Mike Begnal - Wasted Talent - Uber Rock Interview Exclusive Print E-mail
Written by Anthony Allen Begnal nee Van Hoek   
Sunday, 16 August 2015 03:30


Back in the days when dinosaurs roamed the Earth (AKA the early 1980s) my older brother played drums in a Punk/Hardcore band called Wasted Talent. They were from a small town quite literally in the middle of nowhere in central Pennsylvania (this town, State College, also sometimes referred to as “Happy Valley” is more widely known as the home of Penn State University).


They were a bit of an anomaly in a town filled with frat-guys and gals along with rednecks cruising around in pickup trucks blasting AC/DC and Led Zep from their tape decks, but they still managed to play shows with the likes of Minor Threat, Crucifix, Fang and many more notables from the golden age of American Hardcore. They also released one cassette-album. Then they broke up, lost to the sands of time. Until now.


Going Underground Records, out of Bakersfield, CA is reissuing their album, with added rareties and live tracks on glorious vinyl (with my teenage punker artwork gracing the cover). I sat down with my brother Mike to discuss Wasted Talent and that bygone era, as well as why he decided to torture our poor old Grandma with his punk name back then.




So tell me how you guys got the name?


Our singer Vermin’s mother called us that, I guess because she sort of thought it was the case in a way. Vermin had had some serious violin lessons as a kid, and suddenly he was getting into punk, which in 1981 in State College, PA, where we grew up, was still pretty new and maybe seemingly a waste of time or not befitting our talents. But she was also being pretty humorous about it, and we embraced it in an ironic way.


Wasted Talent started off as a pretty derivative ’77 style punk band, right down to you guys wearing safety pins and “I’m a Mess” pins on your jackets, and eventually morphed into a mostly Hardcore band by the end. Describe how this process happened.


It’s true that when we started we were still in a little bit of a punk time-warp, whereas the hardcore scene was already in full swing in other places. But as you know, State College was always kind of behind the times back then. Though we would go to New York City a lot, I hadn’t become aware of A7 or anything yet. I did get to CBGBs as far back as 1981, but some new-wave group was playing that night. Anyway, yeah, Verm and I, who started the band, were heavily into the Sex Pistols and modeled our punk look after them, but musically we were more directly influenced by the Ramones. Our guitarist Jim was into these bands too, and Greta who joined on bass was also into a lot of classic punk. I would say that we started becoming influenced by hardcore to varying degrees (some of us were more into it than others) in 1982, but we were all into the Dead Kennedys, for example, pretty much right from the start. We opened for Minor Threat, Scream, and Deadline in State College in early May ’82 (although they got in from D.C. late and didn’t see our set), and myself, Jim, and Greta went to a Black Flag show in New York in late May of that year. From then on, I became more interested in what was actually happening at the time, in America, than what had happened in England five years before. Hardcore related more to my real-life situation. And, in regard to musical style, starting off playing like the Ramones, it was pretty easy to keep doing what we were doing in terms of chord changes but just speed up the tempos a bit. The tempo part started happening naturally, I would say. Being that I was the drummer and was listening to mostly hardcore bands at that point, it was kind of unavoidable. Plus, I also wrote a fair amount of the material. That said, as a band I don’t think we ever completely agreed about how to define ourselves.


You and Status Vermin were childhood friends via our fathers being colleagues in the Penn State English Department but how did you end up finding Jim and Greta?


When Verm and I were talking about what the band would be like, and he decided he was going to be the singer, we obviously needed a guitarist. So we put up signs in a couple local record stores, and Jim called us. At the time there weren’t a lot punks in State College, so for someone to be into punk and also play guitar was actually pretty incredible, and our musical tastes completely aligned. He had just moved to town from Milwaukee. Greta had gone to the A.P. [the alternative high school] where I was going to school, and still knew a couple people there, and so a mutual friend put her in touch with me. Again it couldn’t have worked out better. She was into punk and played bass, and she joined the band pretty quickly after we had started practicing with Jim, maybe just two or three practices later.




You went by Mick back then, what was up with that? I remember our Grandma Kate (who was 100% Irish) told me she didn’t like it because it was a derogatory word for Irish people, yet you continued to go by Mick for a few years anyway. Do you ever feel guilty for putting our grandmother through that?


