Life of Agony chose their band name for a reason. For decades, the band and their music has been the vessel through which the principle members — Mina Caputo, Alan Robert and Joey Z — channeled real life pain, trauma, depression and suicidal ideation into something that can now only be recognized as beautiful and a promise to others bearing a similar burden that true happiness is something that can be achieved.
For singer Mina Caputo especially, who came out as transgender in 2011 and is now living life as her true and honest self, happiness was not an emotion that was so easy to tap into.
Her outlook on life today is extraordinarily complex — self-actualization shines, her love for the human race thrives and her ball-busting Brooklyn attitude remains charged to the max, laced with passionate cynicism and the ultimate hope that we can all do better and work toward a holistic and kinder approach to co-existing with one another.
In Life of Agony's powerfully compelling new documentary directed by Leigh Brooks, The Sound of Scars, one element that radiates throughout the journey from the violent and abusive childhood in the adjacent homes of cousins Caputo and Joey Zampella (known the world over as Joey Z) through the rise, fall and resurrection of the band, is that right from the opening moments, Caputo looks happier now than she's ever been. Her bandmates, too, have all found new ways to define happiness within themselves and for others.
Along the way, hard lessons have been learned, but they all offer a chance at redemption; at not wasting a second longer on missing out on the gift of life.
A limited two-week screening of The Sound of Scars begins April 16 (tickets available here) and we caught up with Mina Caputo, Alan Robert and Joey Z to explore how this band overcame all the darkness and how Caputo's hard-fought road to happiness was paved.
This is their story.
A portion of the proceeds from Life of Agony's 'The Sound of Scars' documentary will benefit two charity organizations: The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and All Out, which aims to protect the LGBTQ+ community from lawful discrimination while sharing messages of love and equality.
Life of Agony, The Sound of Scars Documentary Trailer
MINA CAPUTO + JOEY Z'S CHILDHOOD
Mina Caputo was raised by her grandparents following the untimely death of her mother when she was just a toddler. Her father, a drug addict, was largely out of the picture. During violent outbursts that were all too typical of her home life, she attested to times where she had to protect her grandmother from abuse, leaping in front of her to absorb the beatings her grandfather was giving.
Joey's father, who often turned violent when drunk, was also amid the violence that permeated the two households.
Still, the cousins found moments of joy together and were very close during their childhood. These shared experiences served as the foundation for what later became Life of Agony.
What brought you joy amid the violence and abuse growing up?
Joey Z: Any time Mina spent with my brothers and I was when she was at her happiest. Although we had adjoined houses, Mina lived with my grandparents next door (my mom’s parents) and her dad’s parents. Mina spent a lot of time in our house and my mom would do a lot of the raising.
Mina Caputo: I grew up playing classical piano and studied it for a few years.
My uncle’s vinyl record collection — discovering Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin… (gasps), Robert Plant! I was eight to 10 years old and I was looking at this beautiful man with blonde curls and flowery shirts, silvery jewels and (gasps again) it was part of this thing, this femininity and dove-like approach to life.
Annie Lenox always reminded me that she had this more male energy. It’s all a play of energy, but the world complicates the simplest ideas.
In what ways was love present in the house growing up?
JZ: Love was around. It wasn’t 24/7 craziness in the households, but there was the rollercoaster of these Brooklyn Italian families. We were exposed to a lot of stuff — people passed out on drugs, all the drinking...
MC: There was love through those beatings and it was the only way my grandfather and the men knew how to express themselves. I got a lot of love from the women in the family. My grandmother was basically my surrogate mom.
JZ: My grandma was a loving person.
MC: I used to stare at her while she did her makeup every morning and I think she caught on. I didn’t feel any kind of camaraderie with the way society perceived males, and I wanted everything pretty.
She started putting eyeshadow on me and when that happened, whatever vibration and alchemy is going on inside of my body, it reaffirmed this sense of self that was trying to peek out. I lived most of my life trying to protect this part of myself because of the cruelty of this idiotic fucking Matrix.
JZ: For the amount of love everyone was able to give us, bar the distractions, they did their best to do that.
MC: There was a lot of forgiveness as well. My grandfather made up for how confused he made me as a kid. He only tried his best and forgiveness is present. I don’t blame anyone.
I look at the value of everything I’ve gone through. I take that trauma, spin it around, flip that motherfucker and make it work for me, whether I pull a song out of it or a poem.
JZ: Forgiveness is the only way to be happy in life. If you don’t forgive, you hold resentment, which is the killer of happiness.
