Skwert Gunn, former drummer for Choking Victim and current lead vocalist for Public Serpents – a ska-core/crust rocksteady band, is presently without a permanent abode. He spends some nights in his car, some with friends or their vehicles, and often sleeps outdoors. However, his forthcoming album is his sole source of hope and optimism: “My music is everything to me. It is the only thing I have left – no money, no home,” he says.
His homelessness is partly a result of a difficult divorce: “I had no other way out of the ugly situation except to leave my house. Most of my belongings, including important documents, are still with my ex-wife,” Skwert explains.
Given the current state of the U.S. housing market and welfare system, one might expect that a punk rock musician without a permanent residence would have a challenging time securing a new place to stay. But Skwert prefers to recount his experiences himself, which includes the tumultuous period with Choking Victim that has had long-lasting repercussions. He also emphasizes his current focus on Public Serpents, which he describes as an extension of East Coast crust ska, but now with the addition of brass instrumentation.
At the mere suggestion of being asked to speak about himself, Skwert is filled with incredulity and asks, “Why would you stimulate my narcissistic tendencies and toxic ego merely to procure an unremarkable piece of journalism…?” Perhaps not accustomed to such a role, having previously served as a band’s drummer and only recently assuming the mantle of lead vocalist and frontman. Under the stage name Skwert Gunn, he presently helms the ska-core group Public Serpents. The band has recently inked a deal with SBÄM Records for their upcoming album, and they have also confirmed their inaugural European tour, both set to take place in 2023.
As mentioned, it’s noteworthy that Skwert’s experience as a drummer extends only to his tenure with Choking Victim – the preeminent figurehead of the so-called Crust Rocksteady movement, a ska-punk sub-genre that was immensely popular in the squatting community of the U.S. east coast.
𝐵𝑒𝑖𝑛𝑔 𝑎 𝑟𝑢𝑛𝑎𝑤𝑎𝑦 𝑎𝑛𝑑 𝑎𝑙𝑙, 𝐼 𝑤𝑎𝑠 𝑚𝑜𝑠𝑡𝑙𝑦 𝑐𝑜𝑛𝑐𝑒𝑟𝑛𝑒𝑑 𝑤𝑖𝑡ℎ 𝑠𝑒𝑙𝑓 𝑝𝑟𝑒𝑠𝑒𝑟𝑣𝑎𝑡𝑖𝑜𝑛, 𝑠𝑜 ℎ𝑖𝑡𝑡𝑖𝑛𝑔 𝑠𝑜𝑚𝑒 𝑑𝑟𝑢𝑚𝑠 𝑤𝑎𝑠𝑛’𝑡 ℎ𝑖𝑔ℎ 𝑜𝑛 𝑡ℎ𝑒 𝑙𝑖𝑠𝑡
“Maybe you’ll all be in for a fun little story about regret, pain and the everlasting need that humans crave for freedom… yea, that’s the ticket.”, says Skwert, currently without address.
We inquired of Skwert regarding the origins of his musical vocation. Here’s what he said.
“So my humble musical beginnings will have started in Boston Mass, around 1987, when I ran away to Portland Maine and went to live at the Gore House, a fixture in the Portland scene that was home to bands like The Gore Hounds, Skull 69 and even a getaway spot for GG Allin and Lisa Suckdog. This is where I learned that I could even play any instrument at all… I had chosen to play drums whilst my friends Bob and Dominique were jamming in that creepy ass 19th century attic they had, that was converted into a jam space.”
