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The Riff Compels Him, and Them: Photographer and Eyehategod Visual Artist Tom Bejgrowicz

He discusses the Eyehategod aesthetic and offers photos from his new book

All photography is ©Tom Bejgrowicz, all rights reserved

Usually, we see a show from only one perspective, whether it’s a fan, decked out in their patch-littered denim jacket, who paid hard-earned money (or, if you’re a privileged asshole like me, is on the list) and is ready to mosh their troubles away, a band member who has to endure bores like load-in and soundcheck before morphing into fleeting gods onstage, a crew member at the mercy of said band dudes, or a merch person equipped with a permanent shit-eating grin when they explain to you that, unless it’s Crowbar, shirts don’t come in 4XL.

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Tom Bejgrowicz, a photographer and graphic designer who heads up Man Alive Creative, wanted to bring all of those experiences together in one narrative with The Riff Compels Them. His setting? Perhaps the most badass bill of our age: High on Fire, Eyehategod, and Corrosion of Conformity at Ottobar in Baltimore earlier this year on April 27. With a lineup like that, you need more than a shirt and a tab you walked out on for keepsakes. Riff transcends both rote concert photography and limited fetish object by providing an endlessly revisitable look at how the day fleshes out, from broken strings beforehand to amplifier worship after. You get a real sense for the day just by flipping through, thanks to his meticulous documentation. In addition to shots of people going nuts, you see people you normally see in action in more reserved settings. This is none more true than his shot of Matt Pike, High on Fire’s leader and Riff Lord, gazing in a Thinker pose. (This could be a meme: “Whatcha thinkin’ about, Matt?” “I dunno, riffs and stuff.”) Bejgrowicz has history with some of these dudes too: he worked A&R at Century Media during the end of Eyehategod’s tenure at the label, and he got to know COC when he worked at Caroline Records back in the 80s. He’s not just a documenter - he’s a legit fan, and that shines through in Riff.

Bejgrowicz spoke to me about the book, the contrast between shooting Southern metal bands and Ghost, and how the death of Eyehategod’s longtime drummer Joey LaCaze hung over the show. Check out an interview and some photos from the book, some of whiich were intended for our NOLA documentary. You can order RIff here.

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The Riff Compels Them

Noisey: How did The Riff Compels Them come about? Was it conceived before the show or after the fact?
Tom Bejgrowicz: It was something that I had been contemplating for a bit, but really couldn’t formulate until literally seeing the date put [up], because that was a one-off show, and those three, I couldn’t imagine them being able to afford touring together. Once I saw that, I shot the Eyehategod guys something right away. I wanted it to be about the fans, about the place, the day, the time period because if think about books that I would love to have when i was going to see Maiden in the early 80s - if I had a book of what everyone wore and the band that day, I would love that. Basically, I wanted to create that I know I would love to have. So that included going out in line to get the first couple kids in line and the jackets, the patches, the merch, and flyers around the wall - whoever else was playing the venue. Things that would give it a context, not just photos that would resemble what somebody could shoot on a iPhone today. It was developed prior, and I want to do more, but it’s gotta be the right shows.

There’s a real sense of narrative, and that’s evident in using timestamps. How was this necessary for how the day came together?
For me, and I’ve gotten some really good comments back from people who’ve picked it up, they’re real excited to see these things. It gives them a sense of like “wow, I was still at work,” - what goes on in this day. It’s not just - you know, you’ve been to shows and hung out with bands where it’s like watching paint dry. It’s like going in the studio with a band, or a video shoot, and you’re like “Oh my god” the same thing over and over again. But for these guys, it’s capturing the context of hanging out with their friends, especially on a day like this, where they’re - “these are my people.” To show up and have Jimmy [Bower, Eyehategod’s guitarist] there - he played in COC for a bit and have their tours behind them and stuff, to capture that joy, especially Woody [Weatherman, COC’s guitarist] and Jimmy just shooting the shit and joking. I like the idea of having the times along with that because it shows the evolution of the entire experience, not just showing up and rocking, because, again, everyone can document that today, just with their cell phones. People can capture that, but really, [this is] the essence of what’s it is to be band on the road.

