A Conversation with Mike Bolam | Local Vocal | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

A Conversation with Mike Bolam

Mike Bolam is a reference librarian at the University of Pittsburgh Information Science Library. He lets his hair down by indulging his true love: fast, loud, underground heavy metal. Besides playing in thrash-influenced hardcore band Crucial Unit...

What spawned your heavy-metal, spoken-word performances?

I was complaining about spoken-word performances, and how, in general, I wouldn't want to go hear a spoken-word performance if I didn't have to. Mike Q from [show venue] The Mr. Roboto Project, who seems to start just about everything going on in Pittsburgh, told me, "You should do spoken word about metal some time." I said, "Yeah, ha ha, whatever." But about a year later, he contacted me because he needed another spoken-word person to balance out a show.


It's a little bit tongue-in-cheek, sure, but I probably take metal more seriously than anyone else in the Pittsburgh punk scene, at least anyone I know.


One topic you've covered is "how to pick out thrash-metal records without hearing them." Can you give us some tips?

I stick to '80s speed metal and thrash metal -- that's sort of my specialty anyway. There're a couple of main points. First, you have to look at the font that the band wrote their name in [on the cover]. It has to be a little bit pointy, jagged, a little scary-looking. The album artwork: Always scan for satanic imagery, [but] sometimes you can get away with a little goofiness on the front cover. It's the back cover where it really comes in. You've gotta check out the guys in the band -- they're usually photographed on the back cover with the song titles below them. Check out the T-shirts they're wearing -- if they're wearing punk-band or hardcore-band T-shirts, there's a good chance it'll be a really fast record, which is good in my opinion. So if they're wearing Final Conflict or Suicidal Tendencies, something like that -- if the bass player's wearing a DRI T-shirt, that's enough for me.


Then pull out the inner sleeve -- one side is usually a collage [of photos] of the band being intense. You're looking for T-shirts there, but you're also looking for key scenesters -- them hanging out with Metallica or Anthrax. Or Katon DePena from [cult metal band] Hirax -- he's in so many thrash collages, I don't know how, he's just all over the place. If they're hanging out with Katon DePena, just buy it -- he's not gonna lead you wrong.


What other educational topics have you covered?

I did a top-15 desert island [records], things like Voivod's Killing Technology; Kreator, Terrible Certainty; Metallica, Ride the Lightning. The second show I did, I started taking a more scholarly approach and talked about Necrosis Records, a label done by the guys in Carcass. [They] only put out four albums; I had the four albums, and I talked about each one. For the next one, we're talking about a panel discussion, with a table with a white tablecloth, microphones, a jug of water -- like at a convention.


Is there something about metal that we non-believers are missing?

I like that there are a lot of heavy-metal songs that are about heavy metal. Bands were writing songs about their band, or about what they were into -- or about trying to scare people's parents. Then, especially with a lot of '80s speed metal, I don't think the guys in those bands were as dumb as [people think] -- when people think of metal they think of that rock-metal stuff that was on the radio, whereas these guys were covering a lot of social issues and things in their music. And some of them were just singing about Satan.


Do the other librarians have Celtic Frost patches on their jackets? What do they think of this?

My supervisor, the head librarian there, she buys all [my band's] records and gives them to her kids -- her son's totally amused that she works with people in bands. Actually, she promotes it more than I do at work.


I've thought about writing a research article [about metal and libraries], but the only library I've found that collects any of this stuff in any large amount is Bowling Green, in their [renowned] Popular Culture collection. I was going through their collection online, and pulling my hair out at the records there that I wish I had. I really don't think libraries need to be collecting, like, Destruction records -- there's a cultural record about it, and it would make for an interesting special collection at Bowling Green, but I don't think it would necessarily serve the public to have that stuff.

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