Photo: Ken Salerno
This interview with Pete Koller of Sick Of It All was conducted in the fall of 2013 for my second book, NYHC: New York Hardcore 1980 – 1990
How did you find out there was a Hardcore Punk scene in New York?
Pete Koller: Me and Lou always hung out and we into heavier music like Deep Purple and stuff like that. We were always looked for something more extreme, heavy and basic. Lou would bring home Motorhead records and from there, he started buying records by G.B.H, The Exploited, and Discharge. The first year of high school we met Armand (Majidi, drummer for Sick Of It All) and he said ‘You know, there’s a club in the city that always has Hardcore Punk shows’. He turned us onto it, but we all went down at the same time.
Do you remember the first Hardcore show you went to?
The first CBGB’s matinee we went to I’m pretty sure was the release party for Victim in Pain. We took the 7 train to the E train and then we get off by Bleeker Bob’s. We were coming down the street and we see this 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, so my first instinct was, ‘Holy shit, this guy is going to kill us!’ Of course, it was Billy Psycho (Drummer for The Psychos) 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 at all or into what everybody else in our school was into, that was what we needed. We weren’t wearing Capezios and Cavaricci pants like everyone else. We were the outcasts from where we came from and we finally found our place with the first person welcoming us being 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.
After that, we went to every single Sunday matinee at CBGB’s. Even if some band like Beefeater were playing with six people inside the club, me and my friends were five of them. Whether it was fucking pouring rain or freezing cold, we’d take the bus to Main Street in Flushing, get on the E train and walk over. Craig would meet us at the show because he would always get a ride in from Danny Lilker. It didn’t matter about school, it didn’t matter about work, you had to go.
Are there any bands from that time frame that you feel don’t get the recognition they deserve?
Mental Abuse is one of my favorite bands. I never really bought records because I never had money and I still don’t! But one of the first records I bought with my own money was Streets of Filth. What a great record! That band is Hardcore to me.
Reagan Youth had their niche in Hardcore. I loved the Cro-Mags and Agnostic Front, but Reagan Youth was real. I guess they were the start of the crusty punk thing in New York, but the delivery of what they did was so raw and mean sounding. Like I said before, we would go to every matinee. If bands were coming from upstate New York. It would blow my mind. ‘These guys came all the way from Poughkeepsie? Wow!’ Also, those first Sheer Terror demos were amazing!
What do you think it was that allured you to CBGB’s and that scene?
Let me explain something to you: Everybody in Sick of it All came from good families. Mom and Dad stayed together and everyone in the band had jobs as kids. But that scene just before us, that was Hardcore. They all had mental problems and they all lived in the street. That’s Hardcore to me. I guess in some ways, we have our own mental problems as well. I mean, we threw our whole life into a form of music that a lot of people don’t even consider music! But now our families live off of it. But those earlier bands were kind of crazy and that’s what gave the music that fire and that edge.
I mean, I know I have mental problems. I know my brother Lou has mental problems. I know Armand has mental problems and I know Craig has mental problems. Bu the newer bands that are called Hardcore kind of make me mad because I don’t think they have that mental curveball thing going. We came from good lower-class to middle-class families, but I’d say we’re all mentally disturbed. Even to this day, I just turned 47 years old. So that means for the past 26 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 Craig and Civ 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.
A lot of people say they’re ‘Down for Life’. It makes a great tattoo and it makes a great saying, but it is our lives and we honestly owe everything to it. If we wouldn’t have been in this place in the country at a certain time, some of us wouldn’t have met our soon-to-be wife. It’s a strange thing. I don’t know what I’d do if my daughter finishes high school and says ‘I’m not going to go to college. I’m going to put out a seven-inch and go on tour making fifty dollars a night for two months’. I’m going to be like ‘Yeah right, get the fuck out of here!’ But at this point, I have to stick with it. What am I going to do? Get an entry-level mailroom job?
What was it about Hardcore that inspired you to start Sick Of It All?
If you listen to the Victim in Pain record, it’s great, but if you’re a musician – which I am not! – you would say ‘These guys can’t play! The guitar is out of tune!’ But when I heard it, I thought ‘I can do this’. See, when I was a kid I got an acoustic guitar and a book on how to read music. I could barely read fucking words and you want me to read music? So, I was like ‘Fuck this’ and that was it. But then I went to Hardcore shows and I was like ‘I can do this’. I was able to make a bar chord with my fingers and I wrote the songs ‘My Life’ and ‘Friends Like You’ on the same day. I mean, they’re basically the same fucking song, but fuck! That’s when I was like ‘We should make a band’. At first, Lou was learning how to play bass and our friend David Lamb said ‘Fuck it, I’ll play drums’. Then Lou started singing and my friend from high school Mark McKneely would play bass and we wrote a couple of songs.
At first, I could not tune a guitar at all and I didn’t have money for a tuner, so Craig or Armand would tune the guitar for me in between songs. I think even at our first show at the Right Track Inn on Long Island, those guys came up between every song and tuned my guitar for me. But the cool thing in Hardcore is, who gives a fuck? And it also maybe gave us some cred, you know? ‘Hey, it’s the guy from Straight Ahead helping him out!’ Matter of fact, it was Craig who actually got us that show. I think the bill was Straight Ahead and Youth of Today at the Right Track Inn on Long Island.
