by Eric Walls
That Metal Station
To many of you bangers and bangettes out there, Varga might not be a name that’s all that familiar to you. Yet, the band has been around since 1989 and for a brief stint in the early 90’s made some small waves on the international metal scene, signing with a major label and playing with some of the biggest names in the biz. They put out three albums, “Multiple Wargasms” in 1991, “Prototype” in 1993, and “Oxygen” in 1995. They even attainted the highest level a metal band could (arguably) achieve during that time period with having one of their songs featured on an episode of Beavis and Butthead. Yet, they never really took off to reach that level of fame of bands like Metallica, Megadeth, etc that directly preceded them.
Once the grunge scene made metal a four letter word in the music industry, the guys in Varga had had it with the whole music industry machine and quietly took a hiatus that ended up lasting almost a decade. In 2011, Dan Fila (drums), Joe Varga (bass vocals), Sean Williamson (guitar), and Adam Alex (guitar) decided to give it one more go. They released their comeback album “Enter the Metal” in 2013 and quickly followed that one up with “Return of the Metal” just this year. These albums showcase a band that comes at you all guns blazing like they have something to prove. A band at the peak of their technical and songcrafting prowess. A band that has finally had a chance to make the music that THEY want to make without douchebags in suits and talking heads pulling them in multiple directions and whispering in their ears. A band that makes you go, “Why in the hell have I never heard of these guys before?” Varga’s story plays out like a movie. A band of 4 friends who through blood, sweat, and tears achieved what they thought would be the pinnacle of success in the music business only to get their passion and drive stomped out of them by the music machine. A band that rose from the ashes like the proverbial phoenix, bigger and badder than ever, and in the process rediscovered why they started it all back in that dingy basement so many years ago; the sheer joy of playing music that you love with your best friends. If you’re a musician and you’re playing for any other reason than that, then you are in it for all the wrong reasons. Comparing the two different periods of Varga is almost like comparing apples to oranges. Their earliest stuff had a bit of that progressive edge that we see with their newer material, but by the time they signed to a major the band had introduced some industrial and even “alternative” elements to the music. If you listen to albums like “Prototype” or “Oxygen” now and compare them to “Enter..” or “Return of the Metal”, it’s almost like it’s two completely different bands. Varga 2.0 is a technical thrash wunderkind that plays circles around the younger version of themselves and have eschewed all vestiges of anything other than pure, unadulterated metal mayhem in their sound. I spoke with Dan Fila recently about all things Varga. Below is what transpired.
TMS – How did the band get its start?
Dan – The band was started by Joe (Varga, bass/vocals) and myself in ’87, so we’ve been together for a long time. Through high school we met Adam and then Sean joined the band in ’88. In 1992 we signed with Sony/BMG and released a couple of albums with them. We played with Metallica, White Zombie, and Crowbar, met Rob Halford, hung out with Phil Anselmo, and got to live the dream for a while. I guess we got sort of shuffled in that whole “grunge” scene that happened back then. Heavy metal wasn’t an appealing word for people and we weren’t willing to compromise our sound, so we didn’t. We took a break and that break turned into ten years. Then, when we all felt that the time was right, we just basically all started hanging out again and cranking out music. And that led to “Return of the Metal”.
TMS – So there was nothing in particular, no drama or anything like that that originally led to you guys parting ways?
Dan – No drama. We all remained friends. You know, we just weren’t into being dictated to; how to look, how to sound. We all remained into music and we went our separate ways but there was never any animosity or anything like that. We went from when the band first started out and we were living in the back of a bread truck and playing for $50 a night to opening up for Metallica within a span of two years. We had been through the gamut together, so it was just one of those things, you know?
TMS – What was it really like to be a metal band during the “grunge” era?
