Todd Congelliere (Toys That Kill/Underground Railroad to Candyland, FYP)

Many people may know Todd Congelliere as frontman of the acclaimed pop-punk band Toys That Kill, as well as The Underground Railroad To Candyland, F.Y.P, and Stoned at Heart. They also might know him as founder and owner of Recess Records, home to bands like Pinhead Gunpowder, the Arrivals, and Rivethead. But before all that, he made a name for himself as a professional skateboarder in the late 80s and early 90s alongside such mainstays as Tony Hawk, Mike Vallely, and Rodney Mullen. Punknews writer Tyler Barrett caught up with Todd at the Triple Rock Social Club in Minneapolis, where Toys that Kill was playing a sold-out show with the Soviettes, Marked Men, Birthday Suits, and the Arrivals.

For those who weren’t into skateboarding back in your heyday or maybe weren’t even around, can you give a little overview of when you started skating, who sponsored you, and what videos people should check out to see you in action?
When I started skating is kind of hazy. Because I kind of started when I was really young, like six or eight, but that was just sitting on my ass on my friend’s plastic board. We had a game called basher where we’d try to push each other off the board. But then I kind of got into it where I religiously did it every day when I was fifteen. And my first sponsor was Liberty which was Mike Smith’s company and kind of affiliated with World Industries. We had a Liberty section in the World Industries Rubbish Heap video, and there’s a couple Speed Wheels, like Santa Cruz wheel videos like Speed Freaks and something else I forgot the name of….Wheels of Fire? And some other videos I forgot the name of.

Do you think being sponsored now means the same thing it did back then?
I don’t really know what it’s like to be getting sponsored now. It had to have been tougher back then, I’m assuming. Just because it wasn’t such a big thing as it is now. It’s pretty much mainstream and it wasn’t mainstream when I did. It was me and one other guy who were the only skaters at my high school and we got rocks thrown at us and all these dudes would talk shit. And then ten years later they were listening to punk rock and on skateboards, so it’s kind of funny. It’s sweet revenge in a weird way, I don’t know how though. So I don’t really know what it’s like now. I’m sure there’s so many companies, there’s a lot more companies and they all need riders. But I have no idea. There’s also more competition and more people doing crazy shit.

Are you still close or friends with any of the guys you used to skate or do videos with like Tony Hawk, Rodney Mullen, Mike V., etc?
Yeah, I think Tony Hawk is the only guy I’ve been in contact with recently. He asked me to DJ a couple of his events, which didn’t really even have anything to do with skating. He saw me DJ one event and we were acquaintances back in the day. But all the guys I was really close with I’m not really in touch with, besides Mike Smith, who I occasionally talk with when he comes out of a rock, like he’ll call me up and come looking for me to try and get this company started.

What was it that initially drew you to get into skateboarding and how does that pull compare to what drew you to get into punk rock?
I always tell people they’re exactly the same thing as far as the pull I was gravitating towards. Like with skating it was definitely an outsiders’ thing, but it was also something that was really fun and I was really shocked that a lot more people didn’t do it. And I actually started getting into punk rock through skating. I built ramps at my house and people brought Black Flag and Minor Threat and 7 Seconds tapes over and we’d listen to that while we’d skate. Aggressive music kind of helped skating, believe it or not. They both started with the same need for something like that. Starting was kind of the same thing. We had no parks like they do now. So I just wanted to get it started up and see what happens and I find it really strange that I’m still doing it. I love it, but it’s crazy. Kind of a happy accident that has brought me a lot of joy in my life, and I probably would have killed myself if it wasn’t for that.

Is punk rock still important to skateboarding and is skateboarding still important to punk rock in the way it was in the ‘80s?
I don’t really have my finger on the pulse of skating anymore, so it’s hard to say.

What about from the punk rock side, are there still a lot of people that get into punk through skateboarding?
I don’t think so, I think it’s just whatever you listen to, that’s what you listen to. I could be wrong. I do know, there’s a lot of people that grew up in the same era that I did that are almost religious about punk and skating. I was talking to Jamie [Barrier] from Pine Hill Haints about it and every time I see him he’s like, "Man, you really had the knack to pick your shit man…skateboarding and music, those are the two things!" And to hear him talking about it kind of confirms it, like it was always hand in hand. And back then Thrasher was almost half a music magazine, and a lot of the stuff I didn’t understand until people started bringing tapes over to my ramp. And I’d be like, "Ah! I saw them in Thrasher," and then I’d go back and grab that issue and read up on them.

So a lot of the music I learned about was either people bringing tapes skating or watching skate videos. Especially the contest videos where they’d always have music playing for people to run and it was hard to find out what it was. You’d have to like, bring the video over to a friend who was kind of an expert and be like, "Who is this?" And it’d be like, "Oh, that’s Souixsee and the Banshees," or something, you know? And it wasn’t all straight up hardcore punk, there was a lot of good stuff, even goth stuff, just a lot of good underground music in general.

