By Randy LoBasso
“I’m always looking around a room and going, ‘Okay, who’s full of fucking shit here?’ And usually, the answer is everybody,” Ben Weasel tells me over the phone from his Madison, Wisconsin residence.
It’s tough being one of the most distinct voices in punk rock, let alone a stay-at-home dad. Screeching Weasel frontman Ben Weasel has got his opinions, and he’s not shy about sharing them. They’re probably surprising if you’re familiar with the scene but not the man. Though fans who’ve been following Weasel’s lyrics over the past 20+ years, at this point, probably can’t help but to take the midwesterner’s cynicism with a spoonful of love.
Since forming Screeching Weasel with John “Jughead” Pierson in 1986, the pop-punk icons have formed and reformed more than a dozen times with more than 20 coming and going members. The band’s most notable albums differ by who’s calling what ‘notable,’ but 1996’s Bark Like a Dog ranked 35th on the Billboard’s Heatseekers chart and BoogadaBoogadaBoogada, Wiggle and My Brain Hurts have become staples in any punk rock collection – though the bubblegummy pop-punk put forth in these releases often put a happier face on what’s really lurked behind Screeching Weasel’s curtain. Turns out, the Chicago 4-to-6-some has gone through a lot of shit.
There’d always been some conflict within the band, in its many forms. And lots of that had to do with touring, something Ben tells me he’s not built for. “You put me in a van with a bunch of other guys, there’s going to be fists flying within a few days, someone’s going to be flying home soon. It’s just not going to work,” he says.
It got so bad that bassist Danny Vapid and Ben spent years not speaking to each other due to incidents that happened while on the road. Screeching Weasel officially split three times, they stopped touring long ago, and now Ben’s got no tolerance for the cheapening of recorded music.
“One of the consequences of illegal file sharing is that music has really been devalued to the point where it doesn’t mean any more to record it than to just play it,” he says. “Concerts have value as a social event but I think people care less now about music than they have at any point in time. For a lot of people Screeching Weasel is interchangeable with ‘insert the name of any mediocre, middle-of-the-road pop punk band that’s playing in someone’s basement or a VFW hall.'” This, he says, is why Screeching Weasel sticks to a one-show-per-year-per-corner-of-the-country formula, and this year just happens to be Philly. “In terms of what [touring] would do to the band, and also financially,” he says, “we can’t run around catering to people in every little town. Those days are over. There’s just not enough money in it anymore. The lack of money combined with the toll it takes on the band, it’s not in the realm of possibility.”
Ben Weasel’s always had a special relationship with his fans. That is, he’s never seemed to overtly respect them as a whole. And he’s taken to the studio to denounce them, as well as the entire punk scene. Regarding punk bands and fans with exploitative political agendas, there’s “Nicarauga,” the 11th and intentionally misspelled track off 1988’s BoogadaBoogadaBoogada. Weasel facetiously sings, “I don’t give a fuck about Nicaragua/I don’t give a shit about the president…Politics are boring/Yeah, politics are fucking boring.”
More than a decade later, in “You’re The Enemy,” off 2000’s Teen Punks in Heat, Weasel sings, pertaining to fans at a show: “I stand here bored and look at you/Clapping like monkeys in the zoo/A horde of maladjusted miscreants all pumped and primed/Just what could possibly be limping through your one-track minds?”
Regarding the so-called blue collar punk scene, presumably bands like the Dropkick Murphys and Rancid, Weasel wrote what became a B-side titled “Tightrope,” appearing on 2000’s Thank You Very Little. The overtness is pretty clear throughout: “I’ve never heard a member of the working class/Singing punk rock songs to kids/They’re too busy working… The bar is not a pub, your friends are not your mates/A pack of badgers filled with bitterness and hate/If all the boys have died in bloody fights/Then maybe you should stop behaving like a petty thug/Singing anthemic eulogies at gigs, you dope.” The song, like many others from the band’s catalog, fits into a mold outside the punk rock cast, and was later noticed by the bands of which Weasel was talking. In fact, in the liner notes to Rancid’s 2003 snoozefest, Indestructible, that band mentions they’d been referred to as a pack of badgers on “several occasions.” Rancid glorifies the term, however, saying being a pack of badgers means, “if you fuck with one of us, you fuck with all of us.”
A former writer for San Francisco-based punk zine Maximum Rocknroll, Weasel once wrote an article titled “The Punk Rock Dress Code.” In it, he details the ‘dos and don’ts’ of dressing for a punk rock show. The author meant his words to come across as sarcasm, but at later Screeching Weasel shows, he recalled members of the audience adhering to his standards. Some of these standards include, “Anyone who wears a ball cap to a gig is a fucking jerk,” “Nobody is impressed by that stupid goddamn chain on your wallet hanging down five feet like a pair of mittens your mother clipped to your parka,” and “if you think you’re a punk and you don’t own a leather jacket, you’re not a punk.” (After his side project, the Riverdales, opened for Green Day in 1995 on an arena tour, he was let go from the magazine.)
