In-depth Interview With The Skull/Former Trouble Vocalist Eric Wagner

Interview by Avinash Mittur

The Skull features two former Trouble members Eric Wagner and Ron Holzner along with guitarists Lothar Keller and Michael Carpenter and Kevin Talley on the drums to round out the lineup have been writing new material for an album and are scheduled to do a US West Coast tour this fall. A couple of days ago, Avinash spoke to Eric Wagner in detail about The Skull, the early days of Trouble, and lots more. Read the conversation below.

So the last show that The Skull played was the Doom in June festival in Las Vegas, right?

Actually the last thing that we did was a show in Chicago a couple weeks ago. It was awesome man, everybody had a great time. We pulled out a couple songs that we’ve never played at that show. What were they now? “The Eye”, “Thinking of the Past” and I think we did “Come Together” for the encore.

Oh wow, that one is a real rarity.

Yeah, it was never on a record! There were a couple people there, friends of ours, that said that ‘Run to the Light’ was their favorite record, so we figured, let’s break a couple out.

That’s what I really like about The Skull, that you guys have been playing not just the old stuff, but the really obscure deep cuts too.

Well, that was the whole point of The Skull to begin with! We wanted to separate ourselves from the other guys and do songs that we haven’t played in a long time and just have fun with it. At first we were doing songs mostly off of the first two records and then we kind of added “The Last Judgement”. It’s one of my favorite songs in the set right now. We’re kind of branching out a little bit, I know some people want to hear some newer stuff too. We’re trying to pick songs that we haven’t done in a long time and that we didn’t really do in Trouble either. It’s been a blast.

Tell me about the band members that everyone may not know of: guitarists Lothar Kellar, Michael Carpenter. 

Ah, I love those guys man. When we were first looking for guitar players we didn’t really know what to do. At first we were trying to look for other guys like us, guys who had been in other bands and stuff, but it was a little difficult scheduling all that crap. So Lothar’s name came up. He’s been a friend of ours for a long time and he’s been playing with Michael for twenty five years. It’s perfect, sometimes my eyes are closed and I forget that it isn’t Rick [Wartell, Trouble guitarist] and Bruce [Franklin, Trouble guitarist]. Obviously it’s not them, but Lothar and Michael do a really good job of playing the riffs and the solos.

So how do you find Lothar and Michael different from Rick and Bruce as players?

They’re just not them, I don’t know! [laughs] I mean, Rick and Bruce have been playing together for a long time, for thirty years instead of twenty five. Bruce and I wrote most of the songs, so that’s the difference. Bruce wrote those riffs, he has such a unique style of playing. Right from the beginning, Bruce and Rick’s style was what formed Trouble’s sound. They’re the originals, that’s the difference.

Do you think choosing a veteran guitar team as opposed to a pair of young guys made a difference?

You know, it just kind of worked out that way. We were just trying to find guys to put some energy into it and it just kind of happened that they’ve known each other forever. They both grew up in North Carolina before they moved to Chicago. They were in a band together, Sacred Dawn. It just kind of worked out, they get together on Skype every day and just practice the songs! We told Michael, he lives in Florida now, that we wanted to play “Hello Strawberry Skies” so he came to rehearsal one day and he had it nailed already. They work together good, they know each, they know what they’re going to do when they look at each other, it’s just awesome. It wasn’t on purpose, it just kind of worked out that way.

So let’s go back to the beginning, “The Last Judgement” was released on ‘Metal Massacre IV’ in 1983. Do you still dig the song? I know The Skull has been playing the song live lately.

Yeah, we did a few shows and then we figured “The Last Judgement”- we haven’t done that in… God, I can’t even remember! The last time we had done that was almost thirty years ago, I think we were still doing that live when we toured for the first album but by the time we got to ‘The Skull’ I’m not too sure anymore. We started playing it, just from that opening drum beat we remembered, hey this is heavy. It’s been one of my favorite tunes in the set.

One year later in 1984 was ‘Psalm 9’, you guys entered the studio with Bill Metoyer. I talked to Rick Wartell just a couple days ago and he mentioned how he still enjoyed the music, but disliked how he left mistakes on the record.

