We Owe You Nothing
Punk Planet: The Collected Interviews
Edited by Daniel Sinker
346 pages, $16.95
Making music has always been a political act. When Franz Liszt insisted he and his fellow pianists were the social equals of the courtiers for whom they played, he was tampering with long established hierarchies. When Billie Holiday put aside the love songs to sing of the “Strange Fruit” hanging from the branches of Southern trees, she was an activist as much as a balladeer. Many artists opt not to trouble their audiences with such glum material, and stick with the love songs – tempered perhaps with the occasional Pepsi jingle. And that, whether one is aware of it or not, is also a political decision.
Punk rock didn’t add politics to rock, it simply turned it up in the mix. And for all its raw-throated immediacy and transience, American punk rock has a healthy sense of history. It has controversial founding fathers like Fugazi’s Ian MacKaye, former Dead Kennedy Jello Biafra, and one-time Black Flagger Henry Rollins. It has a long group memory, as evidenced by Operation Ivy patches worn today by kids who were toddlers when that band split up.
And it has institutional journals like Punk Planet, a thick bimonthly launched in the spring of 1994 by Chicago art student Daniel Sinker. According to the introduction of We Owe You Nothing, a new anthology of Punk Planet interviews, Sinker – a music fan and utter non-journalist – was frustrated with the “wildly reactionary” stance of Maximum Rock n Roll, punk’s best-known chronicler, toward the sudden mainstream approval of the punk aesthetic and of specific bands like Green Day and Nirvana. “Many bands, including quite a few I was friends with, found themselves locked out of Maximum’s pages,” Sinker recalls, “having been deemed ‘not punk.’”
It’s no surprise, then, that seven years later Punk Planet has given birth to a collection that takes a remarkably long view of “punk.” Taken together, the 25 interviews are a snapshot of a loosely defined community – positioned at the rough intersection of passionate leftist politics and angry, untutored rock ‘n’ roll. This is a piece of territory wide enough to include the somber, righteous self-control of Rollins, the quirky world-tweaking of Negativland, the Hare Krishna consciousness of Shelter; and radical voices from outside music, like Noam Chomsky and the women of the Central Ohio Abortion Access Fund.
The book is good because punk rockers are smart. Kathleen Hanna (formerly of Bikini Kill, now of Le Tigre) describes how her songwriting on her solo Julie Ruin LP had the unlikely influence of art critic John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, and then draws a grand and illuminating comparison between the problems of the American feminist movement and Yugoslavia’s transition from Communism. Biafra offers a savvy analysis of how successful rockers like Pearl Jam might be persuaded to put their money back into communities, while Jody Bleyle (formerly of the bands Hazel and Team Dresch and the queer punk label Candy Ass) worries about how “punk political messages are being commodified on a certain level.” She wonders: “For how many people is punk really a fetish?” That disjunction – between a sincere, self-sustaining punk community and a mainstream “commodification” – is more simply stated as the Sell Out Question, and it hangs over the interviews in this book like a toxic cloud.
Major labels especially are the bÍte noir of the punk planet. Everyone in the book (including Sinker himself) began their enterprise by deciding very consciously to work outside the system, to create an authentic expression without asking for the validation – or material support – of any establishment entity. What to do, then, when the establishment likes what it hears and want to make a deal?
“There’s a valid reason that people jump to the conclusion that anyone working with a major label is doing it for a stupid or selfish reason,” avers Chicago ¸ber-producer Steve Albini. “That’s because the only possible advantage to working with a major label is that you might make more money.” But the “ugly truth,” Albini concludes, is that you usually don’t.
Ian MacKaye, meanwhile, cautions that remaining outside the system – as Fugazi did, rather famously – means a lot of work: “One aspect of Do It Yourself is that you really have to do it yourself. … We manage ourselves, we book ourselves, we do our own equipment upkeep, we do our own recording, we do our own taxes.” A couple hundred pages later, the guys from Los Crudos go MacKaye one better, explaining why their artistic principles dictate that they individually hand-screen all of their own record covers.
Those who’ve gotten in bed with major labels, like British anarchists turned pop superstars Chumbawamba, toss and turn over the implications of their decision. This leads to one of the best quotes in all of We Owe You Nothing, from frontman Boff: “When we first started writing songs, we thought that choruses were the tools of the capitalist imperialists.” His is a statement rich with irony considering that the band’s breakout hit in 1997, “Tubthumping,” (“I get knocked down / but I get up again,” etc.) is essentially all chorus.
We Owe You Nothing, like a winningly passionate but under-produced punk 45, is frustrating in places. Sinker would have done well to include the original publication date of each interview, and the profiles’ introductions can be adoring to the point of meaninglessness – as when we’re told that Fugazi “is the culmination of all that came before it and the embodiment of all that would come after.” But in general, the Punk Planet style is rewarding. Much more so than mainstream journalists, Sinker and the interviewers he employs are willing to inject their own consciousness and sense of place into the conversations. The result is a collection rich with actual dialogue and the exchange of ideas, rather than dull star stories.
How perfectly punk.