“From the start, people either loved or hated us. I never let that fact affect me. We weren’t trying to conform to anything.”
Most musicians are primarily known and associated with one particular band or project. While artists often do multiple creative projects, it’s rare that there is any question as to what their supreme achievement is musically. Richie Birkenhead is an anomaly in this regard. Birkenhead lent his unique vocal skills to two incredibly influential and extremely different projects stylistically – Into Another and Underdog. This is not even to mention the fact that he played guitar for probably the most renowned straight edge hardcore band not named Minor Threat when he spent time in Youth of Today. Once Richie got behind the mic with Underdog, his vocals were a game changer to say the least. Underdog played a hardcore punk style that had an aesthetic that reflected their strong roots in skateboarding and even added elements of reggae later which few punk bands aside from Bad Brains had experimented with at the time. Chuck Treece, professional skateboarder and Bad Brains collaborator would even play with the band towards the end of their existence.
After a relatively brief time in Underdog (1986-1989), Birkenhead decided to it was time to change things up and formed Into Another in 1990 with former Youth of Today/Bold drummer Drew Thomas and two other members who were unknown to the hardcore world in guitarist Peter Moses and the late bassist Tony Bono. The sound that the band would create saw Richie going even further out there and exploring his vocal range than he did in Underdog to say the least. The label, Revelation Records, was the same but the music was not…at all. Into Another is usually categorized as “post hardcore” for simplicity’s sake but elements of prog rock, and metal are also extremely present. The band’s foray into a new musical universe would alienate many Underdog fans but gain them enough acclaim after two full lengths to sign to a major label, Hollywood Records, in 1995 where they would release one full length and never officially release their last LP. Their song “T.A.I.L.” would hit #39 on the mainstream rock chart in 1996 but they would break up in 1997 leaving Soul Control as an unreleased LP. They reunited in 2012 for the Revelation Records 25th Anniversary fest in Pomona, CA and have become an active band once again playing shows occasionally and releasing an EP titled Omens in 2015 which is actually quite great.
Many may not know that you played in a “neo-rockabilly” band called the Bel-Airs in your teens that played with The Cramps and The Gun Club. Tell me about your involvement in that band and how it gave you a foundation for future projects.
From a very early age, I had an extremely broad scope of musical tastes. While attending high school on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, a close friend of mine named Harry Powell and I discovered that we shared a love of early rock ’n’ roll/rockabilly artists like Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent, Elvis, Johnny Burnette, Billy Lee Riley, etc.; and we also loved the Cramps and other contemporary “psychobilly” bands. I wrote a bunch of songs, he and I found a bassist and drummer, then we played our first show opening for Modern English somewhere in New Jersey. After that, we played a bunch of shows in places like the Peppermint Lounge, Mudd Club, CBGB, the Ritz… as well as parties and the Stuyvesant High School gym.
It seems as though Underdog was one of the earlier bands to incorporate a skateboarding aesthetic into their music. Is that accurate and were there any other bands around that time that were doing it that influenced you? What were your the most influential skaters and bands to you at that point when the band was starting?
Well, the band that morphed into Underdog – The Numskuls – started in ’84 and at that time there were quite a few “skate punk” bands, such as JFA, Aggression, The Faction, etc. in existence. When the Numskuls formed, I was into Negative Approach, Minor Threat, SSD, Murphy’s Law, AF, The Misfits, Black Flag, Circle Jerks… Way too many bands to name. Favorite skaters included Alva, Duane Peters and Neil Blender.
Please tell me about some of the craziest/most memorable hardcore (or even non hc) shows you saw in New York back in the day. That time is truly something that people my age and younger can only dream about experiencing.
Even though they’re two very different bands, every Cro-Mags show and every Murphy’s law show back then was memorable, to say the least. My very first hardcore show was Bad Brains in ’81. That, obviously, was life-changing.
Every era has bands that were quite a big deal in the moment but become forgotten over time. Are there any NYHC bands of the 80s that you would like to share that fall into this category?
I loved Reagan Youth, The Young & the Useless, the Nihilistics and the Mob.
Take me through the thought process of ending Underdog to start Into Another. Was it out of boredom with the limitations of hardcore punk (even though you added elements of reggae to switch it up) or was it something else?
Not really boredom as much as stagnation. I just felt as if I couldn’t express myself as wholly or as honestly as I needed to. It was just time to explore.
When Into Another starting releasing music/playing shows, I’m sure there was a lot of backlash from Underdog fans who didn’t comprehend the new sound. What was that like? Did you see it more at the beginning or when you took the Into Another sound even further away from hardcore punk on later releases? I imagine it was a shock for an Underdog fan to hear “For Lack of a Better World” for the first time.
From the start, people either loved or hated us. I never let that fact affect me. We weren’t trying to conform to anything.
What were the major influences for Into Another? You guys have to be one of the most unique sounding bands ever. Was there a moment that really sparked you to do some different than what Underdog was doing?
There weren’t conscious influences. I grew up voraciously devouring the best of pretty much every musical genre. Drew and I loved a few artists in common — punk, obviously – but also Bowie, Queen, Pink Floyd and many others.
How did your expectations match up to reality as Into Another signed to a major label?
I’ve never entertained expectations. I just created and forged ahead. Obviously, I would have loved some things to have gone further and gotten bigger. C’est la vie.
What were the coolest moments looking back on Into Another’s major label time? Any people you met, bands you played with, things you did that just seem crazy to think about now?
I don’t really separate the “major label period” from the indie. It was all great. They were most artistically rewarding and cathartic years of my life, those Into Another years. Coolest moments include every Wetlands show and every Salt Lake City show.
Tell me about how the “Splinters” video came about and what the inspiration for it was. Such a 90s video in all aspects!
Well, it was semi-tongue-in-cheek, really. My friend Noah and I conceived of it, and did some laughing in the process. Some of the camera movements were inspired by the Evil Dead movies.
You wrote some solo material after Into Another. Any plans to do more shows and/or release new music? That EP (never officially released) is great and I really am moved by some of those songs.
Well, I’ve yet to actually release any solo music. When life allows, I certainly will. The plan is to do a full-length Into Another release, and a solo album or EP.
Compare and contrast the reasons why you decided to bring back Underdog versus Into Another and how you feel about both existing once again in the present.
They’re such different beasts. Both reunions were inspired by loyal followers of each asking us to do it. With Into Another, it was also a burning desire in me to say/sing/scream a few more things.
You seem like you have a strong sense of pride for your hometown of New York City so how would you describe a perfect day in the city?
Other than simply walking around the greatest city on Earth… Central Park and one of the museums with my kids, then later either a concert at Lincoln Center or a Knicks, Mets or Jets home game.
What current music are you into?
I’m shamefully ignorant of new music. Today, while working, I’ve listened to Joan Baez, Black Sabbath, Bowie, Floyd, Slade, Stooges and Vladimir Horowitz (among a bunch of other stuff).
What are your plans for the future as far as new music and shows?
More of each!
Thanks for doing this interview Richie. It’s an honor and thank you for “Two Snowflakes” because that is the most beautiful song ever!
Thank YOU, Kris!
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