Heavy Culture is a monthly column from journalist Liz Ramanand, focusing on people of color in heavy music as they offer their perspectives on race, society, politics, and more as it intersects with and affects their music. The first installment of this column features an interview with Fever 333 vocalist Jason Aalon Butler and guitarist Stephen Harrison.
Social, political and artistic freedom is big part of what Fever 333 stand for, so it’s fitting that the band’s first performance ever was last year on July 4th. The California outfit, which refers to their concerts as “demonstrations,” doesn’t shy away from talking about socio-political issues, and the power of their message is matched by their onstage intensity.
The three-piece consists of vocalist Jason Aalon Butler (formerly the frontman of punk-rock act Letlive); guitarist Stephen Harris (formerly of Chariot); and drummer Aric Importa (formerly of Night Verses). After releasing an EP in 2018, Fever 333 unleashed their full-length debut album, Strength in Numb333rs, in January of this year.
The band has been touring heavily in 2019 — including a show-stealing gig at Ohio’s massive Sonic Temple festival back in May — and will be providing support for co-headliners Korn and Alice in Chains on a North American tour this summer.
Heavy Consequence caught up with Butler and Harris before their demonstration at Gramercy Theater in New York. The pair spoke about their ideas of freedom, racial identity, and societal misconceptions as they’ve established themselves in the worlds of hard rock, punk, and metal. Read the full interview below:
On how race influences the band’s approach to music
Jason Aalon Butler: The first time I called Stephen about this project, I think one of the first things we talked about were black people in rock ‘n’ roll. I remember it evolving because, at the time, it felt like there were so few people around me that I could have that conversation with, the way I did with Stephen.
There may be more people [of color] in heavy music now but the way that Stephen does it and has done it authentically, in a manner that a trailblazer would — there aren’t many people I know like that, that I would entrust my idea of black punk rock. That’s not to say there aren’t people who aren’t worthy of it. I don’t know them the way I know Stephen.
We immediately got into talking about the nexus of this thing called rock ‘n’ roll, which did start as black music and that’s just the reality of it. My face is different than Steven’s, my face is different than my father’s but I’m from black culture and I very much fall into the person of color category, especially in rock music. By no means is this an imminent mission, but naturally and inherently, we talked about how we would be able to offer representation on a spectral level.
On the reaction from Stephen’s friends and family members to his love of heavy music as a kid
Stephen Harrison: I was a fan of heavy music pretty early on via my dad. He listened to a lot of ’80s hard rock and some ’80s metal and alternative rock and then I got into it. Then when I would go to school, other kids would show me other bands and it changed my whole life trajectory, that’s who I was supposed to be. My dad was just not with it, he’s the one who showed me all this stuff and when I completely dove into the culture – my mom was fully supportive, but the rest of my family didn’t understand.
I get not understanding, but not supporting it? I was so confused as to why my dad wasn’t a supporter of it, being the one who sparked it. I think a lot of what had to do with it is that he’s from the South Side of Chicago and he grew up as that kid and it was f**king difficult to be an alternative-anything African American in this country, and he’s like, “My kid is not going to go through what I went through.” So it was like, “Why make this more difficult on yourself?”
He would talk to my mom and say, “He’s going to get bullied, he’s going to get messed with at school.” The thing [is] he and my mom instilled in me such confidence that none of that wasn’t even an issue.
On why Fever 333 shows are called demonstrations instead of concerts
JAB: We want to offer a space for people to literally act in a demonstrative manner to exhibit their idea of freedom, to exhibit their idea of expression because [expression and freedom] comes in iterations — there are levels of it. The idea of freedom for me and Stephen is very different from Aric [Improta], our drummer, or for Anthony, our photographer, or you, as a woman of color.
Our ideas of freedom are different and that’s because structurally we have had to combat many types of adversity. Of course, there’s a general wash over people of color and the intersectionality of women of color, which is another level of types of discrimination and subjugation. We have a white drummer, we offer a space for everyone, and we talk about our truth onstage and when we do that we hope that when we demonstrate freedom both ideologically and physically — our performance is also an idea of freedom and expression and liberation.
