In the murky folklore of Boston rock history, the first American appearance of the Police at the Rat in 1978—the underground club situated beneath a pub ’n’ grub in the sewers of Kenmore Square—is considered to be the bragger’s badge of honor to have attended. Of course, any claim to have been there is usually greeted with dismissive eye rolls or jocular interrogation due to the show’s low attendance and the knowledge that the first American Police show actually took place at CBGB in New York.
Almost 45 years later, hard-charging gig-goers of The City That Never Sleeps With Anyone were given real first dibs on witnessing the American debut of London’s the Chisel (not to be mistaken with Ted Leo’s mighty ’90s band Chisel), and they responded in kind. The band sold out their initial venue, the Middle East upstairs (with a capacity of 194 people), and were moved next door to the sister club Sonia (350 cap, which they also sold out, leaving hopeful attendees out in the springtime rain on a Monday night). Making it an even better debut was knowing Sting wasn’t fronting this fucking band, the carpenter Big Cal was.
I first met frontman Cal Graham five years ago when he was a guest at my apartment in Brooklyn after a Godflesh show. Having seen him get into a bag of mushrooms and some bottles of liquor, I expressed some concern about taking him back out bar-hopping for the evening. A rush of red belligerence broke the pale shock his face put on at hearing my words. “You don’t want me to join along? Well, then, you’re fucking banned! You’re banned from London, no one will welcome you to England, period!” Cal shouted at me in my kitchen, located in the former British colony of what is now America.
Feeling bad for his dejected look while loving his blunt candor, I apologized and uneasily reconsidered, and off we went, with the night ending perfectly at Greenpoint’s A Bar and Cal repeatedly screaming at the bartender to play some Cro-Mags at 3:55 a.m.
So when Cal informed me he was now fronting a punk band during my visit to London’s Static Shock Festival back in March 2020, I was already counting myself a fan. He lifted my British ban.
Two things I was most unprepared for in the spring of 2020 were (a) how good the Chisel’s debut EP, Deconstructive Surgery, wound up sounding—evoking immediate memories of the Oppressed within the first 10 seconds of the opener, “Rat Running Scared”—and (b) the COVID-19 pandemic. The Chisel has had a unique, if not at times defeating, situation, growing as a band during iron-fisted lockdowns. Perhaps that limited space and unlimited uncertainty afforded the chance to let them truly flourish as a band. That is to say, the Chisel are an anomaly to punk, oi, and hardcore in general. They get better, meaner, meatier, and more infectious with every release, including their most recent debut LP, Retaliation, released at the end of 2021. The record is packed with buzz-bomb, UK82-fueled guitars with Wattie-esque venom, as well as midtempo, terrace-splitting stompers. Cal and the Chisel, along with producer Jonah Falco (Fucked Up), have done their homework and now they’re teaching the class.
Falco’s production is especially a welcome partner to the Chisel’s sound; he delivers records that seem like they were made in a time capsule. “It brings you back to shaving your head in your friend's bathroom,” Supertouch frontman and seminal NYHC figure Mark Ryan told CREEM over text message.
That same night, I ran into Hope Conspiracy and All Pigs Must Die frontman Kevin Baker right before the Chisel took the stage: “They got me off my ass to drive an hour into Boston each way on a Monday night. Enough said.” He noted that 30 years earlier he was across the street at the now-defunct Manray club watching Agnostic Front and the Bruisers and that the Chisel boys are unquestionably carrying that torch onward.
With the back home and revving up for a European tour this summer with the Circle Jerks, I caught up with Cal for a few questions.
Who all is in the Chisel these days and where do you all come from? How did you all get together? And describe your introduction into the hardcore punk scene.
The Chisel is myself, Cal Graham, on vocals, Chubby Charles on guitar, Nick Sarnella on drums, Tom Ellis on bass, and Luke Younger on second guitar. Luca Selvaggio is the mainstay fill-in guitarist when Charlie is away with [his other band] Chubby and the Gang. All members are from London other than myself, who's from Blackpool, and Luca, who's from paradise, a.k.a. Sicily.
Myself and Nick talked about doing a band for a while with no real direction of where we wanted to take it. Charlie, who's played in bands with Nick for the past 15 or so years, was the obvious choice for guitar, and from that we recorded our first EP, Deconstructive Surgery. We thought it might be best to get some other members in if we wanted to make a go of it, so from that we brought in Tom and Luke.
