Modern digital avenues for music discovery can make it hard to remember what “underground” used to mean. Before the Internet, underground music was hard to find and often hard to even know about—and that amplified its significance for the outcasts who loved it. In the mid-80s, when speed was king in heavy music, a small cult grew up around what’s now widely known as doom metal—a subgenre that burned slow, pulling stubbornly in an unfashionable direction. One of the most widely known passwords for initiates into this obscure faith was the name of Chicago band Trouble. 

Rooted in the worship of thee olde gods Black Sabbath (who had become a bit of a joke to mainstream listeners), doom’s universe of bone-chilling riffs, darkly epic lyrics, elongated gnarly jams, and colorful stoner-rock sonics was for years the domain of true believers alone. Without Trouble and their fellow travelers keeping the flame burning during those lean early days, we might never have gotten Sleep, Kyuss, Electric Wizard, or Yob.

Longtime Trouble front man Eric Wagner, who joined the band in its infancy in 1979 and left for the last time in 2008, died on Sunday, August 22. He was on tour in Fort Worth, Texas, with his group the Skull, which has included various other members of Trouble since forming in 2012. The doom-metal community, now a vast international subculture, is reeling—one of its titans has left this plane too soon, passing on at just 62.

The Skull’s most recent album, released in 2018

Eric Theodore Wagner was born in Aurora, Illinois, on April 24, 1959, and by age 18 he’d joined his first bands with friend and guitarist Bruce Franklin. In 1979 they responded to a local newspaper ad placed by guitarist Rick Wartell of the fledgling Trouble—he was looking for a singer-guitarist, and he got one of each. (Wartell and Franklin are the only constant members of the group across its entire history.) Trouble then moved to Chicago, picking up drummer Jeff “Oly” Olson and bassist Tim Ian Brown. 

By combining shadowy down-tuned riffs and lyrics suffused with Wagner’s distinctive and monumental vision of Christianity, Trouble would eventually become one of the heads on the Mount Rushmore of doom, alongside Candlemass, Pentagram, and Saint Vitus. In opposition to the equally young black-metal scene, Trouble played what their early label Metal Blade marketed as “white metal,” which spurned Satan to look toward heaven. In the mid-80s, while new-wave haircuts and synthesizers were taking over pop music, Wagner and company released the seminal albums Psalm 9, The Skull, and Run to the Light.

Trouble’s first two studio albums, from 1984 and 1985

“Trouble were the real kind of heavy,” says bassist and vocalist Scott Carlson, who’s played in groundbreaking metal bands Repulsion, Death, and Cathedral. “The Sabbath/Priest kind of heavy that you can’t achieve simply by down-tuning and a loud amplifier. Their very essence had weight. [Despite] my obsession with speed and extremity at the time, Trouble’s first two slow, doom-laden records were among my very favorites. I even named my first band, Tempter, after a Trouble song.

Two of Trouble’s 1990s releases

Trouble hit their stride with their three 90s albums: a self-titled LP, the psychedelic-leaning Manic Frustration, and Plastic Green Head, which showed Wagner’s deep love of the Beatles and Hendrix. But they were either too far ahead of their time or simply unable to find their audience, and after the last of these records dropped in 1995 they went on hiatus. Trouble would shortly reunite without Wagner, and in 2000 he returned to the band.

The only Lid record, released in 1997

Though Wagner would eventually leave Trouble again, as a musician he was a lifer—in 1996 he cofounded the group Lid, and in 2012 he joined Blackfinger and launched the Skull. When superfan Dave Grohl assembled his cameo-packed Probot project in 2004, Wagner was among the honored guests.

Blackfinger put out their second and last full-length in 2017.

In 2017 the Skull played with legendary proto-pagan band Coven at a Halloween gig I was lucky enough to see. “Twas a pleasure indeed to have the Skull and Eric Wagner with us on our Chicago All Hallows’ Eve ritual a few years back, and on several subsequent concerts,” says Coven singer Jinx Dawson. “Eric was a talented and generous-of-spirit man.” 

Erik Sugg of stygian North Carolina rockers Demon Eye shared a bill with the Skull in Raleigh when Wagner and his band were on tour with Saint Vitus, then again at the annual Maryland Doom Fest. “I remember being taken by how different his speaking voice was from his powerful singing voice,” Sugg says. “Eric gave me some great insight into singing rock ’n’ roll, and told me to always breathe like a newborn baby while you’re singing.” 

Sugg also remembers seeing Gregory Meleney of Portland heavy shredders Danava proselytizing for Wagner onstage. “He went off during the performance over how lame most doom bands were, and that everyone should listen to Trouble instead,” he says.

