Interview with Wiley Arnett of Sacred Reich, Part 1
By Saby Reyes-Kulkarni
In a monster-length interview that took place (on August 15th) shortly before the D-Low memorial concert, former Sacred Reich guitarist Wiley Arnett spoke at length with New Times correspondent (and avowed Sacred Reich fan) Saby Reyes-Kulkarni about the band’s heyday, as well as his new band, The Human Condition. Part one of the complete transcript follows:
New Times: How have you guys been able to keep Sacred Reich together lately? What’s been the motivation?
Wiley Arnett: We’ve actually taken about a nine-year step away. These couple of reunion shows that we did, here in Phoenix and Scottsdale were pretty much a preparation for a small European opportunity we had. We just re-released our first two records, Ignorance and Surf Nicaragua, as a three-disc set. It’s a European import with some bonus materials like a DVD of the ’89 Dynamo show on it. We hadn’t been working very hard to stay together.
The thing is, when we disbanded, we never broke up. We never had a blow-out fight. We never agreed to disagree. What we agreed on was that we needed some time at home. Back in ’86, when we all started jamming --- actually, late ’85 when I joined the band --- we were mixing some cover tunes with original work, playing a lot with Flotsam And Jetsam, and I was 17 years old. Within a year, we’d gotten signed and found ourselves on tour. It seemed like a blur. Fourteen years went by; we came home --- we were like 26, 27, 28 --- [laughs] and we were like ‘what the hell happened?!’ You know, priorities changed as we got older. A couple of us --- not myself --- had had kids, which certainly is a life-changing event and changes priorities. So, we ended up disbanding. We agreed that it was time to book time at home, which meant refusing to book tours. We thought we’d leave the window open, and the more we spent time at home, the harder it seemed to get away from home. I hate to use this word, but it was like we were maturing a little bit. All of a sudden providing for our families and lending our own character towards our kids became the priority over selling shirts and throwing [up devil] horns.
But we had a great time and we were really amazed at the recent attention we got. We would have never believed that 20 years after recording Ignorance and Surf, we could pretty much sell out clubs here in town and then take that same energy throughout Europe. It was a very small adventure we went on. We flew into London, played the Scala, enjoyed a couple of days off, brought our wives along. We were acting like tourists; we had video cameras and went to Big Ben and Parliament. Then we went into Paris, where we did not even play, for two more days off. Again like tourists, we went to the Eiffel Tower, the Arc De Triomphe, the Louvre, and all of the things that Paris has to offer, and then we went into Vosselaar, Belgium where we played a great club called Biebob. That was our second show in Europe and, again, sold out. Keep in mind these are five-six hundred seaters, not, like, humongous auditoriums, but great venues with great lights, PA, that sort of thing. So we kind of suspected that this was a unique opportunity to go out, tip our hat, be proud of the things we did a couple of decades ago, and to show our wives Europe, which they had missed out on the first time around, when we were busy youngsters touring the world.
What we were surprised about was the authenticity of our fans, the ones who are our age now and were our age then. More surprising was new fans --- teenagers, 24-year olds. It was like ‘whoaaaa, where’d these guys come from?’ And they knew all the lyrics. Like “The American Way” --- no truth / no justice, Phil would just step away from the mic at every show, and the crowd would take it. We’d just look at each other in disbelief that all these years later, there was such an intensity. We kept carrying that flag to Eindhoven, Holland to the Dynamo club --- also famous for the Dynamo Open Air festival, which we’ve had the privelege of playing three times throughout our career. It was the wrong time of year for the festival, so we played the club, which was actually closed down for the summer, but they opened it just for our show. A gentleman named Andre, who books the Dynamo and also runs the festival, made that happen. And that was... an amazing show, again sold out. Again, the authenticity and warmth of the crowd took us back --- and I don’t mean in time, but it took us back on our heels! Like ‘wow, we had no idea this could happen all these years later.’ And then the cherry on the cake was we ended up in Wacken, Germany where we played the Wacken Open Air festival. That, again, was amazing.
