Jersey Beat Music Fanzine

Interview by James Damion

The history of the Staten Island punk and hardcore scene remains one of the great untold stories of New York City but John Lisa was there at the heart of it, as a promoter, record seller, musician, and writer.

Q: I lived in Staten Island during a rather rough period in my life. Which, by all means could have affected my overall impression and negative feelings about the forgotten borough. What was it like for you growing up there?

I grew up in a really prejudiced mostly Catholic Italian neighborhood. Straight out of the books. Very stereotypical. I moved off of Staten in 2000 because it just really didn't suite by lifestyle, politics, etc... Plus I was working between Queens and Manhattan and it was just easier for me. But I just recently moved back into my childhood house on Staten since my dad passed away and my old neighborhood really changed a lot. I think in a good way as far as tolerance and diversity.

Q: What was your early exposure to music and the first albums or bands you identified with?

Like most young kids in the 70's in school I was drawn immediately to KISS. Others liked the Beatles, but I never did. They were too sophisticated for me. I needed the theatrics and the sensationalism to escape school. So, Kiss was huge for me. I was obsessed with them. And then to Queen and other classic rock. I usually, typically got obsessed with bands. I either loved them to death and knew every single note from them like Rush, Kansas, Black Sabbath, or I just didn't pay attention to bands. I had no love for Led Zepplin. I still don't like them. First big albums were Kiss 'Alive', Sabbath 'Paranoid', and Queen II was huge. Still is I feel their best. It's a pre-cursor for dark heavy metal. Queen used to be a very dark band.

Q: How old were you when you first gravitated towards punk rock and underground music?

Probably 15 or so. Maybe? I was into underground heavy metal first and I started digging into the import sections of the record stores and would come across Misfits and Black Flag and they looked violent and scary. I was curious what the bands would sound like since I didn't know their names. (And I knew EVERY underground metal band). My friends told me Misfits were punk but they had somewhat heavy metal song titles 'Devil lock', 'Death Comes Ripping', etc.. So, I gambled money on punk records and at first I didn't like them, but then they grew on me. I fell deeply in love with Black Flag with how dissonant and strange the guitar riffs were. It sounded to me like this guy named Greg Ginn was making mistakes on the albums on purpose because my ear for music had been classically trained. But I liked the rawness and the anger. And the strange, loneliness of Black Flag's sounds. And I followed them along with the changes. Saw them a bunch of times and made sure I was in the front row at whatever shows I could get to. A lot of the heavy metal kids too in high school were talking about Black Flag and so it made sense. I was happy to be part of the conversation. Celtic Frost, Black Flag, Metallica, Misfits, no problem! A new genre. More music, more new friends.

Q: I arrived in Staten Island just as Sleeper were releasing “Display”. So, I never had a chance to experience Gutwrench. Can you give me a little background on the band?

Gutwrench was somewhat short lived. I had a lot of fun. It was more straight forward. Single guitar and we emulated the Hard-Ons a lot and the Australian punk metal sound. Lewis Dimmick (bass) and I wrote the music for the songs. We only played a handful of shows. Billy Hamill (vocalist), Alex (drummer, RIP) and I used to drink a lot of beer and jam in the studio Saturday afternoons. Fun songs. Kinda goofy and silly. We did an EP and a live tape over WFMU. Also Excursion records released our last 2 songs on a split 7" with Sleeper. We played a reunion show that was for our friends on Staten Island a few years ago at Mother Pugs dive bar.

Q: For as long as I can remember, my taste in music always gravitated towards the lesser known, "under the radar" bands. Sleeper will forever be one of those lesser known bands whose music had a lasting impact on me. Can you tell me a bit about the roots of the band and the original members? I knew Lewis and Hobi from the hardcore band Our Gang. As a matter of fact, I had no idea they were from Staten Island. Did Gutwrench or Sleeper have any roots in New York’s harcore scene. Did that style of music ever appeal to you?

