This past December in a previous interview with Punknews, you mentioned (maybe facetiously) that you keep playing music because you donít know what else to do with your life. Is doing acoustic records a way of breaking up the monotony of doing some of the louder, faster things you built your name on?
Yeah, but at the same time the acoustic records are really just full circle for a guy like me. I always write on an acoustic and I always have, so pretty much all the songs Iíve written began there. Itís just matter of taking that in to the studio or in front of people thatís different. So itís not uncommon for me. It can be just as monotonous in some ways, if not more monotonous, because thereís almost less dynamic. But I do like that itís different. I donít want to say that itís the opposite, but itís a different experience for sure, entirely, from playing with a band. Which is cool. Itís a good thing. Itís more exciting to do different things every once in a while.
In the same interview and on your website, you talked about wanting to write as much you can before you lose your muse. Is a loss of the muse imminent, or do you feel like youíve still got some time? Where would you say you stand creatively now?
I feel I have time because I havenít lost inspiration. I still feel that. On occasion I get inspired and Iím still writing. But the evidence is clear. You know, you just look at all the people you grew up withóthe artists that you liked-- and to me, itís just clearly an age thing. It doesnít happen to everyone, though, thatís the good news. There are exceptions, but if you look at the evidence it kind of seems like just about everyone at some point in their life starts putting out really trite, kind of ďbeen-doneĒ music or art in general.
When you write a song, how do you know when youíve hit the mark? What about a given song makes it clearly a keeper to you personally?
Well yeah, that is a big distinction that is being made there, whether itís hitting the mark to me. I never know and I never have known when I write something whether more people are going to respond to it than another thing that I write. But itís strange, sometimes I feel like when I write something that Iím really proud of, it just feels different from the average song that you write. Thereís a lot of stuff I throw away that no one gets to hear. Letís put it that way, because I definitely write some stinkers every once in a while. But yeah on occasion thereíll be something that I write that either the lyrics or the music or bothóand itís great when itís both-- where I feel like Iíve really accomplished something as far as what Iím capable of. I imagine a lot of people have that type of feelingÖ Iíve wanted a lyricist my whole life as a songwriter. Iíve been saying it for years: you know, Elton John had a lyricist. Why canít I have one? I just want Blake Schwarzenbach or John [Samson] from The Weakerthans or one of those guys. They can be my lyricists. Itíd be so much easier.
Thatís interesting to hear you say, because I definitely feel like among people who I know who grew up listening to Lagwagon and even your solo stuff, your lyrics are a big part of what made those projects stand out. So itís funny that thatís the part you would delegate to someone else if you could.
I work really hard on the lyrics and I take my time and I make sure that they come from the heart. And you know, Iím very careful with lyrics, especially. I want to feel like they mean something to me and I want there to be integrity because I really believe that people can tell difference. Also, itís just that you have to sing those songs. And you never know which songs you have to sing a lot. And if you have to sing a song a lot that you donít really believe in, itís kind of a crappy deal. That said, thatís the hardest part of the process for me. It takes the longest. And I guess that makes sense, right? Strumming chords and making up melodies, those things kind of do come naturally. The melody part of a song, I mean, just comes to you. But the lyrics, you have to be inspired and they have to kind of fit together like a puzzle. It has to all make sense. It has to have a continuity from a view of the whole thing so it has to flow and have feeling that works with the song. Itís a lot of work. And there are people that just write. They just get up in the morning and they write all day long. We call them poets and writers. But Iím not one of those people I have to really wait for lyrics. I wait a long time sometimes to be inspired to write something. I think Iíve written a lot of things over and over again because the things that youíre inspired by in life are often the same. We all have different issues. One of mine is loyalty. I write a lot about disloyalty.
Iím curious if any of your songs have ended up affecting your relationships or friendships in terms of what youíve revealed through them or in terms of what you say about people you know.
You know, Iíve been waiting for that to happen for so many years. I generally donít come out and say names in songs that I write, but along the way I think Iíve got braver. Thereís a little bit less of a curtain between me and the recipient, or the person Iím writing to. I tend to be a little more direct and I do put some specifics in songs. Sometimes itís just a matter of the song is not going to sing unless you do. Iím always against it, but sometimes the song chooses for you. And Iíve been waiting for that forever, I keep waiting for one of my old friends or someone that Iíve re-acquainted with to come to me and say, ďYeah, Iím pretty sure that song is about me.Ē I did have one experience where I did write a whole record about someone and they came and apologized to me many, many years later. And you know, an ďin tearsĒ kind of apology, like ďI am so sorry.Ē But it didnít feel very good. It didnít make up for what I had to go through to write it.
