Saves The Day
Saves The Day's Chris Conley Talks 20 Years Of 'Through Being Cool'
Ahead of the emo-punk standard's 20th anniversary, frontman Chris Conley looks back at his band's second LP and addresses some of the cringe-inducing lyrics within
The irony of an album title like Through Being Cool, Saves The Day's breakthrough second LP, is that the record's 1999 release is precisely what made the emo-pop trailblazers, well, cool.
Not that they think of themselves any differently now, of course. If you ask lead singer Chris Conley about Saves The Day's status as genre innovators, he'd deny, deny, deny.
"We were just doing the Jawbreaker, Foo Fighters thing," he says over the phone. "That's all that was. We certainly didn't invent anything. We were just having fun, and the songs were really good and we were really excited. And then people loved it."
And fans certainly did pick up what the Princeton band was putting down 20 years ago. Merging ultra-catchy, pop-minded hooks (à la their tri-state area influencers, Lifetime) and upbeat tempos with a hard-hitting, short-form punk delivery, Saves The Day's influences were considerably wide-ranging, borrowing ideas from post-grunge radio mainstays Foo Fighters and Smashing Pumpkins and Swedish political punks Refused. Capped off by Conley's whinging wail, Through Being Cool would catapult Saves The Day from Conley's mom's New Jersey basement to MTV (which aired music videos from the band's 2001 airtight follow-up, Stay What You Are) to an opening spot on pop-punk deities Green Day and Blink-182's 2002 Pop Disaster tour.
Today, you can't scroll through an emo or pop-punk best-of list without seeing Through Being Cool near the top. On Oct. 25, the band released a new reissue of Through Being Cool, which features remastered versions of the original record, plus a handful of never-before-heard demos. There's even a new video for album single "Shoulder To The Wheel," featuring house-party animation from Sarah Schmidt and Ian Ballantyne. And, come Saturday, Nov. 2, the 20th anniversary of Through Being Cool, Saves The Day will play the album in its entirety on four sold-out dates, which kicks off at New Jersey's stomping ground for homegrown artists, Starland Ballroom.
Conley, who is the last original member of Saves The Day, sat down with the Recording Academy to talk about his earliest memories of writing and recording Through Being Cool, shooting its now-iconic cover and how he feels graphic lyrics like "Let me take this awkward saw/ Run it against your thighs" have aged.
I noticed that when Through Being Cool turned 15 five years ago, you said that it felt like the most important record that Saves The Day did. Do you still feel like that’s true?
Well, I don't remember saying that, but I think it was absolutely the record that established us an important band in this underground scene, and it was one of the most pivotal chapters of my life. And then we made Stay What You Are a few years later and I think those two records are probably the most important Saves the Day records thus far in terms of establishing our longevity.
You have a brand-new animated video for "Shoulder To The Wheel." Is it true that the band "hated" the original video?
Sometimes I don't know where these things come from. Maybe it was a passing comment and sometimes when you're young, you have intense feelings, but they don't stick around very long. I remember always hating to look at myself on any screen or in photos and that might be a thing.
There's a story about how we really didn't like our cover of AP, but that was other people that thought things about it that somehow got to Alternative Press, and I was able to finally clear the air with them when I visited them. I said, "I didn't like how I look as a human being, but I never said that to anybody." And so I think that might be where some of that stuff comes from. Maybe somebody overheard me griping about my own self-loathing.
I believe it was Bryan Newman who said that in 2014. You guys were in college when you recorded Through Being Cool, correct?
Yeah. [Founding drummer] Bryan Newman and I had done one year at NYU and the whole time during that year, I would walk over to his dorm and play him songs that I had been writing over in my dorm. And we booked time to record all these songs at the end of the spring semester. Right when we got out of school, it was the beginning of summer of 1999, I think it was late May we went in for 11 days with [producer] Steve Evetts in Trax East in South River, New Jersey. And we tracked it, and we had to book two additional half days because I blew out my voice halfway through vocals. But yeah, that's how that all happened. We were at NYU and I was writing all those songs in New York City.
When you think about that time, and when you think recording the album that would go on to be so seminal in the genre, does anything in particular stand out for you about the mood in the room and how it felt to be creating this thing?
