The interview originally appeared in We Don’t You A Thing #1 a zine about art and hardcore.
Kerry Law is a New York artist and art teacher. He has a BA from SUNY Binghamton and an MFA from SUNY Purchase. He has had solo shows nationally and internationally, including at Brooklyn art scene stalwarts like Camel Art Space and Storefront. You can see his art at www.kerrylawart.com.
So I don’t think anyone I have talked to about interviewing you for this knew you had a past in the New York Hardcore scene, so to expose truth so to speak, where did you grow up and how did you get into hardcore?
I grew up in Pelham Manor, New York, which is the first suburb just north of the Bronx. I was the youngest of three boys, so at a young age I was always exposed to music from my brothers. In elementary school I loved Kiss, and my brothers would tease that they were going to buy me Johnny Rotten and the Sex Pistols for Christmas. That came back to bite them. Anyway, in Junior High my favorite band was the Who; I found out that Pete Townshend's favorite band was the Clash. I looked into it and it wasn't long before I was totally into them. I became obsessed with the Clash and finding out as much about punk as I could. My interesting in hardcore rose from that. This coincided with the point where I became disaffected somewhat as well, so it was what I needed. This was well before the internets so it took a lot more work to discover music that wasn’t so mainstream. Zines were a part of that. It seemed to mean more then, too, because if you were “punk” you really stood out.
(It's funny you say that people in the art scene don't know about my "Hardcore" past. Why should they? Full disclosure about my past: I also played in a band (the Moths) for about 8 years after grad school for art. We weren't "hardcore" so to speak, more indie or post punk. We were very eclectic and loud with a lot of dynamics, and very much into song writing. There was some definite hardcore influence in places. The heavy parts become heavier when there is contrast. We became a very good live band and played up and down the east coast somewhat and in NYC a lot. People compared us to the Replacements, Mekons, and Dinosaur Jr.; we also played some bachata songs in Spanish.) I played guitar and was one of the singers (yelling). I am very self-taught and have a minimalist approach to the guitar (really I played the amp). The less you play the more important the things you play are--or less is more as they say)
Any stories of note or fond memories from back in the day?
This is funny, my friend Marco's brother had a Black Flag record, “Jealous Again.” I remember Marco played it for me over the phone and we thought we were so cool. That was the first time I had heard hardcore. He made me a tape and we would listen to it nonstop…until we realized it was at the wrong speed! It was too slow. We had at 33 but it was 45 and it ended sounding like Sabbath, who were a big influence on Black Flag. Anyway he re-taped it at the right speed, but it ended sooner, so there was always that slow Black Flag at the end of the tape from the earlier recording. Hilarious, we were so stupid.
I remember seeing Black Flag at the Ritz and walking back home from the subway at 6 in the morning (which was quite a distance; shows at the Ritz always started so late and if you missed the last Metro North Train to the suburbs you had to take the subway). The show was great. I went to bed when the sun was up and woke up at 6 at night and it was dark. I didn't know what was going on. I later saw Black Flag in Binghamton, where I went to undergrad. They played at a masonic temple. The stage was palettes and we were right in their faces. Henry had very long hair at this point and people were asking him what he thought about people comparing him to Jim Morrison. He answered, “He's dead, I’m alive.” I thought he was dopey. (I think he was dopey for a long time; now that he is older he seems much more intelligent and quite wise, it seems, like his smarts finally caught up with his desire be smart.) Greg Ginn was at the campus record store and he only wanted to look at the Grateful Dead. All this bothered me.
I saw ALL at a small bar in Binghamton, too. That was fun. There was a wooden fence in front of the stage that you could launch yourself off of. Sunday matinees at CBGB's were fun--there many of those: Adrenaline OD stand out, and they were funny. Bad Brains were incredible. I saw them somewhere on the west side. I couldn't fully enjoy the show because some kids wanted to kill me because they didn't like my shirt. It had a hammer and sickle on it, which I made myself. I was just trying to be provocative (ah, youth). Apparently, it did provoke these NYHC kids who said that commies would kill my mother in the night. There was this whole contingent of NY hardcore scene that was very violent and stupid (and right wing). You know the bands...I won't go into it much more than that. You know there was slamming that was aggressive but not belligerent, and then there were these jocks and latent cases who were out to hurt people. No thanks. It was always fascinating to watch the formation of the pit when the band came on and the music started. It was kind of like watching those nature shows that depict the movement of herds.
I saw Murphy's Law open for the Beastie Boys right after their record came out. Really great. I saw Murphy's Law many years after that, in Mount Vernon when I was driving cab in Westchester. Jimmy Gestapo had a cast on his leg and was using a crutch, and he was swinging from the rafters.
