Joel Tannenbaum (Ex Friends)
by Interviews

Philadelphia's Ex Friends have a song where the refrain goes, "Cops crack skulls! Cops crack skulls! Cops crack skulls!" The funny thing is, that while you expect the vocals to be some grizzled, crustie-lifer, they are actually extremely poppy sounding, and with different words, could fit on pretty much any radio hit that you could name. Such is the quagmire of Ex Friends - a band of smart, thoughtful people that can go toe-to-toe with you on Anarcho-punk or Flaubert.

One of the group's driving forces is Joel Tannenbaum, who, as you may know, is also one of the guys in Plow United. He did some heavy time in the Gomorrah that was the 90's Philly punk scene before spreading his wings and getting a doctorate. But now, he's back and is eager to smash out some pretty hard punk rock that also flirts with sounds far outside usual punk conceits- think Conflict meets Leatherface.

Because Mr.-Smarty-Pants just got his PHD, features Editor John Gentile rang him up and they spoke about the newest Ex Friends album Rules for Making Up Words (which just got released on vinyl, yo!), memories of the old Philly punk scene, and fightin' with the cops!!!

You can click read more for the brawling tips.

Joel, I’m talking to you at 10 a.m. on a Saturday. That is a very un-punk rock hour.
I dunno. How do you know that I just haven’t been awake the whole time?

That’s true! Have you been up all night, drinkin’ booze, shootin’ heroin’, and throwing bricks through police station windows?
I’m more of a PCP guy. I’ve been pretty much dusted since Tuesday.

What’s the longest you’ve ever stayed up?
That’s a great question. Probably close to 48 hours.

I don’t think that I’ve ever stayed up for more than 26 hours. What’s it like to stay up for that long? Are you just going completely out of your mind?
Well, it’s funny. You and I always end up going down the same road. In 1997, it was the weekend of the last Plow United show and I was going off adrenaline. Crash Worship was playing the next night at the Fake House, and I had to work at this health food store that doesn’t exist. I played the Plow show, got up at 8 a.m. to go to work, then went to see Crash Worship. But, because it was a Crash Worship show, it didn’t start until like 3 a.m. That was definitely my longest continuing period of being away.

You almost called Ex Friends "Ludes, Man" instead of Ex Friends. What’s your opinion of Quaaludes?
I missed the Quaalude era. I used to work at a Wall to Wall sound and video at the King of Prussia mall. Most of what I knew about Quaaludes came from my boss, who definitely had some Quaalude mileage on him and I would hear about that. Honestly, I’d be interested to know when Quaaludes stopped existing. Do you have any idea?

You know, I’m not too hip to the Quaalude scene. I guess the kids are into the harder stuff these days. Well, kids seem to be either into weed or heroin. I don’t know how anyone could ever do heroin. I just don’t understand it.
I lived through the era when Philadelphia was kind of the heroin capital of the east coast, and it was pretty gross and scary. Then, people started doing pharmaceutical drugs, like oxycotin, which as far as I can tell, is basically heroin. But now, it seems that powdered heroin is back, and everyone seems to be talking about it because Philip Seymour Hoffman went out that way.

Joel, you’re an educated man, but you’re also a punk rocker. When Philip Seymour Hoffman died, they were like, "We gotta get these guys that sold drugs to Philip Seymour Hoffman" and they arrested them the next day. Joel, how come they’re not arresting these people when a "normal" person dies?
I think you answered your own question. I think that when a celebrity dies, it adds extra heat, it adds extra attention. We can only assume that the law enforcement officials were given extra resources. I can only assume that’s the case.

Do you think people do heroin because the slang is so cool, such as "riding the white pony" or "Sweet lady H?"
Oh yeah. What other reasons could there possibly be?

You have a song called "Let’s get old." I found that interesting, because that is in direct contrast to the Circle Jerks’ "Live Fast, Die Young."
That song is sort of a sequel to those types of songs. I don’t want to get into too many details about what was on my mind when I wrote that. One of the weird things about hitting your 30's is realizing that you’re not going to die young. Usually, that’s in the context of seeing people die around you, and realizing that it’s not you, and that you might live into your 40's, 50's, 60's, and 70's. It’s about coming to terms with that. I know people who did not expect to live into their 30’s and then have to reassess what their life is about at that point.

