For the latest entry to his ongoing A Hardcore Conversation interview series, Anthony Allen Begnal speaks with Johnny Waste, guitarist for the first-wave NYHC bands Urban Waste and Major Conflict. —Carlos Ramirez
You are Johnny Waste, guitar player from Astoria’s own Urban Waste and Major conflict, correct?
Yes, I am. I adopted the name from my friends on the Lower East Side. After Urban Waste played our first few shows, people started calling me by "Johnny Waste," or simply "John Waste." I answered to the name like I was born with it.
Urban Waste started out in ‘81, I believe. What got you into the whole punk and hardcore thing and what made you decide to form a band?
I was always listening to music growing up, I remember, when I was 8-yrs-old, I had this NY Mets figurine. It was so cool, and it had a built in AM/FM radio, too! It was the first time I remember hearing bands like Billy Joel, Cheap Trick, and Blondie. I was drawn to that edgy rock sound. I listened to music from the '50s to '70s... Beatles, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Pink Floyd, Black Sabbath, and Led Zeppelin were some of my favorites. It wasn’t until I met my great friend, John Dancy, that I started getting into bands like KISS, Ramones, Plasmatics and Clash, to name a few. We started going to concerts together and that’s when we got turned on to the shows downtown.
We went to places like the Mudd Club, Max’s Kansas City, CBGBs, Great Gildersleeves, and the A7, which all had great bands playing at them. We started going to these local shows, which sparked the interest in us wanting to start our own band. We were kids from the projects and this would be great for us to stay out of trouble. I remember Dancy coming over to my apartment one day, I believe it was in April '81, and asked if I wanted to start a band. I already knew my answer before he asked. We didn’t know what the next move was, but that’s pretty much how we got started.
How did you learn how to play guitar?
I took guitar lessons at De Bellis Music school for a year in Astoria, Queens. I learned all the basic chords and a few scales to get me going. Dancy and I were writing the songs for the '82 EP at the same time too. As I learned new chords, we wrote songs for them, and then Billy added lyrics. It was really raw, and a lot of fun at the same time!
How did you meet the other guys in the band?
John Dancy and I lived in the same building in Ravenswood Projects. We were best friends, always hung out together, and we were both into the same music. John and Billy Phillips went to Long Island City High School together, and we found our original bassist, Freddie, in a classified ad in the daily newspaper. We found that wasn’t the best way to look for members for a band. We went to pick Freddie up for our 2nd or 3rd show, and saw him playing with needles. We were young and not into any hard drugs, and decided to find someone else to play bass. It was tough to let Freddie go, because he was a good person, and really good bassist.
After Freddie was out of the band, we met Andy Apathy, who was Reagan Youth’s bass player, but wasn’t playing with them due to indifferences within the band. Andy was so talented, genuine, and one of the funniest guys I knew! Andy definitely had his fun partying, and was a madman for the “Crazy Eddie," out of control at times, but always having fun! Billy left the band, and put on his disco shoes for a while, and then got back into singing with Major Conflict about a year later. We had known Kenny from seeing him at the local shows downtown, he was a popular fixture in the scene and was looking to start his own band at the time. Asking him to play with us was the icing on the cake. We would soon take over the world, for a few minutes!
What was Astoria, Queens like back in those days? Were people receptive to the whole punk rock thing?
Astoria was my playground! I had a blast exploring the neighborhoods. I used to go to the stores on 30th Ave. as a kid, between 31st and Steinway, is where I spent most of my childhood years. I remember being so curious. There was this donut shop that used to make the donuts on-site, I would go to the back of the store and watch them make the donuts, they were so fresh and smelled so damn good, plus I always got a free donut! All the shops had something going on. I did a lot of walking, and Astoria had the best side street paths too! There were so many backyards and connections from one block to the next. I’m sure I wasn’t supposed to be in most of those yards, but I explored as many as I could!
