Interview: Backtrack

On tour with hardcore heavyweights, Terror, Faye caught up with James Vitalo, frontman of New York’s Backtrack, following their set at The Underworld in Camden, London. The pair got talking about all sorts, including: gambling, making ends meet in-between tours, the infamous motorcycle mosh at Sound and Fury, and find out why they hate a man by the name of Thomas Smalley…

Faye: How are you today? How did you find your set?
James: It was cool. Right around the time we were about to play at 6.30pm, there were probably around 10-people inside and it started filling out during our second song, so I was excited. I know there was a lot of people out in line and they started opening doors late, so I was definitely very happy, it was cool. We’ve been playing first every night for the most part and sometimes they’ll advertise the doors opening at 8pm, but it really starts at 7pm, so people miss us a lot of the time, but it’s part of the game I guess.

Faye: Can you tell me a little bit of history about Backtrack?
James: We’ve been a band for little less than three years, we’ve put out a demo and a 7”. We’re working on an LP right now, it’s really overdue now, we just keep getting offered cool tours. We were supposed to write during the fall, but we got offered a tour with Cruel Hand, so we did that, because they’re one of our favourite bands and the same thing with this tour, we can’t turn down a tour with Terror, but once we get home we’re going to be working on the LP. We’ve been touring on our 7” for little over a year, we figured that’s a good way to get our name out there, so when our LP comes out, they’ll check it out.

Faye: When do you think the LP will be released?
James: Probably in the summer, hopefully. We’ll try get to back to Europe in the fall or this time next year, we’ll see.

Faye: The last time you were in the UK, things didn’t really go so well, can you tell us about that?
James: The shows here definitely did better than the mainland, but the dude who brought us over, Thomas Smalley, fucked us over real bad with money and stuff, but the shows were cool, I was excited. The shows in the mainland did well in terms of us getting paid enough to pay our driver and everything, but the reaction was definitely way better in the UK for the most part. We just played too many shows, we played 15 shows in the UK, I think, and that’s too many, because the UK is like the size of New York state, it’s pretty small. But he fucked us over pretty bad, we were supposed to go to Ireland and we didn’t, so I was kind of bummed out about that, but we went there last night and it was cool. I heard he hasn’t done anything since, we stayed at his house and we made it pretty uncomfortable for him. He basically went over with us in the mainland and got to drive with us for free, and then when we got over to the UK, he said he got in a fight with his girlfriend and couldn’t go, so he stayed at home and all the shows started falling through and he wouldn’t answer his phone to communicate with us, it was pretty fucked up, but it’s in the past, we’re over it. We took a gamble – we’re a gambling band – so, we took a gamble and I’m happy with the way it turned out, we met a lot of cool people, we just lost a lot of money, but I lose a lot of money gambling, so whatever. [laughs]

Faye: So, you gamble a lot?
James: Yeah, a lot. Too much. I wouldn’t say it’s an addiction, though – more of a love and a passion that gets out of hand sometimes.

Faye: Are you straight edge?
James: Yeah, I firmly believe you can be straight edge and gamble a lot. I mean, Bane was a straight edge band for a while, their singer was straight edge and they have songs that mention poker and gambling and all that stuff. Gambling has definitely made my life better, sometimes it’s made me want to kill myself, but for the most part, it’s made it a lot better. I wouldn’t say gambling is abusing my mind whatsoever. So, I consider myself as straight edge as you can get.

Faye: Why are you straight edge?
James: Because I tried drinking and smoking at a young age, and I wasn’t really into it, but a lot of people I was around were and then I somehow stumbled into a hardcore show and learned about it from there. My dad’s an alcoholic, well, he’s a recovering alcoholic and I’ve seen him at his worst, and I knew I never wanted to be like that, so I just want to be as far away from that stuff as possible. Plus, I see the dudes I’m in a band with and they’re all drunk all the time – no disrespect to them, because I love them, they’re my best friends, but when I see our guitarist retardedly drunk, I just thank God I’m straight edge. [laughs] I mean, it’s all in good fun.

Faye: Aside from the Thomas Smalley drama, is there much sketchiness in hardcore?
James: Not really, I used to book all our tours and stuff, and I haven’t done it in the last year or so, because we’ve been touring with bands that have booking agents – we don’t have a booking agent – but everyone that we’ve worked with has been pretty reasonable. The only person that’s really fucked us over is Thomas Smalley, for the most part. I wouldn’t say it’s like a constant thing going on. There’s definitely shitty people in hardcore, without a doubt, but we haven’t really been fucked over much, besides with Thomas Smalley.

Faye: You’re on tour with Terror right now, how is it touring with one of the biggest names in hardcore?
James: Yeah, it’s amazing on a bunch of different levels – first off, they’re a band I grew up loving and I still love them to this day. They’re all really cool dudes, they’re not an old jaded band, they show interest in Backtrack and a lot of new up-and-coming bands, they’re real hardcore kids, they’re not like rock stars or anything like that, so it’s cool hanging out with them. We gamble and hang out with them; it’s just like hanging out with friends, so it’s cool like that. The new record is amazing, so I love hearing that every day. Without sounding corny, it’s like a dream come true to play and tour with them, so I’m definitely very psyched. I gamble so much, but even if I lose a lot of money, at least I can say, ‘I’m on tour with Terror’, I don’t care if I’ve lost $200.

Faye: What’s the most you’ve lost gambling?
James: Thousands. You don’t want to start talking about that. [laughs] But thousands, no doubt about that, but I’ve won thousands, so it works both ways.

