It’s no secret that all of us at Loser City are big fans of the AV Club, and it’s equally unsurprising that the site’s recent feature Fear of a Punk Decade has caught our interest in a big way. We spoke with Jason Heller, senior writer at the AV Club, about Fear of a Punk Decade, which wraps up this week, and what he has learned about punk on the whole and how it developed alongside him in the ’90s, as well as whether punk will ever truly die and whether we might see a Fear of a Punk Decade book soon.
Nick Hanover for Loser City: When I first contacted you about this interview, you told me you were on your honeymoon in Ireland, and that you were going to see Penetration do a reunion show. Like I mentioned, I’ve been a fan of that band for some time but I had no idea they were still doing shows. So I definitely need to hear about that.
Jason Heller: Yeah! (laughs) The thing is, I know that so many of the old ’70s punk bands in the UK either got back together or never really broke up and I know that they tour all of the time over there but never really come to the states. So I was hoping that I would get to see at least one old band that I love. And sure enough, Penetration had a show. It was really cool.
When I started doing zines in the early ’90s, my friend Mike and I talked about doing one together and we never really got around to doing it. But we talked about the bands we would want to cover and Penetration was one of the first bands I wanted to talk about, which ties into Fear of a Punk Decade because even in the early ’90s, I was interested in writing about older punk music. In the early ’90s, I wanted to write about punk rock from the ’70s, because back then, I didn’t know anywhere I could go to read about this type of old punk rock. Obviously there weren’t any major websites at the time. I think that idea had always stuck with me, even as I got involved with professional music journalism, where the focus is on new music coming out, for the most part. I always thought “I want to write about the old stuff, and put it in perspective, in context.” So when the opportunity to do Fear of a Punk Decade came up, I thought “Oh, this is perfect.”
LC: It’s interesting too, because Penetration is one of those groups that never seems to get much credit as an influence. You hear about X–Ray Spex quite a bit, even though their sound doesn’t necessarily align with a lot of the punk that came after. Penetration always stood out to me as a band that was ahead of its time, but you can see its DNA in a lot of ’90s punk groups.
JH: Oh, absolutely!
LC: In Austin, we have a lot of great female fronted punk bands that are coming up, and you can hear a Penetration influence to a lot of them. With the internet, it seems like a lot of lesser known punk bands are finally getting their due, like you mentioned you used to have to read zines or liner notes to find out about that stuff, there weren’t a ton of websites you could just go explore.
JH: That’s a great point, too. When I listen to X–Ray Spex, who I love, of course, and Poly Styrene, rest in peace, I hear a lot of influence from Pauline Murray from Penetration on X Ray Spex. Pauline Murray was only, like, 19 when Penetration started, so she was only a year or two older than Poly Styrene was. But I totally hear that. And of course there’s the Slits, and Siouxsie and the Banshees, who started out early on as a punk band. Those other bands always get more attention. But I always think about that stuff, and with Fear of a Punk Decade that was something I kept in mind when I was mapping out the series and how it would progress and all that. There were so many variables I was trying to balance, including what do I do when it comes to trying to write about the big bands of the ’90s that everyone has heard about? The ones where even if someone wasn’t super into punk, they knew about and still recognized those names. I had to balance that out with the more obscure bands I wanted to write about, because quite honestly you pack in so many band names into a three or four thousand word column and it’s just going to become a bunch of names running together, you know what I mean? That was a big thing I had to keep in mind. Like personally, I don’t like Blink 182 (laughs). I never listened to them, I never liked them, but I understand their significance, I’m not one of those people out there trying to say “Well, that isn’t real punk.”
I get into this in the last instalment of the column, for 1999, which I’m writing right now, and one of the big points I’m trying to hash out is that I didn’t want to write this column to define what punk was or wasn’t. I believe some things are punk and some things aren’t, obviously, but I think it boils down to a phrase I’m using “Who fell in with the pack?” Maybe that’s a weird way to put it, but basically, did you consider yourself someone who liked punk, who felt a part of it, who connected with it in some way? To bands, even if you didn’t sound stereotypically punk, is that where you came from? Did it have that sensibility? Because by 1999, Jimmy Eat World put out Clarity and there’s the American Football album, these are not “punk rock records” but that’s the scene it came from, so I want to include all that stuff.
LC: In the last column that went up, on 1998, you spoke about Refused and how even though they weren’t necessarily “big” when The Shape of Punk to Come came out, they still had this nuclear effect on the punk scene by opening up people’s minds to what punk could be. In a way, do you feel the ’90s are where that development happened in general? Especially since in the wake of Nirvana’s success, you had so many arguments about what was or wasn’t punk, all of a sudden it permeated the mainstream and bands you would not have classified as punk before were looped in with the scene.
JH: I do. I think in one of the earlier columns, I guess the ’91 instalment, I do bring up Nirvana and do talk about that a bit. I do think that became much more of a hot button issue, in a small kind of way, what was punk and what wasn’t punk. But the thing to remember is, like since day one, that’s what punk rock has been. There was immediately, even in the ’70s, this argument, “Are these people just poseurs? Are they opportunists? Careerists?” And the thing is, this is another thing I try to talk about here and there, some of the best bands in punk have been in it in order to try to be famous, or to make a living or get rich off it. It’s not a new thing in the scene for people to want to make money off of punk rock. There’s no point to whittling punk down based on what you think the intentions were of everyone in the band who made that record, because then you’ll probably be left with about five punk bands (laughs).
