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.
Armand: There was a real energy about the scene; everyone was real excited about the new bands coming up and there were a lot of them: there was Underdog, Warzone, Cro-Mags and Agnostic Front had already become established. Leeway was coming up. There were so many different bands that were all, in a way, iconic bands.
Lou: When we were young, we were listening to the Sex Pistols and my older brother got us into the Plasmatics, then it was The Exploited. I liked Generation X when I was younger, but it wasn’t brutal and heavy enough. I was especially influenced by Agnostic Front, my first hardcore record, aside from maybe The Exploited, was “Victim in Pain,” the gatefold on Rat Cage Records. That was the album that put New York on the map. AF really influenced us. When we wrote “My Life’ we were trying to write a song like “Victim in Pain.” Then it was Cro-Mags and Murphy’s Law. I used to go to every Murphy’s Law show I could.
In those days, there was CBGBs for shows as well as places like The Subway in Queensborough Plaza. It would have different names sometimes. We went there to see Reagan Youth. There other weird places that had shows. One day, we were walking in the city and ran into Danny Lilker (Nuclear Assault, Brutal Truth) and Craig (Setari). They asked us if we were going to the show; we said “what show?’ The Cro-Mags were playing at a Jamaican disco. We were way up in the 40s somewhere. All these random places would try to have hardcore shows. We grew up at CBs; it was great. We just went no matter what band was playing. We would just go to hang out. My first matinee was Corrosion of Conformity, when they still had the singer from the Eye for an Eye album. Everyone had a shaved head except for us; we had long hair. Everybody went crazy, but everybody was so cool. There wasn’t any fighting, it was the coolest shit ever and I was sold on hardcore.
Armand: The scene was growing rapidly. The first time we played a CBs matinee was crazy. Everything happened so easily, the transition from being an amateur band to a band that could draw 500 people almost happened overnight. A lot of it had to do with just the momentum the hardcore scene had at the time.
The In-Effect Effect
Lou: I think we met Howie Abrams through Craig and Danny Lilker. We had put out 7-inch out on Revelation. They wanted to put out our album, but they said we would have to wait because they had to do the Gorilla Biscuits album first. We had enough material, but we were waiting for them to put the GB album out. Howie and Steve Martin had started In-Effect Records. We were young kids, going to school and working, we wanted to get out on the road, so when they offered to sign us, we went for it. When we signed with them, there was a backlash from some of the kids in the scene, the diehard "Do-It-Yourself” attitude. I thought that scene was great, but we didn’t know how to start our own label so we went with guys we trusted. We knew Howie from going to shows all the time and Steve Martin was in AF.
There was a backlash. Some kids that did a fanzine took a Motley Crue promo picture and put our faces over it and wrote “Alleyway Crew”. People thought we were “rock stars” on a label owned by a major but In-Effect wasn’t even owned by a major label. Being on In-Effect didn’t make us think any differently, but there were some setbacks. They couldn’t get the record into K-Mart and places like that because the lyrics had curse words, so people had to write in for the lyrics. Again, we didn’t think anything of it, but some people bitched about it. If they had the internet back then, we would never have heard the end of it!
Armand: Howie was from Queens. He actually came to quite a few of our rehearsals just because he was a fan of the band and we were local. He would come down, check us out, come to the shows and he just ended up being someone at a label with the power to sign bands.
Pete: Steve started working for the Beastie Boys, and Howie was a fan of heavy music and wanted to help out the styles of music that he loved.
Howie Abrams: Before I had anything to do with them, I had seen those guys on the subway every weekend going to shows and CBs matinees. I was familiar with them. At one point, I was out at a show on Long Island and three of the four guys that I was seeing on the subway were playing that day; it was the first Sick Of It All show. Armand wasn’t in the band yet. I liked them and I started seeing them playing around. They started to get really, really good. We had a lot of mutual friends so it was easy to get to meet them. Fast forward to 1988: I’m a salesman at Important Record Distributors, which was probably the biggest indie record distributor in the country. In-house they had labels like Combat and Relativity but they also distributed labels like Revelation and SST, Touch and Go, all kinds of different labels that were pretty important at the time. Indie labels were starting to get a little more sophisticated and started putting marketing money into their bands, giving them tour support, doing some advertising: most indie labels didn’t have money to do that, but some had started.