Faye: It seems that this New York hardcore sound is making a comeback, why do you think that is?
Jame: Yeah, I mean, the New York style can be labeled in so many different ways – you have 90s stuff like Madball, Crown of Thorns, and then you have 80s stuff like Underdog, Straight Ahead, and in the early 00s, you had all the Lockin’ Out bands, that all pretty much ripped off Underdog, Breakdown, Outburst, stuff like that. I think that New York hardcore’s always been a big influence on hardcore, I think there was a little break in the 2006-era where it was more melodic hardcore and clean hardcore was really big, but there was still bands playing the New York hardcore-style. I wouldn’t play anything else, because when you think about New York hardcore, you’re talking about a range of different bands, from Gorilla Biscuits to Bulldozer, so there’s a wide spectrum in between. I think a majority of bands that are playing hardcore are influenced by New York bands, whether they believe it or not. Some people can say they’re strictly influenced by Californian bands and there’s a lot of Californian bands that have influenced New York, without a doubt, but I think the Cro-Mags changed the face of New York hardcore forever, so I think a lot of bands are influenced by that.

Faye: I’ve heard some people call Backtrack ‘brocore’, how do you feel about that?
James: [laughs] I’ve never heard that. I used to have arguments and mini-fights with all the bros in high school. If I was a bro, I wouldn’t weight 120lbs, well, not 120lbs, I don’t know – see, that proves I’m not a bro, I don’t even know how much I weigh. Bros care about how much they weigh and how big they are, I don’t even know.

Faye: Obviously, you play a very aggressive style of music, do you advocate violence at your shows?
James: No, not at all. I think there’s been like one fight at a Backtrack show ever, I like a lot of people to pit and stage dive, but not to fight, that shit’s just dumb. That’s brocore, right there. That’s the last thing I’d want. That’s what’s cool about the UK and Europe, people will mosh super hard, but they won’t beat each other up. We’ve been on tour for a weeks, and we’re probably the lightest band on this tour, and there hasn’t been a fight yet, so that’s cool.

Faye: Is Backtrack full-time for you? Or do you have jobs on the side?
James: Yeah, it’s pretty much our full-time priority and in the last year, we’ve toured for at least six months, so I don’t know if that’s considered full-time or not, but it’s definitely everyone’s number one priority. I have a job at home, but I’ve lost a bunch of different jobs to tour and shit, but no one has a steady job that’s a priority over the band. Everyone just works when they can, so Backtrack’s pretty much full-time for everyone. Once the LP is out, we’ll definitely be full-time 100%, but I think it’s been 100% full-time for the last year or so, anyway.

Faye: Is it easy getting jobs in-between tours?
James: No, not at all. I got home from tour over the summer and I had $30 to my name. I worked a job in telemarketing and I was making shit money and it sucked, and I was wanting to quit, but then a week later, I got my old job back, where I worked at a casino and that pays good money, so I got that job and I was able to keep that job while I when away for this tour, hopefully. It’s not easy to keep a job; it definitely sucks, especially when you have to leave so much. I just kind of lucked out.

Faye: It seems that a lot of hardcore bands come and go, are you in it for the long run?
James: The only thing that’ll make Backtrack break-up is if our LP sucks. We put a lot of work into the band, in terms of getting our name out and touring a lot, so we want to put out a good record and keep it going for as long as we can. If seems that, lately, a lot of bands in the States have kept it going, haven’t broken up too much. We definitely want to keep it going for as long as possible.

Faye: Can you tell me about the motorcycle mosh that happened at Sound and Fury last year?
James: [laughs] Oh God, yeah. Basically, what happened was our friend drove in a motorcycle during our set – I didn’t know he was doing it, I had no idea – but he just did it for good clean fun, there was no intention to hurt anyone and then security guards ripped off the bike and started beating him up, and then a riot started, and the fest got shut down and that’s pretty much it. It sucked that it happened, because we drove from the middle of the country to play – our van broke down and we drove 30-hours to play – then we played half a song and the whole thing got shut down, so it definitely sucked and I felt bad for all the bands that didn’t get to play and all the kids that travelled, but there was like an after show that a lot of the bands played, so it was cool. It definitely sucked, it was the last thing I wanted. Sound and Fury’s a cool festival, we’ll probably never be asked to play again. I’d love to play again, but I doubt it, we’ll see what happens. I’d be surprised.

Faye: So, what’s next for Backtrack after this tour?
James: Just write a new LP. When we get home, we’ll hopefully buckle down on it. We’ll be playing United Blood, that’s going to be cool and we’ll be touring in Canada with Wisdom In Chains, Grave Maker and Expire for about four days, and then after that, we’re pretty much just buckling down and writing the LP.

Faye: Change The Record, who should we be listening to?
James: Soul Search, Downpresser, Rotting Out, those are some west coast bands that are fucking sick. East coast: Cruel Hand, Title Fight, Naysayer, Down To Nothing. I’m trying to think of newer bands, there’s a band called Breakaway, I’ve only heard one song, but it’s fucking sick. Band called Punishment Due from the US, from Long Island. There’s a lot of cool bands in the States right now, I’m sure I’m forgetting them.

Faye: Is there anything else you want to say before we finish?
James: Thanks for the interview and coming out early, I hate Thomas Smalley, that’s pretty much it.

Faye Turnbull.

Many thanks to James for the interview, and for more information on Backtrack, check out: www.facebook.com/BacktrackNYHC and www.twitter.com/BacktrackNYHC.

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