A TRIBUTE TO 1988: AN INTERVIEW WITH JEFF, JOHN & STEVE FROM UP FRONT

upfront

(Jim Eaton, Steve Keeley (SK in the interview), Jeff Terranova (JT) and Jon Field(JF))

A few months ago Ed did this great Smorgasbord Records column for the website and, if you are used to read some of the stuffs I post here you already know my year 1988 passion, when UP FRONT released their first LP “Spirit” on this same record company run by UF members. To me, this year is really fascinating concerning hardcore punk History because when I have a conversation with older pals who are into hardcore since the early days (around 1981/1982) and who aren’t straight edge (I mean, some of them could have been non-smoking or non-drinking individuals) they sometimes believe 1988 was the celebration of the “fall” of hardcore punk mainly because of the explosion of straight edge/youth crew bands and their almost puritan lifestyles and values you could red about reading the lyrics of their songs. It is not about the fact people decides not to drink or use drugs, it’s more because they remind how some straight edge “gangs” were intolerant towards other people, other bands. Plus, youth crew bands are known around the Internet because of their “positive lifestyle”, whereas some of nowadays younger straight edgers are definitely into some “you drink, you suck” mentality, which isn’t “posi” at all in my humble opinion. I was born in 1988, started listening to hardcore punk in the early 2000s, I just DON’T GIVE A FUCK about people’s choices and I don’t like to waste my time with stupid and boring people, whether they drink, smoke or do drugs. Life’s too short for constantely searching for the Truth or the right people to hang out with. Some people are interesting, including Steve, Jeff and Jon (former UP FRONT members) who nicely answered to my questions a few months ago. Thank you guys!

Jean

The first questions I’d like to ask you mostly deal with the “aura” of year 1988; I was born this year so I started learning things about punk rock and hardcore during late 90s and early 00s which means all I know about that time is always distorted by some “Internet” rumors or, worst, by older people coming from my hometown and my country who think hardcore was already dead in 1988 because of the straight edge, youth crew:

– How old were you in 1988? What were your different occupations back then and what were your life expectations which would explain why listening & playing hardcore punk seemed an appropriate life option?

JT: I was 19 years old in 1988. The first real job I got was in 1985 and it was at a key shop/engraving kiosk that used to exist inside Sears. I would make keys and engrave anything from desk plaques, pens, clocks, etc. I made a desk plaque that said Kerry King, that I put in the display case. After that, I worked at CVS as a cashier, stock person, and did pretty much anything else that my managers needed for me to do. The day that the Up Front “Spirit” LP’s arrived, Jon Field and Steve Keeley drove to pick up copies from Newark Airport in NJ and then drove straight to the CVS that I was working at and gave me a handful of copies in the front parking lot… that was a magical, once in a lifetime moment, that I will never forget.

JF: I was 20, and worked as a stock boy at Sears. Honestly, I didn’t really have any life expectations at that point. I loved music, and loved playing in Up Front, and that was enough for me. Work was just a way to make some money to spend on music.

SK: Jon and I worked in that Sears too, but in ‘88 I was working in the movie theater in the mall. By then my only life expectations were to be a filmmaker and meet a nice girl. The hardcore music was what I was into, the scene I was into and felt a part of. Never really thought of it long-term, just tried to have fun while it lasted I guess.

– Before releasing “Spirit” (and even before you put out your 1987 demo), your website tells us you were “heavily influenced by the straight edge bands of the early to mid eighties […]” you “played covers of AGNOSTIC FRONT, UNIFORM CHOICE, 7 SECONDS & CRIPPLED YOUTH […]”. I’ve often met people who definitely seemed to be fond of the same influences than you but it also seems that, according to them, on the basis of some statements reported or lyrical contents, these bands weren’t “hardcore anymore”…
I’m almost 28yo now and I still hear crap like that, like these straight edge and then youth crew bands nipped in the bud the hardcore thing with the “posi-mentality”. Was it something you felt back in the days? What “straight edge” and being straight edge meant to you?

JT: Back in 1989 sxe was a huge part of my existence. Though I and the other members of Up Front were not militant about our views and attitudes, it was a big part of who we were and who we fit in with. By the late 1980’s, AF, UC and 7 Seconds were definitely writing and recording songs that evolved greatly from their earlier and previous albums, but we still enjoyed them and continued to see them play live.

