Justin Smith: The Heavy Metal Professor
For lunch today in Culver City, Justin Smith has ridden his motorcycle up the 405 from Cal State Long Beach, where he teaches U.S. history classes as an adjunct professor. That is, when he's not fronting his band, Graf Orlock, an underground favorite in L.A.'s metal scene.
At first glance, there might seem to be some cognitive dissonance between lecturing about early U.S. colonialism and screaming at shows with Graf Orlock, which plays a chaotic, fast-paced metal subgenre called grindcore. But Smith, who is 30 and wears close-cropped hair and a beard, insists otherwise. In fact, he says, his performances behind the lectern are informed by his tours, not just with Graf Orlock but also with a hardcore group called Ghostlimb.
For example, his interest in the Balkan wars was fueled by Graf Orlock's tour last summer through Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia, where he met kids who had lived through the conflicts. "You can get the scholarly background in history books," he says, "but you can't beat walking around the city with locals and having them point out where they were on the day a major event happened."
So, which came first, metal or academics? Though Smith has had one foot in each world since he was a teenager growing up in La Habra, his passion for music goes back farther. He recalls reading the liner notes of a 1984 album from a political British punk band called Crass. "There was a bunch of stuff about these political events going on in the Falklands in 1981. I didn't know anything about it, but I was intrigued and started reading about it."
Bloodshed is a running theme in both Smith's historical fascinations — his favorite periods are Alexander the Great's reign and the Crusades — and his musical endeavors. For Graf Orlock, he rearranges samples and dialogue from '80s and '90s action films into dystopian commentaries on societal decay. In the classroom, meanwhile, Smith uses movies as a launching point into his lessons. "You have to market antiquity to college kids in a way that is interesting. So you can talk about the history of Greek city-states by talking about 300 but then pointing out everything in it that was [historically] bullshit."
While Smith more or less keeps his two lives separate, occasionally one of his students will put two and two together. In fact, he's been known to bump into a kid at a show, and the kid will ask his prof just what he's doing there. "Then I get to tell him I am playing in one of the bands," he says, adding that he nonetheless asks that student not to share this information with the class.
Smith concludes: "I hope not only are they better educated because of me but they're also listening to better music."
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