Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Interview: Ben Weasel

I make no secret of the fact I idolise Ben Weasel. While 'idol' is a heavy word, many of my formative teenage years were played out to Ben's music. While not just an amazing, prolific musician, he's also an astute mind and a fantastic writer (in fact I've slowly becoming cognisant of the fact my writing style is somewhat similar to his and have for sometime been unwittingly aping his prose). Having spent hours pouring over his music, lyrics, and devouring his two books Like Hell and Punk Is A Four Letter Word, I developed a fascination with his larger-than-life personality. While at times he seemed like a obstinate jerk, in a lot of ways I identified with his seige mentality in the face of the world he saw as a confederacy of dunces in union against him.

While Ben would probably care to disagree with some of my points about his life, I don't claim to know him personally and therefore wouldn't quibble with him. I'm simply stating that during my heady teenage years as I grappled with my hormones and hang-ups, I took a lot from his music, for which I'm very fond of him.

Oh yeah, he also knows how to write an A1, top-shelf pop song.

Which brings me to my next point, next month he'll be teaming up with his longtime offsider Danny Vapid for two shows at Reggie's Rock Club in Chicago, Illinois, in which they'll play Screeching Weasel's gem of an album My Brain Hurts in its entirety. While I'm stuck here some 15,000kms away, I thought the next best thing was to hit Ben up for an e-mail interview. I was pleasantly surprised when he promptly replied, agreeing to let me pick his brain, even insisting that I e-mail him with any follow up questions. The results are below.

Wrecked Kids: In August you're playing two shows in which you're playing My Brain Hurts in its entirety with Danny Vapid, is this the first step in reforming Screeching Weasel? Surely given the overwhelming popularity of the shows it's crossed your mind.

BW: No, and it hasn't remotely crossed my mind. I have way more fun and make way more money playing as Ben Weasel. Vapid suggested the MBH thing a while back and I thought it sounded like it could be fun. But I'm not going to be doing a band again. Screeching Weasel wasn't very much fun for me for most of the time I was doing it. I don't see any reason to drag that name out again. What I'm doing now is the closest thing you're going to see to Screeching Weasel again. And it's probably a lot closer than if I re-formed a band I don't want to be in with people I don't want to work with anymore.

WK: You mentioned on your radio show that you've re-worked some old Riverdales demos and re-recorded them for the the re-release of Phase Three. Has that stoked the fires to reform that band?

BW: No. We have talked about maybe doing a show this winter but I kind of doubt it'll happen, because it would entail a lot of work for me to get back up to speed on guitar and I have a lot of other stuff on my plate. The Riverdales was a fun band and I enjoy playing but I am way out of practice. I hope we can do it eventually but it's probably not going to happen real soon.

WK: In the past you've expressed your reticence to play live shows and tour, has that attitude changed? Can we expect something more than a sporadic show or two from you in the future?

BW: Probably not. I like playing Reggie's in Chicago. It's a good sized club for me and they treat me well down there. They've got great food too. I'm 2 1/2 hours away so it's quick and easy to get down there and back from Madison. I hate touring. I don't see myself starting again. I've looked into one-offs out of town but it's really not very easy to do. I either have to fly a bunch of guys in with me, ensuring I won't make any money, or try to find a kick ass band in whatever town I'm playing. Everybody thinks their band can do it but most bands aren't very good. Even if I could find somebody I'd have to arrive a few days early to rehearse. It's a big, expensive pain in the ass, which is why people tour instead. So I'm better off just going down to Reggie's a few times a year until people decide they don't want to see me play anymore. Then I can start looking into careers in the dishwashing or fast food service industries.

WK: Do you even consider yourself a professional musician anymore? Do you work outside of music to help pay your bills?

BW: Yeah I'm still a musician. I support myself by making music. I make a little money from the radio thing too, and when the books are in print I make a little from writing, but mostly it's royalties, merch, publishing, licensing, and now gigs. The money's not as good as it used to be but I can pay the bills. Sometimes I think about getting a job but I can't really do anything and I'm too busy with creative stuff and, mostly, with all the administrative and bookkeeping crap it entails. Not having a manager means there's a ton of stupid, annoying, time-consuming work I have to do. If I had a job I don't see how I could keep up with the everything else. I can barely keep on top of it working 6-8 hour days as is. I can't really save any money, which kind of sucks at my age, but then I don't have to answer to anybody and when I go to work it's mostly people telling me how much they like my work and what it means to them. It's pretty incredible to be able to do this for a living. Going into work and having people shake your hand and pat you on the back is pretty nice. Then you go get up on a stage and sing some of your songs and people give you money for it. It's insane and wonderful.

