Back in 1994, I was still in college and interning at the NYC offices of Roadrunner Records. I was helping Sophie Diamantis and Sue Marcus in the publicity department, and one of the records we worked was Dog Eat Dog's All Boro Kings album. The New Jersey-based band had released an EP the prior year and was already on my radar due to their connection with Mucky Pup, another Jersey group who had a big local following, even in NYC. All Boro Kings was a smash throughout Europe, and Dog Eat Dog even won Breakthrough Artists of the Year at the MTV Europe Music Awards in 1995.
Dog Eat Dog has gone on to have a long career, and have kept their popularity up in Europe through touring a key festival appearances. Since they were one of the first marketing campaigns I got to help out on all those years ago, they've always had a special place in my heart.
I recently spoke with Dog Eat Dog vocalist John Connor about the band's history, plus his formative years in suburban New Jersey. As you'll read below, he was very open and honest about the band's triumphs and lows.
Before we get into your career, I wanted to find out a bit about your childhood.
First off, thanks for your interest in me and Dog Eat Dog. I appreciate it! I am first-generation American-born in NYC to Irish immigrants. As a small child, my family moved from the Bronx to Ft. Lee, NJ. I spent most of my youth in Northern NJ. The Irish are very into their own cultural songs so some of my first memories of music were people singing “live or accapella” in homes and pubs. My parents also had records around the house: Belafonte, Kingston Trio, Cash…I remember my first “band” was me and my younger sister pantomiming to Elton Johns “The Bitch is Back."
Was music your first love? What kind of stuff did you first start listening to?
I was a pretty active kid, I spent a lot of my time doing normal kid stuff: Climbing trees, playing unsupervised sports, riding bikes. I wanted to be Evel Knievel growing up. There were parks, woods, plenty of things to do in the '70s when kids had quite a bit more freedom then they do now. In grade school I started to take notice of music. KISS certainly stood out with their look and accessibility being on tv and stuff. About junior high school time, I remember delivering the Sunday paper on my bike and listening to the FM rock station (WPLJ?) and hearing Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid." Changed the game for me right there, I started pedaling faster and didn’t even know why. The sound of that band, Ozzy’s wail. It was like a siren calling out to me. That started me getting into the metal of that day: Def Leppard, Maiden, Priest, Twisted Sister, also classic rock stuff like Rush and AC/DC.
Do you remember what some of the first shows you went out to see as a teen?
What were some of the clubs you hit back then? Oh yeah, at first it was cover bands. High school kids would play locally for things like Memorial Day or July 4th doing Zeppelin, Stones covers things like that. My friends and I would know some of the performers (older kids) so it seemed accessible. They were like local rock stars. One of the first real concerts I attended was Lita Ford, Ratt and Twisted Sister at the Pier on the west side highway in NYC. Another game changer, the energy of the bands and the fans…it was intoxicating
At what point did you start playing in bands,and what gave you the guts to sing in the first place?
In about 1985, my first or 2nd year of high school friends of mine were getting OK at playing instruments and were forming groups. My buddy Pinch played drums and he had a couple of friends playing guitars, they needed a singer. He asked me because I knew all the words and would sing along to the records and tapes so he said I should sing. That was my first band, Assault. All covers, Priest, Maiden, Sabbath, Van Halen. A few years older than me but living in the same town was Alan Tecchio [later of Hades, Watchtower, and Non-Fiction] who was fronting a cover band called Prophecy. He was my mentor in those days and gave me tips and suggestions (“Don’t smoke cigarettes!” I quit and never looked back. Thanks, Al!) but basically just seeing someone doing what I wanted to do was enough to encourage me.
Without Mucky Pup there obviously wouldn’t be Dog Eat Dog. Can you tell me how you became part of the Mucky Pup family all those years ago?
Well, there was this club in Hillsdale, NJ called the China Club, and they held all ages rock/metal shows every Sunday. I would go almost every Sunday and socialize with the bands and people hanging out. Mucky Pup were part of that scene and it was a pretty small one so we hit it off as like-minded bands and fans of rock music.
Let me know if I got this right or not…Dog Eat Dog was formed after Dave Neabore and Sean Kilkenny of Mucky Pup began writing songs that they didn’t think would fit for that band, and you were brought in to sing.
I had known both Dave and Sean before either were in Mucky Pup, so we were good friends before they even got in the band. I had gone to Europe as a roadie for Mucky Pup in '89 and '90, so I was tight with those guys. I used to do a song or two during the set and we had fun. They were Murphy’s Law covers before they had ever been to Europe, so people thought it was our songs [laughs]. Dave and Sean didn’t feel they really had a writing voice in Mucky Pup and wanted to do something with wider influences. I had gotten out of singing for bands because I was more into skateboarding, but when they started writing I was around a lot and they asked me to sing.
