Usually when an obscure hardcore band is reintroduced, it’s through discography compilations and reissues, but in the case of Cinderblock—an early-90’s Buffalo band whose members would go on to help shape the genre forever—the group has opted to reignite the flame and properly document the material that’s been lost to time. Breathe The Fire, out October 28 via WAR Records, sees the group actually redoing their original songs thirty years later.
Featuring Dennis Merrick of Earth Crisis, Tim Redmond of Snapcase, and Scott Vogel of Buried Alive, Terror and more, Cinderblock were a quick flash in the hardcore scene, cut short as members committed to other projects. But with their batch of re-recorded songs now ready for the world, drummer Dennis Merrick took the time to answer some questions.
What was the Buffalo hardcore scene like in the early ‘90s when Cinderblock gets going?
At that time, as far as Buffalo goes, Snapcase was the biggest thing. Zero Tolerance, I guess they weren’t done at that point, but they were kind of on their way out, I would say. They were arguably the first Buffalo hardcore band. Originally they were called New Balance and then changed their name to Zero Tolerance, but at that time, they had a different guitar player; they had gone through a bunch of changes, and they were kind of on their way to be done. So Snapcase was probably the most influential Buffalo band at that time.
I was in a band at that time called No Joke with a few guys, Clint (Marriot) actually was the bass player, and he played bass in Cinderblock as well. I think a lot of it was—Lots of bands were coming through Buffalo. Buffalo was a good spot to be involved in hardcore because a lot of awesome shows came through. A consistent venue seemed to be a little bit of an issue at the time, but bands would still come through, and we got to see everybody at the time. It was pretty awesome.
How did Cinderblock start and what was the idea for the band?
I wasn’t in Earth Crisis yet. Tim wasn’t in Snapcase yet; he was doing Slugfest. They weren’t super busy or anything; No Joke wasn’t a very busy band. We all dug some of the newer bands that were coming out in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s like Quicksand, Inside Out, Shelter—We liked all that stuff. I think we really wanted to start a band that was different for Buffalo hardcore. I don’t really know where the idea to have two singers came from; I think we just thought it would look wild on stage, and we really wanted a band that was going to be an exciting live performance, so we just thought having the two singers would be wild.
We just tried to write really energetic and creative music. Tim, Clint, and I and Tom Hardwick all knew each other. We knew Phil (Popielski) pretty well, his brother was a drummer, and he was a guitar player, and we had seen a bunch of his bands back in the day. Karl (Dutton) I didn’t know yet, he was the only guy I didn’t know yet, but I think he was a friend of Phil’s, so he came in on guitar as well. We just found each other as dudes that had been hanging out in the scene together for a long time and wanted to do something different, so we started doing that band. Probably about a year in, Scott Vogel took Tom Hardwick’s place and we kept going with that new lineup.
Cinderblock’s sound goes in a lot of different directions—metal, hardcore, rock, and even some hip-hop in your drumming. Was the idea to pull in everything you guys were into?
Yeah, for my drumming, I’ve always been a very groove-oriented drummer; that’s just my style. I still do, and always have, listen to a lot of hip-hop. I always try to bring that groove into my playing, even when I started playing with Earth Crisis. As far as the drumming angle, I think that’s where I came from; I was heavily influenced by hip-hop. It was actually the first musical style I ever got into, before I got into punk rock or hardcore. I still listen to it to this day, so it definitely influences my drumming.
Who are your go-to hip-hop artists?
Back then, I guess the biggest groups I was really into were—I loved Boogie Down Productions; I thought KRS-One had a lot of intelligent things to say. I liked Public Enemy. I loved Eric B. & Rakim and all of the Native Tongues stuff like A Tribe Called Quest and Queen Latifah and Black Sheep. I love Griselda; they’re a Buffalo hip-hop group. They’re actually getting really successful. They just released a new record that Black Thought from The Roots just put out. I love them, and it’s cool because they’re a local Buffalo band. I like a lot of the stuff that came from The Rawkus Records days, like I love Talib Kweli, Blackstar, Kendrick Lamar.
As you discovered hip-hop and hardcore growing up, did you see a similar nature in the approaches between the two?
Absolutely, that’s what drew me to both musical styles, the passion that I felt in both kinds of music. Of course, not all hip-hop is driven by that, but that’s the kind that I’m into. I didn’t get into a lot of the commercial stuff, but the stuff that I was into you could feel the passion of it. That’s the kind of music I like. I like all sorts of different stuff, but music that you can feel the vocalist means what they’re saying. That’s what kind of draws me to music a lot and hip-hop, hardcore, and punk have that in common.
How old were you when you were doing Cinderblock?
It was actually right at the end of my high school years; I was going into college. To be honest, it’s a long time ago; it’s almost 30 years, so I can’t remember 100%, but I think the idea started before I went away to school—I went away to school about three hours from Buffalo. I don’t think we started Cinderblock until after I left.
