I recently asked No Echo scribe Freddy Alva if he was interested in interviewing his old friend, guitarist Rob Echeverria, for the site. Being a big fan of Echeverria's work throughout the years, I wanted to hear his take on the early days of New York hardcore, and his role in some of the most influential bands of the era. In his two-decade career, the guitarist spent time as a member of Straight Ahead, Rest in Pieces, Biohazard, and Helmet.
The following is Alva's brand new interview with Echeverria.
-Carlos Ramirez, No Echo
Hey, Rob, let's start from the beginning. I know you grew up in Corona, Queens. Were you born in the area?
Yes, I was born and raised in Corona. Both of my parents are from Ecuador. I'm the youngest of six kids; four sisters and one brother.
I take it you gravitated towards heavy metal as a young kid, so, I wanted to know, how was it dealing with the Corona locals in those days that were more into disco or rap-oriented music?
I was too young to experience the disco era to its fullest, but, as a kid of the '70s, I grew up listening to hard rock, which is now what people consider classic rock. In the early- to mid-'80s, my friends and I turned to metal and grew our hair long, wore leather jackets, and fully embraced the metal look. We instantly became outcasts. People from the neighborhood knew we were good kids, but they just didn't get it. I always think of the time my friends from Flushing came to visit and were chased out of the neighborhood because of the way they looked. Long hair, bullet belts, and skulls weren't the norm, but because I grew up there I guess I was given a pass.
Who were your first musical heroes that inspired you to take up the guitar?
I have to give all the credit to Kiss and Ace Frehley's solo on "Calling Dr. Love." That really started it all for me. I was also obsessed with the cover of Deepest Purple [The Very Best of Deep Purple, 1980] and became a huge Ritchie Blackmore fan. Then came the NWOBHM and that was it. Judas Priest and Iron Maiden took it to the next level. The Sex Pistols and punk would come at a later time for me, but the roots are definitely metal.
Tell me about the garage band you had with Richie Cip from Sick of it All around 1983. You guys did mostly crossover thrash covers, right?
Richie and I met in the fifth grade and always wanted to play guitar and be in a band. As we got older, we jammed together and put an ad in the paper for a bass player that was answered by Craig Setari. We didn't have any original material at the time so we played our favorite tunes. We were probably the first Slayer/Metallica cover band ever. [Laughs]
How did you get involved in the CBGB's scene and come to play with Tommy Caroll in Straight Ahead?
Along with the metal bands, the punk bands like The Exploited, GBH, Discharge, and the like started to take influence as well. By the time we graduated high school we all cut our hair off and started to make our way to CBGB's. It was there that I met Tommy Carroll. Shortly after that, he, Craig, and Gordon became NYC Mayhem. I'm not sure what went down with that, but the next move was to get Tommy out from behind the drum kit and put Armand in his place, I would play guitar, and Craig would remain on bass. We became Straight Ahead.
Straight Ahead was an intense outfit that accomplished a lot in a short time. Why did the band break up?
I think we all have different reasons for the band breaking up. For me, I think it was going in a different direction and I wasn't into it. By that time, Rest in Pieces was on the back-burner so that might've made it easy to give up Straight Ahead. I'm glad to see that people are still huge fans of the music. It was quite a unique band.
Lewis Dimmick told me he'd heard that Chuck Valle snuck Straight Ahead into Chung King studios to record the Breakaway 12", while on downtime from other recordings. Do you have any memories of that?
I remember recording the Breakaway EP. I think it was the first time we were in a halfway decent studio. I don't remember anything about sneaking in, but I remember recording it with Chuck Valle. Rest in peace. It still breaks my heart what happened to that poor kid. [Bassist for Murphy's Law, Chuck Valle was stabbed to death following an argument with an unknown man in 1994.]
Were you playing in Rest in Pieces at the same time as Straight Ahead, and how did you come to join Rest in Pieces?
In 1984/85 I became friends with Lou and Pete Koller through Mike Sentkewitz. We went to different schools, but we were into the same stuff: Anti-Nowhere League, Motörhead, Misfits, etc. Every now and then, Armand would come down from Tarrytown [a village in Westchester County, N.Y.] and hang out. Somewhere down the line he came around with the RiP demo and I wound up seeing the trio version of the band. Straight Ahead formed around the same time, so we started juggling both bands for a bit. A lot was going on at the time. I think that's when Craig Setari started playing with Youth of Today and Agnostic Front. That eventually led to Armand asking me if I wanted to play with Pieces. Then it became me, Armand, Josh, and Al. Craig would come in around '88, I believe.
Do you remember how a California-based label (One Step Ahead) came to release Rest in Pieces' My Rage album?
All I remember is Mike Rubinstein from One Step Ahead Records in California wanted to give us money to do the LP. So, we did. I think the songs are great, but in typical Pieces fashion we could never get it right. The record sounds pretty good considering we were just kids, but It's always hard to capture what a band really sounds like live. In the studio, we never had a solid drummer, no foundation. To me and Armand, it had to be right, tight, you know? It just never got there. We tried to get tighter by adding Craig, but we never got hold of a decent drummer.