YouTube video
Trouble on a local cable show in 1982, performing material that would end up on Psalm 9 a few years later

Meleney grew up in Quincy, Illinois, and started playing guitar not long after Trouble put out their first album. “Eric was often alone whenever I had the pleasure of running into him,” Meleney says. “And he certainly was alone in owning the sound of that voice he had. You’ll hear the Trouble in other bands, but for me, I’ve never, ever heard Eric in any of those bands. Impossible to, really. When he spoke or sang he generally cut the air like a knife.” 

Founding Witch Mountain guitarist Rob Wrong, a former bandmate of Wagner’s in the Skull, feels privileged to have collaborated with him. “He was extremely passionate about music and his beliefs, and he wrote deep beautiful music and lyrics that reflected his life and everything he had taken in during his time on Earth,” Wrong says. “It was truly a blessing to be able to work with someone who understood music on a level that very few on this planet do.

Unfortunately, the Skull’s tour took them through some red states where Republican leaders have been fighting against COVID-19 mitigation efforts, just as the Delta variant surge began to explode. To make matters worse, they’d been on the road with COVID conspiracist Scott “Wino” Weinrich (formerly of Saint Vitus) and his band the Obsessed. Several people in the touring party reportedly contracted the virus, not just Wagner, but Wagner was unvaccinated himself. The Skull dropped off the tour after a show in Austin, Texas, on August 8.

According to bassist Ron Holzner, formerly of Trouble and currently in the Skull, Wagner smoked cigarettes, occasionally drank, and vaped. The singer had health issues, but Holzner says he’d managed to eliminate a few regular prescriptions by taking better care of himself and switching to a plant-based diet. Wagner was generally opposed to institutionalized medicine (who loves Big Pharma, right?), but he wouldn’t make an exception for the COVID vaccine—a tragic mistake.

Doom-metal band the Skull in 2021: Ron Holzner, Eric Wagner, Lothar Keller, Henry Vasquez, and Matt Goldsborough
The Skull in 2021: Ron Holzner, Eric Wagner, Lothar Keller, Henry Vasquez, and Matt Goldsborough Credit: Margaret Lord

“We argued about it, and he stood his ground on the matter,” Holzner says. “I always joked, ‘The World According to Eric Wagner—you should write a book.’ He lived his life his way.” Sadly, Wagner’s principles might’ve indirectly killed him—it’s impossible to know for sure, since we can’t replay the past three weeks with Wagner vaccinated to see what would’ve gone differently. But the vaccine has been exhaustively shown to greatly reduce the chances of serious illness or death, and Wagner died of COVID-related pneumonia.

“What’s really sad to me is that he was making some of the best music of his life in the Skull,” says Nathan Carson of Witch Mountain, who’d occasionally booked the Skull through his agency Nanotear. “He’d always been wise for his years, but now he actually had the years under his belt. All of this came through in the lyrics, the sound of his voice, and his stage presence. He was a master who everyone knows deserved to be better known and on bigger stages. And I am certain he had several more albums’ worth of timeless music ready to pour out, if only he’d cared enough to protect himself.”

Carson considers the members of the Skull his friends, but he doesn’t mince words about Wagner’s passing. “Drowning in your own lungs is a terrible way to die. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone,” he says. “But at least he had his beliefs. He felt he was going to a better place, so that probably took some of the edge off in the end. The music world is poorer without his voice, though. I really hoped he would live so that he could use that voice to send a message that this virus is no hoax. Instead, his legacy is an example of its own. Thankfully the music is forever.

Holzner describes the Austin show that he didn’t know would be the Skull’s farewell. “During the last song of the night, Eric turned to me and pointed at me and mouthed the words, ‘Thank you, I love you.’ He has done this over the years to me . . . this night he did it to Henry, Lothar, and Matt as well. I thought, wow . . . that’s cool. He died exactly two weeks later. . . . I can’t stop thinking about it now.” 

More Wagner music is due posthumously, though fans can be forgiven for not feeling too good about it under the circumstances. “Eric just finished a solo record,” Holzner says. “It will be released in 2022. I played on three songs, as well as members of his bands Blackfinger and Lid and Trouble alumni Sean McAllister, Dave Snyder, and Chuck Robinson—as well as former Pentagram guitarist Victor Griffin.

Of course, the fact that Wagner’s recordings will endure won’t provide much solace for the family he leaves behind. He has five children (Luke, Zachariah, Rain, Jon, and Lennon, all by ex-wife Marta), seven grandchildren, and two sisters with families of their own. He wasn’t just a rock ’n’ roll god—he was also an ordinary, irreplaceable human being, and like all of us, he contained multitudes. Wagner bred German shepherds, loved rooting for Chicago sports teams (especially the Bears, the Bulls, and the Cubs), and was well-known for his cooking skills, his sarcastic wit, and his many catchphrases, which will live on in the conversations of people close to him. 

“It’s a tough thing to accept that a close friend is gone and you will never see them again,” said Bruce Franklin in a statement on behalf of Trouble. “We all will have to get by with our memories and Eric’s bountiful legacy of music through five decades. God bless and keep our brother Eric.