Thinking Out Loud: Lou Koller

Sick Of It All frontman Lou Koller
(Image credit: Andrew Benge\/Redferns)

Lou Koller has spent the last 30 years fronting New York hardcore heroes Sick Of It All. The band will release their twelfth studio album When The Smoke Clears in November.

You don’t tour the world for three decades without learning something along the way…

“Hardcore is a double-edged sword. It’s the same for anyone who loves something. There are so many aspects of it that I love and that I cherish, but there are also so many parts of it that I fucking hate and despise. For the loving aspect it’s the family part, which is still true. And it’s not like in those cheesy hardcore songs that are about ‘the crew’; it’s more ‘if you need something then I got you’. When we tour we meet people all over the world that are willing to help out and give up their time to take us somewhere or put us up for the night. The best example that I saw is when the guitarist from Bad Brains, Dr. Know, had a heart attack and got a huge amount of medical bills, and a bunch of the guys in the hardcore scene decided to do a benefit for him. But he didn’t want a traditional benefit so they played a free show in Tompkins Square Park, which is downtown in the Lower East Side of New York where it all started for us, and they told people if they wanted to donate, then they could. They got all the permits and everything and over 2,000 people showed up. It was a fucking great day: the bands were amazing, there were no fights or anything like that, and at that free show they raised over $25,000. That’s family. I saw people at that show that I hadn’t seen in 20 years and they came out just because they heard it was for Gary’s benefit. It was great.”

Sick Of It All at Bradford Rio's circa 1997

Sick Of It All at Bradford Rio's circa 1997 (Image credit: Naki/Redferns)

One of my biggest pet peeves in hardcore is the generational divide. I can go to other shows in other genres and people will say, ‘You gotta see ‘so-and-so’. They were the originators of this style.’ And people go to see it. When we were young we’d go to shows and people would tell us we had to go and see the Zero Boys because they were the originators, and we’d go check it out. Nowadays, kids just want to be into hardcore for a few years and then they move onto something else. That’s weird to me, because the band that they love probably sounds exactly like Madball, and Madball have been touring for years and they fucking kill it live. But all the Madball clones that came after them outdraw them. Those bands will even play with them and they’ll be on stage saying, ‘We got everything from Madball. It’s such an honour to be playing with them. You guys have to watch them, it’s gonna be fucking awesome.’ Then they finish and all the young kids leave. That’s fucked up. But it’s a different world now. For us it was a salvation. I liked metal and I had fun at metal shows, but I never really felt like I belonged. I just can’t get that generational aspect to hardcore nowadays. I hate saying it because they’re friends of mine, but when the era of Snapcase, Strife and Earth Crisis came they would all name check Sepultura and Slayer as their influences. Now they’re both great bands, but what about Minor Threat and Reagan Youth? Then you get further down the road and ask newer bands who their influences are, and they all say Pantera. Again, great band, but you’re a hardcore band – what about the Dead Kennedys? It’s fucked up.”

Touring is a lot of fun but it’s also a lot of hard work. I always think of that line from the Dire Straits song where they say, ‘That ain’t workin’ that’s the way you do it / Money for nothin’ and chicks for free.’ When I see my friends after I get back from tour and I tell them I’m tired they always go, ‘Oh yeah, I bet you’re really tired. You’ve just been partying non-stop.’ I’m like, ‘No, man. Touring is hard fucking work.’ It’s long hours of driving on no sleep and working to different schedules every day. I have friends who wake up at 6am, go to work and are back home by 5pm, then they clock off. With us it could be we play a festival in Spain and we go on at 2am, then the next day we play at a festival in Belgium and we go on at 3pm. So when do you sleep, eat, warm your voice up or stretch before you go on? I know that sounds petty and I don’t want to sound ungrateful, but that’s part of it and it can be gruelling. But I still love it. I love it so much. When I had my daughter I was scared that I was going to start to hate touring. I remember this one hardcore band was up-and-coming, everybody loved them, and they were on the cusp of breaking big in the hardcore world, but their singer moved in with his girlfriend and he was like, ‘I can’t go away anymore. I want to get a regular job and stay at home.’ And he did; the band just ended. So I was worried about that happening to me. But I can’t stop touring because a) it’s where I make my living and b) I love it too much. It’s always hard to leave, and it’s even harder now my daughter is six and she’s more aware of it. She cries her eyes out before I tuck her into bed the night before I leave, but I have to explain to her that when I’m back from tour I’m home 247 and we can hang out together for a whole month without me having to go to work. Then what happens is my wife complains that she doesn’t get to hang out with her daughter as much as me because she works her ass off when I’m home. So I can’t win!”

