If you don’t know the name Michael Alago, perhaps you may have seen his name on an album cover from Elektra or Geffen during the 80’s and 90’s. He became friends with the likes of John Lydon, Cyndi Lauper, and Cherry Vanilla, and has worked with bands like Metallica and White Zombie to name a few. Now working in both music and photography, he is the focus of the documentary Who the F**k is That Guy? The Fabulous Journey of Michael Alago, coming to select theaters on July 21 then on VOD and iTunes on July 25.
World Film Geek had a wonderful conversation with Alago about his experiences and the documentary.
Thank you so much for talking about your experiences and I just absolutely love the title of the documentary.
[Laughs] It’s so funny because our director Drew Stone came up with the title. It’s like he says in the beginning of the film, that there is this guy out every night! And he would say, “Who the f**k is that guy?” So, for me, it’s like I’ve kind of heard that before, but not really. So to make it really complete, I told Drew that we have to add my favorite word “fabulous” as “The Fabulous Journey of Michael Alago” and it all fell into place and felt complete to me.
So, in the documentary, your sister mentioned that you always loved music. What music did you start listening to as a kid and what influenced you to get into punk rock music?
Wow that’s quite a two-part question that’s diverse. Well, at about 13 or 14, I began listening to AM radio. In New York, we had a radio station called WABC. Back in the day, things were not formatted the way they are now. They would play the same damn Top 40 songs. Back in the day when Dan Ingram was on the radio, you heard everything from Aretha Franklin to Grand Funk Railroad to Rare Earth. I mean, it was a syrupy Top 40. It was a wide variety of things.
My musical tastes got informed by AM Radio, Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert, Soul Train, and Dick Clark’s American Bandstand. So I had a real Panasonic record player and I would go to the local record store and for 59 cents, I could get a 7” 45 RPM. It was wildly diverse as my musical tastes have always been.
So, fast forward a little bit. The Village Voice became my Bible for what was happening at the clubs. By 1977, when punk reared its beautiful, ugly little head, I was already listening to a wide variety of music. So, I saw this group, Flamingo and the Damned, coming over and The Dead Boys were playing with them for a three-night weekend at CBGB’s. So, I went to that and I lost my mind. For me, it was always about the energy of punk rock and there were certain performers that spoke to me like Stiv Bators from the Dead Boys.
But, I saw so many things back in the day that I don’t even know where to begin. I was a young kid coming to Manhattan from Brooklyn going to the Bowery with my trusty Minolta camera, and I went to every show that I could possibly go to, whether it was Patti Smith, the U.K. band Chelsea, I saw everything because it was in my blood that I had to hear and see all this stuff. I felt privileged to see all of this because back them, it wasn’t all formatted so I felt I could go see Black Flag or go to Max’s Kansas City to see Cherry Vanilla or Suicide. I felt blessed to live in New York during that time period and get to see and hear everything.
That’s awesome! Well, I have to let this out. One of my all-time favorite bands is in fact, Metallica. Living in New York back in the day, I got to see them four times in three years, MSG, Nassau Coliseum, Giants Stadium to name some of the places. I dug up my copy of Ride the Lightning and I happen to come across your name in the credits they thanked. For those who haven’t seen the documentary, can you tell me how you got interested in Metallica?
I’m going to try be not so long-winded [Laughs]. I started doing A&R for Elektra Records in 1983. I got very friendly with a bunch of independent labels. One of those labels was Megaforce. They were truly a small indie label at the time. I was speaking to Johnny Z[azula, founder], and he said, “Michael, we have this band that we think is going to be huge. We don’t think we can get them there on Megaforce. They’re called Raven [British metal band founded in 1975, still active today]. You gotta do something here.” I think I gave Megaforce $5,000 for a demo for Raven.
And they gave me the demo back but during that time period, I heard Kill ‘Em All [Metallica’s debut album]. It ripped my f**kin’ head off! I had no idea what the f**k was going on. It didn’t sound like old school metal. These were young people who were mixing and matching all forms of hard rock and punk and classic metal to make this thing! It was a very unique thing called Metallica.
So, I get the demos back from Raven and they were excellent. But, my heart wasn’t really there. It was almost a bit too traditional for me. I’ve never been a person with tradition. I always loved things that were out of the norm and like I mentioned before, Suicide in the 70’s for me, was the greatest thing I ever heard in my whole life.