Well, I don’t know. I mean when it comes to mistakes, when you’re making a record you’re never finished. You might be done, but you’re never finished. We were young then, that was our first record. We bought a van and headed to California to record the album. Of course now, after seven records, nine for me, of course if I look back there are things that I know now that I would have done differently maybe, just from having more experience being in the studio. It is what it is for back then though. It was great, we had a blast and that’s how we felt at that point. It just got inducted into Decibel Magazine’s Hall of Fame, so it can’t be that bad I guess!

Next year in 1985 was ‘The Skull’. From what I understand, that was a bit of a darker time in your life right?

Yeah, it took me a while to listen to that record. I know on a couple songs, Bruce had to pull a little teeth to get me to finish it. Even “Pray for the Dead”, the lyrics for that wasn’t written yet. The day I left for LA to record it, I had to go to my best friend’s dad’s funeral. That’s actually what that song’s about, it was written for him. That was kind of a heavy and dark period for me, but now I look back- people ask me if I’m ever going to write another record like ‘The Skull’ and my answer usually is, I hope not. It wasn’t a good time for me then, and I hope that I never feel like that again.

It’s also around that time that Metal Blade Records started to call Trouble “white metal”.

Yeah jeez, I wish they would’ve asked us about that first. I mean, it was almost the beginning of being labeled. Back then, with the metal that was going on at that time like Slayer, Mercyful Fate, bands that had dark lyrics and stuff- everyone thought that they were satanic, when really they’re not. I grew up on a different side, so I put a little twist to the lyrics. I put maybe a little bit of hope into the lyrics, but I probably said just as many “Lucifers” as they did back then you know? Metal Blade didn’t really know what to do with it, so they came up with that gimmick right there, which ended up giving us a certain label. When you get labeled… don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with being a Christian, or doing whatever makes you feel good but once you’re labeled something, some people may not give the music the chance it deserves because of that label instead of listening to the music themselves and making their own minds up, you know what I mean? I took us a little bit of time to get rid of that label. I remember around the time we went to Def American, there was an article that said “Christian Rockers Or Drunken Metalheads?” [laughs] I wasn’t out to save anybody, I was just exploring my life.

In 1987 ‘Run to the Light’ came out. The reception to it wasn’t strong for it at the time, but I think it has aged well and more people appreciate it now.

Well, that was kind of our “tweener” in a way, it was like the bridge to the fourth record. We were branching out our writing a bit. The reason I don’t like that record is not because of the songs, it’s the mix. I hate it. I think Bruce has a copy of that album with a rough mix and it sounds more like the first two albums, the tones and everything is much heavier on it. The songs are cool, but I just didn’t like the mix. I think we were trying to find kind of a little direction too. We were going from the doom thing into more psychedelic… it was just different, you know what I mean?

That’s interesting that there’s another mix out there, do you think it might ever be released one day?

You know, I would love to get a hold of Brian [Slagel, head of Metal Blade Records] and say, hey let’s remix this! It was just the twenty fifth anniversary of that album, I thought it would have been a good idea to remaster and remix that album. It would be nice to go back and record everything over! [laughs]

After ‘Run to the Light’, there was a three year break. During that time you guys signed to Def American, Rick Rubin came into the picture and the self-titled album came out in 1990. I think a lot of people hold it in really high regard.

I think we really put a lot into that record. Like you said, it took three years, we did the deal with Rick Rubin. We wrote the songs and then spent two months in pre-production with Rick. We put in a lot of effort and were really focused right then. You know, I might have to say that it’s our best record. ‘Manic Frustration’ too, we went in a bit of a different direction but we were still focused. I don’t want to say it was our peak, but it was pretty good. I like all the records, they’re all different to me.

It’s also during this time that your lyrics began to change style a little bit. They became less religious, more general and a little more psychedelic in nature.

