Thursday, 14 May 2020

Top Tens: Sam Russo's Top Ten Punk Rock Influences


1. The first ten seconds of Ignition by The Offspring.

The first punk music I remember hearing and really relating to. I remember having my tape player and putting in this really uninspiring looking tape I’d borrowed from a friend. It just looked like shit. I assumed it was metal because it reminded me of Load by Metallicca which had just come out but I remember taking it and thinking ‘The Offspring. That sounds way cooler than Metallica.’ and oh man was I right. I sat down on the school bus, put my knees up and stared out the window like always, then I pressed play. Hearing Dexter screaming ‘FUCK’ over and over and then the drums kicking in with that beat. I remember thinking I was going to die I was so happy. I felt like I’d stepped into a suit of armour that had been forged to fit me perfectly. I laughed, my palms got sweaty, I was headbanging and I wanted to run into school and flip over the tables and dance around singing, I was just fizzing with energy. I felt like I’d found my soundtrack. I used to just rewind that bit over and over! That was when I realised eeeeveryone setting all these rules about what you can and can’t do in music and in life was completely full of shit. Not everything had to be nice, or macho or good looking, you don’t have to do or like what everyone else does, and there’s a place for everyone – even the misfits. No more sitting at the side of the disco wondering what’s wrong with me because I don’t want to dance to Backstreet Boys like everyone else – there’s nothing wrong with me, I’m different and that’s OK!

2. Skateboarding.

When I was a really little kid I discovered skateboarding and it totally changed my outlook on life. Paired with punk, it basically got me through school and my adolescence. Think about it like this: when you skateboard you try to do something with your body and a piece of wood on wheels over and over, sometimes hundreds of times, before you do it the way you want to. You fail constantly and you hurt yourself repeatedly. You look ridiculous and you push yourself to your absolute limit of what you can do physically and what you can tolerate mentally, and you do it alone in a car park at night for no reason whatsoever besides the fact that you want to because it’s fun. There’s no team behind you, no coach or ref or spectators, it’s just you and the brutality of concrete. There’s no judge besides you and nobody cares about what you’re doing. It’s rebellious, it’s liberating and it’s fun. I was not doing this somewhere where skateboarding was a thing – it was me and one other guy that I knew of using these terrible toy boards in a tiny village in the middle of nowhere. People thought we were complete idiots. The reason it inspired me as a person and helped me understand my own idea of what’s punk is because it was the opposite of school. School is where you have to go every single day in a uniform looking like everybody else to perform within this insanely tight, narrow framework of behaviour and attainment, where every single thing you do is ranked and graded and recorded and where you’re incentivised to do what you’re told purely by fear of punishment and failure – skating for me was a perfect counterbalance to this imposed developmental framework that’s policed and enforced by cowardly, brutal, often pretty ignorant adults (with a few exceptions!). You fail to play by the rules at school and you will have to do something horribly wasteful with your time and your precious youth – you’ll have to suffer meaninglessly punitive punishments like sitting silently in detention with the other ‘bad kids’ or writing the same thing in lines hundreds of times and watching the teacher tear it up when you’re done. This teaches you nothing. You get put in isolation away from your peers for being angry and saying the wrong thing – you stay angry until you’re so angry you have no choice but to internalise it, then you’re just exhausted and you feel ashamed, confused and lonely. Then they let you go home to do your homework. Nothing is achieved. Skateboarding helped me see why that doesn’t work, and why it’s fucked. Skateboarding makes everything a canvas. If you’re riding along on a skateboard, you’re leaving everything behind you and you’re creating art out of movement. You’re in the moment. It taught me to embrace and celebrate failure and to find the humour in fucking up. It showed me a world within a work and introduced me to incredible artists, photographers, bands and musicians, language, clothes, places and people. Skateboarding introduced me to hip hop, rap, funk, all kinds of music I’d never heard before and it showed me places I’d never seen. The streets of southern California will always go through a fisheye lens before they reach my brain because I was obsessed with skate videos. I’d decided what I thought punk was by this point and getting into skating stopped me being narrow minded about it. Public Enemy was punk to me, skaters like Louie Barletta busting out crazy angular tricks in cardigans and argyle was just as punk to me as Corey Duffel and Dustin Dollin in their leather jackets. Tony Hawk was punk because he was goofy looking and shy, Chris Roberts was punk because he didn’t party, Rodney Mullen was punk because he was a nerd, Chad Muska was punk because everyone hated him! Skating gave me a physical outlet and a mental and spiritual vehicle to discover elements of culture that I had no access to otherwise. It always did and always does make me excited and happy. Even when I eat complete shit.

