Interview: John Stabb of Government Issue

words by Sean Lambert | photo by Gerry Hoffstedder
| Thursday, March 6th, 2008
Government Issue

L-R: Government Issue's John Stabb, Tom Lyle, Peter Moffett, and J. Robbins in 1986

A condensed version of this interview was originally published in Verbicide issue #23

John Stabb, the erstwhile bandleader of the influential hardcore ‘80s DC outfit Government Issue, was assaulted this past summer by no less than five psychos a block away from his DC home and was forced to undergo facial reconstructive surgery to ameliorate his injuries.

To offset the medical bills, Marc Ganancias of Occam’s Razor thoughtfully organized a couple benefit shows, one of which found Stabb front and center again alongside previous band mates leading “Government Re-Issue” through a bevy of classic material. More than just a seasoned post-punk screamer capable of clocking in less-than-a-minute rockers, Stabb has been the big wheel for Weatherhead, Teen Psycho Booty, Emmapeel, The Factory Incident and others. At 46, he has seen more of music’s unglamorous underbelly than most, and was willing to shed a little light on what still makes this DIY luminary shine.

First off, in regards to your physical health, how are you doing?
As Pimpbot 5000 (anyone ever watch old Conan ‘O Brien shows?) would say, “I’m feeling fine like cherry wine!”  Granted, I’ve got enough metal lodged in my face to make the next thug who punches me end up with a sore fist! Thanks to the loving generous folks who helped me to pay for the several thousand dollars in my medical bills, I look and feel normal again. I cannot give enough thanks to everyone who helped an old punk like me in his time of need. The punk scene does more than their share in taking care of their own. Mika Stabb and myself are eternally grateful to everyone for everything.

With the many musicians (15) you played with as front man of GI for nearly a decade, how did you embrace or adapt to each person’s given abilities?
Brother, we went through more bassists than freakin’ Spinal Tap went through drummers!  And none ever spontaneously combusted on us!  Everyone who did their tour of punk duty in Government Issue had their unique talents.  Let’s see — longtime original drummer Marc Alberstadt, Tom, and I adapted to everyone easily.  In the earliest of the ’80s, original guitarist John Barry, bassist Brian Gay, Marc and I were naive, innocent, fun-loving (yet I possessed a lot of that 19-year-old anger, as well!) young kids just out of high school.

We wanted to make some serious punk rock, and our goal was to be faster than the Bad Brains.  It may have been faster, but we certainly couldn’t begin to come close to what the powerfully tight talented hardcore beast the Bad Brains were.

When Brian Baker played with Tom, Marc and I, circa 1981, we were completely blown away by the younger man from Minor Threat‘s brilliant guitarist abilities. We already knew how good of a bassist Brian was, but the lad jammed on guitar with Santana onstage at 14! At this point in the group, the hardcore scene was losing it’s innocence and becoming a bit more cliquish.

In the summer of 1982, bassist Mitch Parker joined Tom, Marc, and [me]. [Parker] not only recorded our first (kind of) album with the group, but he also did the very first cross-country tour to California with us.  Begging for gigs along with the band Scream and having drunk Cali-kids give us shit for being from “the land of Straightedge.” Man, that was a lot of fun.

Mitch kind of had his fill of doing the “hardcore style” and left for his next band, Crippled Pilgrims. We had a substitute bassist in the year 1983 named Rob Moss for a handful of DC gigs, and he was fun to play with on a cross-country tour.

Then, in late 1983, Mike Fellows joined up; we had some wild shows because the bassist was more than energetic live. And all the time he was playing with us, he was still jamming with his friends who ended up being Rites of Spring.  Mike wrote a few awesome songs for us that could’ve been used for Rites of Spring, “Understand” and “Familiar.” Mike was a madman upon a stage.  And, of course, he looked great in a leather jacket!

John “Lenny” Leonard played bass on two GI recordings and rocked a few memorable tours. Marc and I hung out with John outside of the band more than the others. He was perhaps the longest lasting bassist to be part of our band of punk rock fools. John spent his best year with us, 1984 to ’85. (laughter)

When Marc split the group in late ’85, we had a short lived drummer in Sean Wright Saley. We did several local and out town shows with Sean, and he was a brilliant, showy drummer in the vein of Keith Moon.  Unfortunately at that time period of the band, Sean also had a fondness for being a rock star, so we parted badly.

