THE RIVERDALES: Photo by Rudy Rodriguez
BEN WEASEL: Zen & The Art Of The Snotty Snarl
By Jim Testa
2009 has been quite a year for Ben Weasel: A new live album recreating one of his most successful releases, a new original album from the Riverdales, live gigs by the Riverdales and new version of Screeching Weasel, and as I write this, imminent fatherhood (Ben and his wife are expecting twins in the next few weeks.) That’s a lot to talk about, and if there’s one thing Ben Weasel does well, it’s talk. So here he is, in his own words, on the rebirth of the Riverdales and Screeching Weasel, on songwriting and playing guitar again, on becoming a dad for the first time, and perhaps most important to fans, the rift with John Jughead Pierson.
Q: Let’s talk about the Riverdales first. From what I understand, the idea of putting the band back together started when you and Dan Schafer (aka Vapid) were working on the reissue of Phase III for Asian Man Record.
Ben: Right. There were some unfinished songs that we had started and never finished that we wanted to add to the new version. We had a song to do vocals on, and there were a couple of songs that only the drums were done, and I didn’t really like the original songs anyway. So since the guitars hadn’t been tracked, I wrote new songs to go with the drums. So yeah, we just went in [the studio], it was maybe half a day, and it was a lot of fun, so we started talking about maybe doing a new record. And one thing led to another.
Q: Dan Lumley wasn’t available, Panic’s in California and not really playing anymore, you’re in Madison now, and Vapid still lives in Chicago. So I understand you went local and found a new drummer who lives fairly close by.
Ben: Yeah. Adam Cargin, the new drummer we found, was recommended by Justin Perkins, who produced the album and who is playing bass with us live. Vapid switches to guitar now. Adam’s originally up from the area known as Fox Valley, south of Green Bay. He was one of those kids who would drive up to Green Bay to go to concerts to see the Queers and stuff like that, so I think he was a fan from when he was a kid. And he’s a fantastic drummer, and a full-time musician who plays in a band here in Madison. And he’s actually going to be playing for Screeching Weasel as well.
Q: A while ago when you were doing Weasel Radio, the topic of a Riverdales reunion came up and you said that you weren’t sure you’d be able to get your chops back on guitar, since you hadn’t played guitar on stage in years and the Riverdales style of playing involves a lot of downstroking, which is really tough on the muscles in your hand. Yet you seem to have mastered it, you’re playing guitar on stage again.
Ben: Well, doing the record was easy. All that downstroking, now that we’re recording digitally… if you can’t make it through the whole song, it’s really no big deal. You can punch it in so easily. So if I got three quarters through a song and got tired, we’d just stop and I’d pick it back up. I did my guitar tracks and Vapid did his – he’s been playing the second rhythm guitar tracks as well as bass since the second Riverdales record anyway.
And then for the first show we did back in April, I spent three or four weeks just standing in my basement here, with the guitar on and a mic set up, doing the set every day. So I’d spend forty-five or fifty minutes every day just playing the set. It’s boring as hell but it was the only way I could get back in shape. It’s a little bit easier playing this stuff live now because we’re not downstroking everything anymore. We do that on some of the stuff and on parts of songs, but when we played the show, it was fine. I made a few mistakes, I think I played an entire verse in the wrong key, which was embarrassing, but it wasn’t a big catastrophe. I don’t think most people there even noticed.
Q: For people who don’t play guitar, most guitarists strum the strings – they move the pick up and down. Downstroking means you’re always hitting the strings with a downward motion. Which I assume came from watching Johnny Ramone, since that’s the way he played.
Ben: Actually, I taught myself how to play and I didn’t even know at the time that Johnny Ramone downstroked everything. If I tried to strum, I couldn’t keep time – which I believe I read years later is why Johnny Ramone played the way he did. It’s just a matter of when you’re starting to play, if you don’t have anyone teaching you, then I think at least for me it was a natural inclination to do the downstrokes, because I was able to keep in time better. And then once you get used to that, strumming doesn’t seem as natural. I can do that now but I always feel like I’m more solid when I’m playing the downstrokes, and it feels more natural to me. But it’s also really hard.
In the old days of the Riverdales, we did all downstrokes live, and on all the records. And we still did it on the new record, but live, it gets really tiring. Unless you’re playing a relatively slow song, it’s a hard thing to do for a long period of time. There are people who say there’s no difference in the sound between doing downstrokes and strumming, and those people are wrong. There’s actually a very big difference. But I’ve had people argue to me that it’s no different – just producers and people like that – and I’ve made mental notes never to work with those people ever again. Because it does make a huge difference in the way things sound.
