It is the late ’90s. As my confused and dissatisfied childhood transmutes into an angry and disgusted adolescence, the airwaves are pumped full of disposable leftovers from a decade gone wrong. In 1999, Celine Dion is huge. The world is being clubbed over the head by a fantastically senseless band called Limp Bizkit. We are inundated with boy bands, Columbine, and the looming End of Days (a familiar situation) as Y2K races toward us. Suddenly and with no warning, we all have to use four digits when writing down the year of our births. Life will never be the same again.
Right around that time, I was becoming increasingly aware of something called Punk Rock. If you’ll recall, this was a period when Blink-182 was somehow included in the genre. Apparently dick and fart jokes were pretty hardcore. All of the kids with skateboards were listening to things like Sum 41, Ten Foot Pole, Face to Face and Millencolin. Punk Rock, they called it. Music for the revolution, they said. But I didn’t see any revolution happening. I saw lot of t-shirts being sold. We were lower middle-class kids who, while muddled by pubescent hormones and slightly confused about the state of the world, were all basically comfortable. Punk rock is not a product of comfort; quite the opposite. Obviously, the only thing that made these bands uncomfortable was girls.
The stolen election of George W. Bush and the events on 9/11 changed the world irrevocably in some ways that are obvious and others that are more obscure. One result: a new generation of enraged youths was pushed into hardcore punk. It was a natural evolution. A bunch of newly self-conscious kids who have spent their lives being lectured at about Checks and Balances and Stars and Stripes suddenly watch, in a very public fashion, all of the grownups break the Machine. For the first time they hear the Pistols’ declaration that there is “No Future” and understand what it means. They hear Damaged for the first time and each thinks to themselves, yes, maybe I am. Fresh Fruit For Rotten Vegetables, “We Destroy the Family”…it’s all making too much sense. The world has ceased to be a comfortable place, and in fact appears violent, cruel, and indifferent.
1999 was the Wild West of file sharing. No torrents yet, music geeks thought Napster was the most important invention since the Walkman, and the public was yet to realize that Metallica were nothing but a bunch of cash-mongers. By 2003, one could find just about any song imaginable, but for those first few years if you wanted to hear the newer underground punk, you actually had to find the album. Scouring the shoddily organized shelves of the local used record shop is how I encountered the Casualties.
The spiky haired, drunk punks had released For the Punx in 1997, and it took a couple of years for it to work its way into the smaller towns of the Northwest. By the time I found my copy I was ripe for the message. The Millennium had turned and the whole shithouse was burning down. For years music had been predominantly diffusing messages of anger, materialism, narcissism, and ennui. Suddenly, a rallying cry. The Casualties still espoused a sound that was anti-authoritarian in nature, but its backbone was a message of unity and togetherness.
“We sound the way we sound, but we also thought that it was important to have your style and your lifestyle match the music,” says guitar player Jake Kolatis. “We looked a certain way, we still look a certain way. We feel that it’s important for punk to be a way of life.”
And that’s what we kids were looking for—a way of life. To us, it was all new. Punk rock of that style hadn’t been prevalent in fifteen years. Throughout the ‘90s, punk was something soft and accessible. The Casualties changed all of that, pushing the street-punk, Oi sound back to the forefront of the scene.
“S***, when we first started out we were listening to a lot of early ‘80s UK stuff. Exploited, GBH, Discharge. The harder stuff.” Jake laughs. “From the States, when we started doing it, there weren’t a lot of bands doing that style.”
As the late nineties turned into the early aughts, we all saw hardcore punk—or at least its image—catch the mainstream. A Hot Topic in every mall, a pyramid belt around every waist. I remember flipping through channels and coming across a bunch of the cleanest punk look-alikes to ever spike their hair. Good Charlotte, they called themselves. To this day, I can still recall the horror I felt in that moment. The Casualties had announced the upcoming release of Die Hards, the band’s first release in three years. I remember driving with a group of rowdy kids in a beat-up ’67 Nova with its floor boards rusted through to order our copies from the record store. Our predictions were nervous. Would the 40 Oz. Casualties stay true and hard?
