The Big Shiny Prisoner: A Conversation With Ryan Bartek by Jason Michel

Ryan Bartek has lived out of bins.

& all for his love of heavy music & personal search for the  twisted soul of the godforsaken US of A.

Now he’s coming over to the Old World.

He’s a music journalist & musician & in both is as uncompromising as a grease stain on a nun’s habit.

I had the pleasure to discuss his life’s work that he has just decided to give to the world for free download.

Ladies & gents, I give you Ryan Bartek.


Tell these bloody swine something about Ryan Bartek & what he’s done to contribute to so-called “Underground” culture …

To any reader first encountering me, let me give a little background because it will make more sense. In short, I lived in Detroit until I was 25 & heavily involved in the music scene. I’d been in bands, worked on hundreds of shows, wrote for a host of newspapers/magazines and also put out a book in 2005 (“THE SILENT BURNING”) that gained some notoriety in the underground. In 2006 I got a gig writing for Metal Maniacs Magazine (because of “THE SILENT BURNING”) which eventually led me to quit my Detroit grindpunk band A.K.A. MABUS to go on the road as a traveling journalist. For a year I was all over the USA reporting for Metal Maniacs & a half-dozen other zines. Simultaneously, I wrote a book about the American underground called “THE BIG SHINY PRISON.” I completed the final draft in June 2008 and then took a break since I just moved to Seattle and was trying to plant roots/build foundations. One thing leads to another… By Febuary 2009 I was ready to tour the entire summer again as a freelance journalist, but the Wall Street Crash destroyed the market & Metal Maniacs went down with plenty of others. So I declared “semi-retirement” from conventional music journalism and instead did two national USA tours with Downtown Brown as a documentary filmmaker/merch guy/acoustic opener (both 6½ week campaigns — watch the video collection here: ). In November 2009 I said “to hell with a publisher” and released my USA underground road book “THE BIG SHINY PRISON” as a FREE PDF Download. It has since become something of an underground hit and I am actively plotting the European sequel to take place Summer 2011… Early 2010 I move to Portland, Oregon and on July 4th I released my entire back catalogue as a FREE DOWNLOAD – three albums from my grindcore project SASQUATCH AGNOSTIC, the unreleased A.K.A. MABUS record & my acoustic album as JACK CASSADY. On 9/11/10 I also released a free reissue of my first book “THE SILENT BURNING,” and on 10/20 (the 6 month anniversary of the BP OIL SPILL) I released my report on the subject which has been widely received & promoted virally on the internet. Amidst all this activity, I also have been working on a new book called “ACROPOLIS NOW” which is a highly personal manuscript about the past 8 years of my life. It’s slowly but surely getting completed…

The Big Shiny Prison” – A P.K. Dick inspired title? Or something more sinister …?

I’ve never read P.K. Dick, but I can relate that the title is something of a play on Henry Miller’s “Air Conditioned Nightmare” – basically a contemporary, modern extension of that shamefully underrated book… THE BIG SHINY PRISON” is a 315 page nonfiction beast that chronicles 293 days of non-stop extreme journalism throughout 32 states, 606 hours on Greyhounds, two national tours & hundreds of interviews with artists/musicians. It is not a “music book,” despite the fact that I am constantly interviewing musicians. We barely talk about music – it’s about life, the underground, the soul of the outcast within the greater framework of a country & society gone mad. The book is half “autobiographical novel” and half “interview dialogue,” although all dialogue is presented as if you are reading characters bantering back and forth in a novel, not some journalism piece whatsoever. “THE BIG SHINY PRISON” is a “living book,” existing in a very peculiar place of literature that has no direct comparison (especially in metal/punk associated literature)…

As I was reading “THE BIG SHINY PRISON,” some names sprang to mind that I thought could class as influences of your writing style — Hunter S Thompson, Lester Bangs & Thomas Wolfe. The phrase (Oh, how dare I label!) “Gonzo-Metal” came to mind…

