Modern Problems are a relatively new Straight Edge Hardcore band out of Buffalo, New York with an obvious boner for No For An Answer/ Uniform Choice and boy do they NAIL that sound. 100 mph hard as fuck hardcore punk that still manages to sound fresh and aggressive despite the bands obvious affection for a specific style & sound. Frontman Jeremy Smith’s melodic vocals lend the whole thing a sense of urgent optimism whilst still sounding hard as fuck, definitely a case of the iron fist concealed within a velvet glove. I recently started putting together a fanzine called Harder They Fall ( an extended version of this interview is also featured there) and I decided to hit Jeremy up to talk about Modern Problems, Buffalo Hardcore, Straight Edge, Star Wars and everything in between. Here’s what the man had to say…
Jeremy, for readers who may not be familiar with you or your body of work please introduce yourself!
My name is Jeremy Smith. I’m 41 and I live in Buffalo, NY. I have been involved with the Buffalo Hardcore Scene since January 1991 and have been Straight Edge since that time. Before that, I went to a lot of death metal and thrash shows. I’m married with 2 beautiful daughters and my son is due in a few weeks. Most people know me as a loud mouthed guitar player and I used to fulfill that role in Childish Intent, Halfmast, Plagued With Rage, No Reason xxx, The Control, Dead Hearts and Old Ghosts. I currently write songs and sing in Modern Problems.
As a distant observer Buffalo Hardcore has always struck me as one of most consistently productive scenes over the years particularly in the 90’s. From Zero Tolerance through Halfmast, The Control, Despair, Slugfest up to now with Black X and Modern Problems…thats a strong pedigree. Has the scene there always been strong? Where does it take its strength from (by that i mean whats the social climate there, are there universities or colleges bringing a constant influx of fresh blood?) or is it the same guys holding it down year after year?
Buffalo is always strongest when there is either a consistent venue or like “the band” that bring everyone together. Venues attract likeminded people and bands provide the soundtrack, topic and inspire participation. Like most scenes it has it’s ebb and flow. Fresh new blood come from the lack of options in the city and the boredom of the suburbs… That need to seek out something vital, to be heard. Certainly there are a lot of older dudes around, but the people I see at the shows I go to are usually in their early 20’s
One of the things I’ve been pondering is how straight edge sometimes comes to mean different things to people as they grow older. Our perspectives and reasons for living that life are all unique. As an older edge-man tell me about YOUR straight edge. How did you discover it and what does it mean to you these days?
Straight Edge still means mostly the same thing it did to me when I “discovered” it in 1991. I was expressing to a friend of mine, Bob Brennon, who is a pretty intense dude, about how I felt like I “didn’t fit” with a lot of our peers who lived for woods parties and how I had tried smoking the summer the year before and it just wasn’t for me. He’s was like “DUDE, yeah. FUCK THAT SHIT! You’re Straight Edge!” He then had a bunch of straight edge stickers he had made in some class and gave me a bunch. I’ve always felt like I don’t quite “fit in” and my mind is the most important thing to me; how I experience things, how I react/ interact. I may not always be the best and communicating or interacting or making choices, but it was always ME making those decisions and doing those things. I think that is important.
I used to be semi- militant about straight edge and I only wanted to associate myself with clear minded sober people but that was 20 years ago! Now I think it’s just for me and a part of me, I have friends who aren’t sober and that’s ok; it takes all types. I think if people want to imbibe substances for recreation, go ahead as long as you’re smart about it and it’s not ruining lives. It’s when it takes toll on people outside one’s own existence I take exception and think that it’s fucked.
There was a small core of dudes (myself and Boardman included) in the UK who LOVED Halfmast back in the mid 90’s. We did some distro for Nick Baran and got a hold of the Third Party newsletter regularly and developed something of an obsession with Buffalo and Connecticut hardcore. Beyond our circle Halfmast always seemed like a lesser known band despite you guys being one of the first bands to bring back the classic sound that became hugely popular again around 1997. How do you feel about Halfmast nowadays? Was it a tough band to be in? How were you received outside of Buffalo? Are you still in contact with the other members?
