The following piece was written by Gil Sayfan and originally appeared in And Still Above All fanzine #3. Safyan interviews Freddy Alva about his close association with '80s hardcore band, Absolution.
Print copies of the zine are available here.
Can you set the scene for me as for how you came to discover Absolution? Did you know the guys before the band started, or did you discover them with fresh ears?
I remember hanging out in College Point, Queens in 1987 with the guys from Fit of Anger, and a friend of the band mentioned that a new band with Gavin from the NY Hoods was gonna be playing their first show in a couple of weeks. I was psyched to go check them out, being a big Hoods fan and also knowing Gavin from hanging out at Some Records and the CBGB's matinees. The show was at a squat on the Lower East Side, on 12th St., if I remember correctly. I'd just finished high school, pretty much doing nothing except hanging out a lot, going to shows, buying records, and immersing myself as much as possible into the hardcore scene. To travel on a weeknight about an hour down to the (back then) wild LES was a no-brainier.
The three things that stick out from that amazing show:
- The squat looked like it was about to collapse at any minute, with a huge gaping hole not too far from where the bands were playing. I was sure someone would fall on the rusty nails in that sunken pit.
- There were so many punks and squatters there, something I didn't see at the CBGB's and Pyramid shows I was used to attending, where it was predominantly skins or hardcore kids in attendance.
- When the band started and Djinji took the microphone, I was like, "Oh, shit, I know that guy." I'd seen him working as a bike messenger with a friend of mine and had talked to him a couple of times. Someone also mentioned that the bassist and drummer were in Agnostic Front, and I thought to myself, "This is gonna be really cool."
It was definitely that, and so much more. With the hindsight of 27 years, I can honestly say that was one of the best live shows I've ever seen. No matter the squat's crappy non-sound system or not knowing any of their material, all I can think of is electricity when they hit their first note. The energy was so raw and contagious, nova-like in its intensity. By the time they played their last song, the only one I did know, a cover of Crucifix's "Stop Torture," I was hooked and knew they'd just become my favorite band.
Do you recall a proper release of the Absolution demo tape? I've never seen a physical copy or any artwork associated with the demo session. Was there a tape cover, insert, etc.?
There was never a proper release of the demo. The band didn't consider it as such. The 11 songs were more like a rehearsal tape for the band to see how they were progressing, and to give out to promoters for shows. [Burn singer] Chaka Malik and I asked Gavin for a copy, and then we dubbed that for our friends, people that were fast becoming supporters of the band and one would see at all of their shows. This is the version that got widely disseminated. It's a shame it wasn't a proper demo with artwork, insert etc., as both Djinji and Gavin were talented graffiti artists. I'm sure they would've come up with something really cool. But, like I said, the band wasn't thinking of the recording in that fashion.
There was a bootleg CD of the demo in the early '90s with Djinji on the cover. I've seen that image mistakenly referred to as the demo cover, but it's not true. Like I mentioned before, there was never any artwork associated with it.
Tell me about the early shows, following their first impression made at the squat. Do any particular memories stand out?
One of the early shows that sticks out for me is when they played the Sick of it All record release show in early '88, along with Krakdown and Raw Deal. The place was bananas! CBGB's was so over-packed. I always wondered how they got away with stuffing so many people inside such a small space, must have been easily about 600+ kids at the show. The combined expectation of seeing Sick of it All and Krakdown, plus the excitement of catching the "newcomers" in Absolution and Raw Deal, was overwhelming. The flyer that Djinji drew up for the show is one of my all-time faves, perfectly capturing the kinetic image of the show.
At what point in these shows did the tape get recorded and begin being circulated?
The tape was recorded in April of '88, and by the time summer rolled around, it had been copied enough that people were familiar with the set and singing along. The old tape trading network spread that recording like wildfire out to the rest of the country and beyond, so that when it came time for weekend road trips to Boston, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut, there was enough of a fanbase that was already familiar with their material.
To me, the formation of the band is a bit mysterious. You have Gavin, Agnostic Front guys (I was told Alan was from Pittsburgh originally), and Djinji, who as you mentioned is a bike messenger, but had he been a part of the NYHC/CB's scene before this? Do you know who the key person was in forming the band and bringing them together as Absolution?
Good question, here's what I recall: Alan and Greg were from Pittsburgh and had played together in a skinhead band named Circus of Death and opened up for Agnostic Front when they came to town. They moved to NYC and Alan ended up joining Agnostic Front, playing on their Liberty & Justice For... LP. He left Agnostic Front for whatever reasons, knew Gavin from staying at the same squats they both crashed at, and brought Greg into the band Gavin was starting up. As far as how Djinji got involved, a mutual friend from Djinji's neighborhood in the Bronx, named Sergio Vega [later of Quicksand], introduced him to Gavin.
