NYC’s Howie Abrams has been entrenched in the NY underground music scene for decades with most of his work coming outside of the spotlight that many of those in bands may get… but that does not make his contributions any less worthy. From running record labels like In Effect Records in the late 80’s through the early 90’s, to hosting radio shows, A&R work with multiple major record labels, and more recently… author. He is behind the newly released “The Blood And The Sweat, The Story Of Sick Of It All’s Koller Brothers” and apparently has a lot more in the tank. This interview was done in early July, 2020. Pictured below is Howie with Koller brothers Pete (left) and Lou (right). Lead photo graphics by: John Franko
1. Where are you right now and what would you usually be doing around this time if you weren’t answering these questions?
Howie: My couch is basically my office, so that’s where I’m replying to the questions from. Typically, I’m writing some sort of something. If I don’t have a book project in front of me, I like to write some articles to keep myself sharp. I’m almost always trying to come up with what’s next though. I can’t stop my brain from working that way.
UPDATE: I just answered the last few questions from the beach!
2. I want to jump right into “The Blood And The Sweat" book. When and how did the idea for this book come about?
Howie: Pretty sure I first talked to Pete and Lou about the idea in 2017. I’d recently finished H.R.’s book, and helped get Roger Miret’s book published. I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that they’ve gone through, and accomplished all that they have together as brothers. Being in a hardcore band is difficult enough, but doing it with your brother sounds like way too much responsibility. I thought other fans of the band would want to know more about their lives too, so we dug in.
3. How did you approach them about it and what was their response like?
Howie: They knew I had been working on books, and I just hit them up about the idea, highlighting the sibling direction. At first, they were skeptical as to why anyone would care about their story, but I convinced them that, more than ever, people seem to want to learn about the lives of their favorite artists, and I think they appreciated the brother angle. I’m generally not a fan of books about bands. Most of the info is on the internet, but learning about the people is always interesting.
4. How did you proceed with compiling everything? Did you sit down with or call Lou and Pete in one shot or has this been a back and forth where you were constantly revisiting things to try and nail things just right?
Howie: We talked a bunch of times, mostly over the phone because Lou’s in New Jersey and Pete’s in Florida, but a couple of times in person too when they were in the area doing shows. I compiled a list of topics I wanted to go over ahead of time, and we just built from there. Something new would always come up, or they’d remember something they wanted to talk about. For instance, there’s a story in there where Pete talks about stumbling upon Freddy Madball getting arrested in Spain while the bands were touring together. That’s just something he remembered, and wrote out. Most everything else came from the conversations. Sometimes I was reminding them about something they’d forgotten. Regardless, the chats were always fun.
5. What are some of the things that you learned about Lou and Pete from working on this book that you didn’t know before?
Howie: I think the two biggest takeaways for me are that they pretty much never fight, and how family-oriented they are. It became clear how much their parents have rubbed off on them in terms of work ethic and caring about those other than themselves. You can see it in how they carry themselves, and how the band operates. It’s very much a part of why Sick Of It All is still going as strong as it is.
6. Besides Lou and Pete you went out and got stories from others who have known them for a while. Who else did you get to give insight?
Howie: We didn’t have much of a plan as far as other voices for the book, aside from Craig and Armand, and also their families. Everyone else I talked to came about from the guys bringing them up while we talked. Their first tour was with Exodus, so I reached out to Gary Holt. Their first “real” U.S. tour was with D.R.I., so I hit up Kurt Brecht. Then, Barney from Napalm Death, Iggor from Sepultura, Toby Morse... Then one day, Lou’s wife Melissa told me that Chris Carrabba from Dashboard Confessional was a Sick Of It All super fan, so I emailed him and we turned our chat into the book foreword. I love what he had to say. Basically, the whole process was pretty spontaneous, which is always better than having too much of a plan.
7. Was the release date of this book affected at all by Covid-19? Whether from the people who print up the books maybe being backlogged or maybe even on your end trying to figure out what was the best time of the year to put this out?
Howie: Yeah, we definitely had some issues along the way because of the pandemic. The book was originally scheduled for June, but we moved it to August, which turned out to be smart. The book printers were behind, and the logistics of getting books from the printer, to the distribution warehouse, to stores was a crapshoot. Barnes & Noble is still a mess. But the biggest issue is the band not being on tour with the ability to sell books in the U.S., Europe and South America, all of which had to be canceled. We found that kids were definitely into copping books at shows as merch items. We’ll get back there eventually. Also, no in-store book signings, so we came up with the idea of doing a virtual in-store, which we’re doing with Generation Records. If you buy the book from them, you get a Zoom code for an exclusive Q&A with the guys. We’re going to wind up with around 200 people for that, which is amazing. (This virtual in-store took place on August 4th).
8. Over the last few years you have put out a wide range of books that have direct connections to the music you grew up with, sometimes with a twist though. Can you tell us about your more recent work?
