Skratch Magazine corners Pennywise guitarist Fletcher Dragge!
With their latest record, the socio-political FROM THE ASHES, punk stalwarts Pennywise are continuing their noble quest to enlighten listeners by exposing society's vast injustices and problems within the American government. Here, guitarist Fletcher Dragge discusses the album and explains why Pennywise won't ever back down.
SKRATCH: Can you talk about FROM THE ASHES? What were you going for musically?
FLETCHER: As far as music goes, I think [it's] sort of secondary to Pennywise's lyrics. [...] We start putting something together lyrically, and when the album starts taking shape [...], the music starts to follow into a certain type of pattern, you know? If it's gonna be a pissed-off, angry, aggressive song, you're probably gonna have some real fast, aggressive music; and if you're gonna have a song like "Yesterdays", which is a little more emotional and heartfelt, you're gonna have something a little more cruising. So I think it just starts to take on a shape on its own almost; it's not like we really try to go for anything. Everyone's bringing in songs and contributes, so as we start finding out what direction it's sounding like it should go, then things start to fit into place, and we're like, "Okay, we got this many mid-tempo songs---let's come up with a couple really fast ones; or maybe we need a slow one or something different." You start looking at it from an overall album perspective. That's one thing we really try to do: to write albums that fit together like a puzzle, rather than just writing three or four good songs and then throw in a bunch of shit like a lot of albums, unfortunately. We put 110% into every song and try to make it into something where you listen to the whole record through and you just feel like you got a whole experience from that. If you pull certain songs off our record and listen to them by themselves, they feel kind of weird; but within the context of the record, you get an overall picture of what we're trying to do. I think it became something that was more of an emotional roller coaster in a way than a lot of our records, because we had songs about the future and hope for the future and positive-type stuff, and we had songs that were about defeat, and we had songs that were anti-government, and we had songs [about wanting] to go back in time and be a kid...So I think that we had a lot of different things coming in to play on this album, lyrically and musically.
SKRATCH: You said the lyrics are so important, and with this record it seems the main message basically is to open your eyes and see what's going on in the world. Did you discuss this at all before?
FLETCHER: I think there was a little discussion. We got a little backlash from some fans on LAND OF THE FREE because it was a pretty politically-charged album. After 9/11 happened, people were a little confused as to what Pennywise was about, because we had a lot of anti-government-type songs on that record, and people were feeling like they needed to be behind the government. Going into our next record, people were writing on our message board, "I hope they don't write another political album." And we talked about that, saying, "We're gonna write what we believe is true and what needs to be talked about and what we feel in our hearts"---so I think it's like shooting ourselves in the foot, because we know people don't wanna hear "fuck the government" right now, being in the situation we're in. But I think the government's responsible for what's going on out there. We're not responsible for the 9/11 attack; our government has pissed people off to the point of no return, and using terrorists to fight our battles, using Osama Bin Laden, putting Saddam Hussein in power---all this stuff is the doing of our government. We don't have any say or any control over what they're doing overseas, and because of that, innocent people died; so we're not gonna let up on what we believe needs to be addressed...and we still think there's a lot of problems with our government policy, our foreign policy---and we're gonna sing songs to hopefully open people's eyes to these matters, because we think it's important. And it might not sell records; we might not be as popular as Britney Spears or Good Charlotte, but we're doing something we need to be doing. And it's a tough time to be doing it. But we kind of discussed the fact that, Hey, you know what? We're not gonna bow down and change what we would usually do because it might affect record sales or how we're perceived in the public eye 'cause it's the time to love America. Well, guess what? We DO love America. We HATE the problems America has, with everything from police corruption to teachers not being paid properly. Education's in the toilet, environmental guidelines are a joke...There are so many problems, [so]we're not just gonna sit by and not voice our opinions, because we believe it's important to make this country a better place. The only way that's gonna happen is for people to talk, for people to vote, for people to protest. And that's what we're gonna keep doing, whether or not it's the popular thing to do at the moment. It wasn't popular to be in a punk band when we started, and we persevered through that; so we're just gonna keep on going.
SKRATCH: About the political side, you're contributing a track to Fat Mike's ROCK AGAINST BUSH. Is that going to be a new song?
FLETCHER: We haven't discussed whether we're gonna write a new one. We could pretty much pick five or six songs off this album or our last album that would fit in nicely. "God Save the U.S.A." might be a pretty good one: "Blame your president and say your prayers tonight." It's got some pretty good underlying messages. I'm not sure, but there'll definitely be something on there; and hopefully that album will raise some awareness. Our thinking is that if someday the president was a NOFX fan or a Pennywise fan or a Bad Religion fan, then we're gonna be doing pretty good. The more people who grow up listening to bands that have some kind of substance and message behind them, the better chance of having someone who believes the same things we believe in some kind of government office. As kids get older, we're getting closer to that time period where we might have a Pennywise fan somewhere important someday. Maybe a Pennywise MEMBER will be somewhere important someday. If Arnold Schwarzenegger can win, I think one of us can win.
