An in-depth analysis of the history of Mental, interview with Ambrose Nzams and Dylan Chadwick / Part I.
This interview originally published in Chiller Than Most fanzine, issue 5 (2017). Pics by Lockin Out fanzine, Al Quint, Start Today fanzine, Chiller Than Most fanzine.
CTM: Yo yo yo you know who this is, this is Chiller Than Most zine and we are doing a special interview about Mental right now! Could you please introduce yourself to the readers? How was your first time meeting Mental? Was it love at first sight?
Ambrose: My name is Ambrose Nzams and I live in Washington, DC. I was 13 years old when Get An Oxygen Tank came out but I didn’t hear it in full until a couple years later. At the time, I don’t think I would have really got it and actually, even when I eventually heard it, I didn’t really get it. However, a year after Get An Oxygen Tank came out, I’d started going to shows regularly and Righteous Jams had put out Rage Of Discipline. I loved that record immediately. I remember at the time, a lot of the older guys I knew didn’t care much for it, they would always just say that Mental was better. It was only much later that I realized how quietly polarizing Righteous Jams were because of certain affiliations, etc. I checked out Mental on the suggestion of my elders and thought it was cool, but it didn’t stick with me. A year after that, my friend Gary ordered a momentarily popular record that will remain unnamed from Deathwish, with it they sent him the GAOT CD for free. He got into it and I still couldn’t really get down. It honestly wasn’t until I heard the WERS set for it all to sink in. I never got a chance to see them, so that recording gave me the perspective that was missing, that was what it took.
Dylan: My name is Dylan. I’m an illustrator. I was first introduced to Mental in early 2004. It was definitely love at first sight, because I loved their artwork! I was a big fan of the artist who did the Yo! 7” (and eventually Planet Mental), but also when Get an Oxygen Tank! came out, the artwork was just so busy and cartoony and mind-blowing. I didn’t really know much about Sean Taggart at that point, but immediately felt a kinship because the art was just really unique and felt more in-tune with the kind of stuff I was drawing in my notebooks at school. All their album covers were great honestly.
CTM: I think their most important impact was that they changed people’s thinking about hardcore, Mental made hardcore fun again. They created a whole new generation of hardcore kids. I don’t think I’m the only one, a lot of people got fed up with American Nightmare, The Suicide File, Panic and the likes really fast, the constant moaning and bloody knives, razorblades. The whole attitude surrounding these bands was just not my thing. If someone is into that stuff, no big deal, I just find it boring. A lot of bands at that time had the dramatic black hair and a really miserable vibe. And then, out of nowhere came Lockin’ Out Records, first with the first Mental record. What is your opinion on this topic? How do you evaluate the work of Mental?
Dylan: Yeah, this describes me too. I liked a few of the bands you mentioned, but always felt like they weren’t “mine” almost like they belonged to the preceding generation a little bit. Mental spoke to me in the same way that like skateboard graphics and comics spoke to me. The presentation was fresh and inspired me to make more art. I think that’s probably the best barometer for a band you can give. The other thing I really liked about Mental and the LOC scene, is that people all had to have like a polarizing opinion about them. They were criticized for the way they moshed or for wearing Nikes or whatever, and when you’re a young kid who’s first starting to understand how HC “works” I just couldn’t relate to a lot of that “heat” they were getting, both good and bad.
Ambrose: Tides gotta shift and anything worthwhile is a response to the things going on around it. Think about the 1-25-03 show: Think I Care, Stop And Think, Mental opening up for American Nightmare and The Suicide File; the first official day of Lockin’ Out Records. Joey C. intros Mental then dives; the band goes directly into an unreleased NYC Mayhem/Straight Ahead intro, then covers Invasion as all their friends mosh. I wasn’t there, so I can’t attest to the energy, but I can’t think of a better example of the ushering in of a new guard. When the baton gets snatched from the previous generation by a newer generation, it’s usually just an attempt to rekindle the feelings the younger generation felt when everything was new. This could be a total misreading but I always partially credited Floorpunch for the ethos of Mental (“Tolerate”, “Stick Together”, being NYHC-centric, etc). I always hypothesized that because the guys in Mental came up on Floorpunch, and hardcore had returned to self-seriousness over time, that they were just trying to bring that feeling back (ala FP & late 80’s NYHC). With that said, the most important part is that Mental rekindled but never rehashed; they were modern, more obscure, more fun and distinct.
CTM: As far as I know their main goal for starting a band was to cover “Back to back” by Underdog. They loved Underdog and Supertouch, no band in the 00’s ripped off NYHC like Mental ripped off NYHC. The Underdog and Supertouch influence wasn’t really prevalent in the scene until Mental crew started pushing it hard and bringing it to everyone’s attention. What musical effect did they really have on hardcore music?
