interview by: Roberto Martinelli
With all the tired, tired bands out there playing heavy metal, itís easy to get the idea that the genre, the way it was revolutionized in the 80s, has gone as far as it can go. But every time you might think that heavy metal, in itís most traditional, original form, is played out, all you have to do is listen to The Lord Weird Slough Feg to realize that itís not.
Just like any other musical genre, good old heavy metal can continue to exist as long as there are bands that approach it in an original way. And for San Francisco based Slough Feg, that means doing so at the expense of seeming like total geeks.
Slough Feg guitarist, songwriter and lyricist Mike Scalzi has been making songs about obscure Irish mythology, space pirates and highland battles for ten years now. His bandís latest record, Traveller, a concept record entirely within the framework of an obscure 1970s role-playing game of the same name, sets the bar even higher. But as geeky as this band may seem, thereís something undeniably honest about them: you may not feel any connection to the life and times of a highway corsair, but if you listen to Slough Feg play their special brand of energetic, barbaric, melodic heavy metal, you may just find yourself starting to empathize with the main characterís plight. I sat down with Scalzi one day in a bar on San Franciscoís famous Haight Street, to talk about his unique, quintessential band.
Maelstrom: From what I understand from close friends of yours, you donít care about what label youíre on; you donít care about artwork. You just care about making music.
Mike Scalzi: Is us being on Dragonheart the best deal we could get? Thatís not necessarily true. Itís the *only* deal we could get. Itís the only decent sized deal weíve ever been offered. And itís not like we didnít send CDs around. People say that a lot, ďwhy canít you get on a better label?Ē Thatís a good question. I donít know.
The immediate assumption is that all our fan base is in Europe Ė only Europeans would like us. But thereís a side to us that some Americans would like better. We have a rougher edge Ė some influence from hardcore. Of course, we have a much bigger influence from Maiden and Priest and Sabbath. How did you get into our band?
Maelstrom: I went to this show at a place that closed down years ago, The Coco Club. You played with Dekapitator. I went to go see them. (But they actually didnít show up).
But there was this band there, and I thought, wow!
Itís funny, because at first, I didnít like your vocals. But you had these solos and harmonies. It was exactly like when I first discovered the magic of Iron Maiden. I asked what your band was called. ďSlough *Fag*?Ē Thatís the worst band name Iíve ever heard. So I begged my friend to give me his copy of Twilight of the Idols. The song on that record that really got me was ďThe Wickerman.Ē That record in general has a lot of Iron Maiden Killers stuff in it.
Mike Scalzi: I like that album maybe even best. Well, itís hard to say. Itís the most pure, progressive... exactly what we wanted to do.
Maelstrom: The stuff at the end is pretty unusual.
Mike Scalzi: Totally. Itís the most progressive rock album weíve done. And some of those songs had been sitting around for a long time. We werenít signed to Dragonheart when we recorded it. The truth is, the reason it sounds the way it does is, first of all, after the first album, I refused to use any reverb of any kind in the studio, which I think might have been a mistake.
Maelstrom: Why didnít you want any reverb?
Mike Scalzi: I wanted it to sound really raw. The result is that I donít like the way Twilight of the Idols is produced. Our old bass player, Justin, recorded it in a studio at a recording school he was teaching at. We had nine months to do it, so we had a lot of artistic freedom. The students were helping me out. I was able to experiment a lot on songs like ďBrave Connor MacĒ and ďWeíll Meet Again.Ē Some of these songs would never have been able to be done with the amount of money. We had so much time in this ok, sort of half-ass studio. So the production isnít what it should be, but I had so much artistic freedom. I wanted it to sound really live. Like, youíre sitting in your room and we were playing next to you. I wanted to make it sound just the way my amp does, letís put it that way. It kind of backfired in a way. It didnít sell as much as the other records.
Maelstrom: I first got into metal when I was seven, through the older brother of this guy I went to school with. He was also into D&D.
