The boys in 7Seconds are now mature men, but they’re cranking out the hardcore like never before
For a brief moment, the recording studio falls silent. Kevin Seconds says, from the safety of the control room, “We’re rolling.” Then, from the drum stage, Troy Mowat shakes his dreadlocked head, looking every bit like an overgrown, in-the-flesh version of the Muppets’ drummer, Animal. “Ready!” shouts Mowat. With a count-off that would seem comical if only the music did not match its speed—“Onetwothreefour!”—the room is filled with a wall of sound: the churning, distorted guitars of Bobby Adams; the flying, insanely fast bass work of Steve Youth; and, holding it all together, Mowat’s machine-gun-like beat—the super fast, staccato rhythm of kick, snare, kick, snare, kick, snare.
It’s an instrumental recording at this point; Seconds will overdub his vocals and the band’s backing vocals at a later date. In the meantime, he stands at the mixing board in the Hangar, a ramshackle Sacramento studio run by Heckler snowboarding/skateboarding magazine founder John Baccigaluppi (in fact, the band is flanked on one side by a skate ramp, and the floor is littered with various skate and balance boards). The energy of the band is well-represented in the control room, with the full force of its fast, hardcore punk-rock sound churning through the studio speakers.
After two-and-a-half minutes, the song is over. Seconds asks the band members if they’d like to hear the playback, and one by one, they come into the control room. One thing is immediately clear: Despite the intensity of the music, these aren’t children. Seconds will be 43 this month, and Mowat is 40. Youth, at 37, isn’t quite in keeping with his punk-rock moniker these days, and Adams, the youngest member of the band, is fast approaching his mid-30s.
Mowat is completely drenched in sweat, and he lumbers over to a countertop and leans heavily against it, breathing hard.
Seconds presses play, and the tape machine spins into life. From the speakers, again, comes “Ready! Onetwothreefour!” Seconds can’t help but smile: Mowat’s characteristic opening line has started every 7Seconds song since he joined the band 23 years ago. They might be older, but some things will always remain the same.
But then again, much has changed in the near quarter-century that 7Seconds has been making music. Not a single strand of Youth’s hair, for example, is present at the recording session; in order to cover for his male-pattern baldness, he’s going for the fully shaved Telly Savalas look these days.
Many of Seconds’ teeth are absent, also; fans accidentally knocking the microphone stand during live shows resulted in mics slamming repeatedly into Seconds’ mouth. Many of his teeth were killed or knocked out, a point immortalized in a 1995 song titled “Punk Rock Teeth.” Even young Adams is affected by the years, not physically so much as economically; Adams is training in Las Vegas for a second career as a firefighter. In fact, despite being internationally known punk-rock icons, the four members of 7Seconds all have day jobs of some kind. Two members have children. Three are married.
Some might just call it growing up and gaining maturity. Some might claim that 7Seconds is getting old. Either way, in the midst of aging, 7Seconds is recording a new album, its first full-length album of original music since 1999’s Good to Go, and the band’s 13th full-length overall. The new album is not finished yet, but there is every indication that these mature men still know how to pull out the stops when the tape starts rolling.
Nonetheless, it would seem that punk rock, particularly hardcore punk rock, is not the kind of music that middle-aged adults play. On the one hand, the fact that 7Seconds has survived as a band for half the band members’ lives is a testament to their creative impulse, their musical edge and their drive. On the other, maybe there’s a time when the punk-rock stage is best left to the young and hungry. After all, isn’t punk rock the music of youth, with all of its emotion, angst and directionless aggression? For 7Seconds, tapping that same 15-year-old demographic may be impossible, even if the band is somehow able to find the same energy and magic that made it one of the most well-known and influential American punk bands. But in recording a new album and preparing for the band’s first ever tour of the United Kingdom, 7Seconds may be attempting to recreate its past in the context of a market that is now increasingly focused on intellectually vacuous pop-punk and radio-friendly alternative rock. Recreating that punk past might prove difficult, although it should be noted that the band’s history is relatively sedate in comparison to VH1 Behind the Music-style tales of excess. There is no rampant substance abuse. No band-member suicides. No great tragedy.
