As long-running band readies first album since singer's transition, its members explain how years of anguish led to a brighter future
As long-running band readies first album since singer's transition, its members explain how years of anguish led to a brighter future
"I was going to commit suicide. It got really, really, really, really bad. I couldn't live another day."
Nearly a decade has passed since Mina Caputo last seriously contemplated killing herself, but remembering the pain she felt before she came out publicly as transgender in 2011 still causes her face to tighten. She'll talk about it, but she's also quick to highlight how much better her life is these days. That's because, after concealing her true self for decades as the frontperson for the metal group Life of Agony, she feels at peace.
It's a chilly March day, and for most of our interview at one of her favorite New York City hangs – the quaint, sunny British comfort-food joint Tea and Sympathy – the petite singer, now age 43, is all smiles. The place is special to her because of its rock history; famous musicians dine there regularly, and she once even met David Bowie's interior decorator there. "That lamp with the bulldog over there was in Bowie's hotel room when he lived in Berlin with Iggy Pop," she says in her thick Brooklyn accent as she pours peas into a chicken pot pie. Everything about her is bright, too. She's even wearing a cardigan covered in smiley faces.
Her demeanor is a full 180 from the gloomy lyrics she sings with Life of Agony, a group that has straddled heavy metal, hardcore punk and hard rock during its nearly 30-year history. The band's pummeling debut – River Runs Red, which became an instant classic in the metal underground upon its 1993 release – contains artwork that unfolds to reveal a slashed wrist, and its songs boast rattling lyrics (written by bassist Alan Robert) like, "Just give me one good reason to live/I'll give you three to die." Life of Agony's subsequent albums, which feature contributions by Caputo, display a rare vulnerability for heavy music: broad-stroke cries for help, love and understanding, cocooned in fuzzy, distorted guitar riffs. In the Nineties, she was a rare singer who was willing to express her intimate, emotional side, unlike the hard-as-nails metal frontmen that were her peers.
Now the band is issuing A Place Where There's No More Pain, its first LP in 12 years and first since Caputo's transition. Although none of the songs explicitly address Caputo's rebirth, they contain bleak, earnest ruminations on life's struggles and disappointments. But, in the eyes of the band members, they serve a deeper purpose. "With the album title, it's almost like we're creating a safe haven for fans," says Joey Z., Life of Agony's soft-spoken guitarist and Caputo's cousin. "A lot of people go through the same struggles as us, and they have the same fears and insecurities, so our message is, 'Come join us.'"
Caputo didn't have any such guiding light when she was growing up. Born Keith Caputo in 1973, she grew up in Mill Basin, Brooklyn, an insular neighborhood on the borough's south shore that had a strong Italian-American population. Her mother died of a heroin overdose when Caputo was only a year old, and by her account, her father, also a drug addict, abandoned her, forcing her to grow up with her hard-nosed paternal grandparents. When her dad did come around, he was her burden. "I was mothering him through his life," Caputo says, between bites. "I was giving him money, putting him up at my home, bailing him out of jail, buying him dope, watching him punch walls, trying to heal his gangrene."
But that pales compared to what she endured at home, where she suffered perpetual physical abuse at the hands of her grandfather. "He'd come running after me if I took my shoes off without untying my laces," she says. "He'd chase me if I ran up the stairs holding the banister, because I was loosening it." She says he also beat her grandmother, whom Caputo grew up calling "mom." "I hated my family," she says. "I hated myself. I hated the fact that I was born into this world. I didn't feel normal. I didn't feel like every other guy felt. I knew there was something peculiar going on with me, but I didn't know what 'transgender' meant."
Caputo still vividly remembers expressing her gender dysphoria at a young age and the trouble it caused her. "My grandmother used to dress me to go to school, and I asked her, 'Why can't you dress me in girls' clothes?'" she says. "'You're not a girl. Don't tell Grandpa you want to dress up as a girl and go to school. He'll fucking kill you. He'll kill me.'" (Although she never came out to him, Caputo's grandfather asked for her forgiveness for his cruelty shortly before his death.)
