Sick Of It All
Death to Tyrants (Abacus)
An interview with vocalist Lou Koller
By Tim Den
Even though you guys started in the mid to late-’80s, you’re without a doubt the longest running practitioners of NYHC. Is that a crazy thought to you?
Yeah, it’s really weird! When we started, we had no idea how long we’d stay together. We loved and still love hardcore, so we just kept playing it. There was about a year, early on in our career, when Rich (Cipriano, ex-bassist) and Armand (Majidi, drums) left, but Pete (Koller, guitarist/backup vocalist) and I looked at each other and said, “We love doing this. We don’t want to stop.” And that’s how it has been for us: We’re in it because we love it. When Gorilla Biscuits broke up, it was cuz Walter wanted to do Quicksand and play a different kind of music. We’ve never wanted to play anything else. We listen to all different kinds of music, yeah, but hardcore is what we love and what we play.
Other bands have succumbed to drugs, disease, jail time, and so on: How come not you guys?
We run really fast when we get in trouble! (laughs) No, our only concern was playing. When we came back from tour, we worked shitty day jobs so that we could spend all our spare time and money on the band, unlike others who maybe tried dealing drugs for quick cash or something. We never had this fantasy of hardcore, gangster tough guy bullshit. We loved hardcorefrom the moment we got into it as kids, and the music has been all that matters since.
Tell me about growing up and your first contact with hardcore.
Pete and I grew up in Queens, in a normal, working class neighborhood. It wasn’t like fighting for your life everyday, but it definitely had its share of fights and struggles. We hung out in the schoolyard behind one of the buildings in this alley, and it was there that we were introduced to hardcore. That was where all the punk and hardcore kids hung out, cuz the hip hop kids hung out at the basketball court, and the stoner metalheads hung out on the other side of the playground. (laughs) For the most part, everyone got along.
Pete and I have two older brothers, and they had their own scene with Deep Purple and shit like that. (laughs) The brother who’s a year older than I am was the one who introduced us to punk and hardcore. He liked it, but he never got too into it. But Pete and I loved it from the get-go. At that time, in that neighborhood, looking like a punk or a hardcore kid definitely got you into shit. There were these – I don’t know what other people called them, but we called them guidos – musclehead jocks – who would always try to mess with us.
Wait, you’re older than Pete?
Yeah. (laughs) I know, everyone thinks he’s older.
You mentioned that Rich and Armand were out of the band for a while. I got into you around that time (circa We Stand Alone EP in ’91), but am always surprised to find that most fans never knew about this time of upheaval. Are you guys trying to keep it a secret? What really happened?
Yeah, uh, it was a really embarrassing period of our lives. (laughs) No, seriously, we were all growing up, and Richie and Armand were looking for more stability in their lives. Pete and I wanted to carry on the band, so we got this guy Eddie Coen on bass and E.K. on drums. I think E.K. did a full tour with us? We were out with Sepultura…
And Sacred Reich and Napalm Death! I remember that show from ’90!
Yeah! Anyway, I don’t think we clicked musically with them. Eddie really wanted to be a rockstar, and I think he thought that Sick Of It All was an established name and that it would be really easy. But no, we are still a hardcore band: You still have to load your own equipment. So when Richie said he wanted to come back, we said, “Great, we just fired Eddie.” That line-up did the Sepultura tour, but E.K. had a lot of personal problems he had to work out so we got this guy Max for a while. Super great guy, really nice, but when Armand voiced interest in coming back, it was “see ya Max!” (laughs)
But Richie eventually quit for good, after Just Look Around.
Yeah. We had just done a grueling European tour. It was what finally broke Richie’s back. We were in a van for two months in the dead of winter. 53 shows in 56 days. It was brutal. When we came back, we each had $1000 – which was a lot back then – but it still wasn’t enough to live off of. Richie was like “I did all this work for this measly amount?” Plus, he had a lot of pressure from his girlfriend to leave. The ironic thing is that the European tour we did right after Richie quit was when we started to make money. I ran into his girlfriend a year later, and she was like “great, now you guys start making money!” (laughs) Richie was also interested in doing other things musically, so it wasn’t all financial.