If you or someone you know is facing abuse, visit the National Domestic Violence Hotline website. A disclaimer on the website notes that if you are concerned your Internet usage is being monitored, an alternative option is to call 800-799-SAFE (800-799-7233).
STARTING THE BAND
Mina and Joey's musical background is traced back to their years growing up and by a unique, let's call it a twist of fate, Joey met the ideal songwriter, bassist and brother-like partner Alan Robert.
Both were accepted into the Manhattan High School of Art and Design, had the same bus stop and rode public transit together for six months without ever really speaking to one another, despite what should have been an obvious sign of an agreeable friendship — Joey's Misfits shirt.
The school was violent and they both transferred out of the program and wound up in the same art class in Brooklyn together, which is when the two finally began to connect.
Alan was friends with New York hardcore group Biohazard when they were just a local act and turned Joey onto their music. Soon, they realized they had an opportunity to make music together and Alan converted to playing bass, as that was the instrument Joey and Mina hadn't locked up yet for their band.
Thus, Life of Agony was born. After slugging it out in the underground building a fan base, their influential first album, 'River Runs Red,' was released in 1993, followed by a harrowing first European tour, which immediately took a toll on the band's members.
How did each of your personalities gel when the band was formed?
Alan Robert: I didn’t know about all the abuse going on in her household. Mina was always very quiet unless she was breaking someone’s chops and she loved to laugh and was the prankster of the group. It’s common to break people's balls in Brooklyn.
JZ: The band was our therapy. We were able to leave the house and get the angst out, even at a rehearsal space. You saw the anger come out of us when we played and we saw it in each other, as did the audiences. Alan was a genius the way he was able to pull these stories together. That’s what rippled and we sent that out — it wasn’t just anger, but wanting to be healed and heard.
AR: The first songs I wrote for for Life of Agony, I wrote all the lyrics and melodies/yelling parts. I sat with Mina and explained how I envisioned it and those were our first one-on-one interactions.
We always had the same taste in music we had a deep love for classic rock bands such as Pink Floyd and the Beatles. We got into Sex Pistols, Cro-Mags, Sheer Terror and Agnostic Front at the same time and we both love Sinead O’Connor, so we had a big range of influences.
That first European tour was rough, as the documentary showed. It seems that initial taste of big success also came with serious baggage and perhaps wasn't the escape from reality so many may perceive it to have been.
AR: It caused more depression for me. I was in situations where you didn’t really see a way out. There was a lot of isolation on the road and we were sent over there without any preparation for a two-month tour in the winter. We had never been to Europe.
We went out there sharing a tour bus with two other bands and crew. The bunks were modified to accommodate that many people and you had to get out to just turn over in your own bed. I slept on the couch downstairs (it was a double decker bus) on top of the merchandise, fully dressed with boots on and a jacket.
Despite the dark and tormented lyrical themes, what instances of happiness did you see within the band early on?
AR: When we began to achieve little goals we set out for ourselves and moved on from playing for 50 of our friends to traveling to other states up and down the East Coast. Kids lined up hours before the show with our shirts on, and we felt like a real band.
By the time the first album came out, our videos were on MTV and on Beavis and Butt-Head, we were playing in Europe to 3,000 people — it was amazing.
Life of Agony Featured on Beavis and Butt-Head
Mina, you struggled with your stage persona as "Keith" where you were shy and reserved. The lyrics you sang were so powerful and revealing, so what prevented you from wanting or being able to communicate with the audience between songs?
MC: It wasn’t that I was struggling with my stage persona so much as I was struggling with what was going on internally. People are looking at this person that is just somebody I didn’t back up. It wasn’t the identity I wanted to share at the time. I was stuck in an identity that people created for me.
Once we got more successful, I wasn’t equipped for it. I didn’t have the internet to help teach me about things — there’s no forums. There wasn’t even the word transgender when I was growing up in the ‘70s — it was transsexual and all the bad names they called us.
THE BAND BREAKS UP ON THE VERGE OF A BREAKOUT
Right after Life of Agony released their third album, 'Soul Searching Sun,' in 1997, Mina Caputo abruptly left the band. For everyone else, it was the proverbial rug getting ripped out from beneath their feet — Life of Agony were primed to make the leap and experience success at a much greater level than ever before. "Weeds" was beginning to get traction on radio, a necessary promotional vehicle that puts bands on the world's biggest stages.