Johnny Ramone was the best at it but outside of him, Joe King from the Queers is really the only one I’ve seen who can do it for an hour-long set and do it at impressive speeds. Other than that, I’ve never seen anyone do it for a whole set at fast speeds. And compared to those two guys, I’m a rank amateur. But I just enjoy getting up on stage and wailing on the guitar. I don’t pretend that I’m a really good guitarist, I only know how to play one power chord. I move up and down the fret board but the position of my fingers doesn’t ever change, because I’m only ever playing that one power chord. It’s all I ever learned how to do and I’ve never seen any reason to learn anything else. I can write songs playing that way and the longer I do it, the less inclined I am to learn how to play chords the right way. I always say that somebodyI’m going to learn how to play a real barre chord, but I don’t know. It’s just not real high on my priority list.
Q: So what’s it like playing guitar on stage again? It’s been a long time.
Ben: The thing is, I really enjoy getting on stage and playing guitar, but I’ve never been one to just sit around at home and play for fun. Maybe when I was a teenager and first starting out, but otherwise, I really only play guitar at home when I’m writing songs or demoing. If you do that, you get way out of practice, so I really needed to build up calluses on my fretting fingers again and just get into shape with playing a guitar with a strap, standing up. Because normally I’m just sitting on the couch writing songs.
Q: There was a bit of a learning curve for Dan too. He hasn’t played bass in a band in along time.
Ben: The thing about Dan is that he’s a really good bass player. I don’t think he’s ever gotten any kind of credit for it except from me, but from the beginning, I was always really impressed by his bass. He doesn’t do a lot of fancy stuff, he doesn’t do runs or fills or things like that, but he has an innate sense of what should be happening on the bass in relation to the guitar, especially in those Riverdales types of songs where things are really simple and repetitive. Those songs would get boring really quick if the bass was playing the same thing as the guitar, so he knows how to work the octaves and stuff.
He doesn’t even own a bass or a bass amp anymore, but he picked it up again really, really quick when we did the new record. And I just really like the parts he comes up with.
Q: Riverdales songs are obviously not Screeching Weasel songs. Some people would say they’re just “Ramonescore,” although I think there’s a little more to it than that. But what was it like sitting down and having to write Riverdales songs again for the first time in more than 10 years?
Ben: If I’m just writing songs for whatever else I’m doing, whether it’s Screeching Weasel or when I was doing the solo record, I don’t take into consideration anything except what I feel like doing. And that has its pros and cons. But with the Riverdales… I don’t think it’s incredibly limiting, but there are a lot of things that just wouldn’t be appropriate for a Riverdales song. There’s a lot of my type of songwriting that wouldn’t work in that band. So for me, it’s a very specific type of songwriting. But there are lot of things you can do inside that formula. I don’t think any of the Riverdales records sound exactly alike, and I think we do a lot with the songs on the new record.
Q: A lot of people have noticed that most of the song titles on Invasion USA come from the titles of cheesy old movies.
Ben: Twelve of the fourteen song titles are old sci-fi and horror movies, some of them even fairly recent movies, but they were all done on Mystery Science Theater 3000. One exercise I like to work with sometimes is to write from titles, and when we went into doing this record, Vapid said that he wasn’t sure he could write half of a Riverdales record. He felt like we had done everything we could do with that formula, and also, he was afraid that there are a lot of other bands doing that kind of thing today, that it’s just passé. That whole 1-4-5 chord progression and everything has just been done to death.
I argued that I don’t think that’s true, and that we’re better at it than most people. I’m just saying, that might sound arrogant to some people, but you’ve got to have confidence in your abilities, and you’ve got to believe that you’re good at what you do. And I really believe that when Vapid and I work together on stuff, we’re better than almost anybody else who works in that genre or sub-genre. So I said, why don’t we do this, I’ll just put together a big list of song titles and we’ll just start writing from them.
So I went through and found dozens and dozens of the most interesting-sounding titles from the old MST3K series and that really did the trick for him. I wrote a few songs and then he started writing, and it really helped him to have titles to write from. And he started to come up with some really great tunes as well. I really like working that way, but the problem is that you have to come up with a really great title to start with. Well, this way, the titles already existed, so the hard part was done.
The songs are not about the movies, by the way. I don’t think Dan has seen more than one or two of those movies, and I haven’t seen most of them myself. “Gemini Man” actually comes from an episode called “Riding With Death” but there were already a couple of bands that had used that one for a song, so I chose “Gemini Man,” which was actually a very short-lived TV series and they slapped two episodes together to make a flick called “Riding With Death.”
