Is it tough to be an old guy in a punk rock band? It all depends on who you ask. Pose the question to the guys in Agent Orange or D.O.A. or NOFX and you’re likely to get three entirely different answers.
Ask Orlando’s Sam Johnson and you’ll get a pretty simple one. Though he’s only recently crossed the dreaded threshold into his 30s and is far from cashing Social Security checks, the singer-guitarist put in a bruising near-decade in the punk rock trenches with his former band, New Mexican Disaster Squad. From spiritually and financially draining tours to label deals that just never seemed to do the trick, NMDS always seemed like a band about to happen. Despite accolades within punk communities across the country and an endless list of more popular bands who championed them, New Mexican’s revisionist hardcore never seemed to be in the right place at the right time, and the band’s dissolution last November was more an inevitable winding down than the explosive end of an era.
Yet, instead of looking back wistfully on his youthful adventures and closing the book on that era, Johnson did what many dyed-in-the-wool punks do when their current band ends. He started another one. In fact, he started his new band, Virgins, before New Mexican formally called it quits.
“It blended,” says Johnson of the end of NMDS and the beginning of Virgins. “I started writing [Virgins songs] when I could tell New Mexican was slowing down. I had this idea of trying to do a solo record. When the New Mexican guys were like, ‘We should just break up,’ I was like, ‘Fine,’ because I already had something else in mind.”
It didn’t take long for Johnson to realize that his concept of a punk rock solo album was not going to come off as planned. The first problem? He needed a band.
“I can kinda play drums, but I realized it was probably not the best idea,” he laughs. “When New Mexican officially broke up, I started wondering who I was going to get to do a band with me, because doing the solo thing just started to seem like a ridiculous idea. I did some crappy demos on GarageBand, but I didn’t do any actual recordings by myself.”
Johnson didn’t need to look far to find partners in crime.
“It was at the end of Polluted Youth,” says Virgins – and former Polluted Youth – drummer Eric Pitman. “We were kind of the coattail band for New Mexican; we played with them half the time … if we even played at all. [Polluted Youth wasn’t] quite done yet when I started playing with Sam, but then our bass player quit and it just sort of ended.”
The last piece of the puzzle came with the addition of bassist Phil Longo, who, despite being involved with several different Orlando bands – Country Slashers, Mumpsy, Basements of Florida – was looking for yet another creative outlet.
“I’ve known Phil for 10, 11 years. I was thinking about asking him to be in the band, but he was already in about 20 bands,” laughs Johnson. “I went in [to the Social, where Longo tends bar] to get a beer and he was like ‘Do you wanna do a Rites of Spring cover band?’ I was like, ‘No. No, I don’t. But do you wanna be in a real band?’ He’s just a great bass player; I can’t think of anyone else I’d rather have in the band.”
In the meantime, Johnson himself was being courted by Philadelphia garage punks the A.K.A.s. The band wanted Johnson to fill in as a touring guitarist, and he flew up to Pennsylvania to audition. A.K.A. main man Mike Ski asked Johnson to join the band full-time. Johnson declined and took a flight back to Orlando to resume getting Virgins together.
“So, my girlfriend picks me up at the airport,” he says. “As we’re leaving, I look out my window, and this car is coming at me going 60, 70 miles per hour. It was a direct hit, right at me; I just saw the lights. The next thing I remember, I’m crawling around on the grass, totally confused. There’s twisted metal, ambulances and stuff, and I’m like ‘Did my plane crash?’ The next few hours, I had no short-term memory; the X-rays found this big black spot on my brain … it turns out it was nothing.”
Amazingly, the accident only delayed the formation of Virgins by a few days, a fast-and-furious aesthetic that defined the recording sessions for their 10-song debut album, Miscarriage. The album only took five days from the first tracks to the final mix, thanks to the work of producer Chris Owens (guitarist and vocalist for Louisville, Ky., band Lords).
“New Mexican toured with Lords, and Chris is just an awesome dude,” says Johnson. “He hooked us up big-time, and the quality of the record is just awesome. He has way bigger bands coming into his studio and he doesn’t charge them enough. He’s like a budget Albini.”
The result is an album that’s blistering and raw, but clean-sounding, evoking the classic, bruising punk rock preferred by senior citizens like Johnson.
“I wanted to do a band that was more like the shit I listen to. I don’t listen to a whole lot of hardcore anymore; I listen to the Damned, the Dickies and the Sex Pistols,” says Johnson. “I’m becoming the old fart.”