The final line-up from 1986 to ’89 with Tom, J. Robbins, and Peter Moffett was like a dream come true for me. Harmonies, talent galore, and a chance to finally tour Europe twice!  The recordings we made together and the live performances say it all. It was as good as it gets for Government Issue. You really couldn’t ask for a better rhythm section or songwriting team.

What has been your favorite post Government Issue band you’ve been a part of?
There have been a few, so I can’t just name one.  I hope I’m getting the years right here…quickly after GI broke up in ’89 (this front man wastes no time, kids!), my friend Frank “Love” Bartlo and I formed Weatherhead. I’m really proud of the work we did in that group, and hopefully in the near future the world will experience the recordings of Weatherhead. Very different than GI, because I never like to repeat myself — more in a Mission of Burma/Robyn Hitchcock/Wire vein; a hard band to classify. And Weatherhead actually had various ex- GI’s float through: Sean Saley, Mitch Parker (a substitute bassist for a few gigs), and John Leonard, as well as Steven Hansgen of Minor Threat.

Some years later, around ’92, there was Emmapeel with ex-Youth Brigade drummer Danny Ingram, Hansgen, and Rob Frankel.  We put out one EP called Avenging Punkrock Godfathers. We were more influenced by Sugar and Swervedriver, but it was what Rob said I do best, “Cutting loose over a distorted guitar.”  We broke up badly because it was like four dysfunctional yet talented volatile nut-logs ready to explode. We’re still hoping to release some of our demos and live stuff in the coming year. Emmapeel was an intense motherfucker of a band!

Currently, the last five years [and two albums] I’ve spent with The Factory Incident is very high on my list. My guitarist friend Karl Hill turned me on to the joys of “British post-punk,” and it really stirred something inside me. To be part of something so different than anything I’ve previously done truly rocked my bones.

Outside of DC, what’s the best city to play in?
That cannot earn just a one-place answer. There are just too many cities that have been great to play in. I’ve had some amazing times in everywhere from Toledo, Ohio to Lawrence, Kansas. I will say that playing in Yugoslavia was phenomenal! GI was treated like the effin’ Beatles when we did a gig there. Everywhere I’ve been has been an experience, whether [we received] a good or bad reaction. I wouldn’t trade that for anything.

What was the worst show you ever did?
Have you got a few years for this answer? (laughter) There were bad shows in different ways, but I’d have to say that the very worst for me was in Milan, Italy. I’ve mentioned this one before in the past; nothing tops it for me. Halfway through a GI gig, someone sucker punched me and I hit someone back — alas, it wasn’t the person who punched me. Shortly after I snapped, about a dozen enraged Manson-worshipping Italians on speed were trying to use my head as a soccer ball.

I was attacked repeatedly till I escaped down the road. Being killed onstage in the fashion capitol of the world wasn’t the way I thought I’d end up going. I must have some kind of good karma or something because I’m still here. I don’t think it gets any worse than that, huh?

You’re writing a memoir, The Sheer Terror of John Stabb, outlining some of your pivotal experiences in bands and beyond.Does the act of writing clarify your past and help prepare for the future?
Oh yeah, my long-awaited memoir (at least, I’ve been waiting forever to complete it!). I’ve kind of put my big boot in my mouth by telling people over the years about this thing.

I have tons of chapters on disc that need some serious fine-tuning, and my wife Mika Stabb has helped me with my lack of editing/compiling skills over the years. And God or Satan knows I’ve accumulated enough photos in the last 20 years to make it entertaining to a punk fan! There has always been something that’s come up to put the book on the back burner. It is one of my longtime goals to have this collection of stories from childhood to the end of GI (and maybe a bit more) be out in the public eye on every possible bookshelf on the planet. But alas, poor author Stabb, I knew him well. Ha! Mika and I hope to start our own publishing company and put out our own projects down the line. And I’d love to do a speaking tour a la Henry Rollins, who’s always impressed me with his spoken word gigs.