3. Julian Giles Harding.

When I was 15 I auditioned on bass for a band called Cry For Vengeance. I knew the guitarist, my friend Billy, but none of the other band members. Billy took me to rehearsal having vouched for me saying I was a good bass player and I was into punk and the singer had agreed to meet me and give me a shot. We got to the youth centre where they practiced and I this guy Julian was already there. He was pacing around rubbing the back of his neck, looking tall, mean and scary as fuck. He had spiky red hair and was wearing a white school shirt covered in what I assumed was blood. He also wore huge black boots and skin-tight black jeans full of holes everywhere but the knees. I said ‘Hi, I’m Sam’ from across the room and he literally looked up from his pacing, sneered at me and waved a hand in my direction like he was shaking salt on chips. I loaded in my gear and plugged in while a few kids heckled me through the glass doors that lead through to the youth centre proper – one of them called me queer and another one offered to fuck my dad for me which I found pretty confusing so I just smiled and nodded, but I heard this Julian guy behind me say in a really soft voice ‘ignore them, they only want a fight’. I looked up from my bass and he was standing in the middle of the room just staring at them and grinning like something out of a Clockwork Orange. They trickled away and he shifted his stare over to me. I thought for sure he was insane and immediately wished I wasn’t wearing my X-Files t-shirt and camo shorts. He had a gold microphone that looked like it belonged on a kids karaoke machine in one hand and a wrinkled piece of yellow notebook paper in the other. I could see the handwriting all slanting and angry with no crossing out, corrections or scribbles. Just line after line of visceral, articulate, precise, honest lyrics. He asked me if I’d learnt the songs and I said Billy had showed me them. Billy had set up his amp and stood silently in the corner the whole time. When Julian started speaking, he put a rubber strap on his glasses and got into a position I’d never seen him stand in before. In our other band he always stood hunched and floppy and stared at his fretboard grinning. Now he stood like he was about to run at me and headbutt me in the dick. The whole room was humming with electricity and anticipation and it all hung on this Julian guys’ next word. He lifted the rusty yellow mike to his mouth and screamed ‘THIS FUCKING SONG IS CALLED SONG FOR THE SCABS, FUCKING 1, 2, 3, 4!’ and we just ripped into it. He introduced it like there was 500 people watching and sang it like it we were headlining Woodstock. The song was this muscular, rolling, spastic blast of mangled rock ’n’ roll scales and screaming and I played it so fast I nearly broke my fingers. It was the first original punk song I’d ever played and I felt like I was on fire from start to finish. At the end, this Julian guy walked over to me sweating and grinning with these huge crazy eyes and red hair dye all over his face and calmly said ‘Yes.’ Then he looked at Billy and shouted ‘Next. 1, 2, 3, 4!’ and Billy started playing the intro to the next song. After every song he just got warmer and warmer and more and more talkative and excited and we started discussing music and films and school and books and by the end of the practice I’d joined my first proper band and become friends with someone who I wouldn’t go a day of my life without talking to for the best part of 20 years. Jules is the most creative guy I know and since that band exploded and imploded like a mad barrel of acid, he’s always been one of the biggest musical and personal influences in my life. He’s had such an eclectic artistic life it’s mind boggling – he made an incredible acoustic album, reams of wild, ahead of it’s time electronic music, he had a sick heavy rock band called BRO, he’s made videos and animations and short films, he’s just a creative monster and a true freak of nature. He showed me really early in my musical life how to be myself and say ‘fuck you’ to anyone who gave me shit. I was playing while climbing all over filing cabinets and jumping onto chairs, playing laying on my back and he would just get pumped up by whatever weird shit I did. It’s been like that ever since he’s always been there for me. He produced Storm and Back To The Party and I can honestly say I would’ve given up long ago if it weren’t for him. Not just on music, but probably on myself in a lot of ways too. He’s the funniest person I’ve ever known and the most original free thinker I’ve ever met. I’ll tell you about the time he took a keyboard to the face for me another time…

4. Pennywise – Live At The Key Club.

My favourite live album ever, one of my all time favourite punk records and relevant here because it really gets your imagination going. This album is as close to going to a punk show as you can get by just listening to a record and there’s just something about how raw it is that transports me to the show. The energy is insane, I love how fast the songs are, the crowd is going completely turnips and every time I listen to it I get lost in it and feel like I’m actually there. Cramps live at Napa and Johnny Cash prison records do something similar for me. There’s something really edgy and charged about the set. I will always go to that record when I’m pissed off or depressed. A real leaky old battery up the ass.

5. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

They’re pizza loving mutants who spend most of their lives underground and fight tyrants in big machines – they’re the ultimate punks! I have always loved the Turtles and I think the duality of their fun-loving nature mixed with their shady, violent outsider lifestyle and freak status has always resonated with me on a way deeper level than a comic book or cartoon really should! I constantly agonise over who’s my favourite, I mean it’s obviously Donatello, but I’ve come to realise that we are all all of the Ninja Turtles. The best of us just have more Donnie than the rest. Also, Splinter is my hero. Foot sucks, Cowabunga.

