In case you don’t know who Ula is, let me give you the quick and skinny. Besides being an awesome human being, Ula has cut his teeth on some serious metal for years. Regarded as one the few honest and dedicated devotees of metal working in the business, he joined the ranks of Century Media Records back in the summer of ’94, this after extensive metal fandom that’ll make you’re head spin – read on for proof. He’s spent some serious time at the CM U.S. office before heading over seas to spearhead metal on European shores out of the CM German office.
One tiny, highly specialized niche Ula bore witness to – and helped mold – was Century Black, which was Century Media’s grab for black metal glory around the mid-late 90s. Although short lived, I’ve always viewed it as an unsung player in the proliferation of black metal, for better or worse, around the globe. (Sorry for the length, besides being a metal dork, I'm also a metal fan. Thanks for indulging me...)
So how did Century Black come about?
Ula: The credit for that comes down to Rayshele Teige, who was doing promotion for Century Media at the time and who was the person responsible for pushing Robert Kampf (one of the owners of CM) to do a black metal imprint, and she first started by pushing him to release the Mayhem album "De Mysteriis...". A good choice, to be sure, and it took a while to get out in the States because of delays getting things going, getting permission from Voices Of Wonder and working out the licensing details, etc., but she really pushed to make that happen and it worked. Not long after that she got Robert to release the Arcturus debut full-length "Aspera Hiems Simfonia", and so they worked out that licensing deal too.
(No joke, Century Media Record's entry on Wikipedia calls their Century Black imprint the 'Miramax Films of black metal...' I wish I could take credit for that analogy.)
Rayshele was really the driving force behind the black metal titles, and I think she coined the label imprint name as well. Once the floodgates started opening, so to speak, with so many titles being made available for licensing in the States, since so many albums were released in Europe only back then, it just took a life of its own.
Can you explain the state of Century Media at the time? From what I hear, around 96/97 – the main time of ‘Century Black’ - it was pretty bare as bones.
Ula: It was definitely bare bones. I started with CM in the summer of '94 and it was about seven other people working there in the US. The office was on Lincoln Blvd. in Santa Monica, in a pretty drab office space. There was one of the owners working there, the accountant, a radio guy, Rayshele working promotion along with another girl, and a guy doing retail. At the time I started, I came in to do promotion as well, and at the same time a guy came in to do A&R for the States, and they also hired a warehouse guy. The second promo girl left, and they replaced the retail guy, and then hired a label manager. But generally you were looking at around 7 or 8 people back then, and so everyone was multitasking like mad.
The German office was the founding office back in ’88 and so that was running quite smoothly; the US office opened in late 1990 and it took quite a few years, and quite a few combinations of people, until things balanced out by the latter part of the ‘90s. If you compare that with how it was about 6 years later, when there were 30 people on staff in Germany and over 40 in the States, it was completely different. So yeah, if you contrast that when I began, when there was no mailorder or distro, no real warehouse (just an office room), and no website or e-mail address, it was pretty sparse in those days.
So when you joined CM and there was no website or email address for the label; I bet it leant a more "underground" feel and mystique to the music without the internet, versus today where Hot Topic goth-core kids wear 'The Joker' make up and are considered black metal.
Ula: Oh fuck yeah. It was such a weird time looking back to how it was then, especially since it wasn't that long ago, which goes to show you how fast technology has developed. You'd have bands that would sell 10,000 copies solely by word-of-mouth, and when I say "word-of-mouth", I mean literally, one person talking to another, face-to-face or on the phone with someone. Chain stores didn't carry metal back then, period.
You were happy if you could get into the bigger indies like Newbury Comics, and you just tried to sell to mom-and-pops, and there weren't as many distros or mailorders then either, but you tried to cover those all too. So when Century Black had new titles out, you just tried to make sure that Necropolis, Full Moon and Red Stream took copies, as even Relapse wasn't carrying black metal back then. Mailorder also wasn't nearly as prevalent, since it was really, really hard to get the word out. You didn't have a webshop, everyone had 56K dial-up modems at best, and so you tried to get word out there through the fanzines, distro booths and keeping a mailing list and mailorder catalog that you'd send direct to everyone a few times a year. When you saw someone with a cool shirt, or holding a cool album in a shop, you'd talk to them -- I made a lot of my best friends through common interests in music.
