Arts & Culture
Jewcy Interviews: Ari Katz of Lifetime and Miss TK & The Revenge
Play Lifetime for somebody who has never heard of them and there’s a 50/50 chance they will get what the big deal is. However, ask a Lifetime fan what the big deal is and they’ll consider you a fool for … Read More
Play Lifetime for somebody who has never heard of them and there’s a 50/50 chance they will get what the big deal is. However, ask a Lifetime fan what the big deal is and they’ll consider you a fool for even having to ask. Lifetime is a band that means so much to the people who listen to them and have come to embody an intangible idea that is strong and absolute. Lifetime is beat up jalopies, pool halls, and dirty beaches. They’re the sweaty basements of New Brunswick and the burnt down funhouses of Asbury Park. In a way that’s perhaps most comparable to the Smiths, they’re the rally cry of every broken hearted tattooed boy with a hard shell.
Ari Katz, the lead singer of the band has worn many hats. Since the break up of the band (and eventual reformation): owning and working alongside his wife Tannis at his record store, Black Cat, as well as recording with his wife for various projects like Zero Zero, and more recently Miss TK and the Revenge.
What do you think you would be doing if you hadn’t found music?
AK: If I hadn’t found music it would have been the art world, somehow some way. Before I discovered music I was always drawing and painting. Then I discovered punk rock and the realization that anyone could learn an instrument and play this music and I haven’t looked back, its been amazing. I figured out how to do the things I want to do and I went for it.
How did you first get into punk rock?
AK: It was summer camp and I had a cool camp counselor and he saw I was already discovering skateboarding. He gave me a mixtape with Bowie, Velvet Underground and Dead Kennedy’s on it, a lot of music that was sort of considered underground or punk. I had that tape and once I went home, I had a clear definition of what I was looking for. I would go to record stores and look for stuff that wasn’t mainstream or ask them what was punk rock, and went from there. I didn’t have an older brother or cousin giving me records. I had to figure it out on my own.
Where were you living? Was there any kind of scene or shows going on?
AK: At that point I was in the Highland Park [New Jersey] area, and luckily I was close to New Brunswick. By the time I got into high school I was friends with some older kids and learned about punk. I would take the train by myself into New Brunswick and go to shows. That’s when I really started immersing myself in the scene and realizing that there was a lot going on in the way of music, especially in New Brunswick. I got to see Corrosion to Conformity, The Adolescents, even Youth of Today played around there. So there definitely was a scene.
How did Lifetime form?
AK: I was drumming in a band called Courage with my friends, and they kicked me out. I was really depressed and didn’t go out for a year. When I eventually went back out I ran into Rob Fish I told him I wanted to quit drumming and start singing. He told me that Dan Yemin had recently put up a flyer looking to start a band, so that’s how it happened.
Did your parents ever get to hear Lifetime?
AK: They heard a little I guess, its not like today where if you tell your parents you are joining a punk rock band, they probably wont be scared. Now punk bands make money, the music industry on a whole is so different. Back then you were rebelling, you were going against what your parents and your school thought, so I never really involved them. I think they appreciated Lifetime a lot more when we reunited and they realized that some of the things I did meant something and they were slightly proud of me.
How did you perceive the popularity of Lifetime? I came into the scene in New Brunswick a couple years after you broke up and I heard about Lifetime as this huge important thing that happened which I missed out on. Lifetime really seemed to punctuate what the New Brunswick scene was about then. What was it like going from being not the least bit popular to being perceived as so influential?
AK: Being in a band is not easy. I love writing songs, I love going into the studio, but I never loved touring. Some people are good at separating those things in their mind, but I never enjoyed having to promote and sell it. Playing it live made everyone happy. I came up in the hardcore world, in that world you weren’t trying to make everyone happy, you were trying to get a reaction out of people, there were certain things you didn’t do because it wasn’t part of the scene.
Can you elaborate that?
AK: It was a pure thing. Everyone knew about punk, everyone had heard the Sex Pistols and the Clash, but hardcore was a kid thing. It was never getting big, making money, cracking the mainstream, you just did it because you had to. You had to speak your mind and do things differently than the people in your high school and your town. There was nothing corporate about it, there was no money in it, you just did it because it was in your heart to. When Lifetime signed to Jade Tree and put out Hello Bastards, we started getting bigger tours. One example was we did a tour with Good Riddance, who were signed to Fat Wreck Chords. I hated the world we were getting into. The venues were less intimate, you had to make sure the crowd was psyched up, and you sold enough shirts. It just turned into this thing where you had to increase your popularity, draw more people in this venue than last time. It didn’t jive with what I loved to do, which was make music. Building a fan base, increasing your popularity were not things I was ever passionate about. It didn’t go with my aesthetic with what hardcore was and what I wanted to do. Being on the road and having to be friends with everyone was not what I was about. I got into hardcore because I wasn’t social, because I was an outcast. But when you have a band and all these people depending on you, you have to play your game and fit this model, and it got harder and harder. That’s when we broke up, because it wasn’t fun. It was too stressful.
