Electric Wizard's Liz Buckingham: On Heavy Music And Taking The Hard Road
Originally published on Mon October 24, 2011 12:00 pm
Liz Buckingham is a leather-clad, self-taught axeslinger who brought one of metal's most important bands back from the brink with her leaden riffs. She also serves as an inspiration for countless other female metallers — all with a sly half-smile and a knowing look. Buckingham is a bastion of understated, self-confident strength and femininity working within a traditionally male-dominated genre — doom metal.
The world of doom is all about the heavy: depressive, distorted, amplifier-worshiping, eardrum-busting, psychedelic metal, borne of Black Sabbath and Pentagram and slowed down 'til it hurts. Buckingham is a formidable talent in her own right, but she's best known as guitarist, songwriter and witchy woman with sludge fiends Sourvein and 13, but most recently and significantly, Electric Wizard.
British doom titans Electric Wizard are a shadowy, seldom-seen entity at best; a monolithic, esoteric mystery otherwise — a haunting presence straight out of Suspiria, steeped in the druglust and bloodlust of the vintage horror flicks that the band worship so devoutly.
Rising from the ashes of proto-Wizardian projects Eternal, Grief Eternal and Lord of Putrefaction (musical ideas, like fine wine or bratty teenagers, need time to mature, to master ungainly limbs and shed baby fat) the behemoth first began its flight in the small, quiet English hamlet of Dorset. Small towns keep their secrets close, but for those who follow such things, it's long been known that Dorset is possessed of a certain eldritch quality, buoyed by age-old reports of fairies and ghosts, and intensified by the profusion of will 'o wisps, howling winds and rotting churches.
The atmosphere there breeds ill omens and witchcraft, and in Dorset in 1995 Electric Wizard began in earnest. The band wended its way through the next decade and a half, releasing genre-defining slabs of doom like 2000's Dopethrone and weathering a few stormy lineup changes. The 'Wizard takes inspiration form the sleazy X-rated gore flicks of Jess Franco, the eerie suspended horror of Italian directors like Dario Argento and exploitation B-movies of all stripes. Its aesthetic is as ratty biker chic as it is '70s doom dog — lots of fringe, leather, velour, long hair and sideburns. Its artwork is sheer menacing psychedelia, all bright colors and wavy lines laced with naked girls, inverted crosses, altars and smoke. An Electric Wizard raised without a VCR would have been a much different beast.
The band's following grew from cult to countrywide and finally to global phenomenon, securing them a sepulchre within doom's most hallowed hallways and spreading the three-horned gospel of black magic, bad luck and druglust far and wide. They reigned supreme for years, but then, as with any mighty empire, cracks began to appear. The spark began to flicker; their music started sounding uninspired, their riffs less compelling and their live performances dwindled down to naught. Electric Wizard were in desperate need of new blood and fresh ideas, and, happily enough for both them and metal as a whole, found it in Liz Buckingham.
She joined their ranks in 2003 when the group's leader, her old friend (and now husband) Jus Osborn, asked her to shelve their plan of starting a band together in favor of joining up with the 'Wizard. Despite their geographic differences (Buckingham is American, Osborn English) the two had known each other for years thanks to the global scope of the doom metal scene. According to Osborn, it just made sense. On her first album with Electric Wizard, 2004's We Live, the band sounded leaner and meaner, streamlined yet still mind-melting and mercilessly heavy. Buckingham's songwriting chops and aggressive playing add multiple dimensions to the band's already cosmic sound. Now it's impossible to think of the 'Wizard without her molten leads, flying fingers and flaxen-haired, dark-eyed visage floating above the stage.
Last year's Witchcult Today was the band's best effort in years, an instant classic that evoked Dopethrone's raw power and was built on Buckingham's trademark riffage: unfathomably heavy, effortless in execution, drenched in fuzz and catchy as the black death. Their latest release, Black Masses, follows suit.
Buckingham rarely does interviews, and this one was a long time coming — I first contacted her in the spring, and, after months of crossed fingers and transcontinental email chains, her responses materialized out of the ether. Here's what she had to say about her personal evolution as a musician and metalhead, from the earliest days and on through the obstacles she conquered before settling into her well-earned place as the reigning high priestess of doom.
How did you first get interested in rock'n'roll and heavy music? What was your first truly "heavy" album?
I was raised in a classical music household (my father was a opera singer and vocal coach). I grew up hearing opera singers all day, so my first albums were classical. And to this day, I still consider what is commonly known as Beethoven's 'Moonlight Sonata' as one of my favorite heavy pieces of music. It stirs your emotions in all the right ways of a truly heavy piece of music, and it was the first piece of music to teach me to really feel music and play it with passion. As far as rock, [it's] impossible to pin down one album as a first one. I was interested in so many different kinds of "heavy" music so quickly, it was just an explosion of loads of music that I consider pretty heavy. It's easier to answer what was the first album that got me into metal — which was Celtic Frost and then Slayer.
How long have you been playing guitar? What inspired you to pick up the instrument? Were you self-taught or did you take lessons?
I started taking it seriously and really playing rather late compared to most people — around 19 years old. I've been playing quite awhile now. I should be a lot better!
