An Interview with the Influential NYHC Band Leeway
From the cutting room of the new book, 'NYHC: New York Hardcore 1980 - 1990.'
In December, Bazillion Points Publishing will be unleashing NYHC: New York Hardcore 1980 – 1990, the second book by Noisey contributor, Tony Rettman.
Made up from over a hundred interviews conducted by Rettman and wielding over 500 images, the tome will delight both the New York hardcore nerd and novice alike as it careens through the scene’s early days with the likes of Agnostic Front, Reagan Youth, The Mob, Urban Waste, and Cause For Alarm right into the late 80s heyday of Cro-Mags, Murphy’s Law, Youth of Today, Underdog, and Sick of it All. Pre-orders for the book are open direct from the publisher and will ship the first week of December.
Rettman was left with such an overload of content for the book that every week leading up to its release, Noisey will be running one of the interviews he conducted to complete the project.
Kicking it off, we have an interview with Eddie Sutton, vocalist for pivotal NYHC band, Leeway.
Although many bands out of the NYHC scene were incorporating heavy metal into their style by the late 80s, Leeway’s matchless melding of the raw vibe of hardcore with the precision and dynamics of Heavy Metal was truly unique. With Sutton, they had a fearless and charismatic frontman who pushed himself, the crowd, and the band to heart-palpitating heights. For further proof, check out their debut LP from 1989, Born to Expire and the video below.
In this interview, Eddie talks about his introduction into the NYHC scene, hanging out on the Lower East Side of the 80s, the formation of Leeway, and his life afterwards.
Noisey: So how did you end up getting into punk and hardcore?
Eddie Sutton: When I was 14, I moved back to where I was born, which was Astoria, Queens. Before that, I was living on Long Island for six or seven years in Suffolk County. We got back into Queens the same exact night John Lennon was shot and killed. I was laying on my grandmother’s living room floor ready to go to bed and the news came over that Lennon was shot and then five minutes later, he was dead. That was quite a trip.
Going back to Astoria from living on the Island was like being put into this jungle, but then I met Ernie Parada (Drummer for Gilligan’s Revenge, Token Entry, Black Train Jack, etc.) and he turned me onto hardcore. Then I met the guys from Kraut, like the drummer Johnny Feedback and the singer Davey Gunner and eventually their guitarist Dougie Holland.
By ’83, I was going to A7. I was breaking night and staying for these shows that went on all night. At that time, the Lower East Side was a warzone. It wasn’t the gentrified neighborhood that it’s been for the last 20 years. It was a fucking warzone; without question. It was worse than the worst neighborhoods you know in New York City today. It was trip to be down there and go to those bars and A7 and shit like that. I wasn’t even 18 yet and I was getting a peek into a world that most people will never see.
I wasn’t much of a street kid like these other guys were. Even though I was a teenager hanging out on the Lower East Side and breaking night and not coming home until the next day, I didn’t have a criminal record until I was in my twenties. Nowadays, I have a heavier rap sheet than most of these thugs and hooligans. And I’m not saying this to prove I’m a tough guy or anything, because there’s always someone bigger and badder than you. For me, it’s all about longevity.
What was the first band out of the NYHC scene that lured you in?
Bad Brains. At my first show, Dr. Know pulled up to the show and talked to people and that was kind of a trip to me. I was coming from arena rock. I was into Van Halen and here’s this band that’s within reach. I thought that was fucking cool. Seeing that taught me a lot as hardcore got bigger. I still run into kids that were influenced by me and Leeway and I always give them the time of day. You talk to them on a one-on-one basis. I always wanted to be in a band, and when I saw that early, DIY ethic, I realized I could be a part of something.
Hardcore, to me, meant to go all out; to give 100 percent. I listened to rock and metal and was raised on R&B. Of course, I was being influenced by early rap. It wasn’t being called hip-hop yet. Before Leeway, I was doing Grandmaster Flash songs at a local bar for free beer and shit like that. That was my first attempt at performing in front of a live audience. But at one of Gilligan’s Revenge’s first shows at A7, I came up and did a song with them. I went up and did “Paranoid” by Black Sabbath.
So how did Leeway come to fruition?
A.J Novello (Leeway guitarist) and I knew each other for a couple of years and we got this guy Saso on drums and this kid he went to Catholic school with named Jose. We only had three weeks to prepare for our first show and we didn’t know what to call ourselves. We just went by the name The Unruled at first. I wish I had a tape of that first show to get a big laugh out of it. I just want to see how bad the band was when we first started.
I think we only did one show under the name The Unruled. One of the first names we jocked around was Juggernaut, but we ended up calling ourselves Leeway. At the time, you had a lot of metal bands coming in and taking things from hardcore and vice versa. Everybody was stealing something from somebody. We didn’t want to come up with some hard name. I mean, let’s be real: Anthrax is a pretty whack name until it became a weapon of mass destruction. We wanted something that went both ways. We didn’t want a political name. We didn’t want a name that made us sound harder than we were. So, we settled on Leeway which is defined as a margin of freedom. It made sense not only with our teen angst, but the punk and hardcore vibe of the time.