JF: I think there was definitely a bit of a backlash against the SE/Positive bands back then. Some people felt the look and/or the “clean living” professed by bands then wasn’t hardcore or punk. It sounds like maybe your experience has been a bit more harsh than what we experienced though. For me, SE was more of a natural thing. I wasn’t into smoking or drugs, and wasn’t big on drinking before I heard of SE, so it just seemed a natural fit. I still feel the same today, it’s not really a conscious effort, it’s just who I am.

SK: Jeez I dunno, it’s best to just judge shit on the quality of the material. If you’re not into it you’re not into it, but don’t be afraid to let a band try new things. New Wind is probably my favorite 7 Seconds album, and it wouldn’t even exist if they were too scared to change up their sound a little bit.

– Who designed “Spirit” record sleeve and UP FRONT logo? Who, maybe unconsciously, suggested this cover must feature these graffiti elements, this brick wall and some details like the Xs on the hands, the hoodied sweatshirts, caps and sneakers, and would influence entire generations of people following these street codes for decades?

JT: Russ Braun designed the artwork for the Spirit LP. Russ was a good friend of Scott Keeley, who is Steve’s brother and Russ and Scott would attend many of the same shows that Jon, Steve and I were at. Russ also designed the “Where The Kids Will Stand Together” t-shirt, so when Russ heard that we were recoding an album and had no ideas for the cover art, that is what Russ came up with.

JF: Actually, I had the original idea for the cover. We first went to an abandoned building to try out a photo shoot, but it didn’t feel at all like what I wanted. Enter Russ. I wanted the kids in the drawing to have the same look all of us and our friends had, and since Russ frequently went to shows with us at the time, he drew them wearing the style he was used to seeing.

– Where did you record “Spirit”? 

JT: The studio was called River Street Studio in New Haven, CT.

JF: We had heard a demo that our friends in Aware had made there, so that’s how we chose it.

– It took only two days (September 3rd and 4th of 1988), how did you manage to do it that fast?

JT: Honestly, we had no choice. Chris Daily from Smorgasbord Records borrowed money from his girlfriend’s father and we had just enough to cover the two full day sessions at the studio. They were two very long days, but despite the rush and long hours, we had a lot of fun recording the album.

SK: Nobody should record an album in two days, it’s ridiculous. Looking back on both the albums I did, I’d love to have had more time to work on em.

– Who was in charge of the recording? Did you know something in sound engineering before recording your first album? 

JT: The engineer was Glen Gallo and none of us had ever met him before entering the studio on the first day. The only thing that any of us knew about recording was when Mitch Mitchell (Robby Mitchell, the drummer in Wide Awake at the time, older brother) brought his 4-track over to an empty apartment in my mom’s basement and recorded our original demo. Also, the Sunday that Chris Daily rented out the Anthrax club in Norwalk, CT and Jeff R. recorded and mixed our tracts that appeared on the X Marks The Spot 7″ Compilation. So, no, we pretty much knew nothing at this point about recording, engineering or producing.

SK: If only we knew then what Tim knows now.

– Any funny stories about these recording sessions?

JT: Glen Gallo wasn’t very familiar with the style of music that we were playing, but he was serious about making sure that the recording had a good sound. Many times, we would play a song, or we would record an overdub thinking that Glen was recording it, but then Glen would look up and say “oh, you wanted me to record that”? It wasn’t funny at the time, it was actually very frustrating, but over time looking back, it is definitely funny. At one point, we were having trouble with everyone getting the back up vocals correct on the song Spirit, so at the end of the song Spirit, Steve says “Yes”, Chris Daily yells “we all suck” and I say “Dude, we got it”.

JF: I always remember that I put new guitar strings on the night before we recorded. I learned the hard way that when you do that, the strings have a tendency to “squeak” a lot. You can hear it all over the LP!

SK: Funny, I swear I don’t even know if a single photo exists from that weekend. Jeff, Jon? I just don’t remember ever seeing any so I’ve only got this vague memory of what the space looked like. Nothing specific. Too bad everybody left their iPhones in the van I guess.

– Why did you decide not to record another version of the song “Up Front” featuring on your 1987 demo? All the other songs featuring on “Spirit” appear on this demo tape!

