Interviews

Subzero Frontman Lou Di Bella on Their Upcoming Record, Beating Cancer + More

Photo: Jay Sparacio

Ready to feel old? Subzero is celebrating their 30th fucking anniversary! I remember buying their second demo from some one of those dudes who used to set up tables at DIY shows in the NYC area like it was yesterday. 

Throughout the years since, Subzero has toured throughout the world, releasing some excellent metallic hardcore along the way, including their superb 1996 debut album, Happiness Without Peace, and its follow-up full-length in 2004, The Suffering of Man.

While some massive setbacks caused the band to take time away from the scene (more on that below), Subzero is returning to record stores via Beauty in Sorrow. Recorded at Barking Dog Recording Studios in Brewster, New York, the 5-track EP finds the quintet in pure fighting shape.

In this No Echo exclusive, I chat with vocalist Lou Di Bella about Subzero's history, his personal health battles, and the band's future.

Why do you fill us in on what you’ve been up to since we last heard from Subzero.

First off, thanks for the interview. I was stoked when we were asked to do it cuz I respect what you’re doing and especially enjoy reading your posts and interviews. I'm also a fan of Black Army Jacket! 

Thank you, Lou!

As for what Subzero has been up to...

We’ve pretty much been layin low for a while now...trying to focus on writing when we have the time aside from our families and “regular” jobs. Experimenting with new ideas that we’ve never fully incorporated into our music before, but always wanted to. 

We have a good albums worth of material for a full-length LP and then some. But, to ease in, we’re gonna release a 5-song EP in the fall on Upstate Records (USA) Demons Run Amok (Europe) for a small taste of what’s to come.

In terms of the songwriting, what can we expect from Beauty in Sorrow? Would you say that the new material is on a different vibe than past Subzero releases, or do you keep close to the style we’ve come to know from the band?

The new material carries a broad spectrum of influences from the classic Happiness Without Peace-era of Subzero to the more modern sounds of the band's progression into The Suffering of Man, and so many unexpected surprises in between. We’ve incorporated a lot of the music that influenced and inspired us since we were kids with new and refreshing ideas that still come off real and remain true and from the heart.

I want to keep shit movin' and not have to play the same regurgitated shit because some closed-minded idiot is gonna say, "Hey! That doesn’t sound the same as Subzero did 30 (fucking) years ago!" Jesus Christ. I sometimes hear that about us and some other bands and it’s bullshit. Nostalgia is cool, but not when it’s just copied and repeated over and over again. Do you! Make it you! 

We’ve lived through 30 years of new experiences, triumphs, and tragedys. There’s so much influence that I/we’ve lived through and it’s gonna come out the way it wants to. We're not gonna write what someone else wants to hear just for them because they can’t get their heads out of the past and open up their minds to new ideas. We’re gonna write for us and what we feel. If it’s real and from the heart, people will relate and they will stand by you. That’s what matters to me.

Yes, I hear that complaint often from other musicians from bands who have been together for as long as Subzero has. There always seems to be a segment of the audience who just wants bands to keep regurgitating a specific era from their discography.

I’d rather perform in front of 10 people who genuinely relate to the music than 1000 people who are there for the “mosh part” and have no idea what’s been put into the music, where it comes from or not knowing what the lyrics are about. And who wants to hear everything that sounds like everyone and everything else that’s been done before? Change is great! And it will keep the scene thriving. When bands like Absolution or BURN, for example, came into the mix it was like, "fuck, I’ve never heard this before and it was brilliant!" It inspired so many people and helped to change the direction of hardcore at the time.

We all grew up listening to so many different kinds of music from Sabbath to Venom to Bowie to Christian Death, and bands like Sonic Youth, Misfits, Napalm Death, Cro-Mags, and Slayer and everything in between. All that shit has influenced us to become the individuals who we are today! And why the fuck not incorporate all of that into our music?

Listen through the Subzero discography today, it's clear the band has definitely evolved stylistically throughout the years.

Subzero has always evolved and experimented with new ideas and progressed in our writing style throughout our existence, yet we’ve always maintained a way to stay true to where we came from, always. That's something that I am proud of. If you don’t like our music, or can’t relate to it, that’s cool with me and I can understand and appreciate that cuz I’m not writing it for how you feel. I appreciate your honesty. Let’s go have a drink and chill. All good.

If you do like our music and can understand it and relate to it in some way, that’s awesome and I’m glad we connected in that way and I appreciate it just the same.

L-R: Jorge Rosado (Merauder), Lou, Paul Bearer (Sheer Terror), Jimmy G. (Murphy's Law), Bob Riley (Stigmata) backstage. (Photo: Helena Kusters)

Tell me about the current lineup of the band and the history between you guys. Shout out to Matty Pasta!

