Life Sentence bassist and vocalist Joe Losurdo says his 80s hardcore band is probably better known for its T-shirt than for its music. It’s not as iconic as the Black Flag bars, but Life Sentence’s logo is one of the best of the era: the word “life” is stamped in huge white capital letters on a red background (an obvious nick from Life magazine), while “sentence” appears in black lowercase directly beneath. You can still buy a Life Sentence shirt from their Bandcamp page, which also lists better-known bands whose members have worn one, including Metallica, Anthrax, Exodus, Napalm Death, and D.R.I. “Some fuckin’ Chinese apparel company, like, bootlegged it—it’s like a fashion item not even remotely connected to punk rock,” Losurdo says. “Someone sent me a link to it—I couldn’t believe it. They made it look a little more Frankie Goes to Hollywood-ish. Still the same fuckin’ logo, and it says ‘Life Sentence.'”
The relative popularity of Life Sentence’s shirt isn’t an indictment of the quality of their songs, though—merely a reflection of the fact that it’s been difficult to hear them for the past few decades. But today that definitively changes, as Life Sentence releases the first official reissue of its 1986 self-titled album. The band’s classic lineup—Losurdo, guitarist and vocalist Eric Brockman, and drummer Tom O’Connor—began recording the album in 1985 as a four-piece, with original front man Ray Morris. They finished recording it as a trio in 1986, with Morris’s vocals on half of it (his name doesn’t appear on the original edition of Life Sentence, by local punk label Walkthrufyre, but the reissue properly credits him). The classic lineup fell apart in 1987, but Brockman, who died in March 2016, kept the name alive with other musicians till the early 90s.
I called Losurdo this week to talk about the first offical Life Sentence reissue, the classic lineup’s brief and sometimes tumultuous history, and the band’s possible future.
Leor Galil: This is the first official reissue of the album—why do it now?
Joe Losurdo: We finally got the tapes back—the original master tapes. It was mired in some weird legal shit. We had to make sure we could actually do it, that we had the rights to do all that, and we do. You know, everyone went on with their lives, and it wasn’t really a priority in anybody’s life, but the opportunity came up. I was starting to put it together and Eric died.
When did he die?
He passed away in 2016. But we had started putting it together beforehand, getting our ducks in a row. I don’t want to get too much into it, but he was homeless a lot for the last 20 years and had some issues. I think he might’ve had a place to stay—maybe public housing or something like that. He had some problems, and he died in 2016—I think heart failure was the official cause of death.
Given that Eric passed away, what does this mean to you to see through putting out the record?
We had a weird history. At some point we ended up in court, which was really dumb. I had seen him a few times—you would just see him on the street, ’cause he was kinda almost like a street person for a lot of the time. It was sad. No matter what bad stuff happened between us, he still played a huge role in my life. I think Tom, our drummer, would say the same thing. We always harbored hope that he’d just get his shit together, but he never did, so that sucked. A lot of people did try to help him; a lot of people went out of their way to take him in and give him a place to stay.
He kind of did a weird re-formation of the band, I think around 2009. I have a personal thing about it that I wouldn’t get into, because I just didn’t think it was really a good idea. The condition he was in—he didn’t look like the same guy at all. You can watch videos on YouTube. I should just leave it at that.
You mentioned going to court—what was that about?
Oh God, it’s so stupid. If you wanted this to be a short interview—it’s very involved.
We ended when we were doing really well—we’d finally seen our rewards after touring pretty solidly a little over two years; the album finally came out. There were a couple incidents that happened at the beginning of the very last tour, and it caused a rift between Eric and Tom and I.
There was a particular incident that involved him almost going to jail, but a road manager at the time took the fall for him. It involves weed. It happened in Burlington, Vermont; we were very lucky that it happened in Burlington, Vermont, literally the most liberal city in America. I think Bernie Sanders was the mayor at the time. Eric needed his weed, so he fucking shipped a pound of weed in the mail to the person we were staying with, and this person had no idea this was happening. They delivered it to the wrong house, so that person who got it called the police.
We had just got done playing in Canada, so our road manager took the fall ’cause he knew our whole tour would be fucked if Eric got thrown in jail. Luckily, because it was in Vermont, we got him out of jail, but we lost all the money we made in Canada. We were not used to making any money at all. So that was the beginning of the last tour; we were really fucking pissed at him about that. I don’t know—he just changed. He wasn’t the same guy as when I joined the band. At the very end, it just was not a pretty sight. I personally fuckin’ lost it. It was not a good scene.
Tom and I, we had all this shit going on with the band. We had offers from different kinds of labels. D.R.I.’s like, “Why don’t you guys come to Europe with us?” And Metal Blade records—shit like that. We’re like, “Man, all this great stuff, and it all got thrown to shit.” We were mad at Eric, and we were like, “We’ll just fire him, we’ll just do it without him,” which is really fuckin’ stupid in retrospect. We shouldn’t have done that. I’ll take the lion’s share of the blame—I was fuckin’ 18, dude. I was 16 when I joined the band. I quit high school to go on our first tour, and I was 18 when it was over. Some people are still mad at me about it. I’m like, “I didn’t know shit! I was fuckin’ 18—I was a kid. I was a fuckin’ idiot.”
