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
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 bÉte 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 čber-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.
Ben Winters, a freelance writer based in Los Angeles,
once played bass for the D.C. punk band Corm. When Ben quit, they
got really good. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.