We were broken up for a long time and I opened up the record store. That’s when I heard from people how big Lifetime was. New records would come out and people would tell me, "oh man this guys ripping you off’. I didn’t pay attention to it and I don’t brag about much or look at myself as anything other than some guy. It was definitely very hard to accept about how popular Lifetime was. But when the money kept coming in and the tours kept getting bigger, I started to believe it.
People credit Lifetime as being one of the first bands to take hardcore music and put more emotional personal lyrics to it. Do you agree with this? If so, was there a moment where you said, "I’m going do it this way but differently.
AK: If people want to give me credit for that, I don’t mind getting a little pat on the back, it’s very flattering. I always gravitated towards melodic stuff. I loved 7 Seconds stuff from "The Crew" and The Descendents, any punk with a little melody in it. Of course I also loved hardcore, especially New York hardcore. There were hardcore singers that sang, and then there were singers that sang about their emotions. I was always surprised that people didn’t say I was ripping off a million things. Of course I took stuff from my influences, but there was never a conscious effort made to do anything, although we always had it in mind to be melodic. Never in our wildest dreams did we think we would have any sort of lasting effect on music.
I remember going to shows in New Brunswick and there was a specific time when the word emo was being thrown around a lot. People seemed confused about what the term actually meant, musically. Then a certain aesthetic started to represent it. Do you remember this at all?
AK: The word emo was always around but no one called themselves that, it was almost like a joke. It first started in the D.C. scene, the term "emo-core." All hardcore is emo core, in terms of the emotion that gets put into it. But it was a put down to get called that. I don’t know what happened where the word emo became a positive description rather than a negative one.
I read an interview with the band where you said none of the bands that say they are influenced by you sound like you. Have you ever heard something that you did think sounded like Lifetime?
AK: I do hear things now where I think that I may have had a part in that. My daughter loves the new Scooby Doo cartoon, and Simple Plan sings the theme song to it. I hear this song and you can tell there’s a lot of Lifetime influence in it. It’s funny how full circle its come.
Do you think your daughter has any sense that her parents are rockers?
AK: Funny thing about kids is that they always think of their parents as normal. We have tattoos but she never asks about tattoos. She’s been to practice and to shows, she’s seen a lot of cool stuff for a little girl but to her its just normal. Maybe she thinks all parents do the same thing.
When the Kid Dynamite [Lifetime guitarist Dan Yemin's post-Lifetime band] records first came out, what was your reaction?
AK: I think I was a little bit in denial. For one, I had the record store at the time so I wasn’t that interested. I had already moved on from hardcore and was listening to other types of music. For me, music has to blow my mind, I don’t get into stuff because it sounds like something else. That to me is the big problem with punk and hardcore, people just sound like this old band or that one. Punk sounds pretty dead right now and I think it should die. If you go back and listen to music, white people have an unnatural obsession with music that I don’t really get into. If you listen to African American music, from old songs to jazz to reggae and rocksteady and hip-hop, the music constantly progresses and never stays in one place. White people need their punk rock and their rock n’ roll to stay that way. People always say some band is the savior of rock. Why does rock need to be saved? There’s this weird preoccupation with music staying the same. I get into a certain type of music, I really try and figure out what its about, and then I move on, because I’ve exhausted that style and want something new. Music is art, it has to constantly change and evolve.
Have you in recent years found any new punk or hardcore music that you’ve enjoyed?
AK: I don’t listen to it or pay attention to it anymore. When Lifetime reformed I was able to go hear some bands, but that’s about it. I like getting turned on to new stuff and don’t need to hear another band that sounds like this band. In all honesty it’s pretty hard for me to listen to heavy guitar music, I feel like my ears are pretty burnt out. The sound of it doesn’t sit right in my ears anymore. I never listen to rock radio when I’m at home either. It’s not a conscious thing I just feel that my tastes are constantly moving in different directions. When punk started no one was calling it that. The early punk bands would change their sound every couple of records. Now there’s a much more defined sound to punk and hardcore music. If you go back to mid 80’s hardcore in New York, no band sounded the same and nobody wanted to. You wanted to blow other bands away, even if it was with a drumbeat or mosh part. You tried to breathe new life into hardcore and that was we tried to do with Lifetime, to take it from where it was in 1991 when we started and continue to try new things. I don’t get punk and hardcore now and its kind of a bummer to how bland it is. My old friends are still playing the same stuff and I’m wondering don’t they want to branch out? Are they musicians or are they punk rockers?