In the early albums, I was a little more blunt. During those years I started to kind of experiment and I tried to paint pictures with words and stuff and be a little more clever. I had more time to do it too since I was doing it full-time at that point. I was looking for something different, and so I started looking for different ways to write. Roger Waters, Jim Morrison and John Lennon were my three heroes then, so I was looking to get away from some of the early stuff. You said it right maybe, “religious”. To me, religion is for people trying to stay out of hell and spirituality is for those of us that have been there. I think the lyrics from there on starting getting more spiritual and clever and less religious.

As we mentioned earlier, those two albums were with Rick Rubin. The famous stories about him these days are that he’s never there in the studio and when he is, he’s laying on a couch. What was your experience like with him?

[laughs] You know, I learned so much from that dude. How to produce- I’ve been getting into producing bands lately. Basically, he was there for the basic rhythm tracks always. Then he would let us go on our own, then he would come to the studio at night when we were gone and he would listen to the songs. He was an up all night, sleep during the day kind of guy. So when we would return to the studio the next morning, we’d have a whole couple pages of notes, things that he’d want us to do or try. We worked every day, and sometimes he’d come in when we were there. That’s how it was, he’d come in when we were done and gone already and listen all night long.

Rick Wartell also mentioned that the label that Trouble are on now are working to get those albums reissued, so hopefully that’ll happen.

Well that would be cool! They’ve been out of print for a long time, I don’t know what Rick Rubin would be doing with those albums or why he’d possibly need them anymore. So yeah, that would be cool to have everything out again.

So then Trouble left Def American, signed to Century Media and the band released ‘Plastic Green Head’. [Original drummer] Jeff Olson came back into the picture as well.

Yep! Yeah, we just needed a break. We thought that we weren’t really a priority anymore for Def American, we were getting a little pushed back and stuff and that it was time to go to someone else. Yes, it was Century Media here in the states but we really signed with Bullet Proof in Germany. They really loved us and they gave us some money to make the record. I like ‘Plastic Green Head’ actually, it’s a little heavier than ‘Manic Frustration’ was. We’ve been doing three songs from ‘Plastic’ with The Skull. One of the heaviest songs we ever wrote, one of my favorites, is “Another Day”. I love that song.

You guys also covered The Monkees, their song “Porpoise Song”, on that album. I’m not going to lie, that’s actually kind of awesome.

[laughs] My favorite part of the song is Rick and Bruce’s solos at the end! They’re just rocking right there man. I was just watching The Monkees movie one day and I figured, wow man that’s a great tune! I wonder if we can do that? So we tried it and it came out great.

Unfortunately Trouble went on the backburner then, but you had your Lid project soon after.

Right. After ‘Plastic Green Head’ and the tour, we’d been going for a long time at that point, since 1983. I was just like burnt out from going on the road, we partied our asses off on the Pantera tour and I just needed a break and wanted to do my own thing after that. After the Lid record I took another break and I didn’t write anything for five years. I just ran away, I needed it. [laughs]

Years later though, you did end up playing more gigs with Trouble.

Well actually, I blame Dave Grohl. I came home one day and there was a message from him on my answering machine saying, hey man I’m doing this record ‘Probot’ and I want you to write lyrics to one of the songs and sing it. Yeah right whatever you know, it probably wasn’t really him. I never answered it, but he called back a couple weeks later. and it actually was him. I actually didn’t know if I could do it anymore, I sat there with a blank sheet of paper for two weeks- I just thought I can’t do it, I can’t do it no more! Then it just came one day, “My Tortured Soul”, a great tune. After that, I got the itch again. I called up Rick and Bruce and everybody, we kissed and made up and did a little reunion show. We decided, you know what? Let’s do another record. I had a great time doing ‘Simple Mind Condition’. I’m proud of it, it’s heavy. It’s a little different again, all the records are.

I think a common consensus with ‘Simple Mind Condition’ is that it shows off the full range and scope of your vocal ability. There are a lot of styles of your singing on that album.

Yeah! It’s a little different, I’m older now. People always ask me how I get my tone and I show them my cigarette. There’s no way I could hit those notes that I did on ‘Manic’ anymore, so I had to change a little bit. The whole trick is do things that you know you can, and there’s always different ways of doing things you can’t do. That was the first record where I said, hey I can’t do it like this anymore, let’s try this, and it changed the dynamic of the songs a little bit. Like I said, I love that record.

