2009. december 17., csütörtök

Label Report - Combat Records with Don Girovasi

Don, do you still remember how and when did you get in touch with music and with Hard Rock/Heavy Metal in general? What were the first footsteps, experiences that led you into the realm of metal?
When I was 12 years old, I bought Kiss' "Rock and Roll Over" as my first album. This was shortly after I heard "Rock and Roll All Night" for the first time.
What were the stuffs that you started listening to with, that you were growing up on?
I started with Kiss, and my taste got heavier and heavier from then on. I went from Kiss to Blue Oyster Cult, to Rush, to Van Halen, to Judas Priest, to Iron Maiden, to Motorhead, and so on...
Were you into small, underground acts or rather into known, established acts?
I started with the better known bands, but then I got into get into smaller acts because of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. I tended to "obsess" with music, and I could never get enough. It didn't matter whether the bands were good, bad, or in between, I had a "need" to hear it ALL.
Do you still remember the first vinyl that you have bought or got and the first gig that you have ever seen?
When I was 12 years old, I bought Kiss' "Rock and Roll Over" as my first album. Queen was the first concert I ever saw, back in 1980.
As for Heavy metal is a genre of rock music that developed in the late 1960s and early 1970s, largely in England and the United States; with roots in blues-rock and psychedelic rock, the bands that created heavy metal developed a thick, massive sound, characterized by highly amplified distortion, extended guitar solos, emphatic beats, and overall loudness, do you agree with it?
Yes, but metal has progressed FAR beyond its roots through the subsequent decades.
How do you view, that early heavy metal bands such as Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and Deep Purple attracted large audiences, though they were often critically reviled, a status common throughout the history of the genre?
The media weren't "ready" for this style of music, and dismissed it all as "noise." What music publications were available in the beginning? Rolling Stone? Please... The funny thing is that these three bands created the most memorable guitar "riffs" of all time. "Smoke On the Water" is a classic example. EVERYONE knows the riff, but few people (apart from the actual fans) know the name of the band...or even the title of the song!
In the mid-1970s, Judas Priest helped spur the genre’s evolution by discarding much of its blues influence; Motörhead introduced a punk rock sensibility and an increasing emphasis on speed, correct?
To some extent, yes. I don't think Judas Priest ever "discarded" the "blues influence." It's ALWAYS been there, just not in the "classic" sense. Priest surely built itself on a foundation created by Black Sabbath (hell, they're from the same English town), and Sabbath are DEEPLY rooted in blues. Sabbath started as a blues-rock band called Earth. Motorhead have always been a punk band, according to Lemmy himself, who has SAID as much. Take away their appearance, and Motorhead are punk band, plain and simple...I've always believed that there are two archetypes of heavy metal, and I compare them to classical composers: Led Zeppelin is Mozart, Black Sabbath is Bach...most bands fall into one category or another, except for Iron Maiden, who successfully fused BOTH "schools" of metal...
Bands in the New Wave of British Heavy Metal such as Iron Maiden, Grim Reaper, Jaguar, Raven etc. followed in a similar vein, how much were you familiar with that movement? Was it easy to get tapes or records from those bands in the States?
It was the movement that made me the lifelong heavy metal fan that I am. Iron Maiden are my favorite band of all time. Not just my favorite METAL band, but my favorite band overall. How familiar am I with the NWOBHM movement? Hmmm,let's see: I STILL own records by Diamond Head, White Spirit, Jaguar, Def Leppard (who were still heavy back then), Angel Witch, Tygers of Pan Tang, Blitzkrieg, Bitches Sin, Sledgehammer, A-II-Z, Samson, Girlschool, Saxon, Iron Maiden, Witchfinder General, Holocaust, Vardis, Persian Risk, More, Grim Reaper, Marseilles, Venom, Raven, Steel, Shiva, Praying Mantis, Tank...and those are just off the top of my head. what more proof do you need? Not including Maiden's first album, my two favorite songs from that era are "Blitzkrieg" by Blitkrieg (the original 45 B-Side on Neat Records, NOT any of the re-recordings), and "Death or Glory" by Holocaust. Diamond Head's "Am I Evil" would be the third. How funny is it that Metallica covered TWO of the songs I just mentioned? Part of me still hopes that Metallica will one day cover "Suzie Smiled" by Tygers of Pan Tang...
How about the developement of the US metal movement, how did it happen? Were the first Metal/Rock bands Kiss and Van Halen that brought in this style of music in the common knowledge?
Kiss needs no explanation. Their image was a HUGE factor, but to this day, I don't understand what was so great about the first Kiss album. As for Van Halen, they had a great frontman, and an amazing guitar player. They toured with Kiss and Sabbath, and the public ate them up. I didn't really get into Van Halen until "Van Halen 2" was over a year old. They were already huge by that time. Image seems to be extremely important to Americans, which is why I firmly believe that brilliant bands like UFO have been criminally ignored in the United States while Motley Crue and Poison filled arenas...
Have you ever played in any bands, have you ever play any instruments or were you always a music fan?
I have never been in a band nor played an instrument, but I have been a music fan as far back as I can remember.
Combat Records was an independent record label from New York City under which circumstances and how did the label come into being exactly? Who founded the label?
The label was established a few years before I was employed there. It was started by a guy named Barry Kobrin. He owned a record distribution company called Important (because they sold a lot of Import albums). After doing very well with distributing Metallica's "Kill 'Em All" album for Megaforce, Important jumped into the game by forming two in-house record labels: Relativity, which dealt with mostly "alternative" acts, and Combat for indie metal.
