These days, the words “punk rock” have been more misused than a condom on a Motley Crue tour bus. Allusions to guttural lifestyles, elitist attitudes, and other trademarks have caused confusion more than anything else. Luckily for us, there is still a relevant scene where bands do it straightforward, no frills, and with the original fire sparked by their forefathers. Hermosa Beach, California’s Pennywise adheres to this policy, so they deserve to be placed in this pantheon of artistry. Since 1988, the foursome has supplied misguided youth with thought-provoking, emotional lyrics and a shredding three-chord style that borders on thrash metal at times.
After 1989’s Word From the Wise and their self-titled 1991 effort, the band launched into my consciousness with 1993’s seminal masterpiece, Unknown Road. This record laid the foundation for what was to become Pennywise’s trademark sound and ideology: Do it yourself, question authority and don’t make compromises. Even though the band suffered a major setback with the tragic death of founding member/bassist Jason Thirsk in 1996, Pennywise has stuck to their principles and moved forward. Carrying the spirit of Jason with them on every record since, these punk rock veterans have fully realized their anger, beliefs, and aggression on their latest release, Land of the Free?. Politics and religion are the targets. Armed with the charged vocals of Jim Lindberg, the rapid-fire drums of Byron McRackin, the instantly familiar riffing of guitarist Fletcher Dragge, and for the first time, an outside producer, Joe Barezzi, the music and its message are more polished and urgent than ever.
Always one to take the time to hang with fans and speak to the media, the towering, gregarious Fletcher just woke up to give me the lowdown on the Warped Tour, the new record, and why major labels suck.
Being Warped Tour veterans, is there any difference playing this year than the previous years?
It’s a little bigger. I think that there are more bands on the tour. It’s a little harder to get to know everybody. The first week or so was kind of a homecoming, because a lot of the shows were local. Then we were out for two weeks and then we had a break in the middle. We’re going back out. In that two-week period, it was hard [laughs] to get to know everybody, man. There is just so much going on. I think the Ladies’ Lounge even has five bands playing in it. It’s been really cool and the crowds have been bigger than ever.
The promoters were worried that the crowds weren’t going to be as big because there aren’t any bands that are Weezer or Green Day status. But it’s been really good so far. It’s a good day of entertainment. The tour just keeps growing and growing. My theory is if you give somebody a good product that’s cheap, they’re going to keep coming back, whether it’s food, T-shirts, or ticket prices. It seems to be working.
Is there anybody you’re looking forward to seeing this year?
The Vandals are always entertaining. There is Rancid, H20, Me First and the Gimme Gimmes, The Bouncing Souls [laughs]. I could just go down the whole list. I’m into seeing how Henry Rollins is going to do. The [tour bus area] is really social. You’re stuck in the parking lot for like 14 hours. I’m just wondering if he’s going to be out there hanging and talking to people. You have Eminem, who was out on the Warped Tour with us a couple of years ago. He was real anti-social. He was always in his bus with his crew. I think he kind of felt alienated because people weren’t really into what he was doing at the shows, crowd-wise. I’m really surprised he’s coming back with his new band, D12.
Now Land of the Free? seems to carry more political themes than ever. Is this mostly coming from Jim’s perspective, or the whole band?
I think that whatever we do, the band feels pretty unified in. I don’t think Byron is a super-political guy. I don’t even consider myself a super political guy. I don’t think any of us are. We just follow what’s going on in the news or the newspapers. We just see things that make us upset. It’s pretty cut n’ dry to look at a situation and say this is wrong. When you see something like cops in uniform robbing people, shooting people, framing people, dealing drugs, and robbing banks, you can say pretty easily that that’s not cool. We’re taxpayers. We’re paying money to have these guys protect our streets, and they’re acting worse than the criminals themselves. A song like “Fuck Authority” comes up. We’re always a band that writes about what we see going around us.
In the early stages, it was a lot more social. We had a lot of friends struggling with drug addiction and alcoholism. You heard a lot of that on the earlier albums. All that stuff’s still going on, but you can talk about it until you’re blue in the face. The political climate was really thick during the writing of this album, with the elections, school shootings, and police corruption. There were just a lot of little things happening that made it take shape. The first song that was written was “Land of the Free?.” It was land of the free, yeah right, how free are we? How free are we when you can’t even vote for a President and have that work out like it should? It smells of some kind of corruption.
I guess it was our state that kind of fucked that up.
[Laughs] Well, it wasn’t your state. It was somebody in your state. So its like do we really live in a democracy? Not really. We live in a democracy controlled by the powers that be.
I was going to ask you about the whole WTO fiasco and the rioting that ensued.