Mike Scalzi: Yeah, thatís usually what happens (laugh).
Maelstrom: But I definitively got into metal when I was 11, when Iron Maidenís Somewhere in Time came out. Thatís maybe my favorite metal record ever.
Mike Scalzi: Really? Oh, man, I like that album too, but I thought they were on their way down actually after Powerslave. Itís much more slick. They lost a lot of their balls. The guitar sound is more synthesized and poppy sounding. But I like it.
Maelstrom: Somewhere in Time for me *is* Iron Maiden.
Mike Scalzi: Itís the first album you ever had.
Maelstrom: Anyway, when I heard your music, it reminded me of the same feelings I had when I first discovered Iron Maiden. The same flavor, the same energy that I felt when I was eleven and listened to Somewhere in Time hundreds of times.
Mike Scalzi: Iím sure you went back and listened to Killers and Powerslave.
Maelstrom: Sure. And I love Powerslave, by the way. Killers, for so many people, is *the* Maiden record. Same for Number of the Beast. I dunno, I think there are some songs on that record that are terrible.
Mike Scalzi: Yeah, there are some ďmehĒ songs.
Maelstrom: ďRun to the HillsĒ? Thatís a big favorite. I donít know why.
Mike Scalzi: I like it. I donít really have a favorite album. Everything from Killers to Powerslave is equally amazing.
Maelstrom: Your new record, Traveller, has just come out. Initially, I thought Down Among the Deadmen (the previous record) was better. But I listened to Travleller about eight times, and each time, it got better.
Mike Scalzi: A lot of people think that. Itís one of those records that will do that to you. Itís not a hit-you-over-the-head-at-first record. Itís a concept album. This is how I felt when I got Black Sabbathís Sabotage.
Maelstrom: I love that record. Black Sabbathís most metal riff is on there Ė ďSymptom of the Universe.Ē
Mike Scalzi: Thatís the beginning of Metallica right there. Thatís the first speed metal riff ever written. Anyway, what Iím saying is when I got that record; the *production* Ė that 70's, Led Zeppelin-ish, more commercial sound Ė the guitars werenít as heavy, the vocals were louder, and I wasnít sure if I liked it as much. Especially since it came after Sabbath, Bloody Sabbath. I thought they were going downhill. Then, I listened to it five times and realized it was brilliant, and in a totally different way from the other records. And thatís what Traveller is, well, I canít say itís incredible...
Maelstrom: Thatís ok. *I* can say it.
Mike Scalzi: Itís the same idea.
Maelstrom: Is that what you set out to do?
Mike Scalzi: Well, no. I didnít *try* to achieve that. But I realized that making a concept album is like that. The first song I wrote for it was the first song on the record, ďHigh Passage, Low Passage.Ē I knew that song would not be the best song on the record. I wanted it to sound like Thin Lizzy, which is not a hit you over the head band. You have to listen to all their songs.
Maelstrom: ďKingís VengeanceĒ is great.
Mike Scalzi: ...Ok, maybe. But when I wrote that song, I wondered, ďis it going to be like ĎHighlanderí or ĎShadows of the Unborní or ĎSky Chariots?Ē Itís not. You can listen to ďSky ChariotsĒ and think youíve heard the whole album. Traveller goes up in the middle, and then goes down. I wanted the first song to sound not incredibly overpowering. I wanted to get the feeling of a science-fiction atmosphere meets a 70s cop show. I wanted there to be an established background that you donít know about yet. I wanted it to feel like me being a space pirate was run-of-the mill. I wanted it to seem like I was burnt out. Thatís the way I felt about metal at the time. I toured, I went around...hereís another riff; hereís another song.
Maelstrom: I love the song ďBaltechís Lament.Ē Itís not a hit-you-over-the-head song. Part of what I love about it is that so many heavy metal bands do the thing about slaying dragons, Lord of the Rings, knights...
Mike Scalzi: Yeahyeahyeahyeah....it gets a little tiring after a while.