Were you one of the first independent labels along with Megaforce, Metal Blade, Iron Works etc.?
Metal Blade was first, then Megaforce, then Combat
How and when did you join the team exactly?
I put together a fanzine called "Rage" as a joke while in college. It was a completely half-assed endeavor at first. But, since I always enjoyed writing, I became very serious about my little fanzine. I interviewed bands by mail, and they were mostly New York bands whom I knew personally (some were even my friends, or at least good acquaintances: Anthrax, Hades, Whiplash, Nuclear Assault, and Carnivore, to name a few), so my second issue was about 48 typed pages, and a much more serious endeavor. I had done an interview with a local NY band called Savage Thrust, and they liked what I had written about them, so they sent a copy of the fanzine to Combat (among other labels).
Here's the FUN part: I had just graduated from college in 1986. I had NO job, and NO clue what I wanted to do with my life. I wrote a Nuclear Assault review from a gig that I went to on the same day as my college graduation, and I made mention of it in my fanzine. I wrote something like "I'm out of college...someone give me a job, please!." The statement wasn't DIRECTED toward the music biz, it was meant as a JOKE. Working at a record company was a "pipe dream."
So, Savage Thrust sent in my fanzine, and Steve Sinclair, who was the label head at the time, noticed that I had reviewed almost EVERY Combat album released, because I had BOUGHT every Combat release. He also noticed that I was not on the label's "press" list. I had NO idea that I could get free records to promote at the time. That's when he realized that I had BOUGHT every album I reviewed. He saw the Nuclear Assault review where I jokingly said I needed a job at the time when their radio promo guy had quit, he called me up and I landed the job. I remember what he told me the day I started: "I can teach you how to do promotion; I CAN'T teach you to love the music...and you obviously LOVE the music..."
The label signed thrash metal band Megadeth to a contract in November 1984, does it mean, that Megadeth was Combat’s first signing?
No. There were a few Combat releases before Megadeth came out. One was a "hard rock" band called "TKO," there was an album by "The Rods," and a Swedish band called "Oz." There were probably others, but I can't recall them at the moment...
How did the band get in the picture exactly? Was the label familiar with their demo or…? Was the label familiar with their demo?
Man, EVERYONE in the "real" metal scene was familiar with the Megadeth demo! I saw Megadeth open for Slayer LONG before the "Killing..." album came out.
What do you recall of Megadeth’s first footsteps by the way? Was Dave Mustaine very disappointed and angry that he was sacked from Metallica?
I don't know Dave Mustaine. I met him once at a music convention when he tried to pick up the girl I was with that day...Mustaine's "release" from Metallica and his reaction to it are well-documented. Watch the Metallica documentary "Some Kind of Monster," you'll find your answer from Mustaine himself...
Would you say, that the classic Megadeth line up consited of Dave Mustaine, Dave Ellefson, Chris Poland and Gar Samuelson (R.I.P.)?
I guess. I never really thought about it. Megadeth has had a revolving door of musicians through the years. I would say, however, that Poland and Samuelson were a big influence on Megadeth's sound, since they both came from jazz backgounds...
The band released „Killing Is My Business...And Business Is Good!” their first album, in 1985, so it was the first record, that introduced Combat in the music business, isn’t it?
No. I remember a number of Combat releases before Megadeth's debut.
Capitol Records signed Megadeth in 1985, obtaining the rights from Combat to Megadeth's second album, „Peace Sells... But Who's Buying?”, how did it happen exactly? Did something go wrong with ’em or…?
From what I understand...and I can't confirm nor deny this, because I wasn't there...Dave Mustaine and Combat Records butted heads on a lot of issues. Capitol records jumped into the metal game and offered Combat a boatload of money, and in the end, everyone was happy.
The Combat logo appeared on the back of every Megadeth album on Capitol up through „Countdown To Extinction”, correct?
Yes. That was part of their buyout deal with Capitol: the Combat logo had to appear on the "next four "Megadeth albums. Which is funny, because back then, did anyone expect ANY thrash band to release a FIFTH album? Also, if you look at the subsequent Capitol releases, the Combat logo got smaller and smaller. After I left in 1989, I remembered thinking "Does Barry Kobrin even GIVE a shit that the Combat logo has gotten so small?"
What was jour job at the label? What were your tasks?
I did radio promotion, college mostly. Don Kaye did all the press relations. We both helped with A&R because we knew who all the great unsigned thrash bands were. We were both big fans of the San Francisco Bay Area thrash bands. We went after Vio-Lence, Betrayel, Forbidden (Evil), Heathen... I don't remember if we tried to sign Death Angel or not... After Kaye left about a year later, I wrote all the press releases and sales one-sheets. I wrote radio spots promoting Combat bands. I got to put my college degree to good use for a while.
How did a day go, considering the job, the tasks etc.?
It was like any other job, really, there was nothing really glamorous about it (aside from a few cute girls who worked there). I talked on the phone to convince college metal show DJs to play the latest Agent Steel album, etc. It was fun when the person on the other end of the phone was a real fan of the genre, because then it was like talking about metal all day and getting paid for it. There were some really great people out there in college radio back then: Gene Khoury, Monte Conner, Mark "Psycho" Abramson, Cesar Ettore, Bill Fischer, Bill Eikost, Cheryl Valentine, Mike Dinvald... There were others, but those were the folks I loved talking to the most and could spend hours on the phone with.
