Onward Cult Soldiers

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Don’t ask Mike Scalzi about the true metal scene or his presumed secret formula for penning Celtic inflected “cult” heavy metal. A shit he does not give, as such conjecture presupposes premeditation. As guitarist/vocalist/leader of Slough Feg he simply writes what comes naturally and the “secret” is no secret at all. The inspiration comes from the Big Three of Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, and Judas Priest, and the delivery just happens to have a unique, Celtic folk slant. It really is as simple as that. Just spin the outstanding new release Ape Uprising and give it some thought; you’ll hear it, trust me. As you’ll see, I didn’t have to say a whole hell of a lot to elicit a marathon response; or maybe I’m just that good. Nah, I just caught him in the right mood and moment. Onward we go.

What’s going on? Oh I just woke up. It’s that rock and roll lifestyle [laughs]. Primordial was here last night. This is for Teeth of the Divine?
Ok. I guess it really doesn’t make any sense to print magazines now, does it? I never go on the forums or anything, unless I search for something and it shows up on a forum. To be honest, when I do an interview or something I’ll check them out, but that’s about it [laughs]. Narcissistic [laughs]. The truth is that I’m just not that excited about a lot of metal. I’m a jaded prick [laughs]. I’m old, man. I don’t have time to check everything out anymore. I go to a metal show every once in a while, very seldom, except for the ones I play. So to see Primordial last night was really cool because it was the first metal show I’ve been to in months, so it was fun. It was at this thing called Pagan Fest. I didn’t know about any of these bands besides Primordial. I’m buddies with Primordial just from being around Dublin and stuff, playing and meeting up with them. But I’d never seen them live before. I was impressed actually. There is actual some music involved [laughs]. Plus, every time I’ve been to Ireland there is a family of other bands, just like there is everywhere. The guys in Primordial and the other bands around there are all members of all these other bands, just like it is here in San Francisco with Slough Feg and Hammers of Misfortune and all these bands are sort of related. One of the first times we played in Ireland it was sort of hosted by Alan from Primordial and his friends, and we stayed at their house. He had all these insane Irish guys at his house from all these bands. They were always playing with all these different bands that they had and they would branch off into other bands. We’d been there three or four times playing two or three shows each time. It’s kind of like the hardcore scene used to be in the 80s. We’d play in Dublin and Belfast and then Cork and the whole entourage would come. One of those bands or two of them would play with us and then the rest of the guys would follow and go to all the shows. We’d go in one van and they’d all pile into another and we’d all go as one big happy family going down the highway. We did that in Germany as well. We had all the guys from Sacred Steel and Ritual Steel; everything is steel over there. We became really good friends. The point is – I’m babbling now – is that with this underground scene you’d go to all these countries and meet this pantheon of cool people and they’re always really helpful. So when Primordial comes to town or one of those bands I have to be on my best behavior and host the bands, buy them some beer and show them the city and stuff, which is great. It takes a lot of energy too, but it’s great.

So did you put them up?
No, I’d usually put bands up and tell them they could stay as long as they’d like, but in this case Primordial had this Pagan Fest tour supported by Metal Blade and they had the whole night-liner, so they drove to LA and slept. We’ve related to so many bands like that over the years, starting with pen pal stuff in the mid-90s with bands like Sacred Steel because there was no metal around. There were a few bands in the U.S., but mostly in Europe and it was becoming a really tight knit group because we’d get a few shows in Europe with these bands that were on bigger labels and say “We’ll meet you at the Wacken Festival and we’ll work it out from there how we’re going to travel.” Then we would go and have these informal meetings at a festival or something, rent a car or something, and play like 10 shows. Sorry man, you didn’t even really ask your questions yet [laughs].

No, believe me, this makes my job easier. I get tired of the predictable Q&A stuff too.

