Clevo Hardcore Punk Legend Tony Erba Reflects on a Lifetime of Ugliness
Tony Erba is the kind of person whose name you hear way before you end up meeting him: the frontman of Clevo hardcore punk luminaries Gordon Solie Motherfuckers and the driving force behind other local giants like H100s and 9 Shocks Terror. GSMF gigs were wild and legendary, complete with full-on riots and shit hitting fans. Erba had the personality of wrestler Dusty Rhodes and celebrated the urban decay of his surroundings with a unique brand of ugly, dark and fast music.
The one time I was fortunate enough to see GSMF was from the back of a room, hiding behind my then-girlfriend while hordes of ugly mutants threw a proverbial shit-ton of fireworks, trash cans, bags of flour, barbed wire and Väkivaltaa! EPs (540 Records, #1). It also featured Shaun Dean swinging around a goddamn huge piece of thick metal chain. Then and today, all I can say is that people from Cleveland are fucking crazy. The world would be a better place if more people were as honest and real as Erba.
In a CLRVYNT-friendly show for the ages, be sure to catch 9 Shocks Terror, S.H.I.T., Warthog, Fuck You Pay Me, Wound Man, Conspiracy and Rashomon at Brooklyn Bazaar on Friday, June 3. Tickets were just made available here.
After 20 years of doing hardcore punk, you just keep doing it. You just came out with a new Fuck You Pay Me record on Tankcrimes, and it’s lit. Why are you still doing it?
It’s just, once you’re a mechanic, you don’t get into crocheting, I guess. Thirty years, and maybe five being in our first band, the guy from Nunslaughter, Jim Konya, the drummer, he died. He was my best friend. And then there’s another guy still floating around, Chris Pellow from Ringworm, who played in that band, too, and that dude’s still playing. I don’t know — I liked it then, and I like it now. I don’t really have a super deep answer to give you other than I like it, I’m reasonably decent at it and people still come to see you when the bands come into town. I guess the audience will tell me when I should just stop, because they just won’t show up.
That makes sense. Are you from the Cleveland area? You grew up in Parma, correct?
Yeah, I was born on a military base in Kansas. My family is all from the Cleveland area. We moved around a little bit due to my father being in the service, but yeah. I mean, we basically grew up in Cleveland — in Parma pretty much my entire life — until my early 20s when I bounced around.
What was your first punk show in Cleveland, the one that really stood out?
Oh, probably like a local show. There was an old club called the Lakefront — actually, there was this little theater called the Variety that would do these all-day fests that would have just, like, local bands, and bands like the Guns, and Hyper as Hell, and King Coles and bands like that, so probably one of those shows.
I remember seeing Discharge when they came out with Grave New World, and the guy from the Plague [Bob Sablack] came out when [Discharge] started playing that shitty glam rock stuff, and the guy from the Plague was like, “Fuck this!” And he ran up onstage and fucking punched Cal [Discharge’s Kelvin “Cal” Morris] out. [Laughs] End of show. That wasn’t my first one by any stretch — that was in about ’86 — but it was pretty memorable.
Was that the one that really got your blood going, where you were like, “I’m gonna start a fucking punk band”?
No, but every city has these bands that are like the great local bands, but just never get their act together, but put out a record, or go on tour, or they’ll play all the towns and put out demos, and are great and are loved. I remember seeing Domestic Crisis — they were the great local unknowns — and Hyper as Hell, and seeing those guys at this club called JB’s in Kent [Ohio] at one of those shows. Hyper as Hell would always play on Halloween, and these guys were really into acid and drugs. They were total freaks.
They had this crazy place called the Smurf House — I saw Sons of Ishmael play with them there. That show, that might’ve been my touchstone show — it was in this crazy house with all these drugged-out maniacs and punk rockers from Kent. Everyone was moshing and skanking and stuff, and it was in this house, and I remember the floors bouncing up and down. That was a really good one, with Sons of Ishmael and Hyper as Hell.
