Whether it's his work as a member of such groups as Charles Bronson, Das Oath, and/or Suburbanite, or the records he's put out through his Youth Attack label, there's a good chance Mark McCoy has influenced some of your favorite powerviolence bands in some kind of capacity. Now in his early 40s, the Illinois native has been an active member of the underground punk community since the beginning of the '90s.
In addition to his discography as a musician and label owner, McCoy is also an artist whose solo exhibitions, Devouring Ghost and Hallow, opened in galleries in Los Angeles and Düsseldorf, respectively. The Brooklyn-based artist still works on music-related projects, including the cover art and layout for Alpha Ghoul—the recently-released album from my band, Deny the Cross.
Since I was working with McCoy on the record layout stuff, I asked him if he would be interested in chatting for a piece about his career on No Echo, and he was totally game.
Let's start at your childhood. Where were you born and raised, and what kind of upbringing did you have?
I grew up in Waukegan, IL, a dying lakeside town halfway between Chicago and Milwaukee. My house was situated across from a nature preserve filled with trails that I often explored. I was respected by other kids in grade school and was seldom bullied, though I had a natural aversion to sports and rough-housing. I was pretty good at sneaking around behind grown-ups' backs, despite appearing well-behaved. At around age 7, I became a good thief and would steal toys from stores. In school, I always had a pocket full of Now & Laters and I traded Garbage Pail Kids cards with my friends.
At home, my short-fused younger brother and I never got along, and since anything would set him off, I pushed his buttons for fun, which drove my parents crazy. Recently, I unearthed an audio cassette tape from 1985 of me taunting my brother using a Fisher-Price tape recorder to try to capture one of his classic, screaming freakouts. It may be the only record of how I sounded before my voice changed—high-pitched and with a very pronounced Northern Illinois accent.
Do you recall your first memories of listening to music?
At 3 or 4 I was into KISS, whom I assumed were women. But the first music I loved was all the British Invasion stuff on my parents' old, scratched-up 45s. Anything raw and stripped down sounded good. That became my basis until I heard Beastie Boys' Licensed to Ill, which changed my perception of songwriting.
Did you have someone older in your life that helped turn you on to the harder side of the musical spectrum?
By the mid to late '80s, I'd begun discerning why certain kids were more liked than others, and that the most popular ones were snobs because they were rich and better put together. Since I had no interest in being a prep, burnout, or jock, I gravitated to skateboarding, which was at its peak then. In comparison to the other kids' interests, skateboarding was a kind of cult. It wasn't long until I met other skaters and started buying Thrasher magazine, through which I discovered punk and metal. I was taking it all in, figuring out what was good, which wasn't easy since I seldom had money and was limited to whatever titles were sold at the mall.
In terms of drawing, did you always have a natural ability with it, or did you struggle at first?
I've drawn my whole life. In first grade, I would spend days crafting underwater battle scenes in colored pencil, and I drew my own G.I. Joe comics. At 8, I learned shading and hand-eye coordination from taking Saturday classes. By high school, I was drawing realistically. I had a great art teacher—a towering, frightening man with a booming voice—who mentored me after school. I would stay late drawing and painting nudes—otherwise forbidden—and he encouraged me to enroll in the Fine Arts program at Northern Illinois University in Dekalb, where he'd gone in the '70s.
What was high school like for you?
I was into skateboarding and was more or less a goody-goody that graduated at the top of my class. There's video footage of me from sophomore year accepting a perfect attendance award in front of the whole school, and I have a huge black cast on my arm that I'd broken while skateboarding. I didn't kiss a girl until I was 16 and would've avoided it longer had I not been mauled on my doorstep by this girl, Mary, who asked me to a dance called Turnabout. I preferred being out on the streets and skating in parking lots. I was always covered in bruises and cuts from falling, and during nights and weekends I was seldom home unless forced to be. My skater friends were mostly delinquents from broken homes. We had constant run-in's with the general public while skating, either by angry property owners or with random people looking for fights. Once a kid clubbed me in the head with a 2" x 4" that had rusty nails sticking out of it. Some of my friends were incredible skaters, and had we not lived in such an isolated suburb, they could've been pros. One of them died after being struck in a head-on collision by some drunk on Super Bowl Sunday, and his loss helped solidify my decision not to drink.
Wow, that'll do it! Okay, let's get into the music stuff more. How did Charles Bronson come to be, and did you guys set out with a specific sound in mind?
