New Punk of New Haven: An Interview with Kelefa Sanneh, Author of "Major Labels"
Music journalist and critic Kelefa Sanneh records not only the history of modern music in his book Major Labels: A History of Popular Music in Seven Genres but also his musical upbringing in New Haven. Although he lived in the area for four years as a teenager, it was "the most important time” for his music discovery. He grew up creating a zine that "no one read" named ttttttttttt, cosplaying as a UK punk in the suburbs, and going to Rhymes Records before it was torn down and repurposed into part of (shutters) The Sh*ps at Y*le.
It was a treat to meet Kelefa at Archie Moore's while he stopped in New Haven to chat over some fries about his experience in NHV, CT punk history, and why people like rock music at all.
KELEFA: The record shop we loved the most in New Haven was Rhymes, which was on Broadway. There used to be a movie theater there and Rhymes was above it. It was very punk and indie. And then there was Cutler's, which was kind of whatever, and then there was Strawberries on Chapel by the Green for a little while. It was a four-story thing. Fascinating story, Strawberries was the biggest New England record store chain, and it was founded by this guy that turned out to be a criminal. I'm forgetting his name right now, but when he died, he was facing a ten-year federal sentence for extortion.
ZOE: Oh my God.
KELEFA: Yeah, it was a whole thing. It was the good old days when record stores were profitable enough for a criminal to get into it. They were all over New England. Rhymes closed probably in 91 or 92 or so, and that was really sad. We would sometimes go on school trips to Boston or New York, which was an easy way to get to record stores. I'm not feeling like this now, but we felt cool stuff was happening in other places and we were somehow stuck here.
ZOE: I feel like that's very natural, especially when you're an angsty teenager and in between two major cities.
KELEFA: I was 13 when I moved here, so it wasn't like I was doing cool stuff. But that said, there were cool record stores and venues here. Of course Toad’s, and this guy Fernando Pinto who did local punk shows. He booked this place called The Moon. You know where Edge of the Woods is? It was a couple places down from there. Nirvana played there – I was not at that show, but I saw Mighty Bosstones there. And then he moved to this place, Tune Inn, in Ninth Square. They did a lot of all-ages shows there, which was a big deal because most places were strict on 18+. The most memorable show we saw there was Heatmiser, Elliott Smith's old band before he went solo. Hardly anyone showed up to the show.
So whenever I would hear about stuff happening around here, I get so excited and slightly jealous. When Manic Productions started doing shows, I was like, that's incredible. And when they started doing The Space, and when Red Scroll Records opened up in Wallingford…. When I started hearing about the fourth-wave emo thing happening here, like The World Is a Beautiful Place and all that stuff, I kept an eye on the scene, even though I only lived here for four years.
In terms of Connecticut, the big record store when I was a kid was Trash American Style in Danbury. It was like a thrift store and used a record store. They also had this band called the Bunny Brains that at one point was on Matador. I remember they put out a new cassette every week. Tape culture, like 90 minutes. They were in the tradition of Butthole Surfers, very weird and strange.
ZOE: Did you see any zines come out of New Haven?
KELEFA: Most of my zines were mail-order through Factsheet Five. Maximum Rock and Roll, that kind of stuff.
ZOE: Did you play in any bands while you were here?
KELEFA: I made music with my friends, but I didn't play with them. I wouldn't do a show where people would come to see us. That's an important distinction. I feel like sometimes people say, you know, I was in a band, but we didn't have any fans. And maybe you're being modest, whatever, but what I'm saying is that there was not a single person there who was not my friend. We had different projects, one of them was some noisy stuff, and some goofy stuff. We played at Never Ending Books, but like I said, it wasn't a thing that anyone showed up to, literally zero. It was just some music we got up to ourselves. I think part of it was because I went to a boarding school. I wasn't a boarding student, but a lot of the kids at Choate weren't from Connecticut.
ZOE: What sort of shows were you going to in New Haven? You mentioned seeing The Ramones at Toad's in Major Labels.
KELEFA: That was the second concert in my life. My first concert was David Lee Roth from Van Halen.
It feels a little random why I even cared about the music I cared about then so much.
ZOE: What do you mean?
KELEFA: If you asked me when I was a teenager living here, I would be like, yeah, I'm really into punk. But punk was fifteen years old by that point, and I didn't know that these guys from Cheshire started this magazine called Punk that popularized the name. I didn't know any of those connections. And so the idea that a random kid in the suburbs was excited about the Sex Pistols 15 years after they were popular… that's why I wonder why that spoke to me as opposed to something else.
ZOE: I think punk and emo music is a very Connecticut thing. The Beeracks in East Haven is a mostly punk and emo spot that's been growing.
KELEFA: There is a particularly suburban tradition in American punk. It's what sets it apart from UK punk. If you think of hardcore, it's often suburban. New York hardcore, it's a separate thing. But you think of bands coming from the more suburban parts of DC…
ZOE: Midwest emo, too.
