(Attention! It is self-explanatory that an interview with a punk band will contain a few dirty words.)
Before meeting Sick of it All I listened to a lot of their music, watched many music videos, some interviews and read almost everything about them available online. An image of the band’s people slowly started to form in my mind. I was expecting four middle-aged gentlemen (I’m only slightly younger than they are, after all), covered in head to toe tattoos, one (Pete Koller’s) dyed punk crest and a lot of black t-shirts. I was not disappointed.
Indeed, when I was introduced to the backstage area of Arena right before their Viennese concert, I found the four band members (plus a couple of unidentified tour crew members) sitting around a couch table looking exactly like I imagined, black t-shirts, tattoos, smiles and all. They all waved back at me over-enthusiastically. I was told I had to wait a couple of minutes since they had something to finish, then I could hijack front man Lou Koller for my interview.
Fun fact: How is it that musicians always have so much to do, but it always looks like they’re just hanging around and chilling?! 😛
While waiting I reflected on how Sick of it All is probably the punk-est band name I’ve ever heard. Really, for a subculture that is generally against any established industry and anything remotely mainstream, it can’t get any better than that. Will the people act accordingly?
Sick Of It All is an American hardcore band formed in 1986 in Queens, New York, USA. Brothers Lou and Pete Koller (vocals and lead guitar), Craig Setari (bass guitar) and Armand Majidi (drums) were all already involved in the New York hardcore scene of the 80s and 90s and proceeded to be a major part of it for the next thirty years. Up to today, actually.
Their major label debut in 1994 – Scratch the Surface – was received with critical acclaim, as well as the following Built to Last. In the next twenty years Sick of It All changed labels a couple of times and released a total of twelve studio albums, two live recordings, two compilations, two EPs, six singles and one documentary film.
Their last album – Last Act of Defiance – was released on September 2014. We’re waiting to see what they’ve prepared for the 30-year anniversary… 🙂
Sick of It All was never about good musicians getting together. We were friends that grew up together, and loved the same music.
We sat down in a tiny room, a couple of tables against the walls and two chairs in the middle, exactly the kind of setting one would expect in Arena: shabby shabby without any chic. We briefly joked that we were lucky to have, at least, one chair each!
Lou Koller: What was your name, Monica?
(This is sooo cute! He’s introducing himself like I didn’t recognize him and didn’t come with the specific purpose of meeting him! <3 C’mon Monica – concentrate on the tattoos, this guy is an angry punk musician, not an old friend of yours!!)
Sorry for the freezing hands, I’m always freezing!
I am from Global Rockstar, and most of the artists on our platform are either beginners or musicians that are already famous in their area or in their country, and are trying to do the jump internationally over the platform.
We do a number of activities but basically my point of view is always the career path. How did it happen and can we learn something to duplicate the path to success? I’m gonna ask a lot in this direction.
And, I mean …
(Outside of the room we are sitting alone, people start chatting, shouting and, judging by the noise, moving around big pieces of furniture. We both turn to the door but Lou is quicker than me. He stands up and reaches for the door, which is actually closed. He opens it…)
Can you guys talk somewhere else?
(Lou closes the door again and realizes it’s not a real door, it’s more a saloon-like-affair, wide open at the top and at the bottom. He looks at me, puzzled)
The door is closed!!
It’s like in a high-school toilet!
(We both laugh)
I’m really amazed… founded 1986 and now we have 2016… it’s thirty years!!
I think it’s fantastic!
So do we!
Did you imagine it when you started?
No, no. When we started it was just for fun. We were always into heavy rock and roll and stuff like that. And then we got into punk music and we found out there was a scene in New York City. And we started going to CBGBs. (NB if you don’t know CBGB, famous and infamous at the same time, click here and learn how legendary it was! Besides, it will make a lot more sense further on :-))
Our dream was
Ah, I just want to play CBGBs one day!
And that’s why we formed the band! To be part of the scene, and play…
And it was also the right place for that kind of music, right?
Yeah, it was the right place, right time, and it just started snowballing from there.
The first thing that I did when I heard that I’m going to meet Sick of It All was going on Wikipedia…
(Lou laughs… but, frankly, I don’t understand why. I love Wikipedia!!)
