Brian Slagel Explains Metal Blade Misses, Talks Metal’s Staying Power + More [Interview]
Metal Blade Records founder and CEO Brian Slagel was the latest guest on Full Metal Jackie's weekend radio program. He has been instrumental in the development of heavy metal on both the local and worldwide scenes over the course of the last 35 years and has detailed it all in his book, For the Sake of Heaviness: The History of Metal Blade Records. He spoke about the book and reflected on the significance of the label, explained how he's stayed true to his values and detailed why he missed out on signing some of the world's biggest bands, not that he regrets a single thing. Check out the chat below.
How ya doing?
I’m good, how are you?
Lots going on with Metal Blade and you are now an author.
I am, scary enough as that sounds. I have just written a book which is out now called For the Sake of Heaviness: The History of Metal Blade Records, and yeah here we are.
You've been very experienced in giving bands a platform to tell their stories through music. What's similar and different about telling your own story in a book?
Well, good question, I guess it's somewhat similar — I’m not an artist. I can’t do any of that stuff, but I was able enough to write a book which I’m actually super happy with and it’s fun to do actually — go down memory lane and kind of remember some stories, so I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s similar, I guess in some ways it’s on a printed paper, some words, so I guess that similar, right? But it was fun to do and I hope people enjoy it and I hope people enjoy it as much as people enjoy the music.
Working on the book meant recalling things you probably don't think about every day. What stands out about Metal Blade that you wouldn't have realized without the compiled history of a book?
I think all of the things we’ve done over the years because you don’t really sit down and think about stuff like you mentioned. Then going back and kind of doing the book and then going through and reading it, which we had to do quite a few times, was kind of interesting. Like, "Wow I kind of forgot we did a lot of stuff and worked with a lot of different bands." I think it’s the one interesting thing that people talk about when they listen to, or when they read the book, they can’t hear it yet, next year [will see the release of the audiobook], is that so [much] different stuff that we did over the years. We were working with all the grunge bands in the '90s and doing marketing and other stuff that we worked with before that people might not know and I think that's what stands out, even for me. I was like, "Oh that’s right, we did that, I forgot about that," and, "Oh, that’s really cool we did that," and seeing the entire form of the history is kind of actually cool.
Metal Blade is one of these record labels that, no matter what was going on and the changing of the business, I feel like Metal Blade was one of the labels that stood true to what you've always been about.
Yeah, we really tried to do that over all these years. I’ve never really wanted to waver and there were obviously times where you can go down, do something a little bit different that was whatever the trend of the moment was music wise, but it just didn’t feel right to me. Obviously we do a lot of stuff on our label we have a lot of different styles of artists, but I never tried to do too much in whatever the trend. We always kind of look forward to with whatever the next trend is, so in the '90s we definitely stood by our guns with doing metal which was not overly hugely mainstream popular then, but we still did really well and there [are] lot of great records that came out of the '90s that people might forget about.
You've obviously been around for historical stuff that's happened in metal. Let's start with the fact that the first ever Metallica track being released on a Metal Blade (pivotal to their history). Which releases have been pivotal to Metal Blade history in terms of establishing the label and securing its credibility?
Well certainly the first record, the Metal Massacre record is what started it all. If it wasn’t for that and if we didn't decide to put out a compilation album — not ever intending to have a record label I was just doing it to try to help out the scene — we never would be sitting here talking about what we’re talking about today, so that one is very pivotal.
Obviously, Show No Mercy by Slayer was kind of the first big record that we had where you put something out that felt, "Oh my gosh, this band is very great. This record is really good," so that's certainly a big record from there. As you know, it gets so tough. There’s so many other records that we’ve done. Certainly early Cannibal Corpse stuff, just in terms of the notoriety, the controversies which actually, strangely enough, help us over the course of time, and GWAR. I mean so many bands that we put out: GWAR, Unsane, Cannibal Corpse, Amon Amarth... There's so many different bands and albums that have come out over the years that have kind of helped continue flourishing us for 35 years.
That's a long time for a label to exist. Especially for a genre that so many people make it sound like it went away or came back. Metal has never gone away.
