Hardcore Krishna

Veteran punk singer Don Foose returns with furious music and a spiritual message

Don Foose takes the stage at Cleveland's Agora Theater, sporting a graying buzzcut that makes him look like a punk-rock drill sergeant. It's the first real show by his new group, Foose, and it's a big one. The hardcore band has the top supporting slot on Mushroomhead's annual Halloween concert, one of the biggest local rock shows of the year. Some of Mushroomhead's loyal fans cheer; most of them don't. Foose is friends with the headliners and respected by a small constituency in the pit. The rest of the metal-hungry crowd needs an introduction or reminder. Foose, 41, is up for the challenge. He has trained for this show like it's a cage match.

Foose has a message for the beer-soaked masses, most of whom are just there for the party. Alongside copies of his CD Sacrifice — his first in nine years — the singer has stocked his merch table with books about Hare Krishna consciousness and vegetarian cookies. But he's not here to preach to the hard-drinking headbangers. After 20 years on the scene and a longer personal journey, he's learned to lead by example. And in exchange for your attention, he'll put his body on the line.

He invites the diehards down front onto the stage. No one takes him up on it. The band guns into "False Hope," a rager with lyrics about a consumer society. Foose barks and shouts the words, telling the fans they can't buy happiness. He leaps onto a monitor and bounces into the air like a warrior-monk, legs parallel to the stage, each pointing a different direction. If he can catch their eyes, he figures, maybe he'll earn their ears.

The man mounting a full-contact stage show is here as a singer, husband, father and Krishna holy man. He respects the sea of sweaty, beer-soaked humanity; he knows where they're coming from. He just wants to help with where they're going.

Though he's a Krishna priest, most of the Mushroom-heads that recognize Foose know him as a Spudmonster.

The Spudmonsters were one of the biggest Cleveland bands of their day, from 1987 to 1998. The band came into its own in 1989, when Foose stepped in as it third and final singer.

"It got stepped up a notch when Don joined the band," says Spuds bassist Steve Swanson, who now plays in the Foose band. "His energy, [his] stage performance makes him very unique, and that's what set us apart. No disrespect to the guys that came before, but the energy changed in a different way when Don joined."

The Spudmonsters mixed metal, punk and groove when blending genres was still a novel concept. Foose was a natural diplomat who got along with skinheads, punks, longhairs and even the hair-metal crowd. Everybody liked Foose and the Spuds. "Early '90s, they were the kings," recalls Mushroomhead leader/drummer Steve "Skinny" Felton. "They ran the city for a long time. Don was an unbelievable frontman, still is. He was a ball of energy."

With Foose out front, the Spuds signed a three-record deal with Germany's Massacre Records. "Garbage Day" — a fan favorite from the band's 1993 debut, Stop the Madness — landed on MTV metal showcase Headbanger's Ball. Before the group played overseas, they made tie-dyed shirts advertising a fake European tour. Members of big bands like Pantera wore the Ts to photo shoots.

The Spudmonsters' third album, 1996's Moment of Truth, was the band's signature statement. The $60,000 production was helmed by Tom Soares, who also worked with New Kids on the Block and hardcore godheads the Cro-Mags. (In the U.S., it was released by the big-indie metalworks Century Media.) From 1997 to '98, the Spudmonsters spent 11 months on the road. They'd played in 18 countries by the time the time the tour was done. And by then, they were done too — but not forgotten.

"Don left his mark," says Mushroomhead frontman Jeffrey "Nothing" Hatrix, a longtime friend who's also part of the Foose band. "He had a different style. I think some national artists did shows with him and borrowed his stage persona. He's probably in the Top 3 [Cleveland frontmen] ever."

Foose was born in Cleveland and grew up all over Northeast Ohio, the only son in a working-class family, with two sisters. He spent half of his high school years in North Royalton, where he was friends with future members of Mushroomhead. Felton recalls him as the first guy in their peer group to discover skateboarding and hardcore punk-rock, when everybody was stuck on Iron Maiden and BMX.

In high school, Foose was a prodigy of sorts, a quick-witted and energetic scammer with the gift of gab. Lessons culled from a book called How to Sell Anything to Anybody helped him shatter his sales goals in a telemarketing job (which he quit when the boss wouldn't give him a night off to see Metallica at the Variety Theatre). The self-described teenage "con man" also applied the same tactics to his game. "When I was young, all I wanted to do was pick up chicks," recalls Foose, with palpable distaste.

After high school, Foose joined the Army. It wasn't a good match.

"I got into all kinds of trouble," says Foose. "I got into fights. I didn't want to be there. I wanted out. I was young, and I was being disciplined. But the military taught me to be independent and to take instruction."

When he left the service, he returned to Cleveland, took a warehouse job and jumped into the music scene. He made fast friends with Hatrix, and they rented a house on West 96th Street. As a civilian, he was free to be a wiseass with impunity.

