A long time ago in a Hollywood full of poofy hair and big dreams, the sidewalks were a carnival of sins with guitar picks. The bands that flocked to the aging yet regenerating section of Los Angeles were getting signed by labels and putting out songs that wallpapered MTV screens morning-noon-&-night. It was a hallowed time for male vocal cords. But then some punkish kids in flannel raised some hell and tore down the walls of metal; at least for a little while. So many of the metal bands disintegrated while others hung onto their music and kept lugging their equipment into any venue that would have them. And gradually, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, metal came back. Loud, proud and hell bent for leather and spandex; all varieties found a way to exist once again.
It’s been twenty-four years since Mark Slaughter released Stick It To Ya with his band Slaughter. Having split off from the Vinnie Vincent Invasion with bandmate Dana Strum, and with Tim Kelly on guitar and Blas Elias on drums, the album launched several huge hits, including “Up All Night” and “Fly To The Angels,” a special song the band still dedicates to our military personnel who have and continue to protect American soil and citizens. And it is because of this special place in Mark Slaughter’s heart that he has written, produced and played every instrument, sans drums, on a new single called “Never Givin’ Up,” with proceeds going to an organization that assists families of the Special Operations Forces.
What came first: the song or the desire to create a song specifically for the Red Circle Foundation?
Well, there are several sides to it. I’ve been writing a lot of music at my house, just continuously writing. But it was one of those things. I’d seen some stuff with the Wounded Warrior Project. And ever since the Gulf War we’ve been dedicating “Fly To The Angels” to the men and women who serve our country, whether alive or passed. We don’t take it for granted and that was the whole process there. I was just moved and thought, you know, I should write a song that is very positive and upbeat basically saying I support you and your adversity and the things that you go through.
How did you know what to say to make this have such a powerful impact?
Well, the words were really easy. It was just kind of like, you know, songs usually write themselves. They have their own thing that they do. And that song, just like a lot of the other songs that over the years, you don’t really think about much or put a lot of heavy thought into and they just roll out. And that was one of them that just rolled out. And the premise of it is standing by those who are having a tough time. I mean, it was specifically written for that but that is the whole premise of that song.
What can you tell us about the Red Circle Foundation? What does it do and how did you get involved with them?
I was speaking to a gentleman from Sirius Radio and he turned me on to the organization and spoke to me about the proceeds going to the Special Ops guys. In charities, there’s a lot of red tape. I mean, obviously, St Jude is a wonderful charity that I still stand behind. But this is one that 100% of the proceeds are going to help those who needed it. I’m not saying that St Jude is any less by any means but I just felt it was something that I wanted to do to help. I’ve been on the board of St Jude and the Radio Cares Program for quite some years but this is something that I think we really need to stand up and say to these people that we’re still behind them when they feel alone.
And the cover picture for the single is very powerful. You know exactly what that song is going to be about.
Yeah, the artwork says exactly what it is, which is just a straight up song that helps soldiers. Believe it or not, it’s had some flak. Some people have said, “Why would you support the war?” or “Why would you support this?” But these are your neighbors, these are your mothers and your fathers. It’s not just one gender anymore and there is no reason NOT to stand up for those people who are giving their lives up or their time up for our freedom. I know that some people are saying that this administration and the administration before, that our government was all screwed up or whatever, but the bottom line is these are the people that still, regardless, stand to give us that freedom.
I had kind of a lesson myself when we did a show up in Idaho and it was a big biker fest. There were nine thousand people at this biker fest and there was a gentleman who was there dressed up in his whole uniform and before we went to do “Fly To The Angels” we pulled him out and said, “Hey, we’d like to thank this man for defending our country and for giving up his time and his life and putting his life on the line to defend us.” And not just to defend but stand up for what we need, you know. And this guy looked over at me during the song and he had tears running down his face. And at the end of the set I walked over and said, “Are you ok? Is everything ok?” and he goes, “Look, when I came home from Vietnam, people spit on me and that’s the first time I felt like I got any recognition.” So I think that’s the key. Not that I’m making any kind of political statement here or anything. I’m just trying to stand up for the PEOPLE who are soldiers. That’s what I’m standing up for.
Why did you decide to play all the instruments yourself, except for the drums?
I’ve got music that I am recording while my band is out doing shows with Vince Neil. They are also Vince Neil’s band – Dana, Jeff Blando and Zoltan. And the time that they’ve been out there doing Vince shows, I’ve been writing and recording. So I think what it basically is I’ve got a lot of music that I’m just working on and this is the first song I’ve decided to put out.
So what comes next?
My band and I are still doing Slaughter dates and all that. This was really, more so than anything, this is just a labor of love. An artist is always creating art. We haven’t made a Slaughter record in fourteen years so my whole thought is, it’s time for me to release some music regardless. So I’m just putting songs together. I’m not looking at labels. I’m making art for the sake of making art. I’m not doing it as like, how can I get a zillion dollars at doing this? It’s about making music and getting the art out there.
