DON GIROVASI - COMBAT RECORDS
Don, do you still remember how and when did you get in touch with music and with Hard Rock/Heavy Metal in general? What were the first footsteps, experiences that led you into the realm of metal?
When I was 12 years old, I bought Kiss' "Rock and Roll Over" as my first album. This was shortly after I heard "Rock and Roll All Night" for the first time.
What were the stuffs that you started listening to with, that you were growing up on?
I started with Kiss, and my taste got heavier and heavier from then on. I went from Kiss to Blue Oyster Cult, to Rush, to Van Halen, to Judas Priest, to Iron Maiden, to Motorhead, and so on...
Were you into small, underground acts or rather into known, established acts?
I started with the better known bands, but then I got into get into smaller acts because of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. I tended to "obsess" with music, and I could never get enough. It didn't matter whether the bands were good, bad, or in between, I had a "need" to hear it ALL.
Do you still remember the first vinyl that you have bought or got and the first gig that you have ever seen?
When I was 12 years old, I bought Kiss' "Rock and Roll Over" as my first album. Queen was the first concert I ever saw, back in 1980.
As for Heavy metal is a genre of rock music that developed in the late 1960s and early 1970s, largely in England and the United States; with roots in blues-rock and psychedelic rock, the bands that created heavy metal developed a thick, massive sound, characterized by highly amplified distortion, extended guitar solos, emphatic beats, and overall loudness, do you agree with it?
Yes, but metal has progressed FAR beyond its roots through the subsequent decades.
How do you view, that early heavy metal bands such as Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and Deep Purple attracted large audiences, though they were often critically reviled, a status common throughout the history of the genre?
The media weren't "ready" for this style of music, and dismissed it all as "noise." What music publications were available in the beginning? Rolling Stone? Please... The funny thing is that these three bands created the most memorable guitar "riffs" of all time. "Smoke On the Water" is a classic example. EVERYONE knows the riff, but few people (apart from the actual fans) know the name of the band...or even the title of the song!
In the mid-1970s, Judas Priest helped spur the genre’s evolution by discarding much of its blues influence; Motörhead introduced a punk rock sensibility and an increasing emphasis on speed, correct?
To some extent, yes. I don't think Judas Priest ever "discarded" the "blues influence." It's ALWAYS been there, just not in the "classic" sense. Priest surely built itself on a foundation created by Black Sabbath (hell, they're from the same English town), and Sabbath are DEEPLY rooted in blues. Sabbath started as a blues-rock band called Earth. Motorhead have always been a punk band, according to Lemmy himself, who has SAID as much. Take away their appearance, and Motorhead are punk band, plain and simple...I've always believed that there are two archetypes of heavy metal, and I compare them to classical composers: Led Zeppelin is Mozart, Black Sabbath is Bach...most bands fall into one category or another, except for Iron Maiden, who successfully fused BOTH "schools" of metal...
Bands in the New Wave of British Heavy Metal such as Iron Maiden, Grim Reaper, Jaguar, Raven etc. followed in a similar vein, how much were you familiar with that movement? Was it easy to get tapes or records from those bands in the States?
It was the movement that made me the lifelong heavy metal fan that I am. Iron Maiden are my favorite band of all time. Not just my favorite METAL band, but my favorite band overall. How familiar am I with the NWOBHM movement? Hmmm,let's see: I STILL own records by Diamond Head, White Spirit, Jaguar, Def Leppard (who were still heavy back then), Angel Witch, Tygers of Pan Tang, Blitzkrieg, Bitches Sin, Sledgehammer, A-II-Z, Samson, Girlschool, Saxon, Iron Maiden, Witchfinder General, Holocaust, Vardis, Persian Risk, More, Grim Reaper, Marseilles, Venom, Raven, Steel, Shiva, Praying Mantis, Tank...and those are just off the top of my head. what more proof do you need? Not including Maiden's first album, my two favorite songs from that era are "Blitzkrieg" by Blitkrieg (the original 45 B-Side on Neat Records, NOT any of the re-recordings), and "Death or Glory" by Holocaust. Diamond Head's "Am I Evil" would be the third. How funny is it that Metallica covered TWO of the songs I just mentioned? Part of me still hopes that Metallica will one day cover "Suzie Smiled" by Tygers of Pan Tang...
How about the developement of the US metal movement, how did it happen? Were the first Metal/Rock bands Kiss and Van Halen that brought in this style of music in the common knowledge?
