I grew up in Central Pennsylvania in a college town. There weren't that many of us like-minded "underground culture" types around so most of us knew each other. If you saw a guy wearing a Minor Threat t-shirt (or anything else remotely "punk") you'd talk to him and sometimes form a band with him. Such was the case with myself and Mike Scalzi. I believe we were both 16 when we formed a band together. It was his first and my second (I had a pretty generic hardcore band called Positive Hate prior to that). In the following interview we discuss those old days, and of course we also discuss Slough Feg's brand new album 'The Animal Spirits'.
I'm not sure if you remember, but back when we were in high school you auditioned for my hardcore/crossover band on guitar (the band was called Heart of Darkness), but I told you we actually needed a singer so you tried that instead. Therefore, technically I got you started singing! Any thoughts? Had you ever thought about singing before that? I know your father was an opera singer right?
Of course I remember, I remember "auditioning" on guitar, since you had never really heard me play before but perhaps heard I could play leads from someone. I recall that day quite distinctly, in fact. I came to your house for a practice with the whole band (no singer yet but you, George Draguns on bass, and Ken Brassignton on drums). I had no amp, so I plugged my Hondo Les Paul copy into an old Yamaha combo amp that was lying around and got shitloads of feedback, so bad that you couldn't hear much of what I was playing because the Hondo had such cheap pick-ups that it couldn't function at high volume. I remember Ken really liking the leads I played (since one of the original ideas of Heart of Darkness was to incorporate some metal elements, rather than just hardcore - this was 1985, after all), but I had a hard time figuring out the fast chord changes of the songs, which was a common problem between metal and hardcore musicians at that time. Metal players were often more skilled at lead guitar, and hardcore/punk musicians were often better at fast chord changes and driving rhythms, so when the two styles started mixing in the mid-80s and incorporating elements and musicians of each other into their sound, there were these kinds of difficulties. Looking back now, I almost wish the two styles had never meshed, because I often think the two eventually consumed, or somehow destroyed each other. But when they first met there was some great stuff, like C.O.C, Dr. Know, etc., which were of course some of our biggest influences in H.O.D.
I remember that because of the feedback issue, I couldn't practice with you guys because it was just all noise. I eventually got better pick-ups for my guitar, but this took a few months, and by that time you had acquired Len Jarabek on guitar, who turned out to be a great asset to the band, in ability and in spirit, I thought. So I tried out on vocals, and from what I could tell, you guys liked it, and it was pretty new and exciting for me as well, because I'd never really sung before and I was getting into hardcore for the first time that year, so it was cool to sing in that style. I'd played around with yelling into a mic before while jamming with other people, but only for fun or a laugh. This was the first time I'd ever taken it seriously. My father was not an opera singer, but he was a very good choir singer; that's how he got his scholarship for college. In fact, my grandfather got out of fighting in WWI through music as well; he played trumpet in the Italian Military Marching Band, which kept him out of combat somehow, so music sort of saved two generation of Scalzis and perhaps doomed a third!
Hahaha! H.O.D. was originally called Sausage, because I worked at a Burger King that summer and stole a roll of Croissan'wich "Sausage" stickers. We used to throw actual sausages at the audience. I remember Slough Feg at one point was throwing bones and meat out at shows, right? Coincidence?
Perhaps not. I never really thought much about that comparison, but by the time Slough Feg started hurling pig guts, bones, meat, toy spears etc. into the audience I definitely had experience with this kind of thing from H.O.D., and I suppose I did it with greater confidence, having had the experience before and knowing what kind of reaction to expect. In both cases I remember a lot of people enjoying it. The Sausage thing was awesome. I can remember specific incidents of throwing sausages, exactly what they looked and felt like, and even who they hit, and where, in specific incidents. I remember the floor at one house party getting really slippery right under my feet from so much sausage grease 'cause we were throwing them out raw. It's funny looking back on that now, it doesn't seem like long ago at all. I guess I haven't changed much since then. I still like to throw things at people.