The pay was lousy. Unless you're high up on the corporate ladder, promo reps get paid shit. I imagine that they still do. I didn't care much, because it was my "dream job" at the time. When I was hired, the offices were located three blocks from the service entrance to Kennedy Airport. It took me two hours to commute each way, because I have always lived in New Jersey. The offices moved to a bigger building where I had slightly less of a commute, but it was in a really shitty neighborhood. Police helicopters flew overhead a lot because there were more than a few "crack dens" near the place.
The upside of being in the business was that I got hundreds of free records and (later) CDs; I got in to most gigs free; I got to travel with bands like Death and Dark Angel. Best of all, I got to meet many, many wonderful women (who are STILL wonderful, as I have found out thanks to Facebook).
How about the Combat office as a whole?
This may take a while...
The first year was amazing, because I was living my dream. Right after the company moved to Hollis, we had a year that the staff of both labels would like to forget. I'm sure many of my former co-workers have forgotten about that year, but I just can't.
The owner hired some guy to run the labels after Steve Sinclair left to found Mechanic Records. I won't mention his name in case there could be some sort of legal issue, but this guy was a real piece of dogshit. He was an American ex-pat who had run some indie label in England, and he somehow impressed the owner and ended up as the label head. I'm convinced to this day that he had no idea how to run a record company. He wanted all of us "longhairs" gone and replaced by thin, pale English girls he knew. He wanted to do away with the Combat label altogether and concentrate on the alternative label, until it was pointed out to him that the Combat acts sold a LOT of records for an indie. Most of the metal bands were FAR outselling the alternative stuff.
He treated us all like shit. Have you ever seen those movies with the viking ships being rowed by slaves while some huge taskmaster whips them? That's what it was like, except that the taskmaster had absolutely no idea which direction the ship was sailing. He was miserable to every woman who worked for the label. The girl who did radio promotion for the alternative label - one of the sweetest women I have ever met - used to get so upset that I used to hold her until she would stop crying on MANY occasions. He saw her crying one day, and later pulled me aside and asked "Why does XXXXX cry so much?" He had put me on the spot, so I just said "I don't know, what do YOU think?" He responded "Me, either, but I LOVE it when she cries. It means that I'm doing something right."
He insisted that we stop sending promo cds to our friends at other labels, which has long been a "perk" of the record industry, and would then turn around and insist that one of us "call in a favor" with another company to score him tickets to see some shitty band he liked. A girl I who worked there was so scared of him that she once went and bought him those tickets with her own money, which just repulsed me.
But, karma's a bitch, and I heard a rumor that he has literally lost his mind, and is not ever expected to return to a decent mental state. I don't know how true it is, but so be it. I am not a vindictive person by nature, and I have never been known to hold a grudge, but twenty years later, I'd STILL have to be held back from beating on him if I ever saw him on the street.
Wow! That was extremely cathartic. Thank You!
What was the standard Combat contract that was offering the bands?
No idea. I never knew the details of any contract, but suffice to say, it couldn't have been much. It was an indie label. The bands that got signed were aiming for the bigger labels, and Combat was their way of getting their foot in the door. But I do remember John Connelly of Nuclear Assault once telling me that he wanted to get on a major label just so he could afford to buy groceries. He worked in the company warehouse at the time, so what does that tell you?
How did the label pick up the bands, that you wanted to sign? What was the criteria exactly?
I'd say that it was a combination of great songs, strong word of mouth and street credibility. I didn't have much say in who got signed and who didn't, but the unsigned bands I lobbied for the most were Vio-Lence and Testament (who were still called Legacy at the time). Recommendations by other bands always helped, too (it was Juan Garcia of Evil Dead who turned me on to Vio-Lence).
Was it important for you to sign original bands and no the second, third or fourth Slayer, Metallica or Exodus copy?
Important, yes, but look at the state of indie metal back then. It was ALL thrash metal or death metal back then, so you could always hear the Metallica or Slayer influence, and that was just fine by me. But I never considered many of those bands to be "clones." Do you remember Blind Illusion? I thought that they had a pretty original sound for a Bay Area thrash band. I used to attribute that sound solely to guitarist/singer/founder Mark Biedermann, but when Les Claypool and Larry LaLonde left and formed Primus, I wasn't so sure anymore.
While I didn't mind the thrash "clones," I DID have a problem with the seemingly thousands of bands that wanted to be Iron Maiden, and later, the legions of bands that tried to be Queensryche. I especially hated the Queensryche wannabes because of all the high-pitched whiny vocalists who thought they were Geoff Tate.
How was your connection with the bands? How many support did they get fom the label?
I got along with most of the bands just fine. Some of them complained and whined a lot, and there was one band in particuar where I wanted to strangle all of them, but for everyone was cool for the most part. I liked Dark Angel the most. They were all great guys. I slept on the couch at Gene Hoglan’s parent’s house when I flew out to attend Ron Rinehart’s wedding. I never felt like a „rep” around those guy; they were friends...
Did the label pay the studio costs as the bands entered the studio recording their materials? How much budget did you place at the band’s disposal?
The label would pay the studio costs up front, but that money is „recoupable,” meaning that that the money is a „loan” against record sales. The band doesn’t see any royalties until the studio costs and such are paid back to the label. It’s probably the biggest reason why indie bands don’t make any money.
