Agnostic Front Interview from No Answers
Agnostic Front has always been a controversial band. Their first release, United Blood, came out in 1983. It was received with mixed feelings, and their numerous interviews often portrayed them as macho, right-wing conservatives who embraced the skinhead image as their own. Their interviews in Guillotine #8 (December 1984), Maximum Rocknroll #21 (January 1985), Flip Side #45 (1985), Ink Disease #10 (1986), and Schism #7 (1987) are all examples of this. Their 1986 release of Cause For Alarm featured "Public Assistance," which declared that some welfare recipients, minorities in particular, were taking advantage of the system. The song's solution was to force them to "clean up the sewers," or more simply, cut their assistance. However, at the same time they were writing solidly progressive songs like "Blind Justice," "Hiding Inside," and "Fascist Attitudes." These songs protrayed a totally different side to Agnostic Front. With all of this in mind, I have never been an Agnostic Front fan, but their 1987 release of Liberty and Justice for... is free of anything objectionable. In fact, the title track, along with "Lost," "Hypocracy," and "Strength" are all excellently written and highly intelligent. Agnostic Front remains a mystery to me... So, when I had the chance to do an interview with their lead guitarist, Steve Martin, I was sceptical, but I had to do it. Steve is a really nice guy and he is obviously an intelligent human being. I don't think I held any punches, and I think Steve defended the band very well, though his support of Youth Defense League... Well, that's another story that appears somewhere else. My opinions have changed in a lot of ways, but still I keep my eyes open. Everyone should. Regardless of what I think, Agnostic Front is always going to be a controversial band. That's the way it is. The interview appears in its entiretly, and you will have to be the final judge. "Strength" says it well: "No one hands you the truth. No one can say what's right for you." -Kent
KENT: Well, let's see... when is the live album going to be coming out?
STEVE: It should be out in March. It's been pushed back a couple of times, reasons being that we didn't want to rush it and fuck ourselves up by releasing it in the middle of the Holiday season when we aren't really ready. Like rushing the parts of the album, have the album look like shit... Avoid all the problems which happened with Liberty and Justice for... the last time. We were rushing the release to hurry up and get it out, but what we didn't know was that at the time it was coming out there was a big overhaul going on with the company. A lot of the people we had been working with were going out the door by the time the record came out. So it kind of got lost. That record wasn't the best promoted even though we toured our asses off to promote it. We played 90 shows last year, and for a "hardcore" band that's a lot.
KENT: Is it recorded though?
STEVE: The live album? Yea, it was recorded August 21st. It's ready to go. We have the cover ready, but we're just waiting for some of the pieces. All the ppictures are done.
KENT: What songs are on it?
STEVE: "Victim in Pain," "Public Assistance," "United Blood," "Friend or Foe," "Strength," "Blind Justice," "Last Warning," "Toxic Shock," "United and Strong," "Crucified," "Liberty and Justice," "Discriminate Me," "Your Mistake," "Anthem," "With Time," "Genesis," "The Pain Song," -- which is an old Cavity Creeps song, Jimmy Gestapo contributes guest vocals on that one --, "Fascist Attitudes," and "The Eliminator." That's the whole album.
KENT: A little bit from everything then.
STEVE: Yea, it's basically what the live set's been. We do not play the same set over and over though. We like to rearrange it, but it's a pretty good representation of what the live set from the last tour was. There's a couple of songs that are played pretty regularly that aren't on there like "Hiding Inside" and "Power." We had to cut some songs.
KENT: How did you get connected with In-Effect? You yourself?
