YA talks with Jeff Jelen, Kirk Syrek and Frank Hanney of MK-ULTRA:
MK-Ultra was instrumental in the development of the 90′s Chicago HC scene. How did the band form and what was the social climate like then in terms of music, attitudes, ideas, etc.?
J: Jeff Bachner, Gary and I knew each other from being in a band in the late 80′s/early 90′s. Jeff joined the Army on a dare and I ran away from society by living in DeKalb. After many drugs and psychiatric sessions I managed to wipe those years out of my head completely, but I do have a vague memory of creating Kirk a la Weird Science from an issue of Kerrang! Magazine. Eventually Jeff B. decided he did not enjoy being cannon fodder for the system so he got himself a nice discharge and headed back to the US to start a band with us.
K: The beginning of MKU was pretty rough and it took us a while to figure out our sound. At the time (1993) we were a part of a very tough-guy, moshcore scene. We had different ideas about politics than most of those bands and thus we kind of made it a point to reject our peers.
F: I weaseled my way into the band. Kirk and I were roommates at the time, but Jeff Bachner was the vocalist for MK-Ultra. Musically they wanted to go to a more hardcore sound and Jeff [Bachner] was interested in a more industrial (for lack of a better term) sound. I just bugged Kirk into letting me do it. I always wanted to sing for a hardcore band and had absolutely nothing going on in my life.
[...] I liked the more chaotic, harder, faster, louder approach of those early 80’s scenes. When we started to discover bands like Born Against, it was refreshing to hear that messier, faster music again and the lyrics and the artwork were especially inspirational. It’s obvious that Born Against were a big influence on MK Ultra.
MK-Ultra’s music developed continuously over its existence, and even though there are certain aspects consistent in the sound throughout the bands history, each recording is very different from its predecessor. To what do you attribute those developments?
J: I bought a Tascam 424 and had no idea how to use it which led to the recording of our first 7″. This all explains the drastic change in sound. Jeff B then got run over by a truck on his bike and was hospitalized for a long time forcing him to quit the band. Frank was a squirrel kicking, cement block-throwing psychopath so we thought he’d be a good replacement. Jeff would then play samples and noises etc full time.
K: The demo to the first 7” is like night and day. It was a completely different style/band. I wasn’t really happy with the way the band was at the beginning. I wanted it to be harsher and more aggro, which is basically why I started to sing (scream) back up vocals. I wrote our first “fast” song and we all agreed we wanted to move in that direction.
F:We were not really overly concerned with the recording quality. There was a lot of us saying, “Fuck it, it’s good enough, just leave it.”
One of the defining aspects of the 90’s seems to have been an emphasis on political content and an overriding “message” behind what a band was doing. What role did this play for you and what was a typical audience reaction to one of your performances?
J: I had no interest in politics. I’ve always liked Frank’s lyrics but ultimately I was there just to have fun. I remember one show the theme was to put an end to Shell Oil. Afterwards the 3 touring bands fueled up at the Shell by the highway. We had a good laugh about it. I mean what are we gonna do, drive across town to the nearest DIY gas station? Somebody has to build those 6 star hotels for the poor Saudis. I do think most people at our shows were there to have fun as well and we always seemed to get a positive reaction, which I was always grateful of. Most of the people that attended hardcore shows in the 90’s had pretty normal lives, some coming from not so great childhoods and most of them with jobs they didn’t like.
K: During this time political banter was accepted. We did have some pretty rough out of town gigs where people just wanted us to “shut up and thrash”, but it never really stopped us from saying what we wanted to say. It was because of our politics and lyrical outspokenness that Martin decided to put out our 2nd record on Lengua Armada.
The Internet has contributed greatly in erasing any sort of
“Powerviolence” and a resultant widespread dispersal of stylistic regurgitation. How do you define the Chicago style of the 90′s, is it relevant today, and where are we now in terms of music?
J: One thing I like about the late 90′s scene is that it was a natural progression from what was going on in the 80′s. I’m not sure if it was the Internet or just a reaction to blast beats but the 00′s led to a total 80′s worship, which was great and there were some fun bands coming out but it all seemed like a reenactment to me. The Internet has killed all the local record stores, which were crucial in finding out new music and grabbing flyers to find out where the shows were that weekend. And with the Internet everyone is an expert. Cut and paste on a blog and suddenly you are an expert on any topic.
