Any metal fan worth their salt will own an album with the label Roadrunner Records on the back of it. Synonymous with heavy music for the last four decades, the discography reads like a who’s who of metal from iconic debuts from both Slipknot and Machine Head to game-changing extreme metal albums from Deicide, Sepultura and Obituary.
To celebrate their 25th anniversary in 2005, Roadrunner Records put together an ambitious project under the banner of Roadrunner United. With the unique idea of four “Team Captains,” a cast of stars from the massive Roadrunner roster was pulled together culminating in one massive concert in New York on December 15th, 2005.
Last Friday, the Roadrunner United – The Concert album was re-issued complete with extra bits n’ pieces. In our latest cover story, former Roadrunner Records Vice President of A&R, Monte Conner looked back at the project, his favourite Roadrunner albums and four decades of Deicide stories, iconic albums and tells us why Nickelback were so important for metal.
So, the original Roadrunner United was released in 2005 for the 25th anniversary of Roadrunner Records. It’s now 2023, the album is about to be reissued, and we’re here talking about Roadrunner as a label and albums from those four decades, which are still relevant today. How does that feel?
Monte Conner: “It feels normal to me because I have to say that, throughout my career, all these records that I’ve worked on, I never had any clue that people were going to be talking about these records years from then. When we were making Demanufacture, Burn My Eyes, Beneath The Remains, Suffocation, Obituary… it never dawned on me or the bands, that 30 years later, people are going to celebrate these records and still talk about them. It’s cool that we didn’t know because, I think if we knew, the pressure would have been so great.
“It also doesn’t surprise me that Roadrunner United just joined that list, because it seems like people want to talk about all those records. Not just the big ones, but they want to talk about Suffocation, and Obituary and Deicide and even smaller albums, you know? I’m used to it by now. Not really surprised but I certainly don’t take it for granted.”
It’s been an incredible journey. In terms of the concept of Roadrunner United, at the time that was a massive project. What was it like putting it all together?
“It was a lot of pressure, because the way it started was with the Roadrunner owner Cees Wessels, in mid-to-late 2004. He got a bunch of key people at the company in the New York office together in a conference room to brainstorm ideas. He’s like ‘okay, next year is the 25th anniversary, how are we going to celebrate this who’s got ideas?’ And we sat around in a conference room and all the ideas were like the typical shit, you know, let’s do make a Roadrunner documentary. Let’s do a book. Let’s do a boxset. All valid ideas, but all typical things that everybody did. So he kept pressuring us to come up with something more special, something never before done.
“What happened was I had spoken to Mark Palmer who ran our UK office. Mark had been there since the beginning with me. Mark was a confidant and a friend and always somebody I would share things with and ask advice. He was an ideas guy as well. So I called him up and I said, ‘Hey, do you have any ideas?’ And he came up with the idea. He’s like, why don’t we get a bunch of famous Roadrunner musicians together to do a single? That sounded cool. But a single? That’s just not big enough. So then I took that idea and started to think how we take that idea and turbocharge it into something massive. That’s where the idea of Roadrunner United came from.
It was a massive undertaking, we only had one year to do it and it’s really amazing that it came together within that time… I can’t even believe we did this all within one year given the scope of it. Really, the only way we were gonna get this record done, you know, I’m looking at this ginormous thing ahead of me and the only way to get it done was to break it into pieces and that’s how the idea of the team captains came about.
“So, we have this massive undertaking, but we’re going to put the responsibility into different areas to make it more manageable and small. And that’s exactly what we did. That was my idea to do it that way. That’s how the idea of the team captains came together. A little bit of trivia here, the record was originally called Roadrunner Allstars. The entire time we were making it, we were calling it the Roadrunner Allstars then, at the very last minute, when the record was done, we said ‘you know, it’s kind of a generic word is this, can we think of something better?’ and that’s when Roadrunner United came along. I believe it was the UK office that came up with the Roadrunner United idea after Manchester United.”
“All A&R labels are scouring the fucking planet as they want to find the next Turnstile. Maybe that’s the next wave that’s gonna ride for a few years but metal just always evolves and changes, it’s not going away.”
In terms of the album, were there any artists that you couldn’t get onto the album or into the project for whatever reason?
“Absolutely. It all came down to scheduling. For example, I’ve said this a million times before so maybe you know it, but the fourth team captain was not supposed to be Matt Heafy from Trivium, it was supposed to be Adam D from Killswitch Engage. If you think about it, when we put that record together, Trivium was not this ginormous band yet. Matt was super young, so using someone like Matt was not an obvious choice. It was like ‘Wow, you’re gonna take a chance on this young kid to do this?’
