As Nuclear Assault tore into a frenetic set at the 2016 Maryland Deathfest, the sweaty masses in attendance not only got to see heavy metal working, but working its ass off.
The day had been plagued by rain and cancellations, but the 1,000-plus metalheads in the crowd were unfazed. Standing in the back of the enormous, fenced-off parking lot that had become the sight of Deathfest's outdoor stages, I watched a churning sea of people moshing, crowd-surfing, and circle-pitting with reckless abandon. Above it all stood Dan Lilker, a quiet, towering presence behind his bass.
A Queens native but longtime Rochesterian, Lilker was relatively silent throughout the first part of the set — save for the occasional song introduction and backing-shout to accompany John Connelly, the thrash metal band's singer and guitarist.
Then after dusting off the first batch of songs, he asked a burning question on everyone's minds: "Where the weed at?"
After a few more songs, Connelly gave Lilker some help. "As soon as you can see him backstage, hand over whatever you're carrying," Connelly joked.
"Whatever," Lilker said with a chuckle. "Here's a new song."
An earnest commitment to being as unpretentious as humanly possible is part of what makes Lilker such a captivating figure. While so much of metal music is dominated by hyper-masculine egos and art-damaged naval gazing, Lilker's seemingly innumerable projects, each unique in their own right, have all maintained a refreshing sincerity.
Nuclear Assault — Lilker's longest-lasting project with three decades and six albums under its belt — plays blazing thrash metal that can hold a mirror to society's ills just as easily as it could soundtrack a keg stand. The band's 1989 record, "Handle With Care," is a good example: the song "Critical Mass" details the horrors of pollution and deforestation just a few tracks before "Funky Noise," a 50-second instrumental funk jam complete with horn section. It never feels forced.
That's the eternal yin and yang of Lilker's career: the dark blends with the light; the political shares a track-list with the humorous.
Even just taking Lilker's projects at face value can be staggering. His seminal grindcore outfit Brutal Truth — which was based out of Rochester and recently put to rest — blended experimental riffs with blink-and-you'll-miss-it tempos for six records, each better than the last.
The simultaneously beloved and controversial Stormtroopers of Death (S.O.D.) essentially created crossover thrash with its landmark record "Speak English or Die." The album effortlessly blended thrash metal's aggro bounce with the blistering tempos of hardcore punk in a revolutionary way. Lilker even played on the first Anthrax record, 1984's "Fistful of Metal," a highly lauded record from a band that went on to become one of thrash's "Big 4" — along with Metallica, Megadeth, and Slayer (not exactly bad company to be in if you're a metal band).
With decades of hard touring and countless recordings under his belt, Lilker, who's now 52 years old, has proven himself to be both a man out of time and a true heavy metal lifer. He's settled down a bit, currently living in Rochester with his wife, and writing and performing some of the most angular and extreme music he's ever been involved with.
Lilker's aptly named band Blurring feels like a spiritual successor to Brutal Truth in the best ways while defying musical logic and time signatures alike. On the other end of the aural spectrum, but still just as sonically intense, is Nokturnal Hellstorm — a frosty Norwegian black metal-inspired band in the same vein as Darkthrone and Taake — whose only listed interest on Facebook is "cross inversion."
Lilker and I met at Tap & Mallet on an unseasonably warm November evening, and he greeted me by throwing up some metal horns. We grabbed a booth, and I attempted to condense the hundreds of questions swirling around in my head into something more concise. An edited transcript of that conversation follows.
CITY: Tell me a little bit about your beginnings in music and how you ended up in Rochester.
Dan Lilker: Well, I started playing piano when I was 5 years old, but as far as getting into other people's music, my late sister got me into all sorts of classic rock when I was 11 or 12 — Cream, Hendrix, The Doors, The Who, all that stuff. That piqued my interest, and then I got into Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. And you know, after that it's Judas Priest and Motorhead, and you're just off and running.
As far as how I ended up in Rochester, S.O.D. was playing a few shows right at the end of the last century, and we played the New Jersey Metal Fest in Pennsauken, New Jersey. My future wife was there, and she was from here, and we really hit it off. I came up to visit her a few times, and she tried to live in New York City with me for a while, but it's just way nicer up here. We finally moved up here in July 2001, and I've been an official Rochesterian for 15 years.
Is there anything specific about the Rochester metal scene that makes you happy to stick around?
It's a great scene. First of all, Rochester has a disproportionate amount of amazing guitar players. It's sick how many people are just shredding guitar players, which came in handy when I had to teach Erik Burke Brutal Truth sets when he was playing guitar for us. New York City might be bigger and more spread out, but it's more tight-knit here in a really good way. You've got your cool venues like the Bug Jar and Monty's Krown, and it's just a really great, strong scene for what a lot of people would call a secondary city.
What's it like bouncing back and forth between doing larger shows with Nuclear Assault and smaller shows back here in Rochester with Nokturnal Hellstorm and Blurring?