The writing is quite therapeutic, and I guess it does do a bit of clarifying my past. Does it help me prepare for the future? Well, I love being in front of people in a musical form, but writing a book (or books) definitely stirs something in my soul. These are things I must do in life, whether I want to or not. It’s in my blood. I feel that I really don’t have a choice in the matter. Like the old cliche of having marriage be “for better or for worse,” I’m also married to the music and laying myself wide open for the world in my writing.

Are you still straightedge?
Yo, I’m freakin’ beyond straightedge! I’m downright “Monk Rock!” This really isn’t a serious question, is it? I’ve discussed this age-old hardcore question for so many interviews, and just to the curious on the street. I’ll just say this:  I never tooted my own horn in my days with GI about this monumentally overused phrase. I wouldn’t have been caught dead trying to lay some kind of fascist bullshit on other people at punk shows by punching another person out for smoking or drinking like some idiots out there did. But these boneheads I’m referring to didn’t reside in DC, and certainly weren’t in our scene of the ’80s.

The bottom line for me is that “Straightedge” is a very good Minor Threat song, and that’s where it stops. It boggles the mind that the word is actually officially in a dictionary! If you lived in DC in the heyday of hardcore, than you understand where I’m coming from. And with that, I raise my fruity beverage of choice and say “Cheers” to everyone who doesn’t force their beliefs on another human being.

Considering you live in the shadow of our nation’s capital, do you keep up with the political scene or have a favorite presidential frontrunner?
It’s due to the fact that I do live in this overbearing political shadow that I don’t focus on it very much. I occasionally watch the local news and am saddened by the violence and hateful feelings that this land I live in is full of. I still don’t buy into the “truthiness” (thanks Steven Colbert!) of what is said in world news, because I feel our government hasn’t stopped taking us for a joyride for the last 40 years! I am concerned about who’s next to run this mad world of ours.

I hate the categories we have to choose from, but I guess I’m pretty damned liberal in many ways. I’m not totally trusting of either Democrats or Republicans, but I have yet to find a Republican leader I didn’t hate — or want to see locked up in cell with no chance of parole.

I just cannot say who would be my favorite front-runner. I’ll know who I’m going to choose when I touch that voting screen. I rarely get into political discussions with people because, like whether or not you have a certain religious denomination, it’s a personal choice.

You actually play a ninja in the indie flick Date Number One.How did that happen, and can we expect to see more of your acting skills anytime soon?
It was a huge surprise to me that I was asked to have a cameo in a local indie filmmaker’s movie, and that quickly developed into a lead role.

As a present a few years ago, Mika enrolled me in a local improv-acting course at the Roundhouse Theater and I had a ball being part of that! I’ve always wanted to do some type of acting or work as an extra in a film. There was a time some years ago when I was seriously unemployed and tried to get a gig as an extra when I went to an open casting call but was not chosen.

The filmmaker/director/writer [of Date Number One] Sujewa Ekanayake and I had run into each other a few times over the years and he expressed some interest in having me be in one of his projects at some point. He was also a big fan of the DC indie-punk scene and knew of me as the crazy front man from GI. When I was contacted by Sujewa about doing a small role as a bar owner, I was pretty excited. I did that shoot and then his “ninja” got fired and the role kind of fell in my lap. We rehearsed lines, the way the ninja walked, and just what my character was all about. That was cool, but unlike memorising lyrics for a band, I’d never done anything like this. I love to just improvise stuff on the spot like the people on “Whose Line is it Anyway?” but learning the lines was hard work for a guy with ADHD! But it all worked out and I really went for it, only joking between endless takes with my leading ladies and the other actors.

Unlike those intense “method actor” types you always read about being so immersed in their character during filming and off, it was fun to just joke to lighten up the drama of a scene. The film Date Number One has had a handful of screenings locally and out of town, but hasn’t been released in major theaters. By the time this interview comes out I’m hoping the DVD will be released. And soon I shall get some headshots together and audition for stuff in the area. I’m hoping that more people discover the film and take an interest to what I’ve done. Already Sujewa wants me to do his next indie-film, so I’ll at least have that under my belt.

Any upcoming musical projects we should know about?
Another thing on the horizon is the upcoming release of A HarDCore Days Night, a four-concert Government Issue DVD on Dr. Strange Records.  That’s taken some time to fully organize and it looks pretty cool, if I do say myself. Shows from 1982 to ’89 that hopefully will blow some GI fans away.

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