Kiss needs no explanation. Their image was a HUGE factor, but to this day, I don't understand what was so great about the first Kiss album. As for Van Halen, they had a great frontman, and an amazing guitar player. They toured with Kiss and Sabbath, and the public ate them up. I didn't really get into Van Halen until "Van Halen 2" was over a year old. They were already huge by that time. Image seems to be extremely important to Americans, which is why I firmly believe that brilliant bands like UFO have been criminally ignored in the United States while Motley Crue and Poison filled arenas...
Have you ever played in any bands, have you ever play any instruments or were you always a music fan?
I have never been in a band nor played an instrument, but I have been a music fan as far back as I can remember.
Combat Records was an independent record label from New York City under which circumstances and how did the label come into being exactly? Who founded the label?
The label was established a few years before I was employed there. It was started by a guy named Barry Kobrin. He owned a record distribution company called Important (because they sold a lot of Import albums). After doing very well with distributing Metallica's "Kill 'Em All" album for Megaforce, Important jumped into the game by forming two in-house record labels: Relativity, which dealt with mostly "alternative" acts, and Combat for indie metal.
Were you one of the first independent labels along with Megaforce, Metal Blade, Iron Works etc.?
Metal Blade was first, then Megaforce, then Combat
How and when did you join the team exactly?
I put together a fanzine called "Rage" as a joke while in college. It was a completely half-assed endeavor at first. But, since I always enjoyed writing, I became very serious about my little fanzine. I interviewed bands by mail, and they were mostly New York bands whom I knew personally (some were even my friends, or at least good acquaintances: Anthrax, Hades, Whiplash, Nuclear Assault, and Carnivore, to name a few), so my second issue was about 48 typed pages, and a much more serious endeavor. I had done an interview with a local NY band called Savage Thrust, and they liked what I had written about them, so they sent a copy of the fanzine to Combat (among other labels).
Here's the FUN part: I had just graduated from college in 1986. I had NO job, and NO clue what I wanted to do with my life. I wrote a Nuclear Assault review from a gig that I went to on the same day as my college graduation, and I made mention of it in my fanzine. I wrote something like "I'm out of college...someone give me a job, please!." The statement wasn't DIRECTED toward the music biz, it was meant as a JOKE. Working at a record company was a "pipe dream."
So, Savage Thrust sent in my fanzine, and Steve Sinclair, who was the label head at the time, noticed that I had reviewed almost EVERY Combat album released, because I had BOUGHT every Combat release. He also noticed that I was not on the label's "press" list. I had NO idea that I could get free records to promote at the time. That's when he realized that I had BOUGHT every album I reviewed. He saw the Nuclear Assault review where I jokingly said I needed a job at the time when their radio promo guy had quit, he called me up and I landed the job. I remember what he told me the day I started: "I can teach you how to do promotion; I CAN'T teach you to love the music...and you obviously LOVE the music..."
The label signed thrash metal band Megadeth to a contract in November 1984, does it mean, that Megadeth was Combat’s first signing?
No. There were a few Combat releases before Megadeth came out. One was a "hard rock" band called "TKO," there was an album by "The Rods," and a Swedish band called "Oz." There were probably others, but I can't recall them at the moment...
How did the band get in the picture exactly? Was the label familiar with their demo or…?
Was the label familiar with their demo?
Man, EVERYONE in the "real" metal scene was familiar with the Megadeth demo! I saw Megadeth open for Slayer LONG before the "Killing..." album came out.
What do you recall of Megadeth’s first footsteps by the way? Was Dave Mustaine very disappointed and angry that he was sacked from Metallica?
I don't know Dave Mustaine. I met him once at a music convention when he tried to pick up the girl I was with that day...Mustaine's "release" from Metallica and his reaction to it are well-documented. Watch the Metallica documentary "Some Kind of Monster," you'll find your answer from Mustaine himself...
Would you say, that the classic Megadeth line up consited of Dave Mustaine, Dave Ellefson, Chris Poland and Gar Samuelson (R.I.P.)?
I guess. I never really thought about it. Megadeth has had a revolving door of musicians through the years. I would say, however, that Poland and Samuelson were a big influence on Megadeth's sound, since they both came from jazz backgounds...
The band released „Killing Is My Business...And Business Is Good!” their first album, in 1985, so it was the first record, that introduced Combat in the music business, isn’t it?
No. I remember a number of Combat releases before Megadeth's debut.