I’ve never read Thomas Wolfe or Lester Bangs, but any underground journalist has to tip their hat to Thompson — he set an almost impossible level of intensity & brilliance to ever top. However, I will say this – Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas was three separate days over a year & falsely presented as though it were one weekend. Thompson admitted vastly exaggerating so much of his output over his career that in many cases it deflates him. Don’t get me wrong — I’m not saying I’m better by any means, but I will say that my quest of presenting “the naked man” is far more pure, at least in a sense of pure realism… As far as writers I find inspiration in, I’m a big fan of Fernando Pessoa, Lautreamont, Henry Miller, Marquis de Sade, Anais Nin, Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, Bukowski, Palahniuk, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Celine, Henry Rollins, George Orwell… I actually discover many writers by reviewers/interviewers comparing my work to them, or saying that I’m a rip-off or something, which is funny… I’m hugely influenced by comic books in general, especially thick adult-themed graphic novels from guys like Garth Ennis, Warren Ellis, Frank Miller, Alan Moore, etc…

Being a writer & musician in so-called “extreme” music genres (grindcore, black metal, etc) — how do you stop from falling into clichés (i.e. BRUTAL!) in both playing and writing?

“Brutal” is probably my least favorite phrase, even though it’s so adequate… My idea of heavy is total awkwardness – where it gets under your skin, you can’t put a tag on it & it hurts you’re brain/emotions in some bereft, obscure way through tonality, ideas, etc. Creepiness – true creepiness – is also insanely heavy… A perfect example would be BETHLEHEM’S “S.U.I.Z.I.D.” or “DICTIUS TE NECARE” – two of the heaviest albums ever released (at least in my opinion)… On this subject – the “between the lines” heaviness – I put great effort into utilizing this (or bluntly overkilling it, perhaps) in my first book “THE SILENT BURNING.” It’s the verbal equivalent of a death metal album, so grim you don’t know if it’s black humor or what – serpentine at all functionary levels… This is also at play in my book “THE BIG SHINY PRISON,” but it’s under the surface, more subdued…

At this point in my life I have very little enthusiasm for “already been done & been done better” death/black metal music – especially when it’s over-produced & ultra-digital sounding. I’m so bored so fast when I can accurately predict exactly where it’s going at any given time – especially when its this stuffy, super-rehearsed, too-serious epic stuff that’s totally fearful of stepping out of line… Now, if you’re promoting yourself as some throwback to ENTOMBED or something and you want to just be old school & have fun with it, that’s fine. But don’t fuck around with pretentiousness – if you cross that line you best deliver, you better do really, really fucking good… With my own musical output I simply try to remain humble, humorous, and constantly mix up formulas to be inventive. If it’s already been done I at least want to skew & warp it. I’ve never promoted myself as some Yngwie Malmsteem level shredder or Zappa-like genius – I just do my best to constantly learn & adapt to new methods…

Back in the CD reviewing/band interviewing days I always fanatically avoided the word brutal… I’ve always felt like all the other metal writers are always reading each others stuff and having this secret contest to try & outdo each other. It’s like this perpetual ad lib chart handed between the Crypt Keeper, Vault Keeper & Old Witch… It used to be fun, but it got old — same with the usual Q&A’s. That’s why I started rebelling so hard against a lot of these zines I used to write for. It’s like they wanted me to only ask robot questions about guitar strings and lyrics, and I’m more like “What’s your favorite member of the Fantastic Four and why?” or “Can you personally do any of that high-flying Evel Knievel motorbike stunt shit?” or “Would you gleefully let GG Allin rub poop on you?” Stuff like that. But then again, you’re not supposed to ask grim, no fun corpse paint bands what they think of Frank Zappa – or even about historical events it seems. So I kept getting into email wars with douche bag editors who wanted to see the word “brutal” repeated 40 times in a 250 word piece of journalism… And eventually I flew off the handle, did “THE BIG SHINY PRISON” as my epic response to lackluster metal journalism, and now I’m kvlt famous & stuff and have been showered in praise (& golden showered) by some of the biggest names in the biz… Fuck ‘em if they can’t take a joke…

When & why did you begin writing about music?

