Interview: Kim Kelly Talks Fight Like Hell and her metal roots
For many longtime readers, Kim Kelly likely needs no introduction. If you’re not familiar, the elevator pitch is that Kelly is one of the most metal writers out there—not only has she blogged about the genre everywhere from Astral Noize to Pitchfork, she’s also written about American labor, feminism and much more for a long list of outlets including The Atlantic and Teen Vogue while wearing Ash Borer tees and generally not giving much of a fuck.
Kelly has a new book out today called Fight Like Hell: The Untold History of American Labor. In it, she takes a Zinnian journey along historical trails blazed by authors like Tera Hunter to connect the dots of American labor beyond the Trumkas of the world. The book explores instead the lives of women, people of color, LGBTQ+ folk, Disabled people, sex workers and those incarcerated and their formative roles in unionization and organization movements. Kelly has skin in the game here. She’s a third-generation union-member, in fact. She was also part of organizing her own workforce as a journalist at Vice, and she’s recently been spending time covering the Alabama mine strike, which is among the longest strikes ever waged in the United States, when few major outlets would.
So how does this all connect back to metal, exactly? I’m glad you asked! I, too, was curious about the role metal played in a journey from reviewing underground records to assembling a narrative of marginalized workers, so I reached out to Kelly via email, and she was gracious enough to answer my questions despite a busy schedule and impending book tour. The following interview has been lightly edited for style and clarity.
Thanks for your time; I’m sure you’re busy with the book coming out. Let’s start at the beginning—you’ve been writing about metal for over a decade, and you even used to go on the road and work merch tables if I recall correctly. What’s your metal “origin story,” and how did you get into writing about it?
It’s been almost two decades now! I started writing about metal when I was 15, and I’m 34 now. I think my path into metal was a pretty typical one: I was an angry kid living in the middle of nowhere who was certain there was a bigger, more exciting world out there but had no way to access it. When my friends (who had better internet connections and more indulgent parents who would drive them to the mall to buy CDs) started getting into nu-metal when we were 11 and 12, I found myself drawn to the aggression and barely contained rage that bled out of the speakers; when I got to high school, I met older kids who knew more about metal and were willing to share that knowledge with me. By the time I stumbled across Morbid Angel and Cannibal Corpse on Limewire (!), that was it—there was no going back.
At that point, I’d already been writing for my county newspaper (which had a “teen voices” section) about sports and politics (one of my more memorable op-eds called George W. Bush a warmonger, and I was right!). As I got deeper into the metal scene, I started writing album reviews and doing interviews, too. Later in high school, I started writing for local zines and blogs, and when I was in college, I got involved with the radio station and did internships at Earache Records, Terrorizer and [now-defunct magazine] Metal Maniacs; those gigs opened a lot of doors, and I just kept pushing forward from there.
On the other side of things, how did you get acquainted with labor activism? Did music play a part in your early political awareness?
That’s a simple answer: I helped organize my workplace. While I was the heavy metal editor at Noisey, the editorial staff at Vice unionized, and I became super involved in that process. I’m from a union family and have always appreciated unions, but never thought I’d get a chance to join one myself; when that opportunity unexpectedly showed up, I dove in headfirst. At that same point in time, I was getting pretty deeply involved in the anarchist and antifascist community in NYC and was going to fewer metal shows and to more protests, direct actions, and meetings, so when the union drive popped off, it made a lot of sense for me to direct my attention there. My own politics have always been a part of my writing, particularly in metal, and I naturally gravitated towards more radical bands as I became more radical myself; the work I did during my last couple years at Noisey made that pretty clear, I’d say!
I’m curious if being on the road with bands and experiencing that sometimes-rough lifestyle ever gave you an “aha” moment for diving deeper into unions and labor.
It definitely taught me a lot about hard work—physical, creative, and emotional labor—and about the dire lack of protections that touring bands have when it comes to payment, working conditions, and personal well-being. My touring life and my writing life were always intertwined, so there wasn’t really an “a-ha!” moment in that sense; I was always doing both, at least until I started working at Noisey and had to sit still. Giving up that nomadic lifestyle for something more stable did allow me to put down roots and built personal and political relationships outside of metal, though, and that was certainly a significant factor of how I ended up here. If I’d never stopped touring, my life would probably look a lot different; when you’re in that world, it kind of becomes your entire world.
How did you work your way from blogs to Pitchfork and finally to outlets like The New Republic and Teen Vogue? Were there specific moments that marked turning points along the way?
I made a lot of firm friendships and a solid network of music business connections while I was doing college radio and interning during college, enough so that, after I dipped out and moved to NYC, I was able to talk my way into publications like Brooklyn Vegan, Metalsucks, and even NPR. A lot of that came from knowing the right people, of course, and some came from having good taste, being willing and eager to work my ass off, and knowing my shit (as much as some people hated what I wrote). A lot has happened in the past 19 years, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll fast-forward to Teen Vogue and the other more mainstream political and cultural publications I write for now—and really, those came down to the exact same things. I ended up with a Teen Vogue column because an editor there liked my work and I had the audacity to pitch a regular column; I started writing for The New Republic because an editor there liked what I had to say and accepted my pitches. Metal has been a massive part of my life for a very long time and always will be, but I’ve always held other interests, too, and once you figure out how to write a good story and send a decent pitch, you can kind of write about anything as long as you actually know what you’re talking about.
