***IF READING ON A SMARTPHONE USE “LANDSCAPE” FORMAT FOR BEST RESULTS***
1988 was a big year for us. By the summertime, Dawson, Emerson, Stanwyck and myself had graduated from High School. It was liberating, but being finished with our basic education was also signaling the abrupt ending of our youths. A need to find jobs and figure out what to do with ourselves going forward was increasing the pressure in every aspect of our lives. While we continued to be devoted to the band and each other, we were in denial of the fact that adulthood, and the inevitable responsibility that comes with it, was upon us.
Eric Reese was already out of school and had a construction job, so he was a bit ahead of the rest of us in that regard. Chris' mom worked for the University of Pittsburgh, which entitled him to a very reduced tuition cost there. That meant he was going to be staying in town for at least a few more years. Brian was heading off to West Virginia University, although he was still very committed to the band - he came home most weekends for practice and never missed a gig.
I got a job working with Ted Williams of Eviction/Dream Death. He worked with another friend of ours at a screen printing shop. It was fun gig with the allure of cheap band stickers and some larger screen-printed posters. But it was tedious work where I had my hands and nose in caustic chemicals all day long.
Jon had set his sights on the University of Miami to study music, but he needed a year at Community College to get his grades up to par. That meant the clock was ticking on Necropolis. Dawson was dedicated to guitar playing, and his talent was undeniable. Trying to replace him was not an attractive prospect.
During that summer I had been contacted by a collaborator on our City Limits promotions, John Antimary of Zapple Entertainment, regarding an idea he had. He was working with a local record label and he asked me to get him demos of Pittsburgh area bands for a proposed compilation album that he wanted to put together.
Antimary had a "front row seat" at our City Limits gigs, and he knew there were kids coming out to see these local bands playing all-original material. And a trip to an indie record store would make it very evident that the punk and metal labels had no shortage of new artists to peddle. In other words, business was booming.
Now, it was in my nature to be suspicious of anyone who wanted to put up money for our scene, if for no other reason than the fact that no one ever did.
Although John may have given us a better cut of the door proceeds than some of the other venues and promoters, the fact was NONE of them were really paying us much for these shows that we were playing and promoting. Still, the idea of a compilation record was attractive as it would help raise awareness of our scene, especially on a national level.
Because I published Warhammer, most local bands submitted their demo tapes to me for review. John asked for band demos to evaluate for inclusion on his compilation and I just handed over many of those Warhammer review cassettes, stupidly assuming I would get them back after he had made his selections. I regret having handed over those tapes to this day, because I never saw them again.
Anyway, after reviewing those 20-or-so demos, John informed me that he was only interested in Necropolis and Eviction for the compilation. He thought if he put up the money for each band to record a few songs, he could release a split EP, with each band having a side of the record. He wanted to include a response card for buyers to mail in a “vote” for their favorite side, and then John's label would offer a contract to that band.
I went to Rob Tabachka, a good friend and Eviction's guitarist, and told him about the deal. In my mind, it was a no-obligation chance to get a side of vinyl out on someone else's dime. But Rob didn't like the "competition" that was implied via the response card. And he was right, that kind of stuff went against what we were trying to do in our inclusive underground scene. Plus, Eviction already had "some irons in the fire" for a record deal, so it wasn't that appealing to him.
Necropolis had offers from a few D.I.Y. indie labels, but nothing that was really any better than simply producing something ourselves. It would have meant another tightly budgeted, quick studio endeavor pressed onto vinyl and cassette by a “label” with very little means for distribution or promotion. Essentially what we had just done with “The Insanity Has Only Begun” demo. So we remained unsigned.
When I told Antimary that Eviction wasn't interested in the split release, he just offered the recording contract to us.
We knew that these sorts of deals were very bad for new artists. And we didn't have an entertainment lawyer (or anyone but ourselves) to look out for our interests. So it seemed like a questionable opportunity. At the same time, I thought If we could get a record out, maybe we could tour before Dawson left town for Miami and college.
We went into the situation knowing that this was probably our only shot at getting something out on vinyl and CD before Jon had to move on with his life. We also knew it wasn't the best deal contractually, but we wanted a chance to make a record, so we signed up with Zanzibar Records.
The label was based in Swissvale, a small borough right next to the east end of Pittsburgh's city limits, just above Braddock, the cradle of Andrew Carnegie's massive steel empire.
There was an independent record store there called the Record Hut and the owner turned out to be the financier of Zanzibar.
I had been shopping at the Record Hut for years. In fact, I bought "Master of Puppets" there on the day of its release because it was the closest store to my house. I was there at 10 am when they opened, and then had my mind blown on the way to school afterwards.
I grew up in and around Swissvale, so Zanzibar seemed like a natural fit to me. There was a guy who had been working for Motown in the 70's and 80's disco heyday who was involved with the label, and so was John Antimary. It sounded like they were serious about getting something out a.s.a.p. and were willing to spend some money to make that happen. It appeared to be the last, best shot for Necropolis to release an album.