One of the labels that had started doing that to a pretty substantial degree was Combat, which was basically a metal label, but had started to dabble in hardcore. Agnostic Front, Crumbsuckers, Ludichrist were all on Combat at the time. They had done some releases by GBH, the Circle Jerks and some other bands. There were bands right under our nose that we thought could do really well and reach a lot of people. They just needed someone who could invest a little time and money into them, help them make a good record, get on the road and not just play New York and Boston.
Steve Martin and I started to put the idea together for In-Effect Records, and one of the first bands we discussed was Sick Of It All. At the time they were the number one contender to the throne that was occupied by Agnostic Front, Cro-Mags and Murphy’s Law. Those were the biggest bands at the time. We approached them about being on In-Effect, and they were totally into it. At the same time we had already committed to putting out the next Agnostic Front album “Live at CBGBs”, we were going to put out the Bad Brains Roir cassette on CD for the first time, we were going to do the next Prong album. We were looking for our first actual signing and we thought Sick Of It All was the perfect band.
People forget that hardcore was pretty tiny for a while. In 1984 you had your big bands like Dead Kennedys and Circle Jerks that would come through town. Those would be considered really big shows. None of the bands in New York ever really played to more than 300 people; even Agnostic Front, which would be the hugest show at the time, would be about 500 people. I went to this Reagan Youth show at this place called The Subway, which was literally in a subway station on Queens Boulevard. The people that showed up were really into the scene; the people who would make it their business to find out about all of the shows. There was a whole group of us that were into the super hard, fast stuff. At the same time we liked Reagan Youth, we liked Venom; we were the first people that saw Metallica. There was still a separation between the scenes at that time
Lou: We got a lot of opportunities on In-Effect. For example, we were trying to do some weekend shows and we got a call that Exodus was doing a run of shows down the East Coast, and Annihilator had to cancel so we got the opening band slot. We grew up with metal and punk and we all loved Exodus. We all loved Bonded by Blood. I used to collect flyers. I had one with Corrosion of Conformity playing with Slayer. I had one with Agnostic Front opening for Slayer out in the Midwest somewhere, so when we got the opportunity to play with Metal bands, we didn’t think twice about it. Now a lot of the hardcore bands are just metal bands that can’t play as well.
Armand: The fact that there was a division between the metal and hardcore scene was a bum-out to us, because we grew up loving all styles of aggressive music. We didn’t draw any real lines between what we were influenced by; we pulled in all aspects of great music. We did a tour with DRI; it was mostly metal kids at the shows, but there was a good number of hardcore kids and even skinheads. Huge brawls would break out almost every night. It was such a bum-out seeing all these people just refusing to get along despite the fact that they were all there for the same reason but just couldn’t deal with each other. It was all based on appearance. It’s something that we’ve dealt with from the beginning. New York hardcore included a whole lot of metal in its sound. All of the power, the tightness and precision of metal was worked into the sound. In California, everyone was trying to work in more melody. We were a real blend of the two types of music, so much so that certain scenes in different parts of the country were taken aback.
The 'SOIA vs Born Against' WNYU Debate
Lou: Anywhere on the internet you can hear the NYU debate. At first, I didn’t know what it was about. Some of the people that were there were good friends of ours, but they were talking shit. “You’re on a label that is supported by this major label that is backed by this corporation that builds missiles for the United States Army …” We were like: “What are you talking about!” To us, it just came out of nowhere. On one hand, I understand what they were saying: do it yourself, keep it underground, I felt like they were concerned about keeping people from seeing our scene. We wanted to show everyone how cool hardcore was. The on-air thing was just weird. It never made any sense. We were getting phone calls the whole time, people would call in saying: “Who cares? Just play the music.” Steve Martin did most of the talking anyway. I see some of the guys and we just laugh about it.