“WJCU, Metal on Metal.”The DJ looked at us and shrugged as if this is fairly common. Angus Khan and I smirked underneath our microphones, thinking there’s no way he’s going to nail this one. The music began as an ancient, worn, cassette played through the phone.
“Hey man! I love the show. I got a question for you. I found this old cassette in my buddy’s basement. He thinks it could be a New Wave of British Heavy Metal band from about 1980. Can I play it for you?”
He nodded and smiled.
“Praying Mantis, from the ‘High Roller' 7 inch.”And that is Bill Peters, founder of Auburn Records, Metal on Metal DJ at WJCU for the past three decades, and the definitive heavy metal guru in Cleveland, Ohio. I recently sat down with him at Pantera (or maybe it was Panera) Bread where we used our Mouth for War to discuss metal, mayhem, and madams.
Your daughter comes home and says she just got engaged to a heavy metal musician. Who do you hope has proposed to her?
You’re killing me. [lots of laughing] I hope it’s nobody! Maybe just a dream or a nightmare. The guys from Stryper? Wait they’re not real Christians are they? I can’t even answer that question. I know musicians pretty well so I can’t answer that. My daughter likes musicians and hockey players. Pray for me! [more laughing]
It went full circle. I started with my friend Tim Stewart in 1983 as Clubside Records with the release of the "Cleveland Metal" compilation album. Auburn officially started in 1984. I had no money. I went around to ten banks trying to get a loan and nobody would give me the money. The banks would not take me seriously. My mom saved the day by co-signing for me on a $10,000 loan. With that money I put out the Shok Paris and Black Death albums. I also started a Breaker record at that time but we didn’t get to put it out because of some issues with the band line up. It was a real grassroots thing when I started. I had a full time job at the Warner/Elektra/Atlantic and grew the label in my spare time through word of mouth, handwritten letters, printed fanzines, and radio stations. I would reply to anyone that contacted me no matter how big or small the magazine or journalist. In the late 80s I ran the label as a full time job and started making deals with major labels. I had deals with Island, I.R.S., MCA, Sony Europe, Roadrunner, and SPV/Steamhammer which changed how I operated. I hired Shelly Hammer (aka Steel, the Z-Rock DJ) and moved her from Dallas to Cleveland to help out, I rented an office, and it began a full time venture. You have to remember that I’m a fan. So anytime I had to make any decisions, it came from a fan’s perspective. But when you bring in the major labels and outside entities that make decisions without knowing the music, that’s when I ran into problems because their best interests were not always my best interests for the bands and fans. I was not going to sit idly by. In the 90s I put the label on a bit of a hiatus after the major label deals fell through. I ended those deals because for me it was never about the money, it was always about the music first and foremost. It was frustrating and very disappointing dealing with the corporate music world. When I restarted the label in the late 90s it was the same as it had been before when I first started. It was a grassroots movement, part time, having the most fun doing it myself again.
What has remained the same with Auburn Records?
What I’m very proud of is that I’m working with the same people now that I did when I started back in 1983 and that is unheard of in this business because “falling outs” are inevitable. It’s just the nature of the business. But I’ve always run the label more like a family than a business, right or wrong. It's always been from the heart, not the wallet. That’s hurt me in many ways but I wouldn’t change that. I couldn't even if I wanted to. It's the way I have always been. I care about the musicians and crew, they’re like my family. We take care of each other. The crew, the bands, they’ve all been there with me for close to 30 years. That's unprecedented in this business.
Jared’s passing was rough too. We rallied to help the family. These things have happened with people that need help and I put everything else on hold during these rough times. For months, the cancer was slowly killing Jared and we did a lot of fundraisers as the family didn’t have medical insurance. That was more important to me than anything else going on at the time.
Your cameo in the Alternate Reality video has helped push the song’s YouTube views to almost 900,000. What’s next? Have you called your agent?
I don’t know how I get talked into these things. It’s hard for me to say ‘no’. [laughing and head-shaking] The Delchin brothers begged me for months to do the shoot. They kept wanting me to be in the video that they were shooting at Squire’s Castle but they didn’t tell me what I was going to be doing in it. They kept after me, telling me that they listened to my show as kids and that I’m the reason they’re into heavy metal and that it would be such an honor if I would be in their video. Finally, I felt so guilty and I said okay. I had no idea what my role was. So I drive out there on a Saturday morning and they hand me this wizard outfit and tell me I have to fight this guy while the band plays in the background, and I’m going to shoot blue plasma balls out of my hands. I’m like, “What! You gotta be kidding me. Are you crazy?” So I did it. After everything I’ve done in my life, I’m only going to be remembered as the wizard with the blue balls. [laughing again]
What has been the craziest thing you've seen on one of your trips to Germany?
