Kingston After Dark: Lionel Johnson on Hell’s Teeth and Kingston

The four incisors of Hell’s Teeth.

For decades, Lionel Johnson has been one of the all-around good people in the local music scene I respect the most, ever since he first decimated my ears fronting the indomitable bygone hardcore band Slugworth. Lionel is still in the musical mix from time to time and has a fresh metal project called Hell’s Teeth where he plays guitar. Check their scorching first EP at hellsteethny.bandcamp.com/album/nihilist and catch the boys at Tubby’s this Saturday evening, Feb. 8, at 6 p.m.

Morgan Y. Evans: How did Hell’s Teeth form? Did you have a sound in mind from the jump?

LJ: This may seem trite, but this lineup is Hell’s Teeth. Damon (drums) and I have played together for over five years, Desean also plays bass in Public Burning (where I handle vocals) and I’ve known Matt for more than 15 years. His oldest brother is one of my best friends and I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for him, along with a huge level of respect for his skills.

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I think we all realized that we had something very specific to say and it was sort of natural. I liken it to what would happen if a zombie outbreak hit us. We all kind of looked at our surroundings and thought (at the same time), “Oh, this is whack and I’m not feeling it. Oh you, too? F@#k it. Let’s burn it.” The first time we actually sat down and started making noise, we knew what we were doing was real. We were all tired of the so-called “dark” bands out there making noises that gave you the sense that there was something borderline manufactured happening. Since day one, we’ve been celebrating the villain. Hopefully it shows.

MYE: I know the Hellmouth is the sort of mouth like entrance in depictions of the entrance to Hell as a monstrous maw rather than gates. Would Hell’s teeth be like little monster teeth Jesus had to step over during the Harrowing or did you have something better in mind? Haha.

LJ: Haha! Hell’s Teeth is actually an old English phrase much like “oh jeez!” and when we began crafting our first EP, we realized that there was a certain level of uneasiness we were able to create as a unit. I’m sure it’s because I’ve been so close to it, but it was almost like this undeniable, visceral bank of rage was discovered that none of us had truly tapped into before. Almost like we had finally realized, discovered and captured what we had all been after individually for so long.

MYE: You have a Tubby’s show coming up, right? Have you played hardcore shows there before? It’s a small but rad space.

LJ: Yes we have and will happily continue to as long as they’ll have us. We played at Tubby’s a few times in 2019, and I’m pretty sure that those were my favorite shows of the year. It’s small, but you can pack a hell of a good time in that place, trust me. Cory and the whole Tubby’s team have been amazingly hospitable and respectful to a scene that often gets a bit of a bad reputation. When we were trying to figure out what we wanted the year to look like, after losing yet another DIY space, they gave us the type of community venue we need in this area. They host diverse bands with open arms and they support what’s happening outside of their own space. Truly a rare gem — trust me; I’ve been doing this for a few decades now.

MYE: Indeed. I want to talk about what else you do in your life at present? Your family and friends are important to you but what makes you still passionate to make time for music as well?

LJ: I can’t say that I’m the most interesting person out there. I’ve had a pretty solid career in marketing and I work for an awesome ad agency — Brawn Media. Yes, that is a shameless plug. Outside of work and family activities, music is pretty much a constant presence in my life. Even before I was old enough to figure out what resonated with me, I remember listening to my brother spin early ’80s hip-hop. I was lucky enough to have parents who loved music and would play Prince and Michael Jackson 45’s for me or sing Motown songs as on my Dad’s favorite eight-track tapes. Dating myself here.

I will say, the thing that is the most fun for me is watching my eight-year-old begin to develop her own musical interests and begin to take on the challenge of learning to play her own instrument. Hopefully she’ll form a successful death-metal power trio and get rich off of doing death/grind versions of Billy Joel songs.

MYE: You’ve been in some of my favorite regional bands over the years. What was your first show you remember going to or a record in the punk or metal genres that still holds up to you as influential?

LJ: I guess we have known each other for a minute, haven’t we —surprised you still tolerate me — but I guess the first metal record I can think of that still influences me to this day would have to be Peace Sells, But Who’s Buying. I remember one of my older cousins introducing me to Megadeth with that when I was around 8 or 9 and just thinking, “F@#K! I need to learn to play guitar!” Beyond that Dark Angel’s Time Does Not Heal, Devastation’s Idolatry and Obituary’s Cause of Death also played huge roles in my development as a metal fan and somewhat capable musician. I’m not sure what kind of musician I’d be if I hadn’t discovered Death, Thrash and Speed.

MYE: How do you feel about the general direction of K-town these days?

LJ: Fun question! Musically, maybe it’s me and my 8.5-year-strong “dad-life” status, but Kingston hasn’t been this lively in a long time. Last year was a very busy year for a couple of bands. A few awesome shows were organized and hosted by some very instrumental folks in the hardcore scene — thank you, Terry Orlando and Cory Plump — and that really did a lot to help re-spark a flame. I’ve chosen to play an active role in making sure that flame is a full-on blaze in 2020. I hope other people and venues will get involved in making sure it’s an active year for all of us.

Generally, Kingston is in an interesting place. One would argue Kingston is “in transition,” but as a lifelong resident, I would say that we’ve been “in transition” for the better part of 30-plus years. I’m not going to get on my soapbox about gentrification and the fact that it only seems to be an issue when it’s not “non-whites” experiencing a loss of opportunity for home, health and prosperity, but I will point out the irony of the fact that the topic seems to be prevalent on most agendas now that it’s more than the marginalized experiencing challenges like housing, employment opportunities, etc. I’m sure I’ve just opened the floodgates for some uber-liberal or ultra-conservative citizen to attack me with some label, so I’ll go ahead and end that thought with two recommendations: One — I’m a pretty open-minded humanist, ask my caucasian wife or the mixed gaggle of humans I do associate with. Two — If you have an opinion about anything I’ve said here, grab an encyclopedia and look up the Giveaf–kasaurus … striking resemblance to yours truly.

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