DIY Spotlight: Axeslasher
Axeslasher play a mixture of thrash and death metal that often drags horror tropes through the ringer while simultaneously respecting them. In other words, they play scary music yet remain fully aware of where the joke ends.
I met Professor Pizza of Axeslasher several years ago when we we both working for the same company. We commiserated on the challenges of promoting indie music in the social media era and constantly shared our experiments, successes, and — most often — failures. It was always great to see that, no matter how disparate our styles of music might have been, we were going through the same struggle of getting heard among the cacophony of other options.
One early viral success for Axeslasher was releasing their cover of Oakland rapper Kreayshawn’s “Gucci Gucci” ahead of their EP.
This move got the attention of Kreayshawn herself and led to a lot of listens and exposure for the band.
And though it didn’t happen overnight, Axeslasher followed that track with the EP, Anthology of Terror, Vol. 1, videos, appearances on horror movie soundtracks, and crazy live shows. Professor Pizza was busy so I caught up with Justin to talk about the ongoing struggle to get heard.
I’m going to start with a really dumb question: how do you describe Axeslasher? Not just the music but the whole personality. What’s your aesthetic?
You know, I think I’m constantly trying to define that. The best I’ve been able to come up with: Axeslasher is, at heart, an episode of Tales from the Crypt directed by Lloyd Kaufman and the rest of the Troma crew in 2016. Our sound is heavily inspired by 80s Thrash Metal, but we infuse a lot of unquestionably modern elements into our music. I like to ride the line of “is this old or is this new? What the hell is going on here?”
At live shows, you’ve got a severed head that shoots blood all over the audience made by a Hollywood makeup and effects pro. That speaks to a level of commitment to make live shows an event but also to maintain a persona about the band. How do you keep that up? How often do the punk instincts kick in and you think, fuck it, I can’t put on the wool mask tonight?
Well, our infrequent performance schedule ensures each live show is a true event. I’ve been in bands before that play every other weekend, and I feel like that kind of overexposure can kill a band’s appeal. Then again, we’re essentially an internet side project band so who the hell am I to criticize anyone’s exposure strategy?
But I digress; I’m able to maintain a high level of enthusiasm for all of the antics because I’m able to build my own excitement for each show. With Axeslasher, I never feel like I ‘have’ to play a show. Because it can be kind of a big to-do to get everyone pulled away from their full-time touring bands, when we are engaged, all focus shifts towards putting on the type of performance I myself would want to see. I’ve always admired Gwar and Ghoul, but not for the reasons one would assume. I love those bands because they are their own form of artistic terrorism: groups of artists hitting the road to force you to reckon with their twisted view of the world, disarming you with just the right amount of humor.
So yeah, I love putting on the mask even though I spend half the performance fighting with it.
Early on, you realized that people responded to the graphic identity of Axeslasher even when they didn’t know the music. You did something simple and brilliant: you focused on selling merch and you gave away the album. How successful was that at recruiting fans of the music? Or is it more broad than that: are fans just fans of Axeslasher in general and some respond to the music and some the images?
I appreciate you calling that strategy, but looking back it, I was essentially forced into operating like that.
In the beginning stages of the band, I knew wanted a symbol to communicate our ideology and sense of humor. A pentagram made of pizza just seemed to make the most sense. At the time, Axeslasher was just a few shitty demo songs I made while trying to learn how to record things myself. I created some social profiles and hired my good buddy Tim Cochran to paint ‘The Pizzagram’ and shared it on those social profiles.
Within a few weeks, our exact artwork was on sale from several American and international clothing brands. I posted about it and fans responded, linking me to other reproductions of our artwork. Our fans at the time must have scared them off because they all took down their links. At that point, I knew I had to do something so I ordered the first run of shirts and built a quick landing page to sell them.
At the same time, I was reckoning with actually liking the Axeslasher songs as they evolved. I got serious and decided since we were already making money off of our merch, the music should be free. It costs me nothing to make. It is a pure expression of myself. I would be making this music whether anyone listened or not. I want to remove the barriers to listening to it. To this day our music is as cheap as it can be on Bandcamp. They force us to ask for like $0.50 for the entire discography, and that’s all we ask for the music itself.