And the music world is such a different place nowadays. I’ve heard this from many of the musicians I’ve talked to of how they are finding new ways of doing it on their own, when they want to do it and how they want to do it.
Correct. There really isn’t a form of how you have to do it anymore and people don’t frown when you put music out on your own. It’s just more so than anything you just put out the music and that’s what you do. You just make music how you want to make music and get it out there.
You worked with Michael Wagener, who mixed this single for you. He is such an iconic hard rock producer.
He is, and not only as a producer. Michael is an incredible engineer and has, I think it’s like a hundred million sales on all the acts he’s worked with over the years. That’s a lot of records (laughs). More so than anything, he is a guy who gets it. He understands what I do in this type of music. He understands this type of music. I’m not trying to reinvent myself and put myself as a dubstep artist or something different. I’m just making music in the style that I make music.
I saw Slaughter a couple of years and there were a lot of people in the audience and everybody was having a good time. So there is still room for music like yours.
Oh yeah. We do shows just about every weekend. I just got back from doing several shows this last week and if anybody is interested, www.slaughterusa.com is the website that has all the shows we’re doing. It is going well and people ARE having a good time and that’s what this music was about, ultimately, from the very beginning. It was about the good times, you know.
How did you initially meet Dana Strum?
There was a drummer that I used after I left Xcursion – God, I was like twenty-one years old – and his name was Kendall Trotter and Kendall was playing in a group and they called me out and the manager of that called me to do background vocals. So Todd, the manager, said, “Hey, why don’t you come out and do this?” And I said, “Okay, fine, I’ll do that.” So I go out to do the recording and then he hears my voice and that’s where it all started. I think he knew that this guy was the last guy standing, still out there doing vocals at this point when everybody else is gone. And I was still out there singing background. I think he just thought, “He loves it, he’s got a passion for it,” and I think we both knew at that point that where I knew Dana as a producer and that side of it, he knew that together we would be a really good team. You kind of intuitively know and he knew it as well. And we’ve talked about it over the years and we still see each other and play shows on weekends and speak on a daily basis. We know it was just one of those things that together we could make a lot of music and do well with it.
You mentioned your voice. Have you ever had problems with your vocal cords since you sing at such a high register?
Everybody has. There is nobody that doesn’t have some type of issue with their voice who is a vocalist. Your vocal cords are the size of a quarter in reality and when they say, “Oh, this person has nodules and stuff?” if you make a dot like you’re dotting an I, that’s the size of what a nodule is. So what it is is a callus that comes from a blister that raises an inch so the vocal cords don’t even up with each other. That’s what a nodule is. It’s just a very, how should I put it, temperamental instrument for everybody. Every singer has to go through that but if you exercise it right and if you take care of it and you get your rest and you’re not smoking and drinking and doing all the other stuff; or having acid reflux and talking too much. I mean, you can go down the list of all the things you’re not supposed to do as a vocalist. Like Celine Dion doesn’t even speak when she is performing, in that time frame, because you’re not supposed to even talk. And that’s how she keeps her voice good. I mean, myself, I’m not going to stop talking. I’m a motormouth (laughs). So I just have to watch it in other areas. Get rest and try to take care of my health. I think as a musician, I think ultimately you’re always looked at as, how do you do this or how do you do that, and ultimately you just do. You don’t really overly think about it, you just do whatever it takes that gets you through the show and whatever is going to make the performance what it needs to be or the recording what it needs to be.
What is your earliest memory of music?
My grandmother played piano and I remember her playing piano when I was just a baby. And my mom, when we’d drive around in her Beatle – she had a Beatle and later she had a Mustang; she was cool – and she always cranked the radio in there so there was always The Beatles or something really cool playing on the radio that I loved. I love music and listen to music all the time.
When did you actually start writing songs and creating music?
I sang my own songs when I was on the swing set when I was a kid (laughs) but as far as like actually writing and stuff, when I was eleven years old I started playing guitar and that’s when I really started making songs.
What do you think was the biggest, most valuable lesson, you learned early in your career about the music business?
I think the most important thing is that I saw a lot of people in this industry really take it, how should I put it, take their success to their head or start believing they are more or something else they are not. And I think that one thing we always kept in check, and Dana and I have always joked about it over the years, you know. We’re all just regular people, people who make music. We’re the guys next door who played in the band at the parties you used to know and kept going and we still do it. And that’s really how it is. I really don’t look at the whole rock star mentality or “this is a rock star, that’s a rock star.” A rock star is somebody who is really unattainable to where you can’t even speak to them. Michael Jackson, even though he was in a different style of music, was a rock star. Steven Tyler is a rock star, although he is a very nice man. But the point is, he is the epitome of it. Look at how he looks, look at how he behaves. He’s great. But I’m the guy next door. I’m not about those things. I’m just a guy who is trying to do something that is very positive in my music and at the same time entertain. I’m an entertainer from Las Vegas, ultimately.
So who was the first real rock star you ever met?
