Interview with Fuck You Pay Me vocalist Tony Erba | By Tim Anderl | Photo by Mike Thorn
Thirty-two-year hardcore scene veteran and current Fuck You Pay Me vocalist Tony Erba is not unlike any other typical Midwestern guy. He’s the grandson of Sicilian immigrants from Cleveland’s east side, his father enlisted and spent time in Cambodia and Laos during the conflict in Vietnam, and he is a proud union member. In his spare time, he enjoys pleasures that are typical of many men in their late 40s.
But Erba also happens to be an underground hardcore icon who has done time with Face Value, h100s, Gordon Solie Motherfuckers, and 9 Shocks Terror. To say he doesn’t mince words is an understatement, as is evident on his band’s LP, Dumbed Down. Released via Tankcrimes on March 24, the album takes aim at the stupid, the gun nuts, the racists, and countless others—and the venom exposed on the record doesn’t wane when a one-on-one conversation with Erba turns to the current political climate.
You’ve mentioned in interviews that your dad was in the military. Did that have anything to do with shaping your political or world views?
Probably not. People in the military tend to be nationalistic and right wing. My dad was an odd guy. He was patriotic, but not nationalistic. He identified more with—his parents were poor immigrants, and he came up on the east side of Cleveland, adopted by Sicilians, and his father had a little import-export Italian grocery store. His mother never worked, old-school style. My dad was never a pro-military Republican guy. He was really disillusioned with the military after Vietnam; he had trouble getting healthcare from the V.A., because he was in places that the U.S. wasn’t officially in like Laos and Cambodia. My dad was never a gung-ho—he was a student of military history, things of that nature—weapons, etc.—but he’s far from being the military dad in “American Beauty.”
Did any of his love for weapons rub off on you? How does that relate in the context of your song, “Ammosexual?” How do you feel about weapons?
I don’t like guns. I don’t have one. I probably should just to keep in the house. I have dogs, I have property and I want to protect it, but laziness wins out. I’m not a gun guy. My father and I purchased some acreage way out in the country, and we don’t have any neighbors. It is on a dirt road. I’m building a house there. I used to enjoy going out there and target shooting: put up a fucking milk carton and shoot at it. That type of thing I like, but I just do it a couple of times a year when I go down there. I don’t have guns, I don’t give a shit about guns, and I don’t particularly like them at all.
Do you run into a lot of punks who are adamant gun people?
They say they’re not, but I suspect there are a lot of them who are. It just isn’t a popular thing to come out and say you’re a pro-gun guy. [Havoc Records founder] Felix Havoc was a big gun guy. People are probably like me: they don’t like guns, but feel like they’re a necessary thing for protection. I guess I should have a piece around here, but I haven’t got around to doing it. I have some dogs that would tear someone’s ass; that’s good enough for now. If I’m here or my wife’s here, [they’re sweet]. If I’m not, do not fucking pass go, do not collect $200, get the fuck out. You don’t know me, don’t bro me.
After 20-some years of doing what you are doing, do you feel like VFW Halls and basement shows are where you are most comfortable residing? Is there a flexibility to Fuck You Pay Me?
Thirty-two years, and I’m comfortable wherever a crowd gathers. We played a place in Dayton, and it looked sweet, but what a clusterfuck that turned out to be. In that case, playing a basement with ragers going fucking crazy, hitting pipes made with asbestos at a far less “professional” operation would have been more advantageous and a lot more fun than playing a giant stage through a 50,000-watt PA and not even getting a firm handshake for your payment. Typically, the place that makes everyone happy is a dumpy club, where you can still go there and have a beer and sit at the bar, and maybe it has a room off to the side—some people don’t like to be bombarded every second they are in the venue. That’s the best place for me, those types of situations.
Is your wife a punk?
Define punk? She ain’t going to Leftöver Crack. She likes old-people-punk; we both do, we’re almost 50. She loves X and The Sonics and Sonic Youth, Sisters Of Mercy, that kind of thing. That’s how she skews musically, but every now and again, she’ll surprise me by knowing some—she does punk rock yoga. She surprises my every now and again with her depth of knowledge, and bands that I wouldn’t think would be on her radar end up on the playlist.
The theme of New Noise Issue 32 is “Wellness.” You’ve mentioned that you are almost 50, you can’t be at an 11-decibel personality all the time. What do you do to take care of yourself?
Health-wise, I’m not great. I’ve had a heart attack, I have scorching diabetes—I have two grey hairs. Two. Keeping mentally and emotional stable and on an even keel—I love camping, boating, hiking, I love the beach. I’m a warm weather person. I love to be out in the backyard listening to an Indians game, getting some sun. We try to go to Hawaii every year. I love reading a lot, that’s a big thing for me too. But there is nothing better than camping under the stars on a summer night. We squeeze as much out of the short summers as we can here in the Midwest.
The winter in Cleveland was pretty mild.
It wasn’t bad this season. We got lucky. I’ll take it. We had a couple weeks of high 40s and 50s in February. That ain’t right off the shores of Lake Erie. So, while I’ll take it happily, in the back of my mind, I know this is FUBAR.
