I still remember when I discovered The Hard Times. It was a satire site, like The Onion, or New Zealand’s own The Civilian, but aimed at punk/hardcore culture. It was both incredibly funny and familiar. (This article hits so close to home, after I stopped working so I could join my friends Ranges on tour). As with any satire site, the humour lays in the premise being rediculous, but almost plausible enough to be true. And when you have material like ska music and straight edge to work with, the stories virtually write themselves. The Hard Times really nailed their niche, and as testament to this, virtually every article they post gets shared by my musician friends accross social media, even musos who aren’t directly part of the punk scene.
The Hard Times has blown up considerably since they began four years ago, earning millions of hits online, expanding into gaming culture, and branching into booking shows, publishing a book, a TV show, and now podcasts. I jumped at the chance to interview Bill Conway, who had co-founded the site with Matt Saincome.
Will Not Fade: Hi, how are you? I love your work and find The Hard Times hilarious and relatable. My friends and I are always sharing your articles, even the musicians in non-punk-affiliated music scenes. I’ve just listened to the first few episodes of your podcast and quite enjoyed them too.
First of all, congrats on your success to date. 2.3 million views in the space of a month is a lot of traffic. And the podcasts are great. What have been some of your highlights of the past four years?
Bill Conway, The Hard Times: One highlight was getting to go to beautiful Columbus, Ohio for the AP Awards. We were asked to write a lot of the copy for the presenters of the awards so it was a real joy to see the rhythm guitarist of some band I never heard of butcher a joke we wrote.
And at what point did you start considering yourselves sell-outs?
Once we got verified on social media, total sell out move.
But in all seriousness, I think that it’s cool, not only that you’ve got this far, bu also that you pay your contributors. [I’m not even in the position that I can pay myself!] Matt, is there a tension between freelancing for other sites, and hiring freelancers for your own site?
I’ll take this one Matt. Basically through The Hard Times, Matt developed a platform called Outvoice to make paying freelancers easier. No longer will freelancers have to beg to be paid, instead the publisher pays them as soon as an article goes live. Matt forced me to be a cheerleader for him.
You’ve had podcasts and zines and a writing career as precursors to The Hard Times. Why did you decide to take a less serious route?
You can either keep working for other people or try to carve out your own space. We didn’t start The Hard Times and expect to be “a thing” but we have been pleasantly surprised by the response and are very grateful people still pay attention to what we do.
The climate for dedicated satire sites wasn’t as prevalent back when you started. The Onion is perhaps the most well-known, but is usually fairly lame. Wunderground tackles music, but focuses on EDM. You mentioned Above Average and College Humour in a recent podcast. Were you trying to emulate any other sites when you started The Hard Times?
My teenage years were spent obsessing over The Onion. This was still when they had hard copies in newsstands and if I had a friend visiting New York I would make them bring me back a copy. I had every book they ever released and couldn’t get enough of them. That dry satire sense of humor was sort of embedded in me because of that and I think it helped us shape our own voice. I can say with absolute confidence that no other satire or general comedy sites had any influence on us. We figured out what worked as we went along.
I once wrote an article inspired by The Hard Times which involved calling my friends sellouts for writing songs that lasted longer than 3 minutes. Do you think I have potential?
As long as you don’t mention anything about “vegan pit beef,” “Keith Morris getting Locks of Love shutdown after donating hair,” or how many members a ska band has then you will be fine.
Tell me about your punk background. Who were the bands of note for you in you local scene? Who ran the shows? What were the venues like?
I grew up outside of Boston. Matt and I have talked about the different scenes that shaped us. Boston was basically built around fighting. Dumbass rival crews and a bunch of nonsense. Every VFW hall was a venue on the right day.
How was that scene unique, compared to DC, or New York, for example?
I will just go ahead and answer on behalf of Massachusetts. I started really going to shows around 2001 and it was a great time and a horrible time for Massachusetts hardcore. You had legendary bands like American Nightmare and Have Heart, and then garbage “mosh core” bands like On Broken Wings and Black My Heart. There was a lot going on. Filling this out reminded me to go back and listen to The Red Chord, who a lot of people consider like grindcore, but man they ripped. Great live show.
