Charles Bronson may have just been a little band from Dekalb, Illinois with a mere three-year existence in the mid-90s, but much like the action star of their namesake, they still ended up being an explosive force. Featuring shared members of multiple other stalwart punk/hardcore bands such as Los Crudos and MK-Ultra—amongst the other 20 or so bands that stemmed from their ranks—the band called it a day in 1997. Every member moved on, moved away, started other bands, or created record labels, but they all in some way maintained their place within punk. One of the most notable footprints after the band’s demise is that of singer Mark McCoy.
McCoy’s time since Charles Bronson broke up has seen him creating numerous other bands that took him anywhere from San Diego to Amsterdam, making another career from his design and artwork, and starting Youth Attack Records. The first two are boosted by the latter. Youth Attack started off as a label with the purpose of putting out Charles Bronson's discography CD to throw off bootleggers who were trying to release it. Fifteen years and almost 100 releases later, Youth Attack is not only a staple within punk/hardcore but a platform for Mark to put out his own projects plus other new bands’ records.
He mentioned that he’s one to ignore nostalgia. So it’s probably fucked up on my part to interview him about something that reflects on some of his past. Either way, that still didn’t stop me from nerding out on him after realizing Charles Bronson had just played their first show a little over 20 years ago. I caught up with Mark to discuss the past, present, and future of his music and art starting from that first Charles Bronson show to where he is now.
Noisey: How do you feel now since 20 years have passed since that first Charles Bronson show?
Mark McCoy: I feel lucky. With the label, Youth Attack, I'm doing what I like and working with creative people. If I can keep chasing after my potential on my own terms, then that's real living. Most of my music and art-related work is very labor-intensive. It's in my interests to hurry it along, even though I have projects that take years to finish. I like going the distance, but being around forever isn't enough. There's plenty of wash-ups still making bad work. I always have to push myself harder, otherwise why bother? I can always improve. It just requires keeping a distance from most things, which comes naturally. I'd like to think I've constructed my own world instead, because most of what I see is irrelevant.
How has punk/hardcore changed for you on a personal level—as well as a broader sense—since that show?
I was very outspoken then, like anyone with uninformed opinions. I mean, my parents paid for school, all I had to do was show up and do the work, which, in fact, was pretty easy. This allowed me plenty of free time for attending shows. Every week, I'd see some mind-blowing new band. But coming from a skateboarding background, I found the scene politics of the 90s very bizarre. I started realizing that most of those involved in hardcore liked feeling guilty. In fact it seemed that guilt was their motivation, and that people competed to be the guiltiest! It was like going to church. I loved the music, but I never really felt part of the scene. This was really the basis of Charles Bronson's attitude. So while it was very hardcore to be reactionary and blame everyone, I always thought of us as being on the outside. This made approaching the music interesting because it was absurd in a way. I mean, a lot of the bands I worshipped were probably awful people, but that was cool.
Looking at it today on a personal level, hardcore will remain alive so long as I ignore all the nostalgia. I have no interest in romanticizing it. With each new release of mine I ask myself, how is this different from what already exists?
Charles Bronson's first show at the NIU student lounge. Photo by Todd Wuss.
I assume if you’re ignoring nostalgia, the idea of a Charles Bronson or Das Oath playing a reunion show wouldn’t pique your interest?
Reunions are pathetic and I pity the bands that play them. They remind me of being young, back when things were cut and dry. Friends simply came and went. If I lost one, I just found another. These changes happened naturally. As adults we have couples therapy and class reunions. Everyone's terrified of letting go. As the reality of death takes hold, they want to be kids again. They start doing crazy, desperate things, like having babies and getting their old bands back together. I respect my work too much to think it won't be forgotten.
How has Youth Attack changed since that began? That label was only created to put out that Charles Bronson discography CD but did you ever think about taking it further than that at the time and did you think it would grow to what is now?
When Charles Bronson ended, I moved to New York City and lost contact with most of the people I met through the band. By the time the Complete Discocrappy double CD came out two years later, there had been this massive turnover in the scene and all these exciting new bands were happening. So once I got my Master’s degree, I dove right back into music. It wasn't hard to find bands, but I had no idea what I was doing. I didn't own a computer; I didn't know the first thing about running a label. I just knew that I never wanted to approach it as a business, otherwise it would suck. The label continues to survive on emotion—as a force of will, because from a business standpoint, it makes no sense. Financially speaking, the time I put in never equates to what I see in return, but that isn't the point. All I think about it is getting to the next step, not where I'll be in five years or if I should have a 401K plan. I don't want the label to grow, in fact I'd prefer to pull it back to something more intimate. I'm not interested in popularity. All the social aspects of it are lame. What the public thinks about this or that is none of my business. None of what I do exists for them, but if some people enjoy it, then great. My only concern is the quality of the final product. Once it's out in the world, I'm done with it.
Charles Bronson's last show ever.
Was there a certain band of yours that you loved playing with more than a previous band? Or is every band just a new stage within your life that isn’t comparable?
In both Charles Bronson and Das Oath, I played with my close friends, and our songwriting process was intuitive. Failures was a less fun band, but purposely so, and in many ways more rewarding than the others because we pushed ourselves to the brink. We spent like, three years recording each of our albums, which seems insane for two 14-minute long records. Since all of my past bands’ recordings were rushed, it was important for me to slow down and approach things differently, regardless if it made for a better result. So I would take the bus from New York City up to Will Killingsworth's studio, Dead Air in Western Massachusetts, like five hours away. We'd work ourselves to exhaustion in one night, then I'd go back the next weekend and we'd often redo everything from scratch. I must have spent thousands of dollars on bus rides. Thankfully Will had enough patience to put up with me.
