Exclusive Excerpt: “The Blood and The Sweat: The Story of Sick of it All’s Koller Brothers”

If you ever wanted to delve deeper into the fascinating, inspiring world of Decibel Hall of Famers Sick of it All, the wild/improbable underground-to-overground triumph of hardcore in the early 1990s, or simply have an interest in outré cultural phenomenon, you absolutely must get ahold of the riveting n’ rousing The Blood and The Sweat: The Story of Sick of it All’s Koller Brothers — penned by Lou and Pete Koller with the legendary Howie Abrams (Finding Joseph I: An Oral History of H.R. from Bad Brains/The ABCs of Metallica) — like, right fucking now.

One the best books ever written about hardcore, period, The Blood and the Sweat features a diverse array of perspectives from Sick of it All members past and present, their friends and family, Gary Holt, Barney Greenway, Iggor Cavalera, Toby Morse, Kurt Brecht and more.

And we’ve got an exclusive excerpt from the chapter “Europe Calling” for you below.

“Long story short, the kids in the major European cities see bands like Agnostic Front and Sick of it All as being very similar to them in attitude and worldview, whereas they cannot relate as much to most Cali-based bands because of their lifestyle,” Abrams tells Decibel. “[In this excerpt] Lou and Pete discuss the phenomenon in-depth, along with Marc Nickel, who is the OG punk booking agent who’s been bringing bands over there for decades. Sick of it All was the first NYHC band to conquer the metal festival scene over there, and they’ve maintained a massive following ever since as a result of their years playing squats and youth centers across Europe, as well as their willingness to take chances, which most bands were afraid to do, from crust punk gigs to supporting Iron Maiden.”

Without further ado…

LOU: I remember Marc from M.A.D. Tour Booking calling Armand, who was working at the label at the time, and saying, “Sick of It All has to come over to Europe.” Armand gave him my number and Marc was telling me, “You have to come and show the people that you are not a sell-out band.” I was like, “What the hell are you talking about?” He goes, “Your record came out on SONY here, and people now say they HATE you,” and I’m like, “Why would they hate us because of the label it came out on?” I wasn’t of that idea that labels are evil . But that was his initial motivation, for us to come and prove ourselves overseas.

MARC NICKEL (M.A.D. TOUR BOOKING): I started in punk rock in 1978 as a kid in Germany. When I was in New York in the mid-eighties and saw Sick of It All for the first time, I said, “Damn, that’s the real deal!” They played the music we wanted to hear. And the message, all the angry things we feel… it was different from, I guess you could say, the “student music” we were getting from Washington, D.C., and San Francisco. Those bands had nothing to do with our life here in Germany. Life over here, especially in the bigger cities like Berlin, was just like New York. Plus, that New York sound was the sound we all liked, so we basically sat down and said, “Let’s do this. Let’s get these guys over here.” The only problem was that the New York bands weren’t the richest people on the planet, so the question was: How do we get them over here? The guys in SOIA said, “If you can buy us four plane tickets, we’ll come to Europe.”

LOU: Some people warned us, “The scene there is very political,” but I didn’t really care. The first show we played in Berlin, the first show of our first European tour, I was walking through the crowd to get to the stage, and this drunk guy corners me. In his heavy German accent, he starts going off on me about what our country has done to Native Americans, and how we’ve destroyed their culture. I’m all panicked and I just blurt out, “What about what the Germans did during World War II?” and he says “Oh, you Americans always bring up World War II.”

PETE: As far as the tour itself, it was one of those things where when you’re in it, you’re having fun and all that, but you have those moments where you’re like, “This fucking sucks!”

LOU: There’s only one moment I remember that I hated. We played a lot of squats and a lot of youth centers, and they were all great shows. But there was one night where it was freezing-cold, and we used to change our clothes just before going onstage. They were used to punk bands rolling up and just hanging at the bar all day until it was time to play. So we went to this squat and asked, “Is there a room where we can hang out and change?” They took us across this courtyard in the freezing-cold to this other building. We walk into this room and there’s one tiny space heater in the middle of the room, and a lightbulb that was turned on. So we changed our clothes, put our coats back on, and just sat there around this heater until it was time to go on. We walked back across the courtyard and go into what used to be a bomb shelter. There were about six or seven hundred people crammed into this bomb shelter.

PETE: Everybody there was very politically-minded compared to us, like we’d heard. They really liked talking politics. Anytime anyone would ask me anything involving the government, I would just be like, “Yeah, I don’t know,” and would walk away. I’d be like, “Hey, Richie’s making a funny video over there, I’ll see ya later.” I left it up to Lou to be the liaison to the people.

