I first learned about Visual Discrimination via Thrasher magazine when I was a kid in the late '80s, but it wasn't till I picked up a copy of the California hardcore band's Step Back and Listen album from a record store in NYC's Greenwich Village called It's Only Rock 'n' Roll that I heard them. With a blistering guitar attack and brutish vocals, I was an instant fan. I never got a chance to see Visual Discrimination live, but I've kept up with the group's singer, Tim Sawyer, through all of his musical projects since.
After a stint fronting Final Conflict, Tim is now the singer of a new band called Manson Family Band, along with some other fellow Cali hardcore vets. Tim recently reached out to me about his MFB, so I figured it was perfect timing to get a proper interview in the books with the man.
Where were you born and raised?
Well, I was born and raised for the most part in Anaheim, CA. Its about 30 miles south of downtown Los Angeles, and home to Disneyland, which, by the way, isn't the happiest place on earth for me [laughs].
Noted! What kind of family life did you have at home?
My family life was rough growing up. The earliest memories being a small tyke was probably about 6-years-old, and those memories were my mother and father having knockdown fights... glasses and ashtrays flying all over the place. Both parents were hard core alcoholics. My father, I think, ended up with 7 DUIs. My parents split and divorced when I was 8-years-old, and my sister and I were pawns in the whole mess. We bounced back and forth between both parents, and my mother took off from SoCal and basically kidnapped us and ran to New Mexico for about a year and a half. I still dont know the complete story behind that, but afterwards we lived with my father and stepmother, who was extremely abusive, both physically and mentally.
I attended 7 different K-6th grades schools, that tells you how much we bounced around. and we did’nt even go to school when we were in New Mexico. My mother struggled on her own working 2-3 different jobs, to stay afloat. My father made good money being a union-represented plumber/steam fitter. He was very into motorsports, and thats what we did as kids... a lot of boat racing and off-road racing. My other sports my father wasnt interested in, and never attended or took me to a single even or practice. My mother did when she could and she would buy all my equipment needed for whatever I was playing. That stuck with me for a very long time.
What was your hometown like back then, versus now? Do you go back a lot? With Southern California, since I also live here, I know it’s a lot of “Well, I’m not even sure my parents would have been able to afford to live there if it was a pricey back then as it is now.”
Well, actually, I still reside in Anaheim. I never really moved away. I have lived in a few different spots as a adult, but all within a few miles of Anaheim. As a kid growing up in Anaheim, it was a lot of open space, strawberry fields, and lots of orange groves (hence the name Orange County). We got into a lot of trouble out in those fields back then [laughs]. I dont think there is but a couple groves left in all of Orange County now, and there is a whole lot more people here these days. I think the average rent for a 3-4 bedroom house in Orange County is about $3000-3500 per month now. When I was a kid it was about $500 a month.
How did you get into hardcore and punk? Were you into metal first and then discovered that other kind of stuff?
I think the summer of 1978, I was 14 and working at my uncle's auto body shop in Bell Gardens, a small city just southeast of Los Angeles. My cousins that worked there were 7-10 years older than me, and were really into music. The music they played at the shop was a lot different than any of the Top 40 radio, or country music stations that were always on in my home. My second cousin turned me onto KROQ, and that radio station introduced me to a new style of music I had never heard before. The same cousin played guitar, and I think it was summer of 1979 he talked about the Sex Pistols a lot, and invited me along to go see him perform in a punk rock band called No Crisis. They played in front of a audience of about 40 people seated in the South Gate High School auditorium. The music was loud and abrasive for that time, and I never heard anything like it, but I loved it. This fay changed everything for me, it put me into a search for more!
It’s been well documented that the SoCal hardcore scene had its fair share of violence at shows in the '80s. What was your experience with that back in those days?
Very true, all of it has been pretty well documented by now. I remember wondering a few times how I was going to escape alive. There were multiple gangs within the scene back in the '80s. It kind of tailed off quite a bit in the early '90s. A lot of those gangs moved on to being more of neighborhood type gangs and they all kind of splintered apart. I still know quite a few people that were involved in some of those gangs, some have grown up and moved on in life, while others still have not. I also know quite a few who have died, either because of drugs or the violence associated with the lifestyle.
