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Lou Koller (Sick Of It All)

Interview with Lou Koller from Sick Of It All
by Paul Carr at 02 December 2016, 12:13 AM

Lou Koller is tired. 30 years fronting Hardcore legends SICK OF IT ALL will do that to you, but it’s not that that is making him tired. “I was looking forward to the tour so I could sleep til soundcheck!”. It’s easy to forget that, while devoting yourself to a band might be all-encompassing when on tour, it can also mean that life outside the band including spending time with family, doing the school run and fixing up the house has to be fitted around the traditional touring cycle. That is why Lou is tired. Tired he may be, but the sacrifices he has made has seen him lead the band to a highly significant milestone. A milestone few bands get to reach. 30 years since their formation the band have hit the road to celebrate. Vocalist Lou Koller allows himself the time to reflect on what keeps the band going, which albums they can’t stand and discuss their fantastic new EP, "When The Smoke Clears".

For a band like SICK OF IT ALL, touring is their lifeblood. Fortunately, they have always had a solid following in Europe and in other places around the world, as Lou explains, “Europe is probably where we are most popular. South American crowds are very passionate. Same as South East Asia. Indonesia has probably one of the biggest hardcore scenes in the world. It’s amazing.” With this being a momentous year for the band, it’s reassuring to know that this tour is going better than ever. “We knew it was going to be good but we are selling out because we are playing much smaller venues for the anniversary so it’s going really good.”

There is no denying that 30 years is a long time for any band to stay together but it is unheard of for a hardcore band to have anywhere near that kind of longevity. Naturally, a lot has changed for Lou in the intervening years. The most significant change being becoming a father. Something that makes touring a lot more difficult than it was in the early days: “It’s hard. Now she (his daughter) is a lot older, she grasps the concept of time a lot more. Now she hears I’m away for 2, 3 weeks and it’s just devastating to her. I have to remind her that when I come home I’m with her 24 hours a day.” As one would expect, being a family man has changed his approach to lyric writing. “If anything there is more concern about what we have going on around us. You hope for a future for your kids but when you start reading articles about the environment or the economy. You just think these people are going to run us into the ground before my kids are 20 years old.”

The 30 year anniversary has seen the band release a lavish coffee table book as well as their new EP. Lou was unsurprisingly delighted with the result: “It’s like getting a gold watch when you retire! I was really excited to get the book. To us it’s fun looking at the pictures laughing at each other, laughing at ourselves. Some of old roadies and old friends.” The band also features quotes from other bands who have toured with them or been inspired by them such as AFI's Davey Havok, HOT WATER MUSIC’s Chuck Ragan, GORILLA BISCUITSArthur Smilios and DROPKICK MURPHY’S' Matt Kelly. There is such good will for the band that they even had to leave some testimonials out: “There  were other people who wrote things but we didn’t have room to use their stuff, like Tom Araya from SLAYER. We’ll save that for something. We might release a 7” with a booklet and Tom’s words in there.”

One of the most touching and inspiring stories came from Dennis Lyxzen, lead singer with Swedish hardcore legends REFUSED, who, as a teenager, spent 16 hours on a train to go and see the band play; an experience Lou can relate to. “We took a train to Long Island to see MOTORHEAD. First show of their "Another Perfect Day" tour. Pouring rain. Waited outside and out walks Lemmy and he talked to us for 3 hours. Just bullshitting with 5 teenage boys. He wasn’t running after the girls he just wanted to talk shit. We missed our train and had to sleep on an outdoor train platform.” The band even found out that they have one unexpected fan, “We met the singer of DISTURBED. We were on like a festival bill together and Craig turned around and said “isn’t that the singer from DISTURBED on the side of the stage?” and i’d be like what would he be doing watching us. When we finished our set he comes over and said "When I was a kid in Chicago I went to see you guys and KORN and you blew me away and you’re even better today." This is guy in this big successful band was inspired by us to some extent.”

