Subculture Interview

On May 7, 2021, Sorry State Records will release Live '86, a live cassette from 80s North Carolina hardcore band Subculture. We had a couple of questions about the band and the show captured on Live '86, and the members of Subculture were kind enough to answer our queries at (hilarious) length.

Sorry State: According to the cassette’s liner notes, the show documented on Live ’86 was pretty unique. Can you tell us more about the setting?

Matt: It didn't seem unique at the time. It was a really nice setting. A rural area of Florence. There was a nice stage and a good PA. I can't remember who else played. Like all those shows, it was just a bunch of people who wanted to hear some music. We behaved badly and provided some entertainment.

Chris: Well Matt can speak for himself because he probably did behave badly. That was fairly typical for him back then. General misbehaving. Not me though. I was in it to win it, practicing my NARDS (drum practice patterns) and studying fusion jazz. I recall it was a sandy cotton field and we set up on the back of a flatbed semi truck. Hee Haw for punk rockers basically. I don’t remember much else about the gig except a girl named Jenny and the FACT that we SLAYED!!

Kevin: It was pretty typical to play oddball venues like this. It’s awesome when people find anywhere they can to make a show happen. Yeah at the time it felt like a normal state of affairs. But in retrospect it was pretty cool rolling up a dirt road in the middle of nowhere and finding a bunch of punks gathered at a barn waiting for the show. The stage was a flatbed truck parked next to a huge barn with a loft. The “dance floor” was bare dirt that got kicked up into huge dust clouds when the kids were thrashing.

Jeff: Joe King was holding the jam box chest high and walking from one side of the stage to the other and that's why on the tape you hear Fred really loud and then Matt. I thought it worked out well. He sat it back down on a table and it got knocked over by the mad thrashing, and still worked, so hells yes! Also on the tape you can hear people hammering that nice stage back together between songs. It was my first show with the band. Was I playing through [the previous bass player] Clint’s bass amp? It sounded really really fine. I remember practicing with Fred to the L.P. on a porch at his parents house and not knowing it was gonna happen.

Bo: What equipment were you guys using?

Chris: Man weren't we still rocking the Peavey Amps!?

Matt: We did use peavey, but all of the gear from that era still works! [Eric] Melvin's pussy ass Marshall broke down a few times. I bought a 70's Peavey Mace used by Skynyrd a few years ago. It still works.

Bo: I still have 2 of the Peavey cabinets we used.

Matt: And they still work.

Bo: Jeff is using the 2x15 from ‘87 for guitar.

Fred: I think, maybe, at that point I had that mahogany SG, Phil Swisher's old Sunn beta lead head, and a heavy as shit Peavey 4 12.

Sorry State: Can you tell me about each band member’s haircut around the time of this gig? Any memorable haircuts in the crowd at the gig or in the scene in general around that time?

Matt: Ha! We definitely didn't have punk rock haircuts. I wish I could remember the crowd, but I can't.

Chris: Matt is overlooking our obvious love for New Wave Hairdos. That was one of the things that initially brought all of us together. New Wave Hairdos. I mean we evolved past that pretty quickly but a Subculture interview wouldn’t be complete without mentioning our shared passion for the finer hair arts. There were all the usual 80’s punk rock cuts in the crowd back then - spikes, colors, spikes with color, messy, goth, buzzed, etc. A unique selling point of Subculture was that although we played the role of ruffians and hooligans... we were natural men. We let our shags flow like lion manes and everyone respected us for it. I mean you just can’t deny good hair even if you’re a punk rocker. Even the sickest most depraved, inhumane punker has to admit Susanna Hoffs has great hair. Am I right?

Kevin: Matt and Fred might’ve had bleached hair around this time, or maybe that came later. My hair was probably in that awkward stage between shaving it off and trying to grow it out long. It’s been in that stage most of my life.

Bo: It seemed like everybody started growing their hair out back then. Kind of a revolt against punk rock haircuts.

Sorry State: It seems like Subculture played out a lot and toured pretty heavily. Was this a really weird gig for you or pretty typical? Did you put a lot of energy and preparation into your live sets?