We have a saying. “What happens in Germany stays in Germany.” Our trips to Hamburg’s red light district, the Reeperbahn, are always interesting. I could probably write a book about the trips to the Reeperbahn, but I can’t name names. I’ve never participated in the festivities of the red light district. I’m like the chaperone or the babysitter. I have to be there to bail some of the guys out of jail with the Auburn Records international credit card. Whether or not you agree with prostitution, sex is no big deal in Europe. So when we go on these trips, there are always guys that announce months in advance that they plan on purchasing the “services” of the ladies in the red light district. They have no shame, they don’t care what people think, and they have nothing to hide. But on every single trip, there is always one guy that you would never expect to go into a brothel and partake and yet it happens on every trip. I’ve been quite shocked at the people that have gone inside. I don’t judge and I respect their privacy but it always happens with the guys you never expect. And not everyone in the touring group knows about it, but I do because I know everything that happens on these trips. One time the police raided a brothel because one of the members of our touring group thought someone stole a watch that his father gave him before passing. They searched the entire brothel, and it turns out the watch was stuck in this guy’s jacket. He runs out of the place and everyone is chasing him—the madam, the girls, the police and they’re all yelling at him in German as he’s running down the street. If you go to Hamburg today, in the Reeperbahn, and ask about the American that lost his watch, there are people there that still remember that story.
The music will always live on. The problem is on the business side. I think it’s difficult for bands and labels, and everyone involved, to make money. There has to be some kind of business model. I don’t do this for the money but I’ve got to have money to keep the thing going. Any money I make from the label I turn around and reinvest it into other projects. During my time at Warner Records, I was able to supplement the label from my income. I can’t do that anymore. I have to be very conservative with the label’s spending. Heavy metal still has a core base that supports the music but I think everything has to be reinvented. Right now, nobody in the music industry knows where to go. Touring is great if you’re Iron Maiden. You can tour five times without releasing an album and sell merch but small bands can’t do that. The big bands are taking the concert dollars and dates away from the smaller bands. As great as the internet age has been for recording and distributing music, it’s tougher for the smaller bands, in my opinion. When I started the label people were buying music. It was harder to put out a record but when you did, people bought it. Even putting out a killer record nowadays doesn’t translate into sales. If you saw some of the sales statistics from the bigger labels, you’d be surprised at how little is selling. It’s a difficult time right now.
The young people are growing up with digital music. Guys like me came up with physical product. We’re from a different era. But I accept the digital era, I understand the appeal of it. My kids like digital music but my kids purchase it, they don’t steal it. But a lot of their friends do and they don’t think it’s stealing. I don’t blame them; it’s just the way it is. I’ve been to Europe over twenty times and I can tell you that music means something to them. It’s special in their life, it’s a priority. For the majority of people in the States, it’s more of a background thing. Many of my German friends have learned English from songs. Music is a passion for Europeans, they love to collect and support the bands. We have so many entertainment diversions here that it isn’t as special to everyone as it is in Europe.
I really enjoyed my interview with Michael Schenker. He put out an ad for an acoustic record called, “Thank You”. The ad said if you send him $20, he’ll put your name on the cover. Michael Schenker is one of my all-time favorite guitar players so I thought, “What the heck, it’s only twenty bucks.” I send my money to him and I don’t hear anything for like three years, I figure the money is gone. Then this CD shows up at my house with nothing. No letter, no explanation, nothing. But there’s my name on the cover with all of these other people. So I send a message to his management and ask them if he’d like to do an interview. Michael calls into the show from Arizona. We’re talking about the CD and his music, and then all of a sudden, about five minutes into the interview, the topic switches to this hippy-type commune he’s built. He’s trying to recruit girls to come out to Arizona and live with him. We’re on the air and he’s soliciting my female listeners, trying to get them to come out and live with him and I keep trying to bring the subject back to the music. The interview ends and I think it’s a bit strange. The next week, Michael calls into the radio show again. We go on the air again and again he starts trying to get females to come out and live on his commune. The week after that, he calls again. We go on yet again and this is really getting bizarre as he doesn’t want to talk music. All he wants to talk about is the women he has at the commune, this free love, kind of thing. [laughing] So the next week I took the phone off the hook. It was cool the first couple of times the legendary Michael Schenker called but the novelty was starting to wear off. It began to freak me out honestly. Nobody could call in for the next couple of weeks because I had the phone off the hook. Those were some fun and bizarre interviews - let me tell you!
