Sick of It All Say "The Good Old Days are Now"
The fabled NYHC band speaks candidly on politics and becoming wizened hardcore dudes with grace.
Sick Of It All, going on almost 30 years now, have always been a bit of a (slight) outlier in New York City Hardcore. Deeply invested in their past of ‘80s CBGBs matinees but always playing with new bands, never breaking up, never reuniting. Their music is as indebted to Oi! and street punk as it is their hardcore roots. They’ve always been more known for their music than any tough guy image. I mean, except that one on-radio fistfight with Born Against, but that was, while an extremely entertaining bit of radio Americana, approximately a million years ago. Since then, Sick Of It All have, at an almost classic rock pace, released albums regularly that are consistently, within the confines of the genre, rhythmically inventive, catchy as fuck, and lyrically, if not always on the same page as my obviously perfect political world view, at least engaged. I was allowed to listen to a sampler of their next album, and I’m pleased to say that it continues “Based On A True Story”s exploration of straight up Slade/Blitz stomp. At one point, bassist Craig Setari, even said, “you know who writes perfect Oi! anthems? Bon Jovi.”
Fair enough, but the new Sick Of It All album is considerably better than whatever image that conjures up.
I met up with Setari and SOIA singer, Lou Koller (his brother, Pete, plays guitar and the band is rounded out by drummer, Armand Majidi) at Benny’s Burritos, one of last places any of us still recognized on Avenue A, where we stared out the window, made fun of squatters and cops, and talked about the band, their history, and their future.
One more note on politics: I don’t see eye to eye with these guys about everything, and if I knew enough about Fast and Furious to engage with Craig about it, I would have. But I didn’t and it wasn’t my interview. So. Point is: both men were extremely warm and engaging and where we disagreed they were never anything other than open to opposing views. I plan on sending a Craig, in regards to his views on crime and punishment, a copy of The New Jim Crow and I have no doubt he’ll read it. I appreciate them taking the time to talk.
Great band, great (I think/hope) interview. Enjoy.
Noisey: You guys have a very complicated take on nostalgia. You talk about seeing new bands, are very emphatic about living in the now, but always have at least one song on every album about the good old days.
Craig: The good old days are now. And they were good old then, you know what I mean. We weren’t aware then, but life is what you make it.
Lou: We had some great times. We get nostalgic once and a while but we aren’t trapped in it. Some people are just trapped.
Craig: This thing that we do? It’s a really special thing. The thing is: it wasn’t special then and it’s not special now because we’re still doing it. Meaning: anybody can be involved…they just have to make the effort to be involved. That’s all it really takes. So, yeah, we have great memories of this really enjoyable thing that we like to do…but it’s still going on. So new memories are being made every day. It’s all in your perspective, how you live life.
You guys are romantic but not overly so; do you think that has something to do with not being heavy drinkers?
Craig: We never ruined ourselves. You know?
Is it a challenge to remain energized? Do you have to constantly remind yourself to be excited?
Craig: Nah. Maybe on a particular day…I mean, we’re not teenagers. But the reality is that we feel so blessed to be able to do this. We’re very fortunate people. There’s no two ways about it. This world that we live in is sort like a trap. We live in slavery in a sense in that we’re slaves to work and money. That we get to sing, write songs and tour about how we’re trapped and express it and at least, well we aren’t rich guys but we make a rudimentary living so we’re able to make a living getting that sort of thing off our chest. Which is a really good thing.
There’s an aspect to your band that’s economically progressive and it’s not subtle. But I have a lot of hardcore friends that, you know, have to hide friends on their Facebook feed cos they’ve stayed pretty liberal while some of the older hardcore dudes have, lets’ just say, drifted to right. Do you keep things general as to not alienate?
Craig: Not really. Cos we may be a bit monetarily to the left in the sense that we know greed is a bad thing. But we’re right wing in a lot of ways as well. I believe in crime and punishment. I believe if someone’s a real threat to society they should be punished accordingly. I believe in the 2nd Amendment heavily. There are certain things in which the system tries to emasculate men and make them lean on the system so much that they are more slaves to the monetary system. So in a lot of ways, we are very right wing. In terms of personally freedoms, we are very right wing. But in terms of the system and how it creates and monitors classes, we’re left.
