I was working as a delivery boy for Benny's Burritos in NYC’s West Village in the spring of 1990, alongside Life's Blood bassist Neil Burke, and as the band had split up the previous year, I'd pester him with comments like, "You guys rocked, why did you break up?" He would nonchalantly answer, "Ah, we were OK," and go back to slinging overpriced Mexican grub to aspiring yuppies in the neighborhood. As much as I respect Neil, I will beg to differ and state that Life's Blood were more than OK.
Life's Blood was simultaneously an atypical and tradition-minded outfit that stood out from the pack during the second half of the '80s in the NYHC scene. Caught between the straight edge contingent and the tough guy bands that dominated the field in those days. Their raw unfiltered sound and graphics on 1988’s Defiance EP, plus an uncompromising stance critical of their peers, made them unique in the sense that they were referencing an earlier era of hardcore, long before the retro wave became in vogue.
On the eve of the long-awaited Prank Records 1988 AD Hardcore discography of the Life's Blood's iconic recordings, I spoke to Neil, as well as guitarist Adam Nathanson, singer Jason O'Toole, and their second singer, Sean Murphy, about those long-gone days that continue to resonate in our collective consciousness.
Ok fellas, it's 29 years after the fact and this reissue is at least more than 5 years in the making: why now and what reaction do you expect or want?
Neil: Actually, it's been over 10 years in the making! I started pulling things out of the archives when I was still living in Providence, RI, back in about '05, but didn't really do much with any of it until a few years ago. Why now is more a result of me not getting to it over the years. There were a number or starts and stops. This should have been out years ago but it doesn't seem to have affected the interest level in the project as far as I can tell. I've never expected anything at all from this. I actually find it remarkable that anyone has even remembered what we did let alone still want an anthology all these years later.
Adam: No expectations from me. It's all gravy and flattery at this point.
Jason: I’m assuming most of the people buying the Prank Records release are already familiar with most of the songs. Hell, I probably personally know most of you who are buying the album. If this release finds new fans, I welcome them to the circle. My own kids are teenagers and they think hardcore sounds like lo-fi garbage. I’m always suspect of younger people who enjoy it today. Some hipster waitresses at a restaurant I used to frequent came up to me and said, “Why didn’t you tell us you were in that cool band!? We thought you were just some old guy!” Then they told me I was a “legend” which makes me feel even older... or altogether fictional.
I've always wondered about this quote on the insert of the Defiance EP: "Hardcore, love it or leave it." What do you think of that sentiment in 2017?
Adam: I wrote and that drew the picture with it. I was a teenage anti-poser militant.
Neil: I believe Adam came up with that one and we were all on board. We took our hardcore quite seriously at the time, we were obsessed. We were all like 18. As far as what that sentiment means now in 2017, I suppose it basically carries the same feeling, even if you're an aging bastard and you don't act out like you did when you were 18, but you still have contempt for all the bullshit and don't play along with "the game." You figure out how to navigate your way through the madness without stranding yourself on an island.
Jason: My most enduring friendships were forged in the hardcore scene. I recently went to visit my close friend Drew Keriazes (guitarist for NY Wolfpack and Albany Style) in the hospital as he is battling cancer. While I was there Steve Reddy (Equal Vision Records) walked in and we all just caught up on life, as if no time had passed. Drew had round the clock visitors at St. Pete’s and was simply lifted up by the love of his crazy hardcore friends. Days later, Drew was out winning a trophy at a car show and checking out live music. To me, that’s a miracle and it’s made possible by this thing we created out of nothing. This April’s “Doing it for Dave” show in memory of Dave Franklin (vocalist for Vision) brought together 3,000 people, mostly old timers from the NJ, NY, Philly, and other scenes. I can’t say enough good things about this event and the people who came together to make it possible. I have to mention some of the ladies of hardcore as well: Kim Colletta and Yana Chupenko in particular have cheered me up when I needed it most – classy, whip smart women who should be your role models if you had any sense.
When we interviewed Adam for the New Breed Documentary 1989 he stated that when Life's Blood started, it was already an anachronistic endeavor, wanting things (in hardcore) to be like 1982. Do you think what you were doing in 1987 was already retro or a regurgitation of something that had already happened?
