Sick Of It All: improving on their core sound
posted by: David on 23 April 2010
New York hardcore legends Sick Of It All recently released a new album, called 'Based On A True Story'. AsIce.net talked to Lou Koller about constantly improving the sound of the band, getting inspiration from your own songs, Obama, and Killing Time.
When I heard the album title ‘Based On A True Story’ it reminded me of your video entitled ‘The Story So Far’. Are they related?
(laughs) I didn’t even make the connection until now! We were trying to come up with a title after we wrote all the music and the songs were done. Several songs on the record deal with stuff that has happened to us in real life. So I came up with the idea to call it ‘Based On A True Story’.
So it’s actually a kind of reality show?
It could be, because all reality shows are fake. (laughs)
What kind of personal stories did you use for the lyrics?
Different ones. ‘Death Or Jail’, the first track on the album, is a very dark song. We all grew up in the same neighbourhood, did the same things and hung out at the same places. One of our really good friends became a drug dealer and a criminal. Eventually he murdered someone and ended up in jail. We kind of question why he chose that path while the rest of us didn’t.
And there’s lighter ones, like ‘A Month Of Sundays’, which deals with the positive aspect of going to the matinees at CBGB’s and what a good effect it had on our lives.
I thought ‘Death Or Jail’ was about what you would be doing if it wasn’t for music...
It really could be, because when we started the band and doing shows, he still hung out with us for a few years. After that he disappeared into the world of drugs and crime.
Last time you let Tue Madsen come over to the US to record ‘Death To Tyrants’. This time you went to Denmark and recorded it in his own studio. Was that different?
There weren’t as many distractions when we were there. We were in Denmark and it was pitch black most of the time and pouring rain (laughs). This time there was no one rushing out the studio to do other things, like spending time with the family. There was nothing that distracted us from concentrating on the record. It was really good in that aspect, I really liked it. Tue is of course more comfortable in his own studio, he knows all the equipment. Since it was our second record with him, we were very comfortable with him as well.
Still I feel that this album has a different sound than ‘Death To Tyrants’.
Yeah, he did exactly what we asked. We wanted to take the ‘Death To Tyrants’ sound and expand on it, make it seem bigger, but without losing Sick Of It All. That’s what we like about Tue: he takes the sound of every band he works with and expands on it. He doesn’t make Sick Of It All and The Haunted and all those other bands sound the same.
It’s a challenge to make every Sick Of It All record sound different. Still you manage to do that somehow.
With each record we try to improve on our core sound. We bring in different influences and Tue seems to hold on to the core sound and helps us stretch it into different directions.
‘Dominated’ is a pretty metal orientated track. On some of the other songs the guitar sound is more metal orientated as well. Is this Tue’s influence?
That’s the way we wrote the songs. We’re not a band that plan things out and comes up with concepts or things like that. We do whatever comes to mind. Pete brought in ‘Death Or Jail’ and ‘Dominated’, more heavy sounding songs. But he also brings in songs like ‘Waiting For The Day’ and ‘A Month Of Sundays’, which are way more melodic. It’s the luck of the draw what comes through. There was nobody telling us we should make a heavier album or to be more melodic. It’s just the way it turned out.
‘A Month Of Sundays’ and ‘Waiting For The Day’ sound like your anthem ‘Us vs Them’ in a way. Do you sometimes get inspiration from your own songs?
Yeah, definitely. I think one of the things that lacked on ‘Death To Tyrants’ was that there wasn’t a big anthem on it. We had ‘Die Alone’, which is catchy and a great sing-along, but it’s not very inspirational and it didn’t tap into an emotion. I think the lyrics of the two songs you just mentioned are great. They make you feel something. It’s like you said: when Pete brought in the music, I said I wanted to make them as strong as ‘Us vs Them’. Armand wrote the lyrics to ‘Us vs Them’ and I still think they are very strong, so when I wrote the lyrics for those two new songs, that was in the back of my head.
‘A Month Of Sundays’ is reminiscing about the fun period in our lives that we went to the Sunday matinees at CBGB’s. ‘Waiting For The Day’ is a funny story. It’s about my oldest brother. Pete and I were talking to him recently. He’s always working, like seven days a week, and he’s always busting his ass to make ends meet. We asked him when he was going to take a day of or a break and he said he was working so hard so he could catch that break. He was waiting for the day. And if he didn’t catch that break, he would keep on working. The lyrics are about that. It’s kind of like putting out a record. You hope it will sell a million copies. But if it doesn’t, you’ll just continue to work hard. Don’t just sit there and wait for the dream to happen. Keep working.
Is ‘Braveheart’ that thing you do with the crowd during live shows?
Yeah, exactly. A few years back, when I started to split the crowd in half, we didn’t do anything. And then Armand and the guys came up with this whole war drum sounding kind of intro. For some reason they decided that they wanted to put it on the new record. I said sure, go ahead man...
It’s a cool intro for ‘Bent Outta Shape’.
