Having tasted success during the mid nineties in his home country of Hungary with C.A.F.B (Cops Are Fucking Bastards) Gábor Szakácsi, otherwise known as Gabi Hun, took a sudden right turn, packed up and shipped out of Europe and headed for a new life in America, specifically Seattle. For the last 8 years Gabi has been forging a well respected career as the founding member and driving force of Sledgeback and, having released a slew of punk rock brilliance during that time, 2012 seemed like an appropriate time to issue a retrospective album. I caught up with Gabi recently to talk about the new album and just how he arrived at a bright new future from quite a dark past.
Hey Gabi, cheers for talking with us at Uber Rock. Let's start by getting right up to date with what's going on with Sledgeback in 2012. This year has seen the release of your first retrospective album, '7 Years Like A Broken Record' - 16 tracks including a couple of re-recorded numbers and a few bonus tracks. First of all how did the plan to release this collection come about?
We felt like it was time to close a period in the band's life. We keep recording new material and it was important to us to put an end to those years in the form of a retrospective album. The only thing we were hesitating about was the title because even though it covers 7 years worth of music from Sledgeback, it goes back about nine or even ten years in song writing. I think it gives a complete picture of what the band was about and shows that we stuck to our guns with the style. So I feel like for us to move forward with the new material which we plan to release in the near future, we had to do this. Makes us feel better.
What about when it came to picking which songs to include. Was it a tough decision or did just come together easily?
We tried to pick songs that most represented the first 7 years of our work. The songs sounded closest to our idea of what Sledgeback was from 2004 to 2011. On the other hand we asked around. Friends and critiques whose ideas also helped us figure out the possible structure. It took months to us to finalize it so in that sense it was actually pretty tough.
I think a lot of your lyrics are born out of personal experiences. Could you talk us through some of your favourite tracks on '7 Years...' and maybe share some of the stories behind them?
'Pants off' was the first song and lyrics I have ever written in English. It was originally intended to be a C.A.F.B. song. 'Good bye my friend' is a very personal piece. I originally wrote the tune in memory of my best "childhood" friend, Mike who died in 2001. We started C.A.F.B. together back in Budapest around 1990. We went thru a lot, but 2 years after I left for the USA he passed away struggling with heroin addiction. I wrote the song to make sure I remember him all times and let everyone else know about it too. Of course the rest of our lyrics were written from life experiences, opinions and true events around us. Like 'Scarheart' which I addressed to people who are your friends until you may be helpful for their interests. It is pretty clear in the chorus. I couldn't choose just one or two because they all have deep connections too me and us.
How pleased are you with the response the album has received so far and do you have any plans to tour with it?
I am pretty happy because of the mainly positive feedbacks and critiques we got. From friends mostly, but that's what matters. On the other hand I don't mind to hear negatives. Even though I don't like them I can always find something to learn from. You can't please everybody. That is impossible. About touring? We were talking about going back out to the road but I do not have any dates at the moment. We will definitely tour and planning to play some shows in Europe too. That is important to me. I would like to take Sledgeback to the place where I am from. That's kind of a dream of mine.
I jumped into these questions focusing on the new album but for people who aren't familiar with Sledgeback lets take it back to the beginning for a minute and talk about how you came to form originally. Back in 2004 wasn't it?
Yes. The name Sledgeback came into the picture in 2004. Because my English was pretty weak I wanted to wait even though I played some of these songs since 2002 with a couple of Hawaiian dudes who were studying at the University of Washington those years. They played in a reggae band and threw down some punk with me on the side. We were having fun and it was a good experience for me too. We parted in 2003 and I started Sledgeback in 2004 with a few guys from around the local scene.
There's been a few line up changes over the years I think, so who's in the line up these days?
Yes. We had a few members thru the years.... Drummer Tim Mullen came to Sledgeback in 2009. He used to play for HIMSA. Shawn Trotter is playing bass. He was the member of the nineties Seattle band War Babies. Guy Lacey jumps in on guitar most of the time. He is like an on-and-off member and I do the rest on guitar and vocals.
Describing the style you've got for yourselves and keeping it short I think I'd probably describe Sledgeback's sound as being something of a blend between early Rancid and Therapy? Would you say that's sounds about right?
Probably it is the easiest if you want to compare it to groups at the top of the iceberg but when we write songs we don't think about others' sound and style. It is us. We sure listened to these bands over the years but the influences came from all directions. I could start with Peter and the Test Tube Babies and end up with Leatherface on the other side. I would call that fair too. The Wizo from Germany or Dag Nasty and The Clash and Youth Brigade, GBH all probably helped me shaping the sound of ours. These are just influences. You know I couldn't tell you many bands in this style after the '90s which can't be compared to others. But yes you probably right about the sound.
I first became aware of you guys on the 'Reality Bites' spilt album that you did with Foreign Legion. I didn't realize that you were originally from Hungary at the time but I would have said your sound definitely had more of a European style than a more, for lack of a better word, "sanitized" American sound if you know what I mean. Who would you list as some of the major influences?