Djinji had been coming down to CBGB's since at least 1985, and never sang in a band before, but he came from a heavy musical background. His dad had played with Coltrane and other '60s free-jazz greats. That's something Gavin could appreciate, being a very astute music lover; he could see the similarities in what he wanted to do, as far as musical aesthetics go, with what Djinji's dad had done in his generation. Besides being the catalyst for Gavin and Djinji meeting, Sergio Vega also played bass in the last two shows Absolution ever did in 1989, as well playing in the first Absolution reunion show in '08, so I've always considered him the fifth member of the band.
A bit off topic, but I figured I'd ask since you bring up Sergio and Straight Ahead—the Irate which featured Tommy Carroll on vocals. What do you recall about this band? Were you at the Tompkins Square Park or CBGB's shows?
Irate were awesome! Such a shame they only played two shows and never had the chance to properly develop their songs. I give Tommy Carroll major props for doing something that wasn't Straight Ahead Part 2. In fact, they were a totally different beast: in between Jerry Williams' intricate guitar work, Sergio Vega's smooth basslines, plus the powerhouse drumming of EK and Carl the Mosher, they were a force to be reckoned with. As 1989 rolled around, a lot of bands were breaking up. I think Irate's sound could have influenced what was fast becoming the rote "NYHC sound," as exemplified by metal mosh parts, tough guy vocals, and gang-affiliated lyrics. Irate had a progressive flair that still retained a raw hardcore edge without succumbing to the by-the-numbers style that would take hold in some quarters of NYHC in the 1990s.
I don't recall exactly why they broke up, maybe something to do with Sergio playing in Moondog/Quicksand?
In any case, they will always be a footnote on what might have been. Seeing them at Tompkins Square Park and CBGB's will always remain one of my most cherished memories.
At what point in the band's career were they asked to do a recording for the New Breed tape comp? Did you know what song they would choose to contribute?
Pretty much around the time I heard Absolution's demo. Chaka and I were talking about doing some kind of compilation tape of new and upcoming bands. They were our first choice for inclusion. We actually paid for the recording of the song at Don Fury's studio. They chose "Never Ending Game," and we were lucky enough to sit in for the recording.
What were the reactions between yourself and Chaka when you first got your hands on the New Breed version of "Never Ending Game"? In my opinion, it's the band's finest recorded hour.
I gotta say that maybe it was a combination of being in a real studio for the first time, hearing this amazing song over and over, or just the band's charisma, but our jaws were on the floor in the listening booth. I have to agree with you that it is the band's finest recording. When we took home the dubbed tape and played it on our stereo, it sounded just as massive as listening to it through Don's speakers at the studio.
There was no question this would be the leadoff track on the compilation. I'll never forget the first place we took to sell the comps was the Anthrax club in Connecticut. Chris Daily of Smorsgabord zine/records practically assaulted us for a copy as we pulled into the parking lot, gave us $5, and rushed to play the tape in his car. A crowd of kids followed him, and as the Absolution song started, everyone was like, "Oh, shit!" and they bumrushed us for copies.
I've heard the song thousands of times throughout the years and it has never failed to inspire me, everything from the lyrics, riffs, production, and performance is as close to perfection as a hardcore song can get.
When you and Chaka initially had the idea, the first band on your list was Absolution, what other early bands come to mind that you knew you had to have on the tape? Were there any that you had in mind who ended up not being on there?
Getting a list going of newer bands we wanted for the comp came surprisingly easy. For my part, I just thought of band members I'd gone to school with (Mauricio from Under Pressure), people I'd worked with at various jobs (Neil from Life's Blood, Ray from Direct Approach, Sergio from Collapse), or hung out with regularly (the guys from Fit of Anger). Also, people I knew from growing up in Queens, like Gus from Discipline and Anthony from Raw Deal.
The same goes for Chaka. We basically asked all the people we knew on a regular basis from the scene in '87 - '88. All the demos we picked up around that time at Some Records played a big part in our selection. Our favorites like Breakdown, Beyond, and Outburst were obvious choices, for they were all up-and-coming bands at the time.
Were there any bands that you had in mind who ended up not being on there?
We missed out on having The Icemen on the comp due to lack of interest on their part. Also, All for One didn't make it due to a silly misunderstanding. A band from Queens called Impact couldn't get it together to record anything. I also started a band called Last Cause and we recorded one song, but I felt it wasn't good enough, so we scrapped it. In hindsight, I wish we had it left it on the comp!
Did Absolution put any other songs down while at Don Fury's recording the New Breed compilation version of "Never Ending Game," or did they only record the one song?
