Thursday, February 26, 2015

Problem Youth, Local Threat, Peace Core: A conversation with Mike Serviolo

Peace Core was one of the more melodic and tuneful bands of Denver’s earlier hardcore punk scene. If you attended shows during that time and missed seeing them, you were probably out in the parking lot downing a 3.2 tallboy form 7-11 or treated anything with the title “peace” in it like kryptonite. Either way, the band was nearly impossible to miss as prolific as they were.

The band members spawned from the fertile East High class, which some considered the cradle of Denver’s early hardcore scene. Sure, there were bands scattered all over the city, but none possessed the concentration of East High School.

It would be somewhat accurate to state that the band evolved from the ashes of Problem Youth in 1981 changing its name to Local Threat in ‘82 and later settling on Peace Core during ‘83-‘84. The evolution didn’t end there. By 1985 they slimmed down to a 3-piece and called themselves The Core and later merged into Acid Ranch. Future incarnations continued a decade later.

During that time, I was fortunate enough to befriend Mike Serviolo, the guitarist who played in those bands. Mike has been a staple of Denver underground music network and continues to this day with his project IZ. In my many conversations with Mike, I’ve discovered he’s an innovator in both sound and concept, always pushing his craft to the next level. Above all he’s one of the nicest and most open individuals I’ve encountered. He’s always eager to share one of his stories he has tucked away in his vast and complex brain. I appreciate his willingness to chat about his experiences.         

Denver was littered with these stickers. Courtesy of Jeff Ross.
When did you picked up the guitar and want to start a punk band?
I started taking lessons from a guy name Jeff Froyd, he was playing in the Young Weasels. He was listening to punk and post-punk bands like Joy Division. He was a big influence and turned me on to bands like the Ramones. I also grew up in Capitol Hill where Wax Trax was.

You went East High, were there other punks also living around the Capitol Hill area?
I think I was the only one from East living in Capitol Hill. Tom Kennedy and those guys lived in Congress Park.

How did you guys discover one another?
At school, I met Geoff Paxton first. He had a shaved head, I went up to him and asked if he knew any other punks at school because I played guitar and wanted to start a band. He introduced me to Dan Dhonau, Bob McDonald, and Erik Oberhausen. Problem Youth was my first punk band. We played mostly covers and had one or two originals. We were playing stuff that was out-of-date like the Clash and Sex Pistols. After Problem Youth, Dan and I started Local Threat with Chris Steel and Jeff Kray. We weren't imitating Minor Threat with the name. I don't think I even knew about them at first. The name wasn’t original, but to us it was still all new.

Local Threat, did you feel like you were a threat or a menace to society?
Of course! (Laughter) We were actually a threat by all means back then. There were tons of hicks in Denver and you would get beat-up for looking funny.

So it was an appropriate name at the time?
Yeah, but like I said, we didn't know about Minor Threat and as soon as we heard about them, we were like, forget that name.

No booze? No spikes! Priorities. Courtesy of Trash Is Truth
So you changed the name to Peace Core?
I don't know who came up with that name, but for some reason I think I did. I don't know what I was thinking. When we formed Peace Core we tended to be more poppy, like power pop compared with the rest of the Denver bands. We were still influenced by hardcore and had fast songs, but also had political pop ones for a lack of a better way of putting it.

Was the band politically charged?
Yeah, I went through a hardcore Crass phase. They had a commune and stuff like that. I even wrote to them. The Crass stuff wasn't my only influence. I was also into the Clash. Which is odd because I really don't like them much now.

Did Peace Core have an agenda?
Definitely, we were a political band. Bum Kon was the fun band and Child Abuse was snotty and funny. We tried to be idealist and youthful about punk and how it could change the world, which may have been a load of crap from an adult perspective. We really thought we could make the world a better place. Not to dump a bunch of clichés here, but I thought Reagan was going to destroy the world with nuclear war. It felt like a dangerous time, I thought this was going to be the end and I was pissed. 

