Going way back to the late '80s, John Coyle has helped spread positive hardcore via his work in several bands. As the vocalist of Outspoken, Coyle recorded some of the most celebrated West Coast hardcore records since Uniform Choice, a few years before them. He leaned heavier into his punk side in the band Kill the Messenger later on, and these days he's playing guitar in LastLight, a band that also features former members of Ignite, Unity, Speak 714, and other influential groups.
With Outspoken playing sporadic shows, and LastLight prepping for touring and new music, I figured it was a good time to reach out to Coyle to talk about his music career up to this point.
Were you born and raised in Southern California?
I was born and raised in Huntington Beach. I lived in the same house until I graduated High School and moved to San Francisco.
What kind of upbringing did you have?
My upbringing was pretty typical of someone in Huntington Beach. There was lots of surfing, skating, and music. Every summer I was either in junior lifeguards or working at my dad’s machine shop (which is where all of our bands practiced back in the day).
Were your parents strict?
My dad was pretty tough. He was a wrestler, so I ended up wrestling for about 6 years. He was pretty intense but I am who I am because of him. I was at a wrestling tournament once and broke my finger and I thought I was going to get to go home. He said I could go home but had to wrestle one more match. He taped my broken finger to another one and made me wrestle another match then took me home. He also used to have me working out before wrestling practice and would drive me to this dirt hill after practice and made me run hills, rain or shine. He would time them and if I didn’t make it in time it didn’t count. Giving up or quitting wasn’t allowed in my house. But at the same time he allowed me a lot leeway because he knew I understood the line not to cross.
It is common for musicians from the hardcore realm to have indirectly gotten into the music through heavy metal. Was that the case with you?
Not really, I was into Adam Ant. Later I was into the first Mötley Crüe record, but I was never really that into metal. I was really lucky and I had a neighbor that was super cool. I use to go over and visit her and one time she played the Sex Pistols record for me and my life changed forever. I went from the radio to the Sex Pistols….
Thinking back to your formative years, what were some of the hardcore and punk shows you went to that had a lasting impact on you?
Every single time I went to see Uniform Choice. Back then the shows were extremely violent, they were scary. [Uniform Choice singer Pat] Dubar took no shit and it was inspiring. Everyone always talks about how violent and crazy those shows were and its all true. Seeing the Cro-Mags on their first tour right after Age of Quarrel came out in stores stands out as well. Verbal Assault and 7 Seconds shows were amazing mostly because they were so positive in such a negative place. That stark contrast was extremely inspirational. Kevin Seconds could turn the entire venue around; we would all be arm and arm singing along then the show would delve back into mayhem after their set.
BL'AST! was a band that came and destroyed everything. I remember hearing The Power of Expression before it was released on Wishingwell. We could not figure out how they sounded so heavy. We all learned the intro to “Time to Think” and we would play it constantly and then scratch our heads trying to figure out why they sounded so huge. Live they were a fucking beast! Youth of Today’s first show at Fender’s in Long Beach was a big turning point for our scene. Uniform Choice did all the fighting to make the change and Youth of Today cemented it. That’s just my opinion.
Before Outspoken, you played in the bands Pushed Aside, Stand Alone, and Back to Back.
My first real band was Back to Back, it was my brother Walt on vocals, Regis (from Chorus of Disapproval) on bass, Derek on drums, and I played guitar. We played quite a bit and the other bands were supportive of us. We were really young. Dan O’Mahony drew our t-shirt design. All of the bands cut their sets short once so we could play Fender’s Ballroom with Youth of Today. We also became good friends with the guys in Youth Under Control from Arizona and did a trip there to play. We released a live tape from the sound board of that show on Step Forward Records. It is the only recording of the band.
After that, we started Straight Arm with Jeff Boetto. At this time my brother and I started hanging out with some of the bands we would go see. Jeff was playing in the band Half Off then he left so we started a band together. Half Off are so underrated; they were a great band. Playing with Jeff was the first time I ever played with someone that knew what they were doing and he taught me how to write songs. We recorded a pretty solid demo and that’s where it ended. We played a few shows and the most memorable one was with Reason to Believe.