Absolution only recorded "Never Ending Game" specifically for the comp and no other ones that day at Don Fury's.
Were there any milestones or memorable moments from the times between Absolution doing their compilation recording at Don Fury's and then the release of the 7"?
The main thing about Absolution, no matter how good the comp song came out, was their live show. Pretty soon the band developed a core group of people that you would see up front at every show. People like graf writer Ed Hush, who would spray paint the band's name everywhere; others like super hard in the pit dancers like Stak, Sergio Vega, Chaka, Spanish Mike, and others, would just tear it up when Absolution played. Every one of their shows was an event, and without getting hokey here, the energy being emitted on stage by them seemed to be a conduit for something way greater than the sum of its parts.
The 7" that dropped in '89 just did not capture that communal spirit found in their live show. Don't get me wrong, it still sounds leaps and bounds ahead of anything coming out at the time, but something was lost in between the recording and actual pressing. I talked with Gavin about this several times and he basically said they fucked up on the mastering, they went with someone highly recommended and said person didn't do or understand the proper sequencing job needed for this type of material.
I don't know if primarily this, along with other factors, led to their demise, but it always seemed apropos that their breakup in '89 coincided with the scene in NYC changing dramatically around that time. I don't know how the band would have fared as the '90s rolled around and segregated factions in the scene became the norm, but in my mind, they're forever stuck in a real special place and time that influenced me in more ways than they'll ever know.
Absolution covered Crucifix and Antidote—are there any other covers you recall the band doing at shows, or even just at practice?
Apart from those two you mentioned, I don't remember any other covers they did. A couple of riffs for the last songs they wrote, like "In Thought," later became full-blown Burn songs, which brings me to your next question...
How did Gavin's transition from Absolution to Burn come about? Was there a time during Absolution where you think Gavin had Burn in mind?
I recall that as Absolution called it a day in mid-'89, Gavin made some tentative plans to move out to Southern California and start a band with Dan O'Mahoney from No for an Answer. At the same time, Chaka got the itch to start a band and asked Gavin for help in getting something started. As a result of doing the comp, we got to be good friends with Alex Napack from Pressure Release and Alan Cage from Beyond, so they were drafted as well into what was called, for lack of a better name, the "Chaka Harris Experience." They quickly got four songs together and Jon Hiltz [drummer of Born Against] and a French NYHC fanatic named Laurent Duguet, who was visiting me at the time, agreed to put money out for the songs to be recorded in an eight-track studio.
Gavin packed his bags and left for California soon after, and it seemed like the whole thing was gonna be a one-off project. Turns out that for whatever reason, the band with Dan didn't work out, so Gavin came back a couple of months later and he told Chaka, "Okay, let's do this band for real."
What are your thoughts now and what were your initial impressions when Burn formed?
Burn was incredible. I'm obviously super biased. The expectations that this was gonna be Absolution Part 2, what with a black singer, too, were completely unfounded. They took some of the dissonant elements that were going on in the early '90s post-hardcore scene but really molded it into a NYHC template so that no one would ever mistake them for a "post-hardcore band." As much as Chaka admired Djinji, he never imitated him and came up with his own vocal styling and unique stage presence. By late 1990, 3/4 of the band had set up a communal house; they lived and breathed the band with Burn becoming a way of life, something I've always respected them for. Not to mention the incredible musicianship on display. It's a shame they never got to record a proper full-length. I always felt they had a classic LP in them, but at least we have the monster EPs they did.
Do you have any more info on the Burn house or lifestyle?
The Burn house was in South Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Way before that place became the hipster mecca in the popular radar. Gavin and Chaka found a two-story house for rent dirt cheap. Gavin took the top floor with his girlfriend at the time, Chaka was on the ground floor, and Alan soon joined them in one of the rooms. They all worked at health food stores and would bring back tons of food, cook these huge pots of veggie food with like a dozen people hanging out and eating on any given night. Gavin had really gotten into graffiti at that time and he would go on these nightly spraypainting missions, putting up Burn all over the city along with noted graf writers like SANE/SMITH and HUSH.
I saw Chaka last year out on the West Coast and his head is in a different place now, but what he most fondly remembers of those days is that house in Brooklyn circa '90 - '91. Those guys really made the band a way of life, and I think the self-sufficiency learnt back then really carried over to where they are now.
Any final words?
Thank you so much for allowing me to write this. As you can see, these people mean a lot to me. I'm glad to still be in touch with them and continue to be blessed with their friendship. One last thing I'd like to mention is that original Absolution bassist Alan Peters has been living with a chronic illness that leaves him unable to play his beloved instrument. Keep him in your thoughts and let's honor the musicians that influenced us then and now.
This piece originally appeared in And Still Above All fanzine #3. Print copies of the zine are available here.