STEVE: Myself personally? Well, I've had a couple of jobs on and off while the band wasn't touring or recording. Mostly writing. When this came around I was between things. We were talking of getting off of Combat. We weren't happy with Combat Core. They were saying that they didn't want us to go. We had these major label offers. I'm not trying to blow my own horn, but other people were interested. We would like to be on the label we were with first, but the treatment we were getting wasn't good. They brought us in, and we had a meeting. We discussed what we weren't happy with. They had been brewing this whole idea of having this new label that wouldn't be totally hardcore, or metal, or college alternative music, but would be a street level honest label. No gimmick to it. We were like, "That's great, that's the kind of label we should have been on in the first place. We didn't like the whole idea of Combat Core originally. A lot of people perceived it as a big company coming in and trying to exploit something that traditionally belonged to the kids. I don't think that is necessarily true. I think it was just another division of the same label, but then a lot of people were also thinking of it as a lesser division of Combat when there are a lot of bands on Combat Core that are bigger than those on Combat. So that was totally untrue. With In-Effect there is no label on it. Like you said before, Prong is more like a metal band. Sick of it All is definitely closer to traditional hardcore. Twenty-four Seven Spys is a crazy hybrid of hardcore, metal, and all sorts of black music. You can't really put a label on them if you tried. Plus we are going to rerelease the Bad Brains tape.
KENT: On ROIR?
STEVE: Yea, we're releasing that on CD remastered. It's going to be called "Attitude: the ROIR sessions." We're also putting out an EP by Madball. It's Roger's little brother Freddy. He's 12 years old and during the summer we'll bring him on tour with us. He's like our mascot. He did a couple of things on the last album like back-up vocals and the gong at the end of the record. He's sort of like an underground figure. A lot of people know who he is. Last summer Vinnie, Roger, and Will took Freddy into the studio and banged the whole thing out. That's going to be a 7".
KENT: You're going to release 7"s too? It's been a while since bigger labels have been releasing 7"s.
STEVE: Like I said, I hooked up with this label because I thought I could help to get its image off a little better. When they said that they needed someone in publicity, I said I really wanted to do it. We have been unhappy in the past because people haven't perceived things the way we wanted them to. There are a lot of things that they don't know about Agnostic Front in particular that they should. When people start seeing 7"s coming out on this label and stuff like that they're going to realize that to be a relatively big label, which this is, you don't have to be someone who is cashing in on this on this music. The two main people on this label are me and Howie Abrams, who has been around New York for a long time. He's like one of Agnostic Front's single biggest fans from when they first started out. He's done a lot for a lot of bands. He used to roadie for Nuclear Assault. He know his shit. Between me and him you have two people that seriously love this music. We know the music. We know every band that we're putting out inside and out. We're not putting these bands out to just capitalize on them and make our money and go to the bank. When it's all over, which hopefully won't be for a long time, these people are our friends and we still have to live with them.
KENT: You know that United Blood was bootlegged, right? Is there any chance that you might rerelease some of those songs again?
STEVE: Well, we were really pissed about that. I was pissed, but not as much as Roger and Vinnie. That was like their thing. At the time that it happened the kids from Insted were staying over at Roger's house. So they were the first ones to tell him. It's totally uncool. They're fucking over the band and everyone involved. To them it is easy money, but it hurts us.
KENT: It sounds a good as the original. It's one of the best I've seen. The Cause For Alarm 7" was bootlegged too.
STEVE: Someone was telling me that they thought that Zed records was doing it.
KENT: I don't know. I've been in Zed's when people were selling them Misfits bootlegs, but I don't know if they've ever actually done their own.
STEVE: The guy called up here and he's like, "I didn't do this. Everone thinks I did this. I'm friends with Roger from way back." I'm like, well, call him and tell him about it. That kind of shit really pisses me off. Even around here there are bootlegs of old S.S.D. records. That's bullshit. If you can not get get a friend to tape it for you or something... I'm not one of those people who's like, "If you weren't around then, fuck you!" Fortunately I was so I do have those records. I don't have as much objections to people taping them as I do to people actually making money of of the records. It's not cool. Plus it hurts us. We want to rerelease it someday.
KENT: How come you guys switched from a more metal sound on Cause For Alarm to a more straight thrash and hardcore sound on Liberty and Justice...?
STEVE: Well, that's funny that you put it that way because a lot of people don't think that Liberty and Justice... is so much of a straight hardcore sound, maybe it's just because the songs are more complicated. There are guitar solos and the drumming is more complicated, but the only two people who are still in the band from Cause For Alarm are Vinnie and Roger. It was recorded under a lot of bad situations. The band did not have a steady line-up, there was bad management, and bad influences. To this day it is fucked up because that is the band's best selling album.
KENT: That's really weird because I think it is the weakest of the three.
