Interview by Morley Seaver
When grunge had hit the scene in the late ’80s, it started a shift that eventually almost killed off hard rock and metal by the mid ’90s. Some bands were forced to adapt or rethink things. Others, like Canada’s Varga, simply shut it down. Refusing to adopt flannel work shirts as their new uniform, Varga did not want to jump on any trend to promote further success. So the members went their separate ways, all the while, still keeping involved in music individually.
Last year the band (Joe Varga (bass and vocals), Dan Fila (drums),Sean Williamson (guitars) and Adam Alex (guitars)) got together socially, just to renew acquaintances and enjoy what initially brought them together: the love of some nasty ‘ol thrash music. They quickly learned that their passion had not dissipated and the resulting years had in fact helped them to further hone their craft. They decided to give it another try, this time on their own terms. Their latest record Enter the Metal is a jaw-dropping exercise in musicality. Thunderous riffs are a’plenty with so many twists and turns you feel like you’re circling the drain. Every member’s talents are allowed to shine and you’re exhausted by the end of the disc.
By the time I reached the end of my first go-round with this monster, I had to find out more about the guys behind it. Here’s my conversation with Varga’s drum demon, Dan Fila.
antiMusic: Before we get to the new record, newbies to the band like me might not know about its history. Can you bring us up to speed on the band and about the fact that if Nirvana and Pearl Jam and all those had not happened back then, we might have heard this record in the mid ’90s.
Dan: Yeah, this is true. Back in the ’90s, we had a deal with Sony/BMG and the whole grunge thing happened and all the record companies were pushing their bands to sound that way. We decided that we would rather not go that route. And Prototype was a really good record. It was kind of a hybrid cross-over record with metal and industrial and the whole grunge thing happened. But we never really broke up…it’s just that if we weren’t able to play the kind of music we wanted, then we wouldn’t do it. I think that really says it all.
Then fast forward 15 years, out of the blue Joe reaches out and gives us a call and we started hanging out again and listening to the Metallica, Slayer, Anthrax, Megadeth, Rush, Pantera…all the early stuff that had influenced us. We started jamming and Enter the Metal is what came out. It was a pretty organic process. So instead of having a record company to answer to, we just did it on our own. We paid for everything ourselves and we came out with something that we were really proud of and is a true representation of what the band is.
antiMusic: And you don’t have to bend to anybody’s suggestions or demands.
Dan: Yeah, it was a fun record to make. The producer is Juice Butty and he did Protest the Hero and Alexisonfire. And working with him, who is a close personal friend of ours, was a totally enjoyable performance. And the record sounds punishing and stands on its own two legs.
antiMusic: The record has vintage thrash moments and tons of proggy-infected elements. Are there any unifying elements that tie this record together?
Dan: Well, the best way to describe this band is if the guys from Rush were to hang out with Megadeth, Metallica and Slayer and they were all to get really drunk and then go in a room and jam, this is what comes out. With a bit of King Diamond singing in the background.
antiMusic: You guys must have brains like rocket scientists. There are so many time changes and twists and turns in here. Do you set out to make it a real adventure when writing or does everything just naturally lead to where it ends up?
Dan: It’s a funny process but it all starts with us plugging in together and jamming in a room. It’s very organic and when you listen to certain bands and certain musical styles, it’s going to come through in your sound. And we weren’t just thinking that we were going to make some complicated music for shits and giggles. What comes out is our influences.
There’s a part at the end of “Gamera” where we borrowed an idea by “By-Tor and the Snow Dog” by Rush where at the end, the number gets sequentially smaller and smaller. So we’re paying homage to a lot of our influences and heroes on the record.
antiMusic: Tell us about some of the songs. You make your presence known right off the bat in “Beginning of the End”. Everybody gets a chance to show their stuff on this one.
Dan: Yeah, “Beginning of the End” is a social commentary on what happened with the nuclear bombs and those sorts of things. The best way I can describe it is a punishing marathon. It’s like running a marathon but at the speed of a 100m sprinter. Just blasting it the whole way. That’s usually our show opener and I pray that I don’t have a heart attack during that song.
antiMusic: “Gamera” sounds exactly like what it was named after. A lumbering beast, albeit one with a bit of rhythm.
Dan: Joe’s a big science-fiction type of guy and he wrote the lyrics on that song. It’s basically a story of the Gamera/Gozilla type-era. It’s thought to be like a trippy type of song and the lyrics are not meant to be taken seriously. I mean, it’s about a flying turtle, you know? (laughs) Just enjoy the song and let the metal take you where it’s supposed to go. There’s a big Sabbath influence in that song and as I mentioned a huge By-Tor era Rush influence in there as well. Just a super heavy song.
antiMusic: “Mad Scientist” sounds predictably demented, musically speaking. What can you us about this one?
