Over the weekend, Sick of it All frontman Lou Koller and I had a pretty rad, down-to-earth phone discussion about the band's astounding 25 year continuity, old Born Against drama, KRS One/Boogie Down Productions, the struggle of being pigeonholed as a violent band in hardcore, and even Wall Street.
It's probably been awhile since you've talked about this, and you may even be trying to forget it. There was an infamous NYU debate in 1990 between Sick of it All and the now defunct Born Against. Could you summarize that a bit for us? What's your relationship with those members now?
[Laughs] Well, so, they didn't agree with us for signing to an old label who they said were holding us back, and that we could've had a lot more opportunities if we made some changes. Looking back on it now, I see some of their points. But still, we were young, going to classes full time, working day jobs, we had a couple of days to practice with the band and so we didn't have time to make big moves. The only member from Born Against I've bumped into since was 10 years later and it was their drummer, who's a sound guy in Jersey now. We've set stuff up with him before. We loaded the van, glanced at each other and continued loading. Then we looked at each other again for a minute. And then we just started laughing. It was funny.
How have things changed with the advent of file sharing and the Internet? All the things being discussed on the show were worries of a world where none of that existed, and you had to find music through word-of-mouth or stumble across a store where you happened to find out about these things.
It's hard to me cause I'm the guy on tour. I love to go to a city and to record stores all over the world, hang around and look through stuff. I still have a hard time going online doing that. If I go to a record store and talk to guys behind the counter and say I'm in a hardcore band and wanna see what's a good new punk or metal band, they'll show me. If you type in metal you can get so many different things. Let's say you go into ITunes and type in Madball. You get certain albums listed under metal, some are listed under alternative, some under punk. It's just...I can't deal with that, ha ha.
Break down your opinions on vinyl, cds, and tapes in this day and age for us.
Vinyl has made a huge comeback, especially for collectors. I used to love CDs but they're becoming more obsolete than vinyl. Actually, friends that I know running record stores say they sell more vinyl copies than CDs. It's a cool thing to have. The artwork's more vibrant and bigger. As far as tapes? [laughs] They're more obsolete. The only guy I know who still has them is probably Matt Fox from Shai Hulud.
I think he and I are the only ones who still appreciate tapes.
I mean, I still go out and buy CDs and downloads, I'll download certain records--- I just can't wait. For the bands I love I'll go out and buy a CD. I just recently picked up the latest Comeback Kid, which I could have downloaded any day, but I waited til we were on tour and went to a record store in Berlin and I bought it. It's an amazing record. See, it's stuff like that. I just want it you know?
Definitely. Speaking of being on the road constantly, you guys seem to have an instinct for survival that other bands don't have, especially those from your time. Where does that instinct come from?
Desperation [laughs]. No, but in 1992 we started going to Europe as the scene started to explode. Agnostic Front and Gorilla Biscuits had all gone there before along with a million punk bands. NYHC was fairly new to them, so we happened to be there at the right time. I think had we not gone to Europe in '92, we would've broken up in '93 or '94. Because in the states, NY hardcore was going through a slump for being attached to the stigma of violence. We had the passion not everyone had. As far as survival goes, we don't look at is as “we're SOIA and everyone's gonna love us. We're gonna talk about how old we are and how we do the same boring thing.” No, no, we have to prove ourselves every album and every tour. That's always in our heads.
After doing this for 25 years, how has your voice changed? How do you approach vocals these days as opposed to when you were younger?
I definitely warm up a lot more. In the late 90's we did my favorite tour ever with Hot Water Music, A.F.I., and Indecision. To the audience, it was a weird mix. But backstage, we just talked about bands we grew up loving so it was really natural for us. At the time, I'd watch Davey and HWM warm up their vocals and I would just yell and be like, “alright, I'm ready to go on stage.” But now, just like any other muscle in your body, it's gotta get exercise. So I scream along to different CDs to keep my voice in shape. Matt Fletcher from Shai pointed out with the re-recordings that he loved it, but it just threw him for a loop cause he was used to hearing the old "Injustice System" where my voice is deep, and now with this one, I'm way higher. If you listen to our CDs, my voice gets higher on each one. Maybe I'm always going through puberty, I dunno.
The second wave of puberty.
Yeah, ha ha.
Are you guys a straight edge band or are individuals in the band straight edge?
You know it's funny, we never took any label like that. We'd see people who were straight edge and maybe 6 months after that band broke up they were drinking and doing all sorts of drugs, and we just never did. My brother Pete doesn't do any of that and is super into health, but he refuses to call himself straight edge because of all the idiots we knew growing up who did that. Once in awhile I'll drink wine with dinner, but you could consider me straight edge because I think of it as the original Minor Threat lyrics where moderation was their stance.
My family never drinks except for on special occasions, which I was influenced by. But I always felt I'll always be what I consider myself whether the term exists or not.
Exactly. And to me, I understand getting a buzz and all that, but not the whole alcohol culture where it's like getting stoned and smashed tonight and vomiting all over myself to have a good time.
