HALF LIFE

Interview with Mike LaVella below from Pulp Newsweekly

Why a reunion? Whose idea was it and why now?

In March I came through Pittsburgh tour managing one of the bands on my label (Gearhead Records) the "Demons" from Stockholm, Sweden. Vinny and Jeff came to the show, and it was the first time we've all been together for 14 years. We just hung out with our old roadie Brian Corley, who is really like a member of the band, and our mutual friend Spahr from Brave New World. It was really great being together again, I think we realized that the experience of being in Half Life together for all those years in the 80's really does connect us in some profound way. It was natural to want to play together again, if only to have fun. For me, it's really about the four of us cementing that friendship, the fact that there is so much interest in the band again is just like icing on the cake.

Why this particular lineup?

Well, it's the classic Vinny (Vince Curtis) based/lead line-up, and Vinny is the man, no doubt about it. I was in Real Enemy with him in 1983, the first hardcore band in Pittsburgh. When we split up, Vinny formed a band called Rape of the South, which latter evolved into White Wreckage. Jeff Lamm, who is of course the singer for Half Life, was Real Enemy's roadie, I don't think a lot of people know that. I thought that he was such a cool and charismatic kid, that he would make a great front man, so I moved to bass (I had been the singer for Real Enemy.) Our first line-up was with Mike Michalski on guitar and Blair Powell on drums. When Blair left we got Ron (Volpe) to drum, but he came with his guitarist friend Rick, sort of a package deal. So there is a line-up that existed for a few months that was Me, Jeff, Mike, Rick and Ron. That's the line-up that did the "What's Right" Cassette, which was later released on LP and CD on Get Hip. Most of that stuff was from 1984, pretty early on. Then Mike left, and White Wreckage broke up around the same time, so Vinny just moved over to Half Life, which seemed like the most natural thing in the world. There was always a conflict in the band between Rick and Ron, who still lived at home or whatever, and me, Vinny and Jeff, who lived at the infamous Half Life house on Chesterfield Rd. Those times were rough, and never comfortable for me. See, I'm a natural organizer, which eventually lead to me publishing a magazine (Gearhead) running a label, and organizing an international rock festival (Gearfest) which is happening in 4 countries this year. This conflict always kept me from doing what I do best. So when Rick and Ron finally left, and we got Damon Che (later of Don Caballero, Speaking Canaries, etc.) to play drums, things really started happening. Everybody's roles were clearly defined: Vinny wrote the music, Jeff did the artwork, and I was free to organize, book the tours, studio time, get our singles out, all that stuff. So that time period (1986-1987) was really the best era, at least for us as friends and for what we wanted to accomplish as a band. When Vinny decided to "retire" in late 1987, we got Rick back, mainly because we weren't quite ready to hang it up just yet, but it was a step backwards, and for me personally, I knew it wouldn't last. Damon couldn't deal with Rick, much in the same way Mike Michalski couldn't years earlier, so he left soon after his return. So we then got Ron back too, because at this point - even after all those years, we still hadn't made an album, and I didn't want to quit before we did. During our U.S. tour in 1987, I had decided that I was definitely moving to San Francisco, so for me a clock was ticking. I did whatever I had to do to get that LP made, and I'm glad I did, because "Never Give In" still stands the test of time. But I was gone before it was released, I just had to get the recording of it out of my system. I chose Troy as my replacement and left in September of 1988. They later replaced Troy with Howie, so I guess there were actually 8 versions of Half Life, Jeff being the only original/consistent member, although I was there for 5 of the 6 years.

What's up with Rick?

Dunno. I've been in California for 14 years remember...

Troy?

Dunno.

Ron Volpe?

Ditto. When I ask about those guys, nobody ever seems to know, so I quit asking.

When did Half Life form and why?

First practice was December of 1983, first show was with The Five in May of 1984.

Why?

I guess the usual reason: if we didn't do something, we would have gone nuts in Pittsburgh during that era!

What was it like to be a punk in the early/mid/late eighties in Pittsburgh?

Tough, really hard actually. People would try to beat you up all the time, or at very least, would burst into laughter when they saw you walking down the street. There was no MTV, no punks in movies, the very act of leaving the house dressed punk was totally revolutionary and controversial. I very narrowly escaped getting my ass kicked several times. I remember that riding the 54C was especially rough, I had to jump off a few times nowhere near where I was going, just to avoid a pounding. Lucky for me, it was $1.35 to ride the bus, so no one else would get off just to beat you up, they couldn't afford to! Seriously, it was really, really frustrating. We traveled a lot so we always were in cities like New York or DC that had great punk scenes. We knew it could happen, but it never really did until much later. It always seemed like it was up to us to keep things going, so I'm glad we did for so long, because obviously there is a good scene there now. I'm fine with being part of the crew that laid the ground floor, you can't build anything without one.

How was the scene/kids/music different back then compared to today?