If you look at the band photo inside Just Look Around, it’s pretty obvious which guy stands out. Not that appearances should matter…
(Laughs) I don’t know if he’s the smartest or the dumbest guy in the world, but he started a band right after Sick Of It All and spent the next 10 years doing development deals with major labels. $30,000 from this label, $100,000 from this label, never released a record. That Limp Bizkit Fred Durst guy? He gave Richie $30,000. “Here’s 30 grand for a demo.” (laughs) The band finally came out about two years ago: Reach 454. Sounded like Godsmack, but nobody cared. It was 10 years too late! But he still got a ton of money from major labels!
It was also around this time that you did the side project Blood From The Soul with Napalm Death bassist Shane Embury. Unlike most of Embury’s side excursions, this one never did a second record. Why?
Since that record was released, what, 14 years ago, Shane has talked to me about doing another one about three times. The first time was about four years after the first record. He sent me some stuff and had originally planned to have a bunch of different vocalists sing two songs each. It was more dancey, electronic, experimental stuff, but I said “sure I’ll do it, it’s different.” But I never heard from him again. And then a few years ago, he approached me about it again, and I just said, “Uh, okay! Just left me know!” (laughs) But then I started writing Death to Tyants and Napalm Death were getting busy again.
Blood From The Soul was supposed to be done with Mike Patton, but the guy backed out.
Whoa, no shit!? By the way, why don’t you guys play stuff from Just Look Around? That album kills!
(Laughs) Oh man, everyone asks that. I’m going on the record here and pointing the finger at Armand. He doesn’t like playing those songs. Craig (Setari, bassist/backup vocalist) loves “Never Measure Up,” but Armand hates playing it. When he listens to it, he’s always pointing out “listen to that song! It’s just a bunch of random parts put together! It doesn’t make any sense! I’d never write a song like that now!” (laughs)
No way! “We Want the Truth,” “We Stand Alone,” “The Shield”: They’re all winners!
(Laughs) We’ve been trying to put “We Stand Alone” back in the set. Sometimes, when we play it, the crowd goes absolutely apeshit, sometimes they stare at us and have no idea what we’re playing. In Europe, we cut the second verse cuz some of the guys think it’s too long. I think – lyrically, at least – the first verse doesn’t make as much sense as the second. (laughs)
And what about “Injustice System?” I never thought you’d stop playing it, but it I haven’t heard it live in years.
It’s come back recently. When we wrote it, we thought of it as a staple, a song we’d play every night. But it gets boring after 10 years, you know? Same with “Clobberin’ Time.” We got bored of it, but people get mad if we don’t play it! (laughs) And it’s only 30 seconds long!
It’s pretty much agreed that Scratch the Surface is your defining album. Would you agree?
Yes. I think it’s the first album that Sick Of It All really realized what we were supposed to sound like. The first two albums we made when we were still young and figuring out how to write and play, but Scratch the Surface was us finding ourselves.
I remember the impact it had on bands, from national to local ones. Everyone was effected by it. All of a sudden, people dressed like you, wrote breakdowns like you, even held the mic the same as you!
(Laughs) We really worked our asses off on that album. Everything before that, Pete and I pretty much wrote. That summer, we got a rehearsal studio in Chinatown and jammed for four, five hours a day, everyday. Friends would come in and listen and say “you have to play slower!” cuz this was when Biohazard and other hardcore bands were all playing grooves. We had grooves too, we just also had fast parts. Pete and I come from old school punk and hardcore: We love playing fast.
Another reason why that album’s so aggressive was cuz there were all these people saying “oh, they signed to a major, they’re gonna sell out now.” We wanted to prove them wrong and put out the darkest, heaviest, most aggressive album. And I think we did, and that’s why Scratch the Surface is seen as our definitive album.