Also that summer, our reputation had gotten us nominated as one of five bands vying for the title of Best Metal band in the annual awards issue of the “In Pittsburgh Newsweekly” free paper.
The nomination was a bit of a surprise, and it was great to be considered alongside our buddies in Doomwatch and Eviction, although I didn't think we had any shot to actually win. We had been used to the mainstream music scene laughing at our underground sound and attitude. So, on October 18th, when the Awards Ceremony at the Graffiti (one of the area's best music venues) arrived, we were not in attendance.
Instead we were on the other side of Oakland at the Syria Mosque Ballroom to see one of our favorite bands, Fishbone with Philadelphia rapper Schoolly-D opening.
I have already aired my views of the creative possibilities that the mid-1980's were fostering in the underground music scene. The absence of interest from the majors provided a window for independent and D.I.Y. labels to proliferate in all genres of music. And without commercial direction being the sole driver of the artists material, a seemingly endless evolution of sounds and styles emerged.
As a result, it was an astonishing time to see live music, as groundbreaking bands were forcing us into musical spaces we could never have imagined before.
Fishbone was one of the boundary-pushers that we all admired. They were adept at a plethora of styles and masters of their instruments. This was exemplified by their then-current release, "Truth and Soul", and they did NOT disappoint in a live setting.
A bonus was having Philadelphia's independent Hip Hop king, Schoolly-D, on the bill. Schoolly had started his career releasing his own records on his own label, even drawing the graffiti-influenced album covers himself. Basically, exactly the same thing that independent Punk and Metal bands were doing.
I loved him as a performer and admired him as an example of how to develop your own musical destiny. And he surprised me further by coming out with a live band backing him alongside his DJ, Code Money - the first time that I had seen that in Hip Hop. It turned out that they were the members of a Philadelphia Punk band called Scram!, and their participation further blurred the artifice of musical genre or label.
(Check out this interview at 48:19 for more info on this groundbreaking collaboration!)
My head was in a really special place seeing this transpire. It was a portal into a radical kind of musical innovation, one that up to that time seemed IMPOSSIBLE to me. And this achievement was inspiring Necropolis to progress into more previously uncharted territory.
After the gig, we were standing around outside bullshitting with other attendees when several of our buddies from Eviction showed up screaming! They rushed over to tell us that we had won?! Somehow, the "Academy of 166 Critics, Writers, Club Owners and Industry Experts" decided we were the "Best Metal Band" in Pittsburgh for 1988.
These sorts of awards are either popularity contests voted on by readers, or decided via secret-ballot polling of lord-knows-who. Still, it was nice to get some recognition. Especially considering it had only been a year since we had to step out from under George's long shadow and figure out how to be a band on our own.
I don’t know that it changed the way we thought about ourselves, but suddenly the biggest promoter in Pittsburgh, DiCesare-Engler, was trying to get a hold of us to have us open a show.
Ron Reidell, our friend and Eviction's drummer, was calling me from the Eide's record counter where he worked. Someone from DiCesare-Engler was trying to add us to the bill of an upcoming show they were promoting featuring a couple of new Metal bands on tour in advance of the release of their debut albums. We had never heard of Warrant or D’Molls, but we accepted the gig anyway.
Meanwhile, the contract with Zanzibar was finalized and we were booked time to begin recording at a new studio in McKeesport, PA called Alphastar. They scheduled a Saturday and Sunday for us to start tracking.
It turned out that the Warrant/D'Molls gig at the Graffiti was that same Sunday evening.
Our studio advisor and babysitter, Joe Rembisz, joined us for the session. There was a label "producer" in the form of Scott Warner, also at the date. The Alphastar in-house producer was Nason Gieg. He was a Pittsburgh rock-scene veteran, most well known as a bassist and keyboard player for Norm Nardini's Tigers, but had done so much more.
Nason played in area bands since we was 14, on a stolen guitar. He'd been in a band called Resistance, who Nardini had produced an album for in the late 70's. Then he ended up a Nardini sideman on bass and keyboards, touring the country for years before moving on to engineering and producing.
He cut his teeth as an assistant engineer at Normandy Sound in Rhode Island where some familiar bands like The Cro-mags, Gang Green, Leeway and others had recorded. Nason claimed to have been present for some of those sessions which made us think he wasn't going to be confused about what we were trying to do musically.
Most of all, Nason was a rock-n-roll dirtbag, so we immediately loved him.
He always greeted us with his trademark expression, “Hey, cool ones!”
But initially, he had no idea what to make of us.
The studio had a LARGE live room with two isolation booths. The drums were miked in the live room, while each guitar amplifier took up residence in one of the two isolation booths.
They tried to use a "direct line" for the bass, but we kiboshed it. The bass amp ended up being miked in an adjacent utility closet just outside of the control room.
Once initial sounds were established, we were ready to start tracking. Nason was about to actually hear Necropolis for the first time.
The five of us were in the live room with Chris Emerson and his extensively miked drum kit, listening to a "scratch-mix" of all the instruments combined together in headphones. I didn't sing a throwaway vocal while we recorded because that would have required me being in another part of the studio away from the rest of the group.