A year after though, you left Trouble again citing burnout from touring.

I think it was a little more than a year. Let’s see, we did the reunion show like in ’04, the record took three years and came out in ’07 and then I left in 2008, something like that? Yeah, I’d just had enough again. It was just starting to be the same thing again, we’re playing the same songs. I was having fun, people were digging seeing us again but I don’t know, I just got burnt out on the touring thing again. I just wanted to do my own thing again, and I’ve been working on my Blackfinger record for the last four years.

So I thought the Blackfinger album was almost done two years ago?

Me too. It just hasn’t been an easy record to do. There were a lot of things that detoured me from working on it, personal things and stuff. I don’t know, I get sick of hearing it and I have to take a break from it. I’ve been working on it for four, five years. There was the original lineup which is different from today’s lineup, I blew that one up because it wasn’t working and I went back to writing and recording. I sat there every minute- in the past we had a producer there, so all I had to do was concentrate on singing and writing lyrics, whereas with this one I had to do everything. I had an engineer that would give me tones and sounds, but as far as recording, writing and arranging it I had to be there. Sometimes I got a little sick of it, I had to walk away for a while.

Right now then, where is the Blackfinger record at?

The album is done. I’m sending it out to get mastered and it should be out soon. I’m going to put it up for digital download first, and probably just look for a deal to put out some vinyl. There are a couple of companies interested in doing that now. I’m getting ready to send out three songs to some of the labels interested in doing the vinyl. It’ll probably be up for download first, maybe in a month at the most I’m hoping.

Wow, that’s a lot sooner than I was expecting.

Yeah I know, me too dude! [laughs] When I got the disc with the final mix in the mail last week, I was so hoping it would be done. Finally this last week I’ve been listening to it instead of working on it. I’m really proud of it, it’s heavy, it’s dark. Heavier than I thought it would be actually. It’s definitely an album where you sit down and listen to the whole thing.

It was around that time too that you played a short set with [longtime Trouble bassist/The Skull bassist] Ron Holzner and Jeff Olson at a doom metal festival near home.

That was the Days of the Doomed festival in Milwaukee. I hadn’t talked to Oly in a couple years at that point, and Ron and Bruce I’d talked to every now and again. Oly and Rick though, I hadn’t talked to very much. We did five or six tunes. I think The Skull kind of started out as a joke- everybody went home and I emailed Ron and Oly saying, I want to start a Trouble tribute band! They’re like, what? I say yeah, a tribute to Trouble! I look and sound just like the singer and you guys look just like the bass player and the drummer, man. It’s fucking scary! [laughs] Next thing we knew I was at the Hell’s Pleasure Festival in front of 3000 people. I looked at Ron and asked, how did we get here? [laughs] So people are digging the old songs, and we’re having fun doing it. I always said to the guys, the only way to get to the future is through your past. Right now what we’re doing it writing songs for a new Skull record. We’re planning to get into the studio in October, and hopefully we’ll have a new album by the end of the year maybe or early spring or something. There’s like eight songs written right now, I’m just writing right now. That’s all I’m doing right now, just writing and trying to launch this Blackfinger record.

On a very small side note, at that Days of the Doomed Festival you guys played my personal favorite Trouble song, “Victim of the Insane”. But I noticed that The Skull hasn’t been playing that song?

That was with Sean [McAllister, bassist on ‘Psalm 9’] during Oly’s Retro Grave set. We did the other Trouble songs after my Blackfinger set, but that was during Retro Grave. It was Oly, me and Sean, which was awesome. We’ve been talking about doing that song now. Every couple shows or so we change a song in the set, and that’s one of the next ones we were thinking of playing.

Hell yeah, just in time for the West Coast tour right?

Yup. [laughs] We always throw a lot at the guitar players and we’ll see what happens.

So you’ve been writing songs for a Skull album, will it sound like the old Trouble material you’ve been playing?

