Music has been Howie Abrams’ life. He has spent his entire career in the music business: working at several record labels, including Warner Music Group, In Effect, Roadrunner and Zomba Music Group, as well as working with hardcore and heavy metal acts such as Agnostic Front and Type O Negative. And Abrams continues to pursue his passion for music now as a writer, having authored Finding Joseph I: An Oral History of H.R. from Bad Brains (with James Lathos) and his recent children’s book, Hip Hop Alphabet (with Michael “Kaves” McLeer), among others.
While music has done so much to enhance Abrams’ life, it has also contributed to some of his darkest times. His experiences with music eventually went hand in hand with marijuana use, which then contributed to what became a lifetime struggle with anxiety.
Abrams’ love of music began with the band Kiss. “My music fandom is pretty deep and started very early … The earliest I remember being super passionate about music is Kiss,” Abrams told me. “I remember my dad would go out and get the Saturday paper and I would go with him. I was looking through the magazines … and I saw these freaks on the cover of magazines such as Creem, Circus and Hit Parader. And I’m like, ‘What is that?’ It was this larger than life experience.”
“It was like a comic book, but there was music to it.”
Abrams soon discovered that his musical tastes were neither the “norm” nor easily accessible. “There was rock radio … but I didn’t like it. It seemed like old people music. I couldn’t relate to it at all,” he recalled. “You couldn’t necessarily get information because you wanted it. You had to go after what you were looking for … At that time not many people were writing about Kiss.
“And they sure as hell weren’t on the radio.”
But eventually, Abrams discovered that he was not alone. There were others out there who craved a heavier, darker form of music. And this made his musical experience even more special.
“When you were into underground music – underground punk, hardcore, metal – there weren’t a lot of us. So when you saw someone you knew on the way to a show who was going where you were going – you felt this instant kinship to them. You had that feeling that they were one of us,” Abrams explained. “Because it was small and unique, it felt insider – not many people knew about this. And you like it that way. Once you stepped into this world it was really special. The outside world ceased to exist. You forgot that at the end of the night you had to go back outside and go about your life… It became your entire social circle.
“Because you were the freak show.”
Not content with simply being a consumer of music, Abrams got more directly involved in the underground music scene. He would help his favorite bands in any way possible, including carrying gear for bands such as Agnostic Front, Crumbsuckers and Nuclear Assault. Abrams later started a fanzine called Occasional Irregularity in which he interviewed bands such as Exodus and Corrosion of Conformity. Initially he saw this as simply a way of getting closer to and more involved with the bands he loved.
“When you’re a fan of underground music, everyone needs help. So there’s no managers, they don’t have agents, there’s no road crew,” he said. “I was just doing anything and everything for my favorite bands. It was like, ‘Can I carry your gear and you can put me on the guest list?’”
Soon, his efforts were rewarded with entrance into the “real” music business. “Fast forward a little bit, I was working with Nuclear Assault – as a roadie for them – almost as a de facto manager … One day I went with them to a meeting at Combat Records – their label. And I was really just driving them there,” Abrams described. “I was just sitting in a meeting with them with the president of the label. And they had just put out their first album Game Over. And they were unhappy with how the label was handling the album.”
The members of Nuclear Assault thought Abrams could market their music better. “And they’re like, ‘Your marketing guy sucks, you should hire Howie!’ So the president of the label turned to me and asked, ‘What would you have done?’ And we just started talking. And I told him about doing things more grassroots – just working from the ground up.
“You can place glossy ads in a magazine, but does that really turn people on to a band?”
While the president of the company would not hire a 16 year old high school student, he told Abrams to call him for a job when Abrams graduated. Abrams tried and did not like college – and took him up on the offer. Abrams was hired as a salesman for Important Record Distributors – which owned Combat Records and Relativity Records. Eventually, Abrams talked with executive Alan Becker about the company getting involved with some of the bands in the New York hardcore and metal scene.
“I said, ‘Man, you spend all of this money on these death metal bands which do OK – but you have bands that are bigger than these bands right under your nose and you’re paying no attention to them,’” Abrams said. “And the main band I was talking about at the time was Agnostic Front. And they were on Combat at the time but they were ghettoized because it wasn’t as high gloss as metal. And there were bands like Sick of it All who were getting huge on the east coast.”
Eventually, Important Records decided to create a new label. “We hatched this idea to start a new label – take Agnostic Front off Combat and start this label that would be a hardcore label. And we started In Effect Records,” Abrams described. “And we had a great deal of success very quickly. And then I go from salesperson to A&R and general manager and co-founder of this thing. I didn’t know what I was doing but I knew what was supposed to happen for the bands.”
Abrams was thrilled with the success he was having. Not only was he able to help his favorite bands break out, but also he was getting paid to do so. “So, the first day of In Effect Records we did Agnostic Front Live at CBGB, Prong’s second album, Force Fed and Bad Brains’ seminal ROIR cassette for the first time ever on CD … not a bad first day. I signed Sick of It All. I signed Raw Deal who eventually became Killing Time. I signed 24-7 Spyz … and Ludichrist that eventually became Scatterbrain.”
In Effect was eventually bought by Sony, and Abrams was let go. “So then I’m sitting there like, ‘What happened?’ Because I was still like ‘Top of the world, ma!’ and all of a sudden it’s gone. So I get a call soon after that from Cees Wessels, the owner of Road Runner. So he said, ‘Why don’t you come over to Road Runner and do what you were doing there?’ At the time it was a death metal label. The biggest band they had by far was Sepultura …I suggested, unlike what we had done with In Effect, we shouldn’t start a new label or imprint. Let’s just add branches to the tree on Road Runner proper. It's already a label specializing in aggressive music."
“One of the first bands I brought to Roadrunner was New Jersey’s Dog Eat Dog. So we get the call that Bad Brains is looking for someone to play a series of dates with them in the UK. They’re going to do 11 shows. So I was able to get Dog Eat Dog the Bad Brains UK tour. And it went very well. They played the shows and made some noise. And then Biohazard says we want to take them out on tour for all of Europe. And Biohazard was gigantic in Europe by that point,” Abrams explained. “We got the first Dog Eat Dog album out and it started making some noise over there. So, we do this Biohazard tour and they’re really holding their own with these guys. You can tell by merch sales – they were selling a lot of shirts. So we sold about 50,000 albums over there just from that Biohazard tour… and then we decided we’d make a second video because people were getting into what they were about. We do the second video – that takes them to about 100,000 records. And so we’re like man this is really happening. And we don’t have a third single – things could start blowing up if they have another single … So we get Jam Master Jay from Run-D.M.C. to redo the group’s first single, “No Fronts,” which not that may people had really heard, virtually from scratch – different tempo, different lyrics – the hook is the same.
“We go from 150,000 to 600,000 records.”
While things were going great for Abrams, a dark cloud began to hover. For years, he had been habitually smoking marijuana. At first, his marijuana use was unrelated to anxiety and was just an extension of his immersion in music. But slowly, Abrams began to experience increased anxiety and, eventually, full blown panic attacks which he attributed to his habitual pot smoking.
“Slowly but surely I started experiencing something that I chalked up to being weed related. I started to feel anxious. I felt my heart beating faster. I couldn’t catch my breath. It was very strange … it was starting to happen more frequently,” Abrams recalled. “And I started to realize that there were a bunch of my friends who felt the same way that I did.”
Marijuana use represents a double-edged sword for many people suffering anxiety. On the one hand, smoking pot can feel relaxing, allowing one to feel more connected and engaged with oneself and others. However, habitual pot smoking also can undermine anxiety management, as an individual who is frequently high is less likely to habituate to and develop coping strategies for anxiety.
Abrams recognizes that he was dealing with several stressors at that time, including taking care of his parents as well as the mounting stress of the music business but he still sees a connection between his marijuana use and his panic attacks. “I regularly smoked marijuana at that point in my life, so it’s possible that any anxiety I felt became confused with, or masked by the effects of having been high,” he explained. “I was taking care of my parents – neither of whom were in particularly good health – which was difficult … I probably buried the toll it was taking on me.
“I could not possibly have seen my future ordeal with panic attacks coming.”
The first panic attack came in 1997 at a party in Long Island. “So I go to a party on Long Island … I got high … I put very expensive weed in a blunt – what a waste. I smoked a lot. And that feeling came on but way more intense. I could not get it together. I have no idea it could be anxiety. I think maybe it could be blood sugar,” Abrams said. “And now I drink a Coke and am eating candy. And it’s getting worse. And I’m like, ‘Is this a heart attack? That was my first awful panic attack. That night ended with my handing over a very expensive bag of weed to a friend and saying, ‘This is yours now.’”
