Catching up with Fletcher Dragge

Guitarist Fletcher Dragge and bass player Jason Matthew Thirsk, who tragically died in 1996, formed Pennywise in 1988.  The foursome – rounded out by vocalist Jim Lindberg and drummer Byron McMackin – began by playing local backyard parties and in garages, where, as Fletcher admits the atmosphere was “just always crazy.  We’d always make sure there was a couple of kegs of beer there and everyone would be drunk and having a good time and out of hand.”  Things got even more insane once Pennywise made the leap to playing clubs, as he relates, “The fan-base back [then] was pretty gnarly.  It was kind of like when punk was first getting back on its feet so people didn’t really know how to behave and there was a lot of tough guy type vibe…so you had some really violent shows in the early days.”  In fact, this massive violence that engulfed their shows in L.A. and California, for that matter, almost caused the band to call it quits.  Still, Fletcher maintains that they were fun, but after the newer generation of kids came along – the kids who were into skating and surfing and much more “well-behaved” – the violence abated a great deal, “so they weren’t stabbing each other outside [our shows],” he says.

This talk of small clubs led Fletcher to admit the band had actually wanted to play the tiny but oh-so-glorious CBGBs last time they came to NYC.  They really would like to revert back to the small club era because “when punk shows get so big…it just kind of takes away a little bit of the passion of it,” but find it hard because they have so many fans.  Fletcher is realistic: “If you have 2000, 3000 people that want to go to the show and you go play a 500-seat venue, it kind of leaves everybody out in the cold.”  And CBGBs doesn’t even hold 500 bodies, but man would that be something else to see Pennywise in such an intimate setting.  He continues, “Because we feel…responsibility to our fans, we have to kind of pick and choose what we’re gonna do.”  Despite this fact, Fletcher claims the guys will try to play CBs next time they come around, saying, “We’ll be on the list one of these days.”  Hey, if Rancid and the Bouncing Souls can do it…In any event, he remembers playing the equally small, seedy Coney Island High (R.I.P. – what a great place that was…) in what must have been ’99 since they played it right before it closed.  “It was so oversold and scary, it was beyond,” Fletcher reminisces, adding, “It was almost like a spiritual experience because it was so crazy.”  And even though he experienced claustrophobia and “started feaking out,” he still can’t stop saying how much fun it was, and how much he enjoys playing in NYC, for that matter.

Pennywise also made their major network TV debut a couple months ago, opting for Jimmy Kimmel, whom Fletcher deems “super-cool,” despite having been offered to play other late night shows before.  However, none of the others seemed right for the guys “because there’s really no crowd activity,” he says, but this show is different.  He feels it fits their “image” because there was actual audience participation and the crowd was up front by the stage.  And although the experience was “really strange” for these late night neophytes, Fletcher claims, “It was a party,” and that even though there was tons of security and “rules and regulations,” it was indeed quite fun.  Since other shows aren’t like Kimmel’s, more TV appearances don’t seem likely at this point.  What we can expect in the near future is for Pennywise to be on the road supporting their latest record, the incendiary “From The Ashes”, which was released in early September.  Full of fourteen socially aware, politically charged anthems, this is a fine follow-up to 2001’s “Land Of The Free?”  They’ll head out on a U.S. tour in November and December; the band has been on hiatus since Jim recently had his third baby girl.  Then Pennywise will hit Australia for New Year’s, playing The Falls Festival down there, and then are planning more dates for the States in 2004 as well as playing Europe and most likely Japan, after which, they will begin working on another album.  Fletcher describes the Pennywise grind by saying, “It’s basically write a record, put it out, tour, tour, tour, tour, and then start working on a new record.”  It’s a demanding process, but one that has worked well for these stalwarts in the scene.

Seeing they’ve been around for an unbelievable 15 years, I had to know what – if anything – would make them stop performing and recording.  Would it be something similar to what Bad Religion vocalist Greg Graffin said years ago (possibly all in jest, of course) – that the day he’d quit would be when he’s fat and bald and just looks plain stupid onstage – or something entirely different?  Furthermore, had the band ever even discussed this topic before?  Apparently they have, as Fletcher responds, “We’ve always talked about when we’re acting, when we’re not feeling it anymore, we’re gonna quit.  But we’d all have to be feeling that way at the same time.”  Basically, as long as the guys in Pennywise all still feel that their music and messages are important, they’ll keep on going.  Fletcher adds, “I just think as long as there’s people interested in [the band]…we’ll put out records because it’s what we love to do.”  Ah, refreshing – no mention of appearances whatsoever, and it seems as though the foursome – which includes Randy Bradbury, who took over bass upon Thirsk’s suicide – will be around for many years to come.