Well, Pittsburgh had GREAT bands, make no mistake about that. Not hardcore punk, but just great underground rock and roll. The Five were probably one of the finest bands that has ever existed anywhere, at any time. They really deserve to be remembered as Hüsker Dü, The Wipers, or The Replacements are today; groundbreaking and influentual. Carsickness were great, The Cardboards were great, Ground Zero, The Shunts, Dress Up As Natives, all great, great bands. But we never had a label rise up to capture and release it all. Carsickness were able to put out quite a few records, but most of the other bands never got past a single or EP. It's a shame really, there is a wealth of ingenious stuff there. If I could get a grant, I'd write the definitive book about the history and evolution of the Pittsburgh punk scene, and compile a CD to go with it. Another thing we were blessed with was good record stores. I can't tell you how important a store like Jim's Records in Bloomfield was to the scene. We could get anything, people used to drive from DC, Cleveland - all over to shop there, it's a legendary place really. So what we lacked in labels and clubs, we made up for in raw talent and availability of music. I think all in all, factoring in the danger and extreme poverty of most of the bands, it was a pretty good experience. It was a situation where if you wanted to make something happen, YOU had to make it happen, so that's always a good thing - if you're a motivated person.

What do you think punk kids today miss out on compared to the early days, in regard to the scene/the punk movement?

Taking into account that I'm a very positive "the glass is half full, not empty" kind of guy, I think it's a great time right now. I get a smile every time I see a kid with a mohawk walking down the street, because I know I was one of the people that blazed that path. I take pride in it really, it's like "we won." So, with all the resources that kids have today, I don't know that they are necessarily missing out on anything. I mean, we couldn't do a Google search for "Slaughter and the Dogs" in 1983 and have ten websites pop up. So the history is there, well documented in fact, if the kids want to find it. I'm glad that the really scary and dangerous element is gone now. I mean, I had blue hair in 2000, and all I got was complements, even in downtown Oakland, CA by black guys on the street. In 1984, I almost got killed for having a Discharge logo drawn on my pants, even though my hair and the rest of my appearance was relatively normal that day. So given the safer climate, kids should be able to do all kinds of creative things within the scene. But again, you've got to be a motivated person. No one ever accomplished anything sitting on their ass!

What were your most memorable shows/favorite bands to play with?

Half Life were really chameleons in a way, able to fit in with almost anyone, and I think that worked to our advantage. I don't think any other band of the era was tight with say, Agnostic Front, Government Issue, Samhain, The Minutemen AND The Exploited for instance, but we were. Yeah, playing with those bands and GBH, Fang, Cause For Alarm, Bad Brains, Scream, Husker Dü, Naked Raygun, Descendants, Dagnasty, Gang Green, The Plasmatics, The Subhumans, Scratch Acid, etc. - that was definitely one of the best parts of the whole experience.

Were you the first Pittsburgh punk band to tour the US?

Definitely.

How did being in Half Life shape you into who you are today?

Well, you can't possibly go through an experience like that and not be affected by it. A lot of what I know today about organizing, networking, even marketing, all that ground work was laid in that era. We didn't have computers, so it was done through talking and listening and learning what you could. You would meet the biggest jerks, but also incredibly inspiring people too, so you learned to take the good with the bad, and realize that every experience can be valuable if you learn something from it. I'm glad we never took drugs, because I can remember damn near everything, so I can still draw on all those experiences today. With various lineups came different sounds of Half Life (Discharge-ish to more "punk" sound). Explain. Well, the very first line up sounded like Flipper! Seriously, in 1983 we wanted to be a cross between Flipper and Fang, a big noisy mess. In fact, the name Half Life comes from a title of a Swans song, they were the loudest, noisiest and scariest band I'd ever seen in my life! But when Rick and Ron joined, they brought a lot of songs with them, much more traditional punk stuff, so we went in that direction. When they left, Vinny took over, and he was very into Motorhead, Discharge, Sacrilege, stuff like that, so we got really heavy and dark - the "Under The Knife" era. When he left, I started writing a little more, "I Got It Bad And That Ain't Good" was mine for instance, and that doesn't sound like anything we did up until then. So if I had my way, we definitely would have gone in a Poison 13 or Green River direction. When Rick and Ron came back, they had new tunes too, plus we had the whole back catalog to choose from. Out of respect to Vinny, we didn't play his material, except for "Under The Knife" which was such a crowd pleaser WE would have actually been under the knife if we didn't play it! So if you saw Half Life in 1988 say, you were getting a very mixed bag, stuff from all eras, but for me, the clock was ticking and I had to get to California, where I felt that my hard work would better be rewarded. The band went on for a bit without me, and I don't blame Jeff for keeping it going at all. I mean, we all have egos, and he had to prove that he could keep the flag flying without me or Vinny, which he did. So the sound of the band was definitely influenced by what members were in it at any given time.

What songs can we expect to hear at the reunion shows?

If you have the semi-legendary "What's Left" cassette, you're in luck! Plus the singles and some other surprises too of course. No one will be disappointed, but remember, we are doing the reunion for ourselves too, so it's the material we all like the best and feel the most comfortable playing.

