An in-depth analysis of the history of Mental, interview with Ambrose Nzams and Dylan Chadwick / Part II.
This interview originally published in Chiller Than Most fanzine, issue 5 (2017). Photos by Dylan Chadwick, Patrycja Gagan, Start Today fanzine, Mike the mosher, Marlon, Chiller Than Most fanzine.
CTM: At that time the Mental Lp got lots of negative criticism. What do you think was the reason for that?
Dylan: I vaguely remember it getting criticized, but by that point I was tuning out all the negative stuff around them, so I don’t really know. I love that album personally, and saw them a whole lot on the tour they did to promote it. I love that they wrote an LP that was entirely new material and loved the more introspective nature of the lyrics. The big comparison point I remember hearing is that it was “really Quicksand-esque” which sounded really cool at the time because it just wasn’t the type of band you’d expect Mental to be compared to. It would be kind of ironic if the same people who always criticized Mental for not being “serious” enough went on to criticize them for writing more “serious” music, but I bet that happened because so many hardcore fans have such a narrow view towards music, rock and punk and all that.
Ambrose: I can’t really say what it was really like ’cause I was 15 when it came out, but I definitely dismissed it because my peers and elders did. I mean the obvious reason for the backlash would be like the more “adult” vibe of the record; if you got into Mental because you mistakenly perceived it as something goofy and goofy alone then you’d be let down. I would also say that time’s were just changing: the end of Posi Numbers, the crew stuff, “Mental Broke Edge”, the real beginnings of social media, “Desperate Times”, etc. And, call me out if this is a faulty hypothesis, but it feels like back then roasting something or hating on something was more prevalent, or at least more public. If I was being foolish and naively positive, I’d say people were maybe more passionate, but in reality, people just wanted to put people down and could do so easier in the shadows of message-board or (e-)zine anonymity. Now, when a record you and your friends don’t like comes out, you just shit on it in a group chat and ignore it publicly until it goes away.
CTM: Ambrose, you wrote earlier that “Story Time” sounds like the sort of fun faux-fiction tale of the cyclical nature of hardcore that it is and so on and so forth. This is a very interesting topic, so please let us know more about this issue. What do you mean by the cyclical nature of hardcore? Dylan, I would love to know your opinion too.
Ambrose: I always thought it was super obvious, I don’t know. It’s all in the lyrics! “Story Time” is about a kid who didn’t know who he was and could have taken a bad route but “someone showed him something that blew his mind, that’s when he found his kind.” Everyone’s coming of age in hardcore story is probably pretty similar. Later, the kid grows up, doing everything the “right way” (for the subculture) and started to doubt his involvement until he meets a younger kid and “could see in those eyes what almost died” in him. A disillusionment with the mainstream world causing a connection to an outsider culture and then an eventual disillusionment with the outsider culture that saved you, but a reminder of it’s capabilities in the hopeful eyes of a younger kid puts you at peace. “The story never ends, it starts over again.” Related, I was having a conversation with some friends the other night about current hardcore and I’ve been thinking a lot about being 27 and how–although that’s still young in the world–in hardcore, it’s tougher to be moved by the same sort of stuff that would have moved you at 21 (or 19, or 17 or 15, etc.). So now, instead of outright loving or hating something, I think a lot about it’s merits for young kids; if a band is doing something that I think is cool or interesting or has a message or vibe or aesthetic I support, then that’s much more important than me liking their songs. Not to take away from the importance of writing good songs, but I don’t know, I’ve always been a proponent of this shit being much more than music (“…it’s a way of life!”)
Dylan: I’ve always interpreted the song to be about the cyclical nature of LIVING in that you start out, you don’t know shit and you kind of depend on other people to show you the way. Then, you get older and more experienced and suddenly YOU’RE the person people are depending on. Then, you enter new experiences and suddenly you’re the fuckin freshman again. IDK.
CTM: I’m not sure if I’ve ever talked about this. Me and my grandfather were very close. For the first few days after my grandfather died, I kept waiting for somebody to say something that made it feel better, or less painful. I just put the Planet Mental record on the turntable and play the “You never know” again and again. Honestly, this song helped me so much more than you’d think. Which Mental songs are the most important lyrically to you on the Planet Mental LP?
Dylan: I think Bad Brain. It’s a song (to me) all about not letting complacency and negativity stop you from creating. For me, when I’m not making art, I am miserable. I get really depressed. I 100% vibe with those lyrics.
