Brian Slagel of Metal Blade Records
Interview by Andrew Daly
When Woodland Hills, California native Brian Slagel launched Metal Blade Records in 1982, he couldn’t have known that 41 years later, the label would not only remain but be a quintessential example of indie success.
What’s more, considering Slagel was just 20 years old at the time, he couldn’t have possibly had the foresight to envision his label becoming a verifiable institution upon which the heavy metal community is built. And that mindset seems to be a theme because in 2017, when Slagel penned his first book, For the Sake of Heaviness, he never envisioned that a few years later, he’d be working on another, Swing of the Blade.
In truth, Brian Slagel never set out to be a CEO or an author, but in the here and now, he’s both and oh-so-much more. Over the years, Slagel has played metal-loving point guard, helping young bands achieve their dreams through intuitive compilations such as the legendary Metal Massacre compilation or a seemingly never-ending desire to take in new music and give it back to the ever-hungry masses.
It’s a bit of a dirty job within a dirty business, but Slagel has never been swayed by trends or generally over-manicured, contrived hyper-commercialism. No, Slagel is the sort that’s always gone to the beat of his own drum. Be it signing an unknown band he has a feeling about or bringing a fledging veteran band back home, to say that Slagel and his label are the lifeblood of metal may well be the understatement of the century.
And so, here we are in 2023. Against all odds, the little label that could has raged on for 41 years, and the man who never had any intention other than to do his part is still helming the ship. Of course, you don’t hang around for this long without amassing stories. And to be sure, Brian Slagel has a whole hell of a lot of them.
During a recent break from the prescribed chaos, Brian Slagel dialed in with Classic Rock History to discuss the inception of his second book, Swing of the Blade, as well as the journey that saw a kid from California parlay an independent compilation into a lifelong journey of self-exploration via a love for heavy metal.
What moved the needle toward you writing your second book, Swing of the Blade?
Brian Slagel: I was shocked by the first book’s reception [For the Sake of Heaviness]. I wasn’t expecting the reception to be as great as it was. And then many people kept telling me, “Hey, we’d love to hear more stories about Metal Blade and the more obscure bands.” them. So, I said to myself, “Well, since the first book did so well… I guess I could write another.” And so, I did. But initially, this book was supposed to be part of the Metal Blade 40th anniversary celebration, but with the pandemic and a paper shortage, we had to hold it back until now.
Did any long-forgotten moments suddenly shake loose as you put Swing of the Blade together?
Slagel: That’s a good question. So, with this book, I put it together very differently than the first. Because with the first book, I went about that in chronological order, which made things easier. I could go in order, and think back on the stories regarding each band, how things went down, and all that good stuff. But with this one, I was going back and re-digging into various eras that were maybe worth expanding on. Or I was shedding light on things I left out of the first book for one reason or another.
While there were a lot of differences in writing each of these books, there had to be some similarities, too, right?
Slagel: Oh, for sure. With both For the Sake of Heaviness and Swing of the Blade, I wanted to ensure that all the bands were cool with whatever I wrote. So, I sent all of them and their specific chapters to ensure that the dates were correct and that I got nothing wrong. Because honestly, a lot has happened over the years, and it would be easy to miss a detail. I didn’t want that, so I took that part of both books seriously. But for the most part, my memory was pretty good. There were a few dates and tidbits that bands reminded me of, but I was cool with that; it only added more depth to the stories.
What went into choosing Kerry King to write the forward?
Slagel: Kerry and I have been friends since Slayer first signed with Metal Blade. And we’ve only gotten closer as the years have gone by. When it came time to choose someone to do the forward, Kerry was obvious because we’re so close, and I wanted to keep it in the family. For a moment, I considered another good friend, Chris Jericho, but he’s not really part of the Metal Blade family. But Kerry isn’t normally one to do something like that, so we had to run it by him first. Thankfully, he was up for it and did a spectacular job. It felt right to keep it in the family and have someone I’ve been close with since the start. Kerry was there initially and is important to the label’s history.
With the 40th anniversary having come and gone, does the longevity of Metal Blade still surprise you?
