Welcome to our second exclusive excerpt from Metal Blade Records founder Brian Slagel’s upcoming book, Swing of the Blade: More Stories from Metal Blade Records. This week, we present a portion of the chapter “You Win Some, You Lose Some,” which features metalcore heroes Killswitch Engage. If you want to read more, Swing of the Blade is set for a May 9 release and can be preordered here).
You Win Some, You Lose Some
As healthy as things are currently, I do occasionally hear people saying that many of the current metalcore bands sound pretty much the same. To a certain extent, I take that point on board. There is some truth in the fact that there does appear to be a certain formula that’s becoming a little worn and predictable.
Consequently, whenever I’m asked the question, “So what are you looking for when you sign a new band?” (which I am frequently!) nowadays I tend to respond with the same piece of advice.
“I’m looking for something original and different,” I’ll say.
That’s it. That’s all I’m looking for. And the reason the requirement is so simple is that while the big metalcore bands that have been on our label, like As I Lay Dying, Killswitch Engage, The Black Dahlia Murder and Unearth all had distinctive influences, they acquired those influences because they’d taken the time to go back and study the history. To that extent, they were the pioneers of this new movement. To be influenced in some small way by Iron Maiden or Saxon or Thin Lizzy or whoever from back in the day was their rite of passage.
However, during the entirety of the 2000s, I can’t tell you how many demo tapes I’ve received from bands that just sound exactly like the four bands mentioned above. It was as if these bands had skipped a step, and instead of going way back to the origin of the metalcore genre to apply some of that influence for themselves, they had simply mimicked their established forerunners.
Don’t get me wrong—I completely understand why these aspiring bands do what they do. They look at a successful band on our label like Killswitch Engage, listen to the music and think: we can sound like that. How difficult can it be?
But people like me—and presumably bosses at other metal labels— can see right through that approach. Consequently, whenever the subject comes up with up-and-coming bands, after I’ve told them to be original and different, I’ll add something to the effect of, “It’s OK to have these influences, but please don’t sound like them.”
It might seem like semantics, but what I want more than anything for these new bands is for them to take these influences and form their own sound, their own look and end up with their own complete vision for what they want to be.
I also want them to please themselves and nobody else. If there are five guys or girls in a band, the only people who need to be into what they’re doing is them. Forget record companies, managers, girlfriends, friends or other musicians. By all means listen to opinions, but a band should be making music for themselves first and foremost.
Ask any band: Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath, Lamb of God, Metallica or Killswitch Engage. They all make music for themselves.
Equally, I’m sure we could all name a few bands that were really successful for a time, especially in the ‘80s, then suddenly dropped off a cliff. Many of them did so because instead of sticking to what had got them to where they were, they started listening to A & R people who were telling them what they should sound like. Music history is littered with casualties of that kind. Other people’s opinions derailed the artistic vision of so many great bands.
So for me, the guy who has signed bands, ranging from Mother Feather to Rivers of Nihil to Aeon—and everything in between, it’s vital to say that we’ve done so because they’ve all got something unique going on.
Funnily enough, when we signed Mother Feather, I recall getting a bit of shit about it. With their two female vocalists and a stage show more synonymous with ’70s glam, people inevitably said, “Oh, they’re not a metal band. They shouldn’t be on Metal Blade.”
First of all, Mother Feather was signed to Blacklight, and for all the reasons I’ve discussed. Secondly, when we signed a technical death metal band like Rivers Of Nihil, everyone was seemingly fine with it—even though they’ve got a frickin’ saxophone on one of their records!
Normally I’d be the first one to say that a saxophone on a technical death metal record is a little weird. Equally, I’d be the last guy to tell an artist what to do and not do. But it works, and people like it. So it’s all totally cool, and it’s a way of getting bands to stand out from the crowd. Both Mother Feather and Rivers Of Nihil do that, albeit in radically different ways.
As it stands, I haven’t had the time to go and see many new bands in recent years. There was no scene whatsoever in L.A. before I moved to Vegas and there isn’t much of one here either. As a result, many bands we’ve signed I never saw perform live and in person before they joined us. I guess that’s what the Internet is for, anyway. I can go on YouTube and see some decent quality stuff, so that I’m not completely in the dark about what a new band is like live—especially if they’re from Knoxville, Tennessee or somewhere in Europe. But it’s a lot different to how it was in the ‘80s, when all I did was go and see live bands around L.A. The dynamic has completely changed.
While I’m talking about signing bands to the label, at this point I should probably say that nobody was more surprised to sign Killswitch Engage to Metal Blade in 2019 than me! How it all came about was quite a funny story. Years ago, my good friend Paul Conroy, who was managing Unearth at one point, introduced me to the guys at Strong Management: Vaughn Lewis and Kenny Gabor, at a time when we were looking for management for As I Lay Dying. They ended up managing the band, and because of our mutual love of metal and sports, we all became very good friends. Just like me, Vaughn’s favorite band is Iron Maiden.
As is common in the metal world, I’d often go and see other people’s bands, even if they weren’t necessarily touring with one of our artists. The first time I ever saw Killswitch Engage live, they were out with Lamb of God and Shadows Fall on a tour in 2004, with Unearth opening for half of the run and God Forbid opening for the other. We were at the Denver show, I believe, and it was just one night on a great tour.
Now, I don’t mind saying that I wasn’t the biggest fan of the first self-titled Killswitch Engage record released in 2000. I thought it was good, but nothing more than that. I was no huge fan, though many were. But by the time I saw them on the 2004 tour I hadn’t actually heard the latest record that came out that same year, The End Of Heartache, with Howard Jones on vocals.
When I was standing around backstage talking with some people, I heard Killswitch playing.
“Who’s that singer?” I said.
“That’s the new guy,” someone told me. “Oh my god!” I said.
I went out front and saw them and they were incredible. Over time I became really good friends of theirs; they’re all just good guys and, again, huge sports fans. Whenever they were in town, I’d always go and see them play, because while I’m a record label guy, I’m still a fan first and foremost and invariably one of our bands would be playing with them anyway.
When Killswitch Engage became free agents after their Roadrunner Records deal ended, everyone and their mother was understandably trying to sign them. We went in with a reasonable offer, but not one that you’d call spectacular. I honestly thought there was no way it was going to happen. People were offering significant money. As a businessperson I’m simply not in a position to do that. We’ll never be the biggest payers, but we like to think we can offer a band other things.
Sometime after the offer went in, Kenny from Strong Management called me.
“Yeah, so the band wants to sign with you guys,” he told me.
I was shocked. The offer we had sent in wasn’t even particularly formal. All of a sudden we found ourselves scrambling to pull everything together. But it’s been great so far. As much as I loved Howard Jones in the band, Jesse has come back and just been amazing. It’s been a really seamless change, which is hard to do with lead singers. We couldn’t be happier to have him back in Killswitch Engage and on Metal Blade.
Their latest record, Atonement, has done incredibly well, and given the band their best chart numbers ever. Everyone’s very happy. But I can’t deny that it’s a little tricky being suddenly put in a position where I’m working with friends. It’s a completely different dynamic. As much as I’m friendly with the Amon Amarth guys and the Cannibal guys etc., it’s because we had a long relationship over many years. While I always want everything to work out well with my friends, those relationships have become familiar and easygoing.
The situation with Killswitch Engage was different, and almost even more pressure because they were friends of mine first and the last thing I’d ever want to do is fuck things up. Luckily it has been great and everyone has had a good experience so far. If they’re happy, I’m happy. I want everyone to benefit.
To read the rest of the “You Win Some, You Lose Some” chapter, order Swing of the Blade here.