Dan – It was like being the “reject” person. Saying that you were into metal was a bad thing. It was so bizarre. I remember watching and interview with Vinnie Paul from Pantera on MuchMusic, a music station up here in Canada, and he was saying, “we’re the alternative to the alternative”. It was a crazy, crazy time. And, you know, at the end of the day, so much of that “grunge” music had metal influences. I mean, Soundgarden was on this complete Black Sabbath trip. I love Soundgarden and I think a lot of the bands that came out of that era were great, but I think at the same time that the record labels were just like making boy bands up, you know? Here’s the flavor of the week. And I think that the 90’s will be the last example of a time when the recording industry is gonna have that kind of influence on people. The internet was just getting started and people really couldn’t connect like the way that you and I did. I mean, how did we connect? Well, we connected on the internet because we both love metal. There’s a whole community doing that now. In the 90’s with the major record labels, they had all the power. They dictated what people liked and what they were “supposed” to listen to and the results were the independent metal movement. Being a metal band at the time wasn’t easy. A lot of the “alternative” bands at the time would look down on us because we were a “metal” band. But, you know, whatever. We lived through it and at the end of the day it’s what’s stands the test of time that’s important. For our band our friendship is the main thing. Why did we want to get back together? Well, it’s basically because we missed hanging out in a room and playing music together. There was no grand plan. We didn’t sit down and plan this thing out and go, “Well, we’re gonna release two albums within a year of each other and then do all these shows…”. Nah, we were just like, “Let’s just hang out and have a bunch of beers and jam!”
TMS – And see what happens….
Dan – Exactly. That was all there was to the concept behind it.
TMS – What was it truly like to be on a major label?
Dan – Well, it was like having a really shitty boss. (laughs) That’s the only way I can say it. And unfortunately, your boss is your bank as well. The record deal we signed was for $50 million dollars and seven albums and this and that and everyone was like, “Holy fuck! You guys are gonna be super rich for the rest of your life!” Meanwhile, they don’t understand the formula and how all that actually works. Back then a band would sign and they would get like 12%. And out of that 12% they would take out all the money that you owed them back from your advance first. We were actually in debt for $700,000 when our deal ended.
TMS – Wow!
Dan – Yeah, so, unless you’re like some pop phenomenon, there’s really not a lot of ways to get out of debt to the label. That’s why major labels now are just distributors. What they’ll do…. they pick up a band…. Like, for example, there’s this band from up here called Walk Off the Earth and they did video where there were 5 hands on one guitar. Major labels saw that their video got like 50 million hits and they picked them up and they used their power to distribute and promote. It’s just a different paradigm. We would be sitting in board meetings with the record labels and they would be talking about what our image is and what this is and we’re just looking at each other going, “What the hell did we get ourselves into?” At the end of the day, it’s like having a mortgage. You gotta pay your bills and weren’t willing to make the compromises that they wanted us to make so we ended the relationship.
TMS – Did they really try to press you guys to change your sound, or do some cover song or something like that just to try to get a big hit, or anything like that?
Dan – Yeah, absolutely. It’s a money making machine. That’s what the record industry is; it’s just people out to make money. When we started out, our goals were never to be big, we just wanted to play music and do our thing. All of a sudden having to start making money from your art, that’s when you start compromising. On the new albums, on “Return…” and “Enter the Metal”, there’s no compromising on that. That’s us letting go and hanging out in a room and rehearsing our asses off. And then going into the studio and actually PLAYING the tracks. Whereas a lot of bands these days will just play like the first four bars and then they’ll loop that and then cut and paste this…. And we’re like, fuck no, man! We’re gonna go in there and we’re gonna play. People say it’s an “Old school” sound. Yeah, it’s “old school” because we actually played on it! There’s so many bands now that are just cheating with technology and you go see them live and they suck. Well, no wonder. How does a band become good? Well, you hang out in a basement, or wherever you are, and you become friends and it’s a spiritual thing, you feel.
TMS – I’ve always said that being in a band was like being married to 3 or 4 other dudes! (laughs)
Dan – Exactly. Without the benefits! (laughs) Or, whatever, if you’re into that, you know? (laughs) At the end of the day, like with the new records; we financed them ourselves. It was all our own cash. We’re not worried about breaking even or whatever, we just wanted to make it so we could have these records so that we could finally say that we finally got a chance to do what we wanted to do.
TMS – So, with the $700,000 you owed to BMG, were you ever able to pay that back or how did that end up working out?
Dan – They write it off. When people talk about record deals one thing many don’t understand is that these labels are taking a risk. They’re putting all this money into you, but at the same time they make all of their money back. They sold 250,000 units of our stuff around the world. So, they got their money back. It’s just a crazy formula. It’s like the worst mortgage you could ever sign. (laughs) It’s better to go to the bank and get a business loan and just do it yourself. At the end of the day, you’re gonna be on the hook for the cash.