Ambrose: Honestly, “Earthlings” is probably the most relatable to me lyrically. I feel like I’ve spent my whole life watching other human beings trying to learn how to be a human being but knew all along that those versions of human being-ness weren’t for me. “Don’t care about running, don’t wanna finish the race.”
CTM: There was the song featured on the Sweet Vision compilation “Get A Life”, and then there was “The Evils” on the Generations compilation.(They were on the Stab To Kill compilation and Town of Hardcore compilation too.) “Get A Life” and “The Evils” are severely underrated Mental jams, what do you think about these songs?
Ambrose: Both good songs, both definitely appropriate as comp only tracks. If I had to put them against each other, I’d pick “The Evils” because it’s the best song title (“D’Evils”) and also the lyrics are better.
Dylan: If I’m being honest, I need to revisit “the Evils” cuz I can’t even remember it. I love the breakdown in Get a Life though. I love that they wrote a new song instead of re-doing a version of an existing song already. I did an interview with Greg a while back and he told me the comp was made in one day with everyone in the studio together. To have been a fly on the wall during that recording session!
CTM: One of the best things about the Lockin’ Out compilation is that I like the Sweet Vision recordings better than the re-recorded versions. What is the best song on Sweet Vision? Why did you choose this song?
Dylan: I have changed my answer on this a bunch. In college, I really loved the SOS song, mostly because I like that noodly guitar shit at the end of the track and always feel that band came out of left field with their references and whatnot. I think a strong answer would be Jaguarz “Survival” because that breakdown is ridiculous and the lyrics are super awesome, like “what’s that noise, was it me or him?” It’s just super cool how it’s a dude’s internal monologue. Ultimately I think the RJ’s track is the best though. It just fires on every level in that it’s already a KILLER song and the best recorded version of it, the sample (which I later learned is from a workout video). It bangs.
Ambrose: The best song on the Sweet Vision comp is definitely “Feeding Time At The Zoo / Hangman’s Noose” but I say that with a hesitance. It’s a great song and the lo-fi comp version feels way better than the LP version BUT it produced two of the worst shirts ever made: the one with the noose printed on the center, right on the upper chest, in between the collar and ‘The Wrong Side’ bolded in all caps; and whatever shirt or shirts that said ‘Feeding Time Is Over’ on the back.
CTM: If you could release a Mental tribute 7 inch compilation and you can choose any 4 bands you want from old and current bands (each 1 song) which bands would it be and why?
Ambrose: With all due respect, and not to be a copout, but tribute records are the worst. I would also say that a tribute record is the antithesis of what Mental was about. To me, Mental always seemed pro-reminiscing but so anti-nostalgia.
Dylan: I’d have Power Trip do the whole Sweet Vision comp. LMAO. IDK. I really love Lockin Out, but also have not-so-fond memories of the influx of “LOC-LITE” bands who sprung up in the later 2000s doing wacky graphics and graffiti fonts and stuff, minus the clever lyrics and memorable riffs.
CTM: Me and my friends were all so excited to see them when they played Europe in 2005. Mental played all the shows with Justice which released Elephant Skin by the time. We arrived to Vienna early in the morning to catch them in Austria. We spent the day in the city center sight seeing, enjoying the variety of shopping opportunities, and chilling on the riverside. Finally, we managed to miss the complete Justice set and I still have bad dreams about it haha. Mental was sooo bad ass btw, these guys were seriously mental. What’s been the most memorable Mental show you’ve been to and why?
Ambrose: Maybe this disqualifies me from being apart of this, but I never saw Mental.
Dylan: I got to see some great ones. The standout for me was in SLC. They played with Justice and Life Long Tragedy on the Planet Mental tour (I have the flyer somewhere) and then some locals. I won’t go too into it but at that time, SLC was kind of a weird place for shows. Still kind of on that straight edge hangover from the 90’s, so basically if a band didn’t sound like Grimlock or Stigmata, they got no reaction. I’d just started college and was SO hyped up on hardcore you know, like the Posi Numbers era, and had just seen an assfull of summer shows that had blown my mind. So anyway, I’d already seen Mental on 2 different dates of this tour and the reactions had all been insane, but at SLC there was hardly any reaction. I remember being SO ANGRY that no one was moshing LOL. I just remember going crazy. Like air-guitaring through every song, just like giving them the reaction I felt they deserved. I bet everyone thought I was some junkie who’d been let in off the street. They broke up just a few months after so it was the last chance I had to see them really.
