Agnostic Front’s Roger Miret: “I Didn’t See The Light Until I Went To Prison. I Didn’t See A Lot Of Lights Until Then. I Was Living Like Nothing Mattered”
One afternoon in 1984, Agnostic Front were preparing to appear at one of CBGB’s now famous Sunday hardcore matinees. As they did so, outside on The Bowery a black Limousine pulled up to the club’s front doors, out of which stepped Debbie Harry. The punk icon – who, as the singer with Blondie, had made her name at this very club – said hello to owner Hilly Kristal on the door, and then enquired as to what was occurring inside. “Oh, you don’t want to go in there,” she was told. Undeterred, Ms. Harry did enter the oversold show, but was back in the Limo in the space of minutes.
“I thought, ‘After all the times I’ve seen Blondie, finally she’s gonna see one of my shows,’” says Roger Miret, Agnostic Front’s whisper-voiced singer. “But it wasn’t to be.”
Had she done so, Debbie Harry would have seen a New York hardcore band – actually, the New York hardcore band – at the peak of their powers. That year, the band unveiled Victim In Pain, an excoriating 11-track flurry that did its business in little more than 15 minutes. Inspired by the peerless Bad Brains and Washington DC’s Minor Threat, this was music from which every trace of fat had been removed. It was fast, it was urban and it was ugly. As Roger Miret himself says, “Agnostic Front are punk rock’s aborted child.”
If you want a clue as to the group’s relevance in the canon of American punk, look only to the fact that their guitarist, Vinnie Stigma, was the first to coin the word ‘mosh’. Agnostic Front’s music has been heralded by, among others, Rancid, and last year, the band released their 12th album, Get Loud!, through Nuclear Blast.
Celebrating their 40th anniversary this year, Agnostic Front are still going strong. Roger Miret may have swapped the mean streets of New York for Scottsdale, Arizona 13 years ago (“I no longer have to deal with the winters,” he says, “which I don’t miss”) but in conversation he still sounds like he’s about to order a pastrami on rye from Katz’s Deli. Kerrang! caught up with the 55-year-old to discuss the old days and the present one. Roll the bones…
You were born in Cuba. Do you have any memories of the old country?
“My earliest memories are in Cuba. I remember being with my father on a rocky beach. I remember my house and I remember playing with my dog, which was a little sheepdog. I remember little things like that. And I remember coming to America. I remember going up the stairs to the plane, and the air stewardess pinning these little metal Pan Am wings on me. And then I remember going to America.”
What were the circumstances of you moving to America?
“My Uncle Leonard married an American woman and little by little he was moving his family over, and we were the last ones. My mom came alone with the three kids – and my mom was young, she was only 20 years old – and she didn’t know a word of English. My father came a little later ‘cause he was in the military. Before you leave, the Cuban authorities examine everything you’re taking out of the country. You’re not even allowed to take a fork. And you just leave. Back then they had a programme for people who wanted to leave because they didn’t want to deal with the Castro government, and we were a part of that. We flew into an airport just outside of Miami and we stayed there for about a month, in this little camp. We stayed there until we got our green cards – I can even remember the number. And then I became a citizen in 2006.”
Miami is known as ‘little Havana’. How come the Mirets didn’t settle there?
“My family eventually did end up in Miami. But back then my uncle had married my aunt Betty and they lived in New York. I don’t know why.”
What were your first impressions of New York City?
“One of my clearest early memories is looking up at the skyscrapers and thinking that I’d never seen anything like that before… But the city was grungy. To go into Jersey you had to drive through the Lincoln Tunnel, so we’d see that whole area around 42nd Street, which was just crazy. [The movie] Taxi Driver is the best representation of New York in those days. That movie is so dead-on – it was just like that. I remember the X‑rated movies and seeing people were nodding out from drugs. It was pretty heavy back then.”
How did you end up getting involved in the city’s music scene?
“I grew up around music. Being Latin, we love our music, so I grew up around Hispanic music, and from that came R&B stuff like the Jackson 5. But I didn’t know metal or hard rock. The closest I got was a friend who liked AC/DC. In fact, I didn’t get into any of that stuff until I got into punk rock, which is bizarre. I remember going to my cousin’s house one time – he was supposed to be dying, but he never died – and he was blasting the Sex Pistols, which is how I got introduced to punk. I went from straight up salsa right into the fucking Pistols! I never had the buffer of Led Zeppelin or Ozzy Osbourne. But that cousin turned me onto so much – the Ramones, Blondie, everything.”
And did live music follow on from that?
“Oh yeah. I remember seeing the Misfits and being completely blown away. I’d never seen anything like it – these giant dudes playing this crazy music. They were my KISS. Everybody else was raving about them, but to me the Misfits filled that role. I saw Bad Brains at Max’s [legendary punk venue, Max’s Kansas City] with the Beastie Boys opening for them. I saw a lot of the early wave of original hardcore shows all over town. And then I’d go to CBGB and see the Ramones, who I saw as many times as I could. I saw early Talking Heads. I saw Blondie. There were so many shows.”
When was the first time you met [founding Agnostic Front guitarist] Vinnie Stigma?
“That’s a good question. I remember seeing Stigma in the pit at a show at the Peppermint Lounge, but I didn’t actually meet him properly until a different show. I also remember meeting him at a show at Max’s Kansas City when The Mob played. I wrote about that on our new album, on the song I Remember.”
How much has Vinnie changed since you first met him?
