we just didn't care. We wanted to play this kind of music, and we wanted to have fun doing it. We weren't going to stop. We weren't going to let them beat us. Every show, we had to figure out different names for it. We couldn't call it heavy metal or thrash metal. We would call it rock or ballad or something. And rehearsing, you couldn't really go there with a guitar on your back and be seen with it, because people would give you a look like "What the fuck is this?"
You guys were obviously able to practice, though, because you're really good.
Really, our practicing began after we left Iraq and Syria. We went to Turkey and people helped us. We knew we needed to practice a lot. When we got to the United States, we practiced and practiced. At that point, it wasn't a joke anymore. We either need to be 100 percent dedicated to what we're doing, or we should go and do something else.
Were you all really the only metal band in Baghdad?
When we started in 1999 or 2000, till the time we left, yes, we were the only metal band. We heard that there were bands and projects before us, but when the situation got really intense down there, they stopped.
How would you get death threats in Baghdad?
Once someone left us a flyer on our practice-space door. Mentioning a couple of our names.
Did you have more shows after that?
We did. And we kept practicing at the same place. We kind of scattered. Later, in 2007, the whole practice space blew up. The whole building. All our equipment, everything.
Have you been back since you left?
No. We're not allowed, because of all the paperwork. It'll take five to seven years I think.
Do you want to go back and play there?
Yes. Very much so. We want to go back and play for our fans there.
What do you think of the United States now that you're here?
It's definitely different than where we grew up. We're free here to do what we want with the band. It took us a while to adjust. I think we're still adjusting. People have embraced us, and appreciate what we're doing. And that was overwhelming for us.
Do you still communicate with your friends and family in Baghdad?
We try the best we can. With phone calls and the internet.
Do people in Baghdad and the government know that you've made it here, and that you're doing well?
That's something we try not to let them know. Because of the fact that our family and friends are there, and we worry about them. We don't want anything to happen to them because we're pursuing this. I'm not really sure they quite understand why we're doing this. The exposure is both good and not good. I mean, we needed exposure, to be known, to sell tickets, to get people to hear our music. There [in Iraq], we wanted to be known, but we couldn't let anyone know us.
Very tricky. We couldn't really let our parents know what we were doing. When I brought my drum kit home, my dad told me to get it the fuck out of there. He said it was a household of respectful people, not for drums. He said, "You're not turning my house into a disco." We had to practice hidden in a basement, and when people asked we said we were electricians. If we took a cab to practice, we would have them drop us off at different places. We were never comfortable with it. It was like we were killing people, not just playing music. I don't think my mom and dad watched Heavy Metal in Baghdad. Most people can go out and play music and be proud of it, and do interviews, and write books, and make movies. But not us. We mention everything to our families in vague terms, and say we are working hard. They want us to be happy. When we talk, and they ask what we've done that day, we talk about everything but the fact that we went to practice and played music.
You guys are heroes. You're pioneers. I hope you get to back to Iraq and do it up.
Thank you. That's our hope. We've always had this hope. When nobody gave us hope. When everybody tried to repress us. Whether it was friends, or family, or people that cared about you and loved you, it wasn't that they were trying to shut us down, they were just worried about us. And we would try to explain, we just want to play music. We're not doing anything illegal, we're not harming anyone. We didn't want to bother anyone with it. We just wanted to be musicians. But we had to be careful because of it. We chose to practice six feet underground, in a secluded spot, so we wouldn't bother anyone, and be respectful of people. It's made me appreciate everything. I'm glad I have the experiences that I've had. Everything that happened, and everything that didn't happen, has made me who I am, and made my band the way it is. I don't want to be some fucked-up, washed-up musician who just plays for money, and the minute they get recorded, they turn around and spit at each other. What we have been through has made us more unified.
What was the turning point? When did you finally catch a break?
There were good things that would happen, then there would be setbacks. It was balanced. There would be 10 days down, then two days up. It's just life. When we play our shows, that's always the best part, the most up. We make sure we give 300 percent. Then we would go home, and we could hear our neighbors talking about us, saying we're Satan worshipers. We learned to forget what people said. Forgetting some things is a blessing. When we were in Iraq, the culture and bombs and destruction were a threat. In Syria, we had to start from zero. In Turkey, we were lost, we didn't speak the language, and there were a zillion bands there.
Where did you record your album? What was it like working with Alex from Testament?
The studio was in Astoria, Queens, called Spin Studio. We learned so much. That was the first pro studio we had been in. Alex is the best. He's a great mentor, a great friend to the band. He's kind of like the godfather to us. We went in there and basically practiced every day for a year. Alex would come into the practice studio whenever he got off tour and would listen to us and watch us play, and show us tricks. We were really lucky to meet him. There are great people surrounding this band. We don't have money, we're refugees, and we're sort of starting all over at mid-age, but they stand by us.
What you all are doing is important. What has been your favorite place to play so far?
Austin, Texas, was great. Virginia was great. Pittsburgh. We were recently in Las Vegas. That was different.
Did you gamble?
We hit some of the slots. We didn't really have enough money to gamble.
Do people in Iraq gamble?
Gambling is everywhere, actually. That's the one guilty pleasure that everyone agreed to have. There's horse racing and poker, but it's not like Las Vegas. There's a board game called Pavala.
Have you ever heard of Candy Land? It's a board game here. It kicks ass. There's a Gumdrop Mountain.
No. Never heard of it. I'd like to play it. I'll look for it. Candy Land.
Seattle is looking forward to your show. When you're here, you have to eat geoduck.
What's geoduck? We like to try all foods. Bring some to the show.
Geoduck is a species of very large saltwater clam. It looks like a donkey dick. We can eat geoduck, play Candy Land, and sniff glue.
That is a Seattle plan.