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Humor of the Beast

Dave Hill On What Makes King Diamond and Mercyful Fate Truly Special – Humor of the Beast

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Welcome to “Humor of the Beast,” a recurring series where we interview the funniest people about their favorite band, as well as the impact heavy music has had on their lives and in comedy.

Most Metal Injection readers are likely familiar with comedian, author and musician Dave Hill. You could even say he’s the King of Metal. So, if Hill says that King Diamond is one of the all-time greatest metal vocalists, and Mercyful Fate are true metal pioneers… well, who are we to disagree with his majesty?

In between talking to press about his new book “Parking the Moose,” and in advance of performing at Metal Injection’s 15th Anniversary party at Saint Vitus on December 17, Hill spoke with us about what he finds so fascinating about King Diamond and Mercyful Fate. He also shared what it was like to collaborate with Phil Anselmo on Metal Grasshopper, the special secrets Ronnie James Dio bestowed upon him, how nervous he was to joke about black metal in front of Fenriz from Darkthrone, and what inspired him to bring his fictional black metal band Witch Taint to life.

Read highlights from our conversation below.

Do you recall the first time you heard King Diamond?

Just from hearing his solo stuff on college radio. I’m from Cleveland, and metal was big in that area, so just hearing it in passing … you hear the King Diamond falsetto, and no one before or since even comes close to that.

I remember seeing the first King Diamond album, Fatal Portrait – that was kinda my first entry point. Then as much as I love King Diamond, I went back to those early [Mercyful Fate] records, Melissa and Don’t Break The Oath, and to me they are two of the greatest metal albums of all time. You have traditional metal and NWOBHM, and then it’s sort of the jumping off point for Norwegian black metal and all of the Scandinavian stuff – it’s like the bridge between so many different genres of metal.

What was your first impression upon actually seeing King Diamond? As unique as his voice is, one could argue his visuals are equally as important to his overall legacy.

They’re amazing! I thought it was insane! Just having the femur bone in the shape of an upside-down cross as a mic holder [laughs]. I was young enough to be like, “Holy shit! This guy’s not fucking around!” It was the scariest, and put everything else before it to shame in terms of being, “Oh this guy is for real into Satan!” And he would talk about it really thoughtfully in interviews.

To those who might be quick to say they sound the same, how would you differentiate Mercyful Fate from King Diamond?

I think you have to pay a little more attention to [King Diamond]. [With Mercyful Fate] you can get on board with it right away. Whereas King Diamond you kinda have to sit with it a little longer before the songs reveal themselves, if that makes any sense. For that reason, in terms of instant metal excitement, Mercyful Fate is more up my alley.

Although I will say, I’ve seen King Diamond live a few times in the last few years… It’s almost like a Broadway show! It’s not that far removed. I don’t think you have to even be into metal to just be like, “Wow, this is awesome!” I mean, he has Grandma in a wheel chair!

When was the first time you saw King Diamond live?

The first time wasn’t that long ago. I saw them in San Antonio at the last Housecore Horror Festival. So it was only like four years ago…

I don’t know how relevant this is [laughs], but… when I met the person who ended up being my commercial agent [while fielding interest from other agents], she said, “Oh, I’ve seen King Diamond, and I bet I’m the only person you’re meeting with who’s seen him.” And I was like, “Alright, we’re done! I’m signing with you!” [laughs]

It shows how Mercyful Fate and King Diamond are still obscure enough that when you meet a fellow fan, it’s like a special handshake.

Yeah, it’s not the same as if someone says to you, “I love Iron Maiden!” … It’s another level [of fandom]. It goes deeper. And King Diamond himself is just a fascinating guy. He’s this persona [onstage], and then you see him [offstage and realize], “Oh, he’s this guy that lives in the suburbs of Dallas!” which is totally bizarre.

And then… I hold this up as pretty much television being used at its greatest potential [laughs] – have you ever seen his interview on the Joe Franklin Show? It’s like world’s colliding, because Joe Franklin was this regional talk show host… this old-school, New Yorker and the other guest was a rapping cop. So [King is] on there [sometime in 1987], and Joe Franklin has obviously just been told things to ask him.

