With an excellent new album out in the racks, in Digital Resistance, Ave Noctum decided to track down Mike Skalzi singer, guitarist and writer with US rockers Slough Feg in the internet ether for little chat on the future of mankind and where the digital resistance stands.
AN: Hello there Mike Scalzi! Thanks very much for taking the time out to answer a few questions, we really appreciate it. It can’t be easy juggling all the demands at the moment as Digital Resistance has certainly hit the sweet spots it seems.
After all these years do you still get a tingle of excitement when you’ve finished an album and it’s out there being examined and turned over? Or is it more a time of minor frustration waiting to get out there and play it live?
MS. A little of both, I think you said it though—- it’s all about live!!! The payoff is really playing some of these songs live and having the audience know the songs and words. That’s the reward, the rest can get quite tedious!!!
AN: I read in an interview recently that recording is, for you, not the most enjoyable part. That the coming up with ideas for songs is the thrill; creating them rather than the preserving of them. One of my favourite authors seems to have the same issue, but so much that the actual laying down of one word after the other is unbelievably painful for them. How do you keep the rich vein of creativity going in the studio, particularly when you have ten songs each with its own story to tell? How do you go back to a song once the creative process of forming it is done? Does one idea ever swamp the other’s making it difficult to focus on others?
MS: Yes, I believe writers love having written but I’m not sure they always love the process of writing, just like I don’t really like recording, but I love having recorded. I love coming up with song ideas—-but the technical aspects of recording get quite tedious and remove the actual creative process.
This album took about 9 months, but we worked sporadically. It was not different from any other album, other than the fact that I used some organ on this one, but really it was just the same. The songs were written with the band in the rehearsal space just like our other albums- etc. And the singing took forever because my voice is getting old and decrepit, and was never really suited for metal in the first place. I have a crooners voice, or if I’d worked at it a little maybe a choir voice, but not a high pitched metal voice– but I love metal, so I try to sing like Freddy Mercury and fail- and end up sounding like Neil Diamond on steroids. What can I say?
AN: Slough Feg have always had a huge sense of narrative to their songs; I often think of them as novels, or a collection of short stories or novellas. Are you a frustrated novelist? Or a happy bard there to tell tales through your music?
MS: I ‘m not really a frustrated novelist. I think I would write a book if I wanted. Someday maybe I will. The songs tell stories because that’s what they really are, stories—- I prefer to write sort of “children’s stories”, or nursery rhymes, that’s kind of what these songs are and that’s what some of them sound like.
AN: In the past it seems that interpretations of other writer’s works have cropped up as songs, as well as your own considerable imagination alone. Do you read a lot? What were the last books, fiction and non-fiction you read through choice rather than through work needs (I gather you lecture in philosophy, yes?)
MS: Yes. I just read a biography of Douglas MacArthur, and another one of Benjamin Franklin, and now I’m reading S.T. Joshi’s biography of H.P. Lovecraft. I like biographies, obviously. Not much fiction these days, most philosophy and historical biography.
I miss sci-fi a little though and want to get back to reading some of that, but I mostly like 1950’s sci-fi.
AN: And, pardon my ignorance of the man’s predilections, but…. Bertrand Russell’s Sex Den? Hell of an intriguing title. I didn’t get a lyric sheet with the album, so I’m only guessing but is there a theme there of repression magnifying desire making it harder to actually repress them. Am I close? Can you expand a little?
MS: Yes. Sexual repression is responsible for much human unhappiness. What else can I say? It’s a HARD WORLD!!!! That song is like a heavy metal version of the Police’s ‘Don’t Stand so Close to Me”.
AN: Repression doesn’t only apply to sexual desire or negative traits of course. Personal ambition, personality traits, conforming appearance to expectations. Compromise. As a band, Slough Feg seem to compromise very little if anything in an artistic sense; so what’s the most repressed thing in either band or personal life because of the path you’ve chosen?
