Tonight We Try to Die On Purpose: The Broken Promise of Ink & Dagger, Ethan Swan
We dance for the dead
For those who walk out that door
For those who fall behind
For those progressed and moved on to better things
Alternately pacing and standing still, his gaze shifting between the audience and the floor, Sean McCabe delivers an incantation from a low stage. McCabe is skinny but not frail, almost nondescript in a black tee shirt. His flesh is painted bone white, black greasepaint circled around his eyes. He recites with the solemnity and certainty of a priest:
Tonight we also dance for the living
For every one of us here
Whether it be your first time, your fiftieth time, or your final time
Tonight we call upon all of our energies
Every single one of us
Tonight we dance, for us
For those of the past and those of the future
You paid your toll
Cross the bridge and walk with us to the road to hell
“The road to hell” is a cue for the rest of the band, men and women similarly painted with stage makeup, marked to resemble the dead. They begin an oppressive march, repetitive, tuneless, as heavy and dull as a fist. The crowd responds eagerly, packed tighter towards the stage, sloshing from one side of the room to the other. Slow and blunt, the song leaves enough room for a subsequent monologue, this one re-telling the creation of the world, binding Apocalypse into the tale: “On the third day, it was foretold that the angels would sing their songs/On the fourth day, it was foretold that the demons would be set free.” The word “free” is a trigger pulled, unleashing a maelstrom of sound from the band, guitars circling and colliding with a final violence, the audience tangled and kicking as if they themselves were the demons unleashed.
The early shows of Philadelphia hardcore band Ink & Dagger reveled in this kind of spectacle, overturning fifteen years of subculture tradition in their embrace of performance and persona. Although most hardcore bands tended towards the dark side, the emphasis had always been upon sincerity, the unadorned honesty of personal narrative. Whether it was Black Flag’s jealous anguish, The Bad Brains’ hopes for redemption, or Minor Threat’s cultural fury, the ideal has always been authenticity, the heartfelt truth of an individual voice. When Ink & Dagger appeared—theatrical, costumed, and claiming to be vampires—many listeners wouldn’t even accept them as hardcore, tagging them as “goth” or “mallcore” or simply “posers”. Stumped by these obviously fictional tales of ritual killings and pending Armageddon, hardcore’s authorities couldn’t measure the substance against their existing gauge of authenticity. Incapable of detecting any personal content in Ink & Dagger’s songs, critics were ultimately unable to even acknowledge the music, responding instead to this unwelcome persona. In both reviews and informal discussions, the quality of their records were hardly ever discussed—rather the band’s behavior, their costumes, their attitude was the focus, and, within the hardcore scene, the most common description of the band was “make-up wearing faggots.”
This sort of name-calling and exclusion was not unusual when Ink & Dagger first appeared in 1996. Many people feel that the negativity in hardcore reached its peak in the 1990s, a result of the continual growth of the community. The influx of new listeners and the subsequent fragmentation into straight edge, moshcore, emo, Krishna-core, etc. insured that there were constantly new occasions to disassociate. Although hardcore as a whole clearly identified bosses, teachers, cops and parents as the primary enemies, the reality was that there were far more opportunities to raise boundaries between kids and other kids. Even Daniel Traitor, guitarist for Racetraitor, one of the most divisive hardcore bands of the 90s, observed “people were condemning others for their lifestyle... I don’t think it helps to condemn and alienate people from anything. And that was kind of the tone a lot of the time in the nineties.”
The emphasis on authenticity opened the door to militancy, turning every choice into an opportunity to prove or disprove one’s commitment. Sevepriya Barrier, who published the zine Krishna Grrrl throughout the 90s, gave an especially succinct example of this extreme in the book Burning Fight: the Nineties Hardcore Revolution: “I think the most important debate was whether you could drink caffeine and still be straight edge. No, really, that’s what I think, because it highlighted how really out of control people’s sense of self importance was, how much they felt entitled to judge others and how impactful they saw their every action.”