What are your thoughts on the Electric Banana?

Man, every time I open my mouth about that, I big Italian boot gets put in it... pass! Actually I have so much to say about it, I could fill a book, so someday I just might.

You had a connection to the Washington DC scene. How did you hook up with Tom Lyle and record in DC, etc.?

I worked really hard at establishing that connection, and Damon was super into DC as well. We would drive through snowstorms to see like, Marginal Man or Kingface. But GI were special, I roadied for them, got to know them all really well. Tom volunteered to produce our records, definitely the best option we had at the time. I think "Under The Knife" sounds really bad (luckily Vinny has re-mixed it) but he got it right by the time we did "Never Give In." I wish GI were more respected, looking back, along with Naked Raygun, I think they were one of the best bands that came out of the 80's.

What are your thoughts on how in the late 80's the scene changed...and more crossover and metal came in to the picture?

In general, I hated it. Metal was SO stupid, Kick Axe, Madame X, all those bands played to the lowest common denominator, whereas punk was generally much more intelligent, and strived to do important things, like bring about social change. Even if punk rocks biggest goals were never realized, a lot of things that are huge today were put into motion then. Look at "Emo" for instance, it's huge! But the originators of the genre like Rites of Spring and Dagnasty were our peers. Vinny's lyrics on the "Under The Knife" EP for instance are emo-punk in it's earliest, purest form. So I think even though we played so hard and heavy, it was all about "personal politics" emotional, thought provoking stuff. We were pretty unique really, listening to bands like Corrosion of Conformity AND bands like Embrace, then mixing it up, adding in a little pure Pittsburgh desperation, like pouring Heinz ketchup on an omlette, and there you go. When DRI made the "Crossover" LP I hated it, it was the beginning of the end. No wonder so many punks picked up acoustic guitars, or got into rockabilly or ska, I mean, anything was better than becoming like the very same bands that punk was created to destroy.

What do you think of the bands in Pittsburgh today (if you know of any)?

Well, it's impossible not to be impressed by Anti-Flag. They have accomplished everything we set out to do, I really hope in some way we were an inspiration to them. Honestly, I don't keep up on hardcore in general, I like traditional punk, and really pure rock and roll, which is obvious if you look at the bands on my label: The Hives, The Hellacopters, Red Planet, the "Demons." Me and my partner Michelle just signed the New Bomb Turks too, they really represent how raw punk and all the best elements of rock and roll (Stones, Stooges, etc.) can really come together perfectly.

What are you listening to today?

It's a real mixed bag. My girlfriend Cathy owns Lookout! Records, so I see and hear lots of great and diverse bands like The Pattern, The Enemies, Bratmobile, American Steel, and The Queers all the time. I like most of the big Scandinavians bands, Soundtrack of our Lives, Turbonegro, The Flaming Sideburns. Also Rocket From The Crypt, The Dragons and the Gaza Strippers are always high on my list. As far as more mainstream stuff, I like Weezer, The Strokes, AFI. I don't like techno, rap or any so called "Nu-Metal." Of course The Hives are really the band of the moment, but they've been my favorite band since 1997! It's been amazing to see their success play out, and to actually be a part of it is one of the greatest experiences in my life - Hate to say I told you so!

What was the best song Half Life ever wrote?

Playing all the songs again recently for the first time in almost 15 years, I have to say that "More of the Same" from the Under The Knife EP is a real inspired stroke of genius - bravo Vinn

y! It paints this dark mood, perfect for an industrial working class town like Pittsburgh, but it's hopeful too, kind of like Joy Division at their best. When did Half Life call it quits and why?

They went on for awhile without me, so I can't give you the date of the last show. But my last show was in September of 1988 in Latrobe with NOFX. As to why, I can say that seeing awful bands like Suicidal Tendencies become popular was a constant source of frustration. But personally, I think that it was just time to move on. When I got to San Francisco, I started writing for Maximum Rock and Roll, which lead to writing for national magazines like Thrasher and Rip. I cut my teeth on those, then started publishing myself, and Gearhead was pretty successful right from the start. All I've ever done was follow my heart, and try not to let my brain get in the way too much!

If Half Life was still together today, what to you think you would sound like and do you think you'd be packing in clubs all over the country like, say Anti-Flag does?

Wow, that is a really tough question. Some bands can continue and be creative and still play great, like Rancid for example, but others that came out of our era should have hung it up years ago. If we could have evolved and continued to be poignant and interesting, who knows? But I think we were pretty aware of our limitations as well. I mean, I'm obviously better at putting out records and working with bands than actually being in one. But having been in a band myself makes it much easier for me to do my job well, so I have no regrets about it. Even after all these years, we are still like brothers, I can't think of 3 guys that I respect more in the world, so who knows? The eighties might have just been the first chapter, we'll see how it goes. I've learned to never say never, that's for sure.

You can contact Mike LaVella via Gearhead PO Box 421219 San Francisco, CA 94142 www.gearheadmagazine.com