Back in the late '80s, Joey Vela helped put Bay Area straight edge hardcore on the map as the vocalist of Breakaway. The San Ramon-based group only released two official EPs, but their melodic strain of hardcore has lived on thanks to record collectors and newer listeners to the movement. Joey also fronted Second Coming, another hardcore outfit from Northern California that was active throughout the '90s.
In this new interview, Joey goes all the way back to his formative years in the punk scene, his musical output, and his life today.
Where were you born and raised?
I was born in Scottsdale, Arizona, but moved to Southern California when I was a month or two old, so California is all I’ve ever known growing up. I lived in Southern California until after first grade, then we moved to Northern California from Huntington Beach.
What kind of kid were you?
I guess I was a typical California kid growing up. I was way into skateboarding, and skateboarding led me to punk rock and pretty much everything I based my life on.
How young were you when you started skating?
As a little kid in Huntington Beach, all of the older neighbor kids surfed and rode skateboards. When I was 3 ½ years old, I made my first skateboard… old school style. I cut my sister's steel wheel roller skates apart and nailed them to a piece of wood. Shortly after that, my Dad bought me some real skateboard trucks and urethane wheels and made me a deck. I think I had that skateboard for maybe a few months before it was stolen out of my garage. I didn’t get another skateboard until after we moved to Northern California, guessing about 1977. Sometime in 1978, I got my first Skateboarder magazine and it was all over as soon as I flipped through the pages. That was my first exposure to pool skating and skateparks. I was so blown away by what I saw in the magazine and that’s all I wanted to do.
Who were some of your favorite skaters as a kid?
My favorite skaters back then were guys like Tony Alva, Shogo Kubo, Steve Olson, Eddie Elguera, Brad Bowman, and Dave Andrecht. But as a kid, I really looked up to Bert Lamar. He was a young kid too, older than me, but a kid compared to all the other skaters I liked. I would see these pics of this kid ripping in the pools and it made things seem attainable, like here’s this little kid winning contests and doing all of these rad tricks that the older guys were doing. My first “real” skateboard was a Sims Bert Lamar board, that first model he put out. Probably the next big skate hero for me was Steve Caballero. We’d see him in the magazines, then we would go skate Winchester and watch him rip. Like Bert Lamar, Stevie was this little kid that just completely killed it. Seeing him skate in person was so rad. Kind of the next era of skateboarding. Guys like Cab, Lance [Mountain], Neil Blender, those were the guys I looked up to for a long time.
How did punk and hardcore enter the picture for you? Were there older friends or family members that helped turned you onto that kind of music, or did you discover it on your own?
Punk and hardcore definitely came to me by way of Skateboarder magazine. They would have pictures and write ups on all of these bands that just looked so cool. And some of the skaters started looking more punk and changing their style. Something about it appealed to me. I started looking for the records of the bands that I would see in Skateboarder. The Clash, the Ramones, Sex Pistols, and Black Flag were the first bands that completely opened my eyes to punk rock and hardcore. No one in my neighborhood was into punk rock at all and my family was not into it. After I really got into punk and had a lot of records, it was about the same time that there was a lot of really negative press about punk rock and how dangerous it was. My parents kind of flipped and bought into it. I remember coming home from school one day and they took away all of my records and told me that they saw a change in me since I started listening to this music. They told me that I could have my records back if they saw a change going back to “normal.” I don’t remember how long they had my records, maybe a few weeks, but I had taped all of my records and continued listening to everything while my records were gone. They gave my records back and felt like I was reformed. It was kind of a joke since I never stopped listening to the music, and haven’t stopped since.
Who were some of the bands in your region that you remember going to see live that had a big impact on you as a teen?
We had some great bands from the Bay Area; Dead Kennedy’s, Code of Honor, Fang, but I think the bands that really made a big impact on me when I was a kid were bands like Tales of Terror and Condemned to Death. The singers of both bands would go nuts and do back flips on stage. I just remember thinking it was the sickest thing watching these guys go off. Then I saw 7 Seconds and it was somewhat of a game-changer for me. Before seeing 7 Seconds, we would go see bands and all we wanted to do was drink on the way to the show and get in the pit. We didn’t even care who was playing, we would go out to the city and go to shows because we loved the scene and loved being a part of it. 7 Seconds was the first band I saw that made it more fun to be up front and sing along. And, of course, after I was in a band and started playing shows, it was bands like Christ on Parade, Clown Alley, and Violent Coercion that we became friends with and were pretty influential.
