Psychedelic Drugs, A7, and That One Incredible EP: An Interview with Urban Waste
Johnny Waste from the classic, and now reunited, NYHC band Urban Waste talks about the early days of the band and NYHC.
When you’re flapping gums about the glory days of the first wave of NYHC, you best believe Urban Waste have to be somewhere in the mix. Along with Kraut, Reagan Youth, The Mob, and Heart Attack, they were one of the original bands from the Queens invasion to descend onto the Lower East Side in 1981 and their eight song 7” released a year later is a constantly ready-to-implode cacophony that embodies all the grit and grime that was New York City at the time.
The band still exists to this day with guitarist Johnny Waste being the sole original member. I recently sat down with Mr. Waste to talk the history of the band, the reasons for the bands’ initial break-up in 1983, the drug abuse that was rampant on the LES at the time, and Urban Waste’s recent reformation.
Noisey: Before starting Urban Waste, where you coming into the city to see music?
John Kelly: I was always into music. I was nine or ten years old and I had my mom take me to a midnight showing of Pink Floyd’s Live at Pompeii. There were all these Pink Floyd heads there and the place was filled with weed smoke and I loved it. I knew then I wanted to have something to do with music. But I got into punk rock through my friend John Dancy. He was already into bands like Kiss and then it went into the Ramones and the Plasmatics. So we starting finding ways to go see the Ramones as much as we could. We would beg our parents for money or find a job to get the money. We always found a way to see the Ramones. That was in 1980.
Were you going down to Max’s Kansas City?
Yea, I was seeing all the punk rock bands down there. We went down to Max’s before I got introduced to the Lower East Side scene. I saw the Stimulators with Harley Flanagan and I thought he was the best drummer in the world. Other bands I started to see would be Hard Attack, The Abused, Ultra Violence and Reagan Youth. Heart Attack and Reagan Youth, to me, were the first New York Hardcore bands.
Not long after seeing these bands, John Dancy came to my apartment and asked if I wanted to start a band. I looked at him for about half a second and said, “Sure! Of course!” We didn’t know what we were going to play at this point. I wanted to play guitar and he wanted to play drums. I didn’t know how to play guitar at the time. I went to lessons for a year, learned some chords and started writing songs. The music teacher taught me the D chord and told me to write a song, so I took the D chord and ran it up and down the neck, and I wrote my first song ‘Mutiny’, which we still do. ‘Mutiny’ was the first song and ‘Reject’ was the second song we wrote. At that time we didn’t have equipment, we were just learning what we were going play. We had Billy Phillips in the band on vocals, because Dancy and Billy went to high school together. We were the first three and we had no bass player at first. We used to practice in my bedroom because we couldn’t afford a studio. We were raised by our mothers who were working hard and just trying to keep food on the table. Forget about them buying us a drum set and a guitar. It just wasn’t in the picture. I somehow managed to get a guitar and there was the start. Urban Waste equipment consisted of a garbage can top for a cymbal and I plugged my guitar into a stereo receiver and I think Billy just screamed over all that. We didn’t need anything big. We practiced in that bedroom for probably two years. Spring of ‘81 is when Dancy asked me to start the band. Our first show was February 5th, 1982 at A7.
Do you remember the other bands you played with that night?
No. I could probably make up some bands names though and no one would know the difference! It was probably Kraut that played that night because their guitarist Doug Holland was the one that really pulled us in to getting shows. He told us who to talk to and where to go; that type of thing.
Were you hanging out at A7 before playing there with Urban Waste?
Yeah, as often as we could. If someone said a good band was playing, we made sure we were there. I was a street kid pretty much. I didn’t go to school much. If I went into hang out in the city, I went with Dancy and we would just explore the city. We were down on the Lower East Side a lot.
What was the Lower East Side like at that time?
Very colorful. Saint Marks was like a carnival. Not like it is today where it’s really busy. A lot of things were taken for granted down there, but everything was really eccentric. You had Trash and Vaudeville and you had that guy Spacely hanging out doing his thing. He was like the mayor of Saint Marks. A lot of people I knew came from broken homes or their parents were too strict and they didn’t want to live this rich Long Island lifestyle that was being laid out for them. Our second singer Kenny Ahrens was a fine example of that. He moved out of his parents’ house in Farmingdale because he wanted to do his own thing. There was a lot of rebelling and starting our own little community, so to speak.
What were the bands on the NYHC scene when Urban Waste was going on?
We had Death Before Dishonor coming from New Jersey, and then there were Ism, False Prophets and Even Worse. You had this band Shok, too. Later on, the Crumbsuckers came in and they were a whole other story. Those guys pretty much changed the face of Hardcore. They were the birth of crossover as far as I’m concerned.
Yea, they seem like the unsung band of crossover.
I’m proud to say I was at their first show at CBGB and everyone was standing there with their jaws on the ground.
Back to A7, were you playing there every week?
We were booking with A7’s owner Dave as much as we could. Then we hooked up with The Mob and we started playing shows with them. We booked a tour with the Mob which was really only half a tour because our driver got busted. We were heading to Florida and got as far as Virginia. We all had to find our way home halfway through the tour. One of our friends Diego was with us and he was a loud mouth and wasn’t making any peace with the police there and it just went from bad to worse.
