May 15, 2023
Still kicking ass and taking names
For our first band to be featured in our G.O.A.T. section (greatest of all time), I don’t even know where to begin. This band has influenced me so much, I don’t even know what to say. Pioneers of the hardcore punk scene, the men of Sick of It All paved the way for many bands that came after them, and through the years when I’ve needed some inspiration to be tough and get myself into a certain headspace, their music has been my soundtrack.
I was in the Louisiana Army National Guard from 2001-2009, and each summer we would travel to various locations around my state and beyond for our annual training—AT, as we called it. I still remember being on a bus or in the back of an LMTV with all my fellow troops as we embarked on the journey to our summer destinations—my earphones firmly in place and my turquoise iPod mini blaring the sweet tunage of Sick of It All. Their music has always inspired me with potent lyrics, thundering bass, crunching guitar, and crisp vocals. If there is one thing I can say about this band, it’s that even though they started out with a likeness reminiscent of other hardcore bands of the day, they have managed to evolve and refine their sound, making it one all their own. Anytime I hear a song by them, I instantly know it is them because of the distinct bass and the remarkable vocal stylings of the man himself, Mr. Lou Koller. Throw in an iconic logo of a dragon that was even used by another well-known music group and you have the unparalleled styling that can only be known as Sick of It All.
For those not familiar with the band, allow me. Sick of It All was formed in 1986 with brothers Lou and Pete Koller. The Koller brothers grew up in Queens, N.Y., in a middle-class family where they would often hop on subway trains to the various indie record shops nearby and indulge themselves in all the iconic metal, punk, and hardcore albums they could devour. Their love of music turned into forming the band, with the Koller brothers being the solidifying force to bring it all together. After a couple of line-up changes through the years, the band has remained true to its roots and is currently comprised of Lou Koller on vocals, Pete Koller on guitar, Craig Setari on bass, and Armand Majidi on the kit.
Known for their high-energy shows, the band has never allowed themselves to be pigeonholed into one specific genre and has often played shows and toured with bands outside of the hardcore scene. When one thinks of a hardcore punk band, they think of the tough guys … the guys you don’t want to mess with—the real OGs. While the guys in Sick of it All are no strangers to kicking someone’s ass, they truly are just a nice bunch of guys who enjoy making music they love.
With 11 albums to their credit and a book released in 2020 called “The Blood and the Sweat: The Story of Sick of It All’s Koller Brothers”, these guys show no sign of slowing down and are currently all over with Lou and Pete even recently being tour guides at the newly opened Punk Rock Museum in Las Vegas. With such an iconic sound, the music of Sick of it All proves that time is no test for such an influential band, and they continue to bring their music to new crowds of fans all over the world.
Currently taking a break from their highly successful 2023 tour with Life of Agony, which is set to resume in the U.S. in August, I was able to speak with the vox of this incomparable band, Lou Koller, to discuss everything from what the future holds to what they think of the crowds at their shows in the current day.
MaM: Thank you so much for talking with me today. You have no idea what this means to me. I was so nervous about calling you that I told my friend I was about to throw up. (laughs)
LK: No problem. No problem at all.
MaM: Love your music and I feel like I’ve been listening to you forever. My favorite albums are “Death to Tyrants,” “Call to Arms,” and “Yours Truly,” but I have so many favorite songs of yours that if I were to list them, we would be here forever. (laughs) So, your last album was released in 2018 and I know you guys have been playing shows like crazy, but are there any plans for new music coming out?
LK: Well, during the pandemic, we were writing mostly—well, my brother, Pete, he ended up writing over 27 songs, but we’ve been trying to convince the other members of the band we should get together and work on them and record, but we just never could get it together. It all happened when unemployment ran out and we all got jobs and that was a factor that delayed it. Also, too, our drummer Armand seems to be on vacation every other week. (laughs) Once the pandemic ended, we all felt it was time to get back on the road, but we still have these songs, so it’s on the way. After we get back from Europe and the other leg of the Life of Agony tour, we will have the fall to get together and we plan to meet two weeks every month to write, so we’ll see how that goes. We’re working on it. It’s on its way.
MaM: So, as far as the writing and recording process, do you feel technology has changed how you approach that?
LK: It does because of necessity. Again, with the pandemic, we didn’t really get together to write. … Pete would write, but he lives in Florida, so he wrote down there. Armand lives in upstate New York, Craig bounces from Queens to upstate New York, and I live in New Jersey now. It used to be we had our own rehearsal studio in Brooklyn, and we would all just meet there three times a week and jam and have fun, but you know when Pete moved to Florida, it all became corresponding through emails and stuff like that. I think the technology helps in a way, but it’s also kind of a pain in the ass for me. I like getting together at the studio, not just for the writing but for the camaraderie.
