Interview with Lou Koller of Sick of It All
When speaking with Lou Koller of NYC hardcore kings Sick of It All, we chatted at length about their crushing new release BASED ON A TRUE STORY, delved into some memories from the glory days gone by, and caught some insight as to why Sick of It All is sti
Talk about the making of BASED ON A TRUE STORY.
Tue Madsen was the producer. He did DEATH TO TYRANTS with us, but he came to Brooklyn to do that one. For this one, we went to his hometown of Copenhagen, Denmark and recorded it there and it was just amazing. He promised us “If you come to Denmark,” I’ll do what I did in DEATH TO TYRANTS but make it ten times bigger”. And that’s exactly what he did. I think it was a good combination. We came together writing this time where I think we made the songs relevant and brutal but more memorable than some of our previous albums.
There’s such a wide range of Sick Of It All on this album but the sound is so metallic.
We’ve been trying to find ourselves. After BUILT TO LAST and we left the major, we were trying to find ourselves. That’s why on the Fat albums everybody was like, “Oh, you’re going punk.” It was just trying to find ourselves, where different experiments with production and stuff. On CALL TO ARMS we tried to go totally raw, ‘cause everybody else was doing sample kit drum, sample snare and that gave it a very punk feel. And then on YOURS TRULY we experimented more on the writing. I think it was good that we did those records because you had DEATH TO TYRANTS and now BASED ON A TRUE STORY, which is the accumulation of everything.
One of the standout tracks on BASED ON A TRUE STORY is “A Month of Sundays”. It may be the most accurate portrayal of what CBGB’s was all about. How did that song develop? Did you guys feel like you had to write a song to immortalize the times or did it just come out randomly?
Wow, that’s a good one. Nah, Pete came up with that music and he played it for me. I wanted to write something kind of like an “Us Versus Them” where everybody’s gonna sing along and really be behind the music. It’s not just a sing-along that you get from the more pop punk bands and the words are really meaningless but everybody sings along anyway ‘cause it’s just fun. I wanted to make it fun, but it had to have something that meant something. It didn’t have to be just about CB’s, it’s about growing up in that time, in that scene. That’s why I wrote when I heard the riff I was thinking about what means a lot to me and those days meant a lot growing up, riding the train into the city, getting down and seeing all the people standing outside the club. It was great.
What’s your best CBGB’s memory?
God, it’s so many. I mean the first time we headlined it we were really, really scared. We were coming over the Williamsburg Bridge, with, like, all of us packed in my friends Volare with all of our equipment and we’re like, “Man, I hope people show up.” It was our first headlining show and then we turned the corner and there’s a line down the block to get in and we didn’t even go in the sound check yet. That was fucking amazing.
How have things changed in NYC since CBGB’s closed?
There are a lot of great places to play. Some are more upscale but what’s good is that places like Irving Plaza and the Blender and even the Roseland, a lot of the people who work there are from the hardcore scene, so they kind of keep that vibe. That’s not saying it’s like CB’s where anybody gets on stage and does back flips off of it because it’s a different world. There’s insurance and all of that. But you need a place like CB’s and that’s what sucks…there’s not a center like CBGB’s. Hardcore’s flourishing…hardcore, underground metal. You have places in Brooklyn to play, but there’s no center. I wish there was one club in Brooklyn that everybody could say, “Hey, this is the new CB’s.” but there’s not. We need a place like that for every musician, no matter whether it’s hardcore, metal, punk or whatever. There’s still a lot of great clubs in Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens even, where you have underground clubs where you can go in and it’s got that vibe where almost anything can go as in musically. You could see a really heavy band followed by a punk band followed by whatever.
What’s the touring plans right now?
We’ll be doing the New York record release show in June then all summer it’s back and forth to Europe for festivals and a west coast tour. Then in September the full east coast tour, east coast run, hopefully ending with a big show in New York again.
What’s the response to the record been so far?
It’s been amazing, not only fan-wise, but even critic-wise. People that we normally thought would hate the record have been praising it. It’s doing amazing in Europe as usual, which is great. Even here in the States, just the feedback from the fans has been great. We get e-mails from people who are like, “You know, I’ve kind of liked you guys, whatever, but this album is amazing, blah, blah, blah.” We’re really proud of it.
This album could be the band’s heaviest work to date yet it’s still a distinct SOIA album.
