What Hardcore Has Taught Me: Sick Of It All’s Lou Koller
Sick Of It All have been the standard bearers for New York hardcore since they rose to prominence in the mid-90s. Putting out two of the genre’s defining albums – Scratch The Surface and Built To Last – on a major label was as unlikely as it was impressive, as was their ability to survive whatever fads heavy music threw their way.
New album Wake The Sleeping Dragon! emerges at a time when hardcore is back in vogue, from Turnstile channelling the greats to old-school bands reforming and hitting the road – often with Sick Of It All for company. We collared frontman Lou Koller to find out what four decades of hardcore has taught him – and what keeps his band kicking against the pricks.
The front cover of your new album is your dragon logo wrapped around the Empire State Building. What is it that makes New York such a big part of your music?
Lou Koller: It’s what made us: the whole experience of growing up in New York City, going to the hardcore matinees they had at (legendary New York City club venue) CBGB’s and the history there. It’s in our blood.
In the past couple of years you’ve toured with some hardcore bands from the 80s and 90s who’ve reformed. What’s that like?
It’s fun. We try to mix it up and tour with any band that excites us, young or older. When we reunite with older bands it’s funny because they think it’s still gonna be like it was when they were in their 20s. It takes them a while to get their footing and they ask us “How you do you do this every night?” We tell them: “We just never stop!”
How has New York hardcore changed?
Since CGBG’s closed [in 2006] the hardcore scene is still thriving and there are plenty of bands doing different styles of hardcore, but there’s no centre anymore. There’s a whole scene in Brooklyn I’ve just discovered that’s been there for 10 years, but its bands just play Brooklyn. They don’t play Manhattan but they’ll play Florida and California… it’s weird to me. It’s the same in Queens, New Jersey… that’s the sad thing. As far as the city changing, special places like St. Mark’s Pizza was iconic, but the rent got so high they had to leave. Now you have a fuckin’ Chipotle or a McDonald’s – it’s losing its uniqueness. Why the fuck do I want to walk down St. Mark’s Place in Manhattan when I’m not seeing New York, I’m seeing what I can see anywhere? On the other side of that, I’m not a fuckin’ 20-year-old kid going to NYU thinking “This is the greatest city in the world!”
So you’re older and wiser?
(Laughs) We’re older and a little wiser. I don’t think we’re wiser because we’re older: we’re wiser because we’ve travelled. We’re more open-minded and have different perspectives on things. That’s what travel has done. A lot of the bands write about how they miss the old New York. I’m not putting them down because it was great and it is true, but, again, you’re not fuckin’ 20 years old anymore, buddy: that’s why you miss it.
What are your abiding memories of when New York hardcore had that locus?
You’d go down to CB’s every Sunday. Those shows were wild. The owner, Hilly Kristal, believed in the music and gave hardcore Sunday afternoons. He gave tons of us careers. He let innovative bands start. It was amazing to have a place to have an outlet. That’s something that I miss.
Violence at hardcore shows blighted some of that era. What do remember about that?
When people saw bands like Agnostic Front and the Cro-Mags covered in tattoos they thought “macho scene” – it was to an extent, but it started more inclusive. At the first matinees I went to there were a lot of openly gay people there. Up until the mid-90s there was one guy who’d come in drag and dance in the pit the whole show. It was fuckin’ great and nobody gave a shit.
You exported New York hardcore when you started to tour…
Yeah. We wanted to show the world what we loved. That’s why we didn’t just play with hardcore bands. On our first run down the East Coast in 1988, Exodus asked us to open up for them for five shows. It was a shock to the audience when we walked out: kids with short hair! As we got more popular some people referred to us as “the kings of New York hardcore” and we were always, “no no, we’re the ambassadors.”
What’s the most unlikely gig you’ve ever played?
About seven years back we played two French festivals: one was all reggae acts, then Sick Of It All, then two guys from the Wu-Tang Clan, then another reggae act… another one was French jazz hip-hop, Sick Of It All then Millencolin. We went over great at both – it was amazing! At one there were women in cocktail dresses and high heels waving around wine classes to our music. I don’t think they went out and bought the record, but I think they loved our enthusiasm.
Hardcore bands used to be demonised for signing to major labels. Did it seem like a risk or a natural progression when you did it?
We’re a pure hardcore band but we grew up listening to rock ‘n’ roll and metal, so to us it was natural progression. We had a big internal struggle but we knew we’d just be us and do what was best. We got a little flak from the scene, but what was funnier to us was that when we [later] signed to Fat Wreck Chords we got even more stress from hardcore kids for signing to a punk label.
And these days no one really gives a shit…
The music industry in the 90s is characterised as an era of excess by today’s standards. What was your experience of it?
