Mad For The Hardcore - Lou Koller, vocalist with Sick Of It All

CBGBs. Bad Brains. Been there, done that...

Lou Koller, the vocalist with Sick Of It All, is gearing up for the Brisbane Soundwave set – but he isn’t all twitchy and hyped – he’s cool, calm, collected and ready to dish up some authentic New York hardcore punk. However, I’m keen to get the juice on their new album so I must enquire; when’s it coming out, Lou? With his massive New York (or is that New Yorwka?) accent he tells me “We’re still working on it.” So when do you think it will be out? “That’s the question! It’s all up in the air right now; we’re still writing and refining the songs. The whole delay is my brother Pete, the guitar player; him and his wife just had a baby - she just turned one (the baby, not the wife) - so that’s set us back more than we thought but I think after this tour, that’s when we’re gonna get together and write even more.”

So how far complete is it; half way? “Naaaw! We’ve got about four solid songs and then about six or seven other ones that we still have to refine; and we wanna write even more than that so…”

I ask about being in a band with a brother; is it all sibling rivalry and simmering violence? “We’re lucky ‘cos there’s actually four of us; me and Pete are the younger ones, we have two older ones so we kinda paired off; the older ones hung out so me and Pete used to fight those two, so we always got along. It’s good.”

Tell me about the writing process? “It’s good. I can come up with a melody in my head but I suck at putting it down musically so I’ll tell it to Pete or Armand (Majidi, drums). The way we usually write is Pete and Armand write 90 per cent of the music and Armand and me write the lyrics, either together like I’ll bring him lyrics and he’ll try to give his spin on it or when he writes a song he has lyrics in his head. It’s good.”

When you released Nonstop (2011), Sick Of It All essentially rerecorded a bunch of old tunes, and I notice you got KRS-One (guest vocals on Clobberin’ Time, from Blood, Sweat and No Tears, 1989) back for the reworking of this seminal track. He said your lyrics had a lot more substance than some other bands, “It was very nice of him to say that, ” what are some of your main lyrical themes? “For us, they’re just typical; growing up in the punk and hardcore scene; it’s about injustice, human rights – all different things that a lot of punk bands have covered already but it’s just our spin on it from our era. And as we got older we could see a different angle on some things”

So you’re not just angry young men anymore? “No, now we’re just grumpy old men.”

So will Sick Of It All play anything off the new album on the Soundwave tour? “No, not yet. It’s not ready. Even though we have songs, we’re still always refining them.” He tells me the band like to just hang out before a gig; maybe do some stretches and joke around a bit and “then get up on stage and play.”

The band used to play CBGBs quite regularly, at the time did you realise what a historic venue it was? “We knew CBs had a great history; the birthplace of punk some people would say, The Ramones, all that stuff. We were very in awe, stepping on the stage. You walk in and there’d be a poster that said ‘The Police live at CBGBs for three nights’ – this is when they first came to America; all that stuff so we knew it but what we didn’t know the stuff that we were doing, the Sunday matinees of New York hardcore would get so big. Years later we get interviewed for books from Germany, Brazil, or Japan, talking to us about CBGBs so it’s amazing.”

And you guys toured with the godfathers of US hardcore; Bad Brains in 1989. You can hear the level of respect in Lou’s voice as he explains “That was amazing. It was really amazing. To see them in their prime every night…the first night on tour was just insane; we’d seen the Bad Brains before, we were big fans, but to watch them that first night…I just had goosebumps the whole time. And they looked out for us, which was great. There were certain shows that they were playin’ and we weren’t on and we’d pull up and they’d tell the promoter ‘These guys are goin’ on first’ and the promoter would be like ‘I don’t have time’ and Bad Brains would be like ‘They’re gonna play’. They looked out for us, gave us food, it was great.”

Looking back on your time with Relativity Records; do you feel you got shafted? “The first album was fine (Blood, Sweat and No Tears) but when we did the second one (Just Look Around, 1992) for Relativity Records, it was a really weird deal where the album took off in Europe but we couldn’t get paid from anybody. They said ‘Oh, we licensed it to Road Runner, you get paid from them’ then we’d go to Road Runner “No, no, we paid Relativity’ so we got shafted and that’s why we wanted off. Not just because of that but because they didn’t do shit for it in the States either.”

So that’s why the band rerecorded a bunch of the older tunes for Nonstop? “Yeah. And that’s the other thing, when we were off Relativity Records for years, we’d asked them about giving us the first two records, or selling them to us, and they turned around and sold them to Sony who turned around and sold them to a German company.” He’s laughing as he adds “That was a small part of it but mainly because after the last two albums we did; Death to Tyrants (2006) and Based on a True Story (2010), we picked up a whole bunch of new fans and they would always come to see us live and ask us about some of the older songs like ‘What album is it on? I really liked it’ and those are some shit recordings! We didn’t know what we were doin’ back then! So we said ‘We have to go back in and redo them’ so we wouldn’t be embarrassed about tellin’ people where to get ‘em” 

I ask about Craig ‘Ahead’ Setari (bass); what’s the go with his nick-name? “He was in a band before Sick Of It All called Straight Ahead with Armand, and he was Craig Ahead…and he has huge head too!”

The Sidewave shows with Madball and Vision of Disorder are going to be pretty wild, right? “Yeah! Definitely. Vision of Disorder are like another generation of hardcore, Tim (Williams) has a Sick Of It All tattoo. We took Vision of Disorder to Europe in 95 or 96? So we all go way back. It’s funny, you can watch the progression, like Vision of Disorder is a little bit more metallic, and then Madball comes as a good mix of what we do and what Vision does and then there’s us.”

Are you still living in NY? “I can’t afford to live in New York anymore! I had to move to New Jersey – which I don’t mind – the neighbourhood I live in is great and I didn’t know this when I moved into the town, but there’s a huge punk and hardcore community living there, that grew up there.”

So is New Jersey the poor cousin of New York? He laughs. “That’s what everybody says! But there’s some nice areas, man. It’s beautiful.”

With the tribute album Our Impact Will Be Felt (2007), how did it feel to have these bands nodding their heads to you? Lou is intensely proud. “That was awesome, dude! We’re really proud of the fact that it was such a diverse array of bands; you had like Bouncing Souls and Pennywise, Hatebreed and Madball, Napalm Death and Bleeding Through so it was a good mix, y’know? And we put on lesser known bands like Kill Your Idols and No Redeeming Social Value because they were guys that we’d grown up with in the hardcore scene…”

For you, what’s the main difference between ‘proper’ hardcore and pop punk? “It’s weird. Pop punk has got much more melody and all that shit. We like bands with melodies but the melodies we get are from all the old punk bands from England, y’know? That’s what we grew up listening to. We always joked about how most of the pop punk came from California because they live in sunshine and beaches and we live in New York and it’s cold and rainy.”

So how are you dealing with the Australian heat? “It’s fine; you’ve just gotta get through it. Everybody was tellin’ us how hot our stage is: ‘It’s brutal’ and us and Madball said ‘We’ve played waaaay worse than this’ – it can always be worse.”

I let Lou go to get ready for the Sick Of It All set, but before he goes, I try to get some kind of date for the new album. He obliges with “I was hoping to get into the studio to record at the end of the year so it would be out early 2014…”