As soon as we got into it, it was like, “This is a bad idea.” But it was too late. He was like, “Well, I’m gonna sue you.” We didn’t even want to go to court. We settled it with Eric, and that was that. And we went on with our lives.
He continued—he made another record as Life Sentence with some new guys. When that record came out [1989’s No Experience Necessary], I knew we actually made the right decision. He’d dredged up all these old songs that we had dropped years earlier. We were like, “He’s not even fucking writing anymore—there’s a couple of new songs.” The guys that were in that band told me stories too. They had a way worse time than we did, ’cause we were a little bit more on equal footing with Eric, whereas he was the man in charge and calling all the shots. That’s most of the soap opera, but there was a sweet spot when we had a fucking great time and really enjoyed each other.
At what point did you decide you wanted to revisit all this and do the reissue?
Like I said, we finally got the fuckin’ tapes back. We finally figured out what the legalities were. It was like, “Wow, everyone else’s fuckin’ record is out.” I played in bands for over 30 years, but sadly, still Life Sentence is the band that most people know of. But people couldn’t buy a fuckin’ record, they couldn’t buy a CD, they couldn’t buy a download. We just wanted our music out there. If someone wants to hear it, they can hear it.
We’re not trying to re-form the band or anything like that. You just want your music at least to be able to be purchased or heard. It’s weird, though, I’m getting orders from all over the world. I got more orders from Japan than from the States—it’s really strange. And Sweden, Germany, England, and South America. We didn’t know anyone would give a shit, to be honest.
What went into the reissue?
We tried to just clean up some of it. The tapes weren’t in the best shape. They were mixdowns, so we couldn’t fuck with it too much. We’re not particularly happy with the recording, as it was. If we had a one-inch master, we probably would’ve remixed it properly, taken off all the shitty reverb and gates, but it is what it is. I know it’s of its own. Half of the record was done a year earlier than the other half of the record. Half of the record has Ray singing on it—our lead singer—and those tracks don’t have any low end at all. We tried to boost the low end a little bit, without fuckin’ with it too much.
Given the fact that this has been unavailable for so long, and it’s a band that people seem to know you the most from, what does putting this out mean to you at this point in your life?
I don’t know, man, it’s weird. I always harbored a hope that Eric would’ve cleaned up or whatever and gotten his shit together. Nobody thought about mental health issues back then. Everyone in fuckin’ hardcore was fucked up, you know what I mean? If you were drawn to that music, you had some kind of issue—it doesn’t mean you weren’t smart and you weren’t gonna have a decent life. But that kind of music, it wasn’t music you were casually into, so it drew a certain kind of person—someone that had a little bit of an edge.
But I know I’ve not answered your question at all. It’s weird, man. It’s like, we can never really be Life Sentence without Eric. It was definitely Eric’s band—he was the main songwriter. I thought he wrote some really cool shit. He had some weird, quirky kinda ideas that, to me, weren’t generic hardcore. He had some really cool ideas, but he just wasn’t as prolific as he should’ve been.
I was thinking, “I wonder if we can still do it—I wonder if we can still get together and still do it.” I’ll say this much—Tom and I got together for the first time in 30 years a couple weeks ago, and holy shit, man, I couldn’t believe it. I was like, “Fuck, can we even do this? We’re old, man.” In hardcore years, we’re like a thousand years old. But I thought we sounded all right! Tom and I, we were like, “That doesn’t sound that bad!” I don’t know—maybe with a little practice we might be able to shake off some of the rust. Like I said, we might play, whatever, one or two shows, just for the fuck of it. But we’re not buying a van or dyeing our hair anytime soon.
Do you have a show lined up yet?
No. I’m taking baby steps. Like I said, we just got together two weeks ago, and I wanted to see what that sounded like before I even got another guitar player in. So we don’t have anything set up yet. I’d like to do something before the end of the year, just for fun. The other thing—our set was like 20 minutes long. I don’t think any hardcore band in the world should play longer than 20 fuckin’ minutes, to be perfectly honest. Does anyone want to hear 45 minutes of hardcore? I don’t think so. So then it’s like, “Yeah, we’ll headline, but we’ll only play for 20 minutes.”
There’s a gazillion fuckin bands, and I know so many bands that never got anything, so the fact that we have this weird little cultish following is cool. I think it’s fuckin’ great. I’m just happy that somebody somewhere likes something that I was a part of. As I get older, I’m like, “Fuck, man, look at billions of other bands—bands that I thought were brilliant, that I thought should’ve been huge.” I’m just happy that somebody somewhere gave a shit.