I noticed that, if there is enough history, Wikipedia makes small chapters out of it. For the Sick of It All entry it was first The beginnings – this one lasts up to Scratch the Surface. And then comes The Fat Wreck Records years and so on…
And I thought, in my head I do the same with my life! School, university, moving someplace. My chapters are before and after graduating, before and after Vienna, working corporate…
How do you look back at a thirty year career? You must have milestones. Like before and after this, before and after that. What are your chapters?
There’s so many! There was the very beginning. And then we finally made a demo tape and all that. And when we finally got to play CBGBs – we opened up for a couple of friends’ bands and we had a great reaction!
That was the first milestone?
Yeah. I think the biggest milestone then was when we headlined CBGBs! We finally were going to headline and we were like, wow!
I remember coming over the bridge from Queens to Manhattan in a friend’s car, with all our equipment piled in the car, going like
Man, I hope people show up.
And we turned the corner, and there’s a line of people down the street waiting to get in!! And this was never heard of back then. Nobody lined up to see a punk show or a hardcore matinee!
And we were like Oh my God and we got in, we did sound check and it was amazing! It was the first big milestone, you know?
Ha! So cute! It was the same route that you probably went back and forth many times. And this one time…
Yeah, we used to just go see shows there, it was so amazing!
And then… it was ‘92, the next big milestone. We had already had two albums out, I think – no! one album was out – and our label, that we were on in the United States, was bought by a big corporation, Sony.
They put out an EP with a bunch of live tracks here in Europe. And we got a call from Mark M.A.D. We never knew him, really, we met him once or twice at CBGBs when he came over. And he was
I want to bring you to Europe!
And we were like
Yeah, you want to bring us to Europe. Okaaay! Sure, sure, set up a tour, we’ll come.
(Mimes a dismissive gesture with his hand, like we’re never going to believe that!)
And we thought
This guy’s never going to do anything.
And then we got our tickets in the mail!! And we’re like
Oh! I guess we’re going to Europe!!
And that was the next big milestone, the first European tour. It really set us off on wanting to stay playing in a band. I mean – we loved it, we didn’t want to leave it, but we had jobs at home. And in the United States we could, like, play on the weekends…
You still had jobs at the time?! :-O
Oh yeah. All the way up until the… I’d say the late nineties, we all still had jobs. But that first European tour – we didn’t make money, but it was just… to come here and see people from different walks of life on the other side of the ocean that loved our music… whoa!
This is funny, because mostly I hear European bands that want to go to the U.S. – Oh, we’re going to tour in the U.S., it’s finally happening! It works also the other way around, then!
It’s the other way, yeah.
And then, that same year, we were the very first New York hardcore band to go to Japan!
And it was funny. A friend of ours brought us over, and we played this tiny club that held two hundred people for three nights. And they stuffed four hundred people in there every night and we were like
What is going on? This is insane!
That was the next big milestone that just made us keep playing.
That was worldwide then.
Yeah. It was fun. Then it kept going like that.
The next one was when we got signed to a major label. And everybody was like
Oh, they’re going to sell out, they’re on a major label!
Green Day was big at the time, and everyone was like Bleah!
And we just wrote probably the hardest record we ever could write, the heaviest record at the time. And that’s another milestone. Scratch the Surface was another milestone.
And… it’s just like that. You have these highs and lows.
Oh, tell me about the lows.
There was a lot of lows. It’s weird, again going back to the States, the climate changed. Like, we were touring, we did Scratch the Surface and it was very successful. Not hugely successful, but we did really good.
But there was this whole… coming from the punk, especially the hardcore scene, there was always this thing of you did it for the art, you didn’t want to make money at it.
And we got a lot of flack from people in our hometown for touring and making money. We’d go around the United States. If you didn’t play the squat and you played a club, half the crowd didn’t go.
So we were at a weird position. Those were the low points. You’d go to a town like in Kansas, where we would sell out, usually go play the squat and you have, like five hundred people there. And then the squat’s gone.
So we thought
Oh, we’re going to play Kansas, well there’s this bar down the street that has all ages shows, let’s go there!
(But) they won’t go. Because it’s in a bar. But there’s no other place to play, you know? It was just weird.
You kind of feel bad, because we still thought we were getting out the message and the attitude that we wanted, but some of the fans were thinking
Oh, no, you just want to be rock stars.