You guys were growing so huge, it felt imminent that you would break into the mainstream and become “the next big thing.” But that never happened cuz the focus was suddenly shifted onto the next generation of kids who grew up listening to you.
We never felt the need to pursue “commercial success,” so to a certain degree, we don’t have a problem with it. We did what we did – work hard, go out there and give 100% every night – and always kept the idea of becoming “huge” out of our minds. But, of course, I think a lot had to do with the fact that we were just hardcore kids who had no idea what marketing was. You know, who our opening act was on the Scratch the Surface tour? Korn! Their manager sent us demos, advances, and letters saying “please take these guys out: I want them to see what a real live band is like.” I listened to it and thought “it sounds like Nine Inch Nails and Sepultura. I’m not into this shit, but whatever, we’ll take them out.” What we didn’t know was their manager was telling them all the keys to marketing. “Wear the track suits, hip hop is cool,” etc. A year later, after they blew up, their manager came up to me again and said “I would kill to manage you guys, cuz you’re my favorite band of all time, but it’d be terrible cuz you wouldn’t listen to a single word I say.” And he was right. We have no idea how to dress or play any other way. Sick Of It All is just a no-image hardcore band.
Look at H2O: A big band took them on tour, and all of a sudden, they went from yelling “NYHC” to wanting to play pop punk in arenas. But what happened was their old fans said “Oh, you’re pop punk now? Fuck you.” And young kids said, “You don’t have a video on MTV? Get out of the way, we want to see The Used.” They shot themselves in the foot.
But even in hardcore, image is a big part of it these days.
That’s just what happens when any musical movement becomes big: It develops an identity that somewhat betrays its roots. All these bands starting out are trying to look like Agnostic Front and Cro-Mags, tattoos and everything, but you know what? That’s the life that Agnostic Front and Cro-Mags lived. They were tough motherfuckers who lived on the streets, some in squatted houses. But now it has become “a look” that anyone can take on.
I love the band Terror, but all those little kids running around in Terror shirts? Listen to Madball, motherfuckers! (laughs) Where do you think it came from? You go into Hot Topic, and there are Terror shirts and posters everywhere. Where are the Madball shirts? And it’s not like the guys in Terror are hiding it, they all say how much they love Madball. It just comes down to marketing that’s out of the bands’ hands. Pete and Craig are laidback about it, like “yeah who cares, whatever, we just do what we do,” but I do get pissed and bitter from time to time. (laughs)
Did your 20th anniversary show happen yet?
Yeah, it was on Sept. 19th at B.B. King’s in New York. It was unfuckingbelievable. Oh man, it was unreal.
You promised rarities and surprises! What did you play?
We played “The Deal,” which we hadn’t played in like a decade, “World Full of Hate,” and we opened with “Take the Night Off” and “Good Lookin’ Out,” then went right into “Clobberin’ Time” and “We Stand Alone.” People flipped! There were all these 30, 40 year-old guys walking on top of people’s heads. (laughs) It was insane.
I’ve seen you probably more times than any other band over the last 15 years. Somehow, you bring it every time, without fail. Other bands, even the great ones, sometimes have off-nights, but not you guys. How are you able to keep your energy level up like that?
I actually feel shitty when I’m off tour, cuz when I’m on tour I get to stay in shape by exercising and running around. Pete’s way better than I am – he’s in the gym on tour, off tour, all the time – but I feel like a slob when I’m at home. (laughs) I look way better on tour!
After 20 years of working so hard, how do you guys remain in the game mentally, physically, creatively?
There are times when we feel like we can’t go on. A while ago, when we were on our third tour of Europe for Life on the Ropes, I was just like, “I can’t do this anymore.” But then you hear the crowd chanting your name before you go on, and the energy and the love of the music hits you when you step on stage. All of a sudden, it rushes back to you why you do this. There’s a 40 year-old balding guy in the front row yelling at you, wearing a shirt from ’92, and there’s a 15 year-old girl at the other end seeing you for the first time. This is what I do. This is where I belong.