“I don’t think he’s changed much (laughs). He’s pretty much the same person. Vinnie’s always been easy to approach. He’s friendly, and he was one of the few guys in New York City who dug my band [The Psychos] back then, but we would see each other at shows, sometimes when he was playing, and he was always friendly and nice to me. Stigma never had that harder edge some people did, which I think had something to do with his Italian upbringing. He had that neighbourhood vibe about him, ‘cause he was born and raised in New York City. But now that I think about it, anyone who found themselves in the hardcore scene was some kind of outcast or misfit looking for friendship. It was a very welcoming scene.”
You were part of the scene at the same time as Beastie Boys and Bad Brains, right?
“Yeah, I was definitely part of that whole wave of hardcore punk. And it was great. But I lived in New Jersey, which to me was odd. I felt like an outsider. Yet no-one ever asked me where I was from. That division came later, but it wasn’t there at the start.”
On 1986’s Cause For Alarm, Agnostic Front were the first band to mix punk and metal. Were you aware that that’s what you were doing?
“We didn’t, and to be quite honest with you it wasn’t my cup of tea. I was one of the guys that wasn’t really comfortable with it. I think that direction came from us having two prominent members from [the band] Cause For Alarm join Agnostic Front. I hoped that we’d kind of become one awesome band. I thought we were going to do some incredible hardcore record, but I didn’t really know much metal so I didn’t really understand what was going on. I really wasn’t feeling what we were doing so I stepped away for a bit, but then I came back and did the record. Now when I look back, I wish that I had the chance to be a bit more prepared for Cause For Alarm, because by the time I jumped in I was still unsure how to approach the songs because they were so new to me. I was much more comfortable with the hardcore sound of [1984 predecessor] Victim In Pain. I didn’t know what to do, so it was very uncomfortable for me. But we were on the verge of something new and interesting on that album, I was just a little bit late to realise that. But I should have known, because Agnostic Front have always been leaders not followers.”
You used to be involved in dog fighting. What was that about?
“I unfortunately was, yes, and I regret it. And unfortunately I didn’t see the light until I went to prison. I didn’t see a lot of lights until I went to prison. I was living like nothing mattered. I didn’t care. I was living for myself. And then when I went to prison, everything came into clear view. That was when I started doing a lot of thinking, and making changes in my life. One of the first things I said when I got out was that I’d never put a dog in a cage again, because in prison I felt like a dog in a cage. But there are a lot of things from that time that when I look back I didn’t know what I was doing. I was in a bad place and in a bad time, and everything came hand in hand with that. It was awful.”
You went to prison for trafficking cocaine. What happened?
“That is correct. I was at my friend’s birthday party in upstate New York, and nobody knew that I had stuff on me. I went out to make a delivery. I basically would bring packages from here to there and I would make a certain amount of money. I wasn’t on the streets peddling the stuff. It was just easy fast money, and I got set up. The cops were waiting for me, and the people who ratted me out got their dues too. Not from me, but from the people that I worked for. So I got set up and next thing you know, I’m locked up.”
When did this happen?
“I got arrested in ’87, when my daughter was just born. I’m embarrassed to admit that I used to stash the drugs in diaper bags and diaper wipes, so that if I got pulled the dogs wouldn’t be able to sniff it. It was weird and it was embarrassing. I was in prison for 20 months in the end, because I beat my case on appeal. But I came out of prison a better man. To tell you the truth, going to prison was probably the best thing that ever happened to me, and that is a horrible thing to say.”
Agnostic Front have endured for 40 years. What is the secret to that longevity?
“I think it’s about being honest with people. That’s the secret. People want to be a part of something that feels real. I think that when they come to our shows and meet us they feel a connection with something that’s real. Would you want to be a part of something that’s not real? Or that feels fake? No. There’s the whole rock star thing where people think the performer is higher than them, and I’ve always been, ‘I’m just like you. The only difference is I’ve had the opportunity to stand onstage with a mic.’ That doesn’t make me better than you. Agnostic Front is one of those bands that were prominent in bringing our scene worldwide. Victim In Pain and Cause For Alarm really built a bridge between America and the rest of the world, and I think that that helps.”
In your opinion, has the band ever received the credit that it deserves?
“What is that? I’ve never been a rock’n’roll kind of a guy. I never grew up with the big stages. The biggest show I ever went to see as a kid was The Clash at Shea Stadium, but because I was an arrogant little kid I walked out on The Who, who were headlining, because I didn’t know The Who. Years later when I did get to know their music it was like, ‘Why did I walk out on The Who?’
“So to me, that level of success has never been something that I wanted to achieve or that I’ve been comfortable with. I’m much more comfortable in a sweaty club surrounded by sweaty people – that feels much more like home to me. I do play bigger shows at festivals because increasing awareness of our band is important. There’s always that kid who has never seen or heard anything like Agnostic Front before, and if you don’t play some of those larger shows you can’t touch those people. But I think the true heart and spirit of punk rock is in those small clubs. I’m not meaning to talk down bands who have become successful because [groups such] as the Misfits and Green Day are phenomenal – they just do what they do and have gotten radio airplay that has brought them to a much wider audience. And that’s not their fault. But Agnostic Front is the aborted child of punk rock, and I’m happy with where I am. I’m happy that our songs are the voice of the oppressed and of people that have nothing. If a bigger level of success comes our way I’ll take it, but I think I’m happier in a small, sweaty club.”
Agnostic Front’s new album Get Loud! is out now via Nuclear Blast.
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