Wednesday, January 12, 2011

An Interview with Phillip Hill (Teen Idols)

(Originally from August 30, 2009)

You know him as the guitarist and founder of Teen Idols, as well as an ex-member of Screeching Weasel, Even In Blackouts, The Queers, Common Rider, and for a brief period (as I would find out) Rise Against's touring band. Phillip Hill was kind enough to do an interview with me where we discussed his past, present, and future in punk rock. Enjoy!

David: First off I'm wondering about your years growing up in Tennessee. In documentaries from the ‘80s like Another State Of Mind or Decline Of Western Civilization the Los Angeles punks always complain about getting hassled by people and discriminated against by police. If that was going on in L.A., what was the experience like in a more conservative city with significantly less of a scene?
Phil: I don't know first-hand what the L.A. scene was like because I wasn't there, but in the South in the ‘80s it was pretty tough to be a punk. I had guns pulled on me by rednecks several times (only got shot once!), was constantly asked if I was a "devil worshiper", was sent to detention for having a mohawk, etc. It was definitely a lot tougher back then. Common people had usually never seen a "punk" before, so they were very judgmental and suspicious. Ironically, the most judgmental were the Baptist Church members. So much for "judge not, lest you be judged"!

David: You got shot at?

Phil: I got shot through the thigh with a .25 caliber pistol when I was 18. The guy that shot me was a suburban white kid that was driving a lowrider pickup truck. Pretty typical "wigger" kid from the early ‘90s. People think I'm joking around when I say that it was dangerous to be a punk back then, but it was no joke! You actually had to fight for it and it meant something back then!

David: Yeah you hear stories about getting beat up by cops or other people but never about getting shot at. What happened to the pickup truck guy?

Phil: I got a letter from the police department saying they couldn't continue the investigation due to lack of evidence. They had a description of the vehicle (which I busted the back window out of with a brick as it was driving), a description of the guy that pulled the trigger, the bullet that they surgically removed from my body, and the location of the incident. What more did they need? When they first brought me in to the emergency room, the cop made a report and called it in over his walkie-talkie. He said, "Yep, it looks like we've got a biker here that got shot. Probably drug or gang related." I said, "Hey! I'm not a biker, a gang member, or on drugs! What the Hell?!" He just looked at me in disgust and walked away.

David: Were there many punk bands playing in Nashville?

Phil: The scene back then was really diverse because it was so small. A common "punk" show would usually have a punk band, a hardcore band, a thrash band, and an "alternative" or "college rock" band all on the same bill. There were probably a total of 100 "punks" in the entire city back in '86 when I first started going to shows. Some of the bigger bands were thrash bands like F.U.C.T. and Caustic Solutions, punk bands like Rednecks In Pain and Stupid Americanz, and college rock acts like Web Wilder and Jason and the Scorchers.

David: What about out of town bands? How often did bands come through there, and what were some of the more memorable shows you saw?

Phil: Nashville would get a few national punk bands from time to time; Black Flag, The Exploited, Cro-Mags, Ramones, Circle Jerks, Fugazi, 7 Seconds, D.R.I., Corrosion of Conformity, Dag Nasty, etc. Most of the time bigger punk bands would skip Nashville and play either Atlanta or Cincinnati, though.

David: Was Teen Idols your first band?

Phil: Ha, no. My first band was a heavy metal band called Arson. I started that in 8th grade. We really sucked. I was in a ton of speed metal and thrash bands in the 80s. I've been playing "professionally" (at real clubs) since I was 16 (Summer of '88). An already established thrash band called Caustic Solutions asked me to join as their 2nd guitarist after I invited them to watch my band's rehearsal in hopes of an opening slot on one of their upcoming shows. I was 16 and two of the other guys in Caustic were 29. They used to pick me up from high school on Friday afternoon and we'd hit the road and tour the Southeast all weekend to places like Atlanta, Knoxville, Sometimes Birmingham, and Huntsville. Sometimes they would drop me back off at school on Monday morning after an all-night drive on the Sunday night before. It was a great learning experience! I felt like an old pro by the time I started Teen Idols at the age of 19.

David: What was going on in your life at that point? Were you someone who was going to college and playing music as a side thing, or did you start the band because you had nothing going on and/or didn't want to pursue a conventional life?