On the same note, to those people who criticize the band for sticking with pretty much the same sound throughout the years, Fletcher sternly says, “Don’t buy our records.”  Simple advice, but the guitarist expounds further, “We’ve said it a million times…we can pretty much play whatever we want…We write songs for our albums that sound like Pennywise because that’s who we are, that’s who our fans grew up listening to, and there’s nothing worse than going out to get your favorite band’s next album and finding out they don’t sound like your favorite band anymore.  To me, that’s the worst thing,” citing Metallica’s latest record, which, although Fletcher likes it, most fans did not and were rather disappointed in their new direction.  “We don’t ever want to be in that position.  We’d rather have them say, ‘It sounds like the same old shit,’ than saying, ‘It sucks.’”  And for all the people who think they do sound the same on every album, Fletcher retaliates: “We try to give a little bit of variety on each album and I think if you’re a true Pennywise fan, you’ll realize that each album has its own characteristics and doesn’t sound the same.  There’s definitely similarities because that’s who we are…We don’t wanna be a pop-punk band, we don’t wanna be the latest trend.  And that’s why we continue to make albums that sound similar.”  Excellent points.  And this variety he speaks of certainly is evident on what is perhaps their most enterprising album yet, “From The Ashes”, as here and there, there are differences, even if they are minute and subtle.  Take, for instance, the piano flourishes evident on the wistful “Yesterdays”, the most affecting track of the bunch, or the light acoustic guitar intro of “This Is Only a Test”, fitting the mood of the song wonderfully.

Even more powerful on the album, however, are the lyrics.  Carrying on in the political-minded “Land Of The Free?” vein, “From The Ashes” is one monster of an edgy socio-political record, whose main purpose is to enlighten listeners.  The underlying theme throughout is basically to keep your eyes open and to see what’s going on in the world.  Many of the songs are extremely critical of the present administration (“God Save the U.S.A.” features the line “Blame your president and say your prayers tonight”) and America’s shaky foreign policy.  And Fletcher and his bandmates know this is a touchy subject in light of 9/11 and the newfound patriotism engulfing the populace for the most part.  The band actually did discuss how people would view them if they kept up their questioning of American policies and voicing their differing opinions, but this is exactly what we need right now – to accept as truth all we are told and follow the leaders blindly is not the answer and goes against our freedoms and rights as American citizens.  However, many Pennywise fans didn’t feel the same, at least when the guys were preparing to write the new material and were checking their message board.  Fletcher describes the situation, saying, “We got a little backlash from some fans on [our last record] because it was a pretty political-charged album…People were a little bit confused as to what Pennywise was about because we had a lot of anti-government type songs on that record, and people were feeling like they needed to be behind the government.  Well, going into our next record, people were writing on our message board, ‘Well, I hope they don’t write another political album.’”  Therefore, the band knew it wasn’t the most popular thing to do, but decided rightly that, according to Fletcher, they’d “write what we believe is true and what we believe needs to be talked about and what we feel in our hearts,” continuing, “We’re not gonna let up on what we believe needs to be addressed…and we’re gonna sing songs to hopefully open people’s eyes to these matters.”  To naysayers, he avers, “We DO love America,” but “HATE the problems America has with everything from police corruption to teachers not being paid properly.”  The band’s noble quest is “to make this country a better place,” and he concludes, “The only way that’s gonna happen is for people to talk, for people to vote, for people to protest.”

And with this refreshingly progressive attitude, the band are planning on contributing a track to Fat Mike’s “Rock Against Bush” compilation in hopes of heightening political awareness among punks.  Whether Pennywise will submit a new song is still up in the air, but between their last two albums, they can choose from a number of songs that would fit the context of the compilation perfectly.  Fletcher goes on to say, “If someday the president was a NOFX fan or a Pennywise fan or a Bad Religion fan, then we’re gonna be doing pretty good.”  He is right in surmising that if one day a person who grew up listening to these bands and others like them (TSOL, MDC, D.O.A., Dead Kennedys, et al.) gets into public office, the better the chance that he/she will also believe in the same things.  “As kids get older,” he muses, “We’re getting closer to that time period where we might have a Pennywise fan somewhere important someday,” hinting, “Maybe a Pennywise MEMBER will be somewhere important someday.  If Arnold Schwarzenegger can win, I think one of us can.”

So of course this man who appropriately feels that a person with a “punk education” should (and could) be an elected official one day, voted for good old Jack Grisham, singer of the legendary TSOL in the recall election (the band, of course, is from California).  Fletcher feels a person like Jack, who is not a “wanna-be politician,” the normal type of person who runs for office, would be an excellent choice.  “This country needs…more of an average citizen, [a] working man that’s been in the trenches, [who’s] felt the brunt of not having health insurance.”  Basically, a person who isn’t rich and who has had to deal with the numerous problems ordinary people face everyday.  Fletcher adds, “If you put somebody in there [who’s] been struggling to support [his] family and really has a handle on how it feels, I think you’re gonna have some different opinions…Jack would’ve made a great governor.”  This from a man who was slighted by Mr. Grisham.  Let me explain.  There was a benefit show to raise some money for Jack’s campaign and Pennywise was asked to play.  Well, they didn’t, but about 20 other bands did and Jack, that “smart-ass liar” he is (not my words, if you’re reading this, sir…) told everyone there, “Pennywise was supposed to play but they wanted to get paid.”  Fletcher laughs, “So that’s the thanks I get.  He’s cracking jokes like that, making people walk away thinking we wanted to get paid for his benefit show and I still voted for him!”  Well, if people went away believing Jack, they certainly don’t know the men of Pennywise very well.

Interview date: Oct 16, 2003

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