When did you claim edge, and what was your family’s reaction to that decision?
July of 1987. I had a lot of fun drinking when I was a kid, but I was somewhat of an asshole when I drank. I had a lot of cousins that were into hard drugs and I knew I didn’t want to go down that path, and the last night I drank, my buddy, and I went to the movies and were already drunk going in and we were sneaking in beer into the theater. Apparently the kid at the theater said he needed to check our jackets, and I knocked him out and kept walking like nothing happened. I honestly didn’t even remember doing it, and that kind of scared me. It was a wake up call, like this isn’t for me, not the path I should be on. So that was it, the last time I drank and the moment I looked for something more positive to redirect myself to. I don’t really know if my family had any reaction to it at all.
How did Rabid Lassie come to be? Also, I have to ask: What is the story behind that band name?
1985, some of my friends at school were starting a band and they asked me if I wanted to sing. Up until then, I really had no desire to be in a band. If I remember correctly, a guy named Jeff was the one who came up with the band name, and he was just a friend of Trent and Ted’s, our guitarist and drummer. Those guys were all pretty funny and never took things too serious. Trent Nelson, the guitar player, is a kick ass photographer and he documented a lot of the scene back then. He took some really amazing photos and some of his photos from the scene can be seen on his website at Trenthead.com. I really have Trent to thank for getting me involved in being in bands.
Unit Pride was another hardcore band from the San Ramon area that had a big impact, and their guitarist, Tim Monroe, would end up playing with you in Breakaway.
Aww man, those were my boys. I loved Unit Pride. We used to hang out all the time, we would go to their band practices and they would go to ours. Tim and Pete both would fill in for Breakaway when we needed help to play a show. At one point, Tim and Pete from Unit Pride, and me and Trent from Breakaway, got together and did fun cover sets of our favorite Youth of Today and Crippled Youth songs. It was all for fun and we would change parts of the songs, like "K-Town Mosh Crew," we changed to "SR Mosh Crew," which is funny because it was all just a joke when we played those cover songs and some of the guys that hung out back then, took it and ran with it. SRMC was born. But back to Unit Pride… I loved those guys. Great band, great guys. Both Tim and Pete both ended up playing in Breakaway as full members, too.
The earlier Rabid Lassie stuff had more of a punk feel. What inspired you guys to shift your sound into a more straight-forward hardcore direction as time went on?
We came from a punk background, so our influences when we started were all punk bands. The bands we were into in ‘87 were more hardcore and straight edge bands, so musically, we followed the direction of the bands we were into. We did another demo that same year with songs that would end up on the first Breakaway recordings.
In 1988, the band name changed to Breakaway. Was that a case of not wanting to be pigeonholed as a jokey band, by people who wouldn’t even give you a chance based on the name Rabid Lassie?
Completely. At the time, the whole “Gilman Geek” thing was going on and even though we were friends with a lot of those bands and were part of the overall scene, we weren’t into that Gilman Geek thing at all and didn’t want to be another band that got lumped into some goofy thing that didn’t interest us. We wanted to separate ourselves from all of that.
At that point in time, were the East Coast hardcore bands coming out to the Bay Area often?
Youth of Today had been out a few times by then, and more East Coast bands started coming through also. 1988 was probably a much bigger year for the East Coast straight edge bands coming through, though.
The first Breakaway 7” came out in 1988, on an Arizona-based label called Soul Force Records. Who was behind that label, and how did you hook up with them?
I want to say it was a guy named Jeff that ran Soul Force. I'm drawing a blank on his last name. I can’t remember exactly how we got hooked up, I probably either called him or sent a letter asking if he was looking for bands to put out. I think I might’ve got hooked up with him through Jeff Boetto, who was in Straight Arm at the time. He did put out that first Reason to Believe 7”, which was rad, and the first Insight 7”.
What was the reaction like when that 7” came out, and you guys do any kind of touring at that point?
We were never a big band and there really wasn’t much reaction after the 7” came out. We didn’t do any touring at all, and I think the only shows we got outside of the Bay Area either got cancelled or we got kicked off the bills. [Laughs] We were so rad.
The next Breakaway record was released in 1993, almost five years after the first 7”. That’s a lifetime in hardcore years! Why was there such a long gap between those releases?
