Jim Martin has a quick answer for why he was attracted to punk: “I was an angry young boy!” It was the late 1970s and the “time was right. I came from a broken home and I was acting out.”
For the better part of the past two decades, Martin has fronted the hardcore punk band Broken. Drummer Ken Cushen, bass player “Hoss” Austin, and guitarists Gerry Stopper and Jason Gorman join Martin, the only remaining original member. The current band has been together over four years with Gorman’s and Cushen’s tenures exceeding a decade each. Broken, which has numerous tours of the United States under its belt, has also performed in Canada, Mexico, and several European countries. The group’s aggressive, pummeling, often-political music has been showcased on numerous seven-inch 45s and compact discs.
The combination of the buzz saw music and anti-authoritarian message in punk hooked Martin.
“It was the soundtrack, the pulse. It was aggressive and I was feeling aggressive, locked in. ‘The Kids Will Have Their Say!’” Martin says, referencing the title track of a 1982 album by the Boston band SS Decontrol.
Martin’s mother was a nurse who designed fabrics on the side. He recalls her taking him and his younger brother into Manhattan with her when she went to shop her designs to a New York City designer.
“In the late 1970s, the punk scene was thriving. I was 13 or 14, a total outsider, and I remember seeing the original punks walking around,” Martin says.
The day after hearing James Velvet, a dinner guest of his parents, regale the table with talk of the seething rage in the then-new Sex Pistols album Never Mind the Bollocks — Martin says, “I was hanging on every word” — he went down to the Music Box in Hamden and bought the record.
Martin began going to shows around 1980. The D.I.Y. ethic — doing it yourself – appealed to him. Rather than wait for bars and clubs to warm to the aggressive new music, musicians and fans created their own spaces.
“That was pretty powerful,” Martin says, “to take things into your own hands and walk outside the boundaries.”
Punk may have appeared scary and violent to the mainstream culture. But for young outsiders like Martin, it was a participatory, welcoming environment.
“There were a lot of people who opened the door and showed you the way,” Martin says, name-checking Joe Dias, the singer for Lost Generation, as someone who “was a total big brother to me in that respect. It wasn’t, ‘Get out of here, kid!’ It was more like, ‘Come here, kid, want to hang?’”
Martin’s entrée into the punk culture initially wasn’t his booming growl of a voice but his drawing skills. His parents encouraged creativity.
Martin says that for his mother, “Nothing was a dumb idea as long as you weren’t going to get hurt. The rules in her house if things were getting crazy — she was pretty open about drinking and knew we were going to smoke pot — she said, ‘Don’t get in cars with drunk people and don’t come home a junkie or you’ll break my heart.’
“I always drew and always did well in art. That was my contribution,” he says.
At the Anthrax Club in Stamford (and later Norwalk) — a legendary hardcore punk mecca in the Nutmeg State in the early to mid-1980s — it got around that Martin could draw. Brothers Brian and Shaun Sheridan, who ran the club, encouraged him to create flyers; he often traded flyer designs for free club admission when short on cash.
His cartooning style was influenced by both the Marvel superhero graphics of Jack Kirby and his father’s stash of underground comics.
“I used to trip out on Robert Crumb comics, Anarchy Comics, Zap, and the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers,” Martin says. “But I also liked the fact that they were real satirical — there was politics in those comic books.”
Another influence was the fringe leftist political flyers he’d see papered around New Haven, reverberations of the anti-Vietnam War and Black Panther activism of the 1960s.
“A flyer would always get me in the door and got my name around — ‘Hey, who did this flyer?’”
Soon, Martin was doing artwork for bands’ record sleeves as well as flyers. Perhaps inevitably — the border between performer and audience member being so sketchy in punk — Martin recalls the friendly challenge: “Hey, Jim, you’ve got really great taste in music — when are you going to start a band?”
Although he had been immersed in punk since about 1980, it wasn’t until 1988 that he fronted his first band, Malachi Krunch.
“It took me a while. I didn’t know how to play an instrument. But I had attitude,” says Martin. “I remember at my first gig somebody asked me if I was scared. I said, ‘Nah, this is like a keg party,’ and I was just goofing around.”
Among his influences were Wendy O. Williams, the late singer of The Plasmatics, and John Brannon, vocalist from Negative Approach.
“That guy could make paint peel in the room, his voice was so scorching,” says Martin. In the pre-Internet days of the 1980s, Martin also managed to acquaint himself with Japanese punk bands like Lip Cream and Gauze, adding another dimension to his vocal approach.
“I didn’t know what the hell they were saying but it was crazy to hear that stuff,” he says.
Martin, who formed Broken with friends in 1994, is capable of a convincing representation of burly, coiled menace.
“You can be scary with your eyes. I try to hold the stage, small as it is, and use it as a platform,” Martin says.
Punk privileges the fired-up amateur but that doesn’t mean putting on a riveting show isn’t important. Martin recalls playing a club in Canada that had a balcony all around the stage.