LOU: We would have to play our set twice sometimes, and then throw an AF song in there.

PETE: Yeah, we would do “With Time.”

LOU: That was the era when people were struggling with the idea of how hardcore should be. Do it yourself in the basement, blah, blah, blah. You end up going down a rabbit hole of weird discussions like, “Well, if I did a label out of my basement, I’d have to quit my job. How would I pay my rent?” And they’d respond, “But you could move into a squat.” NO! No, I can’t move into a squat.

PETE: Meanwhile, the people asking us all these questions were finishing their degrees, becoming doctors, and basically pretending they were punks. We were actually playing the music, living this life, and trying to make a living from it. That’s the way I’ve always looked at it: these people aren’t in bands; they’re going back home tonight, and we’re gonna be sleeping in a squat with no windows. Another funny thing is that some of the people who were running the squats, and I’m not talking shit because they’re our friends, were very, “Fuck the government! Fuck this!” but it’s pretty much the government that funded their squats. Now many of them run HUGE festivals. Big rock festivals sponsored by cigarette companies and beer companies. It is what it is.

LOU: But all that aside, when the music came on, they went crazy. They were used to hardcore and punk, but they weren’t used to the New York vibe. Sure, AF and Gorilla Biscuits had gone before us, but we had our Jackson Heights groove thing going on. The name was a bit of a joke, but that was how our sound was developing at the time. They didn’t mosh over there like New Yorkers; there were circle pits and a lot of pogoing and shoving. There’d be a row of punk girls with mohawks and dreadlocks getting down to the groove of those songs. It was so cool. You didn’t see that mix of people at our American shows.

PETE: And a lot of stage-diving!

LOU: Our first show in Berlin was completely sold out, and the crowd was crazy, and we were like, “This is great! Europe’s the greatest!” We were all high on our amazing first show in Europe. I remember getting in the van and Marc’s going, “But that was Berlin, it’s different in the rest of Germany, don’t expect this every night.” Sure enough, we went into former East Germany that night and played in a bar to maybe fifty people the next day. There were guys at the bar with leather pants and mullets with Scorpions shirts on, who were just hanging out drinking beer and watching us. The greatest thing was watching them, with their mustaches and mullets, buying XXL Sick of It All shirts and tucking them into their leather pants.

PETE: They were basically into anything heavy. It wasn’t like some places in the States where people are like, “Yeah, I’m into metal,” but wouldn’t give you a chance if it wasn’t a specific type of metal. That’s something really great about Europe. When we started playing festivals, you really saw that openness.

LOU: Those first two tours were basically us establishing ourselves. We played every small town that Marc could get us a show in. We played every youth center, every little club, every squat. I think it was on the second tour of Europe that he first got us on a couple of festivals. I think we played in Denmark with Henry Rollins and Iggy Pop.

PETE: Some of the people in the West were like, “Yeah, it sucks that the wall came down,” but when you went to the East, you got to see what Germany there was like. We would drive through some towns and Marc would say “Oh look, they’re westernizing.” There’d be ONE store with a bright pink awning, and I’d be like, “Are you kidding me? That’s westernizing?”

LOU: Everything closed at six o’clock. We’d be like, “Let’s go get some food,” and Marc would tell us, “No, everything’s closed.” We’d ask, “What do you mean, ‘Everything’s closed?’ It’s Germany. Where do people eat?” Marc would reply, “In their homes.” I’d say, “But what about travelers? We like to eat too!”

PETE: The first time we went to Russia was interesting.

MARC NICKEL: We snuck them over the border during the Iron Curtain period. The punk scene had been there since the eighties, but we never had the chance to go because it was quite dangerous. It would have been dangerous for us to get caught. It was even dangerous for the kids to go to the shows. We were the first to sneak bands behind the Iron Curtain to the Czech Republic, Hungary, and East Germany when the wall was still around. That’s why the New York hardcore bands were so popular in Eastern Europe compared to the California bands. They went there before everybody, before the whole wave started, and they were there for the kids when they needed them most.
One day I got a call from the guy from Dynamo Open Air in the Netherlands, a legendary festival. The guy called me and said, “Hello Marc, a band just cancelled. I have room for Sick of It All.” Dynamo was basically fifty to sixty thousand people, free entry. It didn’t really matter who played; it was kind of like a big metal party for everybody. They didn’t really pay the bands because they had free entry, so the attitude was, “You want to play here? Just be happy. We agreed to do it, and when we made it to the backstage area, the band was speechless. Pete, Lou, and Armand turned around and said, “Marc, we will not sell any merchandise here,” and I asked, “Why?” They said “This is completely commercial; they’re selling merchandising and taking a percentage. Our shirts will be too expensive for the kids.”

