Metal Blade's Brian Slagel Looks Back at 35 Years of Metal Domination
Read our interview with the legendary label founder, and check out an exclusive excerpt from his new book on the wild, triumphant history of Metal Blade Records.
It's not overstating things to say that Metal Blade helped put American heavy metal on the map. The label's roster—Slayer, Fates Warning, Trouble—reads like a who's who of metallic greatness, while the imprint's Metal Massacre compilation series provided an early platform for everyone from Metallica to Cirith Ungol, Hirax, and the Obsessed. Whether it's thrash, speed, power, death, doom, or black, the label has championed pretty much anything with the suffix "metal" over the years, with the notable (and admirable) exception of nu. While the fortunes of both the industry and the genre themselves have waxed and waned, one thing has remained consistent: guiding force and head honcho Brian Slagel.
In his time, he's served as promoter, zine writer, and record story guy, ultimately launching what was to become a global institution with the first Metal Massacre compilation from his mum's garage. Now, 35 years on, he's behind a book— For the Sake of Heaviness: The History of Metal Blade Records—written with Mark Eglinton and forwarded by Lars Ulrich which charts the label's journey and the behind-the-scenes role Slagel played in everything from hooking up the world's biggest metal band with two of their bassists, to helping Prosthetic Records get off the ground.
"People have been bugging me to do a book for a while," explains Slagel. "I was like 'Ah, you do that when you're old.' So now that I'm getting old… We were also thinking about what we could do for the 35th anniversary, and the idea seemed interesting because we hadn't done anything like that before. It seemed like a good time to get it out there."
It seems reasonable at this stage to ask Slagel to dial things back and pinpoint both the moment the metal bug bit and what it was about the genre that dragged him so forcibly down the left-hand path. "I wish I had a good answer for you," he says apologetically. "When I was 11, my cousin played me Deep Purple's Machine Head, and there was something about that sound—I'd just never heard anything like it before, it was amazing. I heard Black Sabbath after that, and went down the rabbit hole… It's so hard to say, though: I heard it, I loved it, I wanted to hear more of it and just became fanatical about it. It's something that just struck me and now, many many years later, it's still the same."
This enduring passion is heartening to hear from someone who's been in the game so long, and Slagel is as happy to wax lyrical about classic albums by Lizzy Borden and Cannibal Corpse as he is his latest find. In the 35 years he's been running Metal Blade, Slagel's approach to business, too, has stayed largely the same: art trumps commerce. "If I listen to it and like it, then I'll want to work with the band," he says succinctly. "Clearly, you'll also want to talk to them and make sure you're on the same page, but we've been super lucky over the years to work with so many amazing bands who are also really good friends. It really is one big family here, and we're all in it for the same thing."
So strong is this familial vibe that label CFO Tracy Vera fell for and married Fates Warning/Armored Saint bassist Joey Vera after seeing him "covered in Gwar goo" at a show, but does the label's expanded fold ever lead to locked horns or family feuds when it comes to signing decisions? "It's pretty rare," says Slagel. "The only time I can think of where I was into something and the staff really wasn't was Volbeat. I got the original demo and I thought it was great, but everybody here in the States and in Europe was like 'Nah, nah, we don't like it…' so we didn't do it, and then look what happened. So every once in a while, if there's a bit of hesitancy, I can say 'hey, remember Volbeat!'"
Missing out on some heavy-hitters has been part of the label's history from day one, though, with the label lacking the financial muscle to sign Metallica, Megadeth, and Mötley Crüe, and ultimately losing Slayer to Def Jam after Hell Awaits. Still, even if the label wasn't in a state to fund future heavy metal classics, Slagel nevertheless had a master-of-puppets role in cultivating the heavy metal biosphere—for example, holding a spot on the inaugural Metal Massacre comp for Lars Ulrich's initially non-existent band anf helping them solidify their line-up.
"I think the blind date analogy is good because that's pretty much the way it happened with Cliff [Burton]," says Slagel of his efforts to bring the legendary bassist into the Metallica camp. "He was in this band called Trauma who we put on Metal Massacre II. They came down to LA to play, we thought the band was okay, but the bass player was incredible. A little while after that, Lars said they were looking for a new bass player, and we mentioned this guy Cliff. He went to a show and, typical Lars, he said 'That guy's gonna be my bass player'. Seeing him in Metallica for the first time… They were already great, doing something different and getting a little better every time they played, but seeing Cliff there was like the completion of the process."