Well, Hobi's dad was my closest friend at the time and that's how I met he and Lewis. We used to see shows together and decided to start a band. Hobi actually taught me a lot about the guitar style that I developed. Those two guys were way more into New York hardcore than I ever was. I had only a small handful of NY bands that I liked. I was way more into Washington DC, Boston and California's sounds. But when we started Sleeper, we collectively decided wanted to make music that captured a certain "sound" in the Dischord timeline; that being 1985-1991 or so. A little bit beyond hardcore. More melodic and emotional. I hate the term 'emo' because of what it's become, but we loved the first wave like Embrace, Fugazi, Soulside, Government Issue, 3, Jawbox, Dag Nasty, Scream, etc.. That was the primary intention. But back to NY....toward the end of Our Gang, they were definitely starting to get more melodic in their sound and you could certainly hear it and see it. So I guess Sleeper was the next logical progression for the 3 of us. Actually, I started the band with Richie Derespino who was from All for One who was living in Brooklyn at the time, but he couldn't practice a lot so I hooked up with Lew and Hobi.

Serpico (Photo by Justin Borucki)

Q: I have this memory of driving around with you and your mentioning that an English band by the same name (Sleeper) contacting you with a sort of “Cease and Desist” order. Can you tell me more about how they reached out to you and how the name change to Serpico came about?

Their record label legal department was rude. Somehow they tracked me down and called me and told me to stop using the name Sleeper because they had an album coming out on BMG. We already had an album out on a German label, a bunch of 7"s and were on compilations and so I got a lawyer and ordered THEM to cease and desist. [Lisa had wisely trademarked the name in New York state.] They had already manufactured their album and so legally, they were fucked because they were so arrogant. So, they had to buy the name off of us. This was in 1993. The rest is history.

Q: I later became friends with the family of the real-life Frank Serpico that the movie "Serpico" was based on. I recall talking about Frank during visits to the families' Staten Island home and business. What went into choosing the name when renaming the band?

TJ Quatrone (Drummer at the time) wrote the lyrics to the song Serpico, and it was an import staple in our live set. Everyone liked the song a lot and so when we were searching for a new name, it made sense since it also started with an "S" and was the same number of letters and one of our best songs. Plus Frank Serpico was a New Yorker and there was a connection and identifier there. It made sense.

Q: Like most bands, Sleeper / Serpico underwent a lot of personnel changes during their existence. Besides yourself, who would you say was the most consistent or impactful member/members?

Probably Marc Treboschi most of all (bass player). He's been on most of the albums other than myself. He'd done the most touring and song writing and through the years was really shoveling a lot of work into the band. Everyone did really, but Marc did it for the most years out of all time we'd been active.

Q: Speaking of tours. I remember your preparing for your first tour of Europe. Was that your first trip overseas? I’ve heard countless other stories about sleeping in squats, having equipment stolen and dining on cold spaghetti and stale beer. Was it as glamorous for you? Did you come away with any life lessons? How many times did the band tour outside of the U.S.?

Yeah, at that point in 1993 I'd never been overseas before. Sleeper/Serpico toured Europe 5 times total (2 with trips to Scandinavia) , 3 full tours of the US out to California and back, and we went into Canada once along with a few shorter trips down to Florida, Northeast treks, etc.. Made a lot of friends and had a lot of people come over from Germany and stay with me through the years. A million life lessons. Most people are trustworthy if you go with your gut instinct and you're really honest. You can tell right away. If you build solid bonds with people, even if you lose touch with them over time, they still somehow surface and come back around. As far as touring, there were times when I dreaded not being able to do it anymore. Now...I'm glad its over and I never want to do it again. To young bands getting ready for the road...Beware of hidden costs and always budget for them. Shit NEVER EVER works out like it looks on paper. Have fun and do it while you're young. Fuck going to school right away. Go see the world. Get in the van. Sleep on people's floors and eat on $4 a day. Who gives a shit. Do it. Best of times and worst of times. Worth every single memory.