LOU: Sick of It All has always maintained, we can make money without robbing the shit out of our fans. Anytime we’ve gone on tour with a bigger band, we’ve had to fight to get it in our contract that we sell our t-shirts for OUR price. Otherwise, we’d have to match the headliner’s price, and our fans aren’t used to buying shirts for fucking, going back to the nineties, twenty bucks. Jeez, we were selling them for fifteen and people were complaining. Then you had the festival prices…. It could get ridiculous depending on who the headlining band was.

MARC NICKEL: I had to tell them, “This is a huge metal festival. Everybody knows how it is,” and they still refused to sell merchandise. So, we sat down, and I eventually talked them into it. It was the first show of their tour. They had a whole truckload of merchandise for the European tour, because back in the day, you got everything at once. When the show was over, there was nothing left! First show, everything was gone. They sold all of the merchandise. They were the first hardcore band to ever make it up there at a festival that size.

LOU: That was pretty crazy. We’d played some pretty big shows before Dynamo, but nothing like this. It was just heads as far as you could see. We weren’t sure if any of them would know who we were, but a lot of them did, and we won over a lot of the rest.

MARC NICKEL: Dynamo was a huge win. All the merchandise was sold, and everybody talked about it. They killed the show. So right away, other people were starting festivals in Europe, and they all took Sick of It All. They said, “Wow, hardcore really works for our metal audience!” This was maybe 1993. They opened the door in Europe for every hardcore band basically. Part of their success was also the nice and easy way they worked. They were polite, never made issues about green and yellow M&Ms, and were always OK with what they had. Then they opened the doors to the alternative festivals. That’s what made Sick of It All so huge over here. They played with everybody, and they never preached anything; they never told anyone what to do like other bands did. It was always about the music and fun.

PETE: We were getting on all the bigger metal and just rock and alternative fests, whatever you want to call them.

LOU: And we’d be billed over some of the biggest bands. In some cases, we played them three years in a row, like Full Force. We did the first three of those, and we were a headliner on the first one.

PETE: Resurrection, we headlined the first three of those. Now it’s headlined by the fucking Scorpions.

LOU: At Full Force, it was Anthrax, Sick of It All, Ministry, and Slayer. We had an amazing set, and I remember Tom Araya standing there on the side of the stage as we were walking off after the show. He didn’t realize that all of Ministry was standing behind him, but he laughs and says, “How the fuck is Ministry going to go on after YOU?!” I’m like, “Shhh, they’re right behind you.” It was amazing to hear him say that, and he didn’t give a shit that Al Jourgensen heard him say it.

MARC NICKEL: Sick of It All was the first band I’d met that was interested in the culture of where they were playing. Most bands would just hang out in their dressing rooms until showtime or walk around close to the venue. But these guys, I showed them every fucking place in the world. I always told them, “We’re on tour here now, but who knows what will happen tomorrow?” Every show looks the same, I know. After sightseeing, sometimes they were like, “Marc, another castle???” but they went to everything wherever we were. And because of this, the people in each city respected them more. They saw that they cared about where they were. Plus, they’d talk to everyone. I have to say, they always stood behind me. I knew they were there for me. For instance, we used to have problems with bootleggers. They would basically set up a shop outside the venue and sell lots of t-shirt designs. At one gig, Sick of It All went after them, and it got ugly. The bootleggers were very organized at that time, but we beat them up, took the merch, and brought it in for the kids for free. That was the game for three or four cities. The bootleggers didn’t know who I was, but they picked Berlin for their revenge attack. We had the whole firm there. Definitely the wrong place to try to attack the band. The bootleggers got beat up very badly. We had it in Holland too. Then we went to England—that’s their hometown—and they were ready. They came with black masks and Molotov cocktails and attacked us. We had a street riot with them, the band against them. Scary, you know. The police came because it was out in the middle of the street. Nobody helped us. It was just us and them. The police came and said, “You should leave the country; this is organized crime. You should go. They will come to your next show again. We can’t protect you all over.” I said, “Let me make a couple of phone calls to certain people I know, and I think we’ll get rid of the problem.” I spoke with the people from the London firms, and SOIA never saw the bootleggers again. Other bands had these issues and tried to fight the bootleggers the way SOIA did, but they all failed because they never had the backup those guys had. I’ve heard stories of other bands making that kind of call, but the people who helped us said, “We won’t do it for THEM.” There’s a reason Lou, Pete, and those guys got that kind of support. They’ll have that for life over here.