BARRY HENSSLER of THE NECROS & BIG CHIEF
from Suburban Voice #33-34, 1993
This being the 11th aniversary issue, an interview with Big Chief vocalist Barry Henssler makes a lot of sense, since he was also the frontman for seminal midwest punk/hardcore band the Necros. A rabid record collector and repository of obscure midwest punk rock lore, this was the man to talk to about his current, brain-melting unit, as well, who have two albums out, "Drive It Off" (Get Hip) and "Face" (Sub Pop). The other Chiefs are Mark Dancey and Matt O'Brien (guitars), Phil Durr (bass) and Mike Danner (drums).
SV: Why don't you tell me how you got into punk rock, to start with. I know you grew up on Aerosmith and all that stuff, just like I did, but how did the whole midwest punk and hardcore thing develop and how did you get involved with it?
Barry: You've got to think about the time I was starting to get into music. My family's always been into music. My dad took me to see Pink Floyd when I was 7, my mom took me to see Alice Cooper when I was 9, so I've always been into weirder, more off sort of music and my parents also went to Michigan and they saw the Stooges and the MC5 like a million times, when they were local bands, so I've always been into a rougher style of music. And as I was developing my own taste, I was getting into Aerosmith and Ted Nugent and around the time that Aerosmith came out with "Live Bootleg" and Ted Nugent came out with "Double Live Gonzo," the loud, long-haired style of rock had really peaked. I mean, when a band has a live album, it's usually a sign that they need to take a break and think about what they're going to do and then you'll notice that after "Double Live Gonzo" came out, Ted Nugent was shit. So my friends and I were looking for another outlet, musically, and some kid showed up with a Ramones album and, about that time, my dad bought "Never Mind The Bollocks" because he read about it in Rolling Stone and I heard those records, like late '78, and this was what I was looking for. It was a little faster, a little more direct and it was the anger that Aerosmith and Ted Nugent had at one point. It was like that, but magnified. So from there, that was it. I never threw away my Aerosmith or Ted Nugent records.
SV: Same here.
|PHOTO: ELLIE CAICEDO|
Barry: But there were plenty of records I threw away and, looking back, I was right. The records I didn't throw away were the records that still mean something to me now. From there--I mean, this was Ohio, there was nothing there. We started cutting our hair and looking weird. We were not only just looking weird for the times, but for the places we were in. The worst thing you could do was be a punk rocker in Ohio.
SV: Was it pretty much a hick town you grew up in?
Barry: Yeah, in Maumee and stuff. And, so, as soon as anyone could drive, we were exploring the bigger cities. We'd go to Detroit and about that time we met Tesco from Touch & Go. We were going to Lansing to hang out with him. Since he was older, he could buy beer. He was out of college by then, so he was like a good negative influence on us. We really didn't dig Detroit at that time, because you go back to the early punk rock days of Detroit--and they're still to a certian extent this day--bands with schicks come out of Detroit. Like they're wacky in some way and they wear crazy outfits and that was what was really going on and we thought that was jive.
SV: You mean, like the Romantics or Jerry Vile and the Boners.
Barry: Straight up. Just schtick. We called it Borscht Belt Rock. I'm totally into humor in music. I think someone like Capt. Beefheart's hilarious but I just don't like overt humor like "Get It?" kind of rock. And that's really what Detroit was all about at that time. So this is talking 'til like '81 and the Necros started playing out. The Necros basically had formed in '79, but it was like picking up an instrument and calling yourself a musician. It was formless. It would easily sound as much like the Shaggs as it later ended up sounding. So it took us a really long time to get our shit together musically and by the time we started playing out, we immediately became notorious in Detroit because there was no other band doing what we were doing. And this was before we knew about what was going on in DC or New York or Boston.
SV: What about the Fix? When did they start?