WK: Would it be safe to say you were driven out of the punk rock "scene" in the late 90s? That was the impression i got from your semi-autobiographical novel, 'Like Hell'.

BW: No, not at all. It was a self-imposed exile. I hated the punk scene and I'd had my fill. I still do hate it, as I learned the hard way last year. I mean the musicians. They are almost exclusively a bunch of whiny, petty, insecure crybabies who act like jagoffs because they're scared they won't become famous, or people won't think they're cool, or whatever it is they're worried about. Life's too short. The pop punk scene would be terrific if it weren't for all the musicians.

WK: Has your attitude to punk rock audiences changed since witnessing the "scene" that's emerged around the Insubordination Records pop punk festival and the Knock Knock Records pop punk message board.?

BW: I think for a while now audiences have been way better than they were in the 80s and 90s. By and large anyway. There seem to be fewer fights and less boneheads. In the early 90s there wasn't really any pop punk scene so if a pop punk band played a show, the punks showed up, and too many of them were drunken, violent halfwits. Now there is more of a cohesive pop punk scene, and I think the kind of people who tend to want to bring stupidity to shows just aren't interested in pop punk bands for the most part. Which is really nice. The pop punkers can be obnoxious in their own way but they tend to be self-effacing wimps who aren't as interested in projecting a dumb image so there aren't a lot of dick-swinging tough guy antics. And they tend to stick to beer and pot so there's not too much in the way of heroin or cocaine drama either.

WK: Concerning this new generation of pop punk bands, it's certainly a scene constituted of people who grew up idolizing bands like Screeching Weasel, the Queers and the Mr T Experience. How do you handle that idolatry?

BW: Quite happily for the most part. It's really cool to find out that your stuff is still relevant to younger musicians. The only problems I ever have are with people who are so obsessed that they feel they have to alienate you and be a prick to you. It's almost as though they're embarrassed about being so into the music you make. It's a very strange phenomenon but it's happened to me a couple of times recently with a couple of the better known pop punk bands. It's really disappointing, but most people are totally cool. The fans anyway. Again, the biggest dicks tend to be the people in bands. Though plenty of them are good people too.
WK: Your last record, These Ones Are Bitter, was a lot more mellow musically and lyrically than than some of your past records. Are you a more settled and stable person? Have you achieved domestic bliss?

BW: I disagree with that characterization of the record but yeah, I achieved domestic bliss five years ago when I got married. I've been settled and stable for a long time. I've always been an old man in a young man's body. It's nice that my chronological age is starting to catch up with my mental age.

WK: The sound of your last record, what influenced you? It seems like less of a punk rock record and more of a hard rock record. A lot was made of members of Alkaline Trio and the All-American Rejects playing on the album, did those bands influence the sound?

BW: Except to the extent that some of the members of those bands played on the record, I don't think so. My influence was primarily old bubblegum pop songs - stuff like the Ohio Express and 1910 Fruitgum Co., That was some of the first rock and roll I ever listened to fanatically. I think a lot of the reason I sing the way I do comes from listening to Joey Levine on those old records over and over. When I was working on tightening up the songs and finishing lyrics I thought a lot about the music I grew up on and I threw a couple of lines into two of the songs referring to that. One was a Ted Nugent reference and there's a reference to In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida too. The lead in Got My Number is essentially the first half of what I remember as a recurring keyboard part in Do Ya Think I'm Sexy by Rod Stewart. Which I didn't realize until I'd written the song, but I think I was letting a lot of the stuff I grew up listening to or hearing on the radio show up in little ways in the songs, because the album is really about two characters and they're meant to be around my age.