The initial budget allocated varied band to band, I think. I’m pretty sure that the budget got bigger with each band’s consecutive album. But, it was the 80s, and Combat was an indie, so I'd guess the budget rarely exceeded $30,000,and that was if you were Exodus...
Did the bands have the opportunity to decide where they wanted to record their albums?
I think geography had a lot to do with it, but I think the decision had more to do with whoever was chosen to produce the album. Randy Burns was in Florida, Alex Perialas was in upstate New York, and so forth
Do they have to hurry or could they work at leisure considering the recording sessions?
I don't think they had to hurry, but these were bands who had prepared their songs before entering the studio. There was no “noodling around,” no “Hey, let's experiment with THIS sound” kind of thing. None of these bands were Metallica...
Did you often take part in the recording sessions of the Combat bands? I mean, did you show an interest what were the bands doing in the studio?
I don't recall ever being in the studio with any Combat band. I saw a lot of the sessions when Onslaught recorded “In Search of Sanity,”but they were only licensed by Combat, and “In Search of Sanity” was recorded for a major label. I just happened to be there. It was interesting to hear “Welcome to Dying” (a 10-minute song!) a dozen times in a row while the producer tweaked each playback and asked me “What do you think now?” And to my untrained ears, each track sounded identical to the previous take...
It's funny that when I go back and play those old albums, the production all sounds terrible, but back then, it all sounded so amazing...
Because Combat released a lot of classic stuffs, such as „Seven Chruches” (Possessed), „Scream Bloody Gore” (Death), „Breaking The Silence” (Heathen) etc., could you give us a short description about the Combat releases?
“Seven Churches” had been out for quite a while before I was hired. I honest was never really impressed with Possessed in the first place, though I REALLY liked the followup EP, the one with “Confessions.” I LOVE that song.
Chuck Schuldiner (R.I.P.) certainly deserved the title of Death Metal Pioneer. As far as I'm concerned, he invented death metal. I was much more impressed with “Leprosy” than I was with “Scream Bloody Gore,” and Death just got better and better with each album. By the time “Symbolic” came out, it seems like they were an entirely different band in terms of progression and sound.
Heathen? “Breaking the Silence” is a near masterpiece. “Open the Grave” is one of my favorite songs of the era. The album cover is awesome. Doug Piercy's and Lee Altus' solos were amazing. But the album is a classic example of what I previously said: when I listen to it now, the production is sorely lacking. The whole thing sounds muddled to me now. David Godfrey's vocals are completely buried in the mix, and there's no bass. It's one of those classic albuns that I wish the band would go back in and re-record the RIGHT way.
How happened, that „Bonded By Blood” (Exodus) was released by Combat? Were you aware of, that although the album was completed in the summer of 1984, it was not released until 1985 due to issues with Exodus and its record label Torrid Records?
I don't know anything about the delay. I was in college at the time, and I would haunt New York City record stores every weekend in hopes that it had been released. I don't know if there were issues between the band and Torrid Records.
Were there other labels interest in Exodus besides Combat back in the day?
I think EVERY indie wanted Exodus. How Torrid got Exodus is still a mystery to me to this day, which is funny because I knew Todd Gordon pretty well. I never asked him about it. But Combat knew there was a huge buzz behind Exodus, so they struck a deal with Todd to release the album under the Combat label with the Torrid logo on it as well. The deal was that along with the Exodus album, Combat had to issue two other Torrid bands as well: Hades' “Resisting Success” (great album, by the way) and the completely forgettable Tension (who used to be Hawaii, before Marty Friedman left)
How were the releases promoted? I mean, did you pay adds in magazines, fanzines etc.?
College radio, magazine ads, word of mouth, live performances, coverage in music magazines; those were the main methods of promotion. There were a few fanzine ads, if I remember correctly
Did you send promo packages to fanzines, mags, radio stations etc. considering a new material? Did you send it on tape or…?
Yes, we'd send out literally hundreds of promo packages every month or so, sometimes up to five different bands at a time. I had to package and mail most of those myself. The paper cuts from the cardboard we used in packaging were near lethal. We sent out LPs and press releases, band bios (many of which I wrote myself and still have somewhere). This was when very few people owned CD players; it was a new technology at the time.
How often were the Combat materials released? I mean, did you have any plans considering how many materials do you want to release yearly?
I don't know if there was a limit to how many releases the label put out a year, but like I said, we'd sometimes send out five or six albums at a time, not all Combat albums per se, but a lot of licensed stuff as well...
Did you always send the whole materials for the radio stations, magazines etc. or did you send only advance tapes?
Full albums. We would sometimes send out advance tapes or test pressings to media we could trust, but the LPs usually went out a week or so before they would be released to retail...
What about touringwise? Did you send the bands on tour right after the album was released?
I don't remember if it was right away, but usually as close to the album's release as possible. It was left up to the booking agents for the most part...
I think so, one of the best tours was the „Gates Of Darkness” tour with Possessed and Dark Angel, how did the whole tour go?
Well, that's ONE man's opinion. I think that tour was the first one I had any involvement in. I went to a few shows in the middle of nowhere, with very few people in attendance. Possessed had a good following, but Dark Angel were unknowns. I remember going to a retail store appearance that was very much like a scene out of “This is Spinal Tap,” there were very few fans in attendance, but those who showed up LOVED Possessed, yet Mike Torrao wouldn't get out of the van to meet any of them, which I thought was a lousy attitude. I remember hoping that all the other bands were going to be a bit more professional. The other three guys were really good about it.