The Screeching Weasel tune “I Wanna Be A Homosexual,” off 1995’s collection of B-sides Kill the Musicians finds Weasel presumably mocking punk rockers who, he feels, do whatever the leaders of their respective scenes ask of them. “Homosexual” is essentially a song telling his straight fans to become gay, much as they deferentially likened themselves to “The Punk Rock Dress Code.”
But Weasel’s lyrics reflect a man’s double-dog-dare win. He bets being queer is too much for those within the punk rock scene and lets the faces in the crowd go along unharmed. He sings, “Shock the middle class, take it up your punk rock ass/You rub your puny thing, when you see studs with tight jeans pass you on the street/Who wears short shorts, you wear short shorts/You’re so full of shit/Why don’t you admit that you don’t have the balls to be a queer?”
As this article is being written Screeching Weasel’s only two album-wise permanent members have been Ben Weasel and John “Jughead” Pierson, with whom Weasel started the band after attending a Ramones concert. Pierson won’t join the band’s latest small tour (Philly on April 23 and 24, Toronto on May 14 and 15, Orlando on June 11 and 12) nor will he be involved in any future albums. And though Weasel doesn’t discuss his and Jughead’s relationship during our interview, he’s spoken of it on several other occasions.
In 1995, when Weasel toured with the Riverdales, he came home to the realization he wasn’t meant to tour – luckily, Pierson, unlike Dan Vapid and Dan Panic (permanent members of both projects), wasn’t a member of the Riverdales (according to Weasel, his exclusion from the side-project would become an early form of tension). After the 1995 tour, his relationship with Danny Vapid deteriorated to the point where they wouldn’t speak for years. He told Piet Levy of True/Slant regarding his mid-90s relationship with Vapid: “That really killed me, because we had our disagreements, but he was my friend. I really liked the guy.” Vapid and Weasel have since made up and are currently working together on the Riverdales’ new album, Tarantula. Vapid joined both bands on tour this year and last.
Weasel suffered from what he once called a “very, very brief bout with agoraphobia” – a condition highlighted by a fear of public places and open spaces (which doesn’t seem a convenient disease for a band’s lead singer). Many have speculated the band stopped touring because of the singer’s condition, though he contends the lack of touring had to do with the band’s internal problems and faults other members of Screeching Weasel for giving the agoraphobia excuse to media. He told True/Slant the real issue concerning his panic attacks: “Ultimately take enough prescription drugs and you can get out on the road and do what you need to do.”
In 2004, Screeching Weasel decided to get back together for a tour, though no album had been planned. According to Weasel, their booking agent told them the offers weren’t there for a reunion. So they changed booking agents: Same story. Weasel allegedly suggested the band play just two shows, in Milwaukee and Chicago. The thinking was the massive draw would find agents on the phone with venues all over the U.S. and a tour would be had. But Pierson didn’t agree to this – he wanted a full-on tour or nothing – and everything changed.
Weasel then took three years off before releasing his second solo album, aptly titled These Ones Are Bitter (his first was released in 2002 and titled Fidatevi), along with Mike Kennedy of the All American Rejects, who played guitar and produced. Weasel says Kennedy is “really more responsible than anyone for revitalizing my career and giving me a kick start and getting me out there playing. Working with him made me excited about music and made me recognize there’s a lot more there with my songs than I’d been doing with it.”
Weasel played a few Chicago solo shows in support of the solo album, some of which featured Danny Vapid on bass, who participated in several Screeching Weasel and Riverdales tunes.
In 2009, Weasel decided to get Screeching Weasel back together. He’d been toiled in a legal dispute with Pierson, with whom he was no longer friendly, over the rights to their band’s name. Pierson, who’d been playing with acoustic punk band Even in Blackouts, allegedly wanted Weasel to sign a document saying unless the two of them are involved, there would be no Screeching Weasel, as he claimed they’d discussed. Weasel wouldn’t agree to this because this initial discussion, he says, came about when the two of them were just teenagers (they’re now both in their 40s), and therefore meant nothing. After all, Weasel had done the majority of songwriting and believes he’d always been the group’s leader.
The legal dispute ended and so did Weasel and Pierson’s correspondence. They’d been friends since Weasel was 12 years old. When Weasel announced the reformation of Screeching Weasel, Pierson, who’d begun a career as a novelist and Neo-Futurist performance actor, found this out from his social networking friends. He took to his MySpace page on March 29, 2009 and wrote the following:
“If it weren’t for the fact that I actually enjoy conversing with the fans of my prior bands, I would never have found out about a new band called Screeching Weasel beginning to tour. “This can’t be the band I was in.” I say to myself. “I would have been preparing.” My mind would much prefer going to a place of calm contemplation than into a dark cold room filled with anger and the emotions associated with betrayal. So to avoid painful emoting I first took the facts that Ben and I started a band together called Screeching Weasel, we both spent all our days making that band a home for ourselves, and 18 years later we put it to rest… As for people like Ben Weasel, Dan Vapid, or even John Jughead, I have nothing to say, because they never really existed, they were just made up names for a bunch of friends that tried to do something different in order to survive and make a living in this world. And I imagine they are all still trying to make a living somehow, seeing that their band’s prominent “leader” never wanted to tour in order to make it financially viable to continue on.”