Ambrose: If we’re only talking musical influence, I guess Justice and the lower tier Lockin’ Out bands (Jaguarz, Crunch Time, etc.) would be like direct disciples of Mental’s sound. And the phrase “Lockin’ Out style” became kind of a popular self-described classification in the first couple years of this decade. Also, the amount they knew about and took influence from–NYHC demos, WNYU sets, and live videos (in the AOL era!)–was super impressive and absolutely laid the foundation for what was to a decade later be dubbed “democore”. I might be looking at the generation before me with rose-colored glasses, but to me, Mental’s influence lies mostly in the community they were able to build. It might be giving them too much credit, but it was like they had a network of friends all over (mainly Boston, Texas, Detroit, Wilkes-Barre and Belgium) that they inspired; promoting individuality and never hesitating to big them up.
Dylan: I can’t speak for anyone else but I know that Mental is how I first heard Supertouch. They’re probably the reason I know Underdog too. Checks out for me.
CTM: So many people said so much dumb shit about Mental. They are too jokey, they only focus on merch and being goofy, Mental is not a serious band etc. Why did people think this way?
Dylan: I think that when a band comes around that gets some hype, it’s natural for “detractors” to spring up. It’s that contrarian thing, like for people who can’t form an opinion about something unless it becomes popular, they just decide to criticize the “fanbase.” I think most of the criticisms lobbied at Mental and LOC generally were unfounded in reality, and probably influenced by jealousy! I totally remember this though. Like, imagine being such a miserable fucker that when a cool band like Mental “hits” you have to try and find reasons not to like them, but I guess it will always happen for bands that are ahead of their time.
Ambrose: It really hit me kind of recently that most people only take things (art, people, ideas, etc.) at face value and run with their–usually someone else’s–superficial summation. It’s super disheartening, but also, I can’t tell anyone what to do with their time. And honestly, there’s really nothing worse than looking deep into something (art, people, ideas, etc.) and finding nothing there. Sometimes things are just what they seem and not much more.
I’ve gone to bat for Mental so many times because the popular consensus of them is unfair. To call them “goofy” is to miss the mark. I always guessed most people thought this because Greg is lanky, they prioritized friends and fun, and all of their merch was colorful. It almost hurts worse when the people that simplify Mental are supposed fans, like just because it can be lighthearted doesn’t mean it’s slapstick. There are so many styles of expression in hardcore–and maybe this is controversial–but to me, most of them are valid and worth at least knowing about, so I don’t like the declaration of what HC should or shouldn’t be. Nonetheless, something about Mental feels totally pure in it’s delivery. It’s still juvenile enough to openly care but also not so self-important as to act as if they’re changing the world. (“It’s not about preaching to hear yourself talk…”)
CTM: “And you know this”. This quote came from the movie “Friday”. The film details roughly 16 hours in the lives of unemployed Craig Jones (Cube) and Smokey (Tucker), who must pay a drug dealer $200 by 10:00 p.m. that night. At the end of the movie, Smokey looks up, lights a joint and saying to the audience, “I was just bullshittin’! And you know this, mannn!” Right, why do you like this 7 inch?
Ambrose: It’s like “Party And Bullshit” or the Filler 7″ or any other perfect introduction. It sets the foundation for every idea they’ll further and then later reflect on. The entire thing is a mission statement and every song is relatable.
Dylan: The cover is fantastic. That stipple work is insane. The “Baked Not Fried” thing in the insert. It’s LOC #1, pre-logo. Luv it.
CTM: “Chock full of breakdowns…, you will need to get an oxygen tank to remain a functioning human being… All in all, this is a record that will change how bands write songs in the future.” Please share your thoughts on the “Get An Oxygen Tank” record.
Dylan: These aren’t my fav Mental tunes, but only because there’s such a high caliber around everything else. I love everything about the cover. The fact that purple was such a heavily utilized color. This album was a big hit in my friend circle, prob cuz I think they did the CD with B9 (?) and (people will act like they’re too cool to remember this but fuck ‘em) around the time of this release AP Magazine did a piece on “modern hardcore.” Most of the bands they covered were kinda dorky like Casey Jones but I distinctly remember Get an Oxygen Tank and Rage of Discipline getting included in that list of “albums you gotta check out!” But yeah, I remember a lot of people who wouldn’t normally fuck with “that type of hardcore” having opinions on that album.
Ambrose: It’s not my favorite Mental record, but it might be the most “defining”. I feel like Get An Oxygen Tank is the record everyone thinks of when they think about Mental. It’s like Ice Grillz and the second Stop And Think demo for 2000s band-defining moments. Ironically, Get An Oxygen Tank, Ice Grillz, and the second Stop And Think demo were all issued in collections with the second, more prominent release first in the tracklisting.
