don angelini interviews the legendary new york hardcore band…
2012 is a banner year of Sick Of It All. Celebrating their 25th anniversary, New York City’s premier hardcore outfit has proven they are certainly “Built To Last” still delivering their own breed of furious and crushing hardcore to the masses. On this humid July evening, the band joined the legendary Cro-Mags at Webster Hall as part of CBGB Festival where I met up with bassist Craig Setari (widely known to fans as Craig Ahead) and talked about memories of “CB’s”, their current retrospective album Nonstop, and the band’s plans for 2012 and beyond.
Pop-Break: Let me start by giving you my congratulations on 25 years, as it is quite a milestone in the hardcore genre. That being said, what has been the key to Sick Of It All’s longevity through the years?
Craig Ahead: Thank you for the congratulations. The real key is that we all try to keep a cool head when we deal with each other in disagreements and situations. We try to keep the band first and keep our personal feelings out. I mean, you can have a disagreement and be cool about it. I’m not saying we’re all like these saintly people, but the bottom line is the show must go on. We’re pretty cool about it and we also understand the band is the primary thing that we all have to concentrate on and everything else comes second.
PB: Even though you guys are good friends, things happen. Even with the best of friends, you know?
CA: Oh yeah, we argue sometimes but it’s all good at the end of the day.
PB: The name and atmosphere of this festival pays homage to the legendary venue and certainly the spirit of rock music in New York City. Is there a particular story that truly reflects how special CBGB’s was to you?
CA: It’s hard to pick one story. I got a million stories for that place. I played there over 50 times. It was just a great place. During the 80’s, it was particularly great. I earned my bones there and that’s where I started out playing and that was my spot. They had to call my mother when I would play there because I was under 16 and say “Hey, can he play?” Other bands would use my mother to call as their reference. “Yeah, I’m his mother, he can play.” It’s kind of funny they’re calling your mother to play a show, you know? [Craig and I share a laugh] I hear people talk about CBGB’s today and wearing the shirts and they’re like “Oh, this and that, you know anything about that?” and I’m like “Yeah, I sort of know a little about that. I kind of get it. I kind of lived it” so it’s cool. It’s a great place and was a very fertile ground for music in the 80’s.
PB: Last fall you released Nonstop, a retrospective of Sick Of It All songs re-recorded. I personally thought it was well done while I certainly still embrace the originals. How have fans responded to it?
CA: People love it. It’s basically all those songs done with more power and impact. I don’t want to say precision because we don’t play perfectly but it’s our style of getting better over the years with more energy and intensity. The musicianship does get better but it’s not about a perfect take. It’s about capturing the fire, so people really appreciate that and I think we get better at that as time goes by.
PB: Aside from wanting these particular songs to match their present live intensity, what was the process in deciding what made the cut and the approach in making them as KRS-One put it on the new version of “Clobberin’ Time” fresh for 2012?
CA: Everyone wrote their own little list of songs that they wanted to do. Some of them we thought we were going to do, we didn’t. Some of them we thought weren’t going to do, we did do. We sort of threw it around until it happened. I’m really glad KRS-One put something back on the record. It’s great that 25 or so years later, KRS is still speaking intelligently for his genre of music. For hip-hop, he’s the voice of reason, intelligence, and higher thinking. I’m real grateful that he was the guy on the first album (Blood, Sweat and No Tears) and he also did something else again because I really appreciate the lyrics he writes. He writes from a much deeper angle than most people. It’s funny that in the hip-hop community, a lot of newer kids are like “Oh, that stuff’s whack.” That’s not whack. Everything else you’re listening to is whack, and that’s real music with real intelligence behind it. I’m real grateful he was able to be a part of it. People think I’m crazy for the way I think and the things I talk about and then I read his lyrics and I’m like “Alright, this cat’s into thinking outside the box, a sentient being, not just a body and material sense.” It’s about the soul not the body. At least that’s my take on life anyway.
PB: Lou (Koller, vocals) brought up in Philadelphia last November a lack of interest in doing material off of your Fat Wreck Chords releases live (Call To Arms, Yours Truly, Life On The Ropes). They all have some great songs that carry over well on stage and recorded and two even made it on Nonstop. They seem to be considered good but not great in terms of your discography by most fans as well. What brought about this consensus among the band regarding these albums?
CA: A lot of kids don’t know that stuff because over the years they thought about labels instead of bands. Certain kids who were more into the beatdown style of hardcore didn’t even know what Fat Wreck Chords was so they thought, “Oh Sick Of It All? They still play?” They didn’t even know. There’s a lot more separation. Some kids know that, some kids don’t. I think Call To Arms is one of our best records in my opinion. I didn’t care much for Life On The Ropes because the sound was really bad and I was having a bad time at that time so I barely remember most of that stuff. I was in a different place. We just don’t do that much of it because when you have this many albums out, you can only play about an hour on a headlining show. You can only fit about 20-22 songs and when you got a lot of albums, you throw in a lot of more popular ones.