Is that the guy Diego who used to play bass for Agnostic Front?
Yeah, he was in Agnostic Front for a second. I remember one time when he came up and sang a song with us back in ‘83. He punched a guy in the head at the end of the song for no reason. It was crazy.
Who was the original bass player? It wasn’t Andy Apathy, right?
No, it was Freddy Watt. He played the first five or six shows with us. We found out he was doing heavy drugs and we didn’t want him in the band then. We were kids and scared of heroin. He was ok with it. So, then we met Andy. We met him right after he got kicked out of Reagan Youth. It worked out good. I think our new bass player is really the closest we’ve ever come to Andy, and she’s a Japanese woman.
What band would you say were the catalyst for hardcore in New York?
I would probably say the Stimulators. After that, it would be Heart Attack and Reagan Youth.
How did the recording of your seven inch come about?
We were kids, but we were responsible in that we knew we wanted to put a record out. We saved our pennies for the studio and the one person that did guide us through getting the record out was Jack Flanagan from The Mob. We had about fifteen songs, picked the eight we liked best and those were the songs we brought into the studio. We recorded it at Power Play Studios in Astoria by Queensborough Plaza; it later turned into a bigger recording studio for rap artists. No one knew what hardcore bands sounded like then, so they didn’t know how to mix hardcore bands. I think the engineer was having a hard time with our crew and towards the end he got really frustrated. So during the mixing stage he just took the levels and went up and down, up and down. That’s how we got the sound everybody now loves on the record. My guitar sound had two tracks on most of it and had effects going through it. When we got the test pressing I really hated it. It sounded so good in the studio and then we got the test pressing and were like, ‘Really?’
We probably gave away half of those records just to get a new person to listen to us. There was no rock start type of thing. We were playing shows with The Beastie Boys and the same amount of people that came to see them came to see us. I don’t even think people went to see a particular band like they do nowadays, it was just to be at the show.
When and why did Urban Waste end?
In our case, it was our bass player and the singer deciding they didn’t want to do this anymore. So, instead of me and Dancy getting other members to replace them, we joined Major Conflict with Dito Montiel and Billy Phillips. I was heartbroken.
So what was the time period you joined Major Conflict?
It had to be early to mid ‘83. John Dancy was already in Major Conflict, and he asked that I be in the band because Urban Waste wasn’t doing much at that point. I came in as second guitarist and it was definitely different because they were just getting their name going and we were back to doing smaller shows. But Dito was a hard worker, he got that band going. We played with the UK Subs at the Rock Hotel. That was a big one. That was also around the time we started getting into drugs more, and women. In Urban Waste, drugs weren’t prominent. I would drink beer or smoke pot. That led to psychedelics and cocaine, which led to going out partying, and not really putting the time into the music.
When I hear about how much of a big part psychedelic drugs played in that early part of the NYHC scene, it blows my mind. I never felt that aggressive while on acid.
It was crazy. There was a lot of mescaline going around too. Micro Dots. It wasn’t there in the early part of it but then people started coming to shows with the Window Pane and Snoopy Acid. It turned more into a drug party than a show. That’s part of what killed the scene.
Do you have any memory of seeing Agnostic Front for the first time?
I remember Raybeez was playing drums and him and Dancy were giving each other pointers. Dancy told Ray he was playing the beat wrong, so he showed Ray to play the beat the way he wanted him to play it, but Ray played it backwards. It’s funny because that’s what turned out to be Agnostic Front’s signature beat; that sort of backwards thrash beat.
What do you think it was about that early part of the NYHC scene that made it stick out from the other burgeoning Hardcore scene around the country at the time?
Well, I don’t know what was going on in other scenes at the time to comment on them but I think what made us really different was the people. New York is a twenty-four hour city, so we were always ready to go. When everyone in the rest of the country is going to sleep New York is just getting warmed up!
What brought upon the reformation of Urban Waste?
I never lost my love for the band and people knew about us. The EP resonated over the past thirty years. Kids were hearing about us and there was an interest, so I guess that’s why I wanted to continue doing it. The interest is still there and there’s still people into the type of music we were playing.
What’s the difference between then and now?
Right now is like the scene before the acid came into it. Everything’s back down to ground level. People have an interest in finding out what went on back then. It’s weird because back then we didn’t care what went on thirty years ago. We weren’t coming up to people asking, ‘What was that like 30 years ago?’
Oh yeah, how’d you come up with the name Urban Waste?
We were all sitting in a room and we didn’t have a name for the band yet. Doug Holland was there and we started writing names on paper. We had the word ‘urban’ there and we had the ‘waste’ there, and a whole bunch of other words like ‘shocking’ and ‘awesome’. Doug Holland put together the name Urban Waste and was like, “How about Urban Waste? You guys are a bunch of wastes!” And with that, Urban Waste was born.
Tony Rettman’s book ‘NYHC 1980 – 1990’ can be ordered from Bazillion Points.
Follow Rettman @200lbu