Yeah, it leads into it very well. That’s a fast and heavy song. When Armand first brought it in, my complaint was that there was no breakdown, there was no dance part in it. But he said he wrote it to be like that. It goes from very fast, almost thrash metal, into a sort of Discharge ending. That’s cool.
So will the ‘Braveheart’ intro become a classic as well, like ‘It’s Clobbering Time’?
(laughs) I hope so! I hope to see people get excited and go crazy.
What is ‘Good Cop’ about?
You know, that song is actually not about cops. It’s about the good cop/bad cop routine. The bad cop yells at you and the good cop is nice and tries to help you, but they actually both want the same thing from you. The song is Armand’s take on the political situation in America. We had George Bush, who was a piece of garbage, and we’re glad he’s gone. But now we have Obama, who is good and tries to be good, but he’s backed by the same people and corporations. He had this whole plan about changing car admissions and ecology, but now it’s postponed because he is backed by the same people that got Bush elected.
There’s also the paranoid Republicans in the Midwest who are scared of him. When the guy tried to blow up an airplane on December 25th, they even said: ‘See, this would never happen when Bush was on watch!’ In fact, Guilliani, the former mayor of New York, got on national news and said that there was never a terrorist attack on American soil when Bush was president. Yeah, what about 9/11, you fucking idiot! What a jerk.
When Obama was elected, did you believe he would actually change America or did you only hope for change?
I hoped he would change something. He did a lot of good, just the fact that he got elected. He gave hope to people that never had hope. For decades it’s just been old white rich guys for president. The night he got elected the Bad Brains played in New York City. I went there and friends of mine who are African-American or Hispanic or whatever had tears in their eyes and they said ‘Everything we believed for in punk, everything we strived for, we achieved tonight: a black man is president!’. And I would always joke: ‘Hey, he’s half white!’ But I think he did good just for that reason.
I still hope that he can change things. The more I watch him, the more I’m reminded of how old I am, because he reminds me when Jimmy Carter was president. He was a nice, calm guy who tried to bring social changes to America and turn us into what he believed the American people should be. He said the government was there for the people, to help the people. He even said in a speech that Americans needed to take a good look at themselves and their insane need to buy goods. He was crucified for that. They kicked him right out of office in the next elections. All because he wasn’t there for the all-American ‘look at me, I got a big car’. I see the same happening now with Obama.
Yeah, maybe he’s too nice to be president.
Exactly. When Bush wanted to go to war, did he wait? No, he made up some lies and then when people didn’t buy the lies he was like ‘Well, tough shit, we’re going anyway’. I think if Obama really wanted to push through his health care plans, he should have said ‘Fuck you, I’m doing it anyway. You don’t like it? Get the next president to reverse it!’
When you ask a metal fan to name a hardcore band, Sick Of It All is one of the bands that gets mentioned most. Why is that?
I don’t know, man. I think part of it has to do that we were on a major label on some point and it expanded our audience way behind just the normal hardcore scene. I hope it’s also because of the music (laughs). We also never shied away from playing with anybody. Our first real tour was a week long tour with Exodus on the East Coast. We’ve always been embraced by metal crowds.
You play just as fast, but you have shorter songs...
Yeah, and no guitar solos. They premiered our new track on this website Lambgoat and a lot of responses were positive, but there were also a lot of negative reactions. People called it retarded and garbage and said they couldn’t understand what I was saying in the song. And then if you look on their profiles on the site, they love bands like Nile and Meshuggah. It’s great that they love those bands. We toured with Meshuggah, we’re friends with them. But I also know that a Meshuggah-fan who’s into technical metal with massive guitar solos is not going to like Sick Of It All! (laughs)
It’s hard. You never know who’s going to like your new songs. Most of the time the old-timers like it and the young kids don’t. But you have to remember when you were 15 or 16 and getting into hardcore. I remember all I wanted to hear was fast songs with a dance part. It had to be a certain style. If someone asked me if I liked T.S.O.L., I said no. They weren’t as fast as D.R.I. and they didn’t have the breakdowns of Agnostic Front. As I got older, I got into T.S.O.L. and Naked Raygun and stuff like that too, along with the heavier stuff. You never know what’s going to happen. And the internet sucks anyway. People are really brave and boisterous on the internet. It’s a shame there isn’t a way to ID everybody, so nobody can hide behind their bullshit.
When I listen to the new album it seems like the youthful anger of the early days is still there. Does hardcore keep you young?
I think so. Being in this lifestyle kept us in way better shape than others. My friends in Killing Time just released a new record. It’s a really good record, but when you see those guys, you don’t even recognize them. They look like forty year old men! I don’t think Sick Of It All looks old. We may look like our mid thirties, but not like forty year old men. I still got my hair, I’m thin! (laughs) They’re going to hate me for saying this by the way.
I like the new Killing Time record as well. It’s more punk rock orientated.
Yeah, it is. I think they should have eased people into it though. I’m not saying that we’re the smartest band in the world, but when we mix our style, we mix it good. The complaint I hear from a lot of old school Killing Time fans is that it’s too much of an abrupt change. Even after all these years they should have kept some of that ‘Brightside’ sound and kept it in there.
