I reached pop punk puberty at age 13, thanks to Screeching Weasel. Maybe you can relate. It was the dawn of the new millennium, and yours truly, an awkward, brace-faced girl, was busy learning every song off Anthem for a New Tomorrow on a hand-me-down guitar.
Many an afternoon was spent sitting (sullen and leather-jacket-clad) in my room, swaddled in the snotty, meditative chorus of “Falling Apart,” cranked just loud enough for my parents to hear. If someone had told me that some 20 years later, in the year 2020, I’d be waxing poetic about songwriting with Mr. Ben Weasel himself via a fantastical thing called Skype—all while much of the world self-quarantined to combat a monster pandemic virus—I would have asked that you kindly speak to the hand.
Alas, life is as mysterious as Ben’s beloved number 27. Against all odds, a futuristic incarnation of Screeching Weasel is, indeed, screeching into a brave new decade! The band’s 13th studio release, Some Freaks of Atavism, has arrived just in time to amplify our collective adult angst (now undoubtedly magnified by government-mandated social isolation).
Smart, incisive, rocking, and (of course) danceable as hell, the 14-track album produced and engineered by Mike Kennerty of All-American Rejects fame hits on themes of 21st century woe with a wink and a touch of the ole groin-o-rama (I especially dig the racy duet, “Turn it Around” featuring ’80s, new-wave royalty Josie Cotton).
Mike Herrera of MxPx also makes a surprise vocal cameo. The sound’s still got one Chuck Taylor firmly planted in pop punk turf—but on this long-awaited release, fans will revel in the more innovative swagger we’ve come to expect from virtuoso Weasel (See: 2011’s powerful First World Manifesto and 2015’s Baby Fat: Act I, a soaring punk opera).
Performed by Screeching Weasel’s dynamic, current, live line-up—Ben Weasel on vocals, Trevor Jackson on guitar and backing vocals, Mike Hunchback on guitar, Zach Brandner holding down bass and backing vocals, and Pierre Marche behind the kit—Some Freaks of Atavism is the perfect follow-up to the monster Weasel so lovingly created in his own image circa 1991.
Say what you want about the merits of the genre, but Screeching Weasel—for better or much worse—are baby daddy to all modern pop punk. Bolstered by a well-fated addition to the early, Bay Area Lookout! Records catalog alongside a scrappy local band named Green Day, the Chicago-area miscreants—including co-founder John “Jughead” Pierson, Dan “Vapid” Schafer, and a slew of illustrious anti-celebrities—provided the blueprint for every Ramones-worshipping mall-rat from Milwaukee to SoCal.
Not that this makes them super accessible, of course. As the reclusive songwriter is quick to tell us, he’s been “self isolating” for years—not because he’s too famous, but because he’s got songs to write, damnit.
In fact—if Some Freaks of Atavism is any indication—he’s got more venom/wisdom to spit than ever. So, sit back and enjoy this conversation, which I should reiterate, (as Mr. Weasel so aptly predicted back in 1993) unfolds while our modern world is, indeed, falling apart.
I looked up the definition of “atavism” because I’m a good student: “A tendency to revert to something ancient or ancestral … The more civilized a society seems to be, the more susceptible it is to its buried atavism.”
Weasel: I think that’s true, and a very good definition of the times we’re living in. The title actually comes from the book The Hound of the Baskervilles; it’s a fictional monograph that Sherlock Holmes refers to early in the novel.
It’s one of those things I wrote down many years ago and saved because I thought it would be a good title. It has this resonance now, but could have resonance at any time. There’s always a push and a pull—especially in rock music, where we are taking from the past but trying to create something new. That’s true for how we live our lives, too.
You’ve said before that too much choice causes us to be depressed. Now, we’re trying to get back to something simpler. Pop punk, and the music you create, is somewhat a throwback to another time.
Weasel: When we started doing more pop-based stuff, which we kind of started in 1988-89, but we fully dove into in 1991 when the band reformed—it was already a throwback because no one was doing it anymore.
Everything old is new. I grew up listening to a lot of different kinds of music, but I certainly grew up listening to some of the greatest pop music ever recorded, a lot of the bubblegum music of the ’60s. To your point about choice: There was a study done years ago proving that the more choice you give people, well, the brain can only process so much. It actually creates anxiety and depression.
Part of the reason I’m not really into music the way I was is because there’s too much; it almost paralyzes you. I remember going to the record shop as a teenager, and you had to go to certain shops and look for what they called “imports,” although they weren’t imported. You’d get records from these independent distributors. Even that seemed overwhelming—the sheer mass of music.
Looking back, it’s laughable, just one corner of the store. I don’t know if there’s a solution for it, but I do feel pretty smart now, doing Anthem for a New Tomorrow back in 1993 and basically predicting how the world was going, and doing essentially an entire album based on the idea of “there’s too much,” and “things are too bright”—and tying that all into panic attacks, which I was suffering from quite a lot at the time. I think it was effective on that level.
