Dynamite Monster Boogie Show
Alec Morton interview by Peter Crigler
Raging Slab are a band that never got their fair shake. They had a minor MTV/radio hit with "Don't Dog Me" in 1989 but then were bogged down in label politics. At least three different recordings were consigned to label vaults, never to be officially heard. But the band persevered; a sound that could be described as Foghat with muscle, Molly Hatchet with a metal attitude. This band was all about creativity and did things most other bands would've wished they could do. The band is now history but fortunately longtime bassist Alec Morton decided to share the band's story so that people would get a chance to see how special they were.
PSF: How did you get started playing music?
AM: I took guitar lessons on and off when I was a kid, starting at a pretty young age. I never really stuck to it that much, but eventually I had a band when I was in high school. I grew up in Washington D.C. and I got into the DC punk rock scene, the hardcore scene in the early ‘80's. Going to see Minor Threat, Government Issue, Void, and all that stuff. And I started a band then with some friends of mine. We didn't play a lot. We had gigs here and there. We made it onto one compilation record because it was a bunch of DC bands and then it kind of fell apart. Two of us went away to college. I came to school, I came to New York to go to college and then I went to school for a couple of years and dropped out. But I stayed in New York. And then just kind of randomly in a bar, I met Greg and Elyse.
PSF: Is that how you came to join the band?
AM: Yeah, I was just drinking beer in a bar on the lower east side. It's not there anymore- it closed a long time ago. And I was just by myself and I had long hair. They walked in. I think they were with a couple of other people. I want to say they were with Mark Ibold who later played bass in Pavement. He was a really good friend of the drummer that was playing with Slab then, Tim. They were very close but I could be conflating that- it was a long time ago. But anyway, they came into this bar and they kind of saw me sitting there. They had long hair. I had long hair, and they just kind of waved to me. Greg just sort of waved me over to his table. And I kind of thought they were gonna buy me a beer, something like that, and I don't think that ended up happening. But you know, I ended up talking to them. And it turned out Greg had lived in Washington for a while and he had had a band down there that had been pretty successful on the independent club scene. And I knew who his band was. But he had sort of changed his look a lot from then and I was like "There's no way that you're that same guy. There's no way." And he was like "Wow, if it really bothers you, it's the same guy but I just didn't recognize him from DC."
PSF: What was the scene around the band like at this time?
AM: When I joined, they'd already been playing for a few years, or like two and a half years, something like that, so it was a little bit of a scene in the lower east side with rock bands. There were certain places we hung out at a lot, like the Pyramid Club, and some more bars and clubs. The Cat Club at that point had a hard rock/heavy metal night, I think it was on Wednesday night, so we would usually go there. But there was kind of a crossover, like we were friendly with bands like Arab on Radar, even though they were more in the noise rock scene like Sonic Youth and the Swans and that type of thing. And then we were friends with some other artists like Kembra Pfahler and Samoa Moriki that formed The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black later. And there were some bands playing hard rock as well. So yeah, there was a lot of rock people, but it wasn't a full-on metal scene when I first joined, or at least there wasn't a bunch of bands that were playing hard rock. That kind of scene seemed to slowly get bigger a couple of years down the road, like in '88 or something like that. I think I joined the band in the summer of '86 and a couple of years later there was this one bar we used to hang out at a lot. And a bunch of women that were later the Cycle Sluts from Hell bartended there.
PSF: What was the initial response to those first couple of indie records?
AM: It was okay. I mean, I think we got a couple of good reviews. I remember we got a review and we were all still up on the Assmaster record that was fairly positive. We toured a couple times after that, after Assmaster came out. Like when we did our first tours, I remember we just did one. It was just in a van with this guy Ed Baglacey who didn't work for the label, but he booked a lot of bands that were on Buy Our Records, the label we were signed with. So he booked some van tours, it was the typical sort of unknown band going out on the road. Some shows would be really good, and some shows would be played to the sound guys and the door guys and the bartender. But we went over OK. And the second record, we got a lot more response. The first record was sort of like a bit haphazard the way it was recorded. The second one, True Death, was a little more focused and had a little more time to work on it. And Greg's songwriting sort of like, got a little more eclectic and interesting. I still really like True Death a lot. And we were super-proud of "I Heard the Owl" 'cause it's long and has different parts to it. And it was like a real step forward and we started getting a really good response from that. And when we finished recording that, Elyse (Steinman, guitarist) would spend all day home making cassette copies of it and we would just like go out every night to clubs and bars and we'd all have our pockets loaded up with demos to give to people. Like "Here's our demo. Here's our demo. Here's our demo." So everybody would listen and we'd just hand them out to everybody we could.