Slagel: Very much so. I’ve thought that at every important sign marker along the way. I guess it’s one of those things where if you hang around long enough, you start getting respect from the people within the scene, you know? It wasn’t always that way for us, but because we’ve been doing it so long, I think we’ve settled in as respected elders or something [laughs]. So, yeah, I think we get a lot of that, which is great. But I can’t give enough credit to the staff at Metal Blade; they’re the reason we’re here and continue to be. The fact that we’re now past the 40-year mark is amazing, and I’m so thankful for it.
Going back to the beginning, could you have imagined that the Metal Massacre compilation would resonate as it did?
Slagel: I had absolutely zero clue about anything. Back then, we were just a bunch of fans. I was a young and dumb kid who was trying to do anything he could to make an impact on the scene. I knew I couldn’t play an instrument, so I figured, “Well, what can I do to make a difference?” And I ended up starting a fanzine [The New Heavy Metal Revue], and it just snowballed. I thought that maybe I’d turn some people onto some new music, so I worked to make the Metal Massacre compilation. But I had no idea that it would have the success it did. I was by no means prepared for it, but I stuck it out and made it work somehow. To this day, whenever I hang out with the guys in Metallica, I’ll look over at Lars [Ulrich], and we’ll say to each other, “Dude… how the hell did this happen?”
Metal Massacre aside, what was the pivotal moment that changed everything for Metal Blade?
Slagel: That’s always such a tricky question to answer. I have to say, early on, it was a very slow trajectory. I can’t say there was one moment where we went from a little, tiny, nothing label to a larger—but still independent—label. It felt like it took forever, but that could also be because I watched it all unfold in real time. But I will say that one moment sticks out in my mind that maybe pushed things in a greater direction.
The first was in the early ’90s when metal was considered dead. At that point, everyone thought it was over for metal. The business was awful, and many things were working against us. But I never felt that way. I said to people, “Look, metal is not dead, and it’s not dying. This is going to change.” And I stood by that because there were still a lot of outstanding metal records coming out; they just weren’t super popular. So, I kept encouraging people to listen, and we kept doing what we did.
So, you feel that Metal Blade standing its ground cemented its standing in many people’s minds, then?
Slagel: I think so. We kept encouraging people to listen to the metal records coming out at that time because there was a lot of good stuff coming out in the ’90s. It was all underground, but it was primed to thrive again. And then, if we fast forward to the early 2000s, things swung the other way, and the whole metalcore scene kicked off. That was a massive lift to the metal scene, and it became a second life for Metal Blade, too. We were right there with our fingers on the pulse of all these great metal bands, just like we were in the ’80s. That was a nice bit of validation to finally have people see that what we were saying in the ’90s was the case.
Metal Blade was instrumental in launching bands like Metallica and Slayer but was also in on the glam scene. How do you measure the importance of Metal Blade to that end?
Slagel: I was never a huge hair metal guy, but you’re right; we were right there. And L.A. was an interesting place in the early ’80s when that was kicking off. So, when I was putting together the Metal Massacre tape, I knew I had to include bands like Steeler, Ratt, and Black N’ Blue. But it’s also worth noting that all those bands were much heavier back then. They only became more glam after signing major label deals. But initially, it didn’t matter about the genre; it was all for one, one for all.
Mötley Crüe was supposed to sign be a part of the Metal Massacre tape, right?
Slagel: Yeah, Mötley was supposed to be on the Metal Massacre tape, but their management came in and said, “Hey, we have 900 Mötley Crüe records; what do we do with them?” And I was like, “I can’t move those. You should take them to this distributor that I know that’s helping me out….” And, of course, everything went crazy from there. But I had heard the Mötley record, and I did like it. But I was also like, “Wow, this isn’t as heavy as I thought.” It was the same with Ratt, though. They sounded more like Judas Priest in the early days, but that changed. Interestingly, bands like Mötley and Ratt were way heavier before that whole scene exploded and changed the sounds of so many bands.
What was your relationship with Mötley like before that happened?
Slagel: Before their first album came out, I was working at a record store, and all I knew about at that point was European metal, like New Wave of British Heavy Metal type stuff. That’s what I loved, and it’s what I tried to expose people to when I worked there. Well, one of the guys who would come into the record store all the time said to me one day, “Hey, you know there are tons of great metal bands in L.A., right?” And I was like, “Oh, really?”