What were some of the first songs you guys wrote together, and did you have a stylistic template in mind for you wanted to do, or did that happen organically?
One of the reasons I was into doing it was because stylistly there was an agreement to not limit ourselves to any certain style of music. We wanted to play whatever felt good and not follow and trend or direction, more of a free flow. We had heard the first Urban Dance Squad record on the Mucky tour and it got me really excited about the possibilities of what a rock band could do. They were certainly an inspiration because I was getting into hip-hop and Urban Dance Squad was doing something really cool in my opinion, but they still had a band dynamic that was familiar to me at the time. Most of our first songs ended up on our two demos. We didn’t have a lot of throwaway ideas.
Tell me about how the Roadrunner Records deal came to be. Your A&R in the American office was Howie Abrams, a friend and contributor to this site.
Roadrunner Germany got our demo tape thru Billy from Biohazard. We knew him from the Mucky Pup days and he liked our tape enough to give one to the label boss. I guess Howie got sent down to Bond St. Café and checked out a show of ours. We were doing pretty good I guess because we could get 100+ people out most venues in the NJ/NY area by then, so we had enough buzz to attract some attention in what was a pretty small scene at that time. He told us he liked the band but we should lose the sax [laughs]. Glad we didn’t listen to that piece of advice although Howie was a great person to work with and often had great advice for us business wise and creatively as well.
The Warrant EP came out in 1993 and I remember some of the talk was that Dog Eat Dog sounded a lot like Leeway. What was your take on that? Do you think it was fair?
Everyone in the band are fans of Leeway, they certainly had an influence on us but we were not consciously trying to sound like them. People also compare [Leeway vocalist] Eddie Sutton to having a voice that sounds like Ozzy, who is a huge influence on me. If someones opinion is that you sound like Leeway you probably don’t suck so it generally didn’t bother us. Over time I feel like we have been able to develop a sound that distinctively ours and that’s part of why we have been able to have been heard around the world.
After the EP hit stores, Dog Eat Dog toured Europe with the Rise-era lineup of the Bad Brains. Darryl Jenifer from the Brains would eventually appear on your debut album, so I take it that you all got along splendidly.
We were very excited that our first tour would involve supporting the Bad Brains, heroes to us. Just spending time around those guys you get to learn through observation and emulation. The way they throw down each night, little nuggets of wisdom we would get from kicking it with Doc and Daryl. Even more importantly was getting approval from guys like that who we respected and looked up too. Just them “checking out a set” or giving us a “nice show” gave us confidence and a feeling that if they dug it, we might be doing something right.
For the first Dog Eat Dog full-length—which was All Boro Kings in 1994—the band chose Jason Corsaro to produce, engineer, and mix the sessions. Prior to that, he had worked with such artists as Duran Duran and Billy Squier. Why did you decide to hire him for the project, and what was that studio experience like?
I don’t really recall why we ended up with Jason, but one of the first things I remember about it was that he had engineered the Soundgarden Superunknown record and it hadn’t come out yet, but he played us some tracks and the shit was banging! He had some special snare drum that was on the Soundgarden session and that snare helped give our record a unique sound. We were very lucky that most of the songs were written and arranged before we got to the studio because we didn’t know what the fuck we were doing. At all. It was all a learning process.
All Boro Kings also saw the band begin to feature horn parts as the primary hook on songs like “No Fronts” and “Who’s the King.” Were you worried that would alienate a large portion of the band’s potential fanbase?
Not at all. The horn was introduced pretty early on in our song writing process. We wrote the "Strip Song" and the chords and topic just begged for a saxophone. After hearing sax mix in with the guitars we thought it was cool plus we were all fans of Fishbone and ska music so it wouldn’t be unusual to mix the two. The Bosstones were also a band we were fond of so we knew horns could be punk too. After playing "Who’s the King" and "No Fronts" live, before making the All Boro Kings album, we knew they were catchy, danceable songs, but we had no idea they would end up on MTV. That was not even something we had as a goal.
For the touring portion of the All Boro Kings campaign, Dan Nastasi couldn’t commit to the schedule, so you brought in former Cro-Mags guitarist Parris Mayhew. How long was he in and did the arrangement work out for you guys?
I guess Parris lasted about a year. When the All Boro Kings record was coming out we got the Biohazard tour in Europe with Downset as the opener. We had a 2-guitar recording and our local shows had two guitars as well, so Sean Kilkenny got Parris to do the tour and he played most of the shows with us in '94 and '95, and then we recruited Marc Debacker (who replaced Dave when he left Mucky Pup) to join as a member.