Phil: I had already made up my mind that this is what I wanted to do for a living when I started Teen Idols. I was 19, but I was still a senior in high school because I had dropped out during my first senior year to devote all of my attention on music. College wasn't really an option. I was a pretty rebellious teenager and my grades in school were definitely sub-par. Not because I was stupid, but because I would skip class constantly and refused to do homework. I would usually sleep in class or write lyrics to songs in my notebook when I was supposed to be working. I viewed school as a daycare center for teenagers and was very disillusioned with the whole thing. I didn't grow up with a conventional life, so I never wanted to follow the "normal" path that is expected of most people.

David: I'd like to ask about the band name. Obviously there had been another band called Teen Idles, which I'm sure you were aware off. Was it the case that when your band was formed Teen Idles had just sort of been forgotten about, and like Minor Threat, became more and more popular in the years after they had broken up? Do people ever show up to your shows expecting to see Ian MacKaye's band?

Phil: I had never actually heard of The Teen Idles when I decided on the name Teen Idols. They broke up in '81 and never toured that I know of, so I had no idea that they had ever existed. Every once in awhile we would have someone show up at a show thinking that we were the old D.C. band, but that hasn't really happened since we started putting out full-length albums. I think most people these days know the difference between the bands. Someone told me that Ian Mackaye was asked if he was bothered by our band name at a Fugazi show once and he said, "It's not spelled the same. Plus, I've heard that they're a great band."

David: The band went through a lot of lineup changes in the early years, what do you attribute to all these members coming and going?

Phil: You have to keep in mind that I was the oldest in the band at 19 when we started. Our first singer was 16. That is a very turbulent time in people's lives people "outgrow" punk, or move on to different things. Most of the time the guys in the band just couldn't handle being in a professional band. They were just used to playing in the garage and playing the occasional party. I had bigger aspirations than that.
I wanted to put out albums and travel the globe on tour. That takes a lot of dedication and sacrifice. Most people figure out too late that it's a "job" to be in a professional touring band and can't take the pressure, so they bail out.

David: Have you ever considered releasing something like Black Flag's Everything Went Black that compiles the bands recordings from before Keith Witt became the singer?

Phil: I have thought about re-releasing all of the 7"s and compilation tracks on a CD with an accompanying DVD of old live footage and interviews. I own all of the master tapes, so it wouldn't be that hard to do. Maybe it will get released eventually.

David: How did you meet Keith? It seems like the band became grounded once he became the singer.

Phil: That's actually really funny! Keith was a fan of the band that used to hang around our practice room and press record on our shitty tape recorder whenever we were working on new songs. He kind of joined the band by default. We had accepted a tour offer from the Queers in October of '95. It was going to be our first tour outside of the South and was a really big deal to me. 3 weeks before the tour was to begin, our singer and bassist decided to quit! That put me in a real bind. Keith immediately offered to be the new singer, but I was very skeptical. He had only been the singer in one other band, "Brutus Fly", and they were pretty horrible. I made him swear to me that he would practice everyday and sing double sets at every rehearsal. I have videos from that tour and we were horrible! I still can't believe we got fan mail from that tour.

David: Around this time there were all these bands like Green Day, Bad Religion, The Offspring, Rancid, etc. who had become popular in the mainstream. Did you notice any sort of trickle down effect in the underground like larger crowds for the sort of shows you'd go to or play?

Phil: I started the band in '92 and I had never heard of Green Day, Rancid, or Screeching Weasel. I was just trying to combine my favorite elements of the music I liked from bands like Misfits, Bad Religion, Descendents, Ramones, and 50s rock-n- roll. When we first started playing Teen Idols shows, people called us "sissy music" because it wasn't thrash, which usually got me into a lot of fights. Then when Green Day got popular, people called us "Green Day clones" which I think is ridiculous since most of our songs had been written before I had ever heard of Green Day and I don't think we sound anything alike. But yeah, once those bands hit MTV, the scene definitely got a large influx of new kids. It was pretty annoying at the time because most of them were totally clueless about the history of punk rock and only knew what they saw on MTV.

David: The first Teen Idols album was released in 1997, which had been proceeded by a slew of EPs. Why did you wait so long to record a full length?

Phil: There are several reasons. We were really poor and I couldn't afford to press a full-length myself on my wages I made by working at Burger King. The only punk label in our scene was House O'Pain Records and they only did 7"s. We sent our 7"s to labels like Lookout! Records, but they weren't interested. It seemed like we were getting turned down a lot because we were from the South, which made me even more pissed off. I had already been shot, beaten, and discriminated against for years by rednecks for defending the "punk" way of life, and now the "real punks" didn't deem my band worthy because we weren't from New York or California. It really felt like an uphill struggle the entire time.