PB: You guys recently played two of Revelation Records’ four 25th anniversary shows in Pomona, CA, which included incredible lineups each day. How was the weekend overall for you? It must have been great to be part of it and to celebrate what became such an influential label.
CA: Yeah, I like Jordan (Cooper, Revelation Records founder) a lot. He’s a good guy. The shows were really fun. I saw a bunch of friends and old bandmates I’ve known for years. It was definitely fun to see everybody. It was a little nostalgic. I don’t mind nostalgic as long as it’s not cheap and it definitely wasn’t. It was a nice thing. In my eyes though, hardcore is current. You got to keep moving, you got to not stop. You can’t be like “Oh, I did this 20 years ago.” Granted, some people don’t want to continue doing stuff. That’s all fine and good, but for Sick Of It All we continue to evolve, play, and remain current in the scene. Styles change but we still do our thing, our way.
PB: Is there a Revelation release that is a personal favorite of yours?
CA: It’s hard for me to really say. Quicksand was a great band, but that New York compilation (New York City Hardcore: Together) was a good thing because that helped get New York out there. I’ll say my favorite release of all the Revelation stuff was the Warzone 7” (Lower East Side Crew), which was their first release. I was in California playing bass for Youth Of Today in the summer of 1986 and I went to the pressing plant with Ray (Cappo, vocals). We had a cassette tape and were like “Yo, there’s going be a Warzone 7”, the first Revelation Records release.” I remember that going on and the whole setup, throwing around ideas for it saying, “Hey, this should look like that. How should we do this? We’re going to Xerox this…” I remember Revelation was conceived as an idea along with its first release. I was there for all of it so that was kind of special for me. Tommy (Carroll), the singer for Straight Ahead, my old band played drums on the majority of that Warzone 7”. I went to shows where most of it was recorded so it was things I was doing at the time and I was involved with everything. I remember its birth and it was pretty cool. I’ve been doing hardcore for a very long time and I saw almost all of it. I saw it when it was crawling around on its hands and knees.
PB: Revelation has begun revealing hints of bands that will be playing for their anniversary shows in New York City for October (11th-14th). Will Sick Of It All be part of the celebration?
CA: I really can’t say because the offer hasn’t come in yet. We have to see because we’ll playing right now, the timing of that, and what the band members have going on. In October, I know a few people have personal stuff going on. They’ll probably put in an offer and being that it’s New York, their offer’s going to have to match up to a New York offer. We’ll see how it goes. Hopefully, it’ll happen. There’s a 50/50 chance so you never know.
PB: Vinyl over the last several years has gotten popular again especially in hardcore. Would the band ever consider repressing anything from Blood, Sweat and No Tears to Built To Last? eBay and the like do not make it easy to get them for a reasonable price.
CA: Actually, all the stuff that was on In-Effect and Relativity got repressed in Germany. The rights were bought so we don’t own the rights to repress that stuff. It’s weird business shit. They can sell them because they own them and paid for that particular session in the studio. That particular snapshot is theirs. You get paid a little bit of money but Relativity never pays anybody so they ripped us off and never gave us a dime. They probably owe us a lot of money but what are you going do? Back then it was like that and still is today if you’re not careful. Then again, when you’re dealing with a guy like Fat Mike (Fat Wreck Chords), it’s never like that because that’s the most honorable man I’ve ever dealt with. That guy paid us very well on everything. If anyone ever says, “Oh, you guys were on Fat Wreck Chords”, you have to understand that the man was so fair and genuine in the way we dealt with each other. That’s a man to be respected, a real punk rock dude, and a stand-up guy.
PB: Aside from tour dates in the U.S. and Europe lined up for this summer, what are your plans for the rest of 2012? Is there a new album in the works?
CA: We’re going to write material. We’ve got the European dates and all that. I think we’re going to Puerto Rico in November for a show or two. Other than that, we’re going to start working on new material and take a little time off. Pete (Koller, guitar) and wife just had a baby so he’s going to enjoy some time with his kids and we’ll get back on the horse for 2013.
PB: Anything else you want to say to the fans as you go on 25 years and counting?
CA: I feel so blessed and lucky to have been able to dedicate my life to this music and have people respect it and like it 25 years later. I’m here tonight playing a sold-out show with Sick Of It All and the Cro-Mags who I’m playing bass for. Cro-Mags were a band I was influenced by when they first came around. I’m the luckiest guy in the world. Everyday I wake up and I thank God for the great life and experiences I’ve had and the fact that at the end of my day at work everyone goes like this (claps several times) and they clap. It’s not even work. It’s the greatest thing ever and I don’t mean that arrogantly. I mean that with extreme gratitude. Anybody that reads this or is interested in this music or music in general, thank you so much for the support, the consideration, everything. I’m so fortunate to get up and do what I love to do and have people appreciate it. It’s unbelievable.