K: In another 5-10 years the new batch of kids will have no idea how it “used to be” [pre-Internet]. You say the Internet will erase any sort of regional style, but I disagree. DIY kids still appreciate and support local bands. Back then all the ‘zines would mainly talk about Capitalist Casualties, Spazz, MITB, Assuck, Devoid of Faith, Dystopia, etc, but I was always way more stoked on Crudos, Bronson, MK-Ultra, My Lai, Billy Builders, Kung Fu Rick, Pretentious Assholes, Ambition Mission, Mushuganas. Chicago had a crazy scene with lots of great bands. The Internet just can’t provide the camaraderie that being a part of a thriving scene like that creates.
F:At the time, the center of our culture was the all-ages show. We watched each other’s bands competing to be cool the way that young adults do. I wanted to be Martin or Mark more than I wanted to be Frank because Crudos and Charles Bronson were cooler than MK-Ultra. We all pushed each other to play faster and faster, because it was fun! Listen to the first Crudos recordings and then listen to their side of the split EP with us – it’s like night and day! We all fed off of each other. But what passed for a regional style were really just 20 or so hyper-involved people, right?
There is a consistent power in the lyrics that speaks to the pointless frustrations of life that we either subject ourselves to or are forced upon us. One question though is why do we tolerate it? And what purpose beyond a mere platform for complaining about self-induced victimization does hardcore serve?
K: Why do we tolerate anything? Because we feel helpless we can’t change things, thus we find a way to deal with them or push them deep down inside. The time from ‘94 to ‘98 was a pretty crazy period for me. Lots of positive and negative things happened that impacted my life greatly. I was in my mid 20’s; I was going through changes that most people had already started to embrace. Mainly, a lot of those first angst ridden songs were written when Frank and I lived together. We basically lived and breathed hardcore punk 24 hours a day. We would discuss how our lives were so strange and fucked up and we tried to figure out how we would end up or fit into the future.
F: Lyrics served as a catharsis. Expressing that desperation and hopelessness, especially screaming about it in such a primal way, was fitting to release that pressure.
Hardcore is essentially limited philosophically because of the musical limitations. The structure of songs (or lack thereof) only allows for expression of those most primal feelings. The vocalist has to get in and get out quickly and there just isn’t time to have a measured and nuanced conversation within the confines of a 20 second song.
The most successful lyricists within hardcore match the lyrical content to the feel of the music, and that means just gushing forth with the frustration and steam that builds up on a daily basis. Some of my favorite all time hardcore bands have terrible lyrics, really. I mean, I’m not going to find the answers to life’s nagging existential problems in Negative FX lyrics. There aren’t really many answers in MK-Ultra’s lyrics either, but I tried to express something different and to expand the parameters of what topics are acceptable within the hardcore world.
One heated issue of the 90′s that’s all but forgotten today was the topic of “white guilt”. There seemed to have been a pervading belief that not only were our recent (albeit ambiguous) ancestors guilty of various social injustices but that we ourselves–the white suburban middle class–have inherited their blame and therefore had to bear the burden of the underclass. How did this all come about?
J: It was some sort of superhero complex. Many punks and kids into hardcore subconsciously felt intellectually superior to the underclass and that it was their duty to help them rise up from the tyranny. Being inconsequential, these attitudes are pretty harmless but there were a couple bands that took it a little too far, alienated themselves from their fans and basically just looked ridiculous. In the end though it was worth it because now we are all treated equally.
F:The underlying issue of hardcore—and any sort of youth culture scene for that matter—is finding one’s identity. It’s an extended adolescence for a lot of people and that’s perfectly fine. Hardcore is a way of talking about and negotiating the meaning of our adult lives. It’s a way of asserting who we are and how to survive as thinking, caring people within a world that often doesn’t value thinking and caring.
Within the framework of talking about identity, I have the privilege of not having race as the primary identifier of my identity. Defining myself as “white” is hardly within my vocabulary, so I guess I benefit from “white privilege” since being “white” is considered normative. The fact that I am of mixed European heritage didn’t allow for much special advantage economically or socially. When MK-Ultra was active, I felt tremendous scorn for other bands that pointed to race as the defining issue of identity, perhaps a bit naively. I just thought racism was silly to discuss to a predominantly hardcore crowd since it had been done to death.