Maelstrom: Not only do I not know what theyíre trying to say, but you can tell that they donít either. Thereís no heart. But with you, Iím may not be necessarily sure what youíre saying, but I can tell you mean it. When you sing ďrelease the sporesĒ in ďBaltechís Lament,Ē there is so much meaning in that. I get so many records, and almost all of the content of their lyrics is of no interest to me, as I know it wonít be worth my while. But when I heard Traveller, I felt compelled to read all the lyrics and find out what the album was all about.
Mike Scalzi: See, you know what Iím talking about. You obviously understand what Iím doing perfectly, as about one percent of the people who hear the record do. Iím writing for people who have some intelligence and imagination. It would be good if you were talking about a specific dragon in a specific dungeon that a specific character was battling. But these fucking bands talk about ďdragon, sword, battle...Ē... Itís shit because it doesnít have any sort of relevance. Itís like people in the 70s singing, ďdisco! Cocaine! Romeo!Ē
If ten years ago, when I was living on Haight Street and playing shows with punk and grunge bands, if you had told me that today there would be so many goddamn bands singing about slaying dragons.... it could be worse. But I canít stand that shit. I canít believe people are selling out by singing about dragons and kings. Thatís insane!
Now Voivod, on the other hand, does science-fiction with very specific story. ďJack LuminousĒ is a very specific story. You could write a paper about it. Whereas Ronnie James Dio, singing about a rainbow in the dark (even though I like Dio Ė probably more than I like Voivod), heís not talking about anything.
Maelstrom: Do you think you should buy a record because itís a good story? Like, King Diamond puts a lot of effort into his stories, but a lot of the music...
Mike Scalzi: The newer albums are really bad. He writes good lyrics and stories, but the vocal melodies donít exist. He sings the way he sings, like it or hate it.
Maelstrom: It seems to me that most concept albums arenít any good. It seems that itís more of a focus on telling a story and sticking to a concept than writing good music.
Mike Scalzi: There are plenty of great records that donít have any good lyrics or concepts at all. Like we were saying, Holy Diver has some of the worst lyrics Iíve ever heard on it, but I love the album. Iron Maiden has a lot of bad lyrics, too. They have some good stories that arenít told very well. Thin Lizzy has some great lyrics, and some really bad lyrics. Well, I take that back. Phil Lynott is so obviously intelligent and sensitive to what he is doing. I think his deal is that he wrote bad lyrics intentionally. Iíve written some songs where I tried to write dumb lyrics, too, just to be macho or stupid.
Maelstrom: Like what?
Mike Scalzi: Like ďBipolar Disorder.Ē We have a lot of silly lyrics. But thatís a different story.
Maelstrom: The only song I canít seem to like on Deadmen is ďTroll Pack.Ē Itís too silly.
Mike Scalzi: Thatís weird, because you like extreme metal. But a lot of people say that about ďTroll Pack.Ē Itís wacky.
The way I look at Deadmen is, everything makes sense on it except ďMarauderĒ and ďHigh Season,Ē which donít belong there.
Maelstrom: Those are re-recorded, old songs.
Mike Scalzi: Yes.
Maelstrom: ďHigh SeasonĒ has the bit about arrows of sun dancing on your head. I get goose bumps every time.
Mike Scalzi: That song is about taking a lot of acid on Haight Street.
Maelstrom: See, you donít need to tell me that. Youíre ruining it for me.
Mike Scalzi: I used to do a lot of acid, but not in a hippie way. I did acid listening to Dio, going through some kind of Machiavellian transformation, a kind of Nietzschean, Valkyrian human spirit.
But I actually like ďTroll PackĒ a lot.
Mike Scalzi: The riff sounds like a ďLord of the RingsĒ cartoon, or something. I did the sort of death/black metal vocals. Itís a very black metal concept, ďTroll Pack.Ē Itís very indulgent. Obviously, I enjoy doing silly things.