I had the Mentors on the show once. I can’t even tell you what they were doing in the station lobby. The concert promoter brought them down and I was really against it because I knew of their non-FCC friendly reputation. I knew it was going to be dangerous. The promoter assured me that they knew how to behave. So they come to the station and they’re doing all this stuff in the lobby and the president of the university is right outside the window and I’m thinking, this is my last show. They had a brand new song on a cassette from the “Up the Dose” album and I hadn’t been able to listen to it or anything. They assured me it was fine to play on the air, a single called “S.F.C.C.”. I put this unmarked cassette in, going on their word. A few seconds into the song the chorus comes up, “Suck and fuck and cook and clean”. I’ve got El Duce in the lobby doing a line of coke, I’m playing this vulgar song, the president of the university is right outside the window looking in wondering what is going on and I kept saying to myself, “This is my last show here. I’m done.” I was very upset with those guys. The funny thing about the story is that shortly after the interview satellite heavy metal radio station Z-Rock flew me down to Dallas to do a guest DJ spot. After the radio show, the Z-Rock crew takes me out to dinner and a concert. This is a week after the incident with the Mentors in Cleveland. We walk into this club in Dallas, and I can’t believe it. The band playing on stage was the Mentors! What are the odds? I’m like, “Not you guys again!” That was the last band I wanted to see at the time. I was still upset from what happened in Cleveland. The Z-Rock people couldn’t figure out why I was so agitated with the Mentors until I told them the story. To their credit, El Duce and Dr. Heathen Scum did come over and apologize to me for what happened. They actually felt bad about it. Everything ended on a good note.
Is there anything else you would like to mention to fans of Metal on Metal or Auburn Records?
A lot of people keep asking for me to reissue the older Auburn albums and as a fan myself I completely understand why they want me to do this. I will get to those reissues at some point but I do not want to be Rhino Records and just live in the past. That's not what Auburn Records was about when I first started the label. The Shok Paris albums, the Black Death album, those are all great records but I did those already, back in the 80s. All of the core Auburn bands, like Breaker, Destructor and Purgatory, were unknown bands at the time when I first started working with them. I helped develop and build their followings. I enjoyed doing that. I’ll eventually reissue records on CD with bonus tracks and so forth, but with the limited time and budget I have I can only work on so many projects. I get more personal enjoyment out of working with newer bands, like Venomin James or Eternal Legacy. For me, getting bands like those to the level of success they had at playing the biggest heavy metal festival in the world in Germany, Wacken Open Air, that’s what I enjoy personally. My goal is to always move my bands to the next level, never to hold them back. I also love being involved with my established bands in creating new music. SHOK PARIS, DESTRUCTOR and BREAKER are all working on new material that sounds, in my opinion, just as good as their older material. The point of both the record label and the radio show is to turn people on to new music because we’ve got to keep this genre alive for the next generation of heavy metal fans. When I was a young kid growing up on the west side of Cleveland, my music library started by collecting 45 singles. I would always play the B-sides for my friends to turn them on to the more obscure and unknown songs. It's always been my passion to discover new music and new bands. We can’t just live in the past. I have always loved promoting new bands with both the label and the radio show. This interview was only the tip of the iceberg of my life's adventures. I'll save the rest of the stories for my book and movie deal. I hope they find a good actor to play my part! (laughs) By the way, am I like the only guy in the world who likes Panera Bread? My male co-workers won't come out to lunch with me here. They think it's a place only women go to eat. I love the roast beef sandwich, broccoli cheese soup and French baguette combo. What can I say? That's not very metal though is it? (laughs) Thanks for chatting with me James. I really enjoyed it. Up The French Baguettes!
How can folks get in touch with you?
WJCU 88.7, Home of “Metal on Metal”