"I never thought that anything associated with hardcore would have a 'lasting impression.' The music and the people were pariahs, [who] were at best tolerated in my experience. My own sisters laughed at me. My east-side musician friends didn't think I was in a 'real' band.'" - Bill Cuevas, Conflict guitarist.
Depending on your stance, the diversity in punk rock, both in how a band or performer sounds or behaves, is either a great thing or a thorn in your side. Conflict was such a band. Ahead of their time, definitely, and full of deliciously angst-ridden rage, for sure, but not part of the cookie-cutter hardcore scene that thrived in their time and for years after their demise. Hell, there's even a much more well-known hardcore band from England with the same name stealing their thunder to this day, but we'll talk about that a bit later.
Our Conflict, the early '80s Tucson band, put out a 1983 record, Last Hour, that is one of the most influential punk records to come out of the Old Pueblo and one of the most influential Arizona punk records as well. And they are ours, without a doubt, even if they came from the dusty town to the south and didn't fit the typical image of their peers.
Lead singer, Karen Allman (aka K Nurse, back in the day), knew they were on to something when the letters started rolling in.
"The first hint that we might be making some kind of impression was when I started receiving letters from people in England, Finland, Germany, Ireland and elsewhere, after our first interviews appeared in Maximum Rock and Roll," Allman says.
This type of international attention needs to be examined with a slightly (understatement) different microscope than we might use today, as this was in the early '80s, sans Internet. Zines like Maximum Rock and Roll were the next best thing early punks had at their fingertips in order to learn about what was going on in different scenes around the United States, as well as the world.
Here in Phoenix, we had several zines, including Gagging Dog and Phenis (full disclosure: my bandmate Michael Cornelius put out Phenis and also helped record the Conflict album in discussion), which were quite fond of Conflict. The band itself, especially the lineup that recorded Last Hour, was integral in breaking down several barriers in the early hardcore community, which was primarily made up of white males. Allman stood out in the crowd as a queer Asian female fronting a politically charged hardcore band. Lead guitar player Bill Cuevas, while not the original guitarist for the band, is Latino. Bassist Mariko was also both female and Asian. Then there was plain old Nick Johnoff, the drummer, who would have been the odd man out if Conflict would have been featured on one of Sesame Street's "One of these things does not belong here" segments.
Conflict rose out of the ashes of a previous band Johnoff and Allman had that began in 1979.
"When that early band broke up, he [Johnoff] put up some fliers at a music store, and that's how we found our first guitarist, Zach Hitner, who played on the cassette EP [America's Right]. Zach left to play in Civil Death (with Nick, who also continued with us) and after putting up more fliers, we found Bill Cuevas, who was our guitarist for the rest of our existence. I met our bass player, Mariko, when I was donating blood at the Red Cross. She's a pianist and her husband [a classical bass player] taught her how to play bass," shared Allman.
Personally, I first heard Conflict on the Placebo Records compilation, This is Phoenix Not the Circle Jerks (also profiled in this series) and was blown away by the music, for sure, but most of all, by singer Allman. Admittedly, at the time, I had no idea if Allman was male or female at first, and looking back, I blame my confusion on my own teenage vocal chords and the 1981 Abstract Records comp, Punk and Disorderly. I had discovered both of these records about the same time and Allman's voice fit right in with many of the voices on the almost completely English band comp (which is still great, by the way, and features great songs by the Addicts, Peter and the Test Tube Babies, GBH, Vice Squad, and even a Dead Kennedys track).
One could argue, in fact, there was a stronger correlation between the UK-based Conflict and their Arizona-based namesakes, than Tucson's Conflict had with their Arizona punk contemporaries. Former Nova Boy, Al Penzone, shared, "They were a great band. A bit ahead of the typical hardcore curve. Always professional."
Compared to the bands previously covered in this series, Conflict was playing in a different realm of punk rock altogether. The closest band, in terms of energy and attack, was probably their staunchest local allies, JFA, whose bass player, the previously mentioned Michael Cornelius, mixed and produced Last Hour.
"We played so many shows with them (most of them just one time before the venue was closed down and we had to move on). JFA took us with them on tour to L.A., where we played the Vex and I'm sure that Michael had something to do with that," recalls Allman.
In 1983, Conflict decided to go into the studio and make a record. Allman has pleasant memories of their experience at The Sound Factory in Tucson.
"We had fun. We booked some time ... and recorded it in a few hours kind of late at night. We might play a song two or three times, with input from Michael [Cornelius], and kept the best take. There was a little pressure because we really did have only that one night," Allman says.
"I was 19 at the time and it was my first experience in a studio. I remember the headphone mix being disorienting and the whole thing not feeling like the band at all. In hindsight, that's what all studio recording is like, and the art of it is getting comfortable with what is almost always a lousy headphone mix, instrument separation, etc.," shared Cuevas.
Cuevas went on, "We knocked out that whole record including mixing in less than six hours if I recall correctly, mostly all just 'live in the studio' single takes. But I learned quickly that hardcore really wasn't meant for the recording studio. There are very few records by the bands of the day that came close to capturing them live. Not even Black Flag, which had great recordings. It's just a completely different thing, not that it's bad, but hardcore was meant to be live. You can't capture a bomb going off with any recording device."
Last Hour really is a great hardcore record and does, indeed, stand the test of time. The opening track, "Fester" starts off with a herky-jerky drum beat followed up by some minor chord riffage, setting the stage for Allman's wonderful voice. It all disintegrates as quickly as it forms into some spacey delay, and the next thing you know, you're smack dab in the middle of track two, "Listen to the News," which feels as if it was made for a typical Arizona circle pit, complete with slow parts for our weird amalgamation of slamming and skanking.