But the fans in New York were a different story. L'Amour, THE “Mecca” of the New York metal scene was pretty damn crowded when those bands arrived. There was a “rumor” that night that Slayer were going to show up and play a few songs from “their forthcoming album 'Reign in Blood,'” using Possessed's equipment. Yeah, right, I thougt...but at about 2:30 in the morning, Slayer went onstage and played four songs off “Reign in Blood” using Possessed's equipment. It was a very special evening.
Can you tell us more about the videos Combat tour 1 and 2?
You mean the “Ultimate Revenge” videos? I wouldn’t call them “tours.” The first one was cool, but it was released some time back when I was still in college. They used to show it between bands at L’Amour all the time, so I don’t think I even picked it up until I worked at Combat. The Slayer and Exodus footage was from a show they did with Venom at Studio 54 in New York… I don’t know how or why I missed that show…but the Venom footage certainly wasn’t from that show. I haven’t watched that tape in 20 years. The second one was shot at the Trocadero in Philadelphia, and I was very involved in that one. I unfortunately got stuck for hours in the sound truck because the techs weren’t familiar with the bands or the type of music. I was there to let the techs know that the sounds they were hearing were indeed the way the bands were supposed to sound.
I am no sound technician. My ears are good enough to know that all MP3s pretty much sound like shit no matter what the compression they’re encoded, but I am definitely not a sound tech. It all sounded great while I was in the truck. But it was a lot like when you hear your own voice on tape: you can’t believe that’s how your voice sounds because the vibrations are different inside you. I think the results sounded pretty bad.
It was great seeing all those bands on the same bill: Death, Dark Angel, Forbidden, Faith or Fear, and Raven. None of us knew why Raven was the headliner. They were way past their prime, and “Wacko” was gone. Don’t get me wrong, I like Raven; their first album is a testament to the greatness of the NWOBHM, but it was wrong to have them in the headlining spot. Most of us “non-executives” knew that after a long day of thrash and death metal, the fans of those genres weren’t going to stick around to see a band like Raven. Sad to say, that’s exactly what happened. When it came time to edit the video for distribution, Borivoj Krgin (Blabbermouth) summed up what we all knew was going to happen…very few fans stuck around, and the video had to be edited with crowd scenes from the other performances to make it look like people were there in force. I thought it was kind of sad. Mark Gallagher is a really nice guy; he’s a small part of why I love and still love heavy metal, but it was wrong to even have Raven on that bill at all, let alone as the last band of the day….
By the way, did you often go to shows, gigs to check out the bands on stage?
I’ve probably been to more shows than you’ve eaten hot food. I went to a scary amount of shows. Any time a Combat band was in town, I was there, and not out of professional obligation, either. I was a huge fan of these bands that I worked with.
Did the bands have the possibility to shot videoclips too? Would you say, that the videoclips played a more important role back in the day, than nowadays?
Video clips were kind of out of the company’s budget during most of my stay at Combat. The only clip I remember being produced was “Toxic Waltz” for Exodus. I got sent to Philly to check in on Faith or Fear’s recording, so I missed out on going to San Francisco to actually be IN the video. Video was EVERYTHING back then, but it didn’t make sense for Combat bands to make them, because there was no medium to air them. The only metal bands you’d see in regular rotation on MTV were the “hair” bands, and the occasional Priest or Scorpions video.
Were there any bands that you regretted not to sign them?
If you mean bands that we TRIED to get, but lost other labels, then Vio-Lence is at the top of that list. Testament was another one. And Wrathchild America was stolen out from underneath us by Atlantic Records at the last second. As for bands that we COULD have signed but didn’t, nothing really sticks out in my mind.
How were the Combat releases distributed in Europe? With which European distributors, labels were you in touch back in the day?
Music for Nations was that released most of the Combat bands in England and throughout Europe. Combat licensed and released a lot of MFN’s bands in America.
Did the label give the bands artist freedom or did you chip in what they have to do?
I’d say they had a lot of artistic freedom. I don’t recall anyone ever saying “this sucks, change it.” Maybe we should have, because I’m sure that we said “Man, this sucks” between ourselves on occasion. And I’m not naming names…
How about the cover of the releases? Did you have a –so to speak- label designer or could the bands decide with whom they want to work with?
Both, actually. Dave Bett was the art director when I left. He was responsible for putting the album art together, but the cover art was done by commissioned artists; most notably Ed Repka, who has produced great pieces for Megadeth and so many others. Sean Taggart did a lot of the more “hardcore” acts like Crumbsuckers and Agnostic Front. Then there was a guy, Matthias something, who did the great Heathen art that I mentioned before, and also the cover of the first Forbidden album, with the red and blue skulls smashing into each other. I LOVE those covers.
Did the label always pay royalties for the bands? Could the bands earn some many as for sales, merchandising, royalties etc.?
I never had any idea about royalties. I sometimes wonder if any of the bands got anything. Merchandising was usually handled by the bands themselves...
How was your relationships to the other indie labels? Were there a kind of competition among the labels or…?
There may have been a little competition between labels, but reps from every company were friends with each other. Everybody hung out with everyone else. I had gone out drinking with Brian Slagel on a few occasions in the past...what does that tell you?
How happened, that Combat never signed any European bands? Did you keep an eye what’s going on in the european underground by the way?
I think it was just easier for Combat to license European bands from Music for Nations than to sign them directly. There's a gigantic ocean between America and Europe. It's kind of hard to keep track of your “investments” that way. There WERE a number of European bands that Don Kaye and I wanted to go after. Artillery was one of them, Angel Dust, too. Combat didn't go after for the reason I mentioned.
