SLOUGH FEG’S MIKE SCALZI: THE METALSUCKS INTERVIEW
After a late night and a groggy start across two time zones, Slough Feg frontman/mastermind Mike Scalzi took a more than entertaining half hour out of his morning to speak with MetalSucks. Fun? Yes. Hilarious? Also yes. Informative? You have no idea. Boring? Fork no. Expect Slough Feg’s latest Profound Lore release, The Animal Spirits, to appear on this writer’s year end list. And if you haven’t listened yet: you’re missing out.
The man, the mystery, and the shredator at large up after the jump.
You guys formed twenty years and, and you’ve been really proficient at keeping busy — you’ve released six albums since 2000…
Has it been that many already? One, two…
Yeah, I think so.
Yeah, that’s right.
The point is, you guys have been pretty busy in the last couple of years, especially with Ape Uprising! only out last year and then now we’ve got The Animal Spirit.
Bands used to do that all of the time.
Yeah, but there are so many bands now that are on the eighteen month touring cycle… It seems different for you guys, especially the whole label thing. You guys kind of seem like if you have songs, then you put them out with whoever, whenever, when you have the material for it. Is that how it is from your end of things?
Pretty much. No, no one demands us to do anything. I mean, we just do it. You got it. We do what we can whenever we want to, or if… I get bored really easily, so if I don’t have anything else to do. I mean, I have a lot of stuff to do, but…
Does that help, then for the one year turnaround?
I always wanted to do that. Especially because our albums are not that long. So I just did it. It’s not like it really hurt or anything. I mean, it felt like a long time to me.
I don’t get what other bands do, they live a different life than I do. Their life of music isn’t as much of a priority, y’know? It seemed natural enough to want to make records often. I don’t know if I’ll do another one next year. I probably won’t. But for the last few, it just kinda happened. I don’t understand why other bands, to be honest, what they’re doing musically and why it takes them so long to do a lot of stuff. I’m not really clear on how that works. There’s a lot of wasted time, wasted effort, stuff like that.
I dig your work ethic. I appreciate that.
I guess it’s a work ethic, but it just seems normal to me. If you’re gonna do something, do it. People show up for work and show up, sometimes, for school, and do what they’ve got to do because there’s money on the line. With a band, often, if there’s not money on the line, they’ll just go, “Ehhh, whatever man, ehhh.” What the fuck is that? If you’re gonna do it, do it. So many people are doing it half-assed.
Let’s talk about the record in general, then. Why did you decide to keep it pretty minimal and just print the lyrics to “Trick The Vicar” inside the booklet? Especially considering all the lyrical range and stuff you have in Slough Feg on this one?
It’s kind of… Maybe I just didn’t feel like sitting down and writing them all out at the last minute [laughs]. It wasn’t about not having lyrics on the record, it was about having the book be really simple. A bi-fold. I’m just sick of it. I wanted to do the artwork myself, which I did do.
Yeah, I wanted to touch on that one, too.
Just really simple. I’m sick of a busy-looking record book. I don’t care anymore. I don’t see the use in it. Maybe other people like it. It’s usually: you tell the artist what to do, the artist does what you told them to do, then they show you it. I don’t really want to work with artists for the record companies anymore. It’s not their fault. You tell them what you want and they say, “Oh, okay!” Then they send you a pencil sketch and it’s exactly what you wanted, then you say, “Okay, go ahead.” Then they give you the final product and it looks totally not like you wanted it. So I thought, “I’m gonna do this one myself, because I’m sick of stuff looking not how I want it.”
I was gonna ask you about that, because I saw you did the artwork. So is that how you saw it — as a visual accompaniment to the music?
Yeah, yeah that’s how… that’s how the music looks to me. The scratchy pen and ink, that’s how it looks to me. That’s how Slough Feg music always looks to me. We’ve always had artwork that’s too modernized, too slick. It never should have been like that, it should’ve been more scratchy, because those are the images that inspired what our music was to become. More scratchy, more primitive… more comic book-y.
Definitely. Let’s talk about some of the songs on the record. There’s a lot of subject material: there’s the sci-fi/“Heavyworlder” stuff, then you cover, like, werewolf stuff, of all things, and then there’s the typical philosophical topics that are on most of the records. How do you go about deciding from song to song what you’re going to sing about? Is it just a totally free-flowing process?
