The Definitive Oral History of Pirate Metal
The golden age of piracy ended 400 years ago, when the last great buccaneers were chased out of the New World. But the golden age of pirate metal is happening right now.
Part musical theater, part headbanging riffage, pirate metal (or piratecore) is a healthy subgenre with dozens of bands sailing under its flag. Running Wild was one of the first, going full pirate with their 1987 album Under Jolly Roger. The sound now ranges from sea shanties played on distorted guitars to full-on death metal riffs with pirate tales of murder and mayhem screamed over them. No two bands terrorize their crowds exactly the same way.
“There’s definitely a small scene, but it’s not like we’re all exchanging notes on pirate things or discussing accordion melodies,” says Christopher Bowes, the lead singer of Alestorm, maybe one of the best-known groups in the budding subgenre. “It’s rowdy, it’s a party. That’s the main thing.”
Alestorm started in 2004 intending to be a power metal band. They stumbled into the pirate life organically, after Bowes had written two bloodthirsty pirate adventure songs. One of them, “Heavy Metal Pirates,” serves as a manifesto of sorts: “We are Heavy Metal Pirates / We sail across the sky / In our battleships of cosmic steel / We're the terror up on high.” The band decided to run with the theme, thinking it was a fun way to get noticed. They shared a demo on MySpace and played to a sold-out crowd at their first show, fans already decked out in full pirate regalia.
“Power metal fans are usually more reserved,” Bowes explains. “They’re not into moshing or drinking, they kind of stand there and enjoy guitar solos. Our fans are complete mentalists.”
The band recently set a record at the Danish festival Copenhell for most crowd surfers during a single set.
The Southern California folk metal outfit Dread Crew of Oddwood played their first show to an unsuspecting crowd at a Renaissance festival. Afterwards they had people coming up to them trying to nerd out with them about Running Wild and Alestorm.
“I was like, ‘Alestorm? That’s a great name,’ so I looked them up and thought, ‘Wait, they play a keytar, that’s not pirate,’” says Captain Wolfbeard O’Brady, the Dread Crew’s lead vocalist and accordion player. “But it is. It was all news to us. We thought we were so cool and original.”
They were bitter about it at first, O’Brady admits, but as they got to know the community, they warmed to it.
“We decided: ‘Let’s not be sh*tty teenagers about this and embrace it,’” he says. “Because nobody in the genre is like, ‘Yeah, we’re the real gang bangers of the 1600s! We’re gonna kill people.’ No one is at the Mayhem level of commitment. The entire genre is built around creating something that feels authentic but partying really hard, having a great time.”
Portland pirate punk band Rum Rebellion found themselves living out a miniaturized version of the pirate lifestyle when they decided to start playing.
“It started on whitewater rafting trips,” says lead vocalist Dave Noyes. He and his friends would pack instruments, pull up to a little beach, make a fire, and sing sea shanties late into the night. “After a few of these, we started thinking, ‘Why are we keeping this all to ourselves?'”
They started playing on the street, basically to make enough drinking money to buy a bottle of whiskey and go enjoy the rest of the day. As the band grew, they found a welcoming home among Portland’s punks and skinheads.
“When we mix in the pirate ‘yargs,’ the mosh pit turns into a lot of arms interlocked, slam dancing -- it’s fun to watch punk rockers interpret their idea of what piracy is,” Noyes said. “A lot of punk rock and the anarco-culture is modern piracy. We’re just not on boats anymore, which kind of sucks, because boats are awesome.”
Despite the lavish getups and cheeky themes, few bands bother to put together a Disney, kid-friendly version of their acts.The goal is get as wild as possible, and few bands are more dedicated to the debauchery than Australian metal band Lagerstein.
“Imagine a huge house party, or college party,” lead guitarist Nathan Riedel, who goes by his stage name The Majestic Beast, said. “One minute during the show you can be in a wall of death, cheering on the port side of the ship or the starboard side. The next minute you’ll be sitting down, like around a campfire. We’ll all come down from the stage and sit down and start singing about a wench that we lost.”
It’s not as obvious a fit, but pirate storytelling has crossed into the hip-hop world as well. Captain Dan and the Scurvy Crew, currently working on a new EP as just the Scurvy Crew, are perhaps the most well-known. They were brief contestants on America’s Got Talent, where they lost in the first round. Still, they’ve retained a dedicated following, and their cheesy, ‘90s golden-age rhymes delivered in pirate vocals have had a profound impact on the lives of some fans.
"They called him Captain Shady,” Captain Dan said. “He died young, like 22, had a couple kids and he was a rabid fan. When he passed, his friends called us and said: ‘He loved you guys so much, would you send us some instrumentals for us when we walk his casket in?’”
They made an entire song about him: “All Me Mateys Dead and Gone” -- a thank you to one fan, and all fans by extension, for listening. The family was extremely grateful.
“It was a very touching moment,” said Brad Podray AKA Sea Dawg, current leader of the Scurvy Crew. “You wouldn’t expect that from a goofball pirate rap group, but here we are.”
Other pirate metalheads in the genre aren’t known to treat their patrons or crowds with the same light-hearted deference. Swashbuckle’s Admiral Nobeard, real name Pat Henry, has a legendarily dark sense of humor.
“We don’t take bullshit lightly, and we’re very vicious with our humor,” Henry said. “We’ll verbally berate the entire crowd, and sometimes they get butt hurt about it. But really, dude? We’re up here in frilly shirts -- you should probably laugh.”
Deckard Cordwain, who plays the Octave Mandolin (a lower-pitched mandolin) in the Dread Crew of Oddwood, recalled a particularly harsh moment during a shared bill with Swashbuckle.
“So we have this thing called a rowing pit, where basically like 30 people in the audience all drop to the floor and start rowing together,” Deckard said. “We were playing with Swashbuckle and Pat [Henry] sees this and just stops the show to talk sh*t: ‘What the f*ck are you guys doing? You all look so stupid.’”
“A lot of people are turned off by the humor, but if you look at it, all metal is goofy as f*ck,” Admiral Nobeard said. “Like the birth of black metal, with all the face paint, and they’re crawling in the woods and sh*t -- that’s hilarious. Before that, Judas Priest, wearing all leather, talking about ramming it down, so ridiculous. I always found humor in the metal I listened to.”
He admits the pirate shtick is a gimmick, but it pays the bills better than any of his previous thrash bands ever did. It’s a common theme. The pirate life wasn’t many of these bands’ first choice, but it has given many artists the ability to travel around the country, and in some cases the world, leading nightly brawls and living a life of adventure. Alestorm continues to book bigger festivals, and find more like-minded bands that can keep up with their lunacy. The audiences’ enthusiasm shocks even the veterans sometimes.
“It’s a beautiful sight,” Bowes said, awe in his voice as he describes the reactions to Alestorm’s latest gag: chucking an 8-foot rubber duck into the crowd and urging them to tear it apart. “A sea of pirates swarming a rubber duck -- not a thing you’d expect to see at a metal show, but it’s what we do. We love it. It’s definitely still on the way up. As long as I can keep writing good albums, or at least acceptable albums, and the songs don’t suck too bad, we’ll see how this goes.”