There are parallels between Anthem and SFOA, the isolation and darkness. You also just dropped the Live ‘88 album on Spotify, recorded in 1988 at Berkeley’s 924 Gilman Street. From this rich, new release to a raw, live set, you’re not afraid to put it all out there, warts and all. Fans enjoy following the evolution.
Weasel: I think maybe that’s the way it should be for a punk band. With social media, we have really compartmentalized everything and everyone. Everything is black and white, and people are either good or bad. It’s a boring way to look at people. We’ve reduced individuals down to part of a group. I don’t just think that’s wrong, I think it’s tragic for all of us when we do that.
We’re missing out on something that informs our own lives. We’re better off, whether we are looking at my band, at ourselves, or other people, to acknowledge that people are complex. Even people who want to be easily labeled—they are still contradictory, complex, and that is interesting and of value. It’s almost the Marie Kondo thing, “I want to organize all my possessions very neatly.” Which I guess is fine for your house, but I don’t know if it’s a good thing to do to other people.
On Carnival of Schadenfreude and First World Manifesto, you poke holes into one-dimensional avatars. On the new album, you talk gender on a few songs. On “Problematic” you do this Danny Zuko type monologue that is very cunning, very smart. I wonder how many people will take it at face value without reading between the lines.
“Problematic” is obviously a sarcastic song that addresses what I see as the confusion or incoherence of some of the current feminist positions—although I hate to use the word in this context because I don’t think these opinions are held by most feminists.
On Twitter, you may think these are very popular opinions, but you are hearing from the vocal few. I think there’s a certain subset of person who has gone so far around the bend that they have begun to—in the name of helping the marginalized or women—have actually begun championing men over women. To me it’s absurd and a Monty Python-esque take on these theoretical, philosophical approaches to gender that ignore some obvious facts.
The serious part of that problem is that, ultimately, I feel this is damaging to women. It’s also ripe for satire, really begging to be satirized. I consider “Problematic” to be my love song to Tianna McGrath, the Twitter character created by the comedian Andrew Doyle, who is this dour, uptight, angry very, very privileged white woman who is a radical, inter-sectionalist poet constantly telling people why they aren’t “woke” enough. It’s also a novelty song, and supposed to be funny.
Speaking of women, your duet with Josie Cotton! I was turned onto her through your cover of “Johnny Are You Queer” from How to Make Enemies and Irritate People. How did you two connect?
It’s typical of the way I do things: throwing something against the wall and thinking it’s going to flop, slide off, and leave a stain. Every once in a while, though, it sticks! I had seen a social media post where she had expressed a lot of affection for our cover.
For me,“Turn it Around” was crying out for a male-female duet. I thought, “She’s a real singer. She doesn’t have time for our little, rinky-dink, duct-tape-and-bubble-gum show.” But I reached out on Instagram, and she said hell yes. She killed it. She’s a pro and an incredible songwriter. She really gets songs.
SFOA is not a meat-and-potatoes rock album by any means. There’s a lot of orchestrated parts, especially on “To Hell With You” and “Not Even Close.” How much of this album is you as composer?
It’s really a mix of me, the individual musicians, and the producer, Mike Kennerty. “To Hell With You” was going to be on First World Manifesto, and I did a lot of lyric re-writing. “Not Even Close” was a more recent song, and it was important to me to have that section where the military style drums come in.
Mike also added a second drum track in there to emphasize that. That was a very specific idea from my point of view; it’s all very deliberate. The last song on the album, “Bleed Through Me,” was going to be the last song for Baby Fat: Act 2. Mike added a verse, a second lead section, and made it a lot longer. The outro of that song, we didn’t fade it out, for this reason.
The very long outro is influenced by the Buzzcocks song “I Believe.” But what I wanted to do was to continually add layers. Some of the stuff you hear there, I sat down on piano and worked out what melody I wanted on guitar, what melody on keyboard. But I would say, to a much larger degree than any other album I’ve done before, the musicians who played on the record have a lot to do with how this album turned out and deserve a lot of the credit.
They played really well, not just from a technical standpoint, but from the standpoint of creating interesting parts that don’t stand up and beg for attention, but rather stand up and serve the song.
This is the first full-length Screeching Weasel album you’ve recorded with your current live band. They must feel a real sense of camaraderie.
We’ve been trying to make this record—and failing—for years. It was always my intention to get this lineup together for the first time in the studio for a full-length record because I know how good they are, and how good it could be in the studio with Mike producing.
It was such a struggle, but when it finally happened, it was so much better than I even expected it would be. I am incredibly pleased with the performances on this record. This is “a band” in a more real sense than any other lineup of Screeching Weasel. Both in the sense of people contributing musically and also getting in there and really working their balls off for a common goal.