From what I remember, Tim would go to Phil’s house, and they would work on music together, and then they would record Cinderblock songs on a cassette tape with a boombox and mail them to me where I was going to school. I learned some of the songs that way, and then I’d come home and rehearse—We’d probably rehearse once or twice, and then we’d play a show. It was pretty wild. Once we had some more solid material written—I was home for a little bit of time, and that’s when we wrote the songs that we ended up demoing back then. I guess it was ’91 or so, maybe ’92 when we actually recorded that demo.
That’s basically how we did it; I was away, and that’s how they would do it. They would send me these cassette tapes, and I would just learn the music from the cassette tapes. We’d change stuff up a little bit when I came home and put the music together that way. That’s just how it’s done now. Most band’s members don’t live around each other; that was unique for back then. I don’t think most bands would have existed unless they all lived in the same place. Now it’s just e-mail. The guitar player writes the guitar parts and e-mails them to the drummer; the drummer puts drums to it, and that’s just how it goes now.
Do you have any recollection of recording the demo tape?
We went to a studio to record it. It was BCMK, which was in the city in Buffalo, and No Joke had recorded there before Cinderblock did, so that’s how we knew about the studio. Some other hardcore bands had recorded there, too. So we went in, and we busted it all out in, probably—I don’t even know if it was a full day. It was a demo, and we didn’t have a ton of dough to throw at it; I don’t even remember how we funded it. It wasn’t a great recording; it was something we just wanted to record to get the music out there.
Did you guys play many shows or was the distance a hindrance for that?
It was only a handful, really. I can honestly only remember three, and I think that’s all we played, although again, 30 years ago—There might be a couple I’m forgetting. I think our first show was at a roller-skating rink in Hamburg, which is my old hometown. It’s a suburb outside of Buffalo, and there was a guy doing shows there for a minute. Then we played a show at The Scrapyard in Buffalo, and the only other show we played that I can remember is, we played a show in Syracuse at The Lost Horizon.
We were pumped because we all loved the Syracuse scene. When I went away to college, Syracuse kind of became my home scene at that point. Where I went to school was near Utica, NY, which was about an hour east of Syracuse, and there was, like, one other hardcore dude at my college, so we met each other pretty instantly after I got there. He was a couple years older than me, and he was from Syracuse, and there was shows at that time basically every other Sunday at The Lost Horizon, so he would take me to all the shows. He had a car, so he would drive me to all the shows in Syracuse, so that became my more regular scene.
There was a lot of stuff starting to pop off in Syracuse at that time, so everybody in Cinderblock at that time loved that scene, and when we got a show there, we were psyched. The band actually drove up to my college; we rehearsed in the basement of this—I don’t know what you call it. It was a private house, it wasn’t a fraternity, but it was sort of like that. It was kind of like the weird people’s house, like all the misfits from the college tried to live at this house.
In the basement, we rehearsed there, and then we went and played that show in Syracuse, and it was awesome. The very first note of the very first song, Tim jumped off the monitor and cracked his head open on the ceiling and was bleeding like crazy from his head the whole show. He was getting all lightheaded and stuff, and he had a T-shirt he had to hold to his head the whole time which was covered in blood by the end of the show. But people dug it; it ended up being a great show for us. It was super memorable.
What causes the band to end at that point?
It was shortly after that that I got asked to play drums in Earth Crisis, and that was in the Spring of ’93. I was actually at a show in Syracuse—it might have been at that Cinderblock show—The Earth Crisis guys came up to me, their drummer was leaving, and they asked me if I wanted to play for them. For some reason, I didn’t say yes right away, and I loved Earth Crisis already; I had seen them. I think I was a little nervous about it for some reason; it seemed like a big commitment. But yeah, I joined Earth Crisis, and Tim joined Snapcase, and Scott was getting busy with all of his stuff, so it just kind of fizzled out. We just didn’t have time anymore; we all got really involved in other stuff.
Did Earth Crisis approach you because of Cinderblock or because you knew them from being in that scene?
The guy that I went to college with lived down the street from Karl (Buechner) from Earth Crisis. They grew up on the same street, they were childhood friends and they both skated and got into punk and hardcore together, so that was how I first heard of Earth Crisis. All they had out so far was the All Out War EP, and we went to see them a couple times in Syracuse, and I was blown away.
They were a vegan straight edge band; there wasn’t a lot of straight edge bands at the time. I had been straight edge for many years up to that point, so to have this newer straight edge band—kind of like the third wave of straight edge, I guess—that was very outspoken about it was awesome, so I loved it. I was around them going to shows, kind of knew them a little bit, and then they saw me playing drums and knew I was straight edge and—At the time I was vegetarian; I wasn’t vegan yet. But they knew all that stuff about me, and they had seen me play, so that’s how I ended up playing for them.
So how does Cinderblock come together to re-record the demo thirty years later?
It was 100% Vogel. He moved back to Buffalo after living outside the area for a long time, and pretty shortly after he got back, he hit up Tim and I initially. He said, “Hey would you guys be down to do this?” and we pretty much immediately said yes, and then we tracked down the other dudes. Most of the other guys, we had their info, each of us had someone’s information. So we reached out to the other guys, and they all pretty much instantly replied that they were down.