That’s the era of Dog Eat Dog where the group blew up throughout Europe. When did you begin to notice that things were changing for you out there?
On the Biohazard tour we were getting a really good reception. We did sold out shows every night and our video for "No Fronts" was getting some play on MTV's Headbangers Ball in Europe. People were starting to know the words and we were selling a lot of merch for a support band. Roadrunner Germany wanted us to go back in the studio and record in the fall, but we were booking a headliner tour in Europe and they told us they wouldn’t give us tour support. When we told them we didn’t need their money to do a bus tour, I think we both knew things were growing really fast. By the spring of 1995 we played the Dynamo Festival and things popped like a volcano after that.
I’m sure a career highlight for you was winning the Breakthrough Artists of the Year at the MTV Europe Music Awards back in 1995.
We had just finished a US tour opening for 311 and (an about to blow up) No Doubt. The day our drummer Dave Maltby quit, we found out about the nomination. It was pretty surreal, and still is, honestly. It felt good to us because it was a fan-voted award, and we had been doing a ton of promo for MTV Europe, so we had something tangible to show for all of the time we had put into promoting the band.
What was it like becoming so popular in Europe, but then coming back home where the band wasn’t nearly as big?
Honestly…pretty cool. It was like leading some kind of double life. By that time we had been on MTV so much that we would get recognized in the streets in Europe, which was fine, but back home it was cool to just be yourself and not have to think about the trappings of fame. It was like fame was a place you could just got visit and then come back to real life. I remember in 1994 we ran into Green Day at the same hotel in London and we were like, "Holy crap, you guys are blowing up at home!” and they were all…”Yeah, that’s what our friends are sayingm but we haven’t been home in months."
Did your family and friends truly grasp how much you guys had blown up overseas?
Probably the best thing about winning the MTV award in 1995 was that it was broadcast on US MTV on Thanksgiving Day, so all of our families, friends, and haters saw that live on TV. It was a proud moment for those that had supported us from the start and those that didn’t like us had to watch us get some recognition. Those closest to us knew what was going on.
The next Dog Eat Dog album would arrive as Play Games in 1996. How much pressure were the members of the band feeling going into that situation? One would expect your management and record label wanted to have the album be your ticket to breaking through in the States? Not only that, you had to build on the success you already had set up in Europe.
For sure, there were many people around us who had opinions on what we needed and there was pressure to deliver music. Luckily, as a band we had just been on a two-year rollercoaster that started in a van and ended up with us collecting awards and great record sales, so we had a pretty strong bond and drive to stick together and do the necessary work to make the best record we could.
Play Games included a collaboration track with RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan called “Step Right In.”
We had the same lawyer as RZA. He expressed and interest in working with a rock group and I think he saw the "Whos the King" video that was filmed at Dynamo festival and was feeling it so we had a meeting and as he says “bong,” the plan was set in motion. We were contracted to do two tracks, one where he joined us on a rock track and the second one was gonna be more of a hip-hop joint. "Step Right In" was recorded after multiple attempts to get him to a writing session never happened, so Roadrunner set up studio time and we wrote, arranged and recorded it all in one night. He was pretty involved with it, starting with the drum beat, and really spent time with each guy getting the feel he wanted out of it. Sadly, the hip-hop track never came to be, but Howie Abrams and I went out the the 36 Chambers studio one night when Rza was working on a Ghostface session, so at least I got to meet one of my favorite emcees and can say I was in the Shaolin Temple [laughs].
Looking back, do you think Play Games was too much of a diversion from the previous Dog Eat Dog material?
Not at all. We had two successful singles in "Isms" and "Rocky," and last year we did a 20th anniversary tour of Play Games and got to see nightly how that music had impacted people from 1996 to now. From Day One we wanted to stretch boundaries and genres of music with this band so to not try some odd things or take risk would have been more regrettable than trying and failing in some cases.
1999 was a turning point year for Dog Eat Dog as you released your third album, Amped, but the record never came out at home in America. Why did Roadrunner decide to pass on releasing it? Were you given a specific reason?
It was our choice to separate from the US office of Roadrunner Records. We thought they dropped the ball in promoting Play Games. We had very different ideas of how to market us in the States, and we had provided excellent resources and opportunities that they couldn’t relate to or understand. Roadrunner Records USA was a very “metal” culture and we have elements and roots of metal music but that’s just a small part of who we are. We never had good management throughout our career, and the handling of the Amped album just highlighted that. We foolishly thought we could reach a deal for US-only distribution and that didn’t happen because any partner who had interest wanted the world and not just one territory.
How was Amped received by your fans throughout Europe?