Ha ha. It’s all about context, I guess. She was from an older generation when the Irish in America were still sometimes discriminated against, whereas I never experienced that and so didn’t really think about it that way. By the time she mentioned it, “Mick” was already fairly entrenched as my nickname. As you probably remember, our mom (who was a big Mick Jagger fan) started calling me that as a way to distinguish between me and our father since we had the same name. At the time, I thought it was cool because it seemed rock’n’roll, and in punk there was Mick Jones of the Clash, though the Clash never really did it for me I have to admit. Funnily enough, as you know, I later lived in Ireland, and in Ireland it’s actually pretty common to call someone who’s named Michael “Mick.”


I noticed in the early flyers you guys made looking for gigs that you were trying to play frat parties. Did that ever happen? I’m wondering because I remember walking down the street at that time in the early ‘80s with a mohawk hair-do and being verbally assaulted by huge groups of frat guys hanging out on their lawns and roofs, etc, when I’d walk by.


I guess we figured that was one of the only ways to get gigs in State College. We had that flyer looking for gigs at parties, which could’ve meant non-frat parties too. But, I don’t know how it would’ve gone if we’d ever played a frat — probably not too well. Like you said, frat-boys hated punks and we all got a lot of shit from them.




It’s hard to imagine now in modern times but back then especially in our lovely hometown a person was almost literally risking their lives just walking down the street looking even remotely punky. What are your thoughts and recollections of that sort of thing?


Yeah, it’s probably hard for a lot of people to believe, since eventually punk became (for some people anyway) just another fashion choice, and in many ways became accepted into mainstream culture. But back then in the early ’80s it seemed to really offend people or make them insecure enough to want to beat you up or possibly worse.


I, and you too like you said, would constantly hear insults on the street, from frat boys or whatever, but also frequently from rednecks who would cruise town in their pickup trucks and so on. I don’t mean to attack whole groups of people, and I’d like to hope that I’d be able to see things as a bit more nuanced now, but that’s the way it was back then — they were attacking me, us, and those delineations were pretty clearly drawn. They would also just yell things a lot, like “faggot,” and strangely they used to shout “Devo” and “B-52s” at me, as some kind of put-down I guess. It was weird. But beyond that, they did actually physically attack us too, like the time about seven or eight rednecks surrounded us and basically mobbed us, kicking us when we were on the ground. And there were numerous other, similar incidents. I mean, I could go on and on.


The cops in town were no better either. Once, they tried to frame me for a car break-in or something, and they accused you of assault, I remember. And it was all purely because of the way we looked. We were the furthest thing from criminals. I think we were even both straight-edge at the time, didn’t even drink or do drugs. My thoughts on all that? It’s fucked up that things like that ever happen at all. But it did teach me from a young age that the world is not a nice place, and if you see things differently, or want to live your life in pursuit of art, that you better be ready to put up with a lot of shit.




Do you remember why you decided to form a punk band in this climate?


Simply because that’s what I loved and that’s what I wanted to do.


Wasted Talent brushed shoulders with some of the greats from that era of Hardcore. What were some of your favorite shows and bands that you guys played with?


Push come to shove, Minor Threat was probably my favorite band, not only that we played with, but favorite band, period. So it was great to be able to open for them, but like I said they didn’t get to see us, so I doubt Ian MacKaye even realizes he played on the same bill with us! But when Fang and Crucifix came to State College in May 1983, they for some reason ended up staying for several days or a week, it seemed like, and we hung out with them a fair amount, even started to get to know them a little bit before our show together, so that was pretty cool. We also played with White Cross a couple times, once in Philly and once in Harrisburg, and they were a great live band.


When you guys were doing this all those years ago did you ever think anyone would care 30 some years later? Were you just having fun or did you think maybe you could’ve done it as a “career” at some point?


When I was in Wasted Talent — I was 15 when we started it and 17 when we broke up — I don’t remember ever thinking there’d be money in it. In other bands, a little bit later, I think I started to hope it might be possible to do it as a career, but not back then. At the same time, it wasn’t really just for fun either. I was totally committed to it. So it’s definitely cool that some people seem to care about it at least a little. When I was 15, 16, 17, though, I had no conception of the future and had no idea that people would still be talking about or revisiting Wasted Talent or any other punk band from that era for that matter, though I always thought that what we were doing was worthwhile. I think the fact that we were on The Master Tape Vol. 2 compilation has helped to keep our name in some people’s minds. We’re mentioned in the American Hardcore book too, and Greta was in the American Hardcore film. And apparently our demo is known among tape traders.




Tell us how this reissue came about?