Were there any releases that didn’t fulfil the hopes set on it, that didn’t fulfil the expectations?
I never really dwelled on it. If a band sold 35,000 to 50,000 albums, it was considered a raging success. I thought Heathen were going to be at least as big as Exodus, but it didn't happen. And I imagine that the label may have been a bit disappointed with the sales of Shotgun Messiah, because the execs thought they had the next Motley Crue on their hands. I was gone before that record came out; hell, they were still called Kingpin when I left, and the original singer was with them, before the bass player took over the vocals. I met that guy at a music convention. Didn't much care for him, he acted like the world owed him something. Maybe it did, because he's playing bass and writing songs with Marilyn Manson these days...
You know, I'm starting to think that Shotgun Messiah ended up on Relativity, not Combat.
How many items were pressed from the releases?
I think they'd press about 15,000 LPs to start, more for an act like Exodus or Forbidden. More copies were pressed if there was a need, of course...
Would you say, that Combat became specialized in thrash metal?
That sounds about right. That's pretty much what the label was all about. But don't forget, there was also Realtivity for the more mainstream and alternative acts, and In-Effect was created for more “urban” bands, for lack of a better term...
What were the most successful, the best sold and the most unsuccessful, the worst sold releases in the history of Combat?
I'd say Exodus were far and away the biggest band ever on Combat. Nuclear Assault sold well. There are many others, I'm sure, but I'm a little hazy on those kind of details after all these years. As for unsuccessful, I don't really remember too many. A lot of the licensed stuff kind of went nowhere, bands like Acid Reign, Agony, and Virus. Joe Satriani's “Surfing with the Alien” sold half a million copies when all was said and done, but that was on Relativity. I still handled college promotion for that album. I left before the album hit that mark. I'm still bummed that I didn't get a gold album for my work promotiing it.
Exodus couldn't WAIT to be signed to a major label. Capitol Records had a big interest in them, and from what I remember, the band thought the president of the company was going to release them from their contract like they did with Megadeth a few years before. They were pissed when Combat released “Fabulous Disaster.”
I don't know what happened after I left, but their next album “Impact is Imminent” was on the Capitol label. I think it sold less copies than Combat did with “Fabulous Disaster.” I heard many stories about why the album sold less than expected: Capitol didn't know how to market them; Capitol didn't promote them heavily enough, Capitol changed a lot of staff. Some of it is probably true, but at the end of the day, “Impact...” just wasn't a very good Exodus album, at least to my ears. It sounded thrown together to appease the label and get something on the market as fast as they could. Put it this way: I've listened to the first three Exodus albums thousands of times. I've listened to every album they've done after “Impact...” hundreds of times. I listened to “Impact is Imminent” once. Once!
Is it true, that Jeff Becerra said back then, that „Beyond the Gates” was going to be more commercial record?
Let's face it, ANYTHING Possessed did after “Seven Churches” was going to sound “more commercial” than that debut. “Seven Churches” was a brutal, brutal album. I just didn't like it very much. As I said before, I really loved the EP they did after “Seven Churches,” but I don't remember even one track off “Beyond the Gates.”
Combat Records was the „in house” heavy metal label for independent powerhouse distributor Important Record Distributors, Important had several offices in the United States that promoted and sold Combat’s releases, correct?
New York was the main hub. That's where I was. Los Angeles was the West Coast hub. Then there were satellite offices in Dallas, Chicago, and Atlanta. I don't think they did any distribution in those offices, it was sales, mostly. The merchandise was all shipped from the NY and LA warehouses.
Is it rue, that Important Records was also home to Megaforce Records in the mid-1980s and produced Metallica’s „Kill 'Em All” and „Ride the Lightning” (prior to Metallica’s transfer to Elektra Records), Anthrax’s „Fistful of Metal” and many other early Megaforce releases and Important also introduced the United States to many other labels, including Noise (Celtic Frost, Helloween and Running Wild), Neat (Venom, Raven) and Metal Blade (Slayer & Trouble) and usually releases were issued in joint venture with the Combat logo?
I think Important pressed and distributed the first two Metallica albums for Megaforce. I honestly don't know who did what to whom back then, it was before my time. I do remember several hundred copies of the original “Ride the Lightning” in the warehouse even after Elektra re-released it. The bands on the Noise label were initially pressed and distributed by Important, but Noise handled all the promotion, merchandising, etc. through a marketing company called Second Vision.
Slayer were never really on Combat, they were on Metal Blade. Combat made a deal with Brian Slagel to get a piece of Slayer. I don't know if it was a monetary deal, or if it was just pressing and distubution, but the deal was that along with Slayer, Combat also had to do the P&D for Trouble and...was it Fates Warning?
Combat Records was later taken over by Relativity Records, does it mean, that Combat stopped its activities or did it merge with Relativity?
I would call Combat being “taken over” by Relativity a “merge.” I think “consolidation” is probably a better word.
Owned by Sony Records, Relativity allowed Combat to exist for a brief period of time, before Combat Records would cease to exist and later, Sony would discontinue Relativity Records as well, right?.
That was couple of years after I quit. I never inquired about it, because I never really thought about it. Everyone who I knew there was gone by that point, I think. I'm glad I missed out in that. The only rumor I heard was that Sony bought out Relativity to get Joe Satriani. In reality, I think Barry Kobrin was just sick of it all.