The second Breakaway recording was recorded in 1989, after we already broke up. I liked the last few songs we had and wanted to record them, just so I had something to remember the songs by. I asked some of the guys if they would do the recording just to do it, it was never meant to be anything other than just a recording. At the time, Don was away at college, so my friend Jeff Hill from Tyrranicide said he would play bass on the recording and he was also the one doing the recording for us. Jason was in Dance Hall Crashers at the time and really had no interest in playing hardcore. The entire time we were in the studio, he played ska upbeats in between every take and just wasn’t into it at all. After we finished the recording, Jeff called me up and we talked about how Jason’s guitar on the recording just didn’t quite sound right and asked me if I would mind if we went back in and he re-recorded the guitar tracks himself. At the same time, I got a call from Tony Rettman asking me if Breakaway had any songs that we could contribute to a comp. I told him that we already broke up, but we were finishing up a last recording and he could use those songs if he wanted. It went from being a recording just to have the songs, to songs to be used for a comp, then Tony Rettman decided to make it a separate 7” instead. It took forever to come out, but I’m not exactly sure why it took so long to finally come out.
Along with Tony Rettman's Consequence Records, Teamwork Records co-released that 7". The latter label was owned by Chris Kelly of the band 97. Did you know each other from playing shows, or was it strictly a mail correspondence kind of thing?
I never met either one of those guys in person back then, and still have never met either one. It was all through mail and phone calls back then. It wasn’t exactly a good experience to be honest… aside from it taking forever to finally come out, when it finally did come out, I found out about it coming out from other people. A lot of rumors of different pressings and at that point, I still hadn’t even seen a record. Chris found out about it and sent me some copies that had badly photocopied covers, minus one copy that had a good cover. He apologized for it and said that he didn’t know we never got any copies. I bought a copy of the record at a store that was on blue vinyl and had a full color cover, then later bought a copy of the bootleg CD Lost and Found put out of both 7”s. Whatever, I was bitter about it for a while with Tony, but he later apologized for it… we were all young and didn’t always make the best decisions.
Why did Breakaway end up breaking up?
At that point, Don went away to college and was more into different music, Jason was in Dance Hall Crashers and wasn’t into hardcore at all, and I was pretty much the only one still wanting to play hardcore. We had gone through so many different lineup changes, it just didn’t seem worth doing anymore, so we called it quits.
How did Second Coming come together? The band started at a time when many musicians from the hardcore scene began branching out into different musical styles, but you didn’t go in that direction.
I was hanging out with Jeff Hill from Tyrranicide a lot and he was the one who played guitar and bass on the last Breakaway recording. We had talked about doing a band together for a while, and one day we just decided to finally make it happen. We both wanted to play hardcore and felt like the hardcore scene in the Bay Area was almost dead. When we first started the band, we didn’t really have a line up, but we wanted to get started, so Jeff played guitar and I half-assed played bass until we found other members. It took a while to get a lineup together, but we finally got it going and started playing shows in ’92. We did our first demo and shortly after we recorded, Francisco, who was starting Chapter Records, asked if he could put out some of the demo songs on a 7". I remember him being a little bummed when we were putting together the layout for the 7”. He thought we were a straight edge band because I was in it. You could see the disappointment on his face when I told him we weren’t a straight edge band, and that I was the only one in the band that was straight edge.
I’m not certain if he was a member of the band for that long, but Mike Ronchette played drums on the second Second Coming EP, Wake. That name sticks out to me because I’m a big dork for Bay Area thrash metal, and Mike played on one of the Legacy demos. Legacy obviously became Testament.
Mike was a badass drummer. Second Coming had gone through a few line up changes, and Rick Ronchette, Mike’s brother was playing bass for us. Rick was in the band for a while and our drummer just wasn’t working out, so we made the tough decision to kick him out. Jeff was really good friends with Anthony, our old drummer, so Jeff decided to quit the band because he didn’t want to lose a friend over a band. At that point, Don from Breakaway had recently moved back from college, so I asked him if he would want to play guitar for us, and Rick asked his brother if he would want to play drums. At the first practice with Mike on drums, his drum set was so big, it wouldn’t even fit in the small practice studio. His drums were huge, like his rack toms were the size of a floor tom, and he had two huge kick drums, and more cymbals than I had ever seen in any hardcore band. He was definitely from the metal scene. He ended up having to strip down his set and got a double pedal to cut down on size as well. They were both in the band for a while. Both were great musicians and great to be in a band with, but they both got fed up with scene politics and ended up quitting, leaving us looking for another new lineup.
