By Todd Martens
"Stop writing us. We broke up." So wrote Ben Weasel on the liner notes for Screeching Weasel's LP, Kill the Musicians. That was slightly over one year ago. On election day 1996, a reunited Screeching Weasel released its eighth and tightest LP, Bark Like a Dog.
"I will say this. The reason we got back together, initially, was because we thought we could make a lot of money," Weasel said from his apartment in a Chicago suburb a few days after Bark Like a Dog was released. "But it turned into a situation where that wasn't happening. Not only were we not making money, but we were losing money and we ended up paying for the entire recording ourselves."
Screeching Weasel split up once before in 1989. "Everyone was completely demoralized," Weasel said. "Our record label sucked and we didn't have any prospects for a better label. That was the year I turned 21 and I was drinking like a fish. My life, in a personal sense, was falling apart and that was just the icing on the cake." It wasn't long before he and bandmates Jughead, Dan Panic and Dan Vapid realized they still wanted to play together and decided to reunite under a different name. However, Lookout Records would only sign the band if the members agreed to call themselves Screeching Weasel. The band agreed, recorded three more albums and broke up once again in 1994.
After the second split, Weasel formed the Riverdales with Panic and Vapid. Even with a reunited Screeching Weasel, Ben is still planning to record a second Riverdales album in January. The Riverdales were mocked by many who claimed the band might as well be called the Ramones. "The first album we didn't really know what we were doing," Weasel said.
Also, many assumed that since the Riverdales are Screeching Weasel minus one, the band would sound and record in the same style. "The band works in a totally different way," he said. "I can't even explain it, but it's a totally different kind of energy. The kind of energy that goes into Screeching Weasel is stuff more along the lines of stuff that people can relate to and actually says something. The Riverdales are more of a straightforward party band. We don't have anything to say. We don't have any messages--not that we have any big messages with Screeching Weasel, but the lyrics are written in a way that a lot of people tend to identify with. The Riverdales is more--boom--go out, have fun, jump up and down, and act like an idiot. The ideal Riverdales show would be one where people have a lot of fun, maybe get a little drunk--or whatever you do if you don't drink--and then leave and get laid or make out."
The Riverdales began at the height of Screeching Weasel's popularity and Weasel was already starting to experience the backlash that comes to any successful punk band. When the Riverdales toured with Green Day, Weasel officially became a sell-out and a traitor in the eyes of many hard-core punks.
Weasel is not oblivious to his current reputation of a sell-out and a punk traitor, and he even somewhat acknowledges it. "In many cases I have changed, and in other cases, it's just your perception," he said. "There's nothing I can do about it. I'm not 17 or 24 anymore and yes, my views have changed, but what hasn't changed are the basic values that this band is founded on--the ideas that you don't have to fuck people over to be successful, that you don't need to be dishonest with anyone to get what you need, and you don't need to do business in a way that major labels do."
Weasel also wants it made clear that Screeching Weasel is not out to be the champion of punk ethos. "A lot of people do things and say, `We're doing it for the kids,' or `We're doing it for the fans.' We do things for ourselves," he said. "People always used to write us and say, `I'm so glad you haven't sold out to MTV and done a video.' Now, in 1991 or 1992 if we had been able to get the money to make a video for Screeching Weasel, we would have. People gave us all this credit for doing things and it's like, wait a second, we never said we were morally opposed to doing these things. When we do something or don't do it, it's based on what we want and not how it's going to look to people. I don't give a fuck how it looks to people because at this point, we're too popular and no matter what we do is wrong."
Even so, Weasel is still somewhat apologetic to his fans. "If I have done things that contradict what I've said in the past and people are upset about that, they have every right to be upset," he said. "The only answer I can give you is that if you're a better man than me, that won't happen to you. I really think it happens to everybody. I think it's part of being human. If someone wants to hold that against us, they have a right to. What they don't have a right to do is to come up to us and get in our face. I do believe I have a responsibility to explain myself, but I don't have the responsibility to explain myself to people who are being belligerent, antagonistic, threatening or physically violent."
Weasel has also had to contend with false rumors that Screeching Weasel reunited and switched record labels only so he could buy a house. "It's incorrect because unless we got some sort of massive blockbuster deal, that couldn't have happened anyway," he said. "The money we ended up getting from Fat (Wreck Chords, the band's new record label) is nowhere near enough for me to even buy a dump in the middle of nowhere. Why people are accusing of selling out by going to Fat, I don't understand. The only answer I can come up with is that some people think that if you sell a lot of records, you're not punk."
The band did not receive more money or a more lucrative contract with Fat Records. Weasel's reasons for leaving Lookout were simple. "I didn't feel comfortable supporting the label any more," he said. "The attitude had always been 50 percent of the relationship was business and 50 percent was friendship and trust. When the friendship and trust disappeared, I said, `Is a business relationship with Lookout worthwhile?' and answered no. I mean, they fuck things up all the time, their distribution is really poor, and they make bonehead mistakes constantly."
After Bark Like a Dog was recorded, Weasel started shopping for a new label. He placed one call to Fat Wreck Chords and had a deal in less than 20 minutes. Thus far, Weasel has had no complaints with Fat. Even so, Weasel is still a little hesitant to consider the move to Fat a complete godsend. "It's a little scary. It's like when you leave a girlfriend. Even if she's the most horrible person in the world and you can't stand her, you're always thinking, `Yeah, but what if I don't find somebody even as good as her?'."
The recording session for Bark Like a Dog was originally going to be a recording session for the new Riverdales album, but Jughead came back into the picture and the band realized that Screeching Weasel still had some life--and financial prospects.
"There was a point when I was living with other band members out of necessity," Weasel said. "We would give up our jobs in a heartbeat to go on some dumb tour that we would lose money on. Then, as we got older--we're all approaching 30--the relationships have changed. We don't live together, none of us have roommates, we don't really hang out much, and yet when we get together to record an album, it's exactly how it used to be."
In fact, it might even be better. "We did it the way we always wanted to do a record," Weasel said. "We were never able to before because nobody would give us the money. This time, we were able to go in and spend exactly as much money as we needed to. The main thing is for the first time ever, the guitars are dead-on with each other. It gives a sound that is much more ballsy-sounding and much more aggressive."
The real charm of Screeching Weasel--and the essence of punk--is the band's inability to grow up. Weasel is still writing songs about not being able to fit in at the "really cool club." "I haven't really forgotten what it's like to be a teenager and how much it sucked," he said. "I think the stuff I'm writing about is stuff that teenage kids can relate to, but at the same time, I think it's stuff people my own age could relate to. Alienation, contrary to popular belief, is not the exclusive property of teenagers. Once you grow up, that doesn't mean you don't feel the same things."
Bark Like a Dog is more direct and focused than any previous Screeching Weasel record. Those punks who refuse to listen to the band because they would rather yell "sell-out" are going to be missing out on a terrific pop-punk album. "A lot of people are gonna expect this to suck and they're gonna expect it to be cheesy and we're just trying to cash in and blah, blah, blah," Weasel said. "So we wanted to go out there and prove that we're still the same band." Mission accomplished.
(c) 1996 - The Daily Trojan and Todd Martens