What a lot of people don't know is that after 1993's Sugarfix and before 1997's Young and Good Looking, the Dwarves were in self-destruct mode. The band was without a label, everyone hated them because they (falsely) claimed that their guitarist HeWhoCannotBeNamed was knifed to death in Philly, they were broke, and frankly, the gang just wasn't getting along.
But then, like the plot of an overblown blockbuster movie, when things were at their worst, the band regrouped and cut a record that not only revived their entire careers, but set them in the pantheon of punk rock legends - The Dwarves are Young and Good Looking. The record found the band embracing a pop aestetic, all while keeping their hardcore raw power, which resulted in an album that was super jacked up and nasty, but also fun to listen to.
And now it's been 25 years. To celebrate, the band is on tour playing
What a lot of people don’t know is that the Dwarves were technically broken up before the writing and recording of Young and Good Looking. What was the status of the band and you as an artist at the time It kind of started as a solo record. The Dwarves had made the record Sugarfix, which was the last one for Sub Pop. Hewho left the band, Saltpeter had left the band before Sugarfix, so it was really just me and Vadge Moore, and the way that we left Sub Pop was under a big cloud. There was very little interest in the Dwarves or in me and there was a lot of residual anger about the Hewho death thing, so that was the context to which the album started.
What was your mentality? I was very down and out. I was despondent over losing my record deal and I was despondent over losing my band. Plus, I had lost a few friends from the Hewho thing- there were some people that were really anger at us and that anger centered don me mostly. It was an extremely bleak period.
On the other hand, the whole Sub Pop movement was based on this music which came to be called grunge. I looked at it as midtempo rock and the Dwarves have been punk band with pop overtones. So when Green Day got really big, and the Offspring, the Dwarves were at their lowest point, but the kind of music we played was at its highest point- the kind of music that was replacing grunge music, which we didn’t fit into.
It was a period of promise and I had some songs I knew were good, principally like “One time only.” I wrote that with Danny Bland and Marky DeSade from the Dwarves. For “everybody’s girl”, I was friends with a guy called Jim Elsion who had a band called Material Issue. That an Illinois pop band that had come to prominence with songs that used girls’ names. They kind of got knocked out when grunge came out. He said, “you should write a song with girls’ names in it.” I said, “that your gimmick and I don’t want to copy it.” So, then I decided to do a song with a bunch of girls names in it, which became “Everybody’s Girl” and that sort of became our most popular song.
A big part of the record was you linking up with Eric Valentine. I was broke and had no real means to do anything. I had to borrow money from friends to record and at that time I randomly met Eric Valentine. He wasn‘t famous yet, but he was working on two records at one time- the Third Eye Blind record and the Smash Mouth records, which both became hits. He made those songs at the same time as Young and Good Looking. I borrowed money and tried to stay afloat and record the record that I made… without a band… by the time it was it done it was two years after we started. We started in ‘94 and were done in ‘96 and the record finally came out in 97. It came out on the FYP guy’s label called Recess and Theologian.
I had been hitting up everyone to put it out- Dexter Holland and Fat Mike, they didn’t want it. I asked Mark Stern from Youth Brigade and they didn’t want it. So nobody wanted until the third time I hit up Brett and Epitaph. I had the entire record done, and at that point he was like, “fuck! This is an amazing record! I’m going to put it out!”
if you want a story about believing in yourself and not taking no for answer, that’s the Young and Good Looking story.
Before it came out, did you know that you had a killer record that would revitalize the band? The part that made me confident was the Eric Valentine part. It was the first time I had ever recorded with a real deal producer. It was a guy so good that he brought me over to his way of recording. By the time the record was done, just recording, I knew the songs were great. But, by the time it was done, it sounded like the hit records I heard on the radio! At that time, I was 27 or 28 and I had been making records for 12 or 13 years, and that was the first time I recorded a record that sounded like it was supposed to be hit record.
Along those lines, how important is it for an artist to believe that he or she is the greatest- sort of like James Brown saying “I’m the greatest.” I recently interviewed Christian from Mean Jeans and he just put out this KILLER record called Funky Punks in Space. I asked him if he felt like he was the champ or something like that, and his response was along the lines of “that’s not up to me to decide.” But, I sort of feel like an artist has to believe that he is the best to really succeed at the highest levels of art. You could go off on a long time on that. I just hung out with the Mean Jeans guy. It’s a cool record. I think in general, it’s just semantics. Whether a person says, “I’m the greatest,” like I do, or it’s up to the people, you’re still putting yourself forward. I don’t buy anyone’s protestation that they don’t think it’s great- that’s why they are doing it! The music goes out there. Part of what makes a band like Mean Jeans interesting is that they are not meeting the pop people halfway. They are making an interesting record that doesn’t concede to pop format. That’s what the Dwarves did at first. With Young and Good Looking, I was meeting pop expectations half way. Most guys don’t have the power to make you sound like what’s on the radio, like Eric Valentine. I said, “this music is similar to what I hear on the radio, but it’s my take on it.” He said, “cool! I can make it like that!”
