INTERVIEW with Emmanouil (Manos) Koufakis co-owner of Sonic Age Records
about the past, present and future of Sonic Age, Cult Metal Classics, Cult Rock Classics, Cult Dungeon Classics and Cult Cheesy Classics
- Hi Manos, thank you for agreeing to answer my questions. Greece played a very important role in the revival of traditional heavy metal in the new millennium, first by rediscovering cult records through pirate reissues, then thanks to the birth of labels such as Cult Metal Classics and No Remorse, and the organization of important live events. Who was behind the spread of the unofficial reprints? In a time when everything seemed to have been forgotten, how did you understand that there could be a real revival?
Hello Pietro, thanks for giving me the opportunity to talk about our mutual passion, heavy metal music! Those bootlegs with obscure nwobhm and us metal releases played their own role (even unintended) in the spread of some really unknown stuff from the 80’s. There are speculations over who’s behind such stuff but to be honest what actually started the obscure metal frenzy was the Reborn Classics series released in Germany. All the CD’s on that series are boots but gave many people the chance to discover amazing demos and bands that were extremely hard to find.
To tell you the truth, I never understood that there could be a revival. I never had the talent to keep up with things and live in the present as far as music is concerned. If I was a teenager in the 70’s I would listen to 40’s and 50’s music, in the 90’s I was knee deep in 80’s music so I seem to always be unable to catch up with the present. Starting the label back in 2001 was kind of a natural next step after releasing my fanzine STEEL CONJURING with my buddy Kostas Organopoulos back in the 90’s. Many of the old bands I was in contact with, were looking for a proper label to release their old stuff, so incidentally I was there at the right time. But was it the right time? Back in the early 00’s we would struggle to sell out a short print of the vinyl version of “Rising out from the ashes” of WARLORD and even MANILLA ROAD “Metal” and “Invasion” reissues would sell quite slowly. It wasn’t trendy at all at the time to release such stuff. The actual revival came a few years later by mid to late 00’s. Even before reunion shows and festivals of 80’s bands started gaining popularity, we would organize a festival like “Heavy Metal Assault” with bands like OSTROGOTH and ELIXIR playing there! And believe it or not, we would struggle to even break even!
If I had to name two labels that were actually way ahead of their time, I would say OPM Records and Monster Records. These guys started everything with their quality reissues and introduced us to stuff like SLAUTER XSTROYES, DEUCE, APOLLO RA etc. Labels like mine or IRON GLORY and KARTHAGO followed right after and then all the other labels you see now.
- When was born the idea of founding a label like Cult Metal Classics? What were the reactions of the first groups of the past involved?
The idea basically belongs to Ed Horgan of VALHALLA. He had sent me some tapes with unreleased VALHALLA stuff, that was so good that I told him “Why don’t you release it?”. So he suggested that I should do it and immediately I jumped on the opportunity. Those early days were really awesome because all the communication between us and the bands, were based on foundations of mutual appreciation. We were basically fans that had followed the old school way. Tape trading, writing letters to the bands we loved, interviewing them and even doing small scale distro work with independent releases that the bands would put out on their own when big distros wouldn’t give a shit about them. So to sum up, I think I always fancied the idea of starting a label maninly influenced by John Haupt, Jim Cranford (OPM Records) and Dennis Bergergon / Phil Baker (Monster / Rare Ass Records) and their early reissues and Ed from VALHALLA was the person that indirectly pulled the trigger with his suggestion and set the wheels in motion. I would have never thought that after 20 years we would still be doing it, but I’m thankful that we are still around and have helped a bit in the revival of the 80’s metal spirit.
- Which releases are you most proud? Which ones have sold the most, and which ones have disappointed your expectations?
To me, almost every album we put out has a special significance, which means that we do not release just any stuff. We focus on quality reissues. So I’m really thankful that I was given the chance to release a masterpiece like “Journey into Fear” by DEAF DEALER or “From the Fjords” by LEGEND. I wasn’t disappointed by any of our reissues sales so far. I’m mostly disappointed by the reaction of certain people buying stuff. To me, stuff like the ASIA reissues we did recently or VALHALLA (both the Pittsburgh and the Keith Flax band) and BLACK KNIGHT should sell thousands of copies. When you see some absolute nobodies sell a few thousand copies and you struggle to “convince” people to give a chance to some really great bands, this always leaves a bitter taste in the mouth but in our age, everything is following the fast food norm. Hardly people have the time or are willing to put the time to spend hours listening to music like we did when we were kids. I’m also having a hard time to keep up with things in music. There are so many distractions.