6. Music videos. 

I’ve always loved ’em. Just a portal into another world. The ones that had the biggest influence on me are When I Get Old – The Descendents, Down – Blink 182, Heroin Girl – Everclear, Same Old Story – Pennywise, Da Hui – The Offspring, I Don’t Wanna Grow Up – Tom Waits and Back To School – Deftones. Just watch ’em. Everything I love about music is in those videos.

7. Stephen King.

I love Stephen King and his books constantly inspire me and help me relax and escape real life. I love a lot of literature and poetry, but nothing sucks me in like a King classic. My Mum got me into Stephen King and I will always thank her for that. She was reading IT when we were at Center Parcs when I was little and I was just making some cereal minding my own business thinking about how much fun we were going to have going swimming and shit when I saw her shout ‘OH FUCK!’, throw the book across the room and hide her face under her sweater. She’d been up all night reading it and smoking cigarettes and it scared her so bad she couldn’t even bear to hold the book anymore! I had to have me a slice of THAT. I got INVOLVED and I never stopped! He just writes good shit. Sometimes trashy, sometimes dumb, but always fun. Pet Sematary in particular is a fave. I have a big old Pet Sematary tattoo. I love Stephen King’s life story too. Writing Carrie while supporting a family by working nights in the hospital laundry and writing all day in your trailer home, then his wife finding the manuscript in the bin and persuading him to send it out to publishers? Amazing story.

8. The Lawrence Arms.

My favourite band. Most adults find it hard to pick a favourite band, I don’t. The Lawrence Arms are punk personified to me. Firstly, they’re the most intelligent, self-aware, funny, articulate and poetic lyricists ever. B.) They have consistently gotten better with every single body of music they’ve ever released. 4.) They sound like no other band – you can hear influences like any other band, but those influences are like riddles. You’ll be listening to a new Larry Arms song and second to second you’re hearing these accents, these little references. In one song you can just get all your bells rung at once ’til you have no idea what’s going on – you’ll think you’re hearing a little No Means No for a second, then maybe you think you hear a quote from Joe Dirt, but it could be Gabriel Marquez, then you vibe on some obscure 90’s hip-hop and a little tip of the hat to Poison and then you’re in the middle of a boozey, life affirming midwestern singalong and before you know it, it’s all over and you’re fucked. I got into the Lawrence Arms when Ghost Story came out and I’ve just been obsessed ever since. No band comes close. They’re the ultimate trio. They’re the musical equivalent of the perfect Bloody Mary, the best handjob you ever received and the feeling you get after you puke, all rolled into one. Brendan will HATE that analogy. Mostly because of his strong beliefs regarding handjobs. I could talk about this band all night but I’ll wrap up by saying that they are the best humans I know who play music. They’ve been so kind and generous to me over the years and who the fuck am I? I asked Chris for some advice about songwriting once and he put his arm around me and said ‘I’m gonna be honest with you, Sam. Nothing fucking matters.’ Now THAT’S a pal. Lawrence Arms. You’re either in, or you’re fucked.

9. Going to California.

A special place for me. The history of CA, the culture, the art, the films, the music, food, politics, lifestyle, geography; everything about California interests me and influences my life and my music. I love the sun and sand meeting concrete, graffiti and grime. Dessert, ocean, city, suburbia. I’ll keep this short because I’m literally obsessed, but I’ve never loved a place more in my life. Some of my best memories are of times I’ve spent in LA and all over California. I grew up with a pretty idealised and romantic view of life in California from books and movies and music but that didn’t in any way change how inspiring I find it. When I was a kid I did that thing where you write yourself a letter about the person you want to be – basically all I wrote was ‘Get to California’. Whether I’m getting California Donuts or Cactus with my lady or sleeping alone in a Super 8 in Santa Cruz, whether I’m playing a show at the Troubadour or hiking in the Hollywood Hills, going to a pool party with new friends, cruising overnight down the coast or swimming in San Diego – I’m just so happy and so excited to be alive. California keeps a little piece of me every time I’m lucky enough to visit and the thought of going back keeps me positive when I’m down. Just think of all the incredible punk music out of California and I guarantee you’re forgetting half. We made a classic California Punk playlist in the van on tour with Elway last year and it was something like 3 hours long. That’s a lot of 2-minute songs.

10. Red Scare.

Best punk label of all time, sir. Because of Red Scare I’ve played all over the world with all of my favourite bands and I’ve been able to make whatever music I want, release it and have people actually hear it. Nobody gets to do that these days, it’s amazing. Tobias Jeg saved my ass, let me tell you. I’ve been to Enumclaw, fuckers.

Stream and download Sam Russo’s latest album, Back To The Party, on Bandcamp here.

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