You’re lucky I’m in a metal mood today [laughs]. I’m usually a curmudgeon or I’m busy doing stuff in my mind or with my job or something. Like “What do you think?” and I’m “Uh, I don’t know. This sucks [laughs].” But the whole point of what I was trying to say originally is people ask me what I know about the metal scene or who do I know or who do I like now, bands and all that. I say I have no fucking idea because I feel what I’m in it for… I mean, I’m not gonna lie, I started playing heavy metal in the 80s because I loved music and wanted to do it, first and foremost, but of course I had dreams of being a rock star and all that bullshit. It’s probably why I moved to California. But obviously after a while and you grow older you realize that it’s unrealistic. So when people ask me about the metal scene I say that there is nothing for me in most of the stuff that there is now that heavy metal is popular again. What did it for me is the friendships I’ve built up and the camaraderie of the music, largely from these bands like Sacred Steel, Solstice, Primordial or whatever; these European and some U.S. bands that have been around forever and we’ve all been friends forever and we sort of support each other. That’s really what I’ve gotten out of it the last 20 or whatever years. Visit another country and have some of your best friends there, you know? Good times.

I’m assuming you’ve been better supported in Europe anyway, at least as far as shows are concerned.
Well, overall, so far, yes. But the U.S. over the last three years or so has gotten almost as good as Europe. Shit, that show last night; a bunch of a pagan metal bands, you couldn’t have sold out someone’s living room six or eight years ago. But last night it was 600 kids; young kids, 17 year old girls, what the fuck? It was good. What about the bands on your label, Cruz Del Sur? Are you into any of them?

We’re very, very close to Bible of the Devil. But honestly, I don’t hear everything they [Cruz Del Sur] put out. I haven’t bothered. He’s certainly got better tastes than a lot of labels for sure. Bible of the Devil is on that label pretty much because of it and they are my favorite U.S. band currently. We’re closer to them than any bands. We’ve toured with them in the U.S. more than anybody. So we’re really sister bands or whatever. Every year we do at least one or two things with them. We’re going out in August to do a bunch of shows in the Midwest and they’re coming out here in October. We just happen to have a vibe with them. But some of the other bands, like Pharaoh is pretty good. And that style I’m not crazy about usually, but I think they do a pretty good job. Even though I haven’t heard much of the recorded stuff, Crescent Shield from L.A. is good. I’m friends with Dan from way back.

How steady has the Slough Feg lineup been these past few years?
There have been different people, but if you look at the roster – and let’s not count the first year; I was living in Pennsylvania and it was a totally different band – when we first got to San Francisco we had a steady lineup from ’90-91 for about five years. Then we had a drummer change and the old guy came back and he was there for the better part of 14 or 15 years. But he’s the longest member at 14 years, Greg Haa on drums. But then the second guitar player wasn’t always there; we had one second guitar player and he left, then we didn’t have any second guitar player for the first two albums. Then I got John Cobbett and we had a slew of different bass players. But now Adrian [Maestas] has been with me for eight years. So really the current lineup, it’s really one of those Thin Lizzy type things [laughs]; one guy and usually one drummer, but then a different guitar player. I wish it was a little more steady, but that’s the way it goes, especially in this volatile market in California; there are a lot of options for different members. It’s not like we’re living like a lot of Midwestern bands where there are only like five guys that can play metal or whatever. But in the Bay Area there are a lot of options. If I get someone who’s attitude is fucked up on tour or can’t tour, or this or that, I have the option of replacing him because there are a lot of musicians out here. But I’ve had pretty good lineups, definitely, for a while with musicianship and personalities. Angelo [Tringalli] has been in the band like five years now. And then Harry [Cantwell], the drummer, has been in the band for less than two years. Harry filled in and started touring with us after Hardworlder came out. He brought a lot to the band. His personality – he’s younger than the rest of us, he’s 26 I think – is one with a very positive attitude and shares all the same musical tastes as us. He’s a pretty upbeat guy and he’s also a fantastic drummer. A lot of metal bands – and this is something I don’t like – have these really good musicians that have smug attitudes and I can’t put up with that, especially on the road. On the road it doesn’t matter where you’re at, it all comes out. It’s like four guys mostly in their 30s and late 30s at this point and we travel in a pretty small van, the shit’s gonna hit the fan if you don’t have a pretty good rapport between the band members. So it’s tough, man. The lineup we have now, we get along real well. Otherwise we’d never be able to do this; it’s too stressful. This lineup is pretty good so I think we can move forward. This album [Ape Uprising] just came out and we already have a bunch of songs written that we all know for the next one. It’s going to be like an EP probably, or a short album. We like doing short albums, probably about 30 minutes. I’m not a really big Slayer fan at all. I like one album that they did, Reign in Blood. Some of their albums I can’t stand. But Reign in Blood is 27 minutes or something like that, but it’s perfect. There is no filler and no bullshit; just, here it is. People always say this when we put albums out, “It’s a little too short, but it’s great and it flows well.” Well, that’s why; we cut all the shit out of it. All these bands now putting like 60-minute albums out and all this filler; fuck that, man. No one wants to hear that. Black Sabbath albums in the 1970s were like 30-35 minutes and they were perfect. Plus, with the budgets we get we can’t make a good album that’s 60 minutes [laughs].

