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Shall Be Judged: Burn in the Practice Space and on Their Return to the Stage

The legendary New York hardcore band returns, so we asked 'em what the hell they've been up to.

by Howie Abrams
Mar 27 2015, 1:15pm


All photos by Jammi York

From the get, Burn has been one of "those" bands. Toward the rearmost half of the 80s, when groups affiliated with New York’s vibrant hardcore scene were either aligned with the straight edge revival, or ran parallel to what came to be considered post-hardcore, Burn probably fit more comfortably into the latter. However, Burn is, and has always been, just Burn. Their trinity of EPs, and their ferocious live experiences set the tone for the quartet to claim their position as one of the scene’s elite outfits.

Burn’s tone is drenched in the culture of Gotham. They could never have been anything short of one-of-a-kind. The group never sounded, looked or performed quite like anything before them. And while punk and hardcore lyrics have traditionally represented the concerns and the anger of its community, Burn put forth their verses with a fury and style in tune with the temperature of the scene, as well as the world.

Rules, sonic and otherwise, never seemed to apply, so it should come as no surprise that Burn 2.0 follows suit. Chaka Malik and Gavin Van Vlack reconnected at the suggestion and subsequent urging of a friend, and are set to return to the stage at the 2015 Black N Blue Bowl. Is their forthcoming appearance atop the bill a reunion, or simply a one-off show? That remains to be seen, but it doesn’t seem as if Chaka or Gavin are particularly at ease with calling it a comeback.

With three explosive, yet abbreviated releases under their belts; countless frenzied live throw downs behind them and a long hiatus in the rearview mirror, Burn, at least for now, is back. Why now? Why at all? Where have they been? Chaka and Gavin shed some light…

Noisey: How do you two know one another?
Chaka: Robbie Steigerwald, who played in the NY Hoods with Gavin, went to my high school. I knew his sister Debbie too. I actually knew Debbie better than I knew Robbie. I think we also met because of graffiti.

Gavin: We had a lot of common interests: music, graffiti, skateboards... Back then, the scene was still small enough that if you came across someone who [also] iked graffiti, music and skateboarding, chances are you would meet them. It didn’t matter if you were from Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn.

Continued below.

And how did the band actually come together?
Chaka: I was a fan of Absolution, and Freddy Alva and I impressed upon Gavin that we wanted Absolution for our New Breed compilation. I got to see them record which was amazing. Eventually Gavin wasn’t playing in Absolution anymore. I don’t know if you remember saying this at the time, but I was known for being kind of an interesting dancer, and you said, "let’s put together a band for you." You weren’t sure if you’d be playing in this band, but Alan was around and you told him that we’d be rehearsing and you said to him, "you’ll be there, right?" Not in a pushy way, but Alan said yes. Plus we knew Alex; he was around and ended up being the bass player.

So now there’s a lineup. How did you guys develop the sound? Was there a discussion of some sort where you said, "This is what we want this band to sound like?"
Gavin: It was all just noises in my head. Sometimes you hear something in your head, and you fall in love with it and you have to find a way to make it real. It was also the different styles we had coming together, but there were some weird similarities. Something Chaka, Alex, and I gelled together on was, for instance, the backing section of Sade’s band. There was a certain atmosphere and a texture and tightness without being sterile. You could actually hear it in Alex’s playing. Then there are those happy accidents where you’re messing around on guitar and something hits you. It hits your heart at the right angle. A lot of the best music I’ve written just fell out of me like vomit.

Chaka: He says while we’re eating. [Laughs.]

Gavin: Back to the varying styles; Alan was in Beyond, I was in Absolution, Alex was in Pressure Release, and Chaka was kind of new to making music, and that in itself is an influence, because you don’t have a structure. You don’t have a template and you’re trying to invent what you do.

What about the lyrical approach?
Chaka: I was a huge fan of Crucifix, Agnostic Front, Cro-Mags, Supertouch… I really just took my own poetic license with it. Plus Gavin was a big lyrical contributor early on…maybe 40 to 50 percent, but less-so later. And those later lyrics are much better because Gavin didn't write them. [Laughs.]

