As regular readers know, I’ve been working on a project for almost a decade delving into punk and spirituality called, Conversations with Punx. I’ve spoken to over 70 people in the punk and hardcore community about their thoughts and feelings on, and experiences with, spirituality, creativity and the like. One of the folks I’ve talked to for it is Ben Weasel, frontman for Screeching Weasel and (until their breakup in 2011) the Riverdales.
For my project I spoke to Ben twice, the conversations a few years apart. The first time we spoke was in the early 2000s (so please keep that in mind when reading; people do grow, evolve and change their mind on things) and Ben was a practising Buddhist. By the time we spoke again, he had found a home in Catholicism.
Here’s the first conversation where he talks about all kinds of things like meditation, ego, Johnny Ramone, songwriting, punk rock nostalgia acts, the perils of fame – sharing an instance involving Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong, of getting spiritual advice from Operation Ivy’s Jesse Michaels and of good people in punk rock such as Adam Pfahler of Jawbreaker plus why Australia scares him, if there’s a connection between punk and spirituality and, a whole lot more!
The second conversation, can be found in Conversations with Punx limited edition zine #7 – Gratitude (along with interviews with Duane Peters & Corey Parks, Franklin Rhi, Russ Rankin, Brad Warner +Lord Ezec) as well as the forthcoming book version. Stay tuned for info.
Can we talk about what inspired your solo album?
BEN WEASEL: Yeah. Probably more than anything transcendentalist thought, specifically Thoreau and Emerson; Buddhism, probably to a lesser extent but still, Mahayana Buddhism as well.
The title “Fidatevi” translates to: Trust in yourselves/trust in each other. Why did you choose that for the title?
BW: Apparently my stuff does well in Italy. I thought that a lot of the Italian fans don’t know English so I thought to translate that. I thought about doing something with an Italian title because I was going to translate the lyrics as well.
Conceptually, the idea was to present it in a manner (it says on the lyric sheet: notes to self) that was saying, these are post it notes for me. It was a way of getting something different across that I hadn’t really tried on a whole album before.
When you’re writing lyrics there are different approaches you can take. The classic punk rock approach is to be really aggressive and often at times to have an accusatory tone. I’ve done plenty of that myself but, I’m tired of doing things in that way. …It’s genuine, so hopefully it was designed to speak to people who happen to be at a point in their lives when that kind of stuff resonates with them.
With a lot of reviews of the album people seemed a little surprised by it and its lyrical content.
BW: Yeah. I can understand why, although if you go back to 1991, if you look at Screeching Weasel records there are songs of that nature on virtually all the records. What might have been surprising for those people was that it was unusual to see it all on one record.
Didn’t you gain some inspiration for the album while in mediation?
Do you still practice meditation?
How did you become involved with that?
BW: Very slowly. I started doing some on tour with the Riverdales in 1995. I started doing basic relaxation things before I would play – breathing, a little bit of visualisation, muscle relaxation, that kind of thing. I found that when I did that before I played, I was much more relaxed. I’m very different from a lot of people. For me, building up a good type of energy that can translate well to a show requires that I’m much more relaxed. I don’t need to get amped up. A lot of people have to get amped up in order to go out and put on a good show or if they’re recording a record, to really perform the way they want to perform. For me it’s the opposite.
A year later, I was having health problems. In addition to the medical things I was doing, antibiotics and everything else, my doctor jokingly wrote me a prescription for the Jon Kabat-Zinn book, Wherever You Go There You Are. It’s a basic primer for a secular form of sitting meditation.
I had to learn on my own and didn’t learn very well. I practised erratically. I started reading more about Buddhism and found myself drawn particularly to Mahayana Buddhism.
The difference between 1995 and now is pretty radical in terms of the basis but, in terms of my actual practice, it’s probably actually not that much different. I’m still focusing on breathing meditation primarily but I do other practices. I still very much consider myself a beginner. I wouldn’t call myself an accomplished meditator. I would say more accurately that I try to meditate.
I know you’ve studied different religions and spirituality; what prompted you to? Where you looking for something?
