“I don't think any guitar player is truly self-taught, because if anyone influences you, then you basically have a mentor,” Gavin Van Vlack, the founding guitarist of influential NYC hardcore band Burn, told me last week while we chatted about the group’s new album, Do or Die, which recently hit stores via Deathwish Inc.
We started the conversation on the topic since I was curious about Gavin’s playing style, which has always been unique and unconcerned with genre parameters, going back to Burn’s seminal eponymous EP from 1990. “We have 12 notes in the chromatic scale, so if you look at music through the history of it, everything has already been done. Let’s take myself, Todd Morse (ex-H20), and Jon Biviano (Supertouch). If you give us those 12 notes, each one of us are going to take them and express them very differently from each other. That’s where it comes down to individual style as opposed to influence. I think I took what I heard early on and I realized that the people that I was listening to were also reaching,” Gavin told me. “I don’t consider myself to be a brilliant person or a good guitarist, but I work really hard to accomplish what I do. I’m not a virtuoso.”
I then asked him about some of the early guitar players that piqued his interest as a kid. “Let’s see, I loved Jeff Beck and Randy Rhoads. [Bad Brains guitarist] Dr. Know was obviously huge for me because he was one of the first people I heard have musicality within hardcore. [Kraut, Cro-Mags guitarist] Doug Holland was another one. He was much more conventional than Dr. Know, but if you listen to what Doug did with Kraut, he could take something aggressive and put actual song structure to it. There’s hooks to it, which I think is important, or else we’re just playing for ourselves.”
Engineered by Kurt Ballou (Converge) at GodCity Studios, Do or Die not only features some of Gavin’s finest guitar work to date in songs like “Ill Together” and “New Morality,” but the album is also elevated by Tyler Krupsky and Abbas Muhammad’s bass and drum work, respectively. Earlier this summer, I had the pleasure of seeing Burn perform at Rev Fest and was floored by their new rhythm section. “Abbas came into the picture when [former drummer] Durijah [Lang] was transitioning out. He was referred to us by Chris Enriquez from Primitive Weapons." I asked Gavin—who has also been a member of such bands as Absolution, Big Collapse, and Die 116—how Abbas landed the Burn gig:
"On the second day of drummer auditions, I was fucking around with one of our new ideas and Abbas basically dropped into it to a degree that it felt like I was playing with [original Burn drummer] Alan Cage again. If you look at every drummer that has played with Burn, they have all been influences on Abbas. He’s the product out of the culture of music that has been brought around by bands like Burn, Quicksand, Glassjaw, Stillsuit… all of these bands that some people call ‘progressive hardcore’ or whatever. But he’s at the forefront of young musicians that are coming out of that scene who are super-talented.”
Shifting gears, I turned my attention to Gavin’s upbringing. You see, during one of part of our conversation, the guitarist quickly mentions his “country” upbringing, but I had always assumed he grew up in NYC. Naturally, I had to pry a bit. “I grew up in New Hampshire. My mom is originally from [Brooklyn neighborhood] Flatbush, and her parents are from Oaxaca in Mexico. Anyway, my mom had breast cancer and it had metastasized, so we ended up down here in NYC so that she could go to [renowned hospital] Sloan Kettering and get treatment.
“My mom wanted to stay here in the city, but it was a bad idea for a country kid like me to be here at that age [laughs]. I got the crap beat out of me for the first three months. After that, I was put into the foster system because my mom was in and out of the hospital. I wasn’t taken out of my mom’s care, but I was put into the system, which didn’t work really well for me. So, I ended up moved in with my mentor, Lionel Fortin, who was a state cop who took in a lot of bunch of us kids and helped us. I met him when I was going to high school up in Westchester in the foster system. At a very young age, I filed to be emancipated, so I can be on my own, and he didn't try and block me. He felt that it was my journey and I had to do what I thought I had to do."