The idea of merging everything under one label was an idea that had come up in meetings for years. I think it made sense in the long run,actually. The music scene was changing by that time, bands were blurring the lines between musical styles: “are they metal? Are they alternative? Oh...they call it 'grunge.' Well, on what label do we put THAT out? Do we create yet ANOTHER label?” It made sense to combine them all...
Were you good collegues? Did you get on well with each other? Did a good collective take shape among the workers of Combat?
There were good times and bad times, but, yeah, we all got along pretty well. We hung out away from the office, some of us on a regular basis.
When and why did you leave the label exactly? Did you never think about to form an own label? What did you do after you left Combat and what do you do these days?
I left because I got a HUGE opportunity to work for a producer who was starting his own label. The money he offered was three times what I was making at the time. Unfortunately, the label never happened. I worked for the label that released the first Biohazard album, but the office was VERY far from my house. A good portion of my salary went to transportation expenses. My paychecks bounced two weeks in a row, and before I could quit, I got laid off because there was no money to be had. This was in September, and the owner said he wanted me to come back in January. I never spoke to the guy again. The label collapsed only a few months later.
I loved the idea of forming my own label, but I knew I’d never be able to pull it off, even if I had the money. Thrash metal was dying at the time, and I didn’t think that „grunge” was the „next big thing.” Mother Love Bone was supposed to be The Future of Metal, but I absolutely HATED that album. I didn’t hear Nirvana until about a month after „Smells Like Teen Spirit” was a massive hit. I STILL can’t figure out why Pearl Jam are so huge.
Now I do bookkeeping and IT for a small company in New York City, and have been there for almost 18 years.
How did you view the situation of metal during the ’90s, when grunge and pop/punk almost annihilated the metal scene? Did they efface the metal scene?
Every „music scene” eventually gets pushed aside in popularity when something „new” comes along. It’s largely believed that The Knack were a large factor in „killing” Disco and ushering in „New Wave.” Whether it’s true or not is immaterial. What’s interesting about that is „My Sharona” was The Knack’s only hit; the only one anyone remembers, anyway. Can ONE song „annihilate” an entire genre of music?
I don’t think the grunge and pop/punk „annihilated” ANYTHING. „Market Saturation” took care of that. How many thrash bands were out there when grunge came along? How many of them sounded discernible from each other by that time? I could rattle off a list of names, but there’s no point. Bands like Mordred were incorporating new ideas into the thrash sound by adding a DJ; Anthrax had their flirtation with rap.
It was the same with the „hair bands.” Almost ALL of them sounded EXACTLY the same to my ears. When Warrant released the video for „Down Boys,” my only reaction was a somber „Oh, no..” It wasn’t grunge that killed off „hair metal.” „Appetite for Destruction” killed ’hair metal.” Countless bands stopped wanting to be Motley Crue or Poison (blecch) and wanted to be Guns N Roses. Even well-established „commercial” bands felt the blow: Scorpions „Eye 2 Eye” disastrous flirtation with „funk,” and Def Leppard’s incorporation of...whatever...that resulted in the „Slang” album.
So, as „My Sharona” brought us into the 80s, „Smells Like Teen Spirit” ushered in the 90s. But don’t forget about bands like Faith No More, who had almost an equal hand as Nirvana in changing the musical landscape and idea of what „metal” was at the time. I love FNM’s „The Real Thing” a HUNDRED times more than „Nevermind”, and it has NOTHING to do with „Epic.” Alice in Chains and Soundgarden are two more bands that helped to shift the metal axis, but it took me a very long time to appreciate those bands.
But there’s one thing that seems to get overlooked when people talk about music scenes „killing” older scenes: the genres that get wiped out never really go away, do they? They just go out of fashion. And old friend once told me that disco didn’t „die,” it just went „underground” for a while. Today, it’s called Trance, or Trip-Hop, or Dance Music, but it’s all rooted in disco. Bands like Iced Earth and Nevermore have been around for a long time now, and they’re as „old school” as it gets. The so-called „dinosaurs” bounced back in a big way. Iron Maiden and Judas Priest got restored to their former glory simply by regaining their „estranged” lead singers. And I’ll never understand why it took Rick Rubin to give Metallica the wake-up call that had been slapping them in the face for years: Give the fans what they WANT, and the fans want Metallica albums that sound like Metallica albums.
In 1999 Century Media century media re-released almost the whole Combat catalogue, were you aware of it?
Sure! I'm on the Century Media mailing list. Their catalog is HUGE! And I'm reasonably sure that the guy who runs the Century Media label used to do a fanzine called “No Glam Fags.” I also think he's the guy that Gene Hoglan and Gonz from Dark Angel had me do a phone interview with pretending to be Ron Reinhart. We were all half-drunk and Gene was tired of interviews, so they coerced me into doing it. I was okay until he asked me about the lyrics. He HAD to know something was wrong by that point. If he finds out about this, he may fuck up my next order...
How do you view the present scene compared to the ’80s? Did you keep an eye on what’s going on in the underground after Combat’s demise at all?
I've kept an eye on the underground since I was in high school. Nothing's changed with me. There are some AMAZING bands today: Lamb of God, Mastodon, Children of Bodom, Arch Enemy, In Flames...do I need to go on? I also love bands like Iced Earth and Blind Guardian, bands that fly the “Old school” flag. Have you heard Municipal Waste? They're an 80s throwback to D.R.I. if there ever was one. Slayer and Exodus are still gods to me...Gary Holt still writes AMAZING thrash riffs. Metallica have gone back to being Metallica. I'm glad they're all still doing what they do...
