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International Man of Metal

Vocalist-for-hire Jason Keyser doesn’t want to die with an empty passport

by David King on June 8, 2011

“Come stay in the Leo Bar; we have a lion.” Those were the words that started the weirdest night of Jason Keyser’s life. In 2007, Keyser left the comfy confines of a tour bus in Holland—he had been traveling Europe as the lead singer for Skinless, the Capital Region’s premier purveyors of death metal, along with Dying Fetus and Cattle Decapitation—to schlep his way across the Czech Republic in a tiny beat-up car with members of his other band, Mucopus.

Photo by Joe Putrock

With no tour bus and no accommodations booked, the band talked their way into lodgings every night. If this sounds like the start of a heavy-metal horror story—Heavy Metal meets Hostel—you just might be onto something.

“I went from that bus tour with Skinless—one of the best tours I’ve ever done—to us being driven around in a little car by our Czech friend. We played once somewhere in Slovakia, somewhere outside of Bratislava. It was midnight and we were trying to find a place to stay.” That’s when they got the offer, through a friend, to stay at the Leo Bar.

“A fucking lion?” Keyser and his bandmates wondered. “They are just making fun of us dumb Americans. It’s probably just a big cat or something,” Keyser assumed.

They drove out to the bar, in the middle of the forest. And the first thing they did upon arrival was ask to see this alleged lion. “First you must prepare!” the bar owner told Keyser and his guitarist. The hosts set out 20 glasses of beer, and the two Americans did their best to “pound ‘em out.”

The guests had not finished them all, but were quite under the influence, when the hosts decided it was time to see the lion. “They say, ‘This is our Leo Bar, this is our lion!’ and they open this sliding barn door. Literally, like 10 feet away from us with no barrier was this full-grown adult male lion, just chilling, sleeping on a little plank. The guy next to it started laughing and poked it with a little stick. It started roaring at us. It came at us like in a movie. The face was getting close while the door was closing shut, and I swear I heard it bump against the door.” Keyser and his companion awoke the next day a bit bewildered. The owner told them that he bred the lions. “That was one of craziest nights ever,” Keyser recalls with a snicker.

Things haven’t exactly calmed down for Keyser. Yes, Keyser’s duties for Skinless are over and he is studying anthropology at a prestigious college (which, for reasons too complicated to detail here, he asked Metroland not to name). But he has an even busier schedule ahead of him—one that involves bringing death metal to the world.

With his flowing blonde hair and his pointy, Southern snake-oil-salesman goatee, Keyser sits at a table on the deck at Brown’s Brewing Company. He nurses an ale while describing how he got a recent job offer. This little break back home in the Capital Region is but a brief return to the mundane for the man who has made a career out of taking his death-metal scream across the world.

“I was in India at the time, and I was like, ‘Yeah, I don’t mind if you don’t mind waiting till I get back,’ ” he chuckles. The offer: to join national death-metal act Origin, featuring former Skinless drummer John Longstreth. The band, famous for their technical playing, insane blast-beat drumming and daring time signatures, recently signed with major metal label Nuclear Blast and are set to release a new album and go on a world tour. The only problem: Keyser was taking part in an International Honors Program study abroad that took him to India, Tanzania, Mexico and New Zealand. The band agreed to wait for him, and during his free time the anthropology student set about learning his new band’s songs.

Photo by Joe Putrock

Keyser had already been forced to turn down offers to front other international metal acts because he was headed off on the study abroad. The band recorded the vocals themselves, but Keyser will perform on stage and says he will be on future recordings. Now he had something to look forward to upon his return to the states.

“We were living with Masai, the last pastoral herders in the world in Africa, living in all these remote Indian villages. It was intense. We were living with the Zapatistas in Mexico and had the opportunity to have access to places tourists would never have a chance to go,” Keyser explains as he surveys the chatty bar crowd. He seems unimpressed, a little bit bored.

Keyser’s fascination with metal started early in life. He grew up with metal. His first record was a Gwar album he stole from his brother. He spent his teen years going to the crazy shows at QE2. “I saw some of the craziest, most amazing concerts, most life-threatening. I was probably like 14, and I was really afraid for my life sometimes. That was scary shit. There were more people outside than there were in the club!” Eventually, it only made sense for him to start his own band. He started Detriment with members of local metal and hardcore stalwarts Wasteform and Wartime Manner.

“We were doing something different than everyone else was doing,” says Keyser. Meanwhile, his brother Joe Keyser was part of local death-metal mavens Skinless; their career was taking off while Detriment were “basically doing black metal when no one else gave a shit about it. It wasn’t really big, but we played a lot.”

Keyser cut his metal teeth in Detriment, headlining small shows and opening for larger acts. Then one day while he was in Connecticut, watching Judas Priest play at Ozzfest, Joe Keyser approached him to join Skinless as their lead singer. Keyser played a notorious first show with the band just days after Pope John Paul had died and took the stage dressed as the pope. He got everyone’s attention.

Along with recording and touring with Skinless, Keyser took horror-metal band Mucopus across Europe. “Mucopus was the first American death metal band to do a full Ukrainian tour,” he says. “People played there before, but we went to all these cities. It’s the countries that don’t get a lot of attention that are undoubtedly the best places to play. Mucopus isn’t a big band, but we were pulling 400 people on a Tuesday night in Lvov or Dnepropetrovsk. It was ridiculous in those cities. People would lose their minds, to the point that I brought grown men to tears during the concerts.”

Keyser loves playing the backwoods of Europe. “They think it’s so awesome. The Czech Republic, Russia are always great, but go to Germany and they are spoiled like we are.”

In 2009, Skinless’ original lead singer rejoined, and Keyser moved on. Mucopus are out of commission as well. But Keyser is ready to continue his dream. Origin’s American tour starts in June, and their new album, Entity, drops tomorrow (June 10). From there, it is on to Europe, where they will play Bosnia, Croatia and then Turkey on Keyser’s birthday. Keyser hopes to utilize some contacts he made during his study abroad to book Origin in India and some other interesting places. “When I was in India, I made some contacts. They have a small scene, but they are fanatical. I put up a notice and I have all these supporters on Facebook who are Skinless fans or from other projects I’ve been in from all over the world, and a lot are from India and Indonesia—just fans, metal fans. This one kid from Delhi hit me up and said we should hang out. Turns out he was one of the only metal promoters there. We ended up bullshitting and talking about the scene.”

Origin’s members are spread out across the country: upstate New York, Kentucky and San Francisco. They get together to lay down tracks but don’t get to practice together all the time. So eventually, when touring calms down, Keyser plans to return to school as a senior to finish his degree. But there is a lot of metal to be played before thoughts turn back to schoolwork.

He has his fingers crossed that the band will be booked on the “70,000 tons of metal cruise,” a heavy-metal luxury-liner cruise headlined by all sorts of international metal acts, sailing from Miami to the Cayman islands.

“There is no backstage area, so your favorite band could be right next to you drinking a beer. People are just sitting in Jacuzzis, listening to music.”

Simply put, Origin “is going everywhere,” says Keyser. “I just love just doing weird shit. I will play in the weirdest places. I don’t need to play New York City every weekend; I just want to go to new places. I don’t want to die with an empty passport, you know?”