Howie: I mean, the H.R. book was just a shot in the dark that worked out. I knew James Lathos was working on a documentary with H.R., and just cold-called him, asking if he might want to team up on a book. He had truly earned H.R.’s trust and that’s why that doc got made. My interest with the book was obvious: I fucking love Bad Brains and H.R. He is fascinating, and awesome and possibly the most genuine person I’ve ever met.
Kaves and I had the idea for Hip-Hop Alphabet probably 8 years ago. We created a proposal for publishers and everything, but no one wanted it. They were like, “Is this a real children’s book? Is it more for adults? What is it?” I was shocked at the stupidity. Anyway, we finally got to do it, and it was really successful, so we were asked to do a second one. That led to the opportunity to do the ABCs of Metallica. I met with a friend out in San Francisco who is Metallica’s day-to-day manager. He asked if I had thought about doing an alphabet book which was more metal leaning, and I pulled out a 16” X 19” laser print of a page Kaves and I had already designed for Lars Ulrich. He dug it and so did the band, so yeah, that happened. Amazing experience to say the least. I feel really lucky.
9. Is publisher/author/writer your full time gig these days?
Howie: Writing is pretty much it these days. There’s a million interesting topics to tackle, but there are fewer that people would actually want to spend money on and read about. I always have to keep that balance in mind. It’s like the internet’s effect on music. Anyone can make it and get it out there now, but should they??? It’s amazing how having to pay for something changes the amount of interest people have in things.
10. Now that the content for “The Blood And The Sweat” book is done how long is it before you start thinking about or working on whatever is next?
Howie: Oh, I knew what things I might want to do next while we were still working on “The Blood And The Sweat”. Some of it is super wish-list stuff like a KISS alphabet book, which will never happen because of money, but also, I want to do a book with Vinnie Stigma, so just before Covid hit, he and I met and began talking for a book. I don’t want it to be an autobiography like other people’s books. It’s going to be more so Vinnie just dropping science about various things: Hardcore, New York City, Italians, food, religion, international travel, smoking weed with guys from ZZ Top. It’s going to be fun as fuck!
STIGMA! PHOTO BY: STEVEN J. MESSINA
11. Another part of your hardcore/underground legacy is your role with Relativity/In Effect Records back in the late 80's into the early 90's. How old were you at the time you were "given the keys" and can you tell us a little about how you got your start within the company and then rose up to be in charge of the label?
Howie: The idea for In-Effect really began to come together in 1987 when I was a 19-year-old sales person for Important Record Distributors, which owned Relativity Records and Combat Records. I wasn’t the best salesman, but I knew my foot was in the door and I began to push for a new label to focus on hardcore. After a few months, the powers that be green-lighted the label. When we started, we had already pinpointed what releases were going to be first, which was the Agnostic Front live album, the second Prong album and the Bad Brains ROIR cassette on CD. Once those were out, we knew we were on to something and I started signing bands, the first few being, Sick Of It All, 24-7 Spyz, Madball and Raw Deal. Plus I got Combat to let us release the next Nuclear Assault and Ludichrist albums, the latter of which turned into Scatterbran. When they started recording that first Scatterbrain album, they were still called Ludichrist.
12. I've read where you said that missing out on getting Leeway on In Effect was something you lament a little but it is what it is I guess. If you could go back in time was there anything you think you could have done differently that may have helped the label have more long term success or was the label sort of on course for what it did?
Howie: I honestly think we did what we could do, and it went the way it was meant to go. We were basically kids trying to figure it out together, the staff and the bands. We all wanted the same things, and were flying in the same direction for the most part. Then egos and business played more of a role than they should have, as with anything, and it was pretty short-lived, but fuck, we did some damage in those 4 or so years. Anytime I meet someone from another part of the world who loved the bands on In-Effect, I’m reminded of how proud of the label I am.
Left to Right: Mike Kirkland (Prong), Jimi Hazel, Rick Skatore, Anthony Johnson (24-7 Spyz), Barry Kobrin (Important Records), Pete Koller, Armand Majidi (Sick Of It All) - 24-7 Spyz Record Release Show @ Cat Club NYC, 1989. Photo: Carlo Ontal
13. Relatively/In Effect had a lot of kids from the hardcore scene working at the Henderson Avenue warehouse in Queens doing various jobs. Who were some of the people who worked there and do you have any good stories?
Howie: God, there were so many! Without mentioning names, let’s just say you could have formed more than one all-star NYHC band from the list of warehouse employees. Many of them survived by lifting records when no one was looking, and selling them to stores like Bleecker Bob’s and Venus. It was like a game: “Yo, I got 5 Death albums and 5 Dark Angel CDs.” “Oh yeah, I got 7 Nuclear Assaults and 10 Crumbsuckers. Let’s go buy a bag of weed and a slice of pizza.” It was hysterical. There may or may not have been some white drugs floating around too, but I can’t confirm or deny!
