All photos used with permission from Brad Cox. Header photo: original by Kristina DeSantis.
Brad Cox is a vocalist, guitarist, songwriter, and frontman for a number of bands, including Skitzo Calypso and We Love The Underground. He’s had his hand in writing and releasing over a dozen albums from the mid-1990s all the way to the present. When I first met him, it was at a concert in Baltimore earlier this year with Skitzo Calypso. His energy was contagious, and even though I wasn’t familiar with any of the band’s songs, I couldn’t help but watching what he’d do next. Exploring more of Skitzo’s music, as well as his newer solo project, We Love The Underground, I have discovered just how talented and tenacious Brad Cox is. That’s why I was thrilled when he agreed to be interviewed for Better B#!
Take a few minutes and get to know this fellow a little better. You’ll be glad you did.
I’d like you tell us the story of Brad Cox. How did you begin this crazy adventure in rock n’ roll?
In a nutshell, I grew up in a very religious household, so rock n’ roll became my escape. From a very young age, my parents really didn’t want me listening to certain types of music; I naturally became drawn to it. At 18-years-young (August 10th, 1996), I packed my little red Toyota Tercel and left for Los Angeles, California with an acoustic and some clothes; this is what my heroes did. I followed suit. I really didn’t know what to expect, but each moment was pulsating with energy, excitement and fear – everything was surreal and amplified. It made me feel alive; I’m still drawn to these types of gambles. The first Skitzo Calypso song I recall writing was a song called, “Blinds.” So, from there, I just started writing lyrics, like a diary. When I returned home, I began putting music and arrangements to these muses.
While in California, I had a band called Ananda with now-professional surfer, Sharon Schaffer. She was a mover and a shaker actress, living in Playa del Rey; she had a hell of a voice. My step-brother put us together, but it fizzled out pretty quickly when I was fired from Tower Records for trying to unionize the store with a couple o’ friends. Before we met, I was told, ‘Your singer is the woman who gets burned in the subway toll booth in Money Train’. So, I was instantly impressed. But, post-Tower, she didn’t really want much to do with me; Tower Records was a rite of passage for any up-and-coming group and I had soiled our chances of utilizing it as a stepping stone.
My father was also a musician and had a miniature studio in our basement; he’d let me experiment. There was a song on a cassette tape called, Guitars that Rule the World called, “I Understand Completely” by Paul Gilbert. I was mesmerized by the guitar work and began writing guitar compositions without lyrics. I was probably 12 or 13-years-young at the time. Over the years, I began realizing just how accessible writing and recording my own music could be and began seeking out ways to do it.
Somewhere along the lines I found a certain comfort level with darker music and themes; I guess it made me less accessible and therefore shielded me from judgment. Most of the music was cynical, jaded and angry; the themes were typically centered around society and my snarky perception of it (including but not limited to: peer groups, initiations, the seven deadly sins, judgment, drug abuse, self-destruction, mass media impact and revolution). Being that I was releasing demo records annually, it also became a running diary of my life. My upbringing, blended with my personality, inevitably brought to light a lot of juxtaposed ideas about society and religion; I guess I had a lot of inner conflict.
I loved bands like Faith No More, Guns n’ Roses, Led Zeppelin, etc. The music had to move me, but it also had to have a brain. I can totally fall in love with mindless rock n’ roll, but I really can’t bring myself to write it. It’s just not me.
Anyway, fast-forward 10 Skitzo Calypso releases and 100’s of shows later and that’s the gist!
Both of your bands’ have unusual and interesting names. First there was Skitzo Calypso, which you started in the mid-1990s, while We Love The Underground developed just a few years ago. Where did these names originate and why did you decide to use them?
To me, Skitzo Calypso means ‘Psychotic Paradise’; I just found a fun way of saying it. Being that a lot of the musical themes were centered around social changes/issues, I felt this was a fit. In the liner notes of the first CD, Join the Cult it says, “What is Psychotic?” It was answered in the follow-up CD liner notes with the word, “Reality.” That was my mission statement; perhaps I was pointing out the obvious, but if you stop and look around, our world has lost it. The first record, Join the Cult, was about our tendencies to be drawn to certain peer groups – a group of individuals we feel share the same ideals. Premeditated Acts of Stupidity covers just about all of those groups (via genre hopping) and focuses on the rules we follow and the compromises we’ll often make to fit in. The whole record is tongue-in-cheek.
If you think about it, the only thing crazy about people is the world they’re asked to live in. It’s mind-boggling how people keep their lids on at all; it’s actually a miracle. We’re pulled in a million directions [daily] and even more so now: we have social media documenting our every move (sometimes willingly, sometimes not), we have the ability to create alter egos, which require a bit of management, we answer 100’s of emails daily, we have the pressures of work, family, friends, etc., we have often-unacknowledged social pressures, psychological disorders, temptations – you get the idea! It’s maddening.
I can confidently say I have absolutely nothing figured out, although I may posture as if I do.
After years in the club scene, I realized that I really liked the escape it provided. Sure, I was often in my own world and selling it to anyone who was willing to listen, but there was also certain understanding amongst my musical brothers, sisters and those who hung out; we could be anyone or anything we wanted to be, albeit ‘for the moment.’ So, I can confidently say We (do) Love the Underground! It’s a place, time and mentality that we simply can’t allow ourselves to let go of. As Mick says, “Lose your dreams and you will lose your mind!” There are so many people, as you get older, who gave up or are simply aggravated and want nothing more than for you to join in their misery (cult). They are often beautiful people, who just got beaten down by life and want a way out. I think it’s important to keep the free spirit alive; it creates hope!
“It sucks you in; before you know it, it can become your identity. “
Our first encounter was when Skitzo Calypso opened for Eye Empire earlier this year in Baltimore. One of the first things I noticed was your voice, which is very recognizable and unique. How did you develop it?
In the beginning, much like most singers, I just assumed people naturally could or couldn’t sing; I had no idea how much time, work and discipline it would actually take. It wasn’t really an issue in the beginning because I was screaming or singing in monotone voices, but as the music evolved, I wanted to carry my vision to the next level. I spent two years working with Steve Whiteman of the 80’s rock band KIX. He was/is an inspiration. He’s got an amazing voice.
After years of performing live without vocal lessons, I learned how to project and really use a wide-mouthed and dramatic approach, in order to hear myself over the monitors and convey my sincerity; this became a part of my everyday singing voice and may be why I sound like I have a slight accent. It’s not always evident, but it’s just the way I sound and a voicing I’m comfortable phrasing in. Some of the grittier vocal techniques were curbed, when we were playing nearly a 100 shows a year because I was trying to protect my voice; it naturally got grittier without techniques, but typically I take very good care of it and sing pretty clean, which isn’t typical for a hard rock outfit.
Skitzo Calypso’s most recent release is entitled Ghosts, a hard rockin’ EP from 2012. Tell us about the concept behind that one. Are we talking about metaphoric ghosts of the past, haunting us endlessly, or about some supernatural forces?
After years of writing, I truly believe that we are not just writers, but receivers. In what capacity, I really don’t know; it was also a metaphor to how we were feeling as band. We were lost and not really active; some of the material was even written years ago, so in that sense, the songs were just never given a platform and were like ‘Ghosts’, always hanging around without a voice. It’s a self-reflective EP, as are many of the records. People don’t realize it, but the more people who connect with your music the more responsibility you have in making sure your message is clear; you don’t want someone vibing, in a dark place with an a-skewed perception. “The Gift” is like that scene in Superman II where he willingly gives up his powers; in a lot of ways. I know I’ll never be done or allow myself to quit writing. That will in-fact be an “Endless War” of inner conflict, always searching for some sort of resolve.
Considering that you’ve been with Skitzo for over fifteen years, you must have some stories to tell! Can you give us a glimpse of the lows and highs you’ve had along the way?
I think the low is my inability to recall a lot of it, which might also be the high; it wasn’t even the shows themselves that were incredibly insane, it was the after parties. On and off stage, due to unique circumstances which allowed me to really sow my oats, the parties were seemingly endless and nightly. I had a blinking pair of Christmas lights in my basement; when they were on, it was go time. So, I’d have people showing up all hours of the night. So long as they brought something or someone entertaining, we’d keep the party going.
In the earliest days, I had no perception of myself or how others might be perceiving me – I was in my own sick sad little world, acting out my fantasies or what I thought they should feel like, while trying to push the envelope.
It wasn’t until years later that I started cutting up old videos and discarding all evidence. The band was a train wreck, literally. I would often be exasperating these indulgences pre-show; the audience was at the mercy of my psychology. Typically my voice was thrashed and the shows were hit-or-miss, which may be hard to believe considering I’ve gotten my act together [for the most part].