But now, as you said, you can probably get a Multiilation longsleeve or an Abruptum hoodie at Hot Topic or whatever. Okay, maybe not quite, but you know what I mean! Just finding records back then was such an event, but I loved it. It would sometimes take me two years, no joke, to find a rare album that had horrible distribution, but man, what a feeling when you had it in your hands. The death of independent and especially used record stores has really sucked, that used to be my primary reason for traveling. I remember going to Gothenberg in '93, opening up a phonebook at the train station, and asking people walking by what the word for "records" was in Swedish so I could look up all the stores, mark them on a map, and go hunting all day long. And later that day, I had Eucharist "A Velvet Creation" and At The Gates "Gardens Of Grief" in my hands... and when I bought the At The Gates, it was Tompa who sold it to me, working behind the counter at Dolores Records... holy shit!
(Life existed before 'Slaughter of the Soul')
I used to do that to every city I went to... and I know I had a lot of friends doing the same. There's probably not a single record I couldn't find now in 5 minutes on the web if I feel like paying enough money, short of some overpriced rare vinyl, but even that comes up with regularity. I miss "the chase" aspect of it, really... instant gratification is nice sometimes, but it makes you lazy too.
Back to Century Black for a minute: the line-up of black metal acts, looking back, is quite impressive, with many of the band's being in the pantheon of black metal, who sought out these artists for this imprint?
Ula: Once again I'd point to Rayshele, and Robert was living in Germany so he was also keeping his eyes open for whatever new was available and interesting (this was around the dawn of the Internet, so info was scarce, you really had to actively seek things out on your own or have someone send something your way). I remember Robert pushing for a long time to get the first Opeth album, "Orchid", and it took a long, long time to make that happen with Candlelight. I don't think Rayshele was quite as into Opeth, but it wasn't really what you would call 'troo kvlt' black metal either, so that's understandable. But when that finally came together and CM got the rights for that, it was great, although when it was released the few people that knew about the band already had the import, and basically nobody else cared. It took a long time and a lot of convincing to sell that band on people, but by the time they finally played the US (at the Milwaukee Metalfest around '98, I think, when "Still Life" was out in Europe) they had a pretty good fan base going already. And once you got one or two bands licensed, and other labels heard you were paying advances and accounting regularly for those titles, it became a lot easier to do the rest. The real keystone band around that time, of course, was Emperor. Rayshele was really into the band and used to talk to the guys regularly, and so Robert also dealt out with Candlelight that CM would get the rights to the Emperor titles as well, starting with the "Hordane's Land" split EP with Enslaved, followed up shortly by "In The Nightside Eclipse", and they sold a few thousand to begin with but it also took a while for people to take notice.
Did you personally deal with any of these artists? If so, who and what was it like?
Ula: Rayshele was the one dealing with the ‘true’ black metallers, so she was regularly talking to Hellhammer from Mayhem, Ihsahn and Samoth from Emperor, Garm from Arcturus and Ulver, etc. I knew of black metal but the ideology and a lot of the bands were new to me in that pre-Internet era, I remember going to Oslo for one day while in Europe back in ’93 and Varg was on the front page of all the Norwegian newspapers as he’d just been sentenced to prison, but I’d only heard a few of the bands when I started at CM. I remember picking up a fanzine that was sitting in the office filing cabinets, and there was an interview with Hellhammer from Mayhem, and he closed the interview by saying, “Black metal for white people!” And that was when I thought, “Huh, maybe I don’t really need to deal with these guys.” So Rayshele kept up the personal contacts, and when she was no longer with the label, around ’97 or so, I was already dealing with a couple of the guys, like Samoth, Satyr and a few others. By then I was starting to get a bit into licensing and the contractual side of things, and so I worked out a couple of the deals, like dealing with Avantgarde to release the Mayhem “Live In Leipzig” album along with two Katatonia records and Ophthalamia, and I was doing purchasing for the mail-order so I was working with a lot of those labels, from US ones like Necropolis, Breath Of Night and Full Moon Productions to the overseas ones like Moonfog, Head Not Found / Deathlike Silence, Hot, Avantgarde, Osmose, etc. I think a lot of those guys in the scene did and said things they regretted soon thereafter, and I don’t mean so much the multiple stabbings and church-burnings, but even just some of the right-wing affiliation, ego and imagery. They were all kids when they started out, basically, and as they got a bit older, most of them grew up. Some didn’t, but most did.