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Tell me about the formation of Visual Discrimination.
It was around late '83, early '84. Jeff Banks (A Chorus of Disapproval, Civilians) one of our two guitarists, worked at a 76 gas station. While working one day, two punk rockers pulled up for gas, both had mohawks. and wildly colored leather jackets. Jeff struck up a conversation with the two, and asked what bands they were into, etc. They both continued on to tell him they played drums and bass, and were trying to start a band. Jeff said he played guitar and had another friend who played guitar (Steve Winders) Both Jeff and Steve knew my brother, Byron, who they went to high school with. My brother had jammed off and on with Jeff and Steve. The drummer and bassist were Jeff Simmerman and Danny Fisher, respectively, and they had a guy in mind to sing but, he kept going to jail, and had a very serious heroin problem.
I had already jammed in a small band we called Dead Tradition with my brother on bass and Jeff and Steve on guitars, and a kid named Morgan. We played a couple parties and that was it. Our drummer moved to Hawaii to live with his dad, so now Jeff asked if I would like to do it, and I of course said yes. Our original bass player, Danny Fisher, was put under 6 months of house arrest, and we had to find another bass player, so Junior Bilocki was the choice as he went to school with everybody.
So the story I’ve read is that Visual Discrimination recorded your debut album—Step Back and Listen—before you even had a record deal, and then you took it on yourselves to shop it around. The end result was “Big” Frank Harrison putting it out as the first release for his Nemesis Records label.
That’s a crazy long one, but I'm so happy we did go with "Big" Frank after it was all said and done. We sent our demo in to all the fanzines and it got really good reviews! Pushead reviewed it in Maximum Rocknroll, and he also mentioned us in Thrasher. So, we hadn’t even shopped for a label and we didn’t really know what the fuck we were doing, so we just went and paid for the recording. The album was done in two sittings, about 6 months apart. We recorded at Spot Recording, the only reason we chose that studio is because we didn’t know where else to go, and we knew that our friends Half Off recorded there.
After we finished the recordings, we sent it off to multiple record labels, most of which we didn’t get responses back from. The responses we did get back were about 99% positive with a few really interested people. Pusmort was really interested, but didn’t want to release a full album. He wanted to do a 7” and we said no, which is probably one of the biggest mistakes we ever made.
Fuck! That would have been awesome to have a Visual Discrimination on Pusmort.
We decided to go with National Trust Records. They were local, and had numerous bands on the label that we liked: Dont No, Love Canal, The Instigators, and many more great bands. The label owner was Ron Jaycox, and he also owned a record store in Huntington Beach called Pop Culture. We gave him everything he needed to do the record, all he had to do was go to the printers for covers and lyric sheets. We had everything done and had been promised it would be only about a month to get everything printed up. Well, after about 3 months, we had some serious concerns and he wasn’t answering calls, or was never in the record shop. I think we actually lied to his dad who worked at the record shop all the time, and told him we needed to take some stuff to his house for the record but forgot how to get there. He gave us the address, and we went to house with 2 carloads of people to get our stuff back or take something of equal value plus a beatdown.
It had been nearly 6 months and he was dodging us. We got there and he wasnt there, but his roommate was. He originally said he didnt know where he was, but then we threatened to do some harm to him, and he fessed up and said he knew where he was and would call him to come to the house on a lie of having coke or something? Ron was a big coke head. He pulled up and walked in, and it was surprise guess who? He started to try and bullshit his way through it, and we weren’t having it. Myself, along with a couple others, stayed at the house, and told him that we were gonna break everything in the house and fuck his friend up if he didnt get our shit back. A few of the VD ARMY boys went with Jeff and Steve, and took Ron to the pressing plant and the print shop to get our stuff. The pressing plant gave us the stuff back, no questions asked. The print shop was different, he wasnt giving anything up until he was paid for all types of previous debt Ron owed. We eventually had to tell the guy that we were going to hurt him and ron right there if we didnt get our property back. That was a fun day [laughs].