Capitol Records signed Megadeth in 1985, obtaining the rights from Combat to Megadeth's second album, „Peace Sells... But Who's Buying?”, how did it happen exactly? Did something go wrong with ’em or…?
From what I understand...and I can't confirm nor deny this, because I wasn't there...Dave Mustaine and Combat Records butted heads on a lot of issues. Capitol records jumped into the metal game and offered Combat a boatload of money, and in the end, everyone was happy.
The Combat logo appeared on the back of every Megadeth album on Capitol up through „Countdown To Extinction”, correct?
Yes. That was part of their buyout deal with Capitol: the Combat logo had to appear on the "next four "Megadeth albums. Which is funny, because back then, did anyone expect ANY thrash band to release a FIFTH album? Also, if you look at the subsequent Capitol releases, the Combat logo got smaller and smaller. After I left in 1989, I remembered thinking "Does Barry Kobrin even GIVE a shit that the Combat logo has gotten so small?"
What was jour job at the label? What were your tasks?
I did radio promotion, college mostly. Don Kaye did all the press relations. We both helped with A&R because we knew who all the great unsigned thrash bands were. We were both big fans of the San Francisco Bay Area thrash bands. We went after Vio-Lence, Betrayel, Forbidden (Evil), Heathen... I don't remember if we tried to sign Death Angel or not... After Kaye left about a year later, I wrote all the press releases and sales one-sheets. I wrote radio spots promoting Combat bands. I got to put my college degree to good use for a while.
How did a day go, considering the job, the tasks etc.?
It was like any other job, really, there was nothing really glamorous about it (aside from a few cute girls who worked there). I talked on the phone to convince college metal show DJs to play the latest Agent Steel album, etc. It was fun when the person on the other end of the phone was a real fan of the genre, because then it was like talking about metal all day and getting paid for it. There were some really great people out there in college radio back then: Gene Khoury, Monte Conner, Mark "Psycho" Abramson, Cesar Ettore, Bill Fischer, Bill Eikost, Cheryl Valentine, Mike Dinvald... There were others, but those were the folks I loved talking to the most and could spend hours on the phone with.
The pay was lousy. Unless you're high up on the corporate ladder, promo reps get paid shit. I imagine that they still do. I didn't care much, because it was my "dream job" at the time. When I was hired, the offices were located three blocks from the service entrance to Kennedy Airport. It took me two hours to commute each way, because I have always lived in New Jersey. The offices moved to a bigger building where I had slightly less of a commute, but it was in a really shitty neighborhood. Police helicopters flew overhead a lot because there were more than a few "crack dens" near the place.
The upside of being in the business was that I got hundreds of free records and (later) CDs; I got in to most gigs free; I got to travel with bands like Death and Dark Angel. Best of all, I got to meet many, many wonderful women (who are STILL wonderful, as I have found out thanks to Facebook).
How about the Combat office as a whole?
This may take a while...
The first year was amazing, because I was living my dream. Right after the company moved to Hollis, we had a year that the staff of both labels would like to forget. I'm sure many of my former co-workers have forgotten about that year, but I just can't.
The owner hired some guy to run the labels after Steve Sinclair left to found Mechanic Records. I won't mention his name in case there could be some sort of legal issue, but this guy was a real piece of dogshit. He was an American ex-pat who had run some indie label in England, and he somehow impressed the owner and ended up as the label head. I'm convinced to this day that he had no idea how to run a record company. He wanted all of us "longhairs" gone and replaced by thin, pale English girls he knew. He wanted to do away with the Combat label altogether and concentrate on the alternative label, until it was pointed out to him that the Combat acts sold a LOT of records for an indie. Most of the metal bands were FAR outselling the alternative stuff.
He treated us all like shit. Have you ever seen those movies with the viking ships being rowed by slaves while some huge taskmaster whips them? That's what it was like, except that the taskmaster had absolutely no idea which direction the ship was sailing. He was miserable to every woman who worked for the label. The girl who did radio promotion for the alternative label - one of the sweetest women I have ever met - used to get so upset that I used to hold her until she would stop crying on MANY occasions. He saw her crying one day, and later pulled me aside and asked "Why does XXXXX cry so much?" He had put me on the spot, so I just said "I don't know, what do YOU think?" He responded "Me, either, but I LOVE it when she cries. It means that I'm doing something right."
He insisted that we stop sending promo cds to our friends at other labels, which has long been a "perk" of the record industry, and would then turn around and insist that one of us "call in a favor" with another company to score him tickets to see some shitty band he liked. A girl I who worked there was so scared of him that she once went and bought him those tickets with her own money, which just repulsed me.