I get the impression that you used to hang with some pretty wild characters.
Ehhh… crazy stuff used to happen in the 90s. Not so much now. I’ve got a grown up job and am married and live in an apartment. that takes up time and energy. When I started realizing how much nostalgia there was for the 90’s, especially in this era, I try to take those kids and put them at a show, like Stalag 13, and I think that they’d be kind of freaked out.

You know, the vision in my mind of you is that you hung out with wild guys, but you were the least wild guy. Am I wrong? Were you a wild dude?
What do you mean by 'wild?'

Fighting, drinkin’, hookin’ up with chicks, fightin’ the cops- that’s what I’m talking about.
No, I never fought any cops. That’s definitely a fight I would have lost. I dunno. I’m not the best person to answer that question. I’ve definitely lived a non-conventional life.

That sounds like a dodge to me, Joel! I think you answered that question through a non-answer! But, that’s okay because you also have a song called "Sympathy for the socio-path" which has the lyrics "Cops crack skulls!" That sounds very Anarcho-punk to me. So, is Ex Friends Crass, the Subhumans, Amebix, or Chumbawama?
I think from that scene, the band that we are most influenced by is Conflict or Schwarzenegger. Do you remember Schwarzenegger?

Oh, I do! Steve Ignorant’s band after he left Crass!
So, Schwarzenegger made that record The Way things Are. That and Conflict and Leatherface, though Leatherface comes from a different scene, that was the road map for being aggressive without losing the inherent musicality.

Both Schwarzenegger and Conflict had Steve Ignorant. Are you a big Steve Ignorant fan?
I’m not like an obsessive crass records fan. I was exposed to that whole scene at an impressionable age and I’ve picked things from that age that shapes my music.

The criticism of Conflict is that they are a watered down Crass.
I think that in some ways, it’s fair. I think Steve Ignorant would be even okay with that. I think the guy just wanted to play rock music. He wanted to talk about the same stuff, but he wanted to count to four and rock. With him being in Crass, for so long I can understand that.

Are you more interested in the rock aspect of Ex Friends than the punk aspect?
No, no, no, no, no! …. Maybe. Um…. Again, it’s like, if we’re talking about Crass, it’s really this high concept thing influenced by non-musical things. For Ex Friends, when Audrey recorded her backing vocals which are very Guns ‘N’ Roses-ish and I was totally okay with that.

Well, you know, GNR has some LA punk connections.
Absolutely. Absolutely. Through Duff.

Indeed! What I like about your song is that although the refrain is almost poppy, the subject matter is quite dark.
I like to think so. I’m always grateful when people publicize this. A Philadelphia media outlet that shall remain nameless published this article about it that seemed to think that the song was pro all the stuff mentioned in the song. Pro-like financial services industries. That’s definitely what the song is not about.

Now, you recently got your doctorate.
That’s true.

What did you get it in?

What was your dissertation on?
An organ trafficking ring that existed in London in the 1980s. I think I’m a medical historian by training. The part of history that I understand is 80s Britain- post- war England- Thatcher England.

Do you have any crazy stories about organ trafficking in England in the 1980s?
That’s what my stuff is about. Basically, the doctors on the fringe in the private medical care in the UK set this up with guys from Turkey, and they would fly people in from Turkey and place them on dialyses and sell a kidney or whatever.

That’s like that thing in the movies where the guy wakes up in a bathtub full of ice with his organs removed. Does that actually happen?
People don’t really get their organs stolen. The organ stealing thing is a myth, What happens is that really poor people make a concerted effort to sell an organ to get out of debt or to pay for a dowry or whatever. It definitely happens all over the world.

Now Joel, you’re a very educated man. Can one over intellectualize punk rock?
Sure. I would totally agree and I think people totally like to do that. When people debate what is punk is exactly what they are doing. I would like to see less discussion about what punk is and more what are the boundaries of DIY culture.

