Jon Zazula talks Heavy TalesSunday, 6th October 2019
Jon Zazula should be a name that is familiar to fans of the heavy music genre. After all, he founded Megaforce Records with his wife Marsha, discovered Metallica (and numerous big name acts), and has been a force in shaping heavy metal. With all of these accolades to his name, it’s no surprise that we are now approaching the release of his book, Heavy Tales: The Metal. The Music. The Madness. As Lived by Jon Zazula, at the end of this month. An intriguing read about the early days of the metal scene, and a story of his ups and downs in the industry with no sugar-coating to it. We got the opportunity to have a chat with Zazula himself to go further in-depth with many of the themes of his book, as well as his thoughts on the future of the genre.
Dead Rhetoric: What really clicked with you with the sound of heavy metal when you first heard it?
Jon Zazula: Heavy metal has always been an aggressive, thinking man’s music to me. It’s foreground music. It’s music that you have to listen to and appreciate. It’s not for the meek. What’s made me love it, was that I have always loved great music – whether it was Cream, [Jimi] Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Mile Davis – I always liked the greats. Not that they got Grammy’s, but real true greats. When heavy metal was introduced to me, it hit me like a bolt of lightning. I said, “This is great! This is fantastic!”
The guitar work was the first thing that grabbed me. The guitar work on those albums were phenomenal; they’re a bunch of mutants! Now the kids today are beyond mutants! They are all virtuosos, the kids today. But that’s what attracted me to it. The loyalty that they had to the music really impressed me. It’s still true today, 38 years later. Everyone is still listening to Metallica, Testament, Mercyful Fate, and Venom today.
Dead Rhetoric: There is that loyalty, and lack of trend-hopping. The music doesn’t fade, like other things.
Zazula: No – the only problem is that you may not buy their next record. Some bands have to make really great albums today in order to be purchased. You have to say, “Did you hear that?” And unfortunately, everyone is ripping it for free. It’s a rough business out there.
Dead Rhetoric: There’s obviously been ups and downs over the years personally, what drove you to sticking with the genre?
Zazula: I had this very insane belief. When I say, insane belief, I mean insane. First of all, Metallica were very special. I believe Metallica will rule the world someday. I did whatever I needed to do in order to get them off the ground. I had them tour like crazy and get them popular, and put them in the studio once they had material together, and kill them all. The ups – I have manic depression, and I have really amazing mania. When I have this mania, all I want to do is achieve things and make things happen. I’m crazy – I love to see things happening. That’s why Metallica called me Jon “It’s Happening” Zazula [laughs]. I would go to a show and see 100 people there – it’s happening! The day I first saw a kid wearing a Metalllica t-shirt – it’s happening! That’s basically it.
The downs where that there were times when you got problems that had to be dealt with that weren’t controllable. Acts of God as we call them. You have to deal with it, and know the answers to the questions. You have to be able to put a round peg in a square hole. The downs would really bring me down, when I didn’t have the right answer right away because the questions were so hard. Somehow, miraculously, within 24 hours I knew the answer to the impossible question. That’s the ups and downs. A great down was killing yourself for King’s X, getting a #2 record on the radio, and only selling 200,000 records at a time when we should have sold 2 million. Some ups – seeing Anthrax in Madison Square Garden in New York, in their hometown for the first time, was a big up. Down is really seeing your band really blow it on stage. There’s so much! It’s the agony and the ecstasy, that’s what I called it in the book.
Dead Rhetoric: What do you feel was special about the Public Enemy and Anthrax pairing for “Bring the Noise?”
Zazula: First of all, I’m not a big fan of rap music. It doesn’t really blow me away. Though I did really get into DMX and Public Enemy. I thought It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back was [great]. I thought “Bring the Noise” was very heavy, and progressive – it was very well produced. DJ Terminator X is unbelievable. They have you believing Flavor Flav is a dummy, but he’s no dummy! Chuck D – he’s the man! I really loved them. Anthrax always wore Public Enemy shirts on stage, and listened to them on the bus. We discussed A is for Anthrax, and put it together and “Bring the Noise.” I loved that video – I was there when it was shot in Chicago. The stage was put there and the audience came from the streets while the bands were playing really loud. It was great!
