Interviews

Turbonegro Frontman Tony Sylvester on Style, His Early Hardcore Years + More

Photos: Milad Abedi

Raised in the suburbs of North West London, Tony Sylvester was part of the hardcore scene there in the late '80s and '90s. Though he's fronted the Norwegian rock band Turbonegro since 2011, the first time I came across with the Brit was in the early '90s thanks to his work in the post-hardcore band, Fabric. One day, I clicked on a profile of someone who had just followed the No Echo Instagram account, and after scrolling a bit, was intrigued by their focused sense of dressing style.

After putting some stuff together, I realized it was one of the guys from Fabric! This is the kind of thing that only true nerds will relate to because of all the stuff he's done with Turbonegro (think KISS Army-like fandom), I was more intrigued with the fact that he was in an obscure '90s band. 

I'm definitely a t-shirt, black jeans, and Nike low-tops kind of dude, but after digging a bit more, I realized Tony's passion for style permeates everything he does. When he's not in Turbonegro mode, he works for renowned tailor Timothy Everest, and Tony's also a go-to interview subject, appearing in such outlets as Styleforum and Permanent Style

After having a few conversations via social media, I connected with Tony to talk a bit about style, music, and some of the people from the hardcore community who influenced him along the way.

Did your love for fashion begin at the same time as you discovered hardcore/punk? 

First thing we need to do is address the terminology. Fashion is a loaded term, and one which has pejorative overtones, especially when linked to hardcore and punk, it has connotations of mindless consumerism and faddishness. I have been interested in what people wear and how they present themselves for as long as I can remember. This led to becoming fascinated in the visual representation of subcultures as I got older, thanks in no small part to having two older sisters into polar opposite scenes with different peer groups — one was a skinhead and one was a post-punk art student. 

I don’t think this is unique to a specific timeframe or area, but if you grew up in the suburbs of North London in the '70s and '80s, what you were into and how you dressed were paramount. It was the basis for everything from where you went to who you socialised with.

By the time I was 13, I didn’t see much happening that I could relate to, except for skating, so the music and the culture came from that. 33 years later, and I still consider hardcore as my bedrock —  the music, the mindset, the values.

Tony rocking a Septic Death t-shirt in Toronto, circa 1988.

The funny thing to me about music scenes like punk and metal is how much people in those scenes always go on and on about not conforming to any trends and all that blah blah blah stuff, but there’s obvious stylistic codes within the subcultures many adhere to. What are your thoughts on this?

Absolutely, that mentality plays out in overt and covert ways, and runs through all youth cultures I think. It’s probably one of the reasons people look fondly to the early days of any ‘scene’ where things appear more open-minded and accepting and less of the rules have become codified. 

I find the whole process fascinating. I also like how even within the gang/group mentality, you get the guys who do it a little differently, interpreting the codes and conventions in a more personal way.    

With the late '80s British hardcore scene in particular, I think the crew of guys in London were regarded with a little suspicion from the other scenes, especially in the North, as being a little too concerned with how we looked. We definitely had our own style — Barry Lynch, the lead singer of Long Cold Stare, was probably the architect of this and the best dresser of the group. He leaned heavily into more of an old-school collegiate/Ivy League look — chinos, Converse All Stars, and hooded top or cardigan, etc. A little smoother, a little slicker. 

Barry Lynch of Long Cold Stare in 1990. (Photo: Vique Martin)

At what point did you go from dressing in a more common punk/hardcore style to a more curated—dare I say, dapper—kind of way? 

Probably as an extension of what I mentioned above — gaining more confidence and wanting to denote difference, to not follow the crowd so much. The first contemporaneous scene that I became aware of at a tender age were the ‘casuals’ — '70s/'80s football terrace lads who ran through stylistic changes very rapidly, not dissimilar to the mods before them.

For the ‘dressers,' the main concern was to be seen to be doing it a little differently (aka better) than everyone else. To get “away from the numbers” as Paul Weller put it on "In the City." 

So a little of that, with getting older and becoming more interested in the way clothes are made and sold. After working in independent music all the way through my 20s and 30s, I started writing about and working in menswear just over a decade ago. It was a gradual fade... 

I think an interesting comparison to the hardcore world would be record collecting? Do you go “crate digging” like a vinyl collector would?

Oh yes, it’s probably the same impulse. When you’re younger you’re trying to make your meagre money go as far as it can, so you start frequenting thrift shops and surplus stores, and then you start trading and swapping. In that regard, it's very similar. I collect a lot of vintage clothes. To be honest, I collect a lot of everything, much to my wife’s chagrin and the limits of my apartment’s structural integrity. 

Cyana Madsen-Sylvester and Tony Sylvester

When you’re doing anything Turbonegro-related, you’re dressed very differently from your usual style. Do you look at that like donning a costume like an actor would? Is it fun to jump into that look for you?

That’s precisely what it is. When I first came across Turbonegro back in 1996 or so, it was so against the run of play. Everyone was ‘keeping it real,' getting on stage in their everyday clothes and trash talking ‘image’ as a commodity. Then here comes these guys in full regalia and make up putting on shows with fireworks and light shows in European squats. It was just so.. extra. 

We’re all playing characters on stage, and having the visual signifiers that you are actually performing really helps with that, both for the audience and the performer. So, of course it’s fun, but it's also a necessity. 

Turbonegro @ Metaltown Festival, Stockholm, Sweden, 2013. (Photo: Eviz Landin)

Lastly, who are some musicians from the hardcore/punk scene you think have impeccable style?

I was always the guy who pored over the photos in the zines and record covers and checked out everyone’s looks, and you’d see the same faces doing it just a little better than the rest. Probably the first book that really gave a timeline and an overview to a scene was Cynthia Connolly’s Banned In DC, and so seeing how certain characters in DC evolved their style was fascinating — the first one that comes to mind is Chris Bald. 

Chris Bald photo by Cynthia Connolly (from Banned in DC: Photos and Anecdotes from the DC Punk Underground (79-85))

In all those NYHC pics this was especially true — in a sea of bald heads, you’d always get the same guys standing out from the crowd. The real obvious one for me is [Supertouch vocalist] Mark Ryan, who was right there from the start, and always looking cool as fuck.

When Supertouch came to London in '92, I took him out shopping as I’d take all the bands. Most would be after Lonsdale, Fred Perry, Ben Sherman, but Mark was way more switched on and interested in what was actually going on rather than some reductive idea of ‘English clobber.' I believe he ended up buying a ‘Yardie Cardie’ from The Duffer of St George — one of those Italian American leisure shirts that were having a moment in London at the time. Definitely a connoisseur.  

Supertouch photo found on Last.fm

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Tagged: fabric, turbonegro

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