When punk rock came out, it was immediately on major labels, it tried to be famous. In the ’70s, the record labels wanted the Sex Pistols to be huge, they wanted them to be the next sensation. And they were. It backfired and imploded, and that set the tone in a lot of ways, with that weird boom and bust cycle. Even in the ’80s there were a lot of hardcore bands that softened their sound, like 7 Seconds is a great example, in 1984 or whatever. They put out New Wind, which featured what was really a pretty melodic style of music, and people always talk about how Rites of Spring invented emo, but 7 Seconds is just as culpable in that regard. It was a lot of down tempo, pretty, melodic songs where Kevin Seconds sings about their feelings, it’s everything you think emo is. So there were always these bands who were trying to reach a larger audience by taking punk and making it something that more people could immediately get and approach.
LC: Plus a lot of those early punk groups and proto punk groups were on relatively major labels, like Sire which had so many of the first wave New York bands…
JH: Oh yeah, Sire is a great example. Sire put out all the bigger bands you hear about, but they also put out the Rezillos’ first album, and all these weird, oddball little punk rock records, along with the ones that made it big, the Ramones and everything else. But even Sire was doing a lot of throwing punk against the wall to see what might stick.
LC: You spoke earlier about the pop punk stuff and how people debate whether that’s even punk, but when you go all the way back to the start of punk, the Ramones basically are pop punk.
JH: Yeah, they absolutely are! That’s the craziest thing…I guess if you’re into music, and you’re into generally a lot of music criticism, it’s a little bit different than people who just listen to music and like what they hear and that’s it. I think it’s a whole lot easier if you aren’t exposed to a lot of music writing or music discussions. When you’re into that, it’s easy to make a lot of short sighted statements, like “pop and punk music can’t cross over.” Because if your definition of pop music is ABBA, Madonna, on up through everything like Backstreet Boys or something, if that’s all you think pop music is and you don’t think it has a broader definition and a broader application than I think, not to be snobby or anything, but I think that person doesn’t know what the fuck they’re talking about (laughs).
Punk rock isn’t free jazz, it’s catchy, a lot of the time even the hardest hardcore are catchy songs and there are still hooks to them. Minor Threat is an extremely catchy band, you know what I mean? When people talk about pop punk, I know everyone wants to have their own definition, and that’s fine, but the one thing I didn’t want to do with Fear of a Punk Decade was start trying to tell everyone what punk rock is. I suppose that’s implied in what I choose to include and choose to exclude in the actual column, although there are so many other logistical reasons for how many things I can mention. But yeah, for the most part pop punk is still punk rock, it absolutely is.
LC: A lot of people came to punk rock the same way you did, where they discovered it in high school and grew up with it. One thing that intrigued me about your column was the fact that it’s not just the story of punk in the ’90s, it’s also your story told through that decade of punk. It starts with you just turning 18 in 1990, and then as the decade goes on, we’re seeing punk grow as you grow. I was curious, though, did the personal angle come first or was it a natural fit since your maturation was in line with the decade?
JH: I didn’t want the personal or autobiographical parts of it to overwhelm things. I think we’ve all read really bad music writing at one point or another, where it’s all about the author, and just a little bit about the actual subject. I wanted to steer clear of that, and I don’t know if I was entirely successful because I’m sure there are some people who read it and are like “Will this guy please shut the fuck up now and talk more about the bands?” (laughs) Which is fine, that’s a totally valid complaint to have. I mean, it’s wrong but it’s valid. (laughs). In my case, I think this adds a little bit more accessibility to the column that might not be there otherwise, because there’s something very abstract about talking about music. No matter how you try to be specific or tangible, it’s always going to be a little abstract. And starting with the first person and then zooming out to the bigger picture, the more abstract, musicological stuff, can sometimes be a better way of doing it. I also have to acknowledge a debt to my former music editor at the AV Club, Steve Hyden, who is now on staff…
LC: At Grantland, right?
JH: Oh, yeah, yeah, that’s right. He did a series a couple years ago called “Whatever Happened to Alternative Nation?” a history of ’90s alternative rock, and it was year by year and it was a mix of his own personal experiences and the music that was coming out that year. Nathan Rabin, who has also since left to go work for The Dissolve, he started one on the golden age of hip hop [ Hip Hop and You Do Stop], and that sputtered out, it was not finished before he left the AV Club. What those guys did, that was what I wanted to do except with punk. Steve Hyden is awesome, I loved working with him, we’re still friends, he’s a great dude, but the one thing I noticed in his column is his “alternative nation” pretty much stopped at punk rock. I can’t say for sure, but I’m pretty sure he barely mentions even Green Day, he doesn’t get too deep into it, he doesn’t touch on ska. That was another thing, we all like to make fun of ska but some of the best shows I went to in the ’90s were ska shows. There is a pretty broad range of stuff being made at the time that fell under the ska umbrella. I wasn’t into all of it, and a lot of it definitely doesn’t stand the test of time, but I still felt it needed to be written about.
So I was hoping there would be enough of a mainstream hook, and then also maybe with me bringing in some of my personal stories, that those things combined would help kind of sell what I am actually doing in the lion’s share of these columns, which is talking about a shitload of bands that a lot of people who come across the column have never heard about. I’m sure there are some people who read my column and go “Well, he doesn’t get into any obscure stuff at all, these are all bands anyone would have heard of in the ’90s if they were in the scene.” And yes, that’s true. I kind of had to draw the line at getting too obscure, with a certain caliber of bands that no one would have heard of unless they were super deeply involved with that stuff at the time. So it was that balancing act. That’s my long way of saying yeah, there were a lot of different reasons to include the first person in there because I thought it would help contain and shape and be a little more palatable way of drawing people in to the column people who weren’t as deeply involved in the scene.