But the idea of presenting a false person — 'Keith' Caputo — to an even larger global audience wore too heavily on Life of Agony's singer. She had no choice but to quit.
The group then recruited Ugly Kid Joe singer Whitfield Crane, but things quickly came to an end and Life of Agony split in 1999. Meanwhile, 'Keith' pursued a solo career and continued to battle this false sense of self.
So often, music is seen as an escape from certain difficulties or a catharsis. When did that no longer feel viable and that Life of Agony had maybe become a trap of sorts?
AR: When Soul Searching Sun was about to come out, we did touring leading up to that and you can tell Mina was somewhere else mentally. It was like a switch and she became more and more detached, but never elaborated on what was going on. She just said she was in too much pain to continue.
I heard rumblings she was going to do a solo record. We told her she can do her solo record and the band, but I think in her mind she was going to leave the band and come out and do the solo career as a woman. She told us later looking back that she didn’t have the courage to do that and it all lingered.
Life of Agony, "Weeds" Music Video (1997)
JZ: Alan and I were always 110 percent into the band and knew it was special. Mina knew it was special, too, and she verbalized in the past she was afraid of the success because she wasn’t living as the true person that was inside her.
She didn’t want to publicly be known as "Keith Caputo" anymore. She almost thought that she could not be in Life of Agony as a woman, as a transgender person. That battle she fought inside for all those years put Life of Agony as a blockade for her that prevented her from living the true life she wanted to live.
On the road, there were occasions in the earlier days where you would see “Keith” late at night in full on women’s clothing in the hotel hallway running to her room. It was no surprise when she came out and told me [in 2011] she’s Mina Caputo now. I felt very happy for her, and I love her eternally.
MC: I was more concerned about the brothers in my band than for my own life. I was considering the shame and embarrassment for my brothers than for myself [if I came out as transgender at that time].
Happiness was getting off the tour, hanging up the "Keith Caputo" false ID and living my life privately and in isolation. I couldn’t wait to get back to my nightlife so I could actually express myself in the way I was most comfortable.
Leaving that situation on a musical level freed me up from musical chains I felt I was bound to. I couldn’t share my authentic self with the world, so what was the point of making that leap with Life of Agony? To live more of a lie?
I had to take back my power or put a gun to my head. I was on opioids, awake constantly, doing bags of cocaine... I was destroying myself and wanted to die just like my mother. I thought I was going to be part of the ‘27 Club’ and I was disappointed when I wasn’t back then. I was popping every pill in the cabinet, anything I could sniff I’d sniff. It was crazy. I can’t believe I made it.
If you or someone you know if struggling with drug and/or alcohol dependence, help is available through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website. To speak to someone on the phone, dial 1-800-622-HELP (1-800-622-4357) or send a text message to 1-800-487-4889.
MINA COMES OUT AS TRANSGENDER
In 2011, Mina publicly revealed her identity as a transgender woman. This was not a planned act though and she was driven to come out after being provoked online, where a response to a fan served as her official announcement.
Mina confronted Joey about her identity, but hadn't told Alan. Instead, he learned of the news through online rock and metal news media reports right as Life of Agony were about to take the stage. He was blindsided, but holds no resentment.
Mina, you didn't rush to tell Alan after you were provoked online and made that decision to come out. Even though he channeled a lot of your life into his lyrics, what made this so especially difficult?
MC: It was a tough thing. Even the closest people to me, I wondered how they were going to understand. I should’ve been honest, but you live and learn. It’s not widely accepted or understood, and it’s a scary thing. I was afraid to lose people in my life.
It’s very confusing and to this day I still get very confused.
AR: I confronted her right after the set. I learned about it going onstage and we had a heart-to-heart. There were a lot of tears. I can’t put myself in her shoes and know what reservations she had about not telling me.
JZ: Bands are funny things... we don't exactly hold meetings for something like this.
Mina Caputo on Transgender Issues:
We've Been Derailed From the Beauty of Our Own Bodies
What are the biggest changes you've seen in Mina within Life of Agony since she revealed her true identity?
JZ: She comes out onstage and has so much more power and presence. I feel all the positives totally outweigh everything. It’s given her happiness and she’s found out how to love through all this. It’s beautiful. She overcame it all right in front of the world and wasn’t afraid to do it. She’s one of the bravest people I know.
AR: In the ‘90s she’d be hidden behind the microphone with a hat and wouldn’t speak between songs. Now she’s practically in the crowd, standing on the barricade with fans holding her legs as she’s singing to them.
Life of Agony now is more of an experience than a performance.