Well, I specifically remember being in the studio as we were tracking the songs and they were coming together, there was an extreme feeling of excitement and almost bewilderment of how good this thing was. We could tell. And immediately, Bryan and I decided we would defer for the next year at NYU and just hit the road to start touring because we were picking up steam. All that year, after [Saves The Day's 1998 debut album] Can't Slow Down came out, we'd be touring in winter break and then on the weekends we'd be going out playing shows. And every time we'd go out and play a show, more and more people were there singing along. But then we made Through Being Cool and we thought, "Oh my gosh. This is really good. Let's take a year off and let's just commit to touring and do it full-time and just see what happens."
The other thing I remember is just the writing of the songs was incredibly fun, and I could tell that the songs were catchy and cool, and that was just me having fun as a songwriter. I remember at the end of one of the tours for Can't Slow Down, the guys all sat me down and said, "We don't like playing these fast songs. We like your mid-tempo songs more." And so that was a pivotal moment as well where I leaned into the mid-tempo stuff. That was a relief to me because I was only really into fast hardcore for a hot minute. I was really into Gorilla Biscuits and Lifetime for about a year and a half, but my real love is Jawbreaker, Sunny Day Real Estate, Archers Of Loaf, Smashing Pumpkins and stuff like that. And the Foo Fighters' record The Colour And The Shape had come out that year along with the Refused album The Shape Of Punk To Come. We were listening to those albums just non-stop in the van, and those two records are basically the seed of what was to become our sound.
Yeah, and it sounds like you leaned even harder into that mid-tempo style on Stay What You Are.
Well, what's cool is that one day when I was driving to the mixing of Through Being Cool, this is the final two days of working on the album, I had a long drive from my home in Princeton to the studio. And I was digging around in the back of my car for a tape to listen to, and I used to keep tapes just strewn about the car, and I pulled out a tape that wasn't mine and I didn't put there and it was The Beatles the Red or Blue tape where it was the later hits.
Oh, that's the Blue album. The later hits.
Yeah. I pulled out the Blue tape and I did not like The Beatles at the time. I thought they were only “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” which I love now, but I didn't like back then. And I was like, "All right, cool. I'll put this in." I put it in, and it was all these weird and cool quirky pop songs that were really strange, and I was instantly hooked. And so I show up at the studio and I told Steve that I found this Beatles tape in the back of the car and he was like, "Oh my god, dude. The Beatles are my favorite band ever."
And so then when we went for lunch that day, when we went into his car, he put on Revolver and Rubber Soul and he was showing me how if you turn the speaker all the way to the left you can hear just the background vocals and ride cymbal and then if you turn it all the way to the right, it's the guitar and the main vocal. And I remember we drove back to the studio and on that day, this is my first day getting into The Beatles, I thought John Lennon sang all the songs. And he was like, "Wait, you can't tell the difference between John and Paul?" I was like, "Wait, there's two singers?" He's like, "Yeah." He's like, "I can't believe you can't hear that." And now it's crazy to me that I couldn't tell the difference between the two of them.
Discovering The Beatles in that moment is what led to Stay What You Are becoming a more expansive sound and coupled with a few other important life events, like flipping our van, having a near-death experience and really seeing through the surface of the superficial aspect of life and starting to question what is this all about, which informed the lyrics. We were also on tour and doing a little bit of the rock and roll thing. You never know what somebody slips into your drink and so music starts to sound really, really cool if you're in a certain mood. And so The Beatles just blew my mind and so that's how you get songs like "Cars And Calories" on Stay What You Are and songs like "Certain Tragedy."
Nowadays Saves The Day gets referenced as helping to generate a new, perhaps more accessible wave of pop-punk and emo. When you were touring this record, did you guys feel like you were breaking new ground?
Oh, no. Absolutely not. We were just doing the Jawbreaker, Foo Fighters thing. That's all that was. We certainly didn't invent anything. We were just having fun and it was the songs were really good and we were really excited. And then people loved it.
I think I mean more in a mainstream, commercial sense. For instance, Nirvana were hailed as grunge innovators, but Kurt Cobain would say he was just trying to emulate lesser-known acts like Pixies and the Vaselines.
I can see what you mean in terms of Nirvana, but I would never be able to wrap my head around thinking about Saves in that same way just in terms of putting a new spin on things, an already established sound, but really I'm just a fan of music. I love what I love and so when Bryan and I first started playing music together, everything we did sounded like Sunny Day Real Estate and Smashing Pumpkins because I was obsessed with those bands. And so that's still the case. You're just influenced by your surroundings and I'm largely who I am because of my parents and I worship them, I love them. Then you learn what you learn in school and you start to think that way and talk that way. And I listen to records and I learn, I read books and study lyrics and I learn. And then it's like a call and response.
