The Nicest Dude In Hardcore Is A “Pessimistic Dickhead”
Drain's Sammy Ciaramitaro on new album Living Proof, Real Bay Shit, gatekeeping, and much more.
Don’t worry; it’s okay to relax. This is not another angry missive or corporate cheerleading effort concerning the narrowing, post-covid intersection between hardcore punk and the concert-going American mainstream. We will be discussing neither Scowl’s streaming numbers nor the ethics of crowdkilling as it applies to Live Nation venues. A Turnstile is just a mechanical gate that structures the flow of commuter foot-traffic/lines the blue-blazered pockets of Eric Adams. Not sure why these things would be relevant here, in this, a profile geared around a 25-minute album with a boogie-boarding shark baby and a flying piece of pizza on its cover. I refer, uh-duh, to Living Proof, the Epitaph Records debut of Santa Cruz crossover thrash band Drain. It releases in a month. If you enjoy rocking out and fiendishly pursing your lips in the mirror, it is worth anticipating.
I am tired of Hardiscourse. Many people are tired. Please give a listen to the album’s newly released final single, which is not the usual Drain speed-demon savagery, but instead a melodic, cleanly sung cover of Descendents’ 1985 power-pop standard “Good Good Things.” Maybe it’ll work as intended by the band in their album sequencing — a change-up to “catch your breath… before diving back in.” Or maybe it’ll make you stew angrily about how Drain recently announced they’d be following in the footsteps of Machine Gun Kelly, Iggy Azalea, and Five Finger Death Punch by headlining a tour subsidized by the Monster Beverage Corporation.
Frontman Sammy Ciaramitaro tells me he doesn’t know what Milo Aukerman’s lyrics are about, but that he likes to imagine them as a conversation between the punk icon and his girlfriend about about having a little faith in one another and — by extension — everybody else in this (Cro-Mags voice) “mixed-up fuckin’ world.”
“Thematically, I feel like ‘Good Good Things’ kind of ties in with what I’m all about, y’know?” he explains, his mile-a-minute, recklessly affirmative chatter devouring the gaps between words. “Some people are like ‘Dude, buddy, I don’t fuck with annnnnybodyyyyy until they’ve earned my respect.’ I’m like nah man, straight nah: THE OPPOSITE. Everybody’s my friend until they give me reason not to be.”
That was nice. But before we go any further, it’s my hope that all of us assembled today can agree that while, say, Belle & Sebastian probably don’t need you to lower your beverage and mindfully consider your surroundings before you rhythmically pat your thigh to “Judy And The Dream Of Horses,” the day hardcore shows — amphitheater big or VFW hall small — stop being a zone of active, passionate, and freaky-as-hell engagement, they will lose something integral. That’ll be a day when there are no kids left attending their first gig, a day that none of them sees a welcoming face somewhere on stage or in the crowd, a day that nobody thinks, “Yooooo, hardcore seems like a sick-ass arena in which to assemble one’s outward facing human character!”
In March, Jay Mindforce, Ciaramitaro’s opposite coast crossover thrash peer, craned his great egret’s neck and explained that the first step to declaring oneself part of the hardcore community is actually going to shows (pointedly, he did this right into the lens of Hate5six’s YouTube/Twitter-bound camera). And, yes, I think that’s true. But gathering for riffs and mosh-calls — no matter how out of the way the locale — carries no inherent socio-political property. Indeed, whatever ethical and organizational potentiality riffs and mosh-calls might have, well, that shit’s extinguished if the pit is filled with those unwilling to let the community constitute itself.
So sure; let’s fuckin gatekeep this shit. There is an ideal of a hardcore individual, the kind of homie you hope to see/aspire to be at shows. One hundred percent. And that’s somebody with the tenacity and open-mindedness to be down for whatever the night throws at them — be it an ill-fated kid who has tragically assumed Seed Of Pain might be a push pit kinda band or a flying windmill kick that knocks the IPA out of his hand and up your nose. The whole reason musicians and audiences work together to create kickass hardcore environments — “twenty five minutes to feel fucking alive,” as Ciaramitaro puts it — is so we can purge the bad shit and embrace spontaneity/immediacy the way we can’t quite in polite society. All that’s to be hoped is that maybe, just maybe, some of it carries into the dull, spiritually bereft hours that constitute the rest of our everyday existence.
