Email interview with Brendan Kelly (lead singer, The Lawrence Arms)
Do you see a historical evolution of politics and message in punk music?
There's a change, for sure. I don't really know if there's really an evolution. I mean, bands like the Clash, or even the Sex Pistols were really political for their time, simply because they were creating a consciousness and getting newspaper headlines. Today there are political bands like Propagandhi, who are specific, informed, intelligent and articulate but, even though it's so much more bang for your buck in terms of specific politics, it's being performed to a bunch of complacent teens in a world where a little rebellion is seen as a kind of growing pain, not something to be taken seriously. In the seventies, the west was still reeling from the sixties and all the "adults" saw potential for real social change through music and the organizations based around music and punk rock scared them. Now, the kids out there are the kids and even grandkids of the first hippies and punks. The parents see the same "teenaged rebellion" that they went through but without the networks and systems that they built in order to make it dangerous. These kids see those old dangerous movements as a) stupid idealist bullshit that their dumb parents believed in. and B) Not dangerous or worth doing, because how can anything that your parents did be dangerous or worth doing, especially when they live in the suburbs and drive Range Rovers now. When the rebels turn into the bosses that fast, the message that it sends to the next generation is that rebellion is a phase, and that fighting the power is like fighting your own destiny. I'm not blaming the kids here. There are a lot of great kids out there who listen to punk rock and take it very seriously. I just think that the world is a different place, and unfortunately punk rock is kind of a dinosaur right now.
How do you feel about the impending war and current foreign politics of the United States of America?
I hate it. Without re-hashing all the essays I write on our website about my attitudes towards this war I will just say that we are going against the ENTIRE WORLD. People in the US who are for this war need to realize that NO ONE else in the world is for it. Not our allies, not neutral nations. Nobody. It's not as though we have been terribly wronged by some superpower and the whole world is pussying out on us. No. After 9-11-01, we were wronged and the entire world lent its support. The world is not opposed to the US seeking justice... there is very recent evidence of this. The world (and I'm putting myself in this category now) is opposed to a pre-emptive strike against a pretty small and ultimately powerless nation for no other reason than because of the ego of our crazy leader. Whatever. There are smart people out there who are for this war who can list off great reasons for us to strike Saddam, and my only argument is this: we are alienating ourselves from the entire world. Nobody but us wants this war. We will reap what we sow if we create more destruction and terror. It scares me and I hate it.
Is the tending towards anarchy and government destruction in the punk scene still present or even relevant in a time where the level of expectation for articulate songwriting is raised as it seems to be in the current scene?
I don't really understand your question. I will say this, though. "Fuck the system!!" has been co-opted as a marketing tool, used by bands who really don't have much to say (about the government or otherwise) as a means of forging an identity and selling records. This is problematic not because the bands are kind of vapid, (I would rather see stupid bands saying that Bush is an asshole than singing about farts and girls) but because, again, it sends the message that rebellion is a trend. Flags can be sewn on upside down but as soon as we go to war, your mom can sew it back on right side up for you. Like I said, I would rather have some dumb group of idiots singing about politics than something else stupid, but it cheapens the message that some people try very hard to send. It's a sad day in punk rock when anarchy patches and upside-down flags are produced by global corporations in sweatshops and sold to weekend punkers at the mall. Punk's not dead, indeed.
What do you see is the most pressing societal issue at the present time?
The war on terror and the war on drugs. The first is just a foreign policy version of the second. Both are smokescreens that let our government act as it pleases, imprison who it wants to and silence dissenters by making them seem immoral.
Is the recent explosion of punk-influenced pop bands on the radio and television cheapening or threatening the political and musical integrity of the punk scene?
It's already happened. You know, I was talking to my friend Mike, who plays in a hardcore band called the 4 squares, about 2 or three years ago, and I asked him "What do you think of all this fucking mall punk? What's the deal with this Dashboard guy. He's a bubblegum acoustic songwriter and somehow he gets to be called punk. What's up with that?" and he said to me "I don't even care. There are always bands on the radio. It has nothing to do with what I do." and I think that he's right. That stuff has nothing to do with underground punk rock, except that it may encourage a kid who has no other way of seeing cool bands to get involved. But the thing is, the integrity of punk rock is long gone. When I was about five ('81) punk rock was everywhere in the mainstream. More than it is now. In every ad, sitcom, movie, whatever there was a guy with a sleeveless jean jacket and liberty spikes. That's my earliest memory of punk rockers. Punk, as a movement, lasted a very, very short time. Since then it's just been a dