When I was growing up in the melee that was the east coast hardcore punk scene of the 1980s, a very physical and stoic presence permeated throughout the scene. Back then, an average Sunday for me consisted of seeing a band like the Cro-Mags perform songs about street justice to a crowd of individuals with hair-trigger tempers whilst wondering if I would be delivered home to my mother in a full-body cast. As you would imagine, a sense of humor wasn’t always the best weapon to wield at events such as this and it makes me wonder how a website such as The Hard Times would have been accepted at that time, but maybe I should just tell my brain to shut up and be thankful for its existence and the laughs it brings to myself and many others in the present day.
Founded at the tail end of 2014 by brothers Matt and Ed Saincome, as well as stand-up comedian Bill Conway, The Hard Times started out with the intent to poke at the ribs of the more pious elements of the punk scene with a satirical edge similar to long-running humor periodical, The Onion. Speaking from his newly adopted home of Los Angeles, Bill Conway explained to me how his sense of humor was formed by bands who held that rare blend of not taking themselves too seriously while still kicking musical ass. “The bands I liked the most growing up were the ones who injected a sense of humor into their music” states Conway. “Charles Bronson and Spazz are two bands who sound very furious, but you look at their lyrics and they’re full of jokes. That approach really informed me. There were hyper-political bands like Aus Rotten who I’m sure would never consider making their music humorous and that’s fine, but I do feel there’s a good section of the punk world that take things too seriously and that’s what allows The Hard Times to have a target in satirizing.”
Due to there being a huge void in the punk scene for such witty irreverence, the response to The Hard Times was both immediate and enthusiastic when they launched, much to the amazement of the Saincomes and Conway. “For some reason people enjoyed it,” says Bill, sounding still perplexed by the idea. “Honestly, we were happily surprised it wasn’t our ten friends reading it to be nice who would then slowly lose interest.” Also to their astonishment, the trio managed to remain unscathed in the past five years considering the good-natured swipes they’ve taken at many members of the punk rock community, but a recent virtual run-in with has-beens Alien Ant Farm over an obviously sardonic article about the band almost ruined that streak.
“One of the guys in the band e-mailed us asking where we got these quotes and how they never said what was in the article” Conway recalls. “He ended off the email with “You guys are a joke!” and I’m still not sure if that was him coming to the realization that we were actually making a joke or if it was an insult! So, Alien Ant Farm aren’t fans of us, but I think we’ll survive.”
Even in their earliest of days, people were asking the Hard Times Crew if they had a collection of their greatest hits in the printed form. “Three months in, people were asking if we had a book, and of course we didn’t, but it showed there was an interest. We started looking into self-publishing and when we were going through the initial stages of figuring that all out, we got an email from an editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt saying she started a new job there and wanted a Hard Times book to be her first project. And now all of a sudden there’s a book coming out!”
With their recently published book The Hard Times: The First Forty Years, the author team of Conway, Matt Saincome, and website contributor Krissy Howard were looking to recreate something similar to the aforementioned Onion and their debut book of farcical headlines and stories published in the late ’90s, Our Dumb Century.
“My initial thought was to use Our Dumb Century as a template due to it being the most logical way to get new content into the book along with the stuff from our archives,” explained Conway. “But when we went to the backlog of articles we had on the website to see which ones were good, we had to rewrite some of them to keep up with our current standards of writing. With some of those old ones, we were just like, ‘Oh shit! These are bad!’”
With the title of the book — an obvious homage to The First Four Years, the well-known compilation of early Black Flag material — Bill, Matt, and Krissy created a farcical narrative of The Hard Times being around since the punk movement’s beginnings.
“The premise of the book is we’ve existed since 1976 and reporting on the scene during all those years,” Conway says. “We have articles that appear to be from the ’70s, ’80s, ‘90s, and up to today.” Quick to catch himself before he puts too much of their inside joke out in the open, Conway states, “Actually, these stories are all very real. I assure you of that,” before letting out a mischievous chuckle.
Simultaneously holding the titles of successful website partner and published author is still surreal for Bill, especially when considering The Hard Times all sprang from a few Facebook posts thrown around by he and Matt not so long ago.
“I don’t have a day job anymore and that’s strange since it’s all I’ve known for my adult life,” he muses. “People come up to me regularly and tell me they enjoy the site, and again, that’s really weird to me. When I worked in the warehouse, no one used to come up to me and tell me how much they liked the way I put boxes on pallets but I’ll take the compliment.”