So, he gave me the rundown, and I went down to the Troubadour in L.A. to see Mötley Crüe and Ratt when they were super young. I remember it was a Wednesday night, and I paid $1 to get in [laughs]. But I loved the show and said, “Oh, wow, there are good metal bands here.” From there, I got involved in the scene and used my job at the record store to help promote as many of these bands as possible. I ended up booking shows in the Valley near where I lived, so bands wouldn’t have to drive so far.
Like I said earlier, I started the fanzine, and Mötley Crüe and their management would constantly be buying up ad space there. And then, at some point, we ran into the people who handled Sounds Magazine, which was this big U.K. magazine at the time, and we became friendly with them. So, I told them about this young band called Mötley Crüe, and they ended up loving them and doing this big article on Mötley Crüe. It was three or four pages, and the band exploded in the U.K. from there.
Do you have any regrets regarding not including Mötley Crüe on Metal Massacre?
Slagel: My mindset back then was the same as now: I want bands to succeed. And that means if I’m involved, that’s great. But if I’m not involved, that’s fine too. And with Mötley, it didn’t make any sense because the whole idea of Metal Massacre was to expose people to bands they hadn’t heard of. And by the time we were putting together the final thing, Mötley had already started to take off. They hadn’t signed to a major label yet but were very close. So, it didn’t make sense to have them on the tape because everyone knew that.
One band that did make it on was Metallica. Do you feel they were bound to break regardless of being included on Metal Massacre?
Slagel: That’s another tough question. I’m such good friends with them, and whenever I see them, Lars and especially James [Hetfield] always have said, “Man, if it wasn’t for Metal Blade, Metallica might not have ever existed.” Because the backstory was that Lars and James had jammed a couple of times, but nothing came out of it. They couldn’t put together a band because there weren’t other players that made sense in terms of what they were trying to do. And, at that point, Lars was still learning to play drums. But still, Lars asked if they could be on Metal Massacre, and I said, “Of course.”
So, Lars went to James and said, “Look, we can be on this album; let’s make this happen.” And this was back in ’81 before anything had happened for them. But it turned out to be a huge thing for them because being on any album like that has a legitimizing effect. It made it so they could get some people in the band, and we know what happened from there. But you never know how fate goes, right? I’m happy that I could play whatever small role I did in helping those guys get started. But you have to figure that a band that’s been so good for so long would break somehow, someway, regardless.
Looking back, how do you measure the importance of Metal Massacre on the trajectory of heavy metal overall?
Slagel: It’s always nice to talk to people who were around in the ’80s when they tell me that Metal Massacre is how they discovered so many bands. Because that was the whole reason I did it; at that time, there was no Headbanger’s Ball, no Metal Edge, and no internet to give the news to people, so Metal Massacre was kind of it. It became a staging ground for young bands, and I’m so happy it did. It made me happy to facilitate getting these bands heard. So, it’s always nice when I hear people say, “Oh, man, I grew up on those tapes. That’s how I found Overkill or Metal Church.” And since then, other labels like Megaforce have done things just like it, so it certainly mattered.
Is there one record or band that didn’t break but you wish did?
Slagel: I’m sad to say there have been many of those. I always go back to Armored Saint’s Symbol of Salvation, which, when we put it out in ’91, I thought was going to be massive. Everything was set up for it to be big, but there was one big problem: it was 1991. You know what happened… Nirvana released Nevermind, and the world decided they no longer cared about metal. The radio stations went from playing metal to grunge overnight, and it screwed that record badly. But you never know how having a big record might have altered people’s lives for better or worse. Things in their career may have gone in an unforeseen direction, impacting their lives unexpectedly.
What’s a young band people should be looking out for?
Slagel: Oh, gosh, there are too many. But there’s this young band called 200 Stab Wounds that we’re very excited about. I’m an old guy, so I’ve seen many shows, but these guys are so good that we signed them after seeing them for the first time in Las Vegas. They’ve got so much energy. I think I’m more excited about our bands these days. It’s still important for Metal Blade to be a label that works to keep the heavy metal flag waving. We’ll do that by supporting each band and working on getting them to higher levels. So, it’s just business as usual. Metal Blade will continue to do what we do and keep making things work like always.
An Interview With Brian Slagel Of Metal Blade Records article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2023
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