John Lisa, raging (Photo by Justin Borucki)

Q: Our Music Center can easily be credited for being the saving grace of my time on Staten Island. I think that most of the friends I made on the Island, including you, worked there at one point or another. How old where you when you worked there and how much of an influence did the people that worked there influence the shops reputation for stocking so many great Indie, Punk and Hardcore records?

I was around 22 or 23 when I worked there. It was around the late 80's early 90's because I remember ordering a lot of Earache records and tapes and I was really starting to get into extreme grindcore. (I still love it). Terre Telenko was the buyer for alternative music and she was quitting and so she suggested to Ray that he hire me part time since I was working full time in an accounting dept. at a hospital and so I jumped on it. I spent all of my pay on records at that job, since I was getting stuff at cost. Yeah, that place (Terre specifically) was pretty much like a goddess to me, especially since she was on WSIA and I listened to her radio show religiously. We were like close friends for years and she clued me in to so many records I couldn't possibly put into words how much her friendship and musical taste influenced my life. As far as the labels go, it was great dealing directly with them where possible especially Dischord who Sleeper basically modeled our entire early existence around. And we didn't care how much we wore it on our sleeves either. I was able to get all the (good) SST records on colored wax pressings when they did the re-issues, all the Earache picture disks. Every fucking hardcore 7" that came out any given week. It was like a drug habit. I was out of control with record buying. John Telenko (Serpico vocalist) still is a rabid collector. It's insane.

Q: I was always been curious as to how you became interested in House music and DJ’ing. Can you fill in the blanks for me? Were you, at any time, a card-carrying club kid?

Yeah, admittedly I turned into one. In 1997 almost like clockwork when I turned 30, I went through a radical change in my life. It happened really quickly and almost like a light-switch on/off. I just became completely disinterested in punk rock or anything metal or rock based. It was a difficult time 'coming OUT'. I started listening to different music, getting interested in electronica and house music in particularly. In interested me how a DJ could go seamlessly from 1 record to another without anyone knowing there was a change in the record. Creating endless streams of music. Lifting sounds and samples from someone else's music for something different. The concept that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. I had made a friend at the gym who gave me a ninety minute mix tape he made. He went by Dezrok and the tape was called 'Club Space.' It was a DIY dubbed tape that he sold for $10 at the club that he played at. I played it 2 or 3 times start to finish and my mind was completely blown and at that point, I'd never be the same again. I spent a lot of time trying to deconstruct his tape and figure out where the songs were starting and where they were ending but I couldn't. It was completely seamless. And this was before CD burning and MP3's and digital tech auto-mixing apps. So I started going to a lot of different clubs (Twilo, Exit, Tunnel, Roxy, etc..) and doing all the "amusements" that went along with it. I started hanging out with a lot of DJ types and my infatuation with a certain type of music started up all over again. It’s been years and I still listen to a lot of house and techno and dark trance and ambient. I don't regret any of those times or all the money I spent, which was a LOT.

Marillion - "an oddball band to say the least"

Q: Another curiosity of mine is how you came to love the band Marillion? It seems like an odd pairing considering your Punk Rock background.

Back when I was in high-school in '82-'83 when I was really into underground metal, I used to buy Kerrang! magazine. And they always had articles and coverage of this band Marillion with a somewhat heavy metal looking logo, but the singer (Fish) had a weird face paint going on. I used to ask my friends what they sounded like and they warned me to NOT buy their records because they sounded like Genesis or prog or whatever and "they suck". But they looked intriguing to me. So one day record shopping at "Its Only Rock and Roll" on 8th street I saw a cut out promo version for $3 of their 'Fugazi' (2nd) LP and I gambled the money to see what they sounded like. At first I didn't get it. The first song 'Assassing' was a cross of new wave and dance and tribal with heavy metal guitar solos and an extremely bizarre singer. I read the lyric sheet. Then again. Then played it again....and again. and I got hooked into this band and have never been let down for over 30 years, even when they changed singers. I saw them close to 30 times in my life. That's a lot for a UK band. YES...Very odd. Favorite band ever. Not ashamed of it. And they are an oddball band to say the least.