Roof hopping was fun too! People were not receptive of punks at all! We were “different” and got dirty looks, People would cross the street to avoid us, and they would think we were in a gang if there were more than a few of us hanging out together. Although I never got attacked on the streets, I heard some terrible stories of friends getting attacked. Shit like that would happen if you weren’t with your friends to back you up. I was aware of my surroundings and knew where to go and where not to go, most of the time. It’s not like that today, I don’t even have to get into the crazy shit people do and how they dress. People are definitely more receptive to the “different” styles and genres today, than they were in the '80s.
When did you first start going to CBGB and what are some of your earliest memories from that place?
My earliest memory of CBGBs is, “why is this floor so fucked up”! Then there was that great sound system, which totally made you forget about the fucked up floor! I knew there were a lot of great bands that played CBGBs, and went on to become popular. Seeing bands like Heart Attack and Reagan Youth, would be my earliest memories of seeing bands play there. I remember Dancy and I went to CBs to book our first show there together. It was nothing major, walking in that club in the middle of the week, waiting for someone to show up, so we could scratch our name in the schedule book with some bands we were familiar with. That’s how it worked in the smaller clubs.
When CBs started putting on the weekend matinees, the turnouts were pretty small, as time went on, the word got out, and more people started coming to the shows. Touring bands were starting to play there too, and that brought even more people out to the shows. It came to the point where almost all the shows were packed! So many great shows at CBs, but the best memories were hanging out with friends.
What about A7?
The A7 was a great place for young kids, to go see local shows or just to hang out there with friends. It was the size of a living room, and to some people, including myself, it was where we lived. The A7 was also where Urban Waste played their first show. I remember walking in there with the guitar strapped to my back, and thinking about everything leading up to that moment. That probably wasn’t a great idea, cause I couldn’t move for the whole set, stage fright was a real thing, and it hit me hard! I got through it somehow and will never forget how receptive our friends were, that were there. Everyone had a great time slamming and applauding the songs we spent so much time writing. I overcame the fear on our second show, I was unstoppable, and my guitar and body were just a blur. The A7 was also a pit stop for a lot of touring bands as well, but when the Bad Brains played there, you had better get your spot early, because that place packed out quick!
What did your parents think of all this stuff? Were you still living at home during the OG Urban Waste period?
My mother was very supportive. I was living with her at home the whole time. Most of our rehearsals were in my bedroom so she had no choice but to put up with it. We practiced in the afternoons so we were done making our noise before she got home. My apartment got titled as “Wasteland” to quite a few people. We had more parties and police knocking on the door there than I can even remember. The NYC Breakers used my apartment once as their practice spot. That was amazing to see and be a small part of too!
Did your parents ever come to a gig?
My mother came to one show. It was the one she organized at the Ravenswood Community Center in the housing projects we were living at. She was on the committee board, and requested to use the hall for my birthday party. When they asked how many people would be there, she said “about 50 people." There were between 200-400 people that came out for the show! It was the most amazing birthday party ever! People still talk about it today.
The people in the neighborhood never saw anything like it. The police showed up, so we offered them some hot dogs and drinks, we got lucky, they were very cool about the whole thing. Someone said they even drove by and shouted Urban Waste from their patrol car on the loud speaker. Needless to say, my mother had some explaining to do to the committee board, after the party.
How did songwriting work with you guys?
We wrote most of the '82 EP in my bedroom. We really didn’t have the right equipment, but we made what we had, work. Our drums consisted of a snare drum, and a garbage can top for a cymbal. Those metal garbage can lids made great crash cymbals! My first guitar was acoustic, we wrote "Reject," "Mutiny," and "No Hope" with that. Dancy and I would get together almost everyday to practice. He would work on drum beats and I would be working on finger exercises and learning chords.
The songs just came together by jamming and playing the parts we liked over and over again. When I finally got a cheap guitar, I had to use my stereo receiver as a guitar amp, plugged into the aux jack, it had a sick sound! A few months before our first show we started going to the studio and one of our favorite places to rehearse was Tucasa, on Ave. B and 6th St.
