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Dr. Know Bassist Ismael Hernandez on Nardcore History, Crossover + More

Dr. Know in the '80s. (Photo: Alison Braun)

In my continuing effort to document some early hardcore history, I bring you an interview with the one and only Ismael Hernandez from Oxnard, CA’s Dr. Know. Ever wonder about Love and Rockets comics and why they were connected to LA punk rock? Have you ever wondered what it would sound like if the Germs and Black Sabbath had a baby? Well, wonder no more my friends. 

You are Ismael Hernandez, bass player from Oxnard’s own Dr. Know, correct?

Yes.

You were around from pretty early on in the hardcore days, how did you get into it?

Well, I have an older brother so it was kind of easy for me. He started taking me to punk shows. My very first punk show was back in ’78.

Oh wow! Do you remember who you saw?

It was the Ramones, in September of ’78. That was my first show, and then my brothers, they were into stuff like the NY Dolls, the Stooges, Slade, and T-Rex, so punk wasn’t that big of a jump for them. They were already headed in that direction. And then I just kept going to shows and it started morphing into hardcore. Then I saw Black Flag in mid-’79.

Nice! Where was it and who was singing?

Keith [Morris] was singing and it was at the Hong Kong in Chinatown LA. Red Cross opened with the original lineup: Greg Hetson on guitar, Ron Reyes on drums and then the McDonald brothers singing and playing bass and guitar. Then I think Black Flag played with Keith singing, then the Middle Class and then the Germs. I was super excited to see Black Flag because I had heard Nervous Breakdown and it blew my mind, I used to come home from drinking and put on headphones and listen to it over and over and over as loud as I could stand it. The Teen Idols from DC played that summer at the Hong Kong, too, I remember, but I missed them.

What made you want to play bass to begin with?

I started playing bass when Robin [Cartwright], the original drummer from Dr. Know, and Kyle [Toucher, Dr. Know singer/guitarist] were first deciding to start a band and they asked me to sing and I said, "hell no!" And then I said "well, Robin’s drumming Kyle’s playing guitar, so I’ll play bass because I didn’t wanna sing, basically." I was super shy back then, there was no way I was gonna pick up a mic. I remember Robin saying they asked me to sing because I was the only person they knew who had short hair [laughs].

So, you kind of looked punk then is what you’re saying?

Yeah [laughs].

Who started the term “Nardcore” and did you feel a kinship other than geographical to the other bands?

Oh yeah! I’m pretty sure I was the first one who said it. Because everybody was using the term “hardcore," actually, Ill Repute was using the term a lot. They were the first people that I knew who were using it, I’m not saying they used it first, just they were the first people I knew personally who used that term. We were all really tight, it was a really small scene so everybody was really close. And while it was basically geographical, it was kids from all over too but mostly kids from Oxnard. 

One of Dr. Know's first zine ads, circa 1984. (Provided by Fred Hammer)

I know you weren’t in Ill Repute but since you mentioned them, let me ask, what’s up with the whole “Oxnard, Land of No Toilets” thing?

[Laughs] As far as I know, they were just being assholes, they were just being funny. Nothing more than that.

I always wondered if it was like, there were no public restrooms in Oxnard so you just had to take a leak wherever you could [laughs].

No, they were just being funny. 

Were you in any bands before Dr. Know?

No, that’s my first band. 

So, how did Dr. Know come together originally? How did you guys all meet?

I met Robin in 9th Grade and we knew each other but we weren’t buddies. And then at the end of ’78 I remember seeing him wearing a Ramones shirt at school and it kind of freaked me out because I didn’t know anyone else who liked punk except for my brothers and I. Then in early ’79 I saw him wearing a Clash shirt so I stopped him at school and started talking to him and he remembered me and we started talking and we bonded over music and he introduced to me his neighbor, which was Kyle and they were friends since 1st grade. But Kyle went to a different high school so I didn’t know him. 

Did your parents support your punk rock endeavors?

No! My mom, it was just all in one ear and out the other. She had no idea what I was doing. 

But she didn’t try to stop you or anything?

No, she just thought it was ugly. She thought all my clothes were ugly and she hated the sound of it. When I was in band, that didn’t mean anything to her. For all she knew we were playing weddings, y’know? 

So, she never came to see Dr. Know?

Oh no, never. 

Who came up with the name Dr Know?

Kyle actually came up with the name because he liked James Bond movies and Doctor No is the name of the first James Bond movie, he just changed the spelling to make it look cool.

For a short time before that we were called the Accused.

What happened to Robin the drummer and how’d you get Rik Heller?

I don't remember the exact reason why Robin left the band, I just remember we all had a giant fight at practice and he left pissed off. Rik Heller offered to drum when he heard about it. Rik was originally singing for a short time but he got splitting headaches, too bad because he had a great voice, he sounded like Cal from Discharge. Before that he was drumming for Agression for a while.

Where did the horror themes in Dr. Know’s songs and imagery come from?