Caputo eventually forced herself to put on an air of masculinity, though it wasn't always convincing. Her cousin remembers an understanding between them, regarding her identity. "We were born and raised together in the same house," Joey Z. says. "We were literally together since birth. I was fully aware of Mina's changes as they were happening over the years, but it's not something we ever sat down and talked about. So for me [her transition] wasn't any big shock."
When she was a teen, Caputo found solace in music. Her uncle bought a piano for her grandparents, and she took lessons between ages 15 and 18, burying herself in classical music. "I would pull a lot of sadness from Chopin and Beethoven," she says. "It was my inspiration growing up." She also dug into the grooves of her uncle's vinyl collection, reveling in the works of Queen, Bowie, Pink Floyd, Muddy Waters and Billie Holiday, among others. "I loved Led Zeppelin," she says. "I knew I wanted to be Robert Plant when I was a kid. He confused me. I couldn't pinpoint if he was a guy or a girl or what he was."
While she was practicing piano, she recalls her cousin inviting his "rock-head" friends over to play guitar. "Mina carried my amp down the block the first time I ever jammed with a drummer," Joey recalls. "Then she sang lyrics off a Raid can into a microphone, and that was the start of Life of Agony."
The group officially formed in 1989 with a lineup rounded out by bassist Robert and a revolving door of drummers. They eventually recruited Sal Abruscato of goth-metal band Type O Negative to fill the position permanently. "I wasn't even a singer," Caputo recalls. "They were like, 'You're singing for the band.' And I'm like, 'Guys, I can't fucking sing.'" Nevertheless, she learned quickly. Video of a gig from summer 1990 shows Caputo prowling the stage, shirtless, puffing out his chest and bellowing tough-guy invectives. That same year, the band started putting out demo tapes recorded by members of Type O Negative and hardcore band Biohazard. The music recalled the hardcore of the Cro-Mags and Sick of It All but with a metallic sheen.
Caputo strains to sound like an alpha male on the demo song "Step Aside," screaming hate toward an ex-girlfriend: "Don't you dare fuck with my feelings, you bitch." And on another early song, "Depression," which appeared on two Life of Agony tapes, she sang lyrics about wanting to die in the darkest ways possible: "Why is it so easy for those gays to get A.I.D.S.?" It's a disturbing instance in Life of Agony's history, and by the time they put out their first official full-length, they'd erased bigotry from their lyric sheets.
When I read that lyric back to her today, she pauses and says, "Really?" She thinks about it and says, "That's pretty fucked up. I didn't write that song.
"It's a testament to how we were brought up," she says. "I was a racist. I was a homophobe. That's why I hated myself. I grew up with an Italian, wife-beating, maniacal fucking psycho that hated anything and anyone who wasn't Italian. He hated gays, transsexuals, Jews. A lot of us came from that.
"I knew it was wrong to feel and think that way," she continues, "but when you're in the throes of being raised by people like my grandparents, you can't even put up an argument. Everything was 'nigger this, nigger that' and 'fucking faggot this' and 'faggot that.' 'Paint your hair red, you fag?' It's how we were raised. I actually haven't thought about that song or those lyrics in ... Jesus. I fucked up. But you live and you learn."
Through it all, Caputo hid herself, and the band got bigger and bigger. Eventually, they were able to sell out multiple nights in a row at the now-defunct Brooklyn metal joint L'Amour. Indie metal label Roadrunner took notice and eventually issued River Runs Red in October 1993.