"It was like 'Okay, this is where it needs to be and what it should be.' With Jason [Newsted], I was super happy that he was in the band and I always thought he was the right choice. Metal Church played the Country Club, and it was maybe the first or second show Metallica did with Jason. Of course it was beyond jam-packed, and it was cool—I was happy for those guys because it looked good, it sounded good, and it looked comfortable."
As for another of the Big Four thrash acts, Slagel proves philosophical when it came to Slayer's moving on to a bigger label, juxtaposing the goofy teenagers trying to out-stink each others' farts with the venue-destroying craziness of their fans, the dedication they brought to their craft, and their clear capacity for greatness. "They weren't necessarily the best of friends, and they weren't on the same page musically, but you put those four guys together on stage or in a recording studio, and magic would happen," he says.
To those of us who weren't there, the 80s US metal scene looks like some sort of musical Wild West, though Slagel is quick to also highlight the spirit of experimentation, camaraderie, and friendly competition of those early days. "Everybody back then was innocent," he says. "We didn't know anything, we just loved the music and it was a lot fun to go to all these amazing shows—it was like one big dysfunctional heavy metal family. We'd have these legendary parties at Betsy from Bitch's mother's house. It was 10 minutes from Hollywood, so we'd have Megadeth, Metallica, Lizzy, Steeler, Bitch, Mötley, and Ratt, all hanging out. We didn't really know any better, and I don't think any of us thought it was going to become nearly as big as it did."
Of course, as well as being a heavy metal staple, Metal Blade has also been a career for Slagel. The label's first album was less a statement of intent or business move than a snapshot of Slagel's local scene, and its release remains a personal high point. "I remember sitting in the record store I worked at and all these records getting delivered," he says. "That, for me, is still a mind-boggling thing—I actually put out a record, and I was just some 21-year-old kid who didn't know what he was doing. I didn't do it as a career, I didn't think I was starting a record label, I didn't think I was doing anything but helping out the local scene, but I put out this album and in 1982, that wasn't an easy thing to do. After a while you get so immersed in what you're doing that you don't really have time to stop and think about it—that first one, though, I was able to savor for a little bit."
As for when Slagel began to view Metal Blade as a "proper" label? "It took a while, that's for sure," he admits. "For the first three years I was running it out of my mom's garage. I guess doing the Armored Saint EP and them getting signed to Chrysalis was a key point. Having a band that you'd worked with sign to a major label made you think, 'Wow, this is becoming something real.'"
The path from hobby to major enterprise might have been greased with no end of blood, sweat and tears, but it was also reliant on the patience and forbearance of Slagel's mother, who shrugged off his dropping out of school and suffered her home becoming his initial base of operations. "She never really got into the music," Slagel laughs. "There were a couple of bits here and there, but she was never really into it. But she's super proud of how everything turned out, how well the label's done, and that I've been able to do this for 35 years. I think she maybe went to three or four shows is all, but it wasn't her style."
Which ones? "I took her to see Lizzy Borden; I took her to a Bitch show in the early days. I tried to get her to go to some bigger shows—I think I might have dragged her out to see Metallica at some point when they were getting big, but I didn't necessarily want her to see what was going on since there were all these crazy people, fireworks going off, people smoking pot—you name it!"
Read an excerpt from 'For the Sake of Heaviness: The History of Metal Blade Records'
I remember getting a long distance phone call from Lars Ulrich sometime in the summer of 1981.
"You'll never believe this. I'm hanging out with Diamond Head!"
"Dude, you've got to be kidding. There's no way."
"No, no really I am…"
I was with John Kornarens at the time, and we were both freaking out. We couldn't believe that we were stuck in LA while he was over there, living the European dream life for the summer, hanging out with Diamond Head, Motörhead, and all these other amazing bands. It was all so typical of Lars. Even as a teenager, he seemed to have an uncanny ability to make things happen.