What happened to David Lamb and Mark McKneely from the first line-up of the band?
Mark McKneeley left the band because he was one of those guys that immediately went Straight Edge and didn’t want to hang out with anyone who wasn’t Straight Edge. He left the band because he wanted to be down with Crippled Youth and Youth of Today. David didn’t give a fuck about anything, so Armand said ‘Well, I’m learning to play drums in Straight Ahead, why don’t I play drums for you guys too?’ Richie Cipriano was just hanging around with us and he could play bass, so he said ‘Fuck it’ and joined too. That’s when we started writing songs like ‘Injustice System’ that was a bit more musical.
What were those early Sick Of It All shows like?
Every show that Straight Ahead or Rest in Pieces would play, we would be on the bill with them because everybody was in the same band! Armand would drum for us, drum for Straight Ahead and then sing for Rest in Pieces. That was our little crew. Then, when Raw Deal came around, we fell in with them because we were really good friends with Anthony when he was in Token Entry before Tim took over the vocals.
At our first show, we were really generic and really sloppy, but all our friends were there at the show, so they all went nuts. We covered a Cause for Alarm song I think, so that made everybody go crazy, even though we probably fucked it up big time.
I was under my house yesterday looking for a title to one of my scooters and I found photos from the first Sick of it All show. There’s a pile-on and its Tommy Carrol, Craig, Armand, and Rob. Basically, all of our friends. That was the pit, our friends!
What were your first impressions of The Cro-Mags when came onto the scene?
The Cro-Mags is what really sucked you in. They were great like Agnostic Front but could play much better and they had a better sound. A powerful, mean sound. I saw them with Lou and Craig one time where there weren’t that many people at the show and there was no P.A. so John sang through a bullhorn. The shit was crazy! Now, that’s hardcore. You wouldn’t see any other shit where someone would just be like ‘No P.A? Well, I guess I’ll just scream through this bullhorn’. The sad thing is, if you didn’t see it then, you’ll never see it now because it’d be contrived if it was done now. That was real.
I remember the record release party for The Age of Quarrel. They were giving out free Krishna food. Everyone ate free food, danced and it was brutal! I was feeling all fucked up from trying to dance while being overloaded on food.
What do you recall from when Metal crossed over into the NYHC scene?
When the metal guys came to see what these guys were playing, it was cool to me. A lot of people were like ‘This is our scene!’ and that mentality ruined the scene. The crossover thing was good for musicianship at least. Better equipment came in and people learned how to use their equipment instead of showing up and borrowing everybody’s shit. I learned how to get a great, powerful sound. To this day, I have the same sound and I got it from that.
It was also around that time the Straight Edge thing got big in NYHC.
Ray and Porcell from Youth Of Today were always cool with me, but I never fell into something where I declared ‘This is what I am now!’ I guess I followed something because I was part of a scene and dressed a certain way and shaved my head, but I didn’t change to suit anyone. If I wanted a fucking drink, I had a fucking drink. I stopped drinking a long time ago, but I don’t consider myself Straight Edge. I didn’t like having to label yourself in a scene where there was supposed to be no labels. Hence, the song ‘No Labels, No Lies’. I’m sure it was written about that movement coming in.
What are your memories of Some Records?
Duane Rossignol was the one who pushed us to our height at that time. Lou was really good friends with Duane. He would cut school and hang out down at the store. When we had the demo, we were just so psyched we had this thing. We brought a box of fifteen cassettes down to the store. In between bands, the whole crowd of CB’s would go down to Some Records and back. As soon as people would walk in, Duane would just push things on people. ‘You got to buy this record. You got to buy this demo.’ He really pushed our demo and we sold fifteen or twenty cassettes in the first day. We had to keep making more and more. He pushed it to anyone who came in.
Do you remember anything about the recording or layout of the demo?
Maybe we recorded it on Long Island…or was that the seven-inch? I honestly don’t remember. All I remember is Rob from Rest in Pieces came so he could tune my guitar (laughs) Our mom would help us cut and assemble the demo tapes. I have an actual copy of the original demo and it has my mom’s handwriting on it.
What led to the seven-inch coming out on Revelation?
Ray Cappo was really into us and that’s when he was like ‘Dude, you got to do a seven-inch with us’. We said ‘Sure’. We were being asked to record a record. It was great. That was around the same time we first headlined a CB’s matinee. Our friend John would drive us with seven or eight of us packed into his car coming from Queens. We pulled up and there was a line that went around the block. It was insane. It was sold out. To us, that was like selling ten million records.
Did you ever have to deal with the rivalry between New York and Boston that happened earlier in the ’80s?