Instead, the band’s story is one about four young men who managed to pull themselves out of a social wasteland by the only means they could find: the hard and fast rules of punk-rock music. 7Seconds is not the biggest-selling punk band in the world, nor is it the most famous, but international tours, full-length albums, even more singles and EPs, appearances on compilations and nearly a quarter-century of making music have made Sacramento’s 7Seconds one of the most well-respected punk-rock bands in the world and one of the longest-surviving hardcore acts anywhere.
1977 was the year that Elvis Presley died in the bathroom of his Memphis home, and it also was the year that Kevin and Steve Marvelli arrived in Reno. Raised by a single mom with a restless streak, the brothers had moved around a lot during their childhood, and Reno was the latest in a series of such moves.
But in the late 1970s, Reno had only one purpose: to entertain adults. For working-class families, and particularly for young people under 21, the city offered little in the way of recreation. Everything was geared toward the adult tourist population, keeping grown-ups entertained with gambling and the brothels outside of town. For many young people, the city was a social, if not geographical, wasteland, particularly in the low-rent neighborhoods outside of the main casino strip that were home to the Marvellis and others like them.
It might have turned out badly for the brothers, but the Marvellis, like many other disenfranchised American kids, stumbled upon something that would change their lives. In June of 1977, NBC TV ran a prime-time special called Punk Report about a growing scene and social problem in London: the advent of punk-rock music. Epitomized by the crazed, in-your-face sonic assault of the Sex Pistols and the politically charged three-minute anthems of the Clash, punk rock was everything that was not happening in mainstream American music (topping the American sales charts were Debby Boone, Andy Gibb and Barbra Streisand).
This new music seemed impossibly fast and impossibly nonmusical to many, and it featured a safety-pinned, trashy style that appeared, in contrast to the glitz and glam of the time, straight out of hell itself.
The brothers Marvelli watched Punk Report and were amazed and intrigued by what they saw. “It all sounded fresh and wonderful,” Kevin recalled recently, sitting at a table at the True Love Coffeehouse, a Sacramento business he now owns and operates with his wife, Allyson. [Disclosure: The writer has performed at the venue.] On the table in front of Kevin was an estimate for dental work to repair his broken, punk-rock teeth, an estimate reaching well into the thousands. “I remember one of the Sex Pistols said, ‘Fuck,’ on TV. That was so new and weird and great. Punk came along at just the right moment. I was being a depressed teenager, wondering how to get out of Reno, and then it was like a breath of fresh air,” Kevin said.
Punk-rock music offered something that no other genre of music did: easy accessibility. Punk-rock musicians were not virtuosos; the singers did not really sing so much as shout, there were no guitar solos, and there were no drum fills. “I was 16 or 17 when I heard the Ramones,” remembered Kevin. “I figured out the chords and thought, ‘Wow! I can play this better than he can!’ I was making up my own chords. It sounded horrible, but it was close enough.” It was precisely this sense of do-it-yourself music-making that attracted many young players to punk rock, and it was this same sense that attracted many of its fans. This was not industry-polished pop confection or saccharine-sweet crooning. Instead, punk music offered direct, in-your-face confrontation, an encapsulation of everything it was to be a disenfranchised young person: young, broke and angry at the failing of the American dream.
It wasn’t long before the Marvelli brothers had formed their first punk-rock band, a band that shifted names (and members) several times before settling on 7Seconds, the label that would grace its album covers for the next quarter-decade. The brothers started going by their “punk-rock names” around the same time. Kevin became “Kevin Seconds” because it rhymed with the band name. Steve became “Steve Youth” because he was the youngest member.