Barry: '80 or '81. Their whole trip is, like, they're a bunch of heavy metal kind of jock, MSU dudes. You'd go to their house and they'd have Rush records and something I just can't forgive. There definitely was life before punk rock but Rush has no part in it, as far as I'm concerned. We never really liked them (The Fix), we always thought they were pretty jive. They heard Discharge and pretty much ripped them off. We were never friends with them. Tesco lived in the same town as them and liked them, to a certian extent, but we were more his friends, really. I'm not discounting their contribution, really, but at the time, when I used to wear spiked wristbands or something, they didn't realize who I was emulating was Darby Crash. They thought I was emulating Rob Halford. I mean, I never even heard Jusad Priest. And they were never really part of the whole Freezer thing (early show venue). I think they played one Freezer show and if there's like the birth of punk rock and hardcore in Detroit, it was at the Freezer. The shows were notorious and if you talk to anyone now between 23 and 30, they say they were at the Freezer and if everyone who said they were there, it would have been like an arena. The place held like 150 people. It was basically our equivalent of Gallery East. From there, it exploded. People would come to see us and they'd go back to the garage and that's where you got bands like Negative Approach. All the ones that were on the "Process Of Elimination" EP.
SV: Yeah, Meatmen, Youth Patrol. Now you were talking about schtick, before. The Meatmen had a schtick.
Barry: Well, the Meatmen had a schtick--I guess you're right, to a certain extent, but the difference was they had balls. They had the music to back it up. They were overtly humorous, but the difference between something like that and the Boners. I mean, that shit still even exists, today. I call it the Hamtramic (sp?) scene, which is this little town a little bit north of Detroit, where there's a bunch of dinky, dicey clubs and bands like that play there and everyone pretty much ignores them. Yeah, they had a schtick, but it wasn't as overt. I guess they became more that way as they went along, rather than the way they started out. I mean, Tesco's a witty dude, so of course it's going to have to lend itself to the stage. Basically, what happened is these bands played, either broke up or went on tour and that whole thing lost its focus and kind of broke down, really. The Necros used to go on tour all the time and we went from playing Detroit at least once a month to once or twice a year. And that's sort of where Big Chief is now. When we started, we never planned on really doing very many shows locally and we haven't. We do outrageously well in Detroit. We sold out St. Andrews, which holds 1000 comfortably, but that's because we're on Sub Pop, now, we became fairly notorious, quickly and because there's a decent foundation because I was in the Necros. I'm finding that seems to be meaning more and more very often these days. By the time the Necros broke up, it was no big deal. I don't think anyone mourned it.
SV: I saw one of your shows probably within a year before you broke up, at the Rat, and you didn't seem to be into it that much, anymore.
|PHOTO: ELLIE CAICEDO|
Barry: Well, we wanted to move on and do our own thing and we were just so locked in by the whole hardcore thing and I didn't mind hardcore for what it was in '81 and '82, but by '86 and '87, we were just kind of off on our whole trip and, I've got to say it, I think it was definitley more along the lines of what Sub Pop did, at least those were our intentions. Maybe a bit more metallic than that. I think the latter day Necros weren't that much different than latter day Green River. But the whole thing is we were just locked into this thing that, no matter what we did, we were labelled that and that actually led a lot to the breakup and also because there were definite musical differences between the members and I. We're all good friends, still, but I wanted to do something that was a lot slower and a lot more black-influenced. I wanted to do "Superstupid" in the Necros and we compromised and did "Nile Song". We brought up the idea of doing a cover and I wanted to do this Funkadelic song--this is in '85, about the time "Tangled Up" is being recorded and they just wouldn't hear it. And now they're really into that kind of shit.
SV: Well, the whole funk-metal thing has become extremely trendy, now.
Barry: But the whole thing with what we do is that we've never associated ourselves with the funk-metal thing. And that's why now maybe we downplay that even though we're incredibly influenced by black music, whether it's hip hop or jazz.
SV: I mean, what it is is that you definitley have a heavy rock sound, but I can hear the black thing in there. It's soulful in the same way that Aerosmith were, on their first few records.