“It felt like a theater to me. I felt like I was on trial and appealing to them all the time, looking up at the balconies. All I could think about was ‘Don’t cry for me, Argentina.’ It was my Broadway moment because usually we play smaller bars and dingy basements. I got off on it and I hammed it up big time.”
While Martin is the primary lyricist, most of Broken’s music is composed in a collaborative process. The tempos get set according to the subject matter: “Is it really fast and angry or is it more drawn back and a little more storytelling?”
Martin brings ideas to rehearsal and the band then “starts hammering the anvil as the guys make the music tighter,” sorting out what part makes sense as the verse and what lines work as a chorus.
They try to incorporate experiences they have shared as a band — conflicts with authority figures, injustices they’ve seen, promoters who have ripped them off, hassles crossing borders.
In “At the Border” from the 2007 vinyl EP of the same name, Martin sings about a stop at the Canadian border en route to Montreal.
“No one has done any prison time/And we don’t have any drugs at all/If you are looking for the shit/the shit is right here/What’s with all your suspicion?/We don’t have guns, just guitars/Let us in!! Let us in!!/Broken wants to play Montreal!!”
“Message-wise, I believe in satire. And we’ve been called on it, too, like, ‘How can you make fun of that?’ Actually, I’m just trying to shed light on it because it really does suck,” explains Martin.
As an example of the band’s way of processing social injustice, Martin recalls an incident during a tour of Mexico.
“It was a real poverty-stricken area near the airport, really bad. We’re laughing and our tour minders, who were Mexicans, said, ‘It’s not funny, you know.’ We said, ‘We’re not laughing at them. We’re laughing at the absurdity of the whole scene — how can this happen?’
“This is our report, what we’re seeing. I think I take a lot of that from the early hip-hop scene. I remember being in Los Angeles before the L.A. riots and hearing some of these bands and they were telling it how it was. Then in ‘92, it kicked off and I was, like, ‘Everything they were talking about, it was in those songs,’” says Martin.
On Active Denial — the most recent Broken CD, which came out in 2010 — Martin’s guttural, declamatory rants ride a sound field of breakneck-tempo drums and barbed wire guitar chords. Lyrically, he lashes out at the homogenization of culture through globalization, suppression of dissent, and the military’s use of depleted uranium ammunition. In “U-232,” Martin barks: “U-232/carrying out orders, acceptable death ratios/Killing their troops and our own/Conquests of the moment, indiscriminating legacy/Civilians were just in the way.”
Martin says Broken’s music these days is “heavier, more guitar-oriented, with more of a bass drive and more on the attack.” About 10 years ago, the band tried easing up a little bit, taking more of what Martin calls “a rock ‘n’ roll approach.” It didn’t last.
“We decided, ‘No more of this funtime crap! It’s back to being scary!’” recalls Martin, now in his mid-40s.
“That’s the way to keep a young man’s attention,” he adds, referring to the band’s audience.
Touring with a hardcore punk band isn’t for the weak of heart. In the eyes of officialdom, punk is associated — not unreasonably — with dissident, sometimes insurrectionist, countercultures. And punk venues are often found in more hardscrabble urban districts.
As a roadie with the group Nausea in Germany in the early ’90s, Martin and the band’s members had to flee, guitars in hand, when a police tank bore down on the stage. On tour in Mexico in 2009, Broken experienced a country in a state of war. Outside a taqueria, a host of police officers held the band at machine gun point while Broken’s Mexican minder tried fast-talking the gun-toting cops.
“I was taught not to look Mexican police in the eye — they take it as a challenge — so I was scanning, (looking) from side to side,” says Martin. “All of a sudden, ‘El Jefe’ showed up. He had five pistols on his chest. He looked like something out of a movie — very military, spit polish. He looked me over and let us go.”
After leaving a gig in Derry in Northern Ireland while touring the UK and Ireland shortly after 9/11, Broken’s van was pulled over at a British Army checkpoint outside of town.
“I pulled up and rolled down the window and asked, ‘Can I help you?’ He locked and loaded on me,” Martin recalls. “He screamed in a high-pitched voice like out of a movie, ‘I-dent-i-fi-ca-tion!’”
In his rear view mirror, Martin could see the rest of the paratroopers surrounding the van, faces blackened and dressed in camouflage. They weren’t ordered out of the van but Martin had his passport scanned and says that since then he has often been pulled aside on “random checks” at airports.
Now that Martin is an elder statesman of the punk scene, he feels the same obligation to share his knowledge and camaraderie, as Joe Dias of Lost Generation did with him in the 1980s. With his friend and former band mate Matt Sachs, Martin founded Vex Records to not only release Broken recordings but also the music of other bands. Martin puts up money to help bring international punk groups to the U.S. and then transports them to Montreal for the Varning International Punk Festival. On tour in Mexico, he arranged for youngsters hanging out in the street to get in free to Broken’s performance at an art collective.
“Punk gave me so much,” Martin says. “It’s part of my mission to give back.”