Butt-rock killed the metal star
Hot on the heels of their compilation release "Have a Nice Death" I had the opportunity to reminisce with Matt Fox of Bitter End about what it was like being a thrasher in the late 80s-early 90s in Seattle. He was kind enough to answer a few questions about the band, and how butt-rock, not grunge, killed the metal star.
Thank you for the opportunity to interview! How are you doing these days?
We are all doing well – and thank you for offering us this opportunity!
There have been some very successful bands to come out of Seattle. What was it like for an up and coming thrash band in the city where grunge was born during the late 80s/early 90s?
It was great, actually. We played on a lot of different kinds of bills in those days, and people weren’t afraid to book a rock band with a metal band with a punk band, etc. There were lots of venues and a really lively scene, and it was a hell of a lot of fun to be a part of.
Can you tell us how Bitter End got their start? What was it like to ink a record deal with Metal Blade Records during your early years?
Chris and I had lived in Southern California for awhile, where we went to local clubs and saw bands like Metallica and Slayer in about 1982/1983. We moved back to Seattle in 1983 and started looking for people to play with. Harry had a reputation as one of the most badass drummers around, and he also happened to live really close to us. Harry’s dad (Harry Sr.) was a professional entertainer, and had let Harry set up a great practice space that took up a good part of their basement. We jammed there for quite awhile while we looked for singers, but since most of the people who auditioned with us were the classic flaky lead singer types (with the notable exception of Donny Paycheck of Zeke – who was looking to sing with a band before becoming the awesome drummer he is today) we just decided to take on the vocal duties ourselves until something better came along.
We actually played our first gig (with Forced Entry at a place way up north called the Clearview Grange Hall) as an instrumental band in 1987. I think that we started singing live pretty soon after that, and eventually it became clear to us that we could use another guitar player. Melcon Wagner joined for awhile, and after he moved on we found and recruited Russ Stefanovich, who was playing with a group called Mad Hatter at the time. He came in and played “Hocus Pocus”, “Mr Crowley” and “Race with Devil Down Spanish Highway” pretty much note for note, so we offered him the gig right as we were beginning pre production for “Harsh Realities”.
The Metal Blade contract was obviously a big thrill for us, as was making our first record with Randy Burns. Randy came to Seattle and stayed in the basement/rehearsal space at the House of Deth (our apartment/party pad) for a week, and then had us travel to LA for the actual making of the album (which included us driving down in one of the worst blizzards in decades). Those were definitely exciting times – and being on Metal Blade also gave us the opportunity to tour with DRI and Sacred Reich, too.
What is your most memorable moment of Bitter End's career?
Great question! There were sure a lot of them. One that is particularly meaningful to me is the time that the late Damon Teras (our longtime roadie and basically the 4th/5th member of the band who passed away some years ago) and I were on the overnight driving shift and we got buzzed by a UFO somewhere in Arizona. I’m sure it was probably some guy from Area 51 flying a new experimental stealth plane having fun at our expense, but now that Damon is no longer here to confirm my story I always feel a little weird saying I saw a UFO when I was on tour with Bitter End!
Who were your early influences? How has your musical taste and influence changed over the past 20 years?
For Chris and I, our parents’ record collection was a big influence – they had all of the Beatles, Beach Boys, Doors and other great '60s rock/psychedelia bands, and were also really into heavy rock stuff like Cream, Led Zeppelin, Mountain, Focus, etc. The Woodstock movie had so many great players in it and was really big influence on me when I finally got to see it as a budding guitar player. When "Heaven and Hell" came out we got really into that and then discovered all of the older Sabbath stuff, which is still some of my very favorite music. All of the local garage bands in Southern California were playing stuff like Judas Priest and UFO, which got us into the newer metal/heavy rock stuff. Then I saw my first copy of Kerrang in about 1982, and that led us into the whole NWOBHM/early '80s bands like Raven, Anvil, Tank, Diamond Head, etc. etc.
For me, I guess my taste hasn’t really changed much at all over the last 20 years, except that maybe I’m more tolerant of pop stuff (say early Hall and Oates when they were still a blue-eyed soul group, or Joni Mitchell) than I was when I was younger. I do see a lot of live music, so I’m constantly exposed to new bands. But truth to tell, I’m an old fart now, and don’t buy much if any new music (and I really don’t listen to anything but classic rock or oldies radio, so I don’t know what the kids are listening to these days!).
It is my understanding that you and Layne Staley of Alice in Chains were friends. In fact, Alice in Chains wanted you to join them as their second guitar player. Can you tell us how that came about and why you didn't end up joining Alice in Chains?
We met the Alice guys pretty early on, as they were part of the regular Seattle rock/party scene, which often wound up happening at the House of Deth, a big apartment that Chris and I lived and hosted a lot of parties in (most notably a weekly get together for Jeff Gilbert’s KCMU radio show “Brain Pain” that went on for many years). There was also the Tramp House (Tramp Alley were a big glam band) in the south end, the Mistrust guys had a place in West Seattle, Forced Entry would host major ragers up north, and there were several other places where various band folks lived and where all of the parties would rotate between. It was a heck of a time to be in your late teens/early 20s for sure!
I actually first met Jerry at a Diamond Lie gig, and hung out with him all night afterward listening to demos that later became early Alice songs, most notably “Chemical Addiction”. He was still looking for a new vocalist at the time, and sounded me out about singing (which I didn’t really feel qualified for). He and Layne subsequently started playing with Mike and Sean, and since my then-girlfriend also rehearsed at the Music Bank, I saw them pretty often as they became a group. I was the rock writer for a local magazine called Backlash at the time, and their manager Sue Silver later told me that it was my article on Alice that got her to take them on.
After a time, they started thinking about getting a second guitar player. The top prospects were Tom McMullin (from War Babies, now in Gunn and the Damage Done), Jimmy Paulson (I think he was in Tramp Alley then, and later was in the Lemons and New American Shame, and is now playing in Jet City Fix), and me. I think I was the leading candidate (or at least that‘s what Sean and Mike said), but I still had strong loyalties to Bitter End, which seemed to be fairly successful at the time. Perhaps if I had pushed a little harder it would have happened, but Jerry ultimately decided that he could do it himself, and I’d say he did!
Of course, Alice in Chains became hugely successful. Any regrets for not joining them?
Perhaps a few – I’d almost certainly have a lot more money now! But there are many things I went on to do in local politics (I used to run political campaigns in Seattle and also did a medical marijuana campaign in Berkeley, CA) that were quite memorable and substantial that wouldn’t have happened if I had joined Alice, so I can’t really say that I regret that not happening too much. I played a great Zero Down club gig last night to about 100 people, and while it isn’t the Coliseum, I’m glad I can still hold down a regular job and have a rocking good time!
The song, “Tunnel Vision" has some grunge influence. In fact, it hints of that great Layne Staley/Alice in Chains sound. Was that intentional or just a natural outpouring of what was becoming of the Seattle scene at the time?
Well, it wasn’t intentional in the sense that we were trying to copy any particular sound. But to the extent that I was trying to grow as a vocalist and sing more, Layne was probably at least a subconscious influence on me. When I first saw Layne and the original Alice line-up at Kane Hall at the University of Washington in 1986, he was a great glam entertainer but not yet a particularly good singer. The absolute evolution and transformation of his vocals in such a short time was just incredible.
When I think about it a little more, though, I sort of recall that I was trying to copy Rob Halford more than anything on “Tunnel Vision”. OK - make that Halford in about one-and-a-half octaves!
What are your thoughts about grunge "killing" the metal scene? Do you agree with masses who feel grunge was the downfall of metal?
I’m not sure I necessarily agree with that. Metal is sort of like country music, in that both of them are always there with a large semi-underground following, but every so often they break back through to the mass consciousness for awhile before the hype wears back off and they go back to their semi-underground status. Metal had enjoyed an unusually long period in the spotlight, so I can’t say I was surprised when the mainstream culture moved on to the next big thing.
I think butt rock actually did more to kill metal than grunge did – when Beavis and Butthead destroyed Winger they also helped make metal unhip. It’s always bummed me out when I saw buttrock bands like Warrant, Motley Crue, and god knows what called “metal” by some ignorant mainstream magazine. Talk about guilt by association.
While I don't like to compare bands, I can't help but notice your vocals have that shredding Dave Mustaine style to them. With such fantastic vocals and great technical speed to the music it's great to have this CD released. But, we're curious to know: what caused the ultimate split of Bitter End? Do you blame it on the changing times of the music scene or was there something more?
I’ll admit to a pretty significant Dave Mustaine influence on the Bitter End stuff. When I was learning to sing and play, “Peace Sells” was still freshly out, and it definitely rubbed off on me. I do think my vocals improved as we went on, because most of the early stuff was written before I really understood how to integrate music and vocals into a song (as opposed to fitting lyrics over a series of bitchin’ riffs).
With regard to Bitter End, I think we had just sort of run our course at the time. We had been playing and growing up together for 7 years, and Chris and I in particular had started developing other interests, and one day we just sort of decided it was time to move on.
When we left Metal Blade, it looked like we had a pretty good shot at doing another deal, but then it was 1991/1992 and we definitely weren’t the kind of band labels were looking for anymore. I suppose we could have done another record with Metal Blade, but they had big stable of bands and we weren’t a huge priority for them, so while this material might have come out earlier I doubt we would have continued on for a whole lot longer than we did. As they say, timing is everything, and ours was just off, at least from an industry perspective…
After the split of Bitter End in the early 90s the band members went off on their own projects. I also understand that bassist Chris Fox joined Queensrÿche vocalist Geoff Tate's solo band and Matt Fox did some work with Holy Terror. Can you tell us what the members of the band have been up to as of late?
For a while in 1992, I was in both Bitter End and another band called Dr. Unknown, which featured Ray and Derek of Heir Apparent and an amazing singer/songwriter named Jeff Carrell. After Bitter End broke up, Dr. Unknown continued on and was pretty successful in Seattle/Portland. We got very close to doing a major record deal, and did land a pretty good publishing deal with Polygram. Floyd Rose was going to start a label, and wound up printing up one record for us called “Ouch”. After Dr. Unknown broke up, Jeff and I continued playing together until about 2000 in a band called Dinsdale, and Geoff Tate and his wife Susan managed us for awhile. We did a lot of great music that I’m still really proud of, but for whatever reason didn’t land a record deal. We did produce an unreleased CD called “Touch” which had a number of songs that were later re-arranged and included on Geoff Tate’s solo album. When Dinsdale didn’t pan out, Geoff Tate asked Jeff Carrell to work on his solo project, and Chris was brought on board for the record and tour.
I’ve been playing a lot locally since Bitter End – after Dinsdale broke up I started playing bass for a living in a live music karaoke gig for awhile, which was fun for awhile. I also played for a while with Camarosmith, and got to visit Europe for the first time in 2003 when we toured there with Zeke. I still play with the Kiss tribute Gene’s Addiction now and then, and the other guitar player in that is Metal Marty from the Supersuckers along with Joe Dredd on bass and lead Gene and Chris Gohde (Mistrust, My Sister’s Machine and many others) on drums. I’m playing in a metal band called Zero Down that many of your readers would probably enjoy, and Russ just started a metal band called Demon Dogs which they’d like too. There’s also talk of Holy Terror starting back up, too. Chris has played on-and-off with local bands in the various places he’s lived, and Harry occasionally plays blues and classic rock stuff with some of his buddies. Bitter End is interested in playing together more also, though the logistics of that are kind of a problem right now.
Are you guys still in Seattle or have the individual members split up to different areas?
Harry, Russ and I all still live in Seattle or the Seattle area, but Chris lives in Wichita Kansas, which as I hinted at above makes it hard to do a lot of Bitter End stuff right now.
How is your personal life these days? Have you settled down, gotten married, or had children?
I (Matt Fox) have a good day job in nonprofit management and a lovely girlfriend, but no kids. Chris is a college professor teaching philosophy, is married, and has two sons – Josh is in his mid twenties and is about to get married and Eli is a toddler, so that’s keeping him pretty busy! Russ work at Microsoft and has a son named Ozzy who’s about to enter college. Harry runs his own business and also has a son named Jesse in his early 20s.
What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
I play in bands and goof around way too much on the internet, Russ plays and teaches guitar, I’m not sure what Harry’s hobbies are these days (he works a lot!), and I think Chris mostly cleans up after his two-year-old son Eli for laughs these days!
What made you decide, 20 years after Bitter End broke up, to dust off your old tracks and release "Have a Nice Death!" through Metal on Metal Records? Which, by the way, is a fantastic thrash album.
Thank you so much for your kind words about “Have a Nice Death!”. Russ’s old band Midnight Idols had a record on Metal on Metal Records, and he told Jowita (the label's boss) about the unreleased tracks we had and she was interested in putting them out. They were all on old reel tape that had been sitting in various closets for 20 years, and I’m really glad we digitally transferred them before the tapes got too old to use. We are really proud of those songs and are glad that they’re finally available to folks who want them.
What do you think about the metal scene now compared to the 80s?
It seems really strong lately. I think metal is as popular as it ever was, even if the mainstream press doesn’t always pick up on it. I’m not necessarily a fan of some of the new stuff (it’s a little too drop-tuney and scream-ey for my old school tastes), but I’m a boring old fart and my opinion is no longer relevant! Kidding aside, though, I think it’s great to see all of the interest in great old metal bands – even somewhat obscure ones like Bitter End – and that there’s a real market and appreciation for these guys, to the point that so many bands have reformed and are now touring.
Is Bitter End officially back together and are you going to be recording some new material? Maybe a tour in the works?
We are working towards that, if a bit slowly. Chris was in town a couple of times last year and we got together and played for the first time in close to 20 years. It was a great time, and there was still a lot of magic even if we were occasionally a bit rusty on the material at first. We had hoped at that time to be out and playing this year, but that’s looking more like it’s going to happen next year now. But yes, we do intend to play, though a full tour could be a problem considering that we’re all “responsible adults” now and our respective jobs can only let us go for so long.
Thanks for the interview, it's great to see you guys back on the scene and we wish you all the best for the New Year. Any last words for your fans?
We really appreciate your interest in the band and your support – it’s nice to know that there are folks out there who still remember and enjoy Bitter End!