Nearly 40 years ago, an early doom metal band with influences ranging from Black Sabbath to The Doors formed in Chicago. While never reaching the tops of charts or scoring any hit singles, Trouble was hugely influential in the hard rock scene and continues to put out music. Lead singer Eric Wagner had two stints with Trouble (1979 – 1997, 2000 – 2008) before leaving for good.
In 2012, Wagner formed The Skull, named after Trouble’s 1985 release, with the idea of playing material from his former band’s first two records, material that his former bandmates didn’t want to play anymore. Two former Trouble bandmates joined Wagner in The Skull (bassist Ron Holzner and drummer Jeff ‘Oly’ Olsen who left the band in 2015) and they quickly decided to start writing their own material.
As Wagner told me when we spoke this past weekend, there’s not a huge difference between Trouble and The Skull since he’s the one who wrote the lyrics for both bands and he didn’t try to change the way he sang after leaving Trouble. Wagner also fronts another doom band, Blackfinger, which released it’s sophomore effort, When Colors Fade Away, in September.
As The Skull begins pre-production on their second full length (a follow up to 2014’s For Those Which Are Asleep and 2016’s self-titled EP) in Chicago, the band decided to play a few shows.
On November 1, The Skull, with special guests Gudger and Tomb, play Ace of Cups. Doors open at 7 and the playing order is as follows: Tomb (8), Gudger (8:45), The Skull (9:30). Tickets are $13 in advance, $15 at the door.
I called Wagner at his home in Pittsburgh on Saturday morning.
I can’t remember The Skull ever playing in Columbus. I’m not sure if you’ve been here since you were in Trouble. When you’re booking tours, is that something you’re involved with or does your booking agent take care of everything?
We’ve done Cleveland and we did Dayton one time last year but I don’t think we hit Cincinnati or Columbus since Trouble actually.
We have some say on where we play. When we were first planning on this – because we were all going to Chicago for pre-production on the new album – since our drummer is from England, we always make it worth while so we thought we’d book some shows.
We thought, “We’ve played Cleveland a million times, let’s try to play some places we haven’t been yet.” We’re doing those two (Columbus, Cincinnati) and then we’re doing some pre-production work (in Chicago) and then we head down to Texas, one in New Orleans, and Memphis on the way down and then we start recording some drum tracks when we get back.
Are you working on a full length or another EP?
Full length. The songs are almost written. We’re going to get together because we haven’t had the chance to all get in a room and just play them. It’s been mostly over the internet. I’ve been busy writing lyrics for it. I think we’ll probably be ready to do drum tracks, I think it’s the week of November 11th and 18th. Then we’ve got plenty of time, I’ve got plenty of time to finish my lyrics by the time I have to sing them. We’re kind of planning on a late spring, early summer release. We’ll see. Can’t rush it.
It must be a huge change in the way you record these days compared to when you first started with Trouble. You used to have to be in a room and write music together but now you’re just emailing files back and forth.
Well, I mean I like getting in a room together. I think it’s important. The last Skull record, we did the same thing. Everybody’s got their riffs and their songs and when we get together – we’ve been together a few times since we toured last – now it’s so easy because the guitar player has a little home studio set up with electronic drums set up. I’m like, “Let’s lay them down.” It sounds great.
I used to go to rehearsals with a boombox and a cassette to tape it. Now I’m so spoiled because it sounds almost like a record in a way. Obviously, we would never put one out like that but it sounds so good to me, it sounds like I’m listening to a song instead of hurting my ears with a boombox tape. I think it’s great, I can talk to the guy and say “Try this, try this and move shit around and edit” and he’ll send them back to me.
So, next week we’ll have four days where that’s all we’re doing – we’ll be in a room together and playing these songs. For me, I can sit here in my office and write lyrics on my computer but once I get in a room with everybody, things change always. It’s a good thing for us to do, everybody knows, the drummer goes first. The important thing for those four days is to get him ready.
Technology is definitely on our side in the studio, the trick is to make it sound human and not be totally reliant on those technology tricks. It’s just like with anything, you use it as a tool, you use it to your advantage and you don’t abuse it.
You probably wouldn’t want to do this but you literally can record a song today and have it on the internet by tonight which is mindblowing.