Matt: It wasn't weird. We played the night before in Columbia at a clothing/skateboard shop. A lot of stuff got broken and stolen. We were not solely responsible. Good gig! We did play a lot. We did the same show whether there were two people or two hundred. We put some work into it. Mostly for ourselves. You gotta remember, we were the weird kids at school. The music was ours, not theirs.

Chris: For once Matt is right. I’ve been waiting for this moment (for him to be right about something) for years actually. Good job Matt. Your parents will finally be proud. But seriously, it was par for the course. If it was weird they were all weird. Back then there weren't really established places for punk shows, especially in hicksville where we were from. So they would happen at sandwich shops, attics, cotton fields, wherever we could get away with it for a time or two (usually not more). It’s kind of like the tshirts - back then we made them ourselves (like real men). We couldn’t just order them online. We did practice a lot, until the cops would tell us to knock it off.

Kevin: What was weird was hearing this tape for the first time 35 years later and having no recollection of several of the songs! Strange hearing yourself sing songs you’ve never heard. On the tape Matt keeps yammering about his love for some girl named Debbie, and there was some speculation that was somebody he just made up. But then I saw on that Carolina Punk fb group somebody posted a tribute to a Debbie who had recently passed away, and who had done a lot for that scene around Florence letting bands practice and put on shows at her family’s barn. So it turns out Matt’s professed love was a real person and had probably set up the show.

The Subculture van

Sorry State: It seems like Subculture was always a stylistically restless band. I definitely hear the metal influences coming out more on the new-to-me tracks on this tape, but those hot licks frequently transition into poppy choruses with Kevin’s often earnest vocals. Not to mention shorter detours into things like Thin Lizzy-esque lead guitar harmonies and even rap. How did this mix of styles go down with audiences at the time? Was this a case of different people contributing to songwriting or just being into a lot of different kinds of stuff?

Bo: My Dad liked Subculture. Especially the drums!

Matt: We never considered how the audience would respond. We all contributed, but we were more concerned with pleasing ourselves. We were babies! Fred and I just liked to dick around with the shit. A lot of it was tongue in cheek. We were just having fun. That was what the band was about. Metal? How could you be an impressionable kid and not be influenced by COC? They were our mentors. Stylistically restless? Yeah, we were learning to play our instruments. We weren't "musicians." We became musicians together. As our technical skill improved, so did our ambition.

Chris: You are really maturing Matt. I have to say I partially agree with some of your words. Good job. COC (and Reed Mullin god bless his soul) were definitely a huge influence. But we had boundless and shameless love for other music like disco and rap. I mean we were some of the very very first kids to be punk rock AND like Run DMC. We also loved the BeeGees of course. Matt and Fred were heavily influenced by Kiss but I couldn’t get into that shit. I was too into my fusion jazz.

Kevin: We think of ourselves more as restlessly stylistic. Chris and Matt got fired from a restaurant and spent their last paychecks on complete matching red outfits, down to the underwear. Subculture definitely has songs where you can tell different people contributed to the songwriting. A lot of the earlier stuff I put in the Matt category, which is all chart-toppers, just catchy and punchy. Songs like “Words I've Never Heard” and “Catholic Schools.” Then Ed Marshall joined and brought more moody, broody guitar playing, like on “All My Love” and “The Last Time.” When Fred came in that’s when we leaned a little more metal with a capital “T”. Two songs on the second demo in particular come to mind, “Bad Desperation” and “Triangle.”

Sorry State: Speaking of stylistic restlessness, I have to ask specifically about the track “KC Comes to Town.” At nearly four minutes long, that’s the longest track on the tape, and the song itself is a miniature epic that shifts dramatically in tone with each new part. Do you remember anything about how that song came together? Did it feel like a stretch at the time or did it feel natural?

Matt: I don't remember. Fred joined the band and Jeff had just come on shortly after. They were idiots, just like us. Give us 30 minutes and we could make up some dumb shit. It was not a stretch at all.

Chris: I thought that was Kevin’s swan song? His final masterpiece? I liked it because in the movie that was this song you took the mild mannered sweet nice guy hero and made him this towering figure of ferocity. At least that’s the movie I was playing when we went through the song. I think it’s also when KC truly realized he was THE MAN.

Kevin: Any and all foolishness that came out felt natural at the time. We had a blast doing goofy shit and didn’t care. It was pretty funny when, a few years ago I found a copy of that recording on Soulseek and whoever ripped it had cut out that entire rap part. It’s like half the song!

