Countdown to Warped Tour: Q&A with Fletcher Dragge of Pennywise

Our Countdown to Warped Tour continues with another veteran band that's been around for 20+ years, punk rockers Pennywise. They formed back in 1988 and helped cause a resurgence of the punk scene in California along with Bad Religion and NOFX, and have continued to do what they do best -- stay true to their sound while remaining individuals.

They still know how to party, too, and New Times caught up with lead guitarist Fletcher Dragge to talk Jim Lindberg's departure, their new singer Zoli, and the current state of the punk rock scene.

New Times: Have you set a release date for the new album?

Fletcher Dragge: No, we're kinda hoping for pre-Christmas, but it's looking like first of the year, somewhere around the beginning January hopefully at this point, with the way that everything's going and scheduling.

Have you guys already finished writing all the songs? Are you just recording now?

We actually just keep writing. We write all the way until we get in the studio, 'cause you never know when you're gonna come up with a song. We've come up with songs the day before we walk into the studio that end up being title tracks on the record. But there are a lot of bands that just pick like 10 songs or 12 songs, and they keep on working on them and working on them until they get good enough to put on the albums, but we just keep writing and writing. Probably at this point we have about 40 or 50 songs. Yeah, it's crazy. We just get a verse and a chorus together, basically, and if that passes the test, then we build a branch and an alto and throw in all that stuff. So then we do like half the song, and if we like it, we'll keep working on it. We have lots to choose from that way. We're constantly trying to better what we already have.

So then how many tracks are you aiming for with the new album?

We'll probably only have like 11 or 12 actually. In this day and age, no one does 14 or 15. Everyone seems to be doing 11 to 12. But yeah, it's coming together. We're pretty stoked about it

Have you come up with a general inspiration for the album with what you've been writing so far?

I think it's an accidental inspiration, but like a lot of it you can listen to it and it's about Jim leaving the band [laughs]. You know he quit, our singer?


Yeah, so... it's not about him, but it's creeping in there subconsciously. It's kind of all over the map. We've been pretty political over the last years, and I think we've been trying to pull away from that. When the band started originally it was more about social politics, and self empowerment, and just basically positive reinforcement that you can be whatever you want to be and live your life the way you want to live it, and we kind of got away from that in the middle somewhere. And I'm kind of over political rants at this point in time. I mean we've been doing it for so long and I'm sure there'll be a couple songs that have that tone, but in general I think we're trying to... it's kind of weird to say we're going back to the old school or the roots because Jim's not in the band, so I don't like to say that. But it kinda feels like that again. I mean when you're in a band for 20 years, you run into the same old problems that every band runs into. Communication breaks down, and you just stop where nobody wants to hurt anyone's feelings, so it kind of stagnates things in a way. With Zoli in the band, no one cares about his feelings, and he doesn't care about ours either, which sounds bizarre, but it's actually kind of good. If he comes up with a better part, we immediately say, "Dude, that part is horrible. We're not using that. It's really lame," and he's like, "Okay." Whereas Jim if you said that, he would really get his feelings hurt. For the most part, it wouldn't be good if he said something like that, and it would cause shockwaves with other things. So we stopped saying stuff, and the same went for him, I'm sure. But now it's gone back to the old days when you have that rapport with everybody, where like 15-18 years ago we could say like, "Oh yeah, that's terrible." And that's back on. It feels super refreshing and we're able to work on songs. I'm sure Jim's totally stoked on his scenario where he's writing all of his own songs and he's calling the shots, which was a quote of his I saw in an interview -- and he doesn't have anybody to argue with.

I was actually going to ask you what it's been like for the band with all of the member changes. Have you had any fan backlash at all?