But it’s weird. Do I just play to the same people who know the message that we’re putting out? Or should we try to bring it to other people? I mean, we did it, we were the first hardcore band to go on full tours with metal bands. We would go with Exodus and we did some with…
Sepultura! That was a great one! That was a funny story… Pete was working in the mailroom of Sepultura’s record label. And when they found out that the guy from Sick of It All was in the mailroom, they came in, Igor and Max (NB Igor and Max Cavalera, founders of Sepultura) and all the guys came in
We want to meet Pete, oh we love Sick of It All! We love you guys so much!!
They’re shaking Pete’s hand, and Pete goes
If you love us so much, take us on tour.
Then he turns around and goes back to work!
And then a month later
Hey, we want to take Sick of It All on tour! 😛
It’s interesting this conflict with the fans, with some of your fans. I imagine it a very difficult balance.
Oh yeah, and it’s funny, because some of our hardcore fans that have that attitude will go and pay large amounts of money to see a metal band, or somebody else.
All these people I know, who are the most underground punk, go
Oh you shouldn’t charge twenty bucks for a T-shirt, even though it costs you fifteen dollars to make it!
But when King Diamond started touring again last year, they go to a show and pay thirty dollars for a shirt, thirty dollars for a ticket.
A friend of mine went to see that band Ghost, and she was like
Oh, and I got caught up in it, they were so good, I bought this Ghost rosary beads!
And I was like
How much did you pay for that?
Would you pay forty bucks for anything that said Sick of It All on it?
Oh, no way!!
Because we’re punk! Because you can’t do that! It’s such a double-edged sword.
It’s really the most difficult genre when it comes to that point of view.
Yeah. It sucks!!
(We both laugh)
And the thing is, we’ve always, always tried to keep it fair. From the beginning, if we made a T-shirt for five bucks we only sold it for ten. You know, we didn’t sell it for twenty-five or whatever. But that’s the problem with being in the hardcore punk scene…
…you have the hardcore fans!!
I saw an interview where you talked about how your fan base is mostly your generation, and it’s kind of difficult to grab the younger ones…
Oh, the younger audience, yeah.
I’m not sure. It’s weird for me, I don’t know if it’s the scene we come from, where it’s very generational. Because when I grew up and we started going to hardcore and punk shows, we all researched where it came from. And when we saw older bands were coming to town we were all like
Oh my God, we’ve got to go see these guys, they’re legendary!!
But it seems that as the years going on, the younger kids just wanted bands their age.
We played a show once in Virginia, and there were bands that sounded exactly like us. And they even said that Sick of It All was their main influence, and they were so proud to be on the same stage with us.
But when they finished playing their fans just left. They didn’t give a crap that we influenced all these bands and that we were their heroes…
They didn’t want to listen to the real stuff?!
Yeah, they didn’t care. Either that or they had to go home because it was their bedtime! I don’t know, they were so young. 😛
(Again I have to pinch me in the arm to stay focused… Sick of it All! Punk! Angry! Against everything! Bad, bad people!! Look at all those tattoos!)
I am curious because… I don’t buy a hundred percent this theory that they want to see only artists that are their age. Because when I was younger, I didn’t stick to teenager bands or twenty years old. But then again, when I was young, the way I consumed music was very different from today. I’m talking about attention span here. Like, I discovered Pink Floyd when I was thirteen…
I would listened to something, discover a band, and what I would do next was go to a record store and (I mime flipping through records with the tip of my fingers)…
And buy some of them, you know, blank! I didn’t know…
…how it was going to sound!
Exactly. I would go home and listen to them, and it was almost a religious thing. I would sit there and listen to them front and back, many times, and it took me months to digest that stuff.
I remember chewing the old Syd Barrett psychedelic stuff, and (I do an overwhelmed/disgusted face) it took me a very long time. And today’s kids, they hear something and they decide if they like it or not in twenty seconds!
I know! It’s crazy!
And if they like it, it lands on a playlist for a couple of weeks and then disappears.
They don’t have any physical attachment to it, they don’t have the experience of hunting it, you know. And like you said, half of the things they listen to
Oh, I can just get it as a ringtone!
Or whatever they do now. When my godson was younger, him and his friends, whatever the popular song was – bang! – they all had it as a ringtone on their phone. And then the next week he had another ringtone. And I go
What happened to the song from last week?
I don’t know, I like this one this week.
I understand liking different songs, but they don’t fall in love with the music. And I think, the pop that sells millions and millions of copies, it’s not going to stand the test of time.
