Metal Madness - the Root of All Evil's 666teenth Anniversary Party
Wednesday 30 July @ 13:03:41
by Tom Hallet
A flickering, ominous glow from six half-melted black candles lights up the face of the man sitting, enshrouded in shadows and mystery, across the table from me. His familiar, long, dark mane of hair has been shorn to the scalp, bringing out the wicked twinkle in his eyes and the stark, primeval outlines of his multiple tattoos all the more. His voice, instantly recognizable from the sixteen years he’s spent as The Voice Of Metal on Twin Cities public radio station KFAI’s “Root Of All Evil” (1 a.m.- 6 a.m. Saturday nights on 90.3 or 106.7 FM), is surprisingly soothing, notched down several dial-spins from his standard hyper-sonic on-air delivery. I’ve just asked the man who’s hosted the longest running metal radio program in Twin Cities history; the man who’s responsible for St. Paul indie record shop Root Cellar Records; the man who helms one of the last bastions for metal/hard rock at his own Root Of All Evil record label, what his first major musical influences were. His reply is as shocking—nay, more diabolical, even—than the crudest, harshest, most spine-chilling black death metal cut he’s ever spun on his show.
Earl Root on stage
“I was actually into the bubblegum stuff bigtime,” he reveals, taking advantage of my jaw dropping to lean back in his chair and take a satisfied swig off of an ice-cold bottle of soda. “The Partridge Family, DiFranco Family, Ohio Express, the Lemon Pipers. My first 45 was Ohio Express’ ‘Yummy Yummy Yummy.’ If you listen to it real hard, the snare drum isn’t a snare drum. Because the snare, after they bounced it down so many times and ping ponged it on the four-track, it’s handclaps! Yeah! They’re all handclaps in a hollow chamber. Early production notes that I learned about stuff. And if you listen to the original flip side of it, ‘Zig Zag,’ it’s the same song backwards. It’s ‘Yummy’ backwards.” After unleashing this devastating little tidbit of local rock history, 41-year-old Earl Root, on the eve of the 16th anniversary of his radio show, the 10th anniversary of his store, and the fifth anniversary of the Root Of All Evil record label, proceeds to lay bare the details that shaped, formed, and informed the rock ’n’ roll enigma that he indubitably is.
Already fascinated by music at an early age (he’d once taken a friend’s piano lessons for him as a grade-schooler, and still credits that experience with teaching him the basics of music theory), Earl was like a ripe piece of fruit on the vine when a wild, thrill-seeking kid moved in next door to his parents. “The guy was two years older than me, and he came over and had this really cool old Schwinn bike, with the steering wheel and a big sissy bar and a big fork, and I thought that was so cool. I was like 13 then. He came over to my house, and I’d gotten the console stereo from my folks. Now, my parents had told me I could have the console, eight-track, recordable turntable because they had bought me this little tiny green thing that I used to have to hold the speakers up to my ears! They said if you clean up all these old toys, you can have the console. I would buy my vinyl, record it on eight-track, and then put the record back. Anyway, the neighbor came over, and he goes, ‘Dude have you heard the new KQ92 on FM?’ And I was like, ‘FM? You mean they have something other than pig reports and the airplane deals?’”
Listening to the fledgling KQRS fed Earl’s mind even more, piquing his curiosity and driving him closer and closer to buying his first real rock album. “The DJs were all stoned! They’d play the whole side of a record, and you could hear the needle drop and all the sound in the background. And they were playing all kinds of shit I’d never heard, like Frank Zappa. So I went back to my friend and said, ‘Where do you get this stuff?’ And he said, ‘Harpo’s and Hot Licks in St. Louis Park and Hopkins.’ And he played me Aerosmith’s Rocks, and I was just like, ‘Wow! That is the coolest music I’ve ever heard.’ So I went to my mom and said, ‘Mom I’ve got a turntable now, I gotta get some records. You gotta take me to Harpos’ and Hot Licks.’ And it was a headshop at the time, too, so there was a bunch of stoners and longhairs in there, and I was just terrified. Anyway, they had this big display right on the end cap, with all these space ships just hanging, and the record didn’t say anything on it at all, it was Yes’ Fragile. But I was just so mesmerized by it, the cover was so cool. So she gave me $5, the record was $4.89 with tax, and that was my first record. I get it home, I dropped it on, and the very first song was “Roundabout,” which was one of the songs that I’d heard on KQ, and I’d never known who it was! So how hooked was I then? I was like, ‘Ahhhgghh!”
As he listened more to KQ, U100, and other local stations, as well as haunting area record shops and getting in good with the clerks to have first dibs at cool new releases and imports, Earl started to realize that he wasn’t satisfied just hearing the music; he wanted to create it, as well. “My next records were Black Sabbath’s Paranoid and Kiss’ Dressed To Kill, those were the first three records I ever bought,” he recalls with glee. “Then later, I got into Merciful Fate and Venom, and stuff like that. But Sabbath, Kiss, Yes, Rush, that was the first stuff I got into. ‘And my mom would be, why do you like this?’ And I would be like, ‘Well, listen to this! Listen to that guy playing guitar!’ And she was like, ‘Well, that’s pretty prolific.’ And I said, ‘I wanna learn how to play guitar like that.’ And she was like, ‘Well, you’re pretty musically adept, you can sing and stuff, but do you think you can play?’”
Root took this challenge to heart, and before long he’d convinced his mom to pitch in and help him buy his first acoustic. He may not have said as much to her at the time, but she seemed to recognize that music offered the awkward, socially shy youngster an out he hadn’t been able to find with the church, school or sports. And though she definitely didn’t understand at first why her son was absolutely spellbound by hard rock, and especially metal, she eventually came to grips with it.
“My mom asked me why I liked the new bands so much,” he muses, shaking his head as if he’s still amazed that somebody could NOT love the music he loved. “And I said, ‘They’re just better!’ And she said, ‘They’re so evil sounding!’ And I go, ‘It’s scary isn’t it?’ I tried to use logic with her, and I said, scary movies, it’s just like that, or a ride at the State Fair, and she did understand the logic of that. And I told her, with music, for me, I’d turn off the lights and put my headphones on and just sit there and let it mesmerize me and engulf me. And I was actually getting more into the music than I was people, because people were just so fucking cruel. Kids are very cruel, you know that. But if that hadn’t happened, I probably wouldn’t be a metalhead.” Whether or not he would’ve taken the same paths that have led to his undisputed position as Top Metal Guru of the Cities is up for debate, but one thing’s for sure—he never would’ve had the empathy he does for artists and bands had he not put in the years of sweat, blood and pain he has perfecting his much sought-after guitar skills. “She actually helped me buy my first one,” he says with obvious fondness. “It was an acoustic, and I got lessons at Schmitt Music Center, where I learned ‘Michael Row Your Boat Ashore’ (laughs) and Bob Dylan tunes.”
But the acoustic was merely a tool for Root to use to sharpen his skills and toughen up his fingers so he could realize his true dream—buying and mastering an electric guitar with a boss amp. “I wanted an electric guitar, and so I started saving up for that. You should always learn to play acoustic first. So I bought a $115 combination, I got an amp, a little tiny three watt amplifier, a black Northland copy of a Strat guitar, a cord, a strap, a handful of picks, and I thought it was pretty cool. And at the time I was listening to Bloodrock and Brownsville Station, and I learned pretty much the entire School Punks record and Bloodrock 2. That was heavy shit to me!”
By the time he left high school and started living on his own, he’d already been in several bands (including the legendary Deranged) and was well on his way to local and regional fame with the late, much-lamented metal band Disturbed, which featured lead vocalist Jim Odegard—who now fronts Earl’s current outfit, God-Awful—along with several other former members of that band. He’d also graduated from that hundred-dollar beater guitar to a sleek, power-hungry axe that he’d been dreaming of owning for years. “So I got a real guitar, finally,” he chuckles. “A Les Paul. I think either me or my mom combined paid for my first guitar. But I decided I needed a real guitar. At B-Sharp they had a used 1970 deluxe with natural wood grain, solid body with two mini-humbuckers in it. A sweet-ass guitar. I think it was $550. And I went and cut a bunch of grass and raked leaves and shoveled snow, and gave ‘em every penny I made. And I got so close by Christmas that my dad went and paid it off. (laughs) And he’ll say it was the worst thing that he ever did for me.”