But, karma's a bitch, and I heard a rumor that he has literally lost his mind, and is not ever expected to return to a decent mental state. I don't know how true it is, but so be it. I am not a vindictive person by nature, and I have never been known to hold a grudge, but twenty years later, I'd STILL have to be held back from beating on him if I ever saw him on the street.
Wow! That was extremely cathartic. Thank You!
What was the standard Combat contract that was offering the bands?
No idea. I never knew the details of any contract, but suffice to say, it couldn't have been much. It was an indie label. The bands that got signed were aiming for the bigger labels, and Combat was their way of getting their foot in the door. But I do remember John Connelly of Nuclear Assault once telling me that he wanted to get on a major label just so he could afford to buy groceries. He worked in the company warehouse at the time, so what does that tell you?
How did the label pick up the bands, that you wanted to sign? What was the criteria exactly?
I'd say that it was a combination of great songs, strong word of mouth and street credibility. I didn't have much say in who got signed and who didn't, but the unsigned bands I lobbied for the most were Vio-Lence and Testament (who were still called Legacy at the time). Recommendations by other bands always helped, too (it was Juan Garcia of Evil Dead who turned me on to Vio-Lence).
Was it important for you to sign original bands and no the second, third or fourth Slayer, Metallica or Exodus copy?
Important, yes, but look at the state of indie metal back then. It was ALL thrash metal or death metal back then, so you could always hear the Metallica or Slayer influence, and that was just fine by me. But I never considered many of those bands to be "clones." Do you remember Blind Illusion? I thought that they had a pretty original sound for a Bay Area thrash band. I used to attribute that sound solely to guitarist/singer/founder Mark Biedermann, but when Les Claypool and Larry LaLonde left and formed Primus, I wasn't so sure anymore.
While I didn't mind the thrash "clones," I DID have a problem with the seemingly thousands of bands that wanted to be Iron Maiden, and later, the legions of bands that tried to be Queensryche. I especially hated the Queensryche wannabes because of all the high-pitched whiny vocalists who thought they were Geoff Tate.
How was your connection with the bands? How many support did they get fom the label?
I got along with most of the bands just fine. Some of them complained and whined a lot, and there was one band in particuar where I wanted to strangle all of them, but for everyone was cool for the most part. I liked Dark Angel the most. They were all great guys. I slept on the couch at Gene Hoglan’s parent’s house when I flew out to attend Ron Rinehart’s wedding. I never felt like a „rep” around those guy; they were friends...
Did the label pay the studio costs as the bands entered the studio recording their materials? How much budget did you place at the band’s disposal?
The label would pay the studio costs up front, but that money is „recoupable,” meaning that that the money is a „loan” against record sales. The band doesn’t see any royalties until the studio costs and such are paid back to the label. It’s probably the biggest reason why indie bands don’t make any money.
The initial budget allocated varied band to band, I think. I’m pretty sure that the budget got bigger with each band’s consecutive album. But, it was the 80s, and Combat was an indie, so I'd guess the budget rarely exceeded $30,000,and that was if you were Exodus...
Did the bands have the opportunity to decide where they wanted to record their albums?
I think geography had a lot to do with it, but I think the decision had more to do with whoever was chosen to produce the album. Randy Burns was in Florida, Alex Perialas was in upstate New York, and so forth
Do they have to hurry or could they work at leisure considering the recording sessions?
I don't think they had to hurry, but these were bands who had prepared their songs before entering the studio. There was no “noodling around,” no “Hey, let's experiment with THIS sound” kind of thing. None of these bands were Metallica...
Did you often take part in the recording sessions of the Combat bands? I mean, did you show an interest what were the bands doing in the studio?
I don't recall ever being in the studio with any Combat band. I saw a lot of the sessions when Onslaught recorded “In Search of Sanity,”but they were only licensed by Combat, and “In Search of Sanity” was recorded for a major label. I just happened to be there. It was interesting to hear “Welcome to Dying” (a 10-minute song!) a dozen times in a row while the producer tweaked each playback and asked me “What do you think now?” And to my untrained ears, each track sounded identical to the previous take...
It's funny that when I go back and play those old albums, the production all sounds terrible, but back then, it all sounded so amazing...
Because Combat released a lot of classic stuffs, such as „Seven Chruches” (Possessed), „Scream Bloody Gore” (Death), „Breaking The Silence” (Heathen) etc., could you give us a short description about the Combat releases?