A few days after dining at Tea and Sympathy, Caputo, along with her cousin and bassist Robert meet me at famed tattoo artist Paul Booth's Last Rites Gallery. Joey knows the tattoo artist, because he'd worked in the studio on an ambient record Booth had made. The walls are lined with eerie, phantasmagoric artwork by painters Paul Cristina and Eric Lacombe. The musicians move from painting to painting, raving about the way the artists captured death. And when Booth invites the trio into his inner sanctum – his personal tattooing room, adorned with skeletons, toys and curiosities – they all smile from ear to ear. Robert takes close-up pictures of Booth's collection. Caputo offers the artist her skull when she dies. Eventually, they settle onto some coffin-shaped couches to reflect on their career, and Robert exclaims that he feels right at home.
"Our first record was basically my diary," he says, referring to River Runs Red's gruesome, depressing lyrics. Although the record missed the charts, its uniquely emotional and often blunt expressions of suicidal feelings made Life of Agony stick out in the metal herd. And Caputo's striking vocals – more of a confident melodic croon than an angry hardcore bark – coupled with their pugilistic, college-radio-ready riffs earned them play on Headbangers Ball and a spot opening for Anthrax. They became infamous when as an 18-year-old fan died in a mosh pit at one of their L'Amour gigs in 1994, marking the first time such an event drew national attention. "It didn't empower the band, I'll tell you that," Caputo says, looking back on a trial her bandmates attended. "Now I try to encourage the kids that this is a place of unity and balance and harmony. Don't be a bunch of fucking idiots, punching people in the face just because you can get away with it. Don't be a fucking pussy."
The exposure nevertheless helped the band's follow-ups, 1995's more mainstream-rock LP Ugly (which features Caputo's heartrending tribute to her mother, "Let's Pretend") and 1997's Soul Searching Sun, make it onto the charts. In the middle of it all, the band was struggling with in-fighting, leading to the ejection of Abruscato, and Caputo was becoming a drug addict. "A day turned into a weekend, and a weekend turned into a week of feeling like I wanted to die," she says. "When you're a fucking cokehead, you want to die every day. You can't deal with anything. I wanted to escape this reality."
In 1997, as the singles "Weeds" and "Tangerine" were the band's first to crack the upper regions of the mainstream rock charts, Caputo decided she'd had enough. She'd been living a double life, frequenting what she calls "transsexual bars" since she was 18. (Incidentally, she prefers the term "transsexual" to transgender, "because it's more scandalous.") "I learned about it all from the girls in the street," she says. "How to acquire hormones without a doctor and how to escort, how to traffic drugs. … I was an assassin. I was like Rimbaud on the worst coke trip ever." Although she did not take hormones at the time, she knew how she wanted to live her life – but she wasn't ready to come out.
What she did know she could change, though, was her place in the band. So she quit Life of Agony in September 1997, the same month they put out Soul Searching Sun. "[My bandmates] couldn't figure out why I wasn't enjoying the success of the band," she says. "We were about to blow up on Soul Searching Sun, and I left. I was like, 'What good is my success if I can't even enjoy my fucking soul and my body?' I wanted to come out then, but failed miserably and didn't have the courage or the knowhow. I didn't know what to do."
So she struggled on her own. She made a poppy demo with a short-lived group called Absolute Bloom and worked on her solo debut, Died Laughing, while her bandmates sought a replacement. "We were on the cover of [the music-focused New Jersey alt-weekly] The Aquarian and in the back of the issue, there was an ad for our singer," Robert says. "It was unbelievable." Eventually they found a bizarre one that worked: Ugly Kid Joe headbanger Whitfield "I Hate Everything About You" Crane. "He was the only one that we auditioned who could even hit the notes," Robert explains. They ended up splitting in 1999. Joey Z. went on to try his hands at nu-metal in the group Stereomud, while Robert delved deeper into hard rock with his Among Thieves project.