We eventually changed our name to Heart of Darkness and played shows with bands like Dr. Know, Descendents, C.O.C. and Agnostic Front - all this while we were still in High School. That sometimes depresses me now, when I play some shithole to 30 people - how 'bout you?
Yes, that did get quite depressing at times thinking back on those days. I used to think that the peak of my musical career came at age sixteen. Throughout the 90s I often felt this way. Fortunately I eventually played more shows like those old ones, and sometimes larger ones, so I felt a little better about it.
Yeah I did (and continue to do so) too, I'm not saying all shows are like that I'm just saying it does occur from time to time! But you know what I mean, right?
Yes, but still, I look back on those days and think we didn't know what we had. I guess we got lucky, or at least I did because I walked right into it. I remember you and Len doing quite a bit of work to promote the band and get bigger bands to come to town and play with us, and sometimes to go out of town and play bigger shows, like the time we went to Harrisburg and opened for B.G.K. These days, those shows sound legendary, but at the time, at least to me, they were just like regular shows. I sort of took it all for granted because, I guess, it was the 80s and things were just cooler, shows were always well attended as far as I can remember, and I didn't do anything to get them besides say "yes" and show up. When I came to California I just assumed that shows were always full of people. A "dead" show just wasn't something I'd never experienced, until 1990. Then I was quickly educated on this depressing phenomenon. It was quite a rude awakening. It was like, "Where the hell is everyone?!" Some of this has to do with playing shows in a bigger city, of course, where there's so much going on on any given night that you have to have a pretty big name on the bill to get a big crowd, but it was also a sign of the times, a foreboding warning that the 90s were here...uuuuughhh. So glad that accursed decade is long passed. I still have nightmares about it.
You originally formed Slough Feg in our hometown in Pennsylvania, but it was a bit different than what you'd eventually become, right?
Well, not that much different. Omar Herrd sang in the Pennsylvania version; that was the major distinction. But the music was pretty much the same, a lot of the same songs. The line-up changed a lot over the years, but I like to think I replaced people with, perhaps, the west coast counterparts of those I had back east, people who were into similar stuff at similar times, but in different places. In fact, John Cobbett, who played guitar for Slough Feg for years (along with Hammers of Misfortune), was in sort of parallel hardcore/metal bands (to H.O.D.) in the 80s in Washington D.C., and even opened up for B.G.K. there on that same tour we did in Harrisburg. And interestingly, Sore Throat, from Yorkshire, U.K., opened up that same tour for B.G.K. (which was in 1986) in England, and of course Sore Throat was Rich Walker's band, who eventually started Solstice, long time tour mates and friends of Slough Feg. Small world I guess, or small underground tape-trading network. But the point is, the guys in Slough Feg now, and in the past, were often people with very similar musical backgrounds to me and you, from the 80s onward, like Angelo [Tringali, current Slough Feg guitarist] for instance, who was into all the same stuff and saw all the same shows and even opened some of the same ones we did.
When you moved to San Francisco in the early 90s, Bay Area thrash was pretty much over and you guys weren't ever thrash anyway. How did that go for you guys and why did you move there?
Yeah, I think it's pretty clear to most people by now that we never had much to do at all with the thrash scene. I certainly was not moving to the Bay Area to be part of that. I wasn't opposed to it, but it wasn't my thing at all. I was more into metal/hardcore crossover right at its inception, like we talked about earlier. Thrash to me sounded very one-dimensional and I never got that into it. I really liked 'Ride The Lightning' and 'Master Of Puppets', but I wasn't that into 'Kill 'Em All' for some reason, although I kinda like it now. But Metallica was never my favorite the way it was everyone else's at the time. I like 'Bonded By Blood' by Exodus a lot, actually - that's probably my favorite thrash album. But I can't stand what Exodus became after that, and I never liked Testament or Death Angel or any of that stuff. It just didn't move me, and sounded very derivative and flat, I thought. So when that all died it didn't really phase me, but I'm sure it affected me in ways I didn't realize at the time. Because we did play some shows with Epidemic and Vio-lence and some bands like that when we first got to the Bay Area, and they were pretty decent shows. We ended up playing with alternative and punk bands after that, and no one liked us.