Back in the mid-'80s, the whole thrash scene was really happening in the Bay Area. There were lots of shows with mixed bills with thrash bands playing with hardcore and punk bands. It didn’t always go over well, but for the most part, everyone got along. Ruthies Inn and the On Broadway had some pretty rad shows with a rad mix of bands.
The sole Second Coming album, In Denial of Our Impermanence, came out in 1999. I remember having difficulty tracking down a copy when it came out. But I did manage to score one on eBay.
Originally, Gus Peña was going to put it out [he was also in the bands Ocean of Mercy and NYC Discipline]. He was starting a label and asked me if we would do it. I was stoked to record and after we were already recording, Gus had to pull the plug on his label. We finished the recording and Greg from Breakout said he would put it out. Unfortunately, the mix is pretty bad on it and I don’t think it really captured what we were hoping to put out. I honestly don’t know if something happened in between mixing and mastering, because I remember the recording sounding a lot better at the studio and even in cars when we would get parts finished. It’s unfortunate because I think the songs are really good, it just didn’t represent us, like the way we sounded live or anything. There were other issues in the recording, like the drums, but that’s a whole other story. Jon is/was such a better drummer than it showed in the recording, just a bad time in his life, and I’ll leave it at that. Jon is rad, I wish things were different when we recorded. The only touring we did was all West Coast; Southern California up to Seattle, we made those trips quite a bit, but that was it.
Why did Second Coming break up?
Don moved to Portland, and we had gone through so many lineup changes, it just wasn’t the same any more. Our last drummer, Tony was a badass drummer, and it would’ve been rad to keep playing with him, but the overall chemistry of the band wasn’t there anymore. I had spent so much time being in bands with Don, it didn’t feel the same without him, so I decided to call it quits.
Did you play in any other bands after that?
I did a couple other bands while doing Second Coming at the same time, both were more Dag Nasty-ish type bands. The second one I did was with John Coyle and was rad. John is an amazing guitar player and writes really good music. I was stoked on that one, but I had issues with one of the other guys in the band, so I quit. It was better for them anyway, John’s wife started singing and they became 9 Speed. After Second Coming broke up, I started up another band with Jeff Hill and Tony Barbier, our last drummer in Second Coming. That was one of the bands that I was really excited about. It was kind of like a heavier version of Quicksand. I was really stoked on the music, stoked on the direction, and stoked on the guys in the band, but being a bit older, and having other responsibilities, we had other things that we needed to put the band on hold for, and unfortunately, we just never got back to it.
I’ve seen some of your artwork on your Instagram page and it’s quite impressive. When did you start drawing, and have you always been interested in the hyper-realistic style that I’m seeing on your page? Those portraits are incredible!
Thanks, I appreciate it. I guess I’ve always drawn and liked doing art, but never really took it too serious until I got into graffiti. That’s when I really started to practice drawing and pushing myself to get better. I had met Raevyn from TWS and that was huge for me. I loved his work and he’s seriously the best artist I’ve ever met. So much talent and such drive, I’d never met someone who drew as much as him. I started hanging out with him and I really learned a lot about art. I have so much respect for that guy and it really pushed me to be better just by being around him. I took what I learned from him and the graffiti scene in general and started learning to airbrush and do more artwork. From there, I always wanted to learn to paint, but I’m extremely lazy and always put it off, thinking it was too much work. Which it is… ha, but I’m learning. Painting is a fucking challenge, its hard as hell and takes me way longer than it should. It’s one of the most frustrating things I’ve ever set out to learn, but I love it. I’m slowly getting better at it, slowly getting faster at it, but it’s always a work in progress, always a lot more to learn, always a crap shoot if it will turn out or not. But I like the challenge, I like driving myself crazy trying to put in the tiniest detail. Always pushing myself, trying to be the artist I want to be.
Tell me about your career as an artist. Do you work freelance, or are you at a design firm?
