By Jeff Moses
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By Mark Deming
Pennywise is probably the most pleasant, friendliest band that sometimes pukes on people and takes hostages.
The Hermosa Beach, California, quartet are punks, though they are positive rather than nihilistic, and thought-provoking rather than typically didactic. The band's upbeat-yet-laid-back attitude makes sense considering its surf-town home base is the party capital of the world, at least according to Pennywise's Fletcher Dragge. The guitarist is the band's resident projectile vomiter, recently aiming for -- and connecting with -- Dr. Drew Pinsky, host of syndicated radio talk program and MTV's advice show Loveline. During a June appearance, an apparently inebriated Dragge also held Pinsky and co-host Adam Corolla hostage, barricading the door, claiming he had a grenade and threatening to kill the pair. Live, on the air. Dragge calmed down after the police came. No charges were filed.
But offstage, at home, Dragge is affable. He apologizes for the friendliness of his dog and volunteers photo albums of hilarious moments in Pennywise history. There's the time the band tried to play a backyard Fourth of July barbecue in its hometown and a thousand people showed up. The time the guys filled an entire hotel room with bubble bath on tour. And, of course, various passed out and drunken poses.
The Loveline incident notwithstanding, the four guys from Pennywise -- Dragge with Jim Lindberg, vocals, Byron McMakin, drums, and Randy Bradbury, bass -- pride themselves on being positive for the kids. At a time when politicians accuse the entertainment industry of trafficking in antisocial rhetoric, a punk California band seems like an odd ally. Says Dragge: "Music is such a powerful instrument. There are so many people out there that aren't really helping the situation; they're taking their power and using it in a negative way and instilling negative values on kids, [who] are totally impressionable. Why do that, when you could actually have a positive effect? [But] we're not telling people how to live their lives, we're saying, 'You can be this. You can do this. You can get over this.'"
Singer Lindberg agrees: "If you listen to that [pessimistic] message so much that you hate everyone, [or think] the world sucks, it turns you into a fucking shitty person. We want to be the antidote to that."
Though punk rock is generally seen as espousing a negative attitude, the subgenre that Pennywise fits into (pop-punk?) has always been a mix of humor and uplifting messages. The small oceanside city of Hermosa Beach was also the original home to Black Flag, the Descendents and the Circle Jerks. Pennywise's drag-racing punk sound obviously comes from its members' spending their teen years soaking up influences at parties, where most of those seminal groups regularly performed.
The band's fifth record, Straight Ahead (Epitaph), is rooted in West Coast surfer-skater party-punk, with rough-and-tumble melodies on top of briny torrents of guitars. Swift tempos, a healthy bottom end and pummeling drums keep it heavy, and Lindberg wraps his voice around hooks. He never just screams, never growls too hard, which makes Pennywise's songs catchy as well as urgent.
The album hearkens to longtime touchstones -- personal responsibility, resisting conformity -- but the band has outgrown dogmatic sloganeering, now offering metaphorical lyricism and encouraging independent thought. Musically, the album's best song is its first single, "Alien." Muted guitars and Lindberg's harmonizing with overdubs of himself build the song up and bring it down before the whole thing spirals into a full-tilt ending. Lindberg repeats: "Where are the aliens? We're the aliens." At the same time, Dragge peels off a quick, repetitive riff. It's the most radio-friendly and catchiest tune on Straight Ahead.
The band's songwriting abilities and steady consistency have paid off. After 11 years together, it's become a top name in the underground. Pennywise has co-headlined the Vans Warped Tour the past four years, sold 175,000 copies and 220,000 of its last two records, Full Circle and About Time, respectively, and has routinely sold out large clubs on its own. Its success is a good example of how perpetual touring can win over aggro-punk fans and get them to buy records. Like the band's message, its work ethic also goes against how punk is perceived by the public.
Appealing mainly to males age 14 to 19, Pennywise is almost a stealth success. It is on a well-known indie label, Epitaph, but it isn't the flagship band. And without radio or MTV airplay, it has relied on a steady stream of appearances on skate and snowboarding videos to help boost its profile to people outside of the mainstream.
Pennywise's rise to prominence has not come without suffering, however. Original bass player and band co-founder Jason Thirsk committed suicide in 1996 while battling a substance-abuse problem. It was Thirsk who originally wanted Pennywise to be a positive musical force. Lindberg says the band continued after Thirsk's death as an extension of the bassist's philosophy of overcoming misfortune.
"It affects you every day for the rest of your life," says Lindberg. "That's what a lot of our songs are about: You better make the most of life, because you have truckloads of fate coming your way, and you never know when it's going to hit you. I get tired of people that complain about being bored or not liking their life. It's up to the individual to make it happen for themselves, not sit around and complain all day. That's going to sound cheesy or lame, and maybe it doesn't get us played on the radio all the time, but it works for us. It just naturally comes out of who we are and what we want to accomplish."
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."
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.