Slough Feg’s Mike Scalzi talks metal, philosophy

Pub date November 8, 2010

(For a review of Slough Feg’s latest, The Animal Spirits, go here. Read on for an interview with the band’s guitarist-singer, Mike Scalzi.)

San Francisco Bay Guardian: I noticed a clear theological theme running through the album. Was that – the Reformation – an area of historical interest to you? I’m interested in that choice, of a less exciting historical topic than maybe a more violent event…

Mike Scalzi: It’s not as metal, certainly. But in another way, Martin Luther was very metal, in that he was dedicated. Though he was Christian, in his dedication and his rebellion, he was metal. I was reading about all that stuff in an anthology of Western cultures. It was very general – I had to teach it. I’m a teacher. I started teaching Philosophy of Religion a year ago for the first time, and I’m not really that into teaching it, because its not my area of expertise, but I kinda had to.

[Writing music] helps me, actually. If I can write a song about it, it becomes more ingrained in my everyday thought. It becomes more second nature to say “oh, the 95 Theses!” It’s not just as a teaching aid, though. When it comes to Renaissance Christian theologians, he’s the most metal one. He’s out in the world. He’s out doing stuff, being a revolutionary. And a lot of his views are funny, a lot of the things he said were really funny and really extreme.

SFBG: Less metal for being ultimately successful, though. A lot of those so-called heretics were metal in the sense that they died for their principles, or were burnt at the stake or what have you.

MS: But he was the most badass one! Obviously, I don’t agree with him – he was a fundamentalist and all that, and he brought on fundamentalism in a way, I guess. But at least he said that trying to believe that the Bible is literal fact by reason alone is preposterous. That’s why he thought you had to exercise faith – because it’s preposterous. Everything in the Old Testament is preposterous, but you have to believe in it, purely to test your faith.

After seven records, you have to think of new things. I don’t want to repeat myself.

SFBG: What was the rubric for the lyrics that were included in the liner notes?

MS: Oh, those are the lyrics to “Trick the Vicar”

SFBG: Oh, so it’s just the one song?

MS: That was my decision. I’m sick of like…I’ve done that on every record and…

SFBG: People parse your lyrics?

MS: Oh, I don’t care about that. They come up with all sorts of weird interpretations, as if I really care that much. “Oh this means this and that means that. This is the deep meaning in this.” There’s no deep meaning in this shit! At least not that I know about! But at this point, trying to find things to say is a challenge.

With “Trick the Vicar,” I thought the lyrics to that would be important because it’s all one big pun. There’s obviously no deeper meaning, other than just being entertaining. It’s like something from a Benny Hill skit or something. So on the inside of the CD, I had all the puns – I came up with all those puns in the same month. They’re really silly, obviously.

SFBG: Well I did mean to confirm whether or not “boister” was a word.

MS: Good, good! No, its not. But when I say “There’s a boister that goes on in the cloister”…

SFBG: …from context it’s pretty clear.

MS: Yeah. It’s just a bunch of silliness, but it works for the song. I like silliness, and that’s one of the things that’s missing from a lot of metal: a good sense of humor. Metal used to have a sense of humor, in the 70s and 80s.

SFBG: That’s something that I was meaning to ask you about, if there’s a way to account for that sudden lack of humor. You have this form of music that has this potential to be taken seriously, but also the potential to be looked at with a sense of humor, or with an understanding of its many tongue-in-cheek aspects. It seems like a lot of its biggest fans, a lot of the people with the kind of familiarity with it that would enable them to see the humor, are the people least able to see it.

MS: Well, there are a lot of stupid people. You go to a metal show and you run into a lot of morons. Around here, you don’t have as many.

SFBG: I think it’s sort of like a dumbbell shaped-graph. On the one end, it attracts a lot of stupid people, but on the other end, it attracts a lot of people who are discerning and smart.

MS: I think, basically, they’re going to laugh at you one way or another. Being a metal guy, especially when you’re old, or older, or from the last generation of metal, they’re going to laugh at you. You make the choice of whether they’re going to laugh at you or with you. And I choose to laugh with them!

Also, metal, or indeed all rock and roll, is inherently funny. It is! People used to know that!