BW: No. Initially I don’t know that I was looking for something. I’ve always had an interest in religion. I was Baptised Catholic but I was not raised Catholic. I was raised in a Catholic neighbourhood. Myself and my siblings were some of the only kids on the block that went to public school. Everyone else went to Catholic school. I was always a little jealous of that even though they were more jealous of us because we had more freedom than them. I really had, and still do have, great admiration for Catholicism. I like a lot of the rituals and the history of tradition. I like it much more than I do other strains of Christianity that I’ve experienced personally.
Unfortunately, when I was a child I had to attend Baptist church for about a year. I think that probably turned me off Christianity forever. It really gave me a lot of negative feelings about Christianity in general. Five years ago, I began to come to terms with that by investigating Christianity a little bit more, recognising that the interpretation that I have on it now is influenced by people’s interpretation, that is much more open and concerned with certain things that I think are important in any religion, then what I was taught.
As early as 1991, I was interested enough to write a song looking at religion and looking at the role of faith in people’s lives and how it affects it. The song, The Science of Myth, was obviously from the title inspired by the Joseph Campbell stuff that was popular at the time. He had done the interview series with Bill Moyers, “The Power of Myth”. What I was really looking at on that song was the concept of faith having a tangible impact on people’s lives and sort of saying, it’s not really relevant if it’s literally true or not; looking at it as a metaphor but looking at it as, how faith can actually help people? I would say at that point, I was looking at it from a more objective point of view, where I didn’t feel any particular need or desire to get involved in religion. Having written that song from where it came from, was going through and finding out a little more about religion, for instance Buddhism, which I knew very little about. At the time I had no desire to involve myself with religion. I think when I started reading about it, it was just a natural progression from reading about mediation, where I felt I’m interested to see what kind of concepts and ideas are out there ‘cause I know where this is coming from even though the meditation practice I’m doing is secular. I began reading some of the more popular books about that. Some were very good but ultimately they weren’t satisfying, it felt like I wasn’t getting enough nuts and bolt information. I wasn’t getting any proper context.
When I decided to pursue religious study and practice more seriously, ironically – it didn’t have anything to do with it – was around the time of the 9/11 crash. Maybe in some small way it did but, I think a few months prior to that my life had kind of been in bad shape. I finally reached the point where I said to myself, I’m tired of going through this cycle over and over every year or two and repeating the same thing over and over. At that point I had read enough about Buddhism to realise there was something there that if I were to apply these techniques to my life in a very practical pragmatic nuts and bolts kind of way, then I said, I’ll give this a shot. I expected to be very disappointed very quickly and as it turned out that was not the case.
It’s interesting because I think part of the reason why I was drawn to the Tibetan school of Buddhism was precisely for the same reason I found Catholicism interesting and felt drawn to that. Obvious irreconcilable theological differences aside, there are parallels and similarities in the whole ritual and there’s a lot of stuff going on. If you’re into Zen you’re sitting on a mat meditating that’s it period. You do other things but, that’s about it. Whereas with the Tibetan school you get more bells and whistles, a lot of people don’t like that but I’m really attracted to that. It’s not because it’s there, it’s because it’s there and serves a purpose.
Do you think that religion and spirituality is the same thing?
BEN WEASEL: I think “spirituality” is necessarily a word that I like because, I don’t really know what it means. I think that if you say the word spirituality to certain people then people get kind of a new age-y, crystals and pyramid idea in their head. I don’t really know what it means?
Obviously organized religion is something that is a turn off for quite a lot of people. Having been there myself, I completely understand and I would be the last person to try and change someone’s mind about that. At the same time, I think that to some extent at some point, if you consider yourself a spiritual person or a person that is into spirituality or whatever, and you feel like you are capable of navigating the complexities of the implications of that completely on your own, then you’re probably kidding yourself. I guess that can sound like a bad thing to say. All I mean by that is that yes, you can have a lot of self-determination and a lot of confidence and a lot of wisdom, and yeah I believe all that stuff is inherent and that you’re inherently good and all this stuff but the fact of the matter is, your still ignorant—we’re all still ignorant. There’s things that we don’t know. You could be the most motivated person in the world but if you want to go fix the faucet, you have to have someone tell you how to fix the faucet or you have to read about how to fix it. There are very few people that are just going to be able to go do that.
