STEVE JOH: THE MAN TO THANK FOR SUICIDE SILENCE & WINDS OF PLAGUE
You probably know Century Media for their work with groundbreaking, legendary artists like Stuck Mojo and My Own Victim, but they are also home to lesser-known bands like Lacuna Coil, Arch Enemy, Nevermore, Warbringer, Terror, and deathcore sensations Winds Of Plague and Suicide Silence. In all seriousness, though, I’ve worked with CM in one form or another since the mid-90s, and have nothing but good things to say about the CM crew. In addition to Despise You frontman/ CM warehouse manager Chris Elder, one of the many great people at CM is A&R guy Steve Joh. With the label’s 20th anniversary coming up soon, I figured it would be a great time to catch up with one of the nicest guys in metal and give the label some much-deserved props. Thanks to Steve for his time and help, and thanks to CM for being cool enough to send me promos when I was a teenager with a fanzine back in the day!
Note: I am a fan of both WoP and Suicide Silence. Knowing that they are lightning rods for the (negative) attention of angry metal dorks, I included their names in the headline for this post in hopes of attracting maximum viewership, and therefore giving the most possible publicity to Steve and the bands. Thank you for participating in this exciting social media marketing initiative.
What’s your background like as both a music fan and a professional? What kind of music did you like before coming to the label, and what prior work/school experience did you have? How did you end up at CM? What are some of the more notable bands you’ve worked with at CM?
Metal was the first music I really got into. I mean, I listened to all the top 40 shit when I was a kid, but it was around ’85 or so when I was using my lunch money each week to buy a new metal album instead of eating. I did the whole tape trading thing for a while, I’d sell bootlegs in high school to make money, go to record conventions in Chicago every month and go to shows whenever I could get out of the house. I lived in a really small town in Illinois, so it was kind of tough to get good music but saving up and actually hitting some cool record stores made it that much of an event, you know? I was a total metal dork. I kind of took a break from metal in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Machine Head’s Burn My Eyes was the record that brought me back to it all. Around this time, I realized I don’t want to be a teacher and somehow ended up in New Jersey thinking I’d go to medical school. I was going back to school, working two jobs to pay the rent and my girlfriend at the time said I should do something with music for fun because I was so stressed out with everything.
That lead to me writing for a metal ‘zine, which lead to an internship at Caroline Distribution. They eventually offered me a job. I dropped out of school and took it. My first day there my boss had said, “So all the metal labels want to try and do this marketing campaign thing.” The other people in my department kind of groaned. Metal wasn’t selling all that great and just wasn’t cool to them then. I told them I’d do it. I had no fuckin’ clue what I was doing. I knew nothing about the business, my internship was data entry and making the beer run on Fridays, I just wanted to suck up to the metal labels in hopes one of them would offer me a job. So I think I sent over this plan to Century Media, Relapse and Nuclear Blast. The plan was just a bunch of sentences strung together using words I’d heard mentioned that day, like “we’re going to maximize the ship to goals by establishing customer loyalty through broad brand co-op marketing.” The guy at Century Media at the time actually called me up and said, “What the fuck is this?” Luckily, he was pretty cool and actually taught me how to do my job.
I forgot to ask Steve what the enchanting Cristina Scabbia smells like :(
Eventually, the plan worked and CM offered me a job. I think that was 1998 or so. I think I started doing A&R in 2000, so it was cool, I got to work with Shadows Fall early on, was one of a handful of people telling Lacuna Coil’s management at the time that there was a buzz going on with the band here in the States and to not end their cycle after 15K records were sold. I helped set up Arch Enemy’s first show with Angela [Gossow], which was amazing, even if I personally got heckled on stage for putting a hardcore band on as one of the openers. More recently I’ve signed Suicide Silence, Winds of Plague, Iwrestledabearonce, Intronaut, Nachtmystium and a few others.
Most people have heard the term A&R, but I’m not sure we really know what it means. I always think of that Boston song “Rock & Roll Band” where they talk about the record company guy and it goes “He smoked a cigar, drove a Cadillac car.” Just so people know, what exactly is A&R, and what is that function’s role within a label? What does A&R do that adds value to the business?
Well, A&R stands for artist and repertoire. I think traditionally, and this is still probably the case in the major labels, they just scouted bands, got them signed to the label, and helped make the record. For the indies and especially Century Media, it involves a lot more. I do all that, but I’m also the product manager for the bands, the marketing dude, and since a lot of the younger bands don’t have management, I end up taking on a lot of managerial duties. We also serve as the middleman between the band and the label. Pretty much anything and everything is supposed to go through me. If you actually really want to know what A&Rs do, Google “Bertie Big Balls” or read the book Kill Your Friends.
That’s what I was wondering — it seems like you are much more involved in what would typically be called management activities than what I think of as “A&R” in the traditional sense of scouting bands. What are your thoughts on the way you work at CM versus the major label style? To me, it seems like a good arrangement in that I could see the traditional A&Rs signing a band they believe in, then handing them off to management/marketing/etc people who might not take care of the band as well and ending up with a big mess — am I wrong?