I remember when I lived in San Francisco in the early 90s you guys played some great shows but a lot of people really hated you! What made you persevere?
We also played some terrible shows! But yes, the general consensus was, "What the fuck is this!? These guys SUCK!" People really hated us, perhaps because we were doing the most unfashionable thing possible at that time. Grunge and funk-rock was getting huge, metal was out, and everyone was trying to strip everything down to a really basic sound with low droning vocals and drab sounding guitar riffs, and we were getting up there playing long-winded, epic musical compositions (and barely able to pull them off), with operatic, Iron Maiden-style vocals. It must've sounded like we were just hitting the SUCK button. But we loved it, and of course I'm sure part of our motivation for doing it was because it pissed everyone off. I couldn't have been more opposed to the fashionable music styles of the 90s. The idea of consciously playing boring, drab music was repulsive to me, and I had no respect for almost every band we played with for this reason. I was totally into experimentation and incorporating bizarre musical styles into metal, and into playing plain old traditional metal as well. And anything that even vaguely resembled 80s metal back then was the antithesis of cool. So of course, I thought it was ultimately cool to give them exactly what they didn't want! I don't regret a minute of it, and it was a blast, because we did actually play some great shows then, and pissed a lot of people off.
We came up with some great songs too, that made it onto albums when metal came back around, at first in Europe and then in America. Around '97, '98, people finally started coming back around to what we were doing, and realized we'd been putting on war-paint, burning torches and donning swords and spears on stage and singing about disembowelment since the early 90s, even before a lot of the European black metal bands were, and way before American bands were imitating this style. So we got some credit then. By '99 we were sort of back in style and able to tour Europe, get record deals, and then we were able to take that massive catalogue of songs we'd been writing for all those years that nobody wanted to hear, and record them professionally. This was great because we had almost three albums' full of stuff we'd amassed from as early as 1990, so we put the second two Slough Feg albums out relatively quickly [Slough Feg self-released their debut album in 1996], and they did quite well in Europe. It was a pretty triumphant feeling to finally get recognized, especially in Europe, after all those years of rejection over here.
You guys are, of course, a metal band, but I remember I sold you a Black Flag record back in the day so I know you have some punk roots. Do you feel that's ever manifested in Slough Feg?
Of course! I would have thought that was apparent from the beginning, but perhaps it isn't. I first got into Black Flag in 1984. I think someone else sold me 'Damaged', and then a few years later I bought some stuff off of you; it was 'Who's Got the Ten and a Half', Black Flag's live album. In fact I think you taped a bunch of old hardcore records for me eventually, 'cause I was a little later getting into it than you. I was first into metal, just the usual stuff: Maiden, Sabbath, Ozzy, Priest, AC/DC, and all that stuff. And then Venom and Exodus and stuff like that, and then Black Flag. I found Black Flag to have some of the elements I liked about metal, like great riffs and cool guitar solos, and raw Sabbath-like production, which I liked. But it was the vocals that made it stand out for me. First of all, it had the kind of vocals that I thought anyone could do, which was good. I thought it was attainable because you could easily do it yourself, whereas singing like Rob Halford was not going to happen so easily. It was easier to imagine yourself playing hardcore because it was much simpler than metal. Real metal, that is, with guitar harmonies and complex arrangements and difficult vocals, so I think I liked hardcore a lot for that reason. Then I got into Minor Threat, who were perhaps the greatest hardcore band of that period, and then a bunch of other stuff. It was just more real than a lot of metal, more street level and sort of achievable with cheap equipment and non-virtuoso musicians. So the first bands I was in, as you know, were hardcore bands.