That whole Public Enemy thing, as you know, grew into a worldwide tour. It was very cool! I had my doubts at first, because Anthrax was charging X amount of money, but Public Enemy was charging X times three and a half! And [Anthrax] was closing the show! I was thinking that something was wrong here, and I had to ask for crazy amounts of money for the first time, but everyone said okay. That established how much money I could get for these bands so that they could do what they needed to do to live. There’s a big difference between five thousand for a show, versus 15-20 thousand.
Dead Rhetoric: In working with a number of different bands that went on to very different levels of success, what are some of the things that you think make them successful? Obviously, every band can’t end up being Metallica.
Zazula: Right – that’s exactly it. Every band is different and unique. Metallica and Testament were different because there was already Metallica, Megadeth, and others by the time [Testament] began. Testament were able to establish a nice base – their first record sold like 47,000 copies. Which was good for an unknown band out of the box. Then you had bands like Raven who made a career change in how they wanted to portray themselves – they tried going more glam instead of NWOBHM. Ace Frehley went more rock and roll/hard rock, and King’s X were doing more metal/grunge. Everything was different. Overkill sounded completely different than Testament, and what happened is that not every band sold the same amount of records, or caught on as fast as others. Metallica, Anthrax, Manowar, Mercyful Fate really took off. At the beginning of Megaforce, Raven was our biggest seller! More than Metallica. But time tells the story. Raven are one of my favorite bands in the world and I still go to see them.
Dead Rhetoric: What’s tough about letting go of some of these bands, like Metallica, as they began to grow and look towards a larger label and management?
Zazula: It broke my heart. I didn’t see it coming. But I did see it coming – I sort of did but I didn’t. I didn’t really think it was coming. I tried so hard to get them a record deal, and I think I made that Elektra deal, but I didn’t get to close it. It’s just the way it is in the business. I was very hurt and depressed from it. My depression really kicked in. But I thought, I still had Anthrax and Raven. Anthrax was being approached by a major [label], and Raven was being approached by Atlantic Records. So I moved on. The reality is that you have to pick yourself up by your bootstrap. Get back on the pony and ride.
Dead Rhetoric: You mention how it’s a blue-collar story – what separates those who can do something you did versus someone who fails?
Zazula: It takes money in the music business to promote, market, make/record records. You have to have a mad passion, along with some money. Not a lot of money, but some money. Don’t kid yourself – make a budget, and find out what the expenses are. Then see if you can do it. By the way, most people can’t. But today, they have all of these festivals in Europe, and if you can get over there with a little buzz, you can make a bigger buzz. There’s a lot of opportunities in the touring market. You have to have the money to sustain yourself on the road. If you aren’t prepared as the record company, because most bands aren’t rich – you are going to fail. There are those who don’t see the whole world laid down in front of them. All they see is what they think are the numbers, and they fail. So mad passion, I mean mad passion, relentless work ethic towards the band(s), and some money. You do have to love your band and the people in it. If you don’t have all that, you are bound to fail.
Dead Rhetoric: How important has your relationship with your wife Marsha been in terms of what you have been able to achieve?
Zazula: People reading the book have been calling Marsha an angel that she put up with my insanity through all those years. She’s been an amazing partner, not just a wife. When I don’t know the answer, because if I don’t get it from God at 3:30 in the morning, it’s from Marsha during the day. If I am trying to find the answer, she is very good at taking what I have developed and molding it into something better. Not to mention, she had to agree with me on everything I did in the music business. She was my real partner. She didn’t agree with me on King’s X in the beginning, because she discovered King’s X. I eventually fell for King’s X, but not as fast as she did. Plus, Marsha understood everybody. She has a degree in child psychology. Believe it or not, that worked out really nicely in this business, being able to be the mother/confessor to so many. As I said, she was my partner, wife, and buddy.
Dead Rhetoric: How important are the surrounding people in your life been as well – does it take a village, per say?
Zazula: It’s all about ‘it takes a village.’ You need a good agent, you need a good publishing person, you need a good A&R person to put the record together, you need a good promo team. It takes a whole village to succeed. Certainly in the book I express that. I talk about Metal Maria and what she discovered with Testament and Ministry. Everybody brought something to the table. We all became magic and had major successes. It’s definitely a team effort. Everybody at Megaforce Records brought something special. It wasn’t even just the A&R team. You could be in the mailroom, and if you saw something good at a club, you could talk to me and recommend a band. Everybody had a hand in the collective business.