Yeah. From my perspective, what you did at that time really helped popularize a lot of sounds, in the mainstream sense.
And that part of it just blows my mind, the fact that we are influential at all is just crazy. That's bewildering in and of itself. And it's also extremely humbling. It's surreal. You know what I mean? I'm incredibly grateful and it's just so cool and so fun.
I want to talk about the record cover, which has to be one of the more instantly recognizable covers of the emo genre. How did you conceptualized the cover of that album? It's a very classic feeling of being at a party and feeling like, "Why am I here. I don't think I belong. I don't know what to say."
Yeah, that was exactly how I felt then and how I feel now. I was so obsessed with the band Lifetime and they were from New Jersey, and they would play shows all the time in Princeton and New Brunswick, which was just right down the road. And in the hardcore punk scene, there's no tall stages, there's no rock stars. It's a community. And so if you hung around after the show, you could meet the band. And so me being as obsessed as I was, I would sit there and help them pack up their gear. They're like, "Man, you're so awesome. You're so nice. Who are you?" And so I'm like, "Hey, I'm Chris. I'm your biggest fan." And Ari Katz, the singer of Lifetime, worked at a record store in New Brunswick.
And so as soon as I got my license, incidentally I would drive after school every day to his record store where he worked. After being there every day for week after week after week and annoying the hell out of him, he finally relented and he was like, "All right. Let's talk." And the first thing he did was, "Can you give me a ride somewhere?" And so we'd start going wherever, he's like, "Head left here. Head right there." He's like, "Pull over here. Park here." We wind up at a head shop and he goes in and buys a bong or something, a pipe or a bong.
And then he gets back in the car and he looks at me. He's like, "I bet you thought a straight-edge band wouldn't be taking you to a head shop." And I was like ... I had no idea. I was just in awe of the fact that I was hanging out with him, but he started telling me about music in that car ride and saying how to make his voice better, he would sing along with Elvis records and how he really loved Elvis Costello as well. When we got back to the record store and continuing that conversation he said, "My favorite record right now is this Devo record." And I forget what the name of the album is [Editor's note: the album is 1981's New Traditionalists], but the first song on the album is called "Through Being Cool." And it goes, "We're through being cool. We're through ... " And so that's how I got the idea to use that name. And when we finally played the record release show for Through Being Cool, we brought our own record player and hooked it up to the PA and played Devo's "Through Being Cool" as we walked on.
And there's also a Jawbreaker song at the end of Dear You. There's an acoustic song where he says, "Wake me up when you're through being cool because I'm snoring." And Blake Schwarzenbach from Jawbreaker is my favorite lyricist of all time. He is so intertwined with my DNA that I would sit there and read his words like they were actual poetry, which they are.
Do you remember the day you shot the album cover?
Yeah. In terms of the shoot, yeah, I remember it all really well. We borrowed Kate Reddy sister's apartment in Queens. Kate Reddy is from the band 108. She's a guitar player from 108 and she had her solo project, Project Kate, which is acoustic music that we absolutely loved. In fact, it's the reason that Saves The Day started making acoustic music at all. But Kate is married to Steve Reddy who owns Equal Vision. They'd set up the day at this apartment because Bryan and David Soloway, in our band, both took photography their entire life at our high school Princeton Day School and then went on to study photography in college as well.
The two of them were obsessed with David LaChapelle at the time, who was doing lots of photo shoots for Rolling Stone and magazines like that where he would set up these really elaborate sets that looked like movies. And I said this before for an Alternative Press piece recently so it's not anything new, but that was their inspiration entirely and when we used to be driving around planning the layout, the two of them were just so excited talking about this idea of having it be a party, but we were over it. We don't even want to be there. And then we lose David and have to find him and so they set up this whole story, and we shot it, afterwards we sent it to Equal Vision and a few of the people from Equal Vision were like, "Wait a second. We don't get it. We don't understand."
We said, "No, it's okay. It's kind of tongue-in-cheek. It doesn't have to take itself too seriously. It's just a fun record." We invited all of our friends and friends of friends and people we'd met through shows and in the scene to come and just have a party. We had the time of our lives. There's friends from high school there, there's friends from shows, there's friends that have come and gone, and it's wild to look back on it now and to still know so many people from that shoot and to all be sort of sharing this strange and surreal journey that that album launched.