How much of your band's longevity is attributable to your virtually drug free lifestyles?
It's part of it. I've had friends whose whole lives were destroyed by drugs and some even passed away. I think those are the lessons our band took. We were lucky since our parents were never strict with us growing up, yet they continued to give us good advice and that really stuck with us.
Along with bands like Cro Mags, SOIA have been pretty vocal about getting people involved in the Occupy Wall Street protests. What relevancy do the current issues at hand have with hardcore?
To us, hardcore always had some type of political awareness, going back to English bands like Discharge and the Exploited. The issue, which isn't limited to only hardcore, is banks, the guitar companies, and Wall Street are all running the country through lobbyists. That's how this protest all started. Sure, once it got bigger and like the hardcore scene the original idea gets diluted. But you have to stick to your guns, you know? I don't care about gay marriage or no gay marriage, let everybody get married. Same with animal rights versus human rights. I want to get these monsters out of running the country. It's supposed to be for the people by the people, not for the people depending on what the corporations want to do. They are the ones who prey on your patriotism. You have to move all their factories to other countries. It's really fucked up.
You just released an album of re-recordings titled Nonstop. How does it sonically translate into the live shows?
Well, the reason behind it didn't actually have to do with sound. The old recordings I know are special to some people because they'd heard it at different periods in our career, so we wanted to match our performances to that. On the album they're brutal and heavy, and that's how we play them live.
It sounds like Pete (the guitarist) down tuned his guitar a full step on it.
Yes, that's correct. When we did the Yours Truly record, some songs were down tuned but not all, because we didn't want to sound like Hatebreed and all the other bands who did that at the time. But in hindsight, it would've been the smart thing to do. It adds a more powerful feel to the album, so that's why we did it.
Has the reception at your 25-year anniversary shows been more than you guys expected or has it been about 50/50?
We've been playing a lot of festival tours and this time it was headliners in small 500-capacity clubs, and it's been really great. The one we did last spring was more like a party. We had Snapcase, and at some worldwide ones we did slideshows of the old CBGB's days. It was nice.
It must be gratifying to be a part of a longstanding band and see similar reactions as when you first started out.
Very. These days there's a lot less crazy dancing, but it's funny--- I always make this joke all the time where I say “I know all the young guys just like to dance to fast songs and that everybody is too old to dance to the fast songs.” So you know, we don't do a fast song [laughs].
As bands age, they tend to gravitate towards covers albums or re-recordings. What's the impetus behind this?
When we play a lot of the songs live we have a lot of fans that slow down and are like “what song is this?” For us, it was our 25th year and we were just excited about doing it. A magazine said we were pulling an Alkaline Trio which isn't true, because they did old acoustic songs and we went the opposite way. Heavier. They're a great band and that album is amazing, though. H2O just released covers, Skarhead, and NOFX did or are releasing a hardcore covers album?
I never heard about that actually.
Well I was reading about it and I saw, you know, the NYHC symbol with the X in the middle of it. But instead it had NOFX, ha ha. So it's like older hardcore like Black Flag or something. We've done covers but we also do some live that we haven't recorded. Pete usually says he doesn't want to learn any new songs, since he has enough trouble remembering our own!
I noticed the artwork for Nonstop was a modified version of the artwork for SOIA's very first EP. Before, the chain-link fence was open, and now it's closed. Could you explain the symbolism behind that?
The symbolism is... we got there, and the fence was closed [laughs]. If I had thought again, I could have given you a more artsy explanation. But the truth is, we went over there and it was locked. One of my friends asked me if we photo-shopped ourselves in front of that gate again. No, we actually went there.
I believe you guys went there. Here I was thinking you guys were saying “this closes a chapter in our career.”
Oh, I might take that from you is that alright? [laughs] The past is behind us now. The next record will say “for the last album we had the gates closed because the past is behind us.” That's great, thanks.
Anytime, ha ha. Kris Parker/KRS One has had a long standing relationship with the band, and makes a second appearance on Nonstop. It's not common to see gap bridged between two extremely different genres where one is expected to “stick to their own genre”. How do you feel about that and how did the collaboration originally come about?
My older brother had a girlfriend who worked in a recording studio. She would come by the house and we'd hang out. One day I asked her who was in the studio. She said it was some guy in a group called 'Boogie Down Productions'. I said, "KRS One?" And she's like, "how do you know that?" Well, I liked his album. So the next day she was talking to him and mentioned me and my hardcore band and how I liked his music. He was stunned and wanted to meet us. We'd only had a 7” out then. He listened, and said he loved it. So we asked him if he'd like to say something on the record and he free-styled right there. Over the years, we did a show with them--- it was us, Boogie Down, Rest In Pieces, and Burn. He thanked us, saying that this was our audience so thanks for letting me be a part of it. And we just said it was great he was doing this. Seven years later, we hadn't really kept in touch. We turned on the TV one day randomly to this interview with him. He was saying that he liked music the interviewer wouldn't believe. So then, he says Sick of it All. It was pretty wild.