Lou: Obama is the left but he’s done more against the Middle East and personal freedom than Bush…who was an asshole.
Craig: It’s a scam and it’s always been a dupe. I’m not saying anything profound, but this whole system is a fake and a lie. Do I have the answers to fix it? No, but I’ll tell where the start is…unity and communication. The old hardcore thing—unity. [Both laugh]
Are you purposely avoiding specifics in the name of unity?
Lou: When I write lyrics, and it might be left of center but I try to keep it general so that people will actually try to relate to it. And when someone who maybe has opposing views relates to that song then maybe it starts a dialogue.
Craig: I mean, look at “DNC.” You could say it’s a right wing song cos it’s against gun control but at the same time it’s not advocating hurting anybody. It’s just that the rules they set are dupes, they’re lies to put you in a box. They leave you no options. There’s all this propaganda in the press. Yeah, there are crazy people but they’re few and far between. The police have no right to protect you. Look at Fast and Furious. You think I believe in the right of the government to protect me. They just gave eighteen-wheelers full of submachine guns to people that kill families on both sides of the border. The government is responsible for those deaths.
Lou: Like on Based on a True Story Armand (Majidi, drummer) wrote a song called “Good Cop” and people thought it was about cops but it was about Obama and how Armand was fooled by him, voted for him thinking things were going to change and…more of the same and in some ways worse.
Look, I’m not defending Obama but, just like under Bloomberg when everyone was talking about how Bloomberg was the worst, forgetting how terrible Giuliani was, it’s easy to forget just how bad Bush was.
Lou: That’s true, that’s true.
I’ve got a friend who always says, “Loving your president is like really loving the cops.”
Lou: Well, I got a lot of cop friends too…
No, I know. It’s more complicated for you guys I think. Your background is really working class and, as you get older, your fan base can sometimes become, to put it diplomatically, real stereotypically working class.
Craig: Well it’s all such a scam, such a fucked up situation. The system is so corrupt…
Lou: Sometimes when you try to talk to your friends who maybe lean a bit more to the right and you try to explain to them the levels of corruption and they’re like “no no…” because they’re in the union, they’re getting whatever they need from their job and you try to tell them the country’s going in the toilet…and they’ll agree with you on that but then blame it on the completely wrong thing. It’s the immigrants, it’s this, it’s that…
But really what was the percentage even then, I mean, that’s the problem with rock and roll in general. How much is actual rebellion and how much is just calming you down. “Well I just freaked out and had a good time! I can now go back to not giving a shit…”
Lou: Well an aspect of that was what hardcore was for us. Every Sunday you could go nuts and all that pressure would be gone.
But then you stayed interested in politics.
Craig: I’m not interested in politics. I don’t think we are. We’re interested in lies and bullshit.
I’m going to respectfully disagree. With respect, that’s a pet peeve of mine. People saying they hate politics. You live in politics. That’s the world.
Craig: You’re right, you’re right.
You don’t hate politics. You’ve been talking about politics. You’re an interesting dude who talks about politics.
Craig: But you know what I mean by that though.
Lou: It’s annoying.
Craig: I got this theory. Megalomaniacal narcissists are drawn to power the way a gambler is drawn to the racetrack and a drunk is drawn to the bar. And those are the people who become these major politicians who make all the decisions. You and I, we wake up with a smile on our face, hear the birds chirp and go for a walk. And that makes us happy cos we’re fairly content. But these people? They’re drawn to control. A junkie will eventually OD; a gambler will eventually run out of money, a politician? He doesn’t stop escalating things till the world burns.
It’s similar, untranslatable thing, which makes both a politician and a band popular. There’s a charisma involved.
Craig: There’s a sociopathic megalomaniacal narcissism. A mental illness. It’s a personal disorder…
Well what is it that makes you go on tour 11 months out the year and go up on stage and shout your opinions to the world?