(laughter) Yeah. I don’t know if I like that part of it. For a band like us, I’ve been doing this for almost 40 years now and I’m still old school when it comes to recording. I’m sorry, you go into a real recording studio and you lay that shit down. When I hear stuff now, I’m like, “You guys recorded that stuff in your basement with Pro Tools.” I can hear it. I don’t know about the new generation, if they hear that or give a shit, but I still think the best recordings are if you do it the right way. We’re still old school when it comes to that.
Right now you’re in two bands – Blackfinger and The Skull. Besides different band members, can you tell me the difference between the two bands. Is Blackfinger, because they’re all from Pittsburgh, where you live now, something you do more often just because it’s easier to get together with them?
The first Blackfinger album was done at home (in Chicago) with friends that I grew up with and that played in bands that used to back Trouble up at the clubs around Chicago.
And then, for the second album, here in Pittsburgh, the guys, I knew them. The drummer did the Plastic Green Head tour for Trouble back then. So, they come over on Mondays and we jam and stuff. We get together more often, it took a couple years to do that record.
As far as the difference between the two bands, musically the difference is because there’s just different dudes writing riffs and stuff and everybody has their unique way of doing things and style and how they write. My job is to bring the best out of them and put the songs together where it sounds like Blackfinger.
Lyrically, there is no difference, it’s me and it’s been the same since the first Trouble record. It’s all the same. Like, I’ve seen comments here and there, “It sounds like Trouble” or “It sounds a little like The Skull. Why can’t he just be in one band?” I want to leave a comment so bad. “First of all, who gives a shit if I’m in two bands. And, second of all, no shit it sounds like Trouble. I sang on those records and I sing now. I can’t change who I am. So, of course it’s going to sound like that and my influence on the music and everything in all the bands.”
Blackfinger is my baby, I’m raising that as an infant and it’s something I do in my spare time and it’s fun. Otherwise I’d go nuts just sitting here.
I have no idea what I’m talking about but it seems to be like Blackfinger is the more active band because all the band members live in Pittsburgh and I’m thinking that maybe you’re more involved with writing for that project while The Skull is the touring band with the connection to Trouble. Is that accurate or are you constantly working on music and playing shows with both bands?
With Blackfinger, the guys can’t really tour. Being a new band and stuff, I’m getting a little old to be driving around in a van, playing for 20 people until they get to know who it is and what it is and hear the record. The Skull, yes, is more – I hate to say it like this but for lack of a better way, is my Trouble band. There was three of us (from Trouble) in The Skull in the beginning and we can tour and we still like doing it now and then. We toured a lot last year. I don’t even remember last year. When I was home, I was working on the Blackfinger record and then I’d go on tour.
You’re right, we (Blackfinger) can’t really tour. I’m going to do 3 shows with Blackfinger and then the rest is with The Skull and then I think at the end of January, early February, we have a week’s run with The Skull doing a surprise. We have a little surprise in store for everyone, just an east coast run.
Gotta ask, I totally get why the band name is The Skull and I’ve heard you tell the story about putting together a Trouble tribute band with guys who bare strong resemblances to members of Trouble but, how the hell was the name The Skull available? Seems to be a no-brainer that some other band would have already been The Skull.
(laughter) Well, you know, I usually joke around that when people ask me if I got the name from that (Trouble) record, I’m like, “No, we got it from that movie, that ’60s movie with Peter Cushing – The Skull.”
But, you know, I thought of that back then. You’re right, there is no other band called The Skull, at least not that I can think of. We searched around, we just thought it was perfect when we were looking for a name. Especially in the beginning, we weren’t talking about making new music even though it was inevitable. That’s what bands do, I guess, or at least that’s what bands I’ve been in do. The natural course is to make new music. At first, we were just going out to play songs from the first two Trouble records so we thought that was the perfect name. The logo was there, it’s more about in your mind, the skull, your head which is consistent with everything. I don’t remember who brought it up but everybody was like, “Yep, there it is. Done.” It was really easy. No lists. There are some band names these days where I’m like, “Man, I’d love to see the list of the ones that didn’t make it.”
You grew up listening to Morrison, Lennon and Waters. Not sure if Trouble was the first band you were in but with a group of guys who grew up on 60s rock, where did the heaviness come from?
Since I wrote the lyrics, those were my three guys – they were my heroes for writing lyrics. Bruce, with Trouble, wrote the music and I wrote the lyrics. He was into Sabbath and Deep Purple and Richie Blackmore and all the guitar players like Uli Roth. Even though it might be a strange combination, but for some reason my hippie-trippy lyrics fit with his heavy music.
