Interview with Jeff Wagner
Author of the Fates Warning biography: Destination Onward.
To introduce you to some of our fans who maybe not be familiar with your history, tell us a bit about who you are and what you do.
I’m a devoted and passionate music listener. An incorrigible, live-for-it devotee. I cut my teeth on metal, graduated to prog, and constantly dabble in various other sounds too. As I get older, spending time with music seems more precious than ever. Beyond that, I’ve paid my rent/mortgage since 1994 doing odd jobs in the music industry. Radio DJ, 1989-1992 (KRUI, University of Iowa, Saturday Night Metal Show), Zine Dork, 1992-1996 (Symposium); Publicist, 1994-1996 (Relapse); Writer/Editor, 1997-2001 (Metal Maniacs); Distro Buyer, 2001-2013 (Century Media, The End, then back to Century Media); Product Manager, 2014-2019 (InsideOut Music, Century Media). And, like David St. Hubbins, a full time dreamer, 1969-present.
When did you first have the idea of writing a book about Fates Warning?
As insanely into the band as I’ve been since 1985, it wasn’t until 2019 that it seemed like something viable. I contacted Jim Matheos and he was willing to open his archives and time to this. (He’d read my previous two books and offered positive feedback on both.) I talked with every member of Fates Warning, past and present, and auxiliary members like Kevin Moore, Mike Portnoy and Mike Abdow. I took my sweet time and created my own small monument dedicated to this amazing, amazing band.
Why Fates Warning? Why not Queensryche or Dream Theater for example? What is special about Fates Warning to you (and others) that made you feel their story needed to be told?
I briefly pursued a Queensryche book in 2013, and people close to them were on board, but essentially the fallout with Tate was too fresh to even consider it. At least, that was how I felt it. Plus, I strongly dislike or am apathetic about everything they recorded after Promised Land (1994), so that never bodes well for band cooperation. As for Dream Theater, I’m a fan, but a picky one. I probably have as many negative things to say about their music as I do positive. But I totally love the first three albums, Metropolis: Scenes, Octavarium and Distance Over Time. I could have approached that book, but never felt the drive, even though it would be more lucrative (if done right) than a Fates book. Why Fates? Because I like them way more than Dream Theater, and consider them even better, in every respect, than Queensryche. And I love the total fuck out of Queensryche 1983-1994.
From conception to publication date (July 15, 2022) how long days the process take?
From inception of idea to publication date, about 3 and a half years. I took my time. Probably the longest span of time I’ve taken to write a book.
This is your third book following the most excellent MEAN DEVIATION and the biography of Peter Steele. Did you make any significant changes to your writing style and/or habits from your previous efforts?
Thanks for saying that about Mean Deviation. I’m amazed people still comment on it and hold it in such positive regard. After 10 years, I’d love to alter/update it.
This is my third book. The second was ‘Soul On Fire – The Life and Music of Peter Steele.’ That was published in 2014. As for changes to writing style, I have no idea. That’s probably something for others to comment on.
As for writing habits, it did change. This one was more relaxed…I took my time and wrote in bursts. I’m not sure how my writing has changed, although I know it has. I’m less embarrassed by it than earlier efforts. As of right now, late June 2022, I can confidently say I’m more happy with the Fates Warning book than anything I’ve written previously. I look forward to reading it once I get the finished copy, and I wouldn’t even have thought of doing that with my previous two books, though I’m proud of and stand behind them. This one is just really special to me, for lots of reasons.
I was going to ask you this private but I think it is a curious point that readers will want and/or need clarification on. How can you be sure that Fates Warning has disbanded? When I read in your book that they had formally announced they were breaking up, I was shocked!! I spoke with several people/fans and none of them were aware of this development. Secondly, I scanned several major metal webzines and even more importantly there is no mention of it (as if the time of this interview, (late June 2022) in the band’s own official web-site. Are you sure? Is your announcement of their demise the ‘official’ announcement in your book in conjunction with and/or authorized by the band?
Here’s what written in the book:
The fact of Long Day Good Night being the final Fates Warning album wasn’t hyped by Metal Blade or the band in conjunction with its release in November 2020. Instead, Fates hoped their most analytical fans would see the clues and figure it out for themselves. Album number thirteen . . . thirteen songs . . . final song “The Last Song” . . . Even the album title itself is a kind of quiet farewell. Indeed, many wondered what this all meant.