Maelstrom: On the new album, you reprise your theme of the Spinward Marches.
Mike Scalzi: Yeah. Do you know about the Spinward Marches?
Maelstrom: Iíd like to ask you. I mean, you can glean some sense of it by looking at the map on Traveller. But Iíd never heard of the Spinward Marches, and Iíd never heard of the Traveller RPG.
Mike Scalzi: The Spinward Marches is part of Traveller. Itís a large, large area of space in the gameís universe.
Maelstrom: So, what is this game? Itís a 70s role playing game?
Mike Scalzi: It started in the late 70s, and was published until the early 80s. I would not do a concept album about any other role playing game, simply because itís too geekish.
Maelstrom: Are you a role playing geek?
Mike Scalzi: No. But I was at one point. Well, I canít say Iím not, because I just made a concept album about a role playing game! But Traveller was the one game that seemed to me to be not as fantasy, geek oriented. There are army people who played Traveller who said it was the most military, systematic game. Itís more like a war game.
Iíve been in touch with the creators of the game.
Maelstrom: They must have been thrilled.
Mike Scalzi: Well...no, actually, they werenít.
Mike Scalzi: I suspected as much, too. I realized how people are, a long time ago, when I started making records about things like this. I was lucky that Errol Otis (famed original Dungeons and Dragons artist) was such a nice guy and so thrilled. I could tell by the spirit of his artwork, like on the old Dungeon Masterís screen. He has a giant Dead Kennedys emblem hanging off the main barbarian womanís medallion. But the other people in the gaming world tend to be really geeky, defensive people. Iím not saying the Traveller guys are like that.
We were originally going to get the artwork of the guy who created the Traveller art in the 70s. He said, no problem. But Game Designerís Workshop and the creator, Mark Miller, has the rights. We contacted Miller. We were in touch, but communication was very difficult and spotty. They donít even know about it yet. Iíve gone to Traveller web sites to tell people about it, but theyíre not very responsive. I donít think that gamers as a whole are very responsive to heavy metal. It may seem weird, but itís true.
Maelstrom: You know how Bolt Thrower was with Games Workshop for a while?
Mike Scalzi: Yes.
Maelstrom: I was in London and I went to a Games Workshop store. I asked the staff if they remembered Bolt Thrower. They did.
Mike Scalzi: But they donít really give a shit.
Maelstrom: Not only did they not give a shit, but, if you go to these stores Ė which sell these models that are all about massive killing and barbarity Ė they play the most insipid pop music imaginable.
Mike Scalzi: I know! I wonder if Iím a nerd or not. I grew up a jock. I played football in high school and also played Dungeons and Dragons. But I really like to play games, but I didnít want to admit it, because a lot of gamers are really fat, gross, greasy guys who are really defensive. They get into gaming because theyíre intelligent, but theyíre intimidated by sports culture, music culture (punk, heavy metal). They canít get laid and they go into themselves and become nerds. I was all about playing football, playing heavy metal, playing games. I got something out of all of them. Geekishness is ok as long as itís not a form of escapism from the world.
Maelstrom: What your band exemplifies is, from a pop culture standpoint, is that thereís nothing cool about this band.
Mike Scalzi: Yeah, thatís it.
Maelstrom: But thatís whatís cool about it. And itís not even cool in terms of whatís cool in metal these days.
Mike Scalzi: What I want to do is the purest version of what I think is cool. I like mythology and the historical aspects of that. I donít like dragons and castles and fairies. I donít like magic. In terms of science-fiction, Iím not so much into the technological stuff. Iím more into the characters. Alfred Bester, who was an early 1950's writer, is the greatest science fiction writer ever, without a doubt. If you read ďThe Star is My DestinationĒ and ďThe Abolished Man,Ē youíd agree with me completely. The idea of Slough Feg is to be into these things because I like the stories.
I want to be cool. Many bands say they donít want to be rock stars. Bullshit. But I want to be cool in my way. I think itís very cool to have the confidence to do exactly what you want to do in your way.
