“Metal is serious business, but you cannot take yourself too seriously,” says Susan Graves, host of WRSU‘s Metal Health Awareness. Since 2006 Graves (yep, that’s her real name) has been turning listeners on to heavy music that’s a little outside of the usual realm with an emphasis on European folk-metal. Her penchant for that end of the spectrum comes from growing up in a folk-friendly household, a belief that it “confuses” the body (“I’m a huge fan of dancing like an idiot, just as I greatly enjoy head-banging,” she says) and the fact that it’s subject to many different interpretations. And her philosophy towards metal, in general? “If it’s not fun, I’m doing it wrong.”
Hear Ms. Graves and Metal Health Awareness on WRSU (88.7 FM in the New Brunswick, NJ area, or, at wrsu.org) every Saturday morning (Friday night) from midnight-2 a.m. EST.
How did you get into metal in the first place?
It’s pretty much the same story as every other metalhead. I heard the down-tuned guitars, wailing solos, and growling vocals in my early teens and thought, “This is awesome! I need to hear more of this.” It reached me on a level I had never experienced before musically.
I grew up in a household with two incredibly nerdy parents who didn’t believe in cable or mainstream radio. Before we had internet access, all I heard was Renaissance Polyphony, NPR, and folk music. The only musical beacons from the world beyond my household were bubblegum pop hits on the school bus. As a young person, I didn’t like mainstream stuff nearly as much as my peers appeared to, and eventually concluded, “If this is music… I don’t really like music.” Thank goodness that changed!
Give us a brief rundown of the history of Metal Health Awareness.
It all started in 2006 when I became involved with WRSU. I really wanted to put more metal on the airwaves. The first slot I had was at 8am on Mondays. I pulled myself out of bed at an ungodly hour only to drive full throttle into extreme metal. There are worse ways to wake up. After various other radio slots, I arrived at my Friday night/Saturday morning time in 2008. I started to invite local metal bands on for interviews, and had a great deal of fun with it. After teaching countless interns, one stood out, and thus Alex came on board as my co-host in late 2009. He has been a constant source of insolence and humor at my expense. I have challenged him to many on-air duels involving comically over-sized inflatable battle axes.
We’ve heard that you focus on European folk metal. What is it about this specific type of metal that interests you?
Firstly, it’s the familiarity. I’ve heard all kinds of European folk music since before I was old enough to speak. I attended many summer camps devoted to English folk music with my family. My mother has played the fiddle in Morris Dance bands. Folk music has been woven into the fabric of my life from the start.
Secondly, folk metal “confuses” the body. I’m a huge fan of dancing like an idiot, just as I greatly enjoy head banging. Anyone who has seen me at a Moonsorrow gig can vouch for that. Folk metal makes my body want to do both simultaneously, and the results can be quite amusing to behold.
Finally, folk metal is subject to many interpretations, all of them valid. The possibilities are endless! You can write drinking songs and dance tunes on one end of the spectrum. On the other end is music that sounds like it came from another era, beckoning to you with haunting melodies inspired by epic poems. It’s music that will lull you to sleep with the rhythm of lapping waves, or leave you to stare contemplatively at the mist gathering on a mountainside.
Metal is serious business, but you cannot take yourself too seriously. Black metal flirts with self-mockery, which stems naturally from a genre with heightened theatricality, but some folk metal bands have mastered such satire. I’m an intensely passionate person, but I also need to lighten the mood sometimes!
What’s your philosophy when it comes to programming your show?
I like to play things I enjoy but also step outside my comfort zone. If it was exclusively selections from my collection, it would get rather boring very quickly. I’m always trying to mix it up – I have all my playlists handy in a notebook to make sure I’m not falling into patterns. I’ve done shows where I only play music I would never listen to on my own. My reasoning is that someone out there might enjoy it.
I sometimes challenge listeners to make new connections: two Christmases ago, I alternated between black metal and sacred a capella pieces. Both are majestic in different ways, and are really different sides of the same coin.
I guess the philosophy is: Give the listeners something they might not hear otherwise, keep it spontaneous but well composed, and if it’s not fun, I’m doing it wrong.