But what about when, right in front of your face, your longtime girlfriend falls 15 feet through the not-so-up-to-code ceiling of your new back-house in-law unit and breaks her foot? Well, oof… yeah, yikes… I would not expect even the most soul-calloused, denim-patched road warrior to keep their cool for that. Shit’s fucking gnarly. Riffs and mosh-calls cannot fucking help you there. Jay Mindforce has packed up his neck and left the building.
Peering down through just such a girlfriend-shaped-hole back at the start of 2021, his horror gradually dawning, was Sammy Ciaramitaro. A founding member of two bands whose online popularity has ratcheted off from debut albums released at initium pandemici — Gulch (in which he drums, sort of like a garbageman battling a raccoon with their metal waste clamp) and Drain (in which he screeches, sort of like a gargoyle with its wings caught in a jet turbine) — Ciaramitaro had inked his big-time record deal for the latter band only a few days after moving into the unit. Suddenly, with a boom and a crash, the 26-year-old found himself entangled in a legal situation…much… more… draining…
“Our lawyer was like, ‘Bro, the only way you’re gonna lose this case is if you flip out and attack or threaten your landlord lady,'” Ciaramitaro recalls. “But the problem is, dude, she totally knows that, is gonna exploit that, and she fucking lives in the other side of the house. Immediately, it’s on — mental fucking warfare.”
Indeed. It was not infrequent that Ciaramitaro, his be-crutched girlfriend, and their dog would arrive home to cross the driveway into their unit to find glasses and razorblades lining the ground between. Setting up a Ring camera to catch their landlord in the provocative act revealed even deeper layers to her treachery, with the video showing the woman entering into their apartment to damage the architecture and forge evidence that might be wielded as grounds for eviction. But, during the four drawn out, agonizing months he remained there, all Ciaramitaro could do was sit on his hands. With the pandemic still raging, “spontaneity/immediacy” no longer meant blowing off steam by lording over a raging circle pit. It meant potentially giving into the ultimate rash, destructive act.
“My girlfriend and I both dropped 15 pounds. I’d never experienced stress like that. I’m straight up peeing blood from anxiety,” Ciaramitaro regales animatedly. “I’d spent years thinking I’m a big boy — a person in control of their emotions, but no. Common sense — out the fuckin’ window. I want to fucking kill this lady. I will destroy my life, bro.”
Sammy Ciaramitaro is not currently on death row awaiting judiciary retribution. Instead, he successfully bottled that homicidal impulse all the way until June 19, 2021. On that day, Gulch and Drain performed a guerrilla show on a stage they built themselves. They called it “Real Bay Shit.” The gig not only re-launched their own coastal California scene, it arguably kicked off the national hardcore renaissance we’re still two-stepping through.
“We put the flier out not thinking much. And then people — you know, everyone from old heads to kids with all this energy cooped up by COVID, maybe discovering hardcore in their bedrooms — they’re like, ‘We bought our tickets!’ I’m like, ‘We’re not selling tickets…’ And they’re like, ‘No no no, we bought our plane tickets,'” remembers the bashful Ciaramitaro. “And it wasn’t, ‘Oh, Drain and Gulch are that fucking good, and they’re putting on a show.’ It was, ‘Oh, there’s a show.’ Anything that came from that, people have to understand we straight up got lucky. Shit could never happen again.”
Whatever the case, Real Bay Shit convened thousands of fans. Those numbers looked like nothing when, almost exactly a year later, Gulch and Drain were alternating weekend nights as headliners for the biggest gathering in hardcore history: Sound And Fury 2022. If you’re not previously familiar with either band, that Sammy saturation probably seems like it’d make for redundant festival-going. In actuality, the gulf separating Drain and Gulch is so vast, you could probably situate the entire spiritual and sonic spectrum of relatively raw, harsh-vocaled metalcore between them.