SFBG: Or inherently fun. That’s what a lot of people seem to lose sight of.

MS: Metal is inherently funny. No matter what! It’s funny. That’s one of the best things about it! It’s ridiculous, and it’s great because it’s ridiculous. People realized that way back. Black Sabbath, maybe not Led Zeppelin — they never had much of a sense of humor – Deep Purple, Judas Priest. The New Wave of British Heavy Metal. Early glam metal – Twisted Sister, Quiet Riot – they all had a sense of humor. Van Halen! Give me a break…that band was all humor until Sammy Hagar came, and it lost its sense of humor, and it started to suck.

The way that these things incorporated humor resembled vaudeville. That was David Lee Roth’s whole thing. Humor is part of entertainment. The most serious, heavy band, Black Sabbath, was also the most funny, because they realized – they were a British band with a British sense of humor.

SFBG: It’s interesting that you mention that. Do you think the trans-Atlantic shift had anything to do with that loss of humor?

MS: No, because Van Halen is the funniest. Maybe they’re not metal. Manowar! I don’t know if you want to open that can of worms. There’s a lot of evidence that they started out as a joke. They started out tongue-in-cheek and got serious as they went along. They know they’re funny; they may not want to acknowledge it, but they are.

SFBG: And the humor is bound up in the fact that everyone knows there is a joke, but no one will actually admit it. You can listen to it and pretend that you’re taking it seriously.

MS: It’s true of hardcore too. It used to be funny, now its all [imitates hardcore singing]. It’s lost its humor – some of it hasn’t, but most of it has. That’s one of my problems with a lot of the metal in this country, or in Germany too – people take it too seriously.

It’s the same thing with entertainment. I’m accused of being too traditionalist and narrow, but I’m bored by anything else. The way that entertainment used to be, in my opinion, was better. Period. It just used to be better. And now, it lacks.

I guess the question you’re asking is “why?” I don’t know why. I think it’s something about the world and the way people see entertainment. It has a much wider scope than it used to. People are much more involved in it as fans, and take it seriously as a statement, which is great, but maybe some of the actual enjoyment of it – from the performance standpoint and the artists’ standpoint – has been diminished by the fact that people hold it too close to their heart. The fragility of their egos and their identity are wrapped up in it in a way that causes problems.

SFBG: Like many discussions about the evolution and history of metal, I blame Nirvana. They taught people, or people took away from them this idea that if a band was trying to entertain you, that was somehow false.

MS: Well, that happened way before Nirvana, but that’s when it hit mainstream.

SFBG: There’s that line in Smells Like Teen Spirit: “Here we are now/Entertain us.”

MS: I don’t know if I have much to say about that. At the time, I didn’t like it. I heard their first album, before they were really popular, and I didn’t like it then. I was playing shows in San Francisco at the time, and I knew that I was not down with what was happening as a result of them. “Don’t try.” “Don’t give a shit.” “Nevermind.” “Be a loser.” I mean, sure, I thought that when I was a teenager. That’s the 14-year-old mentality: “everything sucks, so fuck it, man.” By the time you’re in your twenties you’ve grown out of that, you try to do something, unless you end up like Kurt Cobain, and you just fade off into negative, negative, everything sucks, and then die. [Sarcastically.] That’s great! That’s my hero! [Chuckles ruefully.] What the fuck is that?

SFBG: So, part and parcel of the conversation we’ve been having is the fact that you’re a very opinionated guy…

MS: So you’ve read my blog posts. There’s a new one today! I was just reading the comments.

SFBG: I did read them. I can only imagine what kind of comments you’re going to get on the most recent one. I was wondering if there’s something you can identify about metal that helps it attract opinionated people. Or, to reverse the chicken and the egg, if there’s something about being into metal that makes people opinionated?

MS: Well, I don’t think people get into metal for some other reason, and then get opinionated once they’re into metal. Unless you want to get into the fact that most metal is so bad now that you can get into it and say “oh god I’m so opinionated because there’s so much garbage out there. That’s true of a lot of kinds of music though.

