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Don Austin has always been one of my favorite hardcore bands from Northeast Ohio. They are from Akron and play criminally underrated fast hardcore. I miss their live shows to this day. Rust Belt Hammer is even named after Don Austin. They had an ep called Rust Belt Blues and a song named “I Fix Everything With a Hammer”. I combined the names and that is how this blog was born.
What was your introduction to punk in Northeast Ohio? When did you first start playing music?
My cousins, Tammy and Shelly (Gargus), were/are musicians and were heavily into punk and power pop stuff. They were both playing in outfits in the early 80’s locally and the late 80’s when the moved to San Francisco. Tammy, in particular, was into hardcore punk and played bass in a band called Pestilence. I don’t think they ever recorded anything. Later, she and her sister had a good power pop band called Papa Wheelie based in SF with another Ohio friend, Betsy Carney. Tammy still plays bass in a really good band, The Blank Stares, in SF.
But, the first punk records I had heard were directly from her collection; Dead Boys, Necros, The Stooges, Hammer Damage, Agnostic Front, SOA and Black Flag. Prior to that I was listening to a lot of the blues albums my Dad had turned me onto. Stuff like Little Walter, Howlin Wolf, Taj Mahal, etc….. Before checking out Tammy’s records I was also way into Sabbath and Maiden. Those were the first two bands that ruled my life, but those first few punk records changed how I looked at music. I was about 13 or 14 at the time so it drastically affected my “musical worldview”, so to speak. Almost immediately I was able to reconcile my love for the blues with hardcore punk and that has been a constant consideration in everything I have done musically.
I didn’t start playing music until a little later. Even though hardcore punk prides itself on personal interaction and accessibility, for the most part, there is still that distance between the artist and the listener – the rock star and the fan – though the gulf between the two is not as vast as it is in other types of music. Growing up in Akron it would have been much more difficult to make that connection if I didn’t have Tammy, Shelly and Betsy to look too. I mean, I am 43 so I was short of a decade too late to have experienced the early 80’s hardcore scene, here or anywhere else.
I had a little band with my friends Scot Haggerty and Steve Zushin. We couldn’t have been more than 16 at the time. I don’t even remember the name. We practiced in Scot’s attic but never played any shows. There was no place to play in Akron at the time. We were asked to play a house party once, but we totally chickened out. We recorded a one song demo, but that has long since disappeared. Scot was the only one who drove so Steve and I would have to walk all the way from the projects on the eastside to Firestone Park just to play for a half hour before Scot’s parents got home and those guys both went to a different high school than I did so it only lasted for maybe a year.
By then I had seen Hyper As Hell and D.I.M. (Does It Matter) play and those bands along with both of my cousins’ encouragement, I compelled to continue playing music. Having those influences so close really motivated me to just go for it in a way that I may not have if I was only watching bands from afar. Plus, by the time I really wanted to do it, all of my favorite bands were either broken up or making shitty records. So, I cannot overstate the importance of Hyper As Hell and D.I.M. – Donny Brown and Pat Beck, respectively, in addition to the influence of Tammy, Shelly and Betsy. Anyway, I had moved away to live with my Dad in Texas for a brief time, but when I came back I began writing for Crunchface Fanzine and almost immediately started my first serious outfit, Splinter, with some friends from the westside – this was around 89 or 90.
Describe Splinter for the readers that are uninitiated? How did you hook up with Dwid and end up on his Dark Empire compilation out of Cleveland?
Splinter existed from ‘89/’90 to around 1995. The line-up originally consisted of myself on vocals, Bob Silver on guitar, Nathan Hibbard on bass and Joe Macchiarole on drums. I had known the other guys in the band for a few years before hand but mostly just from hanging out. Back then, in Akron, the circles were smaller and you got to know people pretty quickly. Those guys all went to Copley, west of Akron and I went to East, but you still got to know people.