Friends chuckle recalling vintage Foose. In the late '80s, he drove a beat-up Ford Maverick. When mobile phones were still a rare luxury, he glued an old, broken rotary phone to the car's console. Upon pulling up to a stop light beside a car full of girls, Foose would pick up the phone and start yelling, "BUY! SELL IT! I TOLD YOU THAT STOCK WAS A DOG! I GOTTA GO!" Then he'd slam down the phone, look over, raise his head and let out a smooth "What's up, ladies?"

Bouncing around the Cleveland rock world, he began a serious tattoo collection. He was an early client of Kim Saigh, a tattoo artist now known for a starring role on L.A. Ink. Most girls on the scene preferred metal to hardcore, but they'd make an exception to watch Foose and Integrity frontman Dwid, the bad boys of the Cleveland underground.

"He'd have a million girls chasing him," recalls Saigh. "He was fun-crazy. Now he's an adult. He made this conscious decision to change his life and habits and be more thoughtful and deliberate, more conscientious."

When Foose discovered punk rock, his days as a schemer and scammer were numbered.

"When I got into hardcore, I got into Agnostic Front, Bad Brains, Cro-Mags, straight-edge bands like Minor Threat. They had such a positive message. Like, where have I been all my life?"

In 1993, things were going great for the Spudmonsters, but Foose felt empty. The band had toured Europe. They'd been on MTV. But niche notoriety wasn't paying the bills. When the band left the road, Foose went back to the daily grind: Wake up. Punch the clock at a machine shop. Work. Punch out. Go to the boxing gym. Practice with the band. Chase girls. Repeat.

"Seemingly, I had my life together," says Foose. "But there was something empty in my heart."

One night after boxing, he came home and had what he describes as "a breakdown." He remembers talking to God, asking, "Whatever you are, please reveal it. Why am I here? Send me a message."

Days later, the band's agent called with an offer to tour with one of his favorite bands, the Cro-Mags, a legendary New York band that played what others labeled "Krishnacore" — vicious punk music with lyrics about living a purposeful life. Foose was curious about the band's philosophy. He started asking questions to Mags frontman John Joseph, a magnetic hero in the scene. Joseph had answers. They made sense, and each one left Foose hungry for more.

"Two weeks [after the breakdown], all my questions were being answered," recalls Foose. "Backstage in some smoky rock club, here's John Joseph, this guy covered from head to toe in tattoos, talking to some kid, delivering mind-blowing philosophy. It didn't come the way I thought it was going to, but it came."

When the tour hit New York City, Joseph took Foose to the Krishna temple.

"I didn't want to be a Hare Krishna," says Foose. "I didn't want any part of it, from how it's portrayed in the movies, like Airplane! He took me there, I smelled the incense, I heard the music and I felt blissed out. I spoke to a swami, and I was hooked."

Foose immediately began reading the Krishna primer The Science of Self-Realization. It made sense to him. He stopped eating meat. The more he learned about Krishna, the more he liked it.

After the tour, Foose started following the rules and rituals of Krishna consciousness. A girlfriend told him to choose her or Krishna. He helped pack her bags. In 1995, at a Crowbar show at Peabody's, he had his last beer.

"I remember thinking there was nothing left," says Foose. "I wasn't enjoying that lifestyle any more."

Foose was raised Lutheran-Methodist. But an hour of church a week was never an engaging challenge like the Krishna practice of waking up at 4 a.m. for two hours of chanting and prayer. Five years after he discovered Krishna, Foose was a twice-initiated Brahman, the Krishna equivalent of priest, authorized to counsel and perform wedding ceremonies.

"[As a Brahmani], we don't change what we're doing — we change the way we're doing it," explains Foose. "You actually become more connected with the public. There wasn't some drastic change where I renounced the whole world and did things sentimentally."

Today, Foose's immaculate Tudor home in Fairview Park doubles as his temple. A plaque on the house declares it Prabhupada Manor, dedicated to His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the original Krishna acharya (teacher) who brought the philosophy to America in the 1960s. A sun room in the house's rear is a small temple, where Foose hosts weekly prayer meetings of Krishna friends young, old, black, white and Indian. They don't shave their heads or proselytize at airports. They demonstrate their faith by volunteering at soup kitchens.

"You can't deny the philosophy — everything from reincarnation to karma to vegetarianism," says Foose. "I don't see it as me being holier or better than anybody. I believe any path that brings you closer to God is good, not that my path is the right one."

The spiritual practice is both exotic and austere, emphasizing cleanliness, and filled with sharp incense and mesmerizing chants. The pillars of Foose's faith are simple: No sex outside marriage. No meat, fish or eggs. No intoxicants — booze, drugs or even caffeine. And no gambling. Foose is a union concrete worker who can use more hours, but he voted against the casino initiative on moral grounds.

"People look at Eastern philosophy as odd or cultish or not normal," he says. "But what is normal? Sitting on a barstool, drinking your problems away? I already tried that. People might look at me like a quack because I don't go with the flow, but I've got my beliefs. It's a philosophy that pounds in my heart."

