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Interview: Mike Scalzi (Slough Feg)

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Heavy metal traditionalist Mike Scalzi has made his mark on metal’s underbelly by leading San Francisco’s Slough Feg, as well as lending his pipes to a couple great albums by Hammers of Misfortune. For that alone, he’s a man worth speaking to.

But he also has a history with Invisible Oranges. Scalzi guest-blogged here in 2010, during the reign of founder Cosmo Lee (relive your nostalgia here, and now release it, please). His column, Bullpen Bulletins, roused discussion and ire, particularly his comments on extreme metal. (Hint: he’s not a fan).

Years later, Scalzi is back to defend his views and promote Slough Feg’s new album, The Digital Resistance.

— Joseph Schafer

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So, I write for Invisible Oranges. Do you remember the site?

Oh yeah. I remember. As a matter of fact I think I just read something there where someone wrote something about the “Digital Resistance” single, and said something to the effect of “I like the music but not the ‘get off my lawn’ attitude.” [laughs]. Maybe that was you?

No, actually, that’s my boss. [laughs] His name’s Doug

I think a lot of people didn’t really understand what I was talking about. I don’t really care, but I guess I’m this crotchety old man coming in to write about “Get off my lawn!” [laughs] If I’m going to have a reputation on the internet for metal, actually, that’s the one I want.

So I confess, I’m one of those people who read your op-ed on IO, and I was totally one of those guys who felt like…Why is Mike angry at me?

I don’t think I was particularly angry. Maybe it came off that way, but that wasn’t how I wrote it. People really had a strong reaction to it. I thought it was bizarre. The whole thing is very amusing, first off. I don’t take it very seriously. It’s fine if other people take it seriously, but I would hope that people have other things to be serious about, other than some weird guy’s opinion on heavy metal. That’s what blew me away; why is my opinion so important? I don’t think it is at all. The thing got on NPR. Somehow I saw that, I got phone calls about my column bering reprinted on NPR. Cosmo told me it got more comments than anything on there before, or something similar to that, which blew my mind. What I realize looking back is I don’t read much stuff like that. I barely read any heavy metal blogs or websites. So you’ve got to realize I came into it with no fucking idea what the whole standard or climate is. I have no idea, no clue. I was just saying what I’d say to someone in person. It’s not journalism. It’s just me telling my opinions the way I would shoot the shit with friends. I mean, I understand people’s reaction. This is music you love and I’m sitting here bashing it, but I’m just baffled by that kind of music. I just don’t get it.

But really, what happened was that Cosmo came to me — and I had never even heard of Invisible Oranges. I didn’t know Pitchfork at that time. So, I got this email asking to write something for this online magazine about contemporary metal, and I said pretty much verbatim, “I’m flattered but I don’t really know if you want me to. I don’t have anything good to say about contemporary metal.” And he said, “Just talk about that, then, I’d like that.” So I did, and people asked, “Why would Scalzi publish this on a site that covers extreme metal?” I had no fucking idea. [laughs]

And I’m kind of glad that I didn’t have any idea. Is that true that Invisible Oranges is particularly geared toward the stuff I was trashing?

Invisible Oranges is one of the only sites, I think, that appeals to both audiences.

Both audiences like what, extreme and not extreme?

Sure. I mean, I was a reader before I started writing there, and I love both styles. I think there’s a lot of us — and maybe I’m wrong — but a lot of us go both ways.

I know there are. A lot of people go both ways. And that was one of my frustrations with the article. Why can’t I go both ways? It just doesn’t make sense to me. I know there are a lot of people that like my band and also this other stuff, and I don’t get it. It doesn’t sound like anything to me. It’s weird. And that’s the point, somewhat.

OK, here’s the key to me: in that article you wrote that heavy metal is a sub-genre of rock music.

Yes.

I disagree.

What? Really?

Traditional heavy metal is. Iron Maiden is a kind of rock music. Extreme metal is no longer rock music. It’s now a different thing.