I find that most people that I’ve run into that are into the whole spirituality thing, who have that attitude, there’s a bit of an arrogance there where they really think they’re that special in terms of being an individual who can fix the faucet without knowing anything about plumbing or tools or anything like that. I do not have the confidence in myself that I have that much innate knowledge. I’m not saying, here’s what somebody should do or here’s what somebody shouldn’t do but, I do think…the concept of spirituality to me is when I hear that word it’s so vague and can mean so many different things that to me, it doesn’t really mean much of anything at all. I think if you’re living a spiritual life, it doesn’t mean you have to be involved in an organized religion but, it does mean that certain rules, whether they’re of your own making or not are going to apply. Certain standards and certain values are there and they are extremely firm, core things. I find that these people that refer to themselves as spiritual quite often pick and choose.
A good example is this book, Dharma Punx. I think that is an incredibly disingenuous book. I think it’s one of the most poorly written books I’ve ever read. I think it does a great disservice to punk rock and the dharma. Here’s a guy whose father is a famous Buddhist writer; that’s great that he can afford to fly off to India whenever he wants but, here’s a guy that’s grounded in a secular offshoot in the Southern schools of Buddhism but then he meets the Dali Lama and decides to incorporate some of the Mahayana practice. It’s like that’s fine but, it doesn’t have anything to do with anything. All you’re going to end up doing if you approach spiritual practice in that way is, you’re going to end up adding to your confusion. The Southern schools believe that the highest goal you aspire to is liberation or nirvana, the Mahayana schools on the other hand believes that the highest goal you aspire to is enlightenment, Buddhahood. There’s a radical difference there. The Southern schools focus on certain practices for very specific reasons, when you start incorporating the Mahayana practices into that then you’re going to lose focus. I mean pick one.
I don’t mean to sound so strident about it but I think that book does way more harm than good. I’ve been telling people, if you know the Dharma and don’t know anything about punk rock and you read this book, you’re going to come away with a completely fucked up idea about what punk rock is and, if you know punk rock and you nothing about the Dharma, you’re going to come away with a completely fucked up idea of what the Dharma is. I think it’s a very unhealthy book. I think it’s misleading. I think it’s not a good book for people to read, I feel very strongly about that. I would warn people off that. I wouldn’t say don’t read it but I would say, know what you’re getting into when you read it; know this doesn’t really have anything to do with the Dharma.
An interesting thing is one of the themes in Dharma Punx is addiction and what a lot of people don’t understand about addiction is that just because you remove the drugs and alcohol doesn’t mean that the underlying basic attitude has changed. To me Dharma Punx is a case of a hardcore addict that just happens to not be using drugs at the moment and is using spirituality as his drug. That’s a harsh assessment and from a spiritual perspective, from my practice perspective, that’s a bad thing to say and I’m sure my teacher would scald me for saying such a thing ‘cause I should be focusing on my own shortcomings and my own inadequacies. By the same token, I feel personally insulted coming from a punk rock background and also from a religious background. I feel insulted by the utter inanity of that book and that supermarket shopping cart perspective to Buddhism where you just pick and choose what looks flashy and interesting and put it into your cart and then, ‘oh I’m a spiritual person’. Good for you! If you really were, you wouldn’t need to announce it.
From my own perspective though, I should say, I shouldn’t talk about this stuff because my own practice is fragile at best. I still struggle to get up in the morning and maintain my shrine and do my meditation practice. Some days it’s easier than others. I’m still very much a beginner. I still very much have my head kind of up my butt from a religious or spiritual perspective. I mean that sincerely. One of the problems with the Tibetan schools of Buddhism is that humility is really, really stressed and these great amazing teachers like the Dali Lama and people like that, play down their importance and are really humble when in fact they’re extremely wise people, extremely knowledgeable people. …This isn’t me trying to be humble for the sake of being humble it’s really true, like I’m lost most of the time. I’m just trying to maintain a very basic simple practice.
Another difference is that if you’re going to get into Zen, it’s my belief that you should find a teacher that you can work well with and then you listen to that teacher. Obviously if you’re taught something that doesn’t make sense to you, then it makes no sense to just blindly follow it. I have never believed in that. By the same token, I believe that you have to have an open mind. For myself if there is something that doesn’t quite make sense to me or that I’m saying to myself, nah, I don’t really believe in that, instead of just completely throwing it away and walking away and saying it’s all bullshit (which would have been my attitude in the past) I just say, well I’m going to put that on the shelf, it’s no use to me now, I can’t make myself believe something I don’t believe so I’m just not going to worry about that right now. I’ll concentrate on the things that are helpful and are relevant and that are pragmatic. I have a very utilitarian view of religion. If it doesn’t serve a purpose it’s of no use to me and I have no interest in it.