Stand Alone was next and was the same as Straight Arm minus Boetto, and we added guitarist John Goodell who was into the Replacements, while I was really into Dag Nasty and youth crew stuff, so the demo which is really long is like two different bands.
Were local clubs weary of booking hardcore shows back then?
Early on we had Fender’s Ballroom in Long Beach. This was back when you went to shows no matter who was playing. I was 14-15 when I started going. The bills were great: GBH, Wasted Youth, DI, SNFU, Exploited, Circle Jerks, Half Off, Infest, Uniform Choice, etc. It was so diverse. I was into Wasted Youth and would be in front singing every word in a Wasted Youth shirt with Xs on my hands. It was open-minded and amazing.
Los Angeles and Orange County had such a strong hard rock and metal stronghold back then, but I wondered about the hardcore scene.
I was so deep in the hardcore scene I was unaware of the metal or rock scene. Hardcore and punk shows always found a way whether it was in Long Beach, Pomona, Oxnard, San Diego, or East LA. All of us that started bands were having shows at practice studios (think the Chain of Strength 7” photos). We also used to play in Chris Lohman’s parent’s garage after school. It was such a good time. We would drive hours to go to a show and not even think twice about it.
1989 saw you co-founding Outspoken with Mike Hartsfield (New Age Records, Freewill), Dennis Remsing, and Dan Adair. What was it about Mike and the other guys that drew you to them?
The band actually started with Dennis and I. We wanted to start a band that discussed all the issues in the scene that bothered us. So, we were going to record with both of us playing all the instruments and put out demos without our names on it. It was called Spotlight, hence the name of the Outspoken discography. Dennis and I would play music every chance we got at my dad’s shop. We would play for hours. It was easily one of the best times of my life. Dennis and I were kindred spirits. It was during this time we had written all of the Outspoken demo and some of the Survival 7”. Mike, whom I knew from Freewill (a band I really liked, they were and still are really good), reached out and said he wanted to start a band and then pretty much laid out the same reasons that Dennis and I were doing Spotlight, so we just decided to make it a real band. I also wanted to sing and not play guitar so it was perfect.
Did the band have a very specific musical and lyrical direction you set out for during the beginning, or did that just develop over time?
We just played what we felt and I wrote lyrics that were meaningful to us. It was completely real and heartfelt.
You also played guitar in a band called Yuckmouth with Sean Clark (Malfunction), releasing an EP in 1989, and a full-length in 1991.
Yuckmouth was a really fun band. We did what we wanted and how we wanted. We didn’t label it we just played music. When our original singer Doc left the band we got Sam Velde (Obliterations, Bluebird) to sing. We then went in another direction. That band was fun. I still run into Sean and Darren on occasion. We played out quite a bit. One time we were at band practice and complaining that Sick of it All was playing that night and we were missing it to practice. I said let’s load up our equipment and go play with them. We loaded up drove to the venue and acted like we were supposed to be on the bill and sure enough we opened for Sick of it All! Everyone was pissed because it was their first trip to the West Coast and everyone wanted to play with them and we hustled it.
After releasing a demo, Outspoken dropped the aforementioned Survival 7” in 1990. You began touring in support of that release soon after. What are some of the memories you have about that first West Coast run?
The biggest memory was playing with L7 in Seattle and that it was cold. We were young and L7 could not have been cooler to us. We did that tour in a Ford Escort. We ran into some issues with Nazi’s in Arizona and it was a tough trip. Dan quit the band the moment we got back, if I recall correctly. I loved it, though, because it was like summer camp with me and my best friends driving around playing shows.
How were the turnouts?
The turnouts were OK. Very few people came to see us, but those that did were equally as passionate about the band as we were, so it was an amazing time. Enough cannot be said about Dennis and Mike and Conversion and New Age Records. They were working hard to make it happen.
Outspoken’s A Light in the Dark album hit stores in 1992. Take me into your mindset during the recording sessions. Did you feel a great deal of pressure?
I don’t recall feeling any pressure but I do recall early in the recording process knowing it wasn’t going well. Back then going to a recording studio where the engineer had ever heard hardcore, much less recorded it was unlikely. We were paying to record our own records, so we always found the cheapest place to record. That record was recorded in a guy’s house. The minute I started singing he told the band to get a new singer. I think I sang the entire record in less than two days. I was in his living room and his wife walked in the door and there I was screaming; it was brutal and in the end, I think in could have been much better.