Chaka: Really though, Gavin is an amazing lyricist. For me, I can’t pretend to know what people like. I needed to look at where I was at. At the time, I remember things like just walking across the Williamsburg Bridge, and being into graffiti. Gavin was working the door at these weird clubs around New York City, that on paper, we probably shouldn’t have been at. There was The Building and MK... I didn’t go a lot, but enough to see these other things going on. My eyes were open, and there was this exploration. Williamsburg was no man's land. It wasn’t quite road warrior status, but almost. That picture inside the Burn EP... We were bugging out inside the loft we were living in...it was the old Schaefer building, and Alan took the picture. That landscape is very different now. Manhattan’s different now too. Hip-hop hadn’t really crossed over to pop yet. It hadn’t quite become that serious yet. There was this whole weird thing then, where stuff wasn’t so culturally defined. What’s great about the music is it still feels that way to me.

Why the name Burn?
Chaka: I think Alex came up with the name. He called the band Revolt for a while, but there was a [graffiti] writer called Revolt, so we didn’t stick with that. I think we also had the name Power Street, because we rehearsed on Power St.

Gavin: We used to go to this bodega and buy sugarcane, and sit in front of the place drinking 40s of Olde English; eating this whole stalk sugarcane and Alex came up with Burn. I liked it because it was one word, short and to the point. It just worked.

For all the legend, Burn was only around for a pretty short time. What do you attribute that to?
Chaka: It goes back to the flux bit. Alan had been recruited to join Quicksand.

Gavin: I was in Atlanta and Los Angeles. I was trying to do a band with someone and it didn’t work out. I didn’t gel with the guy I tried to do it with. They were writing stuff and I couldn’t feel it. I wasn’t going to go in a direction I wasn’t feeling. I play a very augmented, diminished, weird style, and they were playing stuff in the vein of Bad Religion. I appreciated it, but didn’t want to be in a band that sounded like that. It didn’t work, so I came back to the east coast. For me it was also a lot of misdirected tension and anger.

How did Burn first connect with Revelation Records?
Chaka: Quicksand had already gone to work with Revelation, and Alan told Jordan (Cooper) that he had this other band, Burn, and he was like "let’s do it—how many songs have you got?" It just happened. We had songs, but some of them needed "real" lyrics. They needed to be tightened up.

Gavin: The first EP songs were bits and pieces to some degree that were put together. I know “Shall Be Judged” was written. “Drown” needed to have the lyrics finished.

Chaka: Gavin wrote the other two songs from the ground, up. “Godhead” was on what we use to call Gavin’s “hard drive.” There have been many incarnations of that song. I think it may even have been used as an intro for Absolution. We realized that if it was going to be something we wanted to share with the world, we probably needed some standards, like what should the vocals sound like? It was a tough time for me because I was working it out and Don Fury, to his credit, did a great job at being a vocal producer on that first ep, and I thank him for that. Now people have expectations (of my vocals). People are like "my girlfriend’s going to hear this; you need to sing that better." [Laughs.]

Chaka: When you’re not getting kicked in the face or hit with a microphone stand, you have to sing correctly.

Wasn’t the Last Great Sea the demo we worked on together for Roadrunner Records?
Chaka: Yes, it was.

And there was another pretty big gap in time between that and Cleanse.
Gavin: It was actually ten years between the first and third releases.

Did you ever feel pressured by fans or anyone else to do more with the band?
Chaka: Yes and no. There were definitely champions out there. You were even one of them. There were folks who were urging us to share what we were doing with more people.I think our shows really had a life of their own, and it didn’t matter as much that we didn’t have more records out. I think we just had a different mindset.

Gavin: Also, it’s hard to stay in a band when someone is confrontational and a bit of a dick. With Alan and I, the arguments are almost legendary...throwing equipment at each other. I’m very passionate when it comes to songwriting. I’m like "let’s do this again, let’s do this again." There are young guys there who just want to play some music, and I’m retracing, and redoing. It drives people away. I’ve made a heavy career out of shooting myself in the foot. I have a really huge ego, with really low self-esteem. [Laughs.]

Gavin: It’s taken a really long time for me to get the fuck over myself, and stop taking myself so damn seriously. I mean Chaka and I didn’t talk for years. I didn’t play music for a long time either. The universe has a funny way of telling you to play nice, or it’s going to take your toys away. That’s a lot of what I feel happened. Plus, there were a lot of dynamic personalities within the band.

Chaka: It’s also tough to go about that exploratory life for a long time. Look at a marriage... You get along great, and eventually, you’re going to be like, "Can you please stop doing that?!"

Gavin: "I love you...now change."

Chaka: The tip of the pen runs dry, but you try to force it. It’s still a pen, but... You have to be open and you have to trust. That trust went away and the pen ran dry.