Jason: Life’s Blood held fast to a juvenile version of the Nietzschean aesthetic that had been embodied in bands like Sheer Terror, Mental Abuse, Negative Approach, and Void. This was when NYHC was so deep under the influence of the Youth Crew subculture, that even Raybeez was sporting X’s on his hands. I have no issue whatsoever with Youth of Today, Bold, Gorilla Biscuits, and others getting enormously popular. They put on inspiring and energetic shows and of course a lot of people enjoyed them. I’ve followed these bands myself since they began, so you can count me as a fan. As a troubled kid who had been kicked out of military school and had his first drink in the 3rd grade, I believed that I had different reasons for getting into hardcore than the kids I perceived as being jocks. Not dumb jocks, mind you…just not as “punk rock” as me. Never mind my upper-middle class prep school and tennis camp upbringing… I was the real deal as far as I was concerned.
Neil: Back in '87 retro wasn't so much a thing the way it is nowadays, as none of this was that old to begin with, (but even then there was always talk of the "old school") but of course we took influence from bands like Negative Approach, Agnostic Front, Void, etc… but we also grew up listening to bands like Black Sabbath, AC/DC, KISS, and so on. That's probably what was coming out of us whether it sounded like it or not, the ingredients were there. Of course some of it will sound like regurgitation, it was in the zeitgeist. We were consuming it as fast as we could and then spitting out our own take on it. A lot of the bands we considered, "old school," back then had only been around 4 or 5 years before us
Adam: I wanted us to be like Cause for Alarm and play with all kinds of bands; we even modeled the foldout sleeve for the record after the CFA 7", right down to the apocalyptic drawing by Josh [Becker]. Sometimes I wonder if I'll ever get on board with a movement at its founding though. At the end of Life's Blood, in fall 1988, Ignition put out their LP with the song "Consequence." We loved Ignition, and I realize these lyrics talk about second and third wave hardcore like Life's Blood from the perspective of the founders in a pretty honest way:
It started small, the move for change
Then it learned to walk, then to organize
And contradict itself right before our eyes
A movement with a perfect flaw
A counter counter-culture
But all the while we held its hand
Helped it walk, helped it stand
We built it up, it let us down
We lit a fire that burns to the ground
The consequence of being heard
You can't control how they hear your words
The consequence of breaking rules
It opens doors for the copycat fools
The consequence of fighting back
It only provokes a second attack
No longer small, and it stays the same
No longer in us, but always of us
No longer of us, but always in us
Like a movement out of hand
Because we let it go
No longer of us, but always in us
No longer in us, but always of us
As our numbers lower everyday
I question what i used to say
But all the while...
Question for Adam and Neil: What was going through your mind when Jason announced his departure, and what made you carry on with different singers for a bit?
Adam: I thought it sucked because he was a great singer and I got up every morning in the summer of '88 and went to work in a factory thinking that when school started again things would be all right because Life's Blood would be back. We did come back, but it wasn't the Thin Lizzy moment it could've been.
Neil: Well, it was basically, "Fuck that, we're not finished yet." His role in the band wasn't so crucial that it had to end when he left. We figured we had a little fire left before it burned out. The various singers era of the band was just the fire burning out part. I have a feeling that even if Jason had stayed in the band it probably would have disintegrated on a similar time path.
Question for Jason: Why did you leave the band?
Jason: I was a moody teenager who was quick to anger, say regrettable things, and just didn’t like being expected to do anything. Back in those days, if you missed one or two matinees people made you feel like a backslider in a Baptist church. Hiding my drinking and smoking was exhausting enough… then the vegan thing came around, so I was off to be a skinhead or a raver depending on what night it was. I got a demo tape and a 7” out and as far as I was concerned, the band had accomplished as much as it need to in the short time I was with them.
Speaking of singers; between all the people who sang for Life's Blood: Jason, Adam, Sean Murphy and Tommy Rat. Which one of them you think would prevail in an MMA style, no-holds-barred cage match?
Neil: Tommy Rat of course. Nothing more to say.
Jason: Although I don’t have a tribal arm band tattoo or any Tapout t-shirts, I would have to give myself the edge considering the hundreds of street fights I got into for $14 an hour, while wearing sweaty polyester uniforms in Atlanta summers. Anyone can get lucky in a brawl though, so one can never tell. At this point one of us old men might have a heart attack while shoveling snow so we don’t need to be slugging it out with anyone.
Adam: Tommy Rat! All he would have to do is stand there in one corner of the cage in his camo shorts and cut-off sleeves Psychos shirt and pop a tape of Trip Six Back with a Vengeance in the boom box and we'd all be down for the count!