Dead Rhetoric: Given your background, how do you view the importance of having a label nowadays to back you up as a band? There’s a lot of bands that are doing more self-released stuff.
Zazula: I think you have to get a little bit of buzz somehow. You have to put out something that really blows people away. The first song kills you and it keeps going for the rest of the album. You need the label, if the label can do something for you. I know a lot of labels that think that putting out the record is a service, and making you cds is all that they have to do. That’s bullshit! They don’t need you, it costs 87 cents for a cd and a package. For $870 you have a thousand cds. If you don’t have that, you are in a little trouble. But you don’t need a record company for that. If you want to do something a little special, and have a little money – you can hire your own promo/PR person for a few thousand dollars, or a radio team.
Dead Rhetoric: What do you feel that heavy metal needs to do in order to survive as more of these older bands, like Slayer, start to retire?
Zazula: I think it is unfortunate, because old school metal is going to disappear. The Anvils, the Ravens, eventually the Iron Maidens. But we are still left with groups like Sabaton and Arch Enemy. The Absence, out of Florida, are amazing. There’s a future for metal, because I think everything is hybrid right now. But what bothers me, and what scares me, is that there’s a glut. You have to get through a lot of crap to get to the good bands. Tape-trading is gone, and you have to find out who to listen to and become a fan. I saw a video of Arch Enemy live, and thought it was unbelievably great.
But I think what we are going to be left with, and I’m a little bit sorry, is that the singing voice – Eric Adams of Manowar, Joey Belladonna, Ronnie James Dio – these voices seem to be disappearing. Instead we have this angry, growling voice. I understand it with the force of the music, and using your voice as an instrument and a weapon, but I feel like I’m being yelled at all day. I feel like I did something wrong and that guy is up there screaming at me. I still miss the voice. I wish, and hope, that we can still get that heavy heavy band, with a beautiful voice. That, I’m afraid, is dying on the vine.
Dead Rhetoric: I think there are still a number of younger bands that are doing some of that, but it doesn’t have the impact that the growled vocal bands are having.
Zazula: I’m finding sometimes, that a little attitude goes a long way, with a good voice. Linkin Park, I happen to like them. They aren’t an aggressive, crazy metal band but I like the way that the vocals are parted in two different ranges. I think that’s very cool. I’d like some bands to come out with two singers – or having someone who could grunt and another back-up and play. I’d like to see [more] of that. I’m not finding it that much.
Dead Rhetoric: I try to find those, as I tend to look for bands that have some heaviness and melody.
Zazula: I really like Floor [Jansen] from Nightwish. She’s amazing. They do a good job of that. I hope that music finds its way. I won’t be here to push it along anymore. I’m out of the scene and retired [laughs]. It’s up to the new kids to do it. I wish them luck.
Dead Rhetoric: Sometimes it’s tough to look at the future. I teach middle schoolers and to see some of their aspirations. The school year just started and I always start with a ‘get to know you survey,’ and I’ve never seen so many students that lack a favorite music group/singer – it’s a bit scary to me.
Zazula: That’s the parents fault – I think that if you grew up in a house like I did, you’d know what is happening at the time. If you have a metal parent, you are bound to know your Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath, and Metallica. My granddaughter was two and a half, and didn’t want to hear Michael Jackson anymore, she wanted to hear “Tallica.” So I would play it for her. She could tell you when Metallica was on the radio when she was two and a half. So it’s up to the parents to really bring the kids up metal. If they aren’t metal parents, they aren’t going to. As far as not knowing what your favorite band is, that’s very sad. It’s all top 40 stuff now, so it’s probably crap anyway.
Dead Rhetoric: To wrap up, is there anything related to the book that we haven’t touched upon that you’d like to mention?
Zazula: What I do want people to know about the [physical] book, is that it’s only available online. You can’t go into a Barnes & Noble and buy it. I did that on purpose. I wanted to maintain control, just like I did at Megaforce. If I sell very little, I don’t care. If I sell a ton, then God bless! But it’s not about the money, its about getting the story out there before I’m not around to tell it. I hope people can learn a few things if they read the whole book. There’s also a discography at the end of the book, which was mind-blowing. I said, “I did all that? What the…?” It was real – we really did that!