I saw Urban Waste at CB’s in March of ‘83 with Reagan Youth and Necros and you guys did a slower song that I believe was called “The Heavy Metal Song,” or something like that, with Jimmy G singing [laughs]. Whatever happened to that tune, it’s not on the Urban Waste record?
Some shows slip into the back of the memory banks, and unfortunately, this is one of them. What a great lineup, though! We loved playing “Heavy Metal” by Sammy Hagar, after seeing the movie, that riff was killer! Everyone used to jump up on stage and sing with us, Jimmy was always at the shows, and is one of our best friends and supporters to this day. If we kept going as a band, that song and many others would be on vinyl. It’s killing me that I can’t remember playing with the Necros, because I love their material and I own two copies of the I.Q. 32 7". They were one the most outspoken bands at the time, that I heard of.
Ah, so it was in fact “Heavy Metal,” the song! [Laughs] Mystery solved! Were you into metal back then?
Oh yeah! I loved a lot of what was coming out in the early '80s, Iron Maiden, Motörhead, Anthrax, Twisted Sister, Judas Priest, Thin Lizzy, and Def Leppard, were some of my faves. Queen might be my all-time favorite band; not your typical metal band, but they were great! I got to see them play live twice. Sold-out shows at Madison Square Garden, 1980 and my ticket was $10.50, I had a great seat in the loge section, too!
What about out of town shows for you guys? I don’t think Urban Waste really toured back then, right?
We played a lot of East Coast shows between '82-'84. The shows we played were between Connecticut, and Washington, DC, but that’s about it. The one tour we did do in '83 with The Mob was cut short. After DC, we headed to Virginia. We got pulled over and there were some drugs found, and our driver got arrested. We had to find our own way home, because no one else had a driver’s license at the time. I wish we found a way to continue on, because that was one hell of a fun time!
How did the recording of the 7” come about and where was Power Play Studios?
We knew we wanted to put out a record with some of our songs; we had a game plan to save up money to make it happen. There were about 16 songs that we played live, and choosing the 8 songs released was not an easy job. We took the songs that people slammed to the most, and we still had more songs than we were able to fit on the record. We had to cut "Mutiny" from the EP which was my favorite song to play, because it was the very first song I ever wrote musically. “Reject” made the cut and “Mutiny” got scrapped. There is a demo version of "Mutiny" on reverbnation.com, along with “Military Abuse." Both songs are with Billy Phillips on vocals.
Power Play studio was located in Long Island City, NY near Queensboro Plaza. The studio was known for the rap artists that recorded there, we went there because it was all we could afford at the time. I remember being just as nervous recording the EP as I was playing my first show. I also remember asking the engineer how loud should the amp be when I’m recording, someone yelled “Turn everything up to 10!” and that’s pretty much what I did.
Did you guys pay for it or did Mob Style float you a nice advance?
We paid for the recording time, and our good friend and mentor Jack Flanagan helped us get that record out. He was always pushing us to get the songs recorded and said he would help with the rest. So, we worked harder to make that happen. Jack helped us financially to get the vinyl printed and released; he also knew some of the best distributors around. That little record got around the world; we owe so much thanks to him. I’m glad I got to tell him that a few times before his passing earlier this year. R.I.P. Jack Flanagan, we love you, brother. You are missed.
Who were some of your favorite early NYHC contemporaries?
We played alongside so many great bands, it’s hard to tell if they were contemporaries or influences or both! Reagan Youth, Kraut, Heart Attack, were already doing their thing. Those bands would be my influences as well as bands we were sharing the stage with. Cause for Alarm, Armed Citizens, Murphy’s Law, Agnostic Front, and so many more were getting their bands together around the same time as Urban Waste.
How come you guys never made a follow-up record back then?
After the '82 EP came out, we were playing those songs, as well as the songs that didn’t make the cut for the EP. We didn’t want to release those songs as our second release. No other songs were written after the EP. The band members were doing other projects, and Dancy and I were playing in Major Conflict. Both bands were doing fun shows, but we just never got around to putting something out before the split. Urban Waste split up in '84, and Major Conflict went on for another year or so. We do have some of the older songs, re-recorded on the 2010 Recycled album, which is on vinyl and floating around the internet.
