By David Jenison
"We left New York City at just the right time," says Pennywise guitarist Fletcher Dragge, whose band bailed the Big Apple on the eve of last month's massive power failure. "All I'm saying is this: if I would have been trapped in an elevator during the blackout, it would have been all over."
Hermosa Beach's Pennywise --- made up of Dragge, vocalist Jim Lindberg, bassist Randy Bradbury, and drummer Byron McMackin --- celebrate their 15th year together and tenth overall release in 2003. Though initially considered too aggressive for radio, the group generated such an underground buzz that many stations couldn't help but spin Pennywise tunes. L.A.'s KROQ, for example, turned 1999's "Alien" and 2001's "Fuck Authority" into SoCal hits. Despite finally breaking the FM barrier, Pennywise still recorded their latest album, From the Ashes, with the same indie spirit and punk rock attitude that made their 1992 self-titled LP a revered classic. In fact, the group regards its independent status as more valuable than any radio airplay.
"Everyone in the band is really proud that we've remained indie all these years," says Fletcher, whose band has turned down countless major label offers. "When we started playing, the major labels never accepted punk as a viable form of music. Then, once the hard work paid off for labels like SST and Epitaph, the major labels swooped in to get their piece of the pie. Bands need to give independent labels a chance as a viable option instead of just thinking about a major label payday. The independents brought the scene up, and in the end, the independent labels will dominate because they believe in what they are doing."
Having released every album on Epitaph Records, save their '89 debut EP, Pennywise proudly stayed true to its original roots. Fans know that there will never be a Pennywise version of Bad Religion's Into the Known, but that's not to say the group hasn't significantly matured its message.
Early Pennywise albums like Unknown Road, Straight Ahead and Pennywise focused on positive themes centered on an individual and his or her immediate community. 1997's Full Circle dealt with the loss of founding bassist Jason Thirsk, but each album since shows a band that's progressively more concerned with national issues. "My Own Country" from 1999's Straight Ahead showed early signs of an enhanced worldview, but the real lyrical breakthroughs came with 2001's Land of the Free? and now From the Ashes.
"When you are 14 or 15, you wonder where your next beer is coming from or what gig you're going to, but as you get older, you find politics and government affecting your life," says Fletcher, who apparently had an excellent fake ID. "Jim is well-versed on the whole political system, and he strives to help open people's eyes. It started off as personal politics because we were trying to make ourselves better as people and live our lives the way we wanted to live them. We accomplished that goal personally, and now we use our music and lyrics as a tool to make other people's lives better ... and yeah, I know that sounds pretty fuckin' cheesy coming from me."
Though released before Sept. 11, Land of the Free? proved extremely critical of the government and our current Cowboy-In-Chief. To say nothing of its very title, the album delivered such scathing lyrics as, "Democracy united nations of hypocrisy profit's our goal we're incorporated it's big business and oil companies controlling us all" (title track) and "Behind smiles and pageantry lies a vile and sadistic history insidious design deceitful and sublime feeding on misery" ("W.T.O.").
Though they don't share many fans with the Dixie Chicks' CD-incinerating crowd, Pennywise still encountered some of the same resistance the Chicks faced for speaking out.
"We got a lot of backlash from our last album," recalls Fletcher. "People commented on our website that they won't listen to Pennywise anymore because we hate America. Bullshit. We could easily write pop-punk songs about love and sex and drugs to stay under the radar and sell records, but that's never been what we are about. We just want people to understand that if they continue to eat Taco Bell and watch Survivor while the government does stuff overseas that we don't know about, there will be more attacks on our country, and inevitably one of the attacks will kill millions. We are trying to keep things like 9/11 from happening."
Regardless of these ideological conflicts, topics on From The Ashes, again address issues as government abuse, gun control, and the biased news media. In many ways, the latest batch of songs articulates their concern better than any album before it, but at the same time, the message is delivered in an aggressive, yet less abrasive, tone.
"The last album was more angry in the way it dealt with the government," says Fletcher, "but in the wake of 9/11, the new album turned out more emotional and somber. With such a great tragedy weighing on our minds, the songs are simply more heartfelt. We weren't trying to do anything different, but that's how it came across."
Though the mass majority of fans embrace their message, Pennywise deals with any opposition as a group because this is one of the few bands out there that doesn't have any Lone Rangers. Pennywise truly functions as a single unit, and this ultimately helps them maintain the highest artistic standard as each song goes through a grueling creative process.
