A version of this article originally appeared in the Craftsmanship issue of Gear Patrol Magazine with the headline “Death Metal.” Subscribe today
Joey Arbour is appalled. Or maybe he’s feigning it, I can’t really tell. I’ve known him for only eight hours and we’ve been drinking beer for the last five. He’s staring at me, blue eyes wide, brow furrowed. For the first time all day, there’s an uninterrupted silence. It had seemed like a reasonable enough question to ask: If you’re going to have an artist create a portrait using only beer as the paint, why choose Nicola Tesla as the subject?
Joey lowers his can of Pabst Blue Ribbon, nestled in a coozie reading “A Fist Full of Fuck Yeah,” to the arm of the second-dirtiest chair in all creation. The dirtiest is to his immediate right. Finally, he blurts an answer:
“Because he’s fucking awesome!”
About this there’s no disagreement from any of the five of Joey’s employees sitting around an enormous table stacked high with empty PBR cans and rapidly filling ashtrays. In fact, the group considers Joey’s opinion of the Serbian-American inventor to be manifestly true, along with the contention that Tesla’s rival, Thomas Edison, was kind of a dick.
Other things that the crew believe to be true: if you’re going to drink and smoke, your goal should be to do so until you sound like Tom Waits; physicists suck, David Bowie was great, Hunter Thompson was the best; and that, at more than 1,000 pages, Carl Sandburg’s only novel, Remembrance Rock, is a little tedious.
Oh, and they believe in beer. And in fine, sturdy, sharp swords and knives. But as far as I can tell, none of the 10 employees of Joey’s Missoula-based company, Zombie Tools, believes in zombies or the zombie apocalypse. This despite the fact that the company, in business now for 11 years, with a dedicated following and some 15,000 blades sold, once used the tagline “Accessories for the Apocalypse.”
Also, “zombie” is right there in the name.
Truth is, even 10-year-old Joey didn’t care about zombies. Instead, he was transfixed by the massive sword he saw in the hands of a fully-inflated Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 1982 movie Conan the Barbarian. Joey would pull up fence posts and swing them around in pitched, imaginary backyard battles.
Shortly afterward, he “fell in love with stabbing people” (his words). Luckily, that was still mostly in the realm of fantasy. He joined the Society for Creative Anachronism, a deeply nerdy national organization that splits up the U.S. into imaginary kingdoms — as depicted on a faux-medieval map with a fierce-looking sea monster destroying a ship off the coast of Oregon — and holds mock battles in full costume, with sword fights and such. It was at these SCA events that Joey discovered an interest in rapier fighting.
When he moved to Missoula in 1996 at 22 years old, he was a sword fighter with no one to sword fight. During the day he toiled away at the Missoulian newspaper. During the course of his 10-year tenure, and without any formal training, he went from an entry-level gig at the paper to a position as a graphic designer, which he followed up with five years at a local print shop. But at night he listened to crust-core bands like Neurosis and frequented dive bars. It was at just such a dive, the Flipper bar and casino, back in the year 2000, where he met a like-minded and darkly creative fellow named Maxon “Max” McCarter.
“Man, we did a lot more drinking back then,” says Joey, drinking.
Together, the two formed what they called the Drunken Jedi Pirate Circus, which mostly amounted to Joey and Max going at each other with rubber-tipped swords and bamboo sticks while wearing fencing masks and some basic body padding. But the swords were expensive, so they decided to try to make their own.
Around 2005, Joey and Max held what they called the “Giving Up Heavy Metal for Sharp Steel” sale, where Joey sold his Peavey bass and bass amp. “I could only keep a rhythm for thirty seconds,” he says. The profit from that, plus whatever Max sold (Joey can’t quite remember, explaining that “the beer and the whacks to the nog have made those years a bit of a blur.”), was enough to buy a belt grinder and the basics for sword making.
The pair constructed the “world’s most dangerous forge” in Max’s carport: a half-barrel filled with blazing hot coals attached to a shop vac running in reverse, designed to stoke the device to terrifying temperatures. They managed to not burn down the carport, and also to not make very good swords. Joey still has his first blade. It’s inside a case in the shop office, buried under a pile of Aflac pamphlets (Zombie Tools recently started offering its employees health insurance).
The duo persevered, honing their skills. Ever the fan of jocular titles, they named their blade-making operation the Bloody Dick Armory, ostensibly named after Montana’s Bloody Dick River.
“We figured we should be wrong, but we should be Montana, too,” Joey says.
The ribald double meaning was lost on no one, and the company didn’t last more than a year. “The old-timers really didn’t like that,” Joey explains. Later, the name would be changed to Thanatic Swords, a reference to Thanatos, the ancient Greek personification of death.
A longtime player in the dark arts, Max produced some local live-action horror shows — performance art by way of blood and gore. At one such event, Joey’s girlfriend lay on a table surrounded by people wearing raven masks while Max pretended to pull her heart out. (The organ was actually a buffalo heart sourced from a local butcher.) Later, they were hired to build a horror set called the Wild West Zombie Brothel. “So we had zombies on the brain,” Joey says. This was in 2007, before AMC’s The Walking Dead turned the entire American populace into mindless, slavering fans of the undead.
Along the way, the pair picked up another friend, Chris Lombardi, a sword-curious photographer for a local online news outlet. At a party in October of that year, Joey, Max and Chris began planning their new blade-making company. They weren’t interested in making reproductions of historical weapons, or fantasy swords. In a moment of clarity, they decided that if they latched onto the zombie thing, it would allow them to indulge in the dark side to which they were so clearly drawn, while also treating the whole endeavor with their characteristic lack of reverence.
They would build weapons of whatever size and shape and style they liked. They would build solid, usable blades — not wall hangings. They would be, in the parlance of blades, “battle ready.” The three men would have fun doing it. And they would drink beer.
It was the resurgence of the zombie as an entertainment and cultural trope that inspired the company’s name. It also nearly led to the founding trio’s stardom. In 2011, in the midst of zombie mania, the three founders made a pact with the devil. They signed up to film a reality television program on The Science Channel called Surviving Zombies.
“It was a real education in reality TV, which isn’t reality,” says Joey. Instead of focusing on the shop and blade making, the producers wanted the trio to build an apocalypse bunker out in the hills, which the guys didn’t know or care about. With two episodes in the can and facing the reality of shutting down the shop in favor of shooting B-rate TV, the guys quit. Or as the Zombie Tools website puts it, they had to choose between being “jerk-offs on TV” or “continuing to be jerk-offs making blades and growing our business.”