The 1990s were a difficult, beautiful and fertile time. Heavy metal, once the dominant force on rock and roll radio and MTV, was forced to adapt in the face of the nascent grunge explosion. The once clearly defined battle lines between headbangers, punks, b-boys, skinheads, goths, ravers, and just about every other subculture under the sun were becoming blurred. Tradition gave way to transition, and the face of music forever changed.
“When I look back now, all those bands are trying to mix the same elements because they’re from the same age group,” says Kenny Hickey, guitarist of Brooklyn’s very own Drab Four, Type O Negative. “We’re all trying to mix Beatles, Black Sabbath, Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. I guess it’s just because we were born around the same time in the mid-’60s.”
Hickey and I are speaking via Zoom from his home studio in Staten Island, where he is working on a new Silvertomb record. He had just returned from Florida a few days prior, where he recorded a song with Eye Am, his project with lifelong collaborator Johnny Kelly and Crowbar’s Kirk Windstein. Hickey is insightful, charming, and quick-witted in a manner unique to native New Yorkers.
Peter Steele was a New York legend well before Type O Negative. As the driving force behind Carnivore, he was at the forefront of the burgeoning crossover movement. After Carnivore disbanded, Steele formed Repulsion with guitarist Kenny Hickey, keyboardist Josh Silver, and drummer Sal Abruscato. When they learned that there was already a Michigan grind band with the same name, they rechristened themselves as Type O Negative.
“The first time I brought Peter to my house, he showed me some of the stuff he was working on. Nobody else ever heard it,” says Hickey. “So, we’re sitting in my room in front of these Marshall stacks, and he starts singing ‘I know you’re fucking someone else.’ I’m looking at him like he’s crazy and I ask, ‘Are you serious?’ He goes, ‘Absolutely. Yeah.’”
By incorporating Black Sabbath-inspired doom elements along with the thrash and hardcore sensibilities of Carnivore, Type O’s debut album Slow, Deep and Hard became an underground sensation. Around the same time, the once-thriving South Brooklyn metal scene was changing, as evidenced by the downturn in activity around the legendary Bay Ridge club, L’Amour.
“The grunge thing was happening [which caused the] systematic destruction of L’Amour at that point,” says Hickey. “Now [promoter] Ron Delsener started deferring all the bands to Manhattan venues like Hammerstein. Then L’Amour became known as sort of like the ‘HAIR CLUB’. It was death if you were a hair band after ‘91 when Nirvana broke.” He continues, “We still had national acts coming through, thrash bands and stuff like that. It was still pushing the metal. I saw Soundgarden at L’Amour. That was fucking incredible. But you know, around ‘93 is when L’Amour started slowing down.”
Type O Negative began spending more and more time in Manhattan, becoming fixtures on the Lower East Side scene. The darker post-punk music that radiated through those neighborhood bars and clubs had a profound impact on the band’s writing.
“Between ‘89 and ‘93, Bloody Kisses era, we used to go out to the Lower East Side on the weekend and drink vodka in the street, and go to Alcatraz and Wah Wah Hut and all the cool bars that were still on Avenue A. It had this whole… it wasn’t grunge, and it certainly wasn’t metal. It was punk,” says Hickey. “There was a punk edge to the neighborhood. It was cool that we’d find the Misfits on the jukebox before Metallica mentioned them and all these cool other artists that weren’t mainstream yet. It was fun. Stuff like Nick Cave, Bauhaus, My Bloody Valentine. You know, that kind of stuff out of the late 80s was very much a big influence at the time. It’s just from hanging out in that neighborhood.”
Although invigorated by the sounds of Lower Manhattan’s club scene, the prevalent spirit of innovation throughout rock music in the early 1990s can’t be understated. Hickey recalls,
“I was still listening to Slayer and metal. Of course, it was ‘93 so I was listening to Nirvana, but I wasn’t a huge fan because it was a little poppy for me,” he says. “Absolutely loved Soundgarden. I absolutely loved Alice in Chains. Those were the two bands that really sold me on [grunge]. Pearl Jam was just too mainstream for me. I liked the offbeat shit, darker.
