Jeff Wagner – Destination: Onward and BeyondSunday, 7th August 2022
It’s been an honor to know music appreciator, journalist, and friend Jeff Wagner since the late teens as we both were contributors to Curious Goods fanzine during the late 80’s/early 90’s. He has been writing books for a few years – including a comprehensive look at progressive metal for Mean Deviation, plus a book on Peter Steele with Soul on Fire. His latest effort is Destination Onward: The Story of Fates Warning, a comprehensive look at the long history of this legendary progressive metal act. We felt the need to catch up with Jeff as he provides insight into the work behind the book, thoughts on what he learned most in the process, how he possibly gained more appreciation for specific albums in the catalog as a result of the stories, and discussion about his podcast Radical Research, heavy metal and progressive music in general, plus future plans including a Voivod book.
Dead Rhetoric: What are some of your earliest memories surrounding music growing up – at what point did you start gravitating towards hard rock and metal, and eventually end up also picking up an instrument to perform in bands?
Jeff Wagner: That’s a good one. I will try to keep it succinct as that journey with all of us is long, complicated, and goes through a bunch of stages. I was drawn to music early on – my mom would tell me I would bust out a toy, plastic guitar and when the Mike Douglas show theme song would come on, yes, I am dating myself there, I was born in 1969. I would start jamming. The response to music was early, strong, and I had a number of children’s records. I had Sesame Street records, I got really involved in the song “Seasons in the Sun” by Terry Jacks, my first seven inch. My first album was C.W. McCall because of the “Convoy” song. I was obsessed with that song, and then I heard Sha Na Na, and I heard Kiss about the same time. Kiss was through “Beth”, and then when I saw the record it came from Destroyer, that’s that band. When you put it on, hear “Detroit Rock City” … that was the spark. As it probably was for a lot of kids in my generation, some sort of Kiss song. Destroyer was a huge gateway, all the other records from Kiss in the 70’s I had to get. I became completely obsessed in a positive way.
As I turned 10, 11, 12 I discovered FM radio and there was a great FM station called 97X, WXLP from the Quad Cities of Iowa/Illinois. They would play hard rock, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, I remember hearing Saxon one Friday night. They premiered Aerosmith Rock and a Hard Place when that album came out. That was an easy jump for me. Then I started buying albums – Balls to the Wall, leading to Metallica and then the floodgates open up after that.
I picked up guitar first at eight or nine. A friend of mine got permission to take guitar lessons in a neighboring town. You get the cheap nylon string guitar, but playing “Hail, Hail, the Gang’s All Here” not ripping on “Shock Me”. We had funny expectations as kids, but we stuck with it. And then I transferred over to bass in junior high, the jazz band at school needed a bassist. I was playing guitar there and hated it. I was playing in some cover bands with friends. I took to it more than I ever have playing guitar. And then I started learning licks of Steve Harris, Geezer Butler, even Blacky from Voivod. I’d play along, and that became another obsession to unlock the secrets of all these great bass players of the time.
Dead Rhetoric: Destination Onward: The Story of Fates Warning is your latest book endeavor. Discuss the process of gaining the respect from the band members past and present to tackle such a wide-reaching endeavor?
Wagner: I think I was lucky in that for a long-time, and it’s a very protracted timeline, I had contact with Jim Matheos over the years. I was writing letters, which I addressed in the intro to the book, when I was 16 or 17 years of age. I wrote a fan letter about Awaken the Guardian, he replied, I wrote another letter. We had a third letter after that. Perfect Symmetry era, I interviewed him as a radio deejay, I was doing a Saturday night metal show at the University of Iowa, on their station. It just continued on from there. I interviewed him for my fanzine during the Inside Out album period in 1994. It slowly, he started to hear my name a lot, I was editing Metal Maniacs, and then Mean Deviation my first book. Then I ended up at Inside Out the label, where Fates Warning ended up. By that time, he had come to trust me, like me, know that I was a huge fan but also fairly well-spoken. He liked my other books; he liked the articles I had always written about Fates quite a bit.
When I approached him about a book idea, he was all about it. He was happy to do it – he was the one who put me in touch with everybody else. I had stuff in the past I had done with Ray, with Joey Vera, Frank Aresti as well. I had a bit of trust within the circle, but when Jim told everybody that I was writing the book – the old and present members, they were all on board. As long as Jim says it’s okay, they know he’s pretty tough to get through, but once you gain trust with him, it works. I started conducting all the interviews, and it was a really intense but fun process.
Dead Rhetoric: What were some of the challenges, obstacles, surprises, or insights that came up throughout the entire start to finish process in telling this story?