During Gavin's rough teen years, he found some solace from a fellow member of the NYHC family. “From the age of 15 on, I did everything from sleeping in abandoned buildings to staying at friends’ houses, but I just did what street kids had to do back then. I remember coming back from shows and having [Youth of Today, Shelter guitarist] Porcell sneaking me into his parent’s house in Westchester. A lot of times his father would catch us and kick me the fuck out [laughs]. Porcell has been one of the most stand-up guys I have ever known. If he's got $5 and you’re broke, he’ll give you $2.50. He’s always been a genuinely nice person with a good heart.”
My good friend (and No Echo contributor) Freddy Alva is an old friend of Gavin’s and through him I learned that the Burn axe man was part of the graffiti scene back in the ‘80s, and was even in the notorious SPORTS crew, writing under the tag, NATZ. “Graffiti was something that was always there for me. It just made sense to me. It’s also always been part of NYHC culture. "If you think back to Neils, he was one of the early writers from the hardcore scene, and he did a lot of the early flyers for places like Rock Hotel. He wrote WOMP'M and he’s depicted as the kid with the spray paint can on the cover of the first Murphy’s Law album that Uncle Al [Alex Morris] did. Let’s see, Parris [Mayhew] from the Cro-Mags also used to write."
Gavin on NYHC graffiti culture:
“Here’s the thing, we need to stop delineating stuff like, 'this is hardcore and this hip-hop and this is house music…' This is all street culture. NYC has a certain street culture. Los Angeles has a certain street culture. Berlin has a certain street culture. They are all different, but they all resonate in the same kind of way."
SEE ALSO: The Graffiti and Hardcore Connection
Since he was a vandal in a previous life, I wanted to know if Gavin ever got locked up after being caught with a spray paint can in his hands. “Kind of, sorta [laughs]. I got busted with a couple of other writers once. It was towards the end of the trains and we went into a K-Mart out on Long Island to steal paint. I didn’t even have anything on me, but I was guilty by association [laughs]. We were walking out and the security guy stopped us. Anyway, they bring us back to their office and all of a sudden, this big red light goes off and they go out and pick up this Mexican family who were shoplifting, because they were part of the boost culture. They basically would steal to resell it after.
“This was a mother, her two sons, and her daughter. It turned out that the mom wasn’t documented and the security guy got all jingoistic about it, threatening to report her so that she could get deported. At this point, I got pissed off and I said to him, ‘Aren’t you fucking proud, Captain K-Mart?! You’re going to ruin a family today. Congratulations, asshole.’ I couldn’t believe it. Anyway, we talked enough shit to where the cops showed up and one of them happened to be Mexican. The security guy starts telling the cops about us talking shit, and how ‘these illegals’ blah blah blah. All of sudden, the Mexican cop lights up and says, ‘Oh, really…’ He then talks the K-Mart guys out of writing the family up and speaks with the family in Spanish and tells them to go on their way.”
So, what happened to Gavin and his graffiti-obsessed friends? “After letting the Mexican family go, the cops drove us to the train station, took the handcuffs off of us, and said, ‘Get the fuck out of here!' I'll never forget that day [laughs].” As much as I was always intrigued with graffiti as a kid, I never committed to it for fear of getting caught and disappointing my mother, a fact that isn't lost on Gavin. "Well, being an orphan took all that pressure out of the way for me [laughs]."
Before getting off the phone with Gavin, I asked him about his Mexican heritage, since before our conversation, I had no idea that he was a fellow Latino. “My mother was straight-up Mexican, and my father was Dutch, but I didn’t really know him. My oldest sister was the man of the house. She lives in Pennsylvania and we’re still close. We have different fathers, but I would never call her my half-sister because she's never shown me half-love.
"The Dutch side of my family didn’t want to know jack shit about us because my mother was just 'that wetback bitch' that my dad married. The Mexican side of my family were just as fucking racist [laughs]. They were like, ‘Oh, you’re dad is some kind of guero [the Spanish equivalent for “whitey”]. What the fuck is that about?’ It was crazy [laughs]."
So, does Gavin speak Spanish? "Muy poquito. I'm a really bad Chicano."
Burn's new album, Do or Die, is out now via Deathwish Inc.