Exclusive Interview: Jason Bieler of Saigon Kick, Bieler Bros. Records, Owl Stretching, etc.
By his own admission, Jason Bieler is not a mega-famous metal star. Those that do know him are probably familiar with his work as guitarist and chief songwriter of MetalSucks’ beloved early ’90s metal band Saigon Kick. But anyone reading this piece almost surely owns some piece of music that Jason has worked on in some way or other, be it as producer, manager, or record label guy: Sikth, Skindred, Karnivool, Look Right Penny and Stam1na are but a few of the bands he’s put his thumbprint on.
On the heels of the recent Saigon Kick reunion and a spate of Owl Stretching releases — the moniker for his solo output — we contacted Bieler, who we’ve worked with pretty much since the inception of MetalSucks, to see if he’d like to talk to us on the record. We touched on the reunion of Saigon Kick, his production career, discovering Sikth and kick-starting a movement and how he got into this crazy business in the first place.
I wanted to start off by talking about your career as a whole. I think it’s really interesting that you were able to make the transition from dude in a band to dude behind the scenes in the industry. Can you talk a little bit about the motivations behind making that switch, and how you got started with the record label and the studio and everything that comes along with that?
At that particular time, not delving too deep into the history, the Saigon Kick boat had fully sunk after a couple of attempts at continuing on with it. It became apparent that this wasn’t the vehicle that anybody really wanted to cling to. I started to slowly get involved in producing other bands. I still knew a lot of people from when I was in the band at all the different labels and stuff.
The first band that I was really working with in that capacity was Nonpoint. I found them down here [in Florida]. There were a couple of A&R people that were really helpful that I had known a long time like Hans Haedelt (who was at MCA at the time) and Jason Flom (a lifelong supporter and friend) kind of steering me in the right direction. I wound up getting them signed at that point to MCA. The buzz and everything went really well so I was able to work with another band from down here called Darwin’s Waiting Room, and we signed them to MCA as well.
I was producing a bunch of records at that time, and we got our imprint through MCA and that’s where the label started. It was really more of a management and production situation at that point. My brother and I started the label through MCA and we had just found Skindred, I believe, when MCA burst into flames and got absorbed into Geffen. We spent a little bit of time trying to untangle that mess, and when we did, we went over (as a label) to Lava with Andy Karp and Jason Flom and we released the Skindred record there – which did pretty well at the time. We did another Nonpoint record with them as well and Jason introduced me to a guy who ran ADA at the time, Andy Allen, and we moved the imprint to ADA directly in terms of distribution. We stayed there for a number of years until, through their consolidation, it became apparent that it wasn’t really the best home for us, and then we moved over to eOne Distribution about a year and a half ago now. That’s where the label has been ever since.
Every band seems to have that guy who deals with all the business stuff. Is it safe to assume that in Saigon Kick you were that guy and that’s how you were uniquely positioned to have those connections that enabled you to launch your own label?
Saigon Kick was such a bizarre series of accidents and still continues to be one. We did everything completely backwards. We didn’t have a demo tape, we didn’t shop to labels, and we just wound up doing shows. As great looking of a guy as I think I am, it was really apparent that I wasn’t going to be in Poison or Warrant – not anything against those bands, but we weren’t a great looking band. We saw Jane’s Addiction open up for Iggy Pop at this place called the Cameo Theater and it was really a life changing kind of moment; they were heavy but they weren’t the stereotypical hair metal of the time. That’s kind of when we formulated what we were doing. We went with that vibe, trying to be Queen and the Beatles and that kind of psychedelic heaviness. It all clicked locally and all of a sudden, and I don’t mean “all of a sudden”, I mean 6 months or a year, we were drawing 2,000 or 2,500 people to shows.
Needless to say, every label pays attention to that and all of a sudden they were here. That’s really where all my relationships came from because as we were growing and developing as a band, a lot of those people were also starting their careers. Jason Flom, for example, was an A&R guy and I think he now actually owns half of the United States. He was just starting at that time and we managed to keep the relationship really solid. That helped when it came to the label stuff. There was nothing to save Saigon Kick from Saigon Kick at the time.