Well, before I let you go, I wanted to get your take on something. Saves The Day, and this album in particular, has gotten pushback in recent years for some of your more graphic lyrics. I'm specifically thinking of verbiage like “Let me take this awkward saw/ run it against your thighs/ Cut some flesh away,” etc. I’m sure this wouldn’t be the first time anyone’s asked you about this, but I was curious, with the anniversary of this album, what’s your view on how Saves The Day’s lyrics have aged?
Yeah. Well, you know what's completely funny to me? I can't speak for anybody else's lyrics, but none of those songs are about anybody. That song ["Rocks Tonic Juice Magic"] was an assignment for an NYU writing class to talk about extreme feelings of anger and frustration and rage. There is no person attached to that song. That's just a vehicle for the feelings of frustration to live in a vignette, and that's poetic license. One of my favorite lyricists, who's also controversial these days, was Morrissey, and he'd write lines like, "If a 10-ton truck kills both of us, to die by your side is such a heavenly way to die." I just love that. Who knows if there's anybody in that, and that's none of my business, but I do know where I was coming from so I have zero feelings of hesitation or guilt when it comes to this.
And I've said this recently in a piece where the only songs that are about real people are the love songs. Then there are a couple of the angry songs about men. There are songs that you might think are about a female that is about a man and not at all romantically. I used to write songs about just friends that were jerks. You know what I mean? Or roommates in college that were just jerks. What's wild to me is it's an interesting thing to think about. You never know where someone's coming from, anyway. Thank god I know where I was coming from so I can clear the air there, and I'm glad that you mentioned it because when people first started coming up to me saying, "This song is really negative toward females," I was literally surprised.
That would never have occurred to me because it was never what it was about. It was just about my own personal emotions, and clearly I am incredibly emo. Those feelings are universal. I wrote "In Reverie" about feeling disconnected from God and it feels like it's a love letter about a lost lover, but I just felt I wanted to go back home. I just wanted to feel that love again. There's a song "Tomorrow Too Late" that says, "When was the last time I held you all through the night," whatever, "And never a worry would run through my heart like a knife. Feels like a zillion years," whatever. That's a spiritual song. That's spiritual loneliness and solitude and isolation and alienation. I think it's good that you asked me because artists do have to be accountable for what they truly mean and their work is important because it affects people's lives and so I think it's important for me to be able to clarify that.
Yeah, I figured that this was a well-worn topic of conversation for you, and I appreciate you going there with me again now. I'm also interested in your take on how critics have reassessed emo as a genre that is generally violent and dismissive toward women.
That's a shame, and if people are misinterpreting what I was saying had anything to contribute to that, I will go to my grave feeling bad about that, but at the same time, that wasn't my intention. Really, it's a reflection of those people and their inner world. It has nothing to do with me.
If you want to know how I feel about women, in "Shoulder To The Wheel" I say, "I'm having a bad week and I miss my mom." My mom is the only reason I made it through this world, her unconditional love and support and she's the most amazing person I've ever known. And so if you're raised by a strong woman, it doesn't even come across your mind to feel any differently. You just feel respect and there's a reverence there and gratitude.
Rotimi On Performing At ESSENCE Fest, Growing Up African-American & More
The Nigerian-American singer and actor sat down with the Recording Academy to talk about what inspired his latest album, 'Walk With Me'
In 2015, Rotimi stepped into the New Orleans Superdome for the first time to experience the magic of ESSENCE Fest. Four years later, in 2019, the "Love Riddim" singer returned to the celebration as a performer, something he said was spoken into existence.
"Last year me and my manager had a conversation and I said, 'Listen, I'm going to be on the [ESSENCE] mainstage this year. 365 days later, we did it," Rotimi told the Recording Academy at the 25th annual ESSENCE Fest.
Rotimi, also an actor on Starz' "Power," has evolved since his last album, 2017's Jeep Music, Vol.1. The singer said he really hit home with its follow-up, the recently released Walk With Me, a project he worked hard for, putting in hours in the studio after filming on set.
"Walk With Me is the first time I actually felt like I was giving myself as an artist, and personally I feel like with everything else I have going on I wanted to show people that this is really what I do," he said. "I wanted people to understand who Rotimi is, who Rotimi was before, who I want to be and just understand my growth and the journey and my passion for what I do."
Part of why the album felt like such a representation of him is because it embodies beats of his African roots, something he said was very present growing up Nigerian-American.