Something like “Nothing but hits” is not like what’s on the radio, or a blueseier song like “You gotta bur” isn’t on the radio, but if you just look at the pop hits, there is a meeting point between the Dwarves sensibility. “Everybody’s girl” says I want to fuck every girl and it’s the meeting point between Dwarves and Green Day singing about their girlfriend. To me Young and Good Looking is about my sensibility without compromising, but it is the meeting point where people are willing to listen to it in a radio or pop context. If you look at back at songs like “Let’s fuck,” there was never a point when that would be on the radio. If you listen to something like Mean Jeans, it would take a lot for the world to say, “this is what the kids are cranking,” but that is what is interesting.
You mentioned “You gotta burn.” There actually are a good number of religious themes on Young and Good Looking- “The Crucifixion is Now,” “Unrepentant,” “You Gotta Burn,” “The Ballad of Vadge Moore.” Was this recurring religious theme by design, or is it just imbued in you? There’s a lot of religious imagery in the Dwarves overall. I was raised Catholic. I came from an Italian family. Part of it was it that religion has a fascinating undertone. I like the words of the bible words like “crucifixion” and words like “Unrepentant.” There is that element in “The Crucifixion is Now.” The idea, comporting with religion is we all suffer. “Unrepentant” was sort of like, “you said my band was too dirty, we couldn’t use nudity, you can’t say fuck, but I’m unrepentant and I’m still going to do what I’m going to do and you can’t stop me.”
What is your opinion of existence beyond the physical? I’m an atheist and I don’t believe in an afterlife per se, and I think spirituality is just people’s attempt to remake region without having religion. So, I would say there is nothing else out there. On the other hand, as we look at our lives, we put meaning into things. Rock and roll kind of became a religion for me. Transgression became a religion or me, or decadence and sex. Human beings, by our nature, sort of imbue things with larger significance. I did it more in the way of puffing up myself- saying I was genius, saying we were the most important thing, trying to make the universe revolve around us. In that sense we are all religious creatures at our base and we mythologize out self.
As you mentioned, there are a lot of undertones and deeper meaning to Dwarves lyrics if you look past the more explosive stuff on the top. I once asked Dave Brockie of GWAR, “does it frustrate you that many people only see GWAR as blood and comedy when there is social and political discussion in the music as well?” His response was something along the lines of “it’s not up to me to tell people how to enjoy my art.” Do YOU get frustrated that the deeper discussion and sly reference to music hallmarks is not often discussed when people talk about the Dwarves? My frustration just comes from us not being well known enough and us not having the influence I think we deserve! It doesn’t bother me whatever part influences you. If you’re just looking for tits, I’m good with that. If you’re looking for the genre hopping, I’m fine with that. I’m down for the religious investigation. I’m just bummed out that we didn’t get credit for what we did. We were the first people in Seattle dressing like women or playing naked or jumping into drum kits. In the 80s, we were using cassette tapes to drop samples in our records. We would never get credit for these things.
Why do you think that you don’t get the kudos that you are owed? The most basic face yourself explanation is that it is probably me! My personality means pissing off people at record labels or potential record label people… Timing plays a big role. There’s a finite number of spaces. Everybody doesn’t get to be the Beatles or Elvis or Nirvana. There’s only one of those at a time. Some of it is luck, some of it is me and my personality, and some of it is what you’re willing to do. There is a certain quality that lets musicians exceed in which you sit there and go with what works and I was never that kind of person. There were probably times where if I had ridden the wave, I’d have had more success in that area, but given what I’m like, I can only do things the way I do them.
Certainly there is some solace in the result of the art itself. You and Good Looking is bulletproof. As an artist, absolutely. There is nothing better than being able to look at your art and saying, “I like this!” That is a treat. A lot of the guys who went to major labels didn’t get. I had a lot of jealously of people that went to major labels and I couldn’t use their resources. They had a half million dollar deal, but a lot of that went to a producer, and they didn’t like the record, and they got dropped. But if I had that half million, think of what I could have done. I think the proof of that is Young and Good Looking. We caught Eric Valentine before he got famous. I think that’s the proof, except we made the whole record for $7,ooo, where at the same time, you had punk bands spending a million dollars on a record! There was a lot of talk at the time of Rancid going to Jamaica to make records that sounded like what Rancid usually sounded like. There are things I regret, but the albums are not one of those things.
What emotions will you have while playing this album live on stage? I guess we will find out. I’m going to get to feel what I felt playing that record again. I feel good about all the songs on it and it weaves together as a good set, and well play other songs after the record. I’m looking forward to feeling it. I hope it’s nostalgic. I am reminded of Vadge Moore and Salt Peter, and it was a cool time in my life. Honestly I’m feeling pretty good.
What’s in the works for the Dwarves? There is a whole new Dwarves record that has been recorded. We’re overdubbing now. There is a shit load of songs. We are considering a double album, which would be the first. We have a bunch of tracks. There is also my Ralph Champagne solo record, which is me doing an americana humor record and that record is coming out in just couple months. So I’ve got a few things in the upcoming months. I have a book called Highland Falls about a nasty teenage girl. The Dwarves made a hardcore record that might come out in Fall 2023. There is a lot of fun stuff on the horizon. That makes it easier to look back at the past because we’re not stuck there.