Another unique approach you took was to the recording of Anthology of Terror, Vol. 1. You had a three person band, none of whom lived in the same state, one in another country. How did that change how you finished recordings?
I mentioned earlier that Axeslasher started as me teaching myself how to record. I was living with Patrick Bruss (Crypticus, Cropsy Maniac) at the time. He’s also a producer and we were basically in a mix war. I’d demo a new song, we’d critique it, and he’d do the same. It was one of the most creatively fertile environments I’ve ever experienced.
Simply by doing this, I started to realize these songs were good enough to release. But also knew I’m not a bass player or a drummer. My scratch tracks just weren’t going to cut it. I recruited Jake from Speedwolf to lay down some bass tracks one evening over a few blunts. The dimension he brought to the rhythm section solidified my assumption that I suck at bass. When talking to Patrick about this, he suggested sending my stem tracks to Brynjar Helgetun, who he had worked with on several projects.
Working with Brynjar was unique. He has everything he needs to record his performances tucked in the woods or Norway. Seriously, he often apologized for inclement weather (read: 10 feet of snow) impacting his lightning fast timeline.
Working with Brynjar was great. He wasn’t afraid to try things that sounded nothing like the scratch tracks. He’d record a track, then send it to me. I’d listen to it, then upload it to a private SoundCloud account so I could leave annotations at the exact part of the song I was referencing instead of doing the whole “ok, so you the part that goes dudda dudda should have more kick and the chug chug chug should have more high hat” dance over email. Brynjar also challenged my writing decisions in healthy ways that strengthened the work.
Anthology of Terror, Vol. 1 has been a digital release since 2013, but it’s getting a physical release this year in a really unique form. How did that come about label-wise? And how did you get such an awesome artifact?
I’ve always had a Steve Albini view of labels. For the most part, I think they’re a scam. But that doesn’t mean they all suck.
Dirty Needle Records is a new DIY label run by a bunch of young punks that live together. I fucking love that. They reached out about doing a release a bit ago, and when I checked them out I noticed they had put out Invidiosus, a kick ass Lovecraft-ian death metal band from Minnesota whom I met performing at Denver Black Sky. I’m a fan of Invidiosus and expressed interest, letting them know I am a control freak with expensive tastes when it comes to physical releases.
Luckily, that didn’t scare them off one bit. We floated some ideas back and forth and I told them I always envisioned the first physical release of AoT as a VHS tape with fucked up cartoons that tell the story to each song.
That vision was just a bit out of all of our grasps, but how could we capture the spirit of that? A cassette is really close to a VHS… Why not mimic the packaging? After a little legwork, we found all the pieces we would need to make it happen and I got to work creating the packaging.
Axeslasher’s music was featured in the movie Deathgasm which seems like the realization of so many childhood dreams. Were the filmmakers fans of yours? Did you find them? How did that come together?
It was a complete dream come true. So much so, that I was incredibly skeptical at first.
Jason Lei Howden, Deathgasm’s director, contacted me late one night through email. He said he was a WETA FX guy who won a NZ Government sponsored contest to create a heavy metal themed horror movie called “Deathgasm” and asked if we had interest in being on the soundtrack.
Looking back, I might have been a bit of a dick. I was working in film at the time and honestly thought that no movie that wanted our music would be any good to watch. So I asked for more details and a treatment before committing to anything.
The treatment I received was essentially 3 key scenes: The rising of the demons, the squirt gun full of piss, and the double-ended dildo demon slaughter fight that starts the film’s finale. I was fucking sold. We did some paperwork dances and were off to the races. Next thing I know I’m in LA on a red carpet trying to explain to a bunch of reporters that I’m not an actor, but a musician, and asking them to name their favorite Venom albums.
Any other film or video projects coming up?
We were recently in a UK indie short titled ‘Run,’ directed by Viral Films.
We will also have a song featured in ‘Pool Party Massacre’ directed by Drew Marvick, due to hit the festival circuit this year.
Our thanks to Justin, Professor Pizza, and the rest of Axeslasher. Pre-orders for the VHS cassette version of Anthology of Terror, Vol. 1 are available from axeslasher.com and dirtyneedlerecords.com. The tape release show happens on February 20th, with Overkill and Necropanther at the Gothic Theatre in Denver, CO.