So, basically, you’re telling me that shows in Cleveland have always been wilder than anywhere else in the country?
Well, I don’t know about that, because at a young age, I didn’t have much to compare them to. That’s just how it was here. Maybe they were wilder in Nashville. I really wouldn’t know — I didn’t drive until I was about 19 or 20.
They used to be really well-attended, I’ll tell you that. I found that when it was a much smaller scene, in terms of people who knew about it, it was much more important — less people knew, but more people went. It was a thing to do. It was very important. You’d get three fucking TV channels, and still [have to be] 18 to buy beer, so that was our kind of music and our thing. It was way more important [that] people went, and I remember there was always really good energy.
Cleveland has really given a lot to the world in terms of influence. You think about bands like Straightjacket Nation, from Melbourne, which is clearly H100s worship. That’s gotta kinda trip you out in a small way, that a pair of brothers from Parma, Ohio are influencing bands in fucking Australia. How does that sit with you?
Well, it’s the first I’m hearing about it.
When we were in that band — H100s — I had quit Face Value and wanted to jam with the guys in Gag Reflex. I said, “Well, I’d like to play bass because it’d be a nice change of pace,” and since I was writing the music for a lot of the Face Value stuff, until I stopped writing the music and, consequently, the songs started to suck, I felt that I’d like to play an instrument. My brother was younger and a real brat — a real shit-talker — so I said, “This kid would be perfect on the vocals.” So, when we recorded the first single we knew, “Oh these songs are pretty fucking sweet,” and were all happy with it, but certainly we didn’t say, “Oh, you know what, fellas? In 25 years, people in Australia are gonna kiss our ass,” or anything like that.
Matter of fact, when [H100s] played, we could barely get through a set, there was usually trouble, someone would stop the show. We had all these problems and riots and fights and stuff. By that time, the band had been around since 1995.
And punk had been around for 20 years already.
Right! Like, what’s so novel or scary about this? I mean, we were just dressed in T-shirts and jeans, and would come out and say “fuck you” a couple times and play a 20-minute set, and this was, like, outraging people. It’s totally bizarre. I guess it was, unintentionally. We’re just gonna play what we want. If we wanted to go see a band, here’s a band that would be pretty sweet, but apparently when JNCO jeans and sitting cross-legged in the pit and these types of things were happening, it was a big affront to that current climate, and it just irritated people. But nah, we weren’t legends or anything. We just wanted to goddamn get through a set. And get booked. That’s all I’d ever hear about — I just wanted to get booked. And don’t touch my amp and don’t fuck with my brother. Those were the only things we cared about, really.
When did you start fucking with all the crazy gear? I remember 9 Shocks Terror had like two 8x10s, a couple V-4s, maybe Sunn — you just had so much fucking bass gear, it’d fucking knock you down, man.
[Laughs] I’m glad someone appreciates it.
I remember being like, “Wait, you can hook all that stuff together?” I think that’s pretty cool.
That’s funny that at least you appreciate it. It certainly sucked loading all that shit into a basement and these tiny clubs. You used to be able to find all that tube stuff really cheap, because at that point everyone wanted that rack-mount stuff that looked like space shuttles. I could usually find V-4s, tubes, and old acoustics and shit dirt-cheap, man. You look at those early Grand Funk and Status Quo records and those dudes have like stacks and stacks of smashed amps with coil cords, and it’s like — this looks fucking awesome.
Some kid walks into a club and sees this shit and is like, “Oh fuck, these guys mean business.”
And then you come in with Gordon Solie Motherfuckers and drop a little Dusty Rhodes "son of a plumber" vibe on them, and really open up a fucking can of worms.
Why did you start incorporating that into GSMF? Were you just like, “You know what, man? I just want to see how absolutely wild I can get these kids to go. So, I’m gonna start swinging chains and chucking chairs"?