My family are my backbone. They’re there for me when I’m up and they’re there for me when I’m down. It’s stabilised so many things in my life and made me focus on continuing with the band, because now I have people that depend on me. I don’t think there’s a bad aspect to family life, except for the feeling that you get when you have to leave to go away on tour. But the way we travel we get to bring our families out with us sometimes and that’s great; last summer I took my wife and daughter to three of the festivals that we did and they loved it.”

Human beings need that connection with one another. People need to be open and communicate with each other.I don’t think a lot of people realise what a dark and heavy album Scratch The Surface was for us to make. Then two years later we released Built to Last, which was still heavy but had a much more positive sound and feel. The whole reason for that was we’d toured for two years straight on Scratch The Surface and we were in situations all over the world where fans who became friends went to bat for us. I remember we played a show in Argentina and the promoter was ripping us off, and some fucking kids came and stood up and fought for us. That happened all over the world, and that’s why Built to Last was so much more positive. That’s the beauty of travelling the world in a band; you make these lasting ties with people. We played Indonesia once and now I have friends for life that come to the US and I take them out and we hang out together. Anybody can travel the world, but it’s very rare that you lock into people like that. Being in a band makes it easy to travel and make friends all over the world, and I’m very grateful for that.”

Nobody would want to read a Sick Of It All book. We don’t really party or go crazy on tour. I stopped doing all that before I was even in the band. I’d just turned 18 when the band started and by that time I could legally drink in New York – back then. After that, it was no longer fun anymore. I was more into the illegal aspect of drinking underage. I also don’t have an addictive personality. The first time we went on tour with D.R.I. was the first time I experienced girls who would come to the show and have sex with you just because you were in the band. I was watching D.R.I. – not to be rude, but they’re not the most handsome men on earth – hook up with all these beautiful girls and I couldn’t believe it was happening. But that’s never been on our agenda; none of us are into drink or drugs or groupies. Armand [Mijidi] is a big beer snob and he drinks expensive beer everyday, but never before a show and he’s never played drunk. I did play a show on really strong painkillers once, and Armand and our roadie Mike said it was the funniest show I ever did and that I should play like that every night. They wanted me to become addicted to painkillers! Thanks a lot, guys.”

Sick Of It All in New York City, 1993

Sick Of It All in New York City, 1993 (Image credit: Steve Eichner/WireImage)

I’m not bragging when I say this, but I think Sick Of It All have solidified the fact that we’re a great live band. I’ve heard a lot of people say that. It kind of sucks, but it’s also kind of a badge of honour that there are so many bands – even bands that we’re friends with – that would have us removed from shows because we were supposed to go on before them and they were afraid that we were going to show them up. Just because of the way we are on stage, bands were afraid to go on after us and that really sucks. But it’s also kind of a cool badge of honour, too. I think that’s going to be Sick Of It All’s legacy, that we’ve always held onto what we thought were the ethics of hardcore, and always remained a thorn in the side of the establishment.”

Sick Of It All will release their new album When The Smoke Clears on November 4 through Century Media records.

Matt Stocks

DJ, presenter, writer, photographer and podcaster Matt Stocks was a presenter on Kerrang! Radio before a year’s stint on the breakfast show at Team Rock Radio, where he also hosted a punk show and a talk show called Soundtrack Apocalypse. He then moved over to television, presenting on the Sony-owned UK channel Scuzz TV for three years, whilst writing regular features and reviews for Metal Hammer and Classic Rock magazine. He also wrote, produced and directed a feature-length documentary on Australian hard rock band Airbourne called It’s All For Rock ‘N’ Roll, and in 2017 launched his own podcast: Life in the Stocks. His first book, also called Life In The Stocks, was published in 2020. A second volume was published in April 2022.