Originally I started writing the stuff for a band I did called Sweet Black and Blue. I had been working on songs for an album for a while but I decided to put it to the side. It was good but I felt like it was kind of depressing. It was depressing me. It worked fine but it wasn't much fun. So I decided to try to write a song without trying to do anything but write a great song the way I naturally write. That was Let Freedom Ring, and the songs just started coming after that. The instrumental section is obviously heavily indebted to the style of the Fastbacks but the tune itself is 100% me. Nobody else would've written that song like that. A couple of them were older - In A Few Days and a different version of In A Bad Place - but I really started writing with the intent to get back to doing what I do best in the fall of 2004. Then after that band split up I wrote a bunch more. I was trying to stick to my strengths instead of consciously avoiding some of the more common things I do in writing because I think for a few years prior to that, that is what I'd been doing - trying to write stuff that didn't sound quite as much like me. That was a dumb idea. People want to hear me doing what I do best, and it's more fun for me. But it's also a lot of work. I get very aggravated with musicians and songwriters who don't understand that writing a great, simple pop song is a hell of a lot harder than writing the kind of pretentious, arty crap that makes snobs take notice, like it's something important and artistic. Anyway, the funny thing is that in trying to write more like me I think I ended up doing a lot more things I normally wouldn't have. Plenty of that is due to the contributions of my producer as well.

WK: Your bands were quite popular in the mid-90s. With the benefit of hindsight, do you ever regret not signing to a major record label?

BW: Nobody ever asked. Epic Records called once asking about the Riverdales but I'd just gotten off a long tour and I was very annoyed that they called my home number instead of my business line so I called back and told them to fuck off and not to bother me again. Neither band would've done well on a major. I didn't have the temperament. And I don't think the average person listening to the radio would like my music. Plus I had gotten sick of touring by 1993. I toured a lot with the Riverdales in 1995 but I was totally burned out by the time that ended. I wouldn't have been willing to do all the work necessary to promote a release. But there was no way we were ever going to have Green Day type success no matter what. I think we did as well as we could've given the situation. We made good money and didn't find ourselves having to make a lot of the difficult choices that a more popular band has to make. If I thought we ever could've really hit it big I'd be very regretful because I would love the money! But I really don't think that was in the cards for us. At the time I loved being in the situation I was in and I had no desire to trade it in for a shot at bigger success. These days I'd be more likely to try for something bigger, but it's all theoretical at this point.

WK: Have you been working on new songs since These Ones Are Bitter? You've said in the recent past you've been working on a follow up. Have you got a rough timeline of when it might be made and available?

BW: I don't know what's going to happen or when. I have 40-50 songs written, and over a hundred that are partially written. I'm waiting to see if it's going to be feasible to work with Mike and Chris again anytime soon. It took longer than expected to make the new Rejects album so I don't know if they're going to have any time before hitting the road for God only knows how many years to promote their new record. I may do some stuff with Justin Perkins as well at some point. But right now I am concentrating on shows.

WK: What about songs you wrote and never used? Have you got stores of old songs that never made it onto record you might wish to use somewhere down the line?

BW: Like I said, I have tons of songs, both written and partially written. The partially written stuff dates back to 93, though most of the older stuff isn't too hot. The problem is there's no real money in records anymore since everybody's stealing music online. I can't afford to record like I used to. Releasing a record a year used to be easy because they were making good money. These days it's a lot harder. Even taking into consideration that I'm not spending anywhere near as much on studio time because of digital recording, you still have to pay the engineer and even if you don't record in a studio you have to rent good mics. And since I don't have a manager or anything I have to coordinate everything myself and it ends up being a tremendous amount of work for relatively little money. I think it would be a radically different situation if people weren't stealing my music online but as it is, it's pretty demoralizing to bust your ass on something and pour money into it only to have people rip it off. It's hard to work up a lot of enthusiasm for rushing back to do it again real soon.

WK: These Ones Are Bitter was an mp3-only album. In the nine months or so since its release, has it been as lucrative for you as your past albums?

BW: Yeah, although you have to remember that it's my own label so I'm paying myself a higher royalty rate than I'd normally receive. I've made way more than I made, for instance, on the prior record I did - Phase 3 by the Riverdales. But that was poorly distributed and in fact the distributor never paid up on the last $5,000 he owed us. But yeah, TOAB exceeded my expectations. I had goals I wanted to reach at 6, 9 and 12 months and I reached all of them. But it's nowhere near what I was doing before the mp3 thing hit.

WK: Is there anything outside the world of music you'd like to try your hand at? You've already penned a novel and host a radio show. What about a reality tv series? Own a bar? Your own brand of barbeque sauce?

