Pennywise still shines smartly
By Naughty Mickie
Photos courtesy of the Pennywise web site
When I got tossed the assignment to chat with Pennywise, Jim Lindberg, vocals,
Fletcher Dragge, guitar, Randy Bradbury, bass, and Byron McMackin, drums, I was
thrilled. Here was an Orange County, California band that rose to the top of the
music scene and managed to keep in the view of fans, old and new, despite the
ebbs and flows of their chosen genre. They have also kept their group intact,
when lesser bands would've thrown in the towel.
To show you that I'm not off base, I'd like to make you privy to a conversation I had with Todd Taylor, co-editor/co-publisher Razorcake fanzine.
NM: How do you think Pennywise fits into today's music scene?
TT: They're in a pretty specialized place because they're big enough to sell hundreds of thousands of records and sell out. I think they sold out the Olympic Auditorium, and they're having influential punk banks, like the Adolescents open up for them in the near future. But I don't think that, they're pretty darn popular, but I don't think that if you said their name to someone in middle America or someone who's not into punk rock music that they would recognize them. They're kind of specialized, kind of like NOFX has, as opposed to somebody like Green Day, the Offspring or even Rancid. In one respect they're kind of popular and the good part is they can support themselves and their families, but on the other hand they're pretty much unknown to the large populous.
NM: Do they still have edge?
TT: That's a really difficult question. I will give them, for better and for worse, they took the elements that were being created in Southern California. We're talking like the Circle Jerks, Black Flag, Adolescents crowd and using all the elements that were created before them and actually almost made a patentable sound. Especially with using a West Beach, their recording studio. So they took all the elements and made melodic hard-core music, but something California-style, and made it a sound. I can definitely give them due for that. If that's cutting edge right now, that's hard to say, that's not really for me to say. If you're into that style of music, there's very few bands that do it as well as Pennywise. And they write really really great songs.
NM: What do you think of their writing?
TT: I think that their conviction is still there after coming out with as many records as they have now. Their conviction and also Jim just writes, their lyrics are getting better and better. There are some bands that you expect totally different albums out of them, but it's just like you're never completely surprised at what a Pennywise album's gonna be. But also what you see is meatier and tighter and more focused as time goes along. A lot of bands get slower or try to introduce new elements into their sound that doesn't act good for them and they just seem to know what they have to do and they just improve on every release.
So, now I've got your interest even more piqued, see what transpired when I got some one-on-one time with Lindberg.
We start off where I usually do, at the beginning.
"We basically started playing in backyard bands in Hermosa Beach (California) and just worked on writing our own songs and playing parties," says Lindberg. "We got a couple of songs on college radio, which were heard by Brett from Epitaph, he signed us and now it's 12 years later.
"I think we were all surfer/skaters into punk music and in towns like ours, the guys that play music know who each other are, it's kind of a small town." Lindberg continues, "Fletcher and Jason (Thirsk) got together and started playing songs under the name Pennywise and then I ended up playing in various bands in high school and college, we would just play whatever. Fletcher's drummer saw me play one time and said that they were looking for a singer, so I went over there. I grew up with Jason, so I knew him very well. They already had Byron, the drummer, so we started playing a bunch of songs, they had a bunch of songs and out of sheer boredom, I became their new singer.''
I am aware that Lindberg left Pennywise shortly after the release of the debut recording, so I ask him why he returned two years later.
"I think the overall music scene changed," explains Lindberg. "When we first started playing, it was a really violent time in L.A., like around '91, '92, we started playing the L.A. scene. A really bad element started coming to our show, a lot of guys that just wanted to fight, there was a lot of gang fights and things like that. It just wasn't what I was interested in, as a matter of fact, it was the exact opposite of what I'm all about, I'm a surfer and I'm an anti-violence type of guy. So to see that happening at every one of our shows, I was like this is totally stupid, even though we were signed to a great label and had a record deal and everything. It was no question that I wasn't going to continue. It was just stupidity.
"But then, the Taylor Steele, surf video director, got ahold of our music and started putting it in surf videos and skateboard videos and things like that." Lindberg goes on, "And that element is what changed us. I went to a show in San Diego and watched Pennywise play without me and I saw that now it was all surfers and skaters that were into it, there was no fights and everyone was cool and having a good time and I was like, 'I can do that.' And so they were actually doing a couple of songs that I worked on, so they were going back into the studio recording. I was like, 'You're not going to record my songs without me.' So I went in there and worked on them and we started playing again.''
Lindberg's dedication to music began in his childhood as a fan and flourished as he grew, just like the scene around him.