There are some unconfirmed tales of the band: Is it true MK-Ultra’s tour van had its engine stolen from a random vehicle, which was then quietly abandoned in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green? Is it true that your first drummer Gary used to bash random stranger’s faces into the tires of his car for kicks on Friday nights? Did Jeff really steal the wallet of a college drunk who mistakenly rang his doorbell bell until he passed out on the doorstep?
K: Yes, it is true that our engine was stolen, but we PAID to have it stolen. We didn’t jack it ourselves. Do you think we are a bunch of savages or something? Might I add that our van had over 300,000 miles on it before it started coughing up blood? I don’t think there’s anything Gary didn’t bash, but my favorite was watching him try to convince homeless crust punk girls to buy the pink MK-Ultra shirt saying, “c’mon, it’s pink—you’re a girl!” Also, I would like to point out that Jelen didn’t actually steal the wallet. He just took the money inside of it…oh and he took the guys sunglasses and pizza too. You forgot to mention the drunkpunks in Grand Rapids launching dog shit off of the roof at Charles Bronson and us, probably because we didn’t have dreadlocks and “ausflaps”.
You have all remained active within music, but now that you’re all coming up on or have passed your mid-30′s, what enduring beliefs–if any–formed in those early times persist to this day?
F:It seems that 95% of the people in the world are just waiting around for something- anything- to happen to them, rather than actively making something happen. What I’ve taken from DIY hardcore is that I have some agency in my personal life and in life in general. Rather than sitting back and criticizing, we can become the change that we want. This applies to just about everything in life.
J: If you have an idea—a song or anything creative, just do it. Regardless of talent or acceptance. You might be embarrassed of some shitty record you did in the past but it’s better than regretting some opus you never completed.
K: Even at age 36, I feel I still don’t fit in. At the same time, I know that many “true” punks wouldn’t consider me the same as them. Maybe they would consider me a sell out, but really I haven’t changed the way I feel about Politics, Life, Relationships, etc. over the years.
Lately there has been a resurgence of interest in 90′s HC with various retrospective books, reunion shows, and vinyl reissues. To what do you attribute this attention to beyond people’s clinging obsession with cultural history?
K: It all comes back around full circle. People revert back to their roots when they get bored of what’s current. Younger kids need a reference point of when they got into the scene. Typically though, it seems these kinds of books glorify or feature a lot of bands that have nothing to do with DIY hardcore. Similar to high school, the cool/hip kids get all the attention and the nerds get ignored. We are the fucking nerds.
J: People just want to stay active in their scene or create a scrapbook of their adolescence, you know, the good old days and there’s nothing wrong with that. You hit 30 or 40 and you go “things kind of suck now” and you want to show the kids what it was really like back in the day. This is not only for Punk but all genres of music.
F:Nostalgia is human nature. We look around at the world we see now and think that the good old days were better. They weren’t. There’s also that feeling of the familiar, which is pervasive in nostalgia. It feels good because it’s familiar, because it perhaps brings up good memories, because you can sing along to it. That’s fine. [...] But really all the audience wants is that one night stand, if that.
Why did MK-Ultra break up? Now with nearly a decade passed, what is your most fixed memory of the band?
J: The other day we were trying to remember [why we broke up]. Even though we all knew it was just time to do something different we decided it was all Kirk’s fault. I can’t remember what city it was but one show I’ll never forget is when all these emo kids decided it was cool to sit in front of the stage while the bands played. Frank found a football helmet in back and came out tackling all of them.
K: We had been together for 7 years. Our style was shifting. It had pretty much run its course. The scene was changing and so were we as individuals. People in the band really wanted to start something new and play different styles. My moving away was used as a scapegoat or catalyst for this to happen, I guess.
F:There were certainly some high points, such as playing with Dillinger 4 in Minneapolis at the museum, the More Than Music Fest, and Los Crudos’ second to last show, but I really treasure the time that I spent with like-minded people, growing up and making sense of the world. I definitely credit their friendship with helping me through the transitory phase from adolescence to young adulthood. Surviving those times would have been infinitely more difficult without Kirk, Jeff, and Ebro to lean on.
