This Friday (2nd), New York hardcore legends Sick of It All’s new album Wake The Sleeping Dragon will arrive via Fat Wreck Chords (pre-order here). We spoke to frontman Lou Koller on their latest effort, their 30+ year career, how they booked two shows with Life of Agony, and more.
People struggle with maintaining a positive attitude despite situations they cannot control, which could be anything from politics to relationships. The song “Inner Vision” goes into this subject saying how it is up to one’s mind to find peace in the situation. Would you be able to elaborate on that mentality?
You know, everybody has their own way of dealing with things. I used to deal with things, but you know, sometimes I still do, getting very frustrated and breaking things, you know?
”Inner Vision,” now, is trying to move on further in life, and it’s trying to find peace within yourself. And it’s like, Craig wrote the lyrics, Craig our bass player, he wrote it. He got into meditation. And he was saying that’s how he deals with, you know, the more you see the evils that are going on in the world, and you get frustrated about, why aren’t things being done about it, and in fact you’ll go crazy the more you delve into this stuff. And his whole concept was finding pieces of himself. He knows that these things are going to go on, they’re going to happen. And to be better able to deal with it, he focuses on calming himself, and just making sure that he’s better able to deal with the outside world. You know?
What is the overall theme of the new album?
It’s not just one theme, we touch on a bunch of things, but I think the overall theme is in the title,”Wake the Sleeping Dragon.”
I have to say it’s a theme that has run on and off through our whole career, and I think it’s time again. It’s like, yeah, again there’s a lot of stuff going on in the world that you might find overwhelming, and all that, and the easiest thing to do is to shut yourself off to it. But, you shouldn’t. It’s like I said with “Inner Vision,” you find your center, you find your focus. And then, you’re better able to deal with it. I mean, the other way to do it is just to ignore all of it, put your head in the sand, but that’s not going to help anyone.
How would you compare the new record to your prior efforts?
Well, when we sat down, and were getting ready to write the record. We all agreed that we just wanted to write something that we enjoy, music that we enjoy instead of, like, some people, they would be like, “Oh, well, what’s the trend? Let’s go more metallic. Let’s do this. Let’s do that.” Or whatever. We’re just writing songs that we enjoy.
And our mind’s approach was to use the band’s sense of humor that we have, like when he wrote the song “Hardcore Horseshoe” or even just the title of “Beef Between Vegans.” You know, it’s just a tongue-in-cheek thing. And I think it’s more personal that way, that all four of us really contributed lyrically and musically on this one. More so than ever. And that’s where we started at, and it just grew to this. And I think comparing it to our other album, it is a step further, I don’t know in which direction, but a lot of people are saying, “Yeah, it’s Sick of it All, but it’s a fresher Sick of it All, it’s like a fresh version of us. And I mean, that’s something that I really like. I’ve been told in several interviews that they were saying, “It sounds more like a band who’s hungry, you know, it’s a hungry first debut instead of a band that’s been together for 30 plus years, or something. I’m very proud of that comment.
It does sound very fresh, which is very good to have after all these years. How has hard core in general changed over the years since you started in terms of it originally being a politically charged underground scene, do you think the message is still the same?
I think it’s definitely changed. As any scene gets bigger and gets more exposure. I mean, look, especially in recent years, it’s a launching pad for a lot of bigger careers. You can look as recent as bands like Knocked Loose and Code Orange and Turnstile. And I’m not saying those bands have done anything wrong. More power to them for breaking out into a bigger audience. We’ve tried to do that our whole career, you know, with some success.
I think it’s a double-edged sword. When a political climate is like this, you would think that bands would be running more and more political stuff. But, I’ve found when I speak to bands from different age groups, even closer to our age group or younger, they say that they don’t want to go to a show and hear about all the shit in the world, because they’re always hearing about it every day. And, I find it funny that they come to our shows for that. I mean, we don’t preach when we’re on stage but it’s in every lyric, most of the lyrics are very political. So, it’s a double-edged sword. I mean, I have friends who point at some of the new bands, they’re like, “Yeah, but they’re not saying anything. They have the aggression of hardcore or metal, but they’re not saying anything with it.”
And it’s like, “That’s them.” You have underground bands, there was a band … I think they split up two years ago … a band called Cloth from Portland. One of the best debut demos I’ve ever heard in years. Like, they took hardcore punk, and revamped it, and it was so angry and fresh, but they split up. Maybe people didn’t want to hear angry.
What does it mean being in a heritage hardcore band with 30 plus year history mean to you?
I never really thought about that. It’s like, maybe it means I’m too dumb to do anything else. No, it’s something that’s weird to us, because when we started, our whole goal was to play CBGB. And we played CBGB, and we were like, “Wow, it would be great to get headlined someday.” And in the course of working our way to headlining CBGB we were traveling really fast. I think it was right after our first seven inch. We ended up getting to play Washington, D.C. and going up to Boston and Rhode Island, and then it just started snow-balling. Hell, we didn’t think … you know when we were kids and we signed our first record deal with Relativity Records … we were on Revelation for the seven inch but the first album was on Relativity … They asked us to sign for seven albums and we were laughing at them going like, “They think we’re going to be together for seven albums!” But little did we know, 30 years later, here we are.
People believe that hard core music is a male-dominated scene. What is your input on this subject?
I think that there’s not enough … there are a bunch of your almost all female bands or bands with women in them … I wish women would be integrated more. And I understand why they don’t. I understand why they love it, because they’re frustrated too. I think women would make the best hardcore because they have more shit to deal with than any guy I know. I would like to see more bands.