A lot of people who are into Tibetan Buddhism will go out of their way to learn the language. The reason for doing so, I would assume most of the time, their teacher’s primary language is often Tibetan and they want to be able to communicate in that language. As well as something can be translated, you can’t translate everything precisely. To me, I feel like I’m getting the gist of it and I don’t feel I need to go learn another language, that time could be better spent just learning how to deal with the basic stuff. I’m not knocking someone’s decision necessarily. I’m just saying whatever you choose you’ve got to follow that. It’s my feeling that if you go with some of these western sort of ex-hippie people who have decided to start things like insight meditation and stuff like that, I’m not saying that’s not of value, I think it is of value but your missing some of the, I think, crucial components of an ancient religion. You’re allowing yourself to be taught by people who have just in the past forty and fifty years decided that 2, 5000 years of Buddhism wasn’t good enough and they needed to change it. To me, if I’m going to put myself in somebody’s hands in a spiritual sense, I’m a lot more comfortable with doing that with someone who has a lineage that goes back to the Buddha Shakyamuni, who has studied and practiced in this for most of their life, than I am in somebody who use to drop acid and smoke pot in San Francisco and then got turned on to religion in the ’70s.
You were saying before that you don’t so much like the word “spirituality”; do you have a better word to describe it?
BW: No, I think it’s a fine word but, I just think for a lot of people it creates a lot of negative connotations. For me, I think that when you use that word, you just need to be careful. I do use the words, spiritual and spirituality. My friend upstairs, my neighbour is a recently retired minister. I talk with them quite a bit and we talk religion quite a bit so the word spirituality is thrown around quite a lot but, there’s sort of a common ground there where we both know where each other is coming from. That word almost serves then as a short hand. When I use that word I use it as a shorthand, in other words when I’m speaking to you, I assume you understand the context in which I’m using it. For a lot of people spirituality might mean that, yeah I sit around with a pyramid hat on and stare at crystals and am into new age music. That type of new age personality is to me, one of the most deluded types of personalities on the planet and is about as far from spiritual that you can get. I guess that’s what I’m kind of getting at. I’m not into this hippie idea of, oh spirituality man, is anything you want it to be, no it’s not—it’s fucking not.
Spirituality, I don’t know if I can define it? There are a couple of things I do know. I do know that it is not dependent on a religious affiliation or association, that is not necessary to live a spiritual life. By the same token, I believe that it’s an absolute fact that even if you’re a stone cold Atheist and you’re living a spiritual life (which is entirely possible) that there are still basic human morals and values that are at the essence of your being that you live by and that those take precedent over anything else, including whatever a religious teacher might say to you. The fact of the matter is, there are a lot of people in positions of authority in religious communities that have no business being there; that are terrible teachers that are more confused than their own students.
Do feel there’s a connection between punk and spirituality?
BW: No I don’t; only in the sense that there might be with a lot of music. I don’t think it’s specific to punk but because that’s where I’m coming from, I can always speak to that.
I think that punk music (not so much anymore) but at one point, attracted people that were really sort of outside the norm of society. It attracted the outsider and then people who didn’t fit in anywhere. Those people as they get older are more likely to feel themselves drawn to religion or spirituality. I also think that you have to remember that people in general as they get older are drawn more towards that because you begin to become more aware of your own mortality. You see your body starting to breakdown, you get aches and pains you didn’t have before, you see friends and relatives dying at a rate you probably didn’t see when you were younger; you recognise that you’re going to die, you’re getting older. If you’re a man you might start losing your hair or it might start going grey, it’s a little harder to keep the gut off and all that stuff and people in general do that.