Joe is probably like 60 years old or something [when the interview occurred], and he’s like, “I understand that you’re from Denmark, but that you’re more popular in the United States! I heard that from some friends of mine who are into you.” Clearly Joe Franklin doesn’t have any friends who are into King Diamond! And he’s getting the rapping cop into the conversation, and King Diamond is just maintaining full “King Diamond” the whole time while being completely gracious and polite to everybody. It’s the most amazing TV interview ever.

You’ve previously said how you’re inspired by comedians who seem to be performing as slightly weirder versions of themselves. Is that what also attracted you to King Diamond – how there’s a little element of truth to his performance?

Yeah… It’s like Ronnie James Dio – I met him [when I recorded the Dave Hill Explosion] in L.A. And I asked him, “Are you Dio all the time? Or do you just have moments where you’re just some guy?” He was like, “No, I’m Dio all the time!”

But yeah, like what I said about my favorite comedians – [it’s that moment where] you gather that when they’re on their own, they still [act] the same way… they’re just inviting us into their world, and that’s kinda the same feeling you get with King Diamond – like it’s not some huge stretch for him to bring this character to life, besides putting upside down crucifixes on his face.

It’s funny you mention Dio, because a ton of people begged me to ask you about your Dave Hill Explosion interview with him. What was going through your mind when you first met Dio?

Well it’s crazy because… probably would’ve been in 2006 or 2007, and I was doing my first ever shows out in L.A. and I was trying to pin down a guest. I had a friend who knew Wendy Dio and another friend whose mom was weirdly friends with Dio, and he grew up in L.A. playing chess or backgammon with Dio… so I had these kinda tenuous connections to him, but I kept thinking, “There’s no way Dio was going to agree [to the interview] – the request won’t even get to him!” Then I’m just walking down the street when I get this phone call from Wendy saying, “Yeah, Ronnie wants to do it!” I’m freaking out, I’m like, “Oh shit! How do I… I’m not supposed to meet Dio!”

So he came to the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in Hollywood. He just walks in and he looks just like Dio, like how you’d expect him to – in black leather and lace – and he was the nicest guy! He could tell I was like, “Oh shit, I’m in over my head,” and he was just like, “We’re gonna be fine, don’t worry!” This was right before he got back with Black Sabbath [as Heaven & Hell]. I had my acoustic guitar with me, and he signed it – it says “Dave Hill Rocks Magic, Ronnie James Dio.”

I don’t know if this will resonate with anybody, but I’m friends with Ira Glass [of NPR’s “This American Life”]. Years ago, he saw this guitar… And Ira’s like, “Who’s Dio?” I was like, “You don’t know?!” and I was trying to explain to him [who he was]. Then I was like, “Wait a minute, YOU have to sign this guitar! This is like the Ying-Yang of my two sides – Dio and NPR.” [laughs] So I have what I’d argue is the only guitar signed by Ronnie James Dio and Ira Glass! Definitely one of a kind.

Dave Hill On What Makes King Diamond and Mercyful Fate Truly Special – Humor of the Beast

But getting back to Dio – he was such a nice guy! We were talking backstage at this little theater, and I’m sure plenty of people had already known this, but he made a point to tell me that he was going to Tony Iommi’s house. He said, “I’m going to England. Don’t tell anybody, but we’re getting together to write. Nobody really knows!” So he kinda told me as if I was the third person on earth who knew about it [laughs]. And I just thought it was so cool how he was “giving me” a secret. That’s kinda how he presented it, and I felt like, “I can never speak of this!”

Then he goes, “Hey, do you like Indian food?” I’m like, “Yeah, I love Indian food!” He’s like, “Well, next time you’re in L.A., let’s get dinner!” I did follow up and emailed Wendy once saying, “Hey, Ronnie said we should go get Indian food!” but he was already in full swing with Heaven & Hell at that point, and then sadly he died not too long after that. But even the mere suggestion of getting Indian food with Dio remains a cherished memory.

I love how you learned that not only was Dio getting back together with Black Sabbath, but also loved Indian food!

Exactly! And he claimed to know the best places in L.A. for Indian food, and I didn’t doubt him at all.

