Funny, why would so many people come to adore a man who has gone out of his way to be an asshole to so many? Maybe that’s just the point. We like to be tortured, especially those of us who grew up on punk rock. Shit, even if you grew up on pop-punk you were always capable of turning to Screeching Weasel and saying ‘now there’s someone who did it right.’ Maybe, or maybe he was just one lucky son of a bitch who could write an endless supply of three chord gems.
Idol (noun): One that is adored
You see, Ben Weasel is not my idol in any epic sense; in fact I barely know anything about him as a person. But what he gave to us in terms of music cannot be ignored. Plain and simple, he did it right. He took Screeching Weasel from another 80’s punk-rock band and knowingly or not, helped launch one of the 90’s biggest musical movements. Maybe you never noticed, but ask Blink 182 how much Screeching Weasel influenced them. Others may have jumped the gun; turned greedy at the sight of major label dollars, but not Ben, and because of that we liked him. He made punk rock because he loved it, because he loved the Ramones and because it was an outlet. Soon his music would also become an outlet for thousands of teenagers and the weasel logo would become the preferred tattoo. A symbol of what it meant to “not sell out”, the proverbial shoulder for all suburbanites to lean on (because living in suburbia is not that easy, look at where most of the great serial killers and crazed psychotics are spawned), and quite possibly Screeching Weasel was the last real bastion of punk.
But now Screeching Weasel is no longer. Most of us have either moved up or moved on and we can’t expect to hold on to that youth forever. I guess we couldn’t expect Ben to either, but then he hasn’t. Making punk rock the foundation of his career, he has in turn found plenty of other outlets to showcase his ideas. Writing has been a big part of his life after Screeching Weasel. Penning a novel Like Hell and a collection of short essays, Punk Is A Four-Letter Word, it seems to be a fitting and promising follow-up to his musical career. Music is still there of course, and now with his first official solo release Fidatevi, the ghost of Screeching Weasel can finally be put to rest. When Ben took the time to let me interview him I have to admit, I felt kind of nervous before hand. I didn’t know what to expect, I mean this was like that time you got to meet your favorite celebrity at Toys ’R’ Us when you were a kid and you were left speechless. On the contrary, he turned out to be a quite the conversationalist as proven by the three and a half hours of tape I had waiting for me to transcribe. Sure, maybe he’s a little long-winded, but he seemingly did this for no other reason than because he knew I wanted to. Maybe this is why he’s adored. Maybe that is why I now feel comfortable saying ‘here, listen to what my idol has to say…oh, and part 2 will be in the next issue.’
I usually start off my interviews with what was the last thing you listened to?
Last music? I don’t remember, I don’t listen to music very often. The last thing I listened to, it’s embarrassing to say but it was probably my own record when it came out.
So how is Fidatevi doing?
I don’t really know. It shipped about what we expected it to. But you don’t know what you’re going to get back in returns. My experience has been lately that the vast bulk of your sales are gonna come from what you initially ship. It’s fine but it’s not enough to live off of.
Well, I know from what it gives me on the surface, it seems to be a much more introspective disc. Dealing more with the “I” subject as opposed to the “you”, but can I get in your words basically the story and concept behind the disc?
Yeah, the lyrics are the result of reading a lot of philosophy and doing simple breathing meditation. Sort of arriving at some conclusions, at least for now, that are based on things that have always been there. So I think if you go back 11 years to when I wrote the lyrics for My Brain Hurts, on every subsequent record I’ve done there’s always been at least one song per record where it’s sort of like gauging where I’m at in the world. And the reason that they are all “I” songs was specific and intentional. But that’s a stylistic thing, because the thing is when I did those songs that were more, like I said gauging what my world view is and how it’s working out for me, those were the songs that the fans I liked best seemed to connect with the most. That doesn’t mean I’m always changing my mind and that’s the only way I can be happy, but rather that, I can have one basic set of beliefs and be totally happy with that the rest of my life. But it’s more the idea of becoming too comfortable in the way you see things and too complacent that has brought me unhappiness and you know, lying to yourself. So I think for the past 11 years, well 10 years, since the end of ’91 I haven’t had a job.
Well I don’t know if that’s a bad thing.
It’s a good thing in many, many, many ways obviously, but one of the things that has done is given me the time and freedom and the fuckin’ emotional energy to sit down and go ‘ok, I feel like finding out a little more about Christianity from a more scholarly point of view’, or a less mainstream kind of dogmatic point of view, so I’m going to read a couple of these books.
