If you peeped the Revolver x Everything Is Stories "Metal From the Dirt" mini-doc, you're already familiar with Kyle Felter, the guitarist and vocalist for the heavy metal outfit I Dont Konform, who started on the Navajo reservation in Window Rock, Arizona. What you might not know is that the 31-year-old musician spends much of his time working and living in Phoenix — five and a half hours from the reservation — to support his family.
When we catch up with him, he's just arrived home from his job as an electronic technician in the defense industry. "I build and fabricate everything from circuit boards to cable harnessing that goes into Apache helicopters or missile bodies," he explains. "I had to move down to Phoenix from the rez just to get a decent job, because up there I wasn't making enough to support my family. It's hard — my two sons and my girlfriend are on the reservation, so I kinda feel a little lost down here without them, but I've gotta support them somehow."
In 2016, I Dont Konform traveled to Denmark to record their debut album, Sagebrush Rejects, with Grammy-winning producer Flemming Rasmussen, who famously recorded Metallica's Ride the Lightning, Master of Puppets and ... And Justice for All.
"It's funny that I'm talking with you guys right now because the whole thing with Flemming was supposed to be the end of my musical journey," Felter says. "We were a band 11 or so years before we did the album, and I'd been through five drummers, four singers, five bass players — everybody was flaking. I'd been living on ramen noodles all those years, putting money into practice spaces and equipment. I got to the point where I had a son and a little one on the way, so I just wanted to do an album for myself."
In our follow-up to the "Metal From the Dirt" doc, we spoke with Felter about recording in Denmark, life on the reservation and fighting for his Navajo identity.
WHAT WAS IT LIKE GROWING UP ON THE RESERVATION IN WINDOW ROCK?
KYLE FELTER For me, it was difficult because I'm half-Navajo and light-complected. The first day of elementary school, third grade, I got jumped. [Laughs] So growing up was a battle for me. Every day, I'd have to fight somebody new off the bus.
WERE YOU GETTING JUMPED BY WHITE KIDS AT SCHOOL?
No — Natives. I was an outsider in elementary. In high school, my nickname — from my actual friends — was "White Man." [Laughs] That was actually my email for a while. I'd be applying for jobs and they'd be like, "What's your email?" "Oh, whiteman at yahoo dot com."
DOES BEING HALF-NAVAJO STILL PRESENT CHALLENGES FOR YOU TODAY?
I would say so. The only tattoo I've ever gotten in my life was the Navajo Nation tribal seal because I was born and raised there. But I actually got into a fight to the death for it one night because I didn't look full-blooded Navajo.
Some guy busted a bottle on my neck, cut me open, so I took him down. It was like three centimeters from my jugular. I got a hundred stitches on my neck, around the back of my head, from that fight. But I was the one that walked away. The other dude did not. That was about four years ago. Most people are actually cool about it, though. They think I'm Sioux Indian or Cheyenne because of my light complexion.
IN THE "METAL FROM THE DIRT" MINI-DOC, YOU MENTIONED THAT YOUR MOM LISTENED TO SABBATH, MAIDEN AND SCORPIONS WHILE YOU WERE IN THE WOMB. CLEARLY, THAT HAD AN IMPACT ON YOU …
Yeah. [Laughs] My mom is our biggest supporter. When we do our shows, my mom is in the pit, right in front of the stage, pushing people around and headbanging. She'll always be like, "He does this because of me!" [Laughs] But yeah, I was born a metalhead.
DID YOU PLAY IN ANY BANDS BEFORE I DONT KONFORM?
No, this has always been my band. Me and my late cousin, who committed suicide a few years ago, we started the band back home on the rez. We would jam, but we didn't have a jam space, so we'd play outside whether it was snowing or even when it was really hot in the summer. We'd play for hours and hours. That's where it started. But my job where I was working at, they shut down on the reservation. Their main plant is in Phoenix, so I transferred down here. Through my work I met some people, so that's when the band got going.
AT ONE POINT, YOU WERE GOING TO CALL YOUR ALBUM "YOU GOTTA LIVE FAST TO PLAY FAST," WHICH WAS A QUOTE FROM YOUR LATE COUSIN …
Yeah, that was our motto. Like anybody who gets together with their cousins, you get crazy. Him and I hung out together, partied together, jammed together — we did everything together. We're pretty much the same person, and "You gotta live fast to play fast" was our motto. And we definitely lived it. He lived it to the max.
HOW LONG AGO DID HE PASS?
He committed suicide about three years ago. It was about two or three months before we went to Denmark to record our album. But it's like they say: Suicide doesn't solve anything. It just puts your problems on other people. And that's definitely what happened to me during that first year after he killed himself. It's weird how it works out. The weekend he did it, there were 11 other kids in the town who did it, too.
HOLY SHIT. WAS IT A SUICIDE PACT?
No, I don't think it was a pact. I think it was just the environment. When there are no jobs, you find yourself lost and bored. It just comes with the area. The reservation is a beautiful place, but you feel the sadness and the sorrow that's been there for over a hundred years. You feel it — it's the energy. Kids struggle with it and don't know what to do. You struggle with your culture and who you are because they try to wipe it out of you. Within yourself, it's a battle. Alcoholism, drugs — that starts taking hold. It's a sad place, but beautiful. It's conflicting.
