Thursday, July 5, 2012

Looking Back; An Interview with Gavin Van Vlack

Shortly after attending the very disappointing opening night of the movie 
"American Hardcore" I set out to interview a number of people who, for me, helped define my experience on the NYHC scene during my early years. I found the movie had almost completely omitted the stories of those that participated in what was happening musically in New York City. That could have come down to the time frame covered or perhaps the writers own experience. Whatever the case, I felt I needed to seek out some of the characters whose music and mere presence helped to shape this wide eyed kid to here their personal stories and feelings on that very formidable time.  One afternoon I arranged to meet Gavin at Five Points Fitness where was a trainer on Broadway off of Canal street. As I sat and waited I gazed at the television which was playing a video of some of the East Asian kickboxing matches. As I gazed at the pictures and profiles of the trainers I began to question my decisions to meet this somewhat intimidating character from my past. Within a few minutes Gavin emerged from the back room. He smiled and extended his hand 
“James Unite, how are you?” Whatever trepidation or insecurity I may have felt quickly faded from my consciousness. I found him to be a very warm, mindful person with a quick wit and sense of humor. Amongst the sound of gym members pounding heavy bags and workout music blaring in the background I got to know the person who's riffs helped shape my taste in music. Gavin's band Absolution are currently in the studio working on a new record. Hopefully, we'll be getting a taste of what's to come soon. Until then... James Damion

James: What kind of musical background did you have prior to being involved with Hardcore?

Gavin: I was brought up on a lot of Classical and Jazz. Artists like Miles Davis,
Charlie Christian, Wes Montgomery and a lot of artists like that. I was also brought up on a lot of Classical.

James: That’s interesting considering how raw an art form Hardcore is. Coming from that musical background it’s hard to see how this music would gel for you.

Gavin: Well, the whole thing with music is the feeling and the color of it. If you listen to a lot of the music today. There are so many symphonic sounding riffs. If you listen to any cello parts or strings in classical music. It is really raw and jagged. The great thing about  Jazz or the Blues is that it’s raw. It came from the heart.  Not like say Kenny G. A lot of people tell me “Gavin, you’re just old and jaded” But to me a lot of today’s Hardcore is sort of what Kenny G is to Jazz. It’s like watching kids play with dolls.

James: What were some of the bands that got you going to shows and the elements that drew you to Hardcore?

Gavin: At the time you just had to be down with the Cro-mags.  It was like if you weren’t down with them you weren’t going to live to long. Of course there were the Bad Brains and Antidote. Bands that were just so heavy like Damage and Cause for Alarm. We were all just misfits who kind of fit in.
After a while it took on a sort of “Lord of the Flies” likeness. I think it was also that a lot of us came from a background where we didn’t really have a family module. But sometimes people look at it like it was just all these street kids. Mark Ryan from Supertouch was this suburban kid who at 13 years old was taking the train into the city to hang out. It was because he wasn’t satisfied with what his home town gave him. People always talk about the city kids but there were a lot of people like Mark. Jimmy G. was more of a city kid from Queens but there were others like Robbie Crypt Crash and Keith Burkhardt from
Cause for Alarm. They were people who gravitated towards the city.

James: Tell me about the NY Hoods. They were somewhat of a launching point for me.
One of the bands I started seeing early on.

Gavin: I was homeless and working the door for this topless strip bar. My only skill was really being a musician. I was working at this nightclub and I remember seeing this flyer. Band looking for guitarist. I said to myself “Fuck it. A gig’s a gig.” So I jumped in to it. It was great for what it was. There were definitely a difference in musical opinions and we wanted things to go. They were a lot more straight forward with what they wanted to do. They were like a lot of Queens bands. They had that rock edge. Kind of the way Token Entry was. That was the Queens style. They were just a little more conservative in the way they went about things. Myself, I was a lot more reckless. I was a lot more experimental. It was the way I lived.

James: At one point in time there was supposed to be a split album with the band Krakdown. How did you guys become friends with them?

Gavin: The guys from Krakdown were good friends of mine. We hung out and went to shows together. Me and Jay had the same attitude “Don’t cross us.” We were just kids trying to prove ourselves. The Krakdown guys knew the Hoods because Bobby’s brother played in Token Entry. So we were all in this community together. The guys from the NY Hoods ended up putting out an EP that was out for about a second. I don’t know what happened with the split. As for the Hoods. We still cross paths every now and then. I run into Kevin every now and then. Just out of the blue. I have no idea what Bobby is doing. I think Mike became a cop.