Jerry Powelson contacted me out of the blue and said he was interested in putting out a Wasted Talent album. He had our 'Self Rule' demo tape. Interestingly, he told me that he bought it from Al Flipside when they were selling off some of the Flipside Fanzine archive, so Jerry has the copy of the tape that we sent to Flipside for review in 1982 or ’83. Anyway, he loved our material and wanted to re-release it on vinyl, and he’s friends with the guy who runs Going Underground Records in Bakersfield, California, so that’s how it came out. I’m pretty pleased with it, I have to say.


If you recall, I was in touch with the guy who ran Grand Theft Audio Records (Hardcore reissue label) back in the ’90s and he asked me to get you to do a Wasted Talent reissue back then but you were seemingly not interested at that point. What made the timing right in 2015 for a WT reissue?


I actually don’t have a real recollection of that, though I know you’ve mentioned it a couple times since then. But, I honestly can’t say what I was thinking at that point. I might’ve simply had other interests then and didn’t want to be bothered with it, or something — I really don’t remember. But one thing that I liked about Jerry’s idea was that he wanted to do it on vinyl, and have colored vinyl, and stickers and so forth. The idea of doing a Wasted Talent anthology sort of thing had actually been on my mind for a while, or at least in the last few years anyway, ha ha. So when he contacted me and mentioned some really good ideas about it, it kind of made sense.


Do you feel the songs and lyrics stand the test of time or is there some stuff that makes you cringe a little?


Well yeah, there’s probably always going to be that feeling that something you wrote when you were 15 or 16 years old makes you cringe a little. But on the whole, I stand by it as a document of the time. Of course not all of it is exactly how I feel right now, and a lot of it is pretty exaggerated, and was even then, but there was a definite context in which it makes sense. Some of the songs are about punk rock itself, but as we’ve been discussing, we were pretty seriously persecuted for being punk. Some of the songs are bluntly political, anti-Reagan and so forth in a slogan-y manner, but it seemed then like Reagan was trying to get into a war in Central America, and he reinstituted draft registration, not to mention all the other reasons why he was terrible. A lot of our lyrics were social or political critique, and even though the specifics may have changed, someone could write something similar in a way that’s relevant to today. So I think it stands the test of time as something that spoke to and about its own era, if that makes sense.




Are you still in touch with any of the other WT members? Do you know what they’re all doing now? How about you?


I’ve been in touch with them a little bit because of the record project, and have run into Vermin and Jim a couple of times over the years. Jim is retired from music. Vermin, whose real name is Stephen Buckalew, has been playing bluegrass and folk music for the last couple decades. Greta has actually had a pretty successful career in rock. She was in Unseen Force back at the tail-end of the hardcore era, and has played with Debbie Harry and Moby, and is currently in the band Druglord. I personally am not in a band at the moment due to a variety of circumstances, but definitely would like to be again at some point. I’m also a poet, and teach at the university level.


Any chance of you guys doing any reunion shows? Unfortunately the Scorpion and Brickhouse (old venues from Wasted Talent’s hometown) are long gone but we could all meet up in mom and dad’s basement and fire up the old jams. Your old drums are probably still mouldering away down there somewhere.


Ha ha... It’s an interesting idea, but probably not much of a chance. Like I said, Jim no longer plays, for one, and there’d be no point in doing it without all the original members. We also don’t all live in the same place so it would be difficult even if Jim wanted to come out of retirement, and everyone wanted to do it, and someone wanted to book a show for us, and so on. I wouldn’t rule it out, but I’m not holding my breath either. Interesting story, though — I actually sold my original “Wasted Talent” drums to Rich Hoak of Brutal Truth, back when he was the singer of Homo Picnic in Philly and was just getting into playing the drums. A year or two ago, he contacted me to let me know he still had them, with the stickers still on them and everything.


wastedtalent1 001


Do you still keep up with the punk and hardcore scenes of today?


Not really with any scene per se, but I’m always looking out for good current bands, punk or whatever, online or sometimes I’ll see or hear about something locally. I still listen to hardcore, but it’s mostly my old record collection.


Finally, after all these years are you still Ready to Riot?


Yes, of course. Just not in the exact same way I described in those lyrics.




The Wasted Talent anthology 'Ready To Riot' is available from Going Underground Records, here: http://goingunderground.storenvy.com/collections/163278-all-products/products/14064558-wasted-talent-ready-to-riot-lp


To hear it and/or download go here: http://wastedtalent2.bandcamp.com/releases




Anthony Allen Begnal Does art and he also mangles the guitar for Chesty Malone and the Slice ‘em Ups: http://www.anthonybegnal.com and http://www.chestymalone.com