“Adam D was supposed to be the guy. Killswitch were a big band for us at that point. Adam was a songwriter. He had studio experience. He was the perfect guy and he actually signed on to do it, but then realized he wasn’t gonna have the time because, aside from Killswitch, he had a highly successful career as a producer. It just was too much. So he pulled out and that’s when we took a chance and got Matt who fucking crushed it. If you listen to Matt’s tracks, or across different spots, he’s got like a punk rock song. He’s got a King Diamond-type song. All of Matt’s tracks are very different. He really impressed me probably the most. He killed it.
“But yeah, there were a lot of people we couldn’t get. I was trying to get someone from Nickelback on the record. They were a giant part of Roadrunner’s success. We didn’t want to leave Nickelback out. A lot of people don’t realise this. Nickelback was one of the best things that ever happened to metal. Because of Nickelback it allowed Roadrunner to be successful. It opened doors and helped Roadrunner sign more bands. Nickelback helped keep Roadrunner as a dominant force. It was a great thing. We wanted to represent them but they just couldn’t get them.
“There were a lot of musicians but we cast the net wide and we wanted to make sure that all of the important Roadrunner musicians and bands were represented. I don’t think, and I could be wrong, but I don’t think we had anyone from Obituary on the record as an example and it wasn’t through lack of trying. We really reached out to everybody, and we wanted everybody represented. And we got most of them.”
When you started to put the project together, did you have go-to musicians who you knew you had to get?
“Well, it really wasn’t that hard to pick the team captains. If you think about it, the team captains they had to be songwriters. They had to be the main people in their bands. I mean, Joey Jordison was the main writer in Slipknot at that time. Robb Flynn was Machine Head. Dino, as you know, was the main writer in Fear Factory, not to discount Burton as a vocalist who’s amazing. They had to be name guys. They had to be songwriters. They had to be people that the metal community would care about and would be excited about. When you think about it, it really became obvious. It was like the initial three people I chose Joey, Dino, and Robb, those were the obvious ones.
Nickelback was one of the best things that ever happened to metal. Because of Nickelback it allowed Roadrunner to be successful. It opened doors and helped Roadrunner sign more bands.
“Adam D was obvious too at the time but, when we couldn’t get him, we moved to Matt. The only other guy that I could remember that we strongly considered as a team captain was of course, Max Cavalera. I mean, no brainer. I can’t really remember why we couldn’t get Max. He might have been just too busy at the time. You know, Max is always just doing so many different things.”
Knowing the amount of projects Max has on the go, I’m pretty sure he could have squeezed another one in…
“Max can have his own Max Cavalera United. I mean, he’s a machine. So, it really wasn’t that hard to choose the team captains as the right guys were pretty obvious.
“As far as picking the other musicians, it happened two ways. I would send all the team captains a wish list. These are the 50 guys, we’d like to pull from this. We directed them to the wish list, but at the same time like that we weren’t rigid about it. So, for example, Jordan Whelan from the band Still Remains. He wasn’t a guy that was not going to add name value to the record, but Robb Flynn wanted to use him, even though he wasn’t on the list. But Robb wanted to use Jordan, and we were open, fast and loose with it. So ultimately, I left the decisions of the musicians up to big team captains but I just tried to direct them and get them to use the guys we wanted. If they didn’t, then they didn’t but, in 90% of the cases, they just pulled from the list.
“By the way, I still have the list. I have an entire archive. I’m like, an archivist. I probably could find the email that I sent to the team captains with the list.”
Wow. I’ve got boxes of promo stuff from over four decades. Throughout that time, Roadrunner has been synonymous with heavy music as a genre. From Slipknot, to Obituary to Suffocation to Nickelback, these albums have stood the test of time. For you what made that period so special?
“It was just a magical period. I was young at the time, everything just seemed so easy. I look back at all the success I had in the 90s especially and it just seemed like it didn’t seem hard. It seemed like everything I signed I was just shitting magic like effortlessly. It was so effortless that I didn’t even appreciate it at the time. I would sign Machine Head then Burn My Eyes came out right away and, out of the gate, was heralded as Album of the Year in England. In England, especially from the beginning, that record was a giant seller out of the box. I look back and it was cool, but I didn’t really appreciate how special that was. It was a magical time but more so now looking back than really when I was going through it, when I was living through it.”
What are your favourite Roadrunner albums?
