Justin Pearson of Retox: "Nihilism Is the Part of Punk That Is Dead."
As not-punk as the term sounds, Justin Pearson has an extensive curriculum vitae. He's probably best known for his work in The Locust, the grindcore/noise rock group that had a tendency to attract those seeking the strange and elicit cries of "that's not real music" from squares during a good part of the previous decade.
He was also involved in '90s hardcore bands in San Diego such as Swing Kids and Struggle, both of which have a kind of cult status among record collector and punk historian types. On top of this, he has appeared in a ton of other musical projects such as Some Girls, Holy Molar, and All Leather to only name a few. His current band, Retox, plays the kind of short and abrasive music he seems to gravitate toward, but with more of hardcore punk focus with weird guitar parts, a sound jokingly described by the band in a recent documentary as "surfer caveman." I talked with Pearson about Retox and how it ties into the rest of his C.V.
Up on the Sun: How's the tour going right now? Pearson: It's good. It's not too bad, I guess. We had some problems with the label getting our record out on time, so we're touring before the record actually is officially released, which is kind of a bust, but it is what it is, so we make the best of it.
I wanted to talk to you about labels because the stuff you do seems interesting to me. You run Three One G. What you do with that kind of reminds me of what someone like Jake Bannon from Converge does. You both have these labels where you put out stuff you like and at the same time sometimes put out music from your own bands, but also sometimes put out your releases on other labels. What's involved in making the decision whether to release one of your records on your own or go with another label?
The main thing is that I don't have money ever. I work a job at home, and sometimes I'll have some extra cash and be able to put out something, but I think with Three One G being a 50/50 profit split and the fact that we put out pretty obscure stuff, there's not a lot of funds coming in so it's kind of hard to grow out the label beyond what it is.
It has a name for itself, and it has some sort of credibility, and that's a high point or positive point of it. We put out a bunch of stuff that unfortunately doesn't sell as much as I would like it to, so we're sitting on boxes of CDs and LPs and stuff that are a little bit further under the radar than band's like Jake's Converge or maybe something I would be doing, so that's the reason the label functions the way it does.
But when it comes to me releasing something that I am a part of on another label, it usually comes down to two things. One is that I can't afford it; also I don't feel like I could get it out there as well as another label could, another label that I choose to deal with such as Epitaph or Ipecac or something.
Also it does help grow the label and the band as well. It's sort of a branding thing. For instance, the new Retox album is co-released with Epitaph and Three One G and we help with certain aspects of the release as well, but at the end of the day I just can't afford to put out certain things. Unfortunately, I don't have financial backers or a trust fund or something, so I can't necessarily do a lot of things that I would like to do.
Were you surprised at all that Epitaph wanted to put out a Retox record?
No, I'm not surprised because the Locust and Some Girls have both worked with Epitaph and I'm friends with Brett [Gurewitz] and we talked about working together before we did the first Retox album, which Ipecac released, so it was that that kind of prompted me to hit him up about the second one, and it kind of happened.
And Brett was honest with me and told me it was a credibility thing, which I think is flattering in itself. He knows we're not going to sell millions of records and stuff, but at the same time it does hold some credibility, which I think is more valuable than a paycheck. We're friends and he likes what we do, so that was it. It was an obvious and natural thing to step into.
[Note: Part of this interview simply did not record due to technical difficulties that left me with a 15-or-so minute sound file of complete silence. References to a previous conversation allude to that lost chunk of footage.]
In our last talk, we talked about communicating politics and social commentary in music. I used Struggle as an example, which seems weird in some ways because most people don't have the band they were in as teenagers become a publicly known thing, but it presents a huge contrast between what you did starting out and what you do now.
With Struggle, it's pretty much this kind of righteous and straightforward protest music where it is absolutely clear what the problem is. With your current band, Retox, the social commentary is delivered in a more clever and ambiguous way. How has your style of writing about politics and social issues evolved as you have grown?
When I was 15 and 16, playing in Struggle, there was a lot of intense stuff going on. We had the start of the Gulf War, all sorts of racist police stuff stemming from the Rodney King beating, tons of racist activity in San Diego where I was growing up due to the close proximity between San Diego and Mexico and also due to neo-fascist politicians, and all sorts of other things being presented.
Plus I was realizing that I did have some sort of voice, even as a kid, so being outspoken about issues like homophobia, sexism, and issues that were enraging me, was something that seemed natural. Don't get me wrong, those issues are all very important to me, probably much more now that I am more educated and have had more life experiences.
But my issue with being in a band like Struggle was with the fact that we were preaching to the choir, and even more so, just preaching. Our actions backed up everything we were addressing, and I was well aware that direct action was the most important aspect of my personal politics. However, I felt that Struggle was alienating in some respects, and with that, we were a bit naive on some levels. I feel that The Locust was and is way more of a political band than Struggle. Therefore the "issues" are still there, just expressed a bit differently.
Even with Retox, I feel it is very much like Struggle and The Locust. This is, again, a very interesting time, politically and socially. So as an artist, whatever is being created is a direct reaction of this world we live in. Even with "Mature Science", it is very close to what Struggle was saying with "Pigs on Fire". And the most important part about the answer to this question is that that issue is still prominent.
I got the impression from the kind of gallows humor of Retox lyrics that it was a bit nihilistic, which you disagreed with. How do you think humor can tie in with more progressive sentiments?
Nihilism, to me, is the part of punk that is dead. It's the whole Sid Vicious way of thinking and acting. To me, that is not punk. So the nihilism you might see in what Retox does is not really nihilism. There is more of a message than what one might see on the surface level. I even reference nihilism in "I've Had it Up to Here, I'm Going to Prison."
I think adding an air of humor to anything being presented, especially politics, is something that is of great interest to me. To me, it would be akin to, say, Daniel Tosh, or Louie CK, who I do feel challenge the stale mindset of the general population to think a bit. I also feel that it's way more profound to get someone to think or ponder a message, or a meaning, than to spell it out, where it might be easier for someone to dismiss. Yes, Struggle was a political band. Check. Nothing to process.
A lot of younger listeners are discovering underground music from the '90s for the first time. As a person who was actually involved with that era, is there anything you hope they might take away from those musical discoveries? Maybe just as important, is there anything you hope they won't take away from it?
The '90s had so many important things musically and artistically in my opinion. Something like Antioch Arrow, who changed music, as we know it, is still very important and relevant. There is something there that should resonate with current art and even future art to come. But I also feel that there is no need to replicate, which is a problem that I often see in art. There is no need for another Antioch Arrow. It's been done. Let's move on. Let's draw from that and progress and create something new.
As a person who is usually working with a bunch of different projects, be it performing, touring, doing label stuff, writing, etc, what do you do to help keep yourself together and not feel overwhelmed?
Read More: Retox and Regents at Yucca Tap Room.
I think I have learned to adjust or have trained myself to function accordingly. As soon as there is downtime, I find myself involved in some sort of project.
Retox's new record YPLL was officially released on Tuesday.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Phoenix, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.