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BRIAN SLAGEL – PASSION, HARD WORK BUT ABOVE ALL A LOVE FOR METAL

One of the most influential people in the world of Metal, Brian Slagel, amongst other things is first and foremost a Metalhead. Beginning from the humble California background, the man would go onto create one of the most reputable record labels in Metal’s history, Metal Blade. Now celebrating thirty five years as a company, Metal Blade have been responsible for delivering some of the finest talent in recent history.

Of course a man of so many stories has an incredible amount to tell but why wait so long for his story to be told? Coinciding with the thirty fifth anniversary of Metal Blade people had been trying to get the music maestro to put some of his experiences down on paper but all to no avail until now. Releasing For The Sake of Heaviness,  Slagel’s is a name that is synonymous with the world of the underground and more precisely the extreme, yet despite his intimidating roster of horrendous sounding Death Metal acts, the man couldn’t be more of a gentleman.

We tried to figure out what to do for our thirty fifth anniversary. We tried to document everything starting from the twentieth. We had kind of done everything so people had been bugging me to write about for a while about the history of Metal Blade. I thought this is probably a good time to do with with the thirty fifth anniversary coming up so why not!”

Before the advent of the internet, life was a far more simple process. The only means of listening to a record was to actually buy the thing. Now, with the seemingly limitless scope of the internet, information, communication and music itself is freely available from a virtually untapped source. Of course this has both positive and negative connotations, leading to an opportunity for everyone that would have only been for a select few, nevertheless this has also created over saturation in the market with bands popping up left right and centre.

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“Its a whole different ball game with the internet. Whereas before, when I first started out, you would send something in the mail and wait a week to get it and you would listen to it a bit. Everything was so much slower, now with everything being instantaneous, thats a pretty amazing thing. You can get a lot of information out to a lot of people in an instant. You’re going through the different types of ways that people consume music in terms of CD’s, vinyl etc… I think that the access to music has had a huge impact with the internet. Unless you bought the record or had a friend who had the record. Now everybody can pretty much hear everything.”

Wanting to remain positive Slagel believes that the internet, rather than a musical Skynet acts more as an arm to reach the previously unreachable. Of course this begs the question, given the fact that music is so readily available could it lead it being seen as almost a commodity and lose its artistic merit as the consumer begin to digest music a different way?

“I mean yes and no. I always try and look at things in the most positive way you can. Certainly, I think that the industry has been through a lot with all the stuff that has gone on but I think that is coming to an end in good shape with how things are working out. I do tend to feel, if nothing else, more people are listening to music and have been turned on to music than in the last ten years say than ever before. I think thats a good thing! Now that the industry seems to have found a way to make it work on business level its all coming around to fruition where it seems to be that its getting into a good place again.”

Not only has the way that music is consumed changed but also the way that music is being produced. Harkening back to what many called the “glory days” of music, here the major labels were acting almost as independent companies. Being widely recognised but never truly accepted, Metal was highly prolific in the nineties. Think, the moody teenager at a genre dinner table. Now as is with the cyclical nature of the music industry it seems that the pendulum is once more swinging back to the days of old.

“Its interesting how when we started out thirty five years ago, the majors were all more or less independent companies. Then they got bought up by big majors and everything got really big and huge and stupid and that kind of all fell apart and now its almost gone back to the kind of more independent vibe. Certainly most people who work in the business side of the music industry theses days. Unless you really love the music, its not a great place to be. Whereas twenty something years ago there were a lot of people who didn’t know anything about music. You see that pendulum swing back and forth. Just in terms of Metal, its gotten big and then its gone away and then its gotten big… I wouldn’t say its gone away now, its very big but certainly the mainstream is not paying attention to it.” 