I just counted out parts in my head and used hand signals to cue changes to help insure we didn't mess up any of our arrangements.
Chris “counted off four” and we started the intro to "Drunk and Arrogant".
If you aren't familiar with the song, it starts out with four bars of standard rock and roll riffing before cascading into a very fast thrash riff. Once the “speed metal” part erupted, Nason got out of his chair and started bouncing up and down in a circle with two fists in the air!
It was official - now we were all “in love” with each other.
The tracking was going quickly. Everyone was exhilarated, although somewhat nervous. This recording was on someone else's dime, and we weren't sure how to take that. I've already stated that we didn't trust money men, and this situation was no different.
Later when we attempted a newer song written by Brian called "Enter The Void", we just kept flubbing it. The track begins with Chris playing an elaborate drum part emphasized by triplet fills. Then the bass comes in, and eventually the guitars.
For some reason, we just couldn't pull it off. We had rehearsed it plenty, and had played it live, as well. But we just kept fucking up take after take.
The live room door had a small window that was around "head height," and after some knocking, I noticed Nason's Stetson-adorned cranium in view.
I opened the door, and in walked Nason... with his pants unzipped and his manhood hanging out.
There were the five of us, silently aghast.
Gieg said firmly,
"Do I look good like this?"
The room was silent, still in shock.
He repeated, "Do I look good like this!?
Because your record label is gonna have my balls if you don't get this track down!"
We all lost it, falling to the ground laughing.
The break in tension allowed Dawson to voice to Emerson that he was starting the song out too fast.
A calmer Emerson started again, and the next take was recorded flawlessly.
Needless to say, Nason had endeared himself to each us. Passing the hours of repetitive work with his tales of touring the clubs of America with the likes of Bon Jovi and Duran Duran in their early days.
He relied on the studio engineer, Jim Porreca (who we had nick-named “Mush” for his curly mushroom-head of hair), for technical assistance. But Nason was a character and had charm out the ass. He kept us focused and gave us confidence which fueled our endurance.
We tracked all day Saturday, then returned Sunday morning and put in another day's work, ultimately recording all the drum tracks for the album.
Unfortunately, we never warmed up to Scott Warner (the record label's producer), wrongfully mistrusting him as a label stooge. He left after that first date and never returned. My apologies, Scott.
The good news was, we had a productive weekend in a big-time studio on the company dime, so we were feeling pretty good by the end of the day.
The bad news was, we had our first show at the best live venue in Pittsburgh in just about an hour!
We loaded out and booked to the gig far across town.
McKeesport to Oakland was a bit of a haul and we were under the gun.
We were all essentially dead-broke, and didn't have dollar-one to spend on food the whole weekend. The rest of the band went straight to the gig to load in. Now, much acrimony has been made about the “privilege” of lead singers. Being one myself, I can't speak for my fellow band members on the subject. But, my girlfriend was my ride to the gig, so I had her stop by my house long enough for me to microwave a baked potato to eat on the ride to Oakland.
My detour took less than 30 minutes, but by the time I got to the Graffiti, the rest of the guys were freaking out. There were not one, but TWO back lines with separate drum kits already sound-checked and fixed on the smallish venue's stage.
This meant we had almost nowhere to stand, and Chris had to awkwardly set his drums up off to one side.
There was a hasty soundcheck, and then we had a short time to kill.
Some of the guys were talking up “Jani, the hot-chick singer of Warrant” who they'd seen from afar earlier. Overall, it was a whirlwind of activity for 48 hours straight without much rest.
And we were opening for 2 national acts we had never heard of, in a prestigious venue, for the biggest promoters in the city.
No pressure. We were well-rehearsed and it was an opening set of maybe 8 tunes.
Before I knew it, we were onstage, and there were very few people up front. There was a decent turn out for the show, but the Graffiti was a cavernous venue with balconies all around and alcoves with tables and chairs tucked underneath. All of which were basically invisible to me from the stage.
The usual adrenaline rush of a live performance was at a low ebb thanks to our exhausting weekend in the studio, and without a crowd in our faces, it felt like we were playing to no one. Add to that the fucked-up stage layout with no room to move, along with nothing coherent coming out of the stage monitors, and you end up with one of our worst-ever gigs.
We never got another call from DiCesare-Engler...
We went back to Alphastar the next weekend and continued work, overdubbing bass and guitar parts, song by song. We were trying to make a “professional” recording, taking our time, seeking the perfection we had missed on our demos.
As the year drew to a close, we were deep into the work on the album, taking whatever time that the studio would make available to us. Although we were never privy to the terms, Zanzibar had worked out a deal on the studio's hourly rate, which made us take a back seat to the full-price work. This meant we could go weeks without recording. The “endless winter” of sessions had given way to the new year, and we still seemed to have a long way to go to complete the project.
We thought that we could bang out the album in a month or two, and hopefully get a quick release, leaving time for a late spring or summer tour before Jon went off to Miami.
But things turned out to be a lot different than we anticipated…
- Spahr Schmitt
Necropolis photos by Brian Cummings and Dave Powell