There were a few of those films I knew but I had never seen “Rocketship X-M” or “The Castle of Fu Manchu,” for instance. So that wasn’t really the point. Off the top of my head, I think “Gemini Man” is the only song where the lyrics actually reference what goes on in the movie, and that’s the song whose lyrics we’re printing on the insert. “Heart Out Of Season” and “Werewolf One” are the two songs that didn’t come from Mystery Science Theater. “Heart Out Of Season” was a ballad that Vapid had written and I actually had to talk him into putting that on the record. I think it’s the perfect Riverdales song and a great ballad. And “Werewolf One” was actually based on the end a movie called “The Great Santini;” I was watching that one night and at the end of the movie, Santini’s jet goes down and it was called Werewolf One, and you hear over the radio, “Where’s Werewolf One?” and I thought that’d just be a great lyric.
I actually wound up writing an album’s worth of songs myself this way, so the followup Riverdales record is already three-quarters done. My half is written and Vapid has about half of his half done. So if this album does okay, we plan to continue the theme for the next Riverdales record as well. At this rate, we could theoretically record the next one over next winter, but it all depends on how well this record does. It’s so hard to sell records these days, so we’ll have to see if this one justifies doing another one right away.
Q: Let’s talk about singing a bit. Everyone knows the patented Ben Weasel voice, that snotty snarl that you use with Screeching Weasel. But your vocals on the Riverdales records don’t always sound like that. How do you decide how Ben Weaselly to be when you do a particular song?
Ben: I definitely plan that stuff out and think it all out. Now that I have GarageBand and it’s so much easier to demo stuff, I work all that out beforehand. Yeah, I have different ways of singing and different levels of how much I’m going to stress certain things. When I was doing my solo record, we’d be in the studio and I’d say, okay, how much snot do you want in there? And I’d sing it and the producer would say, well, a little more or a little less.
These days, I tend to have an idea of what I want to when I write the song. On the solo record, when I was working with a producer I trusted, it was harder for me to figure out, so I left it in his hands. With the Riverdales record, that was the first time that I demo’d out a whole record before going into the studio, so I had already done multiple vocal takes. I’d change lyrics or I would go back and do an entirely fresh vocal take, and I was able to figure it out that way.
There are a lot of different vocal affectations that you can use, but, for instance, on “Werewolf One,” the verse is basically a sped-up doo wop song, and I like the idea of singing it in that style. So to do it in that nasally, whiney, high-pitched way would have sounded wrong. I guess technically it could have worked but it would have just sounded kind of dumb to me. It’s all kind of a gut reaction to me.
When we do the Riverdales, I talk to Vapid a lot about that stuff too. I think it’s important that you’re not afraid to be… I don’t want to say theatrical, but don’t be afraid to be just a little over the top. It’s just a fun goofy band, we’re not doing something really deep or introspective. It’s all supposed to be kind of tongue in cheek and smart ass, so I think it adds something if you put a little something on the vocal. Like on the chorus of “Squirm,” he puts a kind of cool Bela Lugosi spin on that word. Just a spooky kind of voice thing. So we talk about a lot about that kind of thing, with me how much of that Joey Ramone kind of crooning am I going to do. And there’s a lot of vocal hitches and stuff that I do. Your gut reaction is usually to done it down, but I think it’s okay sometimes to play that stuff up.
Sometimes it seems almost silly to take this goofy, light-hearted music and analyze it so much. But when I was younger, I took a really half-assed approach to a lot of things and the result was that I made a lot of records that couldn’t have been a lot better, and that I still have a lot of regrets about, because I didn’t take them seriously enough. It’s a good idea not to take yourself too seriously, but it’s a bad idea not to take your record and your songs seriously.
Q: You’ve said before that you feel the Riverdales are different from most of the other bands that get dumped into the Ramonescore genre. Can you elaborate on that?
Ben: I think one of the great failings of the heavily Ramones-influenced type punk bands is that they tend to be so by-the-numbers and so surface that they wind up being boring and repetitive. It’s a really repetitive type of music anyway so you have to do these small, subtle things to keep it interesting. And I don’t think a lot of the people who play in those types of bands realize that. So what happens is that a song that’s really just three chords, they don’t vary things up with the bass or the drums or anything and it’s just boring. There’s a way to do it that’s not all that noticeable to the listener but it changes things enough that it keeps it interesting.
