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The Man Behind the Metal

If it's heavy and it was recorded in Chicago, there's a good chance Sanford Parker was at the mixing board.

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American metal is thriving like never before, and Chicago has one of the country's strongest scenes. Almost every small to midsize venue in the city regularly hosts metal shows: the Empty Bottle, Bottom Lounge, Subterranean, House of Blues, Reggie's, the Logan Square Auditorium, Double Door, the Beat Kitchen. Metal Shaker—true to its name—books almost nothing but metal. Even the Hideout, with an established identity as a home for rootsy music and indie fare, gets in on the action from time to time. Local labels like Seventh Rule, Hawthorne Street, Hewhocorrupts Inc., and Battle Kommand specialize in heavy music. Emperor Cabinets, which builds lustworthy gear for metal bands nationwide, has its workshop in Humboldt Park. Metal-themed burger joint Kuma's Corner is so popular it's a serious pain in the ass to get a table. Specialty record store Metal Haven is in the process of shutting down, but it's stayed in business longer than the Virgin Megastore or Tower Records thanks to Chicago's metalheads.

Veteran bands like Cianide and Macabre—born during the city's first wave of death metal, which had its heyday on the south side in the late 80s and early 90s—are still kicking. Newer groups like Pelican, Nachtmystium, Yakuza, and Lair of the Minotaur have achieved international recognition, and up-and-comers like Indian, Sweet Cobra, and Raise the Red Lantern seem headed that way. Out in the suburbs, young deathcore bands like Oceano and Born of Osiris are posting impressive numbers.

Many of these groups have something in common besides being local: they've worked with producer Sanford Parker. (His own groups Buried at Sea and Minsk have also done pretty well for themselves.) Parker is a big part of the reason Chicago metal is well-known worldwide. When he moved up in 1998 from Florida, where he'd been recording bands at home as a hobby, the metal scene here was tiny. His big break was engineering Pelican's self-titled debut EP in late 2001. The band hadn't intended to formally release it, but Hydra Head loved it and put it out in early 2003. Parker hasn't looked back since. These days time at his Ukrainian Village studio, Volume Recording, the Ukrainian Village studio he co-owns, Semaphore Recording, is in high demand, and he's doing fly-in gigs all over the country, from Yob in Oregon to Zoroaster in Atlanta to Unearthly Trance in New York—more and more bands are looking for the organic mix of grit and atmosphere that he's already brought to so many albums.

What did you know about Chicago's metal history before you moved here from Florida?

Honestly, I was more intrigued with the whole Wax Trax industrial scene from this city. . . . That's what drew me here. In about the mid-90s, I started getting into more aggressive music that had elements of that industrial sound—Neurosis, Buzzov-en, and bands like that. Since I've been here, I've definitely learned more about [Chicago] metal history. Now I'm friends with a lot of those bands that helped form the whole metal scene back in the late 80s and early 90s.

How has the scene changed since then?

When I first moved here, there wasn't [much of] a metal scene. The Fireside Bowl did a lot of punk, hardcore, and metal shows. Outside of that, there was really no other metal venue, or any venue for any sort of extreme music, unless it was a house show or something. The south-side death-metal bands—Cianide, Cardiac Arrest, Morgue—have always been around. But as far as the north side it was mostly geared toward indie rock and more experimental types of music. About five or six years ago, there were some bands like Pelican and Buried at Sea, which I started doing around that time. That drew some attention toward the metal, or "heavy," scene. Out of that a lot of other bands started to form.

What are the differences between the north-side and south-side scenes?

The south side has always been where the immigrants moved to. It's mostly working class. So the south-side scene is more like extreme metal—grindcore, death metal, stuff like that. Whereas the north side is more open, more a modern type of heavy music. You get the whole art scene and all that stuff too.

How did Chicago metal change in ten years from one venue to a thriving scene with many successful bands and venues?

When I first moved here, Chicago was a hardcore city. There were a lot of hardcore bands—Charles Bronson, Los Crudos, Kungfu Rick. A lot of those bands started to break up and die out. They either started getting into heavier music or disappeared altogether. Over time, a lot of bands started getting influenced by the more modern heavy bands, like Isis, Mastodon, High on Fire, and Neurosis. That started to draw a lot of attention to that style of music. Clubs started to see that kids actually came out to these shows. The Double Door and the Empty Bottle—when I first moved here, if you were a metal band, you did not play the Empty Bottle. That was a total indie-rock hipster scene. . . . Now, Nunslaughter played there a few months ago. So it's totally changed.

A lot of it had to do with a good friend of mine, Bruce Lamont from Yakuza. He started bartending there five or six years ago. They would do metal shows every once in a while, and people would drink four times as much as the hipster crowd. They would tip better, and they were generally nicer. . . . Now a metal show at the Empty Bottle is a regular thing.

Do you think Chicago metal has a certain sensibility?

I think so. I think a lot of it has to do with the open-mindedness of bands like Tortoise, Shellac, and the Flying Luttenbachers. A lot of those types of bands have always had this thriving experimental vibe to them. That has a huge influence and impact on the way people approach music here. They tend to think outside the box as far as what should be metal: "What should this riff sound like," "What kind of drum beat can I play with this," or "Screw it, we don't even need a vocalist."

Is being in the same city as Steve Albini and Electrical Audio an influence for you?

It definitely creates influence. I use his studio quite often. He and I are really good friends. It's nice having that place. That also is one center of the community. People look at that as an establishment. That's where amazing music is made.

You're a busy producer now. Was there a breakthrough record for you in terms of visibility?

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