Ah, Halfmast. Aside from Buffalo and Chicago, Halfmast went mostly unnoticed. We did put in a lot of weekends and tours, but I don’t think we “cracked the code” song wise until the “Status” Cassette we did in 1995. There was a huge learning curve with that band- a lot of trial and error and I wore my HC influences on my sleeve pretty heavy then. I will be honest, it was a tough band to be in because we put in a lot of work and no one cared, I mean NO ONE. We had a love for the band and HC and the band was together a long time, but by the time we were writing, playing and recording good songs- we were on our way out. Nick and I got into an altercation with each other on tour and the band was done. This all happened right as the record Deny Their Vision was coming out. It took a long while, but Nick and I are great friends again and have been for many years. Yes, we are all still friends- we could do a full band reunion with all straight edge members tomorrow with any combination of 2 drummers, 2 bass players, 2 guitar players or 3 guitar players and one drummer… My brother, Eric, Jay and Farside all still play together in Black X. I think that’s cool.
I think Halfmast is OK. There’s good stuff and bad stuff, we were never “cool” guys… we were dorks from Buffalo who really liked Insted and Chain of Strength when everyone else wanted to play Slayer mosh. I look back at most of it fondly and some of it just makes me want to forget the band ever existed.
Lets talk about Star Wars. You are not shy about your love for the original trilogy and I’ve explored those movies a lot within this zine. Tell me about your first experience with the original trilogy and the impact it had upon you as a kid?
I saw Star Wars when I was 3 years old in the theater. My friend John always puts it best, so I will paraphrase him, “ I liked Star wars before I even knew what it was.” And I think guys in my age group know what that means. It was something so imaginative and the story was so well crafted and presented that the world needed it. My generation NEEDED that first film. It showed me that anyone can be something greater, even a whiny kid from nowhere. ANYONE can be great. And that being a back talk prick like Han is cool, if you can back it up with enough smarmy confidence.
I think Empire is the Star Wars universe fully realized. The grand scope of the Hoth battle to the intimacy of the Leia/Han story and Luke’s quest for his destiny. The shocker ending… Lando’s betrayal… Carbonite… DARTH VADER IS LUKE’S FATHER? How does a 6 year old even process that?
To me, the series starts to go off the rails with Jedi… Leia being Luke’s sister (too convenient), Ewoks, all that super goofy C3PO stuff. But man all the stuff with the Empire and the space battle is incredible. I rarely watch Jedi though anymore. I still quote all three movies all the time and I HATE when people don’t get the reference.
I have to say Modern Problems (Chevy Chase fan per chance?) ‘Foolish Times” is one of my favourite demos right now, a real breath of fresh air. I can’t stop listening to it…super catchy, genuinely pissed off with HUGE Uniform Choice/ No For An Answer vibes. As far as I’m aware you’ve always been a guitarist in your other bands..I mean this with total respect, you’ve got to be knocking on forty ( I am 38 myself)….why pick up the mic now? Was vocalizing something you always had a hankering to do?
Thanks for the kind words ( I got the name from the NEG FX song, I HATE CHEVY CHASE). I just missed “That sound” ya know? I had always been in band were my voice wouldn’t work for the style. My natural singing voice is high and almost has a hair metal quality to it, I had sung in a band called XNevermoreX in 1993 but my voice really couldn’t hack that Infest vs. Chokehold meets Integrity style. I wanted to play that more singy classic HC without being overly melodic or wimpy. Hard doesn’t have to mean breakdowns and crew shout outs. Hard is a presentation an intensity; it’s about being effective in a manner most music can’t be. I wanted to do a band in that realm, so I wrote some songs… 14 to be exact. The 6 on the demo, the 3 on Foolish Time and 5 that are on the next EP, Identity.
I like that you identify ‘hard’ as a level of intensity rather than a set of clothes or a posture to be assumed, I get that. With older guys in the band, presumably with all manner of career and family responsibilities is MP more of a vent for you all rather than a vessel to tour and do all the other stuff you did in the past? That sense of release is the one thing I miss about playing music, the explosive release of energy and the feeling that I can breathe again afterward..
Like I said, I mean hard as more of an intensity, a focus. Modern Problems initially was going to just be myself and my friend Eric, recording the songs and that was it; but right away I felt the inherent energy in what I was writing. Eric and I couldn’t sync up our schedules (he’s a busy guy and in a lot of bands aside from being in Healer and Black X) I just decided to make it a band. I have a career and am married with kids, I can’t speak for the other guys, they’re all younger than I, but I feel the vitality in those things, as well as my involvement with hardcore. They’re all kind of facets of the same thing in that they’re fulfilling in a profound way. Certainly, in a way, hardcore provides that “release” you’re speaking of regarding performing or participating at a show, it can be very cathartic; but in the past I think touring and playing in a band that was “out there doing it,” so to speak, was kind of back filling my ego and need for attention. I’ve written a lot of songs in my 24 years of involvement with the hardcore scene, but at the end of the day I have to examine myself and really be honest regarding my motivation.