I'd wanted to do a metal band earlier, but, as we've also discussed, most of the metalheads in central Pennsylvania didn't really have it together to start a band. Punk and hardcore kids tended to be a little more educated, organized, and on the ball. There were several hardcore bands in the area, but not many teenage metal bands. And the metal bands that existed were bar bands that only played covers, and we didn't want to have anything to do with that scene, obviously. That's another thing I miss about the 80s: there weren't that many bands. Equipment was hard to come by, recording was almost impossible without a lot of money, i.e. you had to really want it to be in a band, and not as many people were willing to sacrifice so much to do it, unlike now when anyone can start a band easily and record an album in their bedroom. Back then there were way less bands and way less records out by small bands, so you could stand out, be recognized and play in front of way more people easily if you did the work of getting a band together. It was so much more rare, more special back then. And if you really were terrible, people would recognize it and boo you off stage. These days it seems like there's no quality control, and it hardly matters how good or bad you are. The supply-to-demand ratio is totally different. A show was a special occasion back then, at least where we came from. I suppose it is natural that things went the way they did in the last twenty five years, especially with MTV and all.
Speaking of getting booed or heckled on stage, a couple of years ago Slough Feg played a show with my band (Chesty Malone and the Slice 'em Ups) here in New York. First of all, I want to say that you guys were extremely loud! How's your hearing holding up? And second, I don't know if you noticed because you didn't react, but a drunk, retarded friend of ours was there and he didn't know we were friends and he was heckling and booing you guys, saying stupid stuff like, "Bring back Chesty! We want Chesty!" hahaha! Then he got so wasted that we brought him home with us, along with you guys, and the next morning he woke up, surrounded by various members of Slough Feg and said, "Oh man, you guys were great last night!" You remember that, and/or were you aware of that at all?
Well, my ears aren't too good. I have pretty bad ringing, all that stuff. I haven't stopped playing loud for so long that it's pretty bad. I use ear plugs now, but even that doesn't help that much. When you have to sing and play at the same time it's really hard to do it with ear plugs in. I don't remember that incident with that heckling guy because I wasn't there for most of it. I don't remember him at the show, and if your memory serves you at all I didn't go back to your house that night, I went out chasing that blonde metal chick through Manhattan, only to be cock-blocked by that Norwegian guy from the old Slayer magazine. Remember? She was at the show and instead of going back to Staten Island [where Anthony lived at the time] with you guys, I went with that girl to another bar, and then another, and then her house, with that dude trailing us the whole way. I can't remember his name, but he was one of those Norwegian black metal dudes, and he was sleeping on her couch and didn't want me to do anything with her, or something. Who knows what the hell was going on. But anyway, that's when I ended up walking the streets at 6 am on Thanksgiving Day. You picked me up at the Staten Island ferry at like 1 pm. Remember?
Ha oh yeah! I remember that guy was some sort of "mover and shaker" in the Norwegian black metal scene or something. Getting back to the metal thing for a minute, I wanted to ask you if you're at all into the Dio version of Black Sabbath? I've become very enamored of it over the last few years and I've begun to wonder why the Ozzy purists are so vehemently opposed when clearly Dio Sabbath is so vastly superior to solo Ozzy! What do you think?
I think you know the answer to that. In fact if my memory serves me, back in the old days you didn't like Dio too much, but I was always defending him. I always loved 'Mob Rules' and 'Heaven And Hell', but I'm not crazy about the later two albums they did. But they were still cool live, right up until the bitter end. Still bumming majorly about Mr. Dio. What a raw deal.
You and I grew up in a college town where both our fathers were associated with the university and now you're teaching at a college in California, right? I like the symmetry and coming full circle angle of that, but do you ever feel like a walking, breathing paradox, being an intellectual, college professor guy [Mike is a Philosophy teacher] while also fronting a sometimes brutal and always loud heavy metal band?
Not really, the two seem to go together actually. There is the annoying, inescapable reality of students knowing about or finding out about my band, which gets irritating in class especially when they think that they can bring it up and ask me questions about it during a lecture or something, because since I'm in a metal band I must be "cool" enough to let them blurt out something irrelevant. But usually they are cured of this delusion shortly after. But it doesn't ever feel like a paradox, because you always hear punk and metal musicians talking about philosophy and stuff like that. They may not always know what they're talking about, but they always seem interested. It often feels more like being Bruce Wayne or something, putting on your costume at night, and then waking up the next day all straight-laced and going to a normal job - kinda cool in a fantasy sort of way. Being an authority figure to kids can be a very metal sort of thing, metal is supposed to be very dictatorial, or something, I guess.
