- Satisfaction guaranteed: Pennywise.
Three years ago, Pennywise bassist Jason Mathew Thirsk, after years of futilely battling substance abuse, killed himself. The recovery process for the remaining band members (drummer Byron McMackin, singer Jim Lindberg, and guitarist Fletcher Dragge) went through the typical stages: denial, anger, understanding an emotional rollercoaster ride that nearly culminated in the break-up of the Southern California-soaked punk group that formed in 1988.
"We think about it every day," McMackin says. "I mean, we almost broke up. And it took awhile a couple days for some of the guys, maybe a week before we said, "There's no way we're stopping.' We wanted to keep going. We flew home and went back out on the [Vans] Warped tour, and the last two shows we played were pretty intense. It turned it around for us, and it was sort of a tribute to him. We did it for him. Right after that, the performances were real emotional. Now it's like we're carrying the torch he lit for us."
The first step in the recuperating cycle was the 1997 album Full Circle. A blistering and very dark outpouring of the band's collective heart, the record serves as a document of the turmoil physical, emotional, whatever that surrounded the quartet (with bassist Randy Bradbury now on board) in the year following Thirsk's death. "Full Circle was almost like a healing process," McMackin explains. "There are a lot of emotional things coming out of that record. You can just tell there was a lot of anger. The record is really dark. We wanted to lighten up even more than what's on the [new] record. We wanted to get back to being a little bit happier instead of just being so angry. It's kind of like a new, fresh start. We clipped a bunch of songs that were a bit more happy-sounding."
Pennywise's fifth album, Straight Ahead, finds the band in better, more animated spirits. The thrash of its seventeen songs sounds like they're coming from the heart of a revitalized band. Its sloganeering in the form of such songs as "Greed," "One Voice," and "Badge of Pride" is in full charge, and Pennywise tears into them with freshly scrubbed zeal. "We wanted Straight Ahead to sound like a new beginning," McMackin says. "It has all the same ideas and all the stuff that we do, but totally new. It was getting to be so redundant.
"I think the old Pennywise fans will have the same reaction. There are songs on there that might be a little slower and have an extra twist, but I think an older fan is going to be satisfied. After he listens to the songs that he doesn't think he likes, he's going to like them, maybe even more. That's how I was, and I'm our hardest critic and biggest fan. Some of the things were interesting, but all of a sudden it was like, Wow, these are way cooler. They were fresh, and of course, anything different to a listener's ear is going to be [met with hesitation]. Once you check it out, though, you'll be satisfied, 100 percent."
McMackin points out that the band itself is especially happy with its new set of songs. In fact, the group can't wait for the Warped tour to end, so it can begin its own club trek, which offers more opportunity to focus on Straight Ahead material. "It's a great tour to be on," he says of Warped, "and there was no way we were going up against it. We just wanted to get out there and play.
"Of course, we love every song we have and every song we play, but we feel that we kind of stepped it up a level as far as our playing ability," McMackin says of Pennywise's newfound musical chops. "We actually challenged each other doing this record, so there's a lot more stuff going on musically in the songs. And it's not like we're a show-off band, but it feels fun that we can do that. So we're really stoked to play the new songs. We think they're something different, yet totally the same.
"We feel that we went back to the first record; there were some weird things in there that really caught your ear. That was what we tried to do: to make a change, to make something else for everyone else to start riding on, because we're so sick and tired of all the redundancy going on. Punk bands now are a dime a dozen."
Taking a cue from its label boss's former band (that would be Epitaph's Brett Gurewitz, who used to be in Bad Religion), Pennywise infuses its SoCal punk with dots of left-leaning political missives that are so lucid (money is bad, corporate power is even worse, etc.) that its appeal to social-thinking fifteen-year-old kids is hardly surprising. "There are so many things to talk about, and it just takes a little bit of awareness to realize that there is a lot of crazy stuff happening every day, from the medical system to the government system," McMackin says. "We just want people to stop and check some stuff out, instead of bitching about it. If you're sick and tired of things, you've got to do something about it. You can't just talk about the ocean being polluted, you've go to go rally against it.
"We're not just giving political messages. We're saying that this generation is going to be really screwed up if everything keeps going the way it is. The government is based on people's decisions, but really it's corporate industries that run it. It's all money, and people need to know what they can do. It's not that hard. There are tons of organizations.
"Martin Luther King was one person who completely changed the world. These fifteen- and sixteen-year-old kids aren't stupid, and it's the perfect time for information. If they're interested in something and you give it to them in the right way, hell, yeah, we're going to let them know what we're pissed off about and what we would like to change. Maybe in their time, they possibly can."
It's that devotion and respect for its fans that has propelled Pennywise the past decade. The band may not be as huge as the Offspring, Green Day, or even labelmates Rancid, but its fan base is a dedicated one. (Which is one of the reasons, McMackin notes, that Pennywise hopes to raise a more socially aware generation through its songs: "We're not preaching, we're just throwing ideas out. They're our ideas and our opinions. It is possible right outside your door is anything you want to do. You can't sit on the couch bitching about it while watching TV.")
"We survive by our fans," McMackin reflects. "We got the strongest and most loyal fan base ever, and we work our asses off to keep it that way. We're into it; that's what it's all about. We'd like to be remembered as the fucking coolest hardcore punk band in the world. We want to be fair and respected. Then we can go a little further and try to stretch the limits.
"We want to be cool as fuck."