I’ve always just wanted people to pay attention to me, which is kind of what I was lacking growing up a latch key kid in the homogeneous suburbs. Being an average kid from an average school with average parents in an average neighborhood was not exciting at all. Drugs and alcohol were not appealing and finding music I think really saved me in a way and by continuing to tap into that excitement and staying involved keeps me centered. I have a great family that is unique in the sense that it is “my family” and no one else’s but there a force that drives me and directs me to hardcore and it’s not nostalgia. It’s an honest connection with the music and energy that I am compelled to still write and participate in. Does this make sense? I mean, I know what I mean, but sometimes it comes out a little off the mark…
In 1993/94 Nick from Halfmast and I went on a road trip to Ohio to see two Bloodlet shows. He was doing his distro as well as Third Party Records at the time and we went to A LOT of out of town shows. The first of these shows was a matinee at like a conference room/ hall at a Best Western Hotel in Canton. It was a really mixed crowd of young like “ska punk” kids, straight edge kids and straight up nazi skins, a lot of them. There was a weird tension the whole night, though everyone was kind of keeping to themselves. I remember to pay for the road trip I brought records that I had doubles of or didn’t really dig: The Warzone 7” the Sick of it All 7” on red, Inside Out on blue… sold them for $10 a pop. I also remember buying the first Born Against 7” at the show early in the gig. ANYWAY, Bloodlet was supposed to headline but not all of the band that was supposed to play before them, Splinter, was there yet…
During Bloodlet’s set thing started to get a little heated. They came out wearing the Star of David on their fists where most people would wear an X. The skins didn’t notice at first, but when they did, the tension went up a notch and you could tell it was only a matter of time before things were going to boil over, but Bloodlet’s set went without incident. Splinter set up and right before their first song, the guitar player says something to the effect of “When I couldn’t find the place and calling here for directions from a pay phone, someone picked up the phone and yelled ‘white power’ and hung up, FUCK WHITE POWER and FUCK YOU!” with that, they started the song, which they got about 15 seconds into until all hell broke loose and some of the skins stormed the stage to stomp him. The whole place erupted into violence immediately. I saw a skin take a bat to the face and it just made an ungodly sound when his head split open. EVERYONE in the place was fighting, except me, this little kid with an Anti-Racist Action patch (he was maybe 14) and the guys at the merch tables. Soon enough a skin starts wailing on the kid with the ARA patch. So I step in. In my mind’s eye, I remember popping him and pulling off the kid and throwing the dude like 700 feet through the hall, but in reality, I think I punched him and pulled him off the kid, which gave the opportunity for another skin to hit me in the breadbasket a few times, HARD. The hardest I’ve ever been hit in my fucking life. At that, I was done. I got over to Nick’s distro table and was like “We’ve got to get the fuck outta here!” We got to his car right as a million cop cars came streaming into the lot. We stayed at the guys from Splinter’s place that night, the guitar player showed up at like 2am after getting discharge from the hospital. Unrelated, the next night Mean Steve and Chubby Fresh showed up at the show to beat up Abnegation, who the promoter paid to not play and just drive home. What a fucking weird ass state Ohio is or rather, was.
Tracks like Denial and Sorry both seem to be addressing the behaviours of specific individuals, is there a particular story behind those songs or are they an amalgamation of people and incidents?
Denial is about the face of alcohol addiction. How it can sometime just change a person before our eyes, making them very, very evil. I’m not the kind of person who hate people who drink a beer or have a glass of wine with their dinner, people can live how they choose. BUT when imbibing to excess an when one’s action directly and negatively impact other’s lives, that’s when I start to take exception. Many times, people we love are aware that it literally changes them, but they don’t get the help they need, I needed to rant a little about that.
Sorry, we all have a friend or two that the subject matter of Sorry is about. Unmotivated people who always look outward and blame outward for their problems and take it out on the ones close to them. I think a little introspection would serve them best, but instead their content with taking it out on those around them. I used to be one of those people and now I recognize when it’s being done to me and it fucking sucks, man.