The shows were ridiculous; anything we could do to distract people from what they were actually hearing seemed to be our M.O. People would get up on stage and start rave dancing; none of it was planned, but it was all a part of the Skitzo Calypso experience. We’d throw pornography into the crowd, there were blow-up pool animals being crowd surfed, Super Soakers – you name it! Everyone was partying with each other, on and off stage; the stories, drama and unknowns began piling up, making each show questionable.
In 2011 you established We Love The Underground, a new project to serve as a personal musical outlet. On the debut album, The Day The Devil Fooled The World, you dealt with some very emotional subjects. What was it like making this album? And considering that you worked with some of the same bandmates as in Skitzo, how was it different than anything you’d written with them?
It was similar to Skitzo Calypso; Skitzo Calypso wasn’t collectively ready to move on with recording and writing new music and I was. I had a lot of blood to spill and needed a new outlet to do so. While I still wrote the lion’s share of skeletal structures for the Skitzo Calypso project, We Love the Underground was back to being a solo experience. The music was a little more dramatic and a lot more personal.
In 2008, I started a side-project called Niki Thunders, which was a punk/glam rock project. ‘Niki’ for Nikki Sixx and ‘Thunders’ for Johnny Thunders. It was one of my favorite projects because I allowed myself to write the music [as an alter ego], which I’d have otherwise had a difficult time writing; I still adore the magic in that music.
When that project was liquidated to flesh out Skitzo Calypso’s 2008 release, Burning Down an Empire, I lost that outlet. I tried to revive it, but it simply got too confusing to distinguish, hence We Love the Underground; it also seemed silly to record new music for a project I knew wouldn’t have a distribution outlet; so, again, songs I intended to be Niki Thunder’s songs found their way onto We Love the Underground CDs.
The first Niki Thunders EP, Club Kids contained 4 of the tracks on the Burning Down an Empire CD. I thought the name We Love the Underground embodied the heart and feeling of the Club Kids EP but on a less fantasy-driven plain. So, We Love the Underground is essentially the unlikely marriage of Skitzo Calypso and Niki Thunders, musically.
The Day the Devil Fooled the World was hard to make because I had allow myself to say a lot of things I’d have otherwise used metaphors to convey; I really didn’t want to remain anonymous in my songs, which forced me to take ownership of the ideas, which is largely the case on Mouthful of Graffiti. There are songs on Mouthful of Graffiti that might even get me into trouble, if the right people asked.
“There are so many beautiful and talented people who simply don’t have anyone believing in them; if they did, they’d finally see all of the gifts they have to offer, which would certainly make the world a better place.”
Speaking of which, your brand new album, Mouthful Of Graffiti by We Love The Underground, sounds to be divided into sonically heavier and lighter sides. Was this intentional on your part, accidental, or am I just imagining things?
It wasn’t intentional but it was coupled to be. I recorded a few heavier tunes in the beginning and then coupled those songs with the post-recorded heavier songs, which seemed to tell the full story. It seemed to work out and “Endless War” was a nice way of closing that chapter. “Burn’d Paradise” is a foreshadowing of things to come. I told my wife I’d buy her a house in Malibu when we first started dating. So, there’s a story there, as well. “Take Me” is kind of the odd ball, and was originally a Niki Thunders tune; “Eclipse” comes full circle to tell the story of a guy who romantically falls in love with heading back to California. The girl is the sun or California and the guy is the moon – I already told you, I like dark themes!I will move back to California someday; it’s just a matter of when.
You’ve said that the artwork and title of this new release refers to social media and peoples’ ability to “create digital versions” of themselves, eclipsing their true identities. Do you think this could just be a by-product of the times and technology to which we’ve gained access?
It’s absolutely the by-product! It’s eclipsing, for sure. Mouthful of Graffiti, being that everyone has a platform, a thousand things to say and a million digital intentions. The back artwork was a nod to Poltergeist, as it features a little girl with her hands pressed against a laptop filled with static, instead of a television. It sucks you in; before you know it, it can become your identity. If you end up liking your persona moreover your self, it can get out of hand. It’s definitely a distraction and has a powerful way of blocking out reality. The front artwork is just a musician staring into an eclipse.