Is this your full-time job? Are you able to make any kind of a living from the band?

Hell no! To be honest, let’s just say the last four or five months I could have paid my rent I think two of those months off the band. That just doesn’t happen every month. My rent is very, very cheap. So last month I paid my rent off the band because I got a check from this guy that put out an old early years live album compilation or whatever. Then two months before miraculously we had some money from a royalty check, which maybe happens twice a year, if that. So as a professional musician I couldn’t even survive on it, no way. I could pay my rent once in a while, but I’d be in the street. Actually, I have two jobs. Last night I bartended at the Primordial show. I do that once or twice a week and I’m a teacher too. I’m a philosophy teacher at a small college.

Now that you mention it, I do recall reading about that at some point.

It’s cool yeah. It’s very time consuming, but I find ways to get around it and go on tour. It’s a community college, right? I’ve got a master’s degree in philosophy. When I was doing that a couple of years ago I was pretty involved. I was teaching at San Francisco State and, you know, those departments are really political and have a lot of involvement in them, and they’re pushing me forward to get a PhD and become a tenure track philosophy professor. That would have just cut out the whole band; it would have made it impossible. So it’s better that I took the other route, teaching at a small community college and be able to what I want when I want. At community college a lot of the teachers there are involved in other things, sometimes artistic things, sometimes not. They can take time off and sort of get around the schedule a little bit. I don’t have to publish to keep my job. I mean I like it and still stay involved with what’s going on in philosophy, but not to the extent that I’d have to be if I were a tenure track professor. I teach my classes and it’s fuckin’ weird sometimes because as the band has become more popular sometimes a kid will come into class… One student came up to me recently and said “Yeah, I was learning ‘Highlander,’ one of your songs and I had no fucking clue what you did for a living outside of the band or if you had a job, and then I took your philosophy class and sat down and it’s the guy from Slough Feg” [laughs]. It’s pretty hilarious. I don’t answer anything about it in class because it would end up dominating the entire class and become a problem. Students these days Google all their teachers, so they know who I am. At the beginning of every semester I get the question, “So what about your band?” and I say “What band? That’s my twin brother; I don’t know what you’re talking about.” They know that I don’t want to talk about it. I tell them they can go on line and find all the information they want. But as soon as I say that the rest of the class is like “What’s he talking about?” Then they go on line. It’s kind of weird. When they show up at the shows it’s really weird. So I really try to keep it separated. Ten years ago that wouldn’t have been a problem. Without the Internet nobody would have known. Ten years ago we would have been getting signed to a European label, touring Europe and putting records out, but nobody in that age group in America would have known who the fuck I was at all. Now it’s a lot different.

Well, let’s chat about the new album, Ape Uprising. I’m totally diggin’ the ape theme.
[Laughs] I thought I went a little too far. I saw that cover art and it was like “Oh man.” I mean who doesn’t think apes are cool?