At the insistence of their agent, Dan DeVita, Life of Agony reunited for live shows in 2002 with Caputo and Abruscato on board, while the singer concurrently kept her solo career going. She rejoined Life of Agony partly to have an outlet to cope with the loss of her father, who'd died recently. They issued a comeback album in 2005, Broken Valley, but it was a bittersweet moment. The band's label, Epic, had hidden software on the CDs that kept fans from ripping the music into their iTunes libraries, and, facing scrutiny, it recalled copies of the album shortly after its release, hindering the record's success. "We used to call it the black cloud," Joey Z. says. Robert adds, "Circumstance and destiny kept knocking us down."
Disillusioned, Caputo drifted between Europe and Los Angeles in the mid-2000s and toured in support of solo releases. She eventually decided to stay in Europe but was caught in Germany while traveling between countries with an expired visa and was sent back to the U.S. By 2008, she was ready to commit suicide. In her words, she was "a loaded fucking gun playing Russian roulette with my life every day." She was snorting coke, taking pills and was addicted to OxyContin.
"I wanted to come out," she says. "I couldn't bear pretending to be a boy anymore in this fucking world. I really wanted to just let her out. It was fucking killing me." That year, a friend directed her to a gender therapist, who, in 2009, gave her the option of either going to a doctor who would ask her to live as a woman full-time without hormones or to see an endocrinologist who would set her on her path.
She chose the latter and began transitioning, kicking her drug addictions along the way, though she still hid her new life from her bandmates. "I was living in stealth for about three years, because my titties were budding and I could still hide them," she says. "But it got to the point that my body changed so much I couldn't hide the physical changes."
She came out publicly in a fit of anger when a fan harassed her online. She remembers reading a message to her on Facebook along the lines of: "Why do you look like a girl more and more every day? You're disgusting. You're never going to be a real girl. Get over yourself. You're the reason A.I.D.S. exists." "It was the first and last time I ever reacted to negativity online," she says. "I outed myself. 'I'm a fucking transsexual. Fuck you.' And that's when the band found out."
"I literally found out getting onstage at a show in Holland," Robert recalls. "We were about to step out, and the promoter said, 'Should I announce this as your last show?' And I go, 'Why would you do that?' He showed me his phone, and it was all over the metal news. It was a shock to me. We played the show and we talked on the bus, just the two of us."
He turns to the singer. "What bothered me wasn't that you came out," he says. "I was proud that you did that. That was such a fearless act. For me, I thought we were closer, that you would feel comfortable enough to be honest with me."
At the teashop, Caputo reflects on her relationship with the band. "They knew I was eccentric," she says. "I was a very effeminate guy. She was busting at the seams my whole life. It was just a little mind-blowing for everyone. Then it was like, 'All right, now what?' But we never officially broke up."
But that's not what the metal blogs reported at the time. Abruscato told the press in 2012 that the band could no longer play live because "Keith wants to pursue his life and his lifestyle," but their agent convinced them to reunite again in 2014, as he'd been getting a number of requests. Caputo, feeling hurt by Abruscato's comments, approached him about them. She now says that there had been a misunderstanding. "Now he's like, 'My fuckin' girlfriend's here!' when he sees me," she says. "All of the members of the band are so wonderful, holding doors open for me, carrying my bags, making sure I'm safe. They treat me like they treat their wives.
"I think it's so beautiful, and I think it's so special," she continues. "What people don't understand is not only are we transitioning ourselves, but the people around you need to transition as well. ... I hope to marry a man just like one of the boys in the band. Because they're very loyal."
Sitting on his coffin couch, Robert says the band is finally in a place spiritually that makes sense. "This was the first time I felt like we were all on board," he says. "In the past, me and Joey were always like, 'Let's do this,' and when Mina was in her Keith period ... "
"I wasn't on board at all," she finishes. "I took 'em straight to hell."
Then, Robert, still parsing the past decade, turns to Caputo. "Was it clear to you back when you left the band in 1997 what you needed to do?"
"Yeah, absolutely," she tells him. "I just didn't know how to do it."