Earl’s father may not have thought buying a guitar was a great decision at the time, but he could hardly have known that his son would soon be launching the first of what’s now become three distinct, separate rock empires: The Root Of All Evil radio show on KFAI. “I stumbled upon KFAI because I got cable television in my first real apartment,” he says, opening a fresh soda and snuffing one of the dying black candles with his fingers. “By then I was in Jet Stream, I think. That was mainly a cover band. My first real originals were in Deranged, I guess. But I’m flipping through the channels, and I come across a screen with music playing in the background, and it turns out to be Samhain. And it was Peter Davis doing the Your Flesh Hour, it was a fanzine with a radio show. That was probably in ‘81. Crazy times.”
Times were going to get crazier, if Earl had anything to do with it. And he did. After several forays into KFAI’s studios to help out around the station and learn anything and everything he could, he finally slipped as comfortably into a slot as if he’d always been there—and maybe he had, at least in spirit, anyway. “So the first time I’m on KFAI, I’m on Angela’s show, her show is called ‘The Angela of Death’—I came up with the name—and I programmed the entire show, on a one-hour tape, had it all timed out. And she wouldn’t listen to me, the whole thing was chaos, it was terrible.” He leans forward, gazing intently into my eyes with all the seriousness of a priest or a doctor. “And the program director came back and said, ‘She cannot take over that show. You have to do that show.’ And so that’s when we did a promo for the show, it was basically, ‘Grab Your Brain Buckets, kids! IT’S TIME FOR METAL!’ And it was super hard at the time, ragin’ stuff. It might’ve been Exciter, Piledriver or Bulldozer!”
He becomes more excited and animated as he runs through the list of bands he first played (and sometimes first broke) on the airwaves. “An array of old, old bands. So I decided that it would be fun to do the show, come down and play some of my metal records, and tell people about metal and new shit that was going on, and also plug the band’s shows! And it was amazing how many people showed up just because I listed it on the radio. I mean, I just thought that was fantastic. I was all over the radio station, I just couldn’t do enough for them. I did a morning show with Patti Walsh, she used to do a show called ‘So What.’ We did a morning show called ‘Get Up And Die,’ from 6 to 8 or 9 a.m., we played The Mentors, Black Sabbath, the MC5. It was just fucking fantastic. And I’m in my 17th year now. Crazy.”
But before he could begin his inevitable push towards total rock domination, Root had to come up with a cool name for his new show—after all, he couldn’t very well expect to get far calling his program “The Angela Of Death.” He laughs out loud as he recounts the origin of the Root Of All Evil name. “I called my mom when I was ready to do this radio thing, and she knew how much I loved radio because she used to catch me all the time with my little transistor under the pillows. I’d listen to WCCO’s ‘Mystery Theatre,’ and then I’d buzz over to U100 and listen to ‘Boogie Check.’ That was hysterical, and it actually ties into my show. So I go, ‘Mom, I’m going to be on the radio, I’m going to be a DJ!’ She said, ‘Well, you do have a very nice voice!’ And I go, ‘I have to have one of those cool DJ handles!’ She goes, ‘How about Rooty Tooty or Rootin’ Tootin?’ And I was like, ‘Mom, I’m doing a metal show, I can’t be called Rooty Tooty!’ And she goes, ‘Oh, you’re playing that evil music, huh? Well, why don’t you just call it the Root Of All Evil?’ And I was like, ‘That’s brilliant!’”
Armed with a cool “handle” for his show, a killer band, and what seemed like an obstacle-free future in metal, Root was absolutely devastated when he got the news that his 21-year-old brother had committed suicide. It was, he says now, another of those life-changing losses that informs his current interest in and love of the dark, shadowy world of death, or black, metal. “I was 23,” he says in a hushed voice, his soda forgotten in front of him, the candles now down to three timid stubs. “That was very heavy. I mean, like most brothers, we didn’t always get along, but I still loved him, he was still my brother. He was very anti-social in school, and he didn’t have very many friends, and then he met this girl—it could’ve been a genetic thing—but I know that he got hooked up with a real trash-bag bitch, and she was really scum. That was the major love of his life, and I’m sure that she played his cards, and fucked him around. He called me the night that he did it, too, which was very strange. I almost felt that there was something wrong, but I wasn’t paying attention, I was trying to figure out why my brother was calling me, drunk off his ass, and telling me like, the worst jokes in the world! He just had the worst jokes.