Oh I know, I know. Apes are the best. Not every song is ape-themed though. It’s not a concept album about the apes rising up and taking over.

Oh no, only half the album is really about that.

Is that a topic that just happened to strike your fancy one day?
Well, it’s called running out of ideas [laughs]. Iron Maiden runs out of ideas and they make A Matter of Life and Death. I run out of ideas and I do Ape Uprising. No, I’m just kidding. I didn’t sit there going, “Oh god, what am I going to write about now?” It wasn’t like that at all. Someone had mentioned that term as a joke and I thought about it. Actually, I already had that term in my mind. There actually were several minor ape uprisings that prompted me to really go for it. The only time that I listen to NPR or anything like that is when I’m touring and I heard on NPR about this ape somewhere in Holland that ran out of the zoo into a big café area and it was throwing shit around and he took some woman and started dragging her around by her hair, bit a chunk out of her shoulder… I thought, man, that’s an image for an album cover. Then we were in Japan and this was only a week and two days later or something and it happened again. An orangutan got out and it did the same thing. And I thought “What the fuck? Whoa man, what’s going to happen now? Is it going to happen in the States somewhere?” I thought what a cool idea; all these apes unrelated to each on different parts of the planet, starting to rise up. So I wrote song about it and then it became an album [laughs].

And it’s great. The title track is such a cool ass, epic kind of piece.
Yeah, that’s how it started, when I wrote that song.

“White Cousin” comes in and it’s one those classic, acoustic led, Celtic folk-ish moments that you often have on your albums.
Yeah, that does sound a lot like some of the other stuff we’ve done, I will admit. It’s a good song [laughs]. I actually think that those are some of our best songs, like “The Sea Wolf” from Hardworlder and there is one on Traveller like that, when they kind of come out acoustic or whatever.

That’s where the folk part really comes to the fore on your albums. Has the Celtic folk thing always been there? Anything intentional about it?
No, not really. It’s funny because I’m totally admitting ignorance here, but when I first used the name Slough Feg I never had any intention of Celtic anything; I didn’t even know. It was because it was in a comic book. I mean I didn’t know anything about Celtic mythology or whatever. The other thing that was total coincidence was that once we had the name and I realized what it was and the music sounding Irish or whatever had nothing to do with the name being Irish. I just started writing songs that were sounding like Iron Maiden and out of that came major, rather than minor, chord changes just because I felt like that was something that hadn’t been done. But we did that sound here back then and people didn’t like it at all back in like 1990-1992, like “What the fuck are you doing writing these major sounding, kind of sing-songy things” without any clue that anybody else was interested in that kind of stuff. And maybe they were at that point; I don’t know. We were off the planet. So it came out naturally really, without any intention at all. And the lyrics being about some of the comic books I had read and the Irish folk music and I started to say “Ok, let’s write some stuff about this” and it all started to gel together, these sort of random things that happened to make us Irish folk oriented.

The other thing that kind of makes me chuckle is that in a lot of the reviews people aren’t content to just say something about NWOBHM or Iron Maiden inspired or whatever. They always want to throw the “cult” term in there.

I don’t mind the term “cult” at all because I think all that means is that you’ve got a small following who are really into it. I don’t think the “cult” thing, at least in my understanding of it, necessarily relates to the Celtic, Druid cult thing or something like that. That’s not how I think anyway. But if cult following means underground, smaller, not a big following or mainstream, but a good steady fanatical following, which I think is pretty accurate actually. We don’t have a huge fan base or whatever, but we have a very, very radical fan base. So it’s pretty cool. We’re not opposed to success or anything, but then again, who is? It’s just what we are at this point. We just do what we do. The kind of music we make is going to be cult because it doesn’t sound like anything that is ever going to be really, really popular.