Though with the return of a more independent mindset comes innovation. Forming a kind of guerrilla support, crowdfunding has largely become a source for many bands to be able to stay afloat, whilst ensuring that they can recoup the cost. Of course there have been few examples, (Blake Judd I’m looking at you) where this has been misused. Those who do use it for honest reasons however often come back with a truly fantastic product. The real interest in this however is the consumer going directly to the creator rather than via a middle man of say a record label. Nevertheless the strategy hasn’t quite found its voice just yet, the fans might be able to raise funds for a recording but bands can often be stuck for distribution. Obituary for example with their Inked In Blood campaign are a great example. Needing the distribution to come from their label Relapse Records.

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Anything that works and that can help artists get to where they need to get to is fine! Crowdfunding has added an interesting element to things that you wouldn’t normally get. I can imagine if I was a tenth six year old kid and that I wanted to have, as I wanted to back in the day, the ability to get absolutely everything I could get my hands on from the band. Now its a little bit easier to do it because these crowdfunding things are direct to consumer bundles. You’re offering really cool perks that people are interested in as a fan I think thats really cool!”

One of the enticing reasons that people take part in the crowdfunding campaigns is the offering of truly exclusive material from the band. Ranging from limited drum skins, to actually going out for a meal with your favourite band. What could be more perfect to the die hard fan? The age of the preorder has given rise to this variety and vinyl. Cottoning on to this idea of exclusivity, vinyl preorders are now up due to the phenomenal public demand. Making the likes of Record Store Day come to life. However there is the argument that vinyl has never truly left and as a diehard vinyl fan, its one that Slagel stands by.

“Absolutely! The vinyl thing is really kind of amazing. At one point in the eighties we almost went out of business because I thought that vinyl was never going to die. I grew up with vinyl and everyone said that you should stop manufacturing it, I said I’m not going to do that… To have it come full circle, well vinyl is HUGE again. We’re doing vinyl with almost every single release, well thats pretty amazing!” 

To that notion its hard to argue that vinyl isn’t at one of its strongest points in many years recently. For those who are rebelling from the technological advancements in streaming and downloading of files, its simply just not the same. As a fellow vinyl afficionado, I understand entirely the want of what a record collector would be looking for. The large scale artwork, the incredible sound that comes through but the biggest for me personally is the possession of your own copy. It might get battered and bruised but that shows commitment and love! Like a book whose spine has been bent, rather than the sterile looking MP3 file.

“A lot of people love the big artwork, getting the whole big package and really the sound of it. You can’t, especially for our genre of music, Heavy Metal, to me there is no better thing than vinyl. That really warm, nice sound. I also think that for a lot of kids that grew up listening to MP3’s on little ear buds. You get a little stereo with a record player, speakers and that is real sound! Its almost like you’re at a concert. Its a big full sound that you don’t normally get. A combination of all those factors is what makes it big. Its also cool again, people like to have it! I’m not going to complain about any of that but it seems that a lot of it is down to just how good vinyl sounds.”

Being a metalhead himself Slagel understands not only what the clientele would want but also perhaps more importantly, what the bands want. Proof in the pudding, Death Metal kingpins Cannibal Corpse have never left the label since they were first signed back in 1990, with the band set to announce a new album this year its a wonder that the band have stuck by Slagel and everyone over at Metal Blade for twenty seven years.

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“Well we really do try to run this as though it is a family and that the bands are a part of our family definitely. Everybody who works at the label are all great people, in my opinion and are all great music fans! We work with the bands and because we’re all big fans of them, we try to do whatever they want us to do. We work together pretty well, especially bands like The Black Dahlia Murder, they have been around forever. We’re pretty much on the same page about how we want to do things and how we want to do the business. Once you get it we and make it easy and make bands feel comfortable. We’ve been able to do that over all these years. Its just great to work with bands that are also friends. We’ve done a pretty good job of finding and working with bands that we are really friendly with. Ultimately I think it makes long term relationships work out well.”

In hindsight some see Slagel as somewhat of a Metal messiah but the truth is that none of this was ever planned! Taking it as it came, Slagel was learning a lot of the time on his feet. Who would have known that it would be snowballing into a company that has been responsible for so much intrinsic Metal that we know and love.