So does this mean that for you, whether it be songwriting or your book writing or just your viewpoint in general, you’re taking a step back from the social aspect? Because that was one of the other things that kind of took me by surprise that there is not really too much emphasis on anything social, it’s more of a spiritual thing. Do you think this is something you will continue on with?
Hmm, I mean I can see why you would pick that up, but it’s complimentary. There was a Christian guy back in the 15th century and I can never remember his name, and I don’t remember the whole quote, but the gist of it is “no man is an island”, and I absolutely agree with that. The song “Responsibility” is absolutely about that and I think that all the songs, there’s one song on there “The Ship” that was written two and a half years ago, and that’s way more where my head was at after a divorce and just going through some very dark times, but with the exception of that, these are not really all inner directed. Essentially it’s the simplest gimmick in the world. So much that I don’t think people even see it as a gimmick or a trick or a tool of the trade, but it’s songwriting 101 where you choose different methods for conveying a message to people in a way that you think will best resonate with those people. I think in that aspect, there’s something socially active going on because I think it’s very clear, if you can relate to lyrics there’s some kind of connection. I’m not trying to sell anybody anything, what I’m trying to do is what I’ve tried to do with these types of songs in the past. Which is, you sit down, and you just say what you feel in the song the best way you can. But then when you structure it, that’s where you try to maximize, and you stumble on this when you’re learning how to write songs and you go ‘oh, this worked’, and then you look at it and you go ’why did that work’? Why are so many people coming up and talking about this song in particular, the lyrics of this song? And then after a while, if you’re self-taught, which I am of course, then you start going ‘oh, ok, I think I understand why this is working’. That’s what I was doing with this and whether that succeeds or not remains to be seen. I see it as kind of the basis why I was meditating, because initially I was meditating to try and relax and try to not be as tense. I was finally able to wise up and let go of that and not be specifically really looking for anything. Just saying ‘I’m going to do this and if I’m relaxed that’s cool.’ If it’s just really hard to concentrate and it’s a shitty meditation then I’m not going to put too much on that either, because tomorrow I’m going to be sitting down and doing it again anyway.
Yeah, that’s kind of like a life outlook, not just mediation.
Yeah, and that’s what I’m getting at, the meditation itself essentially, in the broadest sense, that’s like break time for yourself, where you sort of recharge and rest up. Then the rest of the time when you’re out of meditation, you’re absolutely interacting with the world. Right now I would say I am more socially involved. I’m in face-to-face contact with other human beings more than I have been probably in about 10 years. So because that is such a crucial element, like what runs through the album a lot is this idea that I think a lot of people experience as they get older as they hit their mid twenties and move into their thirties, this really like ‘I’m not happy with my life, or I’m not happy with this or that or the other thing about my life, but I don’t know how to change it and just seems to be getting worse, and it seems like I just got to put up with it’. And I think that the lyrics on this record reflect a similar struggle. I don’t think and I certainly hope that there’s not the sense of ‘hey, I found the answer or I figured it out’. I didn’t. (laughs)
Well you obviously are exposing yourself a lot more with this one and it’s not even necessarily through the lyrics. Production-wise it seems to be very personal. Like on the first song you say ‘I’ve got six guitars I can barely play and a questionable singing voice as well’, you just seem to go with that. It seemed as you got later with Screeching Weasel the production became really pristine on both the guitars and your vocals, and on this one there’s less production on the vocals, there’s less distortion on the guitars, you even throw in an almost acoustic version of your cover of “Strangers”. Was that also part of the thought process, the production behind it kind of stripped down and raw?
Yeah, I think with the production there’s a conscious effort to say ‘yes, let’s make sure that this has it’s own unique sound and it’s not just another assembly-line pop-punk record’. And probably to a degree, at least sub-consciously, I was probably going out of my way to make sure that it didn’t sound too much like a Screeching Weasel record. But going with a cleaner guitar distortion for instance, went hand in hand with how we recorded and mixed the drums. The drums that you hear on the record, a very large percentage of what you’re actually hearing is from room mic’s and not from the mic’s that are actually on the drums, and they’re mixed lower then the average punk rock record that comes out today. So this was specific to say let’s do something that is aggressive and ballsy but not in the three or four definitions that you normally get of that. I was listening more to stuff in general that had been recorded really, really well but that sounded, to me, a lot more ballsy then stuff that I think people tend to think of as more aggressive. For instance, Stiff Little Fingers and the early Angry Samoans, those guitars are clean, it’s the same thing and all it is, is that it’s going through a Vox amp. Maybe in this sub-genre of music right now, I’m the only one for a while who’s used it on a whole record, but I’m well aware of other people using that Vox amp. The funny thing is that we had two distortion pedals hooked up and depending on the song we would use one so it wasn’t even as clean as just going through the amp. It’s probably the fist time since Boogada, or that I’ve recorded, where there was a distortion pedal used. I mean there had never, ever been one used…
Really? What did you just go through the distortion on the amp?