Kirk made a remark recently about how everyone inevitably abandons their hopes and dreams in life and fails. For the most part, have your lives played out the way you imagined them to since MK-Ultra?
J: I’m still alive so, no. I suggest always keep your standards low so that you will never be disappointed.
K: Success is relative to the individual. I have always seemed to maintain a “failure” outlook despite trying to better myself. Nothing in life is free. Everyone is a failure in some aspect. Nothing is ever as it seems and someone else is always better off than you. However, that is what makes an individual continue to fight. Ever notice how even the most “successful” people melt down? Has my life played out the way I imagined it? Fuck no. Did yours? Has anyone’s? Well, maybe Ebro’s has. He’s so mysterious.
F:Yes and no. We imagine how life could be and either try to achieve it or make decisions that take us away from those goals or we discover that those goals are not what we really wanted in the first place. Imagination has a way of glossing over the details.
Most of you have remained in the Chicago area or at least until the past few years. How have your surroundings impacted your goals? What does aging mean for you?
F:I live in Arizona now, a transitory sort of place. Most people out here have come from somewhere else. There isn’t a tremendous amount of history or continuity from which to draw inspiration.
K: There was a period where I lived in Memphis. The south is so much different than anywhere else I have ever been. The traveling was my favorite part of being in this band. Aging is similar. Being in these different places makes you see and appreciate what you have. The older I get it makes me analyze what I have, what I want out of life and what I have already accomplished. It can be very depressing at times to think, “I should have done this or that”, but really I could die tomorrow and be happy knowing that I got to experience a lot of different things in life.
J: Chicago is a great city to live in if you are ambitious and/or very lazy like myself. My goals are pretty simple so I can honestly say it fits my needs perfectly. Musically however it’s been cursed ever since the British stole rock and roll from it and left it for dead. Can anyone name one great band that ever hailed from Chicago besides Zoetrope? I can’t. It’s also a very “fake” city. You have to own a car here because the public transportation system is a joke. Huge chain grocery stores dominate every neighborhood and sell rotting produce for twice the cost of any locally owned produce store and there are very few corner stores where you can go and pick up a couple days worth of groceries—unless of course all you’re planning on eating is grape soda and red hot Cheetos. There’s also not too much in the way of culture unless you think beanbags, brats, Bud Light and countless frat dudes from Indiana are exotic. All that being said, I would not want to live anywhere else in the U.S. besides New York City.
Statues Demo (Bleeding Ear Records, 1994)
Stick Figure 7″ (self released, 1995)
Melt 7″ (Lengua Armada Discos, 1996)
Network of Friends Part 3 CD/LP with Seein’ Red (Coalition Records, 1998)
Split 7″ with Los Crudos (Lengua Armada Discos, 2004)
· All That…And A Bag O Dicks 7″ (Disgruntled Records, 1993
· No Royalties LP (Bad People Records, 1996
· Vida-Life: Benefit 7″ for Project Vida 7″ (Lengua Armada Discos, 1997
· Blindspot Mailorder Distro CD (No Idea Records and Toybox Records, 1997)
· Limited Options…Sold as Noble Endeavors: Benefit Compilation 10″ (Half-Mast Records, 1997
· The 49th Parallel CD (Disillusion Records / Lake Eerie Hi-Fi, 1997), re-released on LP (Old Glory Records, 1998
· Bllleeeeaaauuurrrrgghhh!: A Music War 7″ (Slap a Ham Records, 1998), later re-released on CD as Bllleeeeaaauuurrrrgghhh!: The CD (Goatsucker Records, 2003
· Reality Part #3 CD/LP (Deep Six Records, 1999)
· Thrash of the Titans LP (Know Records, 2000)
· Tomorrow Will Be Worse Volume 2 LP (Sound Pollution Records, 2001)
· Chicago’s on Fire Again 7″ (Lengua Armada Discos, 2001)
· Deadly Sins 4×7″ (Hater of God Records, 2001)
· Off Target CD (Coalition Records, 2004)
“Melt”: YouTube link