The music of 7Seconds wasn’t just punk rock. Seconds and Youth wanted their band’s sound to be faster and more direct than the punk they heard on mail-order records. 7Seconds’ early songs were often so fast that it was virtually impossible to sing whole lyric lines over the measures, and it placed the band in the forefront of a growing scene of similarly fast and furious bands, bands that eventually were labeled “hardcore.” Groups like Minor Threat and Bad Brains, from Washington, D.C.; the Dead Kennedys, from San Francisco; and Black Flag and the Circle Jerks, from Los Angeles, epitomized the sound.
Hardcore featured rapid-fire vocals spit into the microphone with little time to breathe, drums that tested human endurance, guitars that were a flurry of power chords, and bass work so fast as to be almost beyond belief. It was (and is) maximum punk—as fast and hard as you could go and still be considered part of the punk-rock movement.
7Seconds’ own brand of hardcore gave birth to a punk-rock scene in Reno to rival any in this country. The Reno scene brought together, under one banner, the youth of the Reno-Tahoe area, allowing them to release all the aggression and tension they had built up over the years.
Punk-rock icon and former Black Flag singer Henry Rollins remembers the impact that 7Seconds had on its community. “I think [7Seconds] were one of the first bands that I was aware of that really tried to establish a scene in their area,” Rollins said, “and to motivate other towns to do the same, to realize the strength of that unity and what the potential of it was. It was happening in other towns at the time: Boston, D.C. and the like. But the 7Seconds guys were really motivated and positive and, besides all that, a really good band with good songs, and people responded to them.”
Part of that response was related to Seconds’ lyrics and his slogan-covered sleeveless T-shirts. The songs that appeared on the band’s first E.P. included such titles as “No Authority,” “Redneck Society,” “Racism Sucks” and “Anti-Klan,” songs that stood in sharp opposition to the threatening influence of white-supremacist skinhead culture that was just beginning to filter into the American punk scene from England. “7Seconds has always had the same ideas when it came to crap like racism or sexism: zero tolerance,” said Youth. “History proves that these are unnecessary evils.”
Seconds’ lyrics also bucked another trend. The early days of punk and hardcore were thought of by many—fans and critics alike—as essentially excessive, both in terms of music and in terms of behavior, with stories of drugs, alcohol, overdoses and suicides periodically appearing in the media. But there was another contingent of fans and musicians who were vocally anti-alcohol and anti-drugs. In 1980, Washington, D.C.-based hardcore band Minor Threat released a single that gave name to this contingent. The song, titled “Straight Edge,” was seized upon by many hardcore fans as an anti-drugs, anti-alcohol manifesto.
7Seconds’ music and lyrics were positive, and the band generally eschewed drugs and alcohol, connecting the band in fans’ minds with the growing “straight-edge” movement (although the band itself has shunned that label). Perhaps more important than the label, though, was the effect of the movement in igniting a kind of social awareness among young people. 7Seconds’ mid-1980s audience—and perhaps its audience today—were young kids who wanted desperately to hear something positive, who needed to believe that they could make a difference, both in their own lives and in the world at large. 7Seconds’ songs seemed to send the message that change was possible, even if you were just a 15-year-old kid with a shaved head and combat boots.
It was this positive message that first garnered the attention of Jello Biafra, another outspoken and politically active punk-rocker and, at the time, frontman for legendary punk band the Dead Kennedys. Biafra released 7Seconds’ first proper release, a nine-track EP titled Skins, Brains & Guts, on his own Alternative Tentacles label in 1982. Soon afterward, 7Seconds appeared on a compilation record called Not So Quiet on the Western Front, an album produced by Berkeley-based punk-rock zine Maximum Rocknroll and featuring tracks from many Reno- and Tahoe-area hardcore bands and San Francisco-based bands like the Dead Kennedys. Between these two releases, 7Seconds was instantly put on the national hardcore map. It was also the year that the band borrowed drummer Troy Mowat from South Lake Tahoe punk outfit Urban Assault; apart from a brief break from the band, Mowat has remained 7Seconds’ drummer to this day.