No. That was the funny thing, our battle cry in the early days was "Heavy Metal will never die" because people would say, "Ah, this is a fad. It's gonna go away." No, it's not. Here we are 35 years later and it never went away. Even in the dark days of metal, they call the mid-to-late '90s. It was still in the underground, very healthy and thriving. We were doing very well then, just the mainstream wasn't looking at it - it was still existing. Everyone thought it was dead and then sure enough a few years later this whole new scene comes up, props everything up and everything gets big again. But it never has gone anywhere from when it first started really in 1970 with Black Sabbath — it's been around for 40 some odd years now. It's now an integral part of, genre, of everyone's lives now. It's not going anywhere.
The criteria for being signed to Metal Blade is whether or not Brian Slagel likes the music. That said, how has your musical taste grown and changed and likewise the label since you started?
Sadly, I don't think it's grown or changed a whole lot. I think we still like what we like; we still like more traditional heavy metal. Obviously things come around like death metal which we got into for a while and we still have bands there. There's different genres that come in and out that we like but for the most part, it's the same music that I've always liked. It's the same similar fuzzy guitars and whatever kind of vocals. I wish I could say I've evolved musically; I listen to different stuff but it's still pretty much the same. But if I'm going to go back and listen to something for fun, personally, I'll go back and listen to Thin Lizzy, Deep Purple, Iron Maiden, Rainbow... all the old stuff.
Metal Blade has been home to a lot of bands and a number of very significant albums. Who got away? What bands would you like to have signed and developed?
There's a few that I messed up on. Obviously Metallica in the early days. If I had some money and they had some money we probably would have done the first Metallica record, but neither of us had any money. Same thing with Motley Crue, when they first put out their record they came and said, "Hey, we have 900 Motley Crue records, what do we do with them?" I said, "Oh, take them to this distributor." I didn't have a label or record at that point.
The only other two that I kind of messed up on was, and not that we would have ever signed Guns N Roses, but when they were playing in L.A. in the '80s, people said, "Go see them! They're great!" I knew their manager. I said, "Nah they look glammy" and I wasn't really into that scene, so I never went to see them. But we did end up working and doing marketing on Appetite for Destruction, so we got a little bit in there.
And then the other one was Pantera, Cowboys from Hell where we knew their management really well. I knew those guys before when they were in their early incarnations and the management came and said, "Hey we have this record out but we need a significant amount of money because they spent a bunch of money to make it." I was like, "Eh." We might have been able to scrape it together because we were kind of sort of at Warner Brothers at that time, but it just didn't work out. Oops, oh well.
If stuff was meant to be, it was meant to be.
Look, I have no regrets, I have had an unbelievable career with working with a lot of amazing bands and all those bands we didn't end up working with are good friends of mine anyway. They did okay.
Metal Blade records has been based in the Los Angeles area since the beginning. How would the timeline of metal coming out of L.A. been different without a label like Metal Blade?
Well, I don’t know. It's really interesting because the whole reason for me putting together the compilation out in 1982, was that nobody cared about the scene there. The reason I did it was I wanted people to hear about this and know that this scene existed. Had that not come out, who knows what may have happened?
You read the book and Lars [Ulrich] from Metallica did the forward and he was very nice in there to mention that if I hadn't put out that compilation out, who knows if that band would have existed. It's crazy. I think it all would have happened anyway because it was just an amazing time to be in L.A. in that timeframe in the early '80s. The whole scene kind of exploded whether my help helped it to get there or not, I guess it played a little bit of a role in it. There was so much good stuff happening back there I can't see how it wouldn't happen. It was an amazing time to be in L.A., for sure.
What can you tell us about some exciting stuff coming from Metal Blade?
We've got a lot of records coming out. We got a new GWAR record coming out, which is amazing. It's one of my favorite GWAR records. A new Black Dahlia Murder, a new Cannibal Corpse, all coming out this year. Then early next year we have a King Diamond double DVD/CD finally coming out. Then following up with a full solo album from him, hopefully by the end of next year. A lot of good stuff coming out, just go to metalblade.com and you'll see all about it.
Thanks to Brian Slagel for the interview. Pick up your copy of 'For the Sake of Heaviness: The History of Metal Blade Records' now at the Metal Blade webstore. To keep up with everything the label is doing, follow them on Facebook.
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