At the end of freshman year of college I met Jon Arends, a smart-mouthed, pink-haired 16-year-old who played bass in Shotgun Baby. He lived in a neighboring town, Sycamore. We agreed that when classes resumed in the fall of 1994, we'd start a fast hardcore band. We were sick to death of pop-punk, which dominated the scene then, and sought to play the fastest music possible with lyrics that told it like it is. At this time, I was penpals with Dan Lactose in California, who played guitar in Sheep Squeeze, and through Dan's influence I was exposed to a lot of obscure hardcore, particularly The Neos' Hassibah Gets the Martian Brain Squeeze EP. This record made a huge impact on me, and we used it as a sort of template for our sound. Having no musical ability myself, we recruited our friends James DeJesus and Ebro Virumbrales, who were willing to go along with our vision, though at first I doubt they took it seriously. It seems that most people thought of Charles Bronson as a joke until it became something real. By practicing every week in Jon's parents' basement and feeling our way, soon we had enough songs for a demo.
I've always wondered about the band name. Were you a big fan of Charles Bronson's movies? He was a pretty big star when we were kids in the '80s.
I'd seen all the Death Wish movies, but the band name wasn't chosen out of love for the actor. Bronson was always the conservative tough guy, especially in his Cannon films, yet he was corny and unconvincing, and these contradictions seemed like the perfect embodiment of our band. We were teens from nice homes, in school, and playing by the rules—hardly vigilantes, and yet we hated our local peers and so we positioned ourselves against everything. As we saw it, most people were phonies. Even hardcore wasn't exempt from ridicule, with its ready-made costumes and politics, exemplified in the boring music most of these bands made.
Charles Bronson's first official release was a split with Spazz, who were from Northern California, and your first 7" was released on Six Weeks, a label also based in that region. How did you initially hook up with the west coast scene?
Actually, our first record was the 14-song EP on Six Weeks, an offer which came as a shock since we were huge fans of owner Jeff Robinson's band, Capitalist Casualties. The Spazz split was released shortly after, and by then we had two guitarists—Mike Sutfin and Aaron Aspinwall—whose joint creativity enhanced our sound. By this point, Dan Lactose had started Spazz, whom we looked up to, and releasing a split EP together was an honor. At least in this period, in contrast to the dreary Chicago punk scene (with the exception of Los Crudos), we felt far more connected to the extreme west coast bands and labels.
Ah, thanks for clearing that up. Sorry about my discography mix-up there. Keeping on the Spazz front, tell me about Three Wheel Motion.
In August of 1995, Jon and I visited Dan Lactose at his parents' home in Redwood City, CA. There, we skated in drainage ditches, met Max Ward, and went to shows in San Francisco at night. We saw Assück, Swing Kids, Assfort, and Spazz play at Epicenter; and hung out with E.T.O and Agents of Satan while they performed live on a college radio station, KZSU. Without any rehearsing, we recorded the Three Wheel Motion demo in one afternoon at the drummer Leech's house, with all the music and lyrics improvised. The goal was to make some extreme powerviolence, but it turned out pretty tongue-in-cheek-sounding. That day Jerry Garcia died, and later that evening we drove through Golden Gate Park and saw how homeless people had strung up hand-painted bedsheets bearing Jerry's name.
The visual aesthetic of Charles Bronson has proven to be very influential in the punk scene. You can still see it today in countless layouts. What's your take on that?
I don't pay attention.
You started your Youth Attack label in 1999. What was the initial outlook for the label? Did you plan on doing it as long as you've done it, or did you envision it being more of a temporary type of thing?
I started Youth Attack with the intention of reissuing all the Charles Bronson recordings. The band had become far more popular after breaking up, and it was always a surprise that anyone cared. I never thought of running a proper label, but starting Youth Attack coincided with a new wave of thrashcore bands that arose from powerviolence's decline. By the time I finished graduate school, I was already playing in The Oath. Through touring I met many new bands, which got the label rolling.
Why did Charles Bronson break up in 1997?
I ended the band since I felt we'd achieved everything and I wanted to escape the Midwest. In that era, being a band for three years was indulgent, and playing big shows was never our deal. In the final months, we toured to the east coast and that's when I first noticed that people liked us more than they did in Chicago. After we played our last show, I moved out of Dekalb. I stayed with my parents and spent the following month writing lyrics and recording vocals for the Youth Attack LP in Chicago, which felt strange since the band was already broken up and would never perform most of those songs live.