Maelstrom: Who did the artwork for the Traveller album?
Mike Scalzi: Martin Hanford, the guy whoís done a lot of the Bal-Sagoth covers. He also did the art for the Slough Feg re-issue on Miskatonic. Itís a little more comic book-ish than Iíd like, but I always give the artist full control of what he wants to do.
Maelstrom: In your Twilight of the Idols album, thereís a lengthy text in the inside cover linking the fall of society with the decline of metal. The text culminates in how [Slough Feg] will ďbring culture back to the western world.Ē Thanks, by the way, for doing so. (Wink)
Mike Scalzi: Haha! Well, it didnít succeed. If the album did what it was supposed to do, [the text] would have been seen as this great thing, as opposed to a stupid, geeky thing.
[The text] is from Justin, our old bass player. It addressed people not understanding us; people not liking us because they thought we should be doing grunge or punk. All that happened right here on Haight Street. We used to practice below Walgreens. We wrote songs about dungeons, and thatís what our practice space was like. (below, Slough Feg circa 1992. Scalzi is at far left)
Ok, this is going to sound really cheesy. There was a certain dichotomy about us. We were really nerdy, but we were cool. We got a lot of chicks Ė especially Justin. We got laid a lot; we did drugs; we played a lot of shows. And yet we were playing this geeky music that was the most un-hip thing in the world Ė especially during the early 90s. Girls didnít understand us, but they hung out with us because they though we were cool. So we were feeling macho. But the songs arenít geeky in a historical sense. Theyíre very Machiavellian, Wagnerian songs. I was reading a lot of Nietzsche and listening to Wagner, getting interested in a lot of theatrical stuff. That stuff isnít geeky at all Ė itís high culture; itís the coolest of the cool for its time. Whether itís 1890 Germany, or 1960 on Broadway, or 1992 in the US, with grunge.
I donít listen to music by category. I listen to Elvis Costello and XTC when I go home. I listen to what I think is good, and thatís spread out all over music. If you look at my record collection, youíll see Genesis, the Kinks, the Beatles, the Doors...Priest, Maiden, Sabbath, Brocas Helm, St. Vitus. Heavy metal, pop, new wave...
Maelstrom: If you became massively successful, how do you think that would change you?
Mike Scalzi: Thatís a circular idea. Thereís no way that we could become popular based on what weíve done already. Itís kind of like asking, ďwhat would happen if America elected Ralph Nader as president?Ē Heíd probably get his head blown off. But an America that would elect Ralph Nader would be very different from the one that exists now. So the only way weíd become gigantic would require the music industry to somersault. I wish it would. I do. But if I got big off of what I already do, I wouldnít have to change, because I like what I already do.
But if I could get a bunch of money to write poppy songs, like Thin Lizzy did with ďThe Boys are Back in TownĒ? Fuck, yeah, Iíd do it. If I thought I could do it. Iíd become a rock star, just like I always wanted to be. Anyone would.
Maelstrom: From what I understand, the Lord Weird Slough Feg is a character. Heís a kind of idiot savant that lives in a cave and gets mental messages that he writes on the walls. His body is decomposing.
Mike Scalzi: Yes. Iíll tell you, I donít regret using that as the band name. When I first heard that name, it represented the agenda that I had. Slough Feg was a name in a comic book (called ďSlayne the Berserker).
Maelstrom: According to you, itís a name from Irish legend.
Mike Scalzi: Yes, but oral legend. Iíve talked to Irish people who had never heard of ďSlayne the Berserker,Ē and they knew about Slough Feg, the demon lord. It shows you how researched those comic book guys were. Whatís most representative about the character is that he refuses to die Ė he wants to keep doing his obscure artwork that no one gets to see.
the Traveller lineup from left: Greg Haa (drums), John Cobbett (guitar), Mike Scalzi (guitar, vox), Adrian Maestas (bass)