This past summer marked 35 years since Heaven’s Metal Magazine was born. Texas-native Doug Van Pelt’s passion for metal and Jesus merged into the pages of sheets of paper he hand photocopied, bound, and distributed to anyone who was interested on the University of Texas campus. Over the decades, it has changed formats, going from fanzine to print to an online-only publication. It has shifted names along the way – Heaven’s Metal to The Hard Music Magazine to simply HM – and, in 2013, switched hands from Van Pelt to current Owner and Editor David Stagg (who happened to start with HM as an intern in 2004).
There are stories and lives behind each of these transitions, but what connects them all is a desire to highlight the most human and genuine parts of heavy music and the everyday people who make it. It’s because of the integrity and legacy of HM that I was drawn to start writing for them as a freelancer to begin with. As one of the newer generational members in their niche crew, I’m proud to help celebrate their collective success of the last three and a half decades by turning the microphone around on Van Pelt and Stagg for once to ask them to share what this whole thing has meant to them.
Here’s to another 35 years.
Danielle Martin (to Doug Van Pelt): What was your intention with HM initially, and how did you feel that became fulfilled over time?
Van Pelt: It accomplished all my dreams. From the get-go, the vision was to be a full-color glossy magazine on the newsstands beside Hit Parade, Cream, and Rolling Stone, but the first couple of years were a far cry from that. I didn’t have any start-up capital, so I pasted my issues together at Kinko’s with scotch tape and a typewriter. But the vision was always to be full-blown – I just had to grow slowly-but-surely to get there, and there were a couple of milestones that helped get me there.
What do you feel like those milestones were?
Van Pelt: My dad gave me a laser printer and a Tandy 1000 computer so I had a word processor that was much better than my Commodore 64, which is what I was working on as a senior in college at UT. Another milestone was in the Spring of ’86, I got a care package from Pure Metal Records and a letter from their Vice President saying, “We want to do marketing through you.” It was the first paid advertising besides classified ads in the magazine, so that was a big boost.
It became something so much greater than just a magazine. What, out of everything that HM is affiliated with, has been the greatest accomplishment?
DV: There’s been a lot of cool accomplishments. Some that come to mind are…
The Dove Awards. The Dove Awards are like the “Christian Grammys,” and there were nominees for, like, the top Christian metal album of the year, Christian metal single of the year. Most of the labels were putting out hard music, hardcore, and these hybrid styles of music, and they were kind of ashamed of the word ‘metal.’ So I went to the Dove Awards and told them they needed to change the category from ‘hard rock metal’ to ‘hard music’ – the subtitle for HM Magazine at that point was the hard music magazine. Having a hand in them changing the name of that category was kind of cool.
Having a stage at Cornerstone Festival for about 20 years was a really cool accomplishment.
Alice Cooper is the original shock rocker. He was a Christian but never shared his testimony with any magazine. He chose HM to be the first platform where he shared his faith, so that was a real honor, and we put him on the cover.
POD was another great band I fell in love with (like a lot of people did) right away. We threw our support behind them, and, as a way of saying thanks when they went to Atlantic and went multi-platinum, they sent me a gold record plaque.
DM: You guys have gotten to do some of the coolest interviews. What would each of you say has been your favorite you’ve gotten to do for HM?
David Stagg: Mine would be Watain. They are probably the most quintessential Swedish black metal band you can think of, short of what you think of when you think of bands from the early European Norwegian church burning days. They were on tour in the United States and came to Austin. I remember setting up the interview and, through his PR group, let me know he had no earthly idea why I wanted to talk to him. I had told him, “I want to talk to you all about your faith” – I didn’t say Christian faith, I just said faith, and they were taken aback by it.
When I met him there, I found the band’s manager and he walked me to the tour bus. Their vocalist, Erik Danielsson, came down the stairs off their chartered bus. He’s a short guy, shorter than I would have expected, kind of wiry and lean, tough. He had scraggly, long hair and this accent and he was trying to tell me, “I just don’t get it. I don’t get it. Why do you want to talk to me? You don’t want to hear what I have to say.”
I was trying to explain to him that the point of the magazine is to contemplate this weird thing we call life but from all aspects and that we don’t shy away from opposing viewpoints. In fact, we try to encourage discourse and communication about who we are, where we are, where we came from, and where we’re going. Once he started to talk, he was like a river. We walked around a few blocks in downtown Austin, just the two of us, and had a great conversation.
It was important to me because it was early in the days of when I first took over the magazine from Doug. It was really helpful to me in solidifying how I would approach and share interviews – and have great conversation – with people who don’t necessarily line up with your outlook on life. We had a ton of feedback on it, not all positive, but, to me, it meant I was doing something right. I know Doug’s always kind of felt that way. He always got the worst of it, especially when the magazine first started in the mid-’80s.