Craig: [Laugher] The same thing but I’m not trying to take advantage of anybody. OK I’m not the perfect example but you get the idea…
No, No I know but there is a certain level of vanity that is required…
Craig: But I’m not interested in taking what’s yours or telling you what to do. That’s the difference. One is a warped perception and one is a fairly healthy, I’ll say fairly healthy…cos nobody who plays in a band is totally healthy don’t get me wrong…
I’ll accept fairly healthy. And I don’t know if the kids care. But there’s a song craft that I think both you and bands like Against Me! do very well where it’s “politics in verse, politics in verse, politics in verse,” then really broad chorus that could be about overthrowing the government OR could just be about not fitting in.
Craig: Then we have songs that have nothing to do with that. We have songs about having fun. We mix it up…you can’t get too dry. Can’t go so far down that you’re just negative all day.
Lou: But like we said, it’s a release for us too.
What in this day and age makes you a hardcore band? I mean, and I don’t mean this as an insult, some of the new stuff sounds like Blitz with really fat production. So why is this band a hardcore band and, say, Helmet wouldn’t be one. Is it because the band talks about being a hardcore band?
Lou: That could be it.
Lou: Subject matter…there’s bands that I consider hardcore that other people will call metalcore and I’m like “why?” Cos they have a metal riff or they sing about strippers? I think it has a lot to do with lyrical content and the way you carry yourself. We came out of an era where there was a backlash, like if you said the wrong thing MRR would jump all over you and maybe what you said would be misinterpreted. But now I hear, like, “oh this is a great hardcore band all the kids love them.” And the guy runs a hardcore porn site on the side. In our day, you’d be murdered for that. Not just in the press but in Europe you’d be physically attacked.
Yeah but you have a lot of Street punk Oi! sensibilities and less mosh it up breakdowns…
Craig: Yeah, but our mosh parts are more like that old school sing along pile up then metal beat down. Though we have a little bit of that.
Lou: Our earliest influences are Agnostic Front and Reagan Youth and all the Oi stuff and it’s still in there. And we write like that to help keep that style alive. You can go on Spotify and find a million Oi bands that I’ve never heard of that are really good. It’s weird for em cos we’re bigger in Europe and I’ll ask for so and so to play with us and the promoter will be like” ehhhh they’re playing the Oi and punk fest.” And I’m like “So! Put them with us!” and they think our crowd won’t like it…but I think they would! At least I love it!
It’s weird with the Internet there’s always another “classic” band surfacing…
Craig: And they weren’t that classic.
When you see all these bands reuniting, do you sometimes wish you’d taken a couple years off?
Lou: [laughs] There was this guy on the West Coast, later became Green Day’s manager or tour manager I think, this was like 1999, we were playing a show at one of his clubs and he loved us. We were finishing up and he goes, “yeah you guys still pull numbers in but you know what you should do? Take a year off.” We were making money in Europe, touring Japan, everywhere so we were like “Take a year off? You crazy?” And he was like “ I’m telling you….take a year off, come back in a year…” We should have done it. [both laugh]
Craig: I don’t know if we shoulda done it…what am I going to do? Get a fucking job?
The last record was 2010? Then you toured on that for a year?
Craig: About two years. Then we took one year off. We were planning on getting this new one together earlier but…
Lou: It’s always the same thing. We’ll be at home writing and we’ll get a bunch of offers to do, like, a southeast Asia tour so we’re like “let’s do it…” and then we get back from that and someone’s like “come to Europe” and the shows are great, the money’s good….so…
And this is your job…
Craig: Yeah, so things get pushed back. Generally speaking? Two years on one year off. Sometimes stuff gets tacked on…
Everything is so saturated you need to go out and prove it live. We’re best served live, you know? We’re older now but we still put on a hell of a show. It’s not how many backflips you can do; it’s how you bring it.
How many backflips can you do?
Craig: Nowadays? Not too many.
Zachary Lipez can do like five backflips. He's on Twitter - @ZacharyLipez