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There’s a lot more downtime than a lot of expect. A lot of people think “oh we’re just gonna turn up all day,” but there’s some…space in there.
Being in the trailer with [COC bassist] Mike Dean when he strings his bass, of course they were on Caroline and i worked with Caroline, so we’re friends and stuff. Just being about to talk about it - seeing the day unfold, packing and unpacking their own stuff - it was fun, I love this kind of stuff. That’s what I wanted to portray, like when I curated the design for the photo book for [former Danzig/Samhain bassist] Eerie Von [Misery Obscura: The Photography Of Eerie Von (1981-2009)]. There would be moments where he’d go “Well, nobody gives a shit about that, I don’t want anybody to see that.” And I’m like “No, as a fan, I can guarantee you I want to see that.” So I really tried to put [them], when I edited in the photos, in that timeline exactly because it would be aesthetically pleasing but interesting and eye-opening to the fans who don’t see that normally.

The Riff Compels Them

Your book goes for a warts-and-all approach, which is something a lot of people like, but there’s also some who would prefer to keep a mystique. Is that something you think about? Metal has its own sort of mystique and bullshit.
Mystique is a perfect word. In the case of these three bands, they’re a little more down-home, without the theatrics and stuff. I shot Ghost for Decibel in 2012, I shot a couple shows with them, and certainly, there could be no shots of them outside of the mystique. I could hang out of them, watch soundcheck, and slowly get to know each other, but we’re gonna carry that mystique. But I was still able to get a little bit of that behind-the-scenes feeling.

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Eyehategod’s singer Mike Williams said that the day felt like an abstraction, like it wasn’t real. Did you feel that way at all?
I guess felt that right quick when the show was announced. That bill just lept off the page, so that made me super excited. That day - I think it really hits you when the set ends and you realize what’s coming next still, and the next band ends and you’re like “holy shit, there’s still going to be this set.” It definitely has that sense to me, and to I think the fans that, it’s not like you’re building up, it’s not like an opener at the end of every song going like “I know you’re here to see this band, so thanks for listening to us, we’ll be at the merch table” kind of vibe. This was literally, three beasts right back. It kept the energy of the whole place [going]. Mike, especially [bassist] Gary [Mader] from Eyehategod, we’re just on the side of the stage during COC, we’re just staring down in awe. There was a “floor me” attitude that ran through the bands as well.

The photos of Matt Pike and Mike Williams looking pensive are interesting, especially since we’re used to seeing them in action.
Yeah, that kind of possessed feel they normally have, where they rip through a chord or Mike’s kind of lost in the music for a second. Those moments were are a result of that downtime. On the road, you have sometimes seven, eight hours before you even play, and you may not even soundcheck. Matt in particular, the shot you’re referencing, was up on the stage, having done what he could, but waiting for more things to get done so they could really run through soundcheck. It’s pretty much that time to exhale after driving their ass off to get there, and setting up, and being able to sit down and get lost in thought, so maybe that’s what you need to do tonight, or whatever you gotta handle in your personal life. It’s when they get lost in thoughts again, it makes them more as people and less as the persona people get to know them as.

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The Riff Compels Them

It’s kind of punk in a way, shattering the line between dude and performer.
That’s exactly the intention of it, in a sense that people don’t get to see that, and that does allude back to your question about is that good thing, is the mystique there. Mike’s creativity and his writing and his perspective on life is unique - to get more in the mindset of who they are as a person, I think has that really incredible contrast to how they’re looked upon on stage. Realistically, they couldn’t be the person on stage unless they find those moments either.

