Youth Brigade's Shawn Stern on The Adolescents, Punk, and BYO Records
How is it that a band that hasn't released a full-length album since 1996 continues to tour?
"If we didn't get new fans coming out, we'd probably would have quit awhile back because it would get really boring playing for just people our age because they're not always as fun," says Shawn Stern, frontman of Youth Brigade and co-owner of BYO records.
Youth Brigade has been playing fast-paced punk rock since the early 1980s. Although their shows don't end in riots as often as the early years, the band continues to tour and share its message.
We recently caught up with Shawn Stern to discuss Adolescents' Tony Brandenburg getting drunk at a film premiere, the roots of punk, and running a record label in the digital age.
Up on the Sun: How did you guys meet The Adolescents? I talked to Tony [Brandenburg] yesterday and he said you guys go way back.
Shawn Stern: The first time I saw them, I think it was 1980, or maybe it was '81. They were playing with Black Flag at a place called Besas Hall, which was on Vermont just north of Sunset [in Los Angeles]. The place was packed. It wasn't very big, it probably held 250-300 people tops, it's just a little hall. I was just blown away, they were really good. It was this skinny little kid and this big huge bass player and just really, really good band.
Black Flag was supposed to come on and the cops came in riot gear and just stormed through the front door as we all went out the side door and got in a big ole' fight with the police, which was kind of typical at the time.
I think [Adolescents] had kind of had broken up, but we put them on a show called Youth Movement '82 which was at the Hollywood Palladium. Then, I knew them. Well, actually, I knew I knew them because Tony came to the screening of Another State of Mind that we did at this theater, the Beverly Theatre on Beverly Boulevard. The movie was filmed in '80, so we probably screened it in '81. And he, I don't know what...I guess he was really drunk and he...the movie was almost over. Mike Ness was singing the song "Another State of Mind" and Tony just got mad and jumped and knocked over the projector.
I remember him knocking the thing over and there was only five minutes left in the movie, but the guys who produced and directed the movie were trying to get it out there and show it, they put the thing together and they asked us to run security. Not like we needed security, it was just a couple hundred kids watching this movie, but and then one of our friends, Tony, gets drunk and knocks the projector over. These guys, Adam and Peter, mainly this guy Peter, this guy was paranoid, he freaked out and started telling everybody he'd refund their money. I said, 'what are you doing?' People were lining up and he was handing out $5 bills because he just charged $5 bucks to get in. He was handing out $5 to everybody, people would grab a five and they go to the back of the line and stand in it for a second five.
I said "You're a moron, what are you doing? Don't give them back their money. There's five minutes left of the movie." Too bad, it's not your fault that Tony was a jerk, but apparently people wanted to beat up Tony and I came out and saved him. He tells the story in the book of our boxed set saying that made a big impression on him, but I don't even remember, I thought I wouldn't let him get beat up. He was stupid and he did an asshole thing. I asked him, 'Why is it that you did that?' He thinks he was just upset that was Mike was singing or something, I'm not really sure.
It seems like shows don't really get busted by cops anymore. Could you paint a picture of then and now? Is it any easier for you guys as a band now?
I wouldn't say that that never happens because we played with TSOL at the Key Club just about a year ago and there was a huge riot. The cops came in riot and gear and maced everybody. They had fire extinguisher cans full of mace they were spraying on everybody and shooting rubber or beanbag bullets at people. Apparently, they shot one through the door of the Key Club from the street at me when I was on stage telling everybody they wouldn't let us play. People were getting really pissed. It was sold out and there was about 200 kids on the street that couldn't get in, some of them with tickets. It was a Key Club screw up, and I guess some kid inside got in a fight and broke one of the security guys' noses, so the Key Club called the police.
But yeah, it doesn't happen like it used to. It's hard to compare. People always ask me what was it like back in those days compared to how it is now. But, it's apples and oranges. It was something brand new then and we were just sort of making it up as we went along and now you've got 30 years of history of punk rock plus another 15 or 20 years or rock 'n' roll.
