Monday, February 6, 2012

Mike Gitter (King Artist Management / A&R for Roadrunner, Atlantic and Century Media Records) Interview


What were some of the first bands/artists that you listened to on a regular basis and why?

I was born in 1966. The first record I ever bought, or that my parents actually bought for me, was the soundtrack to the film version of Tommy. I was probably too young to realize that Oliver Reed wasn't in The Who! I got turned onto it by Joe McGrath, the older kid that lived down the street. The Acid Queen fucked me up! Music was actually incidental compared to the artwork or some of the literary references. Tolkein. Roger Dean. Heavy Metal magazine. Ghost Rider. Richard Corben's cover of Meatloaf's Bat Out Of Hell. Add in Zeppelin's "Misty Mountain Hop" or "Spaced" by Aerosmith and music became a trigger for my ears and imagination.

What were some of the first bands/artists that you listened to on a regular basis and why?

I’ve said this a couple of times and it’s totally true - The Bad Brains, Black Flag and SSD were my Led Zeppelin.

I didn’t have any older siblings, so I was left to discover bands on my own. I had The Beatles and Jim (“Bad Leroy Brown”) on 8-track. I checked out Alice Cooper while at summer camp because there was an awesome Marvel comic about him and the From The Inside album. Led Zeppelin was unavoidable. Think of how many pubescent torsos first rubbed hard to “Stairway” at junior high dances! Then came DEVO! Oh yes! DEVO! Music for outsiders. Punk rock? Well, kinda. A few magazines at the time, including Trouser Press and Heavy Metal, had articles that helped point the way for me to the more extreme and more interesting artists and records like The Spudboys from Ohio (Devo, that is). The Talking Heads, The Clash and Gary Numan all helped me get through junior high.

SSD were from Lynn, Massachusetts, a couple of towns over from where I lived (Marblehead) and those guys would often come and skateboard in my town. Plus, they were SSD. They were guys you looked up to. Their music and Straight Edge stance was so fierce, you had to be a part of it.

Unlike all of my other Decibel Geek Podcast interviewees, you and I have growing up in the 1980s hardcore scene in common. How has that informed you throughout your long professional music industry career?

Don’t forget the struggle, don’t forget the expense accounts! I think the biggest lesson learned from growing up in the hardcore and punk scene in the '80s was the powerful three letters: DIY. It doesn’t matter the milieu. To realize your vision, both creatively and in business, you need to take things into your own hands. Plus, it better informed your bullshit meter as to how ridiculous things in the music business could be.

Oh, and with the exception of Too Fast For Love and Shout At The Devil, Motley Crue still sucks.

You were also in a hardcore band in the '80s called Apology, which put out a record on Wishingwell Records, which was run by Pat Dubar and Pat Longrie of Uniform Choice (one of my all time favorite hardcore bands). What do you remember about that time?

First off, the Apology record sucks. We were a terrible band. It was a band that I started with a guy named Matt Baker, who I met when he was touring with Justice League. The thing I didn’t realize is that he was the fill-in guitar player who knew very little to nothing about punk, hardcore or post-hardcore. It was all down hill from there. I can’t sing – still can’t and had no business doing so. The record was produced by Vic Bondi (Articles of Faith, Jones Very, Alloy) and if the band had a coherent idea, it would have been okay. It wasn’t. It’s bad. Quite sadly, the other guitar player in the band killed himself a few years later.

The mid to late '80s was a time for a lot of good and bad music coming out of the hardcore scene. There were some killer records. The first Dag Nasty record. The first Gorilla Biscuits record. Rites of Spring. It was a period for a lot of bands to expand their sound and ideas. Uniform Choice’s second record was one of those records that just missed the mark. It’s like they missed their own point! It’s not a hardcore record or a rock record. Then again, the production didn’t help it.

The first Uniform Choice tour of the U.S. that I went out on was pretty interesting. The band had already changed style a bit, grew their hair and were playing some of the songs from the second album. It’s not the band that kids were expecting when they came through town. In Connecticut at The Anthrax Club, when the band played “Screaming for Change”, they got pelted with pennies, dimes and quarters! It would have been beer money if the band was not still predominantly Straight Edge.

I may be wrong on this but didn't you have a hand in getting Dubar's band Mind Funk signed to Epic Records? If so, discuss.

I didn’t help them in getting signed. I did get Pat into Mind Funk though. I knew Johnny and Marsha Zazula and Maria Ferraro from Megaforce Records and Crazed Management. They had this band that was comprised of members of M.O. D. and Celtic Frost, so why not make the lineup even stranger? They had tried out a few singers before, including Mark from Death Angel, but no one seemed to work out until Pat came along.

Like almost everybody who grew up on Uniform Choice, I wasn't all that crazy about Mind Funk when I first heard it. However, UNLIKE almost everybody who grew up on Uniform Choice, I have since come to love Mind Funk. What was your opinion of Mind Funk way back when and what is your opinion of them now?

Back then? Of course I thought Mind Funk was great back then. Dubar was a friend of mine. It was a step “up” from Uniform Choice and a cool band in many respects. Now? Goofy name. It made you think they were going to sound like Fungo Mungo or 24-7 Spyz or something! Apparently, it was a more acceptable way to advertising the band’s “real” name: Mind Fuck. The first album really doesn’t age that well. It feels like it’s a pretty top-heavy idea with a very strange lineup. Jesus! The band was comprised of members of M.O.D., Uniform Choice and Celtic Frost!

The second album the band made, Dropped, stands up a lot better. Better production (Terry Date produced it) and a much better, more cohesive lineup which also included Jason Everman from Soundgarden and Nirvana. Yes, it was recorded in Seattle and yes, it was definitely very contrived but that was perfectly fine. Pat sounds way better on that record as well. The first one felt like he was still feeling it out. Which, of course, he was.

You did a punk/hardcore zine called xXx in the '80s and have written for many publications as well. As a writer, who are some of your influences and why?

Truthfully, other fanzines at the time. Forced Exposure was really big for me. I was pretty enthralled by what was going on in the early Boston scene and the first six or so issues really schooled me on that. If anything, the visual content of that zine was pretty incredible. Lots of stark black & white pictures that went with the music of the time perfectly.

On a personal level, Al Quint and Suburban Voice (which, at first, was Suburban Punk) was probably more important than any zine of the time. We were friends. We started a band together called No System, which I got booted out of for being a terrible singer. I should have learned the first time.

Pushead was an influence both as a writer and for the help that he gave me pushing me out of the fanzine “nest”. I loved his Puszone column in Thrasher. We were communicating a lot and he encouraged me and gave me the forum to write for the magazine writing about bands that I dug and that he and I felt were either important or going to be important. I interviewed Duff McKagan from Guns N’ Roses and talked about The Fartz. When I talked to The Sugarcubes, we focused on their time as a Crass band called KUKL.

There were definitely a lot of other great fellow writers and editors who gave me a hand as a growing writer. Lonn Friend from RIP was one. Actually, one of my first editors was Danny Fields, who edited a magazine called Hard Rock Video. Before that, Danny had earned his place in the history books as the A&R guy who signed The Stooges and The MC5. He also was The Ramones’ first manager.

Discuss your years as Director of A&R for Atlantic Records in the mid '90s.

It was a really great time. First off, I was learning to do A&R: signing bands, working on records, dealing with artists, etc. Secondly, it was still the era where people bought music, so there was a bit more money floating around and I was lucky enough to sign and work with some great bands: Jawbox and Bad Religion being two really notable ones. It was the “who will be the next Nirvana era?” and labels were willing to pay to find out.

I had a couple of great bosses while I was there – in particular, Jason Flom, who has run many record companies over his career, including Atlantic and Capitol, and delivered hit artist after hit artist – from Skid Row to Paramore to Black Veil Brides. You learn a lot from watching someone like that.

Yes, I did meet Ahmet Ertegun (Atlantic Records founder) and I remember one night when he came to a party that one of the heads of A&R was having downtown. The guy stayed as long as anyone there.

There were definitely some interesting moments. Peeing in the stall next to Ted Nugent. Being at the MTV Music Awards after-party where there was some rap rivalry tension in the air. Watching CIV, who I signed, get to open for KISS. A&R-ing the Testament - Low record where they heavied up and took a turn that’s only gotten heavier as time’s gone by.

Do you think that so many underground bands signing with major labels like Atlantic in the '90s had a positive or a negative effect on the underground music scene in general?

It was really positive. I got a killer job and I’ve been able to dawdle around the music business to varying degrees of success for many years now!

The underground and alternative music scene was primed for a perfect storm. You had 15 years of a hardcore and indie backdrop. You had Lollapalooza in 1990 to assemble a demographic. It was a matter of the right spark. Nirvana's Nevermind was that spark. It was going to happen. Sonic Youth, Henry Rollins/Rollins Band and Jane’s Addiction were already success stories. Then Nevermind.

In retrospect, how underground were the bands that were signed at that point? Nirvana blew the roof off of the underground when they released Nevermind. I think it had a polarizing effect. Yes, it made for a much bigger audience for more “revolutionary-minded” bands like Fugazi or Bikini Kill or Born Against but in doing so, it also gave them a better platform to espouse their musical and political stances. It made it a lot easier to find an alternative to Creed and Fastball in many ways.

The Nirvana “Perfect Storm” didn’t just extend to the obvious post-Dischord, SST or Sub-Pop bands. It also opened musical palettes for a few minutes to allow the likes of Godflesh, Sleep, Helmet, The Obsessed and Foetus all in there. Then, THANKFULLY, we all came to our senses and allowed O-Town, Britney and The Gin Blossoms to put everything back on track (wipes forehead).

What was/is your take on Steve Albini's "The Problem With Music" piece being as how you yourself came from the hardcore scene?

In most respects, it was spot-on, though more fixated on failure than success. While the likes of The Fluid, Skiploader and Man Will Surrender went crashing down in flames, there was also Green Day, Social Distortion and a few others who beat the odds.

The article has had a lot of staying power, which is why it’s been reprinted so often over the two decades since it originally appeared. Now, the fact that I am mentioned in it as an A&R guy is a pretty big compliment. I don’t mean that in a villainous way or that I was the Judas of the hardcore scene but I do think that I made a difference in the post-hardcore landscape.

Discuss your many years as Director of A&R for Roadrunner Records.

That’s a novel. It was 12 years with lots of successes, a few failures, some high points, some frustrations and a lot of great people coming into my life. The first couple of years there had the sort of mistakes you usually make at a new label. The first band I signed, Both Worlds, a band that featured John Joseph from the Cro-Mags and a couple of guys from Leeway, was a complete and utter failure. Working with The Misfits on their second post-Danzig record was interesting – to put it mildly.

There were definite points where I felt like I was totally in synch with what the label was doing and other points where I felt like I was swimming against the current. When I started seeing bands like Glassjaw or Killswitch Engage or even Still Remains have a bit of success, it really reaffirmed to me that you need to stick to your guns and do what comes naturally. Even developing a band like Ill Niño was a lot of fun. They were a unique band in their own right – blending Latin rhythms with rock and metal. They also had a killer live show, which was the thing that initially got me hooked on the band.

There were definitely some moments where I had to deal with failure. I put my all into Mutiny Within, which was a great band of really, really talented kids with an amazing potential that they never quite pulled off live. I also signed an offshoot of Abigail Williams called Born of Fire, which got dropped as part of a wholesale roster cut before they had even recorded a note of music. One of the great things about Roadrunner was that as tough as the executive staff could be, they never let you feel like you were facing immediate dismissal if a record didn’t “happen” – at least in the immediate sense! (laughs).

Killswitch Engage was an unbelievable experience. Watching a band grow from what was essentially a studio project to a gold-level selling band was rewarding at every step. Every success, from the critical response to Alive Or Just Breathing to seeing them play in front of tens of thousands of people at the Download Festival, was all richly rewarding. There were other points. The success of Dragonforce. Having Dave Mustaine in my life over the course of two Megadeth records and seeing how those records were a part of Megadeth’s career turnaround.

I could keep going. That time, like any time in anyone’s career, has as much to do with the experiences and the people more than anything. Now that I’m thinking about it, one great moment that I can think of was during 9/11. I was living in New Jersey with my girlfriend and current ex-wife. The only way to get out of Manhattan was on ferries going from the West Side to Hoboken. We would have been stranded if it wasn’t for one of the Ill Niño guys picking us up and going out of his way for at least two hours to drop us at home. That’s the sort of personal relationship and success in connecting with people that is a lot more important than any Soundscan report.

I know that I'm very much in the minority of this but I absolutely love Life Of Agony, particularly their first two albums. What'd you think of them when you were at Roadrunner?

They were a good band with the occasional flash of brilliance. River Runs Red is a classic. Ugly is solid. Soul Searching Sun has a few good moments. Keith Caputo is as true an artist as you’ll find – and a really good soul at that.

To me, like Type O Negative before them, they were one of the bands that Roadrunner took to radio with varying degrees of success. That experience for the company helped pave the way for Slipknot and, ultimately, Nickelback.

What were the circumstances under which you left Roadrunner in 2009?

Very good circumstances actually. After a 12 year run, which is considerable for any A&R person’s career let alone his tenure at a single company, they simply didn’t renew my contract. It was a simple case of not growing together anymore. At that point, we wanted different things out of each other as an employee and employer.

I will only say great things about the then-owner (the company is now part of the Warner Music Group) and still CEO Cees Wessels and the executive staff there. They treated me with a huge amount of respect and friendship. Monte Conner, the A&R guy who literally has had the vision that company has rotated around – and who is responsible for the likes of Max Cavalera, Dino Cazares, Dez Farrara, Rob Flynn and, of course, Slipknot – is still one of the best friends I’ve ever had in my life.

Discuss your time as Vice President of A&R for Century Media Records.

I was there for a year and a half and worked as an A&R consultant for some time afterwards. Good people. Lots of ideas and energy flying around that company.

What do you make of what's left of the music industry in the early 2010s?

The record industry is certainly going through it's share of shake-ups but the music industry is fine. People like music. Now, it’s a question of how to monetize music. How to sell it. How to keep it valuable. That’s the real challenge for the next decade. In that, there are opportunities.

Do you foresee a day when you no longer work in any capacity in the music industry? Why or why not?

I don't know. I’ll be 46 this month. I can’t see myself not doing something involving music in some way, shape or form. I also don’t see myself becoming any less of a music fan. As far as me being in the business? That’s how you define it. Maybe I’ll teach a course in the history of rock & roll or something. I haven’t become cynical or jaded to music itself. I still spend way too much money on new records. I can barely talk to people for whom music is dispensable. There’s a lot of good role models out there for growing older and doing this “the right way” to the hilt. John Peel. Rollins. Brett Gurewitz. I have an old friend named Larry who manages Lamb of God. Now Larry has managed Cinderella, KISS and tons of other successful bands in his career. I know for a fact that he reads at least one “rock book” a week and, when he’s home, spends every Friday night simply listening to music.

Feel free to mention any of your other endeavors here.

Right now, I work with an old friend of mine named Scott Koenig under the umbrella of King Artist Management. He manages Fear Factory. We manage Prong and a number of other bands together. I’m having a lot of fun. It’s nice to get off the record company hamster wheel for the moment. It’s nice to own your own life after all this time.

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