I’m writing this 1999 instalment and I’m realizing I was 17 in 1990, and I was 26 in 1999, that couldn’t have been a better age range to talk about punk in the ’90s year by year, because that’s about the age that people got into punk rock and that’s about the age a lot of people get out. When I think back on it year by year, it does amaze me how so many things that went on in my hometown really tied pretty intimately with what was going on in punk and that relationship. It doesn’t hurt that I played in bands, I put on shows, I worked at an independent record store throughout the entire ’90s, and I discovered through the store a lot of punk labels, I put out records, I drew cover art for punk albums and a punk sine, it was everything I did. It wasn’t everything I listened to, I listened to such an insane range of music back then, but punk was my home and that was really appealed to me the most, so to write about this time and not mention any of that stuff seemed like a wasted opportunity to me.
LC: I feel like in the punk scene, people like to play the obscurity game, too. As someone who grew up playing in bands and booking at youth centres, I’m used to punks trying to out obscure each other. It just becomes oneupsmanship. One thing I really liked about the column is that you had a slight regional focus, just by virtue of where you were and what bands you were playing in and playing with, so it was fascinating to read what bands you thought were poised to become big that never really made it big. I was interested in your thoughts in whether regional scenes are still a thing, because it seems like regions are dying off musically since the internet has made bands and fans alike more global. Do you think that’s true? Do you think scenes like the Denver one you were in the ’90s or others were in in Seattle or wherever else can still be relevant? Or do you think that’s largely falling off?
JH: I do, I do think it’s falling off. And I do think that for better or worse, it is something that doesn’t happen as often anymore. There are obviously still those scenes, there is a practical element to it. In a town, you have a certain number of musicians who have a certain shared sensibility, and so you wind up playing in bands with the same kind of people with one degree of separation between any of them and everyone else in your metropolitan area who might be into that same kind of music. So there’s going to be these associations between local bands, and there will still be these scenes, but like you’re saying, when it comes to how anyone outside that scene will view it, it no longer seems to enter into the mind of someone else like “Hey, I like this band, I’m going to check out what someone else from the same town sounds like.” It doesn’t seem like that’s the way bands are presented anymore. I’m not saying it never does, because in punk it happens more than in other scenes, and especially in certain places. Florida is a great example, you’ve got Merchandise and that whole scene of bands and all of the Gainesville No Idea scene and those guys and there still is a little bit of a regional identity. But when it comes to actually finding out about bands and getting drawn to bands, where they’re from doesn’t quite factor into it as much as it used to, unfortunately. Some times it’s still a selling point for certain bands, like bands from Iceland, that’s interesting, you know what I mean? (laughs)
Not to draw it out too much, I think about even just twenty years ago, so in the grand scheme of things not too long ago, major cities in the country looked very different from another. You still aren’t going to walk into a city and confuse it with another city, but there are more chains, there is more city planning and things going on where nowadays every city I go to in the midwest, and I don’t feel like I’m saying this in a jaded kind of way, they’re more similar. A lot of it does have to do with the fact that everyone in the country is talking to each other on the internet all the time, and there is this much more shared collective feel of a global identity, and I think a lot of good, socially, can come from that. But I do think that tends to cut down on the feeling that “Hey, we’re in this little scene here.”
Denver is a great example because we are the most isolated major city in America when it comes to the distance to other major cities. It’s an eight hour drive in either direction to get to another major city. That has had a very direct effect, and it still does, on how bands tour here. And it does have an effect if you’re an upcoming band on how easy it is for you to go out and tour. We had the joke in the punk scene back in the day, in the ’90s, of being the “No Coast Death Squad.” The Death Squad part didn’t have anything to do with it other than being silly, but we were no coast, we weren’t east coast, we weren’t west coast, we were a flyover. Colorado has become a much more liberal state but back in the ’90s it was solidly conservative, I mean, we’re purple now. It was impossible to get all the bands, to draw them here, and then it was impossible to get anyone to care about our bands. Maybe we just sucked (laughs). But it seemed to us that we had to work twice as hard to get anyone to pay any attention to us.
And so there was a total solidarity. The good thing also was no one felt the need to sound like each other, what would be the point, no one cares anyway? So the cool thing about Denver was hardly any bands sounded like each other back in the ’90s, it just didn’t happen. You would have got laughed at if you started a band that sounded like another band in town, so we had the one emo band, the one pop punk band, I mean I guess there were various pop punk bands but they all had their own thing. And one straight edge hardcore band. That was one of those cases where we tried to turn a negative into a positive. It would have been a hell of a lot easier on us in the ’90s, just to pick that example, to get our music out there and for us to get a little bit better known but at the same time, I am really glad that we had to circle the wagons to a certain degree back in that time. Not to pick too Western of a metaphor (laughs). We are out here in the middle of nowhere and sometimes that adversity helps define the music.
LC: At the same time that I’ve been reading your column, I reread Andy Greenwald’s Nothing Feels Good, which is basically the definitive book on emo, so it documents the first musical subgenre to grow up with the internet generation. It’s interesting because a lot of what you’ve brought up here and in your columns is documented in Greenwald’s book, where he’s talking with people who are building up isolationist musical communities but they’e online instead of physical. So you have LiveJournal communities that are very insular, even though they have people from all over the globe, they would exclude people but it was a conscious decision rather than something determined by geography.
I know you’re touching on the tail end of emo there, which spun out of the punk scene, but looking back on that time now with historical hindsight, do you feel there were a lot of premonitions at the end of the decade of where things would go in the following decade? Did you think emo was where punk was going? Or do you think it’s something that no one really predicted?