STEVE: Yes, that's what everybody seems to think. But the thing is, I've learned from this business that it doesn't matter so much on what the musical content of the album is, but rather how it is promoted and marketed & when it is in the stores and when it is not. Basically, to get back to your question, we didn't plan any changes. We just wrote some songs and however they came out we play them. It just so happened that it turned out like it did. If anything, I think it is sort of mid-way between the two. It definitely has a metal or crossover edge to it. That influence is there, but it's not as prominent as it was on Cause For Alarm. That was more of a total metal album. Liberty and Justice for... is more of a metal influenced album. As long as the music is good I don't really care what kind of music it is.
KENT: What's Agnostic Front's opinion of the whole New York straight edge scene that has built up around you?
STEVE: We take it with a grain of salt. Recently, when we were playing in Connecticut, Roger was in a really bad mood and he just went off on these people. I thought it was funny because he didn't even tell any of us that he was going to do it. I thought it was really funny what he was saying because a lot of it was true. He's like, "I take a look at a lot of you kids and you just look like you jumped on the band wagon. You're looking to see who is wearing what to decide how you wear your clothes. This straight edge thing is getting out of hand. You're singing all of they gay songs about helping old ladies to get across the street." He is like, "That really makes me sick because that's not what hardcore is about." That is true. A lot of those kids just jumped on the band wagon, that's the best way of putting it. I really don't like the way a lot of these kids will turn their nose up at a band if they don't have the straight edge look, or if they don't sing songs about straight edge topics. I've seen kids do that. A band will come on and there is no doubt about it, they totally suck, but they have big magic marker X's on their hands and they're wearing their over sized tee shirts and they have flat tops. They have the whole look down. They jump all over, barely touching their instruments, and they're playing all out of tune and everything, but their songs have some really neat screaming choruses about staying off of drugs. So everyone likes them. Then a really good band that doesn't happen to be so positive will get on and these kids will just look the other way. That happened to Rest In Pieces once, and they are a great band, but they weren't a straight edge band and so people just totally ignored them. I think that is totally uncool.
KENT: I was reading about what you thought in Suburban Voice and it seemed weird that you would say that since a lot of those straight edge bands have supported you guys from the very beginning.
STEVE: Yea, well I'm not talking about anyone specific. You have to really live out here to see the amount of them that pop up. And a lot of them aren't that sincere either. A lot of them have said a lot... I don't want to really rekindle it, but there has been a lot of back biting going on. A lot of stuff was said about us behind our backs that we found out about. Especially when Craig came into the band. We were really surprised. A lot of these bands make it a really competitive thing. They make it like a holier than thou kind of thing. Like these bands that pop up out of Connecticut. Everyday there is like a new... Alert, Wide Awake, Straight & Proud, Reach Out, Reach This, Reach That, Up Front, Up Right... Everyday there is like a new straight edge band playing. Their songs are just retreads of what has been said before a million times better back in 1983 when straight edge wasn't so fashionable. To me it was a lot harder of a thing when I was living in Boston in 1983 and S.S.D. was doing it because no one else was doing it where they were doing it. D.Y.S., but even that was a little later. I think it is good that kids are staying off of drugs, if they really are, but when they get hypocritical and start turning off to anybody that doesn't have the same rules as they do then I think it is totally bad because it just stumps some bands. I listen to any kind of music, I don't care what their beliefs are as long as it's good music.
KENT: Does the band still embrace the skinhead ideas or image?
STEVE: The best way to get an answer to that is to break it down person to person. Personally, I don't even think about it. I know that that's where the band's roots are and that's cool that they were like the first real American skinhead band to get really big nationally, and show that there was that kind of music in America. Like them and Iron Cross, maybe the Effigies way back when. But the thing is, when you say that now a days it's getting so, because of the actions of a few racist maniacs, that if you even mention the word skinhead all of a suden everyone thingks radical, right-wing, nazi, beating kids and women in the streets for no reason... I just don't know.
KENT: That has been a lot of the objections to the band all along. That really has happened. There really are those people out there, and it's going on.