The only thing I can think specific to punk rock is, that there is a sense of wanting something more, wanting something better—that goes through a lot of punk rock. I have to say though, I really think that where that ultimately ends up in most punk rock and with most punk rockers, is in a sense of nihilism which is obviously very different from what we’re talking about. I think there’s a fatalistic nihilistic quality to all punk rock, even the most positive punk rock. There’s a naïve hopefulness, if you’re coming from a political type of perspective or socio-political perspective in punk that suggests, oh if we just make the right changes to the system, to the way the government is, the way laws are and to how social problems are dealt with, then everything is going to be ok…well, it’s not! We’re still faced with the problem of human existence, mortality, sickness and disease. That is part of the human condition and that’s not going to go away. The difficulties of dealing with relationships and other things is that these are things that no matter what government are in place or not in place or how social problems are dealt with, these are always going to be problems. To put it very simply, it’s always going to be painful to be alive. It’s always going to be difficult to be alive and that doesn’t mean that I think we shouldn’t try to make positive changes in the world but it does mean, I believe, that if you focus on that too much then you turn the focus away from your own hang ups and your own fucked up-ed-ness and you don’t do anything to move yourself closer to a place of peace and relative happiness. You kind of get involved with all this peripheral stuff and it really ends up serving as a distraction from your own problem, your own ego, your own bullshit. Again, I think it’s very naïve.
Ultimately, what happens to a lot of people and I’ve been seeing it since I was a teenager is, when they come to that realisation that those efforts that they’re making are not going to change the world, a lot of people just do a complete 180 and they swear off punk rock and they really develop a hatred towards it. It’s not that fault of a form of music. It’s the way the world is. They set up unrealistic expectations for a scene full of people that evolve from a type of music and that’s their problem, that’s their fault for putting those expectations on it. I knew it was my fault when I put those expectations on it when I was younger, I did that as well. It’s just a form of music. If you ask ten different punk rockers to describe what punk rock is and what it means you’re going to get ten different answers. I don’t think you can concern yourself so much with that. As far as the connection between the two, I personally don’t really see it.
Up until now with books like Hardcore Zen and Dharma Punx, it seems as though spirituality hasn’t, to my knowledge, really been talked about openly in the punk scene. It’s been taboo in a way.
BW: Yeah. I agree with you absolutely on that point because there was a point where every band (this was mostly in the ’80s although it continued to some extent in the ’90s but it really, really petered out in the ’90s) for a long time every band had to have their anti-religion song. To talk about anything spiritual was exactly like what I was talking about before, that people immediately equated that with hippies, in spite of often having politics that were straight out of the hippie guidebook or the hippie handbook. There’s kind of a delicious irony to that. I’m really happy that, that particular form of idiocy seems to have relatively been purged from punk. There’s plenty of more idiocy that needs to go as well. I definitely agree with you on that there’s no questioning, that’s a fact.
Do you see your friends and peers in the punk rock community getting into spirituality more now days? I read an interview you did with Jesse Michaels [Operation Ivy, Common Rider, Classics of Love] from Hitlist in 1999 and you mentioned he gave out meditation pamphlets at shows. I also read that one day you rang him because you had been doing meditation for some time and you were stuck.
BW: What happened in that case was that I did feel stuck and I had read quite a bit that if you really want to make progress in your practice you need a teacher. I said that really there’s no body that I know beside from Jesse (who I hadn’t spoken with in probably five years at that point, not because we weren’t getting along but because he had been off doing his own thing, I didn’t even know where he was) …I knew that he had lived in a Zen monastery for a while. I figured literally, he is the only person I know who I could talk to about this. I called him and we discussed some things and he gave me some advice.
You talked a little before about the ego. I’m wondering if you’d consider yourself a grounded person.
BW: How do you mean that?
Well, with everything you do and have done over the years, the fact you’re a prominent figure in the punk community; do you think you’ve stayed grounded throughout that time? I read a review of your solo album in a zine and the reviewer said: this is the first solo release from everybody’s favourite asshole. Maybe living in Australia and not being in the middle of what’s happening in the scene in the US, maybe I’ve missed something? I’m curious why he’d say that?
BW: Apparently you don’t know. I developed a reputation primarily through the columns I use to write in Maximum Rock N Roll as being a very big mouth, shit disturber; just really making a lot of noise and being very forthright to the point of annoying the hell out of a lot of people—that’s actually all true. It was an image that I cultivated that was based on a reality but, was greatly exaggerated for public effect. I did it for a very specific reason. I wanted to be noticed. If I had to do it over, I’d like to say I wouldn’t do it the same way but the truth is, it worked. Unfortunately a lot of negative things came from that.
