Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Mark Holcomb - Undertow part II

Demian and John with Undertow, Photo courtesy of: Tom Holcomb

Picking up right where we left off, here's part two of our interview with Undertow guitarist, Mark Holcomb, courtesy of our west coast connection, Ben "Edge" Merlis. Below is an intro that Ben asked I include -Tim DCXX

People change. This is no secret to anyone. So it should come as no big shock that one of the founding members of a legendary straight edge band agreed to be interviewed under the condition that I buy him a six pack of beer. And so I did. During the course of our two hour plus chat, Mark Holcomb ingested between four and six of the fifty cent Simpler Times Lagers, while describing the many phases of his tumultuous life, from being a Seattle hardcore kid in Undertow, to the universe of Shift - a New York City post-hardcore band on a major label, to being a Los Angeles-based surfer and starting over again from scratch. Undertow always had a dark, morose, foreboding vibe to their music, and that darkness comes from a very real place. Mark exorcised his demons on that day in March of 2010, reminiscing on those not-so simpler times. - Ben Merlis

As the bass player (referring to John Pettibone)?

Yeah. I think we recorded the first Undertow demo that has the ocean scene on it. I think you got it over there. Oh yeah, there's John playing bass on the front of it. That would be probably '89, maybe '90?

And then around this time you did a tour with Jawbreaker, of all bands.

Yeah, yeah. (laughs)

West coast, right?

I think we played five shows, and three of them were with Jawbreaker and Samiam. Joel couldn't go. His dad wouldn't let him. So we had this kid Brandon Frenzel sing vocals.

Was he ever in any other bands?

No. He grew up with John, and he's like, "I can go." That was the "Beaver Hunt" tour. (laughs)

You made laminates that said that, right?

Yeah, and I wish I still had them, because I found most of the laminates that we ever made. That's one that's missing, but I'd love to fucking have it. If anybody out there has got it, I will pay you for that shit.

This kid Brandon who was singing for you just for that tour - what ended up happening to him later on?

He got involved with drugs and OD'd.

So he died?


What year was that?

I was 19, so '93 he passed away.

Not that much later.

Three years later. He was into going to punk shows and all that stuff, but he quickly became a club kid and was a casualty of . . . I want to say it was meth, but that was so long ago. I don't know. I saw him before he passed away and he didn't look so hot.

Mark Holcomb with the riffage, Photo courtesy of: Tom Holcomb

Around this time the Seattle grunge scene was becoming a worldwide phenomenon. Was there any cross-pollination between the Seattle hardcore scene and the grunge scene, and what was the general attitude towards grunge within the hardcore scene?

Um, I would say everybody was against it (laughter). I liked it. I've always liked Soundgarden. That first Pearl Jam record I think was great. I can't deny that I dig the first Alice In Chains . . . and this was back then. We were all like, "We just like hardcore." We don't like metal. All this other stuff seeped in, but I remember when grunge broke, the entire punk scene was like, "Fuck this shit." But people my age wanted to go see shows, so they weren't able to go see Soundgarden, because Soundgarden's on tour. So they probably came to our shows. So I think in retrospect, it probably had a pretty positive influence on the scene, and a lot more people probably wanted to go to shows. Those bands were so big, and all of a sudden you've got an influx of people dressing like them and wanting to be like them. I can only speak from my perspective. I actually liked those bands even though I shouldn't have. I thought they were good and I was sick of hearing all the other shit that I heard. I couldn't deny that I thought it was all good. I think Seattle got overblown so fucking fast that everyone wanted to move to Seattle, and everything was about Seattle and grunge. I think I can say for everybody, that everybody used to dress like that because it's fucking rainy and cold. So you wear a fucking flannel, because it keeps you warm. It wasn't a style move. It was just practical. It was nice that people noticed Seattle and I was proud to be from Seattle, although all the bullshit that came along with that was fucking totally retarded. And I don't think anybody in the punk scene liked any of the other . . . I mean Alice In Chains - that came out of nowhere, Pearl Jam . . . the whole Sub Pop thing was pretty massive too. There was always a fight between scenes, right? "My scene is better than yours. Fuck this grunge shit, we're hardcore. We're better than you." All that shit, but there was no cross-pollination, other than maybe the fans that couldn't go see Pearl Jam because they're on tour all the time, so they would go see Undertow, because they want to go to an underground show.

How did Joel leave the band?

We kicked him out. Me and Murph got fed up with his vocals, and he was all of a sudden getting into Morrissey, which was the exact opposite of what me and Murph were into.

Ironically a lot of hardcore kids were REALLY into Morrissey. But you weren't having any of that, right? (laughter)

I never gave a shit about fashion or what other people think or anything. I just want to play fucking music. People getting into The Smiths - all of a sudden you're dressing different, you're trying to look cool, and it became like you're everybody I went to high school with, that I'm rebelling against. You shouldn't have to dress this way to be cool, you shouldn't have to act this way to be cool, or listen to stuff. But straight edge can be the same way too. We got sick of his shit. We never thought he was that good of a singer, and one day me and Murph worked together, and somebody asked if we were playing a show that weekend, and it was either Murph or I who said, "No, I'm done with this. I'm not doing this anymore." And the next question was, "Well what are you guys going to do?" And whoever started the conversation was like, "We're probably going to do a band together." Basically we broke up the band, and we got John to sing, we stole this kid James from another band, who I think we also worked with. We just kind of said, "Fuck it, we're not doing that anymore." It happened like instantly.

When was that?

I think it was '91.

That kid James, he became the bass player?


So what band was he in before Undertow?