"I had a great appreciation for music, always had the radio on," says Lindberg. "I liked the Beach Boys really early, my mom got me a tape of that. I was always a big fan of that style of music. I guess the whole punk revolution, the Southern California punk scene, started in Hermosa Beach with Black Flag, Circle Jerks, the Descendants. I was a young kid watching that happen. I was a fan inside the town it was going on at so that was huge for me, to see that thing happening and have it happening right in your hometown, right where you're at work. I worked at a little dairy across from the church where Black Flag practiced.
"An Altadena dairy, a little mini-mart," Lindberg clarifies. "I was 15 years old and they let me run the whole place, it was ridiculous. I don't know why they did that because it was just not a good business decision. I didn't even know what I was doing and I was running the whole mini-mart myself. But across the street was the church where Black Flag practiced and I was on their mailing list right when they first started and knew everything about it. I was a huge fan. I couldn't go to a lot of shows, but I was just a dedicated record buyer. So to have that happen in your hometown was really influential. Ever since then I wanted to play or start a band, so I got a guitar and started playing.''
Lindberg's father bought him his first guitar.
"I tried to play acoustic guitar years before that," says Lindberg. "I took some classes and tried to play all these terrible songs. And then it wasn't until I got an electric guitar and I was like, 'I can do this.' I could never pick up the folk music, but the punk was easy.''
Lindberg graduated with a degree in English from UCLA.
"I read a lot of books,'' Lindberg shrugs. "One thing I realized early on, and all of us have conceded, English majors realize what we used to say is an English major can do anything you can do, but better. It prepares you more, it gives you a really wide education base, instead of going business major, where you just know about business. An English major you learn about history, literature, you learn about life. Once you have those as your basis for education, you can go on a do anything else. I didn't make up that saying, by the way.''
"Do you think majoring in English has helped you with writing music?" I ask.
"I think it has definitely helped out with my lyric writing," Lindberg assents. "I think being exposed to certain schools of thought at UCLA really founded the way I approach what I'm trying to write about. A lot of the stuff that's transcendentalist, like Thoreau and Emerson, the typical college stuff that expands your mind. You don't get a lot out of certain authors, but when you get that Emerson, Thoreau, and then you find the beat writers and stuff like that. When you're a college student, that speaks to you. It sounds trite now, but I still think that that stuff is red ally influential on a lot of young minds. ''
"How does the band write?" I query.
"There's a lot of different interests, I think everyone brings their own element to the band," replies Lindberg. "I think we're well-rounded in that way, Fletcher's definitely his own entity. He has the street knowledge, he can hot wire a car for us when we need it.''
"We all come together with ideas, it's a collaboration," Lindberg continues. "Sometimes someone will bring in a completed song, other times someone will just bring in music and I'll put lyrics to it. The majority of stuff I write the lyrics for, but there will be times when someone will come in with a fully formed idea. But then we all hash it out together and make it something that everyone can stand behind. We don't want it to be a situation where it's just my idea. I'm definitely writing from a position where I'm trying to write how I think Pennywise should sound. If it were just the Jim Lindberg project, it would sound much different. I'm writing a certain Pennywise way and I'm very attuned to that when I' writing. It's not about me and my two kids and my mortgage.''
Lindberg jokes with me that in some way it is, "That's probably why I'm writing about the government and taxes all the time.''
Like all musicians, Lindberg has his own opinion of today's music scene.
"It's interesting. I think it's going through some strange phrase right now," says Lindberg. "I think that people are groping for the next thing. But I've always been a big believer that the, for a lack of a better word, punk scene will always be strong regardless of what's going on in the mainstream. I think passionate music will always be around. I think a lot of the stuff in the mainstream is just a product, obviously just to sell records. And that's great, people are entertained by that, you need that to keep the public happy. But I think if you're someone that wants a little bit more from your art, you have to dig a little deeper. I think punk music has always provided that for people that want a more powerful expression or deeper expression of the human condition.
"I can't believe, I was listening to something the other day, and so many of these rock bands are just cleaned up grunge, it's like 'mall grunge,'" Lindberg goes on, "There's three bands, Pearl Jam, Nirvana and Alice In Chains, had that sound and take that sound and totally clean it up and give the guy some Hot Topic clothes and a nice shag haircut and then just totally clean it up with pro tools and you have what we listen to on the radio now and to me, it's just grunge. I know that's opinionated. There's people that call us 'mall punk,' that we're the sanitized version of the first wave, which, that's fine, we'll accept whatever criticism people want. But at the same time I know that underneath our music is a real passion for the message that we want to put out regardless of what your view, if you don't think we're punk, that's fine with me. I don't think we're punk either, we're Pennywise and that's it. So I don't think it's necessary that we fit into anyone's definition of what punk music is. I think that punk music is something that happened in the early '80s.''
"What do you think of the Internet?" I wonder.