[Laughs] Double shout out to Matty Pasta! 

Yep, Matt Mangiaracina (Merauder, Crown of Thornz, Skarhead) and Rich Kennon are on guitars, and Lawrence Susi on bass. As far as drums for the EP, it’s either Riggs Ross (Hatebreed, Madball, Crown of Thornz)—who’s been Subzero’s drummer for the last few years or so—or Drew Thomas (Crippled Youth, Youth of Today, BOLD, Into Another), who also plays in mine and Richie’s other post punk/punk band, Black in Mourning.

Because Riggs is out in Cali now, and Drew might be away with one of his other bands, it really comes down to availability when it’s time to record. Either way it’s a win-win for us. They're both longtime friends and both dope as fuck drummers. We’re honored to have either one playing with us. Shout to Walter Monsta Ryan for holding it down with us for so many years as well!

Richie came out of Breakdown ('87-'89) He wrote bangers like "Dissed and Dismissed," "What It Is," and co-wrote "All I Ask" with bassist Mark Sisto. He left in '89 and started Subzero with James Eaton, drummer of New York straight egde band, Up Front. Larry played in a few bands (The Lung Cookies, Lethal Faith, OMG) with Richie and Jim prior to Subzero. Ironically, Larry also played with Breakdown in 1991-1997 (...Blacklisted EP, etc.) while he was still in Subzero.

Subzero and Breakdown have a lot of crazy, deep-rooted ties that are way too much to get into now [laughs]. 

Give the story behind hooking up with Mario Cangemi and Upstate Records. How did you guys connect?

Well, we were looking to put out the EP and I noticed that everytime I opened one of my social media pages I always saw this label consistently pushing their bands. I mean, literally every day I went on I would see a post from Upstate Records, so I was curious. I saw they had put out the latest Leeway record, and helped promote Will Sheplers new band, The Take, who I love, and a whole slew of other bands from all over the country. It’s a fairly new label, considering most of the others I was talking with, but he obviously pushes hard and puts out quality music and packaging along with good distribution.

I contacted him and he turned out to be one of the nicest guys and seemed genuine as can be. We hit it off and discussed a deal. Since then, Mario and his label partner—who also happens to be his wife, Kim—have been nothing but amazing. They're great people who treat the label and the bands more like a family than a business looking to make money. I mean, Mario genuinely cares about his bands on a personal level. I know, cuz he’s always there to talk if I’m goin' through shit at home, in life or whatever. Like he’s my real brother. And I haven’t even gotten a chance to meet him yet [laughs]. It’s like I’ve known him forever. That’s saying a lot right off the bat!

So, yeah, I am a thousand percent comfortable with him and know that Upstate is definitely the right label to put out this EP. 

We talked about the stylistic direction of Beauty in Sorrow earlier, but how about the lyrics? Have you found that writing lyrics comes easier now that you’ve done it for decades, or did you struggle to find inspiration this time out?

Man, I’ve hand so many fucked up hands dealt to me over the past 30 years of my life between dying twice during my 5-year battle with stage IV cancer, losing my girlfriend to breast cancer after that, having multiple friends overdosing left and right on me, struggling with depression, social anxiety, financial struggles, and just the world around us in these trying times.

There have been so many blows to my being and to everyone around me. At least I have the knowledge and wisdom from enduring those trials and hardships while never giving in, always fighting for the last drop of positivity in the bucket during my darkest times, and always remembering that it’s never gonna be easy, but it will get better.

To feel the love of my miracle children, who my amazing doctors at Mount Sinai hospital said I would never be able to produce because of my long, extreme 5-year regiment of chemotherapy and brain radiation that supposedly made me sterile. If you don’t suffer through the bad, you’ll never appreciate the good at its fullest potential. I’ve always written dark lyrics and if you read them carefully, there’s usually a positive message tied into the pain and the hurt. It’s like a healing process. If you look deep enough, you will find the beauty in sorrow. 

From what I’ve gathered throughout the years, Subzero has a bigger following in Europe than the band does at home in the States. Is that true in your eyes, and if so, why do you think you guys have connected so deeply with folks overseas?

By around '93 up until I got sick in the late '90s, we would tour the country in a shitty van every single week, 4-5 days a week non stop. Not many unsigned East Coast hardcore bands we’re doing that kinda touring at the time. Maybe a good 10-15 bands or less? We gradually got to the point where we were packing out shows the more we would tour and return to certain cities/towns. It’s what you have to do in order to develop a strong following. The people appreciate that. It becomes like family amongst the audience and the band. Especially in those days when there was no internet to spread the word the way we can now.