TMS – Is that what you guys did? Go to bank and take out a loan? Did you do crowdfunding or anything like that? How did you put out these last two records you’ve done?
Dan – We paid for it out of pocket. We have a record label called Vargantuan Music and we financed it all ourselves. We did all the promotion, we hired a publicist, we got it released in the UK and Europe. Our plan is to get over and play some European festivals. I know we would do very well there. Just re-establishing the brand and letting people know that we’re back. We ain’t going anywhere, man.
TMS – So, you guys attained a pretty good level of success up in Canada, but never really broke herein the U.S. How would say the atmosphere for metal music is different in Canada than in the U.S.?
Dan – Well, we have 1/10th of the population of the U.S. The scene is a lot more… everyone kinda knows what’s going on. In the US I find that there are certain places like in Texas…. I remember us playing down in Texas and we sold out Dallas. When we played in Dallas, Dimebag Darrell was at our show. We did a tour with a band called Crowbar….
TMS – Oh yeah! I know them well.
Dan – We toured with Crowbar in ’95. On that tour we’re playing in Phoenix, AZ and Rob Halford is on the side stage watching our set. That was one of those “Holy shit!” moments. “That’s HALFORD watching us play!” It was crazy. I mean, we were on Beavis and Butthead, so we did get some exposure in the U.S. but not enough…. We were signed with a Canadian label and the U.S. people were just distributing it. It’s this huge monetary complex and they just decided that, fuck it, we’re not pushing this. It’s so political. But, you know, I think the record industry has taken a turn for the better. You hear everyone saying, “Well, you know, people aren’t buying CD’s anymore”. Well, people are still buying CD’s but people aren’t just buying crap anymore. In the 90’s a band could put out a disc with one good song on it and 10 shitty songs and people were forced to buy it. They weren’t able to sample anything. With the internet, it was the best thing and the worst thing that could have ever happened to music. Now, anyone can put out music, and that’s a curse and a blessing. You have a toxic sludge of crappy music out there with everyone trying to get heard and you have real bands out there struggling to get through to the same people.
TMS – It’s next to impossible these days to actually make money on your recordings. It’s more with touring and merchandising and stuff like that. With the internet these days, you’re record has become sort of like your business card.
Dan – You’re absolutely right, man. At the end of the day, you have to use those promotional tools to get people out to your live shows. Megadeth just played this place down the road from us called Casinorama. It’s a casino. It was wild; there’s like 5,000 people in casino to see Megadeth. If you had told me 20 years ago that Megadeth would be playing in a casino I would have told you to fuck off. (laughs) It’s a completely different market shift now. People are a lot more involved with where bands play and what they do. We want to get back into the U.S. market. We did a couple of tours there in the 90’s, but we wanna go and get back because I think we have a lot to offer the people out there who love metal.
TMS – Delving into the actually music here, what would you say are your main musical influences? What drives you to play the type of music you do?
Dan – To go back to the beginning, the first band to get us into metal was KISS. Joe and I, we went to school together, we met in grade 2, so we’ve been friends for that long. He introduced me to KISS and then he moved to a different city and then in grade 7 we met up again. We both moved to the exact same part of the city, it was really crazy. We started hanging out again and we started listing to like…. Rush 2112 was like a BIG album for us. And the all of sudden there was this album called Kill ‘Em All and it was like, “Check this out!”. Metallica, Slayer, Anthrax, that type of stuff. We were really into the Big 4 when that was going on. Mercyful Fate, King Diamond…. Pantera, obviously, was just an incredible band. But, that’s where our roots come from. As far as newer bands…. I like Battlecross. I don’t know where they’re from but I saw one of their live clips and it’s clear that there’s something going on there. They seem to have that integrity to them.
TMS – I hear a very eclectic mix of styles in your music, a little prog, a little death, a little thrash, a little classic metal. Especially with Joe’s vocals when hits those really high, Halford-esque notes and stuff. How would you really describe what you guys do?