He was in a band with Kinder. They were a straight edge band. I'll find out for you. I can't fucking remember.

Ryan brings the dread and the beat, Photo courtesy of: Tom Holcomb

I should have asked you this earlier: where did the name Undertow come from?

I found it in a dictionary. When I was 15 - no social life, no girls liked me, so I was 100% [into] the fucking band. I played guitar for 8 hours a day. I'd go down to Kinko's and make stickers by myself. I went through the dictionary and was like, "We gotta come up with a new name," because Refuse was fucking stupid. I think I came up with 8 names out of the dictionary, and the guys all liked "undertow."

Demian [Johnston] becomes the bass player a year later and then you start putting out records?

Before that, Seth and James were in the band, and that's when we recorded the Stalemate 7".

So that's Seth Lindstrom on second guitar?

Yeah. Me and him were pen pals, and his mom moved to Seattle for a job, and he joined Undertow while Joel was still singing. The two of them became real good friends, and we kicked out Joel, Seth stayed in the band, and we stole James. That version of Undertow recorded the Stalemate 7", but it was just supposed to just be a demo. To me there are three versions of Undertow, although I only really like the last one. Undertow to me was Demian, John, Murph, and me. That version was like from [age] 17 to roughly 19. By now there was a scene in Seattle. Judge was supposed to come through, Ressurection, Mouthpiece . . . there were all these shows. Straight edge bands kind of popped up. There were a bunch of bands we played with. Also there was a scene, and you could actually play just hardcore shows. All bands would be pretty much hardcore bands, or some pop-punk and some rock bands. And that lasted until we all graduated. And John's a little bit older, but we graduated and James quit the band.

John Pettibone with Undertow, Photo courtesy of: Tom Holcomb

You graduated high school in what year?

'92. So James quit the band right around then, and Murph and Seth weren't getting along at all, so Seth, we knew he was going to quit. So at this point, it's kind of just me, John, and Murph. And John wasn't really showing up to practice at all, so it's kind of just me and Murph. Actually credit to John - John knew Demian. And Demian was playing bass in Seth and Joel's band. So two ex-members of Undertow started a new band, and they had Demian.

And then you stole Demian? (laughs)

Yeah, Demian was like, "Well, I'd really rather play with you guys." And we were like, "Why don't you just do both?"

What was the name of the other band?

Said Child. "Why don't you just do both, and we're not trying to steal you." We played two shows in Vancouver. The first night was HORRIBLE. We were like, "After this we'll just break up." The next night wasn't THAT bad. We came back to Seattle, and we were like, "Well, I don't know if we should do the band anymore. Let's think about it." And then John got us a show with Seaweed at this place called the Firehouse. We ended up playing a show in front of like 1500 kids. I don't know how, but a lot of the kids knew the lyrics. One of the records has "Cutting Away" live. And we play that show and you got 500 kids screaming "Cutting Away."

Stalemate CD.

Yeah. We were like, "Well maybe we should keep this band together." That was the final version of Undertow with Demian.

Demian and Murph with Undertow, Photo courtesy of: Tom Holcomb

But there was still a revolving door of second guitarists?

We hinted at it. Ryan Frederiksen from These Arms Are Snakes almost played with us, and Eric Kinder from 10:07 and Balance of the World almost played with us, but I think we decided we can do it . . . the four of us fit together.

What about that guy Guam?

He was the [earlier] bass player.

Oh, that IS James?

Yeah. And that was later too. I think during that time it was just the four of us, and then I talked about adding a guitar player during the last 7", and we just decided "What's the point?"

Things took off at this point, and you were putting out records . . .

I want to clear up something. That Stalemate was a demo and Dave Larson called us up and said, "Hey, I want to put that out as a 7"."

And Dave Larson did Excursion, right?

Yeah. And so we said, "Well, yeah, we'd rather do new stuff," but we didn't know if we were breaking up or what, so At Both Ends and Control were the only two records we did on purpose that were getting released as records. Everything else was just demos that other people later on were like, "Let me put it out." Up until now, where we're at in the interview, the band had a rotating bass player, changing members, we were breaking up. A lot of turmoil. Week to week you didn't know.

Mark hangin' on Holcomb St., Photo courtesy of: Tom Holcomb


Mike said...

"under the condition that I buy him a six pack of beer?" This sounds like a friend of my Surburban Dad and not a member of Undertow.

Mark sounds like a follower. It was interesting but how many times have we heard this same story?

ShayKM said...

Ben, good intro... and some good band questions... but what about the larger questions about HC/SE being important for this guy at that time and now. I don't care about him being SE or not... his choice. But what was his reason for changing? Go for some tough HARD TALK syle questions. After all, you did buy him his 6 bottles of manhood.

Ben Edge said...


Don't worry, there is PLENTY more to come, tough questions and all.

Anonymous said...

He's a follower because he drinks beer now? Sounds like you're the real follower. I guess "Mike" is afraid to do anything not covered in the Straight Edge rulebook.

Anonymous said...

I am pretty unfamiliar with Undertow, but I was interested to see Demian Johnston was the bassist. I know him from his great and very abrasive band Playing Enemy.

Anonymous said...

surprised Eric hasnt chirped in yet on this. Oh yeah, summer school isnt out yet


xjustinx said...

One of the biggest bummers for me as a 14/15 year old was that Undertow never played Portland. There was definitely a complete lack of a straight edge scene down here at the time, so I get why, but it still bummed me out.

Jim Pitts said...

I gotta admit this isn't as neat without "Eric from The Pride" here this round......
Uhhhhh and who is Undertow? I stopped going to shows in about '91......Were they any good?

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