At what point did you say to yourself, “Shit, this whole rock star thing isn’t going to work out. Fuck it,” and then decide, “Maybe I’ll give the label thing a shot?”
I was one of these life coaches, like a Tim Ferriss, where I had this great plan. I guess it was really out of necessity. I never really was so concerned about being a rock star. I never really thought that we were going to have a hit record. I never planned anything. The fans know that there were ballads and weird stuff on the first record, and there were ballads and weird stuff on the second record. It just happened to be that a radio station started to play “Love is on the Way” and it blew up, and the rest became a self-fulfilling prophecy in that sense. I just always loved music. I love making music, I love being around bands and I like all kinds of music. So if performing or doing the Saigon Kick thing wasn’t going to happen, I was always actively looking for cool projects to be involved with and ways of developing stuff.
With a young band like Nonpoint, I was able to say “I’ve just done all of this in terms of labels and how they work” and I was able to try and help them navigate from a point of . . . unlike most people who work in the music industry, I can sit across from any band and go, “Yes, I’ve been in that venue. I’ve woken up next to that dumpster. I know exactly that dickhead bouncer and I know this promoter and that guy and the Boner and the Head morning show.” I’ve been there and I know that whole grind and it helped me relate a lot to some of the newer artists, hopefully.
I didn’t mean to say “rock star.” I’m well familiar with all of your material. I mean, just to say, that you’re not going to be a professional touring musician. At that point you were like “what can I do? What skills do I have that I can stay in the game?”
Yeah, yeah, I took zero offense to that. I hate to sound hokey, man, especially in this day and age, it’s not cool to be hokey, but I love music. So if I was going to be writing about it, reading about it, performing it, watching it, helping load it in, I just always had a passion for being around it. I am as awestruck of a sound check as I am of a show. You’ve been around it. You either have that sickness or you don’t. I just always knew that I was going to be a part of it for better or for worse.
Definitely. I’m absolutely in the same boat. I didn’t intend to be a d-bag metal blogger, but it just so happened that I ended up doing that after a bunch of other stops along the way, including a brief overlap at Atlantic Records with Andy Karp, by the way. As far as what the label is doing now, I guess management-wise too, can you bring us up to speed with that?
Yeah, I’m really proud of the stuff that we’ve done thus far. Karnivool is starting to blow up. We’re not with them anymore; they went onto a major kind of situation with Sony after us, but I’m still super proud of that record. I’m super proud of working with Sikth. I think Sikth really started the whole entire movement of what is basically . . . if not THE first band, but they really invented that genre, and they are in my opinion one of the best bands in it. So to be a part of that record was huge.
I wish I could say that we were focused or were trying to be cool… Sumerian signs a lot of bands that are like those bands. A lot of labels have really made successful businesses out of being very focused on a genre. We made it very difficult to succeed for ourselves because everything we do is completely different from the last thing. Karnivool is about as far apart from a band like A Silent Film as you could probably get and on and on and on. It was a really diverse roster, and that’s what we’re still doing. We’re developing a couple of new bands that we’re just signing right now that I’m really excited about from the U.K. When we really feel super-passionate about something, we try everything we can do to spread the word and get people into it.
2006 that record came out. So we made it in late 2005. I met them through a guy I knew, a legendary guy from the U.K. named Dante Bonutto who was managing them. He used to work in Atlantic way back in the day and was a journalist way before that. He called me up and said, “I have something that is either going to scare the shit out of you or you’re going to fall in love with it.”
I heard some of what they were working on. At first, it’s such an onslaught. You have to listen to it so many times. The more you do, you start to find all these really cool intricacies and the musicianship. It’s not handed to you. You have to almost work to call yourself a fan of that band. The more I listened, the more I fell in love and then I talked to the guys. It was really such a bizarrely combustible situation because you had these really different types of… you had this guy Mikee, who literally, as far as I’m concerned, is a full-on lunatic in the greatest way possible – not in terms of being an asshole, he’s just as out there as you can be. Then you have Dan Weller, who to this day is producing an amazing bunch of records. He’s this prim and proper music kind of guy. Every single moment of that band making that record was close to them killing each other with knockdown, drag out fights, anger, and insanity. One of the highlights of the label — while we may not have a 25 times platinum record — is that I think in terms of metal, 10/15/20 years from now, people will be saying Sikth was a really cool pivotal moment in that kind of music.