JH: I didn’t predict it. At the end of the ’90s, I was heavily, heavily involved in the emo scene, that was completely what I was into even though I started out going to more punk shows and I still did. At the end of, I was still going to Oi! shows, you know what I mean? (laughs) I still loved all of it. But the emo scene was the one I was deeply a part of, but by the end of the ’90s, to me the more interesting, god forbid any of the dudes in Botch would kick my ass if I used the word emo in connection with their band (laughs).
But Botch is a great example coming from a post–hardcore and, dare I say it, emo point of view and were doing a very heavy, challenging abrasive music and I was really drawn to that end of things. It’s funny because at the end of the ’90s I started getting out of the melodic stuff and getting way, way more into bands like Cave In and Converge and Botch and even ISIS who we now think of as a metal band, when they came out they felt like a punk band, and the drummer from ISIS was in a bunch of hardcore bands when he was younger. I didn’t know that at the time, but I could tell. You listen to it and you can pick up on that, you can tell that’s where he was drawing from.
So I saw my friends in Jimmy Eat World, my friends in the Promise Ring, try to go big with their music and fail. When Clarity came out, which now it’s funny to think of that album as a failure, but at the time it completely flopped. It was their second major label album, they had way softened their sound since Static Prevails, much more poppy. They managed to get lucky enough to get their song on the soundtrack to a movie (a radio remix of “Lucky Denver Mint” was featured in Never Been Kissed), but it didn’t go anywhere. I was like “This is it, emo is dead!”
There were bands coming out, like Saves the Day and New Found Glory, and I was like “This is good stuff, but I liked it better when Lifetime was making this music, but it’s cool these kids are doing this” (laughs). And that didn’t seem like emo, exactly. And then AFI, at the end of the decade when they were doing like Black Sails in the Sunset, it didn’t seem like emo, it was like “What the fuck are these guys even thinking?! They’re making this bizarre, goth stuff!” and it was like “Well, that doesn’t make any sense, these guys are totally off their fucking rockers.”
It’s so funny to me that there is this really fine cut off point from 1999 to 2000, because 2000 there are all these bands exploding, and a lot of them had formed in the late ’90s but hadn’t put out records yet. Or had maybe put out a single or an EP. But all your Dashboard Confessionals and My Chemical Romance and all the bands that came up…one of the big examples, and this is a record I’ll be talking about a lot in the 1999 column, is Thursday’s first album (Waiting). Now that was a record that came out and blew me away, and I think it blew away a lot of people who were in the scene at the time. There aren’t a lot of Thursday fans who are going to look back and think Waiting is the best Thursday album, but it’s still the one that got the scene to notice because here’s this band that obviously comes from hardcore, that comes from emo, but this is something that feels really new, really fresh and that was one record that came out in 1999 where I thought I could see something coming from that.
But I really had no idea that emo was about to become what it became, in any way whatsoever. And I will say, yeah, I was in my late 20s, early 30s when all that was big in emo started coming out at the turn of the century. I hated it. I thought it was absolutely ridiculous. Now in hindsight, I think there was tons of good stuff that came out in the last decade. Of course, people slap the emo tag on a lot of unrelated things, like even the Smiths. But now it really bugs me when I hear people clinging to the tired “Hot Topic emo” tag or whatever. That phrase doesn’t mean anything anymore! (laughs) Or think that emo means goth. Those terms aren’t interchangeable.
Now I see this huge barrier of misconception about the aughts and the punk and emo that came out during that decade and I really, really hope that someone comes along and does what I did with Fear of a Punk Decade for the decade after that, because there’s so much good stuff. And just like with any other decade, there are the bands that made it…and then all of the other bands that didn’t, that either didn’t make it by choice because they weren’t trying to be big, or just made really great music that no one paid any attention to even though they should have. So, in 1999, if you would have asked me if there was any future to emo, I would have just laughed. It was still a word that no one used except as a joke, no one applied to themselves, no one considered themselves emo. The thought that that would in any way become embraced, let alone become popular, seemed ridiculous.
To me, all punk rock seemed over at the end of the ’90s. I didn’t think Blink–182 would stay big, I thought they would be a one hit wonder. I thought Green Day was pretty much over with, I thought there was no way that band was going to sustain its popularity any longer…how wrong I was! I think it was partly things seemed to be going at the end of the ’90s and partly me and a lot of my friends being in our late 20s and thinking “Well, I’m not sure how I feel about this anymore, my relationship with punk rock is not ending but definitely changing, so that must mean the world is over punk rock.” And I think that’s one of the crazy conceits you have when you’re young, not in a bad way necessarily. At least in my case, because my view of punk rock was changing and my place in regard to it, but that doesn’t mean that there weren’t all these thousands upon thousands of kids who had taken this music to heart and just grab it and run with it. And that’s what they wound up doing, and they made a whole lot more money doing it. (laughs) But then you do have people like AFI, who were around making pretty mediocre punk records, in the mid ’90s and then look what happened.
They experimented, they changed their style, they do things they love. I don’t want to sit here and try to defend a band like AFI entirely, the type of music they wound up making, that is them. They’re my age, they grew up listening to the Cure and Depeche Mode and Nine Inch Nails, all that stuff, and they wanted to make music that’s kind of like that because they decided, yeah, you can’t play stupid, one and a half minute long punk songs forever like they did when they started out.
