For a few years, there was an amazing record store called Sound & Fury on Orchard Street on the Lower East Side. They also hosted numerous live performances (some collected on a VHS tape that someone really should digitize one of these days). It was there that I saw a political hardcore band by the name of Yaphet Kotto, shortly after the release of their first album, The Killer Was in the Government Blankets.
It was a good time for political hardcore, and the bracing, tautly played songs that this four-piece played were among the best out there. This piece at Punknews makes the case that Yaphet Kotto was”the best band many of you have never heard of.” This interview was conducted at Sound & Fury with singer-guitarists Casey Watson and Mag Delena, bassist Scott Batiste, and Pat Crowley.
Can you guys give me a history of the band; tell me how long you’ve been around, and how you got together?
Casey: Well, we started about two years ago, with a different drummer. We went through a different drummer… It was about a year ago that Scott joined the band, and we toured last summer. Before that, we put out a seven inch.
Mag: Basically, we all lived in Santa Cruz at the same time, so we all went to the same shows and were into the same bands.
Were any of you in bands before this one?
Casey: Me and Mag were in a band together before this. That band pretty much came into this band.
Have you all known each other for a while, then?
Casey: Me and Pat have known each other since junior high.
Scott: I’ve known Pat, because he used to play in these…like….kid bands, when we were really young. We used to do shows together. We were…like…the darlings, or something.
What were your experiences like touring last summer? Did you go out with anyone?
Casey: Well, we toured for two weeks with Seein’ Red, and those were all excellent shows. When we split up, it was really hard to get shows; we pretty much played every other day all the way back to California. There were good shows: Minneapolis and we met up with some friends in Calgary. It was rough.
How long has the LP been out for?
Casey: A few months. We recorded it six months ago; last September.
When did Ebullition talk to you about doing a record with them?
Casey: It was about a year and a half ago, I guess. We always played in Goleta; it pretty much turned into our hometown, in a way.
Mag: The first time we proposed it to him was in the winter of ’98. February ’98.
Patrick: We played down there all the time, and we built this relationship, did the record…
How’s this tour gone so far?
Scott: It’s gone way better.
Casey: We set it up ourselves. We had more control this time.
Do you think having the record out has helped?
Patrick: Yeah, because last summer, we didn’t have any merchandise at all to sell.
Casey: We had some shirts. It’s been a help having the record; I guess people know us now.
This is something that I’ve been asking a lot of bands who are politically minded: when did you start to become politically active?
Patrick: Do you mean in terms of music, or just in general?
Patrick: For me, it pretty much came from going to school and learning about everything going on in society, and realizing how fucked up everything was. Just coming to terms with myself and with life.
Mag: For me, it’s a lifetime of experience. Being a black male in the United States of America, the struggles that I’ve had to go through, and show what I’ve seen to other people and share my identity… I wasn’t verbal about it until I got into hardcore. Going through the school system, I didn’t feel that I had a voice; I was taught to not speak up, not to fight against the system, if you will.
What first got you into hardcore?
Mag: I was into college rock, at first. Then I went to a punk show in ’89, ’90… The fact that everything was self-contained; they did everything themselves. You and the band were on the same level. The band would play, and after they were done, they’d be standing behind you. It was a joint effort for everything, and that’s what I got attracted to. Ever since then I’ve been going to shows, hanging out with people…
Are all of you originally from Santa Cruz?
Casey: Us three are.
Mag: I’m from parts unknown. I don’t claim Santa Cruz.
How old are all of you?
Mag: I’m very old. My age is kind of a mystery; I like to keep it that way.
What do all of you do outside of the band?
Casey: I work making body piercing jewelry.
Scott: I work in a machine shop. I’m in a band, and I skate.
Patrick: I sell drugs and drug accessories. (laughter)
Mag: I’m a nuisance. I work in a café; I just recently got into computers and graphic design, and I try to pull the wool over the government’s eyes as much as I can.
Patrick: And I paint.
What’s Santa Cruz like?
