Gene Ambo on 40 Years of Metallic Memories in His New Photo Book ‘Heavy Metro’

In-person interviews have never been my forte, per se. I like the freedom of a good email and being able to control my own narrative, plus I don’t have to transcribe, which is a plus. That being said, when I was approached to interview photographer Gene Ambo in celebration of his new photo book Heavy Metro: Access All Eras, which celebrates 40 years of quintessential Chicago punk, rock, and metal venue The Metro, I felt it was my duty as a (mostly) lifelong Chicagoan to help shine a light on this incredibly important place and the person who captured it.

Walking into Belgian beer bar The Map Room, which is generally filled with your quintessential tech and pharma bros, Gene stuck out like a sore thumb. A hesher through and through, he was the only other longhair in what is actually a pretty magnificent beer bar, but I honestly didn’t know what the guy looked like, so I walked past him and shot him a text from the back of the bar. He excitedly turns around and flags me down.

“I knew it was you, it had to be. You’re the only person in here I’d want to interview me,” he joked, but with a sincerity only “lifers” really share with each other. Gene is, for all intents and purposes, one of those magical metalheads you come across in a fever dream. Gene loves rock and metal and can talk about it for hours, which we did over many beers once I turned off my recording device, but when it came to talking about himself he was suddenly reserved.

“I’ve never been interviewed before, not really,” he says, taking a swig from his first Heineken of the night. “I’m usually the fly on the wall listening to what’s going on in the room. I don’t really participate [laughs].”

“It’s a little awkward for me,” he continues. “I’m used to just being in the corner, kinda hanging out and taking shots and trying to not be noticed, is the thing. It’s a little off, but you do what you gotta do. I’m happy about the book and being able to share it with people cause there are a lot of people in there who aren’t around anymore and it’s an era that can’t be repeated or replaced and, judging by what I’m seeing coming up, it’s something that will never be half as good as it was. I win, you lose!”

It was here that Gene, who is a pretty animated person, really started to come out of his shell. When questioned about an iconic Motörhead photo emblazoned on Heavy Metro‘s opening page, the stories began.

“Motörhead was one of my first Metro experiences, if not my actual first,” he reminisces. “When I went there that day, they had Brian Robertson playing with them. I didn’t really know him and was more of a Fast Eddie fan. I went there to see Philthy [Phil Taylor], who was fascinating to me. Those guys were different from him. I had no idea I’d be taking photos after that, I was just there with my camera hanging out. The promoter was my friend and I took the liberty of having them stand against a wall and take a photo for him. That wall was all forest wallpaper, and I haven’t seen pictures of that room with the old, old, old wallpaper. I’m sure there are others, but…”

When asked about The Metro’s importance, there was a brightness which overcame Gene. He clearly loves this place, enough to both dedicate 40 years, but also to lovingly compile his favorite (hundreds of) photos and publish them through Broken Hope vocalist Jeremy Wagner’s Stygian Sky Media, it’s obvious that Gene Ambo and The Metro are inseparable.

“The Metro was my neighborhood place,” Gene explains. “I was born and raised in Uptown so it was less than a mile walk. By the time I started going to more shows I lived even closer, in Wrigleyville. My roommate, Motor, and I would party all night and then go to the matinee show Sunday morning. Those were more hardcore and punk shows, so you got to stick your toes in the water with different shit. That place was always more cutting edge than most others. Very few bands there sucked.”

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS – AUGUST 12,1983: Metallica performing at The Metro in Chicago, Illinois on August 12, 1983. © Gene Ambo

Out of all the photos captured in Heavy Metro, Gene obviously had to have a favorite, but it was hard to pick just one. Out of so many memories, he really had to sit and think for a second before offering up a concrete, but unfinal answer.

“My favorite show was the Samhain blood show. I was in the loop at that point so I got to go backstage and see all the cool shit. Samhain was one of the coolest, but my personal favorite would probably be Suicidal [Tendencies]. They’re relentlessly devoted to their fans. I just look at them and remember they were very intimidating.”

Gene Ambo has a prevailing philosophy which guides his style: know the music and, obviously, make the artist look good in the process. Everything is in the details, be it understanding when an instrument is going to come into the mix or when the vocalist suddenly jumps into the audience.

“When I first started taking photos,” he explains, “my idea was to take photos like iconic photographers and steal their ideas and frame stuff like they did. At that point, you didn’t see fans in the pictures, you wanted to see details of guitars and clothes and atmosphere. The Metro is a weird room since it has big white columns on each side of the stage which is very unappealing for rock magazines. It kinda makes big bands seem like they were in a small room, so I purposely avoided those two columns for years. It was a different scenario then. I try to be a little more patient now, but you have to be ready. When you pull the trigger on a film camera you get what you see, while digital cameras have a bit of a delay. I always shot the bands I knew better because I knew what they were doing.”

“I was talking with Gene Hoglan,” he continues. “He went to see some band and the guy who did the videos wasn’t focusing on the key, great parts of the song. That’s a common thing, and knowing the band you were doing is important! You gotta know the music. I knew all my favorite bands’ music. I didn’t know the songs or the words, but I knew when guitars started and ended. You obviously want to get the best shot!”

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS – MAY 1986: Samhain photographed at The Metro in Chicago, Illinois in May 1986.
© Gene Ambo

Even so, Gene is one for experimenting, making the pictures look cool and atypical. In his mind, traditional concert photography is overdone and was already a thing of the past years ago. Changing the paradigm is key.

“Flash photography is very boring, but that’s what magazines wanted at the time,” he says. “I hated those Circus photos, so I would use time delays and multiple exposures, and it was on film so you wouldn’t know what you got until days later, and then I would expose the frame three, four, fifteen times.”

Our conversation definitely derailed after that, and it was around then that the beers really started flowing and Gene began telling me stories of busted rear windshields with James Hetfield, photographing music he is not super into (I won’t spill that tea, though), and finding himself in a changing city and music scene. Even so, Gene Ambo is not a relic, he is still just as relevant as ever, and even with 40 years of The Metro under his belt, he is a constant presence – a fly on the wall who might not like being interviewed, but he has tons of stories to tell. Next time you’re at The Metro and you see Gene, get him a Heineken and a Guinness, which he will (horrifyingly) mix together after a while, and ask him to tell you something. It’s a good time, I promise.

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS – JUNE 1986: Celtic Frost performing at The Metro in Chicago, Illinois on June 1986.
© Gene Ambo

Order Heavy Metro: Access All Eras here via Stygian Sky Media.