How did Frank and Nemesis come into the piecture?
We had become kind of close to "Big" Frank at that time since we were always going to Zed Records, which he managed. We had lots of friends who worked there, so we would go down a few times a week for BS sessions with the likes of Katon Depena of Hirax, Ron Martinez from Final Conflict, Billy Rubin from Half Off, and anybody else who might have just stopped by from other bands, or touring bands that would pop in once in a while. Well, "Big" Frank told us he thought he had enough connections that he could get our record put out, and it happened very fast. Frank was a huge part of the scene in LA back then as he was also a stage manager for Goldenvoice, who put on all the big shows back then, which helped a lot for getting good shows for the band as well.
I remember picking up the LP as a kid just based on the cover photo alone. You guys looked like a Cali street gang, and that kind of shit goes far with a teenager from NYC!
The photo on the cover of Step Back was taken in Wilmington, CA, a small gang-infested Los Angeles Harbor area town. We drove all over Southern California that day, starting at 5am in Downtown Los Angeles, and ending up at about 10 pm that night on Hollywood Blvd. Actually, the photo wasn’t supposed to be with me out front, but someone had passed by and yelled something at us, and I had started out towards the street just in case they wanted to stop and play. Most of all of the early photo documentation was shot by KRK Dominguez, who started a fanzine called SFTG (Straight From the Grave).
KRK was a good friend of mine even before the band, and he was always willing to help us because he knew there may be some potential for some bloody pics [laughs]. KRK shot the cover photo, and also the back cover photo of the In Vain record, along with hundreds more. KRK ended up moving on from his zine to Flipside. Other photographers that helped along the way were Gary Hornberger, who had done some photography work for Flipside, but then went to Razorcake, where I think he still may write for once in a while. And David "Igby" Sattanni also shot a few photos for us along the way.
Another aspect I loved about the album was the metal influence, especially in the guitar riffs. Did you guys catch any shit from the hardcore/punk purists for that?
No, surprisingly enough, a lot of people in our cirlce of friends, including guys from other bands, really loved it, and there really wasnt anybody doing a lot of metal stuff in the hardcore scene back then. Of course you had D.R.I., COC, and Cryptic Slaughter, all of whom we loved, but playing straight fast hardcore with metal infusion….really nobody was doing it. Whenever we recorded, the engineers always asked Jeff and Steve, what kind of guitar sound they wanted, and they always answered some crazy big metal bands, and it always confused the hell out of the engineer [laughs].
Did you play on many metal bills?
We played a show with Candlemass (thank you, "Big" Frank) at the Country Club. Excel was on that bill, but it was a hesh fest! It was an all-metal type show, leather pants and big hair and makeup type shit. We got a great reaction, and even Kerrang! magazine was there, and took a real liking to us, asked us all kinds of questions, and took a few photos. I dont think it ever got any kind of print, but all of us in the band were on cloud 9 that night [laughs].
How much touring, if any, did Visual Discrimination do in support of the album? Sadly, I never got to see the band back then.
VD did zero touring. We played lots of one-off stuff, but no touring. We had a European tour back in 1998 planned, but backed out last second when we found out that Agnostic Front and Sick of It All were touring separately at the same time we would be touring, and that would have spelled disaster for us.
Moving on, in 1990 the band released the aforementioned In Vain EP. Along with what Infest was doing around the same time, I think you guys were writing in a style that might have been a bit ahead of its time.
I have a love/hate relationship with that record. The musical style I had no problems with, I think we were just maturing a bit from Step Back and Listen. We were already bickering a little bit when this record was being recorded, and as it was being released we were having some inner turmoil. It was some of the best times of my life, though. Working with Brett Gurewitz of Bad Religion as the engineer was a blast, super fun dude!
Why did Visual Discrimination break up in 1992?
