Brian “Butch” Balich has been singing for underground metal bands for what is getting perilously close to 25 years. His first group to graduate from the demo circuit was Penance, who put out three albums, followed by his current main band, Argus.
Of course, while he’s been doing this current, main band, he also recorded with Molasses Barge and Arduini-Balich, a collaboration between the singer and former Fates Warning guitarist Victor Arduini. So call him what you want, but don’t call him lazy or unproductive. It ain’t happening.
The Z Review caught up with him to ask him five questions, for a feature we like to call “Five Questions.” He also gave us a playlist that he made, called “71-83-18,” to commemorate his distant past, past and present as a metal musician. It appears at the bottom of this interview and you should listen to it, it’s darn good.
TZR: When did you first start playing music and who were your earliest influences?
BB: I have loved music and wanted to be in a band as far back as age 13, but I quickly figured out I was too lazy to learn bass or guitar and would have to be a singer if that was going to happen. Had loved singing since I was an elementary school kid. The downside was although I had a really good voice for chorus in school I really didn’t have a natural rock voice yet. Honestly I don’t feel like I even found that voice until I joined Penance many moons later, but I digress. I was also, alas, what you’d call “image deficient.” Chubby kid with thick glasses, and though I grew my hair I wasn’t that cute lead singer that bands wanted back in the image-conscious 80s. Took me until age 17 to get into my first band, Druid — not the old prog band nor the 80s cult metal band. So my ground zero as a performer was 1988. We played an odd mix of covers, KISS alongside Robin Trower, and some really rudimentary originals that had great titles like “Let’s Go,” “Playing With Fire” — original title stolen from the film Trick or Treat was “Fuck With Fire” — and “Quit Playing Games.” It was a fun band but at age 17, 18 you think your band rules and I was no exception. We were fun for what we were but yeah, not about to challenge for opening slots when Saxon came to town. I’d actually love to do something with Neal and Josh from Druid again, but we’re so spread out. Even just playing a jam night with those guys would make my day. Would love to get Terry, our best drummer, involved too. But that’s the impact the band had on me. We were good friends and had a lot of fun and it’s stayed with me, and I remember those days as maybe the most fun I’ve ever had in a band, even though every band since has been better.
My earliest influences were KISS, the Beatles and Cheap Trick but especially KISS. KISS was the basis of every teenage dream of stardom that I ever had. Yeah as a young kid, age five, it was the image that fascinated me, but it was their music that actually drew me into the KISS Army. It started with Destroyer but it was Creatures of the Night that cemented it for me. That album was one of the cornerstones for me getting into metal, along with Metal Health and Shout at the Devil. From there I was off to the races. I tell people though that the song that really made an impact on me in terms of “hard” music was Queen’s “We Will Rock You.” I can clearly remember hearing it playing on the radio in my mom’s Buick station wagon and thinking it had a power to it that her favorites, Anne Murray and the Statler Brothers, did not. Of course, “We Will Rock You” isn’t all that heavy, but at the time it was so driving. So that was big. Until I hit my early stride as a metalhead I had a hodgepodge of bands and songs that I loved. “Fly Like An Eagle” by the Steve Miller Band, Devo, Blondie — how fucking great is the “Eat to the Beat” album? Answer: really fucking great. “Turning Japanese” by the Vapors, “Do You Wanna Touch” by Joan Jett, anything by the great Cheap Trick. My dad’s Beatles albums that I took when he passed away, Sgt. Pepper and Meet the Beatles getting constant play on my stereo. Later in high school Sly and the Family Stone, James Brown and Parliament joined the party.
In terms of solidly influencing me into what I am and how I do things now? The usual, and rightly so, suspects. Ronnie James Dio, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Metallica, Black Sabbath, KISS, Angel — okay, not a usual suspect but goddamn I love them. Dokken. What? Yes, Dokken. Huge influence on me. You’ll never hear it in what I do, per se, but the melody of Don’s voice against music has always spoken to me. Vocally I’ve been inspired by and continue to be inspired by Dio, Phil Lynott, Halford, Glenn Hughes, Steve Marriott, Robin Zander, Paul Rodgers, Brad Delp, Bruce Dickinson, Marvin Gaye, Doug Gray of the Marshall Tucker Band, Peter Steele, Frank DiMino of Angel. Again, I sound very little like any of them, and am barely even worthy to hold their jock straps, but those are singers who had a profound impact on me.
TZR: Do you feel like there was a “glory years” period for metal or have there been good things to every era, even with all the ups and downs?
BB: Everyone has a different “glory years.” Those are the years when we first get introduced to metal and every band, every album, every concert is like discovering sex. You want more and more of it and it doesn’t even matter if it’s great. That being said, yeah, those initial five to seven years especially were huge for me, and just happened to coincide with the arc of hard rock and metal being the mack daddy of the music world in the 80s. And a lot of that music has stayed with me and I have a lot of love for the way metal sounded at that time from the more melodic bands like Dokken, Zebra and Ratt to the heavier ones, like Motorhead, Metallica, Slayer. But every decade seems to have its good and its bad. The 70s were rife with great hard rock bands. Thin Lizzy, KISS, Deep Purple, Angel, Starz, Legs Diamond, UFO, Judas Priest, Rainbow, Sabbath… Then the 80s had a ton of bands beyond the popular ones. Savatage, Fates Warning, Trouble, Omen, WASP, Accept. There’s always something to discover — Diamond Head via Metallica was a big find for me. Those were the days of college radio playing metal bands I’d never heard of and I’d record off the radio on my boombox, and of blind buying albums because “This is a cool cover! Who’s the band? Candlemass? They look heavy! I’m buying it !” And everything sounds new because it is new to you at that time. You aren’t so jaded at that age.
