Enforce: «We could have been right up there with the greats»

Matt Rudzinski, the owner of Divebomb Records, definitely has that rare talent to find obscure bands who played top notch music! Enforce is one of these bands which I discovered through Divebomb Records in 2014. You know this feeling when your package has arrived and you can’t wait to grab the CD and put it in your record player. As soon as the song “I’ll Walk Alone” started I fell in love with this tune! Even after two years I listen to the compilation “The Final Sign” very often and each time it’s like the first time! So it was a logical step to get in touch with Nick Ellingson, the guitar player and god-father of Enforce, who used to play in another cool band from Baltimore — Have Mercy.

Hi Nick! Let’s start this interview from your musical background. Was Have Mercy your first professional band? I know that Tom Maxwell brought you to Have Mercy. Did you like what they were doing at the time or was it just because no other choice?

Well, I was in a few start up bands before I met Tom Maxwell. I was 15 when he and I began playing together. Tom answered the advertisement for Have Mercy who was looking to replace their guitarist. He told them about me and we both went to Rob Michael’s house for the audition. Needless to say, we got the gig! We liked what Have Mercy was doing and they were definitely on a more professional level than what we had experienced in our previous bands.

Tell me please about recording of the demo “Pleading for Mercy”. As far as I know it was Sean Zellers who laid down vocals at first but then Lee Dayton re-recorded vocal parts. Why was that? Was Lee a way better singer than Sean?

Yeah, well as I remember it, Rob Michael wasn’t too keen on Sean. We were in the studio control room listening to the playback of Rob’s song, Have Mercy; it has an upbeat drum part: boom-bap-boom-bap-boom-bap-boom-bap… Sean started doing the Russian dance where you squat, fold your arms and kick your legs out (not sure what it’s called.) Tom and I were laughing our heads off, but I recall looking over at Rob and he was PISSED! I think that was the straw that broke the camel’s back in regards to Sean, although there may have been other factors involved that I wasn’t aware of. I personally thought he was better than Lee Dayton on the first demo. Lee came into the band shortly after Sean’s departure and recut the vocals.

Nick Ellingson

What can you say about the chemistry within the band at that time? Was it a real band with equal members? Were you personally involved in tape-trading, sending the demo to fans, press and labels?

I thought we had great chemistry. Rob and Tom were the main songwriters with myself contributing one or two songs here and there, but Rob was definitely the driving force in promoting the band. He was an extensive tape trader and had many connections in the underground scene with fanzines and such. He was also the band’s archivist. He worked his ass off for that band!

It was you and Tom who wanted Lonnie Fletcher to be a singer in Have Mercy. Can you recall your first impressions about Lonnie? I guess you were heavily into Queensryche at the time. What made this band so special for you?

I was astounded when I first heard Queensryche’s Take Hold of the Flame. Geoff Tate’s vocals were amazing and the music really connected with me. As for Lonnie, he was playing in a local Baltimore cover band called Krybaby with Cliff Saunders (later of Enforce) on drums. Tom and I went to see their band perform on several occasions. Lonnie’s vocal performance on Queen of the Reich was jaw-dropping! I told Tom we’ve got to get this guy in Have Mercy! So I obtained Lonnie’s phone number and called him. Our telephone conversation lasted for quite some time. He really liked the idea of doing original material as his band did all cover songs. The night he came for the audition, we were snowed in at Rob’s house. Lonnie and I shared the sofa bed in the living room, although nothing happened between us, lol. By the way, I ran into Lee Dayton several years after and he looked like he wanted to bite my head off. He was of the opinion that I was the one responsible for his demise in Have Mercy. I guess it was true. Sorry Lee….

Baltimore gave birth to some very cool bands like Mystic-Force, Apollo Ra, Wrathchild America, Hammers Rule etc as well as Kix, Mannekin and Child’s Play. Were there any tensions between heavy metal and hair metal / hard rock crowds? Which band from Baltimore deserved to gain international success in your opinion?

In those days, there were three categories of music in the music scene (barring country and jazz of course) you had the hair bands, the metal bands and the punk bands and yes, there was a lot of animosity between them. The hairbands called the thrash bands “trash” bands, the thrash bands called the hair bands “wimps and posers” and the punk bands just hated everybody, lol. Have Mercy once played a place called The Loft in Baltimore City. There were a lot of skinheads and mohawks in the crowd. One guy in particular kept getting on the stage and stagediving off; each time intentionally wrapping his foot around Lonnie’s mic cable and taking Lonnie’s personal microphone with him into the audience. When he tried to do it for a third time, Lonnie kicked him in the ass and shoved him back into the crowd. That’s when all hell broke loose and a huge melee ensued. As for the bands you’ve listed deserving national recognition, I think each band was good in their own right, but I was a big fan of Wrathchild America. Shannon Larkin was a great drummer and a cool guy. Tom and I had some good times hanging out with him.

Cliff Saunders

Why did you quit Have Mercy for the first time? Was it because musical differences or did you have any personal problems with the others?

Looking back, it’s really hard to say what I was thinking at the time. Go figure, I steal Lonnie away from Krybaby then leave Have Mercy to join Krybaby! Rob Michael has always attributed my departure from Have Mercy to musical differences; probably because I was more into Queensryche and the rest of the band was getting into the heavier music such as Metallica and Slayer. I got along well with everyone in Have Mercy and don’t recall having a falling out with them.

Is it correct that you returned to Have Mercy just to record the “Armageddon Descends” EP but didn’t want to stay with them after that? By the way, how do you view this EP nowadays? Is it something you’re proud of?

Oh, very proud of the EP. I still love to listen to it on occasion. But what happened was I started hanging out with Tom Maxwell again after I left the band. He played the second Have Mercy demo for me and I loved it! I admired the new musical direction and wanted back in the band. I think they may have disappointed with my replacement and invited me back just in time to record the EP and play the shows with Megadeth and King Diamond. Although I really can’t recall the reason I departed from the band the second time, John “Nort” Knoerlein and Tom eventually left as well.

As far as I’m aware, you had an audition for Agent Steel. How did it become possible and why did it last only for a couple of days?

I don’t remember too many details concerning that situation except that Tom Maxwell, Jody Lewis (Enforce) and I were supposed to travel to Florida to join Agent Steel. I backed out at the last minute so only Tom and Jody went. I don’t know what happened, but they apparently came back home in a few weeks.

Do you still stay in touch with Tom Maxwell? What is your opinion about what he has achieved with Nothingface and Hellyeah? Would you accept his offer to join Hellyeah for example?

I just recently reconnected with Tom on Facebook. I couldn’t be more proud of the work he’s done with his bands over the years. His playing style is very unique and he’s an incredible song writer; a riff master! I would be flattered if he wanted me to perform with him again and would absolutely consider it.

After that audition for Agent Steel Tom returned to Have Mercy while you joined local band Krybaby and then formed Yuk – a punk rock outfit. Can you explain your decision? Were you tired of playing heavy metal? What were the highest and the lowest points of playing with this band? Did you record anything with Yuk?

Well, that’s not completely accurate. I left Krybaby to rejoin Have Mercy for the second time. After the Agent Steel thing I was playing with bassist Shaun Henley (formerly of Hammers Rule.) The YUK project began back in my Have Mercy days when Have Mercy roadie, the late Wade Cornog, showed me a folder of lyrics he had written. I thought they were great and took them home to write music to them. I was listening to a lot of Sex Pistols, The Clash and Ramones at the time so the music I wrote to his lyrics were heavily influenced by that. I recruited Shaun Henley to play bass, and using a drum machine and a 4-track cassette recorder, we recorded a demo of the songs. Wade recorded the vocals. I decided we needed a name for the project so Wade and I came up with YUK. Sometime later, I spoke with Wade on the phone when he was a roadie on tour with Madonna (that’s how I recall it although I may be wrong.) I told him I wanted to play out with YUK and wanted him to sing. He said it would be impossible because he was on the road. When I suggested that I sing instead, he really didn’t like the idea as they were his lyrics. I explained that if the band ever made money (which we didn’t) we would split the royalties 50/50. Against his wishes, I took YUK to the stage with Shaun Henley on bass and Keith Dixon on drums then eventually Have Mercy’s new drummer, the late John Grden. YUK played only a hand full of shows; the most notable being an opening slot with Wrathchild America where Shannon Larkin got up to sing Anarchy in the UK with us. We did record two demos with YUK. Wade Cornog did the vocals on each of them although I recut them myself because I was singing them live. I still have the demos on cassette tape and hope to one day remaster them for release on the Internet.

Lonnie Fletcher

Thank God (if there is any) after Yuk you decided to start Enforce and produced such an  amazing music! How did you get Lonnie aboard? Would you say he was the best singer for you and your music?  

Absolutely. Lonnie and I just seemed to click. I was and still am his biggest fan. And thank you Konstantin for the complement! I started Enforce with Cliff Saunders on drums and brought Jody Lewis onboard to play bass. Cliff brought Ed Mueller in on vocals. We started by learning a bunch of covers and eventually started writing original material. I don’t think we were very pleased with what Ed was bringing to the table with his lyrics so I basically got Lonnie into the band. Ed went on to do some amazing work with his band Rex Hunter so I don’t want to take anything away from Ed’s abilities. He’s a great guy and an excellent vocalist!