You know, I dont know. I think, partly, it was a combination of things, burnout, losing Jeff Banks hurt a lot, and one of the members was having some issues with substance abuse, and that was affecting performance and reliability.
You told me you briefly played in Non-Fiction and Static Reaction.
VD broke up after about 9 months and split into 2 bands: Non-Fiction a peace punk type outfit, and Denial, a straight edge band. That only lasted about 9 months, and both bands played a around a few shows and parties. During that time, a few of us from both bands did Static Reaction with an old Decry drummer, and substance abuse cut that short again, but both sides of the VD split realized we missed VD and brought it back, and got more serious, and the other two bands NF and Denial just basically died.
In the mid-‘90s, you, RD Davies, and Steve Winders—all former members of Visual Discrimination—joined forces again in a band called Prison.
That was just supposed to be for some get together fun, and hang with the guys type thing. But we ended up recording a full-length, and Bernd from Lost and Found had contacted me around the same time to ask about re-releasing Step Back and In Vain. I told him yes, but he had to pay for Prison's recording and release it. He agreed to both.
Lost and Found has had a bad reputation within the hardcore community. What was your experience like working with them?
He pretty much held up his end of the deal, for the most part, and released it. We were proud of what we did at the time, but were bummed it had no real energy. Again, drugs fucked us up. Sort of a pattern here, right? The other member of Prison was in a straight edge band called Hayters Alley. They were some of our close friends that decided to form something after hanging with us for so long. They were actually really good! I wish they had been able to hold it together long enough to do a record as they were incredible! I think Prison ended up playing about a dozen shows, probably.
What prompted the return of Visual Discrimination with the Serial Killers EP in 1997?
Just missing the action. We got invited to play a show I think with Integrity at the Showcase Theatre, and we were like, "Fuck yeah! Lets do it!" It was so much fun, so on we go again [laughs]. That record had the raddest recording ever, and it was done on a 16-track in a tiny one-car garage in Long Beach, for like $120 bucks. RD did the mixing with the engineer, Rusty Cavanaugh! We think it came out powerful as fuck! I love that 7”. It was released by Deep Six Records! Bob [Kasitz] is the greatest dude to work with and have as a friend. But you already know that having worked with him as well!
A personal musical career highlight for me was when my former band (Black Army Jacket) appeared on the Reality Part #3 compilation along with Visual Discrimination, in 1999. Were you guys playing with grind and power violence bands during that era?
You know….we really didn’t, and I’m not sure why. VD had this crazy stigma, the straight edge “in crowd” hated us because we had lyrics against some of the straight edge crowd, but we also had songs in support of it as well. I mean, how much more straight edge can you get with a song like “We Got the Edge," or “Those Drugs”? I guess we weren’t supposed to speak our minds? Fuck that! Just stick our heads in the sand, and pretend everything is ok. But we had 5 individuals in the band and we didn’t blink an eye because one or the other didn’t have the exact same view as the others, which we wrote about as well.
You were in Final Conflict for a period and sang on the band’s No Peace On Earth, No Rest In Hell in 2006. What was that experience like and why didn’t you continue working together?
That experience was incredible for me! It was like a dream come true for me, as they were one of my all-time favorite bands. I got a phone call one day, and it was Jeff Harp, and he said Tim, do you know who this is? I said, "Nope...not sure?" When he said he was Jeff Harp, I was like, "Whoa, how are you how you been, it’s been a long time?" VD and Final Conflict probably played about 15-20 times together. So, we cut through the catching up stuff, and he said he was at home drawing some tattoo flash, and he heard this music in the other room his son Ryan was playing, and he told me that he had gone in there and said, "Who is this?" Ryan told him, "It's VD," and Jeff said, "Wow, I gotta call Tim and ask him if he wants to sing for us!" Well, the rest is history, and that record and the recording time was really special for me!