"I can't even describe it, it's amazing, it's an amazing tool," Lindberg answers. "I'm using it more and more now. But at the same time, it's scary because you get to see people's real opinions on things because they don't have to be identified with their ideas and you realize how people really shoot from the hip. People have real knee-jerk reactions. It just kind of lays your soul bare when you don't have to be associated with your ideas, you can just throw them out there.''
We discuss the evil things people say in chat rooms.
"It's just a bed of people screaming at each other, it's not surprising why we have trouble in the world. People can be really threatened by everyone else's opinions on things.'' Lindberg brightens, "I think it's great for information. When ever I want to find out about a certain band, I can find everything. You can have your song on there, your bio, your pictures. It's a wealth of information. For me, it's better than the telephone because I'm so terrible returning calls because I'm so busy now that I've got a record label that I'm starting up. If I wasn't busy enough before, it's times 10.''
Lindberg is gathering information for his budding label, Vans Records, from the Web and conducting most of his business via the Internet.
I ask him about what he does with his limited free time.
"I don't have any downtime any more," Lindberg tells me. "I try to make time for the wife and kids, with the record label and the band, it's all about keeping balance.''
Lindberg currently lives in his old stomping grounds, Hermosa Beach, with his wife and two daughters, ages 3 and 5. The family enjoys spending time in Palm Springs and at the beach.
Lindberg offers this parental advice: "I think it's important to be involved with your kids and throw them around a little bit, that's what they want. You know, throw them up in the air about 10 times a day and they'll be happy.''
Lindberg then lets me in on the fact that his younger daughter idolizes the older one and, like typical siblings, each wants what the other has. When his girls get a little older, Lindberg teases that he will move his family to New Zealand and live on a farm and keep them away from the little boys.
Still in daddy mode, Lindberg tells me how Hermosa Beach has changed into a town of clichés and how hard it is on kids. He is concerned about bullies and the attitude and popularity factor, as well and is teaching his daughters that they're fine because of who they are, not what people think of them.
I abhor bringing up the subject of Pennywise found member Jason Thirsk's suicide, but I would be a poor journalist if I didn't.
"Do you think that fame was a factor in Jason's suicide?" I ask softly.
"It's impossible to say," replies Lindberg. "No one was there to know what happened with Jason, so it's impossible to say what went on. But he was someone who, obviously from the lyrics that he wrote, understood that every day brings a new opportunity for things to get better. It's incredibly hard to believe that he would do what he did on purpose, he had to be in an incredibly altered state."
Lindberg tells me that Thirsk was known for loving his family and being a positive person, but had an alcohol problem.
"He wasn't himself at that time and it was a terrible accident.'' Lindberg opens up to me, "I don't think you ever really recover from it. I said it before, it's a constant struggle for me to remind myself why I'm still doing this and I have to continually get myself up for it. My first inclination would be to say, look, it's over now, I don't want to revisit this thing every time because it's too much of a tragedy. I think it's going to affect me for a long long time, it still affects me. He wrote himself in a song, "A little bit part of us dies until you yourself are dead.' Every day you go through it.
"I think in the words he wrote and the song we put out, it's so life affirming, there's songs about getting through life and songs with optimism and hope. I think that message is all that more important because of what happened.'' Lindberg continues, "I think we've got to keep it going to get that message out there and pay tribute to what he started with us. He's an excellent example of what could happen even to someone who knows the difference.''
Future plans for Pennywise include another album.
"It's going to be interesting thematically because the last album before 9/11 was a really politically charged album," explains Lindberg. "It has a lot to do with myself being really upset with the political scene in the world and traveling and seeing the level of hatred toward America and our foreign policies. I was like, we're sitting on a powder keg here and it's going to get really bad. And if you're someone like myself who follows politics, it was our duty to warn people. At least it's put out in our songs, we have a song called 'The World' that was saying things are getting bad and it's going to get worse. And when 9/11 happened, it was kind of like something that everyone knew was coming. We expected it on the year 2000 and I think everyone let down their guard. It was like, 'If they were going to try anything, it would have been New Year's eve.' They tried to do something that day. Now that's it's finally here, everyone was totally surprised, but it was like, man, what'd you think? You knew it was coming. Everyone knew that our foreign policies over there, we were creating enemies amongst these terrorists who are blowing themselves up every single day in the Middle East. What makes you think that they wouldn't want to come over here and take a shot at the people that are funding that. I wasn't surprised. I was still very very shocked to sit there and watch it unfold in color. But now we're in a place where what things do we address on this next album?''
Some fans say that Pennywise should move away and concentrate on only positive life-affirming music. Perhaps, in some ways, this would be a good move, but then, it could be snubbed as a compromise. One thing I learned from Lindberg is that Pennywise doesn't compromise, they say what they think, do what they believe and still going strong-- could you ask for anything more?
Visit Pennywise on the Web at www.pennywisdom.com
Also check out Razorcake fanzine at www.razorcake.com
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