When I think of punk rock, I think of those days of my youth so long ago when anything felt possible. I think of learning Clash songs on my first bass in my old bedroom, and getting together with a bunch of kids to make noise in some random garage. And I think of my first “real” taste of freedom, going to shows with my friends. One early show in particular that will always stand out for me was in the summer of ’99, when a group of friends and I hoped into a beat up old Buick and drove to St. Pete to catch The Casualties play along with The Unseen and Violent Society in direct support. I was both blown away and inspired as I watched these guys on stage – who weren’t really all that much older than I was at the time – doing something that seemed so relatable, so attainable to me.
It’s impossible to recall those days without thinking of the impact bands like The Unseen – lead at the time by vocalist/guitarist Paul Russo – had on me back then. Russo would ultimately leave The Unseen in 2003, eventually returning to another group he has been a part of (off and on) since his early days with his former band, The Pinkerton Thugs, who he is back playing with today (when he’s not busy being a family man). And while I have not seen him again since that show so long ago (though I have seen The Unseen several times since), I have kept up with him on social media, occasionally even corresponding with him from time to time, which is what finally lead to us sitting down and talking over the phone for an “official” interview this past Friday evening. What transpired was a candid, hour-long conversation that was both enlightening, and as natural as catching up with a long lost friend.
I wanted to start with Russo’s (slightly muddled) roots right off the bat, and asked if he’d clarify the foundations of each of his early bands. He tells me; “We grew up together as kids long before we ever started The Unseen. We all started discovering punk rock around the same time, and of course fell in love with it. When my parents got divorced, I moved away from Massachusetts to Maine, and when I got up there – this would’ve been the early to mid-’90s – there was maybe one or two other kids who gravitated towards the scene, and therefore I gravitated towards them, too. And that was Micah and James of The Pinkerton Thugs. So technically I started The Pinkerton Thugs with those guys before I joined The Unseen. Then briefly after The Pinkerton Thugs started, the guys from The Unseen called me up and asked me to join after their previous singer, Marc Carlson, ended up leaving. So for awhile there, I was kind of pulling double-duty, living in Maine playing with The Pinkerton Thugs, then on the weekends catching the Greyhound bus to go play with The Unseen down in Mass.”
He further clarifies; “Actually, I was originally asked to join The Unseen as just a guitarist, because (Unseen guitarist) Scott had just gotten sent away by his parents to some boot camp thing for the summer. Then when he got back in the fall, we decided, ‘hey, this is working out pretty good,’ and that’s how the ‘core’ lineup of myself, Mark, Tripp, and Scott really all came together. And I feel like Scott was way further along musically than the rest of us; he was like, busting out solos, and at that point I only knew a few chords! (Laughs).”
One thing I always found so unique about The Unseen was their ability to shift around on instruments so flawlessly, not only in the studio, but on stage as well. I asked Russo what lead to this, and he explained; “I got fairly decent, fairly quick at a few different instruments. Once I put myself up to task, I managed to learn guitar, bass, and drums. And I think even Mark will tell you he’s not the best drummer even when he’s not singing (Laughs). But I think that’s what was kind of a cool aspect about The Unseen, there really wan’t much ego involved back then. If the song needed me on drums, I’d hop behind the drumkit; if it needed me on guitar or even just vocals, than that’s what I’d do. We almost had two sets back then, where we’d start out with me singing and playing guitar, then I’d jump behind the drums and Mark would come out front and sing some songs. It was almost kind of like seeing two different bands, which I think made it more interesting, and I don’t think too many people were used to seeing that kind of thing in those days. I don’t know if it’s that I get bored easily, or just loving playing music, but I love playing other instruments as well.”
Aside from The Unseen and Pinkerton Thugs, Russo has lent his talents in brief stints with such other notable punk bands as Blanks 77 (on drums) and Anti-Flag (on bass). He elaborated to me just how these came about; “Having played so many shows with Blanks 77 while I was with The Unseen, they had noted that I could play drums, and asked me to fill in when they needed a drummer. And I believe it was around the same time that I played bass with Anti-Flag as well, which I did for one tour after Andy had originally left the band. I basically just did those for fun, since I hated sitting around at home, and they needed me to do it, so I was just like, “hell yeah, let’s get on the road!” (Laughs). But if you’ve ever listened to Anti-Flag, you know they’re not the easiest bass lines, and I had like two weeks to learn them before their upcoming tour that was already booked. So Justin (Sane, Anti-Flag frontman) actually recorded himself using an old camcorder playing all the bass lines, and gave me a tape of it for me to learn the songs!”