It can get crazy here and there, but I think people are a little bit more understanding of what's going on in the clubs. The clubs have been doing it a long time, they understand what's what. The use of barricades changes things a lot. You don't get the interaction at a lot of places with the band and the fans unless it's a smaller club that doesn't bother with that stuff. Overall, it really comes down to economics. In those days, things were new and people weren't really making any money off it. It was just a way to go out and have a good time and express your anger and the problems of the world, and now people are making money off of it, so they take the precautions and they control the situation better so there's less problems. Maybe kids aren't as pissed off as they used to be although there certainly are a lot of reasons to be pissed off in the society we live in these days.
Have you noticed that a lot of the same people come out to your shows, or do you keep generating new fans? I could see your music getting more accessible with the internet.
Obviously the internet has made a huge difference for everybody in good ways and bad ways. The way people get music now has changed. It's much more readily available and the fact is that pretty much just about everybody, including people who have no clue how to play an actual instrument can make quote unquote music. You can argue that it's not all music, but that's semantics. It used to be you actually get some money and go into a recording studio and play an instrument and now you can get a machine and get a computer.
The way people get music off of their computers has changed the way things are done, so records have recently become pretty much obsolete. You don't need a record to get your music out there, but yeah there's a lot of kids who found out about punk rock from the late '70s and '80s from the internet, so we got a pretty good mix of people coming to our shows. We've got people who have been fans of ours since they were kids and their little brothers and sisters who never got a chance to see us until maybe the '90s or the last ten years. Sometimes their kids come, and then there's a lot of high school and college kids that are finding out about punk rock because of the internet. So yeah, if we didn't get new fans coming out, we'd probably would have quit awhile back because it would get really boring playing for just people our age because they're not always as fun.
Record labels are struggling, yet BYO is still around. How have you pulled that off?
BYO learned to adapt as a record label. We haven't released a record in two years and I don't know that we're necessarily going to release any more records. Hopefully Youth Brigade is going to write some songs this year and release something new, whether it will be a physical recording or just something digitally, I don't know. We've had bands asking us over the last two years to put their records out, but it's kind of like, what would be the point? They could just put it out themselves. There's very few ways for us to sell records anymore other than the internet, and the majority of people that are getting their music from the internet aren't paying for it. We spend money putting a band in the recording studio and then making CDs and vinyl, the majority of those sales are going to be done by them at their shows and how are we ever going to get reimbursed for the money that they have? All the chain stores pretty much closed. There's the mom and pops, but there's just not that many of them.
In my mind, it's easier for a band and more profitable for them because they get to take 100% of the profits instead of having a record company taking some of that. Record companies just really have become bank loans, so just go get a bank loan, what do you need us for?
I would like to hear about the beginning days of BYO. Did you create the label as an avenue to release your own music, or was that something you always wanted to do?
We pretty much do everything out of necessity. "Hey we're in a band because we have something to say and we were bored kids when we saw punk rock and we thought this was really cool." This really gave us an opportunity to express the way we felt, and then we wanted to play shows and there's nowhere close. The clubs weren't really into doing shows with punk rock bands that had too many problems with the cops and didn't understand it, so we just said we're going to put on our own shows, so we started promoting shows and renting halls and doing that.
The next step after that was hey let's put a record out, so we started a label. We started BYO more or less...when we first started it, it wasn't really anything other than the idea of "Hey punk rock is getting a bad rap." We need to form some sort of an organization that promotes the positive aspects of what we love about punk rock instead of all the stuff that the media portrays, which is these crazy kids with the colored hair and the spiked belts and the safety pins in their cheeks going around listening to this crazy music, spiting at each other and causing all this violence and punching each other out and this and that.
The misunderstood youth, which was not what it was, [the media] missing what was important, at least in my mind, which was the positive attitude. The positive message that was being portrayed in the fact that the hippies were no longer around. All that was left of the hippie scene was sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Which, I have no problem with sex or drugs or rock and roll, but it just lost its meaningfulness to us, and that's why in my mind, punk got started. That was what we were trying to promote.
Why do you think people are still making punk music? What about it still speaks to people?
I think a big part of it is the DIY thing. We were the trailblazers. This was not something that was going on. I guess to a certain extent in the hippie thing they did it a bit, but it just really got co-opted when all the bands got signed to major labels and the major labels started getting huge and became this arena rock thing. That was one of the reasons punk rock started was a reaction against the co-opting of the rock and roll scene. Starting this music was two fold to people about the fact that hey, there's a lot of problems still in the world that just because the Vietnam War was over...[and] had embraced a lot of the stuff the hippies were talking about doesn't mean that the problems just went away.