Van Pelt: One of the most memorable interviews, nobody got to enjoy. I had a staff writer named David Jenison (who) called me up and said, “Hey Doug, there’s a new band coming out on Columbia Records called Korn, and they’re gonna be big, and I just want to give you a heads up.” I called up a publicist and scheduled an interview with Jonathan Davis (their vocalist) of the band who, I think, was touring with Danzig and Marilyn Manson at the time.
I did the interview with him in the dressing room of the Austin City Coliseum. The dressing rooms were cinder-block brick with spray paint all over them. I did the interview with him and got him to open up; they had a song called “Fagot” on their debut album, and so I asked him about self-esteem. He really opened up and talked about the value of humanity and human beings and self-worth. I talked about Jesus and asked him what he thought about Jesus. He worked in a morgue for a while and shared things like – according to him – that it’s been scientifically proven that man has a spirit because people weigh less after they die than when they were alive. I think science would show that was the water weight, but, nevertheless, he really was convinced that we do have a spirit, which I believe. So it was an awesome interview.
Meanwhile, Danzig was doing a soundcheck and the kick drum – boom boom boom – just pounding through that cinder-block wall. A few days later, when it came time to transcribe it, all I could hear was that soundcheck – but not Jonathan Davis. It was an awesome interview that never got to see the light of day.
Stagg: Korn ended up on our cover in 2013.
I was going to say, that kind of came full circle with the whole band, right?
Stagg: It did! That was one of the highlights of my interviews and career, flying out to Los Angeles when they were being inducted to get a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. They had a press ceremony, and I went and hung out with them. That’s when I talked to (Korn bassist) Fieldy about faith and when I officially interviewed Brian (also known as Head), who is a fairly prevalent Christian. He put out a bunch of music specifically as a Christian band (Love and Death).
Working with the magazine, what was the best show you’ve been to and why?
Stagg: I have gotten the opportunity to see pretty much every band I could ever possibly want to see. To this day, the energy and electricity that flows through a metal concert – whether you like the band or not – is addicting and one of the greatest things to experience. Back in the day, we had an office on the east side of Houston. It was a great place to be, incredible tacos. There was this really, really small, disgusting live bar place that was just a hole in the wall. The sound guy literally lived there, and they paid him in beer or something. It was wild. It was one of those places.
I had fallen in love with this band called Silent Planet, and I had reached out and talked to Garrett (Russell, vocalist). They were touring, all five in one small van, totally DIY, double-decker, just hoping to get from point A to point B and to make enough money one place so they could buy gas to just to get to the next. They were playing at this bar and, after talking to Garrett, me and my brother showed up there, and we were like, hey, we’re gonna film this and we’re gonna make like a live music video. There might have been seven people total there; it was the type of show where there were more people in the entourage of a small band than had shown up to see the show.
If you know anything about Silent Planet, they’re one of the best bands in metalcore today. They’re incredible and doing amazing things. Garrett is one of my favorite people. He is an incredible talent and I love talking to him; he’s a very thoughtful individual. So to be able to have a good time with them, birth this friendship with those guys, and do it in front of seven other people and a sound guy who fell asleep during their show at the soundboard was easily one of my most memorable and favorite shows that I have ever seen.
Van Pelt: There’s one I definitely remember from being at the HM Magazine Stage at Cornerstone. I had booked Galactic Cowboys to play a midnight performance. They’re one of my favorite bands, just a brilliant group of musicians that mix really big vocal harmonies with heavy and dynamic music. King’s X was like their older brother who was a similar sound.
There was this other band called Atomic Opera. All three of them were managed and produced by Sam Taylor, and, when Galactic Cowboys came up to Cornerstone, Frank Hart of Atomic Opera was there, and he was helping me out with my video magazine editing. He asked me if maybe he could play a ten-minute set to open up for the Galactic Cowboys.
We get up there and, I swear, there was like a 45-minute soundcheck and the guys in Galactic Cowboys are like, Yeah, we knew this would probably happen. It was just the most frustrating thing in the world. When I finally got to introduce them (after Atomic Opera mercifully ended their set) I was screaming at the top of my lungs, “Please welcome, Galactic Cowboys!” so enthusiastically and loudly that the lead singer right behind me was shocked. But I had just let loose all of the frustration of the day. It was a fabulous show.
(To Stagg): How has heavy music evolved, especially in terms of social influence and faith-based content? Has that been a good or a bad thing?
Stagg: I don’t view it necessarily as a bad or as a good thing. It is what it is. I took over the magazine in February of 2013, so we’re only talking around six or seven years. Almost exponentially, once the world became more comfortable with people being authentic in who they are in public, it was like an outpouring of story and community.