I loved it. I grew up watching that stuff. Saturday afternoons for me were This Week in Baseball and Cleveland pro wrestling; then we got the Sheik wrestling out of Detroit, which is wild as fuck; then we had roller derbies, and the Godzilla movie block and The Three Stooges. Then on Sundays, more of the same, but we also had these wild preachers like Ernest Angley and Robert Shore and these guys, who are more or less doing a southern pro-wrestling managing gimmick, like screaming authority into the crowd and conning people out of their money. That kind of stuff influenced me as a young kid. Not being particularly tough, or good at sports, I naturally escaped into baseball, television, books and shit like that. But I really liked that kind of stuff that you’d see on TV. No one ever paid attention to me in high school, unless they were kicking my ass — I certainly wasn’t getting laid — but when you’re in a band, now you’re up on a stage with a microphone and people are paying attention to you. You basically have power where you can force people to pay attention to you, and you can channel your inner dick where you can say a bunch of outrageous shit. You can't walk down the street and say this shit to people, but onstage and in the guise of fronting a band, you can be a real motherfucker. And people not only applaud you for it, they buy your records and ask you to come to their town! What a winning combination, in my mind.
So, River on Fire Records, if I remember correctly, put out the first Gordon Solie 7”, correct?
Oh yeah, Dan Moore. He’s a local friend of ours. There’s another guy, Ryan, you have to mention. He died; he’s a good friend of mine, but yeah, those were local friends of ours that liked our band and said, “We’re going do a record label.” Dan was the boyfriend of our friend Soiree; they were just local friends who wanted to do a record label, and we’re like, “Oh, okay, go ahead. Do our record.” It was fucking sweet.
We weren’t career-minded, like, “Oh, we better hold out for fucking Plan 9,” or anything.
You’ve been doing stuff with Tankcrimes for a little bit now, right? You’ve done a couple projects with Scotty [Heath]?
No, this is the first one. I forgot I even knew Scotty. He was in Voetsek. It’s our first record with him, though, but I hope we do more. I’ve always been a straight-shooter, and he’s got an impressive roster of bands.
He’s a rad dude, he does a good label and he moves records. He’s the kind of dude that, if he booked a show, he’ll still make a fucking flyer and not just post to Facebook. I appreciate that in a record label owner. For people of my age and my generation, DIY was already well-established by the time we started coming up. How has it changed in terms of dealing with someone like River on Fire and dealing with someone like Tankcrimes?
It was a hell of a lot harder back then. The way it went was, put out your first demo, it sounds like shit — shitty cover, but you’re happy to just figure out how to go in the studio. Then you put out your next demo — better recording, you kind of hit your stride with how the band sounds and your direction. Then, you put out a 7”. Now you’re touring, you’re going regionally, you’re hitting Buffalo, you’re playing Detroit, shit like that. Then, if you get to the promised land of having someone else put out your record on a label that actually has releases, that was a big fucking thing. And just going into the studio and having an engineer that wasn’t your stereotypical coked-out Grateful Dead fan, that knew what the hell heavy and fast music should sound like. That was a big thing in the '80s. These guys didn’t know, they didn’t want to know. They were dicks to you. You got, like, this fucking block of hours late at night. You know, you’ve heard all the stories. That’s how it was.
Now, that’s gone. We used to do this thing — the only time we could ever make any money, we had a sympathetic friend at Mars Recording Studio that would gimmick a fake receipt for us that we could charge the label for a bigger recording budget than it would actually cost. That’s the only way, because the labels would always rip you off, you know. But it was a big ordeal to go to the studio, is what I’m saying. But now, every kid down the street has got this good-sounding studio in his bedroom. It’s like nothing. I mean, you’re done. Copy and paste in Pro Tools — it’s really not a big ordeal to make a good-sounding record. It’s easy. I mean, you could start a band today, write five songs, record it on Wednesday, have the Bandcamp and the Facebook page up on Thursday; Friday you’re selling merch. That used to take months — maybe a year! You know? It’s just, everything’s at your fingertips. That’s the blessing and the curse of DIY. Anyone can do it; the curse is that everyone does do it. That sounds elitist, but …
But not everyone should.