MS: Well, being a college student, particularly in graduate school took a lot of repression. You really end up under someone’s thumb, and that’s never fun. You have to repress your inclination to freak out and tear up your papers, punch your computer screen and kill your teachers!!!! Every student wants to do this. Repression is a very unhealthy thing. Slough Feg and exercise are my two outlets. Without them I would be in jail for manslaughter—- which may answer your next question……
AN: Habeas Corpus is a striking song, almost regretful in tone, with a kind of Western drifter feel and a theme of a hitman. What was the genesis of it and how did the amazingly rich musical tone come about?
MS: It came about very easily and simply sitting in the backyard with an acoustic guitar. No plan. The chord changes just came and the lyrics followed and it sort of wrote itself, without much effort. In the studio it was hard to make it sound good though, very difficult, had to add many guitar and vocals layer then mix it to death. Tough stuff.
AN: I mentioned in my review that the glorious Magic Hooligan just gave me an instant hit of that freewheeling 70s counter-culture anti-hero science fiction like Farren or Moorcock, but oddly the more I listen I seem to pick up a thread about aging and, perhaps, an unexpected freedom that can come with it. Any truth in that in the song, and even if not is it something you think about?
MS: It’s about being a teenager actually— a very normal concept, hitting puberty and feeling awkward. There’s nothing sci-fi about it. The unexpected freedom of aging is an interesting concept, but I’m not sure it’s in there, although maybe it should be. It’s just about the hormonal changes that come at a certain age mixed with some psychedelic imagery.
AN: A running theme on the album is, of course, technology and its effect on our behaviour and learning. I assumed that the ‘resistance’ aspect is because it is at least partly a dialogue from within and not a total rant against. An acceptance that technology has brought us some real boons but that lamentably we are on a path that may stifle learning and dialogue amongst other things?
MS: The benefits may be considered benefits by modern standards— but they may be drawbacks by traditional or old standards. More accurate surgery may weaken the species. If everyone who gets a disease lives and reproduces this may create a mediocre, compromised race, which has a lot of members but no exceptional ones. This is a dangerous way to think though— it can lead down the road of social Darwinism, or even “master-race” ideals. This is not what I’m proposing, I’m only saying that there are two sides to these “benefits”— as things get easier because of technology, we may become weaker as we become more dependent. I really can’t say for sure if the benefits are greater than the drawbacks—I’d have to know the future to say that, but I just wish that people did not depend so much on technology to do their thinking for them—- maybe this is the bias of a teacher—but I see it every day—- kids are becoming more reluctant to actually think their own thoughts— to them learning is just repeating what they see in front of them on the screen, and this is not learning. A computer or a tape-recorder can repeat. Only a brain can process information and mentally “digest” it, think it through, add their own thoughts and create something new from the info. Given to it. I’ve noticed this capacity dwindling over the last five or six years among students, and this is what scares me. Free and creative thinking is underappreciated, and becoming more and more scarce. George Orwell was right, and it scares me.
AN: Long question but I hope you will bear with me: Thinking about the downside to technology, apart from the laziness which creeps into all but either the most technologically challenged, or self-disciplined of us when it comes to finding out facts these days, the most obvious digital effect on the world at the moment appears to be the impact of social media.
For me this is twofold: Firstly we have a situation where the perceived anonymity of being behind a keyboard is proving what sociologists have talked about for decades (usually with examples such as riot police in helmets and uniforms that obscure identity) in that it has the effect of removing some (greater or lesser) restraints on our behaviour and we are seeing a terrible rise in seriously disturbing verbal attacks and threats directed at people online often for the most ridiculously petty reasons. Secondly people talk about the global village of the internet (twitter, facebook, whatever) but, to paraphrase, in a village, the village is supposed to be a family and the family has laws and punishments able to be enforced. We have a village with no rules and increasingly no way to reinforce the notion of individual responsibility for actions which the perpetrator commits. Actions which are proving to be as potentially life destroying and even lethal as interaction in the physical world through cyber bullying. And this is before we get into the soporific effect of the constant bright stream of low importance information bombarding us by the minute.