I don’t know! I’ve just been kind of working with the guys. I like heavy music, and I’m sure playing these old Trouble songs has influenced the guitar players somewhat. I wrote some songs on my own, but the songs we’ve been writing together have been pretty heavy. I’m digging what’s going on, I am pleased. Let’s put it this way, it sounds really good to me and in the direction that I want to keep going in. I’m starting to get really excited about doing a Skull record.

You mentioned that you guys have been changing the set up here and there. Does that keep touring a fresh experience for you?

Yeah! I get bored easily. Sometimes one of the guys will walk into the dressing room and say, let’s change the set! Like five minutes before we go on. It’s like, come on dude! I get bored easy, and right now I feel like it’s a privilege that we can go out and people still want to hear is play those songs. It freaks me out a bit actually. Whenever we do a show and people are asking for a certain song or something it’s like, you know let’s do this! They’re really the reason why we’re here. Of course we like to do things for ourselves sometimes, self-indulgent crap or whatever. For the most part we like to change the set, keep it fresh, learn a new song and keep it fun. The first time you go out and play a song you just learned and everybody digs it, it’s a good feeling you know?

So The Skull have that tour coming up in October. I’m expecting that you guys are going to hit the Bay Area, LA, Seattle and Portland at least, is that the plan?

Yeah, I think right now San Francisco is booked and ready. Ron handles that stuff. It’s booked with Death Angel I want to say. I know we’re playing the Denver doom thing, whatever it’s called. That’s in October, and I think we’re on the verge of booking in LA somewhere. Then we move on up to Portland, and I think Salt Lake City is on the table, Kansas City, maybe something in Arizona. Nothing’s final yet. San Francisco is booked though, and Denver’s been booked for a while. I can’t think of the name of it though! I call them all “Doomfest”, they’re all “Doomfest” to me. There’s so many of them going on it’s like, what’s going on man? [laughs]

Hammer of Doom, Days of the Doomed, I can’t keep up with them either.

Oh, Hammer of Doom was awesome, we just did that. It was awesome man, I loved every second of it.

It’s interesting that The Skull are playing with Death Angel in SF. I feel like more than any other doom band, Trouble have really had a relationship with the Bay Area metal scene.

Yeah, every time we go there it’s been good, even back in the days of The Stone and stuff. I’m looking forward to it. We haven’t, or rather I haven’t, been to the West Coast in a long time. I’ve got a lot of friends in the Bay Area that I haven’t seen in a while, it’ll be nice to see them again.

Were you intimately familiar with that whole thrash scene that was happening there during the early days of Trouble?

No, I don’t really pay attention. I was busy being in my own world. It was funny, two months ago a dude from Australia messaged me and wanted me to pick what I thought were the best records of 2012. I’m like, there were albums that came out last year? [laughs] I’ve been writing and working out of the studio, I’ve been producing a couple bands, I don’t know nothing! I go, I’ve been listening to Grand Funk lately, is that a new album?

Well that answers my next question I suppose. Doom metal is more popular today than ever before, so I was going to ask if you thought that the young bands today are doing a good job of carrying on Trouble’s legacy.

I was just at the Days of the Doomed III Festival, I didn’t play so I was just there hanging out for three days. I got to see some of these bands, and there’s some cool stuff going on! I’m surprised, you’re right. The doom thing is happening now with Pentagram doing good, Saint Vitus is back out there, Trouble just got their album out finally. The Skull is going to join all that, I think we’re right up there, or will be rather. There was one band, Beezlefuzz, I went up to sing “Ride the Sky” with them. They’re pretty cool. They said, hey, we do “Ride the Sky”, want to sing it with us? I said, yeah okay. Ask me later after a couple beers. [laughs] They were cool guys. There is a thing happening right now I guess! I’m ready, I’m having a good time again. Things are good, Blackfinger is done, we’re doing the Skull record. Sometimes I do get a little burnt out on stuff, but right now I feel good. It’s not who I am, it’s what I do. I can’t help it. I’ve felt like walking away a million times, like fuck this shit, but I can’t for some reason. I’m hooked, addicted to it you know?