In the shadow of an empty pedestal on Monument Avenue, the Lamb of God frontman spoke about the chaotic era we’re all living through, and finding peaceful moments to savor amidst the chaos.
Frontman. Author. Visual Storyteller. Philosopher. These are just a few of the words one can use when describing Lamb of God frontman Randy Blythe. Fronting one of the biggest metal bands in the world, you might even be forgiven for making certain assumptions about what an interview with him might be like — because they’d all be wrong. Far from being removed from the chaos of everyday life, Randy is hyper-absorbed into the realities of the moment.
Nowhere is this more apparent than when speaking about his experiences as a street photographer and visual storyteller — two aspects of his work that have been pressed into service over the past seven weeks in his home town of Richmond, Virginia. Even more so since the murder of George Floyd and the start of months long street protests. Yet as every good photographer knows, you cannot capture the emotional depth of the human experience without also being a person of emotional depth and experience yourself.
RVA Mag caught up with Randy one humid Friday night at the plinth of the now removed Confederate statue of JEB Stuart on Richmond’s Monument Ave. Covered in movement messages, this spot has become a favorite for the city’s skaters and BMX riders. Only a few weeks earlier, the city’s skaters led a march called “Skate in Solidarity” in support of Black Lives Matter; this event saw hundreds of skaters leave Texas Beach, a local skatepark, and descend on the former Confederate statue. True to his skating roots, Randy was also behind the lens for this demonstration before the evening ended with a confrontation between the police and protesters. Even in these kinetic environments, Randy is quick to observe that the quiet moments of humanity amongst the chaos oftentimes make for the most impactful images and social documentation.
RVA Mag: I think we can start this pretty simply: You’re in one of the biggest metal bands in the world, but you’re also a visual storyteller, so what story are you telling in 2020?
Randy: A rather chaotic one. 2020 has had many stories to tell, starting with the Coronavirus pandemic. This was the beginning of the black ball of chaos that is now rolling down hill. I’ve been out a lot at night in Richmond, shooting — particularly downtown and in The Fan — completely by myself, and the city was utterly empty. People were obviously here, but inside, particularly at night. The streets were really eerie. Then shooting during the day, the few human portraits I would get to make were interesting because they were withdrawn. Because nobody knew what the fuck was going on.
RVA Mag: I don’t think that confusion has abated any.
Randy: So that led into the story of the economic impact [of COVID]. I was shooting a lot of shuttered businesses and empty shopping districts. And then the George Floyd protests occurred, and I went out and shot the first night of that. Since then I have gone out and been doing what I always do, which is head out into the city streets and shoot what they provide — what attracts my eye. Obviously there have been a lot of tense moments lately to capture.
RVA Mag: There is a lot of raw human emotion right now.
Randy: Yes, and a whole lot of people capturing that. There are a lot of photographers. I think consciously what I am now looking for is the quiet moments you can find in the middle of all that chaos. Those are harder to find.
RVA Mag: You were outspoken in advocating for healthcare workers on the frontline of COVID, but as a city we moved quite rapidly from COVID to the street protests. Was there a nexus between these two things for you?
Randy: First of all, there is no way to make the on-video murder of George Floyd any less abominable. That’s obviously not the only time police have killed people, it was just the latest one caught on video. So this is not to diminish that atrocity, but by the time that happened people were primed: They had been under lockdown, they don’t know what’s going on, there is so much disinformation in the media — on both sides — which is horrific. There is the economic fallout, everyone is wondering what and the hell is going on. Everyone has been in a really tense place. So when this happened — to use a trite analogy — it was a perfect storm.
RVA Mag: Let me build on that a bit: You have a global career, touring all over the world, but you always come back to Richmond. What’s it like to come back here and see this on your city streets?
Randy: I’m careful in how I answer questions like this. Because I have seen this before. We were in Thailand during the Redshirt Revolt. When we landed, there were 100,000 people camped out in downtown Bangkok. Right before we go on stage, there is an announcement made that the government just declared martial law and that anyone not home within an hour will be going to prison. We’d not even played our set yet. They announced that and the Thai people [at the show] were like, “Fuck you, we’re staying.”
RVA Mag: Wait, so you played a show in Bangkok while the city was under martial law?
Randy: Absolutely, 100 percent.
RVA Mag: Ok, this is rock n’ roll lore now. Did the authorities try and stop you from performing?
Randy: No, they were busy massing downtown. There were 100,000 people in downtown Bangkok — protesters — all wearing red. I still have a red protest bandana. We got off stage and I went down there. Everyone was super cool with us, but everyone was strapping on homemade armor and then there was this massive, massive riot. I wound up back at the hotel, but later that night the protesters took over a police station and stole hundreds of automatic weapons. 37 people died that night, including three or four journalists. The next day, right after we took off, they closed the airport. And that’s just one story. I’ve seen stuff like this on an even larger scale.
So for me, seeing it here is very, very odd. Seeing tear gas being popped off on Monument Ave is fucking crazy. Things here have remained more tumultuous for longer because of where we’re sitting [across from the removed statue of JEB Stuart]. We’ve reached this boiling point, but it’s always kind of been here in Richmond. We’re a majority black city, people need to understand that. I can’t speak for a single black person, but most of them don’t appreciate these monuments.
RVA Mag: The public memory of these men, memorialized in these statues, is ending with this generation. As a thought exercise, everything they stood for and how they were propagandized throughout Virginia and US history ends here and now. Is that special to you as someone from Richmond?
