If there is one thing that New York City hardcore fans can agree on is how much everyone loved H20. For those of you not around during their heyday in the mid to late nineties, H20 was one of the best positive hardcore bands ever to come out of the Lower East Side of New York City. Led by lead vocalist Toby Morse, one of the nicest guys in the business, as well as a compelling vocalist somewhat akin to Kevin Seconds or Milo Auckerman, H20 went through a run of three great records, a slight misstep on a major label, and then relative silence. For seven years fans wondered if H20 would ever return, and if they could, could they match early records such as H20 or Thicker Than Water? After seven years the wait is over, H20 is back with a record, Nothing to Prove, which is one of the best melodic hardcore records of the year. Punknews.org's Brian Cogan caught up with Toby in between a record release party and a sold out show at the Blender Theater in New York City (where everyone from John Joseph to members of Madball wanted to talk about what a great band H20 was) for an interview about staying true to punk values, while acknowledging jobs, fatherhood, responsibility and what it means to be a punk today.
Hey Toby, thanks for talking to us. You mentioned in another interview that what you guys were going for was the equivalent of Everything Sucks, the legendary Descendents comeback record, I think you came pretty damn close.
Thanks a lot, I appreciate that, it’s one of my favorite Descendents albums. They disappeared for a long time and came back and made that record and I wasn’t doubting them, but they disappeared for a long time and came back and every song on that record was a banger and a really great record. But I’m not comparing us to the Descendents, who were one of my favorite bands and very inspirational to my life I was just trying to say that H20 going away for that long and making the new record, well we were trying to do something impressive.
I always thought that H20 was sort of a bridge between the west coast hardcore sound and the east coast hardcore sound, with melodic stuff like Bad Religion or the Descendents mixed with the NYC edge, was that intentional?
It wasn’t intentional and we were actually talking about that today. We identified more with the melody of the DC scene, we were more hip to that scene when we came out. Bands like Marginal Man, Government Issue, Dag Nasty, I loved that and that was really melodic. We were inspired by the west coast, early Suicidal Tendencies, Descendents, 7 Seconds, which is one of my personal favorite bands, old Social Distortion, but it was more of a DC sound that we loved and some Cali stuff, but people forget that Gorilla Biscuits had melody on their album, and Murphy’s Law had melodies and Token Entry too. There were some bands that weren’t just hard metallic hardcore from New York, some had melodies. We heard a lot about it when we were on Epitaph, you know that “west Coast: sound,” but it was everywhere, like in DC.
It always seemed that H20 had an attitude that was a lot more welcoming than a lot of NYHC bands. Especially the whole '80-'86 scene, which predated H20, seemed very confrontational, but H20 seemed confrontational in a more inclusive way.
I think the sound we came out with, at the time when we came out was really original because in New York, everything had a more “hard tough street edge” to it, and I think that when we came out people were kind of shocked, because that original screaming song “My Love is Real” that I first came out with, and the people that I hung out with, while being a roadie for Sick of It All, people thought that H20 would come out a lot harder, and but we were different.
That’s always been an interesting distinction in hardcore, of what kind of music is authentically “hard.” Especially for all the people in the scene who were preaching unity, but set themselves up as arbiters of taste, the people who would judge whether a band was hardcore or not. What do you think of the hardcore “rules” that were around back in the day?
I think that there were several little cliques, there was the “youth crew better than you” clique, there was extremes in the heart of punk rock, but I think that over many, many years, things really meshed together where it really didn’t matter. At H20 shows, we would have straight edge kids, street toughs, kids with liberty spikes, I feel as though we were always a band that could draw those kinds of people, it could be compared to a band like 7 Seconds, where they would have all different kinds of kids at their shows, not just Skeeno skins, they would have a diverse crowd and there weren’t many girls at hardcore shows in New York when I first moved here, but that was at the time and now it’s a mish-mash of people going to shows. I think the Warped tour had something to do with that and people would see New York bands, people like us playing and those kinds would go to a regular hardcore show and they’d find out about the music.
H20 has always had a commitment to the history of hardcore. On the new record alone you have appearances from Roger Miret (Agnostic Front) and Kevin Seconds (7 Seconds).
We love that because those are some of our favorite performers, those are both our peers, and the pioneers of the scene, and they are also our friends, which is even more amazing. The only thing that sucked was that we weren’t in the same room together, Kevin Seconds did his part in Sacramento, Roger did his in New York and we sent the Mp3’s out. I wish I had been in the same room with those guys, because Roger is my homie, he’s been on one of my records before and 7 Seconds was a really big inspiration in my life and I really wish I’d have been there when Kevin did his part. I was honored that he would take time to do that. When I listen to them (7 Seconds) I just get a catch in my throat because of the lyrics. I couldn’t believe he’s singing about this stuff back then. They were always amazing to me and really changed my life in a positive way. And to have Lou Sick of it All (Koller) on the record is amazing, I was so happy to have him on the record, he has this voice you know. Everyone did great, everyone just killed their parts and I’m honored. We almost had more guests than we did songs on this album!
And the songs on the new record seem to be both about what H20 has been through as a band and what changes the New York hardcore scene has gone through in the last decade. Were you trying to look back at history and find your place in the contemporary scene?
Not really. “1995” (the opening song) was a song that I had written a while ago, and the rest of the songs just started growing. The lyrics just started flowing and I had no idea what I was going to write about. I had no idea that there was a theme to the record. My scene is my house and my kids, that’s my scene now. As far as music goes, we haven’t made a record in seven years, I go to shows, I know what’s going on, I just started writing and stuff came out. Especially the song “Sunday,” which is a very personal song.
“Sunday” is the one about the death of your father and the birth of your son, it has to be a hugely emotional song for you to sing.
It really is, like when I listen to it, when we practiced it the other day, I still get emotional about it. People are saying really positive things about it, I didn’t expect how much people would relate to it. I had a couple of friends who had their dads pass away recently and related to it as well. I wanted to write a song about my dad passing away and me being a dad and then I found out that my dad died on a Sunday and my son was born on a Sunday.
Do you feel it’s easier to sing about emotions like this than sit down and talk about them?
I think it s a part of me that I never expressed in H20, It feels good to talk about it. Obviously I’ve talked about it my whole life with my mom. I knew him (my father) but not a lot because obviously I was so young when he died, and then becoming a dad, well I can’t exactly say that I want to do exactly what my dad did for me, I never played baseball with my dad, and now in real life I’m a dad and I can’t compare it to my dad who never even knew I started a band. Now I have a kid and I’m just trying to do the best that I can. Aw, man, now your getting me emotional!
Do feel weird being a punk dad? Now being older in a scene that’s all about youth, do you feel different? Do you feel more of a sense of responsibility?
Hell yeah man! You have to be domestic and get back to real life. Being on tour is a total fantasy and going back home is reality. You play in a band for ten years then you have a child and you have to get a job and you’re a tattooed freak and all you know is hardcore. It’s a reality check, its an amazing experience, everything happens really fast. You have to get a drivers license and you have to grow up. A lot has happened in seven years. I was playing the record for my wife and she said, I can’t play this record in the house, you’re cursing too much for your son! Becoming a dad is definitely strange and I’ve already taken my son to Japan with me twice, he’s only five years old and gets to travel with me which is awesome. He loves music, he plays drums, his favorite band is Madball, and he sings along to the music of bands like Naked Raygun to Pegboy. But being a dad is scary and amazing.
Is that his voice on the record?
Yeah, he’s all over the record, he’s a little ham. About your son, is that a Fugazi reference in “Sunday” (“in the Delivery room/I wait I wait I wait”)
Yep. Oh, Ian MacKaye, he changed my life. I was at the third Fugazi show and he handed out lyric sheets and I still have it.
And to most people, Ian MacKaye represents punk authenticity. You guys got a lot of flack from many punks for singing to MCA (for Go in 2000, the new record is on Bridge Nine Records) did you see that as a natural evolution?
That was totally the case, and for all the shit we got, that was one of our fastest selling records. It definitely was a whole different world for us, coming from Epitaph and going to a major, we had more time to make a record, but one of the biggest things that happened to us because of that record was that we got to be on Conan O’Brien and we were the first New York hardcore band to do that. While we were doing it, we saw it as an opportunity to give shout outs to our friends John Joseph was in the audience, I wore a Madball shirt, we made sure to have all our friends band names on our amps. That’s the kind of band we are, any other band would have taken that spotlight and said that it was all about them, but I was shouting out for other people and our friend and that’s the whole “bootstraps” theory and the family shit that we hold true. We were on a major label, we made the record that we wanted to make and we had fun and there’s no regrets, but we are still the same band, it’s not the person, it’s the music that you make.
It’s tough to be on a major label and be consistent. I think about a line on your new song “What Happened,” that goes, “It’s all about the image/ and not about the art” really says something to me about H20’s commitment. A lot of bands concentrate on the proper haircut, the right tattoos, the right hoodie, but it doesn’t seem like H20 ever concentrated on that aspect?