What was the genesis of Fight Like Hell?
When I first started talking to my now-agent a few years ago, my intention was to write a leftist history of heavy metal (!). Over the years, my interests shifted, and so did my book ideas; we started talking about the earliest version of Fight Like Hell in early 2020, and it immediately made sense, given the work I was doing and the stories I was interested in telling. I was excited about the idea, so we put together a proposal, sent it off to a bunch of publishers, and ended up selling it to One Signal, who are part of Atria Books, who are owned by Simon & Schuster (in a lot of ways, book publishing is the same as the music business; lots of sub-labels and limited edition projects and marketing spin, and a book proposal is basically a demo). I was really lucky to have an agent looking out for me and to have connected with a publisher who really believes in my work; it was kind of magical. But then I had to go and write the fucking thing, which was way harder!
What was the process like of distilling so much history into a book and then working through the (often painfully slow) publishing process?
It was a massive challenge (and I almost lost my mind a few times during the actual writing process), but ultimately I’d say it was a lot of fun. I really love doing research, interviewing people and reading history books and old newspapers and even academic articles; it was an excuse to go down a ton of different rabbit holes, and it was really satisfying to be able to make unexpected connections between different people and events (especially as someone who’s wasted more than a few hours on the Encyclopedia Metallum). I’m a journalist, not an academic or a historian, so it was my job to dig into every piece of available information and piece together the stories I wanted to tell; I approached it in the same way I would research my Noisey articles and my labor-related work for Teen Vogue and all the others. It was just a lot longer.
I do crave that dopamine hit of seeing my work get published, and it was kind of a mindfuck to keep sending over chapters to my editor while knowing that no one else would see them for an entire year, but it also felt like a luxury to have all this time to pour into something bigger. It’s like releasing demos and EPs for your entire career, then all of a sudden having a chance to put out a double album on vinyl. It’s worth the wait.
I know you’ve been covering the year-plus-long miners’ strike in Alabama. What else are you working on at the moment? Are you going on a book tour, and will there ever be Fight Like Hell merch?
The past year has been intense even by my somewhat manic standards; I split my time between home (where I worked on the book), a couple different isolated locations (where I worked on the book with fewer distractions), and Northern Alabama, where I’d be on the ground covering the miners’ strike for days at a time. Now that the book is done, I’m looking forward to getting back to freelancing and working on some bigger features; after writing 100,000 words, it’s hard to go back to blogging! I’ve got to work on my proposal for the next book, too, because I’ve already got at least three more ideas in the pipeline.
I am also going on a book tour! The first leg runs through NYC, Philly, D.C. and Baltimore (plus a grip of virtual events), and I’m planning a handful of Midwestern, West Coast, and hopefully Deep South dates, too. My publisher doesn’t quite understand why I’m so eager to travel, but like, this was my life for a really long time—and this time, I get to sell my own work, instead of someone else’s T-shirts (Ironically, I do keep asking them to make FLH shirts; I’ve got to send them another email about that!).
What advice would you offer to anyone looking to grow as a writer?
Read everything. Build up your vocabulary, study how writers you admire craft their sentences and piece together their stories, familiarize yourself with different genres, styles, and eras of writing, explore the work of writers whose identities and perspectives are different from your own, and don’t be afraid to experiment. I wrote poetry before I started writing about politics, and wrote about heavy metal for most of my life but am now much better known as a labor reporter. Don’t be afraid to change, and to follow your interests; you don’t have to fit into one specific box or speak to one specific audience to be a serious writer. You just have to keep writing. .
Lastly—what have you been listening to lately? Any standout records from the last year or so for you, metal or otherwise?
Honestly, now that it’s not really my job to keep up with every new metal release anymore, I… don’t. I’m extremely excited about the new Devil Master, the Vile Creature/Bismuth and Thou/Mizmor collaborations, and new joints from Skullshitter, Soul Glo, and Sacred Son (Editor’s note: SacSon forever!), but haven’t spent much time with them yet. My partner is an antifascist skinhead who thinks metal is for nerds (he’s not wrong, but still, one can only listen to so much oi!) so we split the difference and listen to a lot of bluegrass, outlaw country, and rocksteady at home. It’s been really nice to slow down a bit and spend some time with my old favorites and dig into new albums when they really catch my interest instead of feeling compelled to keep up with every single new album. I was a fan first, and it feels good to get back to that.
Heavy metal forever.
Fight Like Hell is out today in bookstores nationwide.
(Title photo credit: Sarah Joyce)