Pennywise for your thoughts
By ALLAN WIGNEY -- Ottawa Sun
"Apathy," Pennywise vocalist Jim Lindberg sneers on the cynical God Save the USA, "is the national disease."
If so, it's an affliction to which the SoCal band has spent 16 years building up an immunity, as God Save the USA and the 13 other fiery odes to international, national and personal politics that comprise the band's latest Epitaph release, From the Ashes, confirm. But if Lindberg and bandmates Fletcher Dragge, Byron McMackin and Randy Bradbury cannot be accused of being apathetic, a case can be made for Pennywise's latest anthems tending toward the pessimistic.
"We were a very idealistic band when we started out," Lindberg says, "but that idealism becomes tempered with realism after a while, especially after what happened with our bass player. (Original Pennywise bassist Jason Thirsk committed suicide eight years ago.) And we've watched our country's international standing go down the toilet.
"It's pretty depressing to be out there, because we're not just a band from Hermosa Beach. We play a lot in Australia, Europe and Canada -- we're like strange ambassadors for what's going on. We see the good and bad part of other countries, but it's depressing to see that there's so much potential here and it just keeps getting held hostage by the people in power."
Hence, the serious tone of From the Ashes, perhaps the most politically charged album of Pennywise's long career. Depressing, yes. (The album concludes with a song called Judgment Day!) But Lindberg notes he prefers to see his songs as calls to action for his apathetic nation.
"There really is a silent majority out there that want the same things and have a shared vision of a peaceful world," Lindberg asserts. "But those ideas keep getting usurped. It's hard to keep putting out albums that have an underlying sense of hope, but I think we've been able to do that. Some of the songs might seem negative, but underneath it all is the idea that things can change."
But what, ultimately, can a punk band do?
"You can write songs about it," Lindberg says with a laugh. "At the end of the day all you can do is hope that you're raising people's awareness and getting people to talk about the issues that are important."
That has been the Pennywise mandate for going on two decades. And it has brought Lindberg and his bandmates dangerously close to mainstream recognition, despite their determination to rock under the radar.
"We've been careful not to overhype our band and be on the side of Coke bottles and things like that," Lindberg says with pride. "I think no matter how good a band is if you just keep hitting people over the head eventually they're gonna get sick of you.
"I mean, finally everyone hates that song Hey Ya. They make it so pervasive -- it's in every movie, it's in every commercial -- that you just end up hating it. So we've always been really careful to make sure our band, probably to our detriment, does not get overexposed."
In recent years that has even meant less touring for the hard-working band, Vans Warped excursions notwithstanding.
"I think that's how bands burn out," Lindberg says of life on the road. "There's too much temptation: You just become a Pizza Hut-eating, beer-swilling, room-service-scarfing piece of nothing. The only way to survive it is to be Duff from Guns N' Roses."
Sound advice from a band that has been in the game long enough to know the ups and downs of life as a rock 'n' roll phenomenon.
"There are lots of types of music where they're just trying to write a three-minute pop song, then they become one-hit wonders or they have a couple of good albums and it just dries up," a savvy Lindberg observes. "Maintaining a certain level of creativity is an extremely hard thing to do.
"There are other genres like jazz and blues where it's done well, but in the pop world it's pretty hard. Bands have a very short shelf-life, unless you're Britney Spears."
Even being Britney Spears, Lindberg agrees, likely has a downside.
"We've never had to worry about our looks fading or getting fat," he notes. "We're already fat and ugly. At least we have that going for us."