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Life's Blood - Us vs. Them

Life's Blood
3 October 2012

If you’ve never heard of Life’s Blood, then here is everything you need to know. They are, first and foremost, a hardcore punk band that is both fondly remembered by some and reviled by others. Like a lot of cities on the East Coast, the scene in New York took a dive in the mid-80’s, thanks to an influx of new people, lack of legitimate record label support, violence, you name it – it happened. Things got bad and a lot of people walked away, many of them disillusioned by what they perceived to be a lack of direction and a rampant mob mentality. But out of that void came a 3rd wave of New York bands, an era that is barely discussed with any level of seriousness. I attribute that to several things. Most of the bands seem to be openly hostile towards nostalgia, while at the same time they seem to have no problem reissuing deluxe editions of their old records (and on 8 different colors of vinyl, mind you) which makes me skeptical of that whole song and dance. But the other reasons are more complicated. It was a small scene to begin with and they’re aren’t many people left to discuss it. Maybe some of them all have “real jobs” now, and kids, and don’t want to be associated with or reminded of their rebellious past. Maybe for some, it’s a combination of all three of those things.

But for the kids who didn’t grow up seeing The Talking Heads or The Ramones every Sunday afternoon at CB’s, or maybe didn’t even experience the 2nd wave bands like Kraut, Urban Waste and Ism, they found New York wide open for the taking. Practically all of the new generation of bands that crop up in that scene get poo-pooed by the old guard (classic New York mentality: every one younger than me is an inexperienced chump), but the fact is, some of those bands actually managed to eclipse their idols from A7, both in terms of recording and touring.

Life’s Blood helped to bridge the gap between the old and the new, but never really had a foot firmly planted in either. And never reaped the rewards that came from the late 80’s / early 90’s hardcore scene, because by that time they were long gone. They split up for good in 1989, taking a few months off to restructure themselves as Born Against, who would later transform the landscape of punk, not just in New York City, but all over the country. Along with bands like Collapse, Mike Bullshit’s improv geniuses GO!, and Citizens Arrest, Life’s Blood existed in a no-man’s land of east coast punk – at the tail end of the CBGB’s shutdown era but before ABC-No-Rio. They had nowhere to play.

Their first show took place at The Dirt Club in Bloomfield, New Jersey, a total dive bar that is probably a strip mall now. They announced on stage as they tore into their anthem, “Left Me Behind”, saying very casually, “This song goes out to people who have left hardcore for bigger and better things.” With the older, more established bands busy signing to Metal Blade or Combat or just breaking up, the younger bands like Life’s Blood could only exist as outsiders. And when I say they were outsiders, I mean they were literally outside in front of CBGB’s tuning their guitars, waiting to play.

Here’s the amazing thing about Life’s Blood, the thing that keeps me scratching my head: They only existed for about 14 months, from late 1987 to late 1988. In that year, they made one 7” record for Dave Stein’s Combined Effort Records, played 26 shows in and around the tri-state area and found time to play full sets live on WNYU and WFMU in March. They also recorded two marathon studio sessions that are still (for the most part) unreleased, one for Don Fury at his Demo Demo studios in February, and one at Giant Studios later that spring. Life’s Blood also contributed to a slew of compilations, including two songs on Blackout Records “Where the Wild Things Are” LP, one song on the “Murder Among Us” 7” EP (with Absolution and Nausea), two live songs on the “New Breed” cassette compilation, originally released on Urban Style Records by Freddy Alva and Chaka Malik of Burn (recently reissued and remastered on LP, highly recommended!) as well as a posthumous split 7” with New Jersey’s Sticks and Stones.

In that short span, Life’s Blood also managed to gain a reputation as rabble rousers, as willing participants in some kind of mysterious hardcore coup d‘état (which we will get into later) against the powers that apparently ruled over everyone with an iron fist of shittiness. The first time I heard their “Defiance” EP I was sold, for once I found a band who’s music sounded exactly like their artwork boasted it would: Black and white, dark and malicious. Their lyrics were intelligent and somewhat controversial, which might help explain why this band still appeals to so many people some 20 years later. Punk bands are not exactly known for their prose or thought provoking subject matter, instead they just offer a reflection of reality. Simply surviving, creating and getting along became pivotal issues, because that’s precisely how shitty things were then.

Life’s Blood can (and should) also be remembered as possibly the only hardcore band who has reformed and played shows without any original members. Looking back to the mid-90’s, I can definitely remember hearing about Life’s Blood shows, but when I asked Jason he had no memory of it and no real idea of just exactly how they went down. His brother Adam says that in 1993 or 1994, some members of Hail Mary and Black Army Jacket (both incredible bands from Albany, highly recommended!) played live sets as Life’s Blood, which is really just another testament to how many people love this band. Original members be damned.