If Burn has a hit, so to speak, it is “Shall Be Judged.” Why do you think so many people connect so heavily with that song?
Gavin: Chaka mentioned a band like Crucifix, and then there’s Discharge. I think we were the first band that looked like us, and played in that style. Those bands are awesome, but I know a lot of people who shy away from stuff like that because of the look. There’s an urgency to it. As for that first ep; generally, I think it really stands up.

Chaka: I mean, if you’re into something dark, shouting “shall be judged” is great. And if you’re a vegetarian, you get it and think ‘this is great.’ When it was written, it was very much about being a vegetarian, and now it’s GMO that everyone needs to be thinking about. It’s similar in that you’re asking, "What are you eating, and what’s the societal effect and what’s this about?" I think that’s a lot of why people relate to it the way they do.

Was Burn ever a certain type of band in terms of standing for something specific? People tend to put labels on bands unnecessarily. Was there ever a mission?
Chaka: I mean, I didn’t smoke or drink for years, but I never considered us to be a specific kind of band.

Gavin: When you define yourself by those kinds of terms, you shut yourself off from a lot of people. I’ve gotten a bunch of emails since we first announced the show and there are people telling me how important we’ve been to them. It’s really big, and it speaks to music itself. I mean, I know for a fact that some kid heard that Cro-Mags demo when it came out and it kept them alive.

Chaka: Me! I’m one of them.

Gavin: It actually saves lives. That’s the most important thing about it.

Being that Burn’s sound was so atypical for NYHC, were you ever tempted to branch out and try to stretch your audience?
Gavin: People tried at various times to diversify us. Like the show we did with Boogie Down Productions...

Chaka: That was a little different though. That was a show Roree [Krevolin] put together that was a positive coming together of cultures. It was a unique and amazing situation.

Gavin: That was great, and I remember when we played with Body Count...that was interesting. That was the first time Rage Against the Machine played in New York. Body Count acted the way they thought a hardcore band was supposed to act. It was a weird vibe. I also think a lot of promoters were worried about the crowd that came along with booking Burn.

But Burn had a really diverse crowd, even within the hardcore scene.
Chaka: There was a freedom to being exposed to different things, and Gavin having done those things. Alan is an awesome musician, and Alex being a really interesting person… There was a culture. Maybe being black was part of it, but everything is part of something. I think it was more that it was new.

Gavin: These kids were into all kinds of different things. Like we said before; skateboarding, graffiti...

Chaka: Hip-hop

Gavin: Yup, and it opened up a whole new universe for a lot of kids.

Kind of like Blondie and Fab 5 Freddy.
Chaka: That really isn’t that far off. There were already kids from all different cultures, but I think we presented it in a certain way, and maybe that allowed people to see it more easily. Plus the hardcore uniform thing kind of died down. You used to be able to tell who was a hardcore kid by the flight jacket. Now, you couldn’t tell anymore.

Fast forward: How did this Black N Blue Bowl appearance come about?
Chaka: It’s funny… There’s this guy named Adam Malik…

Gavin: Who’s Polish.

Chaka: He has this Facebook page. He hits me up and asks, "So, you and Gavin are talking?" I told him, "No, I haven’t talked to him." Just after that, Sacha Jenkins says, "So, we’re going to do this Burn thing. You’ll do it, right?" I’m like, "What are you talking about?" Sacha says, "Dude...do it...people would love to see it." I said, "OK, let’s talk to Gavin." I didn’t want to have a meeting with Gavin. There was nothing to sit down and hash out. I just wanted to chill; like "what have you been up to? How’s your life?" Normal conversation that we could latch onto. It was great to see him obviously. But Sacha, who I’ve known for many years, was instrumental in putting us back together.

Gavin: We’ve both known Sacha for a long time. He shot me an email, and said, "What’s going on with Burn?" So I suggested we get together and talk about it. He said, ‘I think it’s the right time for this.’ At the end of the day, Burn’s not really mine. It’s music, and when you release songs out there into the universe, it belongs to the collective.

Chaka: They don’t get the publishing though. [Laughs.]

Gavin: It belongs to that person who heard that song that hit them at the right angle in the heart. I mean one kid told me the music helped him through rehab, and as someone who has gone through withdrawals, I know how powerful that is. Plus, I get to be in a room full of people who are just as excited to see this happen as I am. I get the best seat in the house. Our crowd does some outlandish stuff which is fun to watch.