On April 22, 2009, Pierson wrote the following to his fans torn between allegiance to him and wanting to see Screeching Weasel perform live: “I completely understand people wanting to go to any upcoming SW show, but I would only hope they would buy my book to have a little bit more of an understanding of where I am coming from. Plus it would make me feel better monetarily because I am being ripped off.”
Today, Ben Weasel doesn’t need to talk about all that. A stay at home dad, he spends his days living quietly in Madison, Wisconsin. He takes care of his two daughters, goes to church on Sundays, follows Sarah Palin on Twitter, and is cynical as ever. Except where there was once a punk dress code, now there’s overt passive aggressiveness regarding the overall phony genuineness of punk rock. The passion he once felt toward those who can’t spell Nicaragua (yet want to criticize the U.S.’s foreign policy there) has been replaced by a distinct anger toward the punk rockers who shill for career politicians, simply because they aren’t Republican.
The first thing he gripes to me about, though, is his hatred of “scenesters” – people who are more interested in being friends with bands than appreciating the music. They don’t give a shit about the actual music, he claims. And it’s because of them, he feels, Screeching Weasel wouldn’t be able to work as a start-up band today. “We’d be fucked out of the gate,” Weasel says. “No one would give a shit, because no one gives a shit. I’ll hear these bands that are so head and shoulders above everything else that’s happening in pop punk and they have nothing. Nobody gives a fuck. When I meet young bands that are trying to build a fanbase, I tell them to keep these fucking scenesters at arm’s length because they’re going to drag you down. They don’t give a shit if you live or die, not these scenester cocksuckers.”
It’s part of a cycle of punk bullshit, he says. He believes many punk rock fans aren’t fans of the music as much as they’re fans of being in with the right crowd. Bands, too, are often more interested in portraying an image than writing good songs. “Punk rock presents itself as being genuine and it’s as phony as a three-dollar-bill,” he says. “It’s like any other form of rock and roll or pop music. One-hundred percent artificial. It’s total bullshit. It’s an act. And the more genuine someone appears, the better the actor they are. It’s not real. As far as bearing your souls and wearing your heart on your sleeve, the blue collar tough guy stuff, that’s not what this genre is about.
“When I see things like that, I think, if you make a living making music you’re not blue collar, by definition. I don’t why I feel compelled to point that out, you’d probably have to ask a psychiatrist, but as it relates to politics, it’s the same thing.”
Weasel remembers the 2004 Rock Against Bush compilations released by Fat Wreck Chords in which many bands, punk and otherwise, contributed political-driven songs with the eventual, unsuccessful, intention of getting those normally uninterested in politics a reason to vote against George W. Bush after listening to their favorite bands’ stances regarding the issue.
The set of rules existing within the punk scene have long catered to what brought about Rock Against Bush, he says. “If you’re in punk rock, there are certain unwritten rules. You’re not meant to break them and one of those rules is, you vote for Democrats. I don’t know why. I have no idea how that became something. I can understand being ultra liberal but I could never understand how being a Democrat coincided with that. The anarchists, as wrong as they are about everything, at least they’re consistent in their views. They’re not out there voting for guys like Obama and Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton.”
Weasel’s views on this often make their way to his blog and Twitter account, to which he’s gotten strong, often negative reactions. “I get a lot of reaction from people revealing their ignorance, calling me a Republican – which I’m not – calling me a right winger, which I don’t think I am.
“People don’t like it in punk rock when you express contrary opinions. It angers them. People also have certain expectations of musicians. You’re supposed to be a certain way and that involves everything from your business decisions to your politics and the second you pull the covers off and say, ‘This is a bunch of bullshit,’ they get really mad at you.”
Weasel calls the Rock Against Bush movement “stomach churning” and “nauseating.” He also admits, “I felt bad for everyone involved in that. And I had a few friends involved with that. I was like, ‘This is what it’s come to? You’re shilling for a career-fucking-politician? John Kerry?’ I still can’t wrap my mind around that. The idea that voting for John Kerry was somehow radical was just so bizarre to me. I’m surprised more people didn’t comment on that.” And though it wasn’t a surprise to him, the movement made him more distrustful than ever. “Punk rock is not a social movement,” he says, “at least not of anything that matters. So I don’t think a person should necessarily be anything because of this style of music.”
But what really bothers him is the fact that most of the bands active in politics during the Bush years have essentially quit singing about politics. “It surprises me that when Democrats get into power, like the Democrats are now, no one has a fucking thing to say. These lazy fucking drunks that want to run around and say shit when a Republican’s in office need to hold guys like Obama accountable. It’s like, ‘We’re just going to lull ourselves to sleep. We vote for the Democrats and then we don’t have to think about anything,'” he says, mockingly. “Now all those bands can go back to partying, getting drunk, and writing songs about getting drunk, partying, drugs, and tits.
“And you know what? Write your songs about drugs and tits, just don’t fucking lecture me about fucking politics and not expect me to point and laugh when you try to mobilize a bunch of retard punk rockers. Obviously, we learned on Election Day  that that whole thing didn’t amount to a God damned thing. Because Bush stayed in office – thank God – and it didn’t work.”