Barry: Exactly. You hit the nail on the head. That's our trip. It isn't the mugging and the bass-popping. We don't rip Parliament off.
SV: It has a groove to it. But you do the groove with the guitar riffs.
SV: So, the Necros fell apart because you were tired of being lumped in with the hardcore thing.
Barry: Well, we were tired of that. "Tangled Up" sold really well. We thought it would sell 5 or 6000 copies and it ended up selling almost 20,000 copies. We did a tour with the Circle Jerks, we did a tour with Megadeth and they all went really well, but it was all personal. We didn't really fit in. We didn't fit in with the Circle Jerks crowd, we didn't fit in with the Megadeth crowd, so that was a factor and we all just wanted to do different things. We all lived in different cities, as well. I was living in Ann Arbor at the time and that's how Big Chief was formed. There were a lot of people I wanted to play with there. There were bands I'd admired. I'd liked Mark's band, Born Without A Face. And I really dug the early Hyenas. They were really primal and Danner was just an amazing drummer, but he just wasn't into the whole Birthday Party ripoff trip that they were. He didn't want to dress up like a gangster, so he quit that band and he and I worked together, so we wanted it kind of greasy and funky, kind of like James Brown, at the same time, so that's how it was formed between Danner and I and we just kind of put together the band with people that we really dug. I've known Matt since he was twelve, so he was an obvious pick. We had to wait for him to come back from SF, where he was going to school. Mark, I've been friends with and really admired because he's just a really hard worker and creative. Phil was in this band that started out as this real artsy kind of Buttholes ripoff band and I thought they were all right, but towards the end, he developed into just an incredible player. We couldn't believe it, because he was just this kind of geeky--there's a dorm at U of M called East Quad and it's the artsy dorm. I went to Michigan, but we were never in East Quad. So there's this stigma that he was in East Quad. But he was cool. I'd hung out with him a lot, we became really close friends, so he was just an obvious choice. So that's kind of how that was born.
SV: There's one other Necros question I wanted to ask you. That live album wasn't really a live album, right?
Barry: Of course not. Like "Kiss Alive" is totally fake. What else is fake?
SV: Judas Priest's "Unleashed In The East." I've heard it called "Unleashed In The Studio."
Barry: Totally. I means, it's always fake. And at the end, we tried to make it as obvious as we could. At the end, it's Paul Stanley going "Good night!!" So it's kind of like a piss-take on live albums.
SV: Yeah, all the time I was listening to it, something didn't seem right.
Barry: It sounds better than "Tangled Up." We were in a better studio. We recorded it at Schoolhouse, where we did "Drive It Off."
SV: I know when the Hyenas first started, Brannon used to say that some of the Negative Approach fans would come and expect the same thing and some would be disappointed. Did you guys find that when you first started, with some of the old Necros fans expecting it to be like it was?
Barry: No, because I think the old Necros fans have grown up and they want something different and anyone who likes the Necros a lot really digs Big Chief, now. If we got it, it was never said. My whole thing is, if someone says that I'd be like, dude, put on those Necros records and don't come to Big Chief gigs. What am I supposed to do? If I would have had my way, if I were the Hitler of the Necros, the Necros would have sounded a whole lot more like Big Chief ended up sounding but I had to get into a new band to do what I wanted. So no one's reacted like that. Actually, I saw one record review and it kind of pissed me off. Someone said that "Drive It Off" sounded a lot like "Tangled Up." To me, it's completely different. I guess the elements are similar--there's loud guitars.
SV: They're both in the hard rock vein, but there's a big difference.
Barry: Right. I'd rather have them say they'd rather hear the Necros and that Big Chief suck. That'd bum me out less.
SV: On the new album, there's a song called "The Ballad Of Dylan Cohl." I haven't heard that name in years!
Barry: Did you know that Dylan Cohl's in jail?
SV: No, I know he was a notorious record collector.