Eventually Ray Alder, in various interviews shortly after the album’s release, revealed the truth. He made first mention of it to Apple Music in a feature that spotlighted his thoughts on each of the album’s thirteen tracks. About “The Last Song,” the vocalist said, “It’s the first time Jim and I ever co-wrote lyrics. I started writing about the band itself and what we’ve done all these years—there’s a line about walking down the only path I’ve ever known, which, for me, has been music for the last thirty-five years. That’s what I’ve lived my life for. And then Jim kind of tied it back to the first couple of songs on the album, because the band is going to end sometime. I think Jim no longer wants to write new music for Fates Warning. I think this may be our last album. And this was a way to say that. We all still want to tour, but as far as new music, I think it’s done.”
Jim Matheos saw this part of the book and was fine with me printing it. So, draw your conclusions from that.
In a related question, if the band truly is defunct, then isn’t the title of your book almost a bit prematurely optimistic?
It’s the total opposite. “Destination Onward” is the first song on their final album. And when I was looking for a title, “destination onward” sounded like the perfect description of the band’s pursuits since 1983. It’s a summation and a conclusion, not a look forward.
What was the largest challenge you faced in writing the book? Most of the band, in fact almost all of them, seemed very forthcoming and collaborative.
Thankfully there were less challenges writing this one than my previous two. Way less. It took a long time to assemble, but was generally a smooth and joyous adventure, whereas the other two, as much as I stand behind them, felt like Sisyphean trials. So yeah, I suppose the largest challenge was trying, and failing, to get Terry Brown to talk with me. He produced three Fates albums, and I even had Jim help in the assist, but it never happened. I interviewed everyone else I’d hoped to: Brian Slagel, Bill Metoyer, Kevin Moore, Ioannis…many others. But Terry was elusive. And fuck yes I was going to drill him on some Rush stuff!!! And Angel Rat (Voivod)!
For a band with so little documented drama (drugs, fights, evil lawyers etc) did you struggle to find an interesting narrative thread? I felt DESTINATION ONWARD was very engaging story of a band that lacks any significant peripheral drama like Van Halen or Gun’s N’ Roses for example.
Great question. That was my very first thought when the seed of “should I write a Fates Warning book?” popped into my head. And my first answer to myself was: “It won’t be Motley Crue’s The Dirt.” And that’s fine. I’m a huge fan of the first Aerosmith era (1973-1982), and that book on them is great, but cocaine binges and inter-band squabbles aren’t nearly as interesting as the music itself. So, Fates Warning seemed like they’d only have a musical story. And that’s the crux of the book, for sure, yet I found the story of Jim Matheos, the story of John Arch, the story of Ray Alder…these are exceptional people who have led extraordinary lives, all in service to the music of Fates Warning. And then I found a ton of other great stories too, from Jonny Z (Megaforce) insulting them backstage to Alder and Arch saving a puppy together… from Fates turning down Paul O’Neill’s “metal versions of Christmas songs” idea to the compelling story of Matheos that propels late-career masterpiece Theories of Flight. Yeah man, heroin & groupie stories are cool, but this book tells a different story.
Is Fates Warning a cult band? Or do they really fit that phrase that is often over-used by reviewers; under-rated?
I state my feelings about this clearly in the intro of the book: they’re not a household name, but in the house I live in, they are the very foundation.
No, the industry wasn’t kind to them and the winds of fortune didn’t exactly blow their way. But I they rank up there with Black Sabbath, Rush, King Crimson and Voivod in my world. Total masters!!! What anyone else thinks of them, I don’t care. Myself, and the many Fates fanatics around the world, understand this. The rest isn’t important.
How can people get this excellent biography?
The book is officially released July 15.
Pre-orders/Orders are here
Also: Metal Blade, Decibel Magazine, and Laser’s Edge are stocking the book in their online stores. They’re all folks I’m proud to be associated with. If you’re in Europe, Plastic Head/PHD will be distributing the book across that continent.
Thank you Joshua for your interest and enthusiasm!