Yeah, it was always amplifier distortion from like The Punk House EP on. Personally I never liked it. It’s not that I’m a purist or anything like that, it’s just the theory that you take the least shit as you need to into the studio and on the road. The less there is to lose or be stolen, the better and it’s just easier. You know, if you’ve got a pedal up there and somebody gets up on stage and steps on it or fuckin’ unplugs it or whatever, it’s just easier to go up there and be plugged into the amp.
Well with Screeching Weasel changing members so much near the end, why put this out under your own name and not Screeching Weasel?
I think there’s several considerations involved. Technically speaking, I don’t mean to be glib at all, it’s a fact that when we “re-formed” in 1991, we didn’t re-form. We had the three guys, myself and John and Vapid who had been in Screeching Weasel and we had done a reunion show to pay back the guy who had lent us the money to record Boogada. So we did the gig and paid him back and John and I had been doing another band that just wasn’t fucking going anywhere. The point is anyway this guy who was going to be the new bass player in that band, he’ll probably come on board and we can use him as a bass player and move Vapid over to guitar. And then this other kid, we’ll probably be able to take him on as the drummer. But I said, ‘look, the thing is I want to do more Ramones based stuff, I want to get away from the hardcore stuff and it’s probably going to flop.’ I mean we had no reason to believe it would be successful but we really wanted to do that, Vapid especially. I mean he and I were probably closest in where we were coming from musically than any other members of the band where we both hate the Beatles and we both love the Ramones. But I was adamant, ‘we can hook up and rehearse and make a record and do whatever as long as we don’t call it Screeching Weasel.’ Everybody was like ‘yeah, right on, fuck that it’s in the past, we didn’t want anything to do with it.’ So when we got together and we were doing this we had been told by several people that Larry Livermore thinks he’s a producer now and this band Scaretzo (sp?), who was just a terrible band, got signed to Lookout because Larry produced their record. So what several friends in the Bay area were telling us is that if you want to get signed to Lookout your chances are going to be increased 100 fold if you ask him to produce the record. So we did that and of course yeah, but he wouldn’t agree to do it at all unless we called ourselves Screeching Weasel. We were at a point where we were like, ‘OK, we’ll make that compromise,’ but he still wouldn’t fully agree to do it. He was being very coy about the whole thing. It wasn’t until we were more than half way into the recording, like getting ready to mix that he finally agreed to sign us. And it was only then under threats because he had been trying to force us into putting “Science of Myth” as the first song. The way he try’s to portray it now is that we had no confidence in the record and he knew it was going to be a big hit. The fact is, he may have felt that way, but what he told us over and over was that everything we were doing decision-wise was going to kill this record. And yes it was a great record but no it wasn’t going to sell because we were fucking everything up.
When we re-formed in ’96 again, this is sort of a long-winded way of getting to the point, but it was another case of Larry. The thing is, the Riverdales album went out the gate good to begin with. Ultimately it sold really, really well, like way better than it deserved to, but Larry was on this kick he used to do with all his bands that drove them away. Where it’s like, why don’t you do stuff like you did with your old band? And ultimately the conversation would always lead to, well why don’t you just re-form your old band. And somehow in the course of that it was like, well give us enough money and we’ll consider it. So they offered us 80 grand and the rest is history. Meaning it just went downhill from there, because within 2 weeks, I mean they flew us out and paid for plane tickets, rental car and hotel room and offered us 80 grand and actually it was in one week, they were reneging on that offer. Ultimately we went over to Fat and we did get our 80 grand and x amount. So yeah, basically we re-formed because people were throwing money at us. I mean I’m sorry if that breaks peoples hearts, but getting up to why then end the band and do your own solo thing, a lot of it has to do with prior to getting back together in ’96. It’s funny because I talked to Vapid about this last weekend and he said it before I even could, he’s like I can’t stand that fucking weasel head logo, I can’t even stand looking at that fucking thing. (laughs) I absolutely felt for a long time like this is an albatross around my neck for many, many reasons. When you’re in a band for fifteen years you can’t play a show without playing songs you wrote 13 to 15 years prior. In my case, here I am in my early 30’s singing songs I wrote in my late teens. I’m sure a lot of people would feel like, ‘yeah, you know that’s cool to keep that fire going,’ but to me it’s like ‘no, that’s just sad man. That’s a big part of it, but I’ve felt like I wanted to do a solo record for a long time. I finally said, ‘if I don’t cut the fucking apron strings, this thing is just gonna never end.’ Right around the time the band split up I ran across this quote from John Lennon, and I told you, I’m no Beatles fan but it’s a really great quote. And he was saying it, I think in reference to the Rolling Stones at a point where they really kind of wore out their welcome, like in the late seventies. He basically said, when you’re in a band it’s like being in a gang. When you’re a teenager that’s fine or in your early twenties, but you reach a point where it’s just silly. And if you don’t leave that and you insist on being part of that, it’s impossible for you to get beyond a certain point creatively as a songwriter or musician or whatever. You’re always going to be in that state of arrested development creatively because you’re stuck with that mentality. That really made me feel a lot better about breaking out and going out on my own. Also saying that the main guy in the band [Screeching Weasel] who’s been in it from the beginning, John, in the long run he’s going to be happier. He went and started his own band and now he’s doing what Screeching Weasel didn’t do, he’s out playing gigs all the time. So it was time.