James: Were you in Side by Side at the same time as the NY Hoods?

Gavin: Yes, I was living with Billy from Side by Side. I was playing with both bands. I quit Side by Side out of loyalty to the Hoods. Then I got thrown out of the Hoods. After that I got into some legal problems that I don’t want to talk about.
I kind of left town for a while. While I was away there were a lot of people talking shit about me. The whole time I was gone there was one person who had my back the whole time was Jules from Side by Side.
He went up against some people who at the time were pretty big figureheads in the Hardcore Scene. Because I wasn’t around I was easy to blame for a lot of shit that had gone down. When I came back about five months later everything had changed so much. That’s when I started Absolution.
James: Back then you had a reputation as a tough guy. Someone who would kick your teeth in if you looked at him wrong. Was that image more perceived or was that reality?

Gavin: It was very real at the time. I am very much an iconoclast. I don’t like pack mentalities. If I see five guys fucking with a kid. I am going to fuck with them.

James: There were certain people back then that you just knew to stay clear of. You were one of those people who looked like he was going to kick someone’s ass even when you were smiling. I talk to you now and I see a different person.

Gavin: A lot of it is size. I’ve seen guys like John Joseph take out three guys twice his size. I’ve seen Harley take on guys way bigger than him. Richie Birkenhead who no one would think of. I’ve seen Richie bring people to the brink of death. He’s one of those ultimate nice guys. But if you cross him. You better watch out. He’s one of the nicest, most intellectual, open and honest people you’re ever going to meet.  Just don’t cross him. I’ve seen the bully’s and I’ve seen the tough guys. I had this personality where I’d be “okay, let’s go.”
But that was the 80’s and New York was a much different town. I was very much a different person.

James: We’re a few blocks away from the Lower East Side now. There’s no comparing the way it is now to the way it was in the early 80’s.

Gavin: The city that we live in is a city of ghosts.

James: What would you consider the pinnacle of New York Hardcore?

Gavin: For me it was 1985-1990. I say that knowing my time in Burn came after that.
But when I was in Burn I despised the Hardcore scene.

James: At the time did you feel that it was something that was going to last?

Gavin: I didn’t care. I was always the kind of guy that was interested in what was next.
I didn’t think it would last because I knew the people who were at the wheel were full of shit. There were people who were screaming about unity and not selling out. There was so much bullshit. When you get down to’s music. How can someone criticize someone for making money from their art? There were also people who were trying to push their political agendas. There were a lot of people shouting “We’re about this.” Then I questioned “Well then, why do you do that?” There were just a lot of hypocrites. I think there was just a time when we thought we had it all down and we just didn’t. I think it’s unrealistic to think anything is going to last. To think that we’d be fifty years old and still doing that. It’s pretty pathetic. You just have to evolve. Stagnation is one of the worst things you can do.
That insanity of running in circles. That’s the definition of insanity. Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

James: There were a lot of outside elements that came into hardcore in the mid to late 80’s. Do you think any of them particularly led to the demise of that era?

Gavin: I think it was change. A lot of people can point to gangs but for me to say I am against gangs is to say I’m against kids organizing. You can say religion but there’s a very strong difference between Religion and Spirituality. Religion is for people who are afraid to go to hell. Spirituality is for people who’ve been there. As far as Metal goes.... Fuck, Hardcore came out of Metal. Music doesn’t discriminate. People are afraid of change. There always that “You don’t look like me.” attitude. Which everyone is guilty of. It sucks that someone like a skinhead would discriminate against someone because they have long hair. Or a punk would discriminate against a kid who was straightedge. It sucks. Music doesn’t discriminate. Listen to the Blues and you’ll see. People can talk about Skrewdriver but to me that’s not music. It’s idiots playing instruments.

James: We talked about bands all starting to sound the same. When I first heard Absolution I thought these guys sound different than anything coming out these days. It doesn’t even sound like anything I’ve ever heard. Was that something you were going for? Were you looking to break from the pack?

Gavin: Yes, absolutely. I was sick of Hardcore. I despised Hardcore. That was my vengeance against what had become so homogenous.
To me there was so much more to do. Someone once told me that Absolution and Burn were the cornerstones of Emo. (laughter erupts)

James: What the fuck? I’ve never heard anything close to that.

