Sick Of It All's Lou Koller: "It's about being respectful to everybody. Treat everybody cool. That's the key to everything"

Sick Of It All vocalist Lou Koller on the inclusivity of hardcore, the new generation of bands and his surprising career in fashion

Sick Of It All's Lou Koller: "It's about being respectful to everybody. Treat everybody cool. That's the key to everything"
Alistair Lawrence

Some bands embody much more than just music. Formed all the way back in 1986 and still swinging as hard as ever, Sick Of It All are a slice of living, breathing punk rock history.

By far the most successful band of New York’s iconic hardcore scene, they helped create a whole new strain of punk rock, while at the same time doubling down on the genre’s ethos of being true to yourself. In the three decades that followed, they’ve survived the trends that have come and gone, and released genre classics such as 1994’s Scratch The Surface and its 1997 follow-up Built To Last on a major label without one iota of compromise.

As a result, they count everyone from Slayer to Rise Against among their fans and friends. They also continue to pull impressive crowds to their indomitable live shows, which pair the bone-rattling intensity of songs that wage war on bigots, liars and corrupt authority figures with the celebratory vibe that they’ve earned from being the self styled “ambassadors” of New York hardcore, spreading its universal appeal around the globe for over three decades now.

Given that hardcore is based on unity, it’s rare that its frontmen ascend to any kind of star-like status. You get the feeling though, that’s exactly how Lou Koller likes it. Since forming Sick Of It All with his brother and guitarist Pete, they’ve been the band’s only mainstays, although the line-up has been stable since 1992, completed by bassist Craig Setari and Armand Majidi on drums.

We caught up with Lou to find out how Sick Of It All managed to do what they did, and how they keep going.

When on tour, you often take out younger bands with you. Do you find that other people you tour with are like you? Or are they all glued to Instagram?
“(Laughs) It’s a good balance. Everyone makes fun of each other for using technology all the time... As for the crowds at shows, I see a lot of it, but I think that’s because a lot of our fans are older, so they’re not killing each other in the pit anymore! That’s why we still need young fans to come and stir it up.”

Presumably there was a downside to touring pre-social media and smartphones, too…
“There was. When we first started touring Europe you’d play to maybe 1,500 people in a city like Berlin and be psyched, but the next night you’re playing some little village where everything shuts super early, so you’d end up sitting backstage with nothing to do with your free time. Eventually we’d go out and find a doner kebab place that was open, which is how we got into those. I loved going to Asia back then, and I still do. Japan in particular is like another world. I’d go to their electronics district and find stuff that they don’t have in America. I remember discovering MP3 players for the first time there. Before technology came into our lives so much, exploring on tour was really hit or miss. I’d think, ‘Everything looks cool that way,’ and I’d end up lost, only to find out later on that I missed something really cool just two blocks away.”

Was going on tour back then how you judged your popularity, too?
“Well, some people judged it on record sales, but we were never a big record sales band. We could sell 200 records in a city, yet draw 2,000 people out to see us live. Even then, we had a reputation as a good live act – it wasn’t just aggression, we have a lot of fun and try to make sure that everybody else has fun, too.”

What was it like getting scooped up into the major label system?
“It was great having tour support, financially. In the U.S. we’re now back to touring in vans for the most part. If you want to make money doing this, you have to make sacrifices. During the major label years, the big tours we did were actually through connections with our friends. Bands like Helmet and Rancid. We did a show in Argentina in early ’99 to 2,000 people, but the next day there was a sold-out festival that had Iron Maiden, Slayer, Soulfly and a whole shitload of other bands, and all those bands flew in the night before and came to our show. Slayer came backstage and told us, ‘We had to see what fucking band could draw 2,000 people when there’s a sold-out festival the next day!’ We became friends with them and got a Slayer tour off of it. To this day, my brother Pete and Tom [Araya, Slayer frontman] are always texting. That’s the stuff you dream about.”

What did you make of Slayer’s decision to wrap things up last year?
“It’s weird from the outside, but we played their last shows in Finland, and sitting talking to Tom about it, he said, ‘When we said this would be the final tour, I felt a weight lifted off my shoulders and I enjoyed playing again.’ And you could see it every night, him thanking the fans at the end of the night, soaking it all in. It gave me goosebumps. With us, we half-jokingly, half-seriously say, ‘God, can we fucking retire already?!’ We’re all in our fifties now, but when people see our shows, they say, ‘How do you stay so young?’ and I think it’s because of the music and the way we play.”

And you keep making music, too.
“Yeah, and we try not make shitty records (laughs)! We write what we like and we don’t follow trends. It’s like I say onstage, touring with bands like Comeback Kid and Cancer Bats inspires us. Not because we want to sound like the bands of the moment, but if the bands of the moment are exciting and we like them, it makes us think, ‘We’ve gotta make a great fucking Sick Of It All record!’”

You’ve personally never strayed from the hardcore path, but you have recorded about 15 guest spots. Is there one in particular that stands out?
“Have I? I’ve never actually sat and counted them, but they were all fun. I was surprised that [platinum-selling Christian nu-metallers] P.O.D. asked me to be on a record – I didn’t even know they knew who we were. Playing festivals and meeting bigger bands, it’s so weird. The singer from Disturbed (David Draiman) came to see me and said he saw us play the Metro in Chicago every time we played there. System Of A Down, too. The singer of Dashboard Confessional [Chris Carrabba] told us that we were his favourite band through his whole teenage years.”