Despite that close friendship, I’m still surprised at how long Das Oath actually managed to stick around due to distance. Was it hard to keep that band going considering half of you lived in the states and the other half lived in the Netherlands?
We always planned in advance, sometimes years in the making. We were very committed to each other. Either Nate Wilson and I would fly to Amsterdam, or the Dutch guys would come here. We never had much money, but we were young enough to afford unsettled lives. The drummer, Marcel Wiebenga, received some funding from the Dutch government for being a musician, and the rest of us ran labels, which made it somehow OK to pack up and leave. But eventually Marcel's funding ended, and Jeroen Vrijhoef and Nate stopped doing their record labels and got regular jobs. Quietly, the band ended.
What about that Virgin lawsuit against that Virgin Mega Whore record you did? I’m sure it happened for obvious reasons but what was the story behind that?
Some weirdo kept showing up at our house asking for me while I was at work. I was involved in some unmentionable activities at the time and wasn't sure what he wanted so I dodged him for weeks. He'd come over at random times and my roommates would make up stories to get rid of him. It wasn't much longer until they got my bandmate, Jeff Jelen, in Chicago. He called me and said Virgin issued a summons claiming $60,000 in damages to their name, which we laughed at. Their lawyers didn't have half their facts straight. Turns out there was this other, all-girl punk band from the West Coast with the same name, unbeknownst to us. They thought we were all in one band! We just told them that our band broke up, and then they dropped it. Not less than six months later, the Virgin Mega Whore CD was for sale at the Virgin Mega Store.
Ironic. Can you say anything about the old “beef” with Felix Havoc? He had mentioned something about a ninja fight. Sorry, but that can never be discussed publicly. As Sun Tzu said, "The whole secret lies in confusing the enemy, so that he cannot fathom our real intent."
OK. So, what came first, art or music?
Art. I was six the first time anyone told me I could draw. A policeman came to our class to discuss safety tips for us kids, like not accepting rides home from strangers. This "Officer Friendly" left behind these safety comics for us to color in, and I remember carefully drawing in this evil expression on the cartoon of a faceless cop. I wish I still had it. Anyway, whenever I could, I'd secretly draw throughout class, like these elaborate battle scenes and intricate mazes that I'd give to my dad. In a way, my drawings today still kind of look the same.
I read you went to art school so it makes sense a lot of your work is more conceptually based but do you let that background heavily affect whatever releases or project you’re working on?
I didn't learn that much in art school. People mostly floated through. It's hard to imagine any of them still making anything. Even in grad school almost no one worked in their studios. I don't know what they did! I attribute everything I've done to either good fortune or repeated mistakes. I never feel like I accomplish enough, but despite that, I do the same things daily.
Did any releases stand out more than others as far as artwork is concerned from the past?
The SQRM Rodeo LP with the clown on the cover, for me, is a classic. It's so humiliating. To have this miserable, teary-eyed clown in that crappy make up really captures the frustrations we willingly endure. I also love the cover for the second Hoax EP, of this high-ranking military officer with chunks of concrete for a head. It unfolds into this repetitive spread of parachutes made of rocks pulling these soldiers down into an abyss. The idea was to illustrate a chain of command's mindless, suicidal nature.
That kind of plays into the off-items you make through the label such as the nooses, candy, and razor blades. They all seem to be a good representation and mixture of how you think creatively with Youth Attack and your art.
I view Youth Attack as a lifestyle, so things like trash bag shirts, record-handling gloves, and vomit bags are a practical extension of the label. Even if they seem like dumb novelties, it's a way of saying the ideas behind them are real and that life is absurd.
Is there a underlying focus of death within your art? Keeping that Hoax EP in mind, you also get that sense with the Manners Journal VOL 1 and your When I Die series.
Accepting death reminds me that I'm alive in the world. It's up to me to acknowledge the importance of each day. I don't fear death; I try to embrace it.
Does that tie in with the basis of your Manners journal series? All three volumes seem to be violent and sexual although volumes two and three are a bit more distorted and disoriented.
Sex and violence are exciting—I'm fascinated by their power. My life is fragile. I stumble through most of it, but it's the intensity that drives me.
What’s next for your art?
I'm completing a series of ink drawings for a solo exhibition in April called Devouring Ghost at Slowboy Gallery in Düsseldorf, Germany. I began the series in 2010 and have worked on it continuously since. The show will have nine drawings, each of which has taken me anywhere from five to eight months to finish. This will be the follow-up to the Hallow exhibition at Hope Gallery in Los Angeles in 2009. The new drawings are architectural-based and more dense than my previous work.
I play in a new band called Absolute Power with Chris O'Coin and Ian Jacyszyn from Suburbanite and Will Killingsworth and Andrew Jackmauh from Failures—a lethal lineup. We've been quietly working on an album and I'm thrilled to see it released. This violent new band from Denver called City Hunter will be recording their debut 12-inch soon which I'm very psyched about—it's some of the best music I've heard in ages. Also, The Repos will be recording their Poser LP soon and the songs for it are just insane.
Sameet Sharma is on Twitter - @SFTLLTR