The classic rock, or whatever you want to call it, you can put a Pink Floyd record on, and it’ll stand the test of time. Because it takes you somewhere. It says something to you. You know?
Do you think it’s possible to reverse this pattern?
I think it has to do a lot with the music industry. Just like everything, they just want to make money now. Instead of developing an artist or making art, they want to make money. And that’s why the music industry is failing. It’s the whole climate.
And again, I can only speak from the American perspective, but that’s the climate in America. They don’t care about – talking about the election (NB The US presidential elections) – nobody really cares about the issues, they just want to be backed, they’re all backed by these corporations that just want to keep the money machine going.
Can you tell me more about the thirty year anniversary? What’s coming up?
Oh, well, we recorded five brand new songs and we’re doing an EP. We’re putting together a photographic history, so we’re trying to make it as a book that comes with an EP, to have vinyl and digital download.
It was fun, we also brought our original bass player (NB Rich Cipriano, the very first bass player of the band) – ‘cause Craig joined in 1993, we’ve all grown up together, but Craig was in other bands at the time. And he wrote songs with us on the first album, so…
He’s joining back again?
No, no Craig is the one who’s playing with us now. The original guy, Richie, he left. But for the EP that we did we brought him in, and he played guitar, he’s a really good guitar. So it was all five of us in the studio playing together again.
I always like to ask about line-up changes… sometimes crazy stories are hidden there…
Was it growing pains, or…?
No, it was weird, we had it right away! (NB the line-up)
We did one show where we had a different drummer and bass player, this kid Dave, and Mark on bass, they’re guys from the hardcore scene. They did one show and then they quit.
But Pete and me wanted to keep playing, so we got our friends Richie and Armand, and we clicked right away because we all grew up loving the same music. And that line-up was great up until about the end of 1992. Richie didn’t want to tour a lot, because he was having trouble with his girlfriend when he would leave for tour…
So he left the band, and Craig, who grew up with us too – he was in Agnostic Front, and Agnostic Front was splitting up at the time. So it was natural for him to just join us. He did the last Agnostic Front tour, had three days at home, and went right out on tour with Sick of It All!
It was the perfect match, we just gelled. And we’ve been together since.
Not even a tiny shake?
It’s funny… Armand left for a while! He only left for a tiny bit because he wanted to try…
I want a regular job and to do life like that!
And he ended up working at a record label, and that’s how… Mark M.A.D had called our record label and spoke to Armand, and Armand was like
Hey, this guy from Europe wants Sick of It All to go over there.
And I go
And he was like
Can I join the band again?
Only if you write the new record with us!!
And that was it, he’s back in the band since.
So it was great, yeah. The other guys we had, were guys from the scene. There’s an EP out called We Stand Alone and it has pictures of Pete, Armand, me and Richie. And then pictures with me, Pete, and there was a drummer named E.K. and a bass player named Eric. And that was the only thing we’ve ever done with those two guys. We did a couple of shows with them, they were nice guys and they were great musicians, but we didn’t gel.
Sick of It All was never about good musicians getting together. We were just friends that grew up together, and we loved the same kind of stuff, the same kind of music. We all met in high school because we were the only four people in high school that liked Motorhead. Nobody liked Motorhead.
You naturally bonded…
Metallica had just started then… I had a Metallica shirt, you know the old ones that said Metal Up Your Ass, just white lettering on a black shirt? People would look at me like it was fucking weird! And it was just the four of us. We were like
Oh shit, he likes Motorhead, these guys like Metallica!! Oh, bang!
Nobody knew those bands then.
So… let’s form a band?!!
Yeah! And then we started going to hardcore shows. And we all had long hair, and that was cool about going to hardcore back then – I think it’s back to it now – where you could come in looking however you want. You didn’t have to look a certain way.
We used to go to shows back there, we all had really long hair, there would be Goth kids, there would be skinheads, there would be punks – and everybody would be singing to Agnostic Front. It was great.
But then, after a while, that changed. Hardcore had an image and everybody tried to look like it. And they still do to a certain extent, everybody’s got to be covered in tattoos and shaved heads or whatever, I don’t know.
How much time of the last thirty years did you spend on tour?
Out of the thirty years, I’d say three quarters of it were a good amount of touring.