MaM: Right, the vibe.
LK: Yeah, exactly. It works, but there’s some aspects of it that we need to learn just to keep up with the times, and some of it makes it convenient or easier in some ways, but I think because of the way we all grew up, you feel like something is missing. I still have a hard time discovering new music through a digital platform. Some of the suggestions through Spotify I don’t get. I could sit there and listen to old metal and hardcore and punk, and suddenly, they’ll say, ‘Suggested for you is the new Justin Bieber album.’ Why? Why would you suggest that for me? I have nothing to do with that. Nothing I listen to is remotely close to that. (laughs)
MaM: I agree. I use digital platforms, too, but I miss the old ways of discovering new music. I used to just go to the music store and wander around looking for any cover art that spoke to me. Often, I would purchase albums based solely on cover art, and then I would go home to listen to see whether I dug the music or not. So, who would you say has influenced you the most when it comes to your vocal styling?
LK: It’s a combination. When I first started, I really didn’t know how to do anything, but I wanted to sound as hard and as rough as the singer, John Brandon, from Negative Approach and also Chris, the singer of Crum Suckers because he also sounded like John Brandon. But now, for the last 10 years or so, I still try to emulate that, but I try to have a bit more range. One of my favorites is Lemmy from Motorhead because he had such a rough voice, but he had this melody, too. He could hit the notes but was just a great vocalist. I know a lot of people think that’s crazy, but I just love that he had such a rough sound. Chuck from Hot Water Music, too, has such a rough voice, but it’s also so melodic. He just does it great. He’s another one I would like to sing like.
MaM: But your voice is so amazing! How do you keep it in shape for singing the type of music you guys play?
LK: I’ve been to some professional coaches; Melissa Cross is probably the most famous one. When I went to her, she told me, ‘Sing how you sing,’ but [then she said], ‘I could give you a couple of pointers, but you do what you do very well.’
The way I sing, it’s more using the muscles around my vocal cords and all that, so like any muscle, when we’re not on tour, I really should be going to the studio twice a week to keep it in shape, but it’s not fun going to the studio by yourself screaming to your phone going through the PA. So, I got lazy, and usually before a tour, I’m like, ‘Ah man, I’ve gotta go in,’ and my voice usually sounds like garbage for a week and then it kicks in.
MaM: So, let me ask, you guys are definitely the voice of a generation and I credit you with being very instrumental in launching that second wave of punk rock and hardcore. I consider the first wave to be late 70s/early 80s and then we had a reemergence of it in the late 90s/early 2000s, so with the crowds, especially since you just came off tour, have you noticed any differences or changes in the scene or just any differences in how people treat each other at shows in general?
LK: It’s weird … Our tours in the 90s, we would take the upcoming hardcore bands like Strife and Snapcase and we would take the upcoming West Coast bands (what they called hardcore but we would call punk, like AFI and Good Riddance) and … combine those bands into tours and we loved it. Now, it’s so separated; you can’t take a more melodic punk band out with a newer heavier hardcore band because a Terror crowd would not appreciate a Good Riddance and a Good Riddance crowd might not appreciate when a band like Incendiary plays. They would be like, ‘That’s way too heavy,’ but I think 1999 was the peak for that.
We did a tour, and it’s one of our favorite tours we ever did, but it was us, AFI, Hot Water Music, and Indecision, and it was so good that almost every night every band had such a great reaction, and I think one of the proudest moments for us was on that tour in L.A. seeing kids with Blink 182 shirts going absolutely wild to Indecision, who were the forerunners of what bands like Knocked Loose are doing now, and to see kids going absolutely crazy to something that’s totally opposite to what they usually listen to and then do the same thing for Hot Water Music and AFI and then with us, that was great. Nowadays, like I said, when you try to mix it up, it doesn’t work as well.
MaM: I grew up in the late 90s/early 2000s and so I remember when there was no separation. It was all together. If you liked hardcore, you liked punk. If you liked punk, you liked pop-punk and so on. I feel like back then there was more cohesiveness and now, like you said, it’s more divided.
LK: I think on a smaller scale, it might be coming back. Luckily, I have a friend who used to work for us. He’s about 10 years younger than me, and he’s always sending me texts with, ‘Hey, check this band out,’ and he’ll send me music like Drain or Incendiary. … Not really new, but to me they’re new … like super heavy, and then he’ll be like, ‘Check out this band from England, Chisel.’ And they became one of my new favorites. They’re a good combination of old skool, just hardcore punk from England … leading towards Oi music, but I would love to see them with any hardcore band because it’s such a good mix. On the smaller scale with smaller tours, you can still see that good mix.