Sure. I spent all my teens and first half of my 20s in Europe. You can leave Europe but Europe will never leave you. I didn't come to America to change. I came here to continue what I started back home and I intend to keep it that way. There were countless bands and artists in the past almost 25 years I listened to. There were also lots of Hungarian groups who are most likely pretty unknown outside of the country with few exceptions like Aurora, AMD and Tankcsapda. If you listen to any of those bands you will hear the raw sound I inherited somewhere inside me. I believe that simplicity stayed with me. I like bands with instinctive style. I am not saying guitar solos are not cool; I am just not crazy about them. If I "feel" the riff and it's coming naturally is when it usually becomes a song. Other than some of the Hungarian, UK, US and German bands I mentioned above, I always go back to the raw classics like The Ramones.
Talking of your European background you experienced some success before Sledgeback in your native Hungary during the nineties with C.A.F.B. How did you first get involved in the music scene?
I got into punk when I was in elementary in 1988 and sure enough I wanted to start a band. I started going out to the club called "Black hole" (Fekete Lyuk) in the VIII.district of Budapest, where I met Mike who we started C.A.F.B. with in 1990. We just wanted to play music and sniff glue and never thought it could get more serious than that. For 1993 we were thru 2 recordings and an indie record deal from the legendary Trottel records which helped us get opening slots with M.D.C. and other bigger acts at the time. Mike got out in 1994 and I kept on with the band. For 1996 we turned into a slightly more "media friendly" version of ourselves and found some success thru a decent record deal in 1997.Our first real music video (Engedj be) got C.A.F.B. into the TV and media which instantly made us known in Hungary and some neighboring places. Everything went too fast and I think the drugs had a lot to do with the rise and fall of that project. But to be honest, I have no regrets.
With C.A.F.B. enjoying success what was the catalyst for leaving everything behind in Europe and relocating to America on your own?
I ended up like lots of my buds, doing bunch of dope. I didn't do anything else just played music so I spent my free time and money on drugs. Heroin was the end. When we played with GBH in 1998 January, I was already into it too deep. I say this because I remember I got sick later that night. I never forget it. Few months later my ex-girlfriend who moved to Seattle came home and we hooked up for a few days. She invited me to the US which was most likely one of the luckiest things ever happened to me. I knew if I stayed in Budapest I was going to die because I was unable to avoid the drugs. I knew lots of people which was a bad thing in my case because of the dope. So I applied for the papers and left for Seattle on the spring of 1999. I arrived to Seattle with a bag of clothes and the guitar I still use today. It was a nightmare for months because of the culture shock, withdrawals and home sickness. So basically the "survival instinct" was the catalyst. I didn't want to die.
When you got to America you didn't speak a word of English, right?
Yes. I mean no. I did not. I didn't speak but it's not like I am so freaking good now....haha... I worked hard to understand basics of course because I always researched the lyrics of bands I loved. I knew words like F***, S*** or Bitch. Who doesn't know that?
How quickly did you pick the language then? I'm wondering whether growing up with bands like The Clash must have helped by at least making you familiar with the language even if you didn't fully understand it at the time.
After I was able to get a job I had to learn. Just like in the old days. They throw you in the water and learn to swim that way. That is how I learnt English... as much I was able to. I never had an English teacher, never took a class. The only English test I ever took was the one required when I was getting my US citizenship in 2008. Of course listening to English bands throughout my life also helped. I would say probably after three years I was able to get around, but as you know I had to wait years longer to start Sledgeback because of this problem.
What about the cultural differences between America and Hungary when it comes down to the music scene. Was it much of a change for you or is the Punk scene pretty much as universal as it seems?
Seems to me it's pretty universal. I see slight cultural differences but I can live with that. I would rather say I had a hard time at the beginning because of the language barrier. It's hard when you can't say what you mean. I firmly believe that rock and roll is a universal language. When you play guitar with your friends, the instrument is what's talking. I think the differences are in the meaning of songs and lyrics. I mean in Hungary bands played against the communist regime in the 1980s. Today they talk about something else. Just like the punks have their own issues in Seattle. I think punk rock is a tool. A universal tool of "say what's on your mind and heart."
So what would you say have been some of the biggest challenges you've faced when it's come to keeping Sledgeback on the tracks?
Keeping a band together is hard no matter what. In our case it was especially hard at times because of the slight differences and the language issues as we talked about it before. The members were constantly changing because the tours were interfering with the guys' personal lives. It's not like we were making bank. We all had some kind of jobs which we kept losing because of the band. That is what usually breaks bands, pushes members out and kills relationships. Stuff like these didn't help us either but at the end the music always prevailed and we kept going.
What would you say is your single proudest moment when you look back at what you've achieved with so far?
Damn. I am still alive...I think staying who I am throughout the decades and never giving it up is already an achievement these days. I am not sure if the "proud" word is the right one though. I am actually happy I was able to quit drugs and I didn't drink alcohol since 2007. I like booze but I just didn't drink since. I probably will one day. But drugs? No.
Finally, if anyone has read this and is still not sure whether to take the leap and buy one of your albums what would you say to try and convince them that choosing a Sledgeback CD is the right thing to do?
Wow, I am not exactly sure. I wish I was a better salesman. 4 chords ...with a "Hungarian punk goes to America and finds out on his own, the pursuit of happiness is just the pursuit..."