What aspect of the band or the music do you think folks misconstrue or tend to go wrong with?
They kind of misconstrue a lot of the intentionality of how things are done, the deliberation of creating music. A lot of times they talk about things in such a way that there is this implicit assumption that you are what you are because you have decided to be a cult metal band. People from a magazine or whatever will say “You are a true metal band. What does that mean to you to be part of the true metal scene that you pioneered?” I have no idea what it means. I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about. “You are prog metal. How do you like the idea of other prog…” Who’s prog metal? What the fuck are you talking about? And like the premise they give you, like you’re songwriting is blah, blah, blah. They don’t really know how you write. They see things being way more premeditated. And they also think about your involvement in “the heavy metal scene” being much more premeditated. They often give you these influences like, “They were inspired obviously by…” like someone you’ve never heard of. The image that people get is that some guy ever since 1980 or something that has been listening to every cheesy metal band from every country and knows all this shit about metal. Like I don’t know who the fuck this Virgin Steele is or something. Maybe I’ve seen a festival once. I couldn’t tell you what the songs are on the second Queensryche album. But you know what I mean. I don’t know what the fuck’s going on; I don’t know Finntroll from Marduk. I don’t know. They don’t quite understand that a lot of bands, and particularly me, that happen to write this kind of music because they liked the same few bands that I did, like Sabbath, Maiden, and Priest, the mainstream stuff. And then St. Vitus and bands from sort of that crossover scene. This is all sort of one big picture to me. I was influenced by that and a lot of other things. It has nothing to do with other predominant or cult or whatever metal bands. When I put a record out or write a certain song it has nothing to do with what Armored Saint was doing. It has nothing to do with it [laughs].

You don’t see too many Slough Feg reviews that don’t mention Thin Lizzy either. That’s another funny thing. Sure, we’ve done things that are definitely influenced by Thin Lizzy. But when I got the name Slough Feg and started doing this sort of Irish sound I didn’t know Thin Lizzy from UFO. I knew “The Boys are Back in Town.” I heard that song and I thought it sucked, like so bad. Up until the early 90s I had no idea. But then I became a huge Thin Lizzy fan. But up until the first record I just thought Thin Lizzy was this cheesy band that did “The Boys are Back in Town.” Then in the 90s I heard like Black Rose and some of those records and then they became one of my favorite bands. Then I heard Vagabonds of the Western World, then I got all their records and I became very interested in them. But that’s not how it started. They should mention Thin Lizzy, at least, because it’s true.

Well sure. I mean if you play twin leads a certain way or with a certain manner of sound capture the comparisons are often inevitable.
Yeah, and it’s cool. Even the lower vocals, more of a rock sound than a metal sound. Hell yeah, that’s all very Thin Lizzy. The truth is that the number one most inspiring influence for this band has always been Black Sabbath. The biggest influence for us for songwriting, conscious or unconscious, is Black Sabbath because they were the first real metal band I started listening to and they were my favorite band all through the 80s, no contest, and probably are still today. The first 10 albums, up until Born Again, just the whole thing. I think every heavy metal band comes from the three elements of Sabbath, Priest, and Maiden. I don’t think any heavy metal band has done anything that actually goes outside completely of those three bands. They haven’t done anything that you can’t break down to those three fundamental influences. Even the Celtic stuff, those bands did it! They even did stuff, like early Maiden and Sabbath, that was like Irish folk music. People don’t realize it now because they’ve heard it so many times, but when I was 14 or whatever it was and I heard “War Pigs” for the first time the first thing that I said to my friend was “the vocal melody sounds like an Irish folk song.” It’s impossible to even try to recognize it now because you’ve heard it so many times. And then some of their songs, like “Cornucopia,” has that Celtic riff, but nobody acknowledged it. And then Maiden, all their stuff is like Celtic triplets just done in a minor key or something. Every metal band I’ve heard does not go outside those three elements. All speed metal and death metal comes from Judas Priest…and Sabbath, as far as I’m concerned if you go far enough back. Our music does for sure. I think it’s cool because that’s my favorite music of all time and I don’t see how anybody can transcend it at this point.