STEVE: But we're not those kind of people, and anyone who has ever seen us live has seen us... I mean if people start misinterpreting our songs and sieg heiling our songs we'll stop. We'll stop playing and say, "What the fuck are you doing?" Or we'll leave. If people are fighting we'll either try to break up the fight or we'll just walk off the stage. I know that this time around when we go out to tour it's going to be really hard because right now it's hip. There's going to be a lot more of those kind of people and a lot more misunderstandings about what we're about. And a lot more people, just because they see a couple of guys up on stage with shaved heads, are going to start seig heiling like a bunch of fucking idiots. I think it's really funny to see people seig heiling while we are doing the pledge of allegiance when we do, "Liberty and Justice..." and like I just said something on stage when we were in Philly and they were doing that. Philly seems to be a hot spot for that kind of stuff. South Jersey and Philly. It was the first time I ever saw people doing that. I'm like, "Wait a minute, what are you doing? You're saying your country's pledge of allegiance while you're using a salute of a country and a movement that we were fighting in WWII." Vinnie had an uncle who was killed fighting the Nazis and he takes offence to it. I take offense to it because I'm half Jewish. Roger takes offense to it because he is Cuban and he's got people yelling white power in his face.
KENT: So that's definitely something you guys don't want to have anything to do with?
STEVE: Of course not. Why would anyone who has any brains at all want to have anything to do with that? You know you can't tell people that their beliefs are wrong. I can't sit someone down and say, "Look you're wrong because you think that way, because you think your race is superior." They can think whatever the fuck they want as long as they don't single out people who don't think the same way as them and beat them into the ground.
KENT: You have to admit that Agnostic Front has always had a reputation for being that movement's band, and as much as the band has tried to shake that it has always hung there.
STEVE: To the point of writing songs against it from day one, you know "Fascist Attitudes" and stuff. How can you sieg heil while singing those lyrics? Like outright anti-fascist and anti-racist, anti-prejudice lyrics. So many of our songs just say, "Why don't you just cut it out, be yourself, and have a good time."
KENT: What about on "Public Assistance?" You guys took a lot of abuse for that song.
STEVE: I know. I did personally, and I didn't even write it, when I got in that spat with Jello Biafra. He was saying that we wrote a song saying that black people shouldn't be allowed to have babies. I was like, "What are you talking about?" What that song is about, if you live in New York you see it, people will scam however they can to get more money from welfare so that they will have more money for their drug habits or whatever, or maybe so they will just have more money to begin with. And what you have is more and more people having kids to up their checks. People putting their kids up as collateral for crack buys. They will just scam to get more welfare. I work hard. I work in the band and I work for In-Effect. I pay my taxes. I'm pretty much a straight lace kind of guy. Roger has a wife and a kid. Everyone in the band pretty much works, and these are the people living off of our tax money, and pulling all of these scams so they can get more welfare. They work less or go for longer periods of time not working at all. I think that is wrong and it is too bad that Jello Biafra doesn't see that happening in San Francisco.
KENT: The biggest problem is the fact that it was singled out at minorities. It has that line, "How come it's minorities who cry, 'Things are too tough.'" So that overbeared it.
STEVE: I guess that was it.
KENT: Personally, I take offense to it. I feel like it singles out minorities as doing this and I don't really think that is true. A lot of people can take that out of context and use it to support their racist attitudes. That bothers me. People can and have seen it as racist.
STEVE: Yea, that's true. Anything can be taken out of context, but if you take it within the context of the rest of the song... I mean I feel stupid saying all of this stuff because I didn't even write it. But I guess if you lived where Roger was living at the time on Avenue C and you saw kids smoking crack on the stairs at 14 and 10 years old when you go out to work in the morning you would get fed up. And again, when you say that you get offended by that, you have to remember that it is coming out of the mouth of someone who is a minority. Someone who is Cuban. It just so happens, I don't know if there is a direct connection, but that is the way it is.
KENT: What about the whole idea of a welfare state? Is that something that the band resists against?
