I don’t remember the exact year or time, but it was probably around 2008 or 2009, when I was introduced to a thrash/death metal band called Skeletonwitch on XM radio. They had such a great sound, and I was so impressed with the music that I bought all of the band’s albums I could. Then I started seeing the band live as much as I could. I bought their t-shirts, beer mugs, posters, signed limited-edition memorabilia. I loved the music and got to know the band members. This is the story of my relationship with a group of five metalers from the Midwest–how I got into it, the multiple states (and continents) in which I saw the band, and my eventual withdrawal. This is the story of the band I have seen the most times in the most places. I call it, A Decade of the Witch.
I’ll save you the background on the band, which you can read on Skeletonwitch’s Wikipedia page, and I’ll start my story at the first time I saw the band play live. It was at a place called Jaxx in Springfield, Virginia, located in a strip mall next to a great Afghan restaurant, some time in 2009 or 2010. They had such incredible energy, and I loved the music. I was at the front of the crowd, or in the mosh pit, for the entire set. The next day, my neck hurt from headbanging so much. My body hurt from taking blows from others in the pit. But I wouldn’t have had it any other way. There was much something about the music and the energy of the show that I couldn’t help myself.
Each Skeletonwitch concert, I would find myself as close to the stage as possible or in the middle of the mosh pit, sweaty and gross, covered in other people’s sweat, beer, and sometimes blood (never my own). The five members always seemed crammed on whatever tiny stage they were playing on: vocalist Chance Garnette in center stage, bass player Evan Linger and left-handed guitarist Scott Hedrick on stage right, and guitarist and Nate Garnette, Chance’s brother, flanking the other side. Dustin Boltjes hammered the drums in the back.
Because they were both genuinely good guys (and capitalists), they always hung out at their merchandise table before and after their set. They took pictures, signed merchandise, and hung out with fans, and this was how I got to know them.
They were from Ohio, and as I graduated from Ohio State, the buckeye state was the start of our conversations. Then I learned that Chance and Nate were brothers from a suburb of Columbus, Ohio, the former being the elder of the two. Chance was vegan, and loved Chipotle, and drank quite a lot. Nate had a long-time girlfriend and was the driver of the band’s van (as well as the mechanic). Scott lived in Athens with his girlfriend and had graduated from Ohio University a few years before the band started to tour nationally. Evan was from northern Ohio, and Dustin was from Indianapolis.
Because I was so into the music and the band, I did whatever I could to ensure I could see them live, which included taking a rest and recovery period from a year-long assignment to the US Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq to see them on tour back in the States. About a month after I returned from Iraq, I drove to Pittsburgh, where my brother was attending college, to see the band again.
The next year, in 2013, I got deployed back to the Middle East with the US Navy and, as luck would have it, Skeletonwitch was touring as soon as I got back home. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t return to the DC area until after the band’s show there, so I decided I would do something I had always wanted to do: follow the band on their tour.
Three days of Skeletonwitch in the Great Plains
I decided that I would “tour” with the band for three days on three consecutive stops through Oklahoma and Missouri. When I arrived at the venue of my first of three shows in Oklahoma City, I got out of my rental car and saw Scott in the parking lot. I yelled out to him. He turned his head, looking for the voice calling his name in the dark. He looked in my direction, recognizing me as I got closer.
“Yo! Parker!” He paused. “Wait, you’re not from here, right? Aren’t you from like…the east coast?”
“Yep,” I said nodding with a grimace. “Check this out. I missed your show in the DC area, so I flew out here, so I can see you guys three days in a row.”
“No fuckin’ way! Are you serious?”
I nodded. He laughed and smiled. “Dude, gimme a hug man. That’s incredible!” He called out to Nate, who was close by. “Nate! You’re not gonna believe this!”
When the show started, I was at the front of the stage in my usual spot and stayed there for their entire show. After they finished their set, I talked with Scott and Dustin and told them more about my trip and that I would see them the next day in Springfield, Missouri. They both gave me their numbers to text and keep in touch while on the road.