MaM: Did you notice any regional differences on this latest tour with how the crowds received your music?
LK: The Life of Agony tour was good for us because they took us to parts where we have never played. They took us to Michigan and usually we only play in Detroit when we go there, but this time they took us to Flint, Mich., and we played in front of, which seemed to us, like a totally new crowd. There were guys there that were 50 years old going, ‘I’ve never heard of you guys. I’ve never seen you.’ That’s insane! … But they loved it, and they bought merch and records, so it was great. It surprised the hell out of us. (laughs)
It’s also that Life of Agony has that bigger metal following and they were embraced by the whole world for decades, and those people don’t see a mixed tour very often. Life of Agony could have taken a younger, more prominent act as their opener, but they wanted to thank us for influencing them when they were younger. And when they went to Europe, they took Prong and Madball with them, which I think is a great thing. They wanted to repay bands like us and to mix the bill, which I thought was good.
MaM: So, as far as the current crowds, do you feel the younger generations are embracing your music more or do you find that it’s the older crowd, like me, who are loving your shows these days?
LK: It’s weird for us because being around so long, we used to get a good mix … we had our fans from the beginning, and we had younger kids coming. Now, it’s like the 16-to-25-year-olds who have their own stuff. We’ve had experiences where we’ve taken a younger band out that was heavily influenced by us and they’re the hot hardcore band. And they’ll be on stage, and they’ll say, ‘You know, we wouldn’t be a band if it wasn’t for Sick of it All,’ and when they finish their set, their fans will just leave. They don’t care. They don’t stick around. It’s strange. Now, what I’ve seen, like in Europe, … it has been constant … where you have the older fans and generations still coming. But in the U.S., if we play an all-ages show, it’s usually our older fans who bring their kids and make them watch us, so sometimes it works. (laughs)
MaM: Let me ask you as far as continuing to make music, how long do you plan on continuing? Do you just want to do it until you can’t anymore?
LK: Yeah, that’s why I’m itching to make a new record. I’m very nervous when we do it, and I love the songs in demo mode, but I’m always worried no one is going to like it and then once the finished product comes out, I go, ‘Oh, I was scared for no reason.’ We always say we’re going to do it until it’s not fun anymore, but we’re always having fun, which is good. What’s good for us is that we all love playing live. It’s just a fact that we’ve always presented a very high-energy live show. If I ever physically can’t do it, I don’t want to just be standing around. (laughs)
Zack from Rage Against the Machine tore his Achilles tendon and he had to do the tour sitting down. You could see in his face that he hated it. Same thing with Barney from Napalm Death. We did a run with Municipal Waste and Napalm Death and Barney had hurt his ankle. We all said he should go to a doctor, and he didn’t want to go. It turned out his ankle was broken. He didn’t know it and kept standing on it and destroyed [it]. He’s still having problems to this day. He had to finish that tour with us in a chair. Then, last year, he was doing a U.S. run and, sure enough, same ankle, completely destroyed. He had to finish the tour sitting in a chair and now, who knows if he’s gonna ever be able to stand on that damn ankle again. I don’t know if I could just sit there in a chair for the fans. It’s not Sick of it All if I’m sitting in a freakin chair, you know.
MaM: Yeah, no kidding. It ruins the whole live experience. So, do you have any crazy stories from over the years with being on the road that you could share?
LK: I mean, there’s so many. You know with the book they did about me and my brother, ‘The Blood and the Sweat: The Story of Sick of it All’s Koller Brothers,’ there’s a story in there that everyone asks us if it’s true. The story about when we were playing in Pennsylvania at a club called The Sonic Temple and after the show, we were packing up the van when these kids came up to us and said, ‘Yo, there’s a guy over there and he’s got a gun and he says he has a head in a bag,’ and, sure enough, he had something stuck in his waist, and we could see it wasn’t a gun, and he comes over and he’s talking all crazy saying he's going to kill everybody and we’re all, ‘Yeah yeah yeah,’ and he opens up the bag and there was a head. … It could have been a mannequin head, I don’t know, and we all hop in the van and as we’re driving away from the parking lot, all of a sudden there’s, like, 15 cop cars and we’re just like, ‘What just happened?’
MaM: (laughs) Wow. I wonder if he decapitated someone. (laughs)
LK: Well, we don’t know. (laughs) We’ve always tried to look it up online and we can’t find anything, but it was awesome.