I guess it wasn’t easy to put the band on its legs especially when you’re without a record deal with a major label. I guess money was always a problem but what were other headaches of playing in a band like Enforce? Was it easy to get a gig, airplays or reviews in press?

I was always frustrated that we ended up just playing the same old local clubs. Although we did have a lot of support from our local papers and radio, we never had proper management to shop our demos to record companies to get a record deal. And when Nirvana hit it big in the early 90s, the grunge era began and Enforce’s style of music was put on the back burner for quite some time. So at that point, we really didn’t stand a chance at national success.

Enforce released a demo in 1990 and it still sounds very good. Was it your main point to put out a good sounding demo instead of recording rough material in a first available studio? I guess it costed you a good amount of money. Were those recording sessions sponsored by anyone or did you take a loan?

Yeah, we footed the bill for that demo. It probably ran us a few thousand dollars. The funny thing is that I wasn’t happy with the sound of my guitars on the recordings, so I went in and re-recorded them using a Tom Scholtz Rockman Sustainer going direct into the board. It cost about another thousand dollars to redo. At the time, I thought I made the right decision, but years later I came across an old cassette tape of a studio runoff of the original guitar tracks without vocals. I could feel the blood rushing to my face because it sounded great! Now I wish I never would have redone them. Like they say, hindsight is 20/20….

The 1990’s demo includes only 4 tracks. When and where were recorded such songs like “Lonely Child”, “Freedom Ride”, “Hold On” etc.?

Those were home recordings I did with a cheap mixer and an eight-track cassette recorder. We recorded the drums at Cliff’s house and everything else was done in my bedroom: my guitars, Jody’s bass tracks and Lonnie’s vocals. I guess you could say I was the band’s engineer, lol.

What about live shows? I know you played with King Diamond and Dream Theater  — how did you get supporting slots for these bands? What about other gigs? Did you play in small venues mostly?

Well, Rob Michael I believe was responsible for booking the Have Mercy shows, and in Enforce, we worked with a booking agency that booked us into everything from concert halls to small clubs. I have to admit, some of the small venues were my favorite places to perform. They were intimate and had a personal atmosphere as opposed to the big stages where the audience seemed to be miles away.

Jody Lewis

By the way, don’t you think that you could be as good as Dream Theater are if you wouldn’t split-up? Don’t you feel a kind of regret that the band didn’t get wider recognition?

I regret that we never reached our full potential as a band. I think that if we would have had the right record company and producer backing us, we could have been right up there with the greats.

It’s a shame that you never had a chance to get a record deal. What were the reasons for that? Was it because Grunge-era or was it all the band’s fault? In other words, did you really try it hard to be noticed and get a deal?

As I explained previously, I think it was a combination of both. Most of the bands in our musical genre seemed to disappear from the spotlight when the grunge thing hit.

Tell me please about your life after Enforce split up. Do you still play guitar and record new music? Are you in touch with other guys from Enforce? Are they active musicians?

I do still play guitar and have a home recording studio. I’m still in touch with my old bandmates. They all have day jobs and families, but still play music as well. Lonnie for instance lives in Michigan and sings for a Bob Seger tribute band, Cliff is in law enforcement, Rob Michael plays bass in a band called Wasted Theory and Jody Lewis plays bass in an 80s tribute band called The Reagan Years. So yeah, we’re all alive and well!

How did you get in touch with Matt of Divebomb Records? Are you satisfied with “The Final Sign” compilation? Were other guys involved in the making of this CD?

Actually, Matt got in touch with Cliff who got in touch with me. I have all the old Enforce masters on DAT and a recording studio, so I was the perfect candidate to remaster the songs. Having to do over again, I think I could make it sound better, but overall I’m pleased with the re-release. I worked closely with Matt via email. Matt had a team on his end that did a great job such as the artwork and layout of the CD.

Nick Ellingson these days

Thank you so much and feel free to share anything you want with your fans and readers! 

I would like to thank you, Konstantin, and your readers for your continued interest in our music and keeping it alive! I can’t begin to tell you how excited it makes me feel to know there still are fans that appreciate what I did 30 years ago. Ok, now I’m showing my age, lol! There are a bunch of videos on YouTube of Have Mercy and Enforce for anyone who is interested and we all do have Facebook pages where you can connect with us, see pictures and watch videos. So to you and your readers, ROCK ON!!

Purchase «The Final Sign» CD HERE