The next day, I checked out of my hotel, drove to Springfield, and walked about 20 minutes to the venue. Again, I was right up front, thrashing away with Springfield’s metalheads. And I did the same thing the next day in St. Louis. By the end of the three days, all of the members voiced their appreciation of my support to the band, some still in disbelief that I flew halfway across the country to see them for three days.
By the end, I felt like I had started to develop true friendships with the band members, particularly Scott and Dustin. “Definitely text me stuff to watch and listen to,” Dustin told me. “It gets boring on the road.” Scott told me to keep in touch and let him know if I ever made it through Athens, Ohio.
Skeletonwitch plays an entire show…instrumentally?
The following year, in January 2014, Skeletonwitch was touring again, and I of course saw the band at the Fillmore in Silver Spring, Maryland. I brought my GoPro camera, attached it to my head, and ran around the mosh pit.
And again, later in 2014, Skeletonwitch toured again. I texted both Scott and Dustin letting them know that I would, of course, see them in at their show in Virginia, but also in New Orleans, the latter of which would happen with my friend Joe who lived there with his family. The Springfield show was great, as usual, and I expected more of the same for the show a few weeks later in New Orleans. When Joe and I entered the venue, I went up to the merchandise table, which was manned by a friend of the band named Josh.
“Hey, man, did they tell you about Chance?” he said to me. I had seen Chance at the band’s show in Springfield and everything seemed fine. Neither Dustin nor Scott had said anything to me about it, so I shook my head. “He’s not here,” Josh said.
Josh said he couldn’t provide details, only indicating that there had been an issue because of Chance’s drinking and that the band was going to play the show without him. My eyes grew wide and I looked a Joe. “Dude, Chance isn’t here. What are they going to do?”
By the start time of the show, of which Skeletonwitch was the opening act, the four members of the band, without Chance, walked onto the stage and started playing, and ripped through their entire set instrumentally. It didn’t matter to the crowd. They (and we) were just as into it as any other show I had seen. When I talked with the Scott and Dustin afterwards, they wouldn’t say much about it, other than that Chance had some things to deal with.
A few days later, the band released a statement to the music media indicating that Chance had some “serious personal matters to attend to,” but he had actually been kicked out of the band for “battery on a family/household member,” according to court filings. The band decided to continue on the tour, which surprised (and amazed) the other bands on the tour, more of which you can read in an interview article in Pitchfork.
Chance had been fired, and as the frontman of a metal band, that meant a lot. The frontman’s (or frontwoman’s) stage presence drives the energy of a crowd. The frontman is almost always in the center for any of a band’s photography and marketing materials. The frontman is a huge part of the band’s culture, as he is usually the one who writes the lyrics, and that can have an outcome on how a song is crafted. I didn’t know what would come of it, but all of us in the metal community hoped the band would go on, find a new vocalist, and keep making music.
About a month later, after the tour was over and the band members had returned home, I took up Scott on his offer to hang out in Athens. I told him that I would be coming his way on Thanksgiving weekend as Joe and I we were attending the Ohio State-Michigan football game in Columbus. We had been every year together since 2004; it was our annual pilgrimage.
Instead of going the most direct and fastest route via the highways, I told Scott that we were taking the scenic route through West Virginia and up the southeast side of Ohio, coming through Athens on our way to Columbus. “We’re gonna do the same route home on Sunday, so if you’re around, maybe we could meet up,” I texted Scott.
“Yeah, man. Sounds awesome. Let’s do it.”
The day after The Game (another Buckeye victory), Joe and I drove down from Columbus to Athens and pulled up to Scott’s house. I knocked on the door and Scott answered, welcoming us into his home and introducing us to his girlfirend. He offered us some beers, showed us around, and brought us into his recording space. It was a small room, no bigger than 50 square feet.
“Hey, you brought your guitar with you, right?” Scott asked me.
I nodded and smiled. “Go grab it and we can jam for a bit.”
Before we left for the trip, Scott asked if I wanted to bring my guitar, so we could jam and he could show me some Skeletonwitch guitar riffs. Excitedly, I ran out to the car, grabbed the case out of my trunk, and brought it inside. A minute later, there we were, three of us–Scott, Joe, and me–playing Skeletonwitch music together, with the guy who wrote the music. It sounds cliche, but it was a dream come true. Scott was (and is) and incredible musician, and learning the tricks and nuances of the music he wrote (stuff that I had been trying to figure out for years) was an honor.