It attracts opinionated people because it is extreme music. It attracts people who are into a certain kind of mentality. It happens from such an early age! I can’t analyze it. I got into metal, like a lot of people, when I was pretty young, and that was a long time ago! I don’t remember exactly. I don’t have immediate access to that feeling first being attracted to it. To me, its something that happened so far back that its like…

SFBG: …it’s like asking “why do you like mac ‘n’ cheese?”

MS: Exactly. And I have more access to what’s happened since then. But I don’t feel like I’m actively opinionated. People take things in, and they call them like they hear them. To me, things assault my sense, not the other way around. Nobody remembers being born into the world of music or food or anything and going “Hmm, I’m going to investigate this thing!” It’s more you hear something and you’re passed into this impression that you have. And some things, you get an impression and you go “Argh, that sucks! That really bothers me!” So my opinions, like those of most people who are opinionated, come from being stimulated by something in a positive or negative way. I would say I call it like I hear it.

I never thought of myself as opinionated until I moved here. People said that if I moved to San Francisco there would be all this great music. They said, “People out there are very enlightened.” And then I got here – 20 years ago – and I thought, “Everybody here’s not really that enlightened. There’s a lot of stupid bullshit going on out here.”

SFBG: Switching tacks completely, I’m curious about your master’s degree in philosophy. I read a little bit in another interview about what you teach, but I’m curious about what you focused on in your studies.

MS: I ended up studying Descartes for my thesis. I was interested in Descartes as a graduate student because his method was very simple and intuitive, and the whole point of it was a do-it-yourself type thing, rather than getting involved in this long academic tradition. Obviously, like anyone else, he comes from an academic tradition, but his point in Meditations [on First Philosophy] was to say “let’s erase everything that happened beforehand in philosophy and science and start on your own, with what you can know by yourself.”

I just found Descartes pretty easy to understand. I was able to maneuver in that ontology. I started taking seminars on Descartes, and I subsequently got interested in German idealism, like Kant and Schopenhauer, and like every metalhead, I was interested in Nietzsche.

In a master’s degree, you end up focusing on major guys because they have these comprehensive exams that test your knowledge of Plato, Descartes, Hume, etc. I stuck to a lot of that, because I knew I would have to take an exam on it.

SFBG: That Kantian or Cartesian originalist thinking – wiping the slate clean, starting with the Categorical Imperative, or something like that…

MS: …well, Kant is much more in the tradition, he’s not trying to wipe the slate clean. He’s just trying to be revolutionary.

SFBG: I’ll admit I’m only tenuously familiar with Kant, but I remember his ethics being founded on a sort “first principle” that ignores cultural baggage and so forth.

MS: Well, that’s what people say, but his point is to come up with something that is not dependent on circumstance in any way at all. Something that’s not empirical, that’s totally dependent on reason. Just like Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am,” in a way.

It’s something that you try to universalize by saying “what if everybody did this?” [Motions toward cookie on the table.] What if I were to steal this cookie? What if everybody did that? If it produces a contradiction – if its unreasonable for everybody to do something – you have to decide if it would be possible. Not if it would be right or wrong.

In order to establish a standard of right and wrong, you have to decide if it’s reasonable – could everyone do it. Suppose I don’t keep a promise – I say I’m going to show up here at 11, and I don’t. If I don’t do that, and I don’t keep my promise, what happens? It undermines the principle of the promise in the first place. If I don’t keep a promise, whatever, no big deal. What if nobody keeps promises. Could everybody do what I did? If no one keeps promises, there wouldn’t be promises in the first place.

SFBG: There’d be no point.

MS: You couldn’t make promises, because there’d be no such thing.

SFBG: Like if everyone stole, there would be no point in having property.

MS: If there were no property, you couldn’t steal. If there were no taking anybody’s word for anything, you couldn’t make a promise. It undermines its own possibility. It’s a contradiction that makes the act itself impossible. If its irrational to that extent, to the point where it makes the act itself a contradiction, then, according to Kant, its not morally permissible. That’s a little bit of a long answer.