But it was all Scott. He’s obviously so passionate about hardcore. I mean, he’s been doing it for so long, and consistently for so long. I don’t think he can help himself (laughs); he just loves doing it. He came back to the area, and now Buried Alive is doing more stuff; Cinderblock became active again, and obviously he’s still busy with Terror, too. But yeah, it was one hundred percent Scott.
What was it like to revisit these songs all these years later?
It was fun. I always dug the Cinderblock songs; I really did. There was no reason that we stopped doing it except just time. I think everybody in the band agrees; we all love it still; we just didn’t have time to do it, so to go back and do it again was great. Here and there, we slightly modified a couple songs. For me, I just changed up some drum parts and improved them a little bit, and the other guys kind of did the same thing.
Some vocal stuff changed. One of the songs that is on this new release is called “’91,” and originally it was just called “Cintro,” which was our intro, and it was just music, but Tim really wanted to—I mean, the way he put it was that he had been feeling very sentimental about hardcore history and how much it meant to him and everything that it gave him growing up, so he really wanted to write lyrics to speak to that. So he wrote the lyrics for that song, and we just extended it a little bit and added to it to make it more of a song than an intro. But it was great going back and recording the songs. I’m psyched about how it came out; I think it came out really great.
There’s definitely some distinct drum fills that call to mind your later drumming in Earth Crisis. Was there a conscious effort in tweaking those songs to bring in the skills you’ve gained over 30 years?
Yeah, a little bit. Actually that first song, that’s one of the songs that I did change some of the drums on a little bit. When I went back and listened to it, again it was 30 years ago, so I have 30 years of experience between now and then, so listening to the old recordings, I’m like, “Eh, that could have been better. I could have played something different in that part.”
That song “Breathe The Fire,” too. There’s the opening part, which is a slow, heavy, wide-open part, and then it goes into this tom beat, and the original tom beat had this sort of weird, real funky feel to it, but it felt really weird to play it again. It felt kind of corny the way I played it back then. I didn’t think so at the time, but I definitely do now, so I changed that up a little bit too. I think we all brought a little bit of what we’ve learned over the years, and we’ve all matured as musicians over the years, so we brought a little bit of that to it, but tried to still keep it true to what it was back then too.
The songs don’t sound dated. Why do you think they hold up?
I think we tried to come up with something pretty original with Cinderblock. I think you’re right; it doesn’t sound like typical ’90s hardcore, it doesn’t sound like typical bands currently, either. Honestly, I think that’s just how we wrote it, so I guess we just lucked out that what we wrote became timeless in a way. I think you’re right; it doesn’t seem played out; it doesn’t seem like a ’90s hardcore band rehashing old stuff. There’s a little bit of a ’90s feel to it, I think, but there’s nothing really typical about it, so I think that’s it has more of a timeless feel. We just tried to be really creative in the way we wrote those songs.
What was the recording process like this time around?
We wanted to keep it a kind of older style feel, so we actually went in and tracked the music all live the first day. It wasn’t just me playing my drums isolated from guitar and then everybody else putting their stuff on top of it; we all recorded it live because we really wanted that feel. More modern recordings are obviously a lot colder and a lot more regimented; you play to a click track, and everything’s snapped together in a grid. We didn’t want that.
We tracked it all live and then went back in to clean up some guitar stuff here and there, and Scott and Tim spent a lot of time on the vocals. Jay Zubricky, who did the recording, was really generous with his time, and Tim and Scott were able to go back a bunch of times to do the vocals. Tim obviously is a drummer by nature, not a vocalist, so he’s not a practiced vocalist. Scott nailed his stuff really easily, and Tim’s came out great, but it definitely took a little bit because he’s just not used to it, so he had to spend a little more time doing it, but I’m psyched with how his vocals came out, too. And we even went back in and did some guitar overdub stuff, so we spent kind of a lot of time on it and really wanted to make sure it came out right, and I think it paid off. Jay did a great job with it too.
You have one show booked for November; any other possibilities for seeing Cinderblock live beyond that?
I hope so. It was funny, just yesterday or today I saw on Instagram or something a flyer for two shows coming up in Boston. One was Slapshot and a couple other bands, and the other one was Stars & Stripes with another band called Cinderblock, which I was kind of surprised by. I saw the flyer and I’m like, “Are we playing Boston, and nobody told me?” I guess there is a band from California called Cinderblock as well. So, hopefully, but no plans yet.
How about writing new material?
I don’t know. Initially this was really just a project that was supposed to be just really fun and really easy to do. Vogel was like—Whenever he sent a text to the whole group, he kind of made it very clear that it was like, this should not be any pressure. This is no pressure on anybody; it has to stay fun; if we can only get together once to rehearse before we record that’s fine. No stress, no pressure. That’s really how it’s been. I don’t think anybody has any expectations, really, so we’ll just see how it goes. We’ll see how this show goes, and if there’s a level of interest in the band, I’m sure we’ll continue to do more stuff.
Photo courtesy of Larry Ransom