Wagner: The challenge was… I’m a big fan, you are a big fan of this band, and there is a music story with every band. But what is the story beyond the music? How can I make this interesting for maybe somebody who is a casual fan or a fan of one era? How can I make this interesting? I started with the music, I started thinking about the unique arc they had in terms of their creative career. But then I looked at Jim’s moving around when he was a youngster, and it informed his personality, the music, and then it definitely informed the Theories of Flight album, how he finally opened up in a lot of ways. It’s a very personal album for him, especially the last twenty minutes. I started to find out little things about their personalities that I didn’t know as a fan. John Arch as well. He opens up in the book about being diagnosed with bi-polar II. That’s something that isn’t widely known. It hasn’t been widely known that Jim Matheos has been diagnosed with social anxiety disorder. I put that as a little footnote in the book, but he allowed me to do it. I learned that a lot of that introspective, inward-looking music that they are known for, is really a product of their personalities. That’s what music is, its not an element that’s really known about those guys and their music. I like making that link.
I started to find the story beyond just the music. Delve into the personalities. I think you find Ray Alder’s personality so all over that book, and maybe in a way that hasn’t been presented before. I had fun with that. This is not going to be a Motley Crue – The Dirt. There’s no groupie, sex story stuff. They weren’t that kind of band and those kinds of guys. I had to try to find nuggets everywhere. There’s that story about Ray Alder and John Arch saving a puppy. That is so cool, and so Fates Warning.
Dead Rhetoric: When hearing the stories from all parties inside and outside of the band, did this end up garnering any newfound respect or insight into specific albums in the Fates Warning catalog that maybe you took for granted previously?
Wagner: The two I ended up gaining more appreciation for are Inside Out and A Pleasant Shade of Grey. I always liked those albums; I just didn’t appreciate them as much as I do now. Circling back to those was really interesting for me. Those are the two that emerge for me, I hear them anew in a way. That could just be maturation of my music tastes, knowledge of the process of what they went through making these (albums). I gain more appreciation for them when the writing is great. Sometimes you get deep into a band and their work falls off for some reason. That didn’t happen here, I became more of a Fates fan by writing this book.
Dead Rhetoric: During the intro, you get right out of the way the big question if the last studio album was in fact going to be their final studio record. How did you feel when discussing that matter with the band members?
Wagner: I guess I asked Jim and Ray about it. I think I addressed it with Joey a little bit, but he wouldn’t address that call. Neither would Bobby. It was a question for Ray and Jim. Other than an interview with Apple Music that Ray did, there’s not a lot of talk about it. They said they aren’t the kind of band to make huge pronouncements of what we are going to do or not going to do simply because we know it can change. Jim’s also a very decisive person. He didn’t feel now or at the time of getting Long Day Good Night done that there is another Fates Warning album in him. Right now, the status is that’s going to be the last album. It’s the same way with a tour. We don’t know if we are ever going to see them tour again. If they do, they will not go out and say this is the final, farewell tour. I feel like this is just the Fates Warning way to let it die, rather than the old celebration or have an anniversary to go about it.
Dead Rhetoric: Obviously you probably assembled more information than you were able to put in the book. Were there specific stories that you wish you could have elaborated more on, or maybe a tale or two that didn’t make the book that you could share with our readers to provide more context into the band?
Wagner: You really are putting me on the spot. There were some stories. One I could have gone into Victor Arduini, the original second guitarist, had some critical things to say about Jim seven or eight years ago. This band has always had good rapport around band members past and present. Some things may have not gone right for Arch and Zimmerman being let go, but generally the vibe is very good. People understand in hindsight why things had to happen, it’s a big brotherhood. I talked to Arduini about it, he was over it. He was miffed because they all played a show together – Arch/Matheos, and they had Arduini’s band opening and Zimmerman’s band opening. By extension, the original five guys were all there, DiBiase went to watch them hang out. Arduini wanted to take a bow at the end of the show, the five guys for a moment, and Jim didn’t want to do that. It rubbed Vic the wrong way, things were said. I left all of that out – it’s not important because Vic is now over it. Vic is a fan of Fates still, he loves the new albums, he listens. I didn’t want to drag that into the book. It just seemed unnecessary.
Dead Rhetoric: Now completing this book, how do you feel about the differences between the John Arch-era and the Ray Alder-era for Fates Warning?
Wagner: I explained in the intro that I was incensed about Arch leaving, and I got a letter back from Jim that was a little less touchy feely than the first one. We will find the right guy. The moment I heard Alder, I loved it. I never had any prejudice, I guess. The moment I heard “Silent Cries” on a specialty metal show before the album came out, I was hooked. I remember calling them up and requesting that song every Thursday night until the album came out. I love Ray, still love Ray, still think it was the best choice they could have possibly made. I don’t buy into the whole Arch versus Alder camp. I know people have different tastes; I love both.
Dead Rhetoric: You along with Hunter Ginn have a great podcast called Radical Research. How did the podcast develop, and do you enjoy the deep dive process and conversational overtones the two of you have – what have been some of your favorite episodes to date?