Understandably, the dawning of such a landmark year has seen the band in a reflective mood. When looking back at their early recorded output, Lou is openly critical. “The first album, we love the songs but we hate the performances of them as we didn’t know what we were doing in the studio. The one we criticise the most is our second album (1992’s "Just Look Around"). We tear it apart. We barely play any songs off it as we all have different aspects of songs that we hate.” He counters by saying “Everything we’ve done on century media is miles better than what we’ve done in the past. “Scratch The Surface” is a good song, one of the best we ever wrote but it doesn’t compare to "Death to Tyrants" or "Last Act of Defiance". It doesn’t have as many solid songs on it.”  Having made so many albums, does he feel the process has become any easier? “It’s not really easier because we know what we are doing, but the songs are better”.

It’s fair to say that Lou is not a nostalgic man but there is one era of the band that he looks back on with fondness, “My favourite era was when Craig (bassist) joined the band and we wrote "Scratch the Surface". We took a whole summer and we had a loft in Chinatown and just wrote. We’d  go to work and then we’d hang out and write all night.  At the weekend we’d be there all day jamming and writing.” There is a clear difference between that time and how things work at this stage of their career: "Now it’s more like Pete (guitarist) will come in with music, Armand (drummer) will come in with music and lyrics, and we hammer it out together. It’s been working great, but I miss those days. More fun, more carefree.” It hasn’t always been such plain sailing for the band. “5 to 10 years ago, especially in the States, times were so hard for us because everyone was doing a fucking reunion show. Bands that didn’t even make it big were doing reunion shows and packing clubs out. These guys played like five matinees at CBs, who gives a shit? They weren’t that good.”

It would be churlish to dub their new EP a rousing return to form. It is a more of a continuation of the purple patch that started when they joined Century Media. The whole thing came together quickly: “Pete came in with the riffs and we were like, wow these are really good. The title track “When the Smoke Clears” was something that Pete would fool around with all the time. We were actually going to make it a short instrumental and then Armand and Pete came up with the lyrics and I came up with lyrics too and we put it all together.” The lyrics to the title track in particular provide an accurate summation of the band as they address the importance of staying together, staying true to yourselves, and self-belief. As Lou explains, their visceral brand of Hardcore is who they are:  ‘We are influenced by things around us but if we were into jumping on bandwagons we would have gone Melodic Punk when we got signed to our major label but we wrote "Scratch the Surface", which at the time was our darkest, heaviest record. We just like to play this style of music.”

Inevitably, with such a milestone people ask how the band have stayed together for so long. For Lou the answer is easy: “We constantly make fun of each other.” They also give each other space. “When we get home from a tour, we don’t call each other right away. My wife and Armand’s wife hang out together. Craig’s crazy and sends us stupid articles to read and Pete’s my brother so I speak to him a lot.”

For Lou the only option is to move forward and keep doing what he loves. “I joked around on our 25th year anniversary and said another 5 years and then I’m done and here we are at the 30th and I don’t feel like it’s done yet.” That can be difficult in a scene that values the latest and hottest new bands, but the band adapt and challenge themselves to show people what they’re made of. “We just want to keep going as a relevant band. In the States, when we play the Hardcore festivals, there it’s the new young hottest band that gets the insanity reaction. When we go on the young kids will go to the back and we’re like “Really? That band just told you that they learnt everything from us” and then by the end of the set you see these kids come up front thinking these guys aren’t just these old fat guys. They are actually good.” At the end of the day, Lou believes there is a pretty clear reason why the band still connects with people: “What helps us keep going is that society still sucks. As long as kids stay angry we can keep going.”

Lou finishes by offering his advice for new bands who wish to have anything near as long a career as SICK OF IT ALL. “Keep at it. You’ve got to play what you love and keep going. We just put our heads down and kept going. Play what you like to play. Don’t try and jump on every trend that comes along.”


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Edited 03 December 2021

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