STEVE: Well, I'm personally against it. Like I said, I'm in the city making a living, and they are making a really good living and not paying taxes. They can collect welfare and meanwhile at night they are out in the Bronx trying to polish your windowshield at every light. These people are probably making more money than I am. That's a mild example that I am trying to use without sounding prejudiced. When it gets down to it you got the people who can take their welfare money, buy some coke or crack, cut it up and dilute it to make some more. They can just start multiplying the money they are getting by not working and not paying taxes. So I'm personally opposed to it. I'm opposed to all sorts of things like that. Where things are being cut out of my income that I work hard for night and day and given to someone who is scaming. Especially when it comes down to drug dealers, and welfare scamers, and on a larger scale people in jails. That's one of the reasons I'm totally for the death penalty. I wish it would come back because in effect I'm paying rent for a lot of murderers and rapists.
KENT: What about the situation where people are really down and out, and they really need that money?
STEVE: That's a totally different situation. I'm talking about people who are able to get jobs, but the welfare state makes it easier to not work. I'd like to make that clear. I'm not talking about people who have no arms and legs. I'm not saying, "Well they should be licking stamps somewhere." I'm just saying if you're not disabled and you don't have a cronic disease that keeps you off of your feet or something like that. If you're able to work and you're not then you're just scaming, and that's the final line. Ever since I was able to work I've been working.
KENT: To change the subject, there are a lot of bands like War Zone and Youth Defense League who are trying to up the whole skinhead thing as a movement. Is that something that you want to avoid being a part of?
STEVE: I don't mind if those people like us as long as they aren't running through the streets yelling, "Agnostic Front," and beating black people. Like I said, the band is opposed to racism and any kind of prejudice. I always question bands who are saying that they are furthering a movement because I figure a lot of time they are cashing in on things that are already there, but you can't really say that of War Zone because they have been around for a long time before that. They've been around for years. The same with Y.D.L. When it comes to that old straight edge thing, the best straight edge bands were the ones who were around when it wasn't all the rage to be straight edge. Y.D.L. came out and said they were a skin band from New York when it wasn't exactly cool. So I respect them a lot. Plus, if you sit down and talk with Nick from Y.D.L., he's got some pretty good vews. He'll say, "Look, I'm a nationalist skinhead guy." He has a really rich background, but he doesn't cash in on it. He's like, "I'm against people doing nothing and getting payed for it." I see eye to eye with him on a lot of that stuff. In fact that is a direct quote from him that was in an interview he did. The 'zine was like, "Are you against people getting paid welfare at all?" He's like, "No, I'm against people doing nothing and getting paid for it. I'm against people getting money for nothing. I work hard and I'll probably be working hard for the rest of my life."
KENT: They also say that they are actively promoting white pride, which they say is different than white supremacy, but that's a fine line. From my point of vew it is scary.
STEVE: That is scary. It's scary because there are idiots out there who will interpret that as, "Alright!" But they are not those kind of people because I know them and they're not rascists or white supremacists or whatever.
KENT: What about the whole nationalism thing? Is that something that Agnostic still stands behind?
STEVE: We have sort of a stand on nationalism that a lot of people seem to misinterpret. What we always said is that we like living in America. We stand for what the flag was meant to stand for originally, as meaning truth, justice, equality, freedom of expression. All of the things that are in the constitution. All the things that are supposed to be guaranteed to every man, woman, and child regardless. But a lot of people have misinterpreted that as meaning that we are right-wing fascists and total Reaganites. They couldn't be more wrong. We don't have that simple of a view.
KENT: That's something that has also plagued the band for a long time.
STEVE: Well, I don't know. I was hoping that the last album, it seems to have not helped, but I was hoping that it would clear that up. Just the cover alone. People would look at that... even the cover to the Cause For Alarm album. It's not exactly a love it or leave it cover. It has a lot of pros and cons on there. If anything more cons than anything else. The same with Liberty and Justice for.... I mean like it is implied in the title, there is definitely not liberty and justice for everybody in the country.
KENT: So you want to consider yourselves as a progressive band and not as just some right-wing conservatives?
STEVE: Oh god. It's pretty funny because I remember when some 'zine asked Roger, I remember that as being one of his exact answers. They asked him that question: "In that respect what kind of band are you?" And he said, "Progressive hardcore."
KENT: There are always going to be sides that don't like you guys, and sides that do just because of the past. I think Roger used to take a lot more hard lined attitude and he used to be a lot more conservative in a lot of interviews he did.