Originally, Joe and I conspired to start a band in the vein of all the early 80’s bands we loved. With Nathan and Bob on board we got things rolling and things sort of took a life of their own. We were listening to a lot of metal; Slayer, Celtic Frost and Sepultura, which showed in some of the stuff we were writing. It was very consistent with what was going on in hardcore overall. The difference is that a lot of bands were sort of disconnected with their punk roots and we were pretty keen on keeping in touch with those sensibilities, which I think worked against the band. We weren’t interested in the conservative jock antics most of our peers engaged in, the ivory-tower, faux liberal politics of others, or most of the other bullshit occurred during that era of hardcore-we weren’t flag wavers. All that, plus the fact that we were steadfastly an Akron band, and not a part of the Cleveland scene, worked against us. Especially, when being a Clevo band carried some weight in certain circles. In spite of that, we put out a demo, three seven-inch Eps, a twelve-inch Lp and appeared on two comps, one of which was the Dark Empire compilation.
I don’t really recall how the hell we ended up on that compilation. I think Dwid got a hold of us through Murad or Jeff Jingle from Anguish. I just know that we talked amongst ourselves for a long time about whether it was something we wanted to do. I mean, we weren’t a Cleveland band and we had only played maybe three shows there during the time we existed, so it seemed lame for us to be on a Cleveland comp. But, we had just released the Lp and there were serious distribution problems and we needed to try and get people interested in the record. Frankly, I have no clue why Dwid was even interested. He used a track from the Lp named “Three” and listed it as something else on the comp. From what I’ve been told he hated our band and thought the song title was stupid, so I can’t begin to pretend what that guy was thinking when he included us.
That’s funny. Dwid is an interesting guy. Never quite know what to expect. What projects did you get involved in right after the Splinter breakup?
Splinter took a short hiatus before calling I quits for good, the last line up was Joe, Bob, myself, Jeff from Anguish on second guitar and “Big Metal” Dave Johnson (Soulless, Deathcrawl and Ascension) on bass. We just weren’t feeling it anymore. We were 17 when we started that band, Bob was 14 or 15, and it was time to move on. I wanted to write more of the music and not just lyrics. We had some leftover tracks from our last recording session and I got connected with Clint Bott of Rubber City Records. He put it out and we started talking about putting something together.
Clint and his brother Chris used to go to the shows in Canton, where we played the bulk of our shows. They were Akron kids, so we were kind of on the same page. Clint played guitar, Chris played bass and this kid Joe Melnyk jumped in on drums. We deliberately stripped things down and deliberately play straight forward hardcore punk. The 90s were dismal. Everyone was aping Integrity, Earth Crisis, Avail and whatever Ebullition band was the flavor of the moment. We were looking further back. We named the band The Unholy Three and played a few shows in Canton before that dried up for us.
This was about 95/96 and some spaces were opening up in Akron. Downtown was still a bombed out ghost town. Our friend Stephanie opened up Fusion Records next to the Civic Theatre and was having shows in the basement. There was also 1-2 FU in North Hill. Otherwise, Akron was dead. The days of places like the Bank were long gone and there were no bars having punk shows. But, there were some cool bands in town, like Strange Division, The Pricks, The Phelps Hex and Pankration. Clint had put out The Pricks and Strange Division on Rubber City so of course we played with them a lot. Clint also had been given a ton of singles that Nick Nicholas from the Bizzaros had left in his basement and started distributing those locally. Nick was the guy who was responsible for Clone Records and put out a lot of awesome records. As people, we were always pretty Akron centered, but I think this about when we were really beginning to adopt a “from Akron, for Akron” mindset.
We still managed to play a couple shows in Cleveland at Speak In Tongues with bands like Nine Shocks, Gordon Solie, Puncture Wound and Tarantula. But, other than Erba, and a handful of others we didn’t have ton of supporters in Cleveland. The Unholy Three did a demo and Clint put out our seven-inch on his label. We added Josh Cosner on second guitar and then in we did a full length Cd. It was a split release on Donut Friends and Teenage Sex Vixens which got us on a tour of the south with Party of Helicopters, Phelps Hex and Pankration. We imploded before we finished somewhere in Jacksonville or Gainesville, I’m not sure which. The others drove home and I finished the tour doing road work for Pankration.