MaM: So, one question that I am dying to know the answer to involves your logo. It is iconic and is immediately associated with you guys, but how did the Sick of it All dragon come about?
LK: The very first idea for it was when we saw it on a flash sheet by the famous tattoo artist Greg Irons. He had a similar version of it. It was when one of our friends was joining the Marines, and he was, like, 17 or 18, and we all decided to get a tattoo together because we had this crew who always hung out together. I think it was Pete who redesigned the dragon for us, and it just happened to be in the photo of our first seven inch. It was a photo of my tattoo of it and then it just got associated with us from then on, then it became very iconic.
It’s funny, too, because decades later, we had a good friend who worked in the record industry and she was working in the hip-hop world and she’s walking through the office one day and she sees a co-worker with a big poster behind his desk and it had a picture of the earth burning with the Sick of it All dragon and she goes, ‘Is that a new Sick of it All record?’ And he goes, ‘Sick of it All? No, this is the new Mobb Deep album cover,’ and she goes, ‘You better check where that logo is from.’ It was very funny.
LK: They said they got it from a tattoo parlor, which maybe they could have because they’re from Queens and we’re from Queens, but most likely… they would go hang out with this Queens group called The Beatnuts, who were hip-hop DJ guys … and on their apartment door was a bunch of stickers and one of the stickers right in the center was a Sick of it All sticker with the dragon. So, you know they saw that dragon with our name on it and used it. We made a deal with them, though: They were not allowed to use it on their album covers because it was associated with Sick of it All. We actually have a fan who owns two or three pizza places in Berlin, Germany, and on his pizza boxes, he has the Sick of it All dragon, but he asked us if it was ok to do it and we said sure. Now, though, on his pizza box, he still has the dragon, but he puts our Instagram handle with it, too.
MaM: Approaching a tour these days vs approaching a tour then—is there anything you do differently when preparing for a tour?
LK: For me, personally, I must get my voice in shape. It’s not like it used to be where we would jump in the van and hang out and yell and scream all day, then get on stage and play. I have to rest my voice and I have to work into it. As far as the whole band, it’s kind of gone back to the beginning where, especially in the U.S., where touring in vans again, Armand will plot the tour out with our booking agent and the rest of us will do other aspects for the tour, like I do all the social media for the tour, and then we all have to deal with the merchandise again.
MaM: So, you guys have your hands in everything when preparing for a tour.
LK: Well, we have to. Personally, I am the lazy one in the band. I liked it in the mid-90s to the late-2000s when we had people doing everything for us. It was great. Back then, we could call up our manager and be like, ‘I have this idea,’ and he would be like, ‘Alright, give me two days,’ and then he would either get it done or he would say it can’t be done.
MaM: As a veteran musician, what is one piece of advice you could give the up-and-coming musicians who want to be seen and heard so they can establish a legacy like you?
LK: The best advice I could give is play what you love. I mean, it’s fine to emulate your heroes, but eventually you’re gonna find your own sound, but make sure you love it. Also, too, and I know this is going to sound weird, but what stops a lot of other bands is a lot of infighting about money and we, Sick of It All from day one, have always divided everything equally. Everybody inputs as much as you can, but for the first two albums, it was 90% me and Pete writing everything and Armand contributed, too, but at the time Armand was in two other bands, but by ‘Scratch the Surface,’ when Craig had joined the band, it was all four of us working together and Armand writing and he and I splitting the lyrical writing; then, the music was split between Armand, Pete, and Craig. Now, it’s good, because I think that everybody contributes to everything. Especially like with the last album, Pete would come in with songs and have 90% of the lyrics written for each song. Craig and I would then sit down and change some of the lines or redo them or Armand would re-write with me or Craig, and it’s so much more of a unit. Love what you do and, I know it sucks, but I didn’t join a band to fill out paperwork. Learn the business so you don’t get f**ked over.
MaM: Last question: What’s on the agenda for Sick of it All for the remainder of 2023?
LK: We’re trying to keep busy. We’re writing and we have the Life of Agony tour coming back up in August again. We’re going back to Europe in June and July, and I’m going to be a tour guide at the punk rock museum, which Pete just did it, too, but we have quite a bit coming up. Stay tuned.
Be sure to catch Sick of it All live before their tour wraps up on August 27, 2023, in their hometown of Queens, N.Y.
Nicole Brice is a lifelong lover of punk and hardcore. She may look like a wuss, but we assure you she has military training, is a sharpshooter with an M-16A2 rifle, and her music collection is stocked with all the heavy hitters you can handle. Reach her at email@example.com.
Cover photo courtesy of Jeff Crespi.