The 2007 documentary Global Metal sees metalhead (and cultural anthropologist) Sam Dunn investigating heavy metal scenes around the world, discovering how the same blistering guitar solos and wild styles have found expression and meaning across borders, cultures, and language barriers. At one point, Dunn is speaking to a boy in India, who says, “Heavy metal is like the sky. There’s one for all.”
“That’s awesome,” says John Ellis, lead singer of Peterborough heavy metal band Mokomokai. “One banner, no matter what situation you’re in.”
The boy’s words served as the inspiration for the Mokomokai song “Heavy Metal Sky,” but more than that, they could well serve as the mission statement for the entire band.
“It’s almost metaphysical,” says John. “If you’re a metalhead, there’s something about the intensity in heavy metal. You feel connected with it. You never see people tearing off their shirts at an r&b concert. You go to a metal festival and you see a guy wearing a Slayer shirt, and you’re wearing a Slayer shirt. He’s like, ‘Fuckin’ Slayer!’ And you’re like, ‘Yeah!’ You like know each other for a minute. I have a lot of close personal friends I’ve made because of the Slayer patch on my vest.”
In Mokomokai’s music, and especially at a live Mokomokai show, it feels like everyone—band members and audiences alike—are all working towards the same deep and essential truth: a desire for self-expression, for emotional release, for connection, and for having a good time together.
“We end up on bills with rock bands, thrash metal, grindcore, sludge metal—all these different kinds,” says John. “But it always works, because everyone’s got the same goal. They just want to rock the fuck out and have beers and have a good time and support the riff and the volume. It’s awesome.”
With his operatic falsetto vocals, it should come as no surprise that John Ellis has been singing since an early age, though perhaps not in the way you’d think. “My family is a big Catholic family,” he says, “and ever since I can remember I was in choirs and stuff like that. When I was in Grade 9, I was in boarding school, where I did a lot of polyphonic sacred music, like [Renaissance composer] William Byrd and masses and things like that. A lot of Celtic music. I’ve had training in a lot of different genres, mostly classical styles of singing.”
But John’s life was transformed at the age of 14, when a friend lent him Judas Priest’s seminal live album, Unleashed in the East. “He’s like, ‘Oh, you’re a singer. You should check this guy out.’ I immediately started spending like four hours a day listening to it. I need to learn how to sing like this guy.”
Judas Priest was a transformational band—not just for John, but for a generation of budding metalheads. “They’re like the original leather-and-steel guys,” says John. “The music is just on the cusp of being in that group of guys that were super influenced by jazz: Cream and Deep Purple, stuff like that. Priest is the point at which it was refined into a more severe and intense metallic genre.” They helped pave the way for the NWOBHM (New Wave of British Heavy Metal), which introduced the world to bands like Iron Maiden, Def Leppard, and Motörhead.
Unleashed in the East was also a formative album for bandmate Bobby Deuce. “I used to go into the van and just crank it when I was like 10. That became my love for heavy metal. It’s how I decided to learn to do it. Like, that’s so crazy! If only I could do that.” He loved “the dual lead guitar thing. Not many people were doing that at the time. It’s so flashy, left and right, everywhere is in your face.”
The music was fast, loud, intense, and, maybe more than anything, technically advanced and really interesting. “It was easy to bridge the gap between classical and heavy metal,” says John. “They’re similar in a lot of ways. It’s very complex: lots of feel changes, movements. If you watch footage of the San Francisco Philharmonic when they played with Metallica, there’s guys in the rhythm section who keep having to go to the band and say, ‘I don’t understand this change. How do you do this?’”
John soon formed a band called Paresthesia with a number of local musicians. By that time, metal had moved on beyond NWOBHM, and so had John, exploring progressive and modern thrash metal—but something didn’t feel right.
John recalls a show at the Blue Room above Peterborough’s Trasheteria, where he shared a bill with another band, Skullfist, from Beaverton. “I remember being there for sound check and having a beer, and then I see all these dudes with mullets and denim jackets and high-top sneakers filing in and setting up rigs and taking out Jackson Rhoads guitars. I was like, ‘People still do this? What am I doing?’ That was little bit of a pivotal moment.”
John actually quit music at one point, planning to pursue something more serious, but “a year went by, and I was running out of room in my head for all the riffs I was writing. I had like two albums of material. I was like, I’m clearly not going to stop writing.”
He recruited Emmott Clancy (“a total secret weapon heavy metal drummer” who had played in local hardcore metal band the New Flesh) and Jeremy Pastic, an old friend from high school. “I don’t think I can stress enough how much of a pillar in my life Jeremy has been. He’s such a solid dude, and a killer bass player, and he’s just always got good energy and he’s really proactive. It’s been me and him since the beginning.”
Within a few months, John decided, “Alright, I’m going to commit to this. Whoever is in it at the time is awesome, but it’s not something I’m ever going to stop doing.”
Indeed, the band has since been through a few lineup changes. Emmott left the band after a short time to pursue other projects, and JP Contois, of doom/prog metal band Altarus, stepped in. Contois’ complex and technically precise drumming helped define the early era of the band. He played on the band’s first EP, Justice and Chrome, and their first full-length album, Poison Whiptail, before life got in the way and he had to leave. “It was a very amicable split,” says John. “I don’t see too much of him, because he’s pretty dedicated to what he’s doing, but totally no hard feelings.”