Usually it comes out of the music. The music dictates the subject matter of the lyrics. It’s weird, but it’s true. It says something to me. I come up with the music randomly, and later, the song structure dictates the whole thing. The rhythm, the vocal melody — which I write first — the words actually seem to come out of that vocal melody. If it’s a certain of song, it’s gonna have an epic lyric to it. If it sounds epic, then the lyrics have to be epic. It’s not [gonna be] about driving down the highway, staying at a Motel 6.
If the music sounds like Motörhead or Thin Lizzy or AC/DC or something, then the lyrics are gonna be about driving down the highway, staying at a Motel 6, and watching the cops come in and shaking you down. The song comes out of the music. Of course it comes out of what I’m thinking about at the time, yes. If there’s a subject, then it’s going to come out that at the time. If I’m thinking puns about “trick the vicar,” then a certain song will be “Trick The Vicar.” If I’m studying Martin Luther at the time, then the epic lyrics will be about Martin Luther. Y’know? If I’m watching a weird TV show about werewolves and lamenting… If it’s something doomy, like about not wanting to be a werewolf, then whatever.
I wanted to touch on two songs, in particular, that are a little different, even for Slough Feg. One is “Tactical Air-War,” which has Bob Wright on there. You had listed like Thin Lizzy, Iron Maiden, and then talking about Motörhead here…Was Broca’s Helm [Wright’s band] an inspiration, too, or was it just a Bay Area connection to have him on that song?
I’ve known them for a long time… since like ’97. I hadn’t heard their music until then. I know of them as more of a local band, playing shows with them around ’97, ’98. They’re just a local band, when we saw each other play live, we liked each other as musicians and became friends and started playing shows together. So it was just one of those, like, buddy things, not the “Bob Wright guy from Broca’s Helm… who do I need to get in touch with to talk to him?” thing. So it’s more just my friend from down the coast. It was like, “Hey man, you wanna help us?” “Yeah, no problem.” He did his homework more than most people would. We talked on the phone about it, he listened to the song a bunch, he’d write down lyrics and we’d talk about it. He came in and did a really good job. We were already friends for a long time, you know what I mean?
Yeah, I hear you. The other one that sort of sticks out is the Alan Parsons song, “The Tell-Tale Heart”…
How did that come along? How did you think that would fit in with the rest of the record?
I knew it’d fit in, because first of all, it sounds like a Slough Feg song.
Most of the covers we pick sound like Slough Feg songs. Someone might say, “Why would you do that? What’s the point of doing a cover, then?” Well, I like it. It’s a good song, you know? I had heard it, and it’s called “The Tell-Tale Heart,” so it fits in with some of the themes on the record, right? With Poe and all that, it’s just that I like that song; it’s really weird. It sounds crazy to me. It’s just one of those songs that, well… how I wanted us to sound. When I first heard it in the car, I noticed it immediately. I was like, “Wow. That’s weird. That is a weird song.” So I wanted it to stand out, like how ours do. Sometimes people hear Slough Feg and are like, “Kill me.” Sometimes they hear it and are like, “Wow – what’s this?” So that was my reaction to it: I thought it’d be a great song to cover. So we sat down and saw if we could do it, and it was easy. It was the easiest song on the record. The music is super simple, the singing was very easy compared to other songs. On the Alan Parsons album, it’s sung by Arthur Brown, if you remember him. He did The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown in the 60s. He was pretty weird and did a guest vocal on that and was a really cool musician, so I didn’t want to count that out. I definitely wanted to do that. And it’s about Poe, so it’s basically with the horror theme too.
That’s what I was kind of thinking was the intention behind it, too. So, we kind of already touched on the artwork thing, but it seems like through all the records and then on this one, you helped produce it with Justin [Phelps, Google that shit] after you recorded it.
He pretty much produced it, yeah. I used to produce the records, but now he has done so many [records that we] just let him do it.
It seems like the band is almost like a full-time thing job for you, being involved with all the aspects. I just want to get how you’ve been able to do that and keep it fresh for twenty years now.
Well, it’s not a full-time job, but it is in a sense. I don’t know, I don’t feel fresh now.
[laughs] Yeah, I understand that most musicians need day jobs, but it just seems like you’re so involved in Slough Feg in every aspect.
I’ll tell you what, though — I’m not trying to sound like a mother or something — but I heard Tony Iommi, without trying to sound like a rock star, is like that, too.
[Laughter] I won’t hold you to that, man.
Like in the early ‘80s, dude could never leave Black Sabbath. You get all these new members and all this new shit and it doesn’t… it’s kind of weird and everything, but you know — he said something that I agree with: “Well, I’ve sacrificed my whole life for this band, so you better believe I’m going to keep the same name and keep the band, and I haven’t been able to keep the same life, the same woman, I haven’t had a life outside of the band, I’ve always been making records. I don’t have much else in my life, beside Black Sabbath. Everybody else, you know, has kids and a life and shit, and I’ve always dedicated my life to the band and sacrificed my personal life.” That’s kinda like me; it’s not that cool in a way. I’ve sacrificed the things that… Not that I regret it, not that anybody should feel bad for me. It was my decision to deal with these consequences. A lot of other musicians would tell you, “I kept the band together for all these years. I kept working on it.”
Although, I do have a couple days jobs, you know? One of them is actually a real exciting job, but I don’t have that much of a life outside of it, really, because I’ve worked on this and sacrificed some other things to the point where it’s second nature, where I don’t even think about other things. I’ve had to live in cheap places in the city, and stuff like that and that’s how I’ve been able to focus on it: by not having that kind of life by giving up the opportunities for a life that a lot of people want. Kids, wives, houses, mortgages… I’ve lived in the middle of one of the most expensive cities in the country for twenty years, spending a lot of money just to live. [Chuckles] Again, not saying that… It, it’s my decision to live with it. I decided to live this way, nobody should be like [mopey voice], “Oh mannn, you’re sacrificing!” Fuck that, that’s how I’ve chosen to live.
No, I understand that part of it.
But that’s how it is, by not living like a “normal” person at all.
Yeah, the passion is there. As a fan, man, we definitely appreciate it, dude.
[laughs] Thank you. It’s just one of those choices.
To follow-up on something you said… I know you said we shouldn’t expect another album next year, but can we expect not to hear another couple records come out of Slough Feg?
Well, eventually. But this album, and the Ape [Uprising!] record… I’ve done a lot of other records with people, I’m pretty tired of the process, the same process, y’know? If I do another album, it’s gotta be a different process. It’s gotta have some different instruments on it. I’m gonna play some organ maybe…possibly. And my voice, I’m getting older, so I’m starting to have to really strain to sing high… And I don’t wanna do that. I’ll do it live, but I don’t want to do records where I sound like I’m trying to sound like I’m younger, or the way I used to sing.
You can take a page out of the mainstream metal playbook and start using the stupid vocoder, or auto-tune or whatever it is.
[laughs] No, I want to age gracefully. I’m trying… I mean, I want to age gracefully musically, too. I don’t feel the urge to play lighter or a really, really super aggressive heavy metal record. I’ve done those. I enjoyed it, and I wanna do it live still. That’s the thing: Slough Feg is all about live. We’ll definitely be playing live always. I’m addicted to it. Records as well, that’s the thing. I want to do records live. The future Slough Feg records will probably be live recorded in the studio. With not as many tracks and more bearings, and it’ll sound more like a live show. That’s the feeling I want.
I don’t have any problems with that, man.
Yeah, I think it would be good. It wouldn’t sound as polished, at all.
Fine by me.
Studio stuff is getting too tech. You can go back, splice in half, fourth, eighth, and really just do things over and over, syllable after syllable. It’s very tedious. I’d rather record like they did in 1960: The whole band plays once, and then the singing goes later. Very, very easy. Like the way The Beatles used to do it, or Elvis. I’d like to try that… Multiple takes until you get it right. That way the band gets better as well, right? The way they do it now is drums and bass, drums and bass, then rhythm guitar, then you switch the bass, then you go back. It takes forever and ever and the vocals take forever. Back in the old days, a band got really tight in the studio because they had to do a song ten times in a row.
Yeah, then you take that out on the road and you go, “Hey, man! This sounds exactly like the record!”
Yeah, yeah. Right, that’s why I want to get back to it. What the hell does it matter at this point? It’s not a commercial pursuit. No one is getting rich off it. Not really. Unless you make real money off it, like hip-hop artists. They don’t do anything in the studio.
[laughs] Touché. Touché.
Yeah, it’s insane, but that’s the way it is. You deal with it… It’s a product on the shelf.
It’s more fun to listen to this stuff, though. So… Is there anything we can expect for Slough Feg out on the road in the near future? I saw the one show your MySpace page in Germany next summer, but is there anything here in the States?