And then came Don Austin?
Yeah, almost immediately. That was 1999. I got back from the tour and called Clint right away. We got together with Jim Tamulewiscz from the Pricks to play bass and Joe Macchiarole from Splinter played drums. We wrote and recorded our first seven-inch pretty much carrying on in the same fashion as The Unholy Three. Macchiarole’s drumming is much more straight forward and rock based, whereas Melnyk’s contained a strong jazz influence and made the songs sound much more complex, but we went with the same idea to keep playing hardcore punk. After the first record came out Joe and Jim left the band. Clint’s brother came back into the fold as well as Josh Cosner. They sort switched positions with Chris playing guitar and Josh on bass. Chris suggested Sean Spindler play drums and that was the second line-up.
I know you guys hooked up with Gloom Records in NY for a 7 inch. Was that through Erba/9 Shocks. I know they did something on that label too.
No. I had sent out a few copies of our first seven-inch to some labels that might be interested in doing another one. Gloom seemed like a good fit because they had Nine Shocks and a few others. I know that Mike Thorn (MRR’s Editor at the time) put us over and I am sure if Nate (Gloom/Devoid o Faith) asked Tony he would have done the same. That guy has gone out of his way to help the bands I’ve plaved in more than most. Funny thing is, Don Austin played with 9 Shocks once. Nearly all of the shows that we played with one of Tony’s outfits were either Step Sister of Amps 2 Eleven, both of which I loved.
Actually, that worked out for the best because, because at the time, we were totally bored with playing hardcore shows. We were more interested in playing gigs that had diverse line-ups and not just other hardcore punk bands, which is what we had to do on tour. The scene in Akron at the time was wide open and there were a TON of bands operating and all of them were fairly unique. Most of the shows took place at either The Lime Spider or Annabell’s, sometimes we would play the occasional Kent show at the Mantis. Besides us there was Sofa King Killer, Fistula , Rardar Secret Service, Strange Division was still playing, Dexter Chumley Attack, Concordia Discors, Interfuse, First Offense, Rue and a lot more. But none of those bands were similar to us except Dexter Chumley. My hands down favorite band from that time was The Brides. It had Donny Brown from Hyper As Hell and Matt from Sockeye. They were heavy as hell and I loved playing shows with them.
I think I remember the show with 9 Shocks, at Lime Spider right? Kill the Hippies played too if my memory serves correct.
The 9 Shocks show was a good one. I can’t remember if Kill the Hippies were on that bill, but I know they had played at the Spider a few times. We got to play a lot of memorable shows – Teeth of the Hydra, Easy Action, DOA, or very last gig was a barn burner, but not many straight up hardcore shows.
Yeah, another one I saw at the Lime Spider was with Gil Mantera’s Party Dream from Youngstown. Certainly not a hardcore show but a cool lineup without a doubt.
Gil Mantera’s Party Dream was ri-fuckin-diculous! They were great. Every time they played it turned into a drunken debacle. Especially, when we played with them. Don Austin was definitely a drinking band and when we were paired up with certain bands, it would be a mess…particularly Sofa King Killer, Concordia Discors, Dead Body Chuckers, but that Gil Mantera show was absurd. We finished blasting through our set and those two guys come on with that retro 80s, mock synth pop, dressed like rejects from a Bowie cover band. They were great.
Why did Don Austin come to an end?
It was just time. Sean was moving to LA and we had been together for seven years. There was no reason to have a yet another line-up change. I had lost interest and so had everyone else. That was that. No drama, just time to move on. We played our last show at the Lime Spider and packed the house for what was probably our best set and most notorious gig. I don’t think I will ever be able to live that one down.
I remember hearing about a blues-punk band your briefly did after Don Austin but I don’t recall any recordings becoming available. What project was that?