JT: Well, the song “Up Front” from the demo tape actually became “Our Best” and the song “Growing Stronger” became the song “Up Front”. We just weren’t happy with the song Growing Stronger/Up Front. It wasn’t fun to play and we grew tired of it pretty quickly.

JF: Yeah, that song received giant pile-ons and singalong when we played it live, but none of us liked it anymore, so we decided not to record it.

– Between 1988 and 1989 there were four different pressings of “Spirit”, which can be considered as collectors items, the 1989 second press with red covers in particular because they were just 500 records released according to my Internet sources. Do you still own a copy of each one? What do you think of this typical current trend of collecting late 80s/straight edge/youth crew records and clothes? This is something really common on Instagram nowadays…

JT: I personally have one copy of each pressing in my collection. Record collecting was popular back in the 1980’s as well, it’s just that now with ebay, Instagram, blogs, etc, the market opened up to the entire world and the prices for the records increased significantly. Sometimes I see an eBay auction for an 80’s hardcore LP or band t-shirt and I think to myself how crazy it is that someone would pay that much money for it, but if that is what it is worth to the buyer and they can afford it, then more power to them.

JF: I still have a few copies of each pressing. Record and shirt collecting surprised me from the start. We never really looked at our scene at the time as anything that would be remembered, or really, anything that would end. We were all living in the moment. I remember seeing the Chung King Can Suck It LP on the wall in a NYC record store for $60 a few months after it came out. I couldn’t believe they were charging so much for it! If I only knew…A few years before Jeff paid $35 for one of the first two Minor Threat 7 inches, and we all laughed and made fun of him! The joke’s on us now, right?

SK: I may have a copy back home in NY, not sure. I was never a record collector, or an anything collector really. One day I sold most of my hardcore records to Malcom Tent, which is what you did back then over there. I’m not on instagram, but that’s funny that that’s a thing. I remember reading that Daily’s “Smor Instagram was poppin” and I laughed. I do wish I had some of my old shirts, but just cuz I like how they looked when I wore them. If somebody wants to pay like a thousand dollars for a JUDGE record on ebay, that’s their business. But it’s fucken’ dopey, let’s be real.

– In my humble opinion, “Spirit” is the most positive record ever released by a hardcore band: every song deals with making his best, giving a hand to anyone who needs it with what seems to be a non-violent purpose, even when you seem mad at the world (“One Step Ahead”) you make your best to be sure that when someone “sobers up and faces reality” and isn’t  “half the person he/she appeared to be”! What gave you this really open-minded way of seeing things?

JT: Jon, Steve and I are non-violent, positive people and I guess that naturally translated into our music and our message. We never consciously talked about making the band ultra-positive, but we did make a conscious effort to not use a lot of curse words in our message. There were a lot of bands at the time that overused the words Fuck, Fucking and Shit, we just felt that it was unnecessary.

JF: I think the three of us (the songwriters) really lived those lyrics. And for the most part, still do. We were definitely a bit optimistic and naive about life, as most teenagers are. We just wrote what we felt.

SK: Ha, Jeff’s answer is funny to me. I never remember making a conscious effort to not use a lot of curse words, but his memory’s better than mine so I guess we did. We all curse all the time though, so that seems weird. I’d have to go back through the record to be sure, but I think the songs I wrote were noticeably less posi than Jeff’s or Jon’s stuff. Jeff wrote all that stuff about “helping people”, at the time I was probably more just like hey get outta my face, I’m straight edge.

– What were you thinking about bands dealing with other subjects? For example, in 1987, POISON IDEA – which is the antithesis of a straight edge and positive band , nevertheless they’ll always be a legendary hardcore punk band in my opinion – released “War All The Time” on Alchemy Records. What was your thoughts about these bands focusing on the atrocities of humanity at that time? 

JT: Even though we were a sxe band, we still enjoyed seeing and playing with bands like Murphy’s Law, Breakdown, Ludichrist, Leeway, Raw Deal and Sick Of It All. Our message was a little different than theirs, but we were all from the same scene and ultimately supported the same core values. Plus remember, it’s us vs them. Us being the underground music scene and them being the rest of the world.