When Foose converted, he stopped drinking, but he didn't stop having fun. An uncle who's a pastor showed Foose that having faith didn't mean he had to be serious.

"Other than his faith, he's still just as funny," says Hatrix. "He just has a higher calling."

Krsna, as it's spelled in Sanskrit, isn't a rock and roll lifestyle, but it's kept Foose in music. After the Spudmonsters split, he co-founded the hardcore band Run Devil Run with a Krishna from Detroit; they both wanted to make music that was aggressive but positive. Punk giant Victory Records licensed Run Devil Run's albums in the U.S., though they were bankrolled by I Scream, a big respected indie label then based in Belgium.

"Don has always been a frontman with a unique voice," says Laurens Kusters, I Scream's founder. "A very important matter is that Don is a really respectful and nice guy, which is great to have on a label."

Foose had met his wife, Tanya, in the late days of the Spudmonsters, when she was host of local-music TV show North Coast Rocks. (She's now director of admissions for a technical college and pursuing a Ph.D.) Just after their wedding, Foose left for a European tour. Run Devil Run would record two albums, but the life of a touring musician wasn't as much fun with a wife at home.

"I was still enjoying it, but it was turning into a job again," says Foose. "I'd never had a break in 13, 14 years. Then my son came along, and I said I wanted to be a father."

In recent years, Foose has spent his spare time coaching his son's baseball, football and basketball teams. After Run Devil Run, he dabbled in different music. The studio project Sons of War crossed the line from rhythmic to funky. He originally envisioned the Foose band as a more stoner-rock project. But none of the bands clicked with Foose or his fans.

Foose got back on the hardcore track when European journalist Onno Cromag — as the pen name testifies, a fellow Cro-Mags fan — asked him nicely. Foose imitates the writer's Dutch accent: "Don, this music you're doing iss very nice, but it's not you. People want to hear Don Foose from the Spud-monstersss."

Foose took the hint and began writing heavy songs with guitarist Ryan Farrell, a key member of Hatrix's solo band. It felt right. "We didn't have to deal with record labels, producers," he says. "Just me and Ryan in a room, writing songs, making sure it came right from the heart."

Sacrifice — recorded on a less-than-shoestring budget at Hatrix's house — is a throwback to vintage '90s hardcore, filled with tribal beats, gang-chorus chants and a gotta-mosh groove. Foose ends with a nod to his roots, a gravelly but catchy cover of Nazareth's classic-rock nugget "Please Don't Judas Me." Foose's son inspired "For Those Yet to Come," which challenges the younger generation with lyrics like, "We pave the future for our children's needs/They're watching us/So we should care what they do/'Cause you know they're imitating me and you /For those yet to come."

Foose paid for the first pressing, and he's pushing the album without a label. The Mushroomhead crowd bought 100 copies.

"It's already successful because we put our hearts into it," says Foose. "I just wanna write good, positive music and bring it to the people. I put my name on a project I believe in."

The first punk bands Foose loved set a sterling example. Bad Brains and the Cro-Mags had frontmen famous for effortless acrobatic flips and swandives from the stage. Foose followed their lead.

"He was the first guy [in Cleveland] to give up his body like that," says Hatrix. "If he ended up with something broken, that was just what he did. Don would give everything he had."

That kind of performance requires stamina and conditioning. These days, Foose makes some extra cash as a personal trainer, sharing tips from a lifetime of work. He's been boxing since he was 20, and in the ring, he's got strong lungs, an even temper and a beautiful jab. But most importantly, he's smart. "He's been doing it so long, he can pick up a guy's moves very fast and pick him apart," offers Eric Scheurmann, a friend who's been training with him for ten years. "A lot of his music is hardcore, and that's how he is with everything he does, like how he trains. He walks the walk."

In the mid-'90s, he began developing his Spider-Man flexibility via Bhakti yoga. In recent years, he's been practicing Brazilian jiu-jitsu.

For the first Foose concert, the singer and parttime coach had himself on the questionable list. A week before, he tore something in his left side; he couldn't rule out a hernia. Ninety minutes before the set, he was wincing and suspected he wouldn't make it through one song. To Foose, taking a handful of Advil wasn't an option. His all-natural-foods lifestyle doesn't prohibit medicine, but Foose prefers to treat the problem, not the symptoms.

"I came out here in a lot of pain," Foose tells the crowd. "But I want to give everything I have to you. So I'll ask you something: Will you come over the barricade? No? Then I'm coming down there."

Foose dives into crowd, finds his footing and stands on a wave of shoulders, hands and backs. He points to his family and shouts his son's Krishna-inspired name, "Jayananda!" Foose topples and swims back to the stage. During a breakdown, he jumps onto a monitor and does spinning 360 leap that would have made his 12-year-old skater self proud. He keeps the splits coming and makes it through the set, diving and rolling without missing a beat. The show complete, Foose raises his arms like he's been declared the victor for the evening's bout.

"Hare Krishna!" says the singer. "We are Foose!"

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