SFBG: I’m going to attempt a sort of interviewer Triple Lutz here. Is Descartes’ idea of discarding what has come before, or Kant’s idea of ignoring circumstance to come up with principle…

MS: …Rational principle…

SFBG: …purely rational principle. Can that be applied to your creative process? In the sense that…

MS: No. [Laughs.] I wish I could say that it could. That’d be a brilliant piece of journalism. But as much as I’d love to be able to say that there’s some heavy metal calculus that I use in order to write by sheer principles of reason…no. At least, not for me. It’d be cool if there was some guy, some alchemist songwriter guy who was trying to find the principle of guitar or whatever.

SFBG: You could sort of take a stab at the categorical imperative of metal though, being like Maiden, Priest, and Sabbath, and not being affected by sort of the whims of circumstance.

MS: That’s the problem I’m encountering though. I don’t want to say that everything’s all based on the past. I don’t want to be a heavy metal anachronism. That’s what I’m getting in a lot of these responses to my Invisible Oranges articles. Again, to be philosophical about it, I get this confusion of cause and consequence. A lot of people say to me: “you don’t like death metal because you haven’t explored it.”

I try to keep the analysis somewhat objective, about why I don’t like the cookie monster vocals, the guitar sounds that are very brittle, and the drums that are triggered – clickety, clackety, clickety doesn’t sound “brutal.” It sounds like some bullshit to me.

People say, “You haven’t explored it enough. You haven’t heard the good stuff. You haven’t gone to the lengths that it takes to appreciate it.”

SFBG: If it’s good, it shouldn’t take any “lengths.”

MS: It’s confusing the cause with the consequence. It’s not that I don’t like extreme metal because I haven’t listened to enough of it. I haven’t listened to enough of it because I don’t like it. People think that I’ve come up with some sort of rigid heavy metal calculus and say “I like Priest, I like Maiden, I like Sabbath, Saint Vitus, whatever, some underground stuff too. These are the criteria of what I will listen to.”

It’s not like that! I grew up with the evolution of the whole thing, listening to it happen, and I heard things, and I said “I don’t like that! That’s crap! That sounds like someone who doesn’t care about what they’re doing.” It just sounds like shit to me, for whatever reason. And I heard more and more of it, and I chose not to investigate it.

SFBG: Getting back to philosophy just briefly, I saw in another interview that you described your music as having a Machiavellian aspect. I understand a Nietzschian aspect, but how does Machiavelli come into it?

MS: I was probably joking! I’m not sure. I was just being macho, talking about taking over the world. It’s a very vague characterization of Machiavelli, who I don’t really know shit about anyway.

SFBG: I was struck by the William Blake references in one of your old songs, “Tiger! Tiger!” Blake has always struck me as very metal.

MS: The reason that I put that stuff in there is not because of William Blake. It’s because of Alfred Bester, who quoted him.

SFBG: I noticed that you mentioned that author a lot in other interviews.

MS: A lot of sci-fi fans haven’t read him! This is insane to me. When people read The Stars My Destination – the original title of which was Tiger! Tiger! – they say “that’s the greatest fiction book I’ve ever read.” I was not a sci-fi or fantasy reader until I was 26, and someone got me that book. It was completely a fluke. I got it and I was like, “Ehh, I don’t really like science fiction books,” and then I finished it and said, “This is the best book I’ve ever read in my life.” Only on the basis of that did I get into science fiction.

SFBG: It’s tempting to ask you questions about Slough Feg’s distinctive sound, but seeing where my fellow interviewers have gone before, I was wary. It seems like we journalists want to get you to say “Oh, I choose to write songs with major chords because of this reason which is easy to print,” and your response is to say, “Look, this just my creative process; it’s how it sounds good to me.”

MS: Well, something that sounds good to me vocally sounds good because it’s catchy. If I remember it. I don’t always tape everything that I do. So, why do I remember it? That’s a whole question. Maybe I remember it because it sounds a little bit unique, maybe for some other reason.

SFBG: I think the music stands out to people, whether on record or live, because it makes melodic choices that almost seem like a deliberate subversion of the conventions of metal, like all those major chords. But I’m assuming that wasn’t a choice to subvert. That there wasn’t a point at which you were like, “Heavy metal is in minor keys – I’m going to do it a different way.”

MS: Well maybe there was! Again, it wasn’t a conscious choice. I don’t write Slough Feg songs according to music theory. I don’t say, “Now we’re going to do a song like this; now we’re going to do a song with these chords, or with this type of vocals.” If you do that, it ends up sounding overly stiff and deliberate.