What have you been listening to recently?
AK: The last few years I’ve been listening to a lot of Jamaican and African music. Mind you, I still look for the same qualities in music that I did growing up. I want my music to be dirty and raw and not played by professional musicians but rather guys who are self taught. You don’t find that in punk and hardcore anymore, the productions are so slick these days. Even the way we had to produce our last Lifetime record, we had to go with these industry standards that I didn’t like. Any kind of music that’s a little messed up and you can hear that the band is working on where they’re gonna go next, that’s the kind of music that gets me excited.
How do you feel about the Lifetime reunion? Were you glad that you guys went at it again?
AK: I was really glad we did it, first and foremost because it gave me a chance to re-connect with my old friends, which was great for me. You’re married, you have kids and all of a sudden you have a chance to make music and tour with your best buds, I’m so glad I took the opportunity because it was so much fun. I thought I was done with all that stuff, but it was an awesome experience and a very different one as well. Everything was much more streamlined. When we toured there were no cell phones or internet, you were just out there. But I loved doing it and don’t regret it for a minute.
What was it like recording and touring with guys you hadn’t played music with in a long time?
AK: When you see your old friends again, a lot of your old insecurities come back to haunt you, but once we got back together it sort of just fell into place. Lifetime still feels like a family to me, and making a record is the best thing you can do. We even talk about doing another EP and I think Dan has been working on writing new songs so we might do more in the future.
Nowadays, is it difficult for you guys to get through a Lifetime set?
AK: For me it is. I’m not a professional singer, and when we used to tour, we would play tiny clubs and basements with horrible sound that reflected the kind of music we made and how we made it. Fast forward to 2010, you’re playing much bigger places with real sound systems and every note has to be hit right, that to me is incredibly difficult. Physically singing is always hard and draining, I’m always out of breath and lose my voice easily. Physically I was in much better shape when we got back together, but the singing part is always hard.
Much like Springstein, Lifetime is inseparably associated with New Jersey. Why do you think that is and what makes New Jersey special for you?
AK: Back in the day hardcore was such a regional thing. Every state had multiple scenes, and kids dressed and danced differently depending on what scene they were in. Your regional pride always shone through when you toured. We would go to Connecticut and get psyched to kick their asses, both in the pit and on stage. That’s just how it was done, you were always trying to destroy everyone. I always tried to mention Jersey, all the great bands that came out of there, and I always tried to emphasize how proud we were of being from the underdog state. When you know where a band’s from, it gives you a little back story which is almost as important as the music.
Do you feel that having been involved in a DIY scene, do you think it has any effect on the way you do things as an adult
AK: Definitely. My whole experience of being in punk/hardcore had an immense effect on my life and how I live my life, raise my kids. Its important to ask questions and really try to understand why things work the way they do. If it wasn’t for hardcore I probably wouldn’t have discovered being a vegetarian, so many of my political opinions come from the punk rock aesthetic, I can’t divorce myself of those influences. I sometimes get a little bummed when I see my friends who are bankers and lawyers and part of corporate America. I can’t believe that their time spent in bands didn’t have more of an effect on them. It seems like when they reached a certain age, they stopped thinking or caring about the things that informed who they were growing up, and chose to be suburban tools instead. I don’t go to shows, but my lifestyle is still very much the same as what it was. I can’t alter my beliefs to make more money and make life easier. It would definitely be easier if you just went to college and got your degree, but I can’t sacrifice my beliefs to make life easier, it’s just not who I am.
Of all the people I’ve talked to, you’re probably the least interested in the music, but your ideals are the strongest.
AK: For a long time I struggled with figuring how I was going to support my family. Slowly I started to gravitate to woodworking and carpentry, and it appealed to me because I’m still being creative, I’m using my hands and my mind, its physical and artistic and I’m creating things that will be around for a long time. You get a little messed up in the head lying in bed wondering what life is going to bring in the future, but I have to remind myself almost as important as how much money I’m going to make it’s equally important that I do it in a way that I’m proud of, in a way that I’m not hurting people and that I’m doing something that’s positive and will add something to the universe. I don’t get people whose livelihood can be separate from who they are.