“It’s so funny because I was doing an interview before this and the guy asked me the same question. So, I’m very prepared to answer although he asked me to name one and, of course, I couldn’t name one so it became five. I’ll just tell you the same thing I told him and I’m not trying to put these in any kind of order, right? But the first five would be, I guess the first Slipknot record. That debut Slipknot record was the biggest success I’ve ever had sales wise. I mean, it’s the biggest selling Slipknot record to this day. Also, it was the first and it was the most groundbreaking. It’s a record that people are gonna be listening to 100 years from now. It’s totally unique like nothing else ever done before or since.
“The first Slipknot record, I know it fell under the nu-metal genre at the time, but it really was an undefinable record. It had every style, it had death metal, it had black metal, it had speed metal, it had nu-metal.”
“Of course, I have to mention Bloody Kisses by Type O Negative. That is, artistically, probably my favourite record Roadrunner has ever put out. A lot of fans will say October Rust but I’m a Bloody Kisses guy. The reason people like Bloody Kisses, is that it was still a transitional record. It still had remnants of Slow, Deep and Hard and a litlte bit of Carnivore. Bloody Kisses was the first record where it was just a goth rock vision. All the songs sounding the same. So, a lot of fans like October Rust because they feel it’s more focused. I still think Bloody Kisses has their greatest songs on it, Black Number One, Christian Woman, Death In The Family. It’s amazing.
“Then there’s Demanufacture by Fear Factory. That record hasn’t aged one day. Still sounds amazing. Still sounds cutting edge, still sounds modern, still sounds fresh. And people don’t realise what a groundbreaking band Fear Factory is. They are the band that pioneered the bad cop/clean cop vocals. It’s like a staple of metal right? Nobody was doing that before Fear Factory. Maybe there were bands that were doing that before but it’d be hard to find that record if it does exist. Fear Factory are certainly the band that put that on the map but Burton will credit the band Head of David as the band that he got that from. Also the way that Dino’s guitar riffs locked in with Raymond’s kick drums. That’s like a machine gun. They were the first band to do an industrial metal remix EP. They didn’t invent the remix idea, but they were the first band to do it in the metal world. So, totally groundbreaking.
“Burn My Eyes by Machine Head. I just had to pick a Machine Head record but I think The Blackening is just as good. I think the new Machine Head record is arguably the best thing they’ve ever done. So, how do you pick between those three Machine Head records? I have to pick Burn My Eyes… just the one right?
“I can’t not mention a Sepultura record and it’s difficult because there was so many just I have to pick Chaos A.D. because that is the record where Sepultura left the thrash/speed metal box genre behind. You could take a record like Arise, as great as it is, and it is considered a thrash record or speed metal record, you put it in a box. There’s no box for Chaos A.D it is just a metal record. The same way Pantera is… The same way… people don’t call Metallica speed metal, they just call it metal. I think Chaos A.D. is the record where Sepultura went worldwide. It has some of their best songs to date.
“I think that’s five but, if I could go more, I mean, how do you not mention River Runs Red by Life Of Agony? I mean, that’s fucking genius. There are a few other biggies in there that I’m not thinking of but those are probably the ones. Oh, wait what about Obituary?”
We could just go on forever. Moving on then… During that period there were some real characters as well. You mentioned Deicide. Then there was Slipknot. Every one of them is a character. Do you have a favourite Roadrunner story from dealing with those guys?
“I probably have more Deicide stories than anything else. But yeah, it’s hard to think of specifics but you know what’s funny is one of the Deicide stories, the famous Deicide story that everybody knows is how Glen marched into my office, threw the demo down and said, ‘Sign us asshole,’ and then stormed out. That story has become an urban legend in that the way I discovered Deicide. That’s a legendary story and I think the story started because that’s my memory. I started telling that story because that’s what I remembered and the reason I call it an urban legend is because Glen disputes that and says that’s not what happened.
“He says he came in, we had a nice conversation, he left. How does that thing start? But it’s just funny that Glen would be the one to kind of, you know, take the air out of that balloon, because you would think he would want that story to be true. That story is what makes him look like a fucking God, you know? I don’t know if it’s true. Maybe the truth is somewhere in between?”
For all the success stories you’ve talked about, like the first Slipknot album and Nickelback, obviously. Are there any regrets? Or any bands that you missed out? Or that you thought… I wish?
“There’s always bands you miss out on. You know that famous saying like, about the 60s – If you remember the 60s you weren’t there? There is a similar expression in the A&R world, well, maybe it’s not an expression but, basically, if you don’t have misses, then you aren’t in the game. So, yeah, of course, you have misses. Like for example, Dino told me about In This Moment, sent me the demos and I passed on them.