"I grew up with a lot of Fela Kuti and I grew up with Bob Marley," he said of his musical roots. "But I also grew up with Carl Thomas and Genuine and Usher, so there was a genuine mixture of who I am and what I've grown up to listen to. The actual Walk With Me project was a mixture of influences of Akon and Craig David."
Joan as Police Woman
Quarantine Diaries: Joan As Police Woman Is Bike Riding, Book Reading & Strumming D'Angelo
As the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic continues to rock the music industry, the Recording Academy reached out to a few musicians to see how they were spending their days indoors
As the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic continues to rock the music industry, the Recording Academy reached out to a few musicians to see how they were spending their days indoors. Today, singer/songwriter Joan Wasser of Joan as Police Woman, whose forthcoming covers album, COVER TWO, includes tracks by The Strokes, Prince, Talk Talk, and more, shares her Quarantine Diary.
Thursday, April 2
[10 a.m.-12 p.m.] Went to bed at 4 a.m. last night after getting drawn into working on a song. Put on the kettle to make hot coffee while enjoying an iced coffee I made the day before. Double coffee is my jam. Read the news, which does not do much for my mood. Catch up with a few friends, which does a lot of good for my mood. Glad it goes in this order.
[12 p.m.-2 p.m.] Make steel cut oats with blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, fresh ginger, fresh turmeric, a sprinkling of cinnamon and cardamom, and of course, coconut butter to melt on top. If you’re not into coconut butter (sometimes marketed as coconut "manna"), I’d suggest just going for it and getting it (or ordering it) and putting it on your sweet potatoes, your oats, anywhere you’d put butter. I’m not vegan but I do enjoy hearing the tiny scream uttered by a strawberry as I cut into it.
Contemplate some yoga. Contamplate meditating. Do neither. Resume work on the song I want to finish and send today. I have a home studio and I spend a lot of my time working on music here. The song is a collboration sent to me from Rodrigo D’Erasmo in Milano that will benefit the folks who work behind the scenes in the music touring system in Italy.
[2 p.m.-4 p.m.] I traded in a guitar for a baritone guitar right before all this craziness hit but hadn’t had the time to get it out until now. I put on some D’Angelo, plugged into my amp and played along as if I were in his band. Micahel Archer, If you’re reading this, I hope you are safe and sound and thank you immensely for all the music you've given us always.
[4 p.m.-6 p.m.] Bike repair shops have been deemed "necessary," thank goodness, because biking is the primary way I get around and I need a small repair. I hit up my neighborhood shop and they get my bike in and out in 10 minutes, enough time to feel the sun for a moment.
I ride fast and hard down to the water's edge and take in a view of the East River from Brooklyn. There are a few people out getting their de-stress walks but it is mostly deserted on the usually packed streets.
[6 p.m.-8 p.m.] Practice Bach piano invention no. 4 in Dm very, very, very slowly. I never studied piano but I’m trying to hone some skills. Realize I’m ravenous. Eat chicken stew with wild mushrooms I made in the slow cooker yesterday. It’s always better the second day.
[8 p.m.-10 p.m.] Get on a zoom chat with a bunch of women friends on both coasts. We basically shoot the sh*t and make each other laugh.
Afterwards I still feel like I ate a school bus so I give into yoga. I feel great afterwards. This photo proves I have a foot.
[10 p.m.-12 a.m.] Record a podcast for Stereo Embers in anticipation of my new release on May 1, a second record of covers, inventively named COVER TWO. Continue to work on music (it’s a theme).
[12 a.m.-2 p.m.] Tell myself I should think about bed. Ignore myself and confinue to work on music.
[2 a.m.-4 a.m.] Force myself into bed where I have many books to choose from. This is what I’m reading presently, depending on my mood. Finally I listen to Nick Hakim’s new song, "Qadir," and am taken by its beauty and grace. Good night.
If you wish to support our efforts to assist music professionals in need, learn more about the Recording Academy's and MusiCares COVID-19 Relief Fund.
If you are a member of the music industry in need of assistance, visit the MusiCares website.
Hero The Band perform at the Recording Academy Atlanta Chapter Annual Membership Celebration
Photo: Marcus Ingram/WireImage
Report: Music & Culture Infrastructure Can Create Better "Future Cities"
How sound planning for a creative future in our urban areas makes all the difference for artists and musicians
The future, as they say, is now. And for music makers around the world, building a future for themselves often starts at home, in their local creative community and in the city where they live. While technology has expanded communication and made the world smaller, cities continue to grow, making planning for the future a critical cultural mission of the present.
