I've known Javier Villegas for about three decades now. We both grew up in the NYHC scene, forever changed by those bygone days. Javier has played in some amazing bands: Our Gang, Born Against, Cattle Press, plus a few others—always remaining incredibly enthusiastic and open-minded about all music in general. I don't recall ever seeing an in-depth interview with him, so I decided to pick his brain to talk about old times and his current endeavors...
Jav! To start off, I know you were born and raised in Queens, but what neighborhood, and where's your family originally from?
Hi, Freddy! I was born in Jamaica, Queens, which was a pretty insane neighborhood at the time. After my sister was born the year after me, we lived on 144th Place and Jamaica Ave. for a little over two years, until my folks finally had enough. I had an uncle who lived in a much quieter area called New Hyde Park, so my folks found a spot in an area nearby called Glen Oaks, where I pretty much spent most of my childhood. Back then it was far from perfect, but it was surely notches above Jamaica!
Do you remember how and when you gravitated towards hardcore and punk? Were you coming from a heavy metal or other type of musical background?
I definitely gravitated to hardcore/punk from a more heavy metal background. With me, it completely started with KISS at an early age. The first albums I ever owned on vinyl were Love Gun and Alive!, by KISS. This was all due to my older cousin Edgar's influence. He actually got to see KISS perform at the Nassau Coliseum in 1978, the lucky bastard. Because of Edgar, I also listened to the classics: Jimi Hendrix, Jethro Tull, Van Halen, Bad Company, The Cars, etc. Then, in junior high, I got into stuff like Judas Priest, Rush, AC/DC, Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, and all the usual suspects—which then in turn led me to learn about The Clash, Sex Pistols, The Cramps, etc. I'm sure my pattern of learning stuff was the same way with millions of kids my age at that time. What a great time to grow up and learn about stuff!
I believe I met about you about 1986 or so. Is that when you first started started going to the CBGB's matinees? If so, do you remember who played the first show you went to?
I believe we did meet around 1986 or so! I had been going to shows at CBGB's a little before that, just dabbling here and there. I also went to some local shows in Queens and Long Island. There were a few cool spots nearby, like the Right Track Inn and February's on Hempstead Turnpike. I'm actually having a hard time remembering the first show I attended!
Do you have any cool stories of hanging out at [record store] Some Records and the CBGB's Sunday matinees, or with friends in Queens that were into hardcore circa 1987 or so?
Some Records was so much fun the little while it was there! Duane Rossignol was the nicest dude to us, regardless of age or whatnot. There was just that exciting feeling of when there was a good show on at CBGB's that afternoon, but you'd head over earlier to get some hang time in at Some Records, to see what demo or 7" had just been dropped off. I met many awesome characters there. One awesome moment I remember was when [Absolution and Burn guitarist] Gavin [Van Vlack] showed up with Veronica (when they were still dating) with a handful of hand-screened Absolution shirts, just giving them out to friends that were around. I think they were some tryout prints, but they were one of my favorite bands in New York at that time and I was just so psyched to get one.
There's just so many stories from CBGB's that could be told about the many great bands I got to see and the adrenaline in the room that it's hard to pick any out. Just discovering a band for the first time is an experience in itself. I remember seeing Damage for the first time and how they basically pasted me to the wall with sheer volume and power. They had a two-guitar/two-bass assault with some heavy-hitters. Because they were an acquired taste, a lot of kids didn't know how to feel about them. They were one of my favorites as well. Of course, after that, [Damage's] Mike [Kirkland] went on to form Prong, and Steve McAllister became the engineer guru over at Baby Monster Studios.
Tell me when did you start playing bass, and was Our Gang the first band you ever played in?
I got an interest in the bass guitar around 1986, and I had a friend in Queens with a beat up bass that I would dabble with. It was all playing by ear, and to this day I still can't read music. It was something that kept gaining more and more interest throughout that time. I played with some friends in Queens and Long Island around 1986/1987, but we never really played out. During high school, I started hanging out with some kids that were either going to or just hanging out at Art and Design High School on 2nd Ave. Some of these kids were playing in a band. We were hanging out more and more and they had heard I was playing bass a bit and asked me to jam with them. The band was Our Gang, and I got to play my first-ever live show with them at the Right Track Inn in Freeport, Long Island.
Do you remember if Our Gang was supposed to release any vinyl back then?
I honestly don't remember what the plans were for releasing a record back then. I know the two-track Don Fury sessions (that ended up on the recent demos LP) were maybe going to be issued somehow, but I just can't bring my mind to know the correct information on that.
As 1990 rolled around, you joined Born Against and played on their first 7" and LP. How did you hook up with them?
I actually joined Born Against in 1989 right after the Murders Among Us 7" compilation was released. They also had their demo tape out already. Daryl Kahan of Citizens Arrest was playing drums for them at the time and mentioned they were looking for a bassist, since Neil Burke had left the band. I spoke with [guitarist] Adam [Nathanson], who I knew as an acquaintance when he was in Life's Blood. They were jamming at the long-gone Giant Studios on 14th Street, so we just arranged a couple of hours one day and it was a good fit! I recorded both of the 7"s, the Nine Patriotic Hymns for Children album, and a slew of stuff that ended up on various comps.
A lot of people, myself included, came from the CBGB's matinee scene, and once the ABC No Rio hardcore shows started, we moved on to that. What do you think was different about the vibe at ABC, and did you ever catch any flak from friends in the "old" scene we came from?