When it comes to your own music, since you have so many bands and projects (Toys that Kill, F.Y.P., the Underground Railroad to Candyland, and Stoned at Heart to name a few), how do you decide what outlet will be used for a song in the songwriting process?
Sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes I’ll just know right off the bat. Like, I’ll just write "Toys that Kill" or "Stoned at Heart" right next to it when I’m writing lyrics down but sometimes it’s on the fence and I’ll ask Jimmy our drummer. A lot of times me and him just jam, and I’ll ask him his opinion like, "What band does this song belong to?" Sometimes it doesn’t matter it’s just more like if one of the bands is recording then whatever song I’m doing at the time will have to be for it. If it is like, really mellow and it’s for more of a hard type thing then I just won’t even bring it to recording at all. It’s hard but it’s not really. It’s better to have more songs than not enough.

In 2010, your solo album Clown Sounds came out, you’ve got the Clown Sound studio, and now you’ve got the Clown Sound iOS app. Can you talk about where that idea came from?
One night I was just up at 2:00 AM and couldn’t go to sleep so I just started searching around on how to make an app and found this website that actually helped you make it really easy. And it was like, by 6:00 in the morning I was almost done with it. So I was like, "well, might as well do this!" It was one of those things where I didn’t even think of it before midnight that night, and then like six hours later it was pretty much done. It was really weird; especially for an app it was so easy. Everything just snowballed, especially with the studio, too. We just started buying gear and it kind of turned into that without even knowing how it happened.

The label you run, Recess Records has now eclipsed twenty years and is still going strong, while you’ve also been able to take your bands to international recognition. How important do you think it is to have a specific vision, if not a legitimate business plan when it comes to starting and maintaining viable projects like these?
I’m really the wrong person to ask about a business plan! Everything’s always been either a happy accident or just something I thought of and started it the next day. Now, when I think about something I’m in the position where the next day I can start it up. The label was started on accident; all the bands were kind of started on accident in a weird way. I think Toys that Kill was the only band that was kind of like, "Hey we’re gonna do this," and there was a little bit of discussion before it. And then we just started practicing as Toys that Kill. Every other band it’s been where we just start jamming and then it’s like, "Well, what should we call this?" Which I kind of like. I think it would be more successful on a bigger level if you actually did some planning but I can’t do that. I’ll live with that [laughs].

Apparently outside the punk world--and even in it, I guess--Billie Joe Armstrong is a pretty big deal. How did it come about that his band Pinhead Gunpowder found its home on Recess Records?
They just asked me to do some shows and I set them up with some shows in San Pedro…like three shows they were just gonna come down for the weekend. They did some shows that were on a more advertised scale, but they wanted me to book these more low-key secret shows and it was really fun and then they just asked if we’d put out their record. So that was pretty much it.

I noticed an anomaly in your webstore: You stock LPs of Sri Lankan rapper M.I.A. when most of the rest is pop-punk. Are you an M.I.A. fan?
Yeah! I don’t even think I’ve sold one of those, but when I first started branching out and getting a lot more of other labels’ stuff I just wanted to get stuff I listened to and for the most part it worked, but only if it’s something that’s kind of punk, you know? I’ve sold a few records that have been surprising, like Captain Beefheart and stuff like that but for some reason no one really buys those records. Well, they do from other places. But I just try to get what I like listening to.

That makes sense. I think I read M.I.A. actually lives in L.A., or at least sometimes. If she needed a guitar player or any sweet pop-punk vocals on her next record, maybe she could look you up?
That would be awesome. It wouldn’t happen but obviously I would jump for joy on that one [laughs]. Maybe I could set up some shows for her so I could sell those four LPs I have in stock!

You had Clown Sounds come out last year, the Underground Railroad to Candyland’s LP came out just like a month ago, what other stuff is going on right now or coming up?
We’re doing a new Toys that Kill record when we get back. We actually kind of started recording but we had some malfunctions in the studio. But we were just gonna do a seven-inch of a couple songs that are gonna be on the album for this tour, but we haven’t had time. So when we get back we’ll do that. And our other band Stoned at Heart did an album last year and after that we might start on that. I’m trying to space it out to where there’s at least a month instead of just jumping in to a new album. Even though that’s technically jumping into a new album. But it’s different for Toys that Kill because we actually have all these songs and there’s no burnout.

Is skateboarding still a part of your life and to what degree?
It is! It’s not as much as it used to be. But I really like skating mini-ramps, that’s my favorite. For some reason I avoid pools and vert. I tried skating vert a couple years ago and tore my ACL just knee-sliding. Like, nothing crazy happened, I just knee-slid and it was like, "Okay, I guess I’m too old for this." But it was that big Vans vert ramp so it was like knee-sliding like twenty thousand feet or so. But yeah, I think I will always love skateboarding to some degree and I want to do it a little bit more than what I have been.