"The kids" benefit from Pennywise's punkish golden rules

If that sounds like a lot of thought -- considering West Coast punk's back-to-basics nature -- it is. The band's achievements owe less to instinct than it might appear. Pennywise has connected with audiences because it can nail down the specific emotions and feelings that frustrate adolescents, and can set those feelings to aggressive, fast music. By striving to depict distinct problems that average people face, the band encapsulates something universal. And it's very important to the band that "the kids" (its catch-all phrase for its audience) can relate.

Dragge recounts how an employee at Epitaph recently called and told him how much she sympathized with the content on Straight Ahead. "She was proofreading the lyrics, and she goes, 'It was funny because I've never met you guys, but I'm reading your lyrics, and this is my life right now.' That's one thing that a lot of kids can relate to, because they're real-life issues, pretty easy to grasp."

The band's refusal to change from the full-on, four-chord attack stems from this connection with its listeners. The group doesn't want to risk alienating its hard-won audience by getting soft or throwing something off the wall into the mix. "It's hard," says Dragge, "because we want to progress. With the new album, we've kind of explored some new regions a little bit, but not much, trying to keep it Pennywise, because we know it's what the kids like. When we're out playing the same songs for 10 years, it kind of gets tedious. [But] to me there's nothing worse than putting on your favorite band's album and having them sound totally different."

Pennywise: Upbeat-yet-laid-back punks have become a stealth success.
Jeff Novak
Pennywise: Upbeat-yet-laid-back punks have become a stealth success.

But according to drummer McMakin, doing the same thing for a decade makes it nearly impossible for the band to do things differently. "This is the style that I was raised on. If I were to [try to] play something else now, I'd [still] be doing what we do."

Creating its signature sound is not as simple as following a formula. All four guys laugh when asked if songwriting and the recording process have gotten easier over time. Just the opposite, they say. To them, making Straight Ahead was like a battle.

"We're not a band with one main songwriter; we're a band where everybody collaborates," says Dragge. "That's where the brutal part of writing comes in. [Lindberg] wants to do [a song] one way. I want to throw my two cents in. [Bradbury] brings in a song, I want to change it right when I hear it, and he goes berserk. It's really hard. If I had a machine gun, [the rest of the band] would be dead. The more that everybody learns [about songwriting], the worse it gets. [Drummer McMakin's] even bringing in guitar parts now.

"You've got all these four people who think differently, and you have all these ideas coming together," he continues. "In the end, we're all stoked by what comes out of it, but it's definitely a hell trip. Afterward I'm just like, 'It's done. We don't have to do it for another 16 months.' In the end, it's worth it because we have something that we all believe in strongly. It's kind of a cleansing process because you get out all the fucking bullshit [between band members]. At the end of it, you're like, 'Okay, I got all of that shit off my chest, and now we've got a killer album.'"

Thankfully it's the album, not Dragge, that can be described in murderous terms, even after the Loveline incident. There is no irony and no façade with Pennywise. Only the occasional splatter of barf.

Pennywise is scheduled to perform on Sunday, October 24, at Club Rio in Tempe, with Strung Out. Showtime is 8 p.m.

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