Interview: Tony Erba Walks Us Through the History of Cleveland Hardcore
The punk veteran takes a trip to the past as his new band gears up for a weekend of shows.
In the realm of Cleveland hardcore punk, you really can’t deny the legend of Tony Erba. As vocalist for both Face Value and Gordon Solie Motherfuckers in the 90s right up to his latest band Fuck You Pay Me, Erba is a guy who has both studied and experienced what makes the rust belt hardcore scene the dysfunctional and chaotic thing of beauty that it is. Fuck You Pay Me is coming to the East Coast to do some gigs, so I thought I’d do the friendly thing by calling Tony up. We ended up getting blown off course and talking about Clevo’s original hardcore band the Guns, the greatness of the late 80s Cleveland straight edge band Confront and the marketing skills of Dwid from Integrity.
Noisey: In the universe of Tony Erba, who is considered the first Cleveland hardcore band?
Tony Erba: You’d have to say either the Dark or the Guns. But I’ll go with the Guns as far as the band that helped start a scene. To me, hardcore has always been associated with youth, and they were young kids who were roadying for the Pagans. They were the first wave of traditional hardcore: fast, loud, hard and snotty.
When you look back into the late 70s and early 80s, there were a handful of weirdo bands in towns who got christened the godfathers of their local hardcore scene by default. Bands like the Fix in Michigan and the Worst from the Jersey Shore are good examples of that. They were just anomalies sitting in small towns with no clue of what was going on in Southern California at the time. Were the kids in the Guns like that? Just these kids that came out of nowhere playing fast.
No, they were aware of hardcore punk. Those dudes loved SSD and Minor Threat; they weren’t arty kids or anything like that. The drummer, David Araca, went on to be in False Hope, this great band that never put out a record but put out a few demos. They were a big band in this town.
How did the hardcore scene in Cleveland grow after the formation of the Guns?
The Guns stuck around and recorded a great record that never came out in its time; it came out posthumously a few years ago. After they broke up, Cleveland followed the script of a lot of other cities around that time. Bands broke up or went metal and then there was a lull for a year or so. Then, a new crop of kids who worshipped what the Guns did started something. Then you had False Hope, Confront, Outface and then those bands inspired the next crop of hardcore kids like Face Value, Ringworm and Integrity. It went down and down throughout the ages.
Why do you think the early 80s Cleveland hardcore scene didn’t take off in the same way a town like Detroit or Washington D.C. did?
The Cleveland bands didn’t go out of town. They were forever putting out demos, breaking up early and not getting anything done. It took until my era of ’88 or ’89 for bands to put out actual records and get out of town. That’s the major difference, I think.
Within the Cleveland hardcore scene of that time frame, was there an awareness of what happened in the city in the 70s with Pere Ubu, the Pagans or Peter Laughner?
We were doing our own thing. It was viewed as a thing from the past; even stuff like Starvation Army was viewed as that. Bands like that were drugged out and faded away. They certainly weren’t going to support what young kids were doing. That was not their bag at all. They were rendered irrelevant by the changing of the guard.
Who was the first band in Cleveland to use the underground hardcore network to get out of town, put out records and all that?
I would say Knifedance, which was Tom Darks’ band after he broke up the Dark. They put out a record and went on tour. I don’t know if they got as far as California, but they put the road work in, and I’d say they were the first of the bunch.
Would you say Confront were the ones to put Cleveland on the map in the late 80’s Hardcore scene? Tom, the bass player, was definitely the first person I was corresponding with in the late 80s from the area.
The Confront and Outface guys were the ones seeking out VFW Halls to put on shows. No one else was doing that. False Hope did a little networking, but they were kind of stoners and never put out a record. By the time it got to be ’89 or ’90, they were doing demos at the behest of the management of Faith No More. But for about a year, Confront were the best band in town. But they didn’t get their shit together until the band was on the verge of breaking up. Those dudes toured with Youth of Today. Confront and Outface were very instrumental in bringing bands to Cleveland and going out of town with them.
Confront brought all the Revelation Records bands into town. Those Youth of Today guys would come here just to play backyard parties. They played a pool party out here at the guitarist from Confronts’ girlfriend’s house. Then, they played a party at Confronts’ drummer’s girlfriend’s house. The Confront dudes and Youth of Today were pretty close. Confront was offered a deal on Revelation back in the late 80s, but the band just didn’t think they were ready. It’s a shame because those last songs that never got recorded was their best material. But they broke up when the guitar player’s girlfriend started sleeping with the singer of Confront.
So where do you enter the picture in regards to being in bands like Face Value, Gordon Solie Motherfuckers, etc?
