Scream Back: An Interview With Spermbirds

The legendary German hardcore band Spermbirds has been around since 1982. How do you keep a band together for over 30 years? And what does hardcore mean to these veteran HC musicians? Marko Korac emailed with drummer Beppo to find out.

By Marko Korac

I grew up listening to the Spermbirds. They have been one of the few bands who made me circle pit around the couch and stage dive from the washing machine at my parents’ house back in the ‘80s. And then in the early ‘90s I went apeshit at their shows. So I couldn’t resist a chance to ask them a few questions regarding their upcoming show in Amsterdam.

Who was actually responsible for your early sound? You guys were the only German hardcore band that did NOT sound like other German bands.

This band comes from Kaiserslautern, a town with a huge US army base and a lot of Americans. Normally you had to live in big cities like Hamburg or Berlin to get into contact with the early US hardcore punk, and we in our little country town had only a limited access to this stuff. We heard the occasional Black Flag song and we owned the first Dead Kennedys record. We thought that was brilliant, thrilling stuff—but that was about it. Our knowledge of the wide variety of U.S. hardcore massively increased when we met an American G.I. who owned the right records: Minor Threat, Misfits, Descendents, Bad Brains, the Big Boys and a lot more. That G.I. was Lee. And while we still liked the British classic punk stuff like the Clash, Stiff Little Fingers and the Ruts, we also got really into this American thing. That’s why we ended up with two bands: Walter Elf and Spermbirds—one for each style.

How did a German band end up having an American singer, especially an American G.I. who served in West Germany?

Lee was always different to most of the other American soldiers. He never joined the army because he wanted to “serve his country,” but to get away from his father. So he wasn’t spending his time with all the other G.I.s in the typical American places. He went into K-town to search for Germans who were interested in the same music that he was: he visited German bars, and there he met us, and the plan came up to start an HC band.

Is it true that Lee actually deserted from a US army base when he was in Germany and he wasn’t allowed to go back to the States for a long time?

That’s just gossip, but I like the story. In truth, Lee didn’t feel comfortable in the army and had a lot of problems with his sergeants (“Die Sgt. Landry!”), but he never deserted—he just left the army because he didn’t fit in.

Why did Lee leave the band back in the ‘90s?

Lee actually left the band three times, but it was never because of arguments. Actually, we hardly had arguments in our history, and if there were some, then they were easily solved. When Lee left, there were different reasons: There were times when he felt there was no future for him in Germany and he wanted to go back to the States. Or in the nineties, he just thought that Spermbirds didn’t satisfy him artistically anymore and he wanted to concentrate on his other band 2 Bad.

Who originally came up with the name Spermbirds? And was the actual idea to just have a provocative name or was there another meaning behind it?

It was Lee’s idea, and we all thought it was both funny and provoking. So it was perfect!

Which bands had the biggest influence on the early Spermbirds music, except for let’s say, Angry Samoans and Agent Orange, whose songs you covered on your records? I’m sure, you’ll spit out a nice, sweet list of West Coast US bands, including a few UK bands as for example Cockney Rejects. But, I’m still super curious to know what the most important bands were for your music back then?

Spermbirds were always influenced by more than one style. Of course classic HC stuff like Angry Samoans or Minor Thread were essential, but British punk had its influence on us too, as you can hear in “Try again.” In the early nineties, the Bad Brains with their LP I against I had a huge impact on us, they taught us that you can also be hard by playing slow. There is even stuff that influenced us which you can’t really hear in our music. Bands that influenced us with their kind of songwriting or musicians who influenced us with their style of playing. For me as a drummer, for example, Stuart Copeland from the early Police was a huge influence.

Considering that the Spermbirds have been together since the early ‘80s and had a few breakups and comebacks along the way and different sounding records in ‘90s compared to the ‘80s, I’m curious what made you re-unite in 2004 with the classic line up that includes Lee on vocals?

It was Lee who had the idea to reunite in 2000, and everybody immediately agreed. I guess, after working musically with different people for a few years (Lee concentrated on his other band Steakknife, the rest went on as Spermbirds with a different singer), we just realised what we had with the original line-up: a very close friendship, a good musical understanding and a lot of nice memories of good times together. Sometimes you have to do something different to value what you have. I guess that’s exactly the reason why so many bands break up and then reunite a few years later.

Did the band actually reach any major success back in the early 1990s, because I remember seeing you as a support for Therapy in Paradiso and I know that you played a bunch of bigger shows, before you vanished again?

It’s quite funny, but the two years when Ken House was replacing Lee on the vocals, we had the most commercial success. Our album Shit for Sale was in the German charts for a few weeks, we were touring with nightliners with our own cook (!), and we played huge festivals. In those days, our fan base had some changes, there were a lot of people coming to our shows who were into this crossover thing, while a lot of Spermbirds fans from the “old days” weren’t that interested anymore because they didn’t like the new singer.