There’s a bunch of bands in Europe that have women more incorporated in the music. I would like to see more. It is still male-dominated. I think it’s the testosterone. And it’s the aggression of the music attracts … I mean, that’s how hardcore got bigger. When it first started, it was such a diverse scene where, you know, it was founded by all the outcasts, meaning the gays, women, whatever. You know, the birth of hardcore came out of the punk scene. And I remember going to my first matinees in late ’84, early 1985, and you saw such a diverse crowd on those Sundays, you know. And as the years went on, it got more and more everybody looked alike and once Agnostic Front and Cro-Mags were seen by the outside world, everybody wanted to be a muscular, tattooed, hardcore … I mean, look at House of Pain. They got their whole shit from there.
How did the dates with Life of Agony come together?
Two Sick Nights of Agony. It was just from knowing each other for years. We were … and I even said this in the press release … I can remember meeting Joey Z., and he was saying, “Oh, I’m a big fan, so will you listen to my band?” And he gave me the tape, and I remember going home and playing the demo, and I was like, “This isn’t straight-up hardcore. It’s got hardcore elements. It’s very metallic. But, you know. Mina’s singing was Keith at the time, and it’s fucking out of this world. And I was like, “These guys are going to change shit.” And then, when River Runs Red came out, boom! They set the bar.
And I know a lot of people don’t give them credit. In my eyes, there would be no Volbeat. Pantera wouldn’t sound the same. All of these bands that incorporated really good vocals, and then being aggressive. And for me, it all started with Life of Agony. So, they deserve a lot more credit than they’re getting.
The tour and the shows came about because we’d played together in festivals in Europe, but we’ve never done just club shows, and especially not in our hometown. The guys in Life of Agony were wanting to make a special show in December and they were like, “Wow, we’ve never played with Sick of It All.” We’ve always been mutual friends. It’s funny, if you look at the social media stuff, we were always posting and reposting each other’s stuff. It’s just because of the respect for each other that we’ve had. And then, they just asked us to do it.
What are your plans for 2019?
Lots of touring. We’re trying to set stuff up now. We’re looking … at headlining or whatever, we just wanna get out and play, like we always do. But we wanna … you know, and it’s no secret we’re an older band, and it gets harder and harder for us to have a younger crowd come into our shows, so we’re hoping to hook up with a younger band who’s equal or bigger than us so that we can play to their audience and show these kids that we’re not a bunch of fucking old men who just stand around resting on our laurels. We give it 100% every night. The only problem with that is, bands that are bigger than us, their managers are going to tell them, “Take the younger band that the young kids want. We’ve had this happen to us. It’s ageism. They’re fucking us up.
I mean, I understand, from a business perspective. We have friends who are in all these bigger bands. The bands that we’ve taken on tour when they were nobody, and thankfully they reciprocate all the time, or try to. Some of them have flat-out told us, “Yeah, but our manager said it’s better for us to take this band and we’re fighting it.” And I would tell them flat-out, I’d go, “Listen to your manager, they’re making you fucking money. We can always play together another time. You know, I want these guys, the friends of ours who’ve had success, continue your success. Better than just take out a band that might not draw as well or draw a different crowd that might not appreciate you as much as this younger crowd would.
It’s a very hard thing to do, to put together, but that’s our plan. We’re trying to expose ourselves to as much … I mean, that’s another reason we’re playing with Life of Agony, we’re two shows with Municipal Waste, hopefully. We were scheduled to do shows but the scheduling got fucked up. You know, we’re trying to cross-pollinate like we used to.
Speaking of the younger crowd, what newer hardcore and punk bands have you been listening to?
See, the funny thing is that they’re new to me, or I still think of some as … Comeback Kid’s last record was fucking amazing, but they’re not a new band anymore. Crimewatch is one. There’s others from New York I can name like, The Last Stand. I liked the last Turnstiles record. I liked all the Turnstiles records. I really love them live. I think they do what we do. They give it 100% live. More than 100%. I always do this, I know there’s a couple of bands that I’m forgetting, and I hate it because I always forget. I used to try to write everything down. It’s not because I’m old. And I do this my whole career, where, I just, there’s a band that I’ve been listening to and I want to talk about it and I totally blank out when I’m on the interview.
I can completely relate to that.
There’s so much good music coming from all over, and different styles, I guess you can say, of aggressive music, whether it’s super heavy or … I went to see Gorilla Biscuits and Negative Approach, two old school bands that fucking killed it, but Incendiary, who a friend has been telling me about for years, and they’re more metallic, heavier groove kind of hardcore. And they just killed it, I was watching, I was like, “Oh, now I see why my friend wanted me to watch these guys. They are fucking great.”
So many good, young bands. There’s a band from Jersey, made up of kind of older guys like the singer from Ensign’s in it (Tim Shaw) and he’s got some new guys called, Fuck It I Quit, and they are another band that has taken kind of a step back, and playing more of a Discharge, early Agnostic Front sound but it sounds so fresh because they do it in their own way. I mean, it’s so much shit, we could sit here for hours.
I hear that. Is there anything else that you want to add or say about upcoming plans?
We’re really excited about this record. Like I said, it’s kind of, like, one of the most free records we did, where we didn’t force ourselves to, like write rigidly, we were just free-flowing it’s got … diversity on the album, but it’s still Sick of It All, it’s still very aggressive. I’m very happy with the feedback we’re getting so far. I hope more of the fans love it. Even when we played three of the new songs when we played New York recently, and they went over great. We’re really excited for the album. So that’s good. We’ve just been busting our ass. That’s what we’re going to be doing on the road.
And that’s all we can do, I guess. But yeah, no, the album sounds awesome. It does remind me of the older mixed with a more modern heavy sound as well. It also doesn’t sound like just another studio album, as you said earlier.
Yeah, that’s another thing, it came out really good. It’s got such a live energy to it.