“And my dad called me the next day and said that they’d found him. And on top of it, what’s worse, my mom found him. It couldn’t be like, Walt the Janitor, it had to be my mom bringing over curtains for his new apartment. My mom is a saint, if there was anybody that I’d knight for sainthood, it would be my mother. She is the sweetest, kindest, most generous person I’ve ever met in my life. They do not make that caliber of woman anymore. If you quote me for just one thing, my mom is the greatest, just the greatest. The greatest person I’ve ever met.”
Following the tragic loss of his brother, Root was involved in a serious on-the-job injury, and was forced to seek alternative methods of employment. He turned to his one true love, his sometime-salvation and his life-long obsession: Music. Already the owner of more than 20,000 albums by that time, he began selling doubles and other vinyl goodies at record conventions. That eventually led to his opening the first incarnation of Root Cellar Records, the record shop on Snelling Avenue near O’ Gara’s. The wily trader soon outgrew that location, and moved his uncountable stacks of wax, CDs, tapes and 45s to the shop’s current spot, at 636 North Snelling Avenue in St. Paul.
Specializing in metal, but also carrying every possible genre of music (my fave section is still “Batchelor Pad Music,” how cool is that?), with prices ranging from 50-cents to whatever the latest import’s going for, the shop is, hands down, St. Paul’s premier source for the serious music fan.
Earl’s staff at the store is more like family to him—indeed, shop cohort Tim Honebrink doubles as the Root Of All Evil radio show’s engineer/on-air foil, while fellow god-awful axeman John Majetich handles promo duties for the label—and clerks includes such local rock luminaries as Blue Violets’ head honcho John Ewing. Today, you can shop at Root Cellar from the comfort of your own home, by surfing to http://www.rootofallevil.com on the Web, where you can also check out the record label and info about the KFAI program. But that would be lazy and stupid if you live here in the metro area—so get yer ass down the the shop, ASAP, man!
So, I say to Earl, are you ready for another soda yet? Because I’m hot as hell, the candles are almost burned out, and we haven’t even begun to talk about the record label yet. “Hell yes, I’ll take another soda!” he hollers, and for a moment the pall of memory, the shadow of recollection that had settled over his face lifted and he let a bright grin scurry across his lips. The label, he says, is his pride and joy, next to his wife of over two decades and his just-turned-21 son. (“If I never did a damn thing right in my life, I did that right,” he says of his family, pride beaming from his eyes) Root Of All Evil Records was born out of necessity as much as it was for convenience, he confesses.
At the time, a friend who worked at the shop (Brian Huebner, who’s now on Earl’s label with his band, Cold Colours) with him offered to help kick off a label, and Earl realized that it was the next logical step. His tenure with Disturbed had ended badly, with the band being awarded a contract with a major label just as they imploded. He’s still heartsick about the situation today, and prefers not to get too deeply into specifics about the deal, except to say that he all but quit playing music for nearly eight years as a result of the breakup. Thankfully, for Earl and fans of heartfelt, from-the-gut rock and roll everywhere, Root is now currently a satisfied member of two up-and-coming metal acts, god-awful and Aesma Daeva. But more about that in a moment. Back up, Earl, I say, and tell me how the label got started.
He shifts in his chair, taking obvious joy in recounting the tale of the birth of Root Of All Evil Records, the blush of success lighting his countenance. “We decide we’re gonna put out a compilation between Root O’ All Evil Records and Left Alone Creations, and we’ll give out all 900 copies at Metal Fest. I think the compilation cost me less than a thousand dollars. And that’s when I decided that I could do this. Because I really liked the bands, I thought it was a great promotional tool, we got ‘em out to all the people and the radio stations. And it was all the first ROAE bands—Reverend Poky Bunge, Disturbed, Dwole, Le’Rue DeLashay, Malmstorm and Gotterdammerung, the last two which never came out, by the way. It wasn’t a smashing success initially, but we got some stuff together, some trades with other smaller labels, so I put out another couple of releases. Then I put out Cold Colour’s first record, and it was pretty hard to do, to make them focus and work on such a small budget—most of the records are done under three grand—some of them under a grand. I love it though. I still do. You can always do better, but it comes down to time and the effort and the energy, and this stuff rocks.”