Tell me about how Miss TK got started?
AK: I was in a band called Zero Zero with my wife and we were meeting with record labels telling us we were going to be rich, it was kind of crazy. For whatever reason it didn’t happen, the band broke up and the night we broke up we decided that we didn’t want to rely on music for our income. It wounded us too much having to turn our art into money and we decided to just make music because we love it and enjoyed doing it. That night we wrote two or three songs and since then we’ve been doing this band. It’s a very low key, certainly not a career, but it’s an outlet for our creative juices.
I was in a band with my really close friends as a kid and when it got a little more serious I found it’s a very interesting serious relationship to be in a band with your close friends. I’m curious what its like to be in a band with someone you’re married to.
AK: It’s definitely tricky, but Tannis and I work pretty well, we had the store together, and I think we have a rare thing where we can work together and not get on each other’s nerves. It’s tough balancing your personal and professional life and it’s harder now that we have kids because when we do things with the band we have to account for the kids. But as far Tannis and I go, we complement each other really well, and we are lucky to have our work and home life completely intertwined. I see our daughters are very creative and I think that our relationship has helped nurture and encourage them to pursue their creative sides.
Miss TK had a song on the soundtrack for I’m Reed Fish? Have you done anything else like that, soundtracks?
AK: I’m Reed Fish was our first one, we were a Clearasil commercial, we’ve were in The Wrestler and The Wire and many other things I can’t remember. As a family we made a conscious decision to give up TV eight years ago, so we haven’t seen a lot the things that have featured our music. We have a DVD player so we watch movies, but we don’t do TV.
What would you like to see happen with Miss TK that hasn’t yet?
AK: I guess my biggest dream would be to have a song on Hot 97 (laughing), but besides that, everything that has ever happened to me in music has far surpassed any dream I ever had for it. The fact that we’re in TV and movies now is awesome, I’ve been very fortunate in the musical realm, so as long as once every few years someone is willing to give us some money to make a record, that’s all I care about.
What’s with the whole Hot 97 thing?
AK: 2 or 3 years ago I started listening to Hot 97. It goes back to my belief that music is supposed to naturally evolve as an art form. To me, the most accessible way to come face to face with new music that is taking chances is Hot 97. A lot of people think I’m crazy and say it all sounds the same and its all about strippers, but as far as production and sonic qualities goes I hear changes on a week to week basis and its so exciting to me. In the punk rock world and the rock radio world, it takes about a year to record, another year for it to come out, if you’re really lucky you can get on the radio but most of the time you’re given excuses, like the format isn’t right or something to that effect. But if you listen to Hot 97, the culture is so fast paced, they have such access to radio. You can be a dude and make a track in a studio, and if you have the right connections you can get yourself on the radio a year before your record comes out, then someone writes a response to your song and that’s on the radio the next week. The way its produced, it feeds off itself and it changes constantly, something that was big 6 months is gone, and its amazing how vibrant it is. You hear the way things develop, and it just happens right in front of your eyes. I’m not going claim that all the songs are great, but for me music always has to be evolving, and if that’s what you’re into, put on a hip hop station. That idea of crushing the last hit is so exciting for me, it’s like the last days of hardcore. Labels didn’t exist, you dumped a demo on cassette and threw it out there.
Among journalists there’s a general consensus that hip hop has become stagnant, so its really interesting to hear a different take on it.
AK: You have to be amazed at the access these artists have to a radio station. It’s almost like college radio. Someone gets a hit song on one week, and the next week a response song gets on, and on down the line. I don’t know how you could say it’s stagnant. I know there are issues with payola, but the vibrancy of new sounds in hip-hop is truly incredible to me. Anyone who would say its stagnant has a limited view of record production and what its like to be an artist. Whenever someone says something about hip-hop being stagnant they run the risk of sounding ignorant. Your ears have to be tuned in to really hear what’s going on. The structure may be the same but the innovation is there. If you were a rock band and you wanted to experiment with your sounds, you career would be over. Your label wouldn’t put it out, you fans would abandon you, there’s no room for experimentation. Hip-hop started in Jamaica 40 years ago and has never stopped experimenting and changing.
[Note: This author, in a recent piece for The Faster Times which went up right before this interview took place, wrote a piece in which I said just that, that hip hop was stagnant and dying. I still think this is true to some extent, however Ari's opinion has opened my mind. I now believe mainstream hip hop to be extremely exciting from a production standpoint. For a good example of an innovative underground rapper making use of interesting mainstream hip hop beats, check out sole's "Nuclear Winter Vol.1"]
Do you picture Miss TK spoken in the same sentence as Kanye and Swiss Beats? Could you see yourself producing the next Young Jeezy track?
