If this sounds like the rambling of an old fart, so be it: kids have it too easy these days when it comes to underground music. If you have a laptop and spare time you have unfettered access to pretty much every rare treasure recorded during the past four decades of metal and punk. That wasn't the case for longtime Strong Intention frontman Zac Ohler, who grew up in Western Maryland and routinely schlepped across states to see shows even when he feared he might get jumped for being a hardcore carpetbagger. Ohler started his powerviolence/grind band Strong Intention back when Nirvana ruled the charts and has been at it ever since, with intermittent breaks. He's an old school purist who still wishes he could release everything on vinyl and books shows despite a steady day job. Strong Intention recently released the EP Razorblade Express (on vinyl, of course). We were lucky enough to preview a song on this blog and can vouch that it will appeal to every angry listener with limited time in an ADHD world.
Ohler talked to dB during a recent tour about his upbringing in the hardcore world and the beauties of a life spent underground. Like Sick Of It All said way back in the 90s, the dude is built to last.
How long have you been at this?
I grew up in Cumberland, Maryland, which is two hours west of Baltimore and two hours east of Pittsburgh. It was a typical small town. You weren’t so far removed like the Midwest, five or six hours from everything. We had to travel and got used to it. If you wanted to go to killer shows you knew it would be at least two hours away. We also tried to bring some bands like All Out War and the old New York band Subzero here. When they did shows here it would be so well attended because there was a hunger - and you could bring your own beer.
Strong Intention started around 1993 or 1994. We started jamming on our own. We didn’t have any direction or purpose; we were kids trying to do something. There was nothing planned. We started playing locally and then some out of town shows and it grew from there. Around 1995 all the dudes wanted to start families and others wanted to be more like a death metal band. Since I ran the band I just decided to get some new guys when I moved.
Do you think growing up in Cumberland made your hunger for the music stronger?
When you are in a small town you need to make things happen. Just sitting around jamming with your friends is where it all comes from. You don’t go to a bar on a weekend - you jam and play metal or hardcore songs and make your own original stuff.
What were some of those trips to other cities to see shows like?
The first time we went to a show in New York City at CBGB’s we felt like we had a target on us, like we were out of towners. At other shows, I’d get cracked in the back of the head and realize that was the cost if I wanted to be up front. I never got into a fight or had anyone step to me. But New York City was the one place where being from out of town was an issue. In DC and Baltimore we made friends right away and knew we’d keep seeing friendly faces. In New York, there were none.
What was the first CBGB’s gig you went to?
It was the original Madball, Rejuvenate, Meraurder, Warzone and Agnostic Front.
That sounds like an intimidating lineup.
I’d been to so many shows and seen the Cro-Mags and Sheer Terror, the tough guy bands. I knew the crowd would be wild and out of control. But when Madball played it was violence on a scale I wasn’t prepared for; it was so over the top. When you are young you just roll with it.
What was the DC area punk scene like in the 90s, after the 80s heyday of harDCore?
I started going to shows around 1990, seeing Sick Of It all and Sheer Terror and other bands. You’d go to some shows and you never knew how things would turn it out. I’m not saying there aren’t any good bands now, but back then it was crazy. The shows were unpredictable; there were a lot more people and I don’t remember any small crowds. There wasn’t any Internet so you’d just find out about shows.
What show was the most memorable?
Agnostic Front when Roger (Miret) just got out of jail along with Sick Of It All at the old 9:30 club in D.C. It was just ferocious. I remember Sick Of It All came on stage and said "it's good to be in DC." It seemed odd how polite and unassuming they were. Then they said “do you guys know what time it is?” And they busted into "It's Clobberin' Time" and the place went nuts.
It was amped up even more when Roger and Agnostic came out. They played stuff from the Liberty And Justice for record and the classic stuff from the first couple of records. It was definitely one of the shows, like people say, that changed my life. I’ve been to bigger metal shows like Slayer and Metallica but as far as underground shows go that was the one.
I remember seeing Sick Of It All in the early 90s and my head was stepped on about three times.
When they started playing some dude stepped right on my face. I knew then it was going to be a great show.
Did you want to communicate that same energy with Strong Intention?
At first we just wanted to put together some cool songs and shows. Now, things are so segregated. Back then, you’d go to a show and see a lot of different people. You’d see metal kids because they liked how aggressive the Cro-Mags were. Now it’s completely divided. I do think it lacks some of the energy.
What keeps you driven?
There have definitely been times I thought I didn’t want to do the band. From 1996 to the mid-2000s we were playing a lot even though we weren’t a full time band. Right around 2006 there was a two year period where it didn’t seem like things were happening. We did a tour in 2007 with Extreme Noise Terror. We only did 10 shows that year. In 2008, it was the same way, maybe 20 shows. It seemed like the energy wasn’t there. Then we went to Texas and did some dates with AC and Gates of Slumber and that seemed to get things amped up. The shows have been bigger and better and it seems like the energy is back.
You mentioned how it’s been start and stop with the band. Is it tough to have a lot of your records out of print or hard to find?
I think so. This record we’re doing – Razorblade Express -- I’ve always been a vinyl fan and wanted vinyl. But I understand that bigger metal bands have CDs out. When we do our next full length we’ll definitely do digital and CDs and put it out on many formats. I’d still prefer vinyl to all of those formats even though I know people want those.
Any thoughts on doing a collection?
I think that will happen and I’d be into doing it, going into the catalog and pulling songs. I’d have no issue putting that out because we play a lot of those songs, but those older records aren’t available. So it would be good to put them together in some format.
We’ll play a set and the stuff I have on the merch table isn’t always reflective of what they’ve just heard. So you might to be able to get nine or ten of our songs but then there would be four or five songs that won't be on the records.
How did you hook up with Mike IX for this EP?
I’ve known him for like ten years and when we were on tour with AC in 2008 or 2009 we did some dates with Outlaw Order, which has all the Eyehategod guys except Jimmy Bower. Mike and I had talked about jamming on one of our songs. I felt like Razorblade Express totally fit with Mike. I asked him and he was all about it and made it happen. Then we had the idea for another song. The collaboration worked out exactly how I wanted it too. He did one song in New Orleans and another in Baltimore.
He has a great voice for punk or hardcore.
I agree. His voice -- that sound he has – he can sing in a fast band or a hardcore or grind band. His voice is so suited to it.
You now live in Frederick, Maryland. What are you doing when you aren’t playing music?
I didn’t know this until I moved there but Frederick has a long history of stoner rock and doom shows. When I moved there, the first week, there was a show with Murphy’s Law. And then there was a grind show right down the street. So I started organizing my own shows and now there are a lot of killer shows. There are people that aren’t going to be able to travel to DC or Baltimore but a show in Frederick will work. Traveling to a show now costs like 15 or 20 bucks. If it’s closer, you will go. In my down time I have a regular job at my house working for Citibank and I run a booking agency. The bank office closed so I work remotely.
What is it like to be peers with bands like Agnostic Front that you saw as a kid?
It’s definitely cool. You do think about when you saw them as a kid. Then you play with them and you realize they are normal. But I feel very fortunate. When we toured in 2004 with DRI I was never starstruck, but there were moments where I was like “bands like this are the reason bands like mine exist."