Words by Matthew Hutchison|Live photos by Samuel C. Ware
Friends of Rock & Roll available through Reptilian Records.
Hollywood, CA. Night two of the tour.
By John Brannon’s count, this is the fourth tour Dinosaur Jr has asked Easy Action to come with since 2017. What’s the reason behind the heavy demand? “I don’t know, man, and I’m not gonna say no to those guys; we’re doing something right to keep them asking,” Brannon quickly responds.
That’s a good answer given Brannon’s legacy of fronting relentless and punishing rock bands. Five days prior, Brannon and company were enabling crowd violence seven miles south of here over in downtown Los Angeles as their other form, Negative Approach. Upon completion of that West Coast tour, the Detroit quartet retreat to the Inland Empire until the run with Dinosaur Jr begins in San Diego.
Negative Approach and Easy Action are the same members, band economics in play. While Easy Action doesn’t play at the breakneck tempo of the former, their sound is colossal nonetheless
If Dinosaur Jr is for people who like volume swell, then they’re going to love Easy Action.
Doors are at 8:00. Easy Action soundcheck is at 7:30. Dinosaur Jr’s crew strikes the stage; the Detroit four set up off to the side. Guitarist Harold Richardson, usually donning an SG, swaps Gibson for a Fender Stratocaster. “The neck works best for Easy Action; this isn’t a hardcore band.” Drummer John Lehl is hoisting up parts of his assembled kit to a stagehand to place center stage, and Ron Sakowski is testing his SVT head. Brannon hops up the stage, the band runs through Cheap Trick’s “ELO Kiddies” and their own “Do It Cuz I Can” and “Do or Die” to get themselves dialed in and Brannon’s lynx howl warmed up.
Sound guy is happy, band is happy. Let’s open doors, it’s a sold out show afterall.
On the surface, the pressure is on. None of it fazes the Easy Action guys though, they’ve been through the wars before.
Word is that Clem Burke (Blondie) will be closing the night for an encore of The Stooges “TV Eye” alongside J. Mascis, Lou Barlow, and Brannon.” Richardson comments that last night in San Diego had Mario Rubalcaba (Earthless, Rocket From The Crypt, Off!) close it out with the same number.
9:00 pm hits to a hallway half-filled and growing. Easy Action takes the stage. The menacing hum from Richardson’s Sunn amp head permeates through the room as his mates ready themselves. Brannon walks up, does a glance across the room, and proclaims “Alright! We’re Easy Action from Detroit man, check it out.” as the opening drum roll and bass lead off to “Do It Cuz I Can” starts the night. For the next 45 minutes, Easy Action cuts through a no hold barred set. Brannon screams and howls over Richardson’s hard-charging riffs on “Kool Aide,” “Can’t Kill You,” and the universally applicable “Get The Fuck Outta My Way” among others.
Off stage, Easy Action are some of the most laid back guys out there. On stage, they look like four deranged miscreants whose sole purpose is to hurt you sonically. Brannon’s piercing scowl never leaves his face the whole set as he spits and snarls from an attack stance. Richardson﹘ back to the audience in a relaxed power stance﹘pulverizes the watching crowd alongside Sakowki’s driving bass lines all while Lehl holds the battery end down.
Easy Action live is the equivalent to a drag race; explosive, high-octane, and tight knit.
It took 32 years for Brannon to see Negative Approach get their due, all while the Easy Action era was in full swing upon the release of their landmark Friends of Rock & Roll LP. We’re now entering two decades of Easy Action, and some dividends are starting pay. Alongside these Dinosaur Jr tours giving them a new fanbase and renewed interest, Europe has come calling for the four as of recently. During a recent European tour, Richardson states that people were coming up to them after a double bill of the guys alternating between Negative Approach and Easy Action telling the band, “We love Negative Approach, but we like Easy Action just a little bit more.”
“That was a trip for me. I didn’t realize we had Easy Action fans over there. Now we have promoters in Europe saying they’ll happily book us once any release by us happens.” Brannon says.
With both bands consisting of the same four guys, booking efficiency comes into play. Lehl recounts a show in 2018 when Negative Approach and Easy Action were in London playing shows the same day, the later at the iconic Roundhouse opening for Dinosaur Jr. “The Easy Action show was at The Roundhouse, and the Negative Approach show the same night was a half-hour across town. We loaded in as Negative Approach and then immediately split with Thurston Moore in tow over to the Roundhouse to play the Easy Action show.”