It was a difficult time. We were happy with the record and it was pretty well received by fans and critics. The video for “Expect the Unexpected” was getting some attention, and promotion was going pretty well. We had fired our manager during the making of Amped and when it came out in Europe, we partnered with a well-known and successful manager in Germany. He recommended that we stop promoting the Amped record and “excuse” ourselves from the Roadrunner deal as he was known for negotiating good deals at that time. He was not able to find a suitable deal and we had some dark years waiting to get out of that agreement.
Dog Eat Dog continued to tour all over Europe in the years after Amped, and then you eventually recorded and released an album called Walk With Me in the summer of 2006. An interesting aspect of that project is that the record’s producer was none other than Claus Grabke, a former pro skater.
As I said, we had to wait out the term with prior management, and the good that came from that partnership was we had pretty solid booking through that relationship, so that kept us working a bit doing shows. Over time we were approached by a smaller but hungry agency and they put us in touch with Grabke. We did a two or 3-song demo with him to see if we could work together and the resulting demo led to us doing the Walk With Me record. Despite going through some hard times because we parted ways with original guitarist and close friend Sean Kilkenny during the writing and recording process, we look back fondly on the making of that album. It was the most enjoyable songwriting and recording process up to that point. The experience of making the prior records and Claus’s easy going, positive style of working made a really comfortable for sharing ideas and moving forward. We were doing shows on the weekend and recording on weekdays so we could take new songs or arrangements to the stage and use that immediate feedback in the creative process. Shout out to Dave Neabore, our bass player, who recorded all the bass but also the lion share of guitar parts on Walk With Me. We felt that we really put our best foot forward in terms of song writing and production in the face of adversity.
You’ve kept busy with sporadic touring in the last decade or so. What the status of Dog Eat Dog in 2017?
We managed to continue playing shows in Europe thru the ten years, in between 2006 and now. We have freed ourselves from any label or management commitments and we are taking care of our own affairs. Five years ago, we partnered with Avocado-Booking and are quite happy with the relationship. Dog Eat Dog has been primarily a “part time” band, but we manage to gig about three months out of the year. Since 2006, we have been working on and off with our friend Roger Hammerli who we knew from the Swiss band Henchman. Last year we began the process of writing and recording the first new music in 11 years, and I am proud to say we will be delivering a 4-song EP titled Brand New Breed. Roger is now a full member of the band and we are excited about the new music! There is certainly elements of old school Dog Eat Dog, but we also feel that this new chapter has some fresh elements as well. We are releasing the new music ourselves for now as we felt it wasn’t important in 2017 to have a record deal.
Outside of Dog Eat Dog, what have you been keeping busy with lately?
I moved from the NY/NJ area in 1999, when we were making the Amped record in DC. I fell in love and stayed down here (still here and still in love). In 2001, I started working for a company that manages recreation sites, so I work full-time when I’m not doing music. I have a couple of different gigs during the year, but one of my favorites is running an outdoor ice skating rink. Driving a Zamboni is even more rare than being a rockstar [laughs]. Honestly, as much as I dig touring and traveling—we did that for so long, and in more than 45 countries around the world—I appreciate the stability and routine of being home. I’m pretty lucky my bosses support me in pursuing music, and having health insurance allows me to do dangerous stuff like playing ice hockey a couple of times a week.
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I’ve read many comments on social media sites comparing the band Turnstile to Dog Eat Dog. I would love to get your two cents on that!
We dig Turnstile. We played at East Coast Tsunami Fest a couple years back and finally got to see them live, very energetic. I like the fact that they are melodic and put a bit of groove in their hardcore. I could see why people may think they have a Dog Eat Dog quality to what they do, but I think they have their own thing going on, as we do. It was cool to meet those guys and we talked a bit. They said they hear the Dog Eat Dog comparison now and then. They were cool with it, and so are we.
Thinking back to all your years with Dog Eat Dog to date, what’s your biggest regret?
We are about to celebrate 27 years on April 1, and if someone would have told me we’d still be going way back then, I would have been surprised that we could have achieved the longevity, but I wouldn’t be surprised that we would still be friends. Matter of fact, we have remained friends with the core members and support cast for the most part over all that time. There are moments along the way where I could look back and think, “I wonder what if,” but certainly no regrets. The band has been an amazing blessing to us. To be able to share music with the world and go out and entertain people is a gift. One that doesn’t deserve to be dissected by regret or second guessing. I have a lyric on of the new songs where I say, “I took my hands off the wheel,” and I feel that somewhere between 2006 and now, I truly have stopped trying to guide this vehicle that is Dog Eat Dog. It has a life and mind of its own, and I'm happy to be a passenger and part of the story. It's more than enough for me.
Follow Dog Eat Dog's Facebook page for more info on their show dates and upcoming recordings.