Bounty Hunters…Boba Fett will always have the cool style but out of the other scums on the deck of the Executor…who’s best?
I think Zuckuss and 4- Lom have a sick style as well. But I have to go with Dengar Roth. I’ve always thought I was a Han Solo, but in actuality, I’m a Dengar, it that makes any sense. I’ve never been a headline guy, even though I wanted to be- I’m the weird fat guy in the background, it’s my lot in life.
Usually it’s not until we are older and have the joy of hindsight that we come to understand that certain times or moments were special or life changing. Looking back over your time in the trenches what has been the most personally memorable show you’ve played and similarly a show that you’ve attended that left a big impression for better or worse?
Well, I’ve already talked about a negative show, so I’ll talk about a few positives! The first time Halfmast played Chicago. People were legitimately into us and we made a lot of friends. All of which I still consider friends to this day. I absolutely love Chicago because of all of my experiences there since 1993/94 have involved friends and shows. Dead Hearts had a lot of great shows, but we played one in Rosswein that was one for the books and until our last show, was the greatest show we’d ever played.
When The Control was a relatively new band, we played a basement in Chicago with No Justice, we actually played a bunch of shows with them in the short time they were around. Their level of intensity was inspiring. I remember saying to our singer- whatever it’s takes, you have to find that in you, your intensity at that level. It helped us be a better band, though never near as devastating live as they were.
I had no idea you were in Plagued With Rage….I’m guessing you guys never played much outside of Buffalo? I always thought the cover for that 7” was so cool, very unusual in that day and age almost melancholic. What inspired that design? Also I remember seeing the pics in the demo and thinking the band seemed to spend half the set in mid air, how did Plagued With Rage finish up?
My brother (vocals) and Jay (guitar) jumped around a lot. They wanted a second guitar player to “hold it down” while Jay did his mad man jumping thing. I wasn’t 100% into being in that band, I thought they were great and I wrote some music and some lyrics for them and played shows with them, but it wasn’t “my” band it was my brother and cousin’s band. I actually quit a few times and then saw them play and was like “fuck you guys are great, let me back in!” It was tough for me because more people liked them than Halfmast, a band I was putting a lot of work into, plus I was like 20 and those guys were all 13-16 so there was a bit of a disconnect between they and I sometimes. Jay was moving to Chicago to be with his girlfriend (now ex-wife) who he had met when he was in Halfmast so we played one last show. At every show my brother and Jay would switch places and Jay would sing Distance while my brother played guitar. At the last show, I got to switch with my brother and sing Together by Youth of Today and our song, Believe. I remember introducing the songs “You may not like me, but you’ve got to fucking believe!” and people were really into it.
PWR did a reunion show a few years back, I didn’t participate even though they were all still friends of mine. I didn’t play the show because my cousin and the drummer were no longer straight edge and even though I’ll go see bands that pull that kind of reunion trip, I didn’t want to be involved with it. I left before they played. Probably a dick move, but I felt it was what was best for me. Jay is in Harms Way and still does those fucking awesome jumps- they even just made a video showing off their sweet moves!
What can we expect next from Modern Problems? Will Foolish Times ever see a vinyl release?
Next up is the Identity 5 song CSEP. That will be out in April. The local Punk/ HC record store here called Black Dots has an imprint and wanted to do a release and working with people we know, first and foremost, is important to me. Vinyl, who knows? The demo 7” is out soon as well. I’d like to do a 12” with the Foolish Times and Identity eps on it someday (EDIT: Since this interview was completed, DroidXRage allies Not Like You Records/Fanzine have announced they will be releasing a 12″ with all of Modern Problems recorded material to date!!! Don’t sleep.) We’re playing the King of the Monsters fest in AZ with Crudos and Infest in August and will do a couple West Coast dates tied into that. Some East Coast stuff over the summer too. Drew is in Malfunction and Casper is in KDC and those bands tour a bit, so we can only play if at least one of them is around, or find a fill in on guitar. That plus my responsibilities limit the amount of touring we can do, but we’ll be getting some weekends in.
Thanks for your time Jeremy, the final words are yours..
Thanks. This was a lot of fun, thanks for taking the time to let me ramble.
The title track from our new ep can be heard HERE
(All photos cadged from Modern problems Facebook page cheers!)