Ryan, John and Mark with Undertow, Photo courtesy of: Tom Holcomb
Undertow are one of those bands from the early 90's that I always felt that I had a certain bond with. They were very similar in age to the guys in my band (Mouthpiece), we both seemed to have come from a common background and the same era of hardcore. We liked a lot of the same bands and both our bands started around the same time, only difference being that we came from different coasts. Then sometime around the summer of 1992, Undertow made their way to New Jersey and we got a chance to play together. After playing that first show together, we hung out, got to know each other and maintained a connection for many years to come. Eventually Mouthpiece would make our way to Seattle and both bands would come together and hit the road from Seattle all the way to Southern California. There's no question we've shared some memories together and now almost 20 years later, I've still managed to loosely keep in touch with some of the Undertow guys.
A year or so ago, Ben Merlis hit me up and told me that Undertow guitarist, Mark Holcomb, was now his roommate. Ben asked if I'd be interested in an interview with Mark for DCXX and offered to handle the entire interview himself. Of course I obliged and what we're kicking off here is the start to a multi part interview. Thanks to Ben for the contribution, it's much appreciated and of course, thanks to Mark for breaking it all down for us. - Tim DCXX
A blur of Undertow, Photo courtesy of: Tom Holcomb
So you used to be a goth. Tell me about that.
7th grade I was totally normal. 7th-8th grade break my sister got me into Love & Rockets and then from there I got into The Cure and this other band Mission UK, and I totally got into goth.
What year was this?
It had to be '86 to '87, because I think I was goth for a full year.
Did you dress like Robert Smith?
I grew out my bangs, but it was more of that 80s skater thing. I never teased my hair. I remember wearing t-shirts around my waist as that like cape coming down the back. (laughs) Kids used to do that. That might have been more Hosoi than anything, you know? I think I copped more of that skate look than goth. I never wore eyeliner, although the original singer for Undertow did tease his hair and wear eyeliner.
Yeah yeah. Both me and him got into the same things and I'm trying to think if we knew Murph [Ryan Murphy, Undertow drummer] at the time. I think we were friends with Murph, but Murph was like a metal kid, a punk rock kid. Kind of that other spectrum where you're really not supposed to get along. That only lasted like a year. I always grew up with music, with my dad listening to classic rock and stuff, but the goth phase probably lasted like a year or so. Then my sister started dating the guitar player from Brotherhood and by now I started to check out Dead Kennedys and GBH and DRI, and he was like, "Oh if you like this shit, I've got some underground stuff you might like." So he started making me cassette tapes of mixes of Youth of Today, Crippled Youth, Bold, Minor Threat. I really liked Minor Threat and I really liked Crippled Youth, especially Crippled Youth. They were like my age. I was into that. So there was a goth phase for a year, and then I got into Suicidal Tendencies and more thrash and punk stuff for maybe like eight months or so, and then it quickly turned to hardcore.
You grew up where exactly?
North Seattle. An area called Lake Forest Park.
And you went to junior high with Joel from Undertow?
Yeah, and Murph. Since 7th grade I guess. Murph was fucking punk in . . . I think I can show you a picture. I think he had a mohawk in 7th grade. His 7th grade picture was him with a mohawk and a sleeveless cut-off Johnny Rotten shirt that says "I Want Be An Anarchist." (laughs) I gotta give credit to Murph that he was a fucking bad ass from the beginning.
What about going to shows? When did you start going to see bands play and what bands were they?
The first show I went to was Love & Rockets and Jane's Addiction and that was '87 or so. The big change happened when my sister started dating the guitar player from Brotherhood, Greg Anderson. Him and all his friends started taking us to see his band. I knew he was in this band before that, which was False Liberty. I knew they were playing shows, but I was so young. I was like 14, 13? So my mom didn't approve of me going to shows unless there was a chaperone or music she approved of.
Mark with Undertow, Photo courtesy of: Tom Holcomb
So you got into Brotherhood before The Accused, or were you an Accused fan first?
I was an Accused fan first. Yeah, because they were from Seattle, so they were pretty big. There was a show I was supposed to go to. Me, Joel and Murph were supposed to go see GBH and The Accused, but it was like three hours away and you had to take a ferry to go. I can't remember if Murph went or not. I think he was the one who had a ticket, but couldn't go. And there was actually a riot on the ferry one day.
Oh! Yeah, Jesse from Bad Reaction told me the story. He was on the ferry.
Yeah! After that riot my mom was like . . . my mom was very protective of me because my sister was a wild child, so I kind of caught the brunt of anything she did. She was like, "That won't happen again."
So your parents were still married at this point?
They were divorced when I was 2. I saw my dad at least once a week. He only lived like an hour and a half away.
In Olympia, right?
Yeah. And he loves music. He bought both me and my sister record players when we were like 10. So both me and my sister grew up listening to a lot of music and collecting records and all that. Throughout the entire career of Undertow and me being in Shift, he always supported me musically. He said, "This is what you want to do. Go for it."
