Politically vitriolic Californians Pennywise choose to be one of punk rock's best-kept secrets...
by Chris Harris - January 22, 2004
As a rule, Jim Lindberg, the brazen frontman for West Coast punk veterans Pennywise, doesn't usually grant interviews to the media. He's turned down countless offers from television producers -- the most recent being those behind Fox's 90210-caricature, The OC -- to have his band perform before an audience of millions, despite the fact that it could mean heightened record sales and a surge in the group's modest fan base. MTV's tried, but just can't seem to get the boys to do a live set on any of its various programs. And that's just the way Lindberg wants it.
Underexposure, the 35-year-old punker explains, has helped keep his band -- 15 years and 10 albums old, at this point -- relevant and honest, in an uncertain world in which the phrase " punk " is more often applied to fashion trends than ideologies.
" I've always made a conscious effort not to over-hype the band, and I think that's what's kept us around this long, " Lindberg says. " I could sit here and do interviews all day, and make sure our faces were in every magazine out there. But I think bands get so overexposed that it's like, 'Man, these guys again?' That shit can make a band's shelf life two years, ruin a scene, and make everything that comes after it look so contrived.
" Our only responsibility's to our fans -- to put out records and play shows in their hometowns, " he continues. " I think being able to say no to certain things is what's kept us vital. "
So while most bands utilize shameless self-promotion as a device, Lindberg -- and, in more vicarious ways, Pennywise as a whole -- divorces it. In fact, he avoids it at all costs, much to the chagrin of the band's label, California-based punk potentates Epitaph Records, as well as the rest of the band's members, who for years have been forced to sit back and watch as their friends' bands -- i.e.; the Offspring, Blink 182, and Green Day -- scored chart-topping hit records and worldwide renown, all the while luxuriating in the spoils such blessings often bestow.
" We're offered shit all the time, " Lindberg defends. " When we were offered The OC, there were people in the band that did want to do it. I said, 'Over my dead body.' I didn't even bat an eye. See, I've always taken it from this perspective: Would Black Flag have done this? If they wouldn't have, I'm not doing it. All I care about is that we've been able to put out music we can stand behind, that we're proud of, and travel the world and perform, and that we're still into it and still doing it. "
Formed in 1998, Pennywise was one of the key bands of the punk-revival of the 1990s. Using Californian hardcore as a foundation, the band incorporated funk-metal and skate-punk into their sound, developing a style that functioned as edgy, post-punk frat rock -- it was speedy and occasionally stupidly catchy, with heavy, propulsive rhythms and positive, optimistic lyrics that stood in pointed contrast to their grunge-addled peers.
Through constant touring and recording, Pennywise developed a devout following among post-hardcore punk audiences, and were positioned to follow Bad Religion, Green Day and the Offspring into the modern rock mainstream. But internal problems, self-inflicted hermitage, and the 1996 suicide of founding bassist Jason Thirsk amid a losing battle against alcoholism, prevented them from being anything larger than a punk cult band, in the vein of NOFX.
Lindberg, guitarist Fletcher Dragge, kitman Byron McMackin, and bassist Randy Bradbury -- four dudes pushing middle age -- have recorded 10 energetic collections of jet-engine punk. Their most recent studio effort, 2003's From the Ashes, takes a critical look at the White House, and ups the political invective with 14 fist-in-the-air fight songs that take the president to task -- it's their finest, most fuming album since 1997's Full Circle.
While Green Day's decidedly apolitical approach to punk set the stage for the tidal wave of bubblepunkers currently ruling the roost, Pennywise represents the tail end of what's considered old-school punk. What Lindberg wants to do -- awaken the apathetic or spread anti-authoritarianism, depending on how you see it -- should be apparent to anyone who's heard even half of one of the quartet's albums, he says; that is, to foment radical thought within the framework of sharp, often blitzing punk rock.
The older he's grown, the more Lindberg's realized the critical role politics can play in one's life. As amature " punk, he's conscious of the fact that what happens in our government effects us all. And as a ripened cynic who's settled down to have children, he's become more attuned to the sorts of havoc politics can reap on his existence, and tries to will that message through his lyrics.
Several of Pennywise's critics agree the band's been unable to do what fine wines can -- improve with age. Some claim Pennywise hasn't evolved, that its music and message has maintained a stale uniformity over the years, and that that's the climacteric impetus behind the band's relative anonymity in the music world. But that doesn't bother Lindberg. " I think we're still writing music that's relevant, " he says. " It's difficult for bands to stay within the type of music that they're known for and keep it interesting, and that's been one of the biggest criticisms of our band -- that we refuse to branch out. But I think bands have tried that and failed miserably.
" I look to bands to keep the pace, " Lindberg adds. " I didn't want Black Flag to change from the Jealous Again era. I wanted them to keep writing that same kind of music. But, they evolved into this heavy, laborious machine, and I didn't like it. Any type of sonic or musical experimentation for us has to go outside the band, because we'd be doing our fans a disservice to all of a sudden put out the Pennywise reggae album. "
Lindberg says that, while the band's going to stick to its guns, fame and fortune be damned, he would like to leave the punk game before he gets too old.
" When that will be is up to our fans, and up to us, " he says. " If we feel after a hundred-plus songs that we have nothing more to say, we'll hang it up, because it's pathetic when a band loses that spark. But I don't think you can count us old farts out yet, when so much of the new shit's so terrible.