conversations with bianca

Sick Of It All’s Lou Koller: “When we see young bands doing the best they can, it inspires us…”

When I think of hardcore one of the first bands that springs to mind is New York City’s Sick Of It All, it’s been 30 years and they’re still going strong! They’re intense live, have sing-along choruses, and their music and lyrics matter, they have that power that makes you feel like you can do anything, their music also offers a sanctuary from the craziness of the world while speaking out of it. I first saw SOIA in the mid-90s in a tiny little club in my hometown, Brisbane, when I was a teen. I interviewed Lou for the second zine I ever made, we’ve spoken many times over the band’s lifetime (including for my punk & hardcore book coming soon) and even after all these years of knowing him, I still learn new stuff about SOIA every time we chat, here’s our latest…

LOU KOLLER: Everybody’s good here: the band, my family. We’re doing pretty good, the same as everyone else though, we’re all stressing and struggling; the whole election—what a fiasco!

I still can’t believe he got in.

LK: I didn’t want to believe it was going to happen, but I wasn’t surprise when it did. We weren’t shocked, me and my wife were just looking at each other. You know what it was? It was a lot of scared white people, not just scared but, they felt neglected throughout the Obama years. A good friend of mine, he was in a hardcore punk band, he became a staunch right-wing Republican and he’s Asian, voted for that guy! It’s like, how can you do that?

I have several friends in the punk and hardcore community that voted for him too. There’s not much of a choice. I know some people that voted for him simply for the fact they didn’t want a woman in power! It’s like, what is that?!

LK: I don’t even understand that either. I’m not saying that she’s the criminal that they made her out to be but, I didn’t like the Clintons for the fact that they were trying to become like the Bush family, a political dynasty. Even though I voted for her because she was the other choice, I was going to vote for Jill Stein but, when I did more research it was just more of a waste of your vote – I was fed up at that point. What really soured me on Hilary was the way the Democratic Party railroaded Bernie Sanders off the ticket.

Totally!

LK: Now I’m not saying he was going to be a great president, I think he would have been a bit like Jimmy Carter, trying to do too much for the people so everyone would have got mad at him because not everything was getting done. Maybe even like Obama, certain people would have thought that he was neglecting them and giving everything to minorities. That was the argument that I would have with friends of mine, I’d be like, how are you not going to vote for Bernie? They’d be like, oh you’re just going to vote for Sanders so he can give money away to minorities and poor people. I’m like, he’s not going to take your guns away, he’s not giving your money to people; he’s talking about taking money from programs we shove billions in for no reason and giving it to the people. So, yeah, that was like the biggest stress in our lives, thank god, ya’know.

At least you’ll have a lot of ammo to write songs with.

LK: Oh yeah we do [laughs]. That’s what one of the songs on the new EP is about. Actually there’s two, I wrote one and (Armand Majidi; drums) wrote one on the new EP about the campaigns.

‘Doomed Campaign’ and ‘Black Venom’?

LK: Yes, those are the ones.

You guys released the new EP, 30 Years (1986-2016): When The Smoke Clears, as a limited edition deluxe gold 10” record accompanying a photo book, which is super cool! But I’m bummed it was only available at your recent mini ‘Triboro’ tour at small venues.

LK: Oh I know [laughs]. I’m sorry. If it makes you feel better they released only a 100 clear vinyl in Europe too. I’m not the bad guy.

Will you be releasing something for the Oz tour?

LK: Our manager, from day one when we started talking about doing this book and release, we begged them… they’re going through some distribution change over there or something, and we’re trying to make sure we get some books down there. I was hoping they could have them pressed and printed down there, I thought it would be cheaper and make a unique Australian vinyl, but who knows? Nobody listens to me, I’m just the singer [laughs].

I’m crossing my fingers and everything it happens! I’d love get a copy. What’s in the book? I know there’s liner notes written by some on SOIA’s friends: Davey Havok (AFI), Dennis Lyxzén (Refused), Chuck Ragan (Hot Water Music), Arthur Smilios (Gorilla Biscuits) and Matt Kelly (Dropkick Murphys).

LK: The book is 99% photos. We were always talking about how we never kept records of everything we did, how many shows, stuff like that, or we never took pictures back in the day. We were never like, hey, let’s take photos to preserve this forever; if we did take a picture we don’t know where half our photos are now. We wanted to put out the photo book to commemorate our 30 years together. We tried to get as old photos as we could leading up to the modern age. It came out great. I think it looks beautiful. There were certain photos we were each trying to get that we remembered, we were calling and emailing photographers, they either didn’t get back to us or they got back to us and didn’t produce the material we asked for. We have our friend BJ [Papas] that took photos from day one when we were together, she lives in L.A. now, she never put her stuff on digital, it’s all on negatives in a storage unit somewhere, so she couldn’t get the exact photos we wanted. We got some great ones but there are tons that are missing because they’re not digitalised. She hooked us up with some great shots though!