How did Urban Waste end up breaking up?
I call it a split. We were playing great shows and should have been getting ready to write our next release, but after one of our shows at CBGBs in 1984, both Andy and Kenny came up to Dancy and me, and said they were done, and were going off to do other things with their lives. Andy went on culinary school, and Kenny played bass for The Mob for a while, and then he moved to Florida to help his father build a house. I was in disbelief and torn up from that, cause while those guys were getting ready to quit the band, I quit school, to put more time into Urban Waste. As tough as that was, I still had music in my life.
John Dancy and I continued playing with Major Conflict, I had lots of fun jumping on stage with Murphy’s Law a few times too! Jimmy would let me play a few songs with them, backing up guitarist Alex "Uncle Al" Morris. Jimmy also invited me up to play with them, when they played with the Ramones at the Ritz! It was one of the happiest moments of my life. I can’t thank the band enough for allowing me to be a part of their big show! And, for a blink of an eye, I was in the earliest days of the Cro-Mags. They were trying out guitarists; I sat in on a couple of rehearsals with them while The Age of Quarrel was being written.
As you mentioned, you were also in Major Conflict along with other Urban Waste members. What was the story there?
Major Conflict was a great band, I was really happy to be playing with two of the original members of Urban Waste, Billy Phillips, and John Dancy again. Dito [Montiel] formed Major Conflict with Billy, and they asked Dancy to play with them, and Dancy asked them to have me as the second guitarist. Dito let me do what I wanted and always appreciated my contributions to the band. I really felt like this band had it together and we were playing great shows. Playing with GBH at the Rock Hotel was probably the biggest show we played and the place was packed! There was great energy in the room that night!
Nick Carr—the bassist and the only member of the band that had a driver’s license—was the guy that got us around, in his little bubble car. I think it was like a Yugo or something; we used to all pile up in that little box, go to a show, and fall out of the car like a bunch of clowns!
The name Major Conflict was clearly kind of the opposite of Minor Threat, who’s idea was that?
That's an interesting question, and I honestly never thought about it. Dito would be able to answer that one better than me, I'll see if I can get a reply from him for that one...
(after a few days)
Dito got back to me and said that Billy came up with the name for the band, and has no idea why. Some questions just can't be answered [laughs].
Who did the songwriting in that band? That band had some great songs but the 7” has some pretty infamously bad production, what happened with that?
Dito and Billy did most of the song writing, until Billy left the band (to put his disco shoes back on) and Dito took over on vocals and had double duty with the guitar playing. We would show up at the studio, or everyone would come to my place to practice. Dito usually had the main idea for the music, and both Billy and Dito wrote the lyrics. The band’s message was directed at people who were left out, or ridiculed for what they believed in. We basically said, be yourself, take a stand in the life, and be the best you can be while you’re here. I’m not sure why the recording wasn’t clearer on the vinyl, it sounded great when we were recording.
Something must have happened during pressing. We never thought about having the records redone, but there’s another story behind those records. Supposedly there weren’t enough covers and inserts for the amount of vinyl we had, Dancy got pissed off and threw all the ones with no covers in the garbage. I found out he did that, and went out to the garbage pail to retrieve them. After John was done being angry, he took the records back. I have them in my possession now; I plan on getting new covers and inserts made up for them at some point.
Did you play this show with Major Conflict? Do you remember Vinnie Stigma stage diving into the overhead monitors and any other memories from that show?
That was an incredible show! Yes, I was onstage for that one, and that stage dive made the whole room just stop for a second. Vinnie almost didn’t make the jump, but got up there!
What did you do after Major Conflict?