Gulch deliberately courted fear, destabilization, and serial killer mystique. Top-lined by Sammy’s sludge-to-grind tempo variance, Elliot Morrow’s 200 yard panic-shriek, and Cole Kakimoto’s spike-encrusted, bleed-if-grasped death metal guitars, pressing play on Impenetrable Cerebral Fortress is a bit like leaving a friendly workday lunch at Sweetgreen, tucking your lil’ tie into your lil’ sports jacket, and turning off the busy, populated street into an alleyway deserted except for the single red-eyed, steam-puffing rhino that has been waiting all your stupid, wasteful life to mow you the fuck down. Gulch took one look at the cultish mystique (read: consumerist circus) that had arisen around their merch and designed Sound And Fury as the punctuation on their brief “career.” They will be remembered as an avatar for hardcore as a brittle, subterranean network of stern principles passed down in obscurantist whispers through generations of amateur, DIY basement show promoters — which it is.
If I’m allowed to be a corny music writer for a moment and riff lazily on the band’s aquatic aesthetics, the experience of listening to Drain is like nailing a 12-trick combo on Kelly Slater’s Pro Surfer as Testament blasts on the soundtrack and all your best buds cheer you on. They’re a band pushing the speedboat throttle as high as they can without knocking their passengers into the wake — an Oakley-shaded vision of hardcore as a slip’n’slide splash zone composed of searing sunburn solos, bouncing buoy rhythms, and cannonball breakdowns (wowwww that was really fuckin’ corny dude). They might make a ton of money and never break up. They are an avatar for hardcore as, like, a crazyass block party — which it is.
“The people decide what your band becomes, ultimately, and people on the internet really latched onto Gulch. They kind of crossed this little band that we started just to play for our friends into worlds it was never supposed to be in, and we weren’t really for that,” Ciaramitaro explains. “But Drain is for everybody, man. I was doing it first, and from the beginning we wanted to get to the highest level. My favorite thing is when people say, ‘I’ve never been to a hardcore show but I loved your set.'”
The differences between Ciaramitaro’s two bands seem outwardly to have everything to do with his relative distance from the drum kit. Identifiable from a mile away by either his half-buttoned floral attire or the static-shock electricity coursing through his beachcomber leg hair, always accessible for a merch counter chat before he takes the stage, the linebacker-framed Ciaramitaro has developed a mythic reputation for kindness among the latest generation of hardcore kids — one his welcoming presence has arguably helped ferment. When I saw the band bring their stage-demolishing spectacle to Austin’s Oblivion Access fest last year, the two teenagers next to me spent the pre-show debating whether the frontman’s ingratiating vibe came more from his being “Italian or Californian.” Ultimately, they decided he was uniquely faultless, a “golden retriever” of a man. This idealized portrayal is totally part of the beauty of adolescent fandom, but I dunno, I’m not so sure it should be encouraged in the press! The bio notes provided for Living Proof override the idea that there’s any dimension to Ciaramitaro’s art, calling the album a “testament” to the frontman’s “good-time psyche” and noting his face is “perpetually glued into a grin.”
There are two songs that tell you to kill yourself on Living Proof, both released as singles. One wields suicide as a tough cookie metaphor for building the person you’d hope to be (Ciaramitaro got sober in 2016, and though Drain isn’t a straight edge band, he takes pride in writing an abstinence song from a perspective other than “always been edge, edge FOR LIFE bro”). The other very literally tells its subject to kill themselves, and that’s a little more par for the course. From the album’s first lines — “Filled with disdain and disgust/ You make me sick” — Living Proof is straight Haterade, railing against scene posers, petty bellyachers, and the frontman himself.
Straightforward feel-good hardcore has never been in short supply. Any Youth Of Today longsleeve owner will tell you that. So believe me: Even by, like, cybergrind slam powerviolence standards, Ciaramitaro is spitting serious lyrical venom, and despite the presence of two hapless police piggies on the Living Proof cover, he has not sublimated this wrath into righteous political agitprop. Of course, that’s not at all notable — positively or negatively — in the broader scheme of hardcore. But in the context of this band’s outwardly frivolous iconography, it’s worth loudly and obnoxiously pointing out.
In fact, Ciaramitaro would like you to. He still travels through the world carrying the vivid sense-memory of having recently contemplated murder — a poisoned outlook that came close to ruining Drain’s first tour back from COVID, a national run with Terror, One Step Closer, and DARE. These shows should have revealed how high the band’s tide had risen since its lowest ebb in 2019 (CORNY!) — the year when a series of dropped dates forced them to “beg” to play a leg with Judiciary. Instead, for a time, all Sammy could see were “a lot of people who I knew didn’t really give a fuck about us.” He says DARE’s Angel Garcia had to actually pull him aside and tell him he was being a shit.