After we played a few songs, Scott invited us to his Sunday tradition, Mexican food at a local joint in Athens with a bunch of his friends. Joe and I agreed, walked to the restaurant, and we all pigged out on tacos and enchiladas before Joe and I hit the road to head home. It was a great Sunday afternoon: metal, tacos, and friends.
I go international to see Skeletonwitch
A few months later in early 2015, I texted Scott and said that I was going to do something crazier than the time I followed the band for three days through the Great Plains. “I’m going to come see you guys in Berlin.”
“What?!?! Seriously?” he wrote back.
A friend of mine was getting married in Poland, as his wife was a first-generation Polish-American. As the groom explained it to me, “everything costs less in Poland so you can get 10 times as much for one third of the cost.” As luck would have it, Skeletonwitch was touring Europe and would be in Berlin the Thursday night before the wedding, so I worked out my travel plans to see the band in Germany, adding another country to the list of places I had seen them play. After my flight from DC landed in Copenhagen, Denmark, I took a train to Berlin, where I saw the band at a small club.
While I intended on purchasing a ticket, Scott insisted that he had my name to their comp list, so I obliged. When I entered the club, the bouncer checked my name off the list and let me in, and I took my place in the front of the stage, just as I always did. Europeans love themselves some metal, so it turned out to be an exciting and fun atmosphere. This time the band did have a vocalist, a guy named Andy Horn from the death metal band Cannabis Corpse. He couldn’t replace Chance, but he did a fine job.
After the show, Scott convinced the club staff to let me backstage, saying that I was going to help them load their gear into their van. They let me backstage, but instead of packing gear, Scott took me to a green room where the band members where drinking and eating. It was a fun experience to be back there with them, something I had never done before, even if it was a small metal club with some mid-level death metal bands (they were touring with a band called Goatwhore). But I did really enjoy their music and their company and was grateful for the experience. I called it a night around 1 o’clock, when said goodbye to the band and walked back to my hotel before rising incredibly early to catch a train to the most epic wedding I had ever attended, and almost getting stuck in Europe because I didn’t know a specific rule about air travel.
I kept in random contact with Scott and Dustin throughout the rest of 2015 and saw the band in March during the first stop of their 2016 tour. The band had a new full-time-member-of-the-band vocalist, Adam Clemens, and although they hadn’t released any new music yet, I was excited to see him perform. The show was great, as they played lots of my old favorites, and I was excited to see what they could do going forward.
Making my pitch in Brooklyn
The band released a four-song EP in the summer and toured again later in the year to generate support for the release and the new vocalist. When I looked at the tour schedule, I immediately noticed that I had a problem. The tour date in Baltimore was a Saturday night, the same day I would be in New York City for an all-day work event. As luck would have it, the band had a show in Brooklyn on Friday night, so I booked my train early enough on Friday to get to New York and see the show there. Another show…another state.
It was really important that I saw the band because, in the preceding month, I had put together a proposal, something I wanted to run by Scott and the band when I saw them. I had always wanted to write a book and recognized the chasm between metalheads and “regular” people who think people who wear black and listen to metal are weird, different, or [insert judgmental adjective]. As a writer, I thought I could tell the band’s story and put it in terms the non-metal world could understand and even relate to. These were a group of guys who had to make the same decisions as everyone else. You picked a company to work for. They picked a record label. You have to travel for work. They have to tour. You have to save money for the future. They have to do the same. You have to consider your family. They have to consider their families. And so on…
I felt like I could make that connection between the two sides and write a heavy metal book with a personal, humanizing side that non-metalheads would be able to understand and might just be interested in.
On Friday night, October 28th, I took the Subway under the East River, walked across the Pulaski Bridge, and found my way to the Saint Vitus Bar, a famed establishment in the NY metal community (and beyond), one I had never been up until this point.
When Skeletonwitch took the stage, I had my first experience with the band’s new music. Unfortunately, I didn’t care for it very much…it was different than their previous stuff. It was darker, more melodic, and less thrashy. I wondered how much of the change was from the new vocalist or if it was just the band trying something new. Either way, I just wasn’t into the vocal style…it just didn’t seem to fit the music, as he was more of a black metal vocalist than a death metal vocalist (you can read more about the difference here).
Nevertheless, I was determined to make my book pitch, so after the show ended, I talked with the guys for a bit and joined them outside by their van. I pulled Scott aside and told him about my idea. He seemed interested, so I reached in my pocket and handed him a sheet of paper with the proposal on it. “Oh, shit, man. You’ve got this written out already.”
I nodded and asked him to read it over, consider it, and let me know what he thought. I reinforced that I would be willing to follow the band at my own cost to do the project, so it would come at no cost to the band. He said he’d consider it and that we’d be in touch.
As it was late, and I had a big day the next day, we said goodbye and parted ways. As the months passed, I never heard anything from Scott. I reached out a few times, but would rarely hear back.
New vocals, new sound
In 2017, the band went back home, rested, wrote new music, and recorded a new album, which came out in 2018. While I was disappointed that Scott (and/or the band) wasn’t interested in my proposal, I was excited and still wanted to support the band, so I bought it the album the day it was released. Again, just like the EP, the music just didn’t do it for me. It wasn’t my style…it wasn’t Skeletonwitch, at least as I knew them. It sounded different…seemed different. For the first time in about 10 years, I didn’t want to listen to the band’s new music.
Despite my lack of interest, the new album, Devouring Radiant Light, was praised by a lot of the metal music industry for evolving into something more than thrash metal. But I didn’t care for it, and Dustin might not have been into it either, as he left the bandshortly before the new album was released. “It was time for me to slow down,” he texted me when I asked him about his departure. “But things are good.” (Dustin is now married, an Indianapolis DJ, and the frontman of an emerging band called Sacred Leather.)
From the Skeletonwitch I originally knew, it was now 40% different. But it wasn’t just the members who were different, Scott had changed, too. Around this time, he broke up with his girlfriend, left Athens, Ohio, and moved to Brooklyn before settling in Los Angeles. He stopped smoking and became a marathon runner, a chronicle of his own that you can read about in Decibel Magazine.
In the interview, Scott said, “I had this major life change and moved out into my own place and started doing my own thing. I found confidence and started writing so much more music. My creative side and running became weirdly linked. I would go for these runs and listen to what I was writing, which was the majority of [the new album].” I was truly happy for Scott, as it was clear he was growing personally and professionally.
And that was the new Skeletonwitch. A black metal vocalist takes over for the alcoholic, abusive original, whose brother was still in the band (and I can only imagine that plagued him to some degree). The drummer quit for a more steady life. The former chain-cigarette-smoking, marijuana-toking left-handed shredder became a creative long-distance runner.
The band changed, but I didn’t want them to. I wanted fast speed and thrash metal with death metal lyrics that would make you laugh if you tried to take them seriously. I didn’t want lyrics with meaning and new chord progressions. But, as they say, doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result is the definition of insanity. For the band to keep attracting new fans and grow personally and professionally, they had to evolve, and I respected them for doing so.
When the band toured in 2019, for the first time I decided not to see them live and am not sure if I will again. And that’s okay.
In the end
I obviously never ended up writing a book on Skeletonwitch, although I wrote and published a book of my own stories, and much of the Skeletonwitch story ended up being chronicled in the Pitchfork article anyway. So this post is a version story I wanted to tell, albeit much shorter and much less than I wanted it to be.
Going forward, I probably won’t listen to the band’s new music and I probably won’t see them in concert again. That said, I’m sure I’ll always listen to the old Skeletonwitch and play along on my guitars and drums as best I can, and I’ll snuggle on my couch with my wife and daughter underneath the my quilted blanket comprising 16 Skeletonwitch t-shirts that my wife got for me as a present.
To the current and former members of Skeletonwitch, I wish you all the best in the world. Thank you for a great 10 years of music and fun, including at least 15 shows in six states and two countries (and two continents, for that matter.) I’ll never forget those incredible times I “worshiped the ‘Witch.”