“Never in a million years! If you were to ask any of us back starting out, whether it was us, Metallica, Slayer, Ratt or Motley Crue. Any of those bands in that LA scene in the early eighties, none of us ever in a million years could we have dreamed that thirty five years later we would be doing this. Having massive success levels, its pretty ridiculous to think about it!”

Unintentionally landing on his feet, Slagel admits that he had never envisioned carving a niche for himself owning his own record label, of course when things were beginning to get a lot more complex he would have to look at the big picture, creating what we know now as Metal Blade, the name was born from his mutual love that stems from two of his biggest passions.

Haha! I didn’t start this to be a record company honestly! I was just doing it as a compilation that was kind of an offshoot of a magazine. I wanted to call it Skull and Crossbones but one of the guys from Blondie had just started a label with that name so I couldn’t use that. Well I want Metal in the name because its Heavy Metal and there’s battles and I thought what else could work. I’m a huge hockey fan so there’s blades on skates also on medieval guys, so I was thinking “Ok blades…” Metal Blade. Well we’ll just use that! Hahah!”

Not only would he be responsible largely for shaping a scene, particularly that of the underground but for shaping some of the biggest names that have ever been in the Metal world. Meeting a young Danish man, last name Ulrich, no one would have predicted the success that Metallica would have gone on to achieve what they have done. Teaming up with Slagel, Ulrich and him were simply put, friends.

“Well we have been continually good friends for thirty, gosh, almost thirty seven years almost? I was friends with him prior to doing anything and vice versa, just as friends. He had moved to LA from Denmark as a big Metal fan, I met him and he didn’t think that anybody in LA knew about his scene and I hadn’t met anyone who actually lived over there that was part of the whole NWOBHM / European Metal scene. We had just been friendly forever and he was one of the guys that I first started out with, it seemed like it would make sense for him to write it! I wasn’t sure if he was able to do it because this was all in the midst of them doing the promotion for the new record. Plus, I hate asking those guys to do anything! He did an amazing, amazing job but it was pretty nice for him to do that though.”

Now one of the biggest bands on the planet, having performed on all five continents and their next voyage set to be a gig in space, Metallica are not a band with small ideals. Who would have known that this chance meeting of Ulrich and Slagel would lead to the legacy that Metallica have left in the Metal world, so what was it that tipped Slagel off about the biggest band in the world?

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“Well you know it was funny, honestly I was putting a couple of tapes and he said “Hey if I put together a band, can I be on it?” I said “Sure!”. I hadn’t heard anything until he had brought the tape to us which was literally the last day that they could possibly do it. After that, of course hearing the demos and everything, they were definitely doing something a lot different than what was happening in LA at the time. It was a very European sounding thing but also a little bit of a Punk Rock element. I was into both things when I was growing up so thats what made me really interested in what they were doing. It just seemed like they were doing something a little more different than everybody else. I felt like, if I could actually play an instrument, which I can’t, it would probably sound like this.”

Having been in the industry for over thirty five years now, chances are that Slagel has had a fair amount of interesting stories take place. From the birth of Metallica to the likes of Slayer even to the recruiting Cannibal Corpse, the man has simply a fountain of anecdotal knowledge.

“You know there are so many of them that its always hard to pick one! You mentioned the Lars thing and thinking that if we thought any of this was going to happen back in the day. I remember when Metallica got inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame a few years in Cleveland. We were all kind of hanging out at the after party, after they had been inducted. It must have been about 2:30 – 3:00 am when Lars and I had just been hanging out together for a few minutes. We just looked at each other and said “How the HELL did all this happen?” It was insane that just a couple of dumb kids living in LA, went onto have this sort of success. Especially those guys! To be inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, look at their career! You don’t really think about that sort of stuff too much because you’re just kind of in the moment with whatever you’re doing. When you have a couple of moments like that to kind of reflect, it definitely is kind of shocking haha! You do sometimes think to yourself, “Did all that really happen? Its still going on now?” Its very strange.”

Among tenacity and bloody hard work Slagel had one up on his peers, a sheer love for music. Still signing bands left right and centre in the modern day, every band that would be put forward is looked at by Slagel and if he doesn’t think it might not be a fit then turns his attention elsewhere. The more I spoke to Slagel throughout this interview you can tell that his love for music is truly what has driven his passion and arguably his success.

“Good question. I think that to be in the music business you have to really love the music. Thats the number one thing, its not an easy business to be involved in so if you really do truly love music then I think that is going to be a big help. Obviously you have to have some sort of a business sense as well! Otherwise thats not going to work either!”

Looking back at his career, there are of course high points and low points when you have been in the industry as long as Slagel. Not entirely understanding what was going on at the time, there could perhaps have been some elements of wisdom that could be imparted on the younger Brian.

“If only I knew then what I knew now haha! I think going back to it, I would have been a little more, well I didn’t do this to craft a Heavy Metal label or do those sort of things I was just trying to help the scene. Especially in the early days. I might have taken a different approach thinking “Oh wait, this is something that is going to exist in fifteen years. Maybe I should try and work a little harder to get some of these bands to get back then.” Rather than not necessarily knowing what was going and what I was doing haha!”

Similar to the nature versus nurture debate, you could argue that the idea of having a potential vision can be hard to conjure up. Seeing the the big hitters in the scene, Slagel has a vision for each and every band but is this something that you have an innate understanding for or perhaps a process that you can learn independently moulding different bands over time.

“It depends. I think that everybody is a bit different. I mean for me, its just a feeling, if I hear something I like it and will want to work with it, there’s no science to it. I think that inherently though, especially in our world, the Metal world, you do have to love the music to do that. To understand what works, everybody is different and other styles are different.” 

In the age of what we would come to see as the golden era for Thrash, no one could have predicted the rise of The Big Four. Its incredible to think that each band is still going strong despite whatever mishaps might have befallen them. Perhaps a case of circumstance that this rallying of the bands took place but could we ever truly see another incarnation?

“Its a little bit different ball game there. I didn’t think that Metallica was going to be Metallica so you never know what’s going to happen. You know things like Adele come out of the blue and be huge so you never know! I tend to think that its going to be somebody that we don’t know about yet. They’ll come out at a certain point and be the one artist that everybody can kind of latch on to. We’ll see!”

An ever changing entity, Metal has kept up with whatever trends have been thrown towards it. Known for being a main stay in both Extreme and Heavy Metal, Metal Blade has been through all different forms of trends. From the explosion of nineties Death Metal, to the arrival of grunge even the likes of Nu-Metal. Though these genres might seem separate could there be a common thread between the two?

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“Its hard to say! There are at times but also when you think that you have figured something out, something else comes along that you wouldn’t have expected and rises to be really big. Every year there are certain styles of Metal that become popular over time. You’ll get the kind of core, the outline or the imagery does tend to change but I think the core what it is, fuzzy guitars and all that kind of stuff is all pretty similar!”

Ensuring that Metal Blade has been a thriving success among listening to what now must be thousands upon thousands of bands. After having had thirty five years of being sent demo’s, organising meeting and remaining on the fringe of what Extreme music could potentially hold, there has always been one constant. Iron Maiden

“Iron Maiden is my number one all time band by far. They certainly came in when I was into a lot of different music. I liked heavy stuff but when I first heard Iron Maiden something clicked in my head and I thought “Woah. What is this?” That was when I first heard the Sound House tapes. When the first album came out it was a whole other level of “Oh my gosh, this is the most amazing thing I have ever heard.” If I were to put together the perfect Heavy Metal band for imagery, for sound for everything it would be Iron Maiden. Over all these years they have never really let me down! Aside from when they had that little vocal change, I don’t believe that ever happened I believe that was a mythical time that didn’t really exist so I don’t know anything about it hahaha! No, really, aside from that its all been good and they have always remained my favourite band.”

