Photo courtesy of Sick Of It All
In the here-today, gone-tomorrow world of hardcore punk, Sick Of It All stand alone. They are in their third decade of touring and recording, and have released 10 solid full-length records with barely a change in personnel. With the release of 1994's "Scratch the Surface" they took NYHC worldwide, and have seldom stopped to take a breath ever since. They are the closest the hardcore scene has to a household name. In short, they are legends.
Noisey sat down with the band to discuss their long, colorful history as titans of the NYHC scene. This is the second installment in a three-part oral history of one of NYC's finest; read Part I here, and Part II here.
Lou: We eventually did sign to major labels. We were on East West, the same label that I think Pantera was on. We did our second record, Just Look Around, on Relativity and there was no promotion. There was a big New York show, Agnostic Front, Murphy's Law and the Lunachicks at the Palladium. We made our own flyers, Xeroxed them and posted them all over near the Palladium so that people could see that the record was coming out and the label wasn't doing anything. That was the catalyst. We went in and said we wanted to leave; we weren't happy with what they were doing. We were kids when we signed with Relativity, we signed for a seven-album deal. So the label had to sell us off. We didn't know. We thought we were going to break up after one record; we didn't think we'd be doing this forever.
They tried to sell us for $20,000 to another indie label. One day we get a call from the A&R guy from East West, and he said that he was interested in us. When they found out that East West was interested, they added another zero and the price was now $200,000.00. East West bought us for $200,000! We went in to write the record and everyone was coming to us saying that the label was going to make us sound like Green Day so we could sell more records, but in reality they let us do what we wanted.
Pete: Being on a major was pretty fucking great; it was definitely different. Everyone at those labels were looking for the "Next Big Thing." There was Metallica and Pantera. They signed us and Orange 9MM thinking that we were going to be the next big thing. It really helped us in places like Europe. We were doing great in Europe on a hardcore level, but when we were on a major, there were billboard ads for our record. There were ads in all the subways and train stations. It pushed us past the regular hardcore level. The fringe people became lifelong fans. It got us the opportunities to be put on these big festivals where there was rock and techno and other styles of music. Back in those days, there weren't hardcore bands on those festivals; we were the first ones to do that. People were there to see the Prodigy and bands like that and they liked the energy that we brought. They weren't exactly "hardcore fans", but they became Sick Of It All fans. Back then people said that it would be the kiss of death for a punk and hardcore band, but it was what gave us a career. At first it was only punks and skins that would come to see us, then it was the college kids who liked Helmet: it had no boundaries. They might have been intimidated by the hardcore scene, thinking that it was violent. Suddenly, Sick Of It All was playing with Helmet and those people got to see us on their own turf; they saw that the actual appeal of the band was fun and energy. It wasn't about coming to the show and being ready to fight.
Craig: I've known those guys for a long time. Back in 1982, I was playing in my first band and asked Armand to play guitar. He turned it down because he didn't want his first show to be in a church. I knew Pete and Lou from the neighborhood; I knew them as the other guys that were into punk and hardcore, we were always crossing paths.. We all met around 1982. I grew up in Bayside, Lou and Pete lived in Flushing, and Armand lived in Jamaica. I was filling on bass when Richie was busy. I wrote some songs on the Blood, Sweat and No Tears album, I actually went with them in the studio and helped them record. I was always in the mix, but I was in Youth of Today and Agnostic Front, bands that were more established. I was in bands that were already touring. When Richie left, I joined, it was a natural fit.
Pete: Rich left the band for a girl; as soon as he quit the band, she broke up with him. At that point, Craig was coming off of a tour with AF; that was when AF said they were calling it quits, so Craig played a few shows with us, and because we were all friends, he ended up staying in the band.
Armand: We've known Craig for such a long time before he joined the band. Craig was in this metal band called Axe Attack: they did Angel Witch and Motorhead covers, with maybe a Discharge song thrown in. It was a mix of heavy punk and metal. Craig was fully involved with Sick Of It All from day one. Even when we were recording the first album, he was there through out the whole thing. He even contributed creatively to the first album, wrote most of the lyrics for the song "The Blood and the Sweat"; he was tuning the instruments and doing other hands-on stuff. There were even some shows that Richie couldn't play, I think they were with Biohazard, and Craig filled in on bass. It felt so natural; I had played with Craig in Rest in Pieces and Straight Ahead, so having him involved was second nature. Agnostic Front went on hiatus in the early 90s, so at that point, Craig was looking for a band and Rich was looking for a way out of the band.
Craig: My first show as a full-time member of the band was somewhere in upstate New York during a show storm. We showed up like two hours late but about half the crowd stayed. There were about 150 people in the place when we played. I had just finished a tour with AF, came home, did my laundry, and I was on the road with them.
Lou: When we went into writing, we looked back at our previous records, Blood, Sweat and No Tears and Just Look Around and picked out what we liked and what we didn't like and made the heaviest and angriest record we could: Scratch the Surface. That was the era we did some really good tours with Helmet, a tour with Quicksand and Orange 9MM. We had built up a big following in Europe. We were playing small festivals. When "Scratch the Surface" came out on East West Worldwide, it was promoted so heavily in Europe that it took us to a whole new level. We would play bigger clubs and people started stage diving as soon as the lights dimmed before we went out on stage.
Craig: "Scratch the Surface" was my first record with Sick Of It All. It was real easy; it was enjoyable. We had a practice space in China Town. It was a memorable time. I feel like that album took hardcore from a local thing and made it into a worldwide phenomenon. It made hardcore recognized by the mainstream. The only other album I can think that really crossed over was Cro-Mags "Age of Quarrel."