Well, my real job is in the art department at BART, which is the transit system in the Bay Area. It’s really more of the “graphics” department, than the art department. It used to be about a 60/40 split with graphic design and art, and over the years, it’s changed to about 80/20, mostly real basic graphic design. Not the most creative work, but it has given me a lot of time to do my own thing and practice my drawing skills during down time. Well, I used to get more practice in. I would finish my real work really fast and have a lot of down time to do my own thing, then my boss started telling me that it looks bad if I’m not doing work related stuff. I told him that drawing is part of my job and that I’m just keeping up on my skills and he said he would rather me sit there doing nothing than sit there drawing “skulls and eyeballs.” [Laughs] It's so lame. It used to be the raddest job. I can’t really complain too much, but now when I draw during down time, I need to try to hide it so I don’t get in trouble for drawing in the art department. Makes a lot of sense.
As far as the artwork I actually love doing… that’s all on the side. It’s either for art shows, commission pieces, or just for practice and the love of making art. I was also lucky to have a few people take a chance on me, like Joe Murdach at 63 Bluxome, and Mark from Gasoline/El Cuervo. Mark and Ralph from El Cuervo Gallery in El Segundo are the best and they have given me some kick ass opportunities. I can’t thank those guys enough for all that they do and have done. El Cuervo is such a rad place and I strongly urge everyone to go by and check the place out.
I've also seen how much pool skating you still do. I’m sure it keeps you in great shape, but how tough is it to recover from injuries these days? I’m 42, but I see guys out here in LA that are pushing 60 who are still ripping it up!
I skate as much as possible, which is never enough. Responsibilities get in the way. I’d like to think it keeps me in shape, but I’m in terrible shape, but I’ll take it. It keeps me in better shape than I’d be without it, that’s for sure. Yeah, as a kid, we can take a hard slam, get right back up and keep skating all night. Now… I’ll feel that shit for a week or two. It really takes it out of you when you hit hard, but I’m a glutton for punishment and don’t stop even when I should. Back in ’92, I blew out my knee and had my ACL removed and only have a small piece of cartilage left in my knee. I’m constantly re-injuring my knee or getting hurt somewhere else, but that’s part of it, you have to pay to play. If you don’t fall, you aren’t trying.
Skating isn’t easy and injuries are just part of the deal. It usually takes me longer to fully recover from injuries because I don’t take the time to heal. It’s hard to stay away from it, so I always think, Ok, I’ll just go cruise around. I won’t even try anything, just cruise and get some exercise. That lasts for a few minutes, then I start thinking, OK, the pain isn’t too bad, I think I can probably do a few small tricks, it won’t be a big deal. Then I start pushing harder and harder, thinking I’m good enough to go for it. Next thing I know, I’m bailing really hard and limping my way out of the skatepark. It is what it is, I just can’t stay away from it. I’d go nuts without it. But I’m really stoked to be able to share my love of skateboarding with my son. It’s been rad watching him progress and be just as stoked on skateboarding as I have been.
In terms of hardcore, do you seek out new bands, or do you stick with the classics?
Yeah, I still go to shows and still love hardcore just as much as I always have. I don’t make it out to shows as much as I used to, but I couldn’t imagine not being into hardcore. I am the person I am because of hardcore and skateboarding and will always be eternally grateful to both. I’m not fully up on new bands, but I occasionally get turned onto something new that I really like. There seems to be those bands every so often that completely renew your faith in hardcore. Probably not the best example because they broke up a long time ago and aren’t new anymore, but there are those times when things start to get a little stale, then a band like Dead Hearts come out that just get it. That band fucking killed it and just made me so stoked on hardcore. There will always be bands like that, that come out and just rip and bring back that feeling. And the classics still hold strong for me, both classic punk rock and hardcore, that’s the shit I grew up with and the stuff I still really love.
If someone asked you what your favorite NorCal hardcore record is of all time, which one would it be and why?
That’s a tough one. I’d have to say there are two for completely different reasons. The Code of Honor/Sick Pleasure split will always be special to me. Code of Honor was just so sick and one of those bands that just blew me away the first time I heard them. Throw in the skateboarding side of it, and it's hard to go wrong with that classic. The other, hands down, the Powerhouse No Regrets record. Those guys were the best. Some of the best guys I’ve ever known, a great band, and they really represent a great time in Bay Area hardcore. Hard to put into words how much I appreciate those guys and all that they did for the scene. Plus, I had the honor of painting the record cover, so I was pretty stoked on that as well. There have been so many great bands from Northern California, but these two cover two different eras for me that I will always remember.
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