In the modern era, is DIY even feasible? It’s easy to be DIY in 1992 when you are Fugazi and making tons of cash. But, no one’s making any cash anymore.
I think how you treat people- that’s the rule I live by. People have to make decisions about where your music is played and what you associate with. I try to treat people decently, and hook people up, and try to pay it forward.

Speaking of paying it forward, you recently opened for Marky Ramone, and you brokered a deal for discounted tickets, at a cost to yourself, for your fans. Why would you do that?
Well, it was through Live Nation, which is a big company, and they needed to sell some tickets, and there was some flex. So, it seemed liked a deal that worked for everybody. That’s how I try to do things.

Being that you are committed to the DIY ethos, did you feel guilty about playing under the Live Nation umbrella?
Bear in mind, Riot Fest was under Livenation. Riot Fest is the huge thing for me. The reason that it happened is because there are people that work at the Live Nation office in Philadelphia that are good people and really care about good music. So, when Riot Fest asked Plow United to play, we took it. People asked Plow United to reunite before, and we always said no. But, to be honest, when Riot Fest asked us, it just sounded like so much fun. As it turned out, our price was fun.

So, Ex Friends… who is the Ex-Friend?
There is a song called ex-Friend that was written before I had an outlet. That was basically the first Ex Friend song. JP, our drummer, he’s a graphic designer and he saw it and thought that it had the most potential for design. So, it’s named after the song. But, the song may or may not be about people that I knew in my life.

So, you have numerous ex-friends in your life.
A few… I might have a few.

How many close friends do you have? How many true homies do you have?
Wow, man. I would say that I’m lucky enough to have people that I feel that way all over the country… and even the world. I would say two to three dozen.

How many friends would come bail you out of jail?
I bet there is a good dozen people in my phone that would be willing to get up at two or three o’clock in the morning. Hopefully, I’ll never find that out. How about you?

I have five friends that I’ve been friends with ever since elementary school. I’ve got a bunch of acquaintances, but in some ways, there’s nothing worse than the acquaintance.
Yeah, but sometimes acquaintances will surprise you. Sometimes those are the people that will bail you out of jail because they want to take it to the next level.

So, you are saying that you have people fighting for your friendship?
No, the process by which acquaintances become friends is a pretty cool process in my book.

What’s coming up for Ex Friends?
Here’s what I’m pretty excited about. My cousin is a guy named Jason Abel. We haven’t seen each other since we were about 10. In the meantime, he’s gone off and become this big music industry producer, He works with John Legend. Soon, we’re going to record a few tracks with him engineering, which we’ll use to figure out what we’re going to do for the next full-length, and we’ll also use it for a split with a bad called Retrievers, with which we share a member. We are also going to be doing a split with Flag of Democracy.

Oh! So a merging of the old school and the new school!
Or, the old school and the older school.

FOD has been around since ’82 or ’81.
Yeah, dude, that band is where it begins and ends for me. Especially their first record is such a crazy missing link in punk and hardcore. It’s one of the first of the crazy fast record that is also melodic.

And it has the sense of humor that so many punk bands seem to have lost.

Now, Joel, you're a very educated man. Why do you think so many punk rockers are so humorless? Actually, even better. Joel, you like dumb jokes, right?
Yeah… or just jokes.

Okay, I’ll tell you a joke and then you tell me a joke. So, this guy walks into a psychiatrist’s office, naked, and completely wrapped in saran wrap. He says to the doctor, "Doctor, do you think that I’m crazy?" The Doctor says, "Yes." The guy says, "how can you tell?" The doctor says, "Well, I can clearly see your nuts."
Yeah… Yeah…. I saw that coming from a little while away.

What is your joke?
Knock, knock.

Who’s there?
Knock, knock.

Who’s there?
Knock, knock.

Who’s there?
Philip Glass.

Aaaaaah! Very good. See, that’s my point. That was a very intellectual joke where mine was stupid.
Well, I think it was pretty stupid. It requires you to say "knock, knock" like five or six times.

What is the Ex Friends endgame?
So, obviously, there are five of us and we all look to the band for slightly different things. The goal is to be able to make records to have people hear them and to have shows and to have people show up and listen, then it’s pretty sweet. No one needs to make a living playing music. I want to keep making records and playing shows until I’m too old and sick to do it, or until no one cares.