Was it more intimidating to meet Dio or Phil Anselmo for the first time?

Well Anselmo and I had actually met before [doing Metal Grasshopper together] – probably on the Great Southern Trendkill tour … this would have been [Anselmo’s] peak “in the thick of it” time. I was friends with the late Chuck Mosley, the original singer of Faith No More. He had moved to Cleveland over 20 years ago. Somehow, we wound up backstage and in Phil’s dressing room. There was just me, Chuck, Phil and two other people. Phil had just gotten off stage and was in full “I just got done doing a Pantera show” mode. So he was very different [during that experience].

That was pretty intimidating, but then when you go and meet the real [Anselmo], he’s just the sweetest guy you can imagine … it was probably around 2013 when I went to his house for the first time. He and his wife Kate are just the sweetest people you can imagine. So when I went over [at that point], it was sort of not as intimidating– he just makes you feel so at ease right away. He’s just a really funny guy.

[That came about] because my friends Chris Lee and Sean Yseult [original bassist of White Zombie] had actually sent him the Black Metal Dialogues emails and the videos I had been doing with Metal Injection. That’s how Chris Lee and I started talking about doing Metal Grasshopper. We originally did it for – they were doing these digital series. They ended up giving everyone back the rights to their stuff, and that’s when we put it out on YouTube.

Do you hope to collaborate with Anselmo again, whether on a follow up to Metal Grasshopper or something else?

I’d absolutely love to! I think he has ten bands that he’s very busy with, and I’m doing my thing, but I’d hope so. We had so much fun doing those videos, and it would be fun to collaborate on something again. I’m [also] really excited to see what he does with En Minor and that record he has coming out – I feel like in recent years he’s gone heavier and heavier with what he’s doing, but this is a whole other… [some of] it’s like The Cure, Nick Cave, and Sisters of Mercy. It’s a complete departure from everything he’s done…

But yeah, you never know. Maybe Metal Grasshopper Part 2? I have a lot more to learn! We actually tried to get King Diamond [in Metal Grasshopper] and he was maybe going to do it, but I can’t remember what happened. It kinda fell apart.

Have you ever met King Diamond before?

No, I haven’t! I came really close. When I saw him in San Antonio, Superjoint Ritual had just played and then King Diamond was gonna play. And I was [in the waiting area offstage] and you could tell King Diamond was about to descend from wherever, like he was about to magically appear [laughs]. So people were kinda clearing out, and I was sitting there going, “Shit, I should get out of here!” You could just feel the King Diamond force was coming [laughs]. I probably could’ve just stayed.

Imagine a scenario where you suddenly see King Diamond in the crowd watching you perform comedy. What would you do or say?

[Laughs] I think I would just be psyched. One of the many nice things about performing is meeting different people that you admire – whether they’re other comedians or [other artists]. Like recently I met TLC, and that was awesome. I’m a huge TLC fan. That’s very different from King Diamond, but was very mind blowing. It would probably be just as jarring, but in a totally different way [laughs]. I would be just as excited.

Would you be more nervous of King Diamond watching you perform standup or music?

I don’t know – it’s funny, Witch Taint is metal, but the other bands I play in [range from] psych rock and super melodic power pop. I’ve made this mistake over and over again, but I always think that metal musicians are going to only be into metal, [as if] that’s all they listen to. But that’s never the case – they’re always the biggest music nerds… Like Phil Anselmo can sing every song by The Smiths, which you would never guess that if you were just to see him onstage.

I became friends with Chris Reifert from Autopsy – who I also do the band Painted Doll with – at the same festival [Housecore Horror Festival]. It turned out he and his wife had seen me on TV a bunch. Then we were trading music, and he’s sending me all this 60s psych music and stuff, and then he told me he liked my band Valley Lodge. I was like, “What?! I thought you’d think we were just total pussies!” But he was like, “No! I love power pop!”

In addition to playing in bands, you also incorporate music into your standup set. Does that help you feel more confident as a standup comedian?

It took me a while to incorporate music because I never intended to go into comedy. It was sort of accidental because I liked talking onstage in between songs with bands, and I liked writing. I started to combine those things, but when I was seeing musical comedy, a lot of it was three-chords and rhyming “poo poo” and “pee pee”. I was like, “Well I don’t want to do that,” and it took me kinda a while to figure out what I wanted to do.