Richardson comments, “We borrowed Dinosaur Jr’s gear for the Roundhouse and man, J’s set up made me face the audience, it’s that loud (laughs).
Lehl continues, “After the Roundhouse, we immediately jammed back across town and walked through the crowd all sweat covered from the last show. The opener just finished as we walked in, it was perfect timing.”
Another payoff comes in a commemorative 15th-anniversary release of Friends of Rock & Roll spearheaded by longtime Easy Action associate, Reptilian Records. Reptilian expands upon its original release with new color variations and visceral illustrations by the renowned underground artist & Amphetamine Reptile Records head man, Thomas Hazelmyer. Richardson credits Chris X (Reptilian proprietor) for getting the ball rolling on this from merchandise reorder and catch up phone call. Brannon is happy that he doesn’t have to worry about their stuff going out of print again.
“Hey, most of our live set is stuff from that album, makes total sense to do this!” Brannon proclaims.
With 15 years being a long time, I ask if they’ve listened back to the album since and what their current impressions are. “Oh, I don’t listen to it (laughs), they’re good songs though. It’s like hearing your first recording, it sounds good at first, but then it tapers off to where you don’t want to hear it anymore.” Richardson states.
Brannon elaborates this scenario further back than Easy Action “That’s funny you’re asking that. We went into a record store on a tour stop, and the clerk was playing the Negative Approach album Tied Down. I stopped in my tracks and said out loud, “Oh my god, I sounded like that?” I don’t listen to that shit at home. However, with the Third Man repressings of The Laughing Hyenas stuff, especially Hard Times, I gradually opened up to that album. At the time of that record, I was in a terrible place, and it was very rough hearing or even seeing that album. When I got the test pressings, it was the first time hearing that record in many years. That saying time heals wounds comes into play here, and I have a different perspective on that album now.”
All this came close to never happening though, the core of Easy Action﹘Brannon and Richardson﹘came a hair away from shelving the band due to the swelling demand of Negative Approach overshadowing the former, leaving their rhythm section bitter and departing in this wake.
How did this all start? To fully grasp where they are today, Brannon suggests starting at the beginning.
Towards the late 1990s, The Laughing Hyenas era ends on an anticlimactic note upon the conclusion of the Hard Times tour. The band scatters, guitarist Larissa Strickland moves to Florida to be with her parents who’ve fallen ill, drummer Todd Swalla relocates to Toledo, and bassist Ron Sakowski is married and working a steady 9-5 as a drywaller.
Brannon recounts where he was at around that time and his perception of the Hyena’s fate.
“I was a wreck dude, totally spent. We put everything we had in that band and succeeded at failure (laughs). My mental state wasn’t good with the drugs and various breakups with girls I went through, I was out of my mind and in a severe depression. That was a terrible point in my life. The Hyenas never really broke up; we just fizzled out. Larissa moved to Florida to take care of her parents, and Todd was out state and just not showing up for practice. It just didn’t become a priority for anyone, and it ran its course. We all knew it was over but didn’t acknowledge it at the time. Beyond Ron, we were all dealing with serious drug problems then and were sick of beating our heads against the wall to keep it going.”
Former Hyena and current Easy Action bassist Sakowski recalls his feelings during the Hyenas disintegration.
“I had this feeling it wasn’t productive after the last tour we did. Everyone had issues and was dealing with them their way. I sat in the background, got married, worked, and waited for phone calls, which never came. I felt bad about it, but I’m not a person to say to everyone, “Hey, we gotta get together, so clean up your shit so we can start playing again.”
Although the Hyenas were done, Brannon wasn’t and certainly didn’t want to stop altogether. Around this time, Brannon and Richardson became close acquaintances.With The Hyenas in twilight and Richardson splitting with his old group, Gravitar, the timing was appropriate to actually do something between the two, nothing too serious at first.
“We started Easy Action just as something fun to do initially. I was still holding on to Larissa returning from Florida and the Hyenas reactivating, the realization that it wasn’t happening hit, and it hit me hard. She had to care for her family. Once I realized it was over; that’s when I turned to Harold and asked, “Are we a hobby or a band?”