Back to the Indies
Lou: We were on the major and the reason why we wanted to get off was because the people that worked for you moved so fast. They left or changed positions; the guy that loved Sick Of It All was suddenly working for a bigger act. We never worked with the same people for too long and ended up getting lost in the shuffle. They wanted to sit down and talk about renewing our contract and we just left.
Pete: After a while, there would be a different person in charge of us every week and they wouldn't even know who you were.
Armand: We had played out our contract with the major. By the time we had fulfilled our end of the contract, their whole staff had changed. We also took as much money from them as possible so we would look as unattractive as possible; for example, we would take tour support even if we didn't need it, so when it came time to pick up their option, they passed, which made us free agents. We could go around and talk to who ever we wanted to.
Lou: We knew Fat Mike from NOFX. Even when Relativity was going to sell our contract, Mike was asking us to be on Fat Wreck Chords. We would be the first East Coast band: we wouldn't be a punk band, we would be a hardcore band.
We talked to a bunch of indie labels. We talked to Victory because they were the big hardcore label, but we had heard some bad things about them that we took with a grain of salt. Every band has bad things to say about their label. Fat Mike came with this really generous offer that we felt was more out of friendship than business and we were like: "Hell yeah, let's sign with Fat."
Pete: We wanted to move along and Fat Mike came up with an insane offer that was better than a major label. They helped us out so much. You would call them and ask for an advance on the advance because your rent was due and you couldn't pay and they would pay us.
Armand: Fat was by far the best offer. Unfortunately, due to some of those divisions in the scene, a lot of people weren't eager to see Sick Of It All sign to Fat Wreck Chords just because they were known for putting out a certain type of music. That worked against us in some ways. I don't know why people have such a love affair with labels instead of bands, but that phenomenon does exist. Mike was willing to give us the deal that made it easy for us to survive as a working band. He's the most ethical guy in the music industry.
Lou: Again, there was a backlash. People on the East Coast were asking why we signed to a West Coast label; they felt we had to keep in our home turf and we were like: "Who cares?! They're putting our records out!" There are still legions of our fans that don't like the Fat Wreck Chords years. With that said, "Call to Arms", our first record that came out on Fat is my least favorite record of all time. I felt we rushed into it: half the songs are good, half the songs are filler, and I hate the production. We were kind of burnt on big productions from working on the majors. We worked with Garth Richardson, who worked with Rage Against the Machine and some other big bands. We wondered why we were paying this guy. As a response, we went with a lo-fi, bare-bones production, with natural kick sounds and people took that for "punk". Yeah, if you listen to the record, the production was shit, but there were some heavy-ass songs on that album: we had some fast and furious songs. At the time there were bands like Biohazard and what we referred to as the "Jackson Heights Groove Metal Scene", but we still loved playing fast. What we considered hardcore was now considered punk, and what we saw as bad metal was now hardcore.
Mike loved us when we came out on Fat. He loved us as friends, but he loved Call to Arms. We then delivered Yours Truly to him, which is one of my favorite Sick Of It All albums. People had talked so much shit about us: "Oh, you're punk, you changed yourselves …" We just played what we wanted on that record. There are two mistakes we did on that record. On certain songs we had tuned down to "D" and I though we should do the whole album like that, but since Hatebreed was getting really big, we didn't want to be perceived as jumping on the bandwagon, which in hindsight was stupid. We should have tuned down for the whole record instead of just the two songs. The other thing is I hate the cover. I hate it so much. I love the guy who did it; Phil Frost is the coolest guy in the world and I think his art is great, but I can't stand the cover. Our manager thought that we could reach more people with a cover like that. At the time, Snapcase was big and they had these kind of artsy-fartsy covers and he thought that would help expand our audience, but the problem with hardcore is that once people see you one way, that's the way you are.
We went to Century Media after Fat Records. I met the two guys that own the label back when we first started touring Europe. They came to all of our early shows. They were always interested in us.
When we did Life on the Ropes, we felt like we were in a rut. Musically, it was a big step in the right direction. In Europe, we were playing to bigger and bigger crowds but we weren't selling any more records. We went to Mike and asked to get off the label. He was cool and said that if we ever wanted to come back or do a one-off the door was open.
At the time, Century Media wanted to start a subsidiary label called Abacus because they didn't want to put hardcore on their metal label. They signed us, Ignite and some other bands. When we sent them the rough mix of what was to become "Death to Tyrants", they fell in love with it. Abacus lasted for a short time. Century Media ultimately killed the label and signed us directly.
Lou: We've been together for so long that it's so hard to write or play with anybody else. Since the late 80s, we've entertained the idea of adding a second guitarist, but it just never seemed that it fit. There was a lot of shit that went down in our personal lives as a result of this. Stuff that would make people leave bands, but we all wanted this. Sometimes, it's been rough, but luckily we stuck at it. When it stops becoming fun, and it becomes a chore, is when I don't want to do it, like when I get writer's block, but once you get the break through it's great.
Armand: We were lucky in a lot of ways, it was so effortless, we were caught up in a snowball rolling down a mountain. Also, because some bands couldn't hold it together, we emerged as like the torchbearers sometimes. It has as much to do with that as much as the amount of hard work. We were consistent, we tried our hardest not to let our fans down. I think the fans appreciated that.
Craig: As much as hardcore has had some real dark periods, and there's been some negative stuff associated with it, hardcore has really broadened my life, opened my mind: it's really given me a great life. With all the shit that goes on, and all the shit that people talk, hardcore has been the greatest blessing in my life.