PSF: How did the band come to sign with RCA, and how do you feel about that whole situation?
AM: I think we wanted to get signed to a major label, and I think Daniel Rey ended up producing that record. Greg (Strzempka, guitarist) knew him already, just from being in the scene in New York, and he had a development deal with RCA where they were gonna let him groom bands. I mean, they had to give it the OK, but he could bring bands to the label and say "Hey, I'd like to record these guys." So he got Circus of Power to RCA, and we couldn't believe it. They were the first band in that whole scene to get signed and we were like jealous and bitter. You know, those guys were really close friends of ours. It was like "What the hell!" And then so RCA went for Circus of Power... You know, the way is they get you to record four songs, and then if they liked that, they'd give you the greenlight to record the album. So it worked out for Circus of the Power and then he tried it with us and they went for it as well. I don't remember a bunch of other labels wanting to sign us at that point. I could be crazy on that, but I think it was just like "Oh, we got this deal!" We liked Daniel a lot. We trusted him. And so we just went for it.
PSF: What was 'success' like, and how did everybody end up dealing with it?
AM: Success is a relative term, you know. Most bands don't get signed to a major label so we were a lot more successful than most bands. So, you know, it was exciting, but it was kind of frustrating as well. It was cool making a record. And I haven't even listened to the record (Raging Slab, 1989) in a long time. I listen to some of it when we were rehearsing last year for Elyse's memorial just 'cause I had to re-learn some of the songs, and you know, the production is very much of its time. I think it sounds good for, you know, the time. The production's not too over-the-top and it still sounds good to me. But it was exciting because all of the sudden we were getting a little bit of money and it was a little overwhelming, but it was cool as well. It's just that when you're dealing with people at a major label, some people you're gonna deal with just don't get what you're doing at all. Some people are well-intentioned and don't get it. Some people just don't care. But there's always a handful of people you run across in promo or whatever that you can sort of click with. It was just kind of overwhelming. All of us just wanted was to have something like this happen and all of a sudden it's just like "Wow." So it's hard to sort of feel your way, right off the bat, of what's the right thing to do here or who's really on your side. But initially, I remember, we all felt pretty good. I mean, I think we had some drummer turmoil that was a constant with the band...
PSF: Yeah, that's my next question.
AM: Greg wanted to get another guitar player and he had known Mark (Middleton), they were both from the same town in Pennsylvania, so he'd known Mark since they were teenagers. So then he brought Mark in and we were able to do a little bit more musically with him and doing the three guitars thing. And also working with Daniel, he sort of cleaned up the sound a little bit, I would say. I think it was partly us and partly him. It was just sort of everything was making it more palatable, commercially. Not saying that we sold out or anything like that, but... And I remember him being able to come back to our rehearsals and he'd just sort of say "Oh, you can do just the chorus thing here." He'd just give us some little ideas to make the songs a little friendlier.
PSF: What caused the band to go through so many damned drummers?