We were asked to play Boston and I guess people still wanted to keep up this New York/Boston Hardcore rivalry. We were one of the first bands who didn’t give a shit about that. We knew about the older guys and what they did and we were just like ‘Well, that’s great for them’. We went up there to play with Wrecking Crew at Green Street Station and there were a few older Boston guys there who wanted trouble and there were a few older guys who came up from New York who wanted trouble and then there were 400 kids who were like ‘What are these old guys talking about?’ No one cared!
You’re one of the few bands who never took a break from recording or touring. What are your feelings on all the bands jumping on the reunion bandwagon these days?
These kids have to realize you’re not seeing these bands in the ’80s, you’re seeing them thirty years later. You’re going to be severely disappointed!
Well, most of the people interested I think are younger kids who really wouldn’t know the difference since they didn’t see these bands in the ’80s.
Actually, I’d think it’s more for the people who saw the bands. It’ll bring back memories and the songs will make them feel like a kid. It’ll make this guys’ 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 he did as a kid. That I understand. But the young kids that want to see these bands so bad, they must go to these shows and think ‘Man, these guys suck!’ but they don’t realize, they sucked back then too!
We should get into the bands’ signing to In-Effect and all the controversy it stirred up.
When we heard that someone would want to pay us money to make a record, it sounded great. I’m not putting them down, but the labels that were being run out of some guys’ moms’ basement weren’t prepared to do that. This was a step in a different direction for this type of music. We signed a contract to make ten albums, which is ridiculous, but we didn’t give a shit. They gave us ten grand when I didn’t even know what one hundred dollars looked like. We took all of our friends with us up to Rhode Island and recorded the record in twenty-one hours or something like that. Or maybe that’s how many songs there were on the record?
The main thing was the people who were coming to our shows didn’t give a shit about anything but having fun and going to a great Hardcore show. But the people who were acting holier than thou were all coming from well off families and had the loudest mouths. Where are they today? Everything in my life is Hardcore and these guys were trying to shut us down because we were on a label that they thought was corporate. Where the fuck do you get your electricity from? Do you have a bicycle with a generator on it or something? Where do you get the gasoline for your fucking car? Shut the fuck up! You can be whatever you want to be. Eat vegan. Eat raw. Grow your own vegetables. But you always got to pay somebody for something. I remember they had some issue with us having these jackets that In-Effect gave us. They really took us to task for that. To me, it was just a free jacket, you know? It’s not like I had money to spend on clothes so I was like, ‘Wow, a free jacket!’ Here’s the thing I never understood: A band is playing this music that you supposedly love. This band is going to try to make it their entire lives and take it another level. Why wouldn’t you support that?
Sick Of It All were one of the bands to revive this concept of Hardcore bands playing on bills with Metal bands. Do you recall how that came about?
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! At that point, we thought Rest in Pieces was on the way of being a huge band. The next day, we get a phone call from Chris Williamson and he said him 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 1200 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 when we just signed to In-Effect. Howie Abrams 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 was all these big hair 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 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!
I remember hearing a story about some melee that happened the first time Sick Of It All played Gilman Street back in ‘89, but never got the full story.
The people who ran the club had an issue with us as soon as we got there. There were sixty fucking people there and we were getting paid one hundred dollars. They had these guys who were supposed to be bouncers in front of the stage and everything out of their mouth about us and the kids that came to see us was ‘These Straight Edge faggots’. We were like ‘Who is Straight Edge here? Do we being on Revelation make us a Straight Edge band?’ Maybe the kids who came to see us were the local Straight Edge guys. Who knows. People started throwing shit at the bouncers, they would throw kids out who were into the band. I’m playing and the bouncers’ girlfriend literally grabs the neck of my guitar and starts trying to pull the strings off of it screaming, ‘Get the fuck out of here you Straight Edge faggot!’ I soccer kicked her in the face and she fell down. Her boyfriend just thought she fell off the stage. When he finally figures out what happened he came towards me and our roadie Squirm jumped over me and started beating the fucking shit out of the guy. But wait, it gets crazier! From the right side door, forty Nazis come charging in and start beating everybody up! We just stopped playing and stood there asking, ‘What’s going on?’ It was like the Nazis were just waiting outside for something to happen because they already hated the people who ran the club and they were just looking for a reason to start a fight. Years later, I talked to Tim from Rancid who was there and he just said ‘Yeah, I don’t know why the Gilman people were fucking with you at that show’.
What was the point where you decided as a band that this was going to be a lifelong thing?
We started going to Europe in ’91 and that’s when it became a career. People love NYHC in the states, but outside of the United States, people think it’s the greatest thing ever. We just played in Germany to fifty-five thousand people. This wouldn’t exist without all the tape trading that went on, meeting the people that were doing it and writing actual letters back and forth. That’s when we realized we could actually make a living from this and we did.
Photo: Ken Salerno
What keeps you doing Sick Of It All after all these years?
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 CBGB’s to see an Agnostic Front show. That’s how it affected me. Every few years we put out a new record and we tour the entire earth. We’re not tooting our own horn, but everyone knows NYHC because of us, Madball, Cro-Mags and Agnostic Front. That’s it.
Show your support of Sandpaper Lullaby by becoming a member over at Patreon