Taking their name from a gutter-dwelling shape-shifter, Pennywise were in the front line of the 90’s punk rock revival and the vanguard of the So-Cal melodic hardcore scene that gave rise to millions of imitators. Since forming in 1988, Hermosa Beach’s Pennywise have earned their title as one of the most successful and influential punk rock bands of all time, through hard work, grit, and endurance. Infused with the growing popularity of extreme sports that some refer to as Skate-punk, filled with socio-political lyrics and a healthy dose of PMA, their sound not only defines a period of time but also holds value now more than ever.
Recently, we spoke to Fletcher Dragge, the notorious punk rock guitarist who destroyed Rage Against the Machine’s dressing room at Reading festival in search of drinks, threw Fat Mike of NOFX through a drum set just because he could and was one of the founding members of Pennywise.
“We were kinda one of those bands that decided not to do the full-length album shows. A while back, a lot of bands were doings it, Bad Religion, NOFX, Offspring, a bunch of bands started doing these complete album shows. A lot of bands have done it, a lot of bands in the punk world started doing it, but we kinda held out for a long time.” Says Dragge , as we spoke on the topic of the upcoming tour, marking the twentieth anniversary of their seminal forth album, where Pennywise are playing Full Circle start to finish for the first time EVER next month in a string of shows across Australia.
“When we decided to do one, we did ‘About Time’ in Australia last year,” Fletcher Continues in his gruff but friendly voice, “and literally, it was one of the best tours we’ve ever done! The energy… from being in a room and you’re about to see your favourite album from start to finish and knowing what song is coming next, the energy in those rooms in Australia was just out of control and super sick fun. When we got home, we decided that we would do ‘About Time’ across America. That went really well as well, but we were like, what’s next? We wound up doing the first three albums (Pennywise self-titled, Unknown Road and About Time) in a row up in Hollywood and a couple of places around California. Then we decided it was time to do ‘Full Circle’ and what better place to do it first than Australia, because it was the first place we did ‘About Time’ so let’s give it back to the Aussies and come over there first and bust it out, just based on what happened last time. So, we kinda decided that we would attempt that album. We’ve done the first three, Full Circle is the next on the list and it’s definitely not going to be easy but it’s definitely going to be crazy…
Full Circle is the reflective manifestation of emotion dedicated to the memory of founding member Jason Mathew Thirsk following his tragic death. Release April 22nd, 1997 and eventually reaching Number 13 in the Australian Album Charts that year, Full Circle was and still is a powerhouse of exhilarating punk rock. Of the thirteen tracks on the album, Dragge goes on to confirm that some have never once been played live outside the recordings.
“Heaps of them, like half of the album. I mean, that album was right after Jason died. We got in, and wrote that album and had a lot to say. We over-stuffed it with lyrics and pre-choruses and parts and breakdowns and outros. We just made it really really complicated because I think we were trying to, you know… it was like therapy for us to get in that room and write this album. A lot of the songs have heavy topic matter about Jason passing away. I don’t think we really realized what we were doing because usually we have a pretty set formula but that album doesn’t have a set formula.” Says Fletcher,
“When we went back, well I know that for me personally when I went back and listened to the songs that we have never played live, I was just going ‘holy shit, how in the fuck did we play this? I can’t play this’, you know, this was twenty years ago. Obviously, you can play it, you’ve just got to relearn it. But, it was kinda blowing my mind that we even able to pull that off (back then) and keep in mind that was in the days before Pro-Tools. It was all done live to tape, like, you didn’t get second chances, I mean you played that! Imagine trying to play that now without the help of a computer, it’s pretty sad but I guess that it’s a testimony to our youth. We got to practice obviously before committing to doing the shows in Australia or doing the record period. We had to get into the practice studio and find out if we could pull it off. And we were able to do it halfway decently within a couple of practices so we are defiantly going to be in the rehearsal room a lot in the coming future getting ready. It’s brutal, it’s defiantly going to be an accomplishment if we get out there and pull this off properly for you guys down there, but that’s what we are counting on doing.”
“We were literally coming from a place where we were told by Brett Gurewitz (of Bad Religion) that we might sell a couple thousand albums on the first one.” The Pennywise Axeman recalls of the reaction to the early records, “By the time we got to Unknown Road, we’d sold a hundred thousand of Unknown Road and all of a sudden we were like ‘hold on what is happening here?’ Punk rock started making a comeback, but like in a way bigger way than ever before.”