On the new disc there’s a song entitled “Come, Destroyer!” However, on the opening track, “Fits of Rage”, you also talk about a “destroyer”. Are these two one-in-the-same? Who, or what, are you referring to?
It’s actually pulled from a Biblical passage from Job 15:21; I don’t see it as a religious song, moreover a very applicable message.
The verse is: “Sounds of terror fill their ears as the destroyer comes upon them!”
The ‘destroyer’ [to me] is the truth. At some point the truth calls us all out into the light and obliterates us with judgment and forces accountability. The truth is, I lost a lot of my heart and self in Cali, which is why I reference it and really want to return. Over the years, more and more reasons seem to be drawing me back, which is why it’s mentioned on “Fits of Rage”.
But, in “Come, Destroyer!” it references a psychological meltdown I had in June 2012; it was essentially a nervous breakdown, which lasted about two months. I was totally losing it, which tends to happen (at least) every 5 years, once I have enough to process and transcend; I wanted and needed answers and was willing to walk into the light, even if it meant mental annihilation. We’re all accountable to each other, and we’re all sent here with that responsibility, even if a few hearts get broken in the process. So, that is the ‘Destroyer!’ Call it God or whatever you want; it’s the truth.
This recent release is the first of yours that I’m aware includes harsh vocals, such as those found on “We Light The Way”. Is this something new for you and, if so, what caused you to include it?
It’s not; I used to sing large portions of songs in that voicing. During the earlier shows, my vocals may have even been considered hardcore (by early 2000’s standards); I just steered away from it because I was able to find less destructive techniques to express those raw emotions. But, sometimes it’s the right sound.
I feel as though you write songs for the disenfranchised. Many of your songs start out downtrodden before exploding in a kind of optimism and rebirth. Would you consider yourself the voice of the underdog?
I would. I’ve always felt like the underdog, myself; I’ve proven to myself what hard work and tenacity can accomplish, albeit exhausting. If I can give anyone that inspiration or hope, I will. There are so many beautiful and talented people who simply don’t have anyone believing in them; if they did, they’d finally see all of the gifts they have to offer, which would certainly make the world a better place. We are obsessed with putting people on pedestals, while giving them all of the money and time they need to become professionals. This creates the illusion that they are deserving of such adoration and a pinnacle, which their minions would never reach; therefore, many people don’t even try. I want people to feel a certain connectivity; I’ve been to the depths – I get it. It is a ‘Long hard road out of hell…’ But, there’s a way out and it starts with modesty, hard work and risk (a lot of risk). The moment you think you’ve peaked, your dreams will die. The thing is, I still don’t think I’m ‘good enough,’ but that’s ok… that just means I’ll keep climbing.
In a recent blog, you let us view a small window of how Mouthful Of Graffiti was written, which included a few drinks and hotel-room isolation. Can you expand on how you go about your writing process? And how do you determine that a song is for Skitzo or the Underground?
Ha! Yeah, I resumed writing Mouthful of Graffiti at this hotel in NYC called the Indigo; that song became “Indiglow”. I don’t always write boozed-up in hotel rooms, although I would welcome that opportunity, if someone would be willing to fund it. The inspiration comes when it wants; I really don’t have much of a say about it. Luckily with the iPhone, I always have a portable way of recording myself. Sometimes I’m in the shower, sometimes it’s 2am and I’ll wake-up, sometimes I’m eating – you get the idea. But, there are also 100’s of songs that no one hears, when they finally hear the 10-12 I choose to record. I had really felt pretty stale and tired, prior to tapping that particular musical vein in New York. Once I did, it was like an avalanche; that’s typically how it goes.
Just for kicks, I’m curious: How often do you get told you resemble Jon Bon Jovi (and do you ever go along with it)?
It happens often; I don’t mind, because the guy is obviously considered attractive; so, I’ll take the compliment, but I’m not a fan of his music, which makes it tad annoying. Plus, my sister is obsessed with the guy, so that’s just weird! If someone said I looked like Sloth from the Goonies, I might have an issue.
What can we expect from Brad Cox in the near future? Any Skitzo Calypso or We Love The Underground news?
There may be a very quick follow-up to Mouthful of Graffiti; the vein is still open and there were a few songs I had wanted to record for MOG, but I had to shut off the valve at some point.
Thank you so much, Brad, for speaking with me. Do you have any words of advice for everyone out there?
Take chances…a lot of them!