Interview with Life Of Agony vocalist Mina Caputo | By Hutch
“The world needs a record like this: creative, explosive, heartwarming, motherly, soul-nurturing,” vocalist Mina Caputo says, relaying her deep reverence for Life Of Agony’s new offering to the world, A Place Where There’s No More Pain. “I think a lot of people can use a real flow of material from an obnoxious, paradigm-shifting punk rock band.” On April 28, Napalm Records welcomes the fifth studio album from this nearly 30-year-old band.
Born in Brooklyn in 1989, Life Of Agony have consistently melded alternative, hardcore, metal, and hard rock into emotional, groove-filled, heavy songs. Each album has its own flavor. The band are consistently original, while always penetrating a listener’s emotional barriers. “I have always had a hard time categorically placing Life Of Agony,” Caputo admits. “We always try to redefine what music means to us as a band and individually.” She offers humbly, “I’m excited. It brings a smile to my face.” Life Of Agony have broken up and been reunited a few times, even exchanging vocalists and drummers, but this album has Caputo back on vocals—as has always been the case in the studio—and drummer Sal Abruscato returning to his rightful place behind the kit. Bassist Alan Robert and guitarist Joey Z. churn out thick, textured riffs for a mighty album.
Caputo is soft-spoken and tending to her dog, fighting exhaustion after a long day of consecutive interviews. She still lives in Brooklyn, while Robert resides in New Jersey, Z. in Long Island, and Abruscato in Woodstock. A Place Where There’s No More Pain was recorded in a few studios over time—in Queens, Brooklyn, and beyond—and the band started the process of writing well over a year ago. “I was already demoing vocals last year,” Caputo explains. The process was broken up by frequent touring, which was beneficial for the band in matters of perspective and finding what songs worked, but also a detriment, as Caputo appreciates momentum when recording. Regardless, the dynamic of the group was fluid. “It was extremely collaborative,” Caputo unveils. “We threw a ton of shit away too. There were no bruised egos. No bullshit. The process was a very open, fearless dialogue about what didn’t work. We had a priority, a focus. That was to make the best Life Of Agony album.”
After forming in 1989, the band released two cassette demos and appeared on the legendary East Coast Assault compilation from Too Damn Hype Records with early Converge, Only Living Witness, Next Step Up, Disorder, early Merauder, Dmize, and others.
By 1993, Roadrunner released the iconic River Runs Red, a concept album completely conceived by Robert, who wrote and arranged all the music and lyrics. Having played drummer roulette, they borrowed Abruscato from Type O Negative. One song, “Method of Groove,” was a collaboration with labelmates and surging stars of crossover metal, Biohazard. Playing small to medium clubs, sharing a label with Obituary and Sepultura, touring with Madball and Dog Eat Dog—also on Roadrunner—Life Of Agony, a hardcore band with a keyboard and a powerfully crooning Caputo, was cherished by the hardcore and metal community. The fierce exposure of depression and suicidal ideation on tracks like “River Runs Red,” “Through and Through,” “The Stain Remains,” and really, the entire album front to back was a blessing for many distraught kids.
In 1995, the band released Ugly. The ferocity and torment were still there, but with all of the members writing—and Abruscato as full member—the songs were less aggressive and more polished. They acquired new fans from outside the hardcore scene—and bigger venues and shows followed—while many old fans responded to the isolation and depression furrowing through harder songs like “Damned,” “Lost at 22,” and the title track.
Soul Searching Sun followed in 1997 with a new drummer and a ‘70s vibe. The album recalled bands like The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and Pink Floyd. While the single, “Weeds,” was a classic Life Of Agony song, the rest of the album strayed further from the hardcore realm of monolithic rhythms and execution and helped the band go worldwide and embrace many other scenes and fans.
As Life Of Agony continued, other members’ writing produced songs that were slower, softer, and more whimsical. After breakups and other turmoil, leaving Roadrunner, a solo album from Caputo—which resulted in Ugly Kid Joe’s Whitfield Crane on vocals in Life Of Agony—Robert splitting time with Among Thieves and the rockabilly, rock ‘n’ roll influenced Spoiler NYC, and Z. focusing on Stereomud, Life Of Agony seemed to be left behind. In 2005, after a few live LPs and DVDs of reunions, they released a comeback album, Broken Valley, which sounded more akin to the hard rock of Stone Temple Pilots than their earlier output. The band seemed to retract again into their individual lives.
