Singing as they see it: Punk band Pennywise has had its share of setbacks, but its anti-authoritarian message isn 't about to go away anytime soon.
By BEN WENER
The Orange County Register
The 30-something punk veteran and the 30-something punk fan are commiserating (complaining is more like it) about the state of punk rock today. As seen-it-all 30-somethings are wont to do.
As no doubt other 30-somethings did when, say, Green Day's decidedly apolitical approach set the stage for the tidal wave of bubblepunkers who currently rule the roost.
"I suspect," I tell Pennywise's Fletcher Dragge, "that it's now harder for bands like you to "
I was going to say "be taken seriously," but Dragge instinctively going one step further speaks volumes.
WHAT: Cypress Hill's sixth annual marijuana-promoting festival, featuring the veteran hip-hop crew alongside Linkin Park, DMX, Pennywise, Papa Roach, Obie Trice, Superjoint Ritual, M.O.P., Hatebreed, Hieroglyphics, Dead Prez and more
Pennywise, after all, is now a punk anomaly - a politically vitriolic band that, though it has maintained a sizable following for more than a decade, nonetheless has slipped into a void between the style's originators and the '90s explosion of popular but essentially meaningless outfits for whom punk is as much fashion as ideology.
Like Bad Religion and NOFX, the Hermosa Beach quartet represents the tail end of what's considered old-school hardcore punk, those three groups forming an optimistic shift away from the nihilism of outfits like Black Flag and Circle Jerks.
"We're in between everybody," guitarist Dragge says. "We're the guys who have been around awhile, who aren't fresh, who are singing about things that most people don't want to confront."
Certainly the group is somewhat revered, earning invites to major festivals like KROQ's Weenie Roast and Saturday's Smoke Out in San Bernardino, headlined by metal giant Linkin Park and rapper DMX. But massive nationwide notice remains elusive.
Dragge, however, says the band came to terms with that some time ago.
"It's harder for a band like us because we're constantly up there um, I don't want to say 'preaching,' but we have an agenda, and we believe it's an important one. We could be writing tunes about breaking up with our chicks. We could be Green Day or Good Charlotte or the Used, and go to a major label and have hits.
"But that's not for us. I respect all those bands and what they want to do, but that's not what we want to do."
What Pennywise wants to do - awaken the apathetic or spread anti-authoritarianism, depending on how you see it - should be apparent to anyone who has heard even half of one of the band's seven albums for Epitaph. The overall theme of its latest, "From the Ashes"? "God Save the USA" - from environmental disease, from unaccountable warmongers, from a government they consider out of control.
During the course of our lengthy chat, Dragge sounded off on a wide variety of issues, and there simply isn't space to retell it all here. Some nutshells: He's against the war in Iraq and troubled by our international reputation; he's fed up with wasteful government spending on everything from Caltrans to the space program; he's infuriated at increasing taxes, chiefly the much-loathed new car tax that Gov.-elect Schwarzenegger has vowed to repeal.
Such outspokenness has been evident with this band since 1991, when Pennywise surfaced - spurred to action, Dragge says, by bassist Jason Thirsk. "He just had a really positive outlook on things," he says. "He's the one who got us thinking we can make things better instead of just being really negative and (ticked) off about everything."
Not that the group hasn't suffered its share of setbacks - most obviously the temporary departure of vocalist Jim Lindberg in the early '90s, and the '96 death of Thirsk, who committed suicide amid a losing battle against alcoholism. Rebounding with 1997's "Full Circle," however, Pennywise has gone on to consistently foment radical thought within the framework of sharp, often blitzing punk rock.
Yet that still leaves these guys feeling like they're banging their heads against a wall.
"It's not a popular time to be anti-government," Dragge realizes, "because everybody wants to be united after 9-11, which is totally understandable. But the American people need to unite to get on top of (their) own government and find out why all this hatred toward us was generated in the first place. Don't just say 'I back the government,' because the reason 9-11 happened is our government and what it's been doing overseas - things that other nations find intolerable."
If that small sample of Dragge's views boils your blood, then he feels he's done his job.
"People become so complacent. 'Hey, I got my house, I got my BMW and my TV shows and my Domino's pizza. I'm all good over here.' Well, when that dirty bomb comes, or the anthrax comes, it's not all gonna be good. And then people will be saying, 'Why didn't I take a little more interest in what my government was doing?'"
Until that time, Pennywise will keep on fighting what it believes is the good fight.
"We'll keep playing what we play whether it's popular or not. It's been a few years now since we've been on the popular train. And that's fine. We're still going strong, still having a good time doing this. For us, it's not about the money. It's about having the freedom to do what we want."