When my copy arrived in the mail I rushed up to my bedroom. I struggled for a moment with the cellophane then popped the disc in the tray. The cover art had me wondering. It somehow looked more professional than the previous albums. (In retrospect, that’s probably only because photographers were going digital.) I hit play, and breathed a sigh of relief as the opening sound of a bottle being smashed tore into an explosive, characteristically driving song. And the Casualties have remained true to their sound ever since.
“It’s all about consistency. It’s all about not fading away.” Suddenly Jake’s voice takes on a note of concern. “What the f*** did I just run over? Hold on: I’m driving right now.”
As we spoke over the phone, the band was on their way to the first date of an American tour that is currently in progress. They’d just come off of a tour through the South Pacific and Australia. They were in that region when the much-publicized crackdown on punks in Indonesia took place. For those of you who don’t recall, police from one of the country’s most conservative cities invaded a punk show and rounded up about 65 kids, then carted them off to a ‘rehabilitation’ camp where their heads were shaved, their gear was thrown into a lake, they were forced to bathe as a group in order to ‘purify’ themselves. Then were detained for ten days of prayer.
“I think that’s f***ing crazy! It think that it’s f***ing insane that people still think that you can wash away ideas. They rounded those punk kids up and then made them wash and then shaved their heads as if that’s gonna change their views and opinions and tastes in music? That’s fucking ridiculous! That’s like what the Nazis tried to do, and look where it got them.”
Since its inception, the punk sound, image, and lifestyle has spread across the globe. One can find punk music on every continent, and probably in just about every nation of the world. As the Internet caught on, it help to spur punk’s propagation.
“The scene has changed a lot where you don’t have to dig as hard now. Even in the early nineties you had to dig for it, man. You had go to the spots to get into this s***. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, Let me do a search on Google for, like, a bullet belt or something.’ You had to go and get it.” Jake pauses, then says, “Hold on for a second dude. I’m passing a cop. I’m on a phone, driving a f***ing RV through Hoboken.”
A long silence follows, then: “[The scene]’s the same because there are plenty of people out there who want to hear good, aggressive music. That’s never gonna go away. It’s not like that nu-metal, hardcore crap but it’s not like the super soft stuff that you get on the radio.”
Which got us talking about the nineties, when people claimed that Nirvana had pushed punk to the mainstream, nu-metal was on the rise, and we were all partying like it was 1999 because it hadn’t happened yet, and we didn’t know how terrible it would really be. I wondered aloud if a band can remain punk while attaining mainstream success.
“I think there’s a certain way to go about it. If people want to hear your s***, they want to hear your s***, and if a label wants to help you get it out there, then I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. But I think there’s a way of doing it. Are you making music to sell records or are you making music because people catch on and want to hear you play it? I think that’s fine. If you’re not compromising your ideals then you’re alright. I speak for the band when I say that I don’t think there’s anything wrong with getting a few dollars for the kind of music you play. Bands have to eat, they have to travel, they have all sorts of expenses. That s*** doesn’t grow on trees. And especially now, what are you gonna do? It’s not like you’re gonna get checks for selling records cause nobody does anymore.”
Jake and Co. arrive at their destination, and it is time for our chat to end. As our conversation closes, Jake tells me, “We’re writing a record right now. It’s gonna be out in summer because we’re gonna record it in April.”
“That’s the thing, if you get into it, you don’t stop. We don’t stop. We’re gonna keep going until nobody cares about us anymore. We might or might not be close to that, I have no idea. But there are still tours to go on, so I’ll go on ‘em. Still records to be made.”
And we can rest assured that any and all upcoming albums from these guys will be fast, they will be hard, and that no amount of water will ever wash the punk out of this band.