Randy: It is intense to see. There was a lot of talk about how they were going to be contextualized. Like, put a little plaque there. But unless you are right up on that plaque, the monument itself does not convey that — it still conveys a position of power. It is harder to contextualize something that is built, positioned, and placed so purposefully to convey this one thing. How are you going to put context with that unless you build something equally as large beside it? And no one was talking about that.
I think they have been contextualized now. You can look at all these monuments, they have been fucking contextualized.
RVA Mag: We have seen aspects of popular culture respond to this movement very quickly. In terms of being a national touring act in a period of national transition, what role do you see the metal scene playing in pushing the change we’re seeing?
Randy: Well, it’s interesting. We just released our eighth album, Lamb of God — the tenth one we’ve ever recorded [including two released under the name Burn The Priest]. The whole premise is the unsuitability of our current way of life. A lot of the songs seem prescient. The cracks in the system we’re seeing against systemic racism in our society, none of this surprises me. The pandemic doesn’t surprise me.
RVA Mag: In an American context or individual life context?
Randy: In a societal context, it was inevitable. Business as usual in America, and here we are. As a heavy metal singer, I had to source N95 masks for physician friends of mine. And I could do that, and I did do that, delivering them to doctors and nurses. The fact that a fucking heavy metal singer can, and a physician can’t, is ludicrous and is evidence that we’re unprepared. So this is not unpredictable.
But make no mistake, young people are leading this right now. Oftentimes I am the oldest dude out here shooting. I am going to turn 50 next year. You have all these young people becoming more educated, while also facing an uncertain economic future. They have the knowledge of the systemic racism, they are putting things together and seeing these things and thinking it is fucked up. Eventually there is going to be a breaking point.
RVA Mag: There is so much cultural turbulence right now. Is punk and heavy metal music still the music of rebellion, the way it used to be?
Randy: The real shit is. Fuck yeah it is! But in this particular situation, heavy metal and punk rock, like everything else as it grows bigger gets diluted. I would say hip-hop is more the voice of this. Hip-hop gets diluted and commercialized too, it’s pop music in a lot of ways. But I have heard a lot of good hip-hop coming out of Richmond — through RVA Magazine — with great social commentary [holds up his phone to show a stream of Richmond’s JR Da Rapper].
RVA Mag: Let’s switch to photography. Some of this movement’s photography over the past six weeks has been phenomenal and tells the real story of what is happening on the street. In your opinion, what’s the role of photographers right now capturing a world in transition?
Randy: First of all, I have to give a shout out @eyeneyevisons — Christopher “Puma” Smith. He’s been shooting on film. I’ve not met him yet, but I really dig his work. But for me, as a photographer, I don’t pretend to be 100 percent subjective — I don’t work for Reuters. I document what’s going on. Just as every person in this society has different feelings about what’s going on, each photographer is going to look at things through a different eye. I think it is the responsibility of photographers who are dedicated to their craft — at least for street photographers and social documentarians — it’s the duty and role to go out and see this thing through their own eyes and make pictures for later. The more perspectives we have visually, as a visual record, the better we’ll be able to understand what has happened.
This is history. My take is to try and capture different viewpoints.
RVA Mag: You have an upcoming photo essay in Revolver. With all the images you’ve taken, how do you pick the ones that will be published?
Randy: It was actually relatively easy. The theme I am looking for is the quieter moments in the middle of the turmoil. Because I have a lot of pictures of that [turmoil], but so does everyone else. For me, it is harder to find the quieter beautiful moments in all of this [shows a picture of two Black children sitting on top of Lee Monument]. I wonder how the kids sitting there will always remember that as a good day. I was thinking how strange it was to remember good times I had at this monument, which was erected in the service of oppression. Then I looked at these two kids sitting up there and they were having a blast. Now I’m wondering, years from now, when they are pushing my age and remember that day — not only how good of a day that was, but also remember why it was such a good day.
RVA Mag: You said earlier that Richmond is your refuge. What’d you think in the moment when you were capturing images of the police targeting protesters?
Randy: I think about the really rapid shift in the geographic realities. For years this has been what they call an idyllic place, and now it is an emotionally charged vortex. After seeing this for so many years, it is like a portal has been opened to another dimension. And now it is covered in messages like “fuck cops.” I never would have thought someone could have written that on this statue. Photographs have changed history. A photograph can be that impactful. If you think about the famous photograph of the burning Buddhist monk [Thích Quang Duc, during the Vietnam War] — that photograph changed everything.
RVA Mag: You have a new album out. What’s the future of touring musicians given the global pandemic? There is a knock-on effect that is going to be felt for sometime.
Randy: Live shows will come back. This won’t last for fucking ever. I am going to scream if I hear some idiot on TV say “these are unprecedented times.” These are not unprecedented times. Unprecedented means we’ve never had this before; we’ve had the Spanish Flu, we’ve had economic collapse, we’ve even had massive civil unrest on a much larger scale — somehow everyone survived. It is important to document, remember, learn, and take knowledge from these times into the future. Hopefully we’ll emerge from this shitstorm as better people.
RVA Mag: You’ve touched and seen such a wide cross-section of America through your touring. When you look out into the audience in 2020, are you inspired that we’re going to course-correct and be better than what we’ve been the past four years?
Randy: I have hope that we will emerge as better people. Politically, I am as optimistic as you can be living in this ludicrous two-party binary system where it is still two old white dudes. I think we need some young people, some more variety. I think we need a woman president, which unfortunately is not going to happen this time around. Everyone, in so many ways, just seems so beaten down by the past four years. People just want to sit and chill without something abominable crazy and fucked up happening every day.
RVA Mag: On that relatively optimistic note, let me say thank you for such killer conversation.
Some of Randy’s photography can be found right here.
*All photos by Landon Shroder