From that point on, 7Seconds became an increasingly well-known touring hardcore band. 1984’s full-length album, The Crew, solidified both the band’s positive message and its role as one of hardcore’s leading groups. But a seven-song EP released the following year proved, in many ways, to be the band’s most important release and provided an important cross-country connection with pioneering Minor Threat and the Washington, D.C., hardcore scene. 7Seconds already had played several shows with Minor Threat—one of them at Sacramento’s 24th Street Theater—and the band’s leader, Ian MacKaye, had expressed interest in recording the band.
While the band was on tour in late 1984, it stopped in at MacKaye’s Inner Ear Studios and, with MacKaye producing, recorded an EP that would be released early the following year under the title Walk Together Rock Together. Both the title track and a playful hardcore cover of German pop group Nena’s “99 Red Balloons” would be live staples for years to come.
“It’s not the way we look,” Seconds sings on the title track. “It’s not our stance, our style, our hair. / Forget those stupid barriers, / Take down that ‘FLAG’ you wear. / Just people living on, / With different hearts and different minds. / If we live in the same world, / Why can’t we stand in the same line? / If we can walk together, / Why can’t we rock together.” Taken on their own, the lyrics read like something that might appear on a contemporary Christian-rock album; however, within the context of hardcore, angrily spat over an absurdly fast, churning rhythm section, these words were nothing short of a battle cry for social acceptance and youth solidarity.
One could claim that the mid-1980s provided the biggest years for 7Seconds in terms of the band’s influence in the hardcore scene. Flipside magazine called it the best band of the year in both 1984 and 1985, and the following year, 16-year-old Bobby Adams joined the band, meaning that the basic lineup was finally solidified. The band toured Europe twice and Japan once and circled the United States mercilessly for years. It also took several important musical diversions, producing 1986’s New Wind and 1988’s Ourselves, both remarkable deviations from the hardcore norm, with slowed-down rhythms and more emphasis placed on melody and on songwriting, and hence provoking something of a backlash from the hardcore community (some fans still call this the band’s “U2 phase”).
The band’s activity has slowed some since those halcyon days of touring with the likes of Black Flag, DOA and the Dead Kennedys. The decision to slow down was a conscious one. Seconds had some solo projects he wanted to try; he’s had a variety of Sacramento-area bands throughout the past decade, including Drop Acid, Go National and his current project, Ghetto Moments. Youth’s and Mowat’s families, while vocally supportive of the band, perhaps require more home time than 7Seconds’ previous touring schedule would allow. Today, the group is geographically split up, as well; the whole band moved to Sacramento in the late 1980s, but now only Seconds remains in the River City, the rest having trickled back to Reno.
Though the band may have slowed its output musically, when 7Seconds does release new music and tour, it is met with an enthusiasm that borders on worship. Its live shows are often sold out, and the audience-participation level is high—so high in fact that the audience’s shouted sing-along is at times louder than the band’s still-blistering performances. It’s this kind of energy that saw the band being snapped up by major label Immortal/Epic in the late 1990s—well past what some critics might consider the band’s best years—and performing as part of the 1999 Vans Warped Tour with the likes of Eminem and Blink-182.
Now, though, real life is sometimes more pressing than making punk-rock music. If you were to call Youth at his Reno home, for example, you might hear a child screaming in the background and be told by his wife, as I was, that Youth got soap in his son’s eye while bathing him and that he’ll need to call you back. When Youth does call back, it might be to tell you that he doesn’t have time to talk now and will try you tomorrow from work. The next day, you might receive a message saying that he’s being slammed at work and will need to talk later. You might leave another message. He might leave another message. Four kids and a full-time job as a wine distributor (so much for the “straight edge”) will keep you busy.