Oh, just because Kyle loved horror and sci-fi. And if you think about it, most of those movies were actually about something, like a lot of them are about the apocalypse. I mean, sci-fi is more than just monsters, y’know? It’s just stories and kind of comments on the world we live in. So, kind of like that. 

How did songwriting work in Dr. Know? Was it collaborative or was there a main songwriter? 

Kyle wrote about probably 90% of the riffs and the vocals. Everybody was free to throw in whatever, but he was definitely the main guy. 

Dr. Know was one of the first punk/hardcore bands to incorporate some metal in your sound. Where did that come from and did you guys get any crap for it from the punk scene?

A little bit but not too bad. Kyle was a metalhead.

I remember when we started Dr. Know he said he wanted it to sound like Black Sabbath and the Germs had a baby. That was his ideal that he was going for.

Has anyone ever told you that you guys, especially the guitar sound on This Island Earth, you kind of musically sounded a bit like Celtic Frost? 

No, nobody ever told me that and I quit right after we recorded that album. 

Wait, I know you went on at least one tour for that album because I saw you and my high school band opened for you guys on the Penn State University campus on that tour.

Yeah, I did the tour for that album and then I quit.

Dr. Know at Penn State University, 1986. (Photo: Chris Boarts Larson)

So, why did you quit Dr. Know?

Well, to me I thought we were kind of spinning our wheels. I couldn’t really see where it was going. 

I believe it was Jaime Hernandez of Love and Rockets comics fame who did the Dr. Know logo. How did that happen? Is there any relation?

Yeah, he’s my brother.

OK, I always wondered about that. So, he’s the brother that was taking you to shows?

Yeah, our older brother Gilbert (also of Love and Rockets comics fame) took both of us to shows. 

I always wondered about all the punks and punk graffiti in those comics and wondered if you guys were related. Did you ever do any artwork or just your bros?

When I was a little kid I used to do stuff but not as a punk rocker. 

What’s the story with you guys and Brandon Cruz (child star of The Courtship of Eddie’s Father TV show, starring Bill Bixby), how did that happen? Was he the original singer before Kyle? I’ve always wondered about the timeline there.

When Kyle and Robin asked me to sing for Dr. Know, I said no and told them I had a friend Joe who sang, so he sand for us for probably the first four to six months just doing covers. And then he quit because he really wasn’t into hardcore, he was more of a Johnny Thunders, New York Dolls kinda guy. And Kyle had met Brandon at a party and asked him to sing. We recorded what’s called The Original Group on Mystic but it didn’t come out til after Plug-in Jesus because of legal shit, because of Brandon. So that was the first album even though it was released second.

What can you tell me about being on Mystic Records?

You know, at the time there was a lot of bitterness between a lot of people and Mystic. I don’t know anybody who ever got a penny from them but as people, Philco, the guy who basically, I mean Doug Moody was the owner but Philco kind of ran everything and he’s an awesome guy. I don’t have a bad thing to say about him. I mean, honestly, it was a fantastic place to hang out. You could go any time and there was somebody recording or just hanging out in the lobby getting drunk. It was literally half a block from Cathay de Grande, where all the bands played, so I have a lot of fond memories of Mystic as a place and the people. 

Did they at least give you guys like a box of records to sell or whatever?

Oh yeah, yeah, they would do that. They would give you stuff when you went on tour. 

Who owns the rights to all that stuff now, do you know?

I have no idea. I think Doug Moody’s still alive. 

He is. I saw on Facebook a while back someone was reviving the Mystic name. I don’t know how much he’s still involved or whatever because he’s gotta be pretty old now. 

I noticed that, yeah. 

Did you hang out with the infamous El Duce (Mentors drummer and singer) a lot back then (since he’s mentioned in the band’s song “Fist Fuck”)? Any good stories?

Yeah, ‘cause he was around. I mean, he hung out at Mystic a lot. He was just kind of always hanging around Hollywood and he would harass girls and y’know he was always around. I can’t say I knew him but I hung out with him and got drunk with him. 

Ismael playing with Dr. Know in the '90s. (Photo: Fred Hammer)

Dr. Know went from a four piece (w/ Fred Mattaquin on lead guitar) to a three piece by the time This Island Earth came out. What was the story there? 

We just always had problems keeping people. Y’know, Brandon quit, Kyle started singing and then Fred quit to re-start his band, False Confession. And then it was just easier to deal with three people. Touring, everything was just easier. We didn’t even have roadies, we just did everything ourselves. 

What was touring like in the early days compared to when the band got on Death Records/Metal Blade? Did Doug Moody float you guys any tour support money?

No, not money but they made posters for us once and like I said, gave us records to sell, which was better than nothing I guess. 

Like I said before, my teenage band played with Dr. Know on the Penn State University campus shortly after This Island Earth came out and I asked you guys how you got on Death Records/Metal Blade. One of you made a sort of pornographic hand gesture towards their mouth (if ya know what I mean), can you tell us the real story of how that happened, or maybe that was the real story? 