Vocally speaking, I hear a bit of Henry Rollins influence in your delivery on those songs. Who were some of the singers you looked up to back then?
Black Flag’s Damaged has special meaning to me and will always be one of my favorite records. So I’ll take that as a complement. I always loved the Underdog 7”, so I would also mention Richie Birkenhead. To be honest, I don’t have much of a voice. I just did the best I could.
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How was A Light in the Dark received when it was initially released?
We were at our peak when it came out. I think people were kinder to it than they should have been. Outspoken was a live band and I think those songs resonated live way better than on the record.
Did you do a lot of touring off its back?
We did a few trips back east. We should have done more but life was starting to get in the way.
The final Outspoken record was The Current EP in 1994. For my money, that’s the strongest material the band ever committed to tape.
To be honest, I was so impressed with The Current that I struggled to believe we did it. If you listen to A Light in The Dark you can hear the transition starting from the demo/7” to The Current. The Current was the first time I recall writing lyrics that came together easily. The Current 7” and the song “Spark” is easily our best material. I really hold a soft spot for the demo and Survival 7” because we were totally passionate about what we were doing. Looking back, I remember how much we truly thought we were changing the world. Such a great time.
What lead to Outspoken’s breakup in 1994?
It was life. You could say I was responsible. I moved away. It was really tough for the band but equally as difficult for me. I never had the mindset of playing in a band and making money to pay bills, etc. I certainly didn’t see it in a hardcore band and I wasn’t going to change what I was doing to try to make a living at it. I wasn’t going to college so I had to get my life together.
So it was it a matter of day jobs and familial responsibilities taking precedence over the band.
I had moved to San Francisco to be with my then girlfriend now wife, Tina. I moved two days after I graduated high school. I left with everything I owned loaded into my car and $200 dollars. We tried to keep Outspoken going after that but it was tough. I would work all week as a hotel engineer and would drive back on the weekends for shows.
After Outspoken split up, you and Dennis Remsing formed a new band, Kill the Messenger. The group released three EPs in the late ‘90s, early ‘00s. For that stuff, the material leaned in a more raw punk direction.
I had gotten my family and career on track and missed playing music. Dennis had moved to San Francisco, so we started talking about playing music again. We initially started practicing in my daughter’s room and recorded some 4-track demos there surrounded by Winnie the Pooh wallpaper [laughs]. We were stuck on Black Flag and BL'AST! So that’s how the music came out. I will never forget a review of our 10” that said, “this record sucks and it sounds like someone re-recorded Black Flag’s Damaged with better sound quality and better songs.” It was the best review I have ever read. I wanted to make it a t-shirt [laughs]. I am hopeful that one day the planets will align and we will record some more material. I love playing with Dennis and the bass player, Wig.
It must have been a big change moving up to the Bay Area.
I moved right after I graduated. I met Tina when I was a sophomore and we maintained a long-distance relationship for two years. She lived in San Francisco. So right after graduation I moved. All I could afford for a place to live was a garage that I shared with an old car. So, technically, it was just half a garage [laughs]. I got a job as a utility engineer in a hotel. A utility engineer is the guy who changes light bulbs, unplugs toilets, and every other undesirable job in a hotel. And the whole time I’m trying to make it work in San Francisco, I was getting grief from the Outspoken dudes to not break up the band. It was a tough time.
Did you follow the hardcore scene during your years away from Outspoken?
I did off and on. I did a band before Kill the Messenger called 9 Speed that Tina sang for. We played in San Francisco with Far and a few other notable bands. We also put out a 7”. It was a different scene up there. We used to go to this place called the Berkeley Square and see the Deftones when they only had a demo out. They were fucking great even back then.
Outspoken has since reformed and done both sporadic shows and touring, going back to the late ’90s. What songs get the most spirited reaction when you perform them live?