You know, I honestly don’t know how it works at the majors. I would think though the A&Rs would still be overseeing their bands after the record is made and making sure the vision for them or whatever is still carried out. You hear stories of major label bands being dropped and saying something to the extent of “Well, our A&R guy got let go and once that happened no one at the label cared about us anymore,” or something like that. So I would think they still are involved with the project. They’re probably not the ones proofing the CD booklet for spelling mistakes and writing up sticker text, which is the worst part of my job.
Maybe if you get really inspired, you’ll come up with something as clever as the sticker on the Unseen Terror LP: “This LP maims, with 23 tracks of MACH 9 MOSH FURY!” or whatever it said exactly.
I’ve wanted to make sticker text that that had absolutely nothing to do with anything, just have complete gibberish on a hot pink sticker and plop that on an Aborted CD. I think that would grab people’s attention more so than anything else.
To be honest, I have no idea who Nachmystium are and have never heard them before I grabbed this video off YouTube. I only listened to it for about ten seconds, but sounds like it would be popular with beard metallers.
Since you have such a wide array of responsibilities, how are you evaluated? I guess album/merch sales are one obvious way, but those are affected by lots of factors beyond your control like the health of the economy, bad weather, band members getting sick, etc. — how do you and your bosses know when you personally are doing your job well?
Well, Century Media’s only business is selling CDs, so it all comes down to that. We do a little with merch, but for the most parts, our band’s own their own merch rights and we don’t take any cut of it from them. Same with tour income. It’s great to hear that, say, Nachtmystium sold out a venue, but if none of those kids actually buy a Nachtmystium CD, then at the end of the day it means nothing for us. The bottom line is that if my band’s CDs don’t sell, I’m fucked. I did a Yakuza record. Rolling Stone reviewed it, this was like 2001 or whatever, back when that actually still meant something. It was the first time Rolling Stone ever reviewed a CM release. I was pretty excited. I sent an email to everyone in the company letting them know this, and not one person replied or seemed to care. Now, if Yakuza sold 100K cds, it would have been a little different.
Help feed Steve’s kids and buy this CD!
On that note, what have been some of your personal biggest wins (and if you feel like talking about them, misses) during your time at CM? Not necessarily just in terms of records that sold really well, but artists you were really happy to sign, records that were artistic successes (if not financial ones), etc.?
Well, Yakuza for both. I mean, I love Way of the Dead and hold it up there as one of the best releases CM has ever put out. But yeah, I think five people actually bought that record, so in that respect, it was a failure for the label. Candiria’s 300% Density I think is an incredible record and their best. Nachtmystium’s Black Meddle albums are genre- definers, in my opinion. As far as other misses, Radiation 4 was a band that ended up on Abacus, but I don’t think ever sold any records, but were so good. I think I heard they got back together, which would be great.
Also, in an era where record sales aren’t what they used to be, 360 deals are more common than ever. Why don’t you go that route, do more merch, or look at other ways to create new revenue streams?
I think we looked into doing 360 deals for a while there, but it just didn’t seem to make sense for us or even the bands at this level. The owners of Century Media also have a publishing company that most of the CM bands are signed to, so they do make money from that side of things. We have maybe one design or two from our bands, merch-wise, but usually we just use those for preorder bundles. We’ve opened things up here where a few of the employees are managing bands under the CM roof, plus they are working on other things as well.
BBABH’s Shred Sean with Into Eternity — check out my interview with him on Stuff You Will Hate
You still help out people like Blessed By A Broken Heart’s Shred Sean and Big Chocolate even though they’re not on CM and probably won’t be any time soon. Why do you take time out of your day to work with them, even though there’s apparently nothing in it for you?
Well, for someone like Sean, and even all of Blessed By a Broken Heart, they were on CM and now aren’t, so for me to be like, “Yeah, that whole thing about me trying to help your band become huge, yeah, that was just the job description, don’t call me anymore.” I just can’t do that, but also, Sean is a great dude and an amazing guitar player. I actually wish I could do more for him. Someone like Big Chocolate, it first started off with me looking into working with Disfiguring the Goddess, but it really wasn’t until I read your post on him that I realized that kid does so much more and is, in fact, just a kid. A year ago, he was getting ready for prom. He still has to figure out exactly what he wants to do, he’s also in college now and needs to finish that up, so I’m just trying to help him sort stuff out, keep him busy with things when I can, I don’t know, it’s going to sound cheesy as hell, but just being able to help bands out or whatever does stuff for me.
You know, sitting in meetings and discussing units shipped, we might as well be talking about widgets. In the mornings when I don’t feel like turning on my computer or looking at my blackberry because I know there’s just going to be a full day of sifting through bullshit, or delivering bad news yet again to one of my bands, or playing with excel sheets, basically doing stuff that I hate, it’s nice to be able to just promote a band simply because you love their music. It’s not on your fuckin’ “to do list” that day, you don’t have to type up a report on them later, you don’t have to do it because if you don’t you’re going to get fired and your kid won’t eat for a while . It’s why I think most of us are in this business to begin with – we love music, we love talking about it, we love going “Holy shit, have you heard Crippled Black Phoenix?” To be able to do that just helps me get through the day sometimes. Damn, that was cheesy.