Critics of the band say “they’re negative”, “they said bad things about other bands”, so perhaps I should take the time right now to remind those folks that almost everything Life’s Blood predicted came true. The scene DID take turn for the worse, shows got more and more violent and, let’s face it, a lot of NY bands became platforms for right-wing thugs. And the most contentious argument is perhaps the silliest of them all: The DIY ethic of making your own records and booking your own tours was largely forgotten and discarded, often by the very same people who couldn’t shut up about “unity”.

Musically, Life’s Blood stuck closely to their roots in early 80′s hardcore, but somehow ended up sounding like Venom covering SSD. Guitarist Adam Woodrow Nathanson’s guitar is crunchy and barely in tune, just kind of holding on for dear life. Neil Burke’s bass kind of floats in the mix on a different level, sometimes adding so much tone and presence that it actually makes the band sound melodic (especially on “Never Make A Change”, “Counting On” and “Not For The Weak”) and even kind of pleasant, albeit in a very Public Image Ltd way. Drumming was supplied by the steady hand of John Kriksciun, vocals were delivered with spite and impeccable timing by a young man named Jason O’ Toole.

I met Jason through working with Dag Nasty, they stayed at his house in 1987 for two days and even filmed an impromptu video (complete with acoustic guitars and bongo drums) in his bedroom. In 2001, he kindly agreed to do this interview and I quickly learned that Jason is still just as crass and outspoken as he was as a teen, in fact a mutual friend described the juxtaposition that is Jason’s personality as follows: “He’s the kind of guy that would probably buy Ann Coulter drinks all night while staring at her ass.” He has a strong distaste for Coldplay, which he called “the musical equivalent of Hitler”.

Jason’s father grew up with Dave Dictor of MDC on Long Island, and was in a folk band in the 60′s called The Glen Coves, so he had a taste of music growing up. But his father also commanded so much authority over the family that it essentially led to Jason quitting Life’s Blood in 1988. Aside from that, Jason has an incredible sense of humor and seems to be happiest when he’s ruffling feathers and generally causing a disturbance. After leaving Life’s Blood, he never really stopped making music, doing stints in Factory, Brown Cuts Neighbors and Sin Cola just to name a few. These days, Jason lives in Georgia and is still involved in music, he recently finished a 7″ EP with My Rifle and proudly announced to everyone on Facebook that he vomited in the studio while recording his overdubs. If that isn’t punk, then I don’t know what is. It’s that kind of pride that keeps people guessing. In Jason’s own words: “I’m probably the only one here who has sent a cop to the hospital – broke her leg in defensive tactics. So that should earn me, what fifty punk points?”

AJ – Explain to us how Life’s Blood began. How did you meet each other?

Jason – In 1987 I was a studying at the New School for Social Research in NYC where I was stuck in this broom-closet sized dorm room with Sam McPheeters. Sam and I graduated from a Catholic school in Albany, NY where we had promoted Albany’s hardcore shows, along with Dave Stein, under the name Combined Effort. Sam and I put out sloppy, Xeroxed fanzines, among them “That Wretch’d Magazine” and “Plain Truth: A Fanzine of Understanding.” These consisted of idiotic comics, cut-up Jack Chick (the now deceased, anti-Catholic bigot, wacko cartoonist) tracts, and a smattering of band interviews and record reviews typed on actual type-writers. We weren’t always so nice to the bands we covered, setting us apart from the gushing, fan-boys in the scene, and prompting many a threat of “beat downs” that thankfully never materialized.

I met John Kriksciun, Life’s Blood’s future drummer at Some Records, a hardcore record shop, up the street from CBGB’s. CBGB’s was of course, was the venue for the Sunday NYHC matinees. Everybody in the NY scene hung out at Some Records, never buying anything, and it soon went out of business. Economics 101, as it were. Sometime later, I met Adam Nathanson and Neil Burke, two pals from New Jersey who had been working on the songs which would become our fabulous hits loved the world over. We rehearsed regularly at this horrible, yet affordable studio on 14th street, and despite being a group of sub-normal, geeky 18 years olds, managed to come up with a few tunes which seemed to hold their own with the bands we were obviously imitating: Void, SSD, Negative Approach, DYS, Blitz, etc. Actual musicians like Mike D. of the Beastie Boys used to rehearse there as well, and would pop their heads in to watch us and grimace.

AJ – Had any of you actually played in a band before?