Chaka: Plus, we get to pay respect to the hardcore scene. I’m not involved in this because of what someone on a message board, or on Facebook has to say about us. That’s just narcissism incapable of reaching germination. It’s not real. If necessity is the mother of invention; how am I going to go do this thing? That marathon...I’m dehydrated, I’m exhausted...How am I going to finish this thing? That’s when that new light comes on. I appreciate that new light hardcore has given me access to.

Who’s playing in the band now beside you two?
Gavin: Manny Carrero who played on the Cleanse EP is on bass, and Durijah Lang is playing drums. I love the idea that they’re comfortable playing together. They’re consummate musicians, but they also come from what we come from. They’re professional musicians that come from our scene. I mean, we only started playing together last week. Chaka came in and said, ‘we’re not at rehearsal; just play.’ It took all of the tension out.

Chaka: That’s the thing; I’ve seen Burn videos on YouTube where I’m improvising, and Gavin’s improvising and that’s great, but I personally want to hear the records. That’s what we’re aiming towards. I’m not saying it’s mom’s apple pie, but something that tastes good usually does so for a reason. It’s remembering why we created these songs in the first place. Rehearsal today definitely sounded better than the stuff I’m finding on YouTube.

Have you given any thought to what happens after this one show?
Gavin: I have a really bad habit of getting way ahead of myself, and thinking way too far into the future, and based on what this show seems to mean to people, I want this show to deliver and live up to what people want. We’re getting the blessing to do this. Will there be other shows? I hope so.

Chaka: I’m open to more, but right now, I’m just focused on this experience.

Gavin: I’ve got 47 years of experience behind me, and with that, I am only looking at this show on May 17. That’s all that matters. Let’s make each rehearsal progressively better, and get everyone more comfortable. We were actually laughing today.

Chaka: Because we were making fun of each other.

Gavin: I’m approaching this with a totally different mechanism that I didn’t have before while playing in this band.

Chaka: Actually the laughter comes from being too serious. If we’re rehearsing, and I’m focused; when we’re done, I still have a lot of energy. I’m not a goofy person, and neither is Gavin, but when we’re left with too much energy. Playing these songs is serious.

Gavin: Everything is very instantaneous now, and you can access almost anything with the flick of a finger. Not to sound pretentious, but there’s a craftsmanship that goes into songwriting and the performance, and that’s what separated Burn from other bands. We crafted our songs differently than other people did theirs. Everything; from the way we dressed, to even our social conscience was just our own.

Chaka: Plus hardcore itself just lets you express emotions and feeling that otherwise maybe aren’t safe to display or even access.

Gavin: This whole thing is a catharsis; for the band and those coming to the show. For someone, this is going to be their first Burn show…maybe their first hardcore show, and I don’t want to let them down.

Chaka: I want whoever’s there to have something to remember…something to take away. With the other bands playing, I’ll partake on the other side of that window. It’s a transaction for everybody.

Okay—so I have to ask: A lot of people credit (blame?) Chaka for the king-fu style dancing prevalent in hardcore since the early 90s. Care to comment?
Chaka: I enjoy the music first off, and there have been some great dancers. Mike Boyer was a great dancer and an interesting stage diver.

Gavin: Carl Mosher had a great, traditional style.

Chaka: I don’t even know where it came from. Maybe I was possessed. Our friend Ajay James was a great dancer.

Gavin: In 1987, Ajay danced for Eric B. & Rakim, and was also a martial artist.

Chaka: There was Joey Rodriguez, Fern... I used to love stage diving, and being creative on the dancefloor. I remember going to see Supertouch at City Gardens, and I started dancing. I wasn’t coming in contact with anybody, so I looked up and people were just standing around, staring at me, so I stopped dancing.

Gavin: Mark Ryan was a good dancer.

Chaka: Mark Ryan had a good style.

Gavin: Very long.

Chaka: Different... Able to do things... I just liked doing things that were different. I wasn’t like the breakdancer from my neighborhood or anything.

You didn’t go for any of the more traditional New York moves.
Gavin: Picking up change.

The Gorilla!
Gavin: The Gorilla!

Chaka: I was actually infatuated with slam dancing. You look at old punk footage and people were slam dancing. It was new wave-ish, but also punk. My father used to bring home issues of Interview magazine, and there was an article on slam dancing. I was like, ‘this is incredible.’ It was freaky and free.

Gavin: I do remember there were a few people with actual martial arts training back then. There was this guy Modrick, who I’ve even seen do a reverse, spinning kick. Maybe it was his fault.

Howie Abrams is so hardcore it hurts. He's on Twitter.