By Poppy Tohill
Forming 26 years ago in 1988, California punk rocker's Pennywise who released their eleventh studio album ‘Yesterdays' on July 11th to celebrate their 26th year together. Prior to its release I had the pleasure of catching up with lead guitarist Fletcher Dragge for a chat on the phone where we talked about the history of Pennywise, the new upcoming album and what it's like being in a band for 26 years.
So it's been over a year since you guys released your last album ‘All Or Nothing,' what have you been up to during that time?
Travelling a lot. Obviously Jim came back to the band, which was a really cool thing that no one expected, so that set off us obviously going on tour and playing a bunch of shows. Then once we got back we were celebrating our 25th anniversary and at the same time after about a year of touring we started working on stuff for the new record. Originally their was talk of a greatest hits record, a box set, or something to celebrate our 25 years as a band, but we eventually ended up deciding that we'd go back and pull out a bunch of songs that were 15-25 years old and make a record with them. They'd never been recorded, and no one had ever heard them unless they were at one of our backyard parties back in 1991. So we learnt those songs and played them punk rock style in the room together and bashed them out like we used to do back in the old days and called the record ‘Yesterdays' and now it's coming out very soon.
A lot of the songs featured on ‘Yesterday's were written by Jason Thirsk (bassist/vocalist- now passed away) what does it mean to you guys to finally have these songs out there for everyone to hear?
It's really cool. Jason was a huge part of this band. He brought a huge chunk of art I guess you could say, with his way of thinking. The positive attitude he brought to the lyrics and the uplifting vibe was really his doing and once Jim came along they started collaborating which created another cool vibe again. So to go back through all these songs he's written, which we literally haven't played for 20 years, it was a really awesome feeling. We played a benefit show down here for a lot of our old friends who were back at the backyard parties 20 years ago, and we played six of these songs and everyone just went crazy. Everyone remembered the lyrics and the songs, which was insane because these songs have never been released or even recorded for that fact. They might have been on a cassette tape that someone recorded at one of the backyard parties maybe, but for the reaction that we got we were like, ‘Wow, we need to get in the studio and record these properly and give these songs to the whole world and let them hear Jason's songs.' I mean Jason obviously wrote a lot of songs, but this is like going back in the vaults and listening to a lot of these tapes from the early days and tying to figure out how to play them again. So its awesome to keep his memory alive, because music doesn't die you know. Personally someone might pass away, yah know, actors or musicians might pass away, but their movies, paintings and music live on forever. It's just one of those things where you can listen to something 50 years later and its still relevant and still makes you feel something. It's pretty cool and we're stoked to be putting these songs out in his memory.
‘Yesterdays' is said to mark a new chapter for the band, while still staying true to your roots, how would you say the album does this?
Particularly the rowdiness a little bit. Going back in the studio when you're a bigger band and have success, that comes with a lot of pressure for us to write good songs, and for the label also because they're getting pressure from the radio stations. They're wondering if we're going to write a song that can be played on the radio, and will make the fans happy. But we didn't really think about all that with this album, we're doing it for ourselves. Going back and picking songs that we love to play. Songs that were the foundations of where this band came from and we're just going to go and have fun. We're not going to spend a bunch of money, we're not going to spend a bunch of time working like we did when we didn't have a choice. The best albums out there from a band are usually the first or second albums. Usually the first because you're in a spot where you don't have anything to win or lose, they're just doing it because they want to do it and its very pure. Everyone tries to get back to that first album and it's really hard to do with all the pressure that comes with being an artist. But we don't care. We had almost no contact with the record company when working on ‘Yesterdays.' We just got in a little studio near the beach and did what we wanted to do, exactly how we wanted to do it, with no one there to tell us what to do. It really brought us back to what this band was all about and where it started from. I think it's a really good thing to do. We're in our 26th year now so it kind of put us back in our place like- ‘Hey this is fun, this is what we love.' Like a rebirth in a way. Not to get corny (laughs), but it's kind of something every band should do in a way. Just go for it!
I was telling a funny story the other day. When we were working on our first album, Randy the bass player and I used tuners that were those $15 clip on the neck of your guitar ones. Absolutely no producer would ever let you use a tuner like that in the studio, it's just a piece of junk that you can buy anywhere. Compared to the$500 tuners which artists are constantly using now a days. We were just laughing the whole time thinking ‘this is so awesome, I don't have to unplug my guitar and go through this massive process, I just tune it real quick and move on.' It was just a fun thing where we were able to let our guard down. I've always said, when you don't care- that's when the best stuff comes out. It's weird to say that because obviously you've got to care about what you're doing, when you're mixing or doing whatever it is you're doing. But if you don't care and you're just living in the moment of it and going with the vibe- those are the best records and the best experiences, I think. It's pretty fun and it made this album a lot different to the last one.
So the whole recording process for ‘Yesterdays' was very different to that of ‘All Or Nothing' I suspect?