We played several festivals throughout our career, the 14 years we spent touring. There were some really special visits to, like, Dynamo where there thirty or forty thousand people and it seemed like we had all their attention. And then there were a couple other festivals where we were just one of fifty bands, and it seemed like if you looked out past the first twenty heads, you’d see people playing frisbee or talking to each other. Less interested. I kind of suspected that that’s what it would be like now because we’re just so out of the loop. And I’ll tell ya, there were thirty or forty thousand people there and I couldn’t see anyone playing frisbee. They were all throwin’ horns and singing along. It was really an amazing experience. So now we’re back just less than a week. We’re kind of shaking it off and feeding the cat and paying the mortgages [laughs] and trying to tether ourselves back to earth. It was great to hang out with our brothers and be able to share it with our wives. By “brothers,” I don’t mean literally blood brothers but our band brothers, since we all grew up in the same room together. In the rehearsal process leading up to the adventure, it was amazing how quickly we were able to knock the dust off. There have been some fun observations, like body memory. Like, your brain fails you on where your hands should be to play the song, but if you just listen to the four-count and bob your head, your hands magically appear where they’re supposed to. It was kinda weird. There were a couple of rehearsals where I really felt like a witness. I didn’t feel like I was performing. You know, a lot of times, it’s always nice to watch a video, every once in a while after a show. So you can kind of be a witness to your performance, go ‘hey, how did we do? Were we tight?’ Because you get so involved in the performance, you’re so close to the fire that you can’t see the wood? This has been unique because --- I don’t know if we’re getting older and our brains slow down or if it’s ‘cuz we’re more appreciative, but --- it seems like I’ve been able to hit the slow-motion button through this experience, starting in rehearsal, and just kinda stand back in amazement --- a) that the music’s held up so well over a couple of decades, b) how well we jive together; it was never clear to me in the past, until we took a huge break and came back together and saw how easily it was to fall in place. Overall, it’s just been a really amazing experience. We don’t have any immediate plans to go back on tour. We’re not writing a new record. This really just came about when the re-release came about. We knew it was a European release, and we toyed with the idea: ‘hey, I wonder if we have any value in Europe. How cool would it be to play a small handful of shows and make enough money just to bring our wives?’ Don’t go get rich, don’t go try to get rich, just go for the experience. And we started throwing it up the flagpole just to see who would salute it, and, boy, we could have booked eight weeks in Europe --- easy. We turned down several great opportunities --- festivals in Spain, great show opportunities in Greece, Italy, all kinds of places --- because we simply couldn’t get away for that long. Again, because of the families, the houses, and people who depend on us here. We kinda blocked ourselves in and weren’t viable for that. It’s a weird feeling coming back realizing that there was all that opportunity.
For me, it was especially cool because the Human Condition, the band I’ve been working with for the last couple of years, is basically starting over here in Phoenix. Which has been like returning to the womb. I went through all this a couple of decades ago! [Laughs.] Where you pitch-in money for a tin shed in the desert, you go in there and you set up your gear and you sweat your balls off and you pound through it and you look for show opportunities. It’s been really cool going through that process and getting to a place where I’m getting pretty proud and confident of my new band, and then all of a sudden having this opportunity with Sacred Reich to go out. Of course, I brought a suitcase full of cds with me. So here I am in all of these great places with all of these great bands and promoters and, you know, movers and shakers and doing interviews and wearing the shirt onstage. And now we’ve been getting a lot of killer opportunities with my new band. Which is super-exciting for me, because as I mentioned earlier, Sacred Reich’s not super-viable. And, as I also mentioned earlier, I was one of the few that didn’t have kids. So I’m a little bit less anchored to where I have to be here. I’m a little more free to move around. So this has just been a double-excellent adventure for me. To have the opportunity to rejoin my brothers in crime and metal. To go beat the stages and be so warmly embraced by old fans and new fans alike, has just been amazing. And you add the idea that we just completed the new cd --- I literally received our first shipment of discs in the mail 48 hours before we left. So to be there brand new with this new product and a second band and have the opportunity to kinda cross-pollinate the two, I just find myself thanking the stars.
NT: Yeah, I saw the Myspace photos from Europe and saw the dates. You’ve just been home a week, so this is all very fresh. So, okay. This show coming up with Soulfly and Car Bomb, is that pretty much it for what you guys are doing in the Scottsdale area?
Arnett: Yeah, we really hadn’t talked about it until right around the time of the Scottsdale show [on July 21st]. We realized the D-Low memorial show was coming up, the 11th annual. That was [former Sacred Reich/Sepultura manager] Gloria Bujnowski’s son Dana, a great kid who we watched grow up. He toured with us many years out on the road even before Sepultura was part of the family. You know, life goes on, and unfortunately Dana got taken from us. They’ve been doing this kick-ass little show every year to try and remember him and to celebrate music and life. We’ve never really been qualified for the show. Whether it was not having a place to rehearse, or not having the equipment together, for whatever reason it just hadn’t been viable. And now, here it is we’re super-prepared for the show. So we’ve agreed to come in. We’re probably only going to do four or five songs. We’re likely to do it during Soulfly’s set or just before them. We’re hoping Max will join us onstage and sing “One Nation” with us, which Greg and I had the pleasure of joining him in the studio for for his cover on the Soulfly 3 release. So we’re hoping to do that live together, where he will actually sing with Sacred Reich, and then we’ll knock out three or four other songs.