As far as why Russo would ultimately leave The Unseen, he tells me; “The truth of it is, for awhile, I had become sort of disillusioned, not only with the direction of the band, but sort of with punk rock in general. Maybe I came to the table far too idealistic, but I definitely started feeling like I didn’t know why I was doing it anymore. Even though I loved those guys and the music, I was tired, and definitely not participating in the band as much and giving it 100 percent, and it just came to a point where we all agreed, this isn’t working anymore, let’s try something else.” Russo maintains he is still friends with his former band mates in The Unseen, and informs me; “I still love those guys like brothers, and I’m SO proud what they’ve done with the band since then. I’ve even jumped on stage with them here and there over the years for a song or two, so there’s no ill will there at all.”
Russo also revealed to me how the song he struggles with the most from his days with The Unseen is the last track he ever wrote while still in the band (and only one of his to appear on their 2003 album, Explode), “Tsunami Suicide.” “That song came from a really hard time for me, and not many people know this – and actually I don’t think the other guys in the band even knew this – but I had actually written a full album’s worth of material for that record. But by that time, I wasn’t really writing from the heart anymore, or writing from a place of “anger” or “truth” anymore. The best way I can describe it, is on a certain level at that point, I kind of knew what to write and what to say to make the kids throw their hands up and chant the chorus, and just go through the motions. And even though kids might’ve enjoyed it, I didn’t enjoy it. I felt like I was being cheap, or cheating myself even. So what I ended up doing was taking all thirteen songs or whatever, and just completely throwing them out. And in that moment, between that and some other things going on in my personal life at the time, I really just felt like killing myself. And that’s where the song “Tsunami Suicide” came from.”
Of course we here at Rewind It Magazine have never been known for in-depth political pieces by any means (we try to stick with what we know and keep things entertainment related as much as possible). But I had to at least touch upon how Russo views the punk rock scene back then, vs. what it has become today, which, some might argue does not leave much room for open-mindedness, and has in many ways even become a symbol for the very conformity it once stood against so adamantly. He explained his thoughts on this to me; “I think objectively, the punk scene is definitely different. And to be fair, I think someone who was around in ’77 might have said the same thing about the scene in ’97. Things change, people come in, and people go out, that’s sort of the natural order of it. I would never sit here and say ‘punk’s dead’ just because it’s not the same scene that I used to know…that’s bullshit. Right now there’s a kid in a basement somewhere putting on his first punk record getting his mind blown and ready to create something new, and thank the universe for that.”
He continues; “But…that being said, I will also say I think it has definitely gotten a lot more close-minded in the scene. I just think that when people stop preaching and putting each other in these little boxes with labels on them and start listening to each other, it’s always better. The more open-minded people are to things, makes for a better scene. And it’s hard, because people can misconstrue things so easily today, not only in just the scene, but in everyday life now, too. No matter what it is, if you criticize one side of something, people automatically assume you’re on the other side. And that is something that definitely didn’t happen twenty years ago; if we’re talking politically, anyone was free to criticize the Republicans AND the Democrats, and anyone else in between equally. And I think that’s where a lot of that disillusionment I mentioned earlier came from; after a while of just fighting with each other, and getting falling down drunk and puking all the time, it was like, ‘where are all of the ideas?’ We could’ve just been jocks at a frat house doing the same thing at that point, you know?”
Wanting to end our conversation on a bit of a higher note, I informed Russo how my own former band, Random Tragedies, once covered the anthemic Unseen track “Are We Dead Yet,” which I had always viewed as the punk rock equivalent to “Eye of the Tiger.” I asked Russo how he felt of this comparison, and his immediate response was, “I like that! You know, I think you could probably take that metaphor and stretch it out over most songs I’ve ever written (Laughs). Even when I’ve written songs that might have some negative aspects to them, I’ve always wanted people to get some sort of hope or empowerment from them like I did with the music I listened to growing up. I remember some kid coming up to me after a show we had did very early on in Cleveland, and telling me how a song I wrote really inspired him and changed his life, and after that, I was just hooked. I really feel that punk is one of the strongest sub-genres of rock and roll ever, and always will be.”
And as far as new music? Russo assures me; “The only thing that’s really holding The Pinkerton Thugs back and keeping us from putting out a new record is the stupid pandemic. That being said, the second we’re able to, we’re going to get together and release another record. That’s something I’m really looking forward to.” Russo says the best way to keep up with what he’s doing these days is to simply follow The Pinkerton Thugs’ Facebook page, which can be found here: https://www.facebook.com/thepinkertonthugs