They didn't, and that's why punk rock started in my mind and that's what we were always singing when [we were] living in danger of nuclear bombs being blown up between the US and Russia, the environment was getting screwed up, just social justice issues. The same stuff that was going on then is still going on now, probably worse now. The fact that we didn't need to have this music released through major labels because they were just going tear all the meaningfulness out of it and sell it as a product, and that's something we weren't interested in doing.
That's why I think punk rock has really continued on. The problems haven't changed, they're worse now and corporations have gotten bigger and bigger and have become more and more a part of everyone's lives and people are getting pretty disgusted by it and there's really no other music that talks about it. I mean, come on, house music? Dance music? Rap?
What motivated you guys to get Youth Brigade back together and what has kept you guys together?
We had broken up in late '86, I guess it was '87, maybe. We were doing different things and one of my brothers started a band called Royal Crown Revue. They started up a whole new swing scene, which of course they now regret because it got totally commercialized, but that happens with stuff like that. There wasn't really a message there, it was just about having a good time and combining swing music with this sort of punk rock attitude, which was fun for a little while.
They were out touring Europe and I had another band called That's It! that was a little bit more melodic than Youth Brigade. I was touring in Europe and Royal Crown was touring in Europe, we met up in Hamburg and we hung out, we started talking about the fact everywhere we went on tour in Europe and in the states, people were always asking about Youth Brigade. We [met] up Germany a week or two later and played a few songs. People went pretty crazy, so we just figured- I told my brothers this- if we record some new songs and put out a record, sure I would give it a shot, why not. It could be fun, and it was fun and we just kept doing it. My brother Adam left the band about six, seven years ago because he works doing CGI computer stuff for TV and movies.
We've got a couple new guys in the band, Mike Carter and Mike Hale. We got back together because people were interested in what we had to say. Even in stuff that we wrote 20 some odd years ago still resonates with people like I said earlier, a lot of those same problems that existed when we were writing those songs exist today and a lot of them are worse. We still have a good time doing it, there's still young kids coming out so I figure if people are supporting us, well, why in the hell not. It's not a bad way to travel around the world and meet people and have fun [and] spread your ideas and hopefully inspire people.
I saw that you guys were playing shows during the LA Riots, what was that like?
Oh yeah...it's funny because when it first started, we played in Santa Barbara with The Dickies, so that was kind of far away. It wasn't really that crazy, but then we went down to play a show in Santa Ana and they were closing the freeways. It was weird, I mean people were supposed to not go out and we said "Oh fuck it." NOFX was supposed to play the show and they totally pussed out and didn't come. We went down there to play and it was fine. We didn't actually play in the city, it was in Santa Ana, which is about 40 minutes south of LA. It was eerie, it was weird, everything was shut down. There no traffic on the highway, there was barely anybody out. I live in Venice, and it was kind of crazy the night it started. It was crazy, but it wasn't anything that we hadn't seen at punk rock riots before, really. Just the lighting of the ugly little strip mall on fire on the main boulevards was a little extra.
You said you're working on some new material. What should we expect from that? Are you exploring any new themes or sounds and do you have an ETA on that?
I'd like to get a record out this year. What we mainly do with BYO these days is Punk Rock Bowling and that takes up a good six to eight months of our time. By the time we finish with that, all I want to do is just relax in the summer time and take it easy. We go out on the road here and there. The last thing we recorded was a split with the Swingin' Utters which was in '99. I wrote those songs, we did six songs and I wrote those in about a week.
I don't think I'm going to explore anything new. The same themes are always running through my life. I guess I'm looking at them from a perspective of being 10 years older and that always changes the way you look at things. I guess mortality starts to enter into things because when you're young, you don't think about the end of your life. Not that I'm that old, but you start thinking about some of these things. You have to be more responsible as you get older. You have more responsibilities. I don't have any kids, but I have two nieces now and life gets in the way I guess which is probably why we haven't put a record out in awhile.
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