Dan – Progressive, pounding sonic metal explosions. (laughs) It’s metal, you know? At the end of the day, when I play drums I’m thinking about… you know, Dave Lombardo or early Lars Ulrich stuff. In a section of one of our songs called “Three Section Staff” I liberally borrow from Charlie Benante on a few fills, from “Spreading the Disease” and a song called “A.I.R”. It’s just metal. We all love so many different styles of music. The progressive thing…. Just listening to side one of Rush’s 2112.
TMS – Great record…
Dan – Oh yeah! It’s amazing. You know, funny story… Joe and I got to meet Geddy Lee at this video awards thing. We got to go down and see him and it was kinda a big deal for us. Geddy Lee was, and still is, like a rock icon. We were introduced to him and the first thing I asked him was, “How did you guys get away with making 2112?” And it was like, all of a sudden he just sat up in his chair and there was this look on his face like, “this guy’s not just coming in here to kiss my ass!” (laughs) It was a legitimate question! It was really cool to see that little twinkle in his eye.
TMS – So, what did he say? What was his answer?
Dan – His answer was, we tricked the record label! (laughs) What they did was they gave the label songs off of side 2, like “Passage to Bangkok” and a song called “Tears”, which were sort of more commercial songs. The record label and the distributor, the people putting in the money, didn’t want a progressive album because they didn’t think it would work. Clearly, they were wrong. 2112 is one of the most important records in the evolution of metal. Neal Peart is just a monster drummer. My wife and I went to see them last year and when he’s back there pounding the drums, he still looks like he’s twenty years old just having fun playing music.
TMS – I know you’re not the vocalist, and I don’t know how involved you are with that aspect, but what are some of the lyrical themes that you guys explore?
Dan – The lyrics are quirky. That’s the best way to describe them. When you get a chance you should talk to Joe. He’s a really unique and talented guy, man. That guy is like turning on a fountain of creativity. “Three Section Staff” is about a kung fu movie, “Gamera”, from the first CD, is about a Japanese sci-fi movie. So, we’ll write on topics like that, and then there’s a few songs where we do like some social commentary, but for the most part it’s sort meant to be like an accompaniment to a movie soundtrack. A lot of bands really take their lyrics super seriously and they want to change the world. We don’t really want to change the world, we just wanna make it bang it’s head a little more, that’s all.
TMS – Since you guys have reformed you have put out two albums; “Enter the Metal” in 2013 and “Return of the Metal” this year. What is your favorite song off of each one and why is that one your favorite?
Dan – That’s a tough question.
TMS – I know, it’s like trying to pick between your kids! (laughs)
Dan – Yeah! (laughs) Off of “Enter the Metal” I’m gonna have to say that “Gamera” is my favorite one. That one, when we were working out the sections, it reminded me of being like 17 years old and being super drunk and high and jamming with my friends. (laughs) It brought me back to that. I remember going through certain sections and Dan would look over and be like, “Dude, try this!” Just giggling like little kids in a rehearsal hall, it was so fucking cool. And, I think, off of “Return of the Metal”…. Oh, man, there’s a couple. It’s a toss up to me. I really like “Disfigured Gargoyle”. That song is funny because it’s been getting the least amount of attention off of “Return of the Metal”. “Disfigured Gargoyle” is… Joe and I came up with the lyrical concept and it’s a really tongue in cheek song and there’s some really clever progressive elements to it and I love playing that one live. “Three Section Staff” has been getting great reviews and we did the video for that. On the video we did for that, we built it all ourselves in Sean’s basement. Basically what we did was we brought down every amp and speaker cabinet that we owned and made a big circle in the basement and covered the ceiling with black paper. It was like, what is the most ridiculous video we can make? (laughs) Then we just played track. That was it. With a major label you spend 2 days doing the video and they spend $150,000 on it and it’s just no fun.
TMS – So, do you feel like you’re having more fun now than you did back then without all that pressure?
