Michael Scalzi is fidgety. He could be nervous, but more likely he's just restless. He's done umpteen interviews in the past couple weeks, and this is just another one sucking up his precious time, which could be used to write blazing guitar solos or lyrics about medieval Catholic theology. His eyes, which are set deep beneath a prominent brow ridge, dart around the boisterous interior of The Chieftain, an Irish bar on San Francisco's 5th Street, which on this particular November evening is populated by suit types gripped by a sporting event, and the goal of keeping the frigid night air at bay.
Since 1985, Scalzi has been playing heavy metal on a consistent basis, never stopping for more than one month at a time. Call him oversaturated, or obsessed. "My life revolves around playing," said Scalzi, whose deep voice sounds suitable for broadcast. "I do this to entertain myself, because I have to, because I'll go crazy."
Caressing a Guinness, the forty-year-old musician cuts a warrior-like figure. He wears a black T-shirt emblazoned with a graphic of a spike-clad Viking clutching a sword. Around his neck is tied a crude nail on a cord. The last time I saw him perform, a couple years ago, his chest and arms were painted in a large, bold Celtic pattern. From afar, it looked like a massive tattoo, but it was body paint. That revelation could have made him look cheesy. Instead, it was just sort of bizarre — not to mention eye-catching.
But such can be the reaction to Scalzi's band, Slough Feg, a twenty-year-old San Francisco outfit that harks back to metal's glory days of Judas Priest and Iron Maiden. It's dramatic music anchored by Scalzi's penchant for dual guitars, expressive vocals that sound straight from musical theater, and brainy lyrics on subjects ranging from Celtic mythology to Catholic theology, science fiction, and "nerdy bullshit." (Its name derives from a character in Irish mythology.) Slough Feg is somewhat of a polarizing band in the metal scene. So-called "true" metal isn't exactly en vogue, though there's certainly an audience for it. Thus, metal fans tend to either embrace Scalzi's self-guided spirit or find his music too overindulgent. Indeed, an outsider might wonder: Is it mocking or serious?
In metal, sometimes it's a bit of both. But years of dedication and willful bachelorhood are proof enough that Slough Feg is Scalzi's most serious passion. Yet despite his love for heavy metal, he loathes a surprisingly large amount of the genre. "It seems very one-dimensional to me," he said. "The vocals sound like someone joking around. I don't find anything interesting in it at all."
Raised in Pennsylvania, Scalzi grew up going to theater and musicals at Penn State, where his dad worked. Metal came into his life around age fourteen, and he became involved in his town's hardcore punk scene in the mid-1980s. He started Slough Feg in 1990, playing a kind of early thrash metal that he says was not like Metallica. "It was a lot more punk and loose and heavy," he said.
But Scalzi itched to head west, and moved to San Francisco. He says the music scene in the Bay Area "sucked" at the time, but he stuck with it. "I'll die playing metal on the stage in front of ten people," he reasoned. He eventually became involved in the local metal community, forming the band Hammers of Misfortune and helping to start the regular metal night Lucifer's Hammer.
Meanwhile, Scalzi continued to release albums as Slough Feg, whose other members have rotated consistently. The band took various approaches. A video from 1994 on YouTube shows the band performing, flanked by tiki torches, and a long-haired, shirtless Scalzi resembling Tarzan. They used to wear corpsepaint and throw pig guts into the audience, he said — "anything to get noticed." However, the band gained more recognition in Europe, where it tours frequently, than the states.
That seems to be changing. For Animal Spirits, the band's eighth album and first on label Profound Lore, Scalzi aimed for a simpler, more "pop"-oriented approach. "I'm trying to write songs that are short and catchy," he said.
Yet at times such aims seemed difficult for him. One catchy riff he came up with was so generic that he didn't want to record it, and only did so at the urging of his band mates. So he wrote lyrics about why he didn't like it (e.g., a thousand riffs they sound the same!) and gave it the title "Free Market Barbarian." "And then it got kind of cool because it's a self-referencing indie maneuver," said Scalzi. "But it's a reaction to what's going on, just talking about boxes of cereal on the shelf. You just become another product when you write songs like that, which is okay if that's what you want, but it's pretty boring these days when you hear recycled riffs, high-concept records that have no content at all, just something that sounds vaguely like Blue Cheer and Black Sabbath, and you've heard that a thousand million times, we don't need to do it again."
Which begs the question: Couldn't someone make the same criticism about Slough Feg? "That's true, we sound like an old metal band," Scalzi conceded. "But we're not doing a third-rate version of it in my opinion. ... Second-rate, at worst. And I don't think we sound just like any of those bands. The vocals are a little bit different, the lyrics are a little bit different, and we do weirder-sounding riffs. That's the best I can do to be original, I think. But we're not really called 'generic' very often or 'throwback.' Usually people say, 'This band is too weird,' not the other way around. I mean some of our stuff sounds like Gilbert and Sullivan."
Indeed, Scalzi's lyrics are on par with the drama of the music. The triumphant, pirate-sounding "Kon-Tiki" regales the tale of a Norwegian explorer, Thor Heyerdahl, who sailed from Peru to the Polynesian islands on a homemade raft in the 1940s, trying to prove how humans populated far-flung locales. Scalzi takes liberty with the material, (mostly, he says, because he ran out of things to say), singing about Polynesian gods, pig roasts, and hiding in trees. "A lot of the lyrics come out of the music itself," he explained. "You can't sing about driving down the highway on tour feeling like shit to like an epic riff that sounds like you should be singing about King Arthur. So you have to adapt."
He may be short on inspiration at times, but clearly, Scalzi is creative — and educated — enough to pull it off. He has a master's degree in philosophy and teaches at Diablo Valley College. He said he gave Animal Spirits a theological, medieval theme "just for pure fun."
Despite Scalzi's disdain for most modern metal, he says his passion for the music is just as strong as ever. He has an eight-track in his studio, and is pondering putting out a succession of live-recorded singles, then compiling them into an album. "To me, being a musician is not about sitting in front of a computer," he said. Scalzi ordered half-inch tapes off eBay, which ended up being old leftover recordings and demos from Motown. "Our ultimate fantasy is to get signed to Motown," he said, without a hint of irony. "I don't think it will happen, but wouldn't that be rad though?"