I came very much from the punk and oi scene when I was a kid and had no real knowledge of what hardcore was other than bands like Minor Threat and Black Flag, which even then I just thought was American punk. I was only ever interested in U.K. stuff as a kid, but the second I heard Agnostic Front it pushed me to explore what hardcore was, and the rest is history.
The Chisel were essentially formed in the eye of the pandemic; there was no blueprint for a band to guide you through. Did that wind up having any influence on you guys, and can you describe the atmosphere of those first months growing as a band in an uncertain landscape for live gigs?
It was a fucking mad time, to be honest. We recorded the first EP just before the pandemic kicked off and thought we'd be playing shows from then on. Obviously it didn't pan out that way. So we decided to just keep going with writing and recording, which turned into three EPs and an LP recorded before we even played a show, which is ridiculous. The way the media was going about it all I genuinely thought it would be years before we could do anything, so to have completed a U.K. and U.S. tour within a year of being able to play live is mega.
From your debut EP through the newest LP, you've had Jonah Falco in the studio. How has it been working with him? What influences would you say have driven the evolution of your sound?
Jonah has been paramount to this band since its inception. We will bring a track to him and he instantly has ideas on how to take it to another level. From a personal point of view, I find it hard to record vocals with anyone else, as he’s been integral to my own development. A case in point is the track “Enough Said.” That started as a fast-as-fuck hardcore tune, and he told us to slow it down 50 percent, which we thought was a bit of a shit idea at first, but he told us to trust him, and we’re glad we did.
Influences for this band, at least for me, are the Exploited, Angelic Upstarts, Conflict, and Partisans, to name a few.
Tell us about your first American tour, which you just wrapped up. What were some memorable moments at the gigs or on the road? After brutal lockdowns and illness, what are some bucket-list moments you’ve been proud to enjoy since you guys have begun touring in general?
Personal highlights of our first U.S. tour were evading a number of potentially horrible sticky situations, getting to play with Quarantine every night on the East Coast, getting to finally meet people that have been involved in the band in some way since day one—shout out Freddy Alva, Paul Bearer, Vinnie Paz, and the rest of the Broadstreet Breakdown boys—getting to eat In-N-Out Burger, tacos in L.A., and also the almond weed bites in Portland.
In general bucket lists? Fucking sharing a stage with Cock Sparrer, for sure, and I will definitely feel that way when we tour with Circle Jerks. I love the fact that some of the people I grew up admiring, such as Al Barr from Dropkick Murphys, love our band. As a young, 15-year-old skinhead I once asked him for his Fred Perry shirt after they played in Manchester (I’m not sure why) and he gave it to me! So to know he actually likes what I am doing now is a pretty big deal.
What else should we be looking forward to from the Chisel for the rest of 2022 and beyond?
Got a short Euro tour with Circle Jerks coming up, which we are beyond excited for. A split with Mess coming out this year and also the recording of our second LP in September. COME ON!
You are known to be a man who is not afraid to have a good time. Describe an ideal day for you. What is your philosophy on life—what makes Big Cal tick?
An ideal day for me is to wake up and for it to be slightly miserable outside but without the rain. I get up having narrowly avoided a hangover from the night before and make myself a lovely bacon sandwich, which just so happens to be the best one that I have ever tasted.
I get a call. Oh, it's John Policastro! He's in town and wants to know if I'm up for a drink...unfortunately I can't because I am going to watch Liverpool smash either United or Everton away 5–0, but I DO have a spare ticket. We go to football together and the train ride seems seamless. Two and a half hours turns into 20 minutes and we have the finest selection of beers and canned mixed drinks at our disposal as we travel.
We get to the match and just happen to be standing next to Kenny Dalglish, who buys us a pint before the match starts. My score prediction is spot-on and not only that, Virgil van Dijk broke the legs of Richarlison or Fernandez and got away with it.
We make our way back home, go to the local Wetherspoons, and order a three-for-£10 selection from the menu as well as countless pints and a strike bomb with every drink til around 1 a.m. We sack off going out-out, and go home with a doner kebab (no salad, loads of garlic and chili sauce), where we watch old NYHC music videos until the early hours of the morning.
Sign me up. So, what are five records, new or old, that we should throw on now that this interview is finished?
1. Conflict, Increase the Pressure
2. New Model Army, Vengeance
3. Cock Sparrer, Runnin Riot in '84
4. The Exploited, Horror Epics
5. Big Cheese, Punishment Park