Q: Favorite Sleeper / Serpico record or song and why? Counting the EP’s, Splits and LP’s, how many records did you release under the Sleeper / Serpico umbrella?

Favorite album is probably 'Preparing Today for Tomorrow's Breakdown'. I think the songs were more developed and more thought and energy was put into them. We were a hungrier band. When Bill and Stephen came to produce the record, we wanted so hard to impress them so we played harder. We were a focused band I think. But my favorite single is the 'I'm Not Dead' EP we did in Seattle with Gary Bennett (KYI/Sheer Terror) on 2nd guitar. I think that also sounded tight and creative and straight to the point. In total, we did 4 full length albums, a singles collection. I will get you a discography.

Q: Like most bands, Serpico has had its cup full of reunion shows. Flames Fest at Pugg’s immediately comes to mind. Considering the bands numerous personnel changes over the years. I was curious as to who were the first to jump at the chance to jump on and join in.

For the 2009 reunion, Mike DeLorenzo was the one to put it together. That was at Martini Red and it actually sold out. We were psyched. Marc Treboschi and Niser were into and JT too. Then we did the Flames fest 1 off show in 2014 to help Todd get his festival off the ground. Since then I really haven't been inspired to do anything. I go through bouts of depression and sometimes it’s hard just staying afloat, but the past year I feel really good and so who knows what may happen one day again. We're all friends. Every one of us and we all keep in touch regularly in one way or another. That's all that matters really to me. Anything else is a bonus.

Q: Last one. I’m well aware of your love of Football. If you had to choose between complimentary season tickets to either the Giants or the Jets (I’m talking right on the sidelines.) Which would you choose?

The Giants are a somewhat easier team to like because once in a while they win. I doubt that I'd go to a season’s worth of anything really. Maybe 1 or 2 games out of the year from either team. I've been so disgusted with Jets and Giants in the past years. They don't even make it through the first 6 games before the season is over. I'd rather spend my Sundays watching documentaries or working on some other shit.

Q: I just recently learned that you were a long-time contributor to Jersey Beat who introduced the music of Green Day to Jim Testa. Can you give me a little background on how you came to know the zine and how you went from a reader to a contributor? What were some of the bands and records you thought everyone should hear?

I think I answered an ad in MRR from Jim saying that he needed people to review records since he was getting so much vinyl in the mail and we just seemed to hit it off from there. I met him at a show and we had common friends in radio and that ran labels. At that point I was really deep into Lookout Records when they started and David Hayes (who later did Very Small Records) was still involved in the label. David and Larry Livermore had just put out a batch of 7"s from the Bay Area and I was literally OBSESSED with those bands, but mostly with David's art, ethics and vision. The first Green Day 45 was one of them. I just played that one over and over. No one knew who they were and I made a homemade Green Day sticker for my guitar. It was David's logo too. LOL. I used to preach about them to Jim. Then little by little they took off. At that point with the zine' I would go to shows pretty much 2-4 nights a week. I was on a mission for Doughboys, the Hard-Ons, Chemical People, Big Drill Car and the bands that ALL used to bring on tour. Bill Stevenson, Stephen and Karl had always kept good company and all those names I stay in touch with to this day. Very proud of the solid friendships we made.

[Editors Note: After getting that first Green Day 7-inch from John, I sent the band a mail interview with a couple of questions. They wrote back and we published it in our sister fanzine Grot, which was for non-NJ bands. Years later, I met Mike Dirnt when he was recording with Screeching Weasel, and he told me that those questions marked the first interview that Green Day ever did. - Jim Testa]


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