Were you surprised by anything your friends wrote for the liner notes in your book?

LK: Yeah! It was very humbling. We’ve known Davey since the early ‘90s when AFI just started, we’ve always been friends; what he wrote was very touching and made us feel very proud of what we did. It’s the same with, Chuck from Hot Water Music, we didn’t expect… Hot Water Music was more of a ‘thinking hardcore’ than SOIA, the way he praises going to see us for the first time and the impact we had on them—stuff like that to us is like, oh, wow! I never realised stuff like that.

It’s always a nice feeling when people who we dig, digs what we do too.

LK: Yeah! I like it when it’s especially someone you don’t expect. I remember one time I went to a show in New York, it was Rocket From The Crypt and The Get Up Kids, their record, Four Minute Mile, had just came out and I loved it. I met the guys. Someone was like, hey, this is Lou from Sick Of It All. I told them I loved their record and they couldn’t believe that the guy from SOIA loved the record [laughs]. It’s like, why wouldn’t I? It’s good music!

I remember when 7 Seconds put out, Soulforce Revolution, and me and Pete went down to CBGB’s to see ‘em and we saw Kevin [Seconds] and he’s like, what are you guys doing here? We told him we had come to see him!; he couldn’t believe it, he was like, you guys like my new record?! We were like, yeah, you wrote good songs why wouldn’t we like it! [laughs].

I read a review of your new EP online and it said that “hardcore punk has never sounded more relevant and necessary”! I thought that was neat.

LK: Wow! That’s really nice.

They gave it a 9 out of 10 too. I thought it was accurate and a really cool thing to say, ‘cause you guys have been going for over three decades but you’re still killin’ it as much as ever.

LK: Thank you! See that’s the thing, for you and me and people like us, people who are fans of hardcore—hardcore music speaks to us. I’m glad that every few years it speaks to people outside of the scene too. When people outside can get why we write this kind of music, I think that’s great.

I agree, I love when music can reach beyond its own community. You guys, like me, grew up listening to so many different types of music, which I can hear coming through in your music…

LK: That’s true. I was just talking to somebody about this the other day and they asked me what I think of new, younger bands? They were throwing names out at me like Turnstile – I don’t think they’re a new band – I said they’re great, and they inspire us. It’s like, wow, look at them writing the best songs they can, we have to buckle down.

When we wrote this EP, first of all, we wanted something out for our 30th Anniversary, we didn’t want to just throw some crap together, we sat down and wrote some great songs. Lucky Pete [Koller; guitar] come in with three riffs and Armand had two of the other songs, and we all sat down and hammered them out, it came out great. When we see young bands doing the best they can, it inspires us to write the best Sick Of It All that we can.

Scratch The Surface was a dark and heavy SOIA album and then, Built To Last, had more of a posi feel to it; where would you say the new EP sits?

LK: I think we’ve grown up. From Death To Tyrants on, we’re more mature. Scratch The Surface was very dark, angry and reactionary. Built To Last, we did get more positive. Now we are more comfortable with all of our feelings and emotions. Especially with this EP, we are reacting to the way the campaigns were run, it was all done before the end result; the way the Democratic campaign went, the Donald Trump fiasco of him coming out and saying the most offense things in the world and thousands of people rallying around him, it made us angry! We didn’t just get blind anger though, it was specific things, like what song ‘Doomed Campaign’ is getting at—none of those people speak for us, they don’t represent us, they’re an elite class of their own where they’ve created their own little Queen and King of England kinda thing.

What about other songs on the EP like ‘Fortress’?

LK: Now ‘Fortress’ is a special one! Pete came in with the whole song musically and he goes, what do you think of this? He didn’t know if we’d be into it because years and years ago he brought in a song, I loved it but Armand and Craig [Setari; bass] were like, nah that’s too melodic. It ended up becoming ‘5 Year Plan’ for H20! So Pete brought in ‘Fortress’ and I was like, I love it! It’s a little different but it’s still Sick Of It All. He said he’s already written lyrics for it too. He showed me the lyrics and I knew right away that he had wrote this about his daughter. [B’s note: it was written for Mei-Ling, Pete’s wife, stage right SOIA guitar tech and all-round awesome lady too!]. I think it’s great. It’s a good ender to the EP because it’s very uplifting at the end. Some of our older more curmudgeon fans would have us be more angry 24/7 [laughs] but, you gotta be happy sometimes.

Some of my favourite songs are the ones that bands that are usually seen as being angry or hard or whatever showing a happier side, I like the unexpected.

LK: Yeah, look at the song ‘Sanctuary’, we wrote that in ’99 and it’s still… if we don’t play it people yell out for it every night so it’s always in the set.