You moved to NYC in the late '90s. What brought on the move, and why did you eventually leave to the west coast for a time?
I moved to to NYC for graduate school, but found the art world corrupt and lame, so I moved to San Diego a year after earning my degree. Since The Oath could operate long distance from anywhere, I felt it wise to live someplace cheap to focus on art and music.
After Charles Bronson, you started playing with Nate Wilson (Devoid of Faith, Monster X) in Das Oath. I think what that band did was so interesting in terms of how the odd guitar riffs and your vocals interacted. Jeroen's guitar tone also helped set Das Oath apart from most of the other bands people might have lumped you in with.
Das Oath went long periods between recordings without any sort of rehearsing, and whatever new material we wrote was always a departure from what we did before. The further we went as a band, the more we looked beyond hardcore for influences. [Guitarist] Jeroen [Vrijhoef] always had a pop sensibility, but he was obsessed with American hardcore, so from the LP on, he fused the two. What I most admire about his playing is how he made his experimentations function in short, aggressive songs. He got into layering guitars and distortion so that—counterbalanced with a primitive '80s hardcore influence—he developed a wild, expressive style.
Nate recently told me that Das Oath operated like a machine, where you guys didn't really hold down regular jobs, and you toured a ton. He also said: "Being in that band exposed me to so much culturally."
I was more focused on band relations than whatever place we performed, since most of the time we would only see a city for one day. But in our first four-week tour alone, we played in 11 countries. It didn't occur to us that we didn't know each other very well, and coming from different cultural backgrounds we did not get along at first. Each of us nearly came to blows on several occasions, but eventually the shared experiences of touring bonded us like survivors of some tribulation.
VMW was a musical project you did that also featured Jeff Jelen (MK Ultra, Weedeater). That sounded like a fun record to make!
Apart from the lyrics, the music was all written by Jeff, a brilliant and clever person. He can write and play anything, it's incredible to watch how his mind works and the vast influences he draws from. He's one of the best storytellers ever, too, having grown up as a suburban metalhead in the '80s, with some of the craziest supernatural encounters I've ever heard. With VMW, he fused all of his obsessions—'80s pop music, classic hardcore, and underground movies—into an eclectic, future-primitive sound.
I loved Failures, a band you did with Will Killingsworth—a recording engineer and musician you've collaborated with many times throughout your career.
Will is one of the greats—a living legend and a person of indisputable genius. I have never seen anyone play guitar with such precision, and in Failures, we pushed each other to the brink. I have the highest level of respect for Will and we continue to work on numerous projects together. At this point, he mixes and masters every Youth Attack release.
You released a 7" in 2011 with a punk band called Suburbanite. That one had some really catchy stuff going on.
We have a 12-song LP called Combat Shock that's near completion. I wanted to make music that sounded like fighting, with tempos that match a human heartbeat in the middle of a brawl.
The singer of Suburbanite, Chris O'Coin, is also fronting your current band, Absolute Power. You recently released your debut album via Youth Attack. The band finds you sharing guitar duties with Will Killingsworth. What's it like being one-half of a guitar team?
Absolute Power was intended as a project band, though we're playing Within These Walls in Mesa, AZ with The Repos; as well as a few east coast shows this October. Playing side-by-side with Will is like enrolling in grade school all over again.
Switching over to your artwork, how would you describe your solo exhibitions, Devouring Ghost and Hallow? I love that there's also a musical component to that side of your work.
They're highly detailed architectural ink drawings floating in white emptiness, with a focus on psychology and the occult. The music I composed for them played in the galleries and was intended to be heard while viewing the drawings. It was important to force a feeling on the viewer, considering how the music is very stripped down and abrasive black metal.
What other projects are keeping you busy lately?
I draw every day. My drawings take around eight months to finish, and I just completed the second of nine works for a new exhibition that I intend to have ready within the next five years.
SEE ALSO: A Picture Disc is Worth a Thousand Wows
Youth Attack is known for its extremely limited pressings and collectability. It reminds me of Factory Records in that regard. Of all the records you've released so far, which ones do you get asked about the most?
The Repos' Hearts and Heads Explode LP and the Cult Ritual LP. It's great that people like them, since I think they're classics, too; but I don't consider them limited. My way of handling the label is to do everything quietly, since it's that quality that draws me to other people's work.
Last question: what is the best Chicago punk/hardcore record of all time?
No idea, but Sharon Tate's Baby and Snoopy's Tapeworm are amazing band names.