Luckily, I put our 3rd 7" (which almost felt like albums to me because they were so hard to get recorded and pressed) in the hands of Ben Weasel. He sent it to Fat Mike at Fat Wreck Chords in hopes that he would release a single 7" by us on Fat. Mike liked it so much that he sent us to Sonic Iguana to record some more songs. He liked that batch of songs even more and decided to sign us to a two-album deal on his new subsidiary of Fat, Honest Don's. We ended up putting out 3 full-lengths on that label.

David: Can you talk about your time in Screeching Weasel? What led to you becoming a member and what was it like being a part of those House of Blues shows after years of the band refusing to play live?

Phil: I had a blast playing in Screeching Weasel. When Ben was writing the songs for the album "Teen Punks In Heat", he decided that he would rather just concentrate on singing instead of playing guitar as well. He asked Mass Giorgini if he knew of anyone that might be up for the job and Mass suggested me. My first time seeing Screeching Weasel live was in Jughead's basement at my first rehearsal as the new 2nd guitarist! The House of Blues shows were huge. I felt guilty being up there because I felt like it was Dan Vapid's rightful place. He and Ben were at odds during that time, so it was awkward since Dan is also my friend as well. By the time we played the final Weasel show, Ben and Dan were friends again, so I invited Dan onstage to sing during "Joanie Loves Johnie". I think I was more excited than he was! Ha, ha!

David: I've seen professionally shot clips of these shows on youtube, will an official DVD ever be released?

Phil: That's totally up to Ben at this point. I hope it sees the light of day eventually. It was supposed to be part of a Screeching Weasel documentary, we did a bunch of interviews for it and everything. It seems like a real waste to scrap the project.

David: Screeching Weasel broke up shortly after this and you would go on to play with John Jughead in his next band Even In Blackouts. Given you're relationship.
with John, if Ben Weasel had asked you to be in this latest Jughead-less version of Screeching Weasel would you have?

Phil: That's a tough question. I really feel like I would need to have John's blessing to do something like that. If John were against it, I would probably say "no". I wasn't asked in the first place, so I guess it was never an option.

David: While on this sort of subject do you feel any sort of regret replacing Keith
and recording that one full-length album without him? Why did he leave Teen Idols?

Phil: I don't regret releasing "Nothing to Prove" at all! I think it's a great album. Keith was fired from Teen Idols for a bunch of personal reasons. Kevin was a great replacement and is an awesome guy. He had some pretty big shoes to fill when he joined the band. His first time on stage with us was at a sold out show at the Masquerade in Atlanta opening for Less Than Jake, Anti-Flag, and New Found Glory. He handled himself like a pro.

David: After that album the band broke up, why did you decide to call it quits?

Phil: The band broke up because I decided to call it quits. By that point, I was the only original member left in the band. We had a huge drunken argument on tour and my guitar ended up getting smashed. It had been leading up to that point for a few years. After the initial fight, I tried to contact the other members and pull it back together, but the wounds were too fresh. Nobody wanted to even think about playing together as a band anymore at that moment.

David: In this past year you and Keith decided to reform Teen Idols. Had you stayed in contact with each other or was it just the sort of thing where one of you got in
touch with the other one out of the blue?

Phil: I hadn't talked to Keith in about 8 years. He was fired from the band on very bad terms and was our bitter enemy for a long time. After having several years to reflect, he realized that he was being hardheaded and was in the wrong originally. He called me out of the blue one day because he had heard that I was living in Chicago. He had just moved there with his girlfriend and was working as the front of house lighting guy at the House of Blues. He thanked me for giving him the benefit of the doubt all of those years ago when I let him join the band. He told me that he was thankful for all of the opportunities to travel the world playing music and recording albums that I had given him. I thought that was a very humble and adult thing to do coming from the Keith I used to know. It turned out that he had to realize what he had lost before he could appreciate it. Not long after we re-connected, he asked me to be the Best Man at his wedding.

David: Did you guys try to get Heather and Matt on board as well?

Phil: Yeah. Matt was interested at first, but his schedule as Less Than Jake's drum
tech was too demanding for him to commit to playing with us full-time. He ‘s still open to the idea of playing with us from time to time. Heather still holds a grudge about the fight in 2003. She refuses to talk to any of us, or about the band at all.

David: I was re-reading the Insubordination Fest Zine in which the interviewer asked you to talk about your new bassist. Since that was written she has been replaced so can you talk about the new new bassist?