14. In Effect Records (you) and In Effect Fanzine (me) were two separate entities that both dealt with the same scene which caused a little confusion at times... which still carries on today when people tag me in social media posts for In Effect Records releases. For my third issue I remember taking a bus to Hollis with my friend and co-zinester friend Chris Bunkley to do an interview with Agnostic Front's Steve Martin (who also doubled as a PR guy for In Effect). When he met us at the front door he said something along the lines of "so In Effect Zine is interviewing Agnostic Front AT In Effect Records? And then smiled and laughed. I was a small potatoes operation when that interview happened in '89 but still had a small worry that the label might legally claim the name. How did the name In Effect come to be and was I (the fanzine) even on your radar? Were there any other names besides In Effect being kicked around before deciding to use it?
Howie: I don’t remember when I got my first issue of your ‘zine, but I dug it immediately, and didn’t think that much about it having the same name as the label. There was probably a 10 minute game of “who had it first,” but that’s about it. It was all still so small then. I was just happy to see any ‘zine that covered bands I liked to tell you the truth. As for other names for the label, the only one I remember being genuinely considered was “Crush.” It was similar to Steve Martin’s idea with “Harder Than You,” like, “We’ll crush you.” Basically “In-Effect” was just my Def Jam fantasy. I was obsessed with that label at the time. That’s why I made jackets too, because I was pretty sure I’d never get a Def Jam jacket.
15. I think the answer to the next one would maybe have a Sick Of It All release on it for sure but besides Sick Of It All what were your top 3 In Effect releases?
Howie: You can’t talk about In-Effect Records without mentioning 24-7 Spyz. “Harder Than You” was just a great moment for the label. The band had a toe in the hardcore waters, but they were really NYC’s answer to what was happening out west with bands like Fishbone, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Janes Addiction. They fit in everywhere and nowhere at the same time. A truly special band and album. Then there was the Madball 7”. I had no idea when Roger came to Hollis with that cassette that they’d have the impact they did, and become a full-time band still killing it today. I loved bringing them to Roadrunner just 5 years later. Finally, Nuclear Assault. To have roadied for them, made their flyers and dubbed their demos in my bedroom, to becoming their record label was amazing. Even better, “Handle With Care” is widely considered to be their best album, so to have released that makes me proud. It was their most successful too.
16. In regards to hardcore/metal/punk music how do you envision live shows making their comeback in a post pandemic world? (And when?)
Howie: Sadly, I don’t see shows happening again until around summer 2021 in the U.S. Maybe a little sooner elsewhere. They’ll probably be pretty similar to what they’ve always been. I just hope when they do come back heads show the proper appreciation and respect for what they have with these bands and our very special scene.
17. Can you give us 3 "newer/younger" hardcore bands that you listen to on more than a causal basis?
Howie: Mindforce is one of my favorite “newer” bands. They remind me a bit of Leeway. Love them. I like Drain too. Unabashedly metal with the guitars, and really powerful. And I know they’re not “new,” but to an old ass man like me, Power Trip is new enough, and they are absolutely crushing! Can you tell I dig the crossover vibe? I’ll never get sick of a great, heavy guitar tone.
HOWIE WITH MERCILESS RADIO SHOW CO-HOST ILL BILL
18. What's up with the Merciless Radio show you were doing with ILL Bill? Have not heard about it or seen any posts since probably late 2019?
Howie: Bill and I took what was meant to be a short hiatus, but it’s turned into a long one. Thanks Covid! We’ll definitely do it again. Merciless is like the college radio show neither of us ever had, and we love doing it. There are old episodes in both the Mixcloud and Bushwick Radio archives. Click HERE for more info.
19. You are a Queens, NY guy and usually wearing your Mets hat when I run into you. Who are your all-time 3 Mets and what makes/made them so appealing to you?
Howie: Tom Seaver is an obvious one. I was pretty young while he was with the Mets originally, but he was just a superior talent. You just expected them to win when he pitched. Plus, he was an animal of a competitor. He made sure batters knew not to ever feel comfortable in the batter’s box. You were always in his house. Another one is Edgardo Alfonzo. Homegrown, smooth, versatile infielder with great hands and a clutch bat. Super low key too. I did the Mets Fantasy Camp 5 times, and picked #13 for Edgardo. And I know this is premature because he’s only played one year, but I love Pete Alonso. Works his ass off as a fielder, and his bat speaks for itself. His attitude is fucking amazing! Reminds me a lot of David Wright, and like D. Wright, I see him as the team captain in a couple of years, and a Met for life.
19a. Your favorite Met fan moment of your life is....?
Howie: There’s the ‘86 World Series of course... That whole season really, but I will never forget Piazza’s home run against the Braves in the first game at Shea Stadium after 9/11. I was there, and the emotions of that moment were off the charts, and way bigger than sports. For the first 6 or 7 innings, fans didn’t even know if they were “allowed” to enjoy their time back at a game. That homerun was a gift to the city.
20. Your top 3 NY pizza slices can be found where?
Howie: My all-time fave is L&B Spumoni Gardens squares. That’s my birthday meal every year. Then I’d have to say, Di Fara and probably John’s of Bleecker Street. It’s true that there’s no such thing as bad pizza, but good pizza is fucking goooood!