We busted our asses flyering up the record shops, the clubs, posting up the city walls at night with a mop and glue in a bucket, and then getting arrested for it. We had mailing lists and constantly sent out newsletters in envelopes to people all over the country. We did all of that shit and toured as much as we could. It all paid off with the return thanks of our fans and followers. Kids were coming out strong to the shows! 

It helped us get signed Too Damn Hype Records for our debut full-length, Happiness Without Peace. Century Media Records liked it and brought out the album from TDH and we instantly got hooked up with the Misfits' return tour for 4 months in Europe. From there, we never left and went straight on tour with our brothers Rykers from Germany for another month or so. We got home from there and we left for Japan. We developed a great relationship with our overseas people because we did so much touring out there.

Again, people appreciate that kind of work ethic, and at the time, not many US hardcore bands went out on tours for those long runs at the time, so it was greatly appreciated even more than in the States because they just didn’t see it as much. So, yeah, I feel we gained a lot of that love and friendship from overseas for making those efforts so early on in a time when it was more scarce to see a NYHC band at the time of no internet relations. It was more personal, in a way, I guess. 

Tell me about your cancer diagnosis and how you found out you had it.

When Subzero got home from Japan, I joined Skarhead as a second band and began a US tour with them, Hatebreed, Earth Crisis, and Madball. While out there, I was experiencing horrible pains in my legs which gradually spread throughout my body during the tour until the point where I blacked out and collapsed in torturous pain. I witerally screaming in pain. I hit the ground and blacked out in St. Louis. [Skarhead guitarist] Mitts [Brian Daniels] rushed me to the hospital and the band waited for a couple of days until I was diagnosed with cancer. It had apparently was already spreading the entire time I was in Europe.

So, by this time, it was already throughout my whole body. I flew back to New York and started my 5-year regiment. 5 days a week for 5 years straight I was on an array of different doses of chemo along with a bone marrow transplant, sessions of bone marrow biopsies, brain radiation, spinal taps, blood transfusions, and the entire works. I was a corpse. I had A.L.L (Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia), which as type of cancer usually get, and as you get older, your chances of living are slimmer.

They gave me a 23% chance to live. I died twice and, well, obviously, I ultimately defeated all odds against me and am alive today to share my story. Positive Mental Attitude is half the reason I’m alive right now. I never said I was gonna die. That, good family, and friends to support me, and of course, amazing doctors.

Subzero @ Wetlands, NYC, circa early '90s. (Photo: Linda Aversa)

What happened to Subzero during that time?

With all of this, of course, Subzero couldn’t play or tour for years and a lot of new bands were comin out with a whole new and younger generation of kids. We hadn’t put out anything until years later, the Necropolis EP followed up by The Suffering of Man LP. Both released by Jamey Jasta on his Stillborn Records. That album started blowing up. We put out a song called "Lionhearted" which was about overcoming the shit that life throws in front of our paths...mine, my cancer. It's a song I wrote for myself, to tell my story, but relates to us all.

We put a video out for it and it’s up close to 900,000 hits on YouTube. For us, that was totally unheard of. I never thought it would reach that many people. Fuckin' crazy and very much appreciated.

So Subzero had some momentum building.

Yeah, while that album was flowing, we landed a tour with Exodus. We started packin' shows again, but not for long because I began to get sick again. I never announced it to the public or my band. We just announced it as we were splitting up for good. Now we’re back here after all these years of not playing much or releasing anything new and I feel like that had a big impact in certain areas in the US. But who knows.

The last two NYC shows we played we sold out. So, let’s see what happens. Hopefully heads will get down with the new music and the vibes we have to offer and we’ll have some amazing shows across the US in the near future with our long time followers and the many new ones we hope to gain. Until then! 

Of the older Subzero material, what’s a song from the band's discography that you must play at every show you do?

Definitely "Boxed In." It’s the second song we ever wrote in 1989 and, to me, it’s still the hardest Subzero song. We wanted to do something different than straight up old-school NYHC back in the beginning, so we kinda crossed over into that thrashy kinda riffing, blended with Breakdown vs Cro-Mags-esque vocals and it came out cool, we thought.

Both Hatebreed and Terror have covered it on separate tribute albums which was awesome and humbling. So yeah! "Boxed In" and I’d say "Higher Power" then "Lionhearted" for obvious reasons.

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Beauty in Sorrow will be out this coming October via Upstate Records (US) and Demons Run Amok (Europe). Subzero will be celebrating their 30th Anniversary on a tour of Europe. Lou told me that the band is expecting to drop their first single, “House of Grief,” within the next couple of months before the EP comes out.

Stay tuned for those updated dates, but here is the one festival that has been announced so far:

November 7 - Untererthal, Germany @ Stäbruch 2020 w/ Slap Shot, The Casualties, Lion’s Law + many more

Subzero on social media: Facebook | Instagram

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