“You Have To Be Loud”: Exploring NOLA’s Under Ground Music Scene with Ramon Zelaya

Photo courtesy Tulane University

Last month, at the start of an interview I conducted with Bobby Bergeron of Paranoize Zine, I sent out a request for anyone to assist me in understanding further the New Orleans underground music scene and culture:

Can one be progressive and transgressive? Are these lyrics a joke or a stream of unfiltered consciousness meant to be taken on a deeper level? I want to find out more.”

It’s a section of music that I’ve only ever had tenuous experiences with, usually listening to in the background of work with others or in a movie. In college, I was shown the antics of one GG Allin, and have since been fascinated with him, warts and all. Still, that’s as deep as my education and understanding on the subject went, and could certainly use more thought. 

Having read my article last month, local Tulane University mental health professional Ramon Zelaya reached out, having a most unique take. Not only was he in a field involved heavily in the mind and behavior of people, but he was steeped in our underground music scene, even performing in it at a point. 

And so, we now have a followup piece on our hands! 

I sent Ramon a series of questions on his experiences, how/if they correlate with his career, the resonance of punk and metal, and some recommendations for further listening. And, of course, if you or anyone you know would like to be interviewed to continue this series, feel free to reach out at barceneaux@bigeasymagazine.com!:

Bill Arceneaux: Please describe your work as a mental health professional and previous experience in the New Orleans extreme music scene.

I’m currently a Licensed Professional Counselor Supervisor (LPC-S #6131) working at Tulane University’s student counseling center. I’ve been working in mental health since 2003, licensed in 2015. I’ve been doing individual, group, couples therapy in various settings. I’ve performed guitar and vocals in a few bands over the years, starting with Rottenatomy (death metal, roughly 1995-1999), Bum Freak in Egypt (experimental metal fusion, 1999-2000) and rat in a bucket (grindcore, 2000-Katrina). Those dates are approximate! 

BA: Some might see the aggression from this music as inappropriate or negative. Does transgressive = regressive, or are these songs progressive most loud?

I always saw the aggression as a means of expressing that aspect of humanity: the dissatisfaction, the anger, the outrage, the disgust. These are all natural human emotions; aggression is one way of expressing them. I think this music captures those themes and expresses them appropriately loudly. And I think that you have to be loud to capture the attention of others, especially in this age where voices, information, and other distractions surround us.

BA: What is the vibe like within the local extreme music community, from bands to audiences? Is it closed off in any way or open to all?

I’d say the community fundamentally is open and welcoming. People attract and are attracted to others who seem to share the same interests. Plus the welcoming nature of southern culture just adds to that. I don’t think people in the community really care who comes to shows as long as we treat each other well. Among bands though, there have been cases of clique-iness. I’ve observed bands behave in arrogant and elitist ways just as in any other genre.  I think once performers or bands gain popularity, they gain power/authority, which leads to blind acceptance by others in the community. Thus a cult is born.

BA: President Trump has repeatedly said that mental illness and video games play a large part in mass shootings. What do you think about that, and how would you respond to such an assertion?

Mental illness and violent video games are not causes of violent behavior; they’re barely correlated. People are too multidimensional to be able to narrow those down as causes. There are risk and protective factors that increase or decrease the likelihood, though. If you want to identify causes, look at adverse childhood experiences: authoritarian parenting styles, parental turmoil, poverty, parental substance abuse, sexual abuse, failure to provide childhood autonomy, isolation…I could go on.

BA: It’s a dangerous slope Trump’s statement is, for individuals with disabilities and those working in entertainment/art. Have you ever seen a correlation between those who could be a danger to others and the music they listen to or the games they play?

Only insofar as the following sequence of cause and effect: people who commit such violence spent many years of their lives feeling isolated, different, alone, unaccepted, ineffectual → they find something later in life that gives them a sense of acceptance (a subculture, a zealous religious sect, a radical political movement, etc.) → they cling that whatever that thing is and lose sight of other possibilities → when that thing espouses hate and violence as a fundamental tenet, hate and violence become sacraments and rites of passage.

It also doesn’t help that some groups actively recruit others – targeting people who are different, alone, isolated – to keep the group strong, because the members depend on its existence.

BA: Do you see any differences in this music scene now compared to when you were playing in it? 

No huge differences. One thing that comes to mind is that people seem a little more accepting of diversity (of all sorts) than before. That may be a product of culture at large, not just this music scene. 

BA: How does the underground maintain such anti-establishment resonance at such high emotional clips for so long?

Because the establishment continues to exist as it does! Establishment, order, and authority are not inherently bad things, but they became oppressive over time. As long as there is injustice, mass manipulation, and institutional disempowerment of the people, there will be those who shout and fight back in protest. That’s just the way of things, and everything about human nature and the history of the world proves that.

BA: What bands and songs would you recommend to a first time listener like myself to get his feet wet in these genres of music?

I guess it depends on what you already listen to. Find what you’re comfortable with, and push past the discomfort into whatever music represents insubordination, revolution, and nonconformity. Start with delta blues and follow the progression into rock (e.g. Chuck Berry, Elvis), hard rock (e.g. Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple). Look into the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (e.g. Black Sabbath, Budgie, Iron Maiden, Tygers of Pan Tang). Throw in some hardcore punk, that’ll get pretty important later (e.g. Misfits, Suicidal Tendencies [self-titled first album]) Then move into the heavier stuff. For prototypical death metal: Venom: Black Metal; Death: Scream Bloody Gore.  In the UK, they’re starting to throw in punk influences to create grindcore: Napalm Death: Scum; Extreme Noise Terror: A Holocaust in Your Head.

From there, it just gets more extreme, experimental, technical, slower, faster, etc. I’m always open to offering recommendations!

Bill Arceneaux has been an independent writer and film critic in the New Orleans area since 2011, working with outlets like Film Threat, DIG Baton Rouge, Crosstown Conversations, and Occupy. He is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association and is Rotten Tomatoes approved. Follow him on Twitter: @billreviews

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