It's obviously a different thing to play to 2,000 people than it is to play to, like, 20 people at Monty's Krown, but to me it's always the same spirit. I never really differentiate; I don't say to myself, "Oh, shit, there's only 25 people here. Why even bother?" If Blurring plays in front of people, it must be at a f***ing festival, right? None of that stuff matters to me; I just love playing metal and I think that's what's important.
I've played shows in Europe with Nuclear Assault to thousands of people, and that's obviously a great feeling, but if Nokturnal Hellstorm is playing blazing fast black metal at a smaller show at the Bug Jar, that electricity really crackles too in its own way.
Can you pinpoint any specific musical endeavor that's impacted you differently than others have?
With each band there's been interesting and cool things that have impacted me. Narrowing it down, though, let's look at when S.O.D. played Japan, which was a little bit before we did the tour when I met my wife. That was sick because we had never been there before and the energy there was just amazing. The same thing could be said, though, for the first time Brutal Truth played Prague in 1994. That was, like, five years after the wall went down, so things were pretty interesting over there. That was the first time a city like Prague had an international grind show, so people were freaking the f*** out.
Back in 2014, you mentioned how you were retiring from being a full-time, touring musician. Do you think you'll ever stop playing altogether?
I'm just winding down, really. Nuclear Assault is going to Australia because we've never been there before. I mean, we'll still go anywhere in this country that we haven't been to before.
That whole retiring thing, though ... [sigh] Dude, part of it is just the expense of it. The airline industry has absolutely tanked over the past decade, and I couldn't possibly tell you how many times I've been stuck in airports getting various paradoxical information from all sides. I just had to back away from that because it was really stressing me out. Also, I turned 52 last month. I haven't slowed down, but I just got tired of sitting in a van four months out of the year. I don't play music for the money, but there are financial realities to consider, too.
I'm perfectly content here to play in the bands I'm in. I still get to play extreme shit but I get to go home that same night. It just wears you down after a while.
What advice would you give someone who wants to play metal as often as possible but also wants to live at least somewhat comfortably?
That's a good one. You just can't take on unrealistic expectations of what you're going to accomplish. Playing extreme music is something that chose me. If you're playing music that's close to your heart, that should be the most important thing to you. If you're playing music to get laid or get rich, I guess that's your business, but those were never primary motivators for me.
You can't be 22, expect to tour the world and come home with a million dollars and not have to work. You could do that, but you'll probably just be aping whatever's popular at the time, and then you're just chasing trends.
The lyrical and philosophical themes that Brutal Truth tackles are obviously a lot different than the ones S.O.D. covers. What motivates you to approach so many different subjects with your bands?
With S.O.D., it was just satire. I mean, we called our album "Speak English or Die" to be as provocative as possible and to annoy certain people in the hardcore scene that we thought were a little too uptight. Usually, though, I just trust whatever lyricist I'm working with at the time to be intelligent. I'm primarily a musician, and obviously I'm not going to be in a band that has fascist lyrics or anything like that, but for the most part, I just concentrate on the music. I just need to know what the song's called so I know when to play it.
It almost seems like as you get older you're making more extreme music than you were before. What kind of music do you perceive yourself making five, 10 years down the road?
I normally don't plan ahead too much; shit just kind of falls into place. I'll probably just keep making music in my room on my computer, but eventually my body will fall apart and I won't be able to go on stage and play extreme music for an hour. I mean, I get aches and pains every now and then but nothing's really stopping me. You get a serious adrenaline rush when you do the shit I do.
As far as genres go, I really don't know. It could be ethereal, weird, floaty type of stuff. You can't plan these things. A lot of it just comes from me being high and awake at three in the morning and just thinking to myself, "Man, I wonder what this shit would sound like!"
Getting away from music for a second, do you have any thoughts on the presidential election?
It's depressing. Hillary wasn't exactly someone I was fully behind, but I voted for her because I wanted to do whatever I could to prevent that other guy from taking office. And, I mean, the people have spoken, but the problem is that Trump roped in all of these people by appealing to their worst fears and most base prejudices. He just suckered them, and it's going to dawn on them pretty soon that he doesn't give a flying f*** about them. He just wanted their vote, he doesn't care about the working class at all.
I just can't believe that this adolescent man-boy — this sexist, racist, homophobic nightmare — managed to get elected president of this country. That's really scary, but I guess it is what it is. I did what I could.
Since you're continuing to make music, does the dark state of the country inspire your process at all?
I think the band Anal Trump is already doing it best. I don't know; music is very therapeutic for me, and the night after the election, I just went to a Blurring rehearsal to get it all out of my system. Music keeps me charged and it keeps me pissed. I think that's what people want, because when I'm pissed I make music.
Is there anything about Rochester specifically that inspires you to make music?
I think a band like Nokturnal Hellstorm is a perfect answer to that question. We play black metal because it's f***ing freezing here, and that's really inspiring to us. The climate certainly helps, for sure, but besides that, the wealth of talented musicians and places to jam really facilitates everything.
What advice would you give someone around here who's trying to play extreme music but is having trouble finding the resources to do so?
You just have to be patient. You have to associate with people who you know are going to do the job right. Just don't get discouraged, hold out, write music, and keep going no matter what.