To that end, a new report by global organization Sound Diplomacy titled "This Must Be The Place" examines, "The role of music and cultural infrastructure in creating better future cities for all of us." The 37-page deep dive into community planning and development highlights the importance of creative culture in what it calls "Future Cities."
"The government defines ‘Future Cities’ as 'a term used to imagine what cities themselves will be like," the report states, "how they will operate, what systems will orchestrate them and how they will relate to their stakeholders (citizens, governments, businesses, investors, and others),'"
According to the report, only three global cities or states currently have cultural infrastructure plans: London, Amsterdam and New South Wales. This fact may be surprising considering how city planning and sustainability have become part of the discussion on development of urban areas, where the UN estimates 68 percent of people will live by 2050.
"Our future places must look at music and culture ecologically. Much like the way a building is an ecosystem, so is a community of creators, makers, consumers and disseminators," the report says. "The manner in which we understand how to maintain a building is not translated to protecting, preserving and promoting music and culture in communities."
The comparison and interaction between the intangibility of culture and the presence of physical space is an ongoing theme throughout the report. For instance, one section of the report outlines how buildings can and should be designed to fit the cultural needs of the neighborhoods they populate, as too often, use of a commercial space is considered during the leasing process, not the construction process, leading to costly renovations.
"All future cities are creative cities. All future cities are music cities."
On the residential side, as cities grow denser, the need increases for thoughtful acoustic design and sufficient sound isolation. Future cities can and should be places where people congregate
"If we don’t design and build our future cities to facilitate and welcome music and experience, we lose what makes them worth living in."
For musicians and artists of all mediums, the answer to making—and keeping—their cities worth living in boils down to considering their needs, impact and value more carefully and sooner in the planning process.
"The report argues that property is no longer an asset business, but one built on facilitating platforms for congregation, community and cohesion," it says. "By using music and culture at the beginning of the development process and incorporating it across the value chain from bid to design, meanwhile to construction, activation to commercialisation, this thinking and practice will result in better places."
The report offers examples of how planners and leaders are handling this from around the world. For instance, the Mayor Of London Night Czar, who helps ensure safety and nighttime infrastructure for venues toward the Mayor's Vision for London as a 24-hour city. Stateside, Pittsburgh, Penn., also has a Night Mayor in place to support and inform the growth of its creative class.
What is a music ecosystem? We believe the music influences and interacts with various sectors in a city. We have designed this infographic to show how music ecosystems work and impact cities, towns and places: https://t.co/0DIUpN1Dll— Sound Diplomacy (@SoundDiplomacy) August 14, 2019
Diversity, inclusion, health and well-being also factor into the reports comprehensive look at how music and culture are every bit as important as conventional business, ergonomic and environmental considerations in Future Cites. Using the Queensland Chamber of Arts and Culture as a reference, it declared, "A Chamber of Culture is as important as a Chamber of Commerce."
In the end, the report serves as a beacon of light for governments, organizations, businesses and individuals involved in planning and developing future cities. Its core principals lay out guideposts for building friendly places to music and culture and are backed with case studies and recommendations. But perhaps the key to this progress is in changing how we approach the use of space itself, as the answer to supporting music may be found in how we look at the spaces we inhabit.
"To develop better cities, towns and places, we must alter the way we think about development, and place music and culture alongside design, viability, construction and customer experience," it says. "Buildings must be treated as platforms, not assets. We must explore mixed‑use within mixed‑use, so a floor of a building, or a lesser‑value ground floor unit can have multiple solutions for multiple communities."
Ice-T In 1993
Photo by David Corio/Redferns
Nearly 30 Years After Their Debut, Body Count's 'Carnivore' Is The Thrash-Metal Band's Most Fully Realized Album
Led by iconic rapper Ice-T, the L.A.-based seven-piece keep their socially conscious themes consistent and the music louder than ever on their seventh studio album
In early 1992 Ernie Cunnigan visited the Burbank office of Howie Klein. The guitarist (who goes by Ernie C.) and the then-president of Reprise/Warner Bros. Records were listening to the upcoming self-titled debut from Cunnigan’s band, Body Count, fronted by his Crenshaw High School buddy Tracy Marrow, already famous as rapper Ice-T. Ice, with the savvy creative connectivity that guides his multi-hyphenate media career to this day, introduced his forthcoming metal band in 1991 via tracks on O.G. Original Gangster, his fourth album.