While he found some respite from the panic attacks after he stopped smoking pot, it did not fully alleviate his anxiety. He tried many things, including tranquilizers, red wine after experiencing an intense panic attack on a flight and various forms of therapy. Nothing truly worked. Things came to a head for Abrams when he eventually left Roadrunner to work for Zomba Music Group. “My first two jobs at labels – In Effect and Roadrunner – I felt like a fan with a job. I felt like everything I was doing was so second nature. You know that adage that if you love what you’re doing you’re not working? I’m going out every night, I’m getting high, I’m signing bands, I’m getting deals,” Abrams explained. “You could just do what you did so naturally and so easily. And the types of bands were your favorites … So working at those companies, you were surrounded by music fans and other like-minded people. We’re here to make noise with this music. We’re here to put this music that’s being ignored that we think is amazing out to the world the best we can. From the bands to the staff – it felt like one big tribe together.”
But suddenly, Abrams was working a “real” job. And it felt like a whole new world. “This was my identity. And I didn’t lose my identity going into a more corporate situation … but the identity changes because you are now a tiny grain of sand in a giant beach. As opposed to you’re in the mix with everything. At a larger company it’s like, ‘You be the ears and we’ll do the rest.’ It’s like, ‘You’re shutting me down,’” Abrams explained. “I was going to be a proper executive in my barely late 20’s. And I have a lot of responsibility in a very different company and environment. The rules and expectations are different – the way you go about doing things is different. And I think when that settled in for me, I got nervous … I don’t know anybody here.”
Eventually, the combination of the pressure of his job plus the poorly managed anxiety resulted in one of Abrams’ worst panic attacks at Irving Plaza during a Government Mule show. “I started working at Zomba, which felt really high pressured. Because I left this indie safe world that I knew super well and now I’m working for a bigger company that had higher aspirations for their artists. I remember the first thing I tried to do was a publishing deal with Warren Haynes. Government Mule was doing quite well … he had written this song for Garth Brooks,” Abrams described. “So I take my new boss and new colleague to see Government Mule. We sit down and I’m having a fucking panic attack. I don’t know where it comes from. I don’t know if it’s the pressure of this meeting, my first signing, it’s an important guy. And I’m flipping out in the balcony of Irving Plaza. I can’t get comfortable. I’m fidgeting. It’s awful.
“So I thought, ‘Is this my life now?’”
Eventually, after many treatment approaches that didn’t work, Abrams found a psychiatrist with whom he connected and soon Abrams was on a regimen of Lexapro and Klonopin to manage his mood and anxiety.
“I asked, are we ever going to figure out what caused all of this? And he said, ‘Look, we can dig deep and find out that your sister got a bigger scoop of ice cream than you when you were seven – it doesn’t matter,’” Abrams said. “‘It’s about you feeling better today and you feeling better tomorrow. And that’s it. You want to dig into that shit – do it with your therapist. Because I don’t think it’s important frankly. Let’s get you right.’”
And soon, Abrams’ experience at Zomba Music Group began to feel better. Even though he was at a more corporate label, he still used his underground instincts to help launch the band Bowling for Soup at pop music giant, Jive Records. “I get this demo for this band Bowling for Soup … They describe themselves as Cheap Trick meets Steve Martin because between the songs they’re telling jokes … So, we signed the band to Jive Records … We do the first record – doesn’t really do much in America,” Abrams explained. “And I knew that at the next A&R meeting they’re getting dropped – because there’s no way Jive is making their next record... So, I had to talk about that at the next A&R meeting and I wrote a speech that I memorized – the ten reasons why it would be insane to drop them…Clive Calder is the owner and nobody says no to this guy … So I make my speech … I stuck up for this band the way that no one in that room had ever done for an artist. Clive pauses after my speech and goes, ‘Every bone in my body tells me not to do another record with this band. But you are so passionate about this that I will let you make a second record for $50,000.’ And I’m sitting, thinking in my head, I’ve never made a record for $50,000 before – that’s amazing.”
The gambit paid off – Bowling for Soup went on to make the album Drunk Enough to Dance, with the single “Girl All the Bad Guys Want,” which sold half a million records and was nominated for a Grammy. The band was on Top of the Pops in England and Clive Calder saw the show, leading him to call Abrams and express his appreciation.
“I’m at my desk – my assistant says, ‘Clive is on the phone for you.’ I’m thinking, it’s a joke,” Abrams explained. “He says, ‘Howie, I saw your boys on Top of the Pops … like the Rastas say: Nuff Respect.’”