I’m really interested in this because the population and geography of New Zealand means we can’t sustain strong scenes the same in the way America can. I remember reading about places like CBGBs as a teen, and was super stoked that I managed to get to a show at Triple Rock in Minneapolis a few years ago. Americans are great at doing the DIY thing, and geographically, there are so many more cities you can visit if you want to tour. By comparison, here in New Zealand, a “nationwide” tour involves a shows on a Thursday, Friday and Saturday, with a drive home Sunday. Don’t get me wrong, we have great bands and venues, but it just feels so limited by comparison.
Yeah man, we take everything for granted here.
Do straight-edge kids get much flack where you grew up? Here in New Zealand we tend to give them a light-hearted ribbing and repeat the same lame jokes at their expense all the time.
I am straight edge, I will always be straight edge. Nobody ever really gave me too much shit. Boston is a drinking town, normally if you tell someone you don’t drink they assume you are a recovering alcoholic and leave you be.
On a side note – I went to America for a holiday when I was 20. I went to a gig – Mark Lanegan I think – and they X’d my hands because I was underage. I thought that was so cool that there was provision for underage kids to be able to access live music even at places where alcohol was served. Here in NZ you basically just miss out until you’re 18 (legal drinking age here) because most bands play bars and pubs and there aren’t many all age venues/shows.
When I was under 21 a venue X’d my hands and on the drive home we got pulled over and the cop saw the X’s on my hands and was like “Are you straight edge?” and I said “yeah but I didn’t draw these weak X’s.” I am not sure why he asked, but at that time straight edge was considered a gang by law enforcement.
What’s your best tour story?
I personally don’t have any. I was never in bands and I like being in bed early.
Full disclosure: I’m far more involved in the post-rock community than punk. The hard style pose for group photos has really taken off in that community in recent years (probably encouraged by The End Of The Ocean). Do you see this as cultural appropriation?
Yes, I will send you my Venmo to make up for this.
Punks love DIY. From zines, to making clothing, to home job tattoos and piercings, to booking tours and printing merch. Is there anything that you think we should leave to the pros, instead of trying out for ourselves?
Dentistry, and surgery are the only two things. Everything else is far game.
I presume that you’re familiar with Penelope Spheeris’ The Decline of Western Civilization. The first and third documentaries by in that series were centred around punk music (the second focuses on heavy metal). What genre do you think Spheeris would look at if she were to make a fourth entry these days?
Probably Juggalo shit, and after being immersed in that group for more than a few weeks she would probably scrap the whole project and live out the rest of her years in solitude on a farm trying to forget the atrocities she witnessed.
I’m really intrigued by the images you use to accompany your articles. Some are clearly photoshopped. Are the rest bought stock photos? Do you photograph yourselves, or your friends? And do you ever use friends names in place of fictitious names?
A little of everything. We have a stock photo account and a photo editor that can edit things together. We also have lots of friends pose things, and recently we started a Patreon and one of the perks is at a $10 a month level you can be featured as the photo of a Hard Times article and we will tag you on Instagram and all that good stuff.
President Trump brought the concept of “fake news” to the masses, in a time when so few are critical of the content presented to them. Did you face any backlash when the concept of “fake news” came to light?
For the most part we haven’t had any backlash. The whole “fake news” thing has been weird on a social media algorithm level, because Facebook is always tweaking what people see, and satire is supposed to be “protected” content, but it doesn’t always end up working that way.
You must get a load of hilarious comments from people who think that your articles are legitimate. Can you provide some examples of your favourite responses from people who clearly didn’t understand?
For my own mental sanity I stopped reading comments. The most common thing we see is people being like “this is unbelievable” then someone pointing out the fact we are a satire site, which always prompts the original person to say “well satire is supposed to be funny.” Like we are going to get insulted by that. But I try to avoid comments sections like the plague because that is where the worst aspects of humanity goes to jerk itself off.
Are there specific bands you’ve managed to offend when running parody articles on them?