I think we’ll be doing South By Southwest in Texas.
Cool. That would be really good for you guys.
Yeah, yeah. And then probably some more local stuff, which isn’t really doing much for a lot of people, but probably in the spring after South By Southwest, we want to go do like a week, week and a half type things. I don’t know where. Maybe Chicago, maybe West Coast, even though we’ve done West Coast a lot. We’d like to go do the East Coast, but the East Coast isn’t too friendly to us, you know. The touring, most of the touring we’ve done in the last year and a half has been bits and pieces, you know? Fly to Chicago and play a week around the Midwest and come home. Play areas like Texas and come home, do the West Coast for a week or so and come home. The long tours? You know, we may do well in Chicago, we may do well in Austin, Texas, we may do well a couple places in between. We may do well in Seattle, Portland, Canada, once in a while Los Angeles we do okay , though not always. But it’s few and far between and you gotta hit the places between one place and another.
And you hit the bumfuck cities in between, where you play for basically nobody. It’s the same problem for a lot of bands at this level. You can’t really fill every room, except in certain places. It’s tough. We’re not at the level of success to be able to tour like that. We’ve done it for years, but you always end up with a lot of dead shows. And I don’t wanna do that anymore. Everyone’s like, “Oh, I wanna see you in New York again,” or “I want to see you here again!” And I appreciate it, but we can go from Chicago and to Minnesota and have decent shows the whole way. But then from Cleveland to Boston to New York, we’re getting crap, you know? It’s a tough one.
Well, I hope I get a chance to see you out here, then.
Where are you from?
Minnesota, actually, so it’d be cool if you got up here.
Oh, did you ever see us up in like St. Paul?
I actually just moved back here. I used to live in Los Angeles and I saw you guys play at The Relax Bar a couple years ago. It was awesome.
[laughs] Oh, I hate that place.
Hey, man: It was a sweet show and I remember you like walking into the crowd and ripping solos in everybody’s faces. It was cool.
Yeah, that place is brutal. But we played… That was just shit. We refused to play, I think, like, two, two and-a-half years ago, I told the booking agent we’re never playing that place again, even if we have to drive straight through Los Angeles and go from Arizona or San Diego, straight to San Francisco. Fine. I’m not playing in that shithole again.
[laughs] I can’t blame you, man, but I saw a lot of shows there.
They don’t pay us for shit, they don’t give us free drinks. That place is a shithole. And the guy’s like, “Yeaaah… okay,” and they finally got us a show at Spaceland.
Oh yeah, that’s actually like where you guys should be playing, I think.
Yeah. Like six or eight months ago that must have been. It was filled up, it was great.
Yeah, I must have just missed it. I moved back like eight or nine months ago. Dang!
[At this point, we bullshit about where I used to work in L.A.]
Now I’m interviewing you. Once I saw Orson Welles… Do you remember the Dick Cavett show? Did you ever hear of that?
I know it, but I don’t think I saw it.
It’s from way long ago, the 70s, but Dick Cavett was a great interviewer, and he had Orson Welles on, and [Welles] did what I was just about to do to you. He turned the interview around ; Just a total master of pretty much everything. Dick Cavett was interviewing him and during the course of the hour, he turned the interview around and started interviewing him. And he enlisted the audience’s support and the rest of the show was Orson Welles interviewing Dick Cavett.
I could totally believe that after what I’ve read and seen about Orson Welles.
Yeah, yeah, so that’s sort of my goal – my whole goal is to turn it around and interview you. I’ve got an interview with a German magazine coming up here, I’m gonna try that. But Germans don’t have any sense of humor, so they tend to not get it. They’re like, [in thick German accent] “What are you doing? This interview is I am interviewing you, not the other way around, okay?”
[laughs] Then the hilarity factor goes up, especially if you can pull it off. There’s your gold star for the day.
Exactly. Well anyway, thanks a lot. It was fun, man.
Yeah, thanks, Mike. I’ll try and catch you guys up here if you make it out here.
Yeah, Minnesota is one of the places we make it every couple of years. We play up in that area with Bible Of The Devil a lot if you know them.
Yeah – good band.
We’re friends with them, so sometimes we fly out to Chicago and use their equipment and do like four or five shows with them. And when we do that, we usually hit Minneapolis / St. Paul. And we’re gonna try and do that next year.