I generally liked the D.I.Y. ethics of the space, the fact that our peers were setting up the events, and everyone was there having fun. In the end, you want this experience to be fun, am I right? I didn't really get any flak myself. I wasn't a person who liked to be involved in flak in the first place, so it never really came my way. I continued to get along with people on both ends of the spectrum.
I was with you guys in 1991 when Born Against toured the U.S. I remember us seeing Infest live in Southern California and it was beyond description. Did any other bands from those day leave as deep of an impression as Infest left with you?
That was so much fun when we met you out west! Good times. I believe the first tour, the shorter one, was in 1990. It was the West Coast only. Was that the one you were at? The two shows with Infest I will remember until I'm in the grave. Playing with Sleep when they were still a quartet is also pretty ingrained in my memory. There's so many bands to mention here, but best of all there are people that I met then that I still know to this day and consider family. That's what was the best thing to me.
I recall you saying that you left Born Against in 1992 because they wanted to head in a different (melodic?) direction that you didn't care much for. Is that about right?
Yeah, I left Born Against around the end of the summer in 1991, not too long after the huge tour that year. I could tell the sound was headed in a different direction, which is fine, but it just wasn't me. The last recording I did with them was the song we did on the split flexi with Suckerpunch. I will add that it was totally an amicable split. They continued on with Brett Blue after me.
Was Iabhorher the band you did right after Born Against? That 7" on Slap-a-Ham with future Municipal Waste drummer Dave Witte is amazing. Why didn't the band last?
Iabhorher happened a bit later, around 1994, at the same time Eddie [Ortiz] had gotten the wheels in motion for the beginnings of Cattle Press. We were hanging out with [guitarist/vocalist] Joey Capizzi in Staten Island and we'd take drives down to Redbank, NJ to hang with the guys in Human Remains at their rehearsal house. What a band that was! So, Joey had an idea to do a project with me and Dave Witte. Joey was the songwriter, so we learned a few songs and did a couple days recording at Excello Studios when it used to be in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. We approached Chris Dodge of Slap-a-Ham and he agreed to do a 7" EP. 1,000 copies were pressed in 1994. Besides the release being a bit muddy, I loved playing with those guys!
Tell me about Sin, the band you did with Al Long from Nausea. Did any of the material you recorded ever come out?
Yeah, I did a very short-lived band in 1992 called Sin. It was with Al Long (ex-Nausea), Eddie Ortiz (Cattle Press, Candiria), and a kid from Queens named Jason Gatsoni. We were all totally into things at the time like Godflesh, Killing Joke, Bolt Thrower, and of course our punk influences. We recorded a side for a split LP with a U.K. band called Spine Wrench, which was Rob Middleton's band after Deviated Instinct disbanded. The album never got a proper release, minus some really shitty CD released by Dutch East India with some really generic artwork. Actually, it would be great to do a proper vinyl issue of the record (hint, hint, Freddy).
At what point did you join Cattle Press, and how many records did you play on with them?
Cattle Press was already going with Eddie, Nathan Bennett, and myself. We were using a drum machine in those days. We were writing some pretty primitive and heavy stuff with a wide array of influences around the spectrum. Those were fun days! We recorded a compilation song for a label called Pessimiser out of California called Cry Now, Cry Later. Iabhorher was also on it. After Nathan left the band, Eddie and myself did a proper Cattle Press demo recorded at home straight to cassette. It was completely raw and abrasive, but I'm still proud of it to this day. Those are the only proper releases I'm on, but there is a live recording of when we played at CBGB's that I have yet to hear. Apparently it's killer and will be released on the discography that is imminent in the near future via Necroharmonic Records.
Switching gears a bit, you've been involved in the photography field professionally for quite some time now. How did you get into that?
Funnily enough, my interest in photography came from Tracy Sham, my ex-girlfriend, who I ran into around School of Visual Arts. She was telling me about the program and stuff, and I thought about it for a while and decided to give it a shot. I basically went there for a couple of years, but dropped out after two due to the costs. It was so expensive!
I always see you globetrotting to some exotic location for a photo shoot. Where are your favorite places in the world to work?
My favorite trip so far still has to be New Zealand. What an incredibly beautiful country! The different landscapes, climates, and the people. I want to go back so bad. There are so many places I have yet to visit, but I will get to them! I'd really love to visit Ulan Bator and the rest of Mongolia. The terrain there looks outrageous. I have some ideas, and I'm going over for a couple of small book releases, and there will be lots of landscapes to shoot.
The last band I remember you doing is Kylesa, and I think you toured with them like six to eight years ago.
Yeah, Kylesa was pretty much the last thing I've done musically, and that was all the way back in 2008! They were in need of a bassist and somehow I was asked to help them out a bit. I think it helped me that both [guitarist/vocalist] Laura Pleasants and [guitarist/vocalist] Phillip are fans of Born Against [laughs]. It was fun playing with them. I did two smaller tours and recorded bass for their Static Tensions album. Them being in Savannah, GA made it a bit challenging for me to always be there, and even harder was their touring schedule! I was flabbergasted by how much they toured! I'm glad I got to do it, though, and I'm happy I got to share times with those guys.
Do you currently have any music-related projects in the works?
Currently, there's nothing happening musically, but I have had some ideas in my head. I was approached by a drummer whose playing I think is awesome, so maybe we'll have a good meeting of minds. At this stage in my life, it's not even clear what I'd play, as I'm into so many different things. I suppose time will tell.
Thank you so much, old friend, for your time. Do you have any final comments?
Thanks for the questions, old pal, and sorry this took so long!
Follow Javier Villegas' photography on his Instagram page.