Check out some rare 80s footage of Subculture in this 1980s documentary on the Raleigh punk scene.

Sorry State: You also mention in the liner notes that this show was a few weeks before you recorded the second Subculture demo. This demo is a mythical thing among my friends… someone played it for me once, but I don’t have a copy. Any chance the world will get to hear it? Vinyl version coming soon on Sorry State maybe, LOL?

Matt: Ha! Maybe. Kevin has the masters. We just need to sort through it. It's yours if we can put it together. Tell him to get off his ass and book some studio time!

Chris: Sigh. What the fuck happened to that tape? I remember throwing out boxes of old cassettes last year. Was probably in there. The master tape was probably recorded over by a shitty blues band (actually Matt and Chris trying to be soulful blues men).

Kevin: I have two reels in my closet. Those tapes were expensive so we recorded over the “I Heard A Scream” master for the second demo. Then Chris and Matt used the same tape again later on for a couple songs they recorded. We need to find somebody with a reel-to-reel machine so we can see what’s on there.

Sorry State: How much longer was Subculture a band after this gig? Why did you break up? If you’re thinking about the long arc of the Subculture story, where does this gig fit in?

Matt: Huh? We're still a band we just haven't played together in a while. We never broke up. I'm not sure it fits into an arc. Someone had a boom box.

Chris: I think about how long the arc of Subculture was all the time. In fact... through the water displacement method I was actually able to scientifically verify that my arc was longer than Matt's. I think he was always jealous of me for that and perhaps that’s why he broke up the band. But no seriously, we never actually broke up so this particular gig fits in nicely somewhere right in the middle half kind of between the beginning and end. Somewhere between young childhood and late childhood. I do remember focusing much of our attention on wine women and song after we got out of high school though. Mostly wine and women. That was likely the problem. Too much wine and women, not enough song. By the time we turned 18 many of our crowning achievements were already in the rear view mirror. It was like being a child star - destined to see the ugly side of fame once we left high school.

Kevin: The details of my leaving are that I was a dick and they were all pussies, or maybe they were pussies and I was a dick. Anyway we were all buttholes. I think it was the end of ‘86 after the first big tour. Then Jeff Floyd moved from bass to vocals and Bo stepped in on bass. The band did a bunch more touring in ‘87. I remember seeing them at the Brewery with that lineup and it was really good. They did a killer cover of “Go Your Own Way” by Fleetwood Mac. I thought maybe it was directed at me, since I’d left the band, although Matt told me recently that it wasn’t. Also there’s a video from that tour where they’re covering “C'mon and Love Me” by KISS and it sounds incredible, especially the vocals!

Sorry State: Can you tell us a little bit about what music the members of Subculture made after the band ended?

Matt: Umm. There is a lot of it. Between us all, we have platinum records, record deals, publishing deals, world tours . . . all that shit. We're heavy cats, motherfucker!

Chris: We actually had a lucrative merch deal towards the end and were about to sell many many many badges , pins, stickers, and camisoles. That would have supplanted the need to work (play music) for a living. But in the end we decided to go make music and love with other strangers. I eventually got to meet Max Roach (in my quest for the fusion Jazz grail) and briefly joined the “Ed Brown and Something for Everyone Latin Jazz Blues Review” band. Ed promised me I could do some fusion tunes but he was a liar. So I left. I later started the Squirrel Nut Zippers with Jimbo Mathus, played with the Dickies for a couple years, wrote music for a cartoon called Lil Bush, wound up on a kind of recent Jesus and Mary Chain Record, and played in a super group with Vicki from the Bangles. But I’ve put all that bullshit behind me now that Subculture has a new cassette out and we are about to open an economy size can of North Carolina whoop ass on the world!! I owe my virginity and allegiance to Subculture. Bitches please!

Kevin: All of the above is true, and 99% of the music we’ve all made has been NCHC through and through. Chris’s drumming on that Squirrel Nut Zippers shit has Reed Mullin written all over it! In fact a lot of Squirrel Nut Zippers’s sound is inspired by that Ugly Americans song “Buffalo Bill.” But yeah it’s hard to stop writing hits once you get started. We’re congenital hitmakers, as well as genital.