The end of the '80s might be my toughest years. I wasn’t holding down a job, I got mixed up in drugs and some petty crimes, which got me in trouble with the law. After that, I moved up to the Catskill Mountains, to work and live with my brother in law in '91. I started a new chapter in my life and made a whole bunch of new friends. It was something I needed to do with my life, or there’s a chance I wouldn’t be doing this interview. I won’t forget the people who helped me along the way either. I accomplished so many things that, I wasn’t able to achieve living in the city. I completed my education, learned some great trades, and started my own business. I also had my first child, John Jr., in 1999, which was the biggest life-changer for me. I went from learning how to take care of myself, to taking care of a newborn baby. I got back into music too, and started playing with some fun local bands:
- Ritual Chaos (Darius, Ponch, Mark, Jim, Johnny)
- Syzygy (Mike, Wayne, Daisy, Johnny)
- Super Creeps (Rob Goss, Tony Ricci, Dennis Lucas, Colin Almquist, Dan Cartwright, Owen Swenson, Johnny Waste and many more!)
- Shattered Glass (Mike Gronachan, Jimmy Felter, Ron Stetkewicz, Johnny Waste) (Mike Henry, Jaymi and Luke Hendrickson, Michele Crowe)
In 2007, I moved back to Queens and got married to my beautiful wiife and teenage sweetheart, Janet. We have a great life, taking care of each other and our son, Christian, who is almost a teenager now. In 2008, Bryan Swirsky, a good friend, gave me a call and asked if I could get the band together for an A7 reunion show, that him and Wendy Eager were putting together. I was able to find both Kenny and Dancy, and they were as excited to do this as I was. We had such a great reception from the crowd; it reignited my desire to pursue my childhood dream of playing in the band I started as a teenager. 10 years later, I’m still having the time of my life playing shows and meeting people that support us and all the great bands we play with.
Urban Waste played in ‘10 for the Agnostic Front Victim in Pain anniversary show at the Bell House in Park Slope, Brooklyn with an almost all OG lineup. What are your memories from that show?
That had to be the fastest set we ever played that night! My arms felt like rubber bands after the set. John Dancy was on top of his game and Kenny was a maniac with that microphone! Sonny was giving everyone a great show on bass, and my brother in law, James Fung was up on stage with us the whole time MC’ing the crowd, the people loved it. I also remember hitting my head on the overhead PA speaker when I did my first jump, and that really set it off for me! There were so many friends there that night, which I haven’t seen in almost 25 years.
I remember Roger Miret was doing an interview, I was sitting nearby, and at one point he looks over at me and asks, “Johnny, how have I been doing this for so long?” I was shocked, and at that time, I didn’t know what to answer, I think I said “I wish I knew," because at the time, I was just getting back into working with Urban Waste. Jumping forward 10 years later, I can answer Roger’s question a little better by saying, “hard work, determination to succeed, and a love for what you do is what keeps you going”.
Unfortunately, Andy Apathy, and more recently, Kenny Ahrens, passed away (RIP to both) and you’ve been continuing on with Josh, Nonlee and Stoolie. What’s currently going on with you guys? Any new recordings?
I really miss Andy and Kenny! They were funny, smart and we created a lot of good music together. As a band, when we were aligned musically, it was an amazing experience, and so much fun! As people, we hung out, partying and going to shows and writing music. The current lineup is amazing! I don’t think I could have found better band mates than Nonlee, Josh, and Mike (Stoolie). We all get a long and work great together, and have a lot of fun doing it. We recently recorded for a new release with our good friend, Paul Kostabi, which will be out early next year. We’re also having our second Annual Waste Crew Party at Tompkins Square Park on May 23rd, 2020. And, we just confirmed a small tour with GBH in Sweden for later in the year!
Anything you wanna add?
Yes, I want to thank all the people who have been supporting Urban Waste throughout the years. I’ve seen so much amazing support from our friends around the world. You’ve gotten tattoos of our band, put our stickers and pins on your jackets, clothes and street poles; you’ve done artwork in our name, bought our records, and sing our songs with us. This means so much to me, as a band member and some young kid who was just trying to stay out of trouble.
All that as a whole is what drives me to continue playing, to thank the people that support the hardcore music scene, and have kept it going all these years!
“We are Urban people, living in a land of Waste” –Johnny “Waste” Kelly