Phil: Ha, yeah! Her name is Yvonne. The way I met Yvonne was almost like fate or destiny. Her band, the Scissors were playing a show with The Leftovers in Chicago. I had never heard of the Scissors and knew nothing about them. I was there to see The Leftovers. Yvonne definitely left an impression on me as being a good singer/guitarist, but I had already selected the new bassist for Teen Idols. In a weird turn of events, the girl I had been working with ended up not being able to do it and I was in a bind because we had already been confirmed to play at the Insubordination Fest and now we didn't have a bassist! I wrote to the Scissors' Myspace page and asked if there was any way that their guitarist would be willing to play with us on a
short tour. Yvonne wrote me right back and said, "I only have one question; when do I get my Teen Idols leather jacket?!" It turns out that she was already a fan of the band! After hanging out with her and playing with her on the 7-show tour out to Insubordination Fest and back, we asked her to be a full-time member and she accepted.

David: It seems when a band has one female member playing an instrument it's disproportionately a bassist. I remember Beavis and Butthead talked about this during a Sonic Youth video, why do you think this is the case?

Phil: It's kind of funny because Yvonne is first and foremost a guitarist. I was originally supposed to be the bassist for Teen Idols, but I couldn't find a guitarist I was happy with. Our first bassist, Janell, was the lead singer and upright bassist in a bluegrass band that was part of a school program at her high school. Part of their
school program involved the bluegrass band experiencing a recording studio environment. The high school I went to had a 24-track recording studio program that I was in. I ended up being the main engineer on the project. One day in class, Janell slipped me a note that said, "I heard that you're looking for band members. Can I audition?” I was initially against the idea of having a girl in the band. I was also looking for a guitarist, not a bassist. But she was such an awesome musician and singer that I thought I'd giver her a shot. I switched over to guitar and she ended up forming such an integral part of the band's sound that we need to have a female bassist now or it just wouldn't be Teen Idols.

David: Teen Idols are preparing to record their first new album since 2003. I know you got in to some trouble talking about the label, but is there anything you can say about the album musically?

Phil: I won't really know until I write the songs! I usually find that if I try to force myself to write in a certain way, it sounds just like that; forced. I just have to let whatever happens happen. That sounds sort of like a hippy thing to say, but that's the only way I know how to describe it. I know that I want it to be aggressive like the self-titled album, but more advanced in the songwriting area. I guess we'll just have to wait and see!

David: Being around for so long is it the case that you find younger bands who influence your new music?

Phil: I don't really listen to enough of the newer bands to be influenced by any of them. I guess I'm an old man that's stuck in his ways about that sort of thing.

I'm usually influenced by whatever mood I happen to be in at the time I'm writing. I
mainly still listen to the bands that I liked back when the band first started.

David: Final question, with all the stuff you've done between Teen Idols, Screeching Weasel, Even In Blackouts, The Queers, and any other project you've been a part of is there any recording that stands out as your favorite, and any that you can say is your least favorite?

Phil: I've been lucky to have been involved with some really cool bands and recording projects. To me, they're all unique experiences, so it's hard to say which is
my most or least favorite. I guess my most favorite would be all of the stuff I've done with Teen Idols, since that's my own material. Every other band has had it's own unique thing that makes it fun or cool. I was never really a ska fan, but I enjoyed my time playing guitar for Common Rider and bass for the Independents. I'm not too into the hardcore scene, but I had a blast touring as Rise Against's guitarist on the tour for the album "The Unraveling". Of course, my time in Screeching Weasel and The Queers were great because I'm a fan. Playing bass for Even In Blackouts made me stretch my legs as a musician and took me into musical areas that I probably wouldn't have gone to otherwise. I'm just thankful to have had a pretty awesome and well-rounded musical career at this point!

David: I had no idea you played with Rise Against on that tour. How did you hook up with them? Did they ever ask you to be a full time member?

Phil: I've known Joe and Dan since they were in 88 Fingers Louie. I was the engineer on the recording session for "The Unraveling" album at Sonic Iguana Studios. When Dan left the band, they asked me to fill in for the U.S. tour. We went out to California and back through Texas. I was in the band for 6 weeks. It was always understood that it was just a fill-in position because I was still in Teen Idols, The Queers, and Common Rider at that point. I worked with them again in the studio as an engineer on one of their EPs and ended up writing a guitar solo for one of the songs. After that session they asked me to join the band full-time, but I turned them down because I wanted to commit to Common Rider instead. Rise Against was still pretty unknown at the time and Common Rider was the new project of Jesse Michales from Operation Ivy. I thought I was making a smart decision with that one...

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