Incidentally, what is the best selling Screeching Weasel record?
This all kind of ties into your book and everything you’re saying kind of questions the fictional aspect of the book. Without trying to get you in trouble or anything, is it pretty much drawn from your life?
Well, first of all you can only have so much objectivity about something you do creatively. And that’s not to evade the question, but I don’t know, if I had to sit down and go through line by line and say this is what’s taken from my life and this is what is made up, I guess I could do that. But a lot of people have asked me that, percentage wise how much of it is true to your life, I don’t know any other way to answer it than to say that, structurally it’s absolutely ripped from the pages of my own life. Writing a novel is really, really fucking hard to do. And part of the reason it’s hard to do, at least for me the two most difficult things are structure and transitions. This is autobiographical in the sense of the structure of my life. It follows the structure of my life in Screeching Weasel pretty closely because it was just easier to tell you the truth. And that goes for a lot of the transitions as well where it’s like, ‘ok here’s a difficult transition where I have to account for a certain amount of time.’ So what I’ll do is rip this experience from my own life, totally twist it around and fictionalize it but basically go, ‘oh, here was this gap where the band split up, so I’m going to use that and sort of gloss over that period of time in order to get to the next section.’ In that sense you can call it autobiographical, but I wouldn’t really call it autobiographical because if somebody else did that, if somebody else knew my life in the band and then that [Like Hell] was their own book, I wouldn’t recognize it.
Well, the first thing that caught my attention aside from the fact that it was about a touring punk band was the song “the Ship”, and you kind of answered that by saying you wrote it following your divorce and in the book you explain it as a way to help you get through a break-up or relationship…
The way it is presented in the book by the way is completely fictional. It was actually quite a while after the break-up that I wrote that song, it wasn’t even within 6 or 8 months or a year I don’t think. I think I wrote it maybe a year and a half after that. The main thing that everybody sees with that is they think that the character of the Hippie is Lawrence Livermore.
Well that’s the other thing, as you were talking about him it made me think about it.
The thing is that legally speaking I can’t really say anything, but I will say this. One, it’s not Larry Livermore and if anybody knows that it’s Larry Livermore, which is probably why he hasn’t said anything about it. I will say that that character is one part made up shit and then it’s 3 parts of different personalities of record label owners that I’ve known. I will never say who they are, I will never say if they are people I worked with or not, but absolutely if somebody was suing me and I were forced to take the stand I could definitely and provide witnesses to sit down and say this is from this person, this is from that person, this is from the third person and this shit isn’t from any of them because it’s completely made up. The thing is I wasn’t interested and I’m still not interested in telling the Screeching Weasel story. I think that if that story gets told, the best way for it to be told would be orally through me and John, maybe some of the other members, but I think that would come off a lot better than if any of us or any outside party tried to sit down and write it down. What I wanted to do was write the story of what it was like to be in a band at that time and to be playing in a sub-genre of music that got massively popular at a time and what it was like to go through that. Also in general, which isn’t time specific, just kind of what it feels like at times to be in a working band, a real band. Which, the majority of us are just scraping by and are not making a lot of money, and what’s that like and why do you do it? I really wanted to examine myself, the questions that I couldn’t answer and the questions that I could, to explain to other people. The biggest thing I wanted to do with that book was to de-mystify the idea of being in a band, the romanticizing of it. To just say ‘no, you shouldn’t be romantic about it and here’s why.’