On that note, you don’t necessarily like the music of every band you work with I’m sure (nothing wrong with that). Do they know or care whether you like their material? On the other hand, there are probably bands who you like musically, but have a hard time working with personally- thoughts?
I don’t think I’ve ever flat-out told a band I don’t like their music, but I don’t lie and tell them I listen to their stuff all the time. I think I have a pretty good idea of what’s good and what’s not. There’s a band being looked at for CM now. I would never in a million years listen to their stuff at home, but I know the band does a really good job at what they do and can tell them that without feeling like I was blowing smoke up their ass. I’m sure all my bands would love it if they knew I drove around town blasting their music out of my car, but at the end of the day, they’d probably rather have me fighting for them than anything else. There really haven’t been too many bands that I personally didn’t like. I mean, everyone has their quirks, as do I, but a big part of the job is just figuring out how to best work with them.
If this Merauder doesn’t make you want to mosh your room to pieces, we are not friends
People don’t really give CM credit for it, but you’ve worked with a ton of great hardcore bands: Turmoil, Merauder, Earth Crisis, Terror, etc. How do those bands do for you, and why don’t people give CM the recognition you deserve for it? Is there any difference between working with hardcore and metal bands?
Yeah, we are definitely not known as a hardcore label, which sucks, because the times I’ve tried to work with hardcore bands, and for the most part, they just didn’t want to be on CM. Back before the whole metalcore explosion, I tried to do stuff with some of the Orange County hardcore bands, but it didn’t work out. Some comments I got back were, and I actually can’t remember which bands said it, but they just didn’t think they fit on CM. I don’t know this for sure, but I would guess some of it had to do with hardcore having such a family vibe to it. To a young hardcore kid who lives and breathes it and is in a band, do you want to be on the same label as Rotting Christ?
I definitely moshed my balls off to this Turmoil song in 1998 (while wearing huge denim shorts, a sweater vest, and backpack with a Shelter patch on it — seriously)
I think it’s kind of the same thing with the tr00 black metal bands and that scene. I think Blake [Judd] got death threats when Nachtmystium signed here. I’m not saying that thinking is wrong – well, threatening Blake is a bit much – but I get it, and it makes sense to me, that family vibe within a scene, it’s important and has probably kept hardcore and other genres alive. There are a lot of young hardcore bands out there now that I’d love to work with. I think Defeater is amazing and would have killed to have them here, but were their fans going to look at them coming here they same way the tr00 black metal fans looked at Blake? Building up the hardcore side of the label is something I really want to do. It would be nice when a hardcore band gets some random email from me and not go, “Why the fuck is this guy contacting me?”, which I think is what Jay from Defeater said, that bastard.
But anyway, Turmoil, yeah, I remember just thinking, “If only Process Of… came out three years later.” That record sold a fraction of what it should have. So many people would and still do tell me how amazing that record is. It was ahead of its time. Merauder, at one point, was one of the label’s biggest bands. They were pretty successful back then. They also scared the shit out of me. They were and still are the real deal, whatever that means. There’s a new Terror album out in the Fall. I haven’t heard it yet, but a bunch of people from the label went to the studio and checked it out and said it’s amazing, the guys have a ton of good touring coming up as well so we’re all hoping for a lot of big things. As far as differences? I don’t see many, I mean, if they are straight edge vegan, you don’t take them to a smoke house for dinner. At the end of the day, they are all just musicians with the same goals in mind.
Winds of Plague “Reloaded” will be known as a moshcore classic in the years to come — mark my words!
Deathcore has gotten huge over the past few years, much to my surprise because it’s not the most accessible genre. WoP and Suicide Silence are two of the biggest names in the genre- what makes them so successful, and why is the genre in general so big?
I have no idea why the genre is so big. It was big before those bands were signed here, it was big before Job For A Cowboy was signed. I don’t think that us or Metal Blade or really anyone in the industry can take credit for that. I mean, I first saw Suicide Silence play on a Thursday night in Baton Rouge. Baton Rouge just isn’t a huge market for touring bands, yet somehow, a band from LA with a self-released EP managed to pull in about 250 kids who were all screaming along to the songs. And I’m telling you, these kids were, in fact, kids, like junior high. I felt totally out place. I wanted to go hang out with the mothers and fathers sitting in their minivans waiting for the show to be over so they could take their kids home.
Somehow, somewhere, a scene was started. If I had the ability to create one, I’d be a very rich man. And it wasn’t just Myspace that did it. To me, MySpace was these kids’ version of tape trading. What makes Suicide and Winds of Plague successful? I mean, coming from me, the guy who signed them, you’re just going to hear a totally unbiased answer that you can probably get from reading their official bio or whatever, but I’m very well aware of the fact that this scene is eventually going to be over, and I think bands like Suicide Silence and Winds of Plague will have moved beyond it by then.
Finally, I know you aren’t huge on doing merch, but do you think CM should make Johnny Plague signature-model puffy vests??
That’s already in the works and I’m having your name embroidered in gold on the front of the first one.