Writing this whole column has been a lesson in revising my perspective and reexamining how we relate to different eras of music as we get older and those eras kind of evolve. And if there’s anything anyone takes from the column from reading it, I would hope that would be it. It isn’t that I turn them on to some good bands which they could have found out about anyway, it’s not hard to find out about music nowadays, you can just go down the rabbit hole on YouTube and discover a million punk and hardcore bands from the ’90s. I would hope if anything people who have read column will approach their own relationships to music in a different way and realize that maybe sometimes clinging to your idea of what something is, maybe that isn’t a healthy thing. Maybe it is a really liberating thing when you realize “You know what? I can have an opinion on music and I can hold it very strongly but maybe at the same time I can say I feel passionately about this but tomorrow I might have an entirely different opinion.” I think as people approach the discourse about music in that way, I think it might make for a lot more interesting types of conversations about music, rather than everyone thinking they have to cling to their opinion of what the definition of music or anything is.
LC: I really like that aspect of the column. Between Punk Decade and Nothing Feels Good, there were a lot of bands mentioned that made me go “Oh, I should check them out again, I hated that when I was younger, but maybe I’d be more interested in it now.” Were there any bands you rediscovered while doing the column? Or any you thought were better and then realized they weren’t as good as you remembered? Or vice versa?
JH: Yeah, definitely. I was talking earlier about New Found Glory and Saves the Day. I would say their early albums that came out in the ’90s, I definitely had a higher opinion of those, for sure. I would also say that even though I liked Hot Water Music a lot in the ’90s, they were so overplayed back then, everyone was such a fucking fanatic, and still are. They’re definitely one of the top five punk bands people get their tattoos of.
LC: For sure, I know quite a few people who have done that.
JH: There were a million bands that instantly sprang up that sounded just like them. I just got kind of tired of that sound, it just became a blur. I never stopped liking them, but going back for the column and going back and listening to those early records, they’re just so goddamn good. It’s a formula that’s easy to duplicate but there’s just something about the way those four dudes came together and did what they did. I say did because they’re still around, but the stuff they’re doing now is pretty weak. What they did in the ’90s, it was just incredible. I now have a much higher opinion of what those guys did.
But I think the big thing, and maybe this is because it’s on my mind right now, is Clarity by Jimmy Eat World. I know those guys. We haven’t kept in touch over the years, I haven’t kept in touch with a lot of people from back then over the years. But they left us, they left the scene, they really did. They left the scene they came up in. Static Prevails is one thing, it still sounded like a record that could have come out on an independent record. But obviously when Clarity it was like, “Man, is this for real? What is this?”
With Jimmy Eat World, Denver was like their second home. Arizona was like a seven and a half hour drive, or maybe it’s more like a 12 hour drive. But they used to play out here a lot. They did this split 7″ single with Christie Front Drive, who are from here, so they stayed out here and played out here a lot, and “Lucky Denver Mint” is on Clarity and they were singing this song with Denver in the name. But then when Clarity came out, it was like “Where the fuck are they?” For some weird reason, it just tied into a lot of changes you go through in your late 20s, or mid 20s since I was 26. I didn’t go to college back then and to me it was like graduating college or something. You’re in your mid 20s, maybe it’s time to move on, explore some other things, meet some new people and all of that. All that tied into my opinion of Clarity the album. Now I go back and listen to that album and I’m just blown away. It’s so reckless.
When the album came out, I thought it was this safe thing they’re doing. But there’s nothing safe about that record. There’s a sixteen fucking minute song on it [the album closer, “Goodbye Sky Harbor“]. (laughs) There are totally punk songs on it. There’s “Lucky Denver Mint,” which sounds like if U2 made an emo song. There’s so much going on on that album, and it was like a hail mary. And the thing is, I know those guys and I did talk to them back at the time and it was like “We have money, Static Prevails had totally flopped and we’re going to be able to get enough money to do one more record, it’s do or die, if this doesn’t work out, who knows what we’ll wind up doing.” They put their lives on hold, sacrificed everything, they didn’t actually make any money at the time because of record label deals, and the way all that worked out. They basically said “This might be the last time we’ll be in a big studio, with enough money for a budget to actually do something crazy.” They might even have said this in interviews since, I’m not sure, but I know at the time their way of thinking was “Let’s go out with a bang. If this is the last record we ever make, at least we’ll be able to look back and say we threw everything against the wall and decided to make this epic album and at least as musicians we can say, we did this, we created this.”
Now to look back and remember how everyone turned their backs on these guys while they were trying to do that, that’s pretty sad (laughs). That record is obviously one I’m glad I went back to. It’s so funny, I thought it sounded so slick at the time, and it still kind of does, but to me it’s such an atmospheric record. I’m sure not the first person to use that word to describe Clarity (laughs). But now that I listen to it, there’s so much in there. It’s one of those records you can listen to a thousand times and it’s an old cliche, but you hear something new in it overtime. I obviously had a big 180 on that album, so that’s what I’m leading into with the 1999 instalment.
I’ve talked about Jimmy Eat World a couple times before but I was trying to think what one album, to me, sum up 1999; where the decade had been, where punk was going to. I could pick a band that had a debut album come out in 1999, but then it wouldn’t be about 1999. Thursday’s first album wasn’t huge when it came out, but obviously they hadn’t gotten there yet. I wanted to pick a band from 1999 to headline this, who had been around through a significant part of the ’90s. Jimmy Eat World started out playing straight up pop punk…
LC: Right, they were even on Warped Tour for quite a while…
JH: Yeah, and even before that, they self released an album in 1994 [their eponymous debut was actually released on Wooden Blue, also home to Christie Front Drive], it’s just Fat Wreck Records style pop punk. It basically sounded like Face to Face or something. Then they started doing emo, but even then it was harder edged, it had a real post hardcore feel to it. Then obviously they started doing the stuff on Clarity. But to me, it’s so amazing they went through all those stages of development in ’90s and made an album in ’99 that tanked at the time, but then every band picked up on going forward. Really, I couldn’t think of who else I could possibly end this column with than Jimmy Eat World. I’m sure there will be people who think “It’s bad enough you had Blink 182 as the headline in one of these columns, but Jimmy Eat World?!” All things considered, what else am I going to put in there? Dropkick Murphys? I want to talk about the whole idea of punk not only ending the decade, but ending the 20th century, ending a millennium. I felt that that was going to be the perfect album to end the column.