When I finally did talk with Youth, via his cell phone on a Sunday afternoon, he was en route to Sacramento with Mowat for vocal overdubs. So, how does it feel to be pushing middle age and still be making hardcore music? “I gotta be honest,” he said, pausing momentarily to make a lane change, “it’s just my passion. I may be too damn old to listen to this kind of music, but it’s just what keeps me going. I don’t have a problem with getting older. It’s great in a lot of ways, and it’s a great feeling to get together with those guys.”
The phone was passed to Mowat. He, too, was enthusiastic. “I love doing it,” he explained. “As far as making the music itself … oh man, your hair stands up. You feel awesome. I’ve aged physically, but in the heart and soul, it’s all still there.”
Indeed, both Youth and Mowat sound like teenagers when they start talking about the new record, and perhaps it’s only fitting. After all, they were teenagers when they started playing in punk bands, and now, years later, a large share of that excitement is still present.
The resonating question, though, is whether punk-rock audiences will feel the same way. After all, the teenagers who once listened to 7Seconds did so in part because 7Seconds’ members were teenagers themselves. Now, so many years later, one wonders what kind of audience this new record will find or even how relevant the new record will be.
Furthermore, Seconds’ lyrics with the band are primarily didactic, with the positive message literally being shouted at eager audiences. Will this same approach work with increasingly jaded 21st-century audiences?
“If 7Seconds played here, I’d probably go see it,” punk icon MacKaye explained. “Is it relevant? Probably not. It’s like seeing Bob Dylan. I saw Dylan and thought he was great. But does he have the same effect now as he did in the ’60s? Of course not. But it’s still great music.”
Given that particular context, 7Seconds’ music can be seen as being as relevant as any, particularly given that the band has been a continuous force in hardcore since its inception, making 7Seconds members father figures that bands like Blink-182 look up to. And though they aren’t really innovative at this point, this is in large part because their innovations have already been absorbed by the punk-rock mainstream. The Dylan reference is apropos because, like Dylan (and unlike bands like Wire and Mission of Burma, which reunited for a recent tour), 7Seconds has never stopped performing.
Instead, it has been a constant on the hardcore scene since the beginning. “It’s not your age in that style of music,” said Mike Hood of the Sacramento hardcore band Hoods. “It’s the feeling. I don’t think hardcore dates itself.” Hood paused and then added, “Shit, I can’t wait to hear that new album.”
As for that new album, it’s straightforward hardcore, but that doesn’t mean it’s a step backward to 1980, for the 7Seconds of today isn’t the same band that it was 24 years ago. In fact, there are indications that the band has learned a few things in the intervening years. Though the new material is a return to the band’s fast and loud hardcore roots, the band members as a whole have become better songwriters over the years, with a refined sense of melody mixed in with the same machine-gun-fast approach to rhythm.
At 42, Seconds’ lyrics tend to look backward now more than ever, surveying a long career spent trying to make a difference in the world. They are still didactic and border sometimes on being a bit close to the soapbox, but then again, punk rock has never prided itself on subtlety; instead, it’s more a matter of sheer drive, speed and volume. What subtlety the vocals lack may be relegated to the genre itself and to the fact that, in hardcore punk rock, there is little time for audience introspection. If the audience members don’t get the point shouted at them in a two-minute song, they’re not going to get the point at all.
So it is on the rough mix of the new album: First, Mowat’s characteristic “Ready! Onetwothreefour!” and then these 30- and 40-year-old men launch into another song, and Seconds shouts over a rapid-fire hardcore beat that is every bit as intense as anything from the band’s debut nearly a quarter-century ago: “It’s been a long, long time / looks like it’s turned out fine / when we made the decision / to follow our vision / would it have been better / to bend under pressure? / i’m glad we stuck it out / survived the floods and drought / you might not understand / i’m not sure that you can / it’s a family, a band / hope it all never ends.”
The hardcore fans of 7Seconds have the same hope: that the family, the band, will continue as long as possible, for regardless of losing hair or teeth, or gaining children, wives or jobs, the years have only made 7Seconds smarter and stronger. One day, it just might end, but not this year, nor in any foreseeable year to come.