“I love Smashing Pumpkins. The feelings on Siamese Dream were amazing. It still is. Iconic records were dropping in the early 90s and there’s no doubt about it, there was a revolution going. Like, everything seemed new and inventive,” he says. “We got caught up in that too, you know. We were kind of pushed into different zones, out of hardcore, out of thrash, out of metal. We kind of went the goth way but mixed with a lot of other stuff like industrial, and there’s still metal in there. Type O Negative was always an amalgamation of everything around us. It was a very inventive period.”
Great art is always a reflection of its time and place, and nothing quite captures the desolation, romanticism, humor, and danger of pre-gentrification New York City like Type O Negative’s second studio album, Bloody Kisses. The record took the sprawling epics of doom, industrial, and thrash from Slow, Deep and Hard, and seamlessly incorporated melancholic post-punk to create the definitive gothic metal masterpiece, forever changing the face of music as we know it.
Although it would take some time before they broke through into the mainstream, Bloody Kisses found a receptive audience in various underground subcultures immediately. “It’s funny because the band has this group of fans who are still hardcore guys and a group of fans that are total goth girls and dudes. They both love the band for completely opposite reasons, but hey, whatever!” says Hickey. “We somehow made the transition and I think that there were so many elements, I think what made it transferable to all these styles was that we started out with a battery of crazy styles with Slow, Deep, and Hard.”
Bloody Kisses captures the sound of New York City at a turning point. When the record was released in August of 1993, Rudy Giuliani had just unseated incumbent mayor David Dinkins through a campaign of fearmongering. The grindhouses and sex shops of Times Square were beginning to close, and the crack epidemic and its associated wave of violent crime were in a downturn. In its wake, New York was left with a hangover that manifested in a unique brand of nihilistic exuberance. There is no better musical document to capture the feeling of that era than Bloody Kisses. It is a record that squarely laughs in the face of the void.
“I think that the band got less dark with Bloody Kisses and more imaginative and inventive. And I think a lot of that still to this day, has to do with our environment. The bars we would go into hanging out and I remember going out and splashing red paint all over my MC jacket to make it look like I had blood all over me. We’d paint our nails black, and Peter would put Frankenstein stitches on his wrist. It was fun! Instead of a downer thing, in a dark way, it became more inventive and fun!”
Although the support of MTV’s Headbangers Ball and word-of-mouth chatter helped elevate Type O Negative’s profile, they were still very much an underground metal band. “We’re selling 20 albums a week. We were playing mom-and-pop places to 50 people a night, having a great time driving around the country in a bus with Life of Agony, but we would have done that till the end of time,” says Hickey. Soon, a series of events would change all of that and alter the course of history.
Type O Negative was offered a last-minute tour supporting Nine Inch Nails on the west coast. It seemed like a great opportunity to play with a high-profile, like-minded band and win over some new fans.
“That was the Nine Inch Nails revolution, you know? And we thought, ‘Oh, this is just gonna break the band.’ We literally got called, I think four days before the gig, like in an emergency, saying, ‘You guys gotta go to Seattle,’” says Hickey. “We freaking load up a box truck and a van and drive from Brooklyn to Seattle, straight with no stops. But it was exciting! We’re playing all cool theaters two nights in a row down the West Coast ending in LA. And you know, I dug the band [Nine Inch Nails] and what he [Trent Reznor] was doing, as another band that was inventive at the time and branching out.
“But it was the hardest gig we had ever done. Type O has opened for so many bands of so many genres and we’ve always been embraced,” says Hickey. “Not with Nine Inch Nails, that was a horror show. For everyone who was into Nine Inch Nails, the only band that existed on the earth was Nine Inch Nails. It was their Bible. Their fans would be like ‘you guys are too metal you got long hair’ and they’d throw shit at us. It was brutal. So, Peter would say, ‘If you throw stuff, throw money’ and a flood of change would fly at us every night.
“The only respite we had was the parties after the show which Trent would set up. They were crazy. Fucked up. People hanging from the ceiling from the nipples and watching folks get piercings and scarification, I never even heard of that shit at that time. But he would never show up to the parties, he’d just set them up so people would talk about them I think,” he says. “They were all cool to us though. The band was great, cool guys. We’d go to parties [with Nine Inch Nails] and just marvel. I mean, at that point in my life I thought it was a party animal, but we went to this place I was like ‘What the fuck is going on?’”
The real turning point for Type O Negative came from somewhere they never expected, when ‘80s metal icons Mötley Crüe asked the band to support them on an arena tour.
