This '80s Rock Frontman Knows: What Could Be More Metal Than Sharks?
Just off the boardwalk at Brooklyn's Coney Island sits the New York Aquarium, the oldest continuously operating aquarium in the U.S. Among its many attractions, the place plays host to tiger sharks, sea lions — and one former rock star.
Meet Hans Walters, ex-frontman for the '80s heavy metal band Z Toyz. He's a shark biologist.
"When I was a kid only the really nerdy, reject kids loved animals, and I was one of those kids," he tells his wife, Martha Hiatt, an animal behaviorist at the same aquarium. On a recent visit with StoryCorps, they talked about his long, strange path to the present day.
It began for him as early as the age of 5. He can recall a day around then when he and his mother stumbled upon a dead shark as they were leaving a Louisiana beach. And the budding biologist wanted to take the shark home with them.
She said yes.
"So my mother helped me schlep this 3-foot shark into the backseat of the car. And I'm one of six kids, and we all had our snow cones and the dead shark with the windows shut and it stank," he laughs. "We all got sick. I remember upchucking my banana snow cone in the backseat of the car."
With his father's help, he later buried the shark in his backyard.
The occasional upchuck aside, Walters bore his fascination for sharks all his life — from those early days to his college studies in marine biology, by which time, he says, "I'd sort of accepted my nerd-dom, you know?"
Only trouble was: "I think I had to play catch-up in the interaction with members-of-the-opposite-sex department," he says.
So naturally, he joined a band.
And that band, ZToyz, didn't do too bad for itself. The hair metal group had some minor successes, like music videos featured on MTV, and moved in circles with bands like Twisted Sister.
Still, after nine years, he says he decided it was time to find something else to do. That's when he found his way to the New York Aquarium — and all but immediately infused a little rock star flavor in the water.
"When I got there they would call the sharks Sand Tiger 1, Sand Tiger 2, Sand Tiger 3," he says. That wouldn't do at all. Instead, he says, "I just started calling them names of dirty, rotten, stinkin' rock 'n' rollers."
That meant Guns N' Roses, AC/DC, Bad Company — "I love it when one of the keepers says to another, 'OK, I'm gonna go feed Guns N' Roses,' " Hiatt chips in.
"Or, 'Who's feeding the band?' " Walters adds.
He recounts a time, maybe three or four years ago, when an old friend from his metal days dropped by the aquarium. Dee Snider, the lead singer of Twisted Sister, spent some time with Walters around the Coney Island boardwalk.
"When the music ended for you," Snider said then, according to Walters, "you kind of fell right into marine biology. I always thought that was really cool that you had a backup plan."
"No," Walters answered, "music was the backup plan. Marine biology was the original plan."
And remember Walters' mom — the woman who, out of encouragement for her son's passion, even plopped a dead shark in the back seat of her car? Well, she was thrilled with the change of career.
"Find something you're interested in and stick with it," Walters says she always told him. "That was it. Not, 'Grow up, get a job and make a living' — 'find something you're interested in and stick with it.'
"And everything came full circle."
Audio produced for Morning Edition by Jasmyn Belcher Morris.
StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.