I actually met Ann and Nancy Wilson at the Aladdin Theater when I was walking around before a show. I ended up bumping into them and met them when I was very young. They were wonderful, great people; still are. So that’s probably the first people that I met but I was just a guy in the seats. I wasn’t a guy in a band that they would recognize. I was just one of the many people that went to go see the show and loved what they did.
I understand that your first big tour was with KISS?
That is correct. Eric Carr [KISS drummer at the time] was, in my opinion, ultimately responsible for bringing the attention to Gene and Paul prior to us even taking off. Carrie, his girlfriend, knew us and he listened to the music and thought it was amazing and he turned Gene and Paul on before our first video was even out. And they watched accordingly and they saw the success going and ultimately our first show was with KISS in May of 1990. We went out and did our show with Winger and KISS and when we walked off stage, we had gold records waiting in our dressing room. So it was a very different time for us because that was the first show we ever played. We never played as Slaughter. We wrote the music and went directly to CD and it went off from there. So that was kind of a crazy thing to experience for sure.
What would you say was really special about Eric?
As far as Eric, he was the regular guy. He was a guy who even though he was in the biggest band, he was just a sweetheart. He really took the time out for fans. He really cared about what was best for the band. He was a trooper for KISS, he really was. He really wanted to be a part of that and that organization and that is something to be said cause some people just really go and play in bands and they really don’t care. They just go off and, you know, collect the dough and don’t really put the heart in it. His heart was totally in it and he was a good friend and it was very sad when he passed. It was very sad.
What about Tim Kelly? What made him so special as a person and as a musician? [Kelly passed away in 1998]
As a person, Tim was, again much like Eric, he was just a guy who was probably wearing more Slaughter paraphernalia than all of us. He wore a Slaughter shirt most all of the time. He was very, very proud to be in the band and he was an incredible player. I don’t think people really understand how talented this guy really was. He had an incredible feel and in fact, I was talking to Zakk, paying a compliment to Zakk Wylde one time. I said, “You know, you’re one of the most incredible guitar players I’ve ever known.” And he looked at me and he goes, “Don’t forget little Timmy. He was amazing.”
And that is a lot coming from Zakk
It is a lot from Zakk and he threw it right back at Tim. He was a lot better guitar player than what people think.
What still excites you about creating and playing music after all these years?
Again, writing songs and making music is about just creating. I think that’s really where I’m at right now. You know, an artist paints and I’m making music as a musician. That’s just what I do and that’s what I’m doing. I’m sure there will be Slaughter records to follow and everything else. There’s no weirdness or animosity or anything crazy going on. I think the band is stronger than ever and it’s showing in the amount of dates that have been booked and continuing to rise up the ole ladder.
What is the rest of your year looking like?
Obviously we have a lot of shows as Slaughter this year. At some point I’m going to release some of the rest of this music, either an EP/whole form. I’m just not sure but I’m basically continuously working on that and writing songs and again, just about being an artist. I’m really not overly-thinking of where I’m going with it. I’m just doing it.
And it’s still exciting
Yeah, it’s nice to create and very freeing to create and not think about it, you know. I don’t have a record company saying, “I don’t hear a single” or “I don’t hear this” or “You need to write more heavy this.” There is always something that they have an opinion of what they think you should be doing. And now it’s just up to me and it’s all on my shoulders. Mark Goodin, who played drums on “Never Givin’ Up” and on all these tracks, he was in a rival band when we grew up together. He is just so phenomenal at what he does. He really is. It’s really cool to work and play and have no agenda. It’s just making music.
How has living in Nashville changed the way you create music now? Has it given you any fresh inspiration?
I think there are some of the best songwriters in the world out here. I’ve written some of my music, some other songs, with a really incredible writer named John Goodwin. I’ve been writing with him and there are a lot of really good writers out here. I think the key is to tap in to this, this is music city, with people who are really good songwriters. I think that’s the key. My songwriting is getting better and I’m honing that craft in by working with some of the best in the business.
Have you seen Tom Keifer [Cinderella, who also has a home there] since you moved to Nashville?
I’ve seen him out and about. Not a lot but every once in a while I’ll see him at a grocery store or something. I see Eric Brittingham more probably. I see Derek St Holmes, who lives out here, from Ted Nugent’s band. There are several people that live here. Brad Whitford from Aerosmith is out here. There are good rock & roll people out here.
But you actually grew up in Vegas.
It is a very interesting city and I love it. I mean, it’s a big city now. When I grew up there it was Green Acres with lights. I miss that side of it. It was a totally different animal and I miss some of the simplistic sides of it. It’s like everything, things change. I actually live on a farm. I have a farm out here, not that I’m growing anything, but I got multiple acres here and it’s just quiet and I think that’s something that is really very helpful for writing and doing music.
No cows, no cows yet (laughs). I’ve got my dog Bubba and he’s as big as a cow (laughs). Bubba’s a Great Pyrenees. He weighs 162 pounds but he’s just a really sweet dog. He really is. I’ve had him for over ten years and he’s a good boy.
Live photographs by Leslie Michele Derrough