A greasy-haired bouncer draws X marks on the hands of patrons too young to drink. Cigarette smoke (remember that?) is fused to every molecule of air.
On stage, teenage boys assemble drum kits and wire up amplifiers. Out on the floor, they shove and collide. One tells a joke about masturbation. Everybody laughs.
Near the front of the Brass Mug, a group of middle-aged types from nice subdivisions in Citrus Park nurse cocktails and check batteries in their videocameras. They talk about their jobs, the economy, what their kids are learning in drivers' ed.
I used to be one of them.
It was a Saturday night. To the Gallows was on the program, and I was one of the metal moms.
• • •
Like lap dancing and ham-and-pork sandwiches, death metal is a genuine Tampa phenomenon. It arose in the late 1980s, eardrum-piercing acts with macabre-sounding names like Deicide and Morbid Angel.
Guitarist Ian Tomas, a 16-year-old sophomore at Sickles High School, learned about it from an older cousin. Bandmate Nicholas Esry, who goes by the stage name "Thor," had an uncle who was a vocalist for one of the original death-metal bands. Esry says he listened to their rehearsals in utero.
They range in age from bassist Cameron Svajdlenka, 20, to drummer John Zawojski, 15. That's my connection — Zawojski used to date my daughter.
With distorting decibel levels, growled vocals and erratic tempos, the sound is like musical jalapeno, demanding a reaction. "We jump from zombies to Vikings to aliens," Tomas says.
We sank into the dark
Lower and lower we sank
Calling to the gods for help
Lower and lower we sank
But our calls fell on deaf ears
Lower and lower we sank.
"For me it's all about the fast riffs, and some of the technical stuff," said Esry. "But it's also about the melodic sense, the beauty of our riffs, and the groove that we put into our music."
Limbs ripped off
No hope for us . . .
Their banter is locker room, their wardrobe torn jeans and black T-shirts. But that's packaging.
They rehearse in the suburban pool home that Tomas shares with his parents, accountants Omar and Kathy, and a Labradoodle named Ace. When it's too warm to keep the garage door closed, they migrate to the living room, or a back bedroom.
"We've always loved to hear them play," says Kathy Tomas, 51. "We love that they practice here. It's just fun." Having grown up in a big family, she views the musicians as stand-in siblings for Ian, an only child. Omar, who played drums in a college garage band, jokes that he's claiming them all on his taxes.
It's as if Florence Henderson birthed the Osbournes: Kathy fixes sandwiches for the boys. They help her bring in her groceries, every Saturday, fighting to make sure each of them gets bags to carry.
Sitting by the backyard pool while the boys rehearsed on a recent Saturday, the Tomases described the thrill of gathering at dive bars and watching their children perform. They said they are planning a band barbecue, and maybe a beach trip to celebrate vocalist Steven Jarquin's graduation from Sickles.
"We do the kids' birthdays. Whenever it's their birthdays we make them some kind of cake," Kathy said. "We let them decorate them until the last one was like — pfft — so now I decorate them."
Outside, the musicians' lives are equally unremarkable. They insist they are drug-free, and plan to stay that way.
They can make a day out of a shopping trip at Walmart for putty to fix Esry's van. They laugh uproariously about the time Zawojski got his hand caught in a car door, or when Esry was locked in the trunk outside a music store. Or let's not forget the time a football hit that kid in the crotch.
They occasionally test their limits, especially Jarquin, who plans to study performance arts in college. At one show, he announced their song Twenty Faces in the Freezer by dedicating it to "all the girls who just said no."
Yeah, he said it.
"I want to push people's buttons," he said. "People say, 'Oh, you're in a band?' And I say 'death metal.' They instantly think of the loudest, just most grungiest picture they can find. Then they come over and they see that we're in a nice house, pretty comfortable, playing video games, just chilling out with normal kids."
Far from dragging their sons to the nearest deprogrammer, the parents are generally supportive, and a regular part of the audience.
That goes for Brian Esry, Nicholas' father. "He was into death metal back in the day," Nicholas said, "until he found Christ."
Dad still shows up. So does Mom, when she's not traveling for her job at T-Mobile.
Susana Zawojski, the drummer's 44-year-old mother, sits with the Tomases. She's from Venezuela, and there's a language barrier. She's proud of her son, she said, but finds the music loud and the lyrics violent.
None of that bothers Cameron's mom, Tawnyia Svajdlenka, 43, a headbanger from way back. "I was listening to Slayer before Cameron was born."
She and her husband, a software systems analyst, gave To the Gallows their first break. As part owners of Arts on 9th in Ybor City, they hosted the band in its first performance in April.
That night there were almost as many parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles as musicians. Kathy Tomas brought a bag of earplugs and passed them around the parents' table. Everyone shot video until the kids started moshing, then backed up to avoid being trampled.
Since then the scene has been repeated at the Orpheum, the Pegasus and the Brass Mug.
Esry's mom is helping them order T-shirts. "I asked if they're embarrassed to have the moms wear them at the show," Kathy Tomas said. "And they said, 'No, no, no!' "
One will be reserved for Dalba Caso, Ian Tomas' grandmother. She has been to the show.
She is 82.
It's been almost a year since the debut in Ybor City. My kid no longer dates the drummer. I have no real place at the parents' table.
But I can't help wondering how far this quintet can go on grunts and amps and flying hair. Is To the Gallows a rite of passage, keeping these teens occupied after school? Or an entree into the lunatic fringe of show biz?
Sitting by the pool, the Tomases were of two minds. "We are all for that, but he has to go to college," Kathy insisted. "I'd like him to get a master's."
Omar didn't disagree, but added "there are tutors," allowing for the possibility that Death 'n Decay Records will come calling.
Back at the Brass Mug on a Saturday night, Kathy has other concerns — like how to keep her boys out of a mosh pit that is out of control.
A group of hard-core fans wave their arms pinwheel-fashion in an aggressive two-step. Eight bands are scheduled, and the scene grows more raucous by the minute.
Kathy is wearing her son's sweat shirt, a habit because of all of the smoke. No use ruining her own good clothes. She pulls her boys off the floor, one by one, telling them they rehearsed too hard to be sidelined by a broken arm.
Zawojski isn't expecting his mother, who has been sick all day. But Susana arrives later in the evening, in time to see her son perform. The Svajdlenkas and the Esrys are working the room. To the Gallows has sold more tickets than anyone, and the crowd chants the band's name.
Kathy knows she will get shoved around. And she does. Still, she stands front and center with her cherry red camera.
Her son is beaming. Her husband looks like a kid on Christmas morning. The night smells like Marlboro. It tastes like Diet Coke. It sounds like the loudest thing you ever heard.
And it feels beautiful.
Marlene Sokol can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4602.