So when did you start playing the guitar?
I was 14? It was the summer before freshman year, so I had just turned 14 and I traded the original Nintendo for the Eric Clapton red and white Squier guitar.
Oh, like a Stratocaster?
Yeah. And then I started in high school. Freshman year, I took lessons. Which is mostly classical, but basically you had an hour to practice your classical stuff and then your teacher would play Beatles songs and you'd try to follow along.
How did Refuse start? That was the first band you were ever in, right?
And who was in the original line up of Refuse?
I can't remember the bass player, but it was all of us from high school, and basically me and Joel had been best friends and we needed a drummer. Greg from Brotherhood said, "You want to start a band? Just find dudes who play music. It's that simple." So we talked to Murph and we were like, "We want to start a band." I said, "I can't play." Murph is like, "I can't play." But my mom let us practice in our house for a little while and then eventually we practiced at Joel's. But it was me, Joel, and Murph, and we kind of had a rotating bass player there for a little while. But we didn't know how to write. We barely knew how to play. We'd just kind of get together and jam. We'd never do covers or anything, but I would try to write music. And I think we ended up recording eight songs for the Refuse demo by the end of our freshman year.
Mark and John with Undertow, Photo courtesy of: Tom Holcomb
Your first was where, and if you remember the date, what date was that?
It was in April, I want to say like the 4th or the 8th. It was in Bremerton, which was the place where The Accused riot happened. It was with Brotherhood and First Step I think? We played four songs in this dude's basement. This guy Lenny used to have shows in his basement and like 50 kids showed up.
Yeah. Both me and Joel sang back up vocals for Brotherhood, and that was in '88. And that was when I was still straight edge. I can mark the date where pretty much I was like, "I'm going to be straight edge." It was right around November of '88.
You were so young. Were you doing any drugs or drinking before that?
No, but talking with Greg and seeing other family members kind of having issues. Greg just presented it as, "I'm doing this for myself, and I like to be in control. When you get fucked up you're just not in control. What if something happens to somebody or you? You're just not in control. You don't have your full functions. And I would prefer to live my life clean." It made sense to me because when you get into high school there's the rockers, the goths, the skaters, and everybody kind of hates each other. It appealed to me. I'm going to take care of my own life.
You said something about family members having issues. Specifically what was going on in your family at the time?
Just recreational use. There might have been some harder stuff mixed in. My parents are divorced, my mom's a Catholic, and uh . . . I don't know. There was some harder drugs going on. I don't know how serious it was, even to this day. I've asked and I've gotten different stories. Siblings . . . that's as far as I can go with that. (laughs) I'll tell you off the record.
Tell me about One Family. What is One Family?
It was the guys in Undertow, Dave Larson from Excursion Records, and Ron from Overkill [Records] and Brotherhood. We just wanted to get buddy tattoos because we were all like, "We'll be straight edge forever." We've been straight edge for this long and we were kind of building a scene, because Seattle was pretty small then. It was kind of a comradery thing. We took it obviously from Youth of Today. Ron used to always drive Undertow down to California on our spring break and whenever we could. So it was always like Undertow, Dave Larson, and Ron, and a few of our other friends. Eric Kinder came along for a lot of those trips. It was just like a group of dudes who were like, "Fuck everybody else. This is who we are. We'll all be friends forever." You know. You're 18, you want to get tattooed.
Demian, John and Mark with Undertow, Photo courtesy of: Tom Holcomb
So have you been friends forever?
Still friends with half the people. Ron Guardipee I'm not, but that's more business than anything else.
It was a crew in a sense that it wasn't exactly a gang? Did you graffiti on the walls?
No. It was just a group of dudes, and we were all like, "Let's get the same tattoo."
You got your first tattoo when you were how old?
What other bands were there at the time, late 80s Seattle straight edge? Obviously there's Brotherhood who becomes Resolution. There's you guys - Refuse. And then, who else? First Step?
First Step was from Bellingham. I feel like there was a straight edge band out of Spokane. It's been so long. That was it. Brotherhood broke up after they toured with The Accused and First Step broke up even before that. Around that time Refuse was it. We changed the name [to Undertow] I think when we were 16.
Did Refuse play outside of the Seattle area?
Refuse never played IN Seattle actually. We played one show in Bremerton and then we played one show in Spokane when we were 15. And then we lost our bass player and that's I guess when John [Pettibone] came in. We met Pettibone through going to all these shows, because he would be at the shows. I've talked to you about this, but the background to Seattle was underage shows were illegal in Seattle up until like '92-'93. Because they didn't want underage kids being in the same environment where people sell alcohol, and the insurance rates were too high for somebody to open up an all ages club. So you were playing like basements. We found this sketchy place in a bad neighborhood called the Party Hall, and that guy was like, "I don't give a fuck. Do whatever." We used to get robbed outside. It was pretty dicey for a 16 year old kid, but that was the first place where it didn't get shut down because it was in such a bad neighborhood. All the other places if somebody tried to rent a VFW hall or something, it would get shut down in like three weeks.