Yeah, definitely, I remember having the same experience as you described when I first heard that record. I think you sent us that, and that was our first year as a site, so we were just eating up anything that was sent our way – not that we don’t check out everything still. You sent us that and Raintime in the same package. It was like “what is going on with this label?” We found out that it was you and having been fans of Saigon Kick, our minds were pretty much blown. I think that that kind of encapsulates what that label is all about – having all sorts of different kinds of bands just under the name of good, heavy music.
Right. Everyone laughs, myself included, and Flom and Karp and all those guys… I signed a band two years ago from Finland called Stam1na. I knew going into every single meeting that I was going to be looked at like a terrorist. “What are you fucking talking about? You just signed a metal band from Finland that has an entire record in Finnish. What is the point?” I was like, “the record is amazing.” That’s the kind of stuff that we still want to be able to do. I still think that’s a great record. It didn’t sell a ton, but it should. Hopefully it sells more, but it’s still a great record. Joe Barresi made a stunning sounding record and the band is just amazing. We’ve made some bizarre choices.
What percentage of your time is spent focusing on the label vs. recording vs. other miscellany?
It’s not allocated like that. I kind of just attack the day. When we are in pursuit of developing an artist or doing things like that, that’s kind of where the focus leads. It’s just finding time to try and do it all I guess. I could ask you something similar: what percentage of your time is spent on developing ad resources and editorial and graphics? You just kind of attack the day and build a business. That’s the vibe that we have.
Absolutely. I’m sure there is never enough time in the day to do it all. What led to the reformation of Saigon Kick?
We had a couple of talks over the years. It ended so horrifically stupid. I wish it was like this original story that no band had ever done before, but we just wound up hating each other and everything about each other and couldn’t stand the sight of each other – every stereotypical reason a band breaks up. Twenty something years had passed and we kind of toed the water. Matt and I had a lunch and wanted to bury the hatchet, and we didn’t bury it into each other’s heads. That was a victory.
If we were ever going to make an attempt at doing it, it would be fun. There have been a lot of people — yourself, the guys in Mudvayne, a couple of guys in Slipknot, some of the guys in Black Label Society — who have said, “Oh your band was… you shoulda, you coulda,” and whatever. If there was ever going to be a chance to get on the horse again and have some fun with it, now seemed like a good time. That’s the way we have been tentatively doing it so far. We’re not out there trying to rekindle some dead flame or last ride of glory. We’ve been very selective. We’re only doing shows here and there that make sense and that we feel that are going to be fun or interesting places to play or, more importantly, have amazing restaurants in that town.
Any hatchets buried in anyone’s heads yet?
We’ve come very close. Everyone is getting along. When you’re in your 20s you can’t fight quickly enough. Now that I’m, unfortunately, older, I could care less. The second I start to get angry, I’m like, “I’m just going to get a beer and go play NHL ’13 or something and not get involved with this.” Everyone has been chill. I don’t think we’ve ever had more fun and wwe’re enjoying the process of it. You know and I know the fact that anyone would show up to see any band 20 years or 25 years later, albeit not a stadium sized thing, with that kind of passion and that kind of excitement, to me it doesn’t get any better than that. It’s pretty amazing.
We had the opportunity to catch you in NYC and had a great time. It certainly seems like you guys were getting on okay. You said that you wanted it to be “right” and that you only wanted to go into the “right situations” and you said something similar from the stage when we saw you in NY. Has it been that way so far? Has everything been going according to plan?