He continues to play guitar with god-awful and Aesma Daeva, an operatic metal phenomenon he signed to ROAE Records, and says that nothing compares, not his radio show, not the shop, not even the thrill of discovering, signing and launching the career of a band he truly believes in, to the awesome power and universal One-ness he feels when he’s onstage performing in front of scores of dedicated rock and roll fans. “It’s metal, it’s supposed to be fun,” he insists. “I’ll never forget playing Metal Fest for four thousand people with Disturbed. I’ll never forget playing in Mexico City with Aesma Daeva, we played in front of four thousand people for a thing called Festival Obscuro. We played with Tristania, and His Infernal Majesty, and a local band called Maladora. The whole show was great, probably one of the best experiences of my life.”
For now, he admits, he’s content to take the stage whenever possible, but dreams anxiously of the next gig—in this case, playing before thousands of loyal metal fans, curious music fanatics, and club regulars at Minneapolis’ top rock club, First Avenue. Root holds the venue in particularly high regard, and considers manager Steve McLellan a true friend from way back. “He’s been one of my best friends for years....my favorite quote from him was, ‘Earl, of all the metal bands on the scene, I dislike you the least.’ (cracks up laughing) But seriously, First Avenue is the best, and so I wanna be as big of a supporter and player for one of the greatest sanctions for true rock and roll in the Twin Cities for over three decades as I can. The 16th anniversary of the radio show, the 10 year anniversary of the shop, and the five year anniversary of the label! How cool is that? Why am I doing the show now? Well, for some reason, the number six is real important to metal guys. So why not do it on the 16th year?”
He’s also philosophical about his status as a “grand old man” of metal, and continues to derive as big a thrill from the whole business as he did back when he first discovered the links between Frank Zappa and Iron Maiden, The Archies and The Misfits, “Yummy Yummy Yummy” and “Inna-Gadda-Da-Vida.” “How simple it is,” he mugs, quaffing the last drop of his soda. “Metal is silly, and stupid, and dumb, and as fun as you can possibly make it. The highlight of my recent weekend in Chicago at Classic Metal Fest was Metal Lucifer. Every single song they sang had Heavy Metal in the title. It was just crazy! I listen to a lot of heavy metal, really loudly, and I really enjoy it. It makes me feel really young, I really enjoy hard music.” And though he’s not exactly a big fan of the overproduced, mainstream pap one hears on commercial radio or MTV these days, he’s typically underwhelmed and stoic about the state of rock and roll in the early Oughts.
As for rumors among the local rock cognescenti that he’s been under the weather due to medical problems, he insists that he’s coping just fine and that, “I’ve had some major medical issues, and I am triumphing over my disease. I’m not triumphing over the black, but I’m moving along.” ‘Nuff said.
As the last candle burns down to a tiny spark, sputtering and spitting tiny shards of blue fire out of its defeated wick; shiny, black wax drooling over the sides of its copper tray, Earl stands to leave. I rise to thank him and wish him a fond farewell, and he offers a final, parting word that pretty much describes Earl Root, The Root Of All Evil radio show and label, and Root Cellar Records’ ethos in a nutshell: “Listen, man. I don’t look at the things that have happened as bad, because truthfully, I’ve learned a lot, and I’m much happier where I am now. I have a seventies mentality when it comes to my record label. I really, personally, like these bands. These guys rock! It doesn’t matter what style of music they’re doing, whatever it is, if they rock really hard in that style of music, I think that’s really cool! That’s why I love the bands that are on my label, because they all rock really hard within the context of the music that they’re playing.
“All I know is when it comes to that kind of stuff, I’m doing what I’m doing because I really enjoy it. I really, thoroughly, truly do enjoy what I’m doing. I mean, it’s heartbreaking at times, and it’s backbreaking, and it’s long hours and it’s very little pay, and it seems almost like a cause, or something grander than I am at times. And it’s not that I get overly mystified by it, or freaked out by it, I do it because I really enjoy it. (smirks and arches one eyebrow devilishly) And I know I can make a living at it without hurting people.” And with that, he’s gone, a swift, rushing black shadow melting into the night as if he were one with it. And after sharing six hours, six candles, and six sodas with the man, I have no doubt that he really and truly is.
The Root Of All Evil’s Six Six Sixteenth Anniversary show will unfold at First Avenue and the Seventh Street Entry on Sun., Aug. 3. All-ages from 3 p.m.-7 p.m., 21+ 7 p.m.-close. $4 adv. $6 door. Participating artists are listed in sidebar of this article. Call First Avenue for more info at 612-338-8388.