[The eighth–and second-to-last–installment of our 90s Essentials interview series spotlights (The Lord Weird) Slough Feg’s Mike Scalzi. The stalwart frontman shines some light on the atypical recording process of Twilight of the Idols, as well as the travails of flying the flag of traditional heavy metal in the unfriendly climes of the 1990s.]
MetalReview: As you can imagine, picking one hundred albums to represent what is often considered as the most productive, innovative decade in metal was no easy task. Luckily, we at MetalReview were fortunate enough to live through it and I have to say that one of the picks we didn’t find so hard to choose was Twilight of the Idols. Now that you know you have such dedicated fans on the site, how do you feel about us selecting your album as one of the Essential Hundred?
Mike Scalzi: Well, we’re happy about it. I am mostly because it is kind of my favorite Slough Feg album, because a lot of the songs represent the most creative period of the band. A lot of those songs were written in the very early nineties when I was very inspired, basically living in a basement in San Francisco, just having moved out from Pennsylvania to do this band, full of ideas. So the album really represents that early period of the band, at least half of it does. The other half consists of songs about how horrible it was to be in a metal band in the nineties, which is ironic, since you are celebrating metal albums from the nineties. What a shit time to be in a metal band!
MR: Seeing how it has been twelve years since the album came out, and you have in the meantime made a name for yourself in the metal community and recorded a lot more music, how do you feel about the album today? Do you still feel that this is indeed the album that should be representing you on the list?
Scalzi: Yes! Like I said, it is possibly our most inspired, creative album. So many weird, quirky songs on there, which is sort of the original idea behind Slough Feg. I don’t like using the word “prog”, but that’s basically the kind of band we were back then.
MR: I think I’ve read an interview where you said that you are not happy with the production of the album, although you had nine months for the recording. First of all, what’s wrong with the production and, secondly, how the hell does an underground heavy metal band get to spend that much time in the studio for recording one album?
Scalzi: Good question. The answer to both questions is sort of one and the same. Our bass player from 1991-96 was Justin Phelps, who left the band basically to become a studio engineer. He started out taking classes at a recording school that happened to be two blocks from my house. He did well there and graduated, immediately becoming an instructor at that same school, so when he started to teach recording classes around 1997, he would bring in bands for the students to work on, recording demos for the students to mix, and we were one of the first bands. So, much of Twilight was actually recorded as experiments for his students to mix, but he oversaw the actual recording process of the basic tracks. So, what we would do is go in during the day and record bass drums and rhythm with a group of students and Justin would oversee the whole thing. Then later we would come back at night with just Justin and do overdubs and clean things up, and then mix with him later. So a lot of the album was done for free. Later when we had most of the basic tracks recorded by the students, Justin and I would sit there from like 10 p.m. until 3 a.m. and do vocals, myriads of guitar overdubs, mix, all that stuff, and I’d pay him a very moderate fee.
After about six months of this we had quite a few songs on tape. Then I think about the last three songs we just recorded at night with the whole band, and “Brave Connor Mac” was done in one exhausting 143 hour session, starting with just acoustic guitar, and then adding on layer after layer of guitars, vocals, bass – all done by myself – and finally a track of congas done by Greg Haa. So we had the opportunity to sort of experiment and take our time in the studio, creating songs layer by layer as we went. It was incredible, it was recording the way the Beatles did, or something, having full access to a studio for months on end like rock stars. I’m so happy we had the opportunity to do that. We really owe it all to Justin Phelps. Then after we were all done there, we went to Trakworx, a new (at the time) studio owned by Justin Weis – the guy who mastered our first album – and who had gone to school and worked at the same recording school we had recorded at with Justin Phelps (so we met both Justin’s there) and recorded “The Great Ice Wars” and “Slough Feg” over there with him, and then mastered the whole thing at Trakworx as well. It was all done by 1998, when the vinyl came out before the CD. It took till 1999 for the CD to appear. So, really, Twilight of the Idols was a giant group effort by Slough Feg, Justin Phelps and Justin Weis. We had a lot of fun making the album. There are many of your standard insane rock’n’roll stories that came out of that period in and around the recording school, involving the band, engineers, and some of the students who were always hanging around.
MR: Twilight of the Idols started your three-record journey with Dragonheart. Apparently the album was already recorded before you inked the deal, so how did you eventually end up on the label’s roster?