SKRATCH: I was actually going to ask what you think about punks running for office, like Jack Grisham.
FLETCHER: I voted for Jack. I knew he wasn't going to win, but I voted for him because out of all the people [running], he'd be the guy I trusted the most. I know him quite well, and I have a T.S.O.L. tattoo on my wrist. I like when independents run and have a different slant on things and aren't affected by politics, because most of the people who are running are politicians or wanna-be politicians, and they're gonna wind up doing the same shit everybody else does: they're gonna promise a bunch of things, and when they get into office, they're gonna find out [they] can't do it [...] And nothing's gonna happen, and nothing's gonna change. So I think it's great. Someone like Jack or Jello Biafra would make great governors. I thought Jesse Ventura was an alright governor. I don't know much about him, but I know he spoke the truth. I know he's not that educated in politics and kind of a joke, but he had a lot of good things to say. And I think that's what this country needs: more of an average citizen, a working man who's been in the trenches, who's felt the brunt of not having health insurance or felt what it's like to have your kid coming home from school with a second-grade education when he's in the sixth grade. All this kind of stuff the people [normally] running for office don't have any [understanding of]. Schwarzenegger's a fucking multi-millionaire. Granted he came from the ground up, but I don't think [he] had to experience that kind of stuff. If you put somebody in there who's been struggling to support their family and really has a handle on how it feels, I think you're gonna have some different opinions; so I think it's important for independents to run. I think Jack would've made a great governor, and it would've been cool if I could've called him up and said, "Hey dude, let's do something about this," and he would've said, "Okay, let's get on it." But it didn't happen. But my vote was there. Oh yeah, wait a second: Jack also...They did a benefit show to raise money for his campaign, and we were asked to play it; but we were busy doing nothing, so we didn't play it. But there were like 20 bands, and he told everybody at the show, "Pennywise was supposed to play, but they wanted to get paid," because he's a smart-ass liar. That's the thanks I get. He's cracking jokes like that, making people walk away thinking we wanted to get paid for his benefit show---and I still voted for him!
SKRATCH: What about people who criticize you guys for pretty much sticking with the same sound over the years?
FLETCHER: Don't buy our records. We've said it a million times: we can play pop-punk, we can play emo, we can play new wave, we can play reggae, we can play ska---we can pretty much play whatever we want. We can play metal. We write songs for our albums that sound like Pennywise because that's who we are, that's who our fans grew up listening to. There's nothing worse than going to get your favorite band's next album and finding that they don't sound like your favorite band anymore. To me, that's the worst thing. You're listening to Black Flag and totally into it, and on the third album they come out with a bunch of acoustic-guitar songs. People are backing out. We've seen it happen a million times, so we try to [have] a little variety on each album, and if you're a true Pennywise fan you'll realize that each album has its own characteristics and doesn't sound the same. There's definitely similarities, because that's who we are. We wanna be Pennywise; we don't wanna be somebody else. We don't wanna be a pop-punk band, we don't wanna be the latest trend---and that's why we continue to make albums that sound similar: because that's what we do. It's always worked for bands like AC/DC. Look how many Metallica fans are pissed off because they changed their sound. I particularly like it, but a lot of people were like, "The new Metallica sucks." We don't ever wanna be in that position. We'd rather have them say, "It sounds like the same old shit" than "It sucks."
SKRATCH: I don't know if it was in jest, but years ago I remember Greg Graffin saying the day he'd stop performing would be when he's all fat and bald and just looks plain ridiculous up there. What would make you guys stop?
FLETCHER: [Laughs] We've always talked about when we're acting, when we're not feeling it anymore, we're gonna quit. But we'd all have to be feeling that way at the same time. I think we'll know. As long as kids are still buying our records...I mean, you can't stay on top forever. You're not gonna go up, up, up, upæeventually you're gonna start going downhill. But I think that even if we're selling enough records to keep ourselves happy and go out there and tour, as long as there's people interested in Pennywise---whether it's 100,000 or 200,000 or 50,000---we'll put out records, because it's what we love to do. When we stop feeling it's an important thing in our lives, then I think we'll stop; but as long as we feel justified doing it, I think we will.
SKRATCH: Why the nickname "Leatherface"?
FLETCHER: I think Randy [bassist] might've named me that. I think just 'cause my skin's kind of leathery. It's kind of like boar skin from the time in the sun and too much roughhousing, all scarred up and beat up and kind of like the guy in THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE - Leatherface - just a monster. When I get drunk, apparently I get kind of crazy, so I think just that whole vibe---you know, big, ugly monster with leather skin. Yeah, that kind of fits me pretty good.
Pennywise will tour the U.S. supporting FROM THE ASHES in November and December; and in 2004, the world. For the latest on these politically-minded punks, visit href='http://www.pennywisdom.com' target='_blank'>www.pennywisdom.com
By Janelle Jones