And then the way I found it was [by doing] shows with house bands, and I’d just play guitar solos in between my jokes. Then it became kind of funny and surprising that I could play a snippet of “Eruption” or something. So there’s definitely a sense of confidence that it brings.

It’s amazing how the Black Metal Dialogues evolved from being a two-man performance to playing as Witch Taint with a full band.

Well when we started, it was just getting onstage and reading emails from 2005. We just literally read them from our laptops. And then Phil Costello and I wrote a few songs to go with the show, then did some videos, and it started slowly evolving…

We did it in Oslo where Fenriz from Darkthrone was in the front row, which was an extremely intimidating thing. I was friendly with him already and invited him to the show – he had come to see me do standup before and we’ve had drinks. But I was like, “I don’t know if he’ll be offended by this” … [but] he was laughing right away, so I was like, “Oh thank god!”

Or “Thank Satan!” in that case…

[Laughs] Yeah! He said to me afterwards, “You seemed like you were worried about me coming.” I was like, “Well, I didn’t want you to be offended by me making fun of black metal. It’s like, your thing!” And he was like, “I’ve been making fun of black metal longer than anybody! I love making fun of it!” I was very relieved.

Anyways getting back to [Witch Taint] – we did Wacken Open Air and were in the middle of this field in a tent with people from all over Europe. We would look out into the crowd, and there would be some pockets of people laughing and totally getting it, but then some people clearly confused and going “What the fuck are these guys doing standing there in corpse paint?! Why aren’t they playing songs?!” But whenever we played songs – we had four songs in the show by then – the whole place went nuts! By the end of the festival, we were just like, “Fuck it, let’s just do the band! Let’s see this joke all the way through and record a whole album!”

So now we have a full-length record called Sons of Midwestern Darkness coming out through Tee Pee Records in the spring. And we have Chris Reifert from Autopsy on it, Malphas from Carpathian Forest plays on it, Mike “Mykvs” Hickey formerly of Venom plays on it. We got some real ringers.

And it all started from a simple email exchange!

It’s totally ridiculous. When those emails started… well, the emails on that website are from 2004 – I didn’t realize it was “trolling” at the time – but probably in 2002 was when I first started emailing people as this teenager with a band called Witch Taint. 2004 is when that whole chain [between me and the Norwegian black metal record label owner in Oslo] started and became the “Black Metal Dialogues” …

At the time, metal fans all over the world knew black metal, but it wasn’t the way it is now where people make memes [about it] and stuff like that. I wasn’t thinking, “This is going to be some thing that entertains people and catches on in any way.” Truly just me entertaining myself thinking no one was ever going to see these emails but me.

But I had a buddy in New York and another one in L.A. who were into black metal [and who I’d share the emails with]. Then they started showing other friends, and eventually a friend of a friend was like “I want to put these on a website!” So once [the email thread] had run its course, I was like, “Yeah sure, put them on a website.” Then it kinda went crazy right away. And people were like, “You should do more with Witch Taint!” and I was like, “I don’t know what else to do!” Finally, my friend Trish Nelson [suggested] a couple of years ago, “Why don’t you get onstage at St. Vitus and just read them?” And that was sort of the beginning of everything.

Did you ever hear back from the head of the label you were corresponding with once everything exploded?

No. The only thing that happened was – because you could see my email address in the emails – people would email me. If they hated it, they somehow thought they were emailing a teenager in Indiana who lives with his mom and went, “You fucking looser!” And then the people who got it [understood] that it was a grown man living in New York. And then the band Mysticum wrote [to me] and were like, “Fuck you!” They weren’t happy about it, but again they were talking to me like I was a teenager.

Hopefully all these years later, if they are even aware of it, they have a sense of humor [about it]. The thing about the emails is when you read them, the joke isn’t “Oh this guy at this record label is an idiot!” The joke is how he’s really a nice, patient guy who’s putting up with this idiot.

Editor’s Note: This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Headshot of Dave Hill courtesy of Mindy Tucker.

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Shout out to photographer Rae Chatten.