Prior to the birth of Ink & Dagger, the individual members didn’t show any definite signs of resistance to this culture. Guitarist Don Devore was a core member of the sensitive, self-examining band, Frail, and bassist Ashli State had played in the heavily emotional metal/hardcore band Guilt. Sean McCabe, Ink & Dagger’s vocalist and lyricist, had a widespread reputation for wickedness, but his transgressions were simply intensified version of the negation-based divisionary tactics of his peers. He was provocative, but not to any new ends. In 1996, McCabe posted on the nascent internet message board alt.music.hardcore that the singer of emo-core band Autumn had died in a drunk driving accident. The post was a hoax designed simply to antagonize a band he disliked, and, perhaps more importantly, to antagonize their fans. Ultimately, the prank was similar to a straight edge kid attempting to make smokers unwelcome by breaking cigarettes (a surprisingly common occurrence), with the effect magnified by the relative anonymity and reach of the internet.
A few months later, McCabe perpetuated a far more aggressive and potentially dangerous act of negation: he and a friend threw yogurt and beer cans at the notoriously militant vegan straightedge band Earth Crisis. Throughout the 1990s, Earth Crisis were the clearest representation of the faithful, uncompromising hardcore band, viewing the world in absolute black and white, right and wrong. Their anthem “Firestorm” is a blunt call to arms: “No mercy, no exceptions, a declaration of total war.” Violence was one of Earth Crisis’ foundations, so when McCabe flung cartons of yogurt, coating both fans and the stage in this dairy glue, there was no ignoring the consequences. The band’s fans grew adrenalized, enraged, searching for the villain. To the surprise of many, McCabe wasn’t caught, and received no beatdown, despite the chants of “Hardcore! Vegan! Hardcore! Violence!” To even greater surprise, Earth Crisis didn’t call for blood, but instead took the opportunity to call out the unnamed offender:“To the person who threw yogurt, to the person who threw a beer can, I’d like you to ask yourself a question: why the fuck are you involved in hardcore? What the fuck different are you doing from the rest of the world? The entire point of hardcore from the beginning has been to break away, to recognize the evil of the world and do something about it, to do something different.
The same month, Ink & Dagger released their debut 7”, which seemed to respond to this question. “Romance in the air/the vampires don’t care” ran the opening lines of the song “Newspaper Tragedy”—McCabe had prepared his greatest act of negation for the hardcore scene. While nihilism was a common pose within the community, simply not caring was definitely taboo. It went against “the entire point of hardcore” as laid out by Earth Crisis. McCabe reaffirmed his position in the song “Frigid Shortcomings”: “My soul is extinguished/replaced by night demon anguish/I’m too cold to care.” The remaining three songs on the record explored the transformation from human to vampire, confirming that if Ink & Dagger were interested in evil, it was in celebrating it, and if they were interested in breaking away, it was from the brute politic of Earth Crisis styled hardcore.
But if Ink & Dagger were dismissing the culture of hardcore, they kept other elements intact. Musically, both the debut single and its follow-up definitely had all of the gestures necessary for a good hardcore record: the sudden, breath - stealing pauses in “Caretaker”; the half-speed mosh parts of “Shadowtalker”; the gang chant chorus of “Newspaper Tragedy”; the relentless momentum throughout. When the audience was sympathetic, they fought and careened as fiercely as the most inspired hardcore crowds. Live footage shows complete mobs of kids climbing atop each other onstage in an attempt to reach McCabe and sing along. “Changeling”, with its mid-song breakdown leaving space for the deranged, half-celebratory/half-accusatory chorus: “you’re a changeling/shapeshifter/fucking monster”, could compel twenty fans to pile around the singer in a corporeal heap that resembled medieval representations of hell. But not all crowds were able to engage the band, and the strobe lights and corpsepaint tended to polarize audiences immediately. In cities like Dayton, Portland and Atlanta, booked into a night of straight edge youth crew bands or on a political hardcore matinee, Ink & Dagger often faced opposition and bullying fierce enough that they were occasionally forced to pack up and leave after only a song or two.