I mean when Jason passed away, our original bass player, we didn't have a little... I mean we kept going, but you know... 'cause he was one of the main song writers. But that was one thing that this has been about is concurring hardships and moving forward no matter what life throws at you, and not letting things stand in your way. That's definitely what Jason would've wanted... for us to go out and play the songs that he wrote. And so we kept going with that. With Jim, it's... there's definitely been a backlash, but I wouldn't call it a backlash, I'd call it a "You're nothing without Jim" type of comments. And those are obviously Jim followers. I think if you're a true Pennywise fan, you read the lyrics, and you know what we're about, we're about not being told what to do and not being told what we can't do and not taking shit from anybody. And basically Jim told us he didn't want to be on the band anymore. He decided he wanted to quit and move on to other projects. For us, it was pretty apparent that he was over it. He didn't want to do this anymore unless it was at a very minimal level. For us this is what we love to do. We love our fans. We'd do all of this for half the money because this is what we do. I'll use the analogy if you own a restaurant and you have four partners, and one guy has the key to the door and doesn't want to go to work, and there's a hundred people lined up that want to eat a hamburger, you don't just shut the restaurant down. You get a new key made and you tell the guy see'ya later, and you keep selling burgers because you enjoy making 'em. It's kind of a weird analogy, but we're not gonna let one guy stand in the way of us following our dreams and doing what makes us happy. So we just keep doing it and the people that don't wanna support it, then we totally understand that. Jim was a major lyricist and he wrote a lot of songs, but so did Randy and I. A lot of people don't know that we write a lot of lyrics and a lot of melodies, and write a good percentage of the music as well. So it's not like we're struggling to write a Pennywise song.

I'm a Pennywise fan, and I don't feel like Jim leaving has been that huge of an impact on Pennywise lyrically.

I feel like Pennywise is bigger than me or Jim or anyone. I feel like it's taken on its own form. I know it sounds really cliché, but fans are the most important fan. Without fans the band is nothing, except like a nice piece of music. So it's like our message and what we've done has been life changing for a lot of people. We've had people come up with a Pennywise tattoo, or come up and said, "Hey, you saved my life. You really helped me get through this hard period in my life," and like you know that what you're doing is good and having an affect on people all around the world... We're not done yet. It's as simple as that. We're not done with Pennywise. He was and we wish him luck in his endeavors and whatever, but we're gonna keep doing our thing. I'm sure he's gonna write a great album. I'm sure it's gonna sound like a Pennywise record because he sings and he sounds like Jim from Pennywise. We're not trying to emulate him. We're just trying to put out a record.

Now that Zoli is the lead singer for Pennywise, is he still the frontman for Ignite? How does that work exactly? I don't see a lot of bands that share lead singers. Usually it's one or the other.

Yeah. It is a strange thing. I think there are bands that have side projects and stuff, but... I mean Pennywise has never been a band that toured nine months out of the year, which is what most bands do. We usually tour about 30 days out of the year because somebody who's not in the band anymore didn't want to tour that much. But we would do like four months and stuff. So if we're touring four or five months out of the year, that's good. 'Cause we all have families and we're not trying to kill ourselves up there like Metallica or something. So it leaves room for Zoli to be a part of that great band, and hopefully they continue on as long as they can. But that band Ignite also has another band called Nations of Fire, and they're good as well, so they're focusing on that too. So there's time for everyone to get what they want.

And that's crazy that Zoli was a part of Whale Wars, too, because I feel like Pennywise has always stood for something and had some kind of message. The fact that your new singer also has causes that he stands by makes it even more interesting.

Yeah, I mean he's been a part of the Sea Shepherds for like 15 years, and he's got a pelican rescue team too. So like after band practice he'll like go down to the shore, get one of those little boats in the harbor and rescue pelicans that are tied up in the nets and stuff. He just does that by himself, or he'll find volunteers and come back to band practice with like a bunch of fans that had helped him out [laughs]. It's pretty funny. He's the real deal. He gets out there and gets his hands dirty. We've done a lot of benefits and stuff, trying to use our voice for the same type of stuff, whether it's in different arenas - saving the oceans, a cancer benefit, children's causes or whatever it may be. It's cool to see someone that gets in the trenches, too. That's another reason that he fit our mold that way for the band, as well as being a really good singer.

What's it like for you guys to have a Pennywise Army? That's a really intimidating name.

It's kind of like a way of life for a lot of people. It's like we created this message and this kind of like almost instruction manual on how to live Pennywise, and I was kind of a different person before Pennywise. I was kind of annihalistic** - or Randy might say I still am in a way. In the short term, I think I might still be a little bit destructive, but true Pennywise and like Jason's lyrics and Jim's lyrics and mine too... when you have a kid that's a hardcore Pennywise fan, Zoli loves it... It's a good feeling. He really likes our fans. He likes our friends. There's definitely an adjustment period in it for him, but I think he's used to kind of running things in a way, so now he has to give up some control to be in Pennywise... But he's trying to be good. He's kind of on the wagon and off the booze right now, so... 'Cause we're pretty hardcore when it comes to the partying aspect. There's not a night that goes by without a lot of alcohol being consumed at a Pennywise show or on tour, so he's figuring out how to deal with that. We try to treat a Pennywise show like a party. We try to make the audience feel like they're a part of this band - 'cause they really are. So it's a little bit different. It's not like we're that inaccessible. We don't have bodyguards running around. We're not rockstars. We're just normal people, so it can turn into 50 people drinking vodka on the bus in the blink of an eye. So he's trying to get used to that whole scenario, which is pretty funny.