“The Current,” “Shadow,” “A Light in the Dark,” “Survival,” and “Reinforced” would be the ones that come to mind. I was not part of the reunion tours. I think it is pretty amazing/humbling that Outspoken was a band that we started when we were 16-years-old, and now 20+ years later people still care about it. I was glad we played the Jon Bunch tribute because for one, Jon Bunch was such an inspiration to us all, and I felt it gave Outspoken a chance to regain some of what it lost with the European tour. To have been part of something that people still care about and has meaning is amazing and humbling.
Let’s talk about Last Light, the current band you’re playing in with Joe D. Foster (Ignite, Unity), John Lorey (Blood Days, Unity), Jae Hansel (Mean Season, Outspoken), and Danny Baeza (Outspoken). What sparked the band’s formation?
I think its true of a lot of the newer bands, but it was sparked by the Jon Bunch tribute show. Jae was already working with Joe outside of Blood Days on some music and he shared it with me and then asked if I would be interested in playing guitar. It came together easily. I was happy to be involved and we have been working hard to get it together ever since. It has been a pretty amazing experience. It’s hands down the best rhythm section in the business. Danny and John are on it.
I haven’t seen you live yet, but you’re scheduled to play the upcoming Rev Fest along with Youth of Today, Ignite, Bold, and Fury. If I would have told you back in the late ‘80s that all of you guys would all be on the same bill two decades later, would you have believed it?
Probably not. I am super stoked. One of the reunions Outspoken did about 10 years ago was with Bold and it is impressive how good they still are. I remember getting the Crippled Youth 7” and skating to it in front of my house. Tom Capone shreds! I love his era with the band, so I’ll be stoked to see them. What are the chances they play “K-Town Mosh Crew” that night? Fury is killing it right now. When I think about the first time I saw Youth of Today at Fender’s and the impact that it had on me. It will be great to see them again. What more can we say about Ignite? Brett has been extremely helpful with LL working with us on preproduction. He’s an unbelievably great guy. It’s a solid bill. Plus, I will get to see a lot of old friends from the East Coast that I haven’t seen in a while.
What’s the plan for Last Light beyond Rev Fest 2017?
We are going to Germany in September to tour with Tausend Löwen Unter Feinden. We just did a split 7” with them, so that will be fun. We are also finishing up our album. It is half recorded. We just need to go back in and record another 4-5 songs, which are already written. I’m pretty stoked on it.
Outside of the band, what have you been up to as of late?
Work, work, and more work. I work a lot and always have. It may have something to do with the way I was raised. I went from the worst job in hotels to being the guy in charge of building hotels, and now I work for a sub-contractor doing business development. If you have shoveled shit and done the worst jobs imaginable, you will do anything to not end up back behind the shovel. Now I try to surf as much as I possible.
If you had to pick one quintessential West Coast hardcore record, what would it be and why?
I need to pick two. Black Flag’s Damaged is one of them. When I was younger, I got in a lot fights. Our school had maybe 10 people that were punk. Huntington Beach was full of preppy jocks. Now it’s about 90% punk. But you would get checked all the time back then for a GBH shirt or a shaved head. I used to run home every day at the end of school to avoid trouble. One day a teacher held me after class and I was chased from the school by the older kids. I ran into a Taco Bell and ran into one of the other punk kids. He was sitting there listening to a ghetto blaster. The older kids that were trying to beat me were kicked out by the manager. I sat and listened to Black Flag’s Damaged with him waiting for them to leave. I begged to borrow the Flag tape. He gave it to me. I listened to it on constant repeat as I skated home. I was so pumped up I wanted to run into the kids. I listened to it the entire trip to school the next day. The kids came over and pushed me on the ground. As my head hit the ground the feedback from “Rise Above” started playing in my head. I got up and went off. I broke the nose of the kid that pushed me and went after the rest like a fucking animal. The kids never bothered me again. That record taught me to face my problems, I never ran away again. For that reason, that record is everything to me.
My second pick would be Uniform Choice’s Screaming for Change. That was one of the first records that I connected with, both sonically and lyrically speaking. Also, the guys were super cool and you could hang with them. Those old Uniform Choice shows were amazing. I think through them, I learned that it is so much more than music. When I think about how I see the world and how I push myself, a lot of it has to do with the records that helped shape me growing up.