Jason – Adam and/or Neil may have been in Sticks and Stones, but I can’t be certain about that…I’m sure some neurotic 15 year old Belgian record collector can provide all of this information, but I can’t. Sometime in the summer of 1987, I sang for an Albany band called Last Action. The night before our first, full-band rehearsal, I was up the whole night before with this beautiful girl named Anne, testing the limits of a leather Lazy-boy recliner. I slept through the rehearsal, with a big, stupid smile on my face. In a strange act of teenage Karmic justice, I was replaced on vocals by one of my very few high school sweethearts, Kate Kindlon (108, Project Kate).

AJ – Well, you know, sex IS suffering. They made that perfectly clear. Maybe some of those 108 songs are about you. So how did you end up leaving the band?

Jason – My participation in Life’s Blood ended in the summer of 1988. I was losing interest in the band as my freshman GPA sucked, and The NYHC scene became both more violent and more commercial. Although the members of Life’s Blood were and are today first rate human beings, I had aspirations beyond the NYHC scene and didn’t want my name associated with sellouts, racists and junkies, not to mention weirdo Eastern cult members. Sometime in the summer of 1988, during the Tompkins Square Riots, (renegade cops beating yuppies) Neil booked a show at the Lismar Lounge, which I couldn’t make. My father arranged a family vacation at some Vermont Inn, and would have ripped my lungs out if I went to NYC instead. Plus, a weekend of eating T-bones and fly-fishing sounded like a better option than having my skull busted by NYPD. After that, I was replaced as vocalist, but I was pretty much ready to cut lose anyway.

AJ – OK. That sounds reasonable.

Jason – Now if the band were based out of Washington, D.C., New Orleans, Athens or someplace that didn’t completely suck, I would have stayed onboard. But NYC in 1988 was a crack-whore infested, filthy, over-priced hell-hole, plus the weather is miserable year-round which made me miserable. From what I gather, the band went on with different vocalists for awhile, then John quit, and it somehow morphed into Born Against with Sam McPheeters on vocals, who pretty much created his own genre in hardcore and headed off in directions I would never dare.

AJ – Where was the first Life’s Blood show?

Jason – Our first show was at The Dirt Club, a punk-themed bar somewhere in suburban north New Jersey. In those days guitar tuners were so expensive that only millionaire guitarists like Jimmy Page or Eric Clapton owned them. Adam and Neil were playing so out-of-tune it sounded like an experimental Sonic Youth side-project. I was utterly lost and sang the lyrics of “Left Out On the Ice to Die” to “Counting On.” I have a tape of this show, but not of any of our good shows.

AJ – Let’s talk about Albany. I’ve always heard stories about the early scene in Albany, which wasn’t documented very well. But everyone seems to agree that it was once really fertile and productive – is that how you remember it? I went there once, just driving through. It was desolate. Even the downtown area seemed to be abandoned, I don’t think I even saw one person walking around on a Monday morning.

Jason – The actual city of Albany is perhaps the most unlivable community in the whole of the Northeast. Its economy is slow; there are no jobs outside of government, and good luck getting one of those. It is both a capital city and a college town, yet lacks any of the fun hang-outs that typify places like Austin or Atlanta. The once pseudo-hip downtown area saw one too many drug related murders, causing record stores, live music venues and other non-drug dealing front businesses to close up shop. I was back to visit two years ago; its row after row of 24-7′s that sell beer, lottery tickets and cocaine to depressed state workers.

But for a brief span of a few years in the 80′s, it had one of the best hardcore scenes in the country. This was owed greatly to the hard work of Dave Stein, then a student at the State University who introduced Albany to bands like 7 Seconds, Black Flag, MDC, Suicidal Tendencies, Youth of Today and Underdog. I introduced most of these bands to my parents, as they were kind enough to let them crash on the living room floor after shows. Brian Baker, then with Dag Nasty was my parents’ favorite guest. My dad taught him how to play bluegrass banjo (I would pay money to see this – AJ), and found him to be an excellent musician. Pat, from Uniform Choice was my parents’ least favorite, as Mike Gitter brought him by at three in the morning, and Pat shouted “Who wants to eat at Pat’s deli?” while whipping his member out, just as my mother was coming down the stairs to curse us out. She used real curse words too.

AJ – Crazy. What else went on in Albany?

Jason – Sam McPheeters and I helped out with shows and eventually took over promoting shows when Dave went to Fordham Law. For some unfortunate reason our all ages shows moved from the VFW hall to this crappy punky club, 288 Lark Street. It had gorgeous mirrored walls which the damn kids kept breaking on purpose. Bastards! I had to pay for the damn glass twice out of my pocket. Albany always had more than a few home-grown hardcore bands. I still hum “This Town We Own” by Fit For Abuse. Wolfpack, featuring Steve Reddy (Equal Vision Records), was a fun band. Bands from neighboring Troy, NY, a working-class town were into the metal-core thing and printed swastikas on their shirts. The kids with shaved heads were mostly harmless goofs from Albany and its middle-class suburbs, but the long-haired kids were often white power wanna-be’s from failed factory towns.