In my review of the record I compared their style change to the one Vision went through. Except that Vision did it gradually. Ah well, there’s always people who will not like it.
I know there’s plenty of Sick Of It All songs that I don’t like when I look back. On ‘Call To Arms’ I like maybe three or four songs on that record. But overall I fucking hate it! (laughs)
You know, it’s funny that you mention ‘Call To Arms’. When I cleaned up my cd collection about five years ago, I removed that one because I didn’t like it anymore. But last year, I wrote a piece on it for Rock Tribune’s Back In Time special, because it was released ten years ago, and I sort of rediscovered it.
Maybe I should go back and listen to it again too! (laughs)
The new Killing Time record is more punk rock orientated, but I think ‘Call To Arms’ is your most punk rock orientated album for sure.
The funny thing is that when we wrote a lot of those songs, they were really heavy. When we went in and recorded the record, Armand and Craig got this really weir idea. They wanted to do it raw and live recordings. It’s not polished at all. I think that gives it the punk sound. It was straight up hardcore when we wrote it though. But whatever, it came out good for what it was. It was just another album where the performances were rushed, we didn’t have as much time or money. We just wanted to get in and get the record done.
I always figured you got signed to Fat Wreck because you sounded very punk in those days.
With the record after that, ‘Yours Truly’, we went in a totally different direction. I really loved ‘Yours Truly’. That’s one of my favourites because it has a variety of styles in that record. We played whatever the hell we wanted. We didn’t sat there and decided we wanted to sound like Hatebreed that year because everybody sounded like Hatebreed.
You told me in a previous interview that the artwork probably killed that record.
Oh yeah, that’s the thing I hate. I wish we had put it out with a different cover.
Maybe you should reissue it then.
I know that Reflections Records is reissuing our first two albums on vinyl. I want to get my hands on those releases. So many friends of mine who collect vinyl call me up to ask for a copy, but I don’t even have a copy! (laughs) If I’ll get one, I’ll be lucky, so let’s see.
Okay, I’ll ask Johan if he can send you a copy.
Tell him to send me a couple! (laughs)
You’ve been in this band for 24 years now. Which band related things have changed the most in this period?
We definitely got better at the writing part and the arranging. The first two records were 80% written by Pete and me. ‘Scratch The Surface’ was the big one where we sat in the rehearsal studio and wrote together. That was great, but we never did that again. Everybody just brings in their own songs. We gradually progressed with ‘Yours Truly’, ‘Life On The Ropes’ and definitely ‘Death To Tyrants’ and ‘Based On A True Story’. We bring in the songs and pick them apart and rearrange them. I think we got way better at doing that together.
All top athletes have to think of a career after they stop doing sports fulltime. When you retire from doing the band, will you still be active in music or do you prefer another career?
Ooh, that’s a hard one. I always think of what I can do. I can scream really well, so maybe I should become a teacher. But I’m too lazy to become a teacher and they don’t pay very well.
You should become a stadium speaker or something.
Yeah, that would be fun. But there’s other things that I’m interested in. I’m taking courses to learn computer graphics. I don’t know if I can ever make a career out of it. We’ll see.
Labels complain about album sales going down. You’re a touring band, so does this mean you don’t have as much problems with the crisis state of the music industry?
The problem we have is that labels don’t give advances like they used to. But like you said, we’ve always been a touring band. We toured for 3,5 years after ‘Death To Tyrants’, that proves we don’t need the record sales. But it kind of sucks that the industry changes. We still do pretty good with our shows. In Europe we’ve maintained our fans from the early nineties. They bring their kids and younger brothers and sisters to our shows now. Here in the States there’s a small faction of old school fans, but most of them think hardcore is only for young people, so they don’t come to shows anymore.
So what’s it like to play shows for people who weren’t even born when you started out as a band?
It’s funny to see them get all enthusiastic. I like it a lot. I’m happy when that shit happens.
Interview by David.
Pictures taken from the Sick Of It All Myspace.
Related bandprofile: Sick Of It All
|Nice one, David!
|So what’s it like to play shows for people who weren’t even born when you started out as a band?
It’s funny to see them get all enthusiastic. I like it a lot. I’m happy when that shit happens.
|wat gebeurt hier??
|Lou, held der helden!
|Is Roy nu op foto twee aan het bekijken hoe Lou gitaar speelt?
|@Maurice; dat dacht ik ook al haha
|Hup Johan, opsturen die handel!
|"The night he got elected the Bad Brains played in New York City. I went there and friends of mine who are African-American or Hispanic or whatever had tears in their eyes and they said ‘Everything we believed for in punk, everything we strived for, we achieved tonight: a black man is president!’."
"And the internet sucks anyway. People are really brave and boisterous on the internet. It’s a shame there isn’t a way to ID everybody, so nobody can hide behind their bullshit."
great opinions LOL.