I started wearing glasses about four years ago, and I could walk through the crowd before the set and nobody would notice me," says hardcore music icon and Sick of It All frontman Lou Koller with a chuckle. "I'd stand at the merch booth for a while and then I'd say to my friend Joe, who was selling T-shirts for us, I'd go, 'Watch this,' and then I'd take my glasses off, and two minutes later people'd start coming up going, 'Yooooo, what's up Lou, how's it goin'?' I was like, 'It works, it works, that's how no one recognized Superman!'"
A few days before heading out on the quartet's bazillionth US tour which stops in San Francisco Saturday, Koller remains about as mild-mannered and friendly as it gets like George Harrison, he's known as the band's "quiet one," and today he even laughingly terms himself a "social retard."
Onstage, of course, it's a different story entirely. The slight-of-build Koller transforms into a screaming, whirling, vein-popping Man of Zeal, ready to take on posers, politicians, and countless other forces of evil while his steel-jawed, Mohawked guitarist brother Pete, imposing drummer Armand Majidi, and ultrafocused bassist Craig Setari (aka Craig Ahead) lay down fierce, skull-battering blasts. Maybe Koller fits the Bruce Banner/Incredible Hulk paradigm as much as the Clark Kent/Superman one, but however you wanna look at it, Sick of It All is an undeniable hardcore superhero band with a bulletproof back catalogue and a reputation for frankness and integrity.
The band has held that status for nearly the entirety of its two-decade existence; though all of its members are rapidly approaching forty (which perhaps explains Koller's need for glasses), they show no signs of easing up or mellowing out, as evidenced by their particularly brutal ninth studio album, Death to Tyrants.
"We knew it was gonna be the twentieth anniversary record so we really wanted it to be our best one ever, and it definitely is," Koller says. It's tough to argue the point. Some fans (the purists, usually) may prefer the classic, no-budget aggression of 1989's Blood, Sweat, & No Tears; others might view 1994's thick, anthemic, exceptionally dark Scratch the Surface as the band's high point. But Tyrants is as unrelentingly heavy and passionate as any of their previous recordings. Fifteen clobbering songs in 33 minutes; raging riffs and rhythms that could intimidate the crap out of a US Marine Corps instructor; and Koller aiming his venomous roar at both the treacherous powers that be and the apathetic masses that enable them. Why are you still sleeping through these terrible times?/Disempowered slumber through the terrible crimes, he howls on "Machete."
Sure, Dubya's not gonna listen to the album and revamp his policies, and legions of punk rock kids aren't gonna march straight from Sick of It All shows to the White House to demand his impeachment, but Koller sees a point in the gestures. "Maybe it will have some kind of effect, and for us it's a really good outlet for what we're feeling at the time just being able to write it and get it out makes me feel better and gives me more confidence," he says.
After twenty years, confidence is high for this tour, Koller says. He's proud of the fact that Sick of It All developed into the tight, energetic, self-assured live act for which it's renowned, because the band makes its living on the road, not through album sales.
"It's always been feast or famine with us," he says of the group's business tribulations. "People always wonder why bands only last a year or four years it took us seven and a half years until we could quit our day jobs. You'd do a huge show in New York in front of two thousand people, and then you'd have to get up the next day at 6 a.m. to make it to work, and you didn't know what to do because you had no money."
The reward for having stuck it out and doing it their way is current financial comfort, but certainly not affluence. Koller won't lie he'd love a bigger payday, and he laughs when I bring up the fact that so many people say of the band, "Sick of It All may not be rich but they never sold out," or something to that effect.
"Pete always says that whenever people come up to us going, 'You guys are such a big influence, you guys have so much integrity,' we should be like, 'Just give us twenty bucks.' That's fair enough."
Bank accounts can bounce in the hardcore world, but the new, unexpected X-factor on tour has become the body itself, which bounces less each time. "Only my gym-rat brother, Pete, remains indestructible," says Koller, who has a tweaked sciatic nerve in his back that occasionally acts up. Majidi and Setari have dealt with knee and back injuries in recent years as well. But hardcore cares not a whit for the ravages of time, and Sick of It All intends to soldier on, he says.
"As long as we can hold up physically, we'll keep doing it."
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