“I passed on Five Finger Death Punch. I know it sounds crazy now but, you know, they weren’t writing radio hits, so they weren’t that band at the time. To be honest, I don’t have a lot of bands on the list. If you’re asking me to mention big bands I missed I probably couldn’t name more than five, and that’s incredible considering how many years I’ve been doing this. I have such a good track record. I’ve very, very few misses compared to most.
“Most of the misses that I do have were not misses, but they were misses because I couldn’t close deals. Roadrunner was notorious for its really, really brutal business deals. You know, we signed bands for seven records. We insisted that it was records, merchandising, and publishing and that bands sign all three deals to us. We own the masters for life. I mean, like really, really tough deals.
Now, I wasn’t the owner. These are not my deals, so don’t kill the messenger. I was just abiding by the rules of the company. So there were a tonne of bands that I couldn’t sign because they didn’t want to do these deals. I tried to sign Limp Bizkit, I tried to sign System of A Down, Deftones. Those are some some misses. Pantera. The first big miss of my career was Pantera. I was the first guy to offer Pantera a record deal. Nobody else was trying to sign them at the time. I was the first and we couldn’t close the deal because they didn’t like the Roadrunner deal.
“Most of the misses were due to reasons beyond my control but there were a few, like In This Moment or Five Finger Death Punch that I just genuinely didn’t see and that’s fine. Everybody has those.”
Like you said earlier, it was a crazy time, some incredible moments. Were there any campaigns you worked on where you’ve looked at it and thought ‘this epitomises everything Roadrunner stands for?
“That’s a hard question to answer but maybe the first Slipknot record. If you think about Slipknot as a band, Joey was a complete Roadrunner historian. When I first flew out to see Slipknot live and I met Joey backstage after the show, all he wanted to do was talk about, you know, Deicide records and Obituary and, you know, made it a point to mention, like, bands nobody knew of like Kinetic Dissent, failed Roadrunner bands that nobody even knew about and he wanted to show me that he knew all that stuff. He was a total historian.
If you think about that, the first Slipknot record, I know it fell under the nu-metal genre at the time, but it really was an undefinable record. It had every style, it had death metal, it had black metal, it had speed metal, it had nu-metal. That record was just a melting pot of every style and they had just put it all into this unique brew. It was incredible, and it still is incredible, it will be regarded as one of the greatest metal of records of all time. 100 years from now people will be listening to that record. So, that record really just encompasses the entire past of Roadrunner as written by a guy who was a Roadrunner historian. Then you look at the whole visual angle of it, how unique it was visually, and that ties into King Diamond. People thought that about King Diamond when he came out, that was unseen at the time. So I really think that the Slipknot campaign, and that record just ties the whole prior history of Roadrunner together into one.
“So that was a hugely important one for us, but also Type O Negative Bloody Kisses. That was the first Gold Record we ever had. The first time we had a radio hit in America. That record broke down so many barriers and it was not unlike Slipknot. It was not an overnight success that just came out of the gate and blew up. It took over two years for that Type O’ Negative record to go gold and for it to be a big thing. It just slowly kept building and building and building. That was an incredible success story. Probably my favourite one of all time because it was the first time I’d ever have a Gold record. What an amazing thing that reaches the masses that way and crosses over outside of the metal world into the mainstream. That was incredible.”
Going back there were a lot of other great metal labels appearing around that time. Music For Nations, Noise, Nuclear Blast, Century Media. What was the rivalry like?
“First of all, those are all amazing labels, right? To this day, I mean major respect for Metal Blade. Metal Blade is the one label that’s just never changed. It is the ultimate metal label. I guess you could say Nuclear Blast as well. The core the mission has never changed. It never deviated and, well, Metal Blade is called Metal Blade. It’s gotta be metal with a name like that, what else can you do? So, just such respect for those labels. Even a label like Earache, that’s now just reinvented itself and is signing all these rock bands and having tremendous success. I mean, I have such respect for these labels and the people behind them.
“To be honest, I wasn’t really competing with them at the time. I mean I was, yes, I was competing with Earache in that death metal period of Roadrunner. You know? The death metal period from like ’88 to like ’92 when we had so many death metal bands we called it the ‘-tion’-era… Suffocation, Malevolent Creation, Immolation… I guess I was really going head-to-head with Earache during that period, but that was just one period. We never wanted to be an extreme metal label. We were never going to be as cool as Earache Records. Look at the logo and like they were the extreme metal Gods. That was the label, you know? They were the boutique Extreme Metal label and nobody was better at it than them.