When he came back, he couldn't wait to tell us more about it, so he invited us down to his house in Newport Beach. While we were hanging out in his room, I noticed that he had a drum set in the corner closet. It wasn't even assembled; it was just bits and pieces.
"Why do you have a drum set here, dude?" I asked.
"I'm going to start a band," he responded matter-of-factly.
All I thought at the time was, "Sure you are, Lars…"
Even at that point, there was still a lot of frustration attached to trying to get the word out about a metal scene that nobody seemed to care about. If I put a band in my New Heavy Metal Revue fanzine in an attempt to generate interest, there were probably less than a thousand copies, at most, getting made, so the scope of the coverage wasn't particularly wide. Then a idea came to me. Influenced by the overtly do-it-yourself attitude that went along with the New Wave of British Heavy Metal—where compilations like Metal for Muthas had started appearing in 1980—I thought, "Why don't I put together a compilation record of my own?"
John Kornarens Six issues into the fanzine, Brian goes, "Hey, why don't we do an album like Metal for Muthas?" And that was the start of Metal Massacre . At that time, I was still in college and working in the produce department of a supermarket to make money.
I had no idea what the next steps should be; there was no handbook out there about how to release records. With a bit of forethought, I decided that the first, and most logical, people to contact might be the various importers from whom I was ordering stock for Oz Records. There were very few independent distributors around. One was Greenworld in LA—the guys I sent Mötley Crüe to—and the other was Important in New York, which would eventually become Red Distribution. I asked them both the million-dollar question: "If I put together a compilation album of all the up-and-coming metal bands in LA, would you guys distribute it for me?"
"Sure!" was the answer from both of them, so now I had no choice but to go and start talking to the bands. The slight problem I had at that point was that I really had no money—and that certainly was an issue given that it was going to be my responsibility to come up with enough cash to press perhaps 2,500 albums. Nobody else was going to pay it. Granted, I had some money saved from a very brief, part-time stint working at Sears selling appliances on commission, but not nearly enough to have any of the bands record anything on my dime. The only option I had was to go to them and say, "If you could record something, I'm thinking about putting this compilation record together. I'll get you on it."
Luckily, most of the bands already had something recorded and were totally into the idea. And those that didn't were willing to scrape up whatever small amount of cash they could to go into a studio. It made sense for all of us. I needed them to be on the record; they needed to be on an album because, back then, being on an album of any kind was a really big deal. Nobody was putting out albums, and there were no independent labels of any kind other than those that were still releasing punk.
After a few meetings and conversations where I enthusiastically pitched the compilation, the band Bitch, fronted by Betsy Weiss, agreed to participate. Cirith Ungol, a band from Ventura that had been around since the early seventies, said OK, too. Originally, Mötley Crüe was going to be on it, but they dropped out at the last minute, having been signed to a label following the article that John and I had published about them in the UK. Ratt was in. Malice was in. John Kornarens' sister was in a band called Avatar, and they ended up on the record, too. There was no shortage of interest. Pretty soon, I had the basis for a pretty good compilation record.
In retrospect, the location of Oz Records was key at that stage, too. Its spot in Woodland Hills was affluent enough, but it was also close to the mouth of Topanga Canyon, so there were two ways to get to the store: from the beach side, or from the city. Consequently, given that this was Topanga in the eighties, we had a bunch of rock stars living nearby who'd come in regularly.
Kevin Cronin from REO Speedwagon came in; Frank Zappa lived literally four blocks away, and he occasionally appeared. A couple of guys who had played in Zappa's band—and this was the Joe's Garage era—came in. The singer, Ike Willis, and another guy named Rick Gerard—who'd played bass with Zappa at some time or another and was friends with Oz Records' owner—were there Metal Massacre 21 periodically. As it turned out, Rick wanted to go into the studio and record something for the record. That group became Demon Flight.
Toward the end of the process of assembling the bands for the record, Lars, having been back from Europe for several months, called me up and said, "Hey, I heard you're doing a compilation. If I put together a band, can I be on it?" Not really knowing that he was actually going to do it, I said, "Yeah, sure!"
Alex Deller is metal thrashing mad on Twitter.