As if to prove his love of Iron Maiden, I asked Slagel what he had been listening to right now. A tastemaker if you will, Slagel’s personal taste is no doubt responsible for some of the fantastic signings that the label has had over the years and without disappointing he immediately mentioned the kings of Heavy Metal.

“Well its funny, we’re going to go back to Iron Maiden again! I just saw them the weekend before last in the US. I’ve kind of gone back to the new Iron Maiden record The Book of Souls and I’ve kind of been obsessed about that record for the last couple of weeks which has been hard to do! I’ve also been finishing up the new Black Dahlia Murder and new Cannibal Corpse records so those two records have been kind of dominating my listening for the last two weeks. Trying to get those done.”

Of course with the evolution of music come different trends, one particularly lingering force was that of Nu-Metal. A hybrid of Rap and slower, almost Industrial sounding Metal there was nothing bigger in the nineties or so we thought. Nestled in the underground the likes of Death, Cannibal Corpse, Six Feet Under and King Diamond were still busy working at their craft. Nu Metal might have been dominating the charts but certainly not the underground.

” Well it was very interesting! People seem to think that in the nineties it was this terrible time and that Metal was almost dead and all this sort of stuff. The point being, the underground was still very, very strong. In the nineties we had a lot of records that did really, really well! We had Cannibal Corpse, Six Feet Under, GWAR, King Diamond, Merycful Fate. All of these bands were putting out all these records that were doing extremely well but nothing in the mainstream whatsoever. I wasn’t really into the whole Nu-Metal thing at all so we didn’t put our toes into that. The only thing that we did do was that we did attempt to sign Korn when they first came out. It was when they were super heavy but obviously they got a major label deal! I always think that that was a good time for Metal. Its funny because now I hear people coming back saying King Diamond has had this big resurgence and he’s coming back. “Man listening to Hoodoo or any of his records that he did in the nineties and thinking man those are really good records!” I think a lot of people just don’t realise just how good Metal was back in the nineties and they think that it was all terrible.”

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Arriving to the modern day, the consumption of music has changed along with many other aspects. More reliant on the return of shows than the purchase of albums its an entirely different ball game now. Nevertheless, not only the underground but the mainstream bands themselves are getting more recognition than they have done for a long while. Metallica for example gained the coveted number one spot for last years Hardwired…To Self Destruct. A far cry from the days when people thought that Metal had perhaps seen its hey day.

“I think its pretty good! I think its pretty healthy, a lot of bands are doing well, you’ve got these huge festivals all over the world that are doing really well. I still think that the mainstream is not paying a lot of attention to it. The biggest problem that we have as a whole is that its really difficult to break new artists now. For the last ten yeas Ghost is probably the only band that has really broken through. You’ve got Amon Amarth, Mastodon and Gojira, they’re kind of coming up behind too. We all have a lot of good hope for them in the future. I think that is the thing though its just difficult to break new artists. I think its more of an industry wide thing more than anything else and hopefully that will change up as we move on.”

Metal Blade Records, stands tall amongst the elite in the independent record field not only for its rich cultivating of bands but for its history with its founder. Stripping back the CEO titles, the release schedules, the decision making and Slagel is just, like you and I a Metalhead. That, is precisely why the man has created an empire that celebrates its thirty fifth anniversary in 2017. With the signing of bands day in and day out, who would have known the likes of Amon Amarth would cleave the competition in two, that Cannibal Corpse would become the bloodsoaked leaders of the Death Metal pack (with The Black Dahlia Murder following in their footsteps). There is no hidden formula at the end of the day for Slagel’s success, other than tenacity, hard work but most importantly a love for Metal.

Nah I’m a Metal head! Its pretty much all I listen to. If I’m listening to stuff for pleasure then I might go back to my seventies roots and listen to Maiden, well early eighties. Thin Lizzy, Judas Priest that sort of thing. Thats pretty much where I’m at. I can appreciate other music if I’m hanging out with people that like different stuff but for me its all Metal. 

Brian Slagel’s brand new book For The Sake of Heaviness is set for an August 29th release via BMG.

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