“One of the Deicide stories, the famous Deicide story that everybody knows is how Glen marched into my office, threw the demo down and said, ‘Sign us asshole,’ and then stormed out. That story has become an urban legend in that the way I discovered Deicide.”
But we never wanted to be that like. Cees, the owner, was always determining the vision of Roadrunner and he always wanted us to just not stay in one thing too long, to stay on the cutting edge… move with the times. By the time ’93/’94 rolled around, he wouldn’t let me sign up metal. He was done with death metal. Gotta find the next thing. Let’s move on. We never wanted to be a boutique label. We never wanted to be in extreme label. We never wanted to be a label like Earache.
“We wanted to just be a bigger picture label that could do anything and that’s exactly what we did. We moved on. We even went into mainstream rock with bands like Nickelback. That’s also why it’s named Roadrunner because Roadrunner doesn’t put you into a box. Roadrunner is like Sony, or Atlantic, or CBS or Geffen you don’t have a picture. When you think of Metal Blade or Nuclear Blast, or Earache, right away you picture heavy metal and he never wanted Roadrunner to be that. That’s why it was named recause that Roadrunner could be anything.”
If you could do it again now, who would the four captains be?
“If I could do it again? Obviously, I’m thinking in terms of Roadrunner… I would have picked the same captains. But again, once again, I would have extended the opportunity to Adam D. I would have tried to get Max Cavalera. Like I said, the obvious choices are the obvious. As far as looking at people past those days. I mean, obviously, Matt, you know, Mike Portnoy, or even John Petrucci from Dream Theater. These guys are a legendary Roadrunner band that weren’t, I don’t think, with Roadrunner in 2005. So they weren’t even a consideration.
“But either of those guys. Mike Portnoy lives for fucking shit like this, setting up bands. That’s what the guy lives for. He’s amazing at that. So, yeah, Mike Portnoy. He would have been an obvious team captain. John Petrucci, too, he could easily do it. Who else, as far as bands, that came after that? Joe from Gojira would have crushed as a team captain. God, who else? I’m just trying to think of bands that came after that…”
Would you go with Nickelback again?
“Well, we never wanted anyone from Nickelback to be a team captain, but we wanted Nickelback on the record. They were a tremendous part of the success of Roadrunner. Nickelback was one of the best things that happened for metal fans. They allowed Roadrunner to stay on its mission. It allowed it to exist, you know, to be financially secure. I signed Gojira to a very lucrative deal. I mean, it was not cheap to sign Gojira, but I had the money to do it because fucking Nickelback was crushing, you know?
“Nickelback was a great thing for metal, a great thing for Roadrunner. I wanted them on the record. Sadly, we couldn’t get anyone from Nickelback, but it was very important for me personally, to have Nickelback on the record. Not to mention Cees wanted it. The guy that signed Nickelback wanted it as well.
“As far as new people since then, you know, I would say, you know, Mike Portnoy, John Petrucci, one of those guys, and Joe from Gojira. I think those would have been like the next obvious team captain choices and, again, revisiting it with Max and Adam D. But, if you’re gonna open it up to just the metal world in general, I could name 400 people that could be team captains. Scott Ian or, fuck, Zakk Wylde… we could be here forever.”
Just to wrap up, then. We’ve talked about Roadrunner being a label that transcended genres and was more than just an extreme metal label. There’s been a lot of talk about heavy music being dead again. What is your thought about the state of heavy music in 2023?
“The great thing about metal is metal never dies. It never goes away. It just goes in waves. It could go up here, and then it can go down a little bit. Have a little bit of a lull, then go back up. It comes in waves, and you never can count metal out because metal fans are the greatest fucking fans on the planet. Like there’s nobody like metal fans as they’re never gonna forget metal. Anyone who loves metal now is probably going to love it when they’re 80 years old. You never lose your passion for metal, so no, it’s never gonna go away.
“It just evolves. I mean like, look at right now one of the biggest bands, and I wouldn’t call them a metal band… Turnstile. One of the big Roadrunners success stories post my era. I left in 2012, and the biggest band that Roadrunner has signed since then is Turnstile. And it’s not metal. They come from a hardcore background. Now, all of a sudden, everybody wants Turnstile. All A&R labels are scouring the fucking planet as they want to find the next Turnstile. Maybe that’s the next wave that’s gonna ride for a few years, but metal just always evolves and changes; it’s not going away.”