“My lyrics are just one of those things I think a lot of fans skip over to spare themselves, like. ‘Oh, ‘because Drain are a bunch of regular, relatable people who love their friends and families — not a bunch of macho ‘HARDCORE IS ALL THAT MATTERS’ dudes — these must be upbeat songs about California. Or maybe it’s like cartoon anger for fun,'” Ciaramitaro laments. “So, no, I don’t think people really listen to me. Yes, we’re having a good time, but it comes from a real place, and that’s hopefully what makes it meaningful. I love being positive, but it’s hard work. If anything, my closest friends would tell you, “Nah, Sammy’s default is to be a fucking dickhead pessimist.'”
If so, Ciaramitaro puts in hella overtime during our February video call (ironic, because talking to Stereogum means skipping out on a part-time shift “slinging ink and listening to hardcore” at Printhead, the San Jose T-shirt shop that’s the full time hustle of his former Gulch bandmate Kakimoto). An historic and unprecedented snowfall is canvassing California (sometimes the interview synchronicity just be slammin’ like that), and even though Ciaramitaro has already fishtailed his truck attempting to make a tattoo appointment, he comes off like the only dude in the Bay Area whose day can’t be ruined by a downpour. Tenacious, open-minded, down for whatever.
“I’ve learned just to be thankful for everything. Even in the worst patches of my life, man, I know someday soon we’ll get to a show, and there’ll be kids there that are excited. And that could all end tomorrow!” he reflects. “I’m up there on stage, but it’s not really up to me that I am. It’s up to the people. That’s hardcore, right?”
I cannot confirm whether or not Jay Mindforce would unpack his neck from its carrying case to offer a nod of agreement to that definition. What I will say is that “Living Proof” — apparently the “new favorite song of everybody in Drain,” closing their album on a legitimately uplifting note — seems to be in conversation with his thesis about hardcore as a fundamentally symbiotic art form. It also chugs really hard, but that’s, y’know, biscuits and gravy.
Following half a year of go-nowhere jamming on the central riff, “Living Proof” came together late into the album’s sessions, split between Taylor Young’s The Pit and Dave Grohl’s Studio 606. (Mildly traumatizing moment for drummer Tim Flegal: being instructed to use one of Taylor Hawkins’ cymbals after one of his own got damaged beyond repair, the Foo Fighters member having passed away only a couple weeks prior.) Unbeknownst to the rest of Drain, Ciaramitaro had prepared unusually earnest, maybe even embarrassing lyrics to close the track (“We’re here just to bring you hope/ I’ll be the angel on your shoulder/ Telling you to keep holding on and on”), crafting a sort of meta ode to the band’s pissy-to-positivity perseverance and all-embracing spectacle. When time came to stand and deliver, the frontman had been ready for his bandmates to cringe. But, nah bro, straight nah. Ciaramitaro came out of the booth and they told him that shit was fucking golden.
“All we want is to push people to be themselves,” Ciaramitaro says. “Our hardcore might be a good influence, might be a bad influence, might take you away from your family, but hopefully it encourages you to look inward and see that the things you’re doing are things you want to do. Who the fuck am I to tell anyone anything about how to be? Who the fuck is anyone, yeah?”
In my brief time as a not-at-all-professional music writer, I’ve learned to be deeply fearful of even the slightest pang of parasocial feeling (Relationships! Formed! Through! The! Prism! Of! Arts! Journalism! Are! Not! Friendships!) But! About 7/9ths into my conversation with Ciaramitaro, when he eagerly gets into his truck to once again brave the winter roads for his suddenly rescheduled tattoo appointment, an immense sadness sets in as his “golden retriever” face disappears from my laptop screen. Suddenly, I understand all the kids who maybe weren’t so sure about this whole hardcore punk thing until they’d seen that face, or Jay Mindforce’s neck, or their own slaphappy grin in the sweat-sheened reflection off some dude’s massive ear-gauges. Just a searing gargoyle voice and some cannonball breakdowns isn’t enough, regardless of how hard Living Proof makes us purse our lips.
No, as a certain mechanical gate once told me, “You’ve really gotta see it live to get it.”
Living Proof is out 5/5 on Epitaph.