Richardson recounts, “Like John said, this began as something to pass the time. We had no initial thoughts of making it what it is now; we just needed something to do! At the start, we practiced out of this sweet abandoned doctor’s office called X-Ray 2 and just played stuff like Mott The Hoople, T-Rex, and droned off each other’s riffs.”
“We called ourselves X-Ray 2 for a while too, just trying to rip off Spaceman 3 (laughs). We just sat in that room under a lot of substance use and droned feedback. We got a lot of mileage out of one chord; it sounded cool, man.” Brannon adds.
To get things a little more official, the three reconvened with Sakowski to round out the fold. “Oh, that first year there no music writing at all, you gotta understand that,” Sakowski recounts. “When the Hyenas ended, I was married at the time and working drywall constantly and just distracted with my life. Doubtful, I could fit any time. Still, as John said, it was already falling apart with less and less contact happening between the members. My ex-wife and John’s then girlfriend were hanging out a lot during that time, so they would be like, “why don’t we get them together to play” and that’s how I got shoved towards Harold and John for Easy Action. “
Ha handful of originals are written to mix with the covers, and more shows across Michigan and the surrounding states ensue. Their demo tape passes through various hands and lands at the doorstep of Chris X, who without question signs the band to the Reptilian Records roster and releases their first single “Do It Cuz I Can” in 1998. It was a no brainer signing for X, being a longtime follower of Brannon’s past work (quoting Negative Approach as his favorite hardcore band of all time). Upon releasing the “Do or Die/You & Me” single the following year, X makes it clear to the guys Reptilian wants a full album ready ASAP.
“That was a surprise to us; we were like, “oh fuck, we’ve got to write some more songs now,” Brannon recalls.
With an album’s worth of material ready, the men enter Rust Belt Studios with Al Sutton at the helm to cut their eponymous debut. Sutton already acquainted with Brannon (who calls him “A total Michigan guy and a way cool dude”) with his past work on the Crawl EP by Laughing Hyenas. “He just came off doing that Kid Rock album [The History of Rock] that netted him a Grammy, and he turned Limp Bizkit away while he was tracking us (laughs),” notes Brannon.
Easy Action was released in 2001, and the band hit the Midwest and East Coast tour circuit in support with dates at SXSW for the Reptilian showcase alongside Dwarves, Cutthroats 9, and others.
In the wake of touring, personal setbacks and one of the most significant national tragedies curtailed the four. “9/11 happened, which really put the East Coast on hold, and the week before the tour, our drummer gets busted for hard drugs,” Richardson recalls.
Brannon recounts, “I just got out of jail as well and wasn’t supposed to leave the state. I was so paranoid, so whatever we booked had to coordinate with me being back in town for my PO meetings. It was a weird time to be doing shows, fucking risky business.”
With the band in touring mode, they played wherever they could and resulted in guerilla tactics to get on specific bills with old friends who had significant draw capability. Richardson recounts a Mudhoney show at Detroit venue, The Magic Stick that Easy Action just showed up at to jam with unannounced.
“We weren’t on the bill or anything; we just loaded the van and drove down unannounced (laughs). We just released a new single that week, so it made sense. Dave [Zania – The Magic Stick owner] sees us loading out and runs out, going, “You guys aren’t playing this, really?” Just at that moment, Mark Arm [Mudhoney guitars/vocals] walks by, and John grabs him and says, “Hey, can we play? We just got a new 45 out,” and Mark is like, “Yeah, that’s cool with me!”
Brannon continues, “We did that guerilla style (laughs), and Zania freaked. He’s telling us, “I can’t pay you,” and I told him we’d do this for free. He then gets even more anxious and says, “Well, I can’t have you do that, we’ll give you some beer,” and we’re like “hey, that’s an even better deal, man.” (laughs)
With Easy Action hitting the touring circuit as far west as Texas (a lot of Austin and SXSW offers they recall) for the next year or so, they steadily wrote material for what would appear on Friends of Rock & Roll. Enlisting the help of notable Detroit producer Jim Diamond (who still to this day, wishes Easy Action will record a new album), the band stepped into Diamond’s Ghetto Recorders Studio to make the follow up their debut.