Cleveland is a very divided city in terms of geography. You have the East Side and the West Side. The West Side consists of shop rats, barbers and Ford workers; that’s where I grew up. The East Side is sons and daughters of professors and scholars, and that’s where the hardcore scene was centered on. I went to shows when I could, but I didn’t really know too many people. I had a band in ’85 called Lek, which was a poor man’s Cryptic Slaughter that played parties. Our first official show was in ’86 with the legendary Sockeye. Then we played with Warzone in ’87, and that’s when I got tight with the Confront guys. But I didn’t have a band again until ’89 when Face Value started up. But there was definitely a cultural divide at one point. I was taking the bus to shows and watching bands, but I wasn’t in the inner circle until a couple years after that.
Eventually, Lek broke up and there was a band called the Bagmen and their singer left and ended up joining a band called the Spark Monsters. The guys in the Bagmen wanted me to join the band as a singer because I was pretty tight with the straight edge crowd, so I said I’d join the band, but I told them “We have to change the name. That’s the worst name ever!” So we changed the name to Face Value in March ’89, and that was that.
So where does the controversial mystique of Cleveland hardcore come in? Do you think it started when Integrity came onto the scene?
It was started by one guy: Dwid from Integrity. He was a master marketer and manipulator; he could have worked for any Fortune 500 company and made billions of dollars. First he had a band called Die Hard, who were a far superior band than Integrity. But then Dwid made these stickers for a new band he wanted to start named Integrity; he was handing those things out for years before the band had even started. People used to joke to him “When’s this sticker playing out?” You know? “When’s this sticker going to put out a record?” Because that’s all he had were these stickers! No band or anything! He was something of a straight edge Darby Crash figure where a cult of personality developed around the guy. He had a strong personality, and people naturally follow people like that. He was my roommate at two separate residences, so I witnessed it firsthand.
There was some point where Dwid got in the singer of Confront’s ear and convinced him he was tough. Now, this was a chubby, well-educated Jewish kid from the Heights who was the nicest guy in the world. But all of a sudden, he wanted to be called “Mean Steve.” All of a sudden, him and Dwid are in fanzines verbally bitch-slapping these bands like Pitbull and Chain of Strength. That’s how Dwid got his name out there, and this was way before Integrity even was a band! Integrity’s first show was with False Hope and Outface, and it was a sold out show because he had such a build up of shit talking with this band. He came out with the full Air Jordan suit and the three-finger gold ring. He took it to the extreme, and people fell in line due to his charisma.
My only experience with the Cleveland myth was sometime in the early 90s when Integrity came to play in New Jersey. They brought those guys like Mean Steve with them and all I could think was those dudes looked like volunteer firemen. They were wearing acid washed jeans with unlaced work boots and shit like that. I remember Mean Steve getting in the face of Rob Fish, who sang for this New Jersey straight edge band called Release. Release had been broken up for a while already but Steve wanted to fight him, saying things like: “I heard you were talking shit about my band,” and Rob was like “Maybe back in 1989? Seriously, I don’t remember. Do you still care?” and that was that. It was obvious they showed up with an agenda, and their agenda blew up in their face.
Well, it sounds like people there treated them the right way. Maybe that stuff didn’t fly in New Jersey because people had already seen some real tough guys by going to shows on the Bowery. That was the funny thing about Dwid and all his shit. Instead of people saying “Get the fuck out of here! You’re a joke!” they really fell into line with him. It was the same way people would hang around a bar with a Mafia clientele because they wanted the rub off.
Yeah, I remember how Dwid and those guys used to rip on Release. They thought Release’s vibe was corny, but looking back, it wasn’t any different then what Dwid or any of us in Cleveland was doing, you know?
So you didn’t feel any allegiance to what Integrity were doing back then?
Although it seemed Face Value and Integrity were representing Cleveland at the same point in time, we were on two totally different levels. I never rolled into a town saying ‘Who wants to fight? I’m going to mosh this hoagie into your face!’
So besides the shit talking and self-promotion, what do you think it is about the Cleveland Hardcore scene that intrigues people so much?
Well, number one, the bands are really fucking good and put out good records. Number two: The shows are completely unhinged and out of control, and it’s completely organic. No one sets out to say “On the third song, I’m going to throw a brick of firecrackers at the girl taking pictures.” I don’t know why the shows get like that, but when they do, we don’t try to stop it, and we don’t apologize. We don’t give a fuck.
Tony Erba’s band Fuck You Pay Me is playing the Acheron in Brooklyn on July 25th and This is Hardcore Fest in Philadelphia on July 26th at the Electric Factory. They have an LP coming soon on Deep Six, and you can pick up their first one through Schizophrenia.