Yeah. Or, like, you’re cooking a good pasta sauce — let that shit sit. For a while, man. I mean, Jesus Christ, these bands are coming out at me. I mean, with 9 Shocks Terror, we didn’t try to go to the West Coast for seven years! I was like, why rush it? We can lose money driving two hours down the road and breaking down, as opposed to driving 3,000 miles and breaking down. Now we’ve got a much bigger problem 3,000 miles away from home.
Is Fuck You Pay Me going to do some touring with this new record?
Yeah. We’re weekend warriors, man. I’m almost 50 years old, so I’m not gonna be in fucking Dubuque, Iowa, on a Tuesday night. It just ain’t gonna happen, as much as I would love to. I miss going to, like, Montana and Conway, Arkansas, and places like that. We had some great shows there, typically with Face Value. We toured our asses off. I can only take so much time off work. It’s leaving a lot of money on the table. Once you get older, it’s just a fact of life that it’s harder to get away. Kids, mortgages, shit like that, responsibilities — it’s a son of a bitch, but we’re going to California the first weekend in April and doing a run with DS-13. Then the last weekend of April, we’re going down to Florida and hitting a couple cities down there.
We do the best we can.
Is it still fun to play?
Ah, it’s the best, man. I love it. The only thing I’ve ever been really much good at, to be honest. I like it because you’re free for the weekend, staying up late at night, sleeping in a fucking sleeping bag, eating pizza, bullshitting with your friends, selling some T-shirts. Just fucking having fun, man. To me, it’s like going camping.
It’s just hanging out with your friends and having some beers. What more could you want? Telling shitty jokes. It’s really the best.
Yeah, exactly. Seeing another dude’s record shop. The thing, too, is you’ll see this band that maybe flies under the radar, and you’ve never heard of them, and you’re setting up and kinda half-assed paying attention, and then three songs in, you’re like, “Holy fuck! This band is awesome!” We just played in Richmond with a band called Asylum, and they were fucking killer!
What’s some punk you’re listening to? What’s on your turntable? And don’t say Spotify.
Oh, I don’t even have Spotify.
Good. You’re a purist.
I don’t really fuck with it, dude. I don’t know, I bought this classic Toxic Reasons Live From Berkeley Square LP that’s fucking 40 years old, but it's what I like. Wet Brain from Cleveland is really good. Obsessor from Rochester [N.Y.] was really good. I mean, there’s a lot. I’ll tell you what: Akron, Ohio, has a lot of killer bands. There’s a band called Rabid Reason — they’re fucking awesome. Akron’s really coming on strong.
Isn’t David Allan Coe from Akron? Or is he from Kent?
He’s from Elmwood, Ohio. Absolutely, good call.
I found this video of — I think it was Face Reality, but it was an Integrity video? And you were singing into a fake microphone, and everyone had fake gear. Do you know what I’m talking about?
Yeah, you know what that was — they used to have these things in the mall. Kinda like, you know they had those glamour shot things?
They also had ones where you could go in and bring them music on a cassette, and they’d give you a bunch of props and they’d make a video for you. You know, where you just act like a fool. Some people would take it seriously. Girls would go up there like, “I’m gonna do Whitney Houston!” and maybe they thought they were burgeoning fucking entertainers or something. We were just up at the mall — it was us, me and the Integrity guys, and Dan from Detroit Relapse might’ve been in town — and were just fucking around, and went to the mall by my house, the Parmatown Mall, and they had one there. So, we go, "Ah, this oughta be a hoot." So, for $20, we gave them a fucking Integrity tape, and grab some props and just made fools out of ourselves.
That’s a good memory. Thank god for 2017, because now everyone can see that.
Dude, I look like a fucking hot mess. I hope no one sees it.
I mean, you look hot. You look young still. You look like Zack Morris.
You look badass! Hey man, thank you so much for talking to me.
Thanks a lot for interviewing me.