It's past the witching hour on the West Bank, and Nick Rupar waves me down from in front of the Hard Times Cafe. He's visibly ragged and audibly a little drunk after the sold-out Pig Destroyer gig at the Triple Rock, one of several marquee shows popping up in the rapidly rebuilding Twin Cities metal scene.
Rupar, who works in advertising at City Pages, isn't officially certified to host The Root of All Evil, the legendary, 29-year-strong metal broadcast that airs on KFAI every Sunday morning from 1 a.m. to 6 a.m. He mostly just hangs around, discussing upcoming shows and playing vinyl. But he's part of what has become a family of scene stewards — a new breed of heavy-rock enthusiasts who are carrying the dream of founding host Earl Root past the show's landmark 1,500th episode this month.
It's a milestone that Root fell seven years short of seeing. The revered godfather of Twin Cities metal lost a decade-long battle with lymphoma in 2008, leaving the show in the pitch of chaos. Hosts John Allen and Tim Honebrink inherited the show, a partnership that ultimately imploded, ending with Honebrink's banishment after he clashed with the Minneapolis community radio station. The fallout created a lasting divide between the Root's loyal fanbase and the crew that inherited it.
"When Earl died, people just assumed that the show was gone," Allen remembers. "People stopped tuning in. People said, 'He's gone, it's done.'"
Inside the studio, the ghost of Honebrink is still in the air, but it's too chaotic to pay any heed to. Allen's still with the show, though he's on the mic less and less. Along with Brian Hueller, he's one of the longest-tenured midnighters, at eight years. While speaking recently with City Pages, he busies himself with cables for the upcoming in-studio performance from Mastiff.
Mastiff's set is indomitable. Their ominous chords and growling vocals reverberate throughout KFAI's tower. Host Elena Erofeeva, who goes by Mara the Death on-air, whisks me into the green room for a crash course in Twin Cities metal.
Things were looking apocalyptic in the metal community around the time Root died, she says. Not long after, in 2009, Anal Blast frontman and prolific Minnesota booker Don "Lord Stomach" Decker succumbed to liver failure, leaving the scene without one of its biggest influencers. In 2013, St. Paul metal mecca Station 4 shut down, leaving the scene without its CBGB. But, since joining the show in 2011, Erofeeva's witnessed a total transformation.
"A few years ago, there was nothing," Erofeeva says. "Now, oh my fucking god, it's exploding. It's getting big."
In a single breath, she runs down a list of bookers 50 names long, giving props to Swordlord, Jesse Incin, Zero Budget Records, and the New York Death Metal Militia for stepping up to bring in huge national acts like Behemoth, Abbath, and of course Pig Destroyer to venues like Mill City Nights, Cabooze, Turf Club, and Amsterdam Bar & Hall.
This is Erofeeva's way. She's exuberant and maybe a little hyperbolic, but as the de facto figurehead of Root of All Evil's asylum of metalheads, she has to be. Her job is to reanimate a fanbase that nearly died with her predecessor.
"Some people in the community were like, 'Stop the show, start your own show, don't use the name,'" she remembers. "But that's the way the metal community is. You need to prove yourself to them. They've been marginalized for so fucking long."
Back in the studio, host Matt Aipperspach, a.k.a. Matt the Bridgetroll, sits hunched over a laptop. A quiet, deliberate dungeon master type and a self-proclaimed "minion" to Earl Root, Aipperspach joined on alongside Kevin Gregorius and Deb Freytag as part of a new wave of Root regulars.
While most would balk at the idea of spending their best drinkin' hours in a studio playing ear-splitting music, the three have relished the opportunity to become part of a program the community has idolized for the better part of 30 years. Aipperspach has literally risked his life to be on the air.
During his exam to become a certified radio operator, Aipperspach started getting headaches. A friend urged him to go to urgent care, where the doctors diagnosed him with end-stage renal failure.
"They told him, 'You have six hours to live,'" Erofeeva remembers. "But it was a point of pride. They unhooked him from the dialysis machine, he came back here, took his exam, and went back to the hospital and went back on dialysis. Completely dramatic."
"I'm there every single week," Aipperspach says. "For me, it may sound cliché, but it's a matter of life and death. I feel as though, if I'm not there now, it's a wasted opportunity."
Somewhere in the shifting of faces and popping of buttons, host Vern DeFoe sits down and grabs a pair of headphones. He too is coming from the Pig Destroyer show, and he's sticky with dried sweat, not all of it his own.
DeFoe has seen the local community grow in diversity and fraternity over his years playing locally with bands like Mördrot and War//Plague. The closing of Station 4 allowed for the dissolution of the Minneapolis/St. Paul scene rivalry, and there's been a huge ascension of Twin Cities bands like Obsequiae, Panopticon, and False, all of whom were shouted out by Pitchfork in their Best Metal Albums of 2015 list.
"For a really long time, I would say that the metal scene was predominantly death metal and a little bit of black metal," he says, citing the enduring grindcore influence of Anal Blast in the early 2000s. "But we have a lot of great, unique bands of all different styles now."
DeFoe was asked to join the show by Root prior to his death, but he couldn't make the overnight commitment at the time. He still shows up sporadically, but he's renewed his commitment out of respect for his late friend and the open-door policy that allowed the young metal enthusiast to find a place on the Root.
"Earl was a community guy, and he always had his friends come up," DeFoe says, noting that, despite the sudden boom, the scene still hasn't recovered from the losses of Root and Decker. "We're just trying to engage with people more, because we want to stay true to the roots of the show itself."
While purists may bemoan the new, family-style format for the Root of All Evil, there's no doubt that the new suite of volunteers are doing all they can to stay true to Root's original vision. The show not only welcomes in local bands like Mastiff for performances and interviews — something Root always wanted but never had the resources for — but they now also host heavy metal trivia at Minneapolis' Eastlake Craft Brewery on Mondays.
They know that add-ons like this can't replace Earl Root, but the Root crew always has the show's founder in mind.
"We've done everything we can do to keep the show alive and make it grow," Allen says. "I think Earl would be proud of that. If he's out there looking down on us, I think he'd be smiling."