“High hat and snare, that was all my little 12 year old arms could do, but I did it on time and I wowed them enough that their good words gave me the will to keep going. Being a runaway and all, I was mostly concerned with self preservation, so hitting some drums wasn’t high on the list…”
𝑇ℎ𝑖𝑠 𝑤𝑎𝑠 𝑚𝑦 𝑓𝑖𝑟𝑠𝑡 𝑟𝑒𝑎𝑙 𝑒𝑥𝑝𝑒𝑟𝑖𝑒𝑛𝑐𝑒 𝑤𝑖𝑡ℎ ℎ𝑜𝑚𝑒𝑙𝑒𝑠𝑠𝑛𝑒𝑠𝑠
In recounting his journey, Skwert shared that his friends had abducted him and brought him back to Boston before departing again, leaving him to his own devices. At the tender age of 12, he found himself penniless and bewildered in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Having no familiarity with the city’s geography, he boarded a subway and searched in vain for his friends, ultimately returning to the LES with the intent of securing a warm place to lodge. It was there that he discovered the 731 e 9th st squat, a confluence of individuals from various subcultures – including punks, skins, junkies, and crackheads – which constituted his first authentic exposure to homelessness.
“Time went on and after being remanded into custody back in mass (I smoked way too much dust and started to have violent stomach pains and friends got me an ambulance, where the police figured it all out) I eventually ran away.” – he continues.
“A few group homes/DYS facilities later and found myself back in NYC, but this time I was prepared, at around age 15. I started to really find my musical niche when I joined the band Maggot. We were kinda hardcore, kinda punk… and I met a lot of the folks that ended just staying part of the NYC scene.”
“After a couple years of “Hoboing” it around the US (Philly, DC, SF), where I lived in squats, under the P street bridge and got a job at food for thought (legendary restaurant that was ground zero for the newer Dischord records scene) I finally got myself into position when I ended up at the practice of what would later become the band Choking Victim.”
𝑇ℎ𝑖𝑠 𝑖𝑠 𝑤ℎ𝑎𝑡 ℎ𝑎𝑠 𝑟𝑒𝑎𝑙𝑙𝑦 𝑝𝑟𝑜𝑝𝑒𝑙𝑙𝑒𝑑 𝑚𝑦 𝑓𝑢𝑡𝑢𝑟𝑒
At the time, the band went by the name “Some Magic Monkey”. While their drummer, John Dolan, was away in the bathroom, someone took hold of the sticks and began drumming. Upon his return, Dolan declared that this person should be the drummer, and this was the beginning of their serious pursuit of music.
Living in squats, they created their own legacy by performing at various benefit events, outdoor shows, and a few gigs out of town. Eventually, they signed with Hellcat Records, a startup label owned by Tim Armstrong based in California. This opportunity propelled their future success.
During his young adult years, Skwert bore witness to the ascent and decline of Choking Victim.
The band embarked on extensive tours and went on to establish the sub-genre that subsequently inspired groups such as Leftover Crack.
Skwert characterizes the dissolution of Choking Victim as a tumultuous and chaotic affair. In the aftermath, he embarked on various musical endeavors, including a project named American Distress, which sought to build upon the songs he had written for Choking Victim.
𝑀𝑦 𝑙𝑖𝑓𝑒 𝑤𝑎𝑠𝑛’𝑡 𝑏𝑎𝑑, 𝑎𝑛𝑑 𝐼 𝑤𝑎𝑠 𝑎𝑏𝑙𝑒 𝑡𝑜 𝑓𝑢𝑟𝑛𝑖𝑠ℎ 𝑏𝑢𝑦𝑖𝑛𝑔 𝑚𝑦𝑠𝑒𝑙𝑓 𝑡ℎ𝑒 𝑒𝑞𝑢𝑖𝑝𝑚𝑒𝑛𝑡 𝑓𝑜𝑟 𝑚𝑦 𝑣𝑒𝑟𝑦 𝑜𝑤𝑛 𝑠𝑡𝑢𝑑𝑖𝑜
“Now the whole time American Distres was happening, I was selling drugs, and a lot of them.” – Skwert continues his story.
“I didn’t really have money troubles anymore… here I am, a kid that was in and out of mental institutions, juvenile detention centers, group homes and foster homes, whose parents were on welfare! Able to pay for anything a band could possibly need to survive… gas, van, hotels, etc. My life wasn’t bad, and I was able to furnish buying myself the equipment for my very own studio… so I did.”
“When Public Serpents started, I had a ton of decent enough tracks, all of which I recorded myself. But I didn’t have anyone to sing, so, I figured fuck it, I guess it’s gonna be me, and my mediocre vocal career was born.”
