To say Arthur Smilios is a legend in the world of the Hardcore Punk is something of an understatement. From the point he picked up a bass and joined the band Token Entry at the age of sixteen on bass, he has had a career spanning thirty years in the scene playing in such fabled bands as Gorilla Biscuits, CIV and Judge. He currently plays in World Be Free, a unit that brings together members of other important bands of Hardcore Punk’s past as Youth of Today and Strife. Their recently released LP, The Anti Circle on Revelation Records is a testament to the timeless of the music’s potent force.
Green Room Radio recently caught with Arthur to speak about his Hardcore roots, the dangers of being a punk in Queens, New York in the 1980’s and his worst tour experiences.
HOW DID YOU INITIALLY FIND OUT ABOUT HARDCORE PUNK WHERE YOU GREW UP IN QUEENS?
Arthur Smilios: I kind of fell into Hardcore through happenstance. Growing up in Jackson Heights, Queens, I had an older cousin who was into punk rock so through him, I discovered the Sex Pistols, Clash, New York Dolls and a few other bands. It was when I was fifteen and moved into my grandparents’ house, in Astoria that I was introduced to Hardcore. I had known Ernie Parada and Johnny Steigerwald from Gilligan’s Revenge and Token Entry from when we were really young and I would visit my grandparents.
By the time I moved there, those guys were already fully into it. I had tired of the things my peers were doing and I wanted something new; something made by my generation and people like me. Hardcore proved to be that. It gave me a means to play original music in an actual venue, rather than Led Zeppelin covers at a friend’s party. Furthermore, it allowed me to express myself and to dress in a way that I found suited me.
This last point is really important: Queens, New York in the 1980’s wasn’t exactly a bastion of pluralism and acceptance. If you wore the clothing that has become so commonplace now, you invited, expected and received withering abuse. Walter, Civ and I could fill a small volume on the anecdotes of ridicule and actual threats of physical violence we sustained daily.
Anyway, through Ernie and Johnny, I met Anthony Comunale who was the singer for Token Entry and eventually, Raw Deal. He was kind of the Dean of the Queens University of Punk Rock and Hardcore. He loved to show the new guys the music. He would make mixed tapes, lend you albums and even clothes. He was and remains one of the most generous people I have ever known.
WAS THERE A CERTAIN BAND THAT MADE YOU SAY “I SHOULD BE PLAYING MUSIC”?
I always wanted to be in a band, but yes, there were a few select ones that are watermarks in my life. Seeing The Clash was a salient moment. It was then that I cut my hair, got a pair of boots and decided to hold my bass as low as was possible to continue to play the thing. From the Hardcore world, I would have to say it was Reagan Youth and Agnostic Front. Although The Clash was certainly more accessible than most bands, they were still “over there,” as it were. With the hardcore bands, they were either already your friends or hanging out with your friends. They were peers. Dave Insurgent was one of the most charismatic singers I have seen and Reagan Youth remains, to me, one of the best that New York City produced. Agnostic Front was the first time I saw CBGB’s filled to the point of fire hazard. They hit the stage and the entire club swayed like the currents on an ocean. It was so densely packed that you had to move from the inertia of the person next to you. And Roger Miret! Damn, he was one of my idols. His appearance to me was the standard; the epitome: the Doc Martens, tattoos, the chain around his waist. I still maintain that Victim in Pain is the greatest NYHC album, bar none. It is flawless. Roger was larger than life to me. Then I met him and he turned out to be a really nice guy. I am honored to call him my friend but I still see him–and always will–as a Titan, one of the giants of the scene.
IT SEEMS THE NEW YORK HARDCORE SCENE REALLY BLOSSOMED IN THE MID TO LATE 80’S WHILE MOST OF THE FIRST WAVE SCENES IN THE US LIKE WASHINGTON D.C. OR BOSTON WERE FADING OFF INTO OTHER MUSICAL DIRECTIONS.
Time and circumstance were on my side, regarding the 80’s NYHC renaissance. Now, I maintain that there are pretty much two people responsible for what started happening around 1986 and lasted roughly three years: Ray Cappo and John Porcell. They were from Connecticut and had played in a few bands like Violent Children and the Young Republicans but in 1985, they formed Youth of Today. Porcell confirmed for me that their impetus was to play pure hardcore, as metal had really made inroads into the scene by this time. Personally, I was never a fan of metal. To me, it was mindless, “dude” music. I had no interest in satan or wizards, or whatever nonsense the lyrics were promulgating. The bands I loved had messages: Let fury have the hour, anger can be power; Remember we’re a minority and every one of us counts; At least I’m fucking trying, what the fuck have you done?! You see, metal was frivolous, as far as I was concerned; furthermore, this was the music of the meatheads in High School who threatened me every single day. I wanted nothing to do with it and I certainly bristled and chafed at the thought of it infiltrating the scene that gave me a home.
Anyway, in the spring of 1986, Porcell and Ray moved to New York and it seemed that overnight, the scene was reborn. New bands like Underdog, with an actual message, formed. Older bands were reinvigorated. I remember when Todd Youth got out of reform school and joined WarZone to give that band a proverbial B12 shot, becoming one of the most exciting New York bands.
I have to take a moment to explain the role of RayBeez. This was someone who truly loved the scene. He was always trying to grow, to better himself as a person, and that inspired the younger people; furthermore, he never indulged in the “seniority” silliness, or pulling rank. He understood that at some point, we were all the new kid and he did his best to welcome everyone and make them fell a part of the community. I felt this most keenly when he asked Walter and me to join WarZone. As a result, I adopted this inclusiveness when I became one of the older people on the scene.