Another local drummer, JJ Tartaglia, stepped into the drummer’s chair. “JJ is awesome to work with,” says John. “He’s a super talented dude. He’s a machine. I have yet to be like, ‘JJ, I need you to do this,’ and he have any difficulty doing it.”
Around the same time, John met Bobby during an East Coast tour. A couple months later, John and a mutual friend “were in Toronto drinking whisky. It was kind of a spur-of-the-moment decision, but I was like, ‘I feel like we could use another guitar player, and I think we need Bobby Deuce.’ We Skyped him that night, like, ‘You have to move to Peterborough!’ and he was like ‘…alright.’ A month later, he moved into my house.”
Bobby had played in a number of bands around his hometown of Moncton, “but this was different,” he says. “I’ve never moved a couple provinces over to join a band. It was pretty intense. I had to get my chops up to speed for sure.”
The second guitar player brought the band to a whole new level. Says John, “There are entire segments in the set where I don’t even have to play guitar—not that I don’t enjoy it. We can switch up the dynamic, we can do cool double leads together, or I can just be like, Bobby I need you to do this part. It gives such dynamic range too. All that aside, Bobby is a bitching guitar player, and it’s awesome having him on stage. His leads are ultimate.”
It’s possible to read about Mokomokai, or listen to their albums, but, like any good metal band, to get the full experience, you really have to see them live. It’s there that you can really experience the impressive musicianship of the members, the infectious joy they bring to performance, and their flair for the dramatic. Rowdy crowds, wild stage antics, and even zombie makeup are mainstays of Mokomokai shows.
John quotes Motörhead’s Lemmy Kilmister: “‘People don’t come to a show to see shit they see in their everyday lives; they come to see something from another planet.’ If good music was all it took, you wouldn’t have crazy characters like Lemmy or Robert Plant or Ozzy Osborne, or even the newer guys like [Lamb of God’s] Randy Blythe.”
Bobby speaks to the moment “when you stop just playing songs, and you realize you’re a performer now—not just a guitar player.”
For John, this side of the band comes naturally. “I’ve played to crowds of 15 people in my life, and I’ve played to crowds of upward of 8,000 people, and it’s easier to play to 8,000 people. Music is where my energy naturally goes, and it’s where I feel the most confident, so people seeing me on stage are definitely seeing me at my best. I feel like I can do no wrong.”
It’s also in a live show that the uniting power of metal really shines. In a world that seems to have moved on from the glory days of 1980s heavy metal, a good rock show is one of the only places you can find a sea of leather, chains, and like-minded people all coming together for the same party. “People connect with music so immensely,” says John. “Everyone’s got the experience of feeling like they have a personal relationship with some musician they’ve never met. And when it’s live, you can use that moment of unspoken connection. Everyone’s on the same page and everyone’s in a good mood. It’s a really unique experience.”
Mokomokai are also conscious to not wear out their welcome. They only tour a couple times a year, making their local shows a special occasion. “If we did it all the time, it wouldn’t be fun,” says John. “It would be the normal Monday night whatever. We put a lot of effort into making a good bill, and making sure the bands that are playing that night are good. I like to do it so it’s a band that everyone knows and likes, and a band we think is fucking awesome, that I would really like to show all my friends.”
This month, Mokomokai are heading out on an East Coast tour, joined by Halifax band Black Moor, who John describes as “total old-school, high top sneaker, denim and leather, kick-ass heavy metal.”
They’re also putting the finishing touches on a new album. “We’re not interested in just pushing things out,” says John. “We want it to be done right. But it’s killer. I don’t mind saying I’m really excited about it. It’s very diverse. Each track is pretty different from the last. It has some real Mikkey Dee Motörhead drum beats in it, and some real classic NWOBHM moments, and some good classic rock moments.”
“It’s like a melting pot of rock’n’roll,” says Bobby.
After that, “the focus is to do some more international touring.” For most bands, that would mean venturing south of the border, but Mokomokai have other plans. “The two places I know we have a lot of fans, at least with record sales and online traffic, are Europe and South America.”
Both areas have a long history of metal: Europe, with the Scandinavian black metal scene and the strange prog scenes of Italy and France; and South America, where metal is a political act.
In Brazil, metal really took off after the fall of the military regime in the 1980s. “You can see it in all the places where there’s some kind of insane government oppression,” says John. “As soon as it goes away, the first thing to pop up is a heavy metal community. It promotes such a sense of unity. You get bands like Sepultura, who are still seen as a symbol of freedom. When they started off, they just had a snare and no cymbals. They had to jimmy-rig a kick pedal. They had nothing, and they made a thrash metal band out of it.” Again, a testament to the transformative power of the riff.
Near the end of my interview with Mokomokai, I ask John about long-term plans, and how far he wants to take the band. “As far as humanly possible,” he says, with no hesitation. “It’ll go one of two ways: it’ll either work and we’ll be where we all want to be, or it’ll be five years from now and we’ll still be trying. There’s no shortage of effort and I’m pretty confident in what we’re doing. I think it’s going to work, but if it doesn’t, we’ll just keep doing it anyway. I’m never going to stop smithin’ riffs.”
See Mokomokai live at the Red Dog on May 18 with Black Moor and Cross Dog (more info).
Photos by Christopher Walzak.