INTERVIEW | Brian Kemsley
Outbreak, Gravemaker, Muay Thai Champion NYC
Cover Photo: Dan Gonyea future-breed.com
Hong Kong. Two words certainly not synonymous with hardcore or punk rock. Not much a dent or even a scratch has been made on the worldwide spectrum of heavy music, let alone the world of punk rock and hardcore. So…when years ago we received an email from someone who used to live in Hong Kong but relocated to the US and was now playing in American hardcore bands whose goal it was to stay on the road for 9 months out of the year…we knew we had to stay in touch with this individual.
Brian Kemsley is a proud Hong Kong raised Mandarin and Cantonese speaking dude who has most recently been calling NYC home. His resume amongst the hardcore-punk rock world are a few notable acts such as Gravemaker and Outbreak.
Most recently, hardcore punk has been placed on the back burner as he has thrown himself head first into his most recent love – Muay Thai martial arts.
Over a few days of conversation…we got into some deep shit regarding his past and path to straight edge, hardcore and of course Muay Thai.
Enjoy the interview below. We MORE than enjoyed his candidness in responding to darker portions of his past and we hope that through the interview, you are able to learn something or feel something for those near you or in your lives who require support to get through the darkest of times.
October 10, 2016
Dude – next time you’re online for awhile hit me up. I want to interview you for uniteasia.org! It’ll be cool to talk about hardcore and your Muay Thai fighting shit…the connection between it…your experience in Hong Kong…experience in Gravemaker/Outbreak, etc.
Sup dude! Sounds like a fun little interview!
October 22, 2016
I’ll be online for a bit. Wanna do the interview?
Yeah let’s do it
Before we get into your resume as the guitarist of bands like Grave Maker and Outbreak, can you actually give us a brief background of where life began for you in Hong Kong and how you got into hardcore-punk?
I pretty much spent the first 14 years of my life in Hong Kong minus 1 year in LA when I was 11. That year in LA, some skaters at my school showed me that band The Offspring. Up until that point, I hadn’t heard music like that, since what was popular in Hong Kong while I was growing up was nothing like that. So when I went back to HK later that year, I found kids that were into skateboarding and all sorts of different punk bands, and I started going to local punk shows at these sketchy apartments and bars in Wan Chai. I remember seeing King Ly Chee play in 1999! You guys were a 3 piece band back then, and I bought one of your t-shirts. Pretty sure it was navy blue with white print, it was awesome.
Hahahahaha…I still remember the first time you hit me up on email telling me that you moved to the States and you were touring the States in Gravemaker! I was like WHAT?! Someone from Hong Kong was ACTUALLY in a legit band in the States touring?! When you got to the States how did all of this transpire? How did you get into Gravemaker etc.
Alright, I’m gonna blast out a brief history. When I was 15, I got sent to a rehab in Salt Lake City, Utah. I was getting into a little too much trouble in Asia and had got kicked out of too many schools. When I got out of rehab at 16, I stayed in Utah and was put in a foster home since my family were in Shanghai at that point. I wanted to stay clean and sober and was stoked when I met these straight edge kids in Utah. BUT, as you may know, the straight edge scene in Utah was fucking wild, it was so violent, so I kept my distance from them. I wasn’t really into that shit. After I turned 18, I wasn’t on probation or in a foster home anymore, and I met this dude Joe from Seattle, he told me his brother had a spare room in his house in Seattle and he lived with some of the Champion guys. Champion was my favorite fucking band so I was like hell yeah! I saved up $300 and moved to Seattle.
Brian in the pit singing along with a babyfaced Spencer of Trash Talk jumping on his shoulder
The hardcore scene there was great. That was when I was exposed to an actual scene of kids booking their own shows, playing in touring bands, not being violent fucking assholes, and I fell in love with it all. I started filling in playing guitar for Seattle bands, and from there, some friends and I started a straight edge band called Living in Ruins. We put out a demo, and played shows around Washington and western Canada. The drummer and I wanted to drop out of life and tour full time but the other members couldn’t do the same, so him and I started Gravemaker with a couple dudes that had the same agenda as us. And boom, we put out a demo, played our first show, and left for tour the next day for like 10 months haha…oh and by the way, the “spare room” Joe’s brother had in Seattle was a closet above the staircase…It was punk as fuck.
Brian in Gravemaker
From there, Gravemaker put out their first full length on Thinkfast! Records, which Ryan from Outbreak co-owns. So when I eventually quit Gravemaker, Ryan hit me up and asked me to join Outbreak to write their new record with them. I was like “Hell yeah man!” And then I moved from Seattle to NYC, which was close enough to Massachusetts, where Outbreak had our practice space.