BW: I would never own a bar. I hate drunks and loud music. Not a chance. Me and Vapid talked about making and branding/marketing hot sauce at one point, just like a fun boutique thing, but I can't take on the work. I'd love to do a reality TV series. Unfortunately nobody's knocking on my door with an offer. WK: What format would your reality tv show be? Have you given it any thought. Maybe you could take a bunch of fey, sensitive pop punk nerds out into the wilderness and teach them survival skills, self-assuredness and how to be real men?

BW: I think Ted Nugent already did that! I have no idea what the show would be about - that's what the producers are for!

These Ones Are Bitter can be purchased here. Or you can listen to his radio show, Weasel Radio, here. I suggest you do both.

Thanks to Ben for being such a good sport, maybe he isn't such an asshole after all.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Record Review: Ben Weasel and His Iron String Quartet - These Ones Are Bitter

Once the churlish tsar of pop punk, the years have tempered the once notoriously prickly demeanour of Ben Weasel. What started with Screeching Weasel's 'Emo' back in 1998, Weasel has slowly eased up on the vitriol, years of shit-stirring and idiot-baiting in the pages of MRR and on record left him segregated from most of the punk rock public and ended with him detached from and disdainful of his fanbase.

Weasel was largely unheard of in the intervening years between his last solo album - 2002's Fidatevi - and 2007 (save for the briefly resurrected Riverdales' 2003 album Phase Three), occasionally popping up on his blog to set the cat amongst the piegons, but nothing was heard from him musically. During that same period pop punk experienced something of a resurgence in popularity. In the midwest the likes of the Copyrights and Teenage Bottlerocket were still chewin' out a rhythm while in New York and New Jersey, bands like the Steinways, the Unlovablesa and For Science crept out of the genre's cradle. This point was exemplified by the explosion of the annual Insubordination Records pop punk festival.

As these bands enjoyed a boom in popularity, so did their precursors, namely Screeching Weasel. This was despite the band playing nary a live show since 1996, and so the band built up somewhat of a mythical reputation. Curiously, many of the band's fans had never even seem them play live.

In the American summer of 2007 however Weasel announced he would collaborate with longtime admirer and All-American Rejects guitarist Mike Kennerty to produce his latest solo record, 'These Ones Are Bitter'. When it was announced AAR drummer Chris Gaylor and the Alkaline Trio's Dan Amdriano would round out the 'Iron String Quartet', many pop punk purists turned up their noses at the suggestion members of the much maligned A3 and AAR would play on a Ben Weasel record. While some would consider those bands middle-of-the-road rock, their influence is inescapable.

Anyone expecting another 'My Brain Hurts' or 'Anthem For A New Tomorrow' would be sadly mistaken. And I'll admit I was one of them. Screeching Weasel's brand of economic, past-paced, hook-filled Ramones-core pop punk is my bread and butter. 'These Ones...' is a taught, slickly-produced, punk-influenced, melodic rock record, something in between 'Fidatevi' and 'Anthem For A New Tomorrow'. While Screeching Weasel were famed for their no-frills song writing, 'These Ones...' represents a musical shift for Weasel, reflecting more dense arrangements, layers of additional instruments and a diversion from straight up and down 1-4-5 chord progressions.

It took me a while to realise the strength of some of the song arrangements. On first listen of 'Happy Saturday', I dismissed it as mostly forgettable. After my second I found myself humming the line "In the Garden of Eden baby, don't you know that I'm changing all the locks," from the song's bridge. While having drinks with a friend that night, I was sprung singing the line under my breath and tapping along to the tune on the bar top, branded a hypocrite having five minutes prior expressed indifference to the record. And it all unfolded like a pack of cards.

The Garden of Eden line - also one of the best Ben Weasel lines ever - represents the numerous hooks that litter the album once it's allowed to sink in, seen in songs like the ass-kicking 'In A Few Days', 'The First Day of Spring' and the album's excellent penultimate tune 'In A Bad Place', the closest thing Weasel will ever come to writing a funeral dirge.

A lot has also been made of the fact the record was released in digital format only except for a small run of vinyl. As Weasel explained on his blog, increasing music piracy and the hefty overheads of physical records led to his decision to release an mp3 exclusive album. I'm not sure I can add anything to the debate except that in the nine months since its release I'm yet to purchase this record, and it remains the only Ben Weasel album I don't own.