More than anything, it’s just a tip of the hat to Gloria, and to Dana first of all. And to Max, who was also part of our metal family. And just kind of pay our respects. It had always been a sore spot that we were never prepared to do it, because our passion was there. It was a no-brainer, with them doing this so quickly after we returned. We’re still pretty hot from our rehearsals and our shows, so we’ve got great confidence that we can properly represent ourselves. And by using their gear, instead of doing a full Sacred Reich set, it just made it too easy. Of course we’re going to do it. It was the logistics that had gotten in our way. So we’re excited. It’s at the Marquee. Again, it’s not a full Sacred Reich show. There’s a few people who hit me on Myspace, like ‘well, when you sold those tickets to the first shows, I changed my vacation time because you weren’t supposed to do another show, and then I get back and you’re doing another show!’ I’m like, ‘no... if you would’ve chosen not to go to the first one and gone to the Marquee, you would have been disappointed.’ So lemme go on the record right now, being that we’re still having that fired at us: ‘that was supposed to be your last show; I got ripped off! I changed my plans!’ No, no, no --- you did the right thing. That was a unique night. If you were there, I’m certainly glad you were there to share it with us.
NT: You said it hadn’t been viable. How long, in the nine years that you were away, how much did you guys stay in touch?
Arnett: I went probably three or four years without even seeing or hearing from Jason Rainey. Phil, I’ve stayed in really good touch with. I’d say once a month, if not more, over many years, and then increasingly more over the last few years. And then Greg, our drummer, basically lives six blocks from me. So it’s not uncommon at all to run into him at the grocery market or in traffic. We’re always warm and fuzzy when we see each other. We shared an amazingly unique thing together. Again, when the smoke settled, we really didn’t agree to disagree, we agreed to agree. There was no blowout, there was no fight, there were no bad feelings. It just felt like it had run its course. If you ask Phil the same question, he would tell you that he didn’t have another record in him, which is also the truth. He just wasn’t inspired in the lyrics, you know, we weren’t hearing the music... I think it goes back to my statement: our priorities had changed. So all of the fuel that fueled the creative side had taken a back seat to big-boy responsibilities.
Sacred Reich's influential Surf Nicaragua album.
NT: Going back to the beginning, I was curious about how you guys met and how the band formed. If you could just recap the story.
Arnett: We had all grown up together. I was aware of everyone in Sacred Reich. I had played with Greg before Sacred Reich existed. Me and Phil actually played in a talent show our freshman year --- or his freshman year --- in high school. We all knew each other, and it was that traditional... sometimes when I watch Fast Times at Ridgemont High, it totally reminds me of when we grew up. Which was about the right time. People were dressing the same. There was the freak block, the jock block --- which were these little square planters with a tree in them on the campus --- and all of the cowboys would hang out over there, then all the long-hair guys with camouflage pants would hang over there. And we were kind of on the freak side. [Laughs.] Most people suspected we smoked pot, although at that time we really weren’t, but I guess it was the look and the stereotype. Paul Stottler, our artist who ended up doing all our album covers, was in the same graduating class as Phil. The song “Administrative Decisions” was about a Spring Fling, a school event, where we had gotten the majority of the student body to sign a petition wanting Sacred Reich to perform at the Spring Fling, but an administrative decision was made, by six people, that Sacred Reich didn’t represent the ideology of the school. So it became a really cool thing. Phil ended up going on AM radio as a sixteen year-old to debate whether or not it was right that we should or shouldn’t be at the show. If you listen to the song and read along with it --- because it moves pretty quick --- it’ll probably mean a little bit more now with that background. But I remember watching Sacred Reich play --- I was not in the band --- doing pretty much all cover songs. And they would take any club opportunities they could find, keg parties... there was even an alternative high school where kids who were struggling, maybe getting failing grades could go and get a little special attention. They would play there on nights. And I don’t know if that was school-condoned or not. I think they just left the power on. They’d drag all the gear out to the back side of the building, plug it in, put a couple of flood lights up, and pound out through S.O.D., Metallica, and D.R.I. songs.