There were many other shows that were good, but it was so long ago. The Circle Jerks played a great show at the Ritz. I still like that record "Wonderful”, there are some great songs on that one. That was the time of the Metal/Hardcore cross over. It was an incredible time in the eighties, where there was all this great music that was happening at once. There was (old school) hip-hop, punk, hardcore, funk, ska. So much good stuff. I remember when bands like the Minutemen, Husker Du, the Replacements, and the Butthole Surfers were considered hardcore. I don't think many people see them like that now. Of course, those bands also evolved. Things become standardized and then they become boring. Punk by the numbers. The same thing happened with the punk scene in England. I think the hardcore stuff that still holds up is more musical and the playing is at a higher level. The Bad Brains and Black Flag still hold up. "I against I" and "Damaged" are records I listen to with some frequency. Actually, those are two records I need to listen to with some frequency.
Favorite band when you were 16 and favorite band now?
The Clash was my favorite band at 16. I am grateful for that because they gave me a musical education. It turned me on to so much music. It also informs how I live my life to this day. I don't have a favorite band now. I believe what Duke Ellington said that there are two kinds of music, good and bad. I listen to everything. The last few years I have started listening to classical some (not at all exclusively). I needed to form some new pathways and needed music without words. Words were painful for a time, because of some loss. It is passing.
Having spent a little time with the New York Hardcore scene, does it strike you as being similar to your experience in the Brooklyn Art Scene?
It is similar in the sense that it is very DIY, you see a lot of the same faces at different openings, people are drawn together out of a passion. Let's face it--artists make art out of some need and they are a little different from people who are--I don't want to say--“normal.” Let's just say artists are different from people who don't make art.
Do you feel having been a hardcore kid at one point has shaped how you approach making art?
I don't think that my work is particularly “punk.” but I think that those same ideals of doing things yourself and the desire to create something authentic still apply. The Beastie Boys had that line "one half science and the other half soul." I take that approach. For me there must be some skill and some feeling expressed. Too much skill is boring and dry, and too much emoting is no good either, it's embarrassing or pathetic. There must be a balance. These are not things that are managed; they are arrived at through being present when you are painting. I learned this from playing music. Making the painting is like a musical performance, and the painting is the evidence of that experience. You use your eyes in painting just as you would use your ears in making music.
Weirdly for me, the serial nature of the Empire State Building paintings has a certain iconoclastic streak that isn’t that unrelated to a punk esthetic. Any thoughts?
Maybe, I am not sure. If you see that, that is cool. I am not sure that I am destroying the building or symbol. Although, I could see how one could say that when I paint, if it is obscured by rain clouds or snow it is destroying it. Yes, but for me it is playful even when it seems quite dark. There really is a devotional aspect to my approach. I really make these painting out of a love of painting. They are also a love letter to New York. I see the serial nature as a sort of spiritual practice. To paint the same thing over and over and to see it differently and new each time. Also, because I am different each time. I also do it because I need to paint.
Do you feel there is any connection between your painting and your choice in music? And do you find yourself listening to music when you paint?
I see a connection in the sense that painting helps me deal with aggression and stress just as music does. Hardcore was great for that. I always feel better after I paint. I listen to music when I paint on the beach. I just put on my ipod shuffle. I have a little bit of everything on there from Miles Davis to Fela to Black Flag. I put it on shuffle because I don't want to think and I don't want just one mood. If a song comes on that is wrong I skip it. The other benefit is that people usually leave me alone when I wear headphones. People sometimes want to talk and I really need to focus. When things are going well and the music is good, I find myself dancing in the sand. When I paint the Empire State I have the TV on. It is just something in the background to keep me company. I don't watch it.
Any plans for the future? Shows? Stuff we should look out for?
I have a painting on the cover of City Journal this quarter. That is pretty cool. I don't have any shows lined up at the moment well one, but it is months away. I am planning a portrait of my friend Marco with a dog. The portrait is based on a Velazquez hunting portrait. Marco, who I mentioned earlier, was my best friend from High School and we used to go to shows together. He now lives in California but is coming into town. People think I am big but he has about 4 inches on me. Nobody ever messed with us at shows. Marco wasn't at that Bad Brains show and the people I was with didn't have my back. I am also planning a portrait of a young woman based on Manet's “Woman with a Parrot.” The portraits take a lot of planning and preparation, some of which is intuitive. I paint a backdrop and pose the model and the dog in this case and work directly from them. The paintings are big. Life sized. I am looking forward to that.