AM: You know, it was a case-to-case scenario. Some people quit. Some people got fired. The guy that was playing drums when I joined the band, Tim Finefrock, he quit. I'm not a hundred percent sure why. I wasn't even sure at the time. He just sort of seemed like he wasn't that interested in it. And we had a guy that played with True Death, Kenny Kness- he was like a real Tommy Aldridge acolyte. He quit for a really ridiculous reason. I'm not even going to go into it. It was so obviously not why he was quitting, but it came out of his mouth and it was crazy. And then he begged his way back into the band, and then I think we had to fire him. You know, I don't want to get into trash talking but he just really screwed us over- after begging his way back into the band and then he just flaked on a really important gig. So it was just like "You know what, we're done with you." Then we had to get a guy, Tony Scaglione, that we had played in Whiplash. He'd done one tour as a sub drummer with Slayer. He's not on the cover, but he played on most of the RCA record. He quit. And like, I could just keep going forever. Some people quit and some people got fired. I can see how maybe it wasn't an ideal situation for some people. I mean, we could be a little bit hard to be around at times. But if you clicked with us, it was great. Mark was in the band for a really long time and certain drummers we had a really good time with while they were in the band, you know. It was just hard. One guy was with us for a while and we did a lot of touring with him, but then all of the sudden, he said "Oh, you know, I think I'm gonna audition for another band" And we took real umbrage at that. It was just like "Oh, we thought you were the guy and you're out auditioning for other bands." So I think we fired him when we found that out. Even now, I still play music in New York, it's hard finding good people to play with. My bands been looking for a guitar player. So, you know, it's tricky.
PSF: What was the backstory on From a Southern Space and all that?
AM: I saw that in the Wikipedia thing. I think maybe we thought of maybe using that as a record title. I don't think it was ever official. Anyway, for the follow-up to the RCA record, we had been looking around for producers, and somehow we settled on this guy Alex Peralas. He was like a heavy metal producer. He was doing Testament and Anthrax Records. And he had been wanting to break out of that and do something out of his wheelhouse and he had a brand new studio set up in Ithaca. And so, he was excited to do something that was not metal. And we got a good vibe off of him so we went up there to Ithaca to record with him, and we had a drummer at the time who claimed to be cleaned up from heroin, which was not really the case. So that turned out to be a problem. We got like halfway through the record and Greg and Elyse went down to New York to play what we had so far for the RCA people and it just was horrible. It just was not coming together at all, so we had to cut bait and bail out of that, which was already adding to our red figure at RCA and we started all over again with a new drummer. And with another producer and a new drummer. So that might have been what Southern Space was gonna be, but I don't remember that as ever being "Oh, our next record's gonna be this." I know that title was in the air. We had a bunch of record titles.
PSF: Is that what happened with what's called Freeburden online?
AM: Freeburden was more in the Rick Rubin era. After RCA, that's what that was. We're gonna use that as an album title, but Rick Rubin refused to put out that record, but that's further down the road, like after the Dynamite Monster record (1993). Yeah, and then after the Alex Perialas thing, we started working with Michael Beinhorn who later went on to do a couple of Chili Peppers records. He'd done Uplift Mofo and Mother's Milk. So we used him and we recorded. And then we still were looking for a drummer and we got Larry Mullins who later played with Iggy Pop's band. He actually couldn't really be with us 'cause he'd made a commitment to tour and record with Iggy Pop. Understandable. I can see bowing out of Raging Slab for that. And then I haven't seen him in a while, but I think he was playing in the Stooges for a while, which is super cool. But things didn't work out with him. The producer wasn't happy with him and he wasn't on a timeframe where he could really wait around. And also we were kind of under the gun 'cause we'd already spent half a year... We'd already been in the studio for a while with nothing and RCA's looking at us like "Uh, what are you guys doing but spending money?" So Michael brought in Jack Irons, the old Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer to record. And so we would just rehearse with Jack really intensely for two or three days and then they just went in and banged out the drum and bass tracks in a couple days. And then that record was the one RCA didn't want to put out. I think it came out pretty good. I haven't listened to it in many many years. But we were all super proud of that. We were very excited by it. And I remember mixing it in Manhattan and RCA, all the execs and top brass or whatever wanted to come and hear it and Greg and I had a listening party for it, not really a party, just a listening session at the studio that we were mixing it at. And we had played it for all our friends, and they were like "Wow, this is your guys' record? This is so great!" We were really thrilled with it. So we played it for the RCA people and after it was done, Greg and I were looking at them like "Hey, what are you thinking?" And they were like, a kind of stony silence and I remember somebody piped up and just said "I don't hear a "Don't Dog Me" on it." And it was just like "Ugh!" So that just really took the wind out of our sails.
And then, they (RCA) just didn't know what to do. I remember hearing after the fact that, number one, since there were a couple of ballads on it, you know, like the way Led Zeppelin would do, not that I'm comparing us to Led Zeppelin, but it wasn't all straight-up hard rock. We had a couple of ballad-y type things, a couple of dances, and stuff like that. They were thinking maybe they could punt it over to the country division, even though it was a straight-up hard rock record. Anyways, they didn't know what to do with it and there'd been a lot of shake-ups in management at RCA. We'd gone through two A&R people. The woman that signed us to the label had left and then the second A&R guy we had, he was a really good guy and still in touch and he's still a friend of mine. But he didn't have all the power in the world there. And nobody at the label, they had just had a new president and they were looking at us like, "well, these guys didn't really sell that much on their first record and we don't really know what to do with this record since it doesn't sound exactly like the first one," so then they dropped us.
PSF: So how did Rick Rubin come into the picture?
AM: After we got dropped by RCA, we were looking for drummers. I can't remember who we got at that point. But definitely, we started to have a bit of a reputation. Other bands liked us a lot. And we were sort of critically admired. We had a lot of respect in the industry, from what I remember. It was just we didn't sell a lot of records. So then we actually did have labels that were... It wasn't like when we got sent to RCA where it was kind of like the only thing that was on the pike. We had a choice, I think. I remember it coming down between Def American and Interscope. There was still Def American at that point. They hadn't dropped the 'Def.' Yeah, and Rick Rubin was the one that really courted us at Def American. We didn't have an A&R... That was part of the problem down the road when we did sign with Def American. We didn't have an A&R person there. We were like Rick's signing but he was far too busy to ever be our A&R guy so getting his attention was always a real uphill battle. I remember talking to Elyse about Interscope. And I don't know. It just seemed like "Let's go with Def American." They just seemed a little gutsier or maybe a little more can-do. Who knows if that was the right decision? I mean, we ended up being fairly unhappy at Def American so maybe we made the wrong decision, but who knows? It's easier to say that now.
PSF: What was it like working with producer Brendan O'Brien?
AM: It was really good. We actually recorded the record out of Greg and Elyse's place in Pennsylvania. They brought in a mobile unit, which was cool. It was very much like a '70's rock dream of like, the Rolling Stones mobile truck, this was our version of that. So we had always read about it as kids and everything. It made for a relaxing environment. But Brendan was great. He's just a super sharp guy and a lot of fun to be around. He's just a really funny guy and he brought us his favorite engineer, Nick DiDia, who was also a really terrific guy. Yeah, I got to know him and Brendan's a real smart musical guy and we were extremely well-rehearsed in the material at that point. When we got to the end of recording that, some of the stuff, between demos and recording them and Ithaca, and some of those songs we'd recorded two or three times already in the studio, so we pretty much knew the material inside and out. And we were getting along with our drummer Paul (Sheehan). He was a really fantastic drummer. He still is. Yeah, I remember that being really smooth. And like I said, I've got no complaints with Brendan, he's a really sweet guy. It really, and a great guitar player and just fun to hang out with.
PSF: What was the backstory on what's supposedly titled Blackbelt in Boogie?
AM: Again, that's one of those things where after we weren't signed to a major label and we were doing records with TP Records or whatever, we had so much unreleased material that Greg sort of started repackaging them as stuff to sell on tour. He would just sort of cull a few songs from this record, a few songs from this record, and put them together. And we were always coming up with joke album titles or stuff we thought was funny. And so when he started repackaging and just burning these cds at home to sell on tour, he started using titles that we had bandying around, like Blackbelt in Boogie and From a Southern Space. Whatever they were. Freeburden too. We were always coming up with album titles, just to make ourselves laugh at our stuff a lot. So that Wikipedia thing, I think some people bought those on tour and thought "Oh, this is their next record that never came out." But they were more like compilations of unreleased stuff.
See Part 2 of the Raging Slab interview
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