To me punk rock was about being loud and aggressive, and I don’t mean physically aggressive. My take on it was that you’ve got to be able to really fight with words, that you’ve really got to be able to make your point and you’ve got to be able to take a point of view and stick with it no matter what, not obstinately in a silly kind of way but one where you can actually justify what you’re saying. Ultimately that’s all kind of games. That’s how I developed that reputation. I think also till this day I have that reputation because there are certain…if you were going to be kind and describe me you might say, I don’t suffer fools gladly. I don’t believe in the phoniness of rock n roll and especially punk rock. I am continually perpetually offended by punk rock bands and fans and figures in the punk rock scene who live and thrive on the notion that they’re “real” when I happen to know for a fact that a few of them, and I suspect with quite a few others, are phoney as hell. I’m not particularly shy about pointing that out. So that’s where that particular reputation comes from.
In terms of being grounded, I think that I’ve been fortunate and I guess to a large extent it’s been by design…look I’ve known a lot of people in punk rock and there’s a lot of different kinds of people but, if you want to simplify it, there’s two kind of people in punk who are well known figures. There’s the kind that go out of their way to surround themselves with sycophants and people like that, then there are people that go out of their way to put themselves in normal surroundings. I probably did that for two reasons. 1) To remain grounded, and 2) I felt from a creative point of view, you’re just going to write better songs. All art is or should be or should aspire to is, a reflection of the human condition. To me, the less you’re around that bullshit (all the trappings of being well known or whatever) the more you’re surrounded by real life and people, who are living and working, just trying to get by who aren’t particularly impressed with your status in that little punk scene; you’re more likely to be able to capture it in songs or in writing or whatever you choose to do. You are able to capture the essence of something that most people are going to be able to relate to. I would like to think that has worked well for me in terms of keeping me grounded. I think everybody thinks of themselves as grounded. I certainly have my moments of my ego going out of control. When you’re talking about that stuff you can only sort of judge yourself against other people you know.
When I look at some of the people I know and I look at some of the situations that they have put themselves into, the people they’ve surrounded themselves with and the decisions that they’ve made of how they conduct themselves and live their lives, I feel that I’ve made a wiser choice for myself. I can’t speak for them, maybe that was the best choice for them but for me, it’s extremely important to stay focused and stay as much as possible in the real world.
When I was out on tour with Green Day and they had just hit it big and were really popular (especially in Europe) I saw things like Billie Joe trying to walk down the street with his wife and his son in a baby carriage and screaming teenage girls coming up to him on the street. Clearly this was not fun for him. I never had a discussion with him about it but I witnessed it and I thought to myself, how absolutely horrifying! I’d love to have the money of being a rich, famous rock star, who wouldn’t? But I really don’t know if it’s worth the price that you pay? Although that’s a moot point since I’ve never had enough people buying my records to be even remotely in that realm.
Who’s one of the most genuine people you know in punk rock?
BW: I think that some of my favourite people are friends that are just real people and down-to-earth people. There’s very, very many including my band mates. I think of guys like Adam Pfahler from Jawbreaker, he’s a very together guy very grounded. Chris Barrows from the Pink Lincon’s, he’s a guy which whom I have tremendous respect. I don’t even like mentioning names because there’s quite a few. I’ve gone out of my way to associate with those types of people because I feel that I can not only relate to them more but, in some weird way that, they’re a good influence on me. I feel like they are people of such quality, that certainly they wouldn’t tolerate me if I was acting like some sort of rock star. I feel if I can retain friendship with these people that I respect and admire greatly, then that says something slightly positive about me.
There’s quite a lot of them and a lot of them aren’t famous people but people that have been in punk rock for many, many years since they were kids, who I think of being really genuine people. The other side of this and I’m of course not going to name names interestingly enough, is that there are people I know that are known as being really genuine down-to-earth people who are some of the most flighty, head in the clouds, most obsessed with themselves people I’ve ever met, yet their entire reputation is based on this alleged down-to-earthness that I know for a fact that they don’t posess, that they’re not even vaguely familiar with.
Punk rock is so concerned with…the people that are involved with it, are so concerned with proving that they’re real and behaving like they’re real, that they’re genuine and down-to-earth and the irony of this is that, all rock n roll is an act. Maybe more than any of it, punk rock is an act. The very act of being in a rock n roll band is by nature an act.