"Tell me why Mr. Reagan, Sieg Heil Mr. Reagan..." Carl Frank was Perce Core's drummer at the time this photo was taken (Albuquerque), but Jason Smith is pictured here. According to Carl, he was stuck back in Denvoid laid up with a hip fracture. Photographer unknown. Courtesy of Carl Frank.
I can see that, you didn't feel like you had a say in your future because of some dude in the White House that controlled the button.
Now I realize now it is more corporations. It's so much more convoluted and disturbing than I ever imagined. Now it feels even scarier than before. Back then it was Reagan, now it's Monsanto. Looking back, Reagan was like an idealized view.

So you yearn for the days of a nuclear war threat? (Laughter)
You have Monsanto that wants to control seeds, what gets more fucking scarier than that!

Gets my vote for one of the best fliers. Courtesy of Trash Is Truth.

It seems like everyone in your circle was involved in a band, there was Child Abuse and Bum Kon. All those bands were going on at the same time. What was it like at the time and was everyone feeding off each other’s energy?
It was a fantastic time. We were all musically different. Child Abuse reminded me of the early Germs; Forming era. Bum Kon were really solid and fast and we were more pop. I never felt like any of the bands were competing. We all fed off each other since we were all friends. It was us against everyone else, not other punks, against society. It sounds cheesy to say that, but that was how we felt back then.

Since there was a strong concentration of bands amongst your friends, were you guys accused of being elitist in the scene?
No, I think that would be total bullshit. We knew about other bands like Happy World, White Trash, The Frantix, USA…we were all friends and never had any animosity with them. There was Signal 30 and some of them went to Cherry Creek High School. There was the UNX; the singer lived with Tom Kennedy. It was all connected one way or another. When other bands played we were all into each other. There was no attitude in the early scene. We were against older people like hippies and society as a whole. We didn't want to be like them. When punks started being against themselves, I found it irritating. Here we are getting persecuted and we're going to fight with each other? It didn't make any sense. It's a generic thing to talk about at this point. If people were rude and acted like outsiders they were just closed out. I'm talking about jocks and people that shouldn't have been there in the first place. For the most part it didn't feel elitist, but from an outsiders perspective it might have looked that way. Usually if there were other punks that wanted to be around us, we'd be glad.

I remember all sorts of people that hung out at Tom Kennedy’s house. They would stop by and we were never like, “Get out!” If they were punk it was fine. We might have been a little more exclusive if they weren’t.

"War is a game, we're just pawns to play..." Original Photograph unkown. Brush and Ink drawing by Bob Rob (Medina) 

Do you feel that the East scene was the center of the hardcore scene to some degree?
East had a high concentration of punks and bands in one place. In that regard, yes. There were a lot of bands that were spawned out of that. All those people ended up playing together in various incarnations over the years.

You played the Dust Bowl, who ran that place?
Kurt Bower ran the door; he might have been in control of that space. I liked playing there. It was in the basement of a building on Santa Fe. You would have to go in through the back and down a set of stairs.

The Dust Bowl reminded me of this place right across from the Gates Tire factory called the Fallout Shelter. The venue sat below a restaurant on Broadway and you had to get in through the alley. The space was owned and operated by the restaurant. My friend Sonny and I booked some shows there in the early 90's. Unknown to us, the restaurant closed down a couple of days before one of our shows. We arrived to find locked doors. It was one of those, “What would Headbanger Do” kind of moment. We broke the lock and let ourselves in. The bands showed up and the show went on. We were polite and didn't steal anything; we just used the space, electricity, cleaned-up, and made sure to put the lock back on at the end of the night. I didn't know what we were thinking, but we had an obligation to make the show happen.
I remember one time the Dust Bowl flooded, I went down those nasty stairs and the floor was covered in water. The smell was musty and moldy. Normally it was dusty from the punks slamming and kicking dirt in the air. It was like a dungeon. The ceilings weren't very high, like 7 feet maybe. Something drastic did happen to me down there, I got my knee dislocated. You remember Anarchy Annie? She ran into me full force, threw her whole body into my kneecap. Headbanger had to carry me out. (Laughter) Right above the Dust Bowl, was the Art Department came a little while later. The Core played there. Down the street was the Aztlan Theater. I guess I played in that neighborhood a few times.

