When Durham's Ugly Americans announced last month that they would soon return to the stage, the news wasn't entirely surprising: The early, infamous and important Triangle punks have been reuniting off and on for a quarter-century.
After their heyday from 1984 to 1986, the punk group reunited for a yearlong 1989 run that yielded some shows and an unreleased recording session. They continued to play the occasional one-off gig every few years until their last get-together in 2004. But this outing, their first in a decade, promises more than just a nostalgic romp through old songs: Ugly Americans are back in earnest, with plans to record new material.
"Depending on who you ask in this band, it's either going to be a single or a double album," guitarist Danny Hooley says with a laugh. Either way, it'll be the first output from the band in more than 28 years.
In their Reagan-era prime, Ugly Americans led the sort of career made for punk-rock lore. Hooley, who performed under the name Danny Hooligan, and singer Robert McIlwee, still known best as Simon Bob Sinister, founded the band in late 1983, recruiting bassist Chris Eubank and drummer Dan Adams—then sophomore roommates at Duke's Alspaugh dorm—in a classified ad.
The Ugly Americans debuted in February 1984 at Duke Coffeehouse. "This sounds like something out of a silly 1980s movie, but we actually did stand outside of Chewning Junior High School with fliers," Hooley says. "I'm surprised we didn't get arrested. Nowadays we'd get arrested for this, like we're creepy predators, but we were 21 and still looked like kids."
In 1985, Adams—who'd go on to play bass with the California miscreants of Oxbow and engineer robotic animals for movies such as Free Willy and Anaconda—left the band. When Stillborn Christians drummer Jon McClain stepped in, the band turned toward the then-nascent sound of punk-metal crossover. "I had double bass drums back in the day when the little tiny punk rock kit was the standard," McClain says.
"I can remember the first time we played with Jon in the basement, and it was just like, 'Holy shit!'" Hooley says. "All of a sudden, I felt like I was a badass. I could tell that was going to be a fertile period."
In fact, that lineup scored a deal with Death Records, the thrash imprint of heavy music titan Metal Blade. Death released 1985's sophomore album Who's Been Sleeping ... In My Bed, a follow-up to the rawer, self-released 1984 debut The Dream Turns Sour.
By the time Ugly Americans broke up in 1986, they'd toured the country with The Descendents and made a fan of Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra, sometimes seen sporting Ugly Americans shirts. They also helped bring punk rock to Durham by booking bands such as The Minutemen, Fang and Jodie Foster's Army at venues like The Duke Coffeehouse and St. Joseph's Church. However small it was, their catalog remains both emblematic of and irreverent to punk's prevailing currents of the time. The Dream Turns Sour interrupted its raw, proto-thrash for the surf-inspired "Bob's Beach." In My Bed let that influence creep again into "Graveyard Beach." And between dynamic ragers like "Mess Me Up" and "Homophobia," Ugly Americans added the sing-songy juvenalia of "Weenie Man," a playful bit of Dead Milkmen-worthy goof.
For Sinister, who also briefly fronted Corrosion of Conformity, Ugly Americans' willingness to bend the template of hardcore was crucial.
"It's never been pigeonholed," he says. "Our music has really varied throughout the years. I don't think it's a straight-ahead, one-size-fits-all kind of thing."
But in 1986, hardcore was in transition. The music, so defined by youthful urgency and untrained musicianship, had to adapt to its players getting older and better. The bands that didn't break up started looking for new avenues to explore. "Writing songs became more of a challenge, and maybe we just couldn't come to an agreement about how to do that," says guitarist Hooley.
Then there were the normal issues plaguing young bands with a taste of success. "We were all young stars with big heads," McClain adds.
Still, the members refer to each other even now like family, and their periodic reformations attest to their lasting bond.
"We piss and moan with each other—haven't moved furniture to wrestle yet," McClain says. "You disagree, but your shit works out. We're stuck with each other, so it has no choice but to work out."
Sinister, who'll drive 18 hours from his home in Des Moines, Iowa to rejoin Ugly Americans, echoes the sentiment. "If I'm 90, and the guys call me and say, 'You want to play?' Well, if I can still walk, I still want to play."
While many of their hardcore-era peers have staged nostalgic reunions and critics have reevaluated the genre's impact in books and documentaries, that's not driving Ugly Americans this time.
They'll play the show on Friday night and spend a few days recording a mix of new songs penned by Sinister and Hooley and reimagined takes of their lost early-'90s material. There are no careerist objectives. They're pushing themselves beyond their past, celebrating their 30-year milestone while again trying to bend the notions of what "hardcore" can mean.
"I play with these guys, and it always brings something out of me," Hooley says. "It just feels awesome at my age to still be a student of something, and it inspires me to be a student of the guitar to play with these guys."
"We're just four dudes who like to play in the band," Sinister says. "That's all we have right now."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Woke up new"