That’s the thing we were trying to go for. We wanted to be heavy without being metal. Like when hardcore bands want to be heavy, they all tend to sound like Hatebreed. And we said “Man, bands like Cro-Mags, AF, they didn’t sound like Hatebreed but they were heavy. They inspired Hatebreed’s heaviness.” And Tue Madsen would say to us when we were doing Death To Tyrants, “You guys are way heavier live than on any of your records. I want to take that…that’s what I want to make Sick Of It All sound like”. And we did it on Death to Tyrants and he perfected it tenfold on this one.
How did you guys come up with the title? And is it hard to title one of your albums?
With us, if there’s a strong standout song like on BUILT TO LAST, there was the title. SCRATCH THE SURFACE, Armand wrote the song, we’re like “Yeah, that’s the title track.” But this one, we really didn’t have a strong title. I was like, “Well, most of the songs are based on stuff that happened to us growing up and the experiences we had, let’s call it BASED ON A TRUE STORY. It just was a cool title, so we were like, “Yeah, let’s go with it man.”
How did you find the middle road between being able to look back but still forge ahead?
I always think it’s by convincing people that you’re still relevant. Probably one of the main things when we go in to write, we’re not like, “Oh, what’s new and hip?” We’re gonna show these people what influenced the new and hip bands they like but we have to make it good. It can’t be generic but we can take what we did in the past and twist it, and that’s what we try to do.
Would you guys work with Tue again?
He’s got it down. He e-mailed me a couple of days ago actually. “I’m grateful that you let me be a part of it. In my eyes, this is a classic. I know it’s soon, but I’m ready for the next one when you are.” He’s psyched. He’s a good guy and we all just click together. Now it’s just our job to make people listen to it.
Was the approach different going in knowing you going overseas and do an album? Did you guys do Sick Of It All boot camp beforehand?
Yeah, I think the only thing we did was we rehearsed a lot in the studio on our own here, without Tue. We did, like, a really crude demo brand where we recorded the songs just live in our rehearsal studio with this digital microphone that Pete had. We sent him those tracks and he said, “Alright, I love the songs. Now we just need to get that live sound.” And we rehearsed so much everything went really fast as we were over there. I mean Armand did his drums in a day and a half, which has never happened before. You know? It was great. He was on point, and he was psyched. It also helped that it was Denmark in the wintertime and it’s dark and raining almost every day so we were pretty much just in the studio working.
How long did you guys stay in Denmark and do you have any interesting stories you’d like to share?
We spent three and a half weeks there. We went to a couple clubs that we had played there just to see bands. Clutch played and a local band called The Last Mile, a good hardcore band that one of their guys actually sang backups on this record with us. The coolest thing happened when we were walking with Tue around the neighborhood one night, he goes “Yeah, this apartment building, I want to show you this .It’s right around the corner” and it was the apartment that used to be the studio where they recorded RIDE THE LIGHTENING and MASTER OF PUPPETS. And that was fucking big, just to sit and feel those two amazing classics and my two favorite Metallica albums were recorded right there.
Did your wives and the families go over or was it a work-type thing?
Well, because we were there for just three and a half weeks, it was all right. They’re used to us being away for a long time. My wife is expecting our first baby and that’s why we don’t have a full east coast tour right away. We’re gonna do the New York show. My baby will be born and my wife is actually due any day now.
Congratulations, that’s awesome. Do you guys know what you’re having and with fatherhood on the horizon has your writing approach changed?
Thanks, we’re having a girl…well, you know, I didn’t want to write the same stuff over and over. I’ve never written songs about looking back in my past, the bad stuff and the good stuff. The song, “Watch It Burn” is all about knowing you’re gonna make a fucking mistake, but doing it anyway. And I used to live my life like that all the time, you know? You’re hanging out with your friends or you’re going somewhere and you’re like, yeah, you know, I know if I go here it’s gonna be trouble, I’m gonna get in trouble, fuck it, I’m gonna do it anyway. That’s what “Watch It Burn” was about. That’s the only thing different I really did. There’s still songs where we wrote about being angry about shit, but that’s what Sick Of It All is, we’re angry about shit.
What makes you guys still angry?
Growing up and getting older, it changes. When you’re young, you write songs about the government’s unjust and this and that but it’s really just the frustration of being young. Now when you’re older you can really write about seeing how things are run and they’re run really fucked up and there really needs to be a change.
You guys are always on the road and play with such a versatile range of bands.