Record Review: Off With Their Heads - All Things Move Towards Their End

Reviewing 'All Things Move Towards Their End' is a slippery slope, while I don't want to be seen to be romanticizing or endorsing drug addication, it's hard to not make it a focal point of my critique seeing as it one of the foremost themes of the album - along with vocalist and guitarist Ryan Young's battle with depression, apathy, alcoholism and social anxieties.

But what sets Off With Their Heads apart from the hordes of suburban safety punk bands big-noting their list of inane daddy issues, is the compassionate and articulate nature of their song writing. It's gritty, honest and comes from a very real and sometimes scary place. The gravity of songs like 'Bar Close and West Bridge Bank' and 'Don't Laugh I'm Totally Serious' is sometimes gut-wrenching. There's a very real pathos to Off With Their Heads that's both endearing and absorbing. And fuck it, I'm totally obsessed.

You may have discerned from their song titles that OFTH liberally approriate Dillinger Four's sound. This isn't to say they're some second class Midwestern punk band apeing D4, every song is top-shelf, especially considering 'All Things...' is a collection of b-sides and 7" tracks. Fuck, save for 'Midwestern Songs of The Americas' (my personal 2nd favourite album of all time), 'All Things...' is better than any D4 record. Young is a songsmith and poet who deserves to be spoken of in the same breath as Jawbreaker's Blake Schwarzenbach, the Weakerthan's John Samson or Crimpshrine's Aaron Cometbus.

Like D4, OFTH play a hook-filled variety of gritty pop punk. And they don't shy away from their pop sensibilities either. Note the handclaps on 'Five Across The Eyes', keyboard on 'Call The Cops', 'Bar Close and the West Bridge'. Then there's 'Horse Pills and the Apartment Lobby', a slice of jangle indie pop that's barely recognisable as an OFTH song. All are used in all the right places that add an extra dimension to the song.

I know I'm a little late hitching my cart to the OWTH wagon (this record came out late last year and they'll be releasing a new LP,'From The Bottom', next month), but this record hit me like a sledge hammer to the dick. Like Ben Weasel, Young is a 'character' musician. A deeply flawed human being struggling with his vices and hang ups through his music. Like Weasel, Young is a prolific song writer and an incredibly talented pop-punk song writer and I find myself waiting with baited breath for his next album.

Make up your own mind

I don't understand a thing he's saying, but I don't care

This ammused me to no end. While most would be content with playing bass in Screeching Weasel, Common Rider and Squitgun, my old pal Mass Giorgini has decided to add co-anchor of a Spanish language news program to his already impressive CV of accomplishments.

Long time, no blog

After all but neglecting this blog over the past year and a half I've decided to resurrect it. My absence from the blogosphere can be attributed to the daily grind of working full time leaving my creativity all but drained. Over the last 18 months I just couldn't muster the energy after a hard day at the office.

Oddly, I think because of the creative nature of my work - I'm currently kicking shit on a small daily newspaper in regional Queensland, Australia - I find my brain dead come 5pm.

I'd contemplated reviving WK a few times but never found the energy to put finger to key. This was frustrating because it was an exercise I'd found most rewarding in the past.

However lately I've found myself yearning for a creative outlet. Coupled with my discovery of Google Adsense (making money from blogging, outrageous) I've discovered a new zeal.

Anyway, I'm hoping to peel off 10 or so reviews in the next week. There's some really amazing music being made at the moment and I can't wait to tell you about it.

In other news, I was hoping to attend this year's No Idea Records festival in Florida in late October/early November. A good friend recently told me she's attending and has been spurring me on ever since. However yesterday my car decided to shit itself and I'm looking at a $2000 repair bill, throwing a spanner in those plans.

I found myself racking my brain for ideas on how to earn some quick cash. Then in a blinding flash of inspiration, I thought to myself: "put the Mass Giorigini picture on a t-shirt and sell it on the internet".

Rest assured, I don't harbour delusions that I'm some sort of internet celebrity, I thought it'd be fun for shits and giggle anyway. Here's a design I cobbled together with photoshop last night.

Anyway, please give me your feedback. Whatever, if you've got records you suggest I listen to or review, please swing a comment my way. Off With Their Heads, Copyrights, Ergs, Bomb The Music Industry!, Measure (SA), Loved Ones, Unlovabales and Ben Weasel have all released great records in the last twelve months and I'm intching to rant about them.
Thumbs up,