There were always people at majors who didn’t know what to do with us. When we were touring Built To Last, we bumped into our A&R in New York and he didn’t even know we were on tour! Moron. When we wanted to leave the major our then-manager came up with the idea that we should make ourselves so undesirable they wouldn’t to sit down and talk to us about another album. So we went on tour that summer, got the label to pay for the most expensive bus we could find, did everything to excess and they still wanted another album! In the end we told them “Nah, we just want to leave” – they were too much of a pain in the ass.
Did you make any regrettable big-money purchases with your own money?
I never bought anything big that was cool and stupid, but I never held on to my money. Even though you’re in that mindset of “This could end in a year or two”, it keeps going and you forget: you keep spending money like crazy and the well runs dry. You look at your bank account and think “why did I spend all that?!” I got a couple of cars but nothing super fancy. I would always save up to get something really nice then blow the money on something else.
On stage in Camden a few years ago you turned down a request for Potential For A Fall, saying that you’ve made some music “dangerously close to nu-metal”. Have trends in heavy music ever thrown the band off course, or are those just songs of their time?
It was just what surrounded us at the time, y’know? We didn’t think “We have to sound nu-metal.” It just seeps in, what’s around you. We took Korn on their second-ever tour of the US, I think. When we sit down to write, the first thing in our heads is: what excites us? We go straight to the old stuff: Black Sabbath, Bad Brains, Motörhead, Cro-Mags, Agnostic Front, Murphy’s Law… Then we talk about other stuff that excites us now. It’s not like we hear a sound and think we have to write a song like it.
New bands such as Turnstile proudly wear their old-school hardcore influences…
The Turnstile vocalist is definitely influenced by Ray (Cappo) from Youth Of Today and Daryl (Taberski) from Snapcase. The latest Turnstile is a really good record, but we didn’t sit down and write a Turnstile record like Sick Of It All. The new Madball is my favourite record that’s out now and it inspired us to write the best Sick Of It All album we could.
Do young bands ask you for advice?
Yeah. It’s really nice. We’ll even ask them some of them “How did you do this?” because some of them are doing better than us, and they’ll explain it. We’re always learning. We’ve been lucky enough to get respect from a lot of bands not just from being around for so long but because we’ve made some smart moves.
You seem to have embraced social media. Do you enjoy having a direct line to your audience?
For the most part. You get some annoying messages and stupid things, but you find out how many people understand what you stand for and what your lyrics are about. It’s a great way to stay in touch and keep everybody in the know – and hopefully reach more fans. When we first started it was really rough for us but then we had a friend of ours – Laila Khan, the singer from Sonic Boom Six – take it over for about a year and teach us. Hopefully we’re still doing her justice!
Do you find your fans have different politics?
For the most part they don’t say anything or have the same mindset as us, but we just got an offer from somebody to play a “pro-patriotic festival”. Some of the people he named who it would benefit were on the very far-right. We had to respectfully decline and tell him “We’re really not into what you’re doing…”
How do those people end up as Sick Of It All fans?
I think they started out going to shows because of the excitement, energy and aggression. That’s the only reason I can think of that they still follow us. Maybe they love the music but don’t pay attention to the lyrics.
Has Trump’s rhetoric made it harder to listen to each other?
Oh yeah. Everybody’s gotta fight… I have friends who were in the hardcore scene before me – I don’t hang out with these people now, I just know them through Facebook – and they are so far to the right, backing Trump… I try not to get mad, I don’t give them rhetoric. Some of them, if you post something, they’ll have an intelligent comment about their stance on it, but some of them post that whatever he says is law. It’s hard.On the other side of it, if you’re not ultra-left then for some people you’re on the right… I just want to say: relax, I’m just trying to make sense of everything. Also, I’m not against what some people call PC culture. I think it’s great, but you’ve got to give us a little slack: we grew up two decades ahead of you. Words I used commonly are now offensive and I’m sorry, but give me a couple of days or a couple of months to unlearn that. I don’t have to censor what I say, but I have to relearn how to say things, I guess.
Is there a song on the new record that you hope would speak to everyone, regardless of their politics?
There’s a couple. The first single, Inner Vision, I think should appeal to everybody musically and lyrically, because of the energy of it and the message: you’ve got to calm yourself to get ready to deal with the outside world. The other one is To The Wolves – I like that one because it’s like a punch in the face as soon as it kicks in.
Most people who’ve been to a hardcore show know what a punch in the face feels like, whether it was deliberate or not…
Finally, when can we expect to see you back in the UK?
We’re playing London in January with the Persistence Tour and working on a whole UK run, which I miss doing. It’s been a while. We’re gonna go all up and down, hit small venues and have everybody come and go wild.
Words: Alistair Lawrence
Wake The Sleeping Dragon! is on Century Media on 2 November.
Plus, Code Orange, Twin Atlantic, Poppy, Sleeping With Sirens, British Lion, Sick Of It All, Architects, Wage War and loads more…
“I remember I was really locked in that coffin and they actually buried myself alive…”