Interview with Agnostic Front guitarist Vinnie Stigma and vocalist Roger Miret and filmmaker Ian McFarland | By Colleen Martin | Photos by Rich Russo
The House of Blues in Boston was cold in the hours before showtime, and the music coming from the stage, where the Dropkick Murphys were soundchecking, echoed off the walls of the nearly empty room. The band, bundled up in coats, methodically ran through their paces, tuning up their well-oiled Celtic punk rock machine, and when they finished, a preternatural silence filled the room. A few people milled around: musicians and crew and family members, venue employees, journalists, and photographers.
Confetti from the previous night’s show littered the floor, and the air still smelled faintly of beer and sweat.
It was St. Patrick’s Day Eve, and the Murphys had just kicked off their annual four-day run of homecoming shows. In the hush that fell after the headliners finished soundchecking, a side-stage door burst open and a man on a silver scooter tore down the raised platform. Cackling devilishly, the man shot down the empty corridor, whirled around, and disappeared back the way he came, gone almost before bystanders realized it. Those who witnessed it glanced at each other and asked, “Was that who I think it was?”
There was no mistaking the short mohawk—it wasn’t some random person raising hell in an empty concert hall. It was Vinnie Stigma, guitarist of the legendary hardcore band Agnostic Front, who were opening for the Dropkick Murphys on that leg of their tour. Not long after he vanished through the doorway to the backstage area, Stigma and the rest of Agnostic Front emerged on the stage for their turn to soundcheck. It didn’t take long, a few minutes at most, carried with the casual insouciance of a band who had been doing it for a very long time.
Once they were satisfied that everything was in place, Stigma, longtime bandmate and Agnostic Front lead singer Roger Miret, and filmmaker Ian McFarland—who shadowed the two legendary punk rockers for three years and chronicled his observations in the 2017 documentary, “The Godfathers of Hardcore”—reappeared and proceeded to a private dining area in the venue’s VIP section. There, along with executive producer Scott Keys, they would settle in for an evening of reminiscences, storytelling, and reflections on a career that ended up changing an entire musical landscape.
Grizzled and hardened, with tattoos sketched across most visible expanses of their skin, Miret and Stigma both look the part of hardcore punks, and one would expect their demeanors to be just as hard. But upon meeting them for the first time, one is instead instantly put at ease, struck by their friendliness as they greet people they’ve never met with a warmth and openness usually reserved for old friends. Miret is the quieter of the two, but that’s only because Stigma is a veritable whirlwind, the sort of person who will talk to anyone about anything. This yin and yang dynamic—gregarious Stigma and reserved Miret—has been a defining feature of their career, to say nothing of their friendship. But despite these vast differences in the way they approach life and work, the core vision that they have for themselves, their music, and their message has remained in harmony, enabling them to create together for nearly four decades.
This friendship is the main focus of McFarland’s documentary. With his project 12 years in the making, McFarland, himself a longtime fixture in the punk scene, wanted to tell the story of this legendary NYHC band as it had never been told before. His friendship with Miret and Stigma allowed for heretofore unseen access to the band, and what could have been a standard fare rockumentary instead became something bigger.
More than just a chronicle of a revolutionary musical genre as seen through the eyes of a revolutionary band, “The Godfathers of Hardcore” is a quintessential American Dream story: two disaffected young men overcome near-insurmountable odds on the killing streets of New York City’s Lower East Side in the early 1980s and rise to great heights by following their passion. Their backgrounds were drastically different but just as bleak: Stigma was born into a large Italian-American family, the patriarch of which had ties to the Mafia, while Miret was brought to New York from Cuba as a child and struggled under the yoke of an abusive stepfather. They would find themselves immersed in the burgeoning punk scene of the ‘70s, both of them discovering, within that community, the home that they’d so desperately longed for, eventually combining forces in 1982, when Stigma asked Miret to join Agnostic Front. Their partnership would prove to be as enduring as the genre they helped create.
When asked about the film’s title, McFarland made a point to say that it was chosen with careful deliberation, and he paused to read a definition of the word “godfather”: “a man who is influential or pioneering in a movement or organization.” When taken in that context, the term certainly applies to Stigma and Miret. Miret muses that, while they weren’t the first or the only band to lay claim to New York hardcore, their longevity, where so many of their contemporaries have faded away, makes them stand out.
Having worked with McFarland for years prior to the development of the film made it easier for Stigma and Miret to let him into their lives, but it still wasn’t without its difficulties. “We trusted him and gave him full control [over the film],” Miret said. “It’s not like we’re strangers. We were comfortable, and it’s hard to be comfortable and open up to a stranger. That part was easy for us. But not knowing the outcome [was more difficult].”
Because of the unprecedented access, McFarland was, as he says, able to do exactly what he’d set out to do: capture the humanity of both men. In scenes that are affecting and emotional, the viewer follows these icons at their homes. Stigma, wandering the streets of New York upon which he grew up and still resides today, greets almost everyone he encounters by their first name. On the other side of the country in Arizona, Miret shares the toll a life of touring has taken on him physically and personally and the measures he must take to balance both aspects of his life.
An astounding 38 years have elapsed since the start of their careers, and while they have slowed down, always ensuring that they take care of themselves and their families amidst the rigors of touring and recording, they have no intention of stopping. Touring, Miret said, keeps him young, and Stigma added that they’ll continue making music because they still have things to say. He also mentioned that they now have as much going on professionally as they ever have: in addition to the film, Miret published an autobiography entitled “My Riot: Agnostic Front, Grit, Guts & Glory” in August 2017, and Agnostic Front have both a new studio album release and a 40-year anniversary coming down the pike.
While they might approach the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle with more deliberation than they did when they were in their 20s, they’re still road warriors, seizing the opportunity to perform across the world with bands they love and admire. Even their opening spot for the Dropkick Murphys is a case of reciprocity of spirit—Miret shared the story of how, in the late ‘90s, Agnostic Front delayed the start of their first national tour to give the Dropkick Murphys, who were slated among the openers, a chance to acclimate to their new lineup after adding Al Barr of The Bruisers, one of Miret’s favorite bands, as the new lead vocalist. By asking Agnostic Front to join them 20 years later, the Dropkick Murphys, now legends in their own right, had repaid the favor.
As these elder statesmen of hardcore took their leave, the goodbyes were just as warm and heartfelt as their earlier greetings. Two hours later, they would emerge on the House of Blues stage again, this time in front of a sold-out crowd. To see these men, who had made their home in tiny, underground venues and places like the legendary CBGB’s, perform in a space so large and filled with starry-eyed fans was enough to give even the toughest punks a moment of reflective pause. Their set—which included some of their biggest hits like “Gotta Go,” “For My Family,” and “Crucified,” as well as a goosebump-inducing cover of the Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop”—lost nothing in the airy space; if anything, it was amplified, the sound filling the room and shaking the rafters. The force of it was as shocking and powerful as an unexpected blow to the head, not dissimilar to Stigma being hit in the forehead by a full can of beer thrown by someone in the audience—hardened punk that he is, he never stopped playing.
Throughout the performance, they never lost their sense of mischief and fun. While Miret encouraged larger and more enthusiastic circle pits, Stigma mugged for the cameras and waved at people in the front rows. This level of audience engagement and inclusion underscored the point they made earlier. “When they look at bands, [people] automatically think [that] you’re on a stage, you’re, like, above them, you’re better than them,” Miret said. “[The film] almost vanishes that mythical thing. [When you watch, you realize] these people are just like us, they’re real, they’re genuine.” Spending even a short amount of time in Roger Miret and Vinnie Stigma’s company, whether in person or on a movie screen, is enough to confirm that.