I think [the riots] are highly necessary. I think if you’re in a street corner yelling and screaming with a picket sign, nobody’s really listening. It’s really hard for the little man’s voice to be heard in that kind of agenda. We’re not allowed in the building to debate with the people. There is no one leader for that kind of voice, so everyone’s got to unite. Nine times out of ten, you’re going to stand out with the cops. The cops are going to make you clear the area. People don’t want to leave. The rock throwing starts, the tear gas comes out, and then you have a situation. It’s like, to be heard, you almost have to have some kind of riot. To get any kind of media attention, there has to be a riot. Then they start interviewing the rioters, and their voices are heard.
Something like the WTO is really dangerous. It’s being put in place by big business for people that think they can make a lot of money off this. The repercussions are going to be so heavy. It’s going to hurt people in the United States and Mexico. Anyone that’s making a living doing what they’re doing, when the new guy comes in with something cheaper, they won’t be making that living. Their whole lives are going to be uprooted. It’s a really dangerous game. The people that want to control it are the ones that stand to make the most money. I think protest is one of the only ways to really get your voice across. It needs to keep going on.
I’ve been involved in numerous riots. I’ve seen the cops and have been attacked by cops for no reason. I know how it is and how it feels and it makes you want to lash out. I mean, there are a lot of good cops out there, don’t get me wrong. I think their salaries should be doubled, because it is really important to have someone out there protecting people’s rights. When they’re violating those rights, you have problems. If the cops were making good money and felt comfortable, they wouldn’t look at a bag of cocaine and think, “hmmm.” I mean, you don’t see doctors or lawyers out on the streets selling crack, because they have good jobs and they don’t need to do that. For cops, its like, “well, I’m getting fucked here and I don’t have enough money to support my family. Hey, here’s $200,000 and I’m taking.” I’m kind of on the cops’ side in terms of giving them more money and training. Make it a higher status job, do a screening, and find out who these people are.
You worked with an outside producer for the first time. How did that work out? Do you feel it enriched the sound at all?
I think it sounds different. It’s not exactly what I would’ve done. I’ve been involved in all of the Pennywise album [productions] on one level or another. I don’t think any of the albums we had done prior to this sounded good. We wanted to make something that sounded more professional and just big. It was definitely a strange experience, because you have an outside party asking or telling you what to do. Producers have a job to do that, which they consider very important, so you’re going to listen to them. We don’t really listen to anybody, so there was definitely some tension. I think everyone’s pretty happy with how it turned out. He got us to work harder and took our sound a little farther than where it had been previously. Everyone learned some good lessons and approached it from more of a professional standpoint.
Was the songwriting process any different this time because of the new producer?
The songwriting was pretty much the same. Everyone’s got their little four-tracks now, so we can bring the song in more of a complete form. It’s easier to sell to the band. I can now hear a song that Jim wrote and say it is cool, instead of him just bring a little piece and having to work it up from there. The songs are becoming a little more complete. We just hash them out and fight. We had to fight about which songs are going to go on the album. Joe wasn’t there for most of the songwriting, except for a few practices. He helped with the arrangements on a couple of songs, but we weren’t looking for a producer to help us out with the songwriting. We are pretty firm in our belief that we know what we’re doing in that category. We didn’t want someone to come in and change what we do as artists. We just wanted somebody to come in and make our song bigger.
I heard you were much more subdued on Loveline this time around. Were they taking extra preparations for your appearance this time?
There were three armed security guards. They basically said that if I showed up drunk, the show was off and the guys were going to go home. Right when I got there, there were three guys with guns. It was kind of funny. I really like Adam Corolla and Dr. Drew. They’re super cool guys. They probably just think I’m a full psycho. It was funny because Dr. Drew sat on the opposite side of the desk where the DJs sit. It was right by the door with the door open. I was saying that he was sitting a little close to that door. The door that I barricaded shut last time was held open the whole time with a chair. I think that they didn’t know what to expect, and they genuinely thought I was crazy.
Well, you did throw up on Dr. Drew the last time.
He’s been under my torture device for a while. I don’t know. I think radio is pretty boring and it’s hard to make radio exciting. We went in there and had a couple of exciting moments that made everybody mad. To do it again would’ve just been stupid and clichéd at that point. If I were drunk, they would’ve said I did it on purpose. If I don’t drink, they’d say I was kissing ass. So I just figured I would go in there and be myself. We actually had some good calls, with some kids who were doing drugs. I gave them advice from personal experience and we talked about the previous exploit.
“Fuck Authority” is all over the radio right now. Does it feel satisfying to know a song with a blatant message like that is getting major play on major stations?