We have a political climate now where the people in power are denying global warming and doing a lot of other counterproductive things. You take issue with a lot of that stupidity on Dumbed Down. What would you say your biggest gripe with the current president is?
The guy has no clue what he is doing, which is the gripe. Healthcare is huge, and I’m happy to see [the Affordable Care Act replacement plan] shelved. It was a piece of shit bill. They tried to polish a turd in the first place. Obamacare is not what I voted for. I voted for Obama twice and hoped that we were going to get true, socialized, single-payer healthcare. We didn’t. We got some fucked up bill. No one knew what they were signing. It did help a lot of people—it helped the poorest of the poor—but at the end of the day, it was a catastrophe. You get into a car crash and are all fucked up, Obamacare helps out. And a huge thing is that it did away with preexisting conditions. I’ve been denied for healthcare in the past through UniCare and a few others because of the diabetes, before I had a heart attack. So, the health thing is huge.
The job thing is huge too. Outsourcing. Coal is never coming back, big manufacturing has probably left the building to a large extent, but that has been going on for 40 years now, since the early ‘70s. That’s been collusion between all these cocksuckers and centrists that we’ve had in office. Trump is not going to help it. He’s a sham. He’s as crony as can be. It will be great for bankers and people like Goldman Sachs. They’ll do away with everything that can protect a guy that’s making $15, $18, $20 an hour. It is crushing what they’ll do.
You can look at all these people who feel emboldened now. Right before you called, I was reading about Missouri trying to repeal prevailing wage. I’m a proud union member. If we don’t have prevailing wage, they’ll get every scabby motherfucker on all these construction jobs and you can forget it—I’m losing $10 an hour if I live in Missouri. It is just a way to break the union.
So, I can’t pinpoint [just] one thing about Trump. I just named two, and I didn’t even get started on his scummy dealings with Russia and whatever else.
Dayton has been hit with a huge heroin epidemic, and Matt Clark from The New Regrets was on a television program talking about manufacturing leaving the Dayton region and its contribution to this epidemic. Have you seen the same sort of thing in Cleveland? Are people being held on frozen food trucks instead of morgues like they are here?
First of all, I want to give a shout out to Matt, and Ed [Pittman] from Toxic Reasons, the Downing brothers, and all those people. Dayton has responded to our band. We’ve had a lot of good shows there, and we’ve made a lot of good friends, even back in the days of Haunting Souls. I have a lot of good friends there.
I’m sad to say that we’re number one here in Cleveland. It is so horrible with the heroin. You can’t even understand how bad it is. Yes, we have the trucks for morgues. It is just insane. No one wants the title of being number one, but I think northeast Ohio is winning. Cleveland, Akron, it’s a shame. When I went to junior high and high school, people partied pretty hard. People in northeast Ohio love to party, drink, and smoke pot, and in my day, it was taking ludes. Heroin was thought to be a thing of the past. That went out in the early ‘70s, and that was a scummy hippie thing like angel dust and was only in the ghettos. I didn’t know anyone who did it. Now, with the opioid prescription [and addiction epidemic], it made this stunning comeback. It is fucking rampant here.
The singer of The TKOs, that guy just went back to prison, and he isn’t getting out for 20 years, because he sold someone a hot dose. It is right in our community. Everyone knows a buddy, son, cousin, best buddy, or friend from fucking school who died from heroin. It is shocking to me. It has to be the opioid thing, because I can’t understand how anyone in this day and age could say, “Jill’s having a party tonight. Let’s go get some sweet heroin.” Who does that?
I’m an empath, for sure. I’m not the kind of guy who says, “Take them all out and shoot them.” You say that until your fucking brother gets hooked on heroin, and then you’ll do anything to save them. At the same time, there is a brushing aside of personal responsibility. I speak with a cadence and a style reminiscent of someone who is unschooled, but I’m very bright; I’ve been told I have an IQ that belies my mannerisms when it comes to speaking and writing. Beyond that, I’m no college geek. I’m just a guy from the west side of Cleveland, not some super fucking genius. I know enough not to do heroin. I’ve never done a fucking hard drug in my life. So, while empathizing and sympathizing and caring about people who are caught up in this sickening, sickening spider web they are caught in—I don’t know why you’d ever start. Maybe I’m wired different, but I can’t understand why you’d ever start. I couldn’t hurt my parents like that or my family. I couldn’t do it. I’d hate to see what happens to them at night when the house gets cold and quiet and they have to go to bed knowing what their son or daughter is doing to themselves and everyone else. I couldn’t live with the guilt. I could never do that to people I care about.
During the Trump campaign, Martin Shkreli was supporting Trump, which wasn’t surprising, because so many of these people want to introduce drugs to people and charge them out the nose for it. Then, you end up with people who are addicted because they have an ailment that those medications address and they can’t afford them anymore.
A guy like that is just a venture capitalist wannabe pro wrestling heel—but since he’s playing with something that can save lives, he’s not your standard run-of-the-mill asshole. He’s a special case. He should be taken out and shot. No question. That sounds extreme; I don’t give a fuck. Of course he supports Trump, they are of the same mindset: make as much money as you can and to hell with the consequences. No fucking surprise there.