Was it in the set for the Queens show you played, the last SOIA show for 2016?

LK: No. The last three shows we did were special – Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens. We only did songs from the first three albums. We did a lot of tracks we haven’t played in a long time. The shows were in small clubs in New York City and sold out within 15 minutes! I don’t know if it’s done yet but, there was this friend of ours who works for a company where they put the show online and you can watched it from different camera angles, you can be the director and switch the different camera angles while you watch it.

That’s rad! I love technology, sometimes, ha!

LK: It’s like living in the Jetsons’ time for me [laughs]. That shows you how old I am!

Wasn’t Queens where it all started for SOIA?

LK: You know what the funny thing is as far as Queens?

What?

LK: It was the first proper club show we ever played. We played a friend’s backyard, my parent’s garage, we never had a real club show in Queens. Our first show was in Long Island, right outside the Queens border, officially we weren’t in Queens [laughs]. So that was the first time we played Queens, it was fun! I haven’t been back to Queens in a long time, my last living relative there passed away ten years ago. It was funny playing that club because a block away there used to be a club, which is a warehouse now, where I went and saw Public Enemy, Motorhead, Twisted Sister, Manowar, back in my metal days. It was fun to play the show and then walk to an authentic Queens diner across the road and eat and hang out like we were teenagers again.

That’s really lovely. I’m so stoked you’re coming back to Australia.

LK: Me too! I really have to say thanks to Refused, they’re good guys, we’ve been friends forever. We don’t call each other up every night to say goodnight [laughs] but with everything they’re been through and run into, we’ve supported them. Like when they broke up and Dennis had, The International Noise Conspiracy, we’d play show and festivals together and it was fun watching him do that, then he’d come watch us play. When he did TINC, there was a lot more alternative press that’d be like, oh why is he watching a hardcore band like, SOIA? Then they’d start watching us. It was such a blessing they were into us. I’m so glad they asked us to do this tour, it’s going to be a lot of fun.

I’d never heard of, High Tension, before this tour, I looked them up online and was like, oh man! They’re pretty heavy, it’s going to be an intense tour—we’re gonna have to come with our A game. Along with Refused it really pushes us to be our best.

It’s such a killer line-up! I’ve loved Refused since the ‘90s and I’ve followed Dennis’ projects the whole way along, and High Tension just rule! My friend Karina [read our chat here], their singer, is one of my favourite performers, she’s amazing.

LK: Tell her I’m scared because she has an awesome voice and my voice is so fucking flaky [laughs]. I’m so scared I’m gonna suck on the tour.

You’ll be fine Lou. I remember the first time we chatted back in the mid-90s and I was asking you about your ‘singing’ voice and you were like, singing? I just yell.

LK: [Laughs] I remember! I think I just scream in key sometimes. I’m psyched.

What does the Australian set look like?

LK: We were just discussing this, because of doing the shows where we played a bunch of old songs – which I’m glad we did because there were songs I’ve been begging to put back in the set but Armand was scared of it – we had so much fun playing them I think we’re going to switch some out with some of the old ones. I don’t like to say it but, I think it’ll be a little from each album; the best from each and then some new ones. I know we’re definitely playing ‘Black Venom’.

It’s funny ‘cause some songs will fight each other, like, aaah, I hate that song, or the whole band will hate it but, then some people will come up to us at shows and be like, why don’t you play this song or ‘Consumed’ from Scratch The Surface, then we look at each other like, wow, we thought everybody would be too bored, that that was too boring of a song. We played it at these last three shows and the whole place went absolutely crazy. A lot of old friends came out. What was cool was at each night there were a bunch of young kids that came saying that they had never got to see some of these songs because when they went to see us we’d just play more of the newer songs. I was excited because I played my favourite Sick Of It All song ‘Alone’ all three nights; I’m hoping we can work it back into the regular set.

Why is that one your favourite song?

LK: It was the first song that Pete gave me the music for and the song just flowed out of me when I wrote. It was literally about my life of when I would walk to the subway, walk to work, and because I was a Metalhead or later on when I cut my hair and I was Punk, people would give you dirty looks. The neighbourhood that I grew up in wasn’t open-minded, people would drive by you and yell at you or throw shit at you, you’d have to fight—I’m not a fighter! [laughs]. So that was my song, I just wanted to be left alone. Musically I just really love it too.

**B’s note: the day after Lou and I chatted I actually came across a SOIA book/vinyl EP on the shelf at my local record shop, they had one, of course I bought it! AND since our chat there was an Australian run of SOIA gold vinyl/books released but they sold out within an hour or so of being on sale.**

Australian tour dates:

See you at the shows! Get tickets: here.

B xox

*Images courtesy of the band’s IG: @sickofitallnyc (SOIA band photo by the awesome Helena BXL).

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