Just our very presence of being on that stage together, myself, Stephen and Aric — what we do and what we say — we’re hoping to create a space for people to represent who they are or who they know they want to be because we’re all told something we’re not at some point in our life. That’s why we call it demonstrations, so we can offer a safe space for your own iteration of freedom.
On what the word “freedom” means to them
SH: Freedom means to me, being able to be in the conversation, the race, the environment, the show, the all of it, without being treated differently. Being able to be there and express myself the way that I want to without being held down or laughed at – just being able to do me in my own way without bothering anyone else, to me that’s freedom. Being able to be your organic self whether it’s in an artistic way or not without holding anyone else down, without hurting anyone else, that’s what freedom is to me.
JAB: For me, I spent so much time of my life explaining who I am and why I am, why I look and speak the way I do, why I feel the way about these things. My personal idea of freedom would be not having to explain myself to white culture, to black culture, to any other culture that expects me to be something that they’re assuming for me. That’s a more subjective idea of freedom to me.
On a larger scale, the idea to be able to exist with our differences, to understand them — inherent things are inevitable and you can’t change the inevitable, right? So we’re going to carry culture and ethnicity and traits of ethnicity the way we do but understanding that this co-existence doesn’t need to be partitioned as strictly as we have. We should be able to retain our culture as long as we want to, as long as we feel we can. But I also feel like we should be free to act appropriately within our own cultural guidelines when we’re not in our own environment.
Like Stephen said, if I say something that is much more attributed to black culture in an environment that is not predominantly black, instead of the emotional labor of me having to explain myself I would just rather people understand that it is a difference but it is not a harmful one.
I think the general idea of freedom would be to understand that we must exist with our differences. When I was younger, being bi-racial and having that struggle I was like “no, we’re all the same” — but we are not. I’m not a woman, I’m not 100-percent black, I’m not 100-percent white, I’m not Latino, I’m not Asian — that’s the difference but it shouldn’t be harmful to recognize these differences.
On what they’d like for fans to take away from attending the band’s demonstrations
JAB: Power. For me, it’s as simple as power, understanding your inherent power. Your very existence is power because we live in a structured society and various systems and constructs — we afford and privilege these systems with our power when we give them our time, our money, our labor, that is our power. So to take our power back in these moments, at these demonstrations, to understand, remember and recognize — some people aren’t even aware of how powerful they are.
On which bands gave them that sense of “power” growing up
SH: Any heavy band that had a black musician in it. Being a skateboarder, too, when you find out certain dudes in bands skate, it makes you like them even more. So when you see a black guy in a punk, hardcore, or metal band, it just adds to how good they are. When the band is really good and there’s a person of color in the band, it does give you that power like, “We are allowed here.” We can do this and we’re as good. I didn’t even really listen to Sevendust a whole lot, but they are from 30 minutes north of where I grew up. Sevendust was one of the first bands I got into — it was like validation for me. But I also had family and friends act like it was a betrayal of culture when I listened to heavier genres growing up.
Family reunions, school, you couldn’t go anywhere being black and liking heavy music. Now it’s cool. Travis Scott is wearing metal shirts now, Lil Uzi thinks he’s a metalhead, you know what I mean? It’s cool to like it now. Back when we were getting into this shit, you had nowhere to run – white people thought you were weird, your family thought you were weird, you had to choose to be this every single day.
On whether they’re satisfied with the diversity in heavy music today
JAB: No. The first thing that comes to mind is women, before brothers, before Latinos, before Asian, it’s women that come to mind. We’ve created these constructs whether implicit or explicit, and a lot are explicit. That’s the thing — you have f**king proof of bands ostensibly saying degenerative, problematic or exclusive things that keep women out of heavy music. You have people who have used words, behaved in ways publicly and we have to stop acting like this shit like it’s not happening, because it is.
I think there’s a difference in the way that we look at women of color in music, specifically in heavy music. I know we’re not in the f**kin’ ’50s anymore. I understand that, but the residual effects of quite literally a millennia of poor treatment of women — it can find itself as a microcosm in these walls and it does. This isn’t me complaining — this is just what it is.
That’s what I think about when I think of lack of diversity is when it comes to women and then you go down the line, women, women of color, trans people, queer, etc. The thing that gets me the most is that we touted and hailed ourselves in heavy music as alternative thinkers, as open-minded people, as a view for everybody from punk rock to metal to hardcore, we said that. But we still catch static and have to hear people talking crazy to us. First of all, we don’t need to earn anything; women don’t need to earn anything; we all just need a place to be.