“Seven Churches” had been out for quite a while before I was hired. I honest was never really impressed with Possessed in the first place, though I REALLY liked the followup EP, the one with “Confessions.” I LOVE that song.
Chuck Schuldiner (R.I.P.) certainly deserved the title of Death Metal Pioneer. As far as I'm concerned, he invented death metal. I was much more impressed with “Leprosy” than I was with “Scream Bloody Gore,” and Death just got better and better with each album. By the time “Symbolic” came out, it seems like they were an entirely different band in terms of progression and sound.
Heathen? “Breaking the Silence” is a near masterpiece. “Open the Grave” is one of my favorite songs of the era. The album cover is awesome. Doug Piercy's and Lee Altus' solos were amazing. But the album is a classic example of what I previously said: when I listen to it now, the production is sorely lacking. The whole thing sounds muddled to me now. David Godfrey's vocals are completely buried in the mix, and there's no bass. It's one of those classic albuns that I wish the band would go back in and re-record the RIGHT way.
How happened, that „Bonded By Blood” (Exodus) was released by Combat? Were you aware of, that although the album was completed in the summer of 1984, it was not released until 1985 due to issues with Exodus and its record label Torrid Records?
I don't know anything about the delay. I was in college at the time, and I would haunt New York City record stores every weekend in hopes that it had been released. I don't know if there were issues between the band and Torrid Records.
Were there other labels interest in Exodus besides Combat back in the day?
I think EVERY indie wanted Exodus. How Torrid got Exodus is still a mystery to me to this day, which is funny because I knew Todd Gordon pretty well. I never asked him about it. But Combat knew there was a huge buzz behind Exodus, so they struck a deal with Todd to release the album under the Combat label with the Torrid logo on it as well. The deal was that along with the Exodus album, Combat had to issue two other Torrid bands as well: Hades' “Resisting Success” (great album, by the way) and the completely forgettable Tension (who used to be Hawaii, before Marty Friedman left)
How were the releases promoted? I mean, did you pay adds in magazines, fanzines etc.?
College radio, magazine ads, word of mouth, live performances, coverage in music magazines; those were the main methods of promotion. There were a few fanzine ads, if I remember correctly
Did you send promo packages to fanzines, mags, radio stations etc. considering a new material? Did you send it on tape or…?
Yes, we'd send out literally hundreds of promo packages every month or so, sometimes up to five different bands at a time. I had to package and mail most of those myself. The paper cuts from the cardboard we used in packaging were near lethal. We sent out LPs and press releases, band bios (many of which I wrote myself and still have somewhere). This was when very few people owned CD players; it was a new technology at the time.
How often were the Combat materials released? I mean, did you have any plans considering how many materials do you want to release yearly?
I don't know if there was a limit to how many releases the label put out a year, but like I said, we'd sometimes send out five or six albums at a time, not all Combat albums per se, but a lot of licensed stuff as well...
Did you always send the whole materials for the radio stations, magazines etc. or did you send only advance tapes?
Full albums. We would sometimes send out advance tapes or test pressings to media we could trust, but the LPs usually went out a week or so before they would be released to retail...
What about touringwise? Did you send the bands on tour right after the album was released?
I don't remember if it was right away, but usually as close to the album's release as possible. It was left up to the booking agents for the most part...
I think so, one of the best tours was the „Gates Of Darkness” tour with Possessed and Dark Angel, how did the whole tour go?
Well, that's ONE man's opinion. I think that tour was the first one I had any involvement in. I went to a few shows in the middle of nowhere, with very few people in attendance. Possessed had a good following, but Dark Angel were unknowns. I remember going to a retail store appearance that was very much like a scene out of “This is Spinal Tap,” there were very few fans in attendance, but those who showed up LOVED Possessed, yet Mike Torrao wouldn't get out of the van to meet any of them, which I thought was a lousy attitude. I remember hoping that all the other bands were going to be a bit more professional. The other three guys were really good about it.
But the fans in New York were a different story. L'Amour, THE “Mecca” of the New York metal scene was pretty damn crowded when those bands arrived. There was a “rumor” that night that Slayer were going to show up and play a few songs from “their forthcoming album 'Reign in Blood,'” using Possessed's equipment. Yeah, right, I thougt...but at about 2:30 in the morning, Slayer went onstage and played four songs off “Reign in Blood” using Possessed's equipment. It was a very special evening.