Please dish on any funny/amusing 'Hedwig And The Angry Inch' moments from this time period, the bands or the Century Black imprint.
Ula: Well, I still remember when Moonspell were in their demo days, they got a fax from Mortiis, who was in Emperor at the time, I think. Mortiis was threatening them, calling them the word that rhymes with ‘diggers’, putting a cute little swastika at the bottom and saying, “Heil Hitler” as a postscript. I still have a copy of that fax, and this is from a dude that would later go on to play industrial rock while wearing elf ears. I think if 1995 Mortiis could have time-travelled to 2003, he would have murdered himself.
Well, the most embarrassing thing that probably happened was the initial CD pressing of the Emperor/Enslaved split CD, which had the very cool and eerie Gustav Dore work “The Vision Of Death” on the front, but due to a color-separation film fuck-up it came out not in black but in bright pink. Try explaining that to the band. Then there were Ulver, who after two brilliant albums of folk/black metal, signed to CM, at which time everyone expected them to go even more commercial than they were before. Instead, they gave us “Nattens Madrigal”, one of the most primal records you could imagine, and they did tell us they recorded the album outdoors in the woods, and also that they scrapped the initial recording session because it came out “too good”. The other fiasco of sorts was the Malicious Records saga, where I worked out a deal with the German guy, Gerrit, who owned the label, and we worked out a decent advance payment for him too, in order to get the US rights for the whole catalog. We finished the deal and I told him in order to pay him, he needed to send us an invoice with his bank info. He just couldn’t seem to do that even though it was a fair bit of money, and I reminded him several times, but he just didn’t manage to send one. In the meantime, several of the bands got wind of the fact that we were about to release those albums in the States, and they let us know they’d never gotten paid a dime from the guy, and that he no longer had the rights to those albums, so we managed to cancel the Mortiis, Vond and Zyklon-B releases, but by then we already had the other 8 printed and being sold, which was records by Aura Noir, Borknagar, Dodheimsgard and Gorgoroth. The very lucky part is that we had never sent Gerrit a penny since he never sent that invoice through, so we were able to work out direct deals with most of the bands to pay them. If we had already sent the money to the guy, the bands would have been completely screwed. So the lesson I learned from that is, just because someone says they have the rights to something doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true. Even better, that guy would reach out to me every year or so, asking when he was going to get his money, so I had to tell him, “You’d better talk to your bands.”
What sort of wrapped this whole time period together was The Firestarter compilation in ‘97, featuring very prominent acts of the second wave of black metal, however this comp seems to get no love or at least little recognition, why do you think that is?
Ula: Probably because I put it together, ha ha ha. I think it came a bit late to really be considered groundbreaking, as the die had already been cast with things like the “Nordic Metal” comp that Necropolis had released. But the comp did pretty well, actually, and it was a baby of mine, so I tried to make something cool out of it.
The name came about from a fax I got from Samoth, about some interviews or whatever, and at the bottom he wrote, as a joke, “I’m a firestarter…”, after the Prodigy song that was big at the time. I thought that was pretty clever, and I told him I wanted to use it as the name of a black metal comp, which he was OK with. Travis Smith did a great job with the artwork, and that one was one of his earlier works before the Opeths and Katatonias of the world started calling him, and it was the idea for us to release it cheaply, just to be a fan-friendly, zero-profit item that would hopefully introduce people to some new bands. CM sold over 20,000 of them in the end, and it was in shops for about $5 or from the mailorder for just $2, so I think a cool-looking package with some good bands at a cheap price made it irresistible to a lot of people. Weirdly enough I’ve had a lot of people tell me they got introduced to a few bands through that comp, as CM was doing the cheap label sampler “Identity” back then, and so I wanted to do the more extreme version. My favorite part was that I wanted to include the long wood match in the spine, and we found out it was both possible and affordable, so the first few thousand came with that match. OK, maybe it’s not as cool as the Zippo with the Burzum CD, but fuck it, even those cost you like $50 to buy one back in '93, so for a $2 price tag it was as good as we could manage!