Yeah, we’ve only done about five shows and I think we’re doing one more next week in Orlando. I think we’re doing something in November. We’re doing it very, very slowly. Fortunately everyone is in a position where we don’t have to do it. I don’t look down on bands from that time or any time that have to go out there and have to pay the mortgage by doing all these clubs all over the country, but it’s just not what I want to do. So far, it’s worked out really well.
Where does Owl Stretching fit in into all of this? Is that just a vehicle for you to get your personal musical willies out, so to speak?
Yeah, I think some 15 years ago I had a little website that I was selling MP3s on long before iTunes, and I was using it for little things and side projects and whatever. The infrastructure and the Internet weren’t at the point they are now, and for me, this is kind of the perfect situation because I can do whatever I want, when I want. There’s no filter, which can be a bad thing in certain circumstances, but I can do what I want when I want and give it to the people who care or are interested.
I think because of the way music has changed, when we grew up, it was just a different thing. You were a punk, you were a metalhead, you were into new wave and that was who you were culturally identified with. That’s all it was. You would fight with the kids who were into different styles of music. Now, it seems like everyone is into anything. That almost plays a little bit more into not only Saigon Kick but the way I write because I really don’t have any allegiance to any genre. The fact that we can get the stuff out there and get the people into it has been a lot of fun.
Are there any plans for an Owl Stretching record or official release of any kind or is it going to continue to go the way it has where you release things here and there?
I like the idea of going back to this ’50s kind of model where I can just release music whenever I have it ready. I think it keeps people interested and engaged. In terms of developing as an artist, it’s really neat. With Saigon Kick or in the old days whenever you made a record, it would be two years before you could get a chance to rectify a massive fuckup. Now I can kind of see within a couple of weeks or a month that maybe people didn’t like something as much, or maybe in hindsight that wasn’t such a good idea. In two to four weeks I can get back into a path of things that I find more artistically cool that people dig more. You can constantly be making adjustments along the way. I’d love to do a record at some point, but I’m really happy just putting out music as it’s ready especially because of the amount of stuff I’m doing, I don’t know when I would have time to sit down for two or three months and make a record.
Any plans to record any new material as Saigon Kick?
It’s been coming up a lot in terms of Facebook pages and people emailing us. Every other comment is, “When is the new record?” I just have this in my head: “Does anybody really want new music from Saigon Kick?” There are bands that I like, but I don’t know if — and maybe this is because I’m older — if I give a shit that there’s a new record out as much as I want to hear the songs that I really liked. There is a fine line there. Saigon Kick wasn’t big enough really to have that same problem that some of the bigger bands like Bon Jovi have, where every time he goes on tour and plays a new song the entire arena empties to go to the merch table and the beer tent. Does anybody really care? The Stones, and I’m not even remotely comparing us to that size, but no one cares about a new Rolling Stones song. They’ll go to the show and want to hear all the hits, so we’ve been kind of juggling back and forth but we have been talking about it. It’s not off the table for sure. We’ll kind of see how it flows.
Well that’s very exciting. I think there are people that would care. Like you said, I have no idea how many people that is. I was pleasantly surprised to see the club that you played in NY full. I feel that all the people who wanted to be there were there. That was the entire fan base right there, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the other shows were the same way.
Everything has been like that so far. Everything, for the most part, sold out. Being this kind of band that certain people on the inside understood what we were about, it’s kind of a fun place to be. If the opportunity arises, we would definitely consider doing something. I hate to sound like an idiot, but I would want it to be relevant and great. I wouldn’t want it to suck. I guess that’s the battle. The only way to find out if anyone would take it seriously or care about it is to do it at some point. You know better than me – people are brutal.
Oh, yeah. I deal with it every single day, but I try not to listen. I just tune it out. Thanks for taking the time, man, I really appreciate it. It was a pleasure to talk to you. Hopefully, one of these days sooner or later, we’ll meet in person.
Yeah, we should definitely do it. I’m always in NY, so next time I’m on my way, I’ll e-mail you. I can’t thank you enough. You guys have been so awesome to our stuff that isn’t naturally at home on your site. I appreciate the mentions and all that kind of cool stuff. I can’t thank you enough. I really appreciate it.