How can a place like Cuba do so well in education and science and healthcare and we can’t seem to get it right? We have all the purchasing power in the world, the best and the brightest minds. You would think that we would be the big dog and be able to set the prices. Somehow, some fucked up place like Cuba that executes gays, where there is no freedom of the press, where you have no nothing—I don’t care how great it is touted now that they’ve emerged from the shadow, allegedly, of communism. We can’t compete with them? Get the fuck out of here. You know the game is rigged, by design. “Who cares?” We’re just collateral damage. “People die, who cares?” That’s these assholes’ mindsets.
To lighten this up a bit: do you remember that there was a guy who lived in Pieta—the art space above Speak In Tongues—who had a wolf?
There were a couple guys who lived up there. The main guy was this dude named Tim. I think he was the guy with the wolf. The Pieta was a cool place. It was kind of like a little ballroom. My old band h100s played our last show there.
I remember being up there one time, and his party trick was to put the wolf’s mouth on his throat.
What a fucking jerkoff. It is an animal. You can’t predict what it’s gonna do. I love my dogs, but I’m not going to tempt fate.
You mentioned earlier that you played a place that does wrestling, and you’re a huge wrestling fan.
I’ll tell you a funny thing about that place. I thought, “Man, the show can’t fucking lose. It’s Toxic Holocaust,” who are a big band and are in Decibel every other month, and they had sold out Chicago the night before. There was no promotion. It sucked. It fucking sucked. We got no money. It was a cool place, it was just poorly run.
I did go to a sold-out Insane Clown Posse show there once…
It is really easy to crack lines about the Juggalos, and with good reason. They are basically the new ‘80s heavy metal, former dirtbags, when metal was really looked down upon. Punks hated them, society hated them, commercial radio hated them; [they were] usually from the suburbs, usually white. The Juggalos are the current incarnation of that. I can see that drawing well. Our show drew like dog shit, and we didn’t even get a fucking firm handshake.
And the funny thing about the wrestling [at that event] is—I didn’t know anything about it, I didn’t do any research because I was pissed off, and it was a week-fucking-night show too, so we drove all the way out there for bullshit. But anyhow, the one funny thing is that it can’t be that good. No matter what you think about pro wrestling, the blood is always real. You just clip off a little piece of a razorblade, wrap it in tape, and if you are a guy who has done it a lot of times, you have scar tissue. A sharp fingernail will do it. You are sweating, so it looks like you were in a horrible car crash. It produces the appearance of a lot of blood, even though it’s not. These guys must have been such jabronis that they don’t even get color. I found a huge bottle of fake blood back next to the stage. They use fake blood, which is the funniest thing I’ve ever seen, because no matter how low-rent a local, indie wrestling promotion is, I’ve never seen or heard of one using fake blood. I’ve done ring announcing, I’ve helped book indie wrestling cards here in Cleveland. It was laughable. It was hilarious.
How do you feel about the ICP wrestling?
I don’t know. I have a secret desire to go to The Gathering and live the chaos for a weekend, almost like a field studies kind of culture type thing.
It’s in Colorado this year…?
If I have to drive more than a half-hour, I’m not going. They used to have it right down the road here in the country, and I’d kind of like to see the spectacle. I’d like to see wrestling in a field at midnight with only flashlights held by the fans for ring lighting, and seeing the celebrity of the moment being pelted with buckets of piss onstage seems like a grand old time too.
Bob Mould from Hüsker Dü wrote for World Championship Wrestling right?
Yeah, I think he was there for about two years. I had one of his old wrestling zines from ‘84 or ‘83. He used to do a zine about wrestling. He grew up in [American Wrestling Association] country, right in the heart of it all. In his book, he talks about how bad WCW was getting and how he would float the most outrageous ideas he could think of, thinking he’d be laughed out of the building—and they loved it, they loved his ideas. I think Bob Mould wrote the “Viagra on a Pole” match if I’m not mistaken.
His book is really good. He’s a bitter guy, man. He fucking hates [Hüsker Dü bassist] Greg Norton, absolutely shits all over the guy, which I thought was pretty low-rent of him. He shits on [drummer] Grant Hart a lot, but he really pisses all over Greg Norton, saying he couldn’t play bass. I have all those records and have seen those guys three times, and he looked like he could play bass to me. He’s a bitter guy.
That’s sad. Own your own bullshit first, right?
People love redemption. Weather the storm, let people shit all over you for 10 minutes, let it pass, and then, make a comeback. That’s just how America is.
How did the tour with D.S.-13 on the West Coast come about?
I’ve known those guys since the 9 Shocks Terror days, and the guy doing their tour does Flag and a few other bands. We played with them in Philadelphia when they started doing the reunion shows. The guy took a liking to us. So, he asked us to do this whole tour, but I just couldn’t do it because of work and stuff. So, we’re just doing four or five shows.
You’ve been in the middle of some shit—your band is confrontational, your whole style is in-your-face. Have you ever thought about doing independent pro wrestling?
No, I’m too old and I’m five-foot, five-[inches]. No matter how good I think I could be in a persona—and I think I could get heat, it comes natural for me—I’m just too small.