Joey Cape

"I'll never be Ozzy/onstage when I'm fifty," Joey Cape once sang. But despite being active since 1989, the 45-year-old Cape is still oft seen gracing stages worldwide with no signs of falling apart any time soon. Seemingly content to ride his 'Wagon until the wheels fall off, Cape and No Use For A Name mouthpiece the late Tony Sly released the second installment of their acoustic split project last month. In a two-part conversation, interviewer G'Ra Asim spoke with each of the performers about their contributions to Acoustic Volume 2. The former Bad Astronaut and Afterburner main man waxed philosophical about what he has in common with Elton John and how parents just don't understand.

This past December in a previous interview with Punknews, you mentioned (maybe facetiously) that you keep playing music because you don’t 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 I’ve written began there. It’s just matter of taking that in to the studio or in front of people that’s different. So it’s not uncommon for me. It can be just as monotonous in some ways, if not more monotonous, because there’s almost less dynamic. But I do like that it’s different. I don’t want to say that it’s the opposite, but it’s a different experience for sure, entirely, from playing with a band. Which is cool. It’s a good thing. It’s 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 you’ve still got some time? Where would you say you stand creatively now?

I feel I have time because I haven’t lost inspiration. I still feel that. On occasion I get inspired and I’m still writing. But the evidence is clear. You know, you just look at all the people you grew up with—the artists that you liked-- and to me, it’s just clearly an age thing. It doesn’t happen to everyone, though, that’s 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 "been-done" music or art in general.

When you write a song, how do you know when you’ve 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 it’s 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 it’s strange, sometimes I feel like when I write something that I’m really proud of, it just feels different from the average song that you write. There’s a lot of stuff I throw away that no one gets to hear. Let’s put it that way, because I definitely write some stinkers every once in a while. But yeah on occasion there’ll be something that I write that either the lyrics or the music or both—and it’s great when it’s both-- where I feel like I’ve really accomplished something as far as what I’m capable of. I imagine a lot of people have that type of feeling… I’ve wanted a lyricist my whole life as a songwriter. I’ve been saying it for years: you know, Elton John had a lyricist. Why can’t I have one? I just want Blake Schwarzenbach or John [Samson] from The Weakerthans or one of those guys. They can be my lyricists. It’d be so much easier.

That’s 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 it’s funny that that’s 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, I’m 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, it’s 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 don’t really believe in, it’s kind of a crappy deal. That said, that’s 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. It’s 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 I’m 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 I’ve written a lot of things over and over again because the things that you’re inspired by in life are often the same. We all have different issues. One of mine is loyalty. I write a lot about disloyalty.

I’m curious if any of your songs have ended up affecting your relationships or friendships in terms of what you’ve revealed through them or in terms of what you say about people you know.
You know, I’ve been waiting for that to happen for so many years. I generally don’t come out and say names in songs that I write, but along the way I think I’ve got braver. There’s a little bit less of a curtain between me and the recipient, or the person I’m writing to. I tend to be a little more direct and I do put some specifics in songs. Sometimes it’s just a matter of the song is not going to sing unless you do. I’m always against it, but sometimes the song chooses for you. And I’ve been waiting for that forever, I keep waiting for one of my old friends or someone that I’ve re-acquainted with to come to me and say, "Yeah, I’m pretty sure that song is about me." 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 "in tears" kind of apology, like "I am so sorry." But it didn’t feel very good. It didn’t make up for what I had to go through to write it.

But some of the songs that I’ve written…I have some very close friends that maybe weren’t friends for a while when I wrote the songs, and I’m 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 don’t listen to your music. I mean your close friends, the people who are very close to you in your life, they aren’t 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, "hmm, what if this song is about me?" But those few songs that I’ve been very, very specific in? There have been times where I’ve been playing and a friend of mine who was, for a period, not a friend of mine and I wrote a song about him…There have been times where I’ve had to cut the song from the set because I didn’t want the person—because they were there, at the show and maybe I’m playing an acoustic show and you can really hear the words and there’s 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 it’s a misconception. I think most of people who have been successful definitely didn’t own our record. My thing is that most people who write songs do it on a piano or an acoustic guitar because they’re 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 it’s gotten a lot harder to tour with a band. It’s really easy for me to just grab my backpack and an acoustic and play a show. There’s no bullshit. I don’t have to coordinate a band or a crew, I can just walk out the door. When you play acoustic it’s also really nice to play with people you don’t normally play with. Another thought I have about it is maybe some of these people are just getting older. I don’t know if I would’ve 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 aren’t in it have absolutely no understanding of? How do your parents describe your profession to their friends? Do they actually say "our son is a lifetime punk rocker?"
No, they don’t say that, which is interesting, because you’d think so. But that’s a very, very good question and I’m 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 don’t 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 don’t really use the word "punk" because it’s only one element to what we do. Lagwagon doesn’t sound like traditional punk to me, when I think of it… It is weird, because if you play country music, it’s a very defined genre of music. It can be kind of a bummer sometimes that you’re 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 "skate rock." I don’t even know what that means! People who skateboard that play music? Yeah, sure, that’s true; we all skated, you know, surfed and snowboarded and all those things. But those things don’t really have anything to do with each other-- other than that the music is a good soundtrack for those aggressive sports. It’s a weird one. I don’t know what my parents say. They probably just say, "oh my God, he never stops traveling!" …They 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. They’re just parents; they just want you to do well and for life to be good for you.

That makes me think of "Sleep" (from Lagwagon’s Hoss album) and the lyrics about "the band will have its first hit song" and "I’ll bring home the bacon bits." That’s art imitating life—or, 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 didn’t have to sleep on people’s couches anymore. We started to pay our rent and those kinds of things. That didn’t 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, here’s the way it’s gonna go: we’re gonna have a hit song even though we’re playing this music that will never, ever get near the radio.