Patrick: Basically, it’s a tourist town with college kids that live there. Rent is really high… If you don’t fit into nice categories, or you’re not a corporate person, you’re pretty much fucked.
Casey: We have a two-bedroom house that’s fairly big, and it’s about $1500.
Do all of you live there?
Casey: No; this is me and my girlfriend and two other housemates.
Scott: I live in San Francisco.
Mag: Yeah, only two of ‘em live in Santa Cruz. I live in Oakland.
How far is that from Santa Cruz?
Scott: An hour, hour & fifteen minutes.
Is there a scene near you, or did you end up playing a lot of shows in Goleta because of the lack of one?
Scott: Yeah. San Francisco’s kind of dead, and Berkeley has Gilman, but that’s all. I don’t really have a comment on that.
Mag: I feel that everything in San Francisco and Berkeley is very exclusive. Everything’s already been established, so if you don’t fit into those categories-crusty or hardcore or whatever-at the time that you’re trying to play music, they don’t really accept you. We found that, through all of Santa Cruz, there was a lot of competition; there were a lot of big bands in Santa Cruz. We didn’t want to have anything to do with that. So, by default, we went south and played in Goleta, and the reception was amazing. So we’ve gone down there a lot; we don’t really play around Berkeley at all.
Casey: The show that we had shows at in Santa Cruz, we had to move out of. It’s been hard; there’s a veteran’s hall, but it’s really expensive. You’ve got to have big-name bands come through to get it. We’ve been so busy that it’s been hard just to get another place to have shows.
Patrick: The three of us lived in this one house in Santa Cruz at three different times over the span of three or four years. We all did shows there, regularly, since 1995. That was pretty much the only place for any small band that didn’t want to deal with any rock club bullshit to go. There were a lot of good shows at this house. 328. That’s it.
Casey: A few years ago, shows were really exclusive in Santa Cruz. There were people who did shows who were college kids, who would only do shows for their friends. So if you didn’t know them, you wouldn’t know about shows.
Patrick: That’s another reason that we all got together. There were probably ten of us that banded together throughout the years to break that wall, because we were so pissed at not being able to go to these shows and miss these bands that we all cared about because some pretentious assholes wanted to have it for themselves. So that’s been our mission for the past couple of years.
Casey: It became more of a “cool”, secluded thing; the kids were really “cool”-they weren’t into communities. It’s not like how it should be; they were really against it. That’s basically how Yaphet Kotto spun off into being a band; to destroy that.
When you were playing before, you spoke about not wanting to have labels put on you, and I think that musically, that definitely comes off; was your sound a conscious decision, or something that evolved over time?
Patrick: We all listen to so much different music…
Scott: We listen to a wide spectrum of shit.
Casey: It clumps together.
Mag: I wish we’d thought about it; that would mean that we have a talent for it. (laughter) It just happened, basically.
Casey: It’s more flexible for us; we can play with a lot of different bands, and we have. It works out really cool.
Patrick: For me, that’s the music that I love listening to. I feel like the music; for me, the music is all feeling, so…
What have you guys been listening to lately?
Patrick: In my walkman, I’ve been listening to the Cure on the road. I’ve been listening to heavier music, heavier punk. Like Systral.
Casey: All I’ve been listening to on tour is Turning Point, Entewetak, and Systral and Morser. That’s my tour repertoire.
Scott: A lot of Three Mile Pilot, Isotope 217, Party of Helicopters…
Mag: I listen to mix tapes, but I’m not going to list off all of the bands. Regulator Watts, Samuel, 1.6 Band, Crom Tech. Just recently, we got a demo from a band…I can’t pronounce the name. The Pontiac, Michigan band.
Casey: Voglio Capirlio.
Mag: I’ve been listening to that one.
What made you choose “Yaphet Kotto” as the band’s name?