We got signed to Roadracer [now called Roadrunner Records] and that was the beginning of the end. Al couldn't and didn't play on that record. Armand was forced to lay down drum tracks and for whatever reason wanted to "sing." We went over budget and the label refused to give us more money and time. Things got so bad that the only way to get out of the deal was to break up. Armand was already in Sick of it All, so, I guess, he chose to take the path of least resistance. Craig would follow. I always felt that the three of us had a special kind of chemistry, and an unspoken understanding of music that should have taken that band really far. Pieces could've been a fuckin' beast. I still see it as a shame that that band never really got a chance.
That said, Rest in Pieces' second album, Under My Skin, is so underrated. Did you get a lot of flak when it came out for the change in sound and the awesome Montrose cover?
The Montrose cover had more to do with the Iron Maiden influence and the "rock" roots that RiP had. That was the thing. We loved The Sweet, Rory Gallagher, Hawkwind, even classical music. Armand was a brilliant writer and an awesome guitar player. We shared a love of music, all music. There was so much underneath the surface of that band that never came to fruition. It was the perfect blend of rock, punk, and metal.
You were asked to join Helmet and played on their Betty album from 1994. How was it adopting your guitar style to their post-hardcore sound and Page Hamilton's signature riff style?
I went to see Helmet with Armand and Steve Martin from Nasty Little Man. I turned to Steve, who was their publicist, and apologies to Peter Mengede, I said, "These guys are great, but that guitar player sucks." A short time after that, I get a call at my parents' house from Page asking if I was interested in rehearsing with the band. I said yeah and it turned out that they heard the Free for All LP from CBGB's and liked my guitar sound. I had no idea Helmet played in drop D tuning, so there I am playing the songs in standard tuning and pulling it off. If you play guitar, you'd understand that that's some fast chord changes. My Straight Ahead experience paid off! [Laughs] I came back the next day and had all the tunes down in drop D. I was happy, Page was baffled. I got the gig. That would last from 1993 to 1996.
You also joined Biohazard for their '96 - '97 Mata Leão tour. How did that come about?
Helmet was playing festivals in Europe and Biohazard was on the bill as well. I met [bassist/vocalist] Evan Seinfeld backstage and we knew we had a lot of people in common, so we started talking and hit it off. It's surprising I hadn't met him or any of the other guys sooner, but, nonetheless, we met that day and soon enough, I'd be getting another call to come to a rehearsal. I think Steve Martin had something to do with that as well. He let them know that I was available. A few months after parting with Helmet, I was in Biohazard.
How did you come to appear in the following movies: The Jerky Boys and Ozzfest?
The Jerky Boys was a Helmet management thing, I suppose. I also think The Jerky Boys were fans and wanted the band to be in the movie. I'm not sure. We heard Ozzy Osbourne was going to be in it and there was a shitload of money involved, so why not, right? It didn't go well. Page pissed off Disney in an interview and The Jerky Boys weren't too happy about it either. Other people made the decisions. I just played the guitar. Same goes for Ozzfest. I don't know how it came about, but it was cool to be part of the first one.
Have you done any music since then, or ever plan on playing in a band again?
The last show I played was at the Hammerstein Ballroom with Slipknot and Insane Clown Posse., where I distinctly remember looking in the crowd and looking in the eyes of a 15-year-old kid who was obviously waiting for Slipknot and I thought, "What am I doing here?" There was no connection to anything or anyone around. I felt old. I felt done. Music was my job. A JOB! The show was over. I got off the bus, and literally haven't seen anyone since. I still love to play, and if and when the time is right, will play out again.
I know you taught yoga for a while and you also work as a personal trainer. What else are you up to these days?
I have always been into fitness. With Rest in Pieces, it was weightlifting. In Biohazard I was introduced to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. I got into that for a bit and I remember a conversation with [Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu legend] Craig Kukuk about how it felt mentally, psychologically, spiritually. I remember seeing a picture of Rickson Gracie in a yoga pose, and Renzo constantly saying, "You need to open your hip." All of that came through yoga. I moved to New Jersey and began to practice and eventually teach. I was reluctant to teach because, here in the U.S., it's all about the physicality and the coolness of it. So, my teaching stopped once it became all about Lululemon, lattes, and fucking handstands.
I had one last question I wanted to ask you. I always see you posting about your beloved New York Rangers on Facebook. How do you think they'll do next season?
I think I was the only kid in Corona that was into hockey. I had my U.S.A. jersey, Brian Trottier stick (I know he was an Islander), and a street puck, but everyone else had football and baseball gear. I would occasionally go to games, but that stopped once the bands took off. After moving to New Jersey the love of hockey started again. Being from New York and moving to New Jersey, where I'm surrounded by Devils fans, has made me wave my Rangers flag high. The rivalry is big around these parts.
My biggest regret is missing the '94 Cup win. I think Helmet was in Europe at the time, and I remember watching the whole O.J. thing on a hotel TV, but missing that Stanley Cup winning season really sucks. I try not to be the typical negative Rangers fan, but they surely don't make it easy. We got close this season, but hopefully they'll win another Cup in my lifetime. As always, hope for the best, but expect the worst.