As a lecturer is the effect on learning the thing you experience most, daily, or other factors? Do you think we will ever learn to cope with this access to information? Learn responsibility in our digital lives? Or do you think it’s a slow slide down into a world where the masses really do simply consume, numbed by information overload, and the owners of the production live entirely different lives? I mean the ‘village’ theory above was put forward in (at least) the 60s so we were warned even back then.
MS: Very good question, which would take a whole book to answer!! But as a teacher I find it very challenging to deal with the accelerated changes taking place in the minds of young people right now!!! The “Old school” is gone. Information is now available constantly without any real research, and people don’t have to remember things anymore, or think about them as much!! So our brains are suffering from a sort of “use it or lose it” scenario, and we’re losing it!!
We are getting lazy and slothful and quite ‘flabby’ as a species, physically and mentally. Perhaps this is inevitable for some. But I certainly don’t want to go that way myself. Do something with yourself!! As far as I can tell my generation, who grew up in the eighties really, were still sort of part of the 50’s and 60’s rebellious youth groups. We still had a lot in common with them compared to today’s kids, who seem to have very little to rebel against. So I will rebel against them!!! It’s the kind of the reverse of the way it has been for so long— now the adults are rebelling against the kids!!! I have no doubt that digital technology will in fact find its way eventually into our biology, and already has found its way into our mentality, but maybe that’s inevitable, and maybe it can be seen as quite natural. It’s going to happen so why fight it? Well, I guess because it seems like the right thing to do— Maybe we’re all destined to become stupid drone-clones. So be it. I don’t know if this classifies as a “glimmer of hope”, but what the hell, life’s too short to get paranoid about this stuff.
AN: What about the crippling effect of being bombarded by negative news items over which we can exert no effect at all?
MS: I suppose that’s a source of stress as well. Some insane kid goes and shoots twenty five 5 year olds in the face and we have to hear all about it, and we can do nothing. It’s fucking insane. Everyone has their heads up their asses in this country– we still can’t make assault weapons illegal for citizens to buy— guns that were designed specifically for killing large numbers of human beings. What the fuck?!! How can one justify this!?
AN: Do you think the curious clinging on of vinyl, particularly amongst the ‘off mainstream’ music genres, is a symptom of a more Luddite undercurrent that is growing, and if so will it ever have a countering effect on the digital world? Or do you think it is more to do with either ‘small rebellions’ or the obsessive nature of some music fans (me included!) who just like to have the shiny object in our hands even if we do listen to digital tracks music mostly?
MS: Yes. But it’s mostly just aesthetics. I have a 14 year old nephew who loves vinyl, not because of nostalgia, cause he doesn’t really remember anything, it’s just a great medium for music, it’s more pleasant own and listen to. It’s just superior to the music fan.
AN: Playing live is clearly something Slough Feg still love to do. Apart from the obvious question of “How do you all fit it in around your jobs and family lives?”, what restraints if any does age put on the live playing – as a guitarist and as just a guy on the road? (Incidentally I’m nearly 50 so I’m kind of hoping you have tips for staying healthy!)
MS: None. The only restraints are jobs really. Otherwise we’d be on the road 9 months a year. There’s just very little money in it. We love to play live, and I can still do everything I could do 20 years ago. All the better for age in fact, I’m better at it than I was then by a long shot. It’s still all I really want to do, I just want to do it with a nice crowd in front of me, decent equipment, and a nice bed to sleep in afterwards before 5 in the morning. Those are the difficulties of touring, the travel and crazy hours kill you.
AN: How is it being on Metal Blade for the first time? Has the backing of a label with longevity affected anything in the Slough Feg camp?
MS: Well, it’s too early to say. A big press campaign is tough, but hopefully yields some results. That’s the tough part. Otherwise it’s been about the same as any other label.
AN: Do you think you will be able to get over to Europe at all any time soon?
MS: Yes, at the end of May for sure.
AN: Thanks for your time. It is a real pleasure to be able to ask you some things having followed the band for years. All the best for the future. I’ll do my best to keep resisting….
There you go people. Get your heads out of Wikipedia and into a book. And note your calendar for the end of May so you can get to see just how great the old school metal can be.
Questions by Gizmo.