CTM: Breakbeats are drum parts—usually culled from funk, R&B records. Rap music has had its influence on hardcore for a long time, and hip-hop also had a heavy influence on Mental. The rap intro is biblical on the second demo, they made a Whodini cover on their LP, and Mental played a “8 miles” intro on their Planet Mental record release show. Do you like these elements?
Dylan: Yeah definitely. I am not as knowledgeable re: hiphop as I am many of the other subculture musics, but I used to go DL all the songs in the town of hardcore hip hop column. I loved that hip hop has kind of always been a cultural touchstone for NYHC bands, and since Mental essentially played the re-up of NYHC (via Boston) in the early 00’s it totally makes sense hip hop would be a big aesthetic factor.
Ambrose: I always thought it was so cool that Greg was a staunch proponent of current rap. There’s that interview in Town Of Hardcore where the rest of the band kinda clowns him for only being into the current stuff and he doesn’t waver in his opinion. I think that’s really cool.
CTM: Dumptruck helped create the Lockin’ Out sound with their cassette. This is basically left over early Mental tunes that were too hard, and they got one of their friends to sing on them. Do you like the Feelin’ Good demo?
Ambrose: Yeah, of course.
Dylan: Shit I LOVE this demo. I did the sickest Chris Morgado interview like 7 years ago now. We talked wrestling and illustration and Dump Truck and everything. I never published it because I’m a dumbass. But yeah, I love the Wrong Side. My fav lil nugget from that interview is hearing that Dump Truck had a song called “March of the cockroaches” and (I think) it’s what became “Feeding time at the zoo.” I could be wrong on that last bit though.
CTM: I think Mental really knew how to do record covers and record release covers right. Rasta cover, Mental Crew cover, Earth Sucks cover, Morgado covers, Sean Taggart cover etc. What do you think about their covers, what do you think of the style of their covers?
Dylan: I feel like I already covered this throughout the interview, but I always loved that Mental didn’t do “stereotypical HC artwork” for their records. For the most part, none of the LOC bands did. It wasn’t like generic youth crew live shot stuff or metalcore skulls and cursive lettering…just kind of like a visual overdose that pulled queues from tons of artists I liked. Like, you know the Look Alive cover kinda looked like Keith Haring art, or the Rage of Discipline LP looked like one of those generic DJ sleeves. That shit always made you wonder what the tunes contained within sounded like, you know? Yeah, I will always love the fact that Mental’s covers were unique.
Ambrose: And You Know This cover is a little crude and juvenile, Get An Oxygen Tank is cleaner, more pro, features art by an OG. Yo! is far from subdued but it’s a step down from the colorfulness of GAOT, and then Planet Mental is muted and more abstract. Every record cover tells you so much about the record. As far as the special covers, I’ve always been partial to ‘Earth Sucks’. I know it’s simple, but sometimes simple’s the best.
CTM: My personal favourite cover is probably the Mental cat cover of the Bum Rush EP. Why did they change the artwork, what do you think?
Ambrose: Honestly, no idea. Love the cat’s slippers.
Dylan: I never really got the story, and I’ve asked! No idea. That is a good cover. I remember when it was making the rounds on the internet though!
CTM: Thanks for the interview guys! Finally, what are your fave Mental t-shirt designs?
Dylan: The Pam Grier shirt is the only right answer.
Ambrose: On Instagram the other day, this woman I know posted a picture of her in a white longsleeve with the word ‘Mental’ like repeatedly stamped and then stamped over it with a sort of white border was a red or orange ‘Mental’ in the same font as the blue, and I think that might win. Need that shirt. Prior to seeing that one though, my favorite was definitely the black Elephant shirt. They didn’t make many black shirts, so that one feels special. Also, in the market for the Mental / Desperate Measures ‘Lock Up Your Daughters’ tour shirt too. That one couldn’t really fly in the modern era. The only Mental shirt that I currently have is the yellow one with the gorilla on the front and the back. I’ve worn it out a total of one time because I’m not quite confident in that yellow. The Pam Grier one is obviously great, but I can’t wear that in public. Before we exit, next time we gotta talk about the Yo 7″. “Bootleg” are my favorite Mental lyrics; “They cared, I care, you should care.” Incredible.