OK, as a long-time friend and fan of Slough Feg, I've always thought you should release a record comprised of all of the "High Seasons" on it. Will that ever happen and will there be any more "High Seasons" from you guys? Maybe you should even re-record all the "High Seasons" with the current band and put them in proper order? And please explain, for those who don't know, what the series of "High Season" songs are about.
I don't know if I ever want to do that. Especially now that there are all these downloading and iPod capabilities, you can put songs in whatever order you want and find weird live and demo versions of songs online. I'm not really interested in carrying the "High Season" thing to the next level. Kinda the point of those songs is that they're on different albums, sort of going in reverse order so that you can put them together yourself, sort of a "collect them all" thing. I think I like it that way. Plus, I wrote those when I was very young. It's kind of a silly concept about God and Satan in this cyclical relationship, changing positions from heaven to hell every few thousand years - kind of nifty, but I don't really see it going any further. Sorry guy.
Ahh well, I had to ask anyway. I know you guys have a new album coming out soon. What can you tell me about it?
Not much. It's another Slough Feg album. I like it, in fact I like it more than the last two for sure. It has a lot more interesting song content, I think. There are songs on it about medieval Catholic theology (and not in the usual metal sense of "religion is evil" or anything), a couple songs inspired by 60s campy horror soap opera "Dark Shadows," a few about basic misery and madness, and a cover of Alan Parson's Project's Poe-inspired "The Tell Tale Heart." So it's kind of a "horror" album, which of course has been done many times before, but not by us, and not in this way. The songs are very sing-songy, very vocals-based, which is new for us. It felt like something new when we recorded it, and I think it may sound somewhat fresh, since our last couple, to me, felt like we were treading on old ground to an extent.
One last question. One night back in the early- or perhaps mid-90s you told me if Slough Feg ever broke up you would form a one-man band comprised of yourself and backing tapes with you dressed as a caveman, called Jungleboy. Will that ever happen?
I don't think I wanted to do it with backing tapes, but maybe if my band broke up and I wanted to continue with the drums and war paint and torches and all that. So I figured if that happened I'd keep doing the same kinda thing but change the name to "Jungle Boy," because I'd seen a movie from like, the forties I think, with this kid dressed kinda like I used to on stage, and thought it was cool. I suppose in a way that's what happened, 'cause slowly everyone from that line-up dropped off and I still do a lot of the same material and sometimes look the same. I just kept the name. I was against that idea back then cause I thought it was ridiculous for bands like Black Sabbath to continue as Black Sabbath with just Tony Iommi, and I felt weird when I continued as Slough Feg without Justin Phelps, particularly, and then Greg Haa. But at that point we were so established, and I would have continued singing all the songs and writing and playing them under another name, and it seemed to not make much sense not calling it Slough Feg, since I started the band in Pennsylvania with totally different members anyway. I never thought it was weird for Lemmy to call his band Motorhead after Phil and Eddy left, since it was sort of his band, and he was the main point. So I guess, although it may sound arrogant, I felt the same about Slough Feg. But now, with the current lineup I don't feel that way at all; we are more of a band again - in fact perhaps more of a "band" than ever, at least since the original San Francisco line-up. Angelo and Adrian and Harry are pretty unit-like; there's a lot of personality there which sort of gives them equal footing with me. Harry's arrival brought quite a bit of that one, his participation in all band matters and his attitude sort of sealed the circle again, making Slough Feg an actual band again, rather than Scalzi and two or three guys sort of playing behind him. And Adrian and Angelo stepped up on stage considerably compared to their predecessors and really put on a show. There's a very good live vibe now between the band - by far the best we've had. And as far as I'm concerned, a metal band is all about live.
Thanks Mike! Maybe we can get together and do some Heart of Darkness 25th anniversary reunion gigs next year, hahaha!
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