Nowadays black metal seems to have a much more cheesy stigma attached to it, with elaborate corpse paint, glamour shot photos, etc. How would you compare and contrast the current acts to those at the time?
Ula: The glamour shots definitely leave me cold, I have never been a guy who got into bands with an image, unless your ‘image’ was wearing jeans and T-shirts. I think the initial wave had such a strong impact because it was raw, primal and done on a budget, all of which normally adds up to a kind of intensity that just can’t be matched. Some of the band photos now look like they must be airbrushed, or when you have Dimmu Borgir spending like $8,000 on a photo shoot complete with gothic nurses and naked chicks on dog chains, you know you’re a long, long way from their Fimbulwinter roots. But I blame that on Cradle Of Filth more than anything, ever since the release of their first album they were always one of the top-selling bands, and the more polished their image became, the more people bought into it. That, in turn, seemed to influence Dimmu and all the others, and when you look at pictures of the current bands, even those that have been around for a while like Dark Funeral, it’s hardly spontaneous, everything looks perfectly placed.
Some of those vintage photos were done in 5 minutes, you can tell, so even if they look a bit goofy, they seem a lot more sincere than some guys who are polishing up their nail wristbands and are worried if their shin plates will stand out properly against the ambient backlight. But what’s impressive to see is how far the US has come, as in the mid-‘90s, US black metal was, to almost everyone concerned, a joke. You had a few bands trying to make something happen, but even Havohej and Sarcophagus (who have one of the best bad band photos ever, just check Metal Archives) and the rest were just not being taken seriously. Then again, the thinking at the time was that if it didn’t come from Scandinavia, it probably wasn’t worth listening to, and bands like Enthroned were using selling points like, “Norwegian black metal from Belgium”, which always made me laugh. Flash forward 10 years, and it’s a totally different ballgame, and I’m glad to see that the US have come up with some very solid and often experimental black metal bands, and I’m amazed at how many one-man bedroom projects have taken lives of their own.
You brought up a good point. Don't you find it interesting that with black metal, for once it seemed that there was a trend going geographically "backwards"? I mean, instead of Europe catching on to what's popular in the U.S. three to five years later (with the UK being of course a little ahead of the curve) the music which was happening in the early 90s took three to five years to saturate enough to wake American audiences up to this music?
Ula: I guess it's just a matter of where that sound originates from. A lot of trends -- and a lot of bad trends, too -- originated in the States and spread outward, but there were some specific genre examples where the US was last to join the party. I think of punk rock from England in the '70s, black metal as you said, and probably the next example after that would be the Swedish death metal scene and how that wound up crossing over to US metalcore where you had pudgy short-haired dudes from Nebraska forcing pit-friendly breakdowns into the middle of At The Gates riffs. Americans are always reluctant to admit that someone else thought of something first that's better, but hey, sometimes you can't deny what's good. I mean, fried chicken and cheeseburgers are fine, but I'll take good Mexican food over that any day, you know?
Nowadays, black metal has changed a great deal and only Naglfar and Dark Fortress remain as relevant acts of the genre on CM. Is there really just not too much money to be made back on black metal like there use to be?
Ula: "Back on black" metal, I see what you did there, ha ha. I'm not even sure you would consider Naglfar wholly a black metal band, to me it's just Naglfar, they're their own beast, and few people would consider Old Man's Child a black metal band too. I think there were so many labels that specialized in those bands in the meantime that most of the larger indies just couldn't maintain a credible foothold. I mean, if you're looking for credibility, how can a label like Century Media, with bands like Lacuna Coil or Suicide Silence, have the same credibility as a NoEvDia, Drakkar and the likes? Forget it. You can't have everything. I'm sure there's still money to be made on black metal or else most of the labels wouldn't touch it, but let's face it, for labels there's not a lot of money to be made on most music these days. If you want to make money in music, you'd better be involved in touring, merch or maybe publishing. And for black metal, I think merch and maybe vinyl are probably the only two things that consistently bring the bands some beer money, since a lot of them don't really tour much anyway.
What was ultimately Century Black's undoing?