- Do you think this attention to the past can last a long time? Do you have something particular in mind for the future of the label?
I believe it will last forever but it will take many different shapes and forms. Now the attention to the past is expressed via festivals and vinyl records, in the future it could be life size holograms of deceased musicians or bands that have disbanded and people attending virtual concerts through their VR lenses. The future can be terrifying and charming at the same time, so I’m really curious how this retro mania will evolve.
Regarding the label, we have started creating a few sub labels to further segregate the music we release, so that people who are mostly into hard rock or prog rock or just rock to better distinguish what we do, therefore we set up Cult Rock Classics. Cult Metal Classics will be only for the metal releases. We also launched an experimental sub label, by the name of Cult Dungeon Classics, with music releases that will focus on dungeon synth music which is a kind of emerging style with roots to ambient, soundtrack, orchestral, horror, medieval music.
The coming months we shall also launch something that will be completely new. A new sub label that will be something like a parody of the industry named Cult Cheesy Classics. A sub label that will release some of the worst albums ever released in the history of music. But we are not talking about bad music, but bad music that is so bad that ends up being unintentionally cool and addictive to listen. We are in no way releasing music to make fun of the artists involved – on the contrary, we want to illustrate a fun aspect of the industry much like what bad movie reissues are for. You’re not watching a movie like “The Room” and make fun of the the director. You end up becoming a fan of the director and the movie to the point that it becomes part of you! That’s why not all bad movies have the status of “Plan nine from outer space”, or “The Room” or “Reefer Madness” etc. So our first release on Cult Cheesy Classics will be the too bad to be true one and only album of WHEELZ OF STEEL, a mega rare obscurity that was released by two brothers in the mid 80’s. What makes that reissue special is that the two brothers, despite the hardships they were facing in their personal life (you can read more about it in the story that accompanies the release) ended up releasing an album with some of the most memorable compositions ever that are so over the top, that end up sticking to your mind and bring to the table that “b-movie” aura.
- Who are your main collaborators? How are the relations with the other labels?
It’s next to impossible to be able to release music from the 80’s without any collaborators. Finding bands whose members are no longer active in music is not often easy to do so, therefore we have developed over the years a network of friends and collectors, whose help we seek constantly when we reach a dead end.
The label consists mainly of me and my friend since high school, Kostas Organopoulos. There are other people working with us but we make the decisions as to what should be released. Laurent Ramadier, the editor of SNAKEPIT magazine is one of my oldest friends since the late 90’s / early 00’s and he has helped us a lot in finding so many quality bands to reissue. We have kept in touch for more than 20 years and even tape traded a lot in the early days we got to know each other. Janne Stark is also a friend and main collaborator; he’s a true force of nature being able to do many different things at high level such as finding bands, creating artwork and layout design, writing music for his bands (OVERDRIVE, CONSTANCIA, MOUNTAIN OF POWER etc etc). Let’s not forget that he single handedly penned the larger than life Encyclopedia of the Swedish heavy metal music, which to this day stands as one of the top 5 greatest music encyclopedias ever made!
When it comes to super obscure U.S. metal, my friends Christine Tsaprouni and Charly Kogler seem to have no match. They have helped us discover so many treasures from the past in the last few years. It’s funny, because Christine will message me almost every few days suggesting bands that I’ve never listened to before and are not even listed in Metal Archives or Discogs. And I’m not talking about crap stuff but really quality things that are completely unknown.
We have great relationships with most labels. We appreciate the work they put into what they’re doing and we know that it takes a great deal of dedication to accomplish a release. Of course, not all labels follow high quality standards but in a world where the physical format seems to be dying, it’s always worth admiring that small labels, fight to spread good music with their own means of distribution, often doing most of the hard work themselves such as promo handling, quality control, layout design, mailing etc etc
- Is there still something that hasn't been explored that you think deserves more attention?
Definitely the 70’s music be it prog rock, hard rock, pomp rock etc. The rock scene is so huge that there are infinite bands to discover but it is really tough because finding band members or label owners from the 70’s entails many hardships, as we are talking about 50 years ago! Some bands members have passed away or their whereabouts are completely unknown.
- What do you think of today's young people playing traditional heavy metal? Just revival or is there much more? What are your favorite current bands?