“It was amazing! And we didn’t wanna do it!” says Hickey. “It was the Corabi tour, so Vince [Neil] was out of the band at that point. It was John Corabi’s record with them. I just knew that Mötley Crüe was a hair band, and in the beginning of the ‘90s there was like a hair BAN! If you’re in a hair band, you are not cool. It was the anti-hair band era. Ken Kriete, our first manager, was like ‘you got to do this tour. It’s all open sheds. All summer long.’ We’re like, ‘Mötley Crüe? We’re gonna get shit thrown at us again! It’s gonna be terrible!’ Ken is like, ‘No, no, no, go do it. I’m telling you, go do it.’ We didn’t want to do it, but he was like, ‘you’re gonna be playing in front of thousands of people who would never think about listening to you, never even consider it.’ So, we relented and went out.
“The first night we met the guys, partied with them and drank and they were just like us! They’re just goofballs. It turned out to be a rock and roll summer camp from heaven! We had a ball and laughed our asses off every night,” says Hickey. “That’s what broke the band, too. Ken was right. The first week of playing with them we were selling like 2000 albums a week, like the first week or two. Bloody Kisses started taking off. Mötley Crüe is what made it take off. It was just because those guys liked the record, and they were listening to it while they were in the studio.”
The Mötley Crüe tour was the transformative experience that catapulted Type O Negative from underground heroes to mainstream sensations. On the other side of the bill, Mötley Crüe was having an entirely different experience.
“The rooms were huge outdoor sheds,” says Hickey. “So, there were eight thousand, ten thousand, some of them were twenty thousand seat arenas, but they weren’t full. It was the [John] Corabi tour, and it was a hair band in the beginning of the ‘90s. For them it was a disaster. There were literally three thousand people at the shows sometimes.” He continues, “I remember going out in Jacksonville. It was the first indoor arena we ever played, and me and Johnny were like ‘We’re playing in an arena! We made it!’ And when we walked out on stage there were literally eight hundred people. They blocked out the last two-thirds of the arena.
“It’s because they changed singers,” Hickey says. “The powers were against them at the time. It wasn’t their fault. They were just moving on and trying to move forward like anybody else. It was a bad dip in their career at that moment, but for us it was like a godsend. Corabi was a talented dude. It was just circumstance. He’s a great singer. They needed talent and he was a good fit, but nobody was having it.”
It’s hard to remember a world before Bloody Kisses. As The Beatles did with Revolver, it’s an album so institutionally ubiquitous that entire genres wouldn’t exist without it. Although the band knew that they were onto something special, it would be impossible to conceive of the lasting impact the record would make on the culture at large. As the anniversary of Bloody Kisses approaches, it’s amazing to think that 30 years ago, four young men from South Brooklyn stood on the precipice of reinventing music. The Beatles comparisons write themselves, folks.
“I was out of my mother’s house, living with my now wife, Bonnie. I think we were living in Mill Basin in Brooklyn. Our apartment had a walk-up garden. It was nice. It was me, Bonnie and her sister Justine,” says Hickey. “Johnny was probably still living with his mother. Peter was still in his mother’s house, which he stayed in almost to the end. Josh was in the house that he was born into on East 18th. So, they’re all living at home. I think I was the only one in my own apartment. I was 27. Josh was pushing 30 and he thought he was like Methuselah. He thought he was 80 and, on his way, out! Same thing with Peter, too. That was our living situation. Mostly Brooklyn guys living with their parents.”
Kenny Hickey holds affection for the single “Christian Woman,” saying of their experience with the song, “I remember doing the pre-production in Josh’s studio. Peter was like, ‘I knew when I went home that night, that it was the best thing that I’ve ever written and that it was going to do something.’ It was our biggest radio single ever.”
The entire world has changed in the 30 years since Bloody Kisses was released, yet its audience grows by the day. “I have no feelings. I can’t have PTSD because it’s so long ago and I can’t remember whatever it is,” says Hickey. “I’m proud of it. It’s cool that it’s still around and it’s found a new fan base, a younger fan base and all that. It feels to me like a real resurgence of it.”
Peter Steele, the towering musical juggernaut at the front of Type O Negative, passed away on April 14th, 2010. “You know, with the band being done for 10 years and Peter being gone. I guess everything seems to take a decade,” says Hickey. “He’d be totally proud of it. He wouldn’t say it though if you mentioned it to him, you know.”