Where was the first gig you played?
The Coventry in Queens. Ironically, that’s the place where KISS played their first shows. I just got done reading this book about the early years of KISS called Nothing to Lose so I finally got an idea of where they were in 1973 and 1974 and how they went about breaking out. At the time, there was the New York Dolls and Harlots of 42nd Street in New York. To me, the attitude and the street vibe was the same for both the 70s and 80s generations of bands that came out of Queens. It was the same vibe of going all out and doing what you want to do.
Once you changed the name to Leeway, when did the band start to pick up steam?
When we played our first show at CBGBs, things started happening. Then, at our fifth or sixth show at CB’s, we opened for C.O.C. That’s when Chris Williamson saw us and put us on a Rock Hotel show in June of 1986.
If Leeway are known for anything, it’s for really bringing the metal sound into NYHC.
Between ’84 and ’85, there was not that many metal-sounding bands in hardcore. We wanted hard-sounding drums and heavy guitars, but a street-oriented vibe and hardcore and punk style lyrics. We wanted something more than lyrics about doing coke and having sex with bitches.
In 1984, Metallica’s Kill ‘Em All came out and at the time, we didn’t know this band was living on the roof of a rehearsal studio in Jamaica, Queens. All we knew was when that record came out, anybody who was in a band, whether it was hardcore or metal said “These are the fucking riffs I’d want in my band.” Everybody was like, “I wish I came up with that.” We knew that’s what we wanted to do. There were no bands in New York doing that sound. Those bands didn’t come in to the scene until ’86. I know the Cro-Mags had a very Motorhead sound around ’85 or ’86, but I think people would consider us the first kids on the block. Especially with me being so influenced by rap at the time and dressing like a B-Boy with wearing the athletic gear and all that.
Vinnie and Roger from Agnostic Front were paying attention to us and giving us the thumbs up. Then, within a short period of time, they started working with Carnivore’s Pete Steele and they collaborated with him on their second album, Cause for Alarm. Not to hurt anybody’s feelings, but I can definitely say that we were influencing the noted bands on the scene at the time. We were bringing something to the table that everybody would start doing.
When people say we were very influential, I appreciate it and all, but I think it all came from being in the right place at the right time. I don’t think we had any musical edge over anybody else.
Photo: Ken Salerno
You mentioned the Cro-Mags. They seemed to be another band out of New York at the time that was crossing over into the metal scene.
The Cro-Mags were definitely looking to go to a level beyond the New York scene. I don’t know if any of them will admit it, but they had the ingredients to become a super group in the metal world. Harley Flanagan (Cro-Mags bassist) was influenced by Lemmy and (Cro-Mags vocalist) John Joseph’s influence of Krishna brought something unique to the table.
But they were dealing with Chris Williamson who was the premier promoter in New York at the time and was always looking at the dollar signs in situations.
The personalities in that group were just too volatile to stay together. They were too young to really understand what was going on. I think what happened was Chris Williamson realized he wasn’t able to control John Joseph. He was finding a way to get everyone else in the band against John. It turned into a powder keg and started to explode, but in a bad way, not in a good way.
So let’s talk about the first record you recorded for Chris Williamson for his Rock Hotel label, Born to Expire.
We really grew in the period that led up to us recording Born to Expire. Saso had already left and we got Mackie and the sound of the band went further. We needed that style behind us or we wouldn’t sound as strong as we wanted. But he went on to the Cro-Mags and we got this Brazilian guy named Tony to be with us to record the first record. Tony came to America with heavy metal hair and wanted to be John Bonham. He used to an imitation of Robert Plant going “John Bonham! John Bonham!” from “The Song Remains the Same” while he played the drums at practice. God bless him, he did a great job, but he was in the frame of mind of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. He wanted to play drums in a big rock band. I don’t think he realized what we were about. Then after we recorded, we got Pokie in on drums and we were lucky because of that because he was born and raised in Queens and was on the same wavelength as us. Tony wasn’t.
We recorded Born to Expire in November of ’87. We went up to Warren, Rhode Island. What we did there became such a staple, everybody went up there to record. It wasn’t recognized for anything special at the time. It had this half a million dollar sound board which was analog; which no one uses anymore. There was a house for the band to stay. You come downstairs and do your work. It’s a quiet little town, so it’s not like you can get caught up in some bullshit. It’s a great place to focus and get work done. We were given the right environment and the right studio, so we were able to record a record that’s considered one of the greatest New York Hardcore records of all time.
When you’re recording, you’re capturing a moment in time. A lot of people don’t realize it’s a moment in history you’re putting down and you got to be ready for it. Even at my worst, I was more professional than most people involved in hardcore.