Wagner: We love it. I really get into it. Hunter and I – I have a lot of friends that are into music, I would say most of my best friends of course – but I never met someone like Hunter where all of my different quirks and left field-isms and eclectic tastes as a listener are mirrored by somebody else. We started with similar music, we love all the weird, technical, and progressive metal, we love old strange, progressive rock, jazz fusion. He loved No Means No, Mind Over Four, it just went on and on. We always have animated conversations, and once we discovered we wanted to do a podcast, let’s just cover things that no other music podcast is covering. At the time, I saw 30,000 podcasts on music as of five years ago. There was a niche for us, we have a nice following that’s dedicated, and we aren’t running out of things to talk about. I love it, it’s a fun way to exult these forgotten albums or movements, whatever it is. It’s gratifying that people out of Estonia and Serbia and everywhere else in the world appreciate what we are doing.
I like an episode we did on OLD, the old New Jersey band. Somehow, we had a fun discussion. I really like the Celtic Frost – Into the Pandemonium episode, that’s a super-sized episode. We took a lot of time on it. Those two come to mind. We did one on Fates Warning. We had zero planned, I didn’t know what we were going to say. Pop in snippets of songs, that was a neat little format change for us.
Dead Rhetoric: Given your work over the years in a number of capacities as a music journalist, editor, label work, etc. – what aspects gave you the most satisfaction when it comes to your skill sets and affinity/passion for music? Did it surprise you that you were able to make a living through those career choices, especially with the changing music industry landscape?
Wagner: What I tell people that when I pay my rent or mortgage through my work in music since I was 24/25 years old, they are surprised. I am very lucky. I have people ask me how they could do what I do – and I have no idea (laughs). It’s a lot of luck, things you fall into in terms of relationships and who you know. The thing that gives me the most satisfaction is certainly writing books. If I had the time over the last twenty years, I would have produced a lot more books. I have a Voivod book coming out next year to coincide with the band’s fortieth anniversary, they are all on board. I really would like to try to do one a year until my fingers fall off, I guess. It is probably the most satisfying thing outside of listening to the music itself.
Dead Rhetoric: What are your thoughts on the heavy music scene and especially progressive metal and its numerous offshoots in today’s landscape?
Wagner: I think that’s two different questions. Metal in general – I find that there’s a lot more competency and way better productions than there ever have been. I think that’s all good, and it’s gotten easier to master. Bands now are copying the vibe of previous generations of metal bands; we are now two or three or four generations in now. I’m finding the competence and passion is there, but I’m not hearing a lot of stuff that has its own real personality. I am always looking for that character, always.
Progressive stuff – biased stuff regarding progressive metal, I just want it to be interesting. I don’t want to follow a format where you are like – we play progressive metal, oh what do you sound like? We sound like Dream Theater. That’s not a progressive outlook, it’s just copying a style of progressive. Progressive is more of a mindset. When I hear something progressive – a band like Vektor, the three albums they’ve done, they are twisting things around to include Emperor and Voivod influences, cyberthrash. They are exciting. That’s progressive to me. It sounds nothing like Dream Theater or Symphony X. As much as I am known for being a progressive guy, when it is though it’s going to be more creative or atypical from what people expect.
Dead Rhetoric: What are some of your greatest memories regarding your work over the years? Any specific fanboy moments meeting specific musicians or industry related people that you treasure for a lifetime?
Wagner: I have had some surreal moments. Meeting people like Rob Halford, having a bit of friendship with him beyond just the interviews. Same thing happened with King Diamond. Bruce Dickinson too. Eventually we fell out of touch. Probably the biggest one is Steve Hackett. I am a huge Genesis fan. I had an opportunity to work with him a lot when I was at Inside Out. He’s a massive figure for me. He still is keeping the Genesis music alive with his performances and what not.
I had an opportunity to be on a cruise that he played that goes every year, the Cruise to the Edge. We ended up taking a day off the ship and going on an adventure. There’s this company in Mexico where we rented Jeeps and went on a little safari. I was designated to drive, we took Steve, his wife, and another Inside Out guy from the UK, and we were all together in this train of nine and ten Jeeps. I’m dodging coconuts in the road, going into sand pits, and having tacos on the beach made by these Mexican dudes. We looked at these Mayan ruins, this is a dream. It was actually real. I pinch myself; I am really lucky to get in that situation.
Dead Rhetoric: What would surprise people to learn about Jeff Wagner that they maybe don’t already know outside of your love for music, four-legged animals, and a strong affinity for different types of pizza as well as a love for the Washington Nationals?
Wagner: (laughs). Matt, you covered pretty much all of it! The last four or five years I’ve gotten deep into gardening. We grow banana plants, fruit, I watch a lot of English gardening shows. I am crazy for gardening; I like getting my hands into the soil. Growing things, squash, cantaloupe, we are doing all this and getting into it together with my wife.
Dead Rhetoric: Are you hopeful to do another book or two down the line diving deep into the history of another band – or what’s in the pipeline for activities relating to music, writing, or label work for Jeff over the next year or so?
Wagner: I am curating a 50th anniversary Kansas collection. Again, with my work at Inside Out, they trust me, the label and the band made me the offer. That is gratifying to do, I am still working on it. Maybe it will be out later this year or early 2023. I may get some liner note gigs in the pipeline. I may have other books, but I don’t if I can quite say anything about them or not quite yet.