LC: Definitely, it makes sense. They show that whole spectrum of where punk went in the ’90s and where it was about to go. I think you might be surprised by the reaction, too, because that is a band that and an album that I find a lot of people might not casually admit to loving, but when you start talking about it and that album in particular, you find that a lot of people, especially in my generation, have a not too secret love for it. It’s like our Pinkerton.
JH: Absolutely, that’s a great example, it’s on the level of Pinkerton, I totally agree. Tons of people will love to read about Jimmy Eat World, and see that up there, but there are going to be some fucking curmudgeons…
LC: (laughs) There always are!
JH: “Jimmy Eat World isn’t punk!” Which kind of circles all the way back to the beginning of the conversation, I guess. That I’m not worried about.
It’s funny because I do talk a lot about my own life, and my own involvement in the scene, but I’ve actually held back, there are so many other things I could have mentioned if the column had been about me. If it was about me? If it was my memoir? It would have been different. I’ve been reserved about the amount of stuff I put in there. If I wanted to name drop all the bands I opened for or put on shows for, then I could fill a year’s worth of columns with masturbatory crap like that. I really wanted to carefully choose the things I put in there. The last thing I would want it to turn into is something punker than thou, you know? Like we were talking about earlier. I understand it’s the so called “hipster” thing to say is that I was into that first, or I was into that before you were, and that really saddens me that that’s become a thing because it doesn’t have to be that way, it isn’t always that way.
Back in the day, it was how you talked to each other. It wasn’t a dickswinging kind of thing, it wasn’t trying to one up each other. It was like “I want to know you. Who are you? Where do you come from?” That’s the thing, you would sit around and trade stories, about old shows you’ve been to…
LC: Right, like war stories…
JH: Yeah, you don’t have to be 42 like I am to do that. You can be 22 and still do that! There are people who are 22 who have been going to punk shows for ten years already, you know? It isn’t a matter of age or nostalgia even, it’s a shorthand form of talking about what you’re into. And now it kind of bums me out, god forbid you should talk about the time you saw a certain band at a tiny venue back in the day. People assume you’re trying to one up them. How insecure about yourself do you have to be if you assume everyone is trying to be cooler than you all the time? (laughs) Some people are just doing what they do.
LC: I think it’s also the AV Club readers, because over there you have the infamous “First!” comments gimmick, so with internet culture people reflexively assume that’s what you’re doing rather than being genuine or just trying to trade stories and learn about people. People are a little more wary now.
JH: Yeah, I think you’re right. And I see that everywhere now. People have done that to my face. Like we were talking about Game of Thrones earlier, I was having dinner with some friends of friends, and the subject of Game of Thrones came up. This person I just met said “Oh, you’ve seen the show but have you read the books too?” And I said “Yeah, I love the books!” I turned to my wife and asked her when I started reading those, “Was it 2006 or 2007 that I started reading those?” And this other person I barely knew was like “Oh, you have to do the hipster thing, huh? Well, I stated reading them when the first book came out in 2002!” (laughs) It was just like “What the fuck!” you know what I mean? I thought we were just talking about these books!
Now I think it has grown beyond just the way that people are communicating on the internet. Now this is an actual thing that people actually talk about (laughs). Everyone is trying to be cooler than them, and they feel injured about it. People like that, maybe they just need to go into a mosh pit and get their fucking brains knocked around a couple times (laughs). Maybe that will beat some fucking reality into them! (laughs) Jesus Christ, at a certain you’ve just got to stop living in some weird internet comment hall of mirrors and go actively do something real.
It’s funny, because when we talked about regional shows and regional scenes, that’s one thing that will always keep some semblance of that alive, and that is when you’re a kid, and by kid I mean even someone who’s up through their early 20s, you’re in the process of still discovering everything you can possibly discover about, say, punk rock. Regional shows, local bands, they’re cheaper. Not everybody has the money to go see every $20, $30, $40, $100 show that comes down the pipe. And seeing local bands and being able to approach local bands, to talk to them and not feel as intimidated, or maybe sometimes it’s not intimidation it’s a matter of access. Big bands, they leave the stage and they disappear. Not all of them, of course. The better bands will sit at the merch table and hang. But to me, regional bands will always have that place, because it is where you get your real first hand one on one, hands on experience with, say, punk rock. That’s always going to be super valuable. That’s why I’ll always have a soft spot for the bands that maybe didn’t make it. Because how well they got know isn’t the only measure of how important or how good a band is. Sometimes it’s “Were they a vital part of the scene that helped support things collectively?” Or even holistically, if you want to get fancy about it. That’s the thing I always have such a soft spot for.
When you grow up in a punk scene, you see that firsthand, you see how that actually works. If there’s one thing I still cling to as an ideal for punk rock, that would be it. It would be a way for people who are getting up and getting into music to learn that this is an accessible thing, something that you can approach and participate in beyond just sitting in on a comment thread on the internet.
LC: Plus, there’s the physicality of it, like when you mentioned the mosh pit, how you can go in and literally feel the music.
JH: That makes all the difference. Yeah, there’s a lot to be said for going and seeing any music live, even if it’s not a visceral or overly physical experience. I’ll go see Elvis Costello, I sure as fuck hope there isn’t a mosh pit, god, that would be horrible right? (laughs) I want to sit quietly and listen to Elvis Costello play his very excellent pop. But yeah, I still want to see Neurosis and see people just fucking losing their shit! Even though Neurosis play insanely slow music, people still go nuts. I still really do love to see that.
I don’t go to as many shows as I used to, I know, surprise, surprise, old punk dude doesn’t got to so many shows these days. But I went to Riot Fest up here last year and there’s a lot of old bands that I loved that played, like Superchunk played and Rocket from the Crypt played and all these ’90s punk bands that I loved, they were great. But there was no show that I saw at Riot Fest that came close to the energy and the physicality of seeing Against Me! play. It’s funny to say that now, because Against Me! were around in the ’90s. They weren’t putting out records yet but they were around. They only barely missed being in Fear of a Punk Decade by like five months. So it’s not like they’re some new school band, they’re established. But to me, it was the range of kids that were there. I felt like I was right back at a show in the ’90s. There were all these kids who looked they might have been all of two years old when Reinventing Axl Rose came out. They might have literally been two years old when that album came out, actually! And they’re just a bunch of fucking misfits, and they’re grubby, and they’re not dressed cool, they’re just fucking goofy ass dorks and people are just losing their shit, singing along with every song. Laura Jane is just up there fucking killing it. I was like “Anyone who tries to tell me punk is dead or irrelevant, man, you gotta open your eyes and go out there and live a little bit.” That’s just the easy thing to point out, too, is Against Me! That’s the most obvious example.
I think it goes back to not being too locked into what your definition of punk is or your viewpoint of a certain type of music or scene, because there’s just so much that’s always continually being renewed, or reinterpreted. It’s just changing to keep up with the landscape. Punk rock doesn’t exist in a vacuum, it has to find its way along with all these other things around it, socially and musically. And as long as it keeps going, it’s alive, it’s around. If people still play punk rock, if they still call themselves punks, then it is alive, that’s the bottom line.
LC: It’s interesting you brought up the kids in the crowd because I just went to an Andrew Jackson Jihad show this week…
JH: Oh, they’re so good, I love that band!
LC: Yeah, they’re great! I love that band, and I felt like the average age of that crowd was 12 to 14.
LC: I was blown away! When I was in bands in high school, they would come around and do shows, so we’re basically the same age, and it’s amazing, they’re getting older but their crowd is getting all these new, young fans while keeping the older fans too. It was awesome to see it, because they were super into it.
JH: That’s awesome. You want to know the sad thing about the Against Me! show I saw? I saw all these dudes who were my age or maybe even a little bit younger than me, who I know for a fact loved Against Me! back in the day. I was working at a record store when Reinventing Axl Rose came out and every kid that came in that I knew was like “Have you heard this fucking Against Me! record? You gotta check it out, it’s so good!” And so many people that I knew who were way more into Against Me! than even I ever was, even though I’ve always loved them, I would go up to and say “Hey, you want to know who just fucking killed it at Riot Fest? Against Me!” and they were like “Against Me? Why would I even go see them? They’re still around?” Are you serious?! I guess you’re too cool for Against Me! now, to even go see them play. That’s just so weird, man, why would you think that way? That’s crazy. By all means, you don’t have to like them anymore, but to dismiss them out of hand? To think it’s ludicrous that anyone over the age of 20 would even want to go see them? That’s just crazy. I don’t mean to go off griping about stuff like that but to me it’s indicative of the bad part of what goes on in the punk scene, people feeling that they have to stop liking or listening to what they heard or that it has to be nostalgia.
Nostalgia can play part of it, but this music is not dead. You don’t have to have nostalgia for it, it’s still alive. It’s a perpetually renewing thing. That’s probably one of my biggest fears with Fear of a Punk Decade, is that it seems too nostalgic. Because to me, all that stuff is still alive. It’s something that’s alive and half of those bands are still around playing anyway, you can go see them. All those records, they’re still around. If the internet has changed anything in that regard, it has really driven home the point that none of this stuff is dead, you can access any of this instantaneously so let’s get over this whole notion that music is like layers of fossilized fucking whatever. It has its time and then it’s frozen there and it gets buried under the next layer. That doesn’t happen anymore. That’s probably never how things really existed. Let’s view it as all being alive right now because in reality it really is.
LC: On the note of keeping things alive, are there plans to expand on Fear of a Punk Decade? Since you’re a novelist already, is there a chance it could turn into a book?
JH: I’ve written a couple of books before, so to me it’s a matter of seeing the best way I might be able to put this together. I have talked to one editor at a publishing company about the prospect of doing it and I was basically told “Well, if you want to write a book about the history of ’90s indie rock…”
LC: (laughs) Because there’s not enough of those…
JH: Yeah! I was like “I love indie rock, I listened to tons of indie rock back then, but the thing is I loved that music tons and went to tons of shows like that back in the ’90s, but there wasn’t a scene, it wasn’t a place I could go and it wasn’t my people.” So I could do that, but I wouldn’t be the best person for it.
LC: That suggestion misses the point too…
JH: Yeah, it does. The plan is to cobble together all these columns together and make a coherent proposal and start sending it out in earnest. The problem is, I’m pretty sure if I was ever able to sell this as a book idea, it would be much more straightforward, more of a pop history book like Our Band Could Be Your Life, not that it would be that good, I don’t claim to be as good of a writer as Michael Azerrad. But it basically would have none of the autobiographical stuff in it, which I would be fine with. For a monthly column at a website where I am the senior writer, it makes sense to invest that personal amount of stuff in it for the reasons we’ve already talked about. But I think for a book, it should either be a memoir about punk rock in the ’90s, which is fine if I was famous…
LC: Well, Nathan Rabin wasn’t either…
JH: No, you’re right, and he did. But the thing is, I’ve talked to Nathan about that and that book [The Big Rewind] didn’t do that great, either (laughs). I don’t think anyone is knocking down his door to write any more memoirs. I think it becomes an increasingly tough market when it comes to trying to sell a memoir. Honestly, I’d much rather write about the bands if it was a book. That’s the plan for that. I think I need to get this last column done and out of the way before I can start pursuing that in earnest.
And the only other thing we’re going to be doing is…I don’t know if you’ve noticed on the AV Club but sometimes we do roundtable discussions. They’re basically on some topic and four of us will send emails around to each other and keep building on what the last person said and have a discussion on the subject. We’re going to do one about ’90s punk.
LC: Oh, nice!
JH: Yeah, it’s going to be basically a post script to the series. I keep to this idea that I’m not the only one at the AV Club who loved that music and was part of that scene, the boss at the AV Club, Josh Modell, he came up putting on shows, writing zines. He’s my age, so he did all the stuff I did, except I don’t think he ever played in bands, except he did it in Wisconsin. It will be great o get everyone else’s perspective on things. And out of everyone doing the roundtable, me and Josh are the relative old timers. Then the other two people, Annie Zaleski and David Anthony, aren’t like babies or anything, but they came in to ’90s punk by the end of that decade rather than being into it right from the start. They’ll have a little bit of a different perspective on it. I pretty much expect those guys to blow me and Josh out of the water because I think even with all of the research I’ve had stuck in my head over the last year of doing this column, I think they might actually be a little sharper when it comes to what their view of things is and what their perspective is, how some of the bands in the ’90s relate to things going forward. I’m super excited to see what those guys say about stuff.
The only thing that bums me out is that Kyle Ryan isn’t going to be able to do it with me. He is someone who played in bands too on top of all the other stuff, and Kyle left about a month ago to go be the web editor at Entertainment Weekly. So he obviously can’t take part. But he is the one who had been editing my column the whole time and has made tons of valuable changes, and even tons of input on stuff, and it seems almost criminal that I’m not doing the round table with him. The only good thing about him not doing it is that I’m pretty any roundtable with us would be at least 50% about how great J Church was (laughs). It would degenerate into a J Church lovefest. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, they’re fucking awesome.
Beyond that, I think the AV Club might be all ’90s punked out for a while. We might have exhausted our readers’ good will. Now I’m just grateful I had the chance to throw all this out there. So we’ll see what happens. If a book comes out of it, that would be the best thing, because I would have the opportunity to dig into tons of interviews, of course. And talk more about certain bands and certain things that aren’t about the music itself, per se. I’ve touched on other topics, here and there, like the sidebar column on zines and record labels. There are so many other tangents I didn’t get to do. Like, I didn’t get to talk about how punk rock was portrayed in film and tv and literature in the ’90s. That would have been a great thing to talk about, I couldn’t even find space to mention SLC Punk in last month’s column. It really pains me, not because I think that’s a great movie or anything but because when it comes to ’90s punk that is something that is definitely worth bringing up. Coincidentally, one of my friends’ bands from Denver, the 8 Bucks Experiment, was in that movie. So there’s even a Denver connection to it. That was a band that my old band used to play with all the time back in the day.
Doing a book would just give me the opportunity to spread out. It is just kind of sad, I don’t mean to crap all over that editor I spoke to, I understand that indie rock is a more marketable commodity, I understand that there is this hierarchy that says indie rock is mature and artistic and punk rock is dumb and for kids and somehow that is still how things are in the minds of so many people.
LC: Yeah, we struggle with that here in Austin. We have a great punk scene here but so many people just want to talk about the bearded folk bands and generic indie rock.
JH: (laughs) I can only imagine how it is when you have a city with an actual vibrant music scene, like you guys have, how different it might be writing about stuff and how things are perceived. I’ve never lived in a town that has had a happening music scene. So at least count yourself lucky there. You’ve got that.
And I’m not saying I’m out to break any stereotypes or boundaries, but there are tons of books out there that have been written about ’70s punk and ’80s punk. It’s now accepted as real music, but the thing is the cultural community at large, whatever that might be and I don’t want it to sound like a conspiracy or anything, but music criticism at large still does not take ’90s punk seriously. It’s just a matter of time. It’s an age thing. I know it’s weird to think that someone my age might be discriminated against for being too young but there is definitely that kind of unvoiced perception that ’90s punk is Green Day and the Offspring and that stuff is a joke. And yeah, some of it is a joke, but some of it is really good!
LC: Just like any decade.
JH: Yeah, and regardless of whether you thought it was any good or not, it was a very important, big, popular thing. We’re talking about bands that sold millions and millions of records. It’s perfect timing for something like that. At least I think. Hopefully I’ll run across that one editor who will be into it. And if not, I’ve had many book proposals fail before. So if it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen. But we’ll see.
Jason was kind enough to put together a Fear of a Punk Decade playlist for us, featuring the songs he feels sum up the column and the decade, which you can listen to below:
And as an added bonus, here are two videos of bands Jason played in:
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with Dylan Garsee on twitter: @Nick_Hanover