It's not unusual for high school pals to form a band. What was unusual, though, was that Body Count was a hardcore thrash metal band comprised of all-black musicians, with point-blank lyrics that were both insightful and incite-ful concerning racial and social inequities and the climate of America. Listening to the 18-track debut, Klein praised it, while voicing concern about the lyrics of "Momma's Gotta Die Tonight," a song about the matricide and dismemberment of a racist parent. Turns out it was the last track, a ditty called "Cop Killer," that should have given the executive pause.
While Klein was and remains stridently opposed to censorship and is a dedicated free speech advocate, Body Count, per the era, was released with a parental advisory sticker (as was Original Gangster). Less than two months after Body Count dropped, Los Angeles exploded in fiery violence in reaction to the acquittal of four policemen in the beating of Rodney King, as well as the shooting death of black teenager Latasha Harlins by a Korean grocer. (The grocer was given only probation.) It was the worst possible climate for "Cop Killer," with lyrics including "F**k the police, yeah!" and shout-outs to then L.A.P.D. chief Daryl Gates, Ice's "dead homies" and King. The blowback went all the way up to then-President George Bush, and though Time Warner supported Ice-T in his fight against the song's opponents, he eventually pulled the cut from new pressings of the album.
Currently, streaming services including Spotify and Apple Music offer the version sans the group's most (in)famous song, replacing "Cop Killer" with "Freedom Of Speech" from Ice's 1989 solo album, The Iceberg/Freedom of Speech...Just Watch What You Say, edited to add samples of Jimi Hendrix's "Foxy Lady" and the voice of political punker Jello Biafra. On YouTube, "Cop Killer" has more than 1.5 million views, with most of the comments thoughtful and positive, understanding the intentionally incendiary messages Body Count was delivering. Ultimately, if Body Count isn’t a classic record in the way that critics consider Nirvana’s Nevermind or Public Enemy's It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back to be, it’s an important and groundbreaking one. As Ice-T has said, Body Count is: "a protest record,” not the norm in the metal world, but still the way BC's songs operate today.
Indeed, 28 years later, things haven’t changed. Biafra is also on Body Count's powerful new album, Carnivore. Police actions like "stop and frisk" (the NYC law enforcement program that was proven to disproportionally target black and Latino men) wasn’t legally discredited until 2014. Body Count’s one-time bassist, Lloyd "Mooseman" Roberts III, was murdered in South Central Los Angeles in 2001 in an accidental drive-by; in the last 12 months, 126 black men were killed by guns in L.A. County, as opposed to 23 white men. And Ice-T and Body Count are still raging against the machine.
Ice-T enjoys pushing buttons lyrically, and if they’ve sometimes been heavy-handed or misguided ("KKK Bitch" or "Bitch In The Pit"), Ice-T is a politically eloquent, passionate and personal songwriter, which can be too easily overlooked given Body Count's volume-heavy metal chops and Ice's delivery, a speedy vocal style that’s been traditionally more aggro-rapping than melodic singing.
That said, Carnivore is Body Count’s best album to date; it’s the most fully realized musically, and there’s a cohesion to the vocals and music that led Body Count bassist Vincent Price to lay out the band’s growth in a Metallica timeline: "Manslaughter  was basically Kill ‘Em All; Bloodlust  was our Ride The Lightning, and Carnivore’s our Master Of Puppets."
He's not wrong, and though Ice-T’s more than 20-year stint as detective Odafin "Fin" Tutuola on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit has precluded lengthy Body Count tours, the buzz is loud for this seventh album.
Ice-T may be the original gangster, yet he’s patient, articulate and fervent in explaining songs and motivations to audiences and the press alike. "When I'm Gone," featuring Amy Lee of Evanescence, was inspired by the killing of Nipsey Hussle. It’s a reminder, as he says in the tune, to "tell the people that you love, that you love them now. … Don't wait; tomorrow may be too f**king late."
His prolific musical social criticism and seemingly left-leaning views are thoughtful and targeted, despite the vitriol of so many Body Count songs. In the nearly 30 years since founding his revolutionary band, Ice-T observes, "I think you’ve got less racism; less people, but more avid racism. It’s unnerving to think that we’ve come so far but there’s still so far to go." As he advised in a 2017 interview, "Don’t just be angry. Know what you’re talking about so you don’t alienate someone who should be an ally."