COMING FULL CIRCLE
Pennywise’s inimitable guitarist Fletcher Dragge talks legacies, Yesterdays, and not yet having of a copy his own album.
Have you heard the record?” asks Fletcher Dragge down the line – his voice has the bellowing weight you’d expect from someone of such Hagrid- like proportions, and at 8am it is, in all honesty, a tad terrifying. Dragge is, of course, enquiring about Yesterdays, the latest – but in no real sense newest – record from the seminal California punk band that he has used to soundtrack his partying antics since 1988.
We tell him we were emailed a stream the night before, that we had listened through it twice – all the turn around had allowed. His line of questioning continues: “Are the old versions on there as well?”
And a mix of that voice, the interrogation, and the relatively early hour sends us to panic stations – what old versions? A couple of tracks were released way back when on the Wildcard / A Word From The Wise EP, and the album’s first single “Violence Never Ending” had been penned back in the formative years of the band by founding member and bassist Jason Thirsk ( who took his own life in 1996), but wasn’t this a “new album of old songs”?
The panic subsides a little as Dragge admits he’s not even certain they’ve made it onto the CD – he himself doesn’t have a copy yet – and explains his enquiries. There was a plan – at this stage not yet confirmed to have been executed – to put the original recordings of many of the songs on Yesterdays ( an array of backyard and nightclub bootlegs and demos) as a single, secret track at the end of the record.
“I could be wrong, I’m not 100 percent sure, that shows you how organised Pennywise is…” Dragge offers, off- hand. “Jason’s singing on those tracks too, so hopefully that’s the way it turns out, I don’t know.”
The casual approach Dragge lightly mocks was in fact crucial to their approach to Yesterdays – a concept album not in the sense of a governing lyrical narrative, but in the sense that the band conceived of a palpable way to generate the necessary conditions for re- addressing songs upwards of a decade or two old.
“I think we tried to go back to the roots of recording but I think we say that every album – but I think on this album we really did strip it down, we didn’t get all crazy with the computer and Pro Tools and we actually got in the room together and we played live and didn’t go back and fine tune everything, we just let it rip.”
With the no bullshit approach the band knocked the album out in two weeks in a studio in their hometown, leaving Dragge time to work on a new restaurant in Hermosa – “burgers, beer, and whiskey” – and everyone else time to run around on vacation surfing ( at least according to Dragge).
“I think the more money you have to make a record, the more anal people get and the more time they spend – sometimes it kills the vibe, and I think some of the Pennywise records have even been overproduced to the point where it could have been a lot better if we did it in two weeks instead of two months. This one, you know, we weren’t worried about tuners, we used a $ 20 tuner that hooks on the neck of a guitar, like the cheapest piece of junk you could ever find,” Dragge stresses, and then stresses again to make sure he got the message home: “Like, no right- minded producer would ever let you use something like this, and that’s what we used for the bass and guitar. In the old days we’d have a guitar tech in there tuning everything every minute, but this was a lot more fun.”
It was a way of cultivating the sort of atmosphere that fuelled the band’s early shows – something they managed to realign with after Jim Lindberg returned to the fold as frontman last year.
“We were starting to work on a new album and then we played a gig in our hometown and all of our old friends showed up and we played all these old songs that we hadn’t played in 20 years,” Dragge explains.
That new album was put on the back burner after witnessing and re- experiencing the impact those older songs had on their friends. “It was just a great feeling having Jim back in the band, 25 year anniversary, and playing these old songs… We were just like, ‘ You know what? We should just go record these songs and get good versions of them that are listenable and just turn them out to people.’”
Getting back to those old songs meant that the past had a particular presence and while it resulted in a significantly mellower in- studio experience than Pennywise are used to, it also meant Thirsk’s absence was brought into sharp focus.
“Jason was a huge part of everything, I mean, he was the first guy that I called and sat down and drank a beer with and talked about the dream of Pennywise and what we wanted to accomplish and all that stuff. He brought the positive aspect to the band; I was a kind of destroy everything, get drunk and break it all and smash it and burn it down kind of guy,” Dragge dissects unapologetically.
“And Jason was the positive mental attitude guy. He had a huge influence on it and Jimmy really liked that aspect of the band when he joined, he really liked that Jason was involved and the direction of the lyrics, I mean, his thought process and his contributions to the band over the years, they carry through today.
“There’s a lot of people out there who just spend their whole life doing something that is just trivial and not really going to affect the world and they’re just walking through life like robots doing as they’re told. And then you have people like Jason who did stuff that is still to this day, 25 years later, changing people’s lives – and he’ll always be a huge part of Pennywise.”
YESTERDAYS IS OUT NOW ON EPITAPH.