Brian in Outbreak
Alright – will have to continue this later bro…learning Master of Puppets on guitar right now and I’m super into it hahahahahha…
Dude, such a good riff…yeah let’s do this a couple questions at a time.
October 25, 2016
Woah – so by 15 you were in rehab for alcohol addiction? For people who don’t know about life in Hong Kong and how readily available alcohol and drugs are here. Could you, if you don’t mind, kind of paint a picture of how a kid at 15 gets involved with all of that here?
The rehab wasn’t just a treatment center for just drugs and alcohol abuse. I mean, there was a 12 step program for addicts there, but it was more of a juvenile detention center. Kids got sent there for anything from assault and battery charges, rape, to dumb shit like anger management. There was a kid in there for doing a drive by shooting the same week I checked in. At age 15 I wasn’t necessarily addicted to drugs or alcohol, but I was just never sober.
You can walk into any 7-11 in Hong Kong at any age and buy booze or smokes. The law states you have to be 18 but it wasn’t enforced. So imagine being a young teenager, having access to the entire city (in the States, you would need to get your parents to drive you places before you’re old enough to have a car, but in HK, the subway and buses took us anywhere), and being able to roam the streets drunk and fucked up with no consequence at all. It got even worst when I moved to Shanghai, that’s the real wild west, anything fucking goes there. If cops showed up to the scene, we just fought and beat up the fucking cops, they didn’t even carry guns at that time! None of us had any concept of legal repercussions, Hong Kong and China was fucking nuts like that.
A young innocent 14 year old Brian celebrating his birthday before his life completely gets sucked out from under him
I would think it was these experiences that you had where the world of punk rock/hardcore would really be a cool change of lifestyle. What was it about hardcore and straight edge that appealed to you or felt like it became your calling?
Oh for sure. Like many others, listening to music was the only peace I felt as a kid. It almost seemed like the more aggressive the music, the more peaceful it was for me because it made me realize that others are feeling the same way. So in that sense, it was very comforting. I remember reading lyrics to straightedge bands after I got out of rehab and was sober and thought “Holy shit! This is me! This singer is putting my thoughts into words, this is exactly how I feel!” Up until that point, I thought that if you listened to any sort of aggressive music, you were a disease to society and were just a destructive piece of shit kid. I didn’t realize that there was this genre of music that was fast, aggressive, and heavy, and it was all about questioning society’s standards and morals, and bettering each other and the world we live in. Obviously not all hardcore or punk bands are straight edge (only quite a few actually), but hardcore in general gave me a direction in life and made me realize that I didn’t have to do anything that I didn’t want to do…like fucking drugs.
Do you remember what were the first hardcore-punk bands that spoke to you?
Yo for real tho, not to jock your dick, King Ly Chee was for sure a big influence on me. I was in the States already and would frequently check the King Ly Chee website for updates on Hong Kong. I remember when you guys announced the King Ly Chee / NOFX Asian tour! That was fucking huge! I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe a US band was going to Hong Kong.
NOFX / King Ly Chee Asian Tour 2007 Tour Flyer
Here’s the thing, HK and China aren’t like Japan where the music scene has been broken in by the US since like the 80’s. Up until like 2005, there’s been like, 2 fucking bands that had ever played Hong Kong. At no point of my 15 years in Asia did I ever check out a US band and thought to myself “Oh this band is sick, I hope I get to see them some day.” That wasn’t even a possibility. It was always “Oh this band is sick, I hope I can find a store somewhere in this city that sells this album…but probably not, so I’m gonna go on Napster and try to download what I think is the full record”.
But yeah, King Ly Chee was for sure a big one. The fact that you guys booked your own shows, and brought US and other Asian bands over, and put out your own records, that shit was nuts. That’s like, what the punk and hardcore scene was like in the 80’s in the US haha…You guys were doing it almost 20 years later in Hong Kong and people were still being exposed to it for the first time.
I think it’s pretty amazing to see how through a pretty tumultuous beginning to young adulthood, the dude you’ve become now is so positive and forward thinking. What was the transition you made to get into Muay Thai? What was the appeal?
Dang, thanks mang. It was a few things that led me to Muay Thai.
In November of 2011, I got jumped outside one of our shows in St. Louis while we were on tour. There were these 6 big beefy fat dudes that ran up on me. The dude that threw the first punch had brass knuckles and it cracked my head open. Now I got a pretty cool scar on my dome. Long story short, they ripped my favorite Agnostic Front shirt, and somehow didn’t break my ribs while kicking me on the ground, and I somehow managed to keep all my teeth while they were stomping my face. After I got out of the hospital from a quick stitch up, I went back home to NYC and thought “I think I’m gonna learn how to fight big fucking guys”. Also, at around the same time, Outbreak was finally slowing down from touring full time. We went on 1 last tour 6 weeks after that incident with Sick of it All (we actually went back and played St. Louis hahaha.) and then after that tour, we finally took some time off the road.