For me the biggest lull in metal was definitely the 90s. Sure I had Type O Negative, Monster Magnet, Corrosion of Conformity and Paradise Lost but there really wasn’t near as much coming out that impressed me. Once grunge became the bludgeon that knocked in the head of metal — which not for nothing was weakened by the fat, lazy, predictable music industry — fewer bands that played the styles I enjoyed were putting great records out.
You have to just take it as it comes. There will always be great bands, there will always be shit bands and there will always be shit bands that are perceived as great bands. Hell, I’m still discovering bands from the 70s and 80s every week that I missed. So I’ve no right to complain. There’s enough great metal from the late 60s to today that has been made and it will never die.
TZR: What are you working on now?
BB: To be very frank and honest, I’m working on deciding how long I want to keep doing this. It’s hard to imagine not being part of the creative process and performing, but I’ve kind of reached a point where it’s definitely less fun than work, and I always said the day it wasn’t more fun than work I’d step away for a while. I could spend paragraphs upon paragraphs enumerating the reasons I feel the way I do right now but one thing I can’t stand reading are musicians that whine like babies about how hard the business is. I’ve been fortunate to be a part of some great bands, in Argus and Penance, and the Arduini-Balich album was certainly a career highlight for me. I’ve been to places I never thought I’d get to and I’ve had music I was a part of be important to some folks. I hope to do more of that but I can’t say when or with whom that will be. I’m hoping there will be more music and shows from Argus. We have plans on the table but we’re not in our 20s and it is increasingly harder to maintain forward momentum in the band with us being spread out geographically and everyone having different life responsibilities. Sometimes the real world is more important than the fantasy world we live in in a band and only a fool places more importance on a “career” in music than their family. This all takes sacrifice and I’m okay making sacrifices when I can see that there’s a purpose to it.
All that being said, I’m hoping we get rolling on songwriting in the Argus camp. We’re looking at doing things a bit differently with our next project, maybe a series of 7” releases that are more spontaneous in the writing and more blasts of energy than how we usually do things in a more thought-out, focused way. We’d still like do another full-length but I think this is an important thing for us to try just to break things up and get the blood flowing again. I’m heading into the studio this week to record vocals for a new Arduini-Balich EP. These are a couple songs that were written during the writing for the Dawn of Ages album but were put aside and never finished. Molasses Barge is still ongoing. I’ve been talking to a couple of the guys from my pre-Penance band, Child of Fire, about doing some stuff for fun, and of course there’s been talk of some new Penance, but again there’s desire and there’s the reality of schedules. So, we’ll see.
TZR: Do you like the “doom” tag or do you feel like it limits you in some way?
BB: We’re a straight up traditional metal band first and foremost and though we have doom songs and doom sections in some songs we simply are not and have never been a pure doom band. That’s nothing against doom. I love doom, we all do. But it’s tough being perceived as strictly a doom band and then having folks expect us to sound a certain way, or thinking we don’t fit among other kinds of bands. We just write what we hope are good albums and songs and hope folks will like them. If folks want to tag us as doom, fair enough, but we don’t just do that. I can be a “carry a chip on my shoulder” type so it kind of pisses me off when someone tells me we don’t fit into something that I know goddamn well we do, but I try not to fuss over it too much. The point is, we can’t really be pinned down to one thing and our sound has an appeal that goes beyond a neat subgenre box. Folks who dig Argus are folks who dig everything, from doom to black metal to death metal to traditional metal to classic rock.
TZR: Are there any musical genres you haven’t worked in yet that you’d like to try?
BB: Definitely, but I’m self-reflective enough to know I just wouldn’t be very good at some of them. That doesn’t mean I won’t try, but I’m not sure my skill set fits some of them very well. I’d love to do a Southern Rock project, like Marshall Tucker, Skynyrd, Molly Hatchet, Blackfoot-style for example. I’d love to do something straight up rawk like the Hellacopters, Cheap Trick, old KISS, The Biters – more hooks than a fishery. I’d actually love to do some more quiet and mellow stuff. Would love to thrash out sometime. I’d love to have the voice to do something more AOR, like the Night Flight Orchestra is doing, but Speed Strid I ain’t. The biggest issue, obstacle for me is my inability to play an instrument, so me getting to try any of this means I have to depend on others and so who knows if any of them will ever happen. I am hoping I have many years of voice ahead of me. We’ll see. Overall I just want to create. I want to feel like when I die, I can look back and know I’ve left nothing on the table. That I’ve left behind a part of myself that makes people feel or think or just plain old smile and rock out.