I loved my time with Final Conflict. The end was me having some very serious health issues, and marital problems. Final Conflict played CBGB’s with Exploited right before they closed the doors, and I came home sick as hell, and learned I was in total kidney failure. I had had kidney problems since I was 12-years-old, and they finally said fuck you and quit. I died and was revived two different times on dialysis, so I have already used up a couple of my 9 lives [laughs]. I had a transplant in October 2008, and still going strong almost 10 years later! The transplant was from a very close buddy of mine who donated one of his to me. It was the greatest gift ever. Nothing could top that.
Let’s get into Manson Family Band. What was the impetus behind the formation of the group?
Actually, it was going to be a new motorcycle club, and still may be….working on some of that now…..more drama than a 15-year-old girl's birthday party, I’ll tell you [laughs0. But it's fucking serious business, and not to be taken lightly at any point. That stuff is all on hold right now, and out of the blue, Buster Cates calls me and says, "Hey, lets start a band!" I said, "Ok, who we getting?" So he told me the name he had in his head for the band and I tripped out. I was like, "Fuck yes! I'm in!"
Manson Family Band is:
Buster Cates (Positive Influence Fanzine, Right Hand Men) on guitar
Mark Conway (Neighborhood Watch) on guitar
John Flood (Alert Society fanzine, Apocalypse, Mindrot, State of Defiance) on bass
John Sanders (a Seattle hardcore transplant) on drums
Tim Sawyer on vocals
Did you have a clear vision of what you wanted the band to sound like or did that develop with time?
Well, we really weren’t sure what we were gonna get, but we had a general idea going in. We wanted something heavier, slower, and way different. I think what we have come up with is close to our goal, but the more we play together and write, we are noticing big changes. Songs are getting more and more complex. We, of course, have always loved the Black Flag stuff, and love the heavy dark sound of Sabbath, and thats what we started with….and it went on from there. The newer songs we are writing are sounding a bit like a cross between Poison Idea and BL'AST!, according to some of our friends?
Tell me about the Manson Family Band EP. What can folks expect?
We have no idea how it’s gonna be received, but it's a mix of hardcore and some metal. There's also some Thin Lizzy influence on one of the songs [laughs]. Our friends seem to like it, and it will be very short songs. A little hard to pin down on what style of music it would be considered, crossover, hardcore, metal, etc. We do have a couple straight-forward hardcore songs.
What’s the plan for Manson Family Band for the rest of 2018 and beyond?
We really dont have the type of time to be doing any real touring but a West Coast run is a reality this year: Portland, San Fransisco, Reno, San Diego, Phoenix, Tijuana. There may be a invite coming for a punk festival in New York in the end of June. We should know in a few weeks. We also have talked about Rebellion Fest for 2019, and a few other shows in England. We have a good friend over there in Adie from the English Dogs who loves us, and he will definitely help us set it up and help with logistics.
What else keeps you busy these days?
I have a couple of things that keep me very busy. I have grandkids who are everything to me! What a fucking incredible experience that's been. I didn’t think I was ready yet, but it's all perfect! I also do a lot of long trips on the Harley. Like I said earlier, motorcycle club type stuff, but not in a club anymore [laughs]. Well, at least not at the moment. And I have a horrible baseball card and memorabilia addiction. It's killing me slowly! But what really kills me is thinking about when I bite the dust, the wife selling my 3 million plus card collection for $500 bucks [laughs].
Yes, and work keeps me very busy….crazy long hours, and very few days off, although right now I’m off on disability, with a broken hand. It would be fun to be off this long if I could ride my Harley [laughs].
In closing, if you had to pick one album from the Southern Californian hardcore/punk scene that had the biggest impact on you, what would it be and why?
Oh my god, you're fucking killing me! This is the hardest question of all time. I’ll give you 5! These bands put lasting memories, good and bad, in my brain, and I had the opportunity to hang around and have fun with some of these guys in the early scene in SoCal.
In no particular order:
TSOL, Dance with Me
Uniform Choice, Screaming for Change
Pig Children, Blood for the State
Middle Class, Homeland
Black Flag, Damaged: Seeing them play at the Vex around 1982 left a lasting impression, the raw energy, and violent outbursts, and body movement from Rollins hit me deep. I connected with it and it put an eternal fire deep in my gut!