I felt early on that journalism was the most sustainable trade (artistically & economically) I could utilize to exist in this world. Basically the only “real job” I could think of performing career-wise without wanting to shoot myself. Of course we’re talking 1998 (age 17) when I made that decision, long before the Neo-Great Depression killed the market (as well as print media’s inevitable collapse to the Internet)… Even back then I knew the Web was going to wipe it all out in due, so it was either A) waste my 20’s going to college for 8 years just to get some (now totally useless) degree with a $100,000 student loan price tag or B) find an internship somewhere & make it happen DIY. That is precisely what I did, having published hundreds of pieces over the past decade… You know, I was never some nerdy little kid studying books – I came from a radical punk/extreme metal background in Metro Detroit where it was always total war against shit culture at large. Journalism was the main platform I felt I could make significant change. My other adventures in writing, music, art – all of it intertwines as a wide-spanning, interconnected body of work… Most don’t know that above all, I wanted to be a political journalist. I view the world through a sort of Dead Kennedys photo montage spread, with all the manic clippings… Just like everyone else into Hunter Thompson’s work, I took his career as a loose example. Thompson was half political writer/half sports journalist. Big time sports writer in fact, which many are unaware. But he was also obviously this CounterCulture freak of nature, kind of dabbling in all the tribes, so I felt that his example made sense – just nix the sports stuff & tack on the metal/punk preoccupation, which Uncle Duke probably would never have understood either… What I’m doing now with my books is a combination of all these themes – the ultimate mix. However, I’ve given up on any kind of straight political journalism, or the idea that I will ever work for a major newspaper again. A) The field is dead and B) It is my belief that you cannot take any political journalism seriously without confronting Bohemian Grove & realizing that is a basis of world power. I heard of it before, but never took it serious. And then I started researching it this summer, and I’ve never been the same… The truth is that “THE TRUTH” turns you into a ranting lunatic & you essentially become Roddy Piper in John Carpenter’s “They Live.” So where does one go from there? I’m learning that myself as we speak & right now my only answer is Europe…

My man, Ludwig Van Beethoven once said “Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom or philosophy”. Does this even apply to extreme music? Or, in a way, is it more so?

Absolutely. I feel that metal in general – epic metal especially — is a modern incarnation of the Richard Wagner vibe. It’s a cascading powerhouse that wails the viscera. Tonality is the puppet-master of all brainwaves – to conduct a symphony is also to conduct the souls of the audience. Soundwaves communicate just as much, if not more, then physical dialogue between two people – especially since it is often vague and the listener just takes away whatever it means to them instead of straight-up being told what to think. More often then not, you’ll find people walking away with many of the same realizations without even speaking to one another about it…

Talking of philosophy, a lot of metal/punk etc. musicians espouse various philosophies. What is yours, if any?

1) The overall theme of my work, ranging across the variety of media I’ve employed, is the harsh reality of absurdity and man’s personal & collective entrapment by it; furthermore, man’s personal & collective response… My personal philosophy springs from this central theme, and one could say it’s existentialist at core – that there is a definite void of absurdity surrounding us like an invisible force-field, and the struggle of man is to interpret a codified meaning within it’s grip. Mankind’s consciousness is the nexus of nothingness in a completely indefinable universe – and propaganda is the bedrock foundation of all human communication within this void… Despite everything though, retain some humor. Otherwise, what’s the point?

2) In terms of underground culture, I do not exclusively identify myself with any particular scene – I’m sort of a drifter, weaving in and out of every fringe. I consider myself something of a “Counterculture Internationalist,” which simply means that I throw my lot in with “the freaks” in a broad historical context. You know, it’s not like all this just popped out of thin air with Elvis. The counterculture has existed since the dawn of mankind – ever since the first rebellious person cursed “The Machine” of his era. And it has since remained as an indefinable, amorphous, organic movement/idea. “The Counterculture” doesn’t need to be unified politically, or even at a personal level because music & art scenes are simply incarnations of a continual awakening. This resistance has been manifested in endless forms, evident in all cultures, yet it takes root in one basic notion — the emancipation of the spirit. Mankind by nature is a foraging, tribal species – yet we’ve reached a static future of mass populism encased in a nightmare of concrete. That, I feel, is the underlying premise of all of this – man expressing this divorce…

Where to now with your music? What boundaries are there left to push?