Yeah, I remember going to hardcore shows when I was just a kid and the whole point was you go to be yourself, and when you go there you’re under one roof watching one band together. And we’re coming back after seven years and all I see in magazines is people looking exactly the same, and everyone is doing the exact same moves on stage and they have their brand new gear, and their perfect hair, everybody has an outfit, and you should worry about the songs and lyrics. There were 7 Seconds songs that sound exactly the same, but there were the lyrics and the message and that’s what I love. There was stuff you couldn’t hear on the radio then, and today its not about the music and the message its about how you look on the outside and to me that’s not hardcore, that’s not punk rock.
A lot of people thought of punk not so much as about fashion, but as a refuge from being bullied, punk was for the nerds, the weirdoes.
Exactly! Punk was for the outcasts to get, it wasn’t a place for everyone to go and look exactly the same. It was a big melting pot of fucking weirdoes.
In the song “1995,” you seem to sing about that, there are the lines “so fresh/so green/back then there was a scene” is this nostalgia for when punk wasn’t used as a marketing tool?
I was just saying that, and we had started as a band in 1994, so we were playing out a lot in 1995, so I was saying that when we were so fresh and so green, all we wanted to do was tour, we had no responsibilities, we just wanted to be a full time band, fuck everything and just do it. And now I’m looking back and we have families and responsibilities and we love the music and we love to tour, but it really feels good to come home because now we have stuff to come home to. So it’s not just about that year, but when we first started, and we still love it, but we have responsibilities now.
It may be that scenes have a shelf life, maybe every scene has a time when it is so young and fresh, but then you get older and you have two choices, either leave the scene, or grow older and become a punk adult with responsibilities.
Lets talk about straight edge, does straight edge define you? Is it only one part of who you are? In “Still Here” you start with “Straight Edge before you were born” how much of your personality is defined by being straight edge?
That is actually the first every H20 song about being straight edge. I’ve been straight edge forever and I never really talked about it and I just got inspired to write a straight edge anthem for the record, even though nobody else in my band is straight edge, I’ve never preached it before in H20. It is kind of a straight edge pride thing, I’ve been straight edge for thirty years and never fell off and I’m proud of that. I don’t walk around wearing straight edge shirts , but its not my defining value, its not who I am, I’ve never tried anything in my whole life, that’s just who I am.
“Still Here” isn’t as preachy as say, an Earth Crisis song, even though you do reference “Nailed to the X.”
No, no. When I say it in the song, I say “nailed to the x” I’m name-checking some straight edge songs from back in the day, it’s about giving props, especially to kids who are still straight edge and they should be proud of that. Especially in this day and age with peer pressure and being young it’s hard to make it through a situation.
And in a world where there are a lot more corporations who make a profit selling you junk that’s bad for you.
So after seven years, and with H20 coming back hard and strong, does this mean that H20 is going to go back to regular recording and touring, or are you just going to do the occasional project like the Descendents?
That’s a good question. Contractually we have to do two albums! (Laughs). This one is so fresh right now and everyone is really excited that we’re reborn again. We’re definitely going to make another record and we’ll know then. I don’t know if we’ll end up doing one record a year, but the next one won’t be any later than two years from now. Right now we’re concentrating on the tour, I’m looking ahead at 42 shows we haven’t even played yet! PN: The production on this record also really captures the H20 sound really well, what was it like to work with Chad Gilbert (New Found Glory/Shai Hulud) TM: It was great, Chad’s a really good friend of mine, he has an H20 tattoo, he grew up on the band, and he knows what he loves about H20 from all our albums and he knows what he doesn’t like. So he’s a great person he has a really good ear for producing. He was great and I love the sound of the record, I think it stands up to all our records. He really caught the live essence and we recorded this one in three weeks like our earlier records, so there’s some really good energy there as well.
This record really sounds like you’re a young and hungry band.
It’s the energy and the time period, doing the record that quickly, really staying focused and banging it out, I think there’s a whole new life to it. Rather than having a month to do the album with lots of money. It was just us and Chad and the record label in there, no manager, just do our album. In the old days it was all we had, and now we all have other jobs and other responsibilities, so it was just sheer fun, it was a fun record to make.
You’ve been on the scene for a long time and so much has changed. Even musical genres keep changing, with new subdivisions like “post-hardcore’ popping up. To you, what does hardcore mean?
Well, so many different bands call themselves hardcore these days, and while there is a sound to it, its not always the same sound I heard growing up, but music evolves and changes, but hardcore to me is more of the lifestyle then just the music. Johnny Cash? Now he was hardcore.