When did you relationship with Eyehategod begin?
The direct relationship occurred when I took over A&R [at Century Media] in January ‘98, and it was one-day crossover, and that was it. No training, no real information, just kind of picked up the bands and tried to figure things out. Basically, it was no secret that Eyehategod hated our contract. It was also limiting to Jimmy in particular at the time. So I was looking to end things contractually. I really, having a lot of respect for the band, wanted to find a resolution that - as somebody taking over the A&R department, I really wanted to get bands involved who really wanted to be involved with the label, and help out the bands who felt stuck. In their case, it was an opportunity sit there and say - all these singles they released elsewhere, which a lot of them weren’t allowed to be done, but the band was doing their thing, which was punkness in their spirit. Compiling them on Southern Discomfort to getting radio shows and tapes for the band to put together for 10 Years [of Abuse (and Still Broke)], and talk the new album [Confederacy of Ruined Lives]. Once we could get those talks going, especially between Jimmy and I, being the voice of the band, especially at the time, that relationship grew over the next few years leading up to Confederacy, which that sealed the deal with the contract and they were free. To be honest, in all the stuff I’ve done over the years, that was one of my prouder moments because they deserved to do that, they were in a tough spot, it wasn’t helping things for the label, it wasn’t helping things for the band, it felt like the right thing to do.

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It must have stung a little bit to let one of your favorite bands go.
Ultimately, they were allowed to go and do they needed to do. Now, obviously, that meant 14 more years of other projects, because they never did anything else other than a single or a song here and there. If you like them enough and respect them enough, it’s like the cliche for relationships, you can let them go. But, there was no way in hell I was gonna be able to go up to the label owners and say “Can we just let them go, for nothing.” Coordinating pieces that made sense with the comps and the new album gave the label something to sink their teeth into while giving the band freedom and inspiration.

The Riff Compels Them

What’s kept up that relationship over the years?
When it went to the projects and whatnot and everybody’s on different schedules, there were a few years where I was watching from afar, picking up the records and whatnot to stay in tune. I loved hearing them being able to expand that voice, and I still love that they’re still exploring new places. It really started to come around together again as a band, and doing some touring again, in 2010, with that Brutal Truth/Nachtmystium tour, and just seeing them get out there and really love it again, and being able to work with each other, that was inspiring to me. They’re good guys, and they always have been, they were just in a situation that painted them in another light, when realistically they were just good guys, so it’s been fun to keep in touch and share that mutual respect.

What else do you remember about that show with Brutal Truth and Nachtmystium?
Well, it had been a little of time since I saw the guys in person, especially as a group, and I loved that night. I was really shooting a lot of Blake Judd that night, but obviously, I still shot Eyehategod live and hung out with them a bit beforehand and whatnot. It struck me after all that time and everything we’ve gone through, to walk up to Joey in particular and have it be super awesome, super smooth and great talks. Jimmy was the same, to watch him just rip it up - I’ll tell ya, one of the things I kind of forgot about with the band was, it was at First Unitarian in that basement, and it is just a sweat pit. The ceiling’s so low and it was so packed in there. When they came on - I have this video and I ended up sending it to Jimmy [?] and them, but it didn’t make it into the documentary - but there’s this winding up where Joey do that bend over, cross the sticks to his chest and just do that count and the band just waits for when he’s ready. It’s just really energizing - as soon as they hit in and kicked in, the wall of people would be swelling over on the stage. It was a lot of great feelings, and hearing them talk about new material - that was super exciting, because it had been, at that point, ten years. To hear every show that there’s this potential coming, and know that they’re a band that is excited to be together again and loving working together and moving towards something was fun.

Was Joey’s death still looming over the Baltimore show?
Having that energy and that kind of dedication - and it was just prior to the record coming out, so [there was] definitely a vibe that the band was super excited at the fact that they still had part of Joey to share, with his playing on the record. For them, it’s surreal and I know that they have gone through a lot - he wasn’t just a band member, but a friend - there was something in the air for them to understand that the fans are just getting to see them in this new light as well. There was definitely something, not really to prove, but to pay respects and play material that will be forever linked to Joey.

The Riff Compels Them

I saw them twice after his passing - once with The Melvins’ Dale Crover at Housecore last October, and once with new drummer Aaron Hill in December - and they were not sadsacks. No disrespect to Joey, but they kicked ass and those were probably two of the best times I’ve seen them.
When they hit that stage again, it was not only an homage to him, it’s also a chance ultimately pay respects and kick ass and not look back. Not “not look back” as a friend, but “not look back” as, “oh now it’s different or worse or this or that.” It’s still the band, and Joey’s spirit is still there in every single thing. Yeah, that’s awesome though, I would have loved Dale see play that. I think that’s an incredible favor to fill those shoes.