I’m aware that you guys progressed musically and I respect that, but I have to be honest, I mostly admire your early punk hardcore records, so I’m wondering: are the Spermbirds ever gonna release any piece of vinyl that sounds like the Something To Prove LP?

That’s a tough question. I think the old songs like “My God Rides A Skateboard” became HC Classics because they were written and performed at the right place and the right time. If you wrote a song like “Anarchy in the UK” [by the Sex Pistols] nowadays, it would never have the impact it had when it was written in the late seventies. Songs become classics because they reflect their times and their scenes. So I think no matter how hard we tried, we couldn’t write another hardcore classic because the times for HC classics are long gone. Just as you can’t write a rock ‘n’ roll classic in 2014. All we can try—and  this is what we do—is to write songs that reflect the changes in our personal and musical development. And if we’re lucky, there are enough people who find that interesting and listen to our new music.

I was one of the dudes who helped organise your show in Belgrade/Serbia back in 1991, right before the beginning of the Serbo-Croatian war. It was a full house and people were going apeshit during your set. You gained huge respect for coming to Belgrade at that crucial moment right before the war, when the country was drowning in political instability and sanctions. As far as I remember, it took us no more than one or two phone calls to convince you to come there, so what was your experience with that show?

That’s actually one of the shows that we will never forget: We arrived at the venue, and there were about a hundred Yugoslavian kids surrounding our van, giving us a warm welcome and wanting to talk to us. We felt like The Beatles! And the gig was brilliant. We knew there was the war, but we also knew that going to Belgrade wasn‘t dangerous yet. I’m not sure if I would do something like this nowadays, though, because I have three children and I guess my wife wouldn‘t let me go! A few months ago, we played in Belgrade, and it was great to meet some guys there again who had visited the gig in 1991.

What do you guys prefer to play nowadays: packed smaller venues with direct contact with your fans or bigger, expensive venues that can hold more people?

We have always preferred the gigs in smaller places, even in the mid nineties when we were playing big stages in front of huge crowds. And we still prefer the small club gigs nowadays. Spermbirds work better in theses places. We work best when we scream our music directly in the faces of our listeners—and they scream back into ours. That`s how a good Spermbirds gig works! HC started in small places, and that’s still where it belongs.

Since you guys have been around for so long, and have been a fundamental part of the early 1980s hardcore punk scene, can you tell us your opinion about the main difference between the scene/shows/crowd in the ‘80s and nowadays? Do you guys prefer the “writing letters/tape swapping/guerilla postering days” or the “emails/messaging and facebook event show advertisement era”?

I’m not one of those guys living in the past, saying that everything used to be better. Some things were better, some things weren’t. The digital age changed listening to music a lot. Before there was YouTube, iTunes and streaming, music was produced in units as an LP or later a CD. The artist invested thoughts and energy into the look and the content of this unit: he thought about a cover and the other artwork, he decided which song should be the first, the second, the last. And if you as a listener bought a record, you used to listen to this unit, you heard the LP, you looked at the cover, you read the lyrics. You gave this piece of art your full attention. Nowadays these units aren’t that important anymore. People buy and listen to single songs, and they listen to them while they’re doing other things like jogging, walking or driving. Do I like this more? No, I don’t, and I don’t own an mp3 player. But on the other hand, the internet made music more democratic: everybody has the opportunity to use the net to spread their art, and you’re not that dependent on some arrogant A&R managers from record companies anymore to make yourself known.

I’m sure you’re aware of the so-called ‘80s hardcore punk revival that started in the late ‘90s early ‘00s when people got fed up with all those bad slow metal bands naming themselves “hardcore.” What is your opinion about this and the dozens of subgroups that had once been part of the punk/hardcore scene and that became scenes on their own?

I never liked HC just because of the music. I also liked it because it was the soundtrack of a kind of uprising—not only against a commercialised and unjust society, but also against trends inside the scene itself —for example against violence on gigs. HC was only interesting to me in its time, and after that, I was much more interested in what these early HC musicians were doing after HC. I thought Fugazi were interesting to listen to after Minor Thread ended, I thought that Sugar were interesting after Hüsker Dü, and I thought that All were interesting after the Descendents. And, of course, I hope to think that the later Spermbirds albums were interesting enough to the Spermbirds’ listener. So a new HC band that sounds like an HC band twenty years ago doesn‘t really arouse my interest.

And the ultimate last question would of course be, what are the plans for the Spermbirds’ future, and do you have any last comments for our readers?

We are planning to record a CD in 2015, and we want to start writing songs now. Any message? Please speak to us before and after our gigs—we like meeting you!

Spermbirds will play OCCII on June 27th 2014.
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By: Marko Korac