Tony Sylvester of Turbonegro talks about the exotic appeal of American hardcore
Drawing on a hardcore background, Turbonegro combined glam metal with punk to create a sound it has cheekily called "death punk." With lyrics and imagery that both celebrate and make a mockery of the gaudy aspects of glam and its thematic tropes. The band's 1996 album, Ass Cobra, established the act as a group calculated to offend the most easily offended with songs that are both raw and sophisticated.
We recently spoke with Turbonegro's new singer, the charming and well-spoken Tony Sylvester, about how the band's bonded over being into American hardcore at a young age, how Sexual Harassment is a return to a stripped down sound and he chatted with us about some of his favorite song titles and bits of lyrics from the band's career.
Westword: In England, when you were coming up, how challenging was it becoming involved in music?
Tony Sylvester: I had two older sisters, so I was always listening to music from a pretty young age -- from ten or eleven or onwards, really. I started buying records at thirteen or fourteen. The great thing about being in London is that it meant I got to see loads of bands from quite a young age. I was pretty lucky in that sense. The problem was that the hardcore scene was so small that there weren't enough people to tow around. So you saw other stuff.
I guess from an early age, I was doing fanzines and traveling around seeing bands, so I was involved without actually being in a band. So I didn't get into bands until my twenties. I was very fortunate to be in London because it's like New York or L.A. because there's always something going on. If any band played, that was the place we're going to play. I always saw a lot more bands than some of my peers that [didn't live in London].
Who did you get to see early on that made an impression on you?
I saw the Smiths. That's a pretty good one. I saw the last show they did in London. I think the first show I ever saw was Echo & The Bunnymen. But to be honest, by the time I was fifteen I had already gone to hardcore shows so it was like Youth of Today, SNFU, Slapshot, Gorilla Biscuits -- all the bands that were coming through. Poison Idea played a bunch of times.
In many ways, being an English kid being into American music, it's kind of what we do, the English. It goes back to the Stones and all those guys before them listening to blues records. It's almost like because you're away from it, you have a much more macro view on the whole thing. The last sixty years of British youth culture is really kind of curating and having an overview of American music and culture in a quite good and scholarly way.
I don't think it was any different growing up with hardcore. You tended to know what was going on in different scenes that wouldn't have heard of other bands because their local scene would be so strong that they wouldn't really bothered about what was going on the other side of America, whereas we were more interested in it all. So I guess I sort of hit the ground running, and that's all I've ever really done for work -- working around music as well.
The guys in Norway were exactly the same. Tom [Seltzer] is American and Norwegian, and he had traveled. So it still amazes me they had the same kind of influences -- American, skating and everything else. Even though we grew up in different countries, we had a similar kind of background.
You did an interview with Sidewalk Magazine relatively recently where you talked about becoming aware of Turbonegro around 1997. What did you find appealing about the band immediately?
Honestly, it was just this mix of imagery with the lyrics. At the time, everything felt a little bit po' faced from my sort of generation. Everyone was doing very serious stuff. It was the era of post-rock. All these very worthy bands with quite pretentious names, mainly instrumental. It was very serious. [Turbonegro] was completely kind of caveman, very basic kind of punk. I thought that was really impressive. It was like a real bolt from the blue.
It was also kind of like, "It can't be serious. Are they serious? What's going on?" It seemed very exotic, strange. Of course, it broke up just after that point. I got to see them once in London. When they came back, I got a chance to meet them. We obviously hit it off. The hedonism and the upbringing and everything else [has made] us friends ever since for ten or eleven years.
You mentioned having done press for Party Animals in that same Sidewalk interview. In what capacity were you doing press?
When I met them, I was doing press and other things working for a record distributor. They'd ask my opinion on stuff. People that worked in the press would come to me and ask me what I thought about stuff and music coming out. I was sort of the go-to guy. On the next record, when they asked me to do the work for them, I was their press agent for the UK.
It had more to do with that than it is with being a fan of the band. Let's not forget that being in a band with someone that spends 23 hours a day and not playing meant they knew we got on independently. That's it kids, if you work in the music industry, you could end up in the band! No, I'm kidding. That's terrible advice to give anyone. "Be careful what you wish for" might be better advice.
Why do you think hardcore bands getting progressive undermines what makes hardcore good to begin with?
What I like about it as a genre -- and there's a few genres are like this, like black metal -- it's kind of conservatism and lack of progress are actually things that are strong points in a way. At the same time, that's why people get into it and leave, and leave the next generation to discover it and have their bands.
I think you often go through this stage where you go, "Oh, these new bands aren't as good as the bands I liked when I was a kid." You just do the grumpy old man thing. Then there comes a point where you realize it doesn't matter. It's kind of like how I felt about the Cro-Mags. That's great. That's the way it should be. I'll go see some of those bands and I like some of the new bands a lot.
At the same time, within that, you can get away with progressing. Converge is the epitome of that. The way they've managed to progress as a musicians and a band without really softening up, if anything, they've become more uncompromising and more relentless. I think they're a shining example of a band that can progress in a way that doesn't feel like a soft option. Black metal is kind of the same; it's strength is its kind of primitiveness and its inability to want to progress.
Turbonegro came out of hardcore in a way because you have that kind of background.
When I first heard them with Ass Cobra, they were a melodic hardcore band, not in the pop punk sense, but in the sense of Poison Idea or that sort of thing. I was quite tough, down stroke guitars, and underneath it all was songwriting and melodies. Obviously the records got more grandiose and stadium. [Knut "Euroboy" Schreiner] brought that classicism to it.
That's the great thing about the idea of your own genre, like "deathpunk" -- you can do whatever you want to do under the auspices of what you've created. That's the beauty of Turbo is the fact that they don't sound like anyone else -- that's given them the longevity and the freedom to still be a band.
What do you think the band did to evade that progressive route?
I don't think that's a bad thing; its' just not for me. I think Turbo started off as kind of a snotty, melodic hardcore band that liked pissing people off. Then I think it became this stadium band that would just play to two hundred people. All the pomp and ceremony -- that was their punk rock. That was another "fuck you" sort of thing. I think they became a stadium band. That's what to me is funny about it -- a self-fulfilling prophecy sort of thing.
I think with our [latest record, Sexual Harassment], we kind of stripped it back to those kinds of thing that we think that people really like about the band without a lot of the layers or epic-ness or the grandiose heard on the intervening records -- not because we don't like that or that we won't do that on future records; we just wanted to on the first one out to come out and punch you in the face: Here's a Turbo record. I think it worked.
There's been so many great intros on all their albums. So we thought about what we wanted to do with the new record with that legacy. Then we were like, "Just start with feedback." That way you're just putting a line in the sand saying this is different. Ass Cobra has a great opening riff straight into the album. I love the sound of feedback with the drummer clicking off and off we go. Who knows where we go from here?
One of the best things about Turbonegro is the song titles. Some are the most absurdly titled songs of all time. What are some of your favorites, including some you wrote yourself?
I think something like, "No, I'm Alpha Male," I always liked. "I'm a four legged Caucasian, a two legged Alsatian I am" is one the greatest choruses of all time. That was from, of course, before my time [with the band]. There's been so many good ones. "Hot and Filthy," and that record alone.
Off this one I think there's some lines I really like. "Hello Darkness" is fantastic. It references us, it cheekily steals a line from someone else -- which I think is a great Turbo tradition. It also references "Feel the Darkness" by Poison Idea, who are a formative band for us. That's a good one to cover the bases for what you want from a Turbo title. Maybe "Shake Your Shit Machine" is a classic in the lineage of Turbo songs, you know?