That’s also why sequencing is so important. In this day and age, the single is back and albums aren’t that important anymore, but I grew up in a time when albums were everything; that’s what I’m used to and that’s the way I’m going to write. So I always want to make sure there’s a flow from song to song, and I don’t have a bunch of songs in a row that all start in the same key or have the same beginning. So I spend a fair amount of time sequencing and resequencing a record. Even back when nobody was doing vinyl, I still thought like that because it works just as well on a CD.
Q: So you’re going to be a dad. Let’s talk about that. How frightening is it to contemplate becoming a parent for the first time at age 40?
Ben: I think it’s a lot less scary becoming a father at my age than it would have been ten or fifteen years ago. I’m fine with it. I don’t think anybody can really prepare for how time-consuming it’s going to be, but I’m excited about it. Obviously I’m concerned with how I’m going to get work done, because I’m going to be the one staying home and watching them. But we’ll figure it out.
Q: So besides the Riverdales, you’ve also started performing again as Screeching Weasel. How did that come about?
Ben: I think for the first time in a long time, there’s a legitimate interest in Screeching Weasel again. I was doing these solo gigs and I was tied up in a legal dispute with John (“Jughead” Pierson) over ownership of the band’s assets, which of course included the name and anything to do with the band. So I was doing those shows under the name Ben Weasel and I was fine with that, but then the dispute got resolved a little over a year ago. I already had gigs booked as Ben Weasel so I said I’d do those, and then when we got into 2009, it just seemed to make sense and bring the Screeching Weasel name back.
I think I had a lot of negative associations with the name for a while; you do something for that long and there’s always ups and downs. But getting the legal issues resolved just changed a lot; everything was back in my hands, and there was no question that it was my band, and that I owned everything, so at that point I realized I was really happy about it and very proud of what I had accomplished, and really happy with the fact that people still care about Screeching Weasel.
We were never hugely popular, certainly never on a Green Day but not even on the level of a Rancid or NoFX. We weren’t even in the same ballpark. But we did carve out our own little niche, and we do have a lot of loyal fans. For years I was really ambivalent about it, but now I’m really into it and really enjoying it. And I guess it’s one of the things that happen when you get older, that you’re able to appreciate things that you didn’t really get when you were young. And it’s not very often that anyone gets the opportunity to experience that.
Usually if you kind of blow it, which I did – and by blow it, I mean just not appreciating what I had when I had it – you never get another chance. So being able now to go out and play these shows where a lot of people show up and actually enjoy it, I really feel fortunate, and I’m really, really having fun with it.
Q: A lot of people were surprised when suddenly there was a Screeching Weasel again and no Jughead in the band. And then John posted some things on the Internet that made is seemed he was very surprised over the whole situation. What’s your response?
Ben: I’m not going to trash John, I’ve known John since I was 12 years old. I don’t know why he chose to take the route that he did; that’s his decision. He certainly has the right if he wants to do that. And if that sets some of the fans against me, so be it. I’m inclined to believe, having done this for 23 years, it’s been my observation that when people get all pissed off and say they’re not going to support you any more because of something like this, they were bound to do it over something else anyway. I’m not losing any sleep over it.
John is obviously angry, and I really don’t understand it; the details of our dispute and our resolution of that dispute really aren’t anybody else’s business, but I’ll just say that I was a little bit disturbed that he didn’t even acknowledge that there was this massive two-year legal dispute that got very ugly. John went on the Internet and acted like this all happened out of the blue, and it didn’t; there were many heated exchanges and accusations and recriminations and hurt feelings, and it totally sucked.
I can’t speak for John, but I imagine it was on both sides; it bothered both of us quite a bit. John’s a good guy and I respect him, and he’s a talented guy and I’m sure he’ll do great things in the future. But at the end of the day, it’s my band, and everybody in the world except John Pierson seemed to understand that.
So eventually it did get resolved, and John got what is in my opinion a very fair settlement which gives him a cut of merchandise sales in perpetuity. And I’m happy to pay him that money. But in terms of him not being in the band, again, it puts me in a difficult position but suffice to say, it was not an amicable split over the business stuff. And during the dispute, I told him many times that he was jeopardizing his future with whatever might happen with the band down the road, and I begged him not to do that.
The irony of the situation is that what I offered him in the very beginning is what he agreed to two years later. So none of this needed to happen. I don’t feel comfortable portraying him as a bad guy or as a jerk, because I think that he sincerely felt that his point of view was right. And so we were at loggerheads for two years over that. But when the situation was resolved, things had gone way, way past the point of no return in terms of our friendship and any semblance of a working relationship anymore.