To many in the New York hardcore scene of the early to mid nineties, Serpico was an intriguing combination of melodic Dischord-esque harmonics and Jawbreaker style start and stop dynamics. The band, started as Sleeper and eventually, changed their name after getting paid off by the English band Sleeper (who kept the name and quickly faded into obscurity). Over the years members came and went at an alarming pace as the band played successful European tours, released seemingly hundreds of singles and several records, memorably on Excursion and C.I., the last on Equal Vision.
After the departure of original lead singer John Telenko (later of Darien and Amber Jets) he band went through more personnel turmoil, with the only constant being mainstay guitarist (and later lead vocalist) John Lisa. Lisa led the band on to what was perhaps their best record, the Rumble album on Equal Vision, before the band, tormented by personnel changes, infighting, and problems with Lisa's conflicted feelings about his own closeted homosexuality, finally broke up in 1998. For years the band resisted any impetus to reunite as Lisa's only musical forays were as a house music DJ! Now, after a hiatus of over a decade, the band has reunited for what may be their only new show, a reunion at Martini Red on Staten Island on January 17.
Brian Cogan caught up with John Lisa to find out the scoop on the reunion, and Serpico's place in punk history. For the tour, the band will be a mixture of different eras with, consisting of: John Telenko: Vocals (later of Darien, Amber Jets), John Lisa: Guitar, Vocals, Michael Thomas DeLorenzo: Guitar (who later played in Kill Your Idols, Death Cycle and S.S.SP), Marc Treboschi: Bass (later of in Crowd) and Chris 'Niser' Guardino: Drums.
So letâs talk about Serpico, when the band started back in 1991(?) as Sleeper, what kind of band did you want to found, what kind of music were you listening to back then?
JL: We wanted to form a band that would sound good on a bill with Dag Nasty, Fugazi, Soulside and Three. We were really deep into the late 80âs post hard-code Dischord records sound. But then pop punk started creeping its way into our music, which really didnât go over well with the DC type audiences, so we really didnât have a pure target audience. We also listened to a lot of Black Flag, Sonic Youth and heavy on Descendents.
What made the band so contentious, it seemed as though you went though more line-ups than some gutter punks have baths?
Yeah, itâs pretty embarrassing actually. But John Telenko and I just didnât want to have to keep starting over again when other members would quit. He and I wrote pretty much most of the material and we didnât want to enable anyone to set us back, so we kept recruiting local friends that seemed more serious about writing, recording and most importantly getting out on the road. We were out to break the cycle of bands that play two shows, record a 7" and then break up.
Do you think that as leader of the band, it was your vision that caused so much friction?
Yeah, Iâd say so. I was a complete control freak back then. Iâd alienated a lot of members since I was obsessed with doing this band and trying to succeed. I wanted to have the Black Flag work ethic. But asking the other guys to live that lifestyle were unrealistic and selfish. I lived in a house with my grandfather and I had the luxury of a job waiting home for me when I got back from tour. They needed to pay bills. Plus I never liked to take a break in between touring and recording. I should have given them breathing space to make it work.
Itâs still a surprise that many of us are friends again after all this time. There was a point where I never thought Iâd see these guys again. But we had solid friendships at one point so I guess that part showed it strength.
Tell us the story about you and the British band Sleeper, the rumor is that you got something like a gazillion dollars to let them use the name?
There was another band which formed around 1993 (2 years after we had already been releasing records). Their labelâs lawyers tried first to bulldoze us and force us into forfeiting the name, but we got a lawyer involved and when the other band realized that they couldnât sell records in the U.S. they settled with us to buy the name for $156,000. Much of which got eaten up with taxes. We changed the name, bought some equipment, a van of our own and hit the road for a long time on and off.
Ever get confused for them or vice versa back then?
Iâve heard that a few people showed up in the U.K. expecting to see us, but probably not a lot. To the best of my knowledge, no one has ever come to one of our shows expecting to see them. They played psychedelic pop and had a female vocalist.
You guys eventually changed the entire line-up except for you with the departure of original lead singer John Telenko (later of Darien and Amber Jets), what led to his departure and what made you decide to become the lead singer as well?
John Telenko balked at a 2nd booked European tour. He had his reasons, but after that, we realized that he would never be able to truly do the Serpico thing anymore. All the shows were confirmed and Equal Vision records were expecting us to tour. Plus weâd gotten a lot of letters from kids in Europe excited to see us and we didnât want to cancel, and so I changed role to singer to keep the band going and make it more stable, for some time at least. All in all, he is a much better singer than I am.