Another person that I thought of that I don’t actually know but I interviewed once and who struck me as one of the most down-to-earth people I ever encountered in punk rock was Johnny Ramone, interestingly enough. He was one of the most friendliest and down-to-earth people I’ve ever met. Who would have thought, with the Ramones being as popular as they were and as successful and as influential as they were but, that was the case.
What’s one of the most fulfilling things about what you do?
BW: For me, I like writing quite a bit but I don’t really make very much money writing. In terms of the punk stuff, it’s song writing far and away that’s the most satisfying thing. The process of song writing I enjoy tremendously. It’s really one of the only things associated with punk rock that I could say with absolute conviction, I’d be doing whether I had made money from it or not. I really do enjoy it. I feel it’s one of the few things I’m actually good at. The stuff that comes after it, the teaching the song to the other band members, working on the arranging, rehearsing, recording, performing probably…I don’t care for performing and I never did…I like recording sometimes, parts of it I like. I’m not much of a fan of rehearsal either and arranging is something I don’t have a lot of patience for which has really hurt me in the past and it’s something I’ve vowed to take more time with. The song writing is the main thing for me. I’ve never understood these bands that people like even though it’s not like they’ve got all these great songs but, yeah they sound really good and they got a good feel and good vibe. Those things are important but, if they don’t have great songs to begin with, who cares? That’s always been my attitude. I don’t know that most people feel that way.
Screeching Weasel did a reunion show recently. Will we ever see you in Australia?
BW: I doubt it. Australia scares me!
Why is that?
BW: Because it’s all fucking crazy wild animals that shoot poison out of their butts! [laughs]. The truth is Screeching Weasel is sort of seemingly the band that will never break up. The truth is that the time has passed and at this point anything that we do, if you give it an honest assessment, it’s just a nostalgia act. I’m not saying that that’s necessarily a bad thing. It was something I never wanted to do. If I’m going to do a nostalgia act the money better be very, very good—I’m serious. It’s doing a job to me. There’s nothing creative about it. There’s nothing creative to me about going out and singing songs that I wrote when I was in my early twenties; they were valid then, they meant a lot then. They can still mean a lot now to people who are discovering them or are rediscovering them, I respect that, I have no problem with that. I’m just saying personally for me, I have a very short attention span and I’m really into whatever I happen to be doing creatively at the moment. To go back and do this stuff where there’s really nothing involved creatively, all it’s about is going out and performing the songs. Essentially what you’re looking at is a Screeching Weasel cover band where the band happens to be the actual band. We’re not the band we were in 1991 or 1993, not because we have some different members, it’s because we’re very different people and we’re in a very different place.
I think that when people pay to see bands like mine that have been around for such a long time, what they’re paying for is an experience of what it must have been like to be there at the time when the band was most relevant. That’s inherently dishonest. It’s their choice if they want to pay to see that, they’re going to be disappointed, or maybe they won’t be disappointed, maybe they’ll be able to generate that feeling within themselves. That’s not particularly something I want to sell. I think the unfortunate thing is that I can go out and say (I have and I will) that, hey I’m only going to do this for the money, and say the things I’ve been saying to you about creativity and blah blah blah and still, in my heart I know it’s not going to deter people from showing up. …I’m really not very comfortable with it, I’m really not very happy about it and it’s certainly not the worst thing in the world but, it’s better than going back to work in the factory warehouse. If things ever got that financially bad I’d do it. I’m sure that parts of it can be enjoyable and there’s some of the old songs that I really do enjoy playing but, I think the bigger problem is that people are looking for an experience that we are no longer capable of delivering because we don’t have a time machine. What it becomes is a Vegas act or nostalgia act. I find that personally embarrassing. I think that given that in our attempts to look into this in the past couple of months, we have discovered that the promoters aren’t willing to put up a lot of money that it’s probably not going to happen at all in the States, let alone overseas. My feeling is that I’ve been planning to put together another band since last summer. I’ve been working on songs and demoing songs. To me, it’s better to put my energy towards that even though it’s not likely to make money and more likely it’ll lose money. Right now, for the type of music that I’m doing, it’s not a good time. It’s not a good time at all financially.
With love & light,
*Photos by Marc Gaertner.