But having said that, that’s not to say that there isn’t some kind of overall approach. When I do write stuff, what do I edit out? What do I keep? Stuff that reaches a certain criteria after the fact. Not when I come up with riffs, or vocals – that just happens. But what do I choose to keep? I don’t think about it consciously – it’s second nature to me now, so its hard to say – but basically, at one point, I wanted to write things that imitated Maiden, Sabbath, Thin Lizzy, Alice Cooper, Saint Vitus, Black Flag, and all that.

It became second nature to say “I want to pick up where Maiden left off,” but not to use major chords. The first “Irish-sounding” song I ever did was called “The Red Branch,” and I was sitting around in my living room, in a place I lived in years and years ago, I was sitting in my living room with an acoustic guitar, just joking around, singing to somebody as a joke, and I thought, “That’s a cool chord change!”

I keep a lot of things that other people would throw away, that they’d be scared to put on a record because it’s too silly-sounding. I say to myself “this is actually something that someone else wouldn’t do, and have the nerve to take seriously.” I think a lot of people are embarrassed to play Slough Feg-type songs. They were 20 years ago, at least. And now we’ve developed the sound to the point that it’s sort of obnoxious. People are like “what the hell man! This guy is willing to do this?!”

That’s what happened in San Francisco in the mid-nineties, playing this music. People would be like “God, you’re willing to get up onstage and play that? That sounds like nursery-rhyme music with metal instruments. It’s major. You’re singing like you’re in a 50s musical!”

Those are the kind of influences that I incorporate, maybe because it was something people weren’t willing to do, and so it sounded fresh to people.

SFBG: That sort of discomfort you describe is interesting, because you have this whole other offshoot of metal that’s built on discomfort. Black metal is based around saying “which chords can I play that will make people uncomfortable, that are the most dissonant.” You’ve come up with an incredibly unique way to do the same thing. You challenge people’s expectations, you make them uncomfortable, you take them out of their comfort zone, but instead of being really really heavy, or really fast, or really dissonant, or really down-tuned, you just have your own personal approach: to write chord changes that are, you know, silly.

MS: Or just really, really, traditional. Not that I intended that. But this is good, I think we hit the nail on the head in sense. When I started developing the sound, in the early nineties, a lot of it was a reaction. I didn’t write these looney tunes in 1989. I wrote them when I got here, and I started playing some shows, and I noticed that all the bands were drab, and all the bands played sort of one-dimensional speed metal. And I was totally nonplussed by it.

What I was writing was a reaction. I was saying “what can be done at this point?” Punk rock and speed metal and grindcore are just an extension of the same dirge – being obnoxious by being a dirge.

SFBG: And it’s an arms race, right? You can only go so fast. And then the next band that comes along has to go faster than that.

MS: And also it’s the attitude that’s so passe after a while. Spitting blood and whatever. I wanted touch on what people inevitably heard – kid’s music, or what your parents were playing – and pose the question: “are you willing to admit that this is enjoyable to you?” Slough Feg songs that do sound like they’re from a 50’s musical. Are you able to admit that this is catchy to you? That’s the punk rock maneuver, that I was able to think of it in those terms. And that’s what set us apart. But in a totally different way, in a way that goes back to like, “This is inherently enjoyable. Are you willing to partake in it, or are you too cool for it?”

SFBG: And it’s diametrically opposed to black metal. Black metal is “I will alienate you by doing something that is not enjoyable.” Your approach is “I will alienate you by doing something that is too enjoyable.”

MS: After the fact, that’s how we can analyze it. I think that’s a proper way to look at it. My songs do assault the listener, and people say “I can’t get it out of my head!” Because it’s written in very simple way – they’re really not that hard to write, but it’s a kind of songwriting that people aren’t willing to do.

Someone said to me in the 80’s, when I liked Venom a lot – they’re a very silly, vaudevillian form of Satanic metal – “Why do you like this? Anybody can do that. Anybody can play Venom songs.” And I said “yeah, that’s true. But nobody is willing to. That’s what makes it special.”