CTM: This is a stolen question from “It Runs Deep” fanzine. The song “Growing pains” deals with getting older and not fitting in out there in the “real” world or “growing up”… Do you find it hard to relate to people who don’t have anything to do with hardcore? What do you think about the lyrics of “Growing pains”?
Ambrose: I live and breathe: “I honestly hate the average man / his life is shit to me.” It’s kind of wild how no matter how much I have otherwise in common or can have a good conversation with somebody, I always feel like we’re missing an important bond if they aren’t into, or don’t understand, punk or hardcore. That’s not to say that I inherently get along with everyone who does, but there’s something specific that comes with being hardcore, maybe it’s a certain kind of cynicism or maybe it’s just that it’s a culture of it’s own and it’s always easier to speak to someone in your own language.
I feel “Growing Pains” every day. I thought there might be a point where I stopped being bummed when people sold out in some way, but I don’t think I ever will. And although this song features a word that I wouldn’t particularly use–and that might not fly in the modern world–I can’t say I never feel this exact way when it seems like “no one [takes] this shit for real.”
Dylan: Honestly, yeah I do. I was at a dinner party with a few friends, all of whom were people I had met from being involved with HC and at some point someone used the term “normie” to describe someone else. Another person at the table got a little bit upset, mostly because he felt the term “normie” was reductive. I don’t think I agree with him, and started to talk about all the unspoken things you don’t have to explain to someone else when you know they’re “hardcore” or whatever. Maybe this is a bad example, but yeah. I consider myself fairly “uninvolved” in HC in terms of making music and going to shows and stuff, but it’s still the well from which I’ve made all my friends. It’s still how I stay creative. I have been doing a lot of artwork in the world of independent wrestling and it’s amazing how many ex punk/HC people I meet. As soon as I find out someone grew up going to shows or was straight edge, I feel like there’s a higher chance I’ll become friends with them than not. I met one of my best friends Jeff in college. He was wearing an America’s HC shirt. IDK, I just walked up to him and said “cool shirt.” and we just immediately became friends. I don’t know another subculture quite liek that.
CTM: “Get off your couch, run around your house like an idiot!” WERS set is a fantastic representation of how great they were live. What do you think about their radio set at WERS? Dylan, I know that you drew a really awesome design for your cassette!
Dylan: I love it! Yeah, absolutely man that live set rules. It’s so funny, the intro is hot, they sound tight. I had a homemade copy of this that I made for myself in high school. When I was a senior, I had already been accepted into college, but hadn’t turned 18 yet so I was legally bound to go to school even if it really didn’t matter what grades I made. As a result, I spent a LOT of time making a zine and drawing. That homemade WERS cover was just one of the many projects I fucked around with in study hall. I sometimes wonder if the girl I was dating back then had ANY idea what the hell I was on about making these tapes. I remember playing it for her in my car and her response was “OMG are they just like playing this in a room with their friends?” The concept of “live set” in anything that wasn’t a stadium was more than she could handle!
Ambrose: Not even trying to be super hyperbolic, and I fear how corny I’m being, but it’s honestly beautiful. This recording turned me into a Mental fan. The crew introductions; “keep the spirit of music alive;” all of it feels so right. I could ramble more about this but I remember the first time I heard this; I was hooked, it made me want to do a band. I also can’t lie and say that the introductions didn’t make me super envious of their crew, I wanted to figure out who everyone mentioned was.
CTM: It’s hard to believe it has been 12 years since the criminally underrated Planet Mental record was released. It seems that around this time Mental changed into some more rockish, more Supertouch and Quicksand influenced. To me however, Mental always seemed to evolve and try new things, and this wax was definitely a breath of fresh air. They were playing a completely different style than what was popular in the mid 2000’s, they were a little weird from the typical hardcore formulas. What do you think about this LP, and how important was this album to hardcore?
Ambrose: I don’t know how important this record was for hardcore as a whole, really. I think it was overshadowed by the “Mental Broke Edge?!” Bridge Nine board proto-meme and by people treating it like it was a fall from grace. I’ve written about this before but lyrically, this is the best Mental record. The vulnerability feels real; it was much less coded than it’s influences. Mental wore everything on their sleeve always and that’s what makes them so special.
Dylan: I really like this LP. I know this is a dorky comparison point but I can remember in the months before it came out hanging out with my friends and just talking music, listening to records you know and I remember one of them saying “the next Mental album is going to be a full length LP and it’s going to be called “Planet Mental.” I think he read it on B9 or maybe even Myspace (LOL!) I immediately loved the title of the record and was excited they’d be doing a full length. I remember trying to picture what the record cover would look like. If I can be honest, I don’t really feel like this album made a tremendous impact. I loved it, I remember it getting some acclaim, but I feel like they broke up so soon afterwards that the album got overshadowed by it? I just don’t remember it getting the attention that GAOT did (again this could just have been my experience).