"Being a part of it and seeing you drop out right when everything was crescendo-ing, I just couldn't understand it," the bassist says. "I was like, 'You have everything at your fucking fingertips. Why throw that away?'"
"I had everything except myself," Caputo says.
The band performed its first official concert with Mina Caputo as their frontwoman in August 2014 at Belgium's Alcatraz fest, and the singer was nervous about how she'd be received. "It was nerve-racking," she says. "I was living with the fear that I might get shot onstage. There were about 90,000 kids there, and 40,000 of them were going apeshit until the end, giving me love, holding up signs. It turned out to be everything I thought it wouldn't be."
By and large, she's found metalheads to be supportive and receptive to her transition, much like how they shrugged it off when Judas Priest frontman Rob Halford came out as gay. "Everyone has this cliché idea about the metal scene, but I would like to prove everyone wrong, because the metal scene, the hardcore scene, the punk-rock scene, they've been nothing but amazing to me," she says.
More than that, she says they seem to love her. "I keep on getting tattooed, hard-rock, gangster-looking motherfuckers DM-ing me, wanting to have sex or go out with me or experience me on an intimate level," she says. "I feel like I've shifted so many male paradigms. It's all very flattering. It can be cute. I'm not going to out anybody, but I can't even begin to tell you the letters I've gotten from particular individuals in our business. The allies that I've amassed are just unbelievable."
Despite this, she's reticent to address her transition in Life of Agony's lyrics, because she wants their music to be more "generalized and universal." "The band makes more sense now than it did before," she says. "It's its own beautiful, perfect monster." But she did sing about her transition on her 2013 solo album As Much Truth as One Can Bear. Its first song, the John Lennon–influenced "Identity," opens with her singing, "Look at me, all of me/I am not a man, I am not a woman ... Sew me back together again." "That was my protest record," she says. "I've been there, done that. Goodbye."
One thing that's helped Caputo greatly since her transition is seeing so many other public figures come out as transgender. The only high-profile musician to have come out before her was Clockwork Orange soundtrack composer Wendy Carlos; now the world is aware of transgender celebrities including Laverne Cox, Caitlyn Jenner, Janet Mock and Against Me! frontwoman Laura Jane Grace, who came out a nearly a year after Caputo. "I contacted Laura immediately when I read the Rolling Stone article where she came out," the Life of Agony singer says. "I said, 'You need any help with doctors or hormones, let me know, because I've been through it.' I wanted to be there for her as much as I could. If she ever needed me I was there for her."
The respect was mutual. "I'd seen a Huffington Post article about Mina coming out and transitioning," Grace tells Rolling Stone. "I saw similarities between our scenes, which are both male dominated and usually pretty aggressive and macho, so I felt a kinship with Mina. When I saw that story, I was like, 'This is the universe telling me I have to accept myself.'"
A year later, the two women embarked on a solo tour together and got to know each other. "When I was on that tour, I was in the lowest of low places, so having her to look to and be like, 'If you can do this, I can do this' – that bit of wisdom or guidance meant a lot," Grace says. "Having normal conversations and realizing, 'OK, life can be normal – I can still tour and have friends' meant a lot to me."
"I don't feel as alone," Caputo says, reflecting on the emergence of trans celebrities. "Things have changed so fast politically and universally. People are becoming more and more fearless. It feels like the change I wanted to see in myself is taking place."
Caputo has already been taking on the world fearlessly, as she puts it, but now she's poised to do so in an even larger capacity with the release of Life of Agony's new album and a spring tour along the East Coast and in Europe. "I've been through the biggest challenges I thought I'd never get through in my life," she says. "I also have a very healthy view of death that allows me to live more peacefully. I don't have happiness figured out or mapped out; I'm very fucking moody. But I'm getting a tighter grip on just who I am, why I am, where I am, where I'm going, why I'm going and what my purpose is on the planet. Now it's, 'How can I help the world around me? How can I continue to make incredible records with incredible people?' I'm in a really good place spiritually."