It’s a shock. People don’t realize, especially when we play with younger bands. We played with Bring Me The Horizon, we headlined over them at a festival and their fans stayed to watch us and these kids came up, they’re like, “I’ve never heard of you. Holy shit. You know, I’ve never heard of a band like-- I’ve never heard shit like this.” Really amazed. They asked “Who have you played with?” I go, “Name it. We played with Rancid. We played with Slayer. We’ve done shows with Helmet back in the day. We did tours with Helmet. We played with Napalm Death”, and the kids are staring there with their jaws on the floor because they’re used to seeing every band sound exactly the same in a row. They’re like, “How can you play with Napalm Death and play with Rancid?” We tell them “because we want to”. It’s in us. We grew up as the early teenage years just total metal heads and then it started to seep into punk and stuff. Then we got into Venom and Motorhead and that led into Discharge, it led into the Exploited, it led into the New York scene but we never let go of our metal roots. You know, we love all of that shit. Another thing…I don’t know if we did it consciously, ‘cause I know that always bothered Armand and my brother Pete. We put out album like DEATH TO TYRANTS, and we were so proud of that record and reviews are the reviews read like “four out of five stars. It’s Sick Of It All. You know what you’re gonna get. It’s good.” It’s like, “That’s it? That’s all your gonna say?” And meanwhile you’re praising some 15 year-old kid’s metal band’s record? It’s like, dude, so what, he’s 15. We always constantly have to prove ourselves and I think when Pete and Armand were writing the music they really put that in…“We have to show these people why we’re still around.” It’s not just so much as “They’re like AC/DC, every record’s good.” This album is as if we were AC/DC and we just rewrote “Highway To Hell” and here it is.
What keeps SOIA going?
We’re always trying to top ourselves. I think it was a really good thing we had four years between DEATH TO TYRANTS and this record. It wasn’t intentional. We did two years of touring and then we were gonna stop. But then the tribute record (OUR IMPACT WILL BE FELT) came out and we ended up getting offered all these tours after the tribute record came out to tour on it. So we did. But after we did DEATH TO TYRANTS, a lot of our close friends and close fans were like, “How are you gonna top this?” We’re like “Holy shit, put more pressure on us.”, you know? But luckily, we had the time and the distance where that pressure wasn’t in the back of our minds at all. We just went in and wrote.
Have you ever been approached by a package tour in the US?
Those things, I don’t know about Ozzfest because that’s a different world. I don’t know if it’s the same as it used to be where all the bands on the second stage except for the headliner had to pay to get on and all that. Warped Tour is another one that looks at us like why should I get Sick Of It All who’s an older band when I can get Every Time I Die who’s a comparatively younger band? That’s what we have to face. We always joke around saying it’s age discrimination, you know? We know we’re an older band. But put us on stage and next to any band and see who looks old.
The energy level of a Sick Of It All show has always been pretty incredible. I think the only band that tops you, and you’re gonna laugh, in terms of energy is the Scorpions.
That’s rough company to beat man…the human pyramid with the two guitars and the singer. I saw a friend of mine was managing this band that opened up for AC/DC and they got me into the Garden show, which I-- you know, all my life, never saw AC/DC. They were still so energetic. And I’m looking at Brian Johnson, you know, he doesn’t move a lot, but-- he doesn’t run around a lot I mean, but he’s swinging from a fucking bell on the top of the Garden. He’s 61 years old.
Does that push you harder to keep going?
Oh hell yeah. And it’s like for my brother Pete, he takes all this mixed martial arts stuff. He knows all that stuff. He’s down with all those guys, like Randy Courture And that’s his mindset. Every show to him is a fight…it’s a challenge. He loves when we get in festivals and they’re like, “Oh, they’re pushing so and so above us.” And he’s like, “Yep, too bad for them.” I think it was Story Of The Year, at this festival in Belgium we always play which we usually headline the second stage every year. This one time they put Story Of The Year over us and we played our set and the place exploded. We went into “Us Versus Them” and the whole audience stormed the stage, there’s photos of it on our MySpace…they just stormed the stage and sang the song, like they do every year. The promoters know this. So here’s 10,000 people storming the stage. The poor guys from Story Of The Year are looking at us and they turn to their representative from Epitaph who’s a friend of ours, and they go, “Why the fuck are we going on after Sick Of It All? We grew up seeing these guys. Look at what they just did.” And the guy goes, “I’m sorry. That’s the promoters”. My brother’s attitude is we have to do that every show. We have to play like we have to prove ourselves every fucking night. Even headlining, we make sure we take out young bands that are exciting, that are gonna push us, to make us want of the raise the energy level.
Pick up BASED ON A TRUE STORY out now on Century Media Records and visit Sick Of It All’s website www.sickofitall.com.