I’ve thought about that considerably. I moved to Portland, Oregon in 2010 with hopes of doing a new full time band. For about 5 months I was in this epic “every song is 12 minutes long & has 35 riffs in each track” black/death band, because in the end it really wasn’t what I wanted to play. Time is short, so my next project will wait until I finish my upcoming European Book tour this summer… A huge part of me feels the need to rebel against constantly pushing the envelope – I kind of want to do the exact opposite and do a run of the mill 3 riffs in each song generic punk band for fun. You know, where the cd review would start with “Oh great, and here’s another band that sounds exactly like The Exploited.” Although I am dead-set on resurrecting my grindpunk band SASQUATCH AGNOSTIC. I have a concept for the new record – “CONTRA MOLOCH.” It would be about Bohemian Grove & The N.W.O. because that reality is far more terrifying & heavy to me then just about any topic out there. SASQUATCH AGNOSTIC is sort of like my ANAL CUNT – I am the main guy, and the band goes with me wherever I go. Cool thing is that even without a full-time live lineup, SASQUATCH AGNOSTIC can tour with another band if they wish to learn a 20 minute set. I just come out at the end of their material and we blast right through it — kind of like how PIG & KMFDM sometimes tour together as one fluid ensemble… I’ll also be recording a new acoustic record as Jack Cassady next month called “GHOSTNOMAD LIVES” and releasing it for free online. The Jack Cassady stuff has never really gotten much attention or fanfare, but I think it’s some of my best work & I love playing it live. This new album will feature reworked covers from artists that will surely make “grimmer then thou” extreme metal guys hate me – mainly Beck, Rammstein & Gloria Gaynor. It’s always fun to fan the fires of career suicide…

Why are you coming over to Europe for your follow-up to TBSP? What other plans are in the offing?

That’s been the plan for many years, but I felt I needed to do the USA road book first for “personal training” & to have a “demo” I could supply to interested parties. Doing “Prison” was tough because very few people seemed to understand what I was working on – that there is no real comparison to it made it even tougher… I’ve always wanted to travel Europe, and in terms of my book catalogue, this will be the crown jewel that ties it all together… All of my books are interconnected and this European book will be Volume Five it he series. The first book was “The Silent Burning,” the second is “To Live & Die On Zug Island” (long completed autobiography of my experience up to age 21. I’m just waiting for the right moment – very few have ever read it & I’ve never shopped it. I consider it my masterpiece). The third book is “The Big Shiny Prison” (available for free to all, of course), the fourth book is called “Acropolis Now” and is in creation right now (about my personal life over the past 8 years, basically “Zug Island” Part II – I’m about 150 pages in), and the fifth book is, of course, this Euro thing, whenever it gets completed… I also have some movie screenplays that I’ll be shopping when all is said and done – I keep working on them sporadically when I feel inspired… Basically 2012 will be an insanely busy year for me, because I really want all of this to come out, or at least be completed and in the can. I just hope Nostradamus was wrong and also that the world doesn’t end when the Mayan Calendar runs out – that would be quite a fucking bummer… And then? Yes – then. That’s always the question now, isn’t it? …

Download Ryan Bartek’s entire book catalogue & music discography FREE here:


5 thoughts on “The Big Shiny Prisoner: A Conversation With Ryan Bartek by Jason Michel”

  1. Wow. I hope your travels bring you to what you are searching for. It’s one of those things were our intuition is telling us where to go, but our conscience minds have a hard time grasping what it is we are supposed to know. So taking that wild leap into the great beyong willy nilly is the only thing to do. I love music and wish I could play it. I enjoyed reading your passion with the craft. Look forward to reading the download here. Great chat here.

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