SH: It’s a reflection of general complacent ignorance. When some men see a woman onstage doing what a man is doing, they feel threatened instead of feeling like they should celebrate her because that’s just what you do. History has shown that cultures that celebrate and uplift women are the strongest, most thriving cultures.
The things [Jason] says onstage … he’s saying let’s look at the facts, let’s treat women with respect, and I see the eye rolls, I see the people walking away. Why? What does that say about you? You’re threatened by this man telling you the truth about women and people of color in this room.
It’s not even about music. It’s about culture, it’s about how people view women, how people view people of color in general. So when it comes to music, they’re like, “They’re trying to take my metal? They’re trying to be in my hardcore? I guess, but they’re not as good as us.” It’s f**king crazy and I think we’re getting there in hardcore, there are so many great female fronts in hardcore and punk bands that are coming up.
I’m sure if you asked other people, is it diverse enough? I imagine I would hear “Yes” because what is diverse enough? What is the threshold? I think that’s a big misunderstanding; it’s only diverse enough when people feel comfortable and when you see people starting to be included naturally. A place, a store, when it’s not diverse, it’s clear because they don’t feel welcome. People don’t feel welcome in certain places. If you’re in a band, you have to be vocal about that; if you give a shit, like, “Guys, there’s a whole lot of people that look like us, I don’t know if that means anything to you or not but let’s do something about this.”
JAB: To all those fake-ass progressive bands that want to keep motherf**kers out of this thing, y’all can get f**ked. You’re part of the problem, you need to understand that you are privileged enough to assume yourselves to be a gatekeeper of something that had proven itself to be much less diverse than it said it was in the beginning. I’m not here to call anybody out but I am here to speak the facts and that’s an example of the problem.
For all these people that want to talk about progress, punk rock, hardcore, alternative lifestyle, but you want to be a gatekeeper? You want to tell some brothers, you want to tell a sister, a woman, a trans person that they are grifting band members but you don’t want to talk about their struggle before they got in the door? You’re crazy and you have diluted yourself to believe that you have a position in front of the gates of this music and you have exercised their f—ing privilege?
I don’t care if your band is big, small, DIY — think about all of the years and the blood trauma that we feel. When I see a circular braided rope, if I see anything that represents a noose, if I hear “rigger” — I’m at a festival and hear that someone needs a rig, my skin crawls. Women can’t walk down the street without being objectified. So you want to tell us … that we don’t belong or we don’t earn this shit? You’re just mad that a black man is out there doing it.
SH: The roots run so deep, it’s not even about music. This conversation would have to go on for days because it goes into how this country was built and the way we’re viewed. With women, we would have to go even further back. The nucleus of this, the history of it runs so deep and it bums people out like, “Oh, here we go about slavery again” — but it’s like, “Dude that’s what it is, it was actually not that long ago.”
JAB: Being the lighter black dude, sometimes people think I’m a strange segue or conduit for white people to get their taste of black culture. I’ve had to deal with it my whole life. I realized what being black meant on a whole other level.
On whether Jason struggled with identity as a bi-racial youth
JAB: Don’t even get me started. I had the biggest struggle with identity. I’m from black culture, but I was the lightest one in every situation. It was very confusing because all of my best friends and everything I knew it was being black. It was like fighting for my identity. I lived in the most unfortunate of black circumstances in Los Angeles, welfare, Section 8, dad wasn’t around, I went to jail, all of these things that were placed upon black culture intentionally, but socially engineered, were my experience.
I’m being told by black culture that I need to do these things to be more black. Then I’m being told by white culture, “Well your nose isn’t that big, your hair isn’t that nappy” — people were trying to take my blackness away from me. It’s a very different thing to enjoy black culture from another culture; it’s another thing to be from it and to be told you need to do more to be it.
Our thanks to Jason and Stephen of Fever 333 for taking the time to speak with us for this month’s “Heavy Culture” column. Pick up the band’s Strength in Numb333rs album at this location, and see their full list of demonstrations here.
Photo Gallery – Fever 333 at Gramercy Theatre in New York City: