INTERVIEW WITH STEVEN BLUSH
INTERVIEW BY STEVE OLSON
PHOTOS COURTESY OF SONY PICTURES CLASSICS
American Hardcore – Core to the beliefs of the soldiers that made up a scene for themselves, for others to agree with and join, or not… A movement important as any other, what is important to one person, may not be to the next, and life goes on. With, or without the scene, the people in it, and the reasons that it started in the first place. Let it be known, hardcore belongs to the people that lived it, and loved it, and didn’t really care what the rest of the people thought. But if I see, or should I say hear, one of the songs on a TV ad, well, let’s just hope one gets the right amount of money for the usage of that song.
“IT CAME DOWN TO THE FACT THAT I REALIZED HOW MUCH THIS SMALL PERIOD OF MY LIFE HAD AN IMPACT ON ME. IT INFLUENCED THE WAY THAT I ACTED. IT WAS THIS MINDSET THAT I PICKED UP FROM THE HARDCORE PUNK ROCK SCENE.”
Hey, Steve. How are you?
I’m good. How are you?
I don’t know if you remember me, but when you were in the Joneses, I was friends with Mitch Dean. I booked you once in D.C., and you actually crashed one time at my house.
Oh, right. You’re friends with Mitch Dean?
I’m a fan of yours.
No, you’re not a fan. A fan is something that blows air over someone that’s hot.
[Laughs.] Exactly. How have you been?
Excellent. How have you been? Where are you?
I’m in Miami right now, but I live in New York.
What part of New York?
By the Gap?
That’s a joke. So American Hardcore, what brought you to want to do a book about that?
Essentially, it came down to the fact that I realized how much this small period of my life had an impact on me. It influenced the way that I acted. It was this mindset that I picked up from the hardcore punk rock scene. I realized that a decade later, I didn’t look hardcore or listen to hardcore, but everything that I did was from that mindset. I felt like everyone had the history wrong, so I did my best to try and tell it. The history had really never been told. It was like the game of telephone. Everyone just told stories over and over again. No one had actually really gone for it. The final thing that made me write the book was on TV they had this History of Rock n Roll series.
I saw that.
It’s very good. They did Elvis, The Beatles, Sex Pistols, Clash, X and then they go straight to Nirvana, as if hardcore never happened. I don’t know if it was on purpose or if they just didn’t know, but that’s when I started digging.
It seems like everyone has an opinion.
Yeah, and it’s next to impossible to write a history like this because everyone thinks they know the story.
So why do you think that your opinion is the right one? I’m not attacking. I’m asking.
Well, I tried to talk to everybody. Sometimes I had to get the story from three or four people and every one of them had a radically different version of the story. I had to do my best to figure it out for myself. It’s an imperfect science. For a lot of these people, it’s been 20 years since this stuff happened. With all the bad memories and the drugs, or the way they want to remember things, sometimes the stories get distorted a little bit over time. It was very difficult because there were wildly different views of the same issues.
What are the issues that hardcore was addressing in your opinion?
It was like the umbrella group for various degrees of alienation. You either got into it for political reasons or because you were having problems at school or at home. A lot of them were rich kids just trying to figure it all out. Everyone came to the scene with their own different view of what it meant to them. Ultimately, it was the music. The music was like nothing we’d ever seen before. We know how the rock business was before us. Everyone was a genius and a guitar god. Only very select people could play rock. With punk, when we first saw the Sex Pistols, that broke down the barriers, but we weren’t English and we weren’t on the dole. We were just kids. We created this whole movement with hardcore. Everybody contributed. I think what made hardcore different than anything else that came before it was the total emphasis on DIY. The idea that you could get in a van and travel around the country on a 7 inch record, playing shit holes, was a culture unto itself. I describe it like Lord of the Flies. The kids in that book had to create their own society. And at the beginning, it’s awesome, then it all goes to hell. And that’s how hardcore was.
It seems like the Buzzcocks were DIY long before hardcore came along. Don’t you think that MC5 was as hardcore as you could get?
Yeah. Well, I don’t think that we reinvented the wheel. I think there were a lot of things that set it in motion, like garage rock and the MC5 and the Stooges.
I’m not talking about the Stooges. I’m talking about the political movement of MC5. He was going completely radical long before hardcore came along.
Well, it wasn’t the first time it had happened. I think we just embraced all of these things. You mentioned the Buzzcocks. What was amazing about the original punk scene and DIY was that it opened us up to all of the possibilities. Everything they talked about was DIY. But, in retrospect, how DIY were they? They were on major labels. They had big managers and booking agents.
No, I’m talking about if you start out a scene, and you record your own record, and put it out yourself, that laid the basis for DIY. It showed that you could do it yourself if you chose to and then you could get swallowed up by the monsters.
No, I’m just asking. What comes to my mind is a guy like Henry Rollins. He started off DIY and ended up on a major label.
Well, this was a place and time. It was like a time capsule. It was the early 80s, and after it ended for various reasons, later you could see who was true to it. It takes years to figure out who stayed true and who did not. For every Henry Rollins, there’s his buddy, Ian MacKaye.
I’m not against any of these people. It seems like Ian continues to do what’s true to him and the scene, and other people went a different way.
You’re absolutely right about that. It takes time to see who really stuck with it. In other words, time tells who really stood by their word. A lot of these guys did not stand by their word. You’re right about that.
Do you still stand by your beliefs?
I made a film without taking a penny from anybody. I wrote a book without taking an advance. Those are the things that I learned from the ethic of DIY. When I was coming up, I was just a regular kid that went to high school and college. That’s why I was in Washington DC at the time. I was on track to probably be a lawyer. I just learned from the hardcore world that there was a new way of thinking. It opened my eyes. Some people say that I totally blew it by not taking the path that was laid out for me, but this is what I had to do. This is what I learned from Minor Threat, the Bad Brains and Black Flag. The idea that you could go up after a show and talk to these guys was amazing. They would teach you about politics, and talk to you about how to tour. You could talk to Chuck Dukowski and get a list of phone numbers of promoters to try and book shows. There was uniqueness to that whole era. It’s taken for granted. We have a lot of alternative and indie bands today, but I wonder how many of them actually stand for something. I was talking to Ian MacKaye not too long ago and he was telling me that with his new band, he goes around and plays tons of all ages venues. His point was that now the venues are there, but nobody plays them. Before, we didn’t have the venues, but we had the ethic. Now there are places that do all ages shows, but most bands are more interested in playing the bigger clubs and making the money.
Who published the book?
Feral House in Los Angeles is the publisher. They’re a cutting edge subculture publisher. I didn’t take an advance, and I did it all on my own. The book came out five years ago, and still continues to sell. Sure, I did a good job on the book, but it’s really a testament to the legacy of this music. So many things get commercialized and sold out and tacky things happen to them, but because hardcore music was so underground, that never really happened to it. It had an appeal. I think kids today respect this music a lot because it did something that nobody else in their generation would every dare to do.
Who were the forerunners of hardcore in your opinion?
I think it was the heavy punk bands.
I would say Sham 69 was a big one. I would say that kind of music – oi music – was the spark for that kind of music, the kind of politics and the look and the aggressive behavior that was accepted. For the book, I interviewed Jon Savage who wrote the book “England’s Dreaming”. He was one of the few punk rock writers. His whole vibe was that Sham 69 and the UK Subs was all crap. He didn’t think the music stood for anything and it wasn’t artistic. I disagreed with that, because we loved it. We thought those bands kicked ass.
To me, “Borstal Breakout” is one of the best rock n roll songs ever. You have to put it into a different category like hardcore, but it’s basic rock n roll, just sped up.
Well, I was talking to the Bad Brains, and they said, “We weren’t hardcore.” I’m sure they weren’t. Hardcore is a term that came around later. In the 80s, they started calling it hardcore punk. Then it just became hardcore. It was not a different movement. It’s like you were saying, there were people doing it before with punk. Hardcore was an extreme sect of punk rock. In the late 70s, all the early punk bands were dying off and there was the rise of new wave music. I think a lot of kids in America were looking for more punk and not finding it. That’s what led to the creation of a lot of these bands, too.
Who were your favorite hardcore bands?
I think the essential hardcore bands were Minor Threat, Black Flag and the Bad Brains. When I say black Flag, I really mean the California version of Black Flag. I saw the Dez Cadena line-up play in D.C., and that was a life-changing event for me. I had never seen a band like that. I’d never seen a crowd like that either. I’d never been able to communicate with a band like that afterwards. That’s how I got into booking shows. I met the Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, the Circle Jerks, and the next thing you know, I was booking their shows. What was so special was that it seemed so elusive. You had to be an expert. What I learned from the scene was that I could do it. Like so many of the kids by the mid 80s, I had grown my hair and I was listening to new music. I had totally moved on from the whole scene. Looking back later, I realized how important it was to my whole life. I think a lot of people feel that way.
How big was the hardcore scene?
It was relatively small. In LA, it was a beast unto itself. I remember meeting Gary Tovar back then and seeing what he did with his shows. It was nothing like we had the East Coast. On the East Coast, if you did 300-500 kids at a show, that was huge. Most shows were 75 people, and in some towns, it was even smaller. And I’m talking about Washington, D.C., Boston and New York City, which were the hubs of the East Coast scene. The whole movement comes out of Southern California, though, from kids that were influenced by skaters like you, people who were influenced by Black Flag, and before that, The Germs. That’s the roots of this. The HBs, TSOL, all of that stuff is the roots of it. That’s where the look came from, that’s where the attitude came from. That’s where the stage diving and slam dancing came from. Those are all byproducts of southern California. That’s what my book largely pays tribute to, and I still feel that way, 25 years later.
It was Dogtown. It was gnarly skaters. It was this new type of rock culture.
Maybe it was just an attitude that was proceeding out of a den of fools. So now what are you doing?
It took me five years to write the book. It came out five years ago. When I finished the book, I ran into my friend Paul Rachman. I knew him because he made the Bad Brains “I Against I” video and the Gang Green “Alcohol” video.
He did punk rock.
Yeah. Then he went to Hollywood and made really famous rock videos like Alice in Chains “Man in the Box” and Pantera’s “Psycho Holiday”. He made some classic rock videos. He was burnt on Hollywood. He’d just made a film and he’d had a horrible Hollywood experience and wanted to get back to his roots, so he approached me on doing this film. We worked our ass off for five years. We never took a penny from anybody. Then we submitted it to Sundance.
You got into Sundance?
Yeah, we played in January at Sundance. Then our film got picked up by Sony Pictures Classics.
Isn’t Sony a huge corporation?
Yeah, and we certainly understand the irony of that.
I’m just asking.
They did the DogTown movie, so we felt they were the best company to go with.
What about the DIY thing and doing your own screenings and booking it?
Don’t think that we didn’t consider that, but we didn’t think we could do as good a job of getting the word out. Sony Pictures Classics didn’t have one iota of input into the final product of the film. In fact, I have to give it to them, because there were a few times in the negotiations where I said, “Do you want us to change anything?” and they said, “No. Keep it exactly like it is. People like it that way.” It is very interesting, dealing with the two very distinct mindsets of the DIY and the highly competitive corporate environment that we’ve put the film in. Sony Pictures Classics are purely acting as a distributor, and there is no company that’s better at getting a film like this into theaters around the country.
But you know how to book a show. You put on hardcore shows, right?
Yeah. We could have done it on our own.
That would have been so much cooler.
We certainly understand all sides of the situation, but I don’t think we could have done it. I don’t know any movie theaters to call up.
But it would have been cool to book a hall, and rent your own screen and set up a projector.
You could be right. Don’t think that we didn’t think about it. When our negotiations weren’t going well, we threatened to do that.
Ultimately, you did go with the corporation.
We went with who could sell it to the people so they can see it. The one thing that I’m troubled by sometimes with my past in music is that no one really ever heard it. I have this gigantic record collection, and no one even knows half of these bands. Nobody knows the music, so my feeling is, let me, for once, do something where people can see what I do. I published an independent magazine for 15 years. Most people have never heard of it.
But what about when you see Matt Pinfield on VH1? How does that make you feel?
I don’t know. I’ve known Matt Pinfield since I was 14 years old.
How does that make you feel when you see Matt on VH1?
I’m proud of him, but I wouldn’t watch it.
You’re proud? I’m just curious. I know how I feel?
There’s a saying. “He who is not a rebel at 20 years old has no heart, and he who is still a rebel at 40 has no head.”
Oh, my God. Who said that?
That’s a Japanese-ism. All I can tell you about this film is that if you don’t feel like it’s 100 percent indie style and true to the cause, then we didn’t do our job.
No, no, no. You’ve done your job of making the film. That’s a big accomplishment. I was just hoping to see you say, “Fuck these corporations.” You have an opportunity to say to them, “We don’t need you. We never needed you and this is why. We’re smart, if not smarter and we can do it on our own, with the power of the internet and marketing in that world and getting the word out and using that technology to it’s best. That’s what I think.
You could be right. We could have made it smaller.
No. You made your decision, and that’s the right decision. I’m just saying with all the punk rock and the hardcore, that it would have been sick to tell those people to eat shit and roll on and do it yourself. Don’t let the tie choke you death.
Well, the only thing I have to say about that is that no one ever patted me on the back and said, “Thanks for keeping it indie.” I’ve done it DIY my whole life. Nobody could say that I ever took the bait. I never even had a job my whole life. Know what I’m saying?
I know exactly what you’re saying. How do your parents feel about that?
Well, I think this is the first time that they understand what I do, because they can tie it into something on a commercial level that they would understand. In a weird way, it’s the first time in 20 years that they’ve truly been proud of me.
How excited were you to see when your book came out? Didn’t that feel like a major accomplishment?
It did. It absolutely did.
You should be like, “I did it and this is how it is and fuck the rest of you.”
Well, it wasn’t easy to talk to the DIY bands from the scene. I wanted to be very honest with them about what we had decided to do with the film.
And how did they feel?
Well, everybody went along with it. Everybody understood our point when we said it.
You gave them enough money to go get another tattoo?
I’m just kidding.
What kind of response do you get to the film when you talk to the normies?
They’re blown away that music like this ever existed. If it weren’t coming from the mouths of Ian MacKaye and Greg Ginn and these guys, they would have thought we made it up. It’s impossible to think that there was music like this when you look at the music scene of today. It’s a mix between “American Idol” and the Ozzfest. It’s not very inspiring, if you ask me. What we wanted to do was make it so that the most people could see it and affect change. Maybe we can change music a little bit by tons of people seeing the film. That was the main reason for our decision. We were like, do we want to play it for people here and there, or do we want tons of people to see our art. It was a tough call, Steve. It really was.
It was a tough negotiation. They’d never seen anyone like us. We weren’t just going to sign the deal. It was a tough thing. We had to make some choices that I could have swore that I would have never done before. If Sony Pictures had changed the film around for public consumption, all of that would be correct. We were able to just work with them as a distributor to get it all around the world for people to see. I can sleep at night with that one.
What was the uniform for hardcore?
It started with electrician boots, spurs, and bandanas around the waist, jeans, black jeans, and t-shirts. They had very short hair or mildly spiked. Today everyone wears band t-shirts, and then there wasn’t a lot of that going on. There wasn’t a big company doing merchandise for bands back then. There weren’t any marketing ties to it. It was a very stripped down look. It was punk, but like for me, I was never going to have a Mohawk or a safety pin in my cheek. That’s why I think these bands all came from Southern California.
Are we really any different except for musical tastes?
Well, I think, back then, it wasn’t an issue. I was in D.C. at the height of the hardcore scene at George Washington University. I don’t think there were even three kids at that school out of 25,000 that were into hardcore music.
What year was that?
I was there 1980-1984. You would think, “Oh, this is a city. This is the college.” But it wasn’t like that.
Do you think the college kids were more prone to new wave?
Yeah, and also they were stuck in the 70s. There were guys with beards that would play folksy guitar. They were all into Jackson Browne. Or if they were semi-hipsters, they were new wave. They wouldn’t go all the way. That’s the problem I think we have today. Everybody is hip. When everybody is hip, nobody’s hip.
Do you think any of the political views were changed by hardcore?
No, I don’t. One of the things about the film is that it’s very political and it’s kind of subversive. It’s all about the political tinge. You see punks and hardcore today, and it has no agenda. When we saw Dead Kennedys, that was scary. Black Flag didn’t sing about politics per se, but it was political in its approach. There was something scary and subversive about these bands and I don’t see that at all today. If anyone can learn anything from the film or the book, is that you can make a difference with music. It sounds tacky and corny, but it’s the truth.
What was the difference that hardcore made?
I would say that the politics that were so important to the times did not shine through. We ended up with the slam dancing, the stage diving and the shaved heads, the coarse vocals. It ended up being a musical change, and it never got much credit for that. After us, when Minor Threat started with straight edge, and no matter what you think about that, it’s still an important mindset in rock today. The one thing that very much bothers me about music today is that I’ve been spending a lot time on myspace.com. I’ve been promoting our film. And I see all of these Christian hardcore bands. The Christians have infiltrated all of this stuff. Back then, we were considered like Satan for liking this kind of music. Now they’re using that type of music to promote their cause. It makes you think of how evil they are. Back then, we thought they were evil and maybe they are. The idea that church uses hardcore music to get kids the message of Christ is scary. There are hundreds and hundreds of bands like this. Somebody has to scream out and say, stop this already.
But they have a built in marketing.
They have their own all-ages shows. They push straight edge because it’s no drugs. It’s so evil. They’ve manipulated this thing to their side again.
Do you believe in God?
Uh, I do believe in God. But I learned from punk rock and the scene, that the institutions are evil. When I see hardcore bands being sponsored by churches, now I know that the guys that were leading the hardcore scene were correct with all of their anti-religious lyrics. I think we were all very alienated. We had been taught about God and America and freedom, and we grew up on the fringe of the Reagan years, learning that wasn’t really the case. Then Reagan was the total rallying point. Even if you weren’t very political, you hated Reagan. I think that was a big part of it. It’s like, “Where did Ronald Reagan come from but Orange County.” He represented church and state, and we did not want that.
Was Ronald Reagan from Orange County?
Yeah, someone did a song called “Reagan Country.”
Are you sure about that?
Well, during his governing years, he was in California. He comes from Illinois or some place like that. His powerbase was in Orange County. Then you had kids completely rebelling about that. I remember when I was 12 years old; I spent the summer with some cousins in Fountain Valley. This was in 1974. You couldn’t believe these endless miles of perfect suburbs. No wonder kids became monsters. They reacted against that. Everyone moved there to stay away from problems and trouble. But it created a new breed of monster.
I come from Orange County.
I’m sure your parents moved there because it was perfect. For whatever reasons, they loved it. They thought it was great for the kids. You could live this great life and be perfect, and it didn’t happen. That was the glory of this music, too. I used to be in New York all the time and I hung out with a lot of really hip people in the late 70s. They were all artists and they all knew Andy Warhol or they were into David Bowie. They went to art school. I was just some kid from the suburbs. And as much as I loved that music, it didn’t speak to me. It wasn’t like seeing the Clash’s first American show. Seeing Black Flag, Bad Brains and Minor Threat really changed me. This was our music. It was something we could relate to. I didn’t know Joe Strummer. I didn’t know who the Red Brigade was, which was the political stuff they were talking about. I respected it all, and I owned every one of the Clash records, but I don’t think it was until these American bands of the 80s, that my soul woke up and I realized I had my version of punk. Hardcore was the most extreme version of punk. That’s why they called it hardcore punk.
It was the hardest core of punk?
It was hardcore punk. It was back to what we thought punk was supposed to be. It was down to the core. By 1980, the Pistols were long gone. The Clash was a very different band. It had all kind of passed. It was over. I’m sure when you came on the scene, someone said, “That’s already been done.” I’m sure when you were with the Joneses, someone said, “Johnny Thunders already did that.” When half of these bands came out, it was like, “you missed out on the whole early punk scene.” Here was this new version of it for us.
Yeah, but it seems to me from where I came from that all of the jocks that were calling us freaks now had short hair, leather jackets, electrical boots and jeans. That’s not what it was about.
It became a new form of conformity. That’s why everyone burned out on it. Some people say it all happened in 82 or 84. I wrote my book 80-86. By 86, it was over with, but some of the bands were still there. The reason I let it go to 86, was that Black Flag broke up in 86. Dead Kennedys broke up in 86. Minor Threat was Fugazi by 86. Husker Du signed to Warner Bros. That’s where it was totally over.
Maybe Husker Du was thinking they could get their music out to more people. They wanted a major company to get their art seen.
Absolutely. At the same time, that’s when the indie scene started to fracture. That was the first major crack in the wall. You could say that Black Flag was over when Henry Rollins joined.
How about, it was over when Keith Morris quit?
There you go. It’s a matter of how you see it. By 86, it was the rise of alternative. That was the beginning of Nirvana, and Sub Pop Records.