So, I got to see Metallica when they played on the West Coast. I thought it was amazing and I gave Lars [Ulrich, co-founder and drummer] my business card and I told them I was an A&R person at Elektra and I really wanted to work with them. I was new at Elektra and I didn’t know what to tell the people at Elektra so I kind of let it slide even though I had just passed on Raven. Lars called me up and told me they were going to play Roseland [popular venue in NYC; ed note: I saw them there at the 1998 Garage Inc. tour] this summer, the summer of 1984 with Anthrax and Raven.
I went to see them. Like I said, they ripped my head off. It was exciting. I thought James Hetfield [co-founder, lead vocals and rhythm guitars] was an extraordinary ringleader on stage. I was fascinated by how he looked. I always told people that he looked like he had good teeth [Laughs] and they thought I was nuts. I mean, it was the greatest thing I ever saw when I saw him smile. So, I was a little drunk at the show and I went backstage and bolted for the door. I told the guys, “I love you! I have to have you in my life! Come to my office!” And they had that look on their face that read, “This is an A&R guy from a major label?” [Laughs] I couldn’t help it. I was young, I was gay. And they were like, “What was that thing that just flew in their dressing room?”
But you know what? The very next day, they were at my office at Elektra. I got them beer and Chinese food. We all got along like a house on fire. I gave them cassettes, remember it’s 1984, of everything on Elektra from the MC5 to The Doors and The Stooges, whatever was the present day. Cliff Burton, the bass player, may he Rest in Peace, was like, “Hmmm. You have this label called Nonesuch”. That was a very esoteric label at the time. All Cliff wanted was Simon and Garfunkel or field recordings, you know those things like John Lomax. So, I gave everything to Cliff on Nonesuch on vinyl. He was a happy camper.
We struck a deal with Megaforce where they would get a point on the next two records in perpetuity, and it felt like Metallica never left my office after that. It was really quite extraordinary how that all happened. And you know, they felt my energy. I was the same age as them and I was going to get s**t done for them and that it was Elektra, which already had a very rich history.
How you were approached by Drew Stone to make a documentary about yourself and how long did production take?
The documentary took almost four years. I can’t remember how long it took my parts because I just got so embroiled in the whole thing of things like, “Oh, we’re going to Malibu to John Lydon’s house. Oh, Cyndi [Lauper] is in New York and she is upstairs at Sardi’s because it has a beautiful backdrop.” So, I think the whole process took about four years and I was so engrossed in the making of it as was Drew Stone.
So, from my understanding, you are currently a photographer and have gotten rave for your work. What led you to pursue a career in that as opposed to music?
So, here we are in 2017. I still work on records. It could be a Cyndi Lauper record, or a punk rock record. I recently got my friend John Joseph for the band called Bloodclot. I work with Metal Blade Records because I love him and I love the energy of their music.
Well, you did ask me about photography. So, back in the day, when I made money, I spent it on current photography, mostly male erotica. That was my fantasy. That’s what I love. So, knowing that and when I stopped doing A&R after about twenty-five years, I thought to myself that I was also a visual person. And I decided that I was going to take pictures.
So, I made a little book with Mike Gallagher. I gave him $5,000 and it was this little teeny softcover book that was sixty pages long called rough gods. So, rough gods were pictures of men who were big, beefy, and tattooed. And that was my passion because that was the style of man I liked to look at. Well, that connected with a certain group of people and we made 2,000 copies of the book. The entire 2,000 run sold out!
Fast forward a little bit, a company called Bruno Gmünder saw my book and they decided to hire me do to more photography books. So right now, I have three books out, two with Bruno Gmünder, and I am working on a book of erotic Polaroids that I took in the 80’s and 90’s of people I picked up on the street. I think it’s going to be very interesting and very different. Definitely very provocative. But, I like being provocative and I think it will stimulate people one way or another [Laughs].
I’m always going to love taking pictures. Whether it is with an iPhone, a Polaroid, or a 35mm, they’ve all been my mediums. I have worked with all three mediums to take pictures. And you know what? They may not always look perfect, but if you feel it, as long as you have that feeling across the picture, then that’s all that matters and it doesn’t have to look great.
Same thing with music. Technically, it doesn’t have to be great. But, if you’re saying something, and there is a feeling to what you’re seeing and listening to, then you know what? The artist, the model, are doing their job and I did my job. And that’s why things come out great.
Well, it is truly safe to say we now know Who the F**k That Guy Is.
[Laughs] Yes we do!
This great documentary comes to select theaters on July 21, followed by a VOD and iTunes release on July 25. Thank you again Michael for the wonderful talk about both the film and your experiences!
Thank you so much, I really appreciate it!
A special Thank You goes to Katrina Wan PR and Michael Alago for making this interview possible. For more on Michael Alago, check out his official Twitter page.