On A Place Where There’s No More Pain, a harsher, heavier, more combative Life Of Agony return. The album shows growth and finds the band indulging in an artistic freedom that only maturity and tenacity can birth. “This is an album of the best of Life Of Agony’s moments,” Caputo asserts. The production is big: big sound, big thick riffs, big grooves. This is pure Life Of Agony, echoing the undeniable classic, River Runs Red.
A Place Where There’s No More Pain was produced my Matt Brown. Caputo exclaims, “We’ve been friends with him since [we were] 15. He played in and produced Sal’s other band, A Pale Horse Named Death.” After over a year of recording, the album was mastered by Ted Jensen at Sterling Sound, a New York City powerhouse since 1968, who has worked with everyone from Chi-Lites to Dead Boys to Alan Parsons to Billy Joel.
A Place Where There’s No More Pain showcases each member’s defining attributes. Z. is known for his Kirk Hammett-esque wailing and piercing leads. Robert’s low-end thunder and unique groove looms heavy while Abruscato’s entrenched, pounding drums push the songs. There are even slower cuts like “Bag of Bones”—from which the album’s title is derived—which has a low-tuned grit to the guitars and a faster part for the bridge. There is support for Caputo’s statement that this is a mix of all Life Of Agony has to offer. “A New Low” embraces a dark and atmospheric thunder, a real ugly—ahem…—gnarly sound. It’s sludgy, reminiscent of Type O Negative or even Corrosion Of Conformity, but definitively Life Of Agony. It again gathers speed in the middle before reeling in a churning riff. Caputo boasts, “Each song has a different dynamic.” Of a lyric on “Right This Wrong”—“My wrath will come for you all”—she comments, “There is anger, forgiveness, and sadness in the record.”
This the first record from Life Of Agony in 12 years, and the first album Caputo has recorded with the band since her transition in 2008. Her tumultuous struggle with depression, drugs, and gender identity is reflected here, but all the members contributed, so it is not solely Caputo’s strain exhibited on the album. When comparing the ferocity of River Runs Red to this album, Caputo notes, “I definitely think there are bone-crushing moments, but the intention is different. This is dark lyrically, a kaleidoscope of emotions. The only thing which has changed is us: our musicianship, our experiences. I would hate to have the same tone on every record. That would be a fail.”
The ability to communicate intense emotions has always been Life Of Agony’s strongest trait, and that has not changed on A Place Where There’s No More Pain. “Just because I’m a transsexual doesn’t mean I don’t get angry, [that] I won’t want to punch you in the fucking face,” Caputo asserts. “I don’t follow any cliché stereotypes. ‘I don’t think that’s very womanly of you.’ Well, I don’t really give a fuck,” she laughs. “I can be very angry. I am a human being. I experience a slew of emotions in one day. Just because I’m feminine doesn’t mean I won’t grab my mic cord and choke you, ‘cause I will if I have to.”
Caputo establishes her individuality in these tumultuous times. “I don’t ‘stand against’ bullying. I bully the fucking bullies, OK?” she emphasizes. “That’s the difference between me and a lot of other people.” Translating that attitude to her vocals on A Place Where There’s No More Pain, she says, “There are a lot moments of angst on the record. Vocally, I get brutal as fuck. I out-sing all the boys—and all the girls. I get as real and as bloody as emotion can get.”
Though certain trademark elements of Life Of Agony are gathered on this album, a new fresh feeling is also portrayed. The anticipation from fans—balanced with the band’s own personal expectations—is cherished by Caputo as quickly as she excuses it. “People want Life Of Agony to be their own little secret,” she says. “That’s sweet, that’s special. I love our fans. But it’s nice to share things with the world.”
The metal fans seem to be more forgiving of change and growth than the hardcore kids, who often expect bands to stay the same, to remain niche, but Caputo thinks beyond those terms. “You can’t drag the past into the present,” she states. “People need to really listen with an open heart. Things are always changing, things are always new. People shouldn’t have expectations on how the band should sound—that’s obnoxious—just because we spoke to them on one level. [This album has] a lot of intense, great moments that speak of the past but in a more articulate way. We didn’t reach every destination we tried to musically [in the past]. People miss out with expectations. People are too dismissive too fast. It’s a sin. I would never do that to one of the bands I listen to, like Radiohead. What motherfucker is going to tell Thom Yorke what to do?”
“Time owns us,” she adds. “People who lack creativity don’t understand that. These songs were already written and were filtered out through us. I have some peculiar beliefs, I know. But that’s what makes me me.”