Yeah, it was definitely quite different. Like I was saying, it was like going back to the days, 25 years ago when we had $500 to make a record instead of the $50,000 a lot of bands are spending now days. Bands literally spend millions to make a record now, and when you're a kid and you've only got 500-700 bucks, you just go in there and you do it and get it done and that's where the truth is and where the vibe is and being able to go back and just do things our own way and get back to that made a huge difference. It was just very striped down, no computer craziness. Everyone else now has replaced their drummer with samples. But we used no samples, just had everything all very natural. We didn't spend a lot of time getting sounds, so it was just a very relaxed, fun thing. I mean of course it was somewhat stressful cause you are making a record, so there's always a little bit of drama in the studio I should say, but at the same time it was a lot different and I wish we could do every record like that from now on.
In terms of your writing and recording process as a band when you are working on new material, do the lyrics always come first and then you go away and create the music, or does the music come first and then the lyrics- what is your guys process behind that side of things?
It varies, but for the most part I would say its the music first and then the lyrics. But, I know Jim will write a lot of stuff down and then he might fit it around the music. For me a lot of the time I'll just write a musical piece and I'll give it to Jim or come up with something myself. A lot of times I find that when I'm writing you're playing along on the guitar and then you're literally humming something while you're playing and then you wind up singing and writing lyrics while you're actually sitting there playing guitar. So it varies though, there could be a day where I write a whole musical song- intro and outro and I'll manage to break all that stuff down then just give it to Jim and he comes back with the whole song finished with lyrics and melodies, which is really cool. It just depends, but there's no specific way. We all get together and we all have our own opinions about which way a song should go, how long this part should be, how long that part should be and that's where it gets tough because everybody's got a strong opinion and no one is ever on the same page with anything. It's a process, you know. We're not just one of those bands where one guy writes everything and everyone else just does whatever he says. It's definitely a little bit harder being in Pennywise, that's for sure (laughs).
Do you have a particular favourite song on the album at all?
Definitely, my favourite song is actually a song Jim wrote. I mean all the songs that Jason wrote I love as well, as Jason and I wrote together sometimes. But my favourite is a song that Jim actually wrote about Jason after he passed away, it's called: "I Can't Remember" and it's just a really cool song reminiscing about those times and kind of looking back. It's basically talking about missing Jason, so it's got a lot of sentimental value and it's just a real cool song. Lyrically it's very sentimental.
As you were saying earlier, this album is sort of a celebration to mark Pennywise being together as a band for 26 years (which is a hell of a long time for a band) and as your eleventh album, that is also pretty crazy too. Do you maybe have any advice for other independent bands out there who are currently trying to reach the same level of success you guys have?
It's always the same with advice that I give and I don't think there's better advice out there. I've heard a lot of other people give it too, and its: play what's in your heart, and what you feel like playing. Don't chase trends, don't try to be something that you're not. When we started this band, punk rock was really not popular. There had been a pretty big wave of punk rock from 79-84 and then it just faded away, all the bands broke up and went away, and we started playing in 87'-88' and everyone was like, ‘why are you playing punk rock?,' nobody likes that style and nobody plays it anymore. You should sound more like this band or that band and we were like- ‘Ahhh, we don't like those bands. We like this music,' and we just kept doing it and we had a small following of people and then it slowly grew and grew and then eventually we got a record deal and put a record out, so we got a little bit of radio play and then before we knew it, punk rock blew up and we were right there, doing it underground for years before it became huge, so it's really just all about- doing what's in your heart and people will know that it's real. If you turn up and you're tattooed up to your neck and trying to play screamo or whatever, I hope you're doing it because you like it, because we see a lot of music trends come and go. Pop-punk, scar punk. Emo's kind of come and gone now and it's more hardcore metal which in my opinion has kind of taken over the spotlight. A lot of guys are jumping from style to style and band to band and at the end of the day, you're not really going to get anywhere doing that. Do it because you love it and not worry about making a living from it. If it's real and you're really into it, eventually you will be able to make a living off of it and even if you don't make a living out of it you're still going to be happy because you're doing what you want to do and not doing something just because it's trendy and you're just trying to be cool because that's pointless.
With the album released July 15th (tomorrow), what does the rest of 2014 have in store for Pennywise?
We are going to do a couple shows in Los Angeles around the release before heading off to tour the whole US of A with Offspring, then we're going to be going to Europe in November. We've got some cool things lined up for there with a really big band so that will be awesome. Then hopefully we're going to get down your way maybe January of next year, is the plan. We've been talking about that lately, so we'll see if it happens.
Having been together as a band for 26 years, you obviously know each other quite well, and spend a lot of time together, when on tour, does it sometimes get a bit hard always spending so much time together?
I mean, it is what it is really. We get sick of each other if something happens on the road. If somebody messes up, or gets too drunk and keeps everyone in the bus awake all night, there's going to be a lot of pissed off people in the morning, but it's not that bad. We're kind of like a family. When Jim was gone it was weird because even though we were fighting a little bit prior to him leaving, I think we all missed him, because it's like having a brother you know. You might not always get along with them, but at the end of the day they are your family. There may be a time where you're like ‘Oh fuck him, he did this or that,' and you get pissed off a little bit, but then you have a couple of beers, stay up all night drinking and everything's cool the next day, so it's just case by case. But I think we all get along pretty good and I think now days we get along way better because I think we all realise we need the chemistry, we need each other. We're one of those bands where you don't just replace members. Everybody has a role, everybody's got something to bring to the table and there's a dynamic that happens when we're all together on the stage or in the studio or practice room, and we need that. So, I think we've realised that and know that at the hardest times we're able to take responsibility.