I took some lessons when I was a teenager but did not retain anything from it at all. So I consider myself self-taught. It's when someone showed me the power chord and how to down tune that I really got interested in playing the guitar, because then I could finally make the sound I wanted to hear, and write music. I tried to play a few different instruments, but I found the guitar was easier to write music with.
What is it about heavy music — doom, sludge, stoner rock, '70s psych and other riff-fueled wonders — that you love so much?
Something about the heavy simple riff just resonates deep within me. It's empowering. It transports me to other times [and] places and creates the right mood and atmospheres I like to create around me. It's just what I like.
You've been involved in heavy music for many years now, have played in several well-respected bands and have definitely had a firsthand view of the ever-evolving world of heavy metal. Overall, how would you say that things changed since the early days?
The most obvious change has been the Internet — good and bad. Because of it, it's really easy for people to find out about new bands. I think that made things a little less mysterious or intriguing or dangerous. It's harder to shock or be different or find that frisson you used get from discovering new bands — it's all so easy, and there's just so much of it. The anonymity of the internet also makes it real easy for people to be fake and bulls---.
The old days were a lot more "real." You had to physically be and do things. It wasn't virtual. You had go around with a bucket of wheat paste flyering for your gigs. Recording was really expensive. You had to actually go to gigs and physically speak to people and network in person. It's just so different now — people can record, network, advertise, promote without ever leaving their front door. I'm not saying it was better then, it was just very different.
When you first started playing in bands, did you have a hard time gaining respect from male musicians who weren't used to seeing a female sling a guitar onstage? Is that something you have to deal with nowadays, or do you find that the playing field has leveled out?
When I first got involved in the metal scene, it was very male-oriented/dominated. There were hardly ever any girls in the audience, let alone onstage, whereas today, I definitely see a lot more girls into metal and playing it than back then. But despite that, I don't really see that the playing field has leveled out — maybe a tiny bit. I think I personally deal with a little less of it now just because I'm in a better-known band now and I've been playing for so long. When I first started, it was very hard to gain respect in the metal world, and I feel like it's still pretty much the same.
The way some men think about women has a lot more to do with their upbringing than the amount of women playing guitar in metal bands. So it will be a very long time, if ever, that things will change that much. Maybe it will — or has become — less acceptable to outright treat women with disrespect, but it's not going to change certain individuals' way of thinking, no matter how much they suppress it or is considered socially unacceptable.
As a respected female heavy metal musician, you've never been one to make a big deal of or draw unnecessary attention to your gender, which is one of the reasons I was so keen to gain your perspective on a few things. I read a quote you made once about your desire to be known as "a good guitar player, not a good female guitar player," which is an incredibly strong statement. Do you find that a majority of female musicians think along those lines?
The female musicians I know do, but as far as others, I wouldn't know what they think. Obviously there are a few who think they need to make a big deal about being female and separate themselves. Historical evidence shows that it doesn't really help the cause to scream about it and draw attention to it. That doesn't change people's minds; it just annoys them. It's obvious you are a woman. More energy can be spent just doing it. The separation between men and women in the scene is the problem to start with, so I never understand why some people think it's a good idea to keep separating themselves if their aim is for equality.
What are your thoughts on female musicians and front women that overuse their sexuality and appearance to gain more exposure for their bands?
That's a really hard question, because first off, I really appreciate sexy women, exploitation B-movies and all that — and I also believe in equality and freedom. There are plenty of front men that use their sexuality and appearance. It's been a long tradition for both sexes to use their appearance in the entertainment field to get ahead.
But it's not the route I chose when I started. I didn't because I felt there wasn't enough of a balance in the metal scene, and because of that, women weren't generally taken very seriously. But that was my own personal choice and a choice I made based on proving something and trying to change something that I didn't like. I knew it would be a harder road, but if fame and money was my main goal, I never would have chosen playing metal in the first place.
So, personally, I think it's people's own choice — how they want to be seen by the world, what they want create [and] contribute to society. To each his own, basically.
How do you feel about the way women are generally portrayed in the rock/metal media? Revolver's Hottest Chicks in Metal issue and the perception of women musicians as either pretty faces or posers is diametrically opposed to the reality of the matter (which sees you and countless other female musicians focusing on riffs and songwriting instead of mascara and booty shorts).
Whatever, it's just corporate money crap — what sells. The world will always be like that. I mean, the mainstream is always lame. It's up to the public to demand something different.
None of that mainstream stuff is ever based in reality. And anyway, as long as more and more of the serious women musicians put themselves out there, the more it will eventually balance out and people will see there is a alternative.
Of all your musical achievements, of which are you most proud?
At the moment I'm pretty proud of what I've done in Electric Wizard. When I joined, the band was in a weird place, kind of limbo. I was bit nervous about what I would bring to the band and would it be accepted. But since then the music I've written, the imagery I've created has really come together and been successful. So I feel pretty proud of it now.
What words of advice or encouragement do you have for younger girls who want to become involved in heavy metal, either by playing music or supporting the scene through other methods?
Trust your own instincts and always question peoples' motives when they tell you you "can't" do something.