In the spring of 1997, the band played to their biggest audience yet at the Michigan Hardcore Festival. This annual, weekend-long event drew fans from across the country, often from isolated regions that bands rarely visited. Coming off months of touring, Ink & Dagger had carefully honed their live set by the time they reached Michigan. Their skeletal make-up was menacing, and the speed-punctuating strobes raised the songs to a frantic pitch. Buckets of fake blood were flung and spit onto the audience a mouthful at a time. Sandwiched between earnest, well-meaning emo bands and bluntly political hardcore, Ink & Dagger’s spectacle was magnified, even more polarizing than normal. Sikander Khan, who turned 17 that year and was seeing Ink & Dagger for the first time, described the show as “a memorable blur”. Before their set, his only impression of the band had been from internet message boards that discussed their vampire costumes, which was enough to guarantee his attention. “I remember going up front and not really being sure what to expect,” he recalled recently, “and then all of the sudden there’s a strobe light and people are stage diving and the creepy singer dude was spitting fake blood. Then I was like ‘what’s that weird smell?’ and I looked up and garlic cloves are flying through the air.” The smell and the action drew a lot of attention in the crowd, but one reaction was notably absent—Ink & Dagger’s. The band refused to acknowledge the garlic, carrying on with their songs uninterrupted.
Rodrigo Palma, who was also at the 1997 Michigan Fest, recalled that “I was a fan of the band around that time...A friend and I took part in throwing some garlic at those guys, although I know there were more.” No one can agree how many more, but the “garlic incident” quickly became the most discussed event of the weekend. Through the same message boards that spread the legend of Ink & Dagger, the story of their downfall passed just as quickly. In Philadelphia and San Diego, kids wondered who threw the garlic. Was it fans like Palma, engaging in good-natured play, or was it more aggressive, similar to McCabe’s treatment of Earth Crisis? Whatever the motive, the band’s lack of response quickly undermined their practice, on both sides. If the band truly were vampires, why didn’t the garlic have an effect? And if it was just an act, why did they stop acting when faced with adversity?
Ink & Dagger’s second 7”, “Drive this seven inch wooden stake through my Philadelphia Heart” included a short manifesto that claimed that the band stood for two things: “self empowerment” and “entertainment.”
The explication is worth quoting at length: “We are obligated to insure that the best way for vampires to understand and control the energy present from any interaction with the rest of the world is to present such in a sophisticated manner. We have found that by maintaining the attention level of the future vampires through fantastic imagery and explosive performances, the new ethic is accepted much easier. This should be for all performances. ‘Tis no wonder why you should feel compelled to not react when around hundreds of people’s creative energy. You should want to always seize the moment, and be great. Enjoy yourself.”