I liked the Art Department. I remember one evening when Kelly Cowan and Bob McDonald did art performance pieces. Kelly removed his clothing and a girl took clippers and shaved off ALL the hair on his body while he sat there completely nude surrounded by us gawkers. Bob read his poems and took a bottle of lotion and did some ejaculation thing spraying white globs everywhere. I went with a couple classmates from school and we found it really disturbing and inspiring. Denver had a cool underground art thing going with industrial music, but do you think Denver had a sound?
There really wasn't in the early days, there wasn't continuity in the sound. A lot of people say the so-called Denver sound started later with 16 Horsepower and those bands. When we were doing Jux County we played that dark country punk stuff early on.

I’ve previously stated that in the early days there was no template for a Denver look or sound, people just followed their interpretations of punk.
There was a crossover in the way we dressed in our internal scene. At East there were ways of dressing. We wore button down shirts, almost preppy, but we were still into punk. A lot of kids wore those Guatemalan hoodie things, remember those? Stuff like that we would never see in other scenes around the country. Another thing we did that was different was chew tobacco. Several of us chewed; punks, was a Colorado thing. I don't think the chewing thing would have happened anywhere else.

What did you guys chew?
Skoal Longcut…wintergreen flavor. (Laughter)

Was there a gateway chew: Hawken, Apple Jack, and Red Man OR did you automatically graduate to Skoal?
You know what I'm talking about. I only chewed a little bit of the plug stuff. I first tried it in Junior High with a couple of marginalized redneck kids. They only hung out with me because I was weird. I was just getting into punk. It's funny whom you buddy up with when you're an outcast.

I have excellent news for the world. There's no such thing as new wave. It does not exist. It's a figment of uhh, lame cunts imagination. There was never any such thing as new wave. It was the polite thing to say when you were trying to explain you were not into the boring old rock and roll but you didn't dare to say punk because you were afraid to get kicked out of the fucking party and they wouldn't give you coke anymore. There's new music, there's new underground sound, there's noise, there's punk, there's power pop, there's ska, there's rockabilly, but new wave doesn't mean shit.

-Claude Bessey, from the film The Decline of Western Civilization. Flier courtesy of Trash Is Truth

For a punk band, Peace Core played a couple of atypical shows including high schools, right?  
We played at East during lunch; they called it A New Wave Dance. I HATED new wave, it’s so fucking stupid. Then we were in the battle of the bands competition at TJ (Thomas Jefferson High School). We actually won. Our biggest show was opening for the Circle Jerks at the Rainbow. The band was really nice to us; they weren't jerk-offs for being a big band. They even gave us part of their food. We played out a lot, if you look at the fliers; we were playing at least once a week.

You can thank the Circle Jerks for clothing all the Denver punks with a Golden Shower of Hits t-shirt. Courtesy of Trash Is Truth. 
Peace Core even went down to New Mexico and Texas with Headbanger as our manager. We played with the Rhythm Pigs and stayed at Ed’s dad's farm in El Paso right on the border of Mexico. Albuquerque and El Paso were weird scenes. Albuquerque was scary for sure. I remember one punk at the show; he was a big native guy, huge, like 400 pounds. Everyone was climbing all over this guy. It was nuts. We played at this place called the Bash and Mash. To give you an idea; the club was smaller than the Lion's Lair. There were 35 kids jammed in there. The Albuquerque kids were pretty intense and I think they drank a lot. Though they had a smaller scene than Denver, those that were into punk were real serious about it. Their scene seemed violent, different than our kind of violent.

The last show at Kennedy's, I'm pretty sure we were the last band to play there. I remember standing on stage with my guitar in hand, holding it and thinking I was going to have to hit somebody with it.

There are different accounts people have of that show.
Maybe it's one of those you'll never going to get an exact agreement on what happened. You know how historical events are kind of like that.

When I was talking with a couple of other people, some of them said that kids from East got agro and pounded some people. I remember the chaos, but hardly any fighting.
I think some of us jumped in and started punching people. I didn't do that. I was a non-fighter. In some ways I might regret that a little. I probably should have gotten in there and started kicking ass. (Laughter)

Not a Headbanger flier but a Jeff Ross one. Courtesy of Trash Is Truth.