We had a little bit of hostility going between the Albany hardcore scene and the “sex punks,” slightly older folks who wore leather jackets with skulls and the slogan “Sid Lives” painted on the back. They were rumored to drink alcohol and have sex! I put out a little comic book called “Us Vs. Them” which made light of the situation. It actually depicted us beating the crap out of the sex punks, but it was the 80′s, so nobody got shot over it.

AJ – Ah, the sex punks. Everyone’s scapegoat.

Jason – Once grunge hit the pop charts, the hardcore scene in Albany went down the toilet, as bands with less than three rehearsals under their belts went shopping for representation, and sought to put their first release out on Geffen, rather than on a demo tape or a self-made 7″. Despite this, interesting post-hardcore artists like Brown Cuts Neighbors, Beef, and Dara (later His Name is Alive) were chugging along in the midst of Mario Cuomo’s economic legacy.

My brother Adam (played in Intent and Brown Cuts Neighbors) and I put in time in one last band in the early 90′s, Factory, but by then the hardcore scene in Albany, as in NYC, Boston and elsewhere was obsessed with Nirvana and their success, as major labels fought wars to sign NY bands like…I can’t even name one band, now that grunge is ancient history, but you know who I mean. Anyway, we weren’t too impressed with the scene and wound up getting real jobs and dropping off the hardcore radar.

AJ – How was the band first received? Was your reputation something that happened incidentally or did you actually set out to piss everyone off?

Jason – My memory of most Life’s Blood shows was of us playing to a handful of our friends, while hundreds of kids sat outside smoking or drinking orange juice, while they waited for Agnostic Front to play. The band goals were to put out a 7″ and open for bands that we liked, at venues we liked. We never played any of those money-grubbing, Rock Hotel “super-bowl of hardcore” shows. We can be proud that we had nothing to do with hardcore turning into a commercial cesspool of derivative “alternative rock.” We made enough money at shows for gas money home, and God willing, a slice of pizza, and we were happy.

AJ – How did you end up opening the Agnostic Front mini-tour? That’s about as “insider” as you can get in New York at that time.

Jason – I don’t remember. I know we played with AF a few times.

AJ – I’ll spare you questions about your relationship with Youth of Today, but I need to know: were Life’s Blood straight edge?

Jason – The members of Life’s Blood were pretty clean-cut, from good homes, and none of us were into substance abuse. Adam went vegan, I think, Neil had a beer once in a blue moon, I never saw John take a drink, and I had wine or beer at the table with my family, in the European tradition, but didn’t “party.” We appreciated certain aspects of the straight edge scene. It beat the hell out of the heroin addict scene, but we couldn’t stomach the third-string football player mentality of it. Our song “Never Make a Change” was a spiteful play on words on their lyrics from their “Break Down the Walls” album. We didn’t actually dislike any of those guys; we just enjoyed giving them a hard time. I looked as stupid as anybody with my shaved head and enormous boots, but nothing could compare with Project X wearing gardening gloves in public. Yeah, judging on appearances is wrong…but how stupid was that?

AJ – Right. Unless they were going to work on those Krishna farms after the show. Then you would probably want gardening gloves. Youth of Today are good dudes, no doubt about it. If people want to exploit the differences in your philosophies as a way to understand their own shortcomings, they should try to remember how much you both had in common. Regardless of straight edge.

Jason – I’ve been involved in law enforcement for the past several years, and I like the idea of kids avoiding alcohol and illicit substances, since doing the opposite can kill you. But the straight edge thing turned into a cult. I already had my own religion, and didn’t need another one run by Bishop Ray Cappo, especially not a “religion” with stricter guidelines for morality than the ones the Vatican issues. It’s really no wonder that so many kids went from straight edge into the Krishnas, nor that Pentecostal churches down here in Georgia put on “Christian hardcore” shows. There isn’t much difference between The Faith singing “You’re X’d” and some country preacher screaming about “backsliders.”

AJ – Agreed. But you know, if those country preachers had Eli Janney and Michael Hampton on guitar, shit would be going real different for that Jesus guy.

Jason – If straight edge is about respecting yourself and keeping a positive outlook, great. But you don’t need a label to do that. Well, maybe teenagers do. They need labels on every damn thing…God forbid their ski cap doesn’t have the right logo on it.