I remember going to watch, and at that time I personally was not into that hardcore metal. Being a guitar player, I couldn’t find a lot of heroes. I was like, ‘well, I don’t want to play like Kerry King.’ I always wanted to be more thoughtful. I was into the Scorpions, Judas Priest, Ratt. Ozzy Osbourne with Randy Rhoads was a huge influence. When Jeff Martin, Sacred Reich’s original guitar player, ended up jumping ship right after they recorded their four-song demo, Draining You of Life, I stuck out as the viable guitar player for them. But they were correct in assuming that maybe I wasn’t down with the cause. So I went and rehearsed with them a few times, and I wasn’t very excited about a lot of the hardcore cover terms. Looking back, it’s funny, because I ended up embracing the whole thing. It just took me a while. I think when I heard Testament, Alex Skolnick, is when I realized, ‘whoa, you can play speed metal and have a high expectation with guitar playing.’ Which is ironic, because I look back and I really wasn’t playing that articulate. [Laughs.] It was my intent and it was my perception, but I look back recently, just coming back from this small tour and having re-rehearsed and brought myself up to speed I was doing 20 years ago, I was a little disappointed in my soloing. It was real fast and crazy, and I think that was part of the charm. It was kind of outside the lines and chaotic, but these days I pride myself on being a little bit more thoughtful and holding on to notes. So I can say something and try to dig some emotion out of the soul, you know? But I’d gone and watched them play without me. The opportunity came where Jeff left, and by this time Flotsam And Jetsam was starting to get a lot of attention. They were being shopped. Metal Blade Records was coming out to see them at local gigs and we were warming up for them. I’d ended up joining and didn’t know how permanent it would be. It kinda felt like I was doing them a favor until they found a guitar player. But the more I played, the more I started buying into it.
I remember Phil and I, at our first show. We played at the Mason Jar and opened up for a band called Liege Lord, a Metal Blade act. There were a couple hundred kids there, but that was a big show for us, especially for my first show. In the little back area, I was trying to get my cropped haircut to stand up like Rod Stewart, and Phil was licking his palms and slapping it down going “cut it out, dude, I’m fuckin’ serious!” [Laughs.] And we were having this little tug match, where I was trying to be more of my influence and he was trying to drag me into the darker underground side. Well, he ended up getting his way, because the more I went and I heard those aggressive rhythm progressions and chunk kind of grab at the chest, I really started to enroll. Fortunately, a short time later we went into the studio and re-recorded the song “Sacred Reich” and also recorded “Ignorance,” which was our first original after I joined the band. We added those to the four-song demo, Draining You of Life, so it became a six-song demo --- one song was repeated twice, once with the old guitar player, and once with me. And then there was a new song. Well, that worked out with the timing. I believe it was early ’86 now. Metal Blade was coming down shopping Flotsam And Jetsam. There’s discussion that Flotsam And Jetsam may be picked up to do one song on Metal Massacre VII, and in a short time that comes to be true. They pull that song straight off their demo. Within about six months, it was announced that Flotsam And Jetsam had been signed for a couple-record deal with Metal Blade. During that time, there were some really cool things going on. We were sharing a jampad with Flotsam And Jetsam, because it made jampad rent easier. So we would work schedules, like ‘okay, we’re gonna practice Monday-Wednesday-Thursday; you guys do Tuesday-Friday-Saturday, we’ll never see each other, and rent’s half.’ And we would set up on opposite walls. Well, that kind of created a sense of family and, you know, ‘hey, if you need a string, they’re in the box’ and ‘hey, can I borrow a 9-volt?’ and ‘there’s some guitar picks over there.’ That continued to breed and in a short time, an additional six months, all of a sudden we were next on-deck and being considered for a song on Metal Massacre VIII.
Jason Newsted, who had been doing interviews for his new release that was getting ready to come out, [Flotsam full-length debut] Doomsday for the Deceiver on Metal Blade, he was putting our demo tape on the back of some of his taped interviews. And at the end of the interview, he’d say, “hey, by the way, check out this cool band that we jam with; they’re called Sacred Reich.” These people would take the tape out and flip it over, and as a result, we started getting phone calls! So all of a sudden, we’re getting demo reviews, and we really didn’t even know how to solicit. But Metal Blade was working Newsted, and he was being exposed to people who do interviews. Consequently, we were being exposed. One thing led to another and, next thing you know, we were celebrating the fact that they pulled “Ignorance” off our demo tape and put it on the number-one position for Metal Massacre VIII. The response for MM8 was great, with a lot of people writing in, like [playfully mocks eager metalhead:] ‘who’s that first song? Man, those guys are good; I’d like to hear a whole record of them.’ Metal Blade took influence from the feedback they got, we were next on-deck, and we scored a couple-record deal.