KELEFA: Yeah, but the original stuff, you think about The Descendents and Milo Goes to College and singing about having a suburban home. Even the idea of a garage band presupposes that you have a garage, right? There is a suburban tradition throughout American punk and punk-related music. From the Descendents all the way to Juice WRLD growing up outside of Chicago. Also, the idea of what it means to have a normal life. I think about The Descendents singing about wanting a suburban home and they're kind of joking, but maybe they wanted to end up in the suburbs. One of the things that make American punk a little different is that in the UK, it's a little more art school oriented, it's a little more freaky. And in America, there's an anti-freaky punk tradition here, too, like straight-edge, guys from Youth of Today wearing varsity jackets and sneakers.
I'm often struck by how punk shows are so polite and friendly. Growing up, part of the deal with punk was being an asshole.
ZOE: I feel like Warped Tour emphasized a culture where it was still sort of punk but still being super friendly and nice to each other with younger crowds.
KELEFA: Yeah, I remember going in the early 2000s to review it. They had the reverse daycare, that air-conditioned tent where parents could hang out and read the Wall Street Journal or whatever. The thing that blew my mind was that the Marines were there and they set up a chin-up bar where kids could line up to compete to see who could do the most for the Marine recruiter. I remember thinking, this is kind of amazing how this is so different from previous generations. This wouldn't have worked in a different context, but in this context, it fully works. This is actually a really helpful reminder that it's possible to reinvent this tradition. It's possible to make this tradition something else.
When punk really started in the 70s, it was obnoxious, like really obnoxious, literally swastika flags, sticking pins through faces, getting into fights, spitting at bands. It's funny that obnoxiousness faded, or changed. There's still an echo of it, but it's not as antisocial as it was.
ZOE: What sort of music do you associate with your time in New Haven?
KELEFA: I'm always on the lookout for what's happening in the area, like when Snowsa had Yankee Riddim. That was awesome to see. What I was listening to when I was living here was introduced to me by my best friend Matt. We were trying to find the weirdest stuff we could find or the noisiest. We got into a lot of the noise music coming out of Japan at that time.
We were trying to do our research. We would figure out what label a song was on and then look at everything that was on that label. It wasn't until later in college that I went back and tried to learn the history of punk and how it sounds in different places.
I thought there was normal music over here and cool, weird, punk music elsewhere. Eventually, I found that punk is actually normal. In a way, The Ramones are a pretty traditional rock band.
Rock is a traditional, central thing, compared to a dancehall reggae record or something that is actually much more radical in a sense. What we thought was "cool" was funny, like we wouldn't listen to Nirvana because they were some MTV band. But it's only later that I was like, well, that's not a coincidence. All these bands were getting signed and, yeah, our stuff was like underground, but also you would watch the Butthole Surfers on 120 Minutes on MTV. I didn't stop to think that the only reason I know about this is that it resonated with other people, in the same way it led to Nirvana being on MTV.
ZOE: Did you start piecing these historical genre pieces together once you got to Cambridge?
KELEFA: The radio station at Harvard was super scholarly, or pseudo-scholarly. If you wanted to join, you had to take a written exam.
ZOE: That blew my mind when I read that in your book.
KELEFA: There was a lecture every week with required listening. You had to listen to ten records and write about them. Learning the history forced me to think more comprehensively about punk music. I also had access to a record library. I could research what was happening in Australia then or learn how Bay Area punk differs from Southern California punk. Plus, having some older people who were patient enough to sit down and explain stuff to me and then be forced to learn it made a difference. You didn't have to like it, but you were forced to have a reaction.
Punk rock is a rebellion against rock music but also an attempt to purify and perfect it. That's kind of a paradox, but it comes out of that tradition that's not just conservative, it's actually reactionary.
Especially now, with all the kinds of music you can learn to like, why are you into rock music at all? What's that about? And I don't mean that's a question that has an answer. It has a lot of different answers and it's an interesting question. But to think about how often movements consider themselves rebellious have a reactionary part of them, thinking they're a part of a thing.
Part of the reason people rebel is that they believe the stuff being made is somehow inauthentic or pretentious. I thought I was into something interesting and different. But I also sensed that I had missed a lot of the "good stuff." Like how I loved Minor Threat and Dead Kennedys, Sex Pistols… and those bands had all broken up and I would never get to see them.
The early nineties was when hip-hop was exploding and somehow, that stuff sounded mainstream to me. So it was almost like, Yo! MTV Raps, wasn't it. Ice-T was one of my gateways into punk rock, and a few years later, I was like, oh, this is the best music in the world.
In a lot of ways, hip-hop is as radical as it gets, but partly because it was having this moment of success, it didn't seem important to me.
ZOE: What are you listening to these days?
KELEFA: It is pretty all over the place, and probably a little bit warped by work. I just wrote a piece about this guy HARDY, a country singer who's also trying to bring it back to this nu-metal kind of thing. His album is half country, and it switches to metal in the middle of the central track.
I'm always hearing stuff that's making me more curious about what's going on in music. What are you listening to?
photo credit: Jason Nocito
collage: zoe jensen