But some of the songs that Iíve writtenÖI have some very close friends that maybe werenít friends for a while when I wrote the songs, and Iím not going to name any names, but in some ways, that (they might take issue to old songs) remains a danger. You can always count on the fact that most people that you know donít listen to your music. I mean your close friends, the people who are very close to you in your life, they arenít fans. And you can also count on the fact that most people that you like are not all that vain. I think a lot of people could hear a song that is about them and not really catch it. At least decent people. You have to be kind of a strange person to listen to a song and go, ďhmm, what if this song is about me?Ē But those few songs that Iíve been very, very specific in? There have been times where Iíve been playing and a friend of mine who was, for a period, not a friend of mine and I wrote a song about himÖThere have been times where Iíve had to cut the song from the set because I didnít want the personóbecause they were there, at the show and maybe Iím playing an acoustic show and you can really hear the words and thereís a specific line in the song that says that (the person in question) is the only person this song could be about.
In retrospect, your first split with Tony kind of seems like the tip of the iceberg in terms of modern punk frontmen making acoustic offerings.
It seems that way, but itís a misconception. I think most of people who have been successful definitely didnít own our record. My thing is that most people who write songs do it on a piano or an acoustic guitar because theyíre quiet and you can do it at night in quiet places. It also has a lot more to do with the climate of the music industry, the fact that itís gotten a lot harder to tour with a band. Itís really easy for me to just grab my backpack and an acoustic and play a show. Thereís no bullshit. I donít have to coordinate a band or a crew, I can just walk out the door. When you play acoustic itís also really nice to play with people you donít normally play with. Another thought I have about it is maybe some of these people are just getting older. I donít know if I wouldíve liked doing this in my twenties.
What does it mean to be someone who has spent so much of their adult life committed to a subculture that a lot of people who arenít in it have absolutely no understanding of? How do your parents describe your profession to their friends? Do they actually say ďour son is a lifetime punk rocker?Ē
No, they donít say that, which is interesting, because youíd think so. But thatís a very, very good question and Iím not even sure I can answer it. My parents, for example, never really knew or had the desire to describe the music that I play. I donít think they really understand it at all. I know they probably heard me define it a million times as loud, fast, aggressive music. And I donít really use the word ďpunkĒ because itís only one element to what we do. Lagwagon doesnít sound like traditional punk to me, when I think of itÖ It is weird, because if you play country music, itís a very defined genre of music. It can be kind of a bummer sometimes that youíre not a part of something that is a very defined genre. The labels that people have come up with to describe what we do are things like ďskate rock.Ē I donít even know what that means! People who skateboard that play music? Yeah, sure, thatís true; we all skated, you know, surfed and snowboarded and all those things. But those things donít really have anything to do with each other-- other than that the music is a good soundtrack for those aggressive sports. Itís a weird one. I donít know what my parents say. They probably just say, ďoh my God, he never stops traveling!Ē ÖThey might prefer the Gimmes Gimmes. I know they like the acoustic stuff. But let me say that my parents were very supportive of what I did. Especially when I started making some money. Theyíre just parents; they just want you to do well and for life to be good for you.
That makes me think of ďSleepĒ (from Lagwagonís Hoss album) and the lyrics about ďthe band will have its first hit songĒ and ďIíll bring home the bacon bits.Ē Thatís art imitating lifeóor, at least one or other. Maybe life imitating art.
I was having a really, really good year the year that Hoss came out. I think that was the first year that the band actually did start making money, when that song came out. We did start making a living playing music and we didnít have to sleep on peopleís couches anymore. We started to pay our rent and those kinds of things. That didnít last forever but it was a really good time. So that song was almost written prematurely in that regard. It was more hopeful than anything else and I also think it was sort of cynical. I was on tour in Japan when I wrote that song. I was being cynical, like, hereís the way itís gonna go: weíre gonna have a hit song even though weíre playing this music that will never, ever get near the radio.