Ula: I think the brand got stretched too far, I don’t even remember all of the records that got tagged as Century Black releases, but I remember it was used on a couple releases that you could only call black metal if you really broadened the definition of what black metal was. And I believe the last batch of Century Black releases were from the Malicious catalog, which as I explained was a nightmare and which seriously dragged on for years. A lot of those bands also moved on from what they were doing musically to other styles, or diminished the black metal elements in their music, either as their interests took hold elsewhere or in some cases they just evolved musically and didn’t wish to be pinned down anymore playing as fast as they humanly could on a shoestring budget in Grieghallen Studios.
Any other humorous or noteworthy stories from this imprint or era?
Ula: Well, it’s been printed a few times how pissed off Opeth were that we put the band logo on the front cover of the “Orchid” and “Morningrise” albums, but it was also pretty apparent at the time that since nobody in the States really knew who they were in ’96, the records just wouldn’t have sold well without a band name on the front, as we just didn’t even think some of the store clerks would be astute enough to figure out where the albums would go. Maybe that was artistically wrong and nowadays you could do a clear, see-through sticker with the logo on top of the jewel-case, but back then the options were more limited, and the band got over it, and the records did pretty well in the end, so it’s another case of art versus commerce, ha ha.
("Wait, wait, wait... I know it's 1996 and our second record JUST came out and no one really knows who we are, but still, putting our name on our album cover just screams 'Sell out!'")
There were a couple records that very nearly got released via Century Black, but fell apart at the last minute, like the first two Cradle Of Filth releases, “The Principle Of Evil Made Flesh” and “Vempire”, and also the Burzum “Aske” album (CM even had promo CD sleeves printed up before a last-minute snafu with Misanthropy Records axed the deal). As a personal experience, I definitely remember the 1998 Milwaukee Metalfest, which was the live US debut for Emperor. They had previously insisted that they use their own keyboard live, so they had it shipped over ahead of the show, and was brought to the venue along with the band. They got through customs with a letter I had written saying they were going to play a benefit show for Jeff Becerra of Possessed, which thankfully worked, as the band weren’t getting paid enough to afford work visas, and we were worried that Samoth’s record would cause problems but we could only cross our fingers and hope. Everything worked out short of Alver’s bass getting damaged on the flight (he found a replacement), and the band were in good spirits. About 45 minutes before they had to play, Samoth realized he needed batteries for some gear, so I hauled ass out of the venue, we tracked down some batteries at a nearby market, and ran back in time… no sooner did I hand the batteries over, with minutes to spare, that their keyboard player, Charmand Grimloch, just realized the keyboard he’d brought over wouldn’t function without a Europe-to-US power converter. I ran into all the dressing rooms, stumbling in on guys like Sodom and Destruction in various states of undress, frantically asking for a power converter. Either the bands didn’t have one, or they weren’t about to loan one to Emperor, but I came up empty-handed (and this was pre-cell phones, of course) and it was already time for the band to hit the stage. So it dawned on Charmand that they’d be playing without him and that he’d flown all the way over for nothing. He was just standing on the side of the stage, frustrated beyond belief, and so during the first song he just ran out and stage-dove over the security barrier into the audience. In retrospect, it’s amazing the show even happened, and that 4/5 of them got to play that day.
So to wrap up, please list your top five CM release of all time and your top five black metal albums (can be CM or not) of all time…
Ula: Okay, let me think about that. Top 5 CM, in no order: Samael "Ceremony Of Opposites", Strapping Young Lad "City", Only Living Witness "Innocents", Bloodbath "Resurrection Through Carnage" and either Morgoth "Odium" or Nevermore "Dreaming Neon Black". If The Gathering put out a comp of the best of the Anneke years I'd be all over that shit too. My top 5 black metal records: Ulver "Bergtatt", Satyricon "Nemesis Divina", Immortal "At The Heart Of Winter", Arcturus "Aspera Hiems Simfonia" and Emperor "Anthems To The Welkin At Dusk". Runner-ups for me would be Dissection "Storm..." and Watain "Casus Luciferi". What can I say, I like the melodic stuff more than the "grim holocaust attakk" stuff, but fuck it, I'm old and I think I'm right, ha ha.