The internet has made it SO easy to discover new music, and I don't mean file-sharing. Sites like Pandora.com. Last FM and YouTube make it easy for me to sample what I may be interested in, and Blabbermouth lets me find EVERYTHING I could ever want to know that's happening in metal....sure beats the days of “tape-trading,” although that was a lot of fun in its day.
I've been listening to a LOT of female-fronted symphonic rock/metal the last few years. I love Nightwish and Within Temptation (especially Within Temptation...I want Sharon den Adel to be my wife. I haven't had a crush like this on anyone since high school. I can't put my finger on what it is about her that does it for me, but I'm hooked on her. Either Sharon or Simone from Epica. I'm into heavy-yet-melodic stuff these days. It may be a result of getting older, but I think it's because I just can't listen to Lamb of God all the time...
As you told above you did a fanzine and you were in the tape trading scene, which fanzines do you recall from those days? Do/Did fanzines play an important role in the metal scene?
Fanzines were great. The shittier looking the better. This was before we had computers, so it was all cut-and-paste and stencilling. The writing was honest. The bigger metal ’zines were Metal Mania (San Francisco), New Heavy Metal Review (Los Angeles), Metal Forces (U.K.), and Kick Ass Monthly (New York). And I think Maximum Rock N Roll is STILL alive and kicking (even though it was never a metal zine). Fanzines were HUGELY important to the scene because it was a great way to find out WHAT was out there that you wanted to seek out and hear. They were a „doorway into the unknown.”
Would you say, that printed fanzines went almost out of fashion?
Fanzines out of fashion? The entire magazine media is headed „out of fashion.” I used to subscribe to 15 computer magazines; only PC World and Maximum PC are left standing. Major newspapers have gone under. The New York Times seems to be headed toward becoming an „online only” publication. I miss the portability of paper media, mostly because I don’t have internet in my bathroom.
Webzines are very popular these days, Do you often watch them?
I check in with Blabbermouth a lot of the time. That concentrates the information from several metal webzines into one site. But I do check out a lot of webzines. Just don’t ask me for names!
As for the music business as a whole –especially labelswise- how much did it change compared to the ’80s?
I still have friends in the music business. The business has definitely changed, and I’d say that it’s COMPLETELY due to the shift to digital downloading, and I mean LEGAL downloading. I have a friend who works at a major company whose job it is to order the pressing of CDs. His fear is that new CDs will no longer be manufactured a few years from now and he’ll be out of a job.
I will very much miss CDs. MP3s are „faceless.” They’re not a „tangible” media. If there’s any artwork, you have to download it and print it yourself. I’m absolutely fine with Metallica selling MP3s of all their concerts, complete with printable artwork, but if „Death Magnetic” wasn’t available on a physical pro-pressed storebought CD, I wouldn’t own the album at all. I want the actual CD.
What do you think about downloading, file sharing and the mp3s? Do they cause big harms for bands and labels?
As I said before, the ubiquity of recordable media like CD-Rs and sites like MySpace are great ways for bands to „make a name” for themselves as compared to the tape-trading days. Illegal filesharing and downloading have an impact on CD sales, I’m sure, but iTunes is doing HUGE business in this department, so what does that tell you? I don’t want to download MP3s and have to convert and burn them myself to play in my CD player. I’ve said it before: I think MP3s sound like shit. It’s a „lossy” format. Too much information is sheared away during compression. It’s NOT a true representation of the actual recording. The only way I would EVER purchase downloadable music is is the entire album is available as a „CD image”. This way, when I burn the image file to CD, I have an ACTUAL copy of the music thet way the artist intended it to be heard.
But why go through all that when I can make a few clicks on Amazon and get the real CD sent to my house? I can rip the music to my iPod and have the CD for home use...and as a permanent backup.
How do you view that a lot of labels stopped sending promos and they are rather sending digital formats? Is this the future of metal and music as a whole or…?
It saves a lot of money for the label, that’s for sure, but I wouldn’t want to play MP3s over the radio, although I’m sure it’s being done. I’ve been out of the business for a long, long time. But I would want the image file, as I said earlier...
As for Combat, did you have statistics or provings/statements which records were sold the most? From where were you informed about the selling?
No clue. I’m sure the accountant knew, but I don’t think I ever had a conversation with the man.
Are you still in touch with the former Combat members these days?
I'll speak to someone from time to time, but we walk in different circles today, you know? Which is how it should be. But I signed yup at Facebook a few months ago, and have been able to re-connect with a lot of my old friends and colleagues from those days. I'm so glad my friend Sue talked me into signing up...I have been on the verge of tears more than a few times since signing up and talking to old friends I thought I'd never hear from again. Not very “metal” of me, is it...?
What were your favourite releases in 2009?
EPICA "Design Your Universe" Far and away my vote for Album of the Year.
I didn’t buy or hear much new stuff this year, but these are the ones that made me happy, and in no particular order:
AMBERIAN DAWN “Clouds of Northern Thunder”
MASTODON “Crack the Skye”
DELAIN “April Rain”
WITHIN TEMPTATION “An Acoustic Night at the Theatre”
SIRENIA “The 13th Floor”
RAMMSTEIN “Liebe Ist Fur Alle Da”
Don, thanks a lot for your patience and time, anything to add what I forgot to mention?
My pleasure. I think we’ve covered everything!

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