By Pat Prince
Throughout the year, Metal Blade Records has been celebrating its 30th anniversary. Over the course of its history, the record company has transformed itself from the humble beginnings of being operated out of a garage to a major player in the heavy metal genre.
Back in the early ’80s, the company’s founder Brian Slagel was a record store clerk and an aspiring music writer who felt the need to promote all the local California bands he followed and cherished. Slagel started his own heavy metal fanzine named the Heavy Metal Revue to fulfill this strong desire. Taking it one step further, Slagel pressed and released a compilation album of these bands, called “The New Heavy Metal Revue presents Metal Massacre.” The record was the pick of the litter of bands he thought would have an impact on fans worldwide. One of these bands, for instance, was Metallica.
The rest can be seen as pure serendipity. It was the success of the first Metal Massacre compilation that Slagel began putting out more records. Soon that became his vocation. Since then, Slagel’s Metal Blade Records has produced and pressed a multitude of albums by a multitude of bands, jump-starting the careers of hard and heavy bands as diverse as Fates Warning, Gwar and the Goo Goo Dolls.
The following is a Goldmine interview with Brian Slagel.
In the beginning, when you started Metal Blade, it was more a labor of love than a business, right?
Brian Slagel: Oh yeah, absolutely. The first three years was me in my mom’s garage, doing it all by myself.
And you’ve called it a ‘poorly ventilated garage.’
Slagel: There was no air-conditioning in there and in Woodland Hills (California) it gets to about 110 degrees in the summer. That was really fun. (laughs)
But perseverance is the key. Some would have given up after about a month in that garage.
Slagel: Yeah, I did eventually get a portable air conditioner, which made it maybe a little bit better but there was a lot sweat, for sure.
You started the fanzine The New Heavy Metal Revue while working at a record store called Oz Records — and you originally put out the record compilation Metal Massacre to promote the fanzine, right?
Slagel: Yeah, I didn’t intend to start a record label or anything. It was the fanzine that kind of presented the whole thing but I was already writing for Sounds and Kerrang! in the U.K. so I kind of thought the journalism thing might turn out to be something I would do.
I think you chose the right path (laughs).
Slagel: (laughs) It’s worked out okay.
How did you know how to start putting out albums?
Slagel: Obviously, I knew the distributors from working at the record store. And we had some local bands’ albums at the store, even Motley Crue and stuff, and there were only a couple record pressing plants in L.A. at the time, so I knew the one that I ended up working with.
Are you surprised how vinyl is still popular today?
Slagel: It’s fun. You know, I grew up, obviously, with vinyl so I was so shattered when it kind of went away in the ’80s. The fact that it’s come back now, and certainly all the big releases are on vinyl, is awesome.
Metal Blade caters to vinyl collectors, right?
Slagel: Oh, absolutely. One of the really fun things about the music industry now is that there are really no rules and we now do these special direct-to-consumer packages that not only include vinyl and picture discs but also all sorts of crazy stuff that we can do now. I’m a huge collector myself so it’s fun to be able to do all these cool, wonderful things now with all the packaging.
What’s your most prized possession as far as a collector?
Slagel: Probably — not because it was anything special in the packaging — but I have one of the original Motley Crue “Too Fast for Love” albums. The first pressing, which is pretty cool because there were only 900 of them when they originally made them. That’s pretty cool, and I have a lot of old Iron Maiden. Alice Cooper and KISS, when they used to do all these crazy packages like “Muscle of Love” — an Alice Cooper album with the special cardboard box and they had an album where they had panties in the packaging. I have all that stuff because I kept all of my vinyl. I never sold it.
You’ve kept it pretty mint?
Slagel: Always in good condition. It makes it no fun when you move, to take all that vinyl. And I had to have custom built shelves for the house and that sort of stuff. It’s all in good shape and I still listen to it quite a bit as well.
For me, as a heavy metal kid growing up, there was always this competitiveness to be the first kid on the block to discover a new metal band — by demo or record or whatever. I know you probably had that feeling with doing the fanzine. But did that competitiveness carry over to Metal Blade Records, with record labels like Jon Zazula’s Megaforce Records or Mike Varney’s Shrapnel — as far as trying to sign a band first?
Slagel: There was a little competitiveness there, but, look, the one thing that tied us all together was that we were all huge metal fans. You know, we loved the music and back then there was no money or anything so there certainly weren’t any bidding wars in there. I think everybody tried to do the best they could for music. And it was very regional then, too, because you didn’t have the internet or anything else, so if a band was in New York it was pretty impossible for them to sign with a L.A. label and vice versa because of things like long distance phone calls and other things made it impossible.
A lot of the information about the metal scene was obtained through fanzines bought at record stores. Did you have a favorite fanzine growing up?