We were getting three times the budget Combat was giving their bands at the time. That’s why Leeway’s record recoding quality-wise is steps above those Combat records at that time. I’m not saying those bands weren’t great, but the production was a one round knockout compared to those records. That’s why we withstood the test of time.
It took forever for Born to Expire to come out. I remember tapes of it floating around for a while before it actually came out. Why was that?
Not too long after we recorded Born to Expire, Chris Williamson’s contract with Profile Records ended. Profile kicked him out and took over the whole game. They didn’t know what the fuck to do with us.
Also, when Profile kicked Chris out of the loop, Zowie, our bass player at the time left the band for Circus of Power. He was on the road for a long time and in order to release the record he had to sign a release. So, that took a lot of time. After he finally signed the release, they were looking for the right time to release it.
People have a lot to say about Chris Williamson; commonly not very nice things. What’s your take on him at this time in your life?
Chris was an asshole and definitely capitalized on everyone’s naivety, but if it wasn’t for him, a lot of New York bands wouldn’t have the place in history that they have today. The Cro-Mags would have never went on tour with Motorhead. Leeway wouldn’t have been able to say we were the only band that toured with the Bad Brains across the country for 12 weeks. No other band ever toured with the original Bad Brains for that long and we went on to tour Europe with them as well. We wouldn’t have been recognized if it wasn’t for him.
It’s our fault for not paying attention to recording budgets or money. He paid out of pocket to finish that tour with the Bad Brains. He might have kept us in the dark about some money here and some money there, but he earned his keep as far as I’m concerned. Obviously, early on, I was bitter and upset and didn’t like him. But once you grow older and have more wisdom, you realize he did his job. A lot of the people who continue to talk shit on him to this day, most of them don’t even know the fucking guy.
Like you mentioned before, Chris’ involvement with the Cro-Mags might have had something to do with the band imploding. Do you think his involvement in Leeway had a similar outcome?
There was a lot of this silver-tongued, delusional talk going on and it started fucking with a lot of bands’ heads. Individuals in bands stopped seeing each other eye-to-eye. The aspirations they started with were lost because the band wasn’t unified anymore. That’s why New York never reached the level it could have reached. New York could have been up against Seattle in competition. But the New York bands had a little bit more street in them, where it fucked us up much faster and quicker. A lot of kids came from impoverished homes and fucked up lives with split up parents and no food on the table and that had a lot to do with not knowing how to handle the adulation and notoriety that was starting to kick in for a lot of us.
When Leeway blew up, people called me a rock star. I said, “Call me a rock star when I get my five-figure check, OK? When I get that five-figure check, I will come directly to you and show it to you and then, you can call me a rock star.” How can you be a rock star when you still have to work to make a living? I was accessible to anyone who wanted to talk to me.
So where did you and Leeway go when the 90s approached?
I had a ton of money at the time because I was bartending in the largest club in New York City. I had a ton of sex and started partying more to fuel that sensation. It’s the same story with a lot of bands that went through the same shit and had more women than me. I wasn’t into picking some girl out from the crowd and having my way with her and saying, “Peace out.” But there were women who were regulars at the club that I desired and I went for it. I was a growing boy, so I had my Maypo. But I never realized what I was doing. I didn’t realize until I was in a jail cell. And even then, it took me another five years to get it all together.
I think what fueled my insecurities and drug problem is seeing other bands on MTV and knowing we were doing something just as good as them. I didn’t want to be a rock star or be rich, but I wanted public interest in the band. I wanted to tour and I wanted the band on MTV. I was watching these shit bands get recognized and all they were was long haired gimmicks. It fueled my depression and I was self-medicating.
I was lucky to survive opiate addiction. I volunteer and I might become a counselor, but I’m more interested in the volunteer side of it now. I’m still at a crossroads in my life, so I don’t know if I can be a counselor right now. I wanted to make music my career, but it didn’t happen that way. I was just being a 40-something-year kid for a long time. I still get by and that’s all that mattered to me for a long time, but now I’d like to have something to retire on, so I’m getting ready to go back to school.
I feel lucky to not only still be on the planet, to have all my facilities. It would be very easy for me to be a 49-year-old kid now, but I was lucky to grow up, get my shit together, and slowly get myself on track while living a very quiet life.
After all is said and done, I feel very privileged to be a part of it. I’m just amazed how this style of music that came out of New York is in every corner of the globe now. I get messages of Facebook all the time from kids in Malaysia and shit like that. It’s a trip.
So why do you think people are still interested in NYHC?
The Southern California bands had the classic, old punk rock song writing going on. But they didn’t do the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup thing the New York bands did. At one point, it was you either grab a peanut butter sandwich and be metal or you get a piece of chocolate and be punk rock. No one else was mixing the two. All those scenes hated New York back then, but today, everyone is trying to emulate our sound.
For sneak peeks of the book and NYHC ephemera out the wazoo, follow @nyhcbook on Instagram.