Overall, Caputo reports feeling liberated and easier to access these days. She acknowledges being sensitive to a world of hate and friction, which impacts her easily. However, new coping skills free her from much of the suffering that past drug and alcohol abuse did not allay. “I still get depressed. I still get anxiety,” she notes. “Music is the best drug for me. If I don’t pick up the guitar or sit down with the piano, I get very depressed. Songwriting is my ultimate high. [The peripheral responsibilities of music] are completely irrelevant: the shows, the tours, the interviews. I am here to write music.”
The music ties into Caputo’s ability to cope with the stresses of life, but much of the relief is due to her choice to transition. “I knew it and felt it. I can feel the wholeness of me now,” she says. The other component of finding relief from depression was the drive to want to. “I care about how I feel now,” she adds. “I care so much about feeling good. That’s where it starts and ends. Once you focus on and hone in on that—those two feelings—you have to go for the things that bring you good feelings and fun times in life. My anxiety comes from confusion. Politicians, bombings, people trying to blow us up, all this drives people berserk. And the regular people do not get the credit for it. We are holding it down, and they keep on fucking things up. We are confronted with infantile people running the world. It drives kids and parents crazy. Then, parents take it out on kids, and that’s how it all starts, the cycle. A lot of people don’t acknowledge how they feel so low. They ignore the pain.”
Caputo delves into the trauma of her childhood, sharing, “I came from—well, I lived with my grandparents, a major generation gap. My grandparents were Italian in Brooklyn. I lived that stereotype, right out of ‘Raging Bull.’ The shit I saw as I kid: my father drugged up, falling down flights of stairs, my grandfather beating up my father, beating up my grandmother. I can’t believe I made it this far. I can’t believe I survived all those beatings. I could remember how it scarred me, changed me. It made me depressed, made me feel unworthy. Some things in my life trigger me to go back into that childhood momentum. But you have to be your own pill, forget all the pharmaceuticals. That stuff will hurt your nervous system and your brain and your soul.”
Being an adolescent struggling with gender identity issues in this environment must produce PTSD. Growing up around those toxic masculinity-drenched situations must impose fear and trepidation on a young kid. “I was afraid my entire life to come out to my family,” Caputo confirms. “People knew I was eccentric. People maybe assumed I was bisexual. They always saw Keith with a girl by his side. But I was very feminine. I was never a masculine man. I could not cover up my femininity.”
“It took my whole life to get to the point where I had to stop feeling responsible for other people’s feelings,” she continues. “That was my breaking point. I just can’t give a fuck what other people think or say, even if I lose my career. I’ll throw everything away to be happy. I need to be open. I was too busy dying, not living. I need a happy being. That’s when I am most productive. I’m most productive when I’m happy—for no reason, just from living.”
Caputo is frank about her struggles with her assigned gender. “I couldn’t deal with playing this male role,” she says. “I couldn’t take it anymore. It sucked. I hated living as a guy.” This conflict of internal feelings and external presentation devoured Caputo and became a vortex of self-destruction. “I thought, ‘I’d rather be dead. Let’s start consuming lots of drugs and harming myself,’” she recalls. “I was not facing what I knew I had to face. I was afraid. There is no timetable on when one should be expressive or transsexual or homosexual—or even if you want to put a loop in your lip. Whatever. Expression is such a part of people’s humanity and experience here on the planet. A lot of people are living, they don’t remember their origin. We’ve been derailed. So, when someone like me pops up in their lives, it connects them to their own nature. And it frightens them.”
Caputo quickly appends these thoughts to contemporary society. She testifies to the separation of individuals from their feelings, their realities, as a significant chasm. “Pretty soon, women will give birth to babies with a phone in their hand. People are disconnected. Which, I also see the other half: I think a lot of people are awakening on the planet and tasting the true mystery of why we are here. It’s not to observe and ridicule. Society has it all wrong. As do our politicians and institutions, religions, food companies, corporations. Some kid has to die ‘cause some CEO wants to make another hundred grand.” Her frustration is palpable.
With A Place Where There’s No More Pain, Life Of Agony add a significant new chapter to their history, and consequently, their present. Soon, there will be tours and festivals around the globe. As soon as the Brooklyn and Boston shows were announced, they were sold out. Fans are rabid for new material, and A Place Where There’s No More Pain is vibrant and confrontational, grinding and liberating. The rage and disgust are ever-present, sure to appease older fans. The sound has returned to a heavy groove. The album cultivates Life Of Agony’s best qualities, presenting them from a new perspective of freedom and truth without losing the members’ intrinsic bite and snarl.