We do an article “Iron Chic Shouts Drive Thru Order in Unison” and the bass player apparently didn’t like it too much. We did a few Dropkick Murphys headlines this past week and the singer of the band tweeted at us saying he liked them, so for the most part we get positive feedback, but people are sensitive sometimes and I get that.
What have been your more controversial articles to date?
“Warped Tour Stage Moved Back 100 Feet to Comply With Sex Offender Laws” created some rumblings and we had heard the Warped Tour people weren’t too happy with us. Any headline that has to do with guns or cops usually get people fired up. Americans love their guns man.
You’ve also had some overwhelming positive responses, as indicated by the mad traffic coming to your site. Brian Baker ordered a t-shirt. Do you know of many other celebrity endorsements?
At one point Chris Rock followed us on Instagram, but he unfollowed us and I really wonder what article is the one that made him do that.
Are there any topics that are untouchable? Bands too sacred to cover? A bad taste line that can’t be crossed?
I don’t think there are any truly untouchable topics, but we want to make sure we are always on the right side of history. There are definitely no band’s too sacred, everyone is fair game. But as far as bad taste, it really just comes back to not punching down.
Skinhead punks have been associated with Nazis at times, and you’ve posted plenty of articles ridiculing Nazis on your site. Do you consider this a social obligation, or just do it because it’s funny and topical?
I would say a little bit of both. Anyone that takes themselves too seriously needs to be taken down a peg. Matt and I are both straight edge and we make fun of straight edge all the time.
You branched from hardcore/punk to gaming. Can you see yourself spreading into new territory again? I don’t think the quirky stay-at-home-mum-posting-recipes blog had become too saturated yet.
We are always looking at ways to expand. Part of it is noticing gaps in the content market, and part of it is having the right team of people to fill those gaps. Thankfully with Hard Drive we had some home grown talent that was able to use our established system and make a great product.
Why the shift to podcasts?
Pretty simple answer, Matt and I wanted to talk with cool people we like. We figured now is a good time to kind of come out from behind the curtain and let the world know who we are.
Is it a hassle pressing all the podcasts to vinyl for the purist fans? 7 inch records can’t even fit that much on them!
It can be a pain in the ass, normally an episode is about an 75 minutes long so that equates to about 8 records per podcast, it can get expensive but it is worth it.
And now a book and a TV show? At what point does your empire cease to grow?
Matt and I won’t stop until every second of every day is filled with some sort of work, because we are stupid broken people.
So when are you going to form a new political party? Will Jello Biafra be an member?
We will need more grassroots funding so we can make a run for mayor in a small market. I do not think Jello will be on board, I have heard he is not that much of a fan.
How does the booking shows fit into The Hard Times brand? I was looking through some of the gig posters and you’ve had some seriously sweet lineups.
We actually have a live events coordinator named Nick Dill, he goes by Nick Bane. He is a Bay Area show promoter and has been doing it for years. He is an old pal of Matt’s and a huge fan of the site and he puts together some great shows.
Photo: Senny Mau
And for some silly fun at the end:
Please list your top 5 albums that you think my readers need to know about.
In no particular order:
Minor Threat – Complete Discography
The Gaslight Anthem – 59 Sound
Cave In – Beyond Hypothermia
At the Gates – Slaughter of the Soul
Saves the Day – Through Being Cool
Do you think that any of those albums would survive if we added a brass section to each?
I think Cave In has the most potential and it would sound very evil.
Do you have go-to throwdown/mosh moves? Favourite stage dive techniques?
I will be turning 35 in a few months so I have been in mosh and stage dive retirement for years, which is a good thing.
What is the best thing to use to spike your hair up?
2 part epoxy with with a bond strength of at least 3,300 PSI.
How hard are you?
Without question as hard as that one unpopped kernel in a giant mouthful of popcorn.
Would you rather fight a Danzig sized toddler, or 5 toddler sized Danzigs?
I was under the impression Danzig is already toddler sized just a bit more spooky, so I will go with the Danzig sized toddler.
The Hard Times links:
Patreon page: https://www.patreon.com/thehardtimes