Mark and Ryan, Photo courtesy of: Tom Holcomb
At this point were there nationally touring hardcore bands coming through Seattle?
Yeah, occasionally. It was just all random, but the shows wouldn't be just hardcore. They'd be punk, and pop-punk. I remember bills where Neurosis would play with a pop-punk band, and Christ On A Crutch were still playing around in Seattle so, there was bands like Aspirin Feast and Last Gasp and there were like punk bands like The Accused, but on a smaller level playing shows, but if you were in a band and you could play, you could get a show there. So there were shows where it would be like Undertow, Christ On A Crutch, Aspirin Feast and Neurosis, and then like one time we played with Offspring before they got big. And it was great because everybody would show up and everybody got along because they knew that this isn't going to last forever. There was no friction at that time between different scenes because everybody played the same shows.
Youth of Today or Inside Out, when they did national tours, would they come through Seattle?
Youth of Today came through in '88, played Spokane, and I think Walter broke his leg and flew home because he was skating.
He broke his leg in Spokane?
It was right around that time. So Ray played bass and I think John White from Open Your Eyes Fanzine sang, and they didn't play Seattle. (Editor's note: it was actually Steve Reddy of Wolfpack/Equal Vision Records that sang at that show for YOT)
And John White was the first Brotherhood singer?
Yeah. Bands wouldn't really come through that much. so when a band did make it through, especially later on in the second era of Undertow, when maybe we had established a little bit of a name . . . to get to Seattle from San Francisco is a 16 hour drive. There were no shows in Portland or Idaho, so you'd come up and play Seattle and then split. Most bands were like, "What's the fucking point?"
Poison Idea wasn't playing?
Oh yeah! Undertow played with Poison Idea. And we used to play with The Accused, but I think if bands wanted to come through they had to be bigger at that time or they had to be bands like Poison Idea that could get a draw and get paid a lot of money, because those drives . . . You hit Seattle, you might go play Vancouver. I think Vancouver had shit going on then too, but getting across the border was really sketchy. So if you want to come to Seattle, and maybe play Portland, but Portland was kind of slimmer than Seattle where just really weren't that many shows. You were doing these 12-13 hour drives, coming up playing two shows tops, probably not making that much money, and then having to drive through Idaho, Wyoming, or Montana, if you could find those shows. There really wasn't a cohesive scene. And the bands that did make it through were playing bars. And I was 15-16.
Ryan delivers the beat for Undertow, Photo courtesy of: Tom Holcomb
You told me a long time ago about the best show you ever saw. Do you remember what you said?
Inside Out. Yeah.
Where was that? When was that?
That would be probably '90. It was Inside Out and Forced Down. Amenity actually came up before Forced Down and I met all those dudes, and I had a fanzine at the time called Mario Brothers. (laughs). I interviewed the guys in Amenity. And then when Forced Down and Inside Out came up they played in . . . it's called Ballard, but it's basically Seattle, and Bellingham which is two hours north. They played at a real club in Ballard, and then played this kid's garage in Bellingham, and this was still . . . I was what? 16? So that's 15 years ago roughly? Still the best show I've ever seen. EVERYBODY knew the lyrics.
It was 20 years ago.
Oh man. (laughs)
Exactly 20 years ago. What was it like? What was so great about Inside Out?
Well I think for a lot of us, we got the demo real early on. It changed our perception of what hardcore could be, because Zack's vocals, he actually sings on a lot of it. Not really melodies, but it's not just screaming. His voice . . . even in Rage Against The Machine I think it's appealing. His voice is just so emotional. It's not just dead screaming. And then Vic Dicara . . . the members of the band were just amazing. It was intense and it had this emotional feel to it. It wasn't the east coast Sick Of It All-Killing Time kind of tough guy shit. It was like west coast, emotional . . . I don't know if it's maybe more laid back, but Inside Out also was a bit slower. Not much on that record is fast. So it's a different style of hardcore. Greg Anderson was living in San Diego, and he played a little bit in Amenity, but he also had a band called Statement. And all of a sudden Statement and the original Statue stuff was coming out. It was slower, the vocals were a lot better. And even Chain of Strength, it's amazing. His vocals are like . . . awesome.
You can definitely hear the Chain of Strength and the Inside Out influence in early Undertow.
So when exactly did Refuse change its name to Undertow and why? And just for the record - Refuse changed its name to Undertow while Joel was still the singer. Is that correct?
When was that?
Probably '89 or '90. I think we just decided the name Refuse was stupid. And it was definitely Joel and me and Murph and around the time that John joined the band.
The Undertow guys stop to take a rest, Photo courtesy of: Tom Holcomb
Thursday, June 30, 2011
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