There seemed to me that back in the day there were about a zillion Serpico singles coming out on different record labels all the time, why was that and why not stick to just one label?
Yeah, youâre right. Looking back there were way too many. The good ones got lost in the mix of bad ones. We had a hard time turning down offers and should have exercised more discretion. But we had a lot of friends all over the globe with labels and we tried to contribute something to as many as we could. Plus, three of us were maniac record collectors and loved the idea of getting so much stuff out all over the globe. Colored vinyl, silk screenings, limited numbered editions, we ate it up!
Tell me the deal about signing to Equal Vision, is it true that after Rumble came out and sold less than it should of that Steve Reddy exclaimed "thatâs the LAST fucking time I sign a non-Krishna band?"
(Laughs!!) Thatâs a half-truth. No, Steve Reddy never said that. I havenât spoken to him in over 12 years, but he never actually used those words. I just made that up as a joke for the Encyclopedia of Punk. Steve is really a wonderful, supportive guy that totally puts his blood and soul into EQUAL VISION records. The true part is that Serpico never really sold any records on his label. Not nearly enough to turn a profit. Too much money was spent on the recording though it wasnât the bandâs idea. It was nice however to work with Ray Martin and have a big sounding record. I wish we could have done Steve justice in the sales department. It just never happened. Shortly after âRumbleâ, we called it quits and ended any further chance of selling records. We did much better on Dave Larsonâs EXCURSION Records. Less recording investment, more touring during those times and perhaps "Preparing Today for Tomorrowâs Breakdownâ was our best album.
Which tours stand out for you, there are tales of excess, especially in Germanyâ¦
My favorite tour was the Rumble tour in Europe with Three Steps Up Circa 1996. It was around 5 weeks and went through Scandinavia too. There was a lot of drinking and partying and Iâm surprised that half of us came back alive. After a month, a few of us started going nuts. Much of it became a blur, though a lot of the shows were really crowded and we played just great, and a few were almost empty. Since Three Steps Up were our best friends at the time, the tour was easy to get through, unlike where you have just 1 band alone on the road and you start to feel alone faster. Another favorite tour was in 1993 with Stand Up from Lancaster, PA. Through the mid states and parts of Canada. It was filled with a lot of fun and great memories.
So, after a while out of the band you came out as gay. Did you find it hard to express this in the NY scene? Were you afraid that Serpico would be seen as a queercore band, or that it would overshadow the bandâs image?
I was just completely petrified of being outed at all. It had nothing to do with the band, but I never shared it with any of the other members at the time since theyâre all straight. I never thought about tainting Serpicoâs image really. Weâre always struggled just to keep selling records cause we never really pop punk, not quite emo, and hardly hard-core. A mix of too many things that had no steady audience.
Iâve heard statements from you over the years that Serpico would "Never, NEVER, under any circumstances reform," so what led to this reunion gig on Staten Island?
(former drummer) TJ Quatrone called John Telenko last year and wanted to know if he could get everyone together for 2 nights to play a re-union in a bar with all past members (658 people!! LOL.) I originally didnât want to do it, but we started emailing each other and broke the ice and planned to put something together over this past summer. But then I went through a bad depression and wasnât able to bring myself to coordinating so many peopleâs participation and I bowed out. A few months ago, Mike D and I discussed having just the 5 core members do a 1-night show for the sake of simplicity at a place called âMartini redâ. So far the practices have been going well. TJ lives in San Diego now and its kinda weird that he originally had the idea, but wonât be doing the show, but heâs not sore or anything. Itâs just a lot of work assembling and practicing a good set list and he is so far away.
Does this means Serpico will tour/record more?
Nope. No immediate intentions of any of that really. Just this 1 show. We donât live close to each other really and itâs a task just meeting to practice. If the response is good on Jan 17th, weâll possibly get together again over the summer and try to invite more ex-members to play, but for now, weâre just looking for closure and to get through this 1 night. Weâre all very different people all married with kids or in relationships. Serpico is the past.
What did you do after Seprico, did you stay active in music?
For a while in the 90's, I did various guest DJ spots playing house music in Manhattan. Nothing more than that.
After all these years in and out of the scene, what does punk rock mean to you today?
Writing, recording, releasing and distributing your own stuff. And the political slant should be to the left. I donât think thereâs a thing as conservative punk. To me it started out as political, then got personal/emotional, now I think that politics have reclaimed the throne.
Would you die for punk?
JL: Only if I could be resurrected and then die again for metal.