NT: You were talking about high school and how you guys were at the freak table --- the other thing about Sacred Reich, at least with Phil, that came across in the lyrics and some of the things he said, it’s interesting because there’s kind of a hippie vibe to his whole thing, but with this really intense, aggressive music. I was curious how much you all related to his ideas, because --- at least at the time --- he had some really overt left-wing politics critical of the government and foreign policy and all that stuff.
Arnett: He was pretty unusual as a young kid. We always thought of ourselves as a smart group of kids who were thoughtful and had parents who challenged us to ask questions and develop opinions. Phil’s mother was a teacher. His father’s been successful in medical and other ventures as well. He was always surrounded by people who don’t accept things at face value, who dig and lend credibility through research and understanding. It’s still amazing to me how he became attracted to the details so early. I remember early on, when he would introduce some of the new song lyrics, like “Death Squad” or “Surf Nicaragua.” I’d be like ‘surf Nicaragua? Where is Nicaragua? That’s cool --- wasn’t there some war over there? That’s fuckin’ funny. Surfing where there’s war? That’s crazy. I like it.’ He’d be like ‘no, dude, this is about the Sandanistas and what’s going on in Managua. And “Death Squad” is about the the death squads in El Salvador pushing democracy down the throats of people --- vote my way or I’ll kill you. Dude, it’s totally fucked up.’ So I was like ‘whooooooa... that’s heavy.’ And then we started to enroll, which was an important part for me, because I’ve always been sincere about it. It was kind of hit or miss --- I could have ended up in a band with a guy who sang about the devil, or with a guy who sings about the girlfriend he lost. But I didn’t. And I’m so thankful for that, because later, as we captured momentum and started touring, it became clear that we had a role to play.
And by the early ‘90s, around the time of the Independent record, we’d started participating in Rock The Vote. When we’d go on tour, there would also be registration forms to get people who were 18 an un-enrolled and feeling like their voice didn’t count to encourage them to vote. I look back and I’m just super-proud of the authenticity. It wasn’t some gimmick or some smoke and fire, or some crazy hairdo. It was just ‘give us a four-count and some bright white lights, and we’re just gonna be real honest about the message and some intense delivery methods.’
NT: I discovered the band right around the time I was learning some of those same things in history courses in high school, so it hit me right in the right spot.
NT:And I’d had a very emotional response to those same exact topics. It was learning about US foreign policy in Central America during the Reagan years that really shaped my sense of politics. So then my brother comes home with this album from his mailroom job --- he wasn’t into rock music at all --- and he goes “this looks like something you would like.” Hearing that was a really nicely-timed discovery.
Arnett:Yeah, it was good timing. The suggestion lately, which was ironic as hell --- because I’d always suspected exactly what you’re saying, that that message was right on time, but there was a school of thought, a few years after we threw in the towel --- that maybe we were before our time. And now, when we’re hitting the road and finding new fans from 17 to 22 years old, which was the last thing we expected --- we just expected to see all the people trying to recapture their youth, like coming to see their old favorite band, but it was them and their kids and their nephews --- we realized ‘you know what? We’re not using the name Reagan. We’re not dating the lyrics.’ It wasn’t something we thought about, but we really left it wide open. So if you hear it for the first time yesterday, it seems to apply to the current state of things. All of these lyrics are just like ‘whoa.’ They’ve proven to be rather timeless, which really isn’t my place to say, but I’m kind of embracing what everyone’s telling me and just taking the compliment from it.
So, really, I give kudos to Phil. Because he steered the boat 100% on the lyrics --- and a lot of the music, for that matter. I’m very proud to be heavily into music, but we always yielded that to him because he had a focus. He had an intent, and it became something that we supported: the lyric is the message and the music is the vehicle to drive the message to its destination. And we kinda got ahold of that early, so we’d go out there and just pump through the chords and deliver the message.
Phew! In the next installment, Arnett talks about the band being mistaken for Nazis, touring in thrash’s glory age, and the motives for changing direction on the album Independent, and the new creative direction he's pursuing with The Human Condition.
[Visit Saby's Web site at: www.whoneedscritics.com]
The 11th Annual D-Low Memorial Show, featuring Soulfly, Sacred Reich, Car Bomb, Inflikted, SiOP, Here Lies Treachery, and Tale of a Masscare, is scheduled to take place on Friday, August 31, at the Marquee Theatre in Tempe.