I think the music you were just talking about – The Doors, Pink Floyd, The Beatles – is heavy. The definition of heavy changed over the years. To me, it’s heavy on your mind and it makes you think. I love the heavy tones with Tony Iommi and Sabbath so it just kind of worked. For a while it was like how fast you could play was heavy but it’s not true to me; to me, it’s heavy on your mind if it makes you think. The Doors are total heavy and Floyd too – Animals is one of the heaviest records. It’s thought provoking – does it make you cry? Does it make you feel? Is it depressing? I think everybody is really the same, it’s just how you deal with it or learn from your mistakes.
I always like, when doing interviews, when people would come in and have a different thought about what that particular song meant than I did. That’s the person I want to talk to. There’s even songs I’ve done over the years where there’s two meanings to me even. Lennon was really good at that, painting pictures with words. His life, the way he grew up, I kind of identified with it, so did a lot of people, but I really did. When it came time to write lyrics, at first I was doing what everybody else was that was into heavy metal back then – Venom, Slayer, Angel Witch. They were all singing about that kind of stuff, so did I. The difference was that I needed a positive twist to it because I didn’t side with that side. Over the years, I just kind of changed and tried to be more poetic or try to be more spiritual but saying it in different ways instead of all the Gods, Satans and Lucifers.
I find that I get more into the music on songs than really paying a lot of attention to lyrics. I do pick up on lyrics and sing along to songs but I don’t spend a lot of time digging deep into the lyrical meaning. Are there lyrics you’ve written that you wish people would ask you about? Have you ever snuck in a lyric or written something that you thought was amazing and nobody has ever asked you about it?
I don’t know if I can come up with an examples at the moment but I love – sometimes when it calls for it – when a lyric pops into my head that I used 20 years ago. I’ll throw it in there to see if anybody catches it because it makes sense to me. I did it on the new Blackfinger album and nobody has said anything about it yet. I do it all the time. I did it on the first Skull record when I say, I don’t remember what song it was, “touch the sky”. I love doing things like that and seeing if people catch it. It’s even cool to me, it gets me high.
Going back to Lennon and Morrison, I’m guessing when you were growing up, there was a rock star mystique – you probably never dreamed you could ever meet them. Do you think that rock star mystique has gone away? I can be Facebook friends or trade tweets with bands I like and while it’s amazing as a fan to be able to do that, that mystique seems to be gone unless you’re talking about HUGE bands.
It kind of freaks me out a bit. One of the differences is there a billion bands now. There’s a million labels. Everybody has a record out. Everybody can go in their bedroom and record a record with ProTools or think they can. And now with Facebook, yeah, it’s completely different. I was looking at pictures of Zeppelin, The Doors, The Beatles, Steppenwolf and Judas Priest and all these guys. I met the Deep Purple guys one time and that was such a big thrill for me, especially Ian Gillan. He was my favorite hard rock singer and I couldn’t go up to him at first. They were coaxing me, saying, “Come on, you gotta go talk to him.” I was like a little boy.
I mean, I met Tony Iommi and Dio – we toured with Dio, I met those guys. And Metallica. But it’s different now, they just seem like dudes to me. Maybe because we’re the same age or close to it or I’m older than some of them. It’s just not the same. Now, if I were to meet Jimmy Page, I’d be like, “On my God, you’re Jimmy Page! You’re standing right there. You’re freaking me out.”
I asked two people for their autographs – one was Ian Gillan and the other was Little Richard. I’ll never forget that one. We were in L.A. and the elevator door dinged and opened and there was Little Richard. I’m like, “Dude!” He looked just like him. That’s kind of freaky to say that but I’d only seen him in magazines and on TV and he’s standing right there. He’s exactly the same. I told him he was the king of rock and roll and he talked to me for an hour and signed my shit. He was really cool.
What’s your take on the current state of hard rock? Do you keep up with newer/younger bands?
Not really. I’ve been so busy these last few years after I left Trouble. I’m writing and writing. I’d find that sometimes when I’d listen to new music that that night or the next morning I’d have an idea I’d be working on and I’d be like, “Oh man, that sounds just like that thing I just heard.” So, if I do that and it sounds like an old school song, that’s okay, but not a new song.
