Welcome to Tales From the Metalnomicon, a column delving into the vast world of heavy metal-tinged/inspired literature and metalhead authors…
Good goddamn can Revilement/Sledge City Slashers vocalist J.W. Henley spin a yarn!
The Taipei-based death metal vocalist’s excellent debut novel Sons of the Republic is a fascinating study of the intricacies and tensions of the China-Taiwan relationship wrapped up in a frequently harrowing, sometimes quite funny, and almost always — yep; wait for it — brutal tale of murder and mystery that packs a serious international intrigue punch.
For fans of political thrillers, hard-boiled crime stories, and Cannibal Corpse.
Naturally, we saw Henley as a perfect fit for the Metalnomicon and the man was kind enough give us a rundown of his journey through death metal and literature…
For those of you who don’t know me — and chances are most if not all of you don’t; I’m un-famous as fuck — my name is Joe Henley. In my literary life I’ve chosen to go by J.W. Henley because for some reason using my initials makes me feel like a real writer. I also scream, growl, and grunt at people as a vocalist in metal and punk bands under various pseudonyms like Joe Reviled, Joe Stench, and, most recently, Sado Splatter. Those make me feel like a real musician.
I’m lucky in that I get to pursue both of my passions, writing and extreme music. I’ve wanted to write pretty much since I learned how to read. Yeah, I was one of those geeks in school who actually read for pleasure. I usually had a stack of about six books going at a time, everything from sci-fi to biographies to horror and whatever else have you. This did not do wonders for my popularity or my social calendar as a young man. Nor did my taste in music. Most of the kids around me were into hip hop or stuff that got on Much Music — Canada’s version of MTV, which is equally terrible now, apparently.
Me, I was getting into things that were a bit different.
When I got to around ten or eleven years-old I inadvertently discovered metal when I saw an Iron Maiden tape at the local Zellers store in my hometown of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan and was drawn to Eddie and the dark imagery in general. I had no idea what metal music was at the time. I was just getting into punk then through friends and neighbors who introduced me to bands like Bad Religion, NOFX, and Pennywise — a good starter kit. But when I got that Iron Maiden tape over to my friend’s house — I was too scared to bring it home — and “Number of the Beast” came on, I was hooked. I never knew I would end up playing in metal bands but I knew I’d be listening to this kind of music for as long as my ears could hear. After that it was a quest for heavier and heavier things.
Around my mid-teens I discovered Cannibal Corpse and death metal became my go to sub-genre of choice. Still is.
As for playing in bands, I was a latecomer. I didn’t join my first real band until I was a hair shy of my twenty-fourth birthday. By then I had been living in my newly adopted home of Taiwan for just over a year. It was 2006 and I had always wanted to play in bands back in Canada but never had the confidence to go outside of my immediate circle of friends to find members. None of my friends were interested…not to mention the fact that none of us could play instruments beyond the rudimentary level. So that ended that pretty quickly. But after I moved to Taipei I got asked by my friend Charlie Lee to join a death metal band that eventually became Revilement. Charlie picked me out of a crowd at a music festival because I looked like a “metal guy” — I had hair down to my ass then — and asked if I could do some death metal growls. I lied and said I could, spent a weekend boning up on my pale bedroom Corpsegrinder imitations, and jammed some songs like “Fucked With a Knife” and “Stripped, Raped, and Strangled” with Charlie and the boys a few days later.
Turns out I was the only one who tried out and I was in by default.
Fast forward to 2014 and we’ve played in about ten countries, mostly in Asia but we did make a trek over to Finland last year, and we’ve had the chance to open up for some of the bands that got me into extreme music — bands like Napalm Death, Misery Index, and even Cannibal Corpse — got to get drunk and talk hockey with Rob Barrett! We’re recording our second album as I type this out.
As for reading and writing, that side of my life ended up taking me to journalism school in Halifax, Nova Scotia just before I moved to Taiwan. I finished school in April of 2005 and by May I was in Taiwan on my good friend Clare’s recommendation. She’d lived in Taiwan before for a year and said it was fun. That was good enough for me. I never was one for over-thinking things. I taught English for all of two months out in the sticks to kids who were terrified of me, then got an office job in Taipei as an editor at a publishing company, working for a boss who, coincidentally enough, was also terrified of me.
I find a healthy amount of fear is the key to success in any professional environment.
I spent just about seven long years working there and being the insufferable drunken asshole who always talks about writing a book but never does. For some reason, being an insufferable drunken asshole is OK in Taiwan as long as you’re a foreigner. The locals expect those from beyond their shores to be a bit “out there.” I’ve always felt “out there” no matter where I’ve lived, so it kinda worked out for everyone.
In 2012 I finally grew a pair and quit my editorial position to become a freelance writer full-time.
Actually it wasn’t that easy, as in Taiwan your residency as a foreigner is tied to employment. If you don’t have a job, and thus a work permit — a requirement if you want to live here as an outlander — it’s zai jian wai guo ren [See you later, foreigner!] after your tourist visa runs out. So I had to wait until I’d been a legal, gainfully employed resident of Taiwan for five years before I was awarded permanent residency and could finally quit and do whatever I wanted without fear of getting the boot from a beautiful country I’d grown to love.
Now they can’t get rid of me. Suckers!
I’d written for a lot of metal websites before, and done a bit of travel writing on the side. But now I was throwing myself into the deep end, sink or swim style. That meant having to go out and find writing jobs that actually pay enough to keep my lights on and food in my belly, which unfortunately meant spending the bulk of my time writing about things other than music and travel. It also meant all my excuses about my day job sucking the creative life out of me and preventing me from writing a book had gone straight out the window.
So the first thing I did after I quit was live off my savings for a couple of months and hammer out my debut novel, Sons of the Republic — the reason I’m included in these hallowed digital pages of this metal periodical of note.
I’m not sure how my love of metal intersects with the book, but I realized after my friends and relatives started reading it, and some reviews started coming in, that it does have a healthy dose of violence and gore thrown in, so I guess there’s a connection there. Scared the bejeezus out of my Gido — that’s Ukrainian for grandpa; I’m a Euro-Canadian mutt — apparently.
I guess I’m a tad desensitized after nearly twenty years of reading death metal lyrics. I am on a third draft of another book now though that does feature the Taiwan metal and punk scene prominently and isn’t so acutely political as the first one. Quite a different animal than the first one, really, but don’t worry, there are enough savage beatings and death to satiate mine or any other self-respecting headbanger’s sense of blood lust.
Anyway, that’s pretty much my ramble. Keep supporting metal, and keep reading books. They made me the slightly less suicidal man I am today.