Slagel: When I was into the whole New Wave of British Heavy Metal, I was really into Sounds and Kerrang! over there in the U.K., especially Sounds in the early days. It wasn’t really a fanzine, it was a huge magazine over there. So that was really important … and then there was Metal Forces, another one from the U.K. that was really good. Aardschock from Holland was really good. Ron Quintana’s Metal Maniac was a really good one. There were a lot of really good fanzines. Kick Ass Monthly was another one. There were a lot of great ones back in the day. It was fun.
Do you think that the New Wave of British Heavy Metal was the best period of heavy metal?
Slagel: It’s hard to say. I mean certainly I was a huge fan of all that. As a huge collector, I think I have every piece of vinyl — both 45 and LP — from that time period so I do think it was awesome. I mean, I wish I was there. That would have been so much better if you were actually there. I don’t know if there was a definite period of time ever — Metal’s so huge now and I think it’s in a really great place even today. Hard to say. But, look, if it wasn’t for that scene I don’t think we’d be talking today, that’s for sure.
In the 30 years of the label, is there a band you regret not signing?
Slagel: Definitely no regrets. I mean, there are a couple things that would have been fun to work with. Obviously it would have been great to do the first Metallica record but I had no money, so (laughs) that wasn’t going to happen. There are probably a few other things, like we probably could have done Megadeth if we had some money. A couple other things, but, I mean, look I can’t complain at all. Being involved in the whole metal scene and we had an amazing run of 30 year so far at Metal Blade. If I had to go back and change anything I actually wouldn’t.
One of Metal Blade’s oddest signings might be the band Goo Goo Dolls. Of course, many people probably don’t know that the Goo Goo Dolls started out as a very raw punk band.
Slagel: They started out as a real raw kind of punk, heavier band. They even played a show in Buffalo with Cannibal Corpse at one point. It wasn’t so out of the realm, and we were doing bands like Corrosion of Conformity and D.R.I. and stuff back then, so it kind of fit in to that whole kind of punk aspect that we were doing. The one thing, live, they were amazing. They were so fun and really an amazing live band.
You should be credited with often signing bands that you knew would probably not sell a lot of records. But you did it because you thought they deserved it.
Slagel: Absolutely. From the beginning of the label until now, first and foremost being a metal fan and just wanting to turn people onto new music and get bands exposed. That’s the number one reason why I started and why we still do it today.
With the Metal Massacre compilations — did you know a few compilations in that these compilations would become such collector items?
Slagel: No. I had no idea that anything was going to be happening beyond a couple years. It was very just in the moment of just trying to help things out at the beginning and I don’t think any of us ever dreamed that anything — the whole metal scene — would have become this big now down the road.
Some people may not realize that there was a major misspelling on the first Metal Massacre compilation album. The name of the band Metallica was misspelled.
Slagel: Several of them actually. I think we misspelled McGovney’s name (Ron McGovney was Metallica’s original bassist). They had literally given me the information the night before we had to go and make everything, so I never got a chance to proof it, so … those copies are hard to find. There are only 2,500 of them, I think.
James Hetfield (guitarist/vocalist of Metallica) got a chance to put another version of the song “Hit the Lights” on the next pressing of that compilation, correct?
Slagel: When we went back and initially re-issued the record, they had done “No LIfe ’til Leather” (demo) at that point. Obviously they wanted a better version of the song on the subsequent pressing, which, of course, made a lot of sense.
What do you think has been a secret to Metal Blade’s longevity? During the ’90s it kind of got scary with metal. It did seem to have some backlash.
Slagel: It definitely went undergorund and it needed to go underground to reinvent itself. But even in the ’90s for us we had Gwar, Cannibal Corpse and Mercyful Fate and Six Feet Under and all these bands that did very very well throughout the ’90s but the mainstream wasn’t talking about it. It wasn’t in the mainstream at all. It was all the grunge stuff. And we did marketing for Faith No More and Soundgarden and Alice In Chains and all these things back then. So we kind of, back then, embraced that sort of thing, too. And I think that’s part of the reason why we had been able to stick around for so long is that we always embrace the change, whether it’s changes in the music or within in the industry. You can’t be afraid to make changes and embrace the changes. The labels that did survived a lot longer and the ones that didn’t kind of went away, so we’ve always wanted to adapt to what was happening both musically and within the business.
And those grunge bands … they were very heavy bands.
Slagel: Totally. It was all metal. All those bands were hugely influenced by metal but you couldn’t say that back then because that was a bad word. All of those bands were massively influenced by heavy metal. That’s kind of where they all came from but they couldn’t say it. They weren’t allowed to say it.
You see a lot of kids nowadays getting into vintage metal bands. Have you thought about as a label, re-issuing some of the older Metal Blade catalog?
Slagel: Yeah, we’ve been doing a lot of that stuff. As much as we can, It’s takes a lot of work because we really want to do a good job on it. We’re doing a lot of the older stuff and clearly a lot of the stuff is available digitally as well.
For more Metal Blade Records information, go to www.metalblade.com.
Patrick Prince is the Senior Contributing Editor of Goldmine. He is also the founder of his own ‘80s heavy metal fanzine called Powerline. Powerline can now be read online at www.powerlinemag.com.