STEVE: Yea, well I think everybody is like that when they are younger and more idealistic and they can say, "I love it here and everything is great." Then when they grow up they reexamine their ideas and they find that there are things that they may have overlooked or that they never had to pay as much attention to before. And that is definitely the case. In most cases we avoid politics and try to keep the lyrics more personal. I think people get real tired of politics. There are plenty of politicians to talk about politics. If there is anything political I think it is the title track and Al Peters wrote the lyrics to that. I think they are good lyrics, and I think they make a good point.
KENT: Over the years I've moved from liking the band to not liking to liking and so forth, and at some times really not liking the band at all depending on things I've read or seen. And I think the newest album has helped to remove some of that. But I fluxuate because I am really concerned with what is going on with the whole right-wing, nationalist, skinhead movement. I'm really worried that so many people are just going to launch out and see this stuff and not really take the time to understand it.
STEVE: Yea, well it's true because a lot of people who buy the record will misinterpret it, but hopefully, we play a lot and I think it clears up a lot of things when they start sieg heiling us on stage and we say, "Hey, cut that out assholes." There's been plenty of times when there has been really, really intimidating circumstances, but we just said, "Look we have to do what we set out to do." Like in Orlando I saw Chris Jones from Verbal Assault talking in some interview about how he couldn't believe that we did it, but we did. In Orlando, Florida it was like a total fascist scene. People just kept fighting. I saw a girl get kicked in the face. Roger told them once, "If you don't stop we're not going to play." They didn't stop so we stopped playing after 15 minutes. Here we are in this little club with a couple of hundred total fucknig deep south nazis who paid their money to see us play. They were like, "What the fuck!" We're like hey we told you we're not playing. So we just walked off because they wouldn't stop. We don't play to see people fight. On the first show of the tour we walked off early. We walked off after about a half an hour in Cincinnati. We drove 15 hours to get there and these people just kept fighting and fighting. I think it was "Your Mistake" or "Hiding Inside" that we had to do 3 times before we could get through it. And then on the third try they weren't stopping all the fighting. So, we just said, "See you later." That place was big. I'm talking Bogart's in Cincinnati. It's huge. The next show that week was Megadeth or something. There must have been 6 or 7 hundred people there that night. But too bad. It's definitely true that a couple of assholes can ruin it for the rest of the people.
KENT: I was really encouraged by the last album and I'm hoping that will continue.
STEVE: That's good. I think it will. We are always influenced by what's going on around us, and if that is any indication of what's going to be on the next studio album, when we start getting the lyrics together. Right now we've just written a couple of songs, instrumental wise. I think we should definitely address some of those problems that are going on. Especially in New York. Well, not New York, but that thing did happen in New York with those kids from South Jersey and Philly that came up and beat that guy up at the subway stop. The thing that was the center of the Geraldo special. I was driving by when that happened. By 9th Street we saw this guy screaming and the cops had these skinheads and they were throwing them into the cop car.
KENT: I think that a lot of people that already have these attitudes are seeing the skinhead movement and embracing its attitudes. So these racist assholes become skinheads because they can then express their views.
STEVE: A way to have something to identify with.
KENT: Exactly. So they see something on Geraldo and they go, "Heh, I'm going to be a skinhead and kick some ass." It's getting worse. In the last year and a half it has gotten worse. Especially here on the West coast. Every town has their skinhead gang and they're going at it. It's scary. People are getting arrested with weapons.
STEVE: That's fucked up. When we were on the West coast we really didn't see too much of that. But I guess a lot of those people don't like us anymore, if they ever did. When we played in San Bernadino some of the Warskins, like one of the kids who was on Oprah came to see us. One kid sieg heiled while we were doing something and Roger smacked him, and that was about all there was in the way of skinhead violence. The guy was a total dick.
KENT: Hopefully all of that stuff will die out.
STEVE: Sooner or later it probably will. Either that or those people will fall out of the scene in general. A lot of those people, I think, don't really like the music so much as they like to go to shows and fight. When the places that they used to go to close down, when they start getting banned from places, then I think you'll see a lot less of them. At least I hope so.
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