That must have been a surreal moment.
It definitely was, and when we started to work on the re-recordings album we knew we just had to get him back. He was on tour so it was hard to get in touch, but his management asked us how much we were willing to pay or barter. But once he found out it was us, he said he'd do it for free on the condition that he could freestyle over a track. So that's why there's a bonus track with him rapping over “Cloberrin' Time”. We told him if he ever needs anything, and we know rock-rap is cheesy, but if he ever wanted to try anything with us, we'd be down.
As one of the quintessential NYHC bands, what significance does that identity have today as we face a more globalized world?
It's a good and a bad thing sometimes. In certain areas of the world, they regard it as a legitimate form of music. It's not passe or something you liked as a teenager. But in other places kids are deaf. They say hardcore? It doesn't sell. Here in the US especially, on the business side of things. It's something we're proud of though, it's taken us all over the world. We've survived in it. And there's no other hardcore that has that NY style.
Many say that hardcore bands promote violence. Do you feel this is a misinformed opinion or somewhat accurate?
There are some hardcore bands who do and portray that tough-guy image, you know? Back in the beginning, there were Agnostic Front and Cro Mags and their look was the prototype of hardcore bands and metal bands now all over the world. They're very muscular and tattooed guys. But the thing is, they were actually living that life. They were living in the streets of New York, living in squats, and living a violent life. So I always found it weird when I'd go to say, Europe, and some guy from farm country in Italy would come with his gangster walk and talk. And I'm just like...heh...you know. Some of the newer bands intentionally made themselves live that shitty life. With SOIA, we were angry but we weren't trying to be tough. I mean, I weighed like 90 pounds back then and there's no way I was gonna be tough [laughs]. So, I understand when people see hardcore as something dumb or dumbed down, but I hate being lumped into that. Especially after so many years of having been around, when you think you've established yourselves at a certain level but you're still dealing with a bunch of crap.
Camaraderie in the scene seems to have evolved a lot. As in, people were concerned about helping each other out when hardcore was still fresh. And now, that's changed radically.
It depends on how you look at it. An old guy could explain it looking at his younger days, but for someone in their early twenties or even younger it's something new. They turn it into how they see helping out. Some newer hardcore bands come up but their attitude is like a shitty rock and roll band: “let's go out and do drugs and get laid.” And it's funny because a lot of them would claim straight edge and run around showing photos of them sticking a cigar up a stripper's butt and boasting about it. And I would wonder what happened to not exploiting women, for example. That's what the scene was about. I get jaded too, though. You look at Strife, Earth Crisis, and Snapcase who were the big three after SOIA, and people ask me do I like this or that band. I'd say eh, reminds me of old Snapcase or a bad Youth of Today clone. But what I forget is, to those kids who love those bands, they're fresh and new. So you always have to remind yourself that there are smaller scenes that are probably way cooler than what I grew up in. My brother Pete lives in Florida now and he'll go to 500-capacity D.I.Y. shows and he loves it. So in every generation, there's a certain level of this being better than that. Sometimes I do play the old guy card, you know. I'll say things like however many stage dives you've had, we've seen 'em all. Then again, there's bands who've done it way before us too, so...But there are always people who judge when genre crossovers happen. The first time me and Armand (our drummer) went to CBGB's we both had long hair to our backs. We went to see Agnostic Front and everyone else were skinheads and they were cool as shit. So to me, when older guys say there's no sense of community nowadays I feel that maybe they've gone to the wrong shows. I know I'll tell friends to buy tickets in advance cause the show will sell out, and they'll say that's not “hardcore”, you buy tickets at the door. It's a mentality I personally don't understand, but hardcore is certain things to certain people.
It seems like you're just going with the flow, and aren't too judgmental about changing times.
Hardcore is very generational. It kinda sucks cause some of the younger kids won't check out bands like us, and it's slightly frustrating at times because we're still a very vibrant band, and we'll put on one of the best shows you'll ever see. But it's like I said earlier. We have to prove ourselves every night. But, I have older friends who I'll tell to check out bands like My Turn To Win and Wisdom In Chains, and they'll say they don't need to listen to any new bands, but what does that even mean?
There's always two types of people; the kind that are stuck in their old ways and refuse listen to anything new, and the kind that are constantly trying to check out the new, upcoming artists. It even transcends age, because I have younger friends who won't even listen to modern music.
There are bands that will play four measly shows, put out a demo, and are lauded as the greatest bands ever. But then I say, if they're the greatest then they would've kept going.
What side or solo projects are going on under the surface?
Nothing right now. Craig used to do different side projects, but now fills in on bass with Cro Mags when he can.
Does the band have any unique plans as we head into the new year?
Right now we're concentrating on writing our new record, inspired by the last two tours we've done with different bands. We have some really good lyrics and tons of songs done. We'll see what happens. We've just got a lotta good stuff coming up.
@thatmassivewolf You can read my latter interview, with H.R. of Bad Brains, here.