Dan: It is. It’s a completely demented song. Funny thing about “Mad Scientist” is, we had it on a demo and we shopped it to Pantera’s management in 1989 and it ended up in the hands of Phil Anselmo. So fast forward to 1995 and we’re playing in New Orleans and we’re on tour with a band called Crowbar who are friends with the Pantera guys. So Phil Anselmo is at the show and we all go out for dinner after and he says, “Yeah, I remember “Mad Scientist”. You guys rock!!” And to get kudos like that from Phil Anselmo and have him watch the band and in Dallas, a few days later, Dimebag and Vinnie Paul came to see the band. And hanging out with them and having them give us the thumbs up and say how much they like us…those were some heavy moments.
So yeah, “Mad Scientist” is just a guy who wants to destroy the world. It’s sort of sci-fi/horror/comic book kind of thing. It’s just one of those songs. A trippy story.
antiMusic: “Plane Crash” sounds like a video game soundtrack.
Dan: You got it exactly! The song describes Joe’s fear of flying and about the whole process of him getting onto a plane. Again, it’s sort of tongue in cheek/horror metal. It’s a really technical, numerically-oriented song with a super-progressive twist to it.
antiMusic: It has some wicked shredding and riffing.
Dan: Yeah, the boys let it go and Joe lets out some screams that are simply mind-numbing. It just blows my mind. After being apart from the guys for a few years and coming back, there’s a whole new respect for everyone in the room. Everyone knows their shit and everyone does what they’re supposed to do. And it’s pretty epic and mind-blowing.
antiMusic: “No More Clean Air” is the shorty of the bunch at 5:00. Was this a bid at social commentary or just part of the sci-fi nature of the record?
Dan: Yeah, some more social commentary. We’re from a place called Hamilton and it’s a dirty, stinky, industrial town with steel factories that basically ran the whole city. It’s about the damage they’re doing to the environment and how it’s a trap for people who get in there and end up working there for their entire lives. There was also a song on Prototype which was called “Bring the Hammer Down” which was a similar type of thing.
antiMusic: “Shark Attack” is aptly named. What can you tell us about this track?
Dan: It’s a super thrashy homage to Death Angel and earlier thrash bands. And the song is about people being eaten by a shark (laughs). It’s tongue in cheek but super heavy. Our songs are like sets of video game backgrounds. They’re not three-minute pop songs. They’re pounding metal beasts. That’s what we do. That’s what Varga is.
antiMusic: I’ve read that this is a two-part project with the next record coming later this spring. Is that correct?
Dan: That is correct. The next record is called Return of the Metal. So there’s that Japanese-Kung Fu/Bruce Lee thing about it. The reason we are releasing them separately is that there’s just too much material. It wouldn’t fit on one disc. I mean, we have songs that are nine minutes long. You have to do two separate projects. But that record is exactly the same thing, punishing, progressive, technically-challenging, thrashy music. It’s some really cool stuff.
antiMusic: When will that one be released?
Dan: Well, we’re thinking of May at this point. We want people to get a full chance to enjoy Enter the Metal as well.
antiMusic: After a 20-year absence, Varga is back. Do you plan on steady touring behind this release or are you going to ease into things?
Dan: Yes, we’ve done a few shows. We’re starting locally right now since we all have families and we’re not 20 years-old anymore. But we’re looking to do some UK dates and Bloodstock in August. But for now, we’re just playing Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal….the big cities. I mean, Canada’s geography is just so spread apart that it’s kind of pointless to travel hundreds of miles to go and play for no one. But we would like to get down to the North-East U.S. and you can play for much larger crowds than spending so much time on the road here for a lot less people.
antiMusic: So for your set, do just want to concentrate on the new record or do you play some older material from the first two records as well?
Dan: No, we just play the new material. And what we do is just play the two records front to back, one after the other. The older stuff, we’re very proud of and we were on Beavis and Butthead, and we got to tour with Metallica and White Zombie and Prong. We met Rob Halford. Our dreams came true because of that but we’re in a different part of our lives and we want to promote the new stuff that we’ve done and we’re doing.
antiMusic: That’s all the questions I have for you Dan. Is there anything else about the record that you wanted to mention that I did not cover?
Dan: The biggest thing about this record is that it’s very organic and it sounds like people just hanging out and making music together. And that was the initial thing behind it, just for us to get together and do what we love to do. And it just kept growing. As I mentioned, our friend, Juice Butty, came to one of our rehearsals and said, “This is incredible. I have to record this.” And we wanted it to be organic. We recorded the whole record live, off the floor. And we did use some Pro-Tools stuff but we wanted to get away from the technology abuse that bands are doing these days, where they’ll just use one riff, loop it and speed it up. It’s Pro-Tools metal and that’s not what heavy metal is. It’s about playing together and just bashing stuff out. It’s not sitting at a computer coming up with riffs. I don’t know. I’m old-school. It just works for me.
Morley and antiMusic thank Dan for taking the time to speak with us.
See the interview at AntiMusic.com