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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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