By refusing to interact with the garlic, Ink & Dagger diluted the performance, violating their own manifesto. And Sean McCabe, perpetrator of so many hoaxes and pranks, was surprisingly unable to respond when he became the target, the painful cliché of a bully.A few days later, McCabe eventually addressed the incident via the alt.music.hardcore internet message board. In a post titled “Who Threw Garlic at the Dagger?” McCabe affected sarcasm to curb the discussion:
“Whoever did that, thank you. Because I never felt so damn special in my entire life. Imagine little ol me, getting thrown garlic at in Detroit. Dont you know we're psychic vampires and dont subscribe to the ageold folklore of vampires while instead we are the evolution of the new future vampires? Jesus, get it right next time fuck.“
This construction of “psychic vampires” only raised more questions, clouding the earlier vampire imagery of bloody stakes and fangs. By the end of 1997, it was clear that the persona had lost its momentum and Ink & Dagger stopped wearing corpsepaint at their concerts. In 1998 the band released their debut LP, “The Fine Art of Original Sin”, replacing their explosive breakdowns with drum and bass gestures and suppressed vampire references in favor of fever-dream revolution fantasies. The band drifted from the hardcore scene and toured with Swedish band The Refused. Past labels like “goth” and “mallpunk”, once dismissive, began to feel more legitimate as Ink & Dagger’s lightshow grew more elaborate and their sound more futuristic.In a 1999 interview, Sean McCabe was asked about the decision to discard the face paint and eyeliner. He responded carefully, trivializing that past:
“What drove us to do things like have the light show, the makeup, etc. was stemming from a fact of being ‘over-dramatic’, to go over the edge a little bit, to garner the attention that we felt was needed to have a worthwhile effect on the masses... It was very discouraging to have people only see us as ‘that emo-goth-core band that wears makeup’ when there was much, much more to the puzzle.” But when the interviewer followed up by asking how this change has impacted the band’s reception, McCabe wasn’t able to answer: “I don’t know, to tell you the truth.” He described the drive to stay out of the “mediocre, complacent holes that so many bands dig for themselves” and Ink & Dagger’s own strategies for avoiding them. “It’s all part of a well-detailed and thought-out plan,” he declares ultimately, “so this process of weeding out those that might not take interest in what we’re doing is all part of it as well... when people get upset when we don’t play all the songs off our earlier records, or we don’t subscribe to the same tactics that we’ve used in the past, it’s like the perfect proof that we’re doing the right thing. We’re becoming our own example in this, and that strengthens us to continue on.”
Only two years had passed since McCabe prowled stages, his face painted, self-certain and inviting audiences to join him on the road to hell. His seductive inclusiveness, the boldness of asking entire crowds to “call upon all of our energies”, had given way to a “process of weeding out”, to disposing of unworthy fans. Rather than avoiding and subverting hardcore’s exclusionary tactics, Ink & Dagger had given into to them, even as they abandoned the aesthetic. Beyond simply acknowledging this new direction as change or growth, McCabe instead dismissed their earlier gestures, claiming they were merely a set up for the current mode.
This “well-detailed and thought-out plan” came to an abrupt halt two months after this interview appeared when Ink & Dagger played their final show. It’s unlikely that this sudden, unheralded end was written into their strategy, and McCabe’s declaration that “we’re doing the right thing” rang hollow, bled of its substance. Ink & Dagger’s final release appeared soon thereafter, a self-titled LP delving into melodic textures and rhythmless walls of sound. The CD booklet included a photo of an adolescent McCabe, dressed as a vampire, a gesture that was half-nostalgic and half-dismissive, aligning their early “dress up” days with childishness.
Over the course of the next 12 months, McCabe continued to post to the Ink & Dagger website, primarily morbid short stories that foretold of his death. Sadly—unthinkably—the premonitions proved true, and on August 28, 2000, McCabe was found dead in an Indiana motel room, at the age of 27. A few of McCabe’s former bandmates offered tributes and obituaries, but even the band’s greatest detractors seemed to respect the silence.
Seven years later, a long-rumored but never seen object surfaced, the Vampire Killer box set. A handmade wooden box containing Ink & Dagger’s first 4 singles, the set was first announced in 1997, but never made available to the public. In fact a miniscule edition of 5 boxes was produced, destined only for the band’s members and their friends. Although Vampire Killer was often mentioned during the band’s existence, it wasn’t until 2007, when one of the five boxes appeared on ebay, that the world first learned the details of the object. The flat black box was splattered with red, “Ink & Dagger” roughly scratched into the cover. Inside, the singles rested on red velvet, bundled with stickers, a set list, and the band’s recipe for fake blood. Alongside these relics of Ink & Dagger’s greatest acts, the box also contained their undoing: a bloody wooden stake, a small bottle of holy water, and a clove of garlic.
Illustrations by Heather Anderson