This History Professor Just Might Be the Hardest-Working Man in Metal

Graf Orlock, as seen in the world of their latest concept album, Crime TravelerEXPAND
Graf Orlock, as seen in the world of their latest concept album, Crime Traveler
Courtesy of Vitriol Records

Guitarist/vocalist Justin Smith — previously featured in L.A. Weekly’s People issue in 2013 — gets straight to the point when discussing the inspiration behind his grindcore outfit Graf Orlock’s new album, Crime Traveler.

“The idea of a Canadian assassin traveling back in time to assassinate key American figures so that Canada gains geo-political dominance seemed too stupid to pass up,” says Smith.

The group that Smith affectionately refers to in conversation as “Gorlock” has spent the last decade carving out its niche in the crowded Los Angeles heavy music scene by turning sound samples and dialogue from action movies such as Aliens and Point Break into blistering punk- and noise-fueled musical diatribes that leave listeners as dazed as moviegoers were the first time they saw those seminal flicks.

“Our albums are basically moronic fan fiction at this point,” says Smith, who performs in Graf Orlock under the alias Jason Schmidt and sometimes jokingly describes the group's music as "cinema-grind."

In a departure from previous works, such as their Destination Time trilogy and 2012’s Los Angeles EP (inspired by the 1995 Michael Mann film Heat), the riotous band of explosives-worshipers have created an original narrative — supplemented by a 12-page newspaper containing the physical album — for Crime Traveler, which comes out this Friday, Feb. 5, and can be heard in its entirety below.

Replacing the movie quotes of past albums are samples of dialogue from a bizarre “movie” that is a completely home-brewed yarn. Its time-traveling protagonist injects himself into important historical events, such as the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, the 1981 assassination attempt on President Reagan, and even the 22nd century rise of the Weyland-Yutani Corporation from the Alien films, all in an effort to ensure Canada’s supremacy as a global superpower.

“Fundamentally, action movies are revenge movies,” says Smith. “The idea of a Canadian assassin allows you to critique American foreign policy but also champion a weird underdog you want to root for.”

Graf Orlock is not Smith's only musical outlet. Also coming out this Friday will be Difficult Loves, the fifth album from Ghostlimb, another project for which he handles guitar and vocal duties. A much more temperate beast than Graf Orlock, Ghostlimb is a melodic hardcore project that finds Smith injecting more introspective songwriting with his passions of classic literature and world history.

GhostlimbEXPAND
Ghostlimb
Courtesy of Vitriol Records

“Graf Orlock is the sledgehammer,” says Smith. “It’s almost unnecessarily aggressive. Ghostlimb is more of a stabbing instrument. It’s aggressive too, but the ideas are more personal. But together they are complementary for me.”

Ghostlimb’s previous albums have consisted mostly of short, one-to-two-minute bursts of screamed emotion, leaving an effect similar to when a scorned lover quickly shouts his grievances and leaves the room before you can respond. On their newest work — which you can also hear below in its entirety — those outbursts still appear, but are alleviated by more expansive and ambitious anthems, such as the six-minute title track.

“When I go back to listen to older stuff with Ghostlimb, the music sounds constricted to me,” says Smith. “There’s not a whole lot of breathing room. But nowadays, a timetable of 60 seconds in a song doesn’t really appeal to me. It gives me more meaning to write a song that has more to it.”

The simultaneous releases of new Graf Orlock and Ghostlimb records — plus an album later this spring from Dangers, another hardcore act Smith plays guitar for — may make Smith look like the most prolific metal musician on the planet. But in reality, this latest outpouring of music has been brewing for a long time. Outside of a 2014 7-inch release titled “Trailer,” Crime Traveler is the first Graf Orlock output in four years, and it's been four years since the last Ghostlimb record, as well.

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Smith cites geographical logistics as one reason for the long gap between releases; Graf Orlock’s drummer is based on the East Coast and Ghostlimb’s bass player lives up in the Bay Area. But there's another reason for the simultaneous releases, one that is becoming all too familiar for labels and imprints that specialize primarily in vinyl releases.

“These days, there needs to be a thousand copies of a Bruce Springsteen reissue, so pressing plants are taking up to 12 weeks now to print records,” says Smith, who also runs his own independent hardcore label, Vitriol Records. “Back in 2005, when we were starting, it would be a six-week turnaround. I didn’t want to end up on the doorstep of a tour and not have a record done.”

Smith’s day job, as a history professor at multiple colleges around the Los Angeles area, also surely cuts into time spent on his musical endeavors. Still, he is quick to focus on the positives of his hectic schedule, which sees him teaching classes throughout the week at Cerritos College, Glendale Community College and Los Angeles Harbor College.

“It’s a little stressful, but the week goes really fast,” he says.

Smith hopes to be able to tour with all three of his bands this year. He also plans on potentially continuing the Crime Traveler narrative with future Graf Orlock work, as well as recording more movie-inspired 7-inch singles and releasing them opening weekend of the films. (The first one, he says, will be related to John Wick 2.) And if Crime Traveler ever gets optioned for the big screen, Smith already has a leading man in mind.

“In a perfect world, it would be Bill Paxton,” he says. “Though the character is French-Canadian, so that might be a challenge.”


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