Photo by Ken Salerno
For almost thirty years now, New York's Sick of It All have been a legendary anomaly upon the hardcore scene. For the duration of their existence, they have not only stayed aesthetically true to themselves and the scene they came up in, but they have also managed to keep their formula fresh without futzing with the program. One listen to their newest full length, Last Act of Defiance, shows that they're a band that lives and breathes in the here and now. There is no need to ride off the accomplishments of the past; just keep your eyes on the road and let that silent pride get you through.
So, it seemed a bit strange to many Fun Fun Fun Fest attendees when they read on their programs that the band would be doing a retrospective set consisting of their two finest full lengths: their 1989 debut, 'Blood, Sweat and No Tears, and 1994's Scratch the Surface. Some seemed confused and asked, "Why?" I guess you could be some kind of chin-stroking asshole like that, or you could just throw up your arms and scream, "Why the fuck not?." and watch one of the finest live bands in the world tear through tunes from two of their classic LP's.
If you haven't figured it out yet, I'm in the latter camp.
As expected, the set SOIA blasted into the chilly Saturday night air of Fun Fun Fun was a whirl in the way-back machine that riled the crowd into the type of frenzy that only these boys from Queens could inspire. To celebrate this monumental set, we asked spiral-kicking Sick of It All guitarist Pete Koller to reminisce on what got him and the rest of the band onto the road less travelled. Here's what he had to say:
Noisey: When did you first start going to matinees at CBGB's?
Pete Koller: The first matinee Lou and I went to I'm pretty sure was the release party for [Agnostic Front's] Victim in Pain. We took the 7 train to the E train, and then we got off by Bleeker Bob's. We're coming down the street, and I see this big, sort of chubby dude with a shaved head and a huge eagle tattooed on the back of it. I never saw anything like this in my life, ever. I was just like, "Holy shit, this guy is going to kill us." Of course, it was Billy Psycho. He was super cool! He was like, "You guys coming to check out the show? Cool!" He accepted us right away and as kids in high school who weren't accepted, and weren't into what everybody else in our school was into, that was what we needed. We weren't wearing Capezios and Cavaricci pants. We were the outcasts where we came from and we finally found our place. And the first person to welcome us is this big, tough-looking guy who I thought was going to kick our asses. From that minute on, I thought hardcore was the greatest thing ever.
What do you think led you guys to the hardcore scene?
We came from good lower-class-to-middle-class families, but I'd say what led us there is that we're all mentally disturbed. Even to this day, I think that. I just turned forty-seven years old. So that means for the past twenty-six years, I've lived off my band. You got to be a little crazy to take that step, and every day I thank God that there are people that are a little bit crazy too that have to hear this music. Without them, I would have never met my wife. I would have never had the gorgeous baby we had, and these things make my life perfect. I know Lou feels the same way, and Armand feels the same, and so does Craig and everyone else, because if it wasn't for this style of music, we wouldn't have our friends and we wouldn't be doing the careers we have. We've covered the entire earth meeting people like us.
Can you remember the trajectory of what got you from playing VFW halls and venues like that to where you are today?
Armand's other band at the time, Rest in Pieces, was asked to play the Ritz to open for Exodus, which we thought was weird. Rest in Pieces was going to open for a metal band? That's fucking crazy! We thought Rest in Pieces was on the way of being a huge band. The next day, we get a phone call from [New York Hardcore show promoter] Chris Williamson and he said he and Raybeez were setting up the Superbowl of Hardcore together. We were like, "We're going to play the Ritz too?" We were so psyched! We played in front of 1,200 people on an all-hardcore bill. That was crazy.
Exodus was on Combat, and they wanted to take a new band on tour with them. Howie Abrams was working for In-Effect–who was owned by the same people as Combat–and he said, "Take Sick of It All, their record will just be coming out." We did five shows with them to a crowd who had no idea what we were at all. There were all these big-haired metal guys and girls saying, "Look at these guys. They got shaved heads and goatees and tattoos." After two songs, everybody was into it. It was a really great thing. It was our turn to crossover to a different audience.
After that, we went on tour with D.R.I. That's the one where we got paid fifty dollars a night for two months straight. It was pretty rough, but we were kids. In our minds, this was going to be the last time we were ever going to see Florida or Texas. We thought we were going to go home and have to get jobs. We never thought that we were going to be hardcore and make a living from it. We knew it wasn't metal or regular rock music, where people would sell hundreds of thousands of records. But we were wrong! And thank God we were, or I would have killed myself a long time ago!
Sick of It All seems like a band that does not rest on its past. What are your thoughts on a lot of the hardcore reunions that pop up these days?
I'm not putting anyone down, but everyone seems to be really into the reunion thing these days. That's great, but you have to realize that you're not seeing them in the 80s, you're seeing them now…thirty years later. You're going to be severely disappointed.
I understand it more for old guys to go those shows; the ones who saw the bands. It'll bring back memories, and the songs will make them feel like they did when they were a kid. It'll make this guy's fucking year, and then he'll go back to his job the next day and think, "They were a little fat and a little bald, but they were still great." And maybe he's a little fat and a little bald, and he'll connect with that the same way he connected with the band as he did as a kid. That, I understand. The young kids that want to see these bands so bad, they go to these shows and they probably think, "Man, these guys suck!" but they don't realize that they sucked back then too!
So what do you think differentiates NYHC from the other scenes that still continue around the world?
It's our lives. Armand wouldn't have met his wife if it wasn't for this band. We recorded "Built to Last" in California, and somehow they met up out there. I wouldn't be living where I live with my wife with a beautiful baby. This is our lives. It's really crazy to think I wouldn't own this house if I didn't go to an Agnostic Front show at CBGB's. That's how much it affected me.