I thought Sean Murphy (2nd singer) was a great fit, though he only sang one show with you guys, why didn't things work out?
Adam: Sean was a great, vicious miserable singer. The Collapse demo (that he sang on) documents it. Sean was just like us though; he couldn't get along with anyone.
Neil: It wasn't so much Sean not working out as the band was just disintegrating on auto pilot. We couldn't really write any new songs, we were becoming stagnant and that just wasn't what it was supposed to be so it had to come to an end.
Sean: In my recollection, I was booted out. I think I wanted to handle the lyrics and Adam, I believe; wanted to pen them. I mean it was his band so… me being a head might not have gone too far with him either, besides Collapse wiped the floor with Life’s Blood! All good with those guys though, we were kids. I was barely in the group. John Kriscium (Life’s Blood drummer) is the man! Always liked Neil, too.
Tell me about the Lord Jesus alternate 7" sleeve for the Defiance EP. How many were done and why?
Adam: Dave Stein (from Combined Effort Records) pressed more Defiance vinyl than he ordered printed covers. So one day in 1989, I went to Kinko's by the train station in New Brunswick and made the extra "Lord Jesus, I'm Coming Home" covers out of a Chick Publication Bible tract and other random collage clippings I'd been saving. I felt pretty dark then and the whole thing, including the lyric sheet reflects it: the slogan "Born out of chaos, doomed to failure," a stampede of cattle going over a cliff on the back cover (which is accidentally, but fittingly, upside down). I saw on the Internet that Charles Maggio from Rorschach says I gave them away to friends. That's nicer than if I sold them, but I can't really remember. I know that the only distribution point was in front of ABC No Rio one afternoon though. Couldn't have been more than 50. Not really into the whole collector scarcity thing, just seems like capitalist fetishization. I didn't anticipate that when I made them.
Do you think it's a good time to get a lawyer and try to go after royalties for the countless bootleg Life's Blood shirts and merchandise that has come out through the years?
Neil: Well, personally, I find people who sell bootleg shirts online to be parasites. The quality of their product is usually shit as well, as far as I can tell. I know you're joking when you say lawyers, but what I have done on occasion is contact the bootlegger, tell them to knock it off immediately, and then have them donate the sales money (meager, I realize this, usually only tens of dollars) to a no-kill animal shelter and provide me with proof of donation. It's a win win for everyone. It's not about the money, as I stated, I know it's not a lot, but it's more about the principal of not jacking a bunch of bands designs for your own gain. I don't do it all that often but every now and again I'll look things up online to see what's out there. When I contact people they usually have similar responses like, "Oh, I thought the band was long done and kids just wanted the shirts." That's pretty weak reasoning, they're still making a buck off something they had absolutely nothing to do with, but if they really want to do it, they could try to contact one of us, let us know what they'd like to do and maybe something could be worked out.
If you spend a minute on the internet you can find at least one of us relatively easily, so basically, fuck the bootleggers. Go bootleg some designer jeans or a fancy handbag. Of course, though, if you wanna make some shirts for yourself and your friends, then rip it up, just stay out of the marketplace.
Adam: No, it's just flattery when people do that. They're probably making a few hundred dollars a year at most doing that. More likely they're losing money but producing merch because they love the band.
Jason: My buddy Richard Derespina (of Hell No), who is a maker of some of the finest custom knives on the planet, has had his designs ripped off by counterfeiters who put his good name on their inferior junk. That is obviously infuriating and likewise, I take the greatest offense when someone tries to pass off their Life’s Blood shirts as “original” and demands a premium price on eBay. Screen a few shirts for you and your friends to enjoy (and send me one) as far as I am concerned, but selling them for $15-$20, or more, without permission or sharing profits with the artists is dishonest.
I always considered Wes Harvey (Defiance cover artist) and Josh Becker (t-shirt images and flyers) essential members of your "aesthetic," for lack of a better word. How did they come to be involved?
Jason: Wes Harvey is unquestionably the most talented artist I have ever met. He was one of the SVA [School of Visual Arts] students along with Sean Taggart, Sean Hughes, and Parris Mayhew, who were the originals and innovators on the scene. Wes continues to produce unparalleled illustrations and paintings and frequently exhibits in his hometown of Baltimore. Wes made a couple incredible fliers for us for shows at CBGB and the Anthrax and agreed to create the cover artwork for Defiance. One day we were hanging out at my kitchen table and I showed him an old illustration that I liked – of God punishing sinners in the Lake of Fire and he adapted it to depict Skinheads in Hell. Wes is still mad that he didn’t get that original artwork back and promises that one day he is going to find out who has it and show up on their doorstep dressed only in his boxer shorts, swinging a baseball bat. He takes his art pretty seriously.