But when we all started having children – Armand had kids first, his kids are already teenagers going into their last year of high school and their first year of college. That was the first time it ever affected the band, where we were offered this really big tour, I remember. I forget what year it was, but No Effects (NB NOFX) was going to tour Europe and they wanted to do it with us.
We want Sick of It All, the biggest hardcore band at the time, and No Effects, the biggest punk band, and we’re going to tour together in Europe!
And then, all of a sudden, Armand goes
I can’t. My wife’s going to give birth to our baby at that time.
So we had to cancel that. That was the first time it affected us.
But then, as we got older, we don’t tour as many times. The thirty-year anniversary tour is when we’re doing a lot of touring this year.
(Again, I must stare at Lou’s tattooed arms and wonder… if he’d wear a long-sleeved shirt, I’d assume he’s some over-polite social worker instead of the front man of the angriest-sounding punk band ever!)
You’re on a tight schedule?
Yep, this is a three week run, then we go home for a week, then we go to California for almost two weeks of the west coast, and then we get home for a week, and then we fly home…
Home is still New York?
No, I had to move. I actually moved to New Jersey. Craig still lives in Queens. But I moved to New Jersey because my wife’s job is in New Jersey and I could do what I do from wherever. But for her I moved to New Jersey. She owes me big time – leave Queens to move to New Jersey!! 😛
I’m just kidding.
The touring this year is going to be a lot. And we’re still booking stuff now. We were just talking about coming back and doing club shows in Belgium and Holland, which we haven’t done in a long time.
We’ve always done the Persistence Tour and then just big festivals, so we’re going to go back to do clubs.
That’s the main thing about this thirty anniversary, playing clubs. And a lot smaller clubs! It doesn’t always work, because we book ourselves in a small club and it sells out so fast they want us… like tonight…
They move you to a bigger venue?
Like to a bigger room, yeah.
Well, the Arena is perfect for you and your most hardcore fans!
Oh yeah, I like it
I don’t want my daughter to grow up in that kind of a society.
I’m about to say something a bit insolent… I don’t know if you’re going to like it…
A hardcore punk band successful since thirty years… it’s a bit of a contradiction in itself! Like liquid ice or independent colony.
Because there is always a strong, protest message. How do you keep that spirit alive?
As you grow, there’s still a lot of things that haven’t changed. And even when you do get changed, you know the way society is, especially in the States. It goes from left to right every time. And there’s always somebody that is behind it all. It irks you, you know?
The protest part is that, when we see something wrong, we have to have a release for it. That’s what I’m trying to say.
Either when it’s personal or it’s something we see in society, that’s what keeps the energy and the anger going.
You give voice to something that you see happening?
Last summer, I was at the #RefugeesWelcome concert here in Vienna, for the refugees from Syria, and Toten Hosen played there. You know Toten Hosen?
Listening to them I realized that when they began, their message, their protest, was more like the voice of a specific social class…
…and now their message is somehow…
I don’t want to say general because that sounds a bit like superficial, but it’s more… world peace and refugees… at a higher level.
And I was wondering, is it because their point of view has changed? I mean, you meet different people now than thirty years ago…
…your environment is different.
Is it because of the point of view that you have now? You’re shooting higher?
Or is the world sicker now?
(Boy! I sound like my grandma!!)
It’s weird. When I was younger I thought the world was terrible. We had Reagan, we had all this stuff. But now, speaking from seeing what’s going on with the Syrian refugees here, and the protests that happen about it in the United States, and the climate in the United States… just look at the presidential candidates, they’re all crazy!
I think the world is sicker now, you know?!
Really? That easy!
It’s scary because I have a five-year-old daughter, I don’t want her to grow up in a sick place like that – where a man who’s spouting racial hatred as the cause of America’s problems (is a presidential candidate). Like
Oh, it’s because this race is coming into our country that America is not great anymore!
And at this rate, it’s not. I don’t want my daughter to grow up in that kind of a society.
After meeting Lou Koller I have only one question left in my mind… why is it that rockers, punk and heavy metal musicians are always so nice? Really, it looks like they’ve found an inner balance that many of us – including pop-musicians – can only dream of. My personal theory is, they channel all negativity into their music, shouting out all their anger and discontent on stage. And this has left them in a much calmer state of mind in everyday life, like after a big fight one always feels a tad exhausted but much better than before.
I presented my theory to Lou and he smiled a vague agreement. Maybe he was just implicitly responding to my implicit compliment. Who knows?