Not only that, but he has to also get used to you guys being the voice of a counterculture for so long. You guys have been referenced by so many bands and sort of seen as a band to look up to because of your longevity.

Yeah. It's been a good ride. It's really cool because when we started doing it there was Bad Religion out there, NOFX, Offspring was hanging around in those early years. So it's like we were just a small group of bands that were trying to lead the punk rock torch, and it took over the next five years like so crazy. Like there were bands all over the world popping up... It's really weird. I was reading an article with the drummer from the Used, and he said that his first punk rock show was a Pennywise show. Here's one of the biggest bands in the world, and his first show that he went to was a Pennywise show. I dunno. It doesn't make me feel old, but sometimes I'm just like, "What? When did this happen?" Then I kind of go, "Alright. We've been around for a long time, and we were kind of on the forefront of the resurgence of punk rock." It's cool because I think lead singers all of them have some kind of mental issues because you gotta basically get up there with a microphone and just stand there and basically be a naked front in front of 1,000 people or 5,000 people or whatever. To me like I can't go up there without my guitar. You gotta have a certain swagger I think to be able to do that. So I think for him, he's used to that. Not to mention that he's been in the hardcore punk scene for 15 years, so he knows what's going on. He's pretty confident. You need them to be confident and command the audience, and he's pretty good at that. And I think he's starting to get the humor of being in Pennywise, as well, because although we cover really serious topic matter and we kind of try to practice what we preach, we also party and we don't take things too seriously... we don't have a set routine. We just go out there and have fun. He picked up on that real quick and realized hey, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em and just have fun with it... we're just literally here to have fun and make sure the fans have fun. We're pretty stoked.

How do you feel like the scene has changed for you over the last 20 years?

I mean it's changed a lot. I don't know to explain it. It's almost like there is no such thing as punk rock, in a way, but there is. Punk rock kinda comes in different forms these days because when you take something like punk rock and you exploit it and you put it in the malls... It's like Harley Davidson motorcycles, you know? The whole thing with the bikers in the 50's, and then eventually it got churned into this whole corporate scene, and now you've got a bunch of like middle-aged bankers like grab some leather chaps and a leather jacket on a hot summer day, and you're like, "What are you doing, dude?" They can exploit it to the point of where people wanna make money. Like you can go into the mall and buy a punk rock T-shirt and some bracelets, and some green hair dye and come out of there looking like you have a uniform on. It doesn't make it very special. It doesn't make it very real. So I think the true punk rockers you can see them. You can tell who they are. I think it's kind of confusing for a kid, and I think it's kind of a bummer that a kid can go into a mall and buy a uniform and a record and say, "Hey, I'm a punk rocker." It's not about that. It's about how you conduct yourself and how you live your daily life.

So then how would you like to be seen by the new generation of punk fans? Like maybe teenagers now that are going to Warped Tour.

I think we're just a band that's trying to do what we want to do. Through all the stuff that's happened in our careers, we've persevered doing what we love. That's the thing that's most important for us, is being perceived as the band that does what they want to do and doesn't care what anyone thinks. The spirit of punk rock is to be an individual. When we first started, people were like, "What are you doing playing this type of music? This music's over. Punk's bad. You can't sell any records and you're not gonna be played on the radio," and we're like, "Yeah. Great. This is what we like to do. Get out of the garage. If you don't like it, go buy a case of beer." It's like we've been told for so long that we're not gonna make any money, but we're not doing this to make money. We're doing this 'cause we like to do it. We could've been whatever style back in those days, but we chose punk rock with the assumption we might sell two or three thousand records on Epitaph. We ended up selling millions of records because we were doing what we wanted to do and didn't take shit from anybody. That's still how we operate... We're a band that does what we want to do, and I think that's the spirit of punk rock is being an individual and following your own rules for the most part. So hopefully people see us for that, and at the same time see that we're trying to put out a positive message to try and make the world a better place -- though that sounds a little soft coming from me [laughs]. Take some chances and do what makes you happy -- it's a Little Miss Sunshine quote. It's the best quote I've ever heard.

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Christine Borges
Contact: Christine Borges