Sometimes people ask me how do you write a good doom record and I say don’t listen to doom! It’s not just that kind of music, it’s all kinds of music, it all sounds the same to me – all the bands, there’s 14 billion of them. Back when I was growing up and going to the clubs and watching bands, we went to that club no matter who was playing. And they were always good no matter what kind of music it was, it didn’t matter. Now it’s like this bar plays heavy metal, this bar plays death metal, this bar plays that, and those people just go there and don’t expand their horizons and try new things.
With me, even though I mostly write and sing this kind of music, I always sit on YouTube with a glass of wine and see where it takes me to get ideas. I don’t care what song it is, you take it and tune it down to D through an Marshall JCM 800 and it’s going to be heavy.
A lot of people are influences – my influences are 60s and 70s bands. How long has Zeppelin been Led Zeppelin? Has it been 50 years? What band is there now, what band is from the 80s that is still today where you would compare them to be as big as Zeppelin still? The 80s, I mean U2 are still doing it – they are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – but I can’t think of anybody else.
I’ve got teenagers and I think about that as well. Who is their Zeppelin or Beatles or Sabbath? What bands are they listening to now that will still be relevant in 40 or 50 years? Another band from the 80s that’s still around, still filling arenas is Bon Jovi.
It wasn’t my thing, but what they did was good and there’s a reason they are Bon Jovi. I was always one of these guys where even if I didn’t like it, it didn’t mean that they weren’t good. Today, people are like, “They suck” and I’m like, “No they don’t.” People tell me the Beatles suck. I just want to put a comment like “Obviously, you don’t know nothing about music. And it doesn’t matter if you like it or not, that’s just an opinion.” Reality is if it’s good or not.
Judas Priest, maybe, in the metal thing. Iron Maiden. I’m not a huge Maiden fan but they’ve been doing it for 40 years. But they are a heavy metal band, they’re not like one of the bands of the 60s or 70s that were big with other kinds of people who liked different kinds of music, not just one particular genre.
There’s this channel, AXS TV, that I watch a lot that has concerts and big festivals from Europe. There’s these bands playing at the festivals that have like 40 or 50,000 people all with their arms up singing the songs and I’m like, “Who the hell is this?” But they’ll be gone tomorrow and there will be something different. There’s no longevity.
I think the music turned, at some point, into the big money making machine. There was Nirvana and all of a sudden the whole Seattle scene is signed to labels and everybody has to put an album out that sounds like Nirvana. I think that hurt too. Back in the day, that merchandise machine wasn’t as big as it is today. I bet you Zeppelin sells more merch today than they did back when they were together.
There’s always going to be a kid buying their first Beatles or Zeppelin record who will then discover the catalog and be blown away.
That’s my kids too. My kids, they like modern music too but they know what good music is. My one son, when he was a baby, I was Mr. Mom because we were off of tour. When I put him to bed, I had a boombox sitting there and I put music in like The Beatles and all that kind of stuff. He knows damn well what good music is.
I remember when he was in high school, I can’t remember what was popular back then, but he was into that. I was almost like my dad one time, starting to say shit about it, “Why are you listening to that crap?” But I caught myself and thought, “Do not do that!” And at that particular moment in time, the kids were actually listening to the music that their parents did. One day he came to me and said, “Hey dad, have you ever heard of Grand Funk Railroad and Uriah Heep?” Proud moment right there, man. “Come with me son, come with me.” Took him downstairs and put the records on. So we have a little connection there. The generation gap between me and my dad? It might as well be as big as the Grand Canyon compared to me and my kids. I was the cool dad when my kids were in high school because all the kids’ parents knew who I was and knew who Trouble was. My kids were stars in high school.
Last thing … I was watching a video interview you did and you mentioned you’d like to voice cartoons. Having talked to you for the last 30 minutes, I’m surprised you don’t have your own radio show or podcast. You’ve got the perfect voice and the great attitude that would make you a great host.
I thought about that a few times. When I go in to do radio interviews, people say that to me. But, it’s so hard. What music would I play? I don’t like what other people like so I’d have to sit there and play shit that I hate. It would be like being in a cover band, people are like, “Would you ever be in a cover band?” And I’m like, “I’d love to but I don’t know that anybody would come to see it because I’d play the music that I want to hear or the music I could sing.” And to voice cartoons, it’s such a hard thing to crack. That’s a fraternity right there so I guess you just have to get lucky and trip over something.