Gavin: When I think of Emo I think of Rites of Spring and Embrace. With Absolution I wanted something different. I’d been away from New York for so long. I came back and had gone to a couple of shows. I thought “What the Fuck happened? This sucks.” It was all Gray Champion sweatshirts. I wanted to take the energy from that and make something new.
I remember people saying that I was a great guitarist and TC3 (Tom Capone) was a great guitarist. I would point to Vic from Nausea and say “None of us could tie his fucking shoe laces.” Such a great guitarist and a really humble guy.

James: What led to the end of Absolution?

Gavin: I was an ass and i quit. I just didn’t like the direction the band was going in.
I was just on a lot of drugs.

James: How did drugs and alcohol effect your life.

Gavin: It works for a while. (laughs) it gave me a certain edge at that time in my life.
After a while it just stopped working for me. When I did the Die 116 Dynacool record, my God, there was so much cocaine and we were drinking like.......

James: Not a spiritual thing.

Gavin: (laughs) No, not at all. But that was the thing. We drank and we wrote music.
 That was it.

James: Did you feel you had to be angry or fucked up to write. Did you feel you had to draw from these dark experiences?

Gavin: It comes from different places but there’s something about dipping into depression to write a song. But there’s also that resolution that helps you dig yourself out of it. I definitely hit the bottom. I had to change my life. I moved to L.A. and I stopped drinking and started living better. I started doing the band Big Collapse. I was working as a trainer and I had lost everything. I needed a change. I needed to get my life together. Getting back to Absolution and Burn. I was just in a very dark time in my life. There was a time when I believed in the Hardcore scene. I just found out that it was all fucking lies. I was looking for the truth in all the wrong places. There was just so much dishonorable shit going on. So many people who were screwing each other over. What drove me away was not the idealism. It was the realization.

James: As an outsider looking in it seemed that you and Chaka had a very special friendship.

Gavin: We dealt with Burn on a business kind of relationship. We came to a point where we just didn’t want to deal with each other. There was a lot of tension between us. I ran into him on the street recently and I still felt that tension. I could never hate him but our relationship is like surviving a plane crash.

James: I talk to a lot of people who site Burn as their all time favorite Hardcore band. I listen to that first EP on a daily basis. It still moves me.
Gavin: Wow, that’s insane.

James: The band recently released two more EP’s. One containing new material. Is there a chance of a
Burn Discography?

Gavin: We’re working on that right now. There are going to be some early demos with the drummer from Life’s Blood and basically all the material we released. It’s in the works.
As for a reunion that would be up to me and Chaka if we wanted to play any shows. I get calls all the time about a reunion and it’s doable. Nothing these days is impossible. It would just come down to whether or not Chaka and I want to do it. Music is the closest way you can come to immortality.
Orson Well’s once said “there should be no artists,only their art.”. I would say that most people like my music because my music is much more clearer than I am. People ask about Burn a lot. We were just four kids trying to survive and not kill each other. We were always fighting and arguing but what mattered most was the music.

James: How did you become interested in Buddhism and how does it relate to what your doing now?

Gavin: It actually started with muay thai  kickboxing. It’s something i teach now. A friend of mine trained in Nepal. When he came back I trained with him. He was very much into the Buddhist culture. I started reading and it just made sense to me. It made sense out of absolute chaos. I try to make it a part of my life. I’m trying to leave as positive a footprint on people lives and on this world as possible. Utah Phillips said “we have all these rules, we have a constitution, we have all these religions. When it comes down to it there’s good and theirs bad. Good people don’t need it and bad people don’t pay attention to it. If you feel  like you shouldn’t be doing something. You probably shouldn’t.

James: Has Buddhism helped you deal with some of the demons from your past?

Gavin: it’s all about acceptance and solutions. If you can’t accept the problems and the pain in your life.  You better find a solution.

James: Are you more at peace with yourself now?

Gavin: Yes, I can say I am. I get annoyed at myself when I slip into old ways of thinking. Those are patterns of behavior. My life’s better than it’s ever been. I have this great work environment. I work in shorts and a tee shirt. The people I work with are awesome.
They're all great people who have been in the industry for a long time. This is not your average run of the mill gym.

James: Has your experience in Hardcore helped to shape you? Has it had an indelible effect on your life and the way you live it today?

Gavin: Absolutely, yes. I would not be the person I am today without it. It taught me a lot about life. I try to think I am a guy that can be relied on and trusted. There was a point in my life when I didn’t trust people. That was the way I got by. It took those experiences to shape me. Make me a better person.

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