“(Laughs) He’s a good guy! He’s friends with my wife now and sends messages to me via her, asking for a copy of the new record on green vinyl and stuff like that. It just goes to show, you never know who’s in that audience. The first time it ever happened – and we didn’t get starstruck because I used to know him when he was in his old hardcore band [Inside Out] – was when Zack [de La Rocha] from Rage Against The Machine came up to us in the early ‘90s and told us, ‘Oh man, I can’t wait to see you guys.’ Now I look back and think, ‘That was when Rage Against The Machine were exploding all over the world,’ and he came to see us, and was at the side of the stage singing along to Injustice System.”

What kind of experience do you think young bands from New York are having these days, trying to get established?
“The internet helps a lot, because there’s no centre any more – there’s no CBGB, there’s no Wetlands, there’s no Coney Island High. Those three venues, for this kind of music, you could go up and play whatever the fuck you wanted. Now, things are scattered all over. There’ll be a place in Brooklyn where you go to two shows, then all of a sudden it’s closed, so you have to have the internet [to keep people informed]. We just lucked out that we fell into CBGB and its matinees had just started picking up and getting super strong at that point. Those shows were great. It was funny. You’d go to CBGB and never realise the history that was there: the start of punk, AC/DC played there… We did a show one Monday night and later on Guns N’ Roses played an acoustic set in the coffee shop next door. How fucking crazy is that? We got gigs off our reputation. We’d put out a 7-inch, be living with our parents and get a call because some guy wanted to talk about a show somewhere else. I think they looked us up in the phone book. Our parents would ask, ‘How much are you getting paid?’ That was always the first question. Then when they saw us when we came home they’d look at us and say, ‘You’re not getting paid enough!’ My parents weren’t musicians, but they loved music and played it all the time. My dad would play all the ‘50s and ‘60s stuff. Because of him, The Supremes are, like, my favourite group. My mum grew up in France and would play Édith Piaf and all this great French stuff. Music trickled down in our family. Pete and I have two older brothers. One of them played guitar but was never in a band. Our early band practices were just about having fun – a lot of songs that people still love came out of stupid jokes, like [1987’s] It’s Clobberin’ Time. That was us making fun of some other band.”

The hardcore scene you came up in prided itself in being inclusive. Does it still feel like that today?
“Well, we always try to keep that ethic. I remember going to my first matinees in CBGB and there were rasta girls, goth kids, punks and metalheads, but then, eventually every scene gets it own identity, and everyone wanted to look like Agnostic Front or the Cro-Mags. Every guy wanted to shave his head, get tattoos and get muscular. That’s what hardcore’s identity has been for decades now, but it turns a lot of its original fans off. We’ve always tried to keep an open-mindedness. I ended up dressing up like everybody else in my neighbourhood, because all the punk kids I knew were full of shit. They didn’t like bands unless they looked like GBH – they only liked the costume. It’s way different now.”

Do you find yourself being more guarded about what you say in public these days?
“We used to say things that might have offended people, but fuck that. It’s about being respectful to everybody. Treat everybody cool, that’s the key to everything in this life. I grew up in New York City, I worked in theatre and I worked in fashion, so I’ve met a lot of people from all different walks of life.”

Wait, you worked in fashion?
“I worked in a theatre for high school credits, for sound engineering. They told me I could learn how to do sound and work on an off-Broadway show. Mostly I was painting dressing rooms, and the show was a musical that failed miserably – it was like The Wizard Of Oz, but told through Beach Boys songs! There were hydraulic surfboards for one scene that me and the stage manager used to ride when everyone else had gone home. The manager of the theatre would come out and tell us to stop and we’d be like, ‘C’mon, you know you want to do it, Pierre!’ and he’d join in. We’d be fucking around with all the equipment, it was great!”

The one thing the Sick Of It All live experience is arguably missing is a stage show.
“It was hard enough to convince Craig to spend money on confetti cannons. We told him, ‘It’s a party! It’s our fucking 30th anniversary!’ They cost about $200 each and when we did it at Groezrock he said, ‘We might as well be tearing up Euros and throwing them in the air!’ No sense of spectacle! No showmanship, this guy! But we’ve never taken ourselves too seriously.”

Your live show enabled you to cross over to metal audiences and to take different kinds of punk bands out with you as support.
“The first metal band who took us out were Sepultura and they were so fucking good to us, it instilled in us the same thing when we took out bands like Rise Against. Promoters complained about it and we told them, ‘No, they’re fucking good,’ and now look at them – they’re one of the biggest punk bands in the world. Tim [McIlrath, Rise Against frontman] called it the ‘Sick Of It All golden touch’ or something, because we took out them, AFI and Korn. I hope we can keep doing that.”

As someone who witnessed it all firsthand the first time around, what do you make of metalcore coming back into fashion?
“It’s even more stripped down than it was – and that’s what younger fans want, music that makes you want to explode. There are some young hardcore bands who still have that old school sound. There was one band of transgender kids, I think they were from Portland, and the fucking feeling they put into it… They played for a year and broke up, though, which sucked. We wanted to take them on tour with us.”

Difficult as it may be given the legacy you’ve had, is it possible to pick one album that you think best captures your appeal?
“If I had to choose one, I’d say [2006’s] Death To Tyrants. It was like a rebirth for us. We always feel like we have this two year curse, though. We write an album, we tour the shit out of it for two years and nobody reacts to the new songs so we drop them from the set. Then when we come back around next time, people start calling out for songs that we wrote two years before. I guess that’s why we have to keep going!”

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