Yes, that’s right. That’s it entirely.

I don’t think that’s actually a controversial thing to say.

[laughing] No! Not at all!

But it is an unusual thing to say.

What? That I like rock music?

“I am a metalhead that only likes rock music.’

Yes, that seems like it’s probably the case. That absolutely is the case. That’s not that weird I don’t think. I think a lot of older metalheads approach it from there. I think a lot of it has to do with age, and when you grew up. To me metal is rock music, and it’s music-music. It’s not noise. I do like Venom; it’s not a problem with the noisiness per se. It’s not that it’s sloppiness. With Venom, the songs make sense to me. Venom is rock music.

Well they’re a pop band. It’s a big hook and a sing-along chorus every song.

Exactly. So, to me, that makes sense on the musical side of it, those traditional values. Although, I do like weird music as well that is not metal. But to me, death, black and extreme metal have more in common with experimental noise stuff and industrial music than with rock, like we were just talking about. So I don’t think I would have been originally as put off by it if the people who made it didn’t call it heavy metal of some sort. If it was marketed as industrial noise music I would have accepted it as a different thing. It’s all in the approach and association of it.

I don’t disagree, but you know, the get off my lawn thing does come up on your new album. For example, my favorite song on it is “Curriculum Vitae.”

Oh really? Eh…

You don’t like it?

Oh, I like it, but no one has said that so far. The guys in the band kinda think it’s boring.

Screw your bandmates. That song is awesome.

[laughs]

But there’s a line in there about a generation being doomed.

Well, maybe you’re taking that too directly, too literally. But, more than anything, I’m being metaphorical. I don’t think any generation is more doomed than they already obviously are. That song is not about metal, it’s about being a teacher. In fact there’s very little on this record that was meant as a critique of modern music. I talked about learning curves on that song. The song is about the achievement gap, where a lot of kids at the top are getting A’s and a lot of kids are failing, and there isn’t an awful lot in between, and you see a lot of that in schools this days. Obliviously a curriculum vitae is a résumé, but it had the word curriculum in the title.

See, I saw the CV part and interpreted that as, you know, “what’s your metal cred?”

Oh god! [laughs] Well I do write songs with kind of ambiguous lyrics like that, and people do tend to attach meaning to them, and think I’m talking about something more specific that I am. I’m not always.

But that’s what’s cool about your lyrics, and also something cool that classic metal bands did.

Even though they aren’t always the most artistic, or the best lyrics. I mean, look at Dio. You could say Dio was one of the worst lyricists in rock music. His lyrics were so fucked up, and don’t make any sense. At the same time you can interpret them so many ways. They could mean a lot to someone. I don’t think they meant anything to him. I think he was just talking out of his ass and making it up.

When you write lyrics, what do you want out of them?

I want them to be done [laughs]. I want them to sound great with the song, with their phonetics. The poetics of the song are what I care about. The literal meaning is not very important to me. I want them to sound powerful to me. Now they need to have enough sense to not sound, you know, “what the hell?” although they might be that way. But the priority is not the literal meaning. But they do have some meaning. “Analogue Avengers,” the first track on the album, is about an engineer or someone sticking to the old ways and is alienated. It’s very simply about that. It’s weird being on the inside of all this thinking of Slough Feg being a mystery to anybody. People are wondering what I’m thinking, but really I’m not thinking anything, I’m just making these songs. Inevitably things come out of the music, sometimes unintentionally, that might be revealing or mysterious, but to me it’s an attempt to do something fun, that fuels me. It’s very simple. It’s not very thought out.

That’s funny to me. You’re a man of thinking, you’re a philosophy professor.

True enough. It’s thinking man’s music in the sense that a lot of people who like it are intellectuals, but it’s thinking in a sense musically. The music itself takes a lot of development and skill. Editing, let’s put it that way. There’s a lot of editing involved. Planning? Not so much.

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