“We were on this kinda roller coaster ride up to About Time and then Jason’s passing. I think we were so out of our minds with losing him that we got in there and started writing this record. Like, I said, it was the most grueling writing process. We were just in this room and we were coming in about four, five days a week and we were doing six, seven hours of just bringing in songs and writing them together. There wasn’t a complete idea brought in by anybody, it was just like a hashing out process of, like I said, therapy. When we got it done, we knew it was super gnarly, like when we were recording it but at the same time there was so much focus on Jason and so much passion towards like just getting this out there.”
“We were hurt, so we were just stepping on the gas pedal I guess. We were in the middle of the Indy 500 and we get done with it and that was when punk rock was blowing up. Greenday and Offspring and everybody had these hits and they were selling millions and millions and millions of records and everybody was trying to get on the radio. I’ll never forget, Brett came for a lunch meeting about the record after he listened to it, you know, Brett Gurewitz, owner of Epitaph, and he said, ‘look, this record is insane, there’s not one song on here that can go on the radio. It’s like balls out, top to bottom fucking high-speed death. We’re not going to radio, we’re not even going to try to go commercial, we are just going to market this like the punk rock record that it is and just market it as just a hardcore punk rock record from Pennywise.’ And I think everyone was kind of like ‘what? We don’t get to be on the radio like Offspring and Nirvana? Like Rancid, Bad Religion?’ but at the same time, we were like ‘we weren’t trying to be on the radio’. We weren’t trying to write something that was commercially friendly or viable. We just said ‘Cool’ and we sat back and released that record and had no expectations for it as far as commercial success. We just wanted to put out something that honored Jason in a way and at the same time made our fans happy. I think we hit those notes, with that people were pretty blown-away by it. I guess to this day it stands pretty strong because most of the requests we get when we’re are out there on stage are from Full Circle so it should be an interesting tour.”
Now considered by many, one of the most defining albums in punk rock history, Full Circle remains a fan-favourite, harboring some of the best punk rock songs of that decade. As we broach the topic of the lyrical content and theme, Fletcher points out that Pennywise songs still hold relevance, twenty years after they were released.
“I was actually just saying the other night, we just did a European tour and then played Japan and I was talking before a song, you know ‘society’, it’s like that song, was about the world being broken basically and like ‘we are the future’. We were saying ‘Hey guys, you’re the future’ twenty years ago. We were talking about ‘it’s our job as human beings and the youth of the world to get in there and fix the problems’ like changing the course of humanity because this fucking world we live in is so out of control. It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about politics or corporations or health care or famine, whatever, global warming… the next generations are the ones that are going to change the course of humanity. So we are sitting here saying ‘well, we were screaming and yelling twenty years ago about the world being broken’ and apparently no one was listening because now it’s broke even worse than it was. It’s pretty sad when you are writing a song about fixing the world and twenty years later that song is still relevant, if not more relevant but we can come out and sing it with the same kind of passion or even more, because you can look at what’s going on in America, the state of affairs over here and in general the state of the affairs in the world, greed, money-hungry people just all about just getting what’s good for them… Humanity has just turned into Facebook and Instagram and just literally, people watching people drown in a river and posting that shit, so what kind of world do we live in?”
“We got a lot of new material (for) this new album we are working on right now, I’m actually sitting in the studio. We got plenty of ammunition to just come out firing right now on the same topics, like ‘hey, why are we saying all the same shit twenty years later?’ but I guess that’s how it goes. We gotta keep screaming and yelling until someone starts listening.” Fletcher says.
As we are wrapping up the interview, we touch on lighter topics, from have The Bronx supporting them on this tour to how much Pennywise have influenced a new generation of punk rock, “It’s crazy, like I don’t think about that very much but obviously kids will come up and say ‘man, that’s the first album I ever got or that’s the first show I ever went to, was a Pennywise show, it changed my life and your guitar playing like blah blah blah…’ I’m like shit, ‘I suck at the guitar! I can play some Pennywise songs but I’m not going to be busting out stairway to heaven anytime soon.’ But, it’s really cool to know that we influenced bands. At the same time I come from a place where like Black Flag and Minor Threat was influencing me, so I know the importance that those bands had for me personally and to hear kids telling me that I influenced them or our band influenced them is a huge compliment. I’m pretty sure some of the guys from The Bronx was listening to Full Circle and they are going to be out on the road with us in Australia. They are one of my favourite bands, so to see a band like that… when I first saw them… Holy shit, who are these guys? They totally blew me away and to find out that they are Pennywise fans… they don’t sound like Pennywise at all… that they were influenced by Pennywise, I was like ‘fuck yeah!’ I had some hand in making these guys get on the stage and be this band, like one of my favourite bands in the world these days, that’s an honor. We are stoked, so looking forward to playing with those guys and meet everybody down under and getting crazy and drinking some cold ones and stoked to be able to influence anyone anywhere anytime.