𝑊ℎ𝑖𝑙𝑒 𝑏𝑒𝑖𝑛𝑔 𝑜𝑛 𝑝𝑎𝑟𝑜𝑙𝑒 𝑚𝑦 𝑙𝑖𝑓𝑒 𝑎𝑛𝑑 𝑚𝑒𝑡𝑎𝑙 𝑐ℎ𝑎𝑛𝑔𝑒𝑑
Following the release of their debut album around 2008, the band embarked on a series of tours, recruiting members from prominent groups of the era. Although the prospects looked bright, Skwert’s daily priorities were focused on drug sales.
However, in 2013, their musical aspirations came to a grinding halt when Skwert was charged with possession of 400 pounds of marijuana, $800,000 in cash, and three firearms, resulting in a prison sentence. As a result, their musical career was severely impacted.
“For almost ten years, I fought a case and served time in county and in prison only to be let out on parole in 2018. Which was when I decided it was time to get the band back together.” – comments Skwert.
“While being on parole though, my life and mental changed, and I guess the whole experience made me grow further apart from my partner at the time. We had been married for over 20 years, and despite her always being there for me (for better or worse) the situation spoke for itself and we split… I however stayed in the house I had purchased and lived in the basement for two years, planning the future of Public Serpents.”
At the start of 2022, he made the decision to depart from their current situation. They chose to reside in their van and embark on a touring venture. However, there were significant difficulties with the band’s lineup. Due to fluctuating sentiments, they were compelled to alter the roster as members resigned and replacements were sought.
“In mid 2022, I was blessed to find Stefan at SBAM Records” – he says. “He offered us a record deal, and this was the best thing that could have ever happened. This band, although started in 2008, really only had 3-5 years of real life, and another 10 where I was incarcerated.”
“Being homeless, and on ropes by the financial issues I encountered with my own personal label, Tent City Records from the Covid crisis, SBAM was like an Angel that was here to help me out of the massive depression and kickstart my being able to write and perform again. Without SBAM, we would not be having this conversation now, so you see, the imperativeness of this point and the idea that without the ability to do what is dear to me, means I could have possibly not been here anymore, because depression and mental health are real.”
“I’m still struggling financially, but I feel richer than anyone could even imagine, because I actually have my freedom, my ability to create on my own terms, and just want to have the wheels turning at all times for this… the ability to be myself and create art.” – admits Skwert.
“Homelessness is not easy for some, and a lot of people don’t make it, but for me, I feel like not being encumbered by the things of the common person, make me a better person and allow me to feel good about my karmic footprint in the world. I no longer care about possessions. All I want is experienced and making folks dance and smile and think about their own lives, causing them to make similar strides as I have, gives me so much joy, I can’t even quantify it.”
“If I haven’t convinced you yet, check out our new album on SBAM Records out March 24, and if you don’t, you really did fuck up.” – he concludes.
NJ’s PUBLIC SERPENTS will release their SBÄM Records debut album ‘The Bully Puppet’ on March 24th.
Since Public Serpents first entered the scene in 2008 with their debut album “The Feeding Of The Fortune 5000”, they’ve appeared on splits with bands UpperDowner and recent Fat Wreck Chords signee Escape From The Zoo, receiving critical acclaim in the worldwide crack-rock-steady scene.
After dealing with a succession of professional and personal setbacks over the last decade, including incarceration, homelessness, and the end of his marriage, Skwert says of the 13 tracks that make up the new album: “My whole life is invested in this. Artistically, physically and mentally, I’d probably die without it… there literally would be no point in living at this point.”
2022 saw Public Serpents touring with some incredible bands like The Suicide Machines, Escape From The Zoo, and Catbite in cities across America before shipping out to Europe for a month long tour over seas, playing venues ranging from the world-renowned Manchester Punk Festival to a Hungarian bomb shelter under the streets of Budapest.
Public Serpents are heading on tour in the lead-up to the album’s release. The trek also includes a pair of NJ/NYC record release shows in April.