“We’d known Jim just for being in Detroit. Obviously, you know he did the [Detroit] Cobras, The Dirtbombs, White Stripes, and others. So, we knew him from Easy Action playing shows with his band The Dirtbombs. We figured Friends of Rock & Roll would sound a lot different from the first record because of songs we were writing plus a different rhythm section,” says Brannon about the process.
“It definitely has a more soulful feel than the first album, Brad [Hales – bassist on Friends of Rock & Roll] had a style like that cause he was into both punk and soul music. It was also the first time John didn’t play guitar on an Easy Action recording too.” Richardson says.
Brannon adds more history,“A fractured arm around that time was the cause of that, so I that settled me on vocals only except for “Kool Aide” which I riffed on. I was able to write some of the guitar parts before the accident but passed them on to Harold, who could play it much better than I could. We wrote the first album to be a straight-up punk rock record, just having fun. After writing something as bleak as Hard Times, I think I bummed everyone out and wanted to change that.”
Easy Action toured heavily upon the album’s release in 2005. The following year, Negative Approach resurfaced, starting with Touch and Go’s 20th anniversary and the offers flooded from then. With the demand for Negative Approach tours and one-offs being so sudden and gaining strength, Easy Action began gradually going towards the back burner. Shows happened still but became more sporadic, leaving rhythm member irritated and eventually dropping out as the years progressed. Brannon and Richardson being deeply involved with Negative Approach playing more and more, a consideration to retire Easy Action was floated.
“Then the suits for Dinosaur Jr came calling” Sakowski states.
Brannon goes more in-depth. “We were doing so much with Negative Approach, that Easy Action rhythm members were getting pissed over how much attention we gave over them. Plus, it was fizzling out playing with those guys, I’m not getting into specifics here. Negative Approach came back from Europe and went to the practice space only to see that Easy Action’s drummer packed his shit and split. So at that point, we accepted we put Easy Action on the shelf while we’re doing Negative Approach strong. And then a little later, the Dinosaur Jr camp called us up and asked: “Would Easy Action like to go out with Dinosaur Jr?” Harold and I looked at each other and said, “Easy Action?? Uh, yeah!” So at that point, we go to Ron and say, “Hey, you want to come back to Easy Action?” And Ron’s like “Man, I gotta learn those songs again? The songs I helped write?”
With Sakowski rejoining his old band, the three turned to Negative Approach drummer, John Lehl, and offered him the full-time drum slot. Lehl, a Michigan native with time spent in The Meatmen and Chapstik accepted, and once again, Easy Action is complete. Only this time, they can switch easily between bands.“We had three weeks to learn a 30-minute set before the start of the first Dinosaur Jr tour, easy pull off” Lehl comments.
“And here we are, slugging it out for 20 years and celebrating at The Fonda Theatre on our fourth tour with Dinosaur Jr,” Sakowski happily states.
With the group back in full form again, the lingering question about new material is brought up.
“I see another Easy Action record happening,” Brannon responds.
“We just can’t tell you exactly when though.” Sakowski snaps back humorously.
Brannon continues, “True, but like with everything man, it’s the timing. We’ve had an offer to be on Amphetamine Reptile’s Dope Guns n’ Fucking compilation for 2020; we need to get in the studio to bang out a new track for Tom Hazelmeyer. The material we’ve got new is enough to keep it going for a couple of years. We’ve had a few offers from different labels saying, “GIVE US ANYTHING!”
Reinforcing the notion that yes, a new album is coming, Richardson speaks his peace. “We’ll get to it. I’ve got a feeling that when it happens, it’ll come hard and fast.”
The mystery is solved, at least for now.
After Easy Action’s set, Lehl and Richardson man their merch booth. The line swelling to grab whatever shirt (recommend the Mitch O” Connell “Do or Die” design personally), LP, or CD they can. Copies of the red colored Friends of Rock & Roll just came in today too, just in time.
Kids come up and take pics with Richardson as Lehl and I watch the final encore of the set from the back. Burke is blasting through this Stooges cover, wasn’t aware this guy was capable of this speed. “Whoa,this is way faster than last night,”” Lehl says in amazement while Richardson nods in agreement.
Night two is in the books; that’s it for me. For the other guys, nine more shows, more converts await from Phoenix to Baltimore.
In the meantime, get the fuck out of their way