Dan– Absolutely! A billion times more. It feels like how music is supposed to feel. Organic and, I hate to use the word spiritual, but there’s something going on when you plug into an amp and you get into a room together and you feel that chemistry and that vibration going on. During the end of that Sony era, I felt that a lot of that got sucked out of us because we were relying on the music to make our living. Fortunately, we don’t have to do that anymore. When you don’t have that pressure that’s when the creativity can come out again. Just getting in a room with Joe, Adam, and Sean again and getting that fun, we’re drinking and playing metal vibe going again. That’s what it’s all about. That’s why I wanted to play drums in the first place. I never wanted to be a studio drummer. I’ve had offers since the 90’s to go and play drums on this album or that album and I’m like, fuck no, man! I hated the studio under a major label. I would have to go into therapy after every session! (laughs) I hated it. It’s no fun. Making these records… The guy that produced them, his name is Julius Butty. He’s a close lifelong friend of ours. He’s produced Protest the Hero and Alexisonfire and the guy is our best friend. Hanging out in a studio and making a record with him is the way it’s supposed to be done. It’s just a bunch of friends in a really, really expensive recording studio. (laughs)
TMS – You guys have some serious technical chops going on in a lot of parts of your music. What is the thought process behind that? What inspires you guys to just go ahead and lay it all out there on the line like that?
Dan – Well, we’re just competitive people. It’s like a chain; it’s only as good as it’s weakest link. Joe actually got a drumset before I did and he showed me my first drumbeat and he’s always been like, “Hey – listen to Dave Lombardo. Hit the drums harder. Don’t be a pussy!” (laughs) So there’s always been that aspect of us pushing each other. And it’s turned into this fun game. It’s a friendly competition with each other.
TMS – Kinda a “Betcha can’t play this!” kinda thing…
Dan – Exactly! “You can’t play this!” “Oh yeah? Watch me!” (laughs)
TMS – So, what’s next for Varga? What are your future plans?
Dan – We have a bunch of new songs we’re working on, but we really want to do these festivals next summer in the United States, the U.K., and Germany. That’s our long term plan, but between now and then we’ll be doing all sorts of things in and around where we live and the Northeastern U.S. We’re gonna get back to Jersey and Boston and New York City. We’ve been getting a lot of radio airplay on Total Metal Radio down there. There are some great people in the business down there that love our band and wanna see us back at it. During that time we’ll be releasing various songs that we’re gonna record and we have a couple of surprises up our sleeve. I’m dying to tell you what it is, but I can’t right now.
TMS – Ok. I’ll let you slide for now. (laughs)
Dan – You’ll be the first to know, I promise. (laughs)
TMS – Have you guys already been talking to promoters in Europe?
Dan – Yep, we’re well into the process. These last two records got released too late in the touring season for us to get over there without us having to shell out like $20,000 just to get over there. People just go, “Oh, just go and book a tour in Europe!” Well, it takes a year to really do it properly. A lot of these bands have their schedule like a year and a half in advance. You know, they have to pretty much know when to take a leak! (laughs) At this point in our lives I’m not just gonna hop in the back of a van and travel around for nothing.
TMS – Playing for $10 at some little dive bar somewhere….
Dan – You know, we lived in the back of a bread truck for a year. So, people can’t really say that we didn’t do it. Our plans are a lot more strategic now. Back in the day we would have to go and tour for a year and now we can go and do six weeks of touring and reach the same amount of people. It’s all about trying to get on the right bills with the right people. I’ve seen a bit of a change in the industry where the bands aren’t really supporting each other and helping each other out. Look at like the Seattle scene. Once Pearl Jam started taking off they brought in Soundgarden and then all of these other bands who were all helping each other out and the next thing you know… Wow! You got a fucking music scene! That’s what bands these days really need to do.
TMS – Why do you think that is not happening anymore? If you look back, especially in the early days of metal, it really was a lot like a brotherhood…
Dan – Yeah – look at the Big 4. Why did all of those bands get huge at the same time? Because they’re all putting our great, competitive records and yet they would share the bill. These days you have a lot of bands that just refuse to really help anyone out; “This is OUR show!”. People are afraid to help each other because they think that these other bands are gonna steal their audience. At the end of the day, there’s room for everyone, man. Let’s work together, you know? If you have four bands, each helping the others to reach their audience, then you’re gonna reach 4 times as many people! The internet has helped to do that, and, I mean, the fans seem to get it and hopefully the bands will catch on as well. “Wait a minute, if we stop talking shit and work together, this whole thing will get way better!”
TMS – That’s about all I got, Dan. Any last words?
Dan – We’re back. We’re heavier than ever and we’re here to stay. As long as we’re breathing and we’re able to walk we’re gonna be fucking banging our heads and hopefully getting people into the band. Go on our website at www.VargaHQ.com and check out what we got there.
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