JF: When we first got into hardcore, we listened to bands like GBH, The Offenders, Stark Raving Mad, COC, DRI, etc. By the time we wrote the Spirit songs, our influences had changed to a lot of SE and NYHC bands. None of us really paid any attention to politics, human rights, etc. I think we were too young. It would take a few years before our lyrics/interests would move a bit in that direction.

SK: For me straight edge was a powerful thing in my life for a short, concentrated period of time so whatever I wrote for Spirit and anything else around that time is probably all about straight edge. Problem with that is it’s a very narrow scope. It’s funny that “War All the Time” is from 1987, because I saw the very same headline a few days ago. The VICE premiere on HBO this week ran stories on Boko Haram and human genetic engineering. So much going on. Climate change, animal abuse, the water in Flint, the methane gas leak out here in the valley, corruption everywhere you look, etc. Any band in hardcore today should be dealing with these things either instead of or in addition to whether or not they choose to drink or get high or whatever.

– Do you think being positive while singing angry lyrics back then was more like an approach to something more individual than social? I mean, you can deal with the atrocities of war and society’s failures but, can we think straight edge hardcore bands were dealing with individual mind issues rather than being pessimistic about human condition? 

JT: I think that from my perspective back in the late 1980’s, I was feeding my energy and positivity from the hardcore scene and the bands and friends that I surrounded myself with. Though I totally loved and appreciated bands like the Dead Kennedys, the Sex Pistols, Reagan Youth, Bad Religion and all the other bands that brought politics and the human condition to the forefront of their messages, I was never a political person. Maybe I lived in a dream or in a fantasy that a perfect utopian society could be possible. A place where people looked out for one another, supported one another. A place where unity and brotherhood/sisterhood was more important than bullshit politics.

JF: I think the bands of that time period definitely focused more on the individual in their lyrics. We definitely looked inward for inspiration more than outward. I think when vegetarianism became popular in the scene in ’88 and ’89 is when people started to shift their views away from singing about “me,” to singing/paying more attention to “them.” And for some reason, I think American hardcore bands in general concentrated a lot less on political lyrics in the 80s.

– Even when you shout angry lyrics like “Deliverance”‘s ones, the next song of the record (“New Leaf”) concludes its lyrics with the sentence “[…] ’cause I don’t want the next victim to be you”! This is very interesting in my opinion because when I have a chat with non-straight edge people, they often think people who do not use drugs and alcohol are some sort of preachers, judging the others. These sentence proves the contrary: UP FRONT were one of these straight edge band who try to look the youngsters. Do you think it is something which had united your fanbase and audience?

JT: I honestly don’t know if our lyrics are directly related to all of the kids who enjoy the album, but there were definitely non sxe kids who enjoyed Up Front the same way that sxe kids enjoyed Murphy’s Law.

Is that the reason why you named the record “Spirit”? I mean, not just because of the eponymous song featuring on it but it was clear that you guys had built some strong mentality and wanted to share this spirit to a larger audience, am I right?

JT: Spirit, the song and the album title, just seemed to make sense and we really felt that it captured the album as a whole. So yeah, I would say that your statement is correct.

– I would like to come back to the song “Deliverance”, have you ever noticed the introduction riff is practically the same than 1983 DIO’s “Holy Diver”? Pretty funny!

JT: Why yes, we are perfectly aware of that. Deliverance is one of the only songs that Steve wrote musically and by that, I mean Steve hummed the rhythms into a tape recorder, because Steve could not play guitar or bass. From that, Jon and I wrote the song as closely as we could to Steve’s recording. There were a few different versions along the way that did not flow very well, and we tried a few of them live, but the final version is what you hear on the Spirit LP. As Ronnie James Dio would say “Look Out”!

JF: Yeah, we noticed pretty early on that the way I interpreted that riff from Steve’s humming was close to Holy Diver. Since we were big metalhead before Up Front, and all three of us had and loved that album, I can’t really say which one of us is responsible for that!

– Got no further questions, thank you for your time! Final word?

JT: Thank you for talking to us! It was a lot of fun reminiscing about making the Spirit LP and how much it truly meant to us.

JF: Yes, thanks! I don’t think any of us thought people would still care about us/the LP almost 30 years after it was recorded. It’s great that it lives on…

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