"It really sucks when you spend a month writing your best song ever, and everyone in the band says, 'Nope, not into it,'" remarks Fletcher. "It's like, 'Motherfuckers! I'm going to kill you all!' Thing is, everybody in the band writes songs and has to sell them to the other three guys, so we all get songs rejected. This band is a democracy, so we have to make sacrifices. Our last producer described us as one big compromise, and we said 'that's why we're called a band.' Every song is a drag out, knock down battle to get it on the record, and we've all gone home bumming. At the end of the day, though, you have a product about which the whole band feels confident."
With so much productivity shelved, the group eventually planned to release an outtakes and B-sides album, but fearing that it would make them look gray-haired, they took another route first. Recording a live performance at the same Hollywood venue in which they appeared on HBO's "Reverb," the band released Live At The Key Club in late 2000. The album features songs from nearly every album in their catalog, including their oft-played cover of "Minor Threat."
Fletcher reflects, "Most concert albums are played live and then rerecorded in the studio perfectly, but we took a different approach. Live At The Key Club is entirely live, and there are certainly moments that make me cringe. There are some sour grapes on the guitar for sure. On the flipside, people say it was a great live album because it's raw and real. Everyone had a few beers, or a few too many, and went out there and did a Pennywise show. We had a good time and made it more of a party than a sterile attempt at playing every note perfectly."
Pennywise delivers one of the best live shows, which is why they've been able to headline concerts at such huge venues as the Los Angeles and Long Beach sports arenas.
For the new album, however, the group is doing a series of record release shows at smaller venues such as the House Of Blues in Hollywood (Sept. 8-9) and the House Of Blues in Anaheim (Sept. 10-11) and the Glass House in Pomona (Sept. 14-15). The band will also perform on Jimmy Kimmel Live (Sept. 26) with an outdoor stage set up so that more fans can attend.
Surprisingly, Pennywise is also slated to make their fourth appearance on KROQ's "Loveline" later this month. Their appearances live on in infamy. The original visit ended with Fletcher purposely vomiting on co-host Dr. Drew and others, while their follow-up drew several police officers when an intoxicated Fletcher blocked the exit and joked about having a grenade.
After promising a sober visit, the group's third appearance was incident free, but apparently that was even more problematic.
"They asked us to do it a fourth time for the new album, but I'm not invited," says Fletcher, who apparently needed to refrain from vomiting and bomb threats to finally earn a "Loveline" ban. "Dr. Drew probably thinks I'm a complete psychopath and wants to keep me out of the room. Still, it will be cool to listen to 'Loveline' without Adam Carolla prodding me to do something crazy."
In reality, Dr. Drew and Adam Carolla would have had less to fear this time around as the infamous guitarist has grown less sadistic over the years.
"I'm still doing stupid stuff and having a good time at someone else's expense, but I have definitely toned it down a couple notches," says Fletcher, who actually tried to urinate on this writer during an interview a decade ago. "I feel more responsibility towards the band because we are a team and a partnership. There are still incidents here and there that don't go over too well, but I'm trying to focus more on the future."
Regarding their future, the members of Pennywise already find themselves involved in other ventures. Bradbury set up a home studio where he writes and records nearly everyday, while Fletcher owns a part of a Hermosa Beach restaurant called Los Muchachos. Lindberg and McMackin really scored, as two of the founding partners in the Hollywood hotspot Las Palmas.
"Yeah, the club turned out to be a really big success," smiles Fletcher, who passed on the venture before turning it onto his bandmates. "Still, my Mexican restaurant will be there in 30 years, and Las Palmas might not!"
Though hopefully both places will remain open for 30 years, the real question is, where will Pennywise be in five when the group celebrates its 20th anniversary? Though they've got a long way to go to outlast Bad Religion, Pennywise shows no signs of slowing down.
"I can't think five years ahead as a band," concludes Fletcher. "We all get along really well, and we know each other's personalities. There are still the ups and downs and fighting that come with being in a band, but we always come to a diplomatic solution. I think as long as kids are willing to buy our records and come to our shows, we'll be playing. At the same time, we are all firm believers that we won't stand up there and fake it. We'll know when that starts to happen, and when it does, we'll call it quits."