I love it when young people still cater for traditional heavy metal either as musicians or fans. Heavy metal is music for the young at heart people. Of course, over the years the quality has deteriorated cause now it’s easier to have access to record something using digital means but I still find it fascinating that young people like to mix stuff from the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s bringing some fresh ideas to our music. We could say it’s not just a revival but a new wave. Actually it’s a new wave of new music with old ideas but that makes it interesting at the same time.
New bands? I love STEELWITCH and STYGIAN FAIR which are “our own” bands and also HORISONT, HALLAS, RIOT CITY, CRYPT SERMON etc.
- The label has recently been unearthing many forgotten releases from the hard rock. How did this idea come about? How was it received by the public?
The idea came about when we were in talks with Ray Frigon to release his masterpiece “From the Fjords”. Ray felt that his music would be mislabeled if released under the Cult Metal Classics etiquette and this was so justified that it actually spawned the idea of creating a sub label that will focus on rock and hard rock music. So far it has been quite well received but we still have a big way to cross, because not all rock styles apply to heavy metal fans. And with us having the reputation of a pure metal label, it will be an uphill road to also approach the average rock fan who wants to look for something more out of the ordinary.
- Are there any records that you would have liked to reissue but were unable to obtain the rights to?
So much stuff. Actually, we get to reissue only 5% of what we actually want to reissue. We have initiated talks with so many bands in the past but only a few of our proposals come to fruition. Big wants of mine that for various reasons have never materialized are reissuing the songs of DARK KNIGHT from New York, MONARCH from Georgia, INCUBUS from the UK. COOL FEET from Belgium (this is my most wanted band to reissue at the moment). These are the first that come to mind. There are at least 500 more bands that are on my watch list but it fails to lead to a reissue for various reasons. I’m not listing more names because I don’t want to give ideas to other record labels. Haha just kidding!
- What was the Greek heavy metal scene like in the nineties, before the rebirth?
Greece always had a strong metal scene. In the 90’s, most countries who were considered to be traditional metal forces such as the U.K. and the U.S.A., embraced so many other non traditional metal styles. In Greece we had a solid core of bands that preserved the traditional metal spirit by staying true to their influneces and roots and not following any trends.
- When and how was born your passion for heavy metal?
It started in 1988 at the age of 9. I would receive my first records by THE SCORPIONS, BLACK SABBATH, GUNS N’ ROSES, BON JOVI, HELLOWEEN, MANOWAR, KING DIAMOND, IRON MAIDEN etc. Thanks to my cousin Andreas, who was 5 years older than me, I would have access to all the killer stuff that was getting released at the time such as ANNIHILATOR, SLAYER, KING DIAMOND, KREATOR, METAL CHURCH, METALLICA, CANDLEMASS. I’m referring to the releases of these artists at the time, because some of these bands were active even before I was born and had already a considerate discography behind them!
In the beginning it was an endless chase for me to achieve my cousin’s knowledge for heavy metal music. By the time I was into HELLOWEEN, he would be already into KING DIAMOND, by the time I was discovering METALLICA, he would already been into SLAYER, KREATOR, HEATHEN etc and by the time I was discovering more obscure stuff he would part ways with traditional metal styles and move to stuff like TERRORIZER, SUICIDAL TENDENCIES or extreme metal like DEATH, MORBID ANGEL, NOCTURNUS, ATHEIST etc.
- To close, do you still have the same enthusiasm as when you started? And what are the next moves of Cult Metal Classics?
Yes, the enthusiasm never goes away. Like all things it’s the love for what we do that keeps us getting involved. Honestly it’s not about money. If the fire that drives us to release records dies out, we shall stop the label and do something else.
Also Cult Metal Classics will cease to exist if we feel that it completed its purpose. If people stop caring for good old music and we somehow feel that what we do is no longer relevant, we won’t continue doing it.
Our next moves are more and more reissues with a long list of great stuff underway such as TROJAN / TALION, HARVEST MOON and SKITZOFRENIK from the U.K., PREDATOR from Ireland, ORACLE / PRODIGY, GARGOYLE, OMEGA, TALIZMAN, RITUAL, SEVENTH JESTER, SANCTION from the U.S., AGNETHA from Germany, XIRONIX from BELGIUM, as well as great Swedish stuff such as ZONE ZERO, MASTER MASSIVE, ORION’S SWORD, ACT, etc.
Interview questions by Pietro La Barbera - Holy Legions Fanzine