Adam: Wes and and Josh, along with a few others like Sam Crespo and Rich Unhoch (photographer), were practically in the band. Neil and I even did a couple practices at Giant Studios with Wes on drums and Sam singing as In Control (named after the Stalag 13 12") during 86-87. We hung out together every weekend for years. They didn't have to ask us when they created images because we all felt the same. We never rejected anything they came up with. Josh and I even did a pre-HardTimes.net parody one-sheet together. We were a crew without a cool place to say we were all from.
Neil: LW Harvey we got to know from hanging at CBGB. We all got along with him well. He had very refined tastes and a good sense of humor. He knew it and he got it. Josh we also knew from hanging out. We'd get pizza or tacos, go to record stores and talk hardcore. We liked his drawings, he produced the now classic "slit throat" shirt design as well as well as some other drawings we used on flyers. Both of them were at most of the shows we played. They were pivotal players in the Life's Blood game.
There's a certain mythos that has grown around the band in the succeeding decades, seems that a hell of a lot people know and are into the band now than when you were around. Tons of groups from back then have reformed or done reunion shows, would you ever entertain such an spectacle? Why or why not...
Adam: I won't do any reunions. With a few exceptions, they're let downs, turnout-wise, performance-wise. Though I did just see the Makeup before they left for Europe and they nailed it.
Jason: I was so impressed with the sincerity of the “Doing it for Dave” event which raised a ton of money for worthy causes and paid tribute to a friend who left us too soon. I have enormous respect for Blast Furnace Productions who put on big shows in Brooklyn that raise money for the Purple Heart Foundation. I would be amicable to performing as Life’s Blood at a similar event, but only if it were the original lineup. We all have had our own projects since then. I have two going now: I’m writing music and singing for Scene Crime with guys who have played in Disenchanted, Murderer’s Row, and NY Wolfpack. I’m also planning a collaboration with my Slovakian brother, Miro Snejdr (aka Herr Lounge Corps), who as it turns out is a Life’s Blood fan even though he can read and compose actual music. If this is the part of the interview where I am allowed to keep plugging my own projects, I’ll also mention I am also a fiber artist and am creating quirky, cartoonish needle felting paintings with locally sourced wool roving and I will be exhibiting this summer in Upstate NY and selling them on my own website.
Neil: Well, that certainly would be a spectacle, just not the type of spectacle I'd personally want to participate in. Life's Blood had its place in the time that it existed, and it's great that people can still appreciate it all these years later, in the form of the new anthology, interviews, online downloads of shows or demos, etc, but a reunion at this point would probably be a confusing disappointment for all involved, that being the band and the fans, promoters too, even passer-bys on the street outside the venue, etc. It's been almost 30 years since the band existed and we're all at quite different points in our lives, even though I think we all still possess the same aesthetic that brought us together all those years ago. Best to just leave it in the past.
Thank you for the inspiration, my friends, back then and now. What's your message to the youth and the young at heart that still cherish every note you ever played?
Jason: Put your faith in something bigger than yourself, tell your friends and family you love them while you still can and don’t put poison into your body because you won’t get another. Also, consider dropping in on a yoga or Tai Chi class, or getting acupuncture instead of popping pills or otherwise medicating. You and Ray Cappo were right all along… that stuff works.
Neil: To those 25 to 30 people, thanks! If you remember us or saw us back in the day and you're still following this stuff you're a fucking maniac, nothing wrong with that, you know the deal. If you're just arriving to this then, hmmm, what the take away would be is do not settle for bullshit, of which there is plenty nowadays, it's everywhere, it's infiltrated practically everything, throw wrenches into the cogs and moon everyone.
Adam: Thanks, Freddy. All your work to document things is really validating. When are we going to see something autobiographical from you? You're a pretty interesting dude. My message is Joe Strummer's message: “Everyone has got to realize you can’t hold onto the past if you want any future. Each second should lead to the next one.”
Prank Records has done a righteous job in reissuing their catalog: remastering from original sources, unseen flyers/photos, and liner notes by Adam Nathanson. Order now from the label and you can get their original t-shirt design screened by Neil Burke.