Barry: A total phone pest record collector.
SV: He called me once, about 9 or 10 years ago. I don't even remember what he wanted. He was calling up about trading records and I'd totally forgotten about him until I saw his name on the new album. So what's the scoop?
Barry: He was as notorious a junkie as he was a record collector when he was a kid. He's a good friend of ours. There's an article about us in the Detroit Free Press that talked about our new record and interviewed me and everything and they mentioned "The Ballad Of Dylan Cohl" and Mike Danner gets this call one night from Dylan. Dylan had robbed a bank and gotten caught and he ran off to Chicago and gave himself up because his picture was in every newspaper. He moved to Detroit from New York. His family's actually from Michigan and he just got really involved in drugs. He moved to Ann Arbor, where you can get drugs really cheaply and plenty of them and he didn't have a job, he wasn't going to school and he just got really involved in drugs. We're good friends and we told him to mellow out, but we just kind of gave up on him and lost track of him and, next thing you know, we read about him in the paper that he tried to rip off a bank and he gave them a note that said "No smoke, no blue paint." I don't know if you're familiar with that band Slot, but that's what their album is called. So that song used to be called "Face" but, when it came out to putting that album out in the states, I didn't want it to be a focus cut because, even though I like that song, I don't think it's completely representative of what we could do. So I just changed it to "The Ballad Of Dylan Cohl," which makes it really funny because it totally changes the way you perceive the lyrics. It's not really about Dylan, but I always threatened Dylan that I was going to write a song about him and call it "The Long, Slow, Sad Death Of Dylan Cohl." We used to say that we had songs like "Take A Shower With Dylan." But he used to be a really good guy and he's incredibly intelligent, but he's just a very fucked-up person. If you knew who his family's friends were... like Allen Ginsberg, just these incredibly innovative literati types. But his father's not without his problems, so it's heredity. So he called Danner from jail and we taped it and we might sample it. He won't be out 'til '95 or '96. And Danner said "You won't be having sex for a long time... if you're lucky!"
SV: What made you decide to do the hip-hop remix on the album?
Barry: There's a station in Detroit called WJLB and they've used the riff from "Superstupid" from "Drive It Off" and they were using "Chrome Helmet" and they would do these remixes on the radio with it and there's a really huge hip-hop scene in Detroit and it kind of intermingles with the rock scene, because a lot of people who are into rock are also into hip-hop and they go to those clubs. They'd done remixes of them already, where they'd just take the riff and put a beat over it and so we said if they're doing it on the radio and doing it at clubs, why don't we just do one of our own. These two DJ's in Detroit, Def Stef and Black Man, they're really good DJ's and they also have a real good handle on rock. They're real big Sub Pop fans, so we had them remix "Fresh Vines." In Detroit, those two scenes really intermingle. It's a diverse crowd. It's huge. Def Stef and Black Man have done parties at Chinese restaurants where 700 people show up and crowd a Chinese restaurant to listen to hip hop and dance. Something's always going on and those guys were just a real obvious choice.
SV: I remember when I met you last year, you were telling me that Kory Clarke (of Warrior Soul and formerly of some old Detroit punk bands) was slagging you.
Barry: He's dissed me many times in print, which is hilarious, because every place he's ever dissed me, the average reader would be like "Who?" If anything, they'd listen to a Warrior Soul record, listen to how miserable it was and look up any detractor Kory had. So, if anything, he's helping me sell records and I hope he continues slagging me. I should actually hire him as a publicity agent because people know that those records are coming to a cutout bin near you and they always have. He's always had a big problem with me and Tesco, anyone who's ever made fun of him.
SV: Why did everyone hate him so much?
Barry: 'Cause he was a new wave homo. It's pretty ironic. When I hear of someone who was once in a hardcore band and is now in a long-haired hard rock band, to me, that jump doesn't sound that bizarre, but considering what that guy was like all the time he was in Detroit, to get in a band like he is in strikes me as pretty hilarious. He's pretty much a dead issue.