[Laughs] You know what, what band were you in?

I was in Heart of Darkness, I don’t know if you remember that show, it was ’86 I believe…

I don’t remember actually. I was sober then so I don’t remember anything. 

I remember the other two dudes in Dr. Know were making fun of you for having the same pose in every picture on the album [laughs], the Dr. Know Blue Steel.

I’ve been accused of sleeping on stage. But, the way I remember getting on Death Records was, Alison “Mouse” Braun who used to take pictures for Maximum Rocknoll, she had a friend William Howell who worked at Metal Blade. I think that was the connection. 

Were you into any of the other crossover kind of hardcore bands like COC or DRI?

I mean, I was as buddies, y’know, because we played with those guys a lot but I wasn’t really into the whole crossover thing, that’s kind of the reason I left the band because everything was going way more metal than my taste. I think they went on for like two years after I left. 

Did you check out the Wreckage in Flesh album?

Oh yeah, yeah, for sure, I played the hell out of it! A couple of those songs, we were writing when I quit. 

What did you think of the Slayer cover of “Mr. Freeze” on their punk covers album, Undisputed Attitude?

I thought that was awesome! And you know what’s funny is, I didn’t know anything about it. Somebody mentioned it to me and I basically called them a liar and said, No fuckin’ way! But I thought it was cool.

Too bad you guys didn’t get Guns N' Roses or Metallica to do it and get a bigger paycheck.

I know. 

We’ve come to the portion of my interviews where I like to ask about specific memories from show flyers, so here we go:

Was that show in Philly?

Yeah man, I was in (opening band) Positive Hate and we borrowed and subsequently accidentally broke Kyle’s guitar chord (he was pissed) and the cops shut down the show after Goverment Issue played about one and a half songs but you guys got to play your whole set. 

I do remember that show very clearly, they had [This Is] Spinal Tap on in the backstage area. 

I remember this show very clearly because Discharge had big hair and thought they were a heavy metal band and people were spitting at them and throwing beer at them. Which sucks because up until that point they were probably my favorite band of all time. I remember they weren’t super friendly, not jerks just not friendly. But two years before that we played with them in Copenhagen and they were super nice to us, which was great ‘cause they’re my heroes. 

I don’t remember playing that show with Necros specifically but that photo is from the Sun Valley Sportsman’s Hall and the guy jumping is Mark Fisher. He sang for us for like six months, right before Kyle started singing. That was also right before Fred [Matatquin,] quit. We were actually a five piece for six months. 

I don’t remember ever playing with Anthrax, I wonder if this was after I left?

It was actually at the Anthrax club in Connecticut.

Oh ([laughs]. I’m almost 60! I do remember that show because they had that awesome mural on the side on the building. 

I remember playing a bunch of shows with the Vandals at that time but I don’t remember playing with Social Distortion. Don’t remember playing with Youth of Today either. I was sober for most of the '80s but I still can’t remember a lot of stuff. 

What have you been doing since Dr. Know split?

I didn’t play music for like 11 years and then Dr. Know started up again, y’know, me and Brandon and then there was actually two versions of Dr. Know at the same time. And now I’m just doing False Confession with Fred which is kind of a hardcore/goth band. 

False Confession (Photo found on Facebook)

So, you could kind of say you came full circle, you guys are playing together again. Do you do any Dr. Know songs in that band?

Actually yeah, there’s three songs that Fred, when he broke up False Confession in 1983 and joined Dr. Know, he brought three False Confession songs with him so yeah, there’s actually three songs that are actually in both bands. He wrote ‘em but the lyrics are different but the music’s pretty much the same. 

What songs?

"Left to Burn," "God Told Me To," and "The Intruder."

Cool. Do you guys have a record out?

False Confession has a 7” out and a vinyl release of their demo tape so yeah. 

Where can people get it or check it out?

Well the 7” was released on Mystic originally. And the demo, I can’t remember the label, it’s a local LA label. 

Do you keep in touch with any fellow former members? Obviously you and Fred are in a band together so..

Yeah, yeah. Kyle and I, we don’t talk a lot but we do occasionally, y’know. And Rik Heller, the drummer, he moved to Scotland in the late '80s and he doesn’t talk to anybody. 

Oh ok, I was wondering whatever happened to him.

He joined the Exploited and was in the Exploited for like a year. And then he stayed there in Scotland and he ended marrying a Scottish girl and having kids and stuff. He hasn’t played in bands since, I think ’90 or something. 

Well, good for him. Do you still live in Oxnard?

I live in Ventura, next town over from Oxnard. 

Ismael Hernandez in 2019. (Photo: Albert Munoz)

Do you have a website or anything else you’d want me to put on here?

Oh man, I’m terrible at that stuff.

Well alright then, that’s all I got so I guess I’ll let ya get back to your morning then, thanks!

OK cool. 

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Tagged: a hardcore conversation, dr know

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