Peace Core turned into The Core, what was that about?
Um…Peace, I wanted to distance myself from that word. I had a lot of experience being a punk that would counter the idea of peace. There were other bands that had that name. The Core was just trying to say, “What is really inside of you, what are your true feelings, narrowing it down and getting to the core of it.” That was the concept. We also changed into a 3-piece. We wanted to concentrate more on music and less on being punk.

After Peace Core came Acid Ranch?
Chris and Jason were already playing with Andy Monley in a band called The Premmies. They were a precursor to Acid Ranch. The Core was going on at the same time. They had Johnny Meggitt. This is a prime example of all the crossover of band members. I wasn't in the band at first and then Chris suggested I join. Johnny left and Need joined and that was the final line-up. Andy was more into artsy music like Joy Division. He had an influence on us since he was a little older. Plus we were in jazz band together at East: Chris, Andy and I. That had a huge influence on us as we started learning more about music.

I don't know about you, but Reagan fliers never get old. Courtesy of Trash Is Truth. 

Jux County was next?
Yeah, A lot of that was Andy. He had wanted to start that band. Aesthetically speaking a lot of that came from Andy, such as the name. Andy was very much into William Faulkner. That's where he got a lot of those concepts from. Chris and I went on to do Elan, that was mostly Chris and I.

Elan, I remember John Martinez had the tattoo.
The number 7, we all have it.

Were you guys like a secret cult with the tattoo?
It's not a big secret; we just all ended up getting the 7 tattoo. We all resonated with that number. Elan played in San Francisco and we all got it there: John Martinez, Chris Steel, John Haley and I. The only one who didn't get it was Gordon. We all had these associations with the number: The 7 great mysteries, 7 seas…

"La la la la la love, talk about love." Original Photograph by Duane Davis. Brush and ink drawing by Bob Rob (Medina).
We had a conversation awhile back that you stopped going to shows in '85?
No, no. I stopped going to punk shows. I was still into music but not fashion. I just got tired of seeing punk bands. To tell you the truth, I have these periods in my life telling me it's time to move on. I wasn't having fun anymore, punk shows became the antithesis of punk. It became more like a job where you had to watch your back. I was like; I'm too old for this. I also got tired of being in the pit. At some point you use up some of your aggression, you can only be like that for so long. A lot of people I knew became dead because of their punk fueled aggression. People who try to say they’re punk rock until they turn like 80, just don't make it. I didn't want to end up dead. I wasn't sure how long I was going to live and now I'm almost 50. I do credit punk with getting me into music I might not have gotten into otherwise. Punk influenced my life by opening me up to all kinds of crazy things.

Looking at old photographs, you had a shaved head, mohawk; did you feel that was a part of your punk rock identity?
Yeah, it was. It was my statement of I didn't want to be lumped in with other people. Plus I tended to be more on the straight edge side, though there were points I wasn't. I wasn’t militant like some of those kids in Boston were. I still tend to be like that to this day, clear thinking, not to be wasted and not fogged out all the time.

With the punk identity, did you feel that you and your friends got messed with often?
Oh yeah. I have a few examples. Sometimes we'd be walking down the street and people would be screaming at us. One time there was 10 of us and we were in leather jackets, jeans, t-shirts, boots, Converse. The cops stopped us. They gave Jeff Paxton a lot of shit because he was the biggest guy amongst us. Another time, some kids came over from North High School to beat us up because they thought we were a gang. I didn't get beat-up, but Bob McDonald got the crap beat out of him at the Safeway next to East. We were just skinny kids that weren't going to fight back.

I understand what you mean. I remember going to Skate City for my friend's brother's birthday party. When we went to use the bathroom, we totally got fucked with and pushed into the walls by the jocks. They totally hated us and wanted to beat our ass for the way we looked.
I know. There was one party we went to in Cherry Hills where we got attacked by jocks. We were invited because Dan was going out with this girl. I wonder to this day if it was a set-up. Headbanger was with us. All these football player types ambushed us when we left. What really flayed me about it was, one of the girls with us is black, and they were calling us “nigger lovers.” Are you kidding me? They had me on the ground and were kicking me. Headbanger fought back well. When you're punk you get used to people trying kicking the shit out of you. 

 Special Thanks to Ana Medina for proof reading. 


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