AK: I would love it. I would love it if people even took a loop from out stuff and used it. I think I could die then. I just want to be a part of music changing and evolving.
Tell me about how you discovered music.
Ari Katz: When I was around 9 or 10 I got an am radio, and I had just moved back to America from Israel, and that radio was my best friend. I spent a lot of time hanging out in my room catching up on years of music that I had never heard before. Older music more than newer music, but it was all great stuff.
You were born in Israel? I didn’t know that.
AK: No, I was born in Boston and I was adopted. When I was 5 we moved to Israel and moved back to the States when I was about 9.
What made your family move to Israel?
AK: I don’t know I think my parents just got caught up in the wave of that time of moving to the promised land, the land of milk and honey.
JR: So you lived in Israel when you were young, what do you think about people who say they are culturally Jewish?
AK: I was adopted and converted to Judaism when I was a baby. We moved to Israel when I was pretty young, so the first language I learned to read and write in was Hebrew. When we moved back to the States I went to yeshiva, got bar-mitzvaed, the whole deal. As I got into punk rock it led me to question things, which has always been part of me. My daughter was the first person who had the same blood as me, with me being adopted, and it really tripped me out, it blew open my mind. I don’t know why it came to this but when she was born I quit being Jewish. I say ‘quit’ because it’s not the same thing as being non-practicing. I told my family, my parents, to me it was important and liberating to quit all religion. I don’t even identify myself with any religion anymore. To me it’s important in my life right now to be open to everything, and all religion does is separate people. It separates your culture from every other culture in the world. I only have a background in Judaism, so I can only speak on that, but it was very much ‘we we we, we’re great because we do this, etc’ and to me that does nothing to make you a better person. There are so many incredible people and cultures in the world, and if you’re lucky enough to live somewhere where there’s every type and shade of people, I don’t want to be separated from everyone else, and I don’t want my daughters to be either. I want them to be citizens of the world, and when people identify themselves with a religion, you’re essentially saying ‘my way is the right way’ and you’re automatically closed off from other practices and cultures and I want nothing to do with any kind of religion. That’s not to say I’m not a spiritual person. I’ve don’t a lot of reading on Buddhism the last couple of years, and I’m very in tune with how the Universe guides people, but in terms of Jewish Catholic, etc, I think it’s all a bunch of bullshit. A lot of people say ‘I’m not Jewish but I like to practice some of the traditions’ but when you’re doing that your eyes are closed off from all the beauty in this world, and I think people use it as a crutch and close off their minds to all the wonderful things out there and that’s why I quit rather than be non-practicing.
I think it’s all bullshit, I really do. I think people are afraid to go against their families’ traditions. Any kind of formal religion is a business, and all these people who claim they’re Jewish or Catholic, I don’t see it helping them in their lives. The world is getting smaller and smaller, and everyone needs to be a part of it, all of it, not just ‘I have my community and that’s it’. I cant live my life that way and I don’t want my daughters living like that either.
JR: How do you feel about what kind of world your kids are going to grow up in? Where we’re at right now and what the future looks like?
AK: It’s pretty scary. Politically, there are a lot of scary things coming to play like the Tea Party. I think it goes back to what I was saying about religion, that no one feels ok unless they are part of a specific group. All of these organizations that give people identities, people are developing less and less. Why have kids? I don’t know, it could be a selfish thing, you feel like you need to bring another life into this world. I think biologically you’re sort of wired to make babies. I bet no matter what era you were born in the future always looked pretty bleak.
JR: Are you happy right now?
AK: I would say I’m very happy right now. That’s not to say there aren’t days when you don’t feel happy. I’ve always done what I wanted to do, I’ve always been able to follow my dreams and my heart, and even though sometimes it seems bleak when you go through life following your heart, the roads I’ve gone down, it takes years and years to realize what you were trying to accomplish, but I think most of the things I’ve tried to do have worked out well. I think the most important thing to do is establish a life for yourself that makes you happy, because life can be really long, and I know a lot of people are living unhappily because they were afraid of what they wanted to do, they instead focused on getting that car or that house. When do you start enjoying your life? If you wait until you’re retired, I think you’re missing the whole point. Just being alive, breathing, walking around looking at trees, it’s incredible. To do it any other way but being happy is beyond me, and it’s up to you to have a life for yourself that you can be proud of.