As the album progresses, it's just so comfortably fucked up, which is meant as a huge compliment. "Bad Idea" is reminiscent of the Submumans (UK version), but in no way aping them, as the two bands were really coming into their own at almost exactly the same time. "Nails From the Sky" is a bit chanty, and purely punk in its attack up until K Nurse does her little "ahh, ahhs" at the end, which seems like it is mocking anything remotely soft. "It's Easy" is simply badass, bombastic, and super powerful, with Allman punctuating the music perfectly, firmly confirming her position by singing "Don't worry about me!" at the end of every chorus.
Another and very necessary disclosure here: I have never been able to decipher Allman's lyrics very well, so a big thank you to Bill Cuevas for providing a lyrics sheet. There is a part of me that staunchly believes some of the greatest punk rock lyrics ever are ones that you have to look at a lyrics sheet in the album sleeve to figure out, and Last Hour is no exception.
Back to the record.
The feedback-drenched "Not Guilty" rips through itself in sharpened blasts that give way to some killer guitar noise from Cuevas. There is a definite kinship between Cuevas' work on this song and the harsh tragedy Greg Ginn always infused in his early Black Flag riffs, and this is not by accident. Black Flag and Conflict shared bills in Arizona and California together. "Not Guilty" is so angry and just vicious. "No more marching, bleeding ... not guilty," shouts Allman with clear conviction.
While there aren't any throwaway songs on Last Hour, a few songs don't stand out as much as others. The title track, for example, and "I Don't Kill" sandwich "Crawl Away" which has a super hooky, little guitar flutter throughout the song that just sucks you in, as well as devastating lyrics about what I can only guess is the lament of a hollow relationship. As for "Itai," Cuevas remembers it well " because the slow part was so crunchy and ham-fisted yet featured vocals sung in Japanese, with a chorus that translates to 'ouch,' what the Japanese cry out in pain with. Then the fast part was one of our fastest bar chord progression things."
The rest of the B side after "Itai" is more of the same blistering riffs and frantic vocals. Allman's contribution to the band was almost like having another instrument on top of the bass, guitar, and drums. "Human Cargo" sees Allman discussing human trafficking over a machine-gun guitar blast from Cuevas. "Living Off Mom" talks about death squads and trading in your skateboard and new guitar for drugs. In listening to the song with the lyric sheet in front of me, it's clear that Allman is maybe the best Arizona hardcore lyricist ever, even if I cannot explain how she got all the words out that are printed on the page.
The album finishes up with a cover of the Guess Who's "American Woman" and the stellar, "You choose." I'm guessing "American Woman" was a bit more personal for Allman, though, than the Butthole Surfers' Gibby Haynes, who also do a great cover of the Guess Who song. Haynes never identified as an "American woman" in the way Allman did. One of the consistent themes of Allman's lyrics is feeling like she is part of the "other" whether it has to do with her gender, sexual preference, or her ethnicity.
"You Choose" is Cuevas' favorite song.
"It's really anthemic," Cuevas says. "If Karen was anyone else, 'You Choose' would make a good title for the record, but a little too simple. The lyrics are so positive, so youth empowered, almost Youth Brigade. And my true confession is that I came up with the riff screwing around with the new Ozzy [Osbourne] song at the time, "Crazy Train." It ["You Choose"] was the most challenging to play of all the songs for me too. Really satisfying when I knocked it out right."
The band put the album out on their own, using their Unjust Records imprint, although it was distributed with help from Phoenix's Placebo Records. Producer Cornelius remembers, "Nick just really needed someone with another set of ears who was not involved in doing all the playing and recording to help them make sure the sound came out right. The engineer wasn't really a punk rock guy, as you can imagine back then, and not a lot of punk rock had been recorded in Arizona, so I really just helped them make sure that they sounded like themselves. I tried to make the guitar sound really big and the drums had to be booming."
Like the Cold War, though, Conflict eventually came to an end. Cuevas blames himself, although it seems like he is the only one doing so. Cuevas says, "It's not like we got in a huge fight or anything, but I recall some disillusionment on my part, not being happy with the general tone that hardcore had taken in early 1984, with the crowds getting huge, more male-dominated and violent, an infiltration of stupid that I grew up around on the far east side of Tucson that I was trying to escape. The politics and idealism that I had gravitated to were becoming diluted. I was less enthused to take part; it was boring me. The catalyst, though, was I started concentrating on my studies at the [University of Arizona] more and I couldn't really do both at once. I can't remember what the others were going through but I fear that I broke up the band through inaction."
Allman recalls, "We were all turned off by a scene that was becoming more conformist, macho, violent and just not that much fun anymore. It didn't start out that way. So sad that we broke up when we did, as we were playing so much better and doing some interesting things and getting some attention, but by then the thing had run its course. Mariko moved away, and there were some personality conflicts when we tried to reform with a series of other bass players. I was also losing interest, because I was more interested in grad school and Bill was finishing his science and engineering degree."
These days, Allman has not been in a band since 1984 and is an "author events coordinator" at an independent bookstore in Seattle. Cuevas still likes to make noise and works as a music director for a large Bay Area university. Johnoff and bassist Mariko were not available for comment on this, but all indications are that both are doing well and healthy. Allman is still very opinionated, and when asked about the current state of affairs in punk rock, she offered this: "I still like to listen to punk rock, and of the old stuff, the early L.A. bands seem to hold up the best both musically and lyrically. My all-time favorite band is The Fastbacks, a Seattle punk band with two women and two men. I've always listened to a variety of music and still do, and I always want to check out rock bands with women playing and singing ... and wow, there are more than ever now. I know that seeing Diane Chai play with the Alleycats and hearing Mike McGrann's song, Manzanar (Channel 3), inspired me to start a band."
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