Yeah, it is pretty damn cool. We’ve always said that we don’t live or die by radio. We never have really in the past. If it was taken away from us right now, it’s not like our hearts would be broken. It’s great though to have major radio recognize what we do. “Alien” [radio hit off of 1999’s Straight Ahead] was a great song, but it wasn’t what Pennywise does 90% of the time. Pennywise does fast, hard songs with really heavy themes in them.
I think “Fuck Authority” is more of what we do most of the time. To have a message like that and have the people be able to hear something of that nature on commercial radio is somewhat conquering. It’s a victory for us to be able to turn on the radio and hear a song called “Fuck Authority.” Nobody ever thought it would get played on the radio. Randy and I were the only ones who were saying that was the single. The record company said we were fucking crazy. We were like, “that’s the single, man.” They said it was a great song, but it was not going to be on the radio. Well, sure enough, Kevin Weatherly at K-ROCK said it was a hit. I don’t think it’s a hit, but I think it’s cool to hear it.
Kids are getting into it. Everybody’s got an authority figure in their life that tells them what to do, and it pisses them off. You’ve got to want to say “Fuck Authority” if you’re a kid dealing with the whole life structure. Anyways, it’s definitely fun to hear it, and to be recognized for what we do after twelve years, it’s pretty cool.
Your number one priority has always been your fans, and you have many teenage fans. Do you think they will get the heavy messages on the record, or have they gotten it all along?
I think that our fans are really smart. They’re not Backstreet Boys fans that are just like, “oh my God, you’re so cute,” or whatever. That’s one thing that’s held us back as far as selling millions of records or being a popular band. It’s because our message is real. It’s something that most people don’t want to hear about. A lot of people live in fantasylands. They don’t understand that these are real issues and these things happen in real life. They don’t get it and they don’t want to listen to it, because it’s not poppy, catchy stuff that some thirteen year-old girl will say “this is great” and sing along to.
It’s something you can actually sink your teeth into musically and lyrically. I think that’s why the people that get it, they get it. It’s like, “BOOM.” They’re hooked and think that Pennywise is the best band in the world. It’s a bit over the top. It’s crazy that we have that kind of effect on people. But it’s really cool to know that what you believe in, others join you in that vision. It’s definitely happening.
You’ve told me about your contempt for major labels and the way bands are marketed. Has your opinion changed at all?
My opinion’s actually gotten worse of major labels. Now I’ve got a bunch of friends on major labels. There is Blink-182. H20 just signed to a major, which was a heavy blow. Now I’m just hearing stuff first hand from friends involved. If H20 sells ten million records, that would be cool. If it doesn’t happen, I’m going to be feeling really sorry for them.
We all know how major labels do it, especially if you’re not producing what they like and not making money. They don’t really care about artistry. They don’t say, “this guy is a cool artist. That is such a cool song. Even if it only sells 50 or 100,000 copies, we’re just going to put this out.” They just want big selling records. Sublime had huge problems with their label, trying to get out of the deal. I mean, look at Bad Religion. There was a band we were all really surprised went to a major label, and now they’re coming back to Epitaph Records.
Speaking of, how do you feel about Bad Religion being on Epitaph again and Brett re-joining the band?
I have mixed emotions. I’m the type of person who would look at Bad Religion leaving Epitaph as like an unforgivable sin. If I were Brett Gurewitz, I would say you’re not coming back here. You made your bed. Now lie in it. At the same time, it was Brett’s band. He loved Bad Religion. I know him quite well, and I know he loved writing songs when he was in Bad Religion. For them to come back and ask him to rejoin the band, it kind of puts things in a different light. They were one of the greatest punk bands of all time. Coming back to Epitaph and having Brett back in the band might put them back in that category. I’m looking forward to hearing the record. But they learned their lesson. They learned it the hard way. We’ll see what happens.
But major labels are there to make money and to spend the band’s money. You don’t go on a major label thinking you’re going to get this $400,000 advance. They tell you to get this producer who costs $120,000. Then they say use this studio that costs $2000 a day. You’re going to record for 45 days there, which will be $90,000. Then we’re going to spend this amount on radio, this amount on marketing, and this amount to make a video. Before you know it, you don’t have any money in your pocket. You’re like, “where did my money go?” Then you don’t sell any records. They’re like, “we’re not going to put out the next record or we’re going to shelve it.” And you can’t join any other bands in the meantime because we own you. Look at Courtney Love saying that she’s owned by a trash company in Europe. Who wants that?
I want a guy who is into punk rock, who has been out there sleeping in vans on tour in Europe running my label. I don’t want a guy who runs Seagram’s and has no fucking concept of punk rock. Punk rock was always about doing it yourself, being the little guy, and scratching your way to wherever.
Land of the Free? is out now, and make sure to catch the band on the Warped Tour.