WHY DO YOU THINK IT TOOK NEW YORK LONGER TO GAIN ATTENTION?
Perhaps it was because we were always preoccupied with other things here. New York in the 1980s was a very different place from the gentrified mess of sterilized, disposable culture apparent today, thanks to twenty years of Republican, corporatist, quasi-fascist mayors. It was organic, eclectic, filthy and beautiful. To grow up here, you needed to develop suss. There were real neighborhoods and if you left yours, you had to know how to behave, how not to offend. Maybe we were just slow on the draw and I’m attaching a romanticized retrospective. Who really knows? What is certain is that it was worth it. For three years from ‘86 to ‘88, if you were a New York band, you had the attention of Hardcore kids everywhere. In the summer of 1988, I was playing guitar with Underdog. We only had an EP out, yet every show we played was at capacity because we were from New York. That is the cachet that it carried.
OUT OF ALL THE BANDS YOU’VE PLAYED IN, IS THERE A CERTAIN ONE YOU CONSIDER YOUR FAVORITE?
I have indeed been lucky to have played in a number of bands, about some of whom people care. There was a running joke about Walter and me, that at any given moment we were in three to five different groups. I was a full member of some, filling in for others. I am fond of all of them but naturally, some hold a dearer place in my heart. Token Entry was the first band with which I ever played live, at age sixteen, at CBGB’s no less. I was in WarZone, for god’s sake, so that really enhances my Hardcore resume. The band that is most precious to me though is Gorilla Biscuits. Aside from the music, it’s the people. Walter, Civ and I have been a part of each other’s lives for thirty years now. I have discerned a clear pattern: when they are actively a part of my world, my life is infinitely better. I love them, Alex and Luke as I can only love siblings. We are all individuals, with our differing opinions and views, but we are bonded forever by this very special thing we have. GB has transcended band status. There’s also the message. I still have people tell me how our song “Cats and Dogs” was the reason they went vegetarian or vegan or became Animal Rights activists, something which, considering what this issue means to me, is inspiring.
SO WHY DO YOU KEEP PLAYING HARDCORE?
Honestly, it’s still fun. There are few things I enjoy as much as playing music and nothing that has entertained me for as long. Fortunately, I get to play in bands whose messages are timeless, so there is the relevance factor. I’m also lucky in that I see other older bands and they are going through the proverbial motions, they cannot stand each other as people, and this translates to their shows. With Gorilla Biscuits, CIV, Judge and now, World Be Free, we genuinely enjoy each other’s company and love the music, so it is a pleasure. I have been extremely lucky and continue to be.
WHAT WAS IT LIKE TOURING THE WORLD IN THE 80’S AS A HARDCORE BAND?
I was just recently talking about this, comparing touring in the 80’s to now. Back then, it was an adventure for a number of reasons. First, the promoters were often local kids and the club could be someone’s living room. This meant that it was never guaranteed that the show would happen, subject to the whims of parents and others. There was no GPS, so you had to know how to read maps. Because I didn’t – and still don’t – have a driver’s license, I had to do extra shifts on shotgun, so I pretty much became a cartographer. I had mastered reading maps, estimating arrival time and even approximating gas usage. There were no cell phones, so you had to hope that the promoter answered when you called from a pay phone. There was no money in it. You were hoping to break even to pay for the tour. You slept in a filthy, usually non-air conditioned van and hoped for the kindness of local kids to allow you to use their shower. Being vegetarian or vegan presented its own set of challenges during a time when you were really looked at as a freak for following such a diet, particularly between the coasts. The other thing is that New York, to the general American mind, was a hated place. We would always get pulled over by the local cops because of our plates. Now, I can’t lie, while I detest being harassed by police, there was a certain satisfaction in this; a pride in being from the best place in the world, a place whose very existence incensed people.
While I would never trade those experiences for anything, I do not think I could tour that way again. I have years and miles behind me now, I’m a little worse for the wear, and I like the stability of modern touring. I enjoy knowing that there are guarantees and showers; that I will eat every day; that I don’t have to be an explorer because GPS will get us to our destination. I hear people knock young bands who have a night liner for their first tour as “not having paid their dues.” Yes, the old way of touring definitely helped build and define character but it wasn’t a choice. If I had such a choice back then, there is no way I would have opted for a sweaty, fetid van, starvation and insecurity, so I cut these kids some slack and tell them to enjoy it.
WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR WORST TOUR STORIES?
As for the worst story, it’s hard to say. I remember confronting Neo Nazi pieces of garbage in western Pennsylvania, as they were cursing “the Jew” that was with us. There was the U.S border search with Underdog, upon returning from Tijuana, when I convinced the Border Patrol not to tear my one and only guitar case to shreds because I was straight edge and not smuggling drugs. There was the time outside of Green Bay, when an entire scene wanted to beat us to a pulp and we basically packed our van in three minutes and floored the accelerator until we had cleared the State border. Another memorable experience was my first time in Berlin, when I took refuge from a Turkish gang in a bar in Kreuzberg. That was a moment when I actually thought of making my peace because the possibility of grievous bodily harm and even death seemed real. A similar threat of violence occurred the first time I was in Manchester, UK when the locals wanted to beat Sick of it All and us to a pulp because Sick Of It All had confronted them about making bootleg shirts. Wow, just looking back on it made me realize how pervasive violence or the threat thereof used to be. I do not miss that. In the end though, I am the sum total of all my experiences and my life in hardcore has definitely shaped who I am, for better or worse; mostly for better, I believe.