Scalzi: I’d seen a flyer for their label, and since we knew no US label would touch us in the nineties, I sent them a copy of the first, self-produced CD which came out in ’96. They liked it and signed us for three albums. Twilight was done by ’98 and that’s when the vinyl came out on Doomed Planet Records (USA), but Dragonheart took more time and put the CD out early the next year.
MR: Your Dragonheart-era stuff, including Twilight of the Idols, is currently relatively hard to find. Do you have any plans for re-releasing those LPs and, most importantly, when will we get a reissue of your debut?
Scalzi: Unfortunately there’s nothing I can do about that. The CDs are perhaps expensive because they’re imports. But they aren’t really as hard to find as people say. You can always order them from our website, or directly from Dragonheart, or from several other sources. Aquarius Records keeps them in stock for instance. They’re just sort of hard to find in stores in the US. But they’re in print and available from mainly online sources, you just have to Google them , they’re there. I tried to get Down Among The Deadmen re-issued a couple times, but Dragonheart wants a big licensing fee that small US labels don’t seem willing to pay.
MR: Late nineties was a relatively dry season for traditional heavy metal, and during that period there were only a handful of champions carrying the torch through the tough times. Now, over ten years later, Twilight of the Idols is a revered classic in the eyes of many, but how you do recall the album’s reception or lack thereof in 1999?
Scalzi: Well, honestly I was surprised that anyone even picked it up in the first place. After playing gigs throughout the nineties my expectation were rather low. So I wasn’t exactly surprised when it didn’t set the world on fire. We’d been playing gigs and recording demos and albums all through that wretched, wretched decade. Traditional metal was almost completely rejected by everyone. So we were actually just happy that the album came out and that we got to go to Europe that same year. I never really expected for it to even go that far, after what I had experienced throughout that decade.
MR: The 90s saw some truly inspiring albums come to life, but it also saw the downfall of many titans of the metal music scene – and that’s the journalistic and fan view of the decade. We’re curious to know how you as a musician who created at that time view this decade, and what would you say were the highlights or the twilights of the 90s?
Scalzi: There were no highs. Only lows. I think it separated the men from the boys in the metal world. Almost every known metal band broke up in the early to mid-nineties. They didn’t have it in them to carry on through the rejection. We never knew any different, so we just kept going. Well, the only high was when the decade ended, when we knew the nineties were over, we had records out and could tour Europe, and could see things opening up a little. The best metal album of the nineties was Solstice’s New Dark Age, which came out right around the same time as Twilight, in 1998. This album gave me hope that someone else saw things the way I did. And then next year we toured Europe with Solstice.
But I have to say what really pissed me off was that as soon as 2002, 3 and 4 rolled around, and metal was coming back around, all the 80s metal bands that broke up in the early nineties started to get back together and getting all the praise. And of course they were getting all the festival slots and good shows, while bands like Solstice and Slough Feg that endured the shitty nineties had to play second fiddle to them. Bands that wimped out and broke up cause they couldn’t take the nineties re-surfaced when the gettin’ was good again, and they get the credit for bringing metal back, when in reality they pussed out and didn’t do shit – or even worse, tried to adapt to the nineties by forming grunge bands – and failed at that and turned back to metal when it was back in vogue, because underground bands had kept it alive in the meantime. So, I know it sounds bitter, and it is, but you’ve gotta understand the attitude of metal bands that stayed alive through the nineties, all four of them! We stuck it out and fought for what we believed in, and then all the fair-weather pretty boys came back around when it was easy again and picked up all the praise. And that’s why I’m happy that some of these bands are getting a little credit now in sites like yours! It’s about time! Bands like Sacred Steel, Solstice, Twisted Tower Dire, Skullview, Brocas Helm, Stone Vengeance and some more that I’m sorry to leave out, and some great ones I’m sure I never heard about, since it was the nineties! These are the nineties underground metal bands that ballsed it through that Dark Age!
MR: Finally, what do you believe this decade left as a legacy to the new metal millennium?
Scalzi: Well, I guess I just said it. An enduring spirit – the true test of a metal band – the tenacity to survive and make music in the face of almost universal rejection. Metal has always been a sort of underdog, always been rejected by many. In the seventies and eighties that’s what made it so great. It was our music, as a fan, it was your own music, because most people you know hated it. So you really felt that again the nineties. Total rejection makes great music! The nineties left a spirit of endurance. Toughness in the face of adversity–which was sort of the original spirit of metal in first place.