SV: But he is immortalized on the first Meatmen album.
Barry: Yeah, well that's the only place he'll ever be immortalized and I think he really has a big problem with that. I mean, I had plenty of enemies when I was 17, too, and I really don't hold much against any of them. So, if I was a really big trauma in his life, I think that's hilarious. For a long time, I never even thought twice about Kory Clarke until I picked up Thrasher and he dissed me to Gitter. And then I heard the band and they were miserable and I saw the record in the 50 cent bin everywhere I went and that's where they belong.
SV: How was the tour with the Beastie Boys? I find that interesting because both of you started out in the hardcore scene and here you are doing something somewhat different.
Barry: I think if you listen to "Face" and you listen to their record, there's a certain similarity in the recording technique, spirit and the vibe in general.
SV: You're both big Funkadelic fans, that's for sure.
Barry: Right. They're big-time Meters fans. It went really well and they were really cool. After touring the United States as many times as I have, I just don't really have that big of a desire to do it. I'm more into going new places than the places I've been, but we had the opportunity to do it and they picked us, they like our band a lot and it was super-easy. We played to lots of people every night and hopefully we sold a few records.
SV: I still go to hardcore shows and put out hardcore records and a lot of these young kids still believe in it as a viable form of music, especially over in Europe.
Barry: Oh, yeah. Let's put it this way. If the Necros wanted to do a reunion tour, we could go to Europe and probably support ourselves off the profit for a few years.
SV: But do you think hardcore's viable?
Barry: I think it's old and it's tired, as far as I'm concerned, but if I was a 17 year old kid, again, it might excite me. I'm just hoping that those same kids who listen to hardcore and dig it will, if anything, it'll be the doorway to opening their minds to other kinds of music and they'll discover John Coltrne and they'll discover the Stooges. I don't think it's that big of a leap from, say, Black Flag to Helmet to White Zombie to Mudhoney to Sun Ra. So if it can be some sort of catalust to make them stray away from listening to Bon Jovi, then, fuck, it can be a viable thing. I wonder if I was 17 again if I would discover it the same way, again. I mean, I think I helped innovate it. In many ways, I'm proud to say I did but, in many other ways, I regret a little bit of it. It seems very nostalgic to me, but it hasn't moved in that much of a different direction.
SV: Uhhh... it's gotten slower and heavier. The newer hardcore bands--I like some of it, but a lot of it is slow and repetitive and doesn't have that aggressive energy that a lot of the older hardcore had.
Barry: When I go out and get a record, it's an import CD of Miles Davis. I don't go "where are the shorts and the crew-cuts?" So I don't know what's going on. I just see the kids. And the weirdest thing is, in Detroit, a lot of those kids dig Big Chief, too. Clean-cut looking kids and I guess they're into hardcore. But they're also probably really into Helmet. To me, Helmet sounds like what hardcore should sound like in 1992. It hits me with the same impact as Minor Threat did. And is that because I'm old and don't know what the fuck's up or is that what the kids are listening to?
SV: I think it's because we're older and we've heard a lot of hardcore over the last 10 years and we both know that most of it is 10th generation derivative.
Barry: It just seems like there's this really set rhetoric. It's a really good thing when I was 17 or 18 that I said I don't want to drink or do drugs. You never know what would have happened if I would've. So, if it can make a kid step back and take a clear look at things, then I'm all for it, but if that same kid is like, "that's it, anything else is shit," then--I didn't believe that when I was that age. I was listening to Minor Threat and I was listening to Black Flag, but I was also putting on a Joy Division record or a James Brown record, a lot of different shit at the same time. I think that's also why early hardcore was so good was because it wasn't incestuous. All the influences were outside hardcore.
SV: It was pure.
Barry: Exactly. So, if it turns a kid on to a new way of thinking, then, fuck...
BACK to Necros page
KILL FROM THE HEART Home