Mag: Eight years ago, a friend of mine and I were fascinated with Yaphet Kotto. I have no idea why. I think it was mostly appearance; he had this hair thing… We always said that if we had a band, we’d call it Yaphet Kotto. So then, when this band spawned, it was first myself and Patrick. We were playing with another drummer, who was originally the first drummer for this outfit. We didn’t have a name, and I suggested Yaphet Kotto. That band rolled into this band; we were thinking about names, and I said, “Okay….once again, Yaphet Kotto”. At the time, it meant nothing. But then, I was in a discussion with a friend of mine who’s a film major, and we talked about the roles that black actors play and how they’re presented in films today. They’re basically set into one small category, which is-and this is my opinion only-police, who die immediately or end up dying. Or they’re the main characters, but they have a white sidekick. There’s always something that sells you to white America. Okay, they’re an authority figure. Okay, they’re dead; they’re not harmful. Or they have a white sidekick, so they’re “okay”.
Who writes the lyrics in the band? Are they written by whoever’s singing?
Mag: Yeah; that’s basically how we do it.
Can I ask some lyrical questions, about some lines that I was curious about?
The line “justified segregation from your retired number”-I was wondering what that was in reference to.
Casey: ’97 was the fifty-year anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s breakthrough into the major leagues. They celebrated it, and retired his number, and put a plaque in the hall of fame; all this stuff. I obviously don’t think that black people should ever have been segregated out of the major leagues, so for them doing that-to me-seems like they’re trying to cover up everyone’s eyes and say that it was a good thing. And it was a good thing under the circumstances, but I don’t think that it should have ever happened in the first place. They turn it into this really good thing, when in actuality, it was a very bad thing. So they’re justifying it for future generations; we’re supposed to be happy that there was segregation, that all this shit went on. Just forget about it, pretty much. The line “justified segregation from your retired number” means just that: his retired number and that plaque are their justification of the segregation of America.
There’s also the line “your idle actions killed your revolution”; I was wondering if that was a reference to anything specific.
Casey: Well, it’s about people who talk this talk of change; they have the slogans, but all they ever do is sit around and talk shit about people who are doing things. Revolutions are killed by this: people sitting around, not doing jack shit.
Is the album’s title, The Killer Was in the Government Blankets, a reference to the government putting smallpox in blankets [as part of an effort to reduce the Native American population]?
What made you pick that as the title for the album?
Mag: I was in a band, and that was the name of the band. The premise of the whole project that we were working on was to-I’m not going to say “educate people”-basically, to speak up about all of the atrocities that had been committed against the native people in America. This was back in ’95; it was when a lot of emotional hardcore-“emo”-hit the scene, so we wanted to stay as far away from that as possible and be as reactionary as we possibly could. Unfortunately, that band never spawned, but I wanted to carry that on to this band. The same thing’s true of “Natchez Burning”. That was another band; that was about the atrocity that took place in Mississippi in the 1960s, during the civil rights movement. I’m not going to say that we’re a political band, but there are issues that we all feel strongly about, and incorporate that into our lyrics. I’m not here to preach; we just take all of our emotions and feelings and let them come out. But that, carried over from the last band that I was in…I thought it was important to get those out there. I think I should have been more clear about them, but…
What do you have planned for this coming year?
Casey: We have a split seven inch with Murdock coming out on Push-Pull, and we have a split seven inch with Jenny Piccolo on Dogprint. We have a seven inch coming out on Unleaded, and a split seven inch with Suicide Nation. And something with Born Dead Icons, but I’m not sure what. (Editor’s Note-many of these projects have fallen through. A recent conversation with Casey gave me the following information:” the suicide nation split is on council records, there’s no split w/ jenny piccolo on Dogprint, possibly Unleaded, and an LP on Ebullition for the summer”.)
Scott: Play shows.
Any plans to tour again this year?
Casey: We haven’t really talked about it much.
Do you have anything to say in closing?
Casey: You’re the first person who’s ever asked us to do an interview. Thank you.
Patrick: Can I say something like a joke?
If you want.
Patrick: I’ve got a funny one. Ready? (pauses) I don’t have time. Forget it.
Casey: Shouts out to Rachel Cuellar.