YOU MENTIONED THAT THE BAND DIDN'T REALLY GET GOING UNTIL YOU MOVED TO PHOENIX. IS IT HARDER TO START A BAND ON THE RESERVATION?
It's probably easier to start a band on the reservation, but to play and get attention and grow, you've got to branch out. Playing on the rez is awesome, but you'll travel two to three hours to the middle of nowhere just to play in front of the other bands. It's cool, but if you wanna get your name out there, you've got to branch out. So I started doing that down here in Phoenix with people I worked with. We were originally gonna call the band I Don't Know because we didn't really know what we sounded like. [Laughs] But it turns out there was an Ozzy Osbourne / Randy Rhoads tribute band down here called I Don't Know, so we kept the initials IDK and it ended up becoming I Dont Konform because our old singer told me, "Kyle, you don't conform to shit."
WHY DID YOU LEAVE OUT THE APOSTROPHE IN "DONT"?
I think it just looks better. But everyone puts it back in when they post online, which bugs the shit out of me. [Laughs] I guess they can't help it.
YOU ENDED UP CALLING YOUR ALBUM SAGEBRUSH REJECTS. WHERE DOES THAT TITLE COME FROM?
[Laughs] Sagebrush is a liquor store between Window Rock and a town called Gallup, New Mexico. That's where everybody goes to get their party supplies. My cousin was always told by his aunt that he was an alcoholic — she was always shooting him down. He and I actually had a side project called Sagebrush Rejects, but we eventually decided to call the [I Dont Konform] album that.
YOU RECORDED THE ALBUM IN DENMARK WITH FLEMMING RASMUSSEN, WHO PRODUCED METALLICA'S RIDE THE LIGHTNING, MASTER OF PUPPETSAND …AND JUSTICE FOR ALL. HOW DID YOU HOOK UP WITH HIM?
I knew I didn't want a digital recording, because to me analog sounds the most pure and clear. So I was looking online, and I came across these recording notes with amp angles and microphone placements — every little detail was mapped out. I was like, "Wow, whoever did this really knows what they're doing." I came to find out it was the recording notes for Metallica's "Blackened," which is my favorite Metallica song.
So I dug deeper, and I came up with Flemming's email address. I wrote him an email introducing myself and my band and told him I didn't care about fame or fortune — I just wanted to do a good-sounding album for myself. I told him that his work with Metallica is what got me into this type of thing, and I sent him an old recording of a song we did called "Mosh Pit." Before I sent it, I thought there's no way he'd respond to some dude from the rez. But I sent it, and two days later he responded. He said he liked it and he hadn't heard that type of aggression in a while. He thought my story and where I'm from was interesting. So we started talking, and a little over a year later we flew him out to the reservation and started pre-production.
DID YOU FUND THE WHOLE THING YOURSELF?
Me and my buddy Jerold Cecil — our acting manager — did fundraisers. We did everything we could — sold food, put on fundraiser shows—and family helped out a lot. It costs about a thousand dollars a day to record there, and that's not including our travel. We put ourselves in the hole with it, never expecting it would go anywhere. But it was worth it.
DID YOU GET TO SEE MUCH OF COPENHAGEN WHILE YOU WERE OVER THERE?
We actually recorded in a place called Helsingør, Denmark, which is about 40 minutes from Copenhagen. It was beautiful out there. You could see the Shakespeare castle [Kronborg, the inspiration for Elsinore in Hamlet] across the water. We pulled a Dimebag and walked around the streets playing our guitars. [Laughs] We were the only guys there with darker skin and dark hair. People were like, "Wow — you look great!" And we were like, "Really?" We were just wearing, like, Wal-Mart clothes. [Laughs]
METAL SEEMS TO BE PRETTY POPULAR AMONG YOUNGER PEOPLE ON THE RESERVATION. IS IT FROWNED UPON BY OLDER FOLKS?
Yeah, but it's starting to change. When we first started trying to raise funds to go to Europe, we were shunned by all the [radio] stations. Country music rules up there — cowboy music. Even on the rez. Stations up there told us that metal was bad and evil and they wouldn't support it. Even the Navajo Nation president and vice president at the time wouldn't meet with us. So I went there almost every day until finally they decided to see me. When we told them what was going on and they saw how big it was in the community, it started to change.
IS THERE ANY SENSE AMONG THE OLDER GENERATION THAT BY PLAYING METAL, YOU'RE PLAYING THE MUSIC OF THE OPPRESSOR?
No, because heavy metal came from blues, which came from African music, you know? So there's never that. The people I run into are proud and supportive. There are so many talented bands on the rez, bands that have been around way before us, and we try to tell them if one of us makes it, we all make it. It's a tough road, but you've gotta constantly be thinking of new ways to do things. And you can't take no for an answer.
WHAT DO YOU THINK MAKES METAL FROM THE RESERVATION DIFFERENT?
I think there may be a little more passion up there because you play for yourself. There are so many people I know who have a drum set or a guitar and they're playing outside or anywhere they can, you know? And there's so many styles up there — death metal, black metal, deathcore, a few thrash bands; I even have some friends who call themselves "anime punk." It seems like pretty much anyone you run into up there plays an instrument. It helps release some of your stress, your anger, your depression. That's what it was for me. I'd either be in jail or dead now if I didn't have that outlet with my guitar. So I think it's the passion. Nothing makes you feel better.