That was Hatchet Job, but it wasn’t brief. We all knew that Don Austin was going to end. Mike and Chris had been playing in Hell’s Information concurrently with Don Austin, so I felt like I wanted to keep going as well. I was at the Lime Spider and my buddy Matt (Mulichak, Public Squares and Interfuse) were talking – he asked what I was going to do. I half-jokingly told him that I wanted to start a band where we ripped off Laughing Hyenas and The Stooges. He said, “Let’s do it!”.
We got together with Mike Oravec (guitar) and Nick Carderelli (drums) – both from Interfuse and started writing. It all came together really quickly. We wrote those tunes really fast and started playing pretty quickly. Then Nick stepped out and we were without a drummer. We played a couple shows with a sit-in, and tried a few people out, but Nick is an exceptional drummer and we couldn’t settle on anyone to replace him.
So we just sort of stopped playing. A couple years went by and we didn’t do anything at all – we never broke up, we just didn’t practice or play. I did a band in the meantime with Corey Bing, Bahb Branca (from Fistula) and Scott Stearns (Die Hard; pre Integrity) called Blackwell. We never played any shows, but recorded a really good full length record. It hasn’t been released but it’s pretty killer. Heavy, fast in spots, slower in others; sort of a hardcore thing filtered through Celtic Frost and Fistula sensibilities. We were all over the place in our lives and nothing came of it.
Corey is an old friend, we talk a lot about that record, but I don’t know if it will ever see the light of day.
Eventually, Matt, Mike and myself sat down and decided to try to find a suitable drummer for Hatchet Job. We found this guy, Ian Cummins (Ultrasphinx) through a friend. He came in and killed it. So we played some shows here and there, but never really got rolling. We were all so busy and the support system just wasn’t there anymore. The Lime Spider had long since closed and I don’t carry any weight in Cleveland, so shows were hard to come by…Plus, some people were expecting fast hardcore and Hatchet Job, while heavy, just wasn’t anything that people who dug Don Austin were into.
We were very bluesy, but had an Amphetamine Reptile sound mixed with some Jesus Lizard and it didn’t fly with a lot of people. I mean, I have always loved the blues, Laughing Hyenas, The Gun Club, The Birthday Party – stuff like that – people weren’t digging us. Still, I would put up anything Hatchet Job did against anything I did previously. We were a really good band – well, THOSE guys were a great band – I had the easy job. I screamed, yelled, bellowed and hollered. That’s all.
We recorded an album two (?) years ago with a friend – it came out good – but the plans to put it out fell through. There were some significant life changes going on in the band; Mike had a baby and I was starting to teach, so interest was waning. We were around for 7 years. The guys called for a hiatus, but I seriously doubt Hatchet Job will play again. I am really proud of that band. I needed to slow down and sort of go in another direction. I spent a week in the hospital after starting the night of the last Don Austin show and I wasn’t sure if I could keep playing at that pace. Plus, if I was to play in a hardcore punk band again, it would only be on the condition that Clint Bott was part of it. So the change was necessary and good for me.
What did you do musically after Hatchet Job was through?
I went straight from Hatchet Job to singing for Contra. They have been around as an insturmental three piece for about a year. They were looking for a vocalist, but I was tied up with Hatchet Job. But, when that ended I called them up and asked if they were still interested and that was that. I don’t even think I’ve been with them for more than a few months, but it is working out nicely. Our drummer (Aaron) was in Fistula early on and Chris was in Sofa King Killer – so I have know those guys for a long time. We have an album that we are working on. All I have to do is wrap up the vocals and then we mix.
Anything you want to add before we wrap up?
Thanks for taking the time to do the interview Matt!. It was fun. Thanks to my band mates past and present, particularly Clint Bott (2 different band and 13 years!), as well as the folks who bothered to show up to the gigs, put us on shows, put out records and put any of my bands over (Erba). It’s been tough being in bands from Akron, but I wouldn’t give it up for anything.
Check out my current band Contra; contracleveland.com or find us on Facebook.