I was thinking of this one question, rather randomly, that I figured I’d throw out there. But I was looking at your Myspace page and I see that George Benson is your number two Top Friend. What’s up with that?
Oh yeah! [laughs] That’s great. This is one of those funny things. The first time we toured the U.S., like a real U.S. tour about four or five years ago… I don’t know how it happened; it was a random occurrence. There is a George Benson album called Weekend in LA that came out back in the 70s. There is a picture of the guy’s face on the front and it looks really cool. I don’t like George Benson at all, but it ended up on tour with us and it ended up on the merch table every night. I don’t know why, but eventually it became an ongoing joke. I think it was Adrian’s album, I don’t know. It was in the van before the tour or something and it ended up coming along. Adrian started opening up the gatefold and there is this picture of him – he’s a good looking guy though. So he ended up opening it up and putting it on the merch table as a joke and it would freak people out, like “How much is this George Benson album?” The next thing you know, there is the one picture of him – kind of like the one on Myspace – and it’s the 70s so he’s got a big collar and something about it looks really cool. We started putting it in the window of the van and it became kind of our mascot. Our old drummer Ruben used to put it in front of his bass drum when he played. It slowly evolved into this silly joke, right? Bands that were touring with us would think it was funny that we always had it on stage. The first year we went to South by Southwest in Austin we brought it with us and I held it up before we played and threw the record into the crowd. So it became sort of this weird thing that people knew about. We’d find that record available in any dollar bin, like for one or two dollars anywhere in the country and they’d usually have two or three copies of it. It’s one of those albums from the 70s that’s everywhere in every fucking shit box. So we’d buy it and we’d have like five copies. Every time we were on tour and someone had a record store everyone in the band would buy a copy. At one point we had like six or seven of these things and we’d be chucking them out in the audience. It just became this weird tradition to have this Weekend in LA George Benson album with us everywhere. We wanted to get that picture of George on the front of Harry’s bass drum. It’s one of those weird things that I like. We don’t have a symbol for our band. You know how Riot had that fucked up sea lion on everything? Like what the fuck is that? I still don’t know to this day why they did that. It is the most retarded thing ever. But it’s great because it sets them apart from everybody. It’s the most unmarketable idea; they’ve got a fuckin’ sea lion, like a warrior with sea lion’s head. So for us it’s George Benson. I want to expand that whole thing. I want to get it on the bass drum and maybe get a picture of me looking like he did in that picture or have all of us with it. You know how Judas Priest had all these fake Marshall stacks behind them? I want to have that George Benson album, a whole wall of them behind us when we play. I don’t know. It’s just one of those things.


  1. Commented by: Dan

    Ill review Scott. This is by far the most interesting interview I’ve read in months. Thanks for steering clear of the usual questions. Scalzi also seems like a really down to earth dude. It’s cool to see someone in the business rip into our preconceptions about how bands work and it affects the way bands’ artistic processes function.

    Also, “I heard that song and I thought it sucked, like so bad.” Laughed so hard at that one. I’ve been reading about their Thin Lizzy likeness for years so that came as quite a shock.

  2. Commented by: Dan

    Ill review Scott. This is by far the most interesting interview I’ve read in months. Thanks for steering clear of the usual questions. Scalzi also seems like a really down to earth dude. It’s cool to see someone in the business rip into our preconceptions about how bands work and it affects the way bands’ artistic processes function.

    Also, “I heard that song and I thought it sucked, like so bad.” Laughed so hard at that one. I’ve been reading about their Thin Lizzy likeness for years so that came as quite a shock.
    P.S. – Sorry, forgot to tell you great post!

  3. Commented by: Crescent Shield

    This is one the best and funniest interviews I’ve read in a long time. Mike is so funny and Slough Feg rules. Ape Uprising rocks – i love it!!! Great interview Scott.

  4. Commented by: Danny

    Yes this is another truly great album from probably my favourite band ever,awesome interview Mike Scalzi’s a Legend !! Awesome!!

  5. Commented by: The Jackyl

    Great interview! Funny AND interesting.

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