Doug did all the hard work. He started a band called Lust Control in 1985 – it may sound dumb now, but I can’t tell you how rebellious that was. That was the beginning of the really, really hard work. I think the way that it’s evolved in the 5-10 years that I’ve been a part of it feels to me like acceptance is greater, in that people have come to grips with authenticity as a true means of connection and humanity – which has been more important to the next generation than Sunday School was. So when you go to a metal show and smoke a cigarette with somebody outside and talk about faith and you say, “You’re black, I’m white, you’re gay, I’m straight, you’re trans, I’m not, you’re a woman, I’m a male” – they don’t care. They just want to bang their head and try to develop a community in a place where, previously, you were almost like, I’m here at church and I’m here at Wednesday night Bible study because my mom made me come here. And then you’re looking for secret signs that you two are part of the same underground club. That mentality is a result of some of the work that Doug put in.
So, for me, my goals with HM have been more to be publicly authentic and try to get artists and musicians to be publicly authentic, not just to encourage discourse about faith, positivity, self-esteem, and the greater good, but also the other battles that Doug and the previous generations of HM, Hard Music Magazine, Heaven’s Metal has fought.
That’s my opinion on it, but I’d be curious, Doug, if you had some more opinions from an outsider’s point of view, if I’m on track there, and how do you see the magazine in the 5-10 years since you watched me work with it and, in a way, take it in a different direction.
Van Pelt: The last four years I was doing the magazine (2009-2012), in addition to trying to promote and be a part of a scene, I tried to inform, educate, and encourage that, as well. We didn’t preach to our artist-audience as much as we tried to encourage them, to stand tall based upon the quality of their ideas not based on the fact that everybody agrees to their predetermined feelings or the predisposition about their lyrics. Around that time, you had bands like Underoath and Zao and The Devil Wears Prada, As I Lay Dying, and August Burns Red blowing up and being accepted and playing these huge shows; As I Lay Dying were playing to, like, tens of thousands of people in Europe.
These bands were accepted openly by the mainstream press, the mainstream world, people that were not necessarily believers. People could speak frankly from the stage – not necessarily sermonize but they were being authentic and their art was accepted by all these huge and growing numbers. That’s the stepping stone, the transition time, when you got to take over. In some ways, I felt like I talked myself out of my own job because I encouraged people. In essence, I was telling them they wanted their music in Alternative Press – not HM. You don’t need a Christian magazine for what you’re doing, you want the world’s magazine. I guess people took that to heart and they walked away.
Stagg: We turned around and tried to re-embrace that; we’ll do an interview with anyone as long as they want to be authentic. And, clearly, we want to talk to popular bands and get their opinions on things, because whether those popular bands like it or not their influence is there to a mass audience of listeners.
(To Stagg) What is your hope for the future of HM?
Stagg: Lately, I’ve been very obsessed with interviews. I wish we could do one a day. People listen to podcasts a ton, and I wish that we could do written interviews with audio podcasts of the same interview so you could either listen or read it, if you wanted to. I think that’s where my heart is, but I don’t ever see the spine of the magazine changing.
I say: “Music for good.” That’s the quick, three-word sentence of what I want HM to be, and I still think that’s true moving forward. Look, I’ve struggled a lot; I’m an alcoholic, I’m a drug addict, I’ve been depressed, I’m obsessive-compulsive… You name it, and I’ve struggled with it. When I was struggling, the number one thing that helped me through it was other people talking. Whether I engaged in the conversation or not was somewhat of a moot point – especially earlier on when I was learning what I was struggling with, just hearing that somebody else was like me was important. That could give me the breath of air that I needed for the day or for a week.
To have conversations with massive bands or incredibly influential people and have them say, “I wrote this song in a time when my friend’s best friend died.” What they dealt with and how they handled it can be encouraging to somebody that is going through that. It could be encouraging to somebody that’s an alcoholic, it can be encouraging to somebody who wants to refine their thoughts on religion by listening to or reading an interview of somebody else about why they don’t like Christianity or why they walked away from faith or how they replaced their Christian faith with goodwill towards men instead of some form of spiritual god or afterlife.
I think all that is healthy conversation and I want to encourage that conversation, to give people some kind of meat to chew on. (I don’t say that as) a hashtag. I don’t want HM to be a three-paragraph article that’s just a regurgitation of the news. There’s obviously a place for that. It’s still very real and keeps people employed, it’s just not really the direction I ever wanted to take HM or embrace as an ethos for the magazine itself.
HM Magazine was posted on September 1, 2020 for HM Magazine and authored by Danielle McCallister.