I was finally in a position where I can do stuff like pay for a year long gym membership since I was gonna be home for most of that year. I first started off doing Jeet Kun Do, which is Bruce Lee’s mixed martial arts. I also did jujitsu for a couple years. Then eventually I started doing Muay Thai. I really fell in love with it when I went over to Thailand and trained there for a few months. Martial arts was so cool to me cause what I got out of it was so different from what I got out of lifting weights. I hear a lot of people say lifting and working out releases stress for them. But it never really did that for me. Let’s say I’m doing bench press. It only takes me 30 seconds to knock out a set, then I rest for about 2 minutes before my next set. In those 2 minutes, I’m still thinking about the stresses in my life, wether it’s job related, relationship related, whatever it was. It never cleared my head. But when I’m training jujitsu or Muay Thai, it takes such hyper focus that I have no choice but to let go of what ever bullshit I brought into the gym, and for the next few hours, I’m just punching and kicking people and trying not to get knocked out.
Eventually I started competing because I wanted to know what i was capable of when the pressure is on. I also knew I would always regret it later on if I never did it. I’m not a violent person, so it’s pretty fucking nuts for me to be in a ring and have a dude try his very best to fucking end me. Thankfully I’ve won all 4 of my fights. I’m gonna take the rest of this year off from fighting, and then head to Thailand again in January for a few months and train there, then come back in April and start fighting again.
Yeah man – winning those competitions must have such a profound impact on your psyche – not only because you know you’re able to fight, but the fact that it’s something that probably provides you with a lot more confidence for life in general. For anyone that may be experiencing some of the things you went through, would you suggest checking out some of these martial arts types of routines?
For real dude, After going through fight camp before each fight, I feel like everything else I do in life is a breeze hahaha. Those 6 weeks of vigorous training before the fight are the worst man… in a kinda good way? It puts you in tip top shape. I most definitely recommend people training Muay Thai or Jujitsu. It really is meditation, and when you’re first starting off, nothing is more humbling. Like, we all assume we can fight even though we’ve never trained. Every month, some big dude will come in the gym and say “No, I’ve never trained, but I’ve been in dozens of street fights so I can hold my own”. And then these dudes get fucking destroyed by guys that are 60 pounds lighter than them. It really is a humbling experience. I encourage everyone to go train and be ready to learn a new skill. Doesn’t matter how old you are. I feel humans stop learning new skills once we’re in our 20’s. Not too sure why, but right around that age, if you don’t know how to play the guitar, you probably will go the rest of your remaining 60 years of life not knowing how to play the guitar. We kinda all think the time for learning was from age 1 – 21 and then we just get into a routine after that age and stop learning difficult shit, it’s wild. If you’re 35 and never learned to play the drums, fuck it, go learn, let your mind obsess over something that is creative and positive and let your body adapt. I train with this guy that’s 43 years old. He didn’t start doing jujitsu until he was like 42. And last week, he competed in a fucking jujitsu tournament here in NYC. His decision to train and compete blows my mind because it’s so rare to see people in their 40’s do this. It shouldn’t be though. We should never stop creating and learning. We have hours and hours to fill everyday, I spend some sleeping, some eating, some working, and I don’t want to rest of my time to succumb to going to happy hour or whatever the fuck the definition of mediocrity is. Martial arts really does wonders for me not just physically, but mentally. What a productive, positive, therapeutic, and challenging way to pass time.
As you head down this new path, clearly things like hardcore and martial arts has been a positive influence on you and your psyche, now as you look back on the life that you’ve experienced, what are some things that transpired that you hope others could learn from?
We all have our struggles man. Doesn’t matter if it’s substance addiction, temper problems, or we just hate our fucking jobs, whatever it is, we all need an outlet. And it’s better to spend our days around positive people doing awesome shit than to use drugs and alcohol as a crutch, or be alone in the darkness of our minds. The hardcore scene and ethos laid down a solid foundation for me as a teenager and exposed me to a lot of people that shared the same mentality as I did. It really helped me understand my place in this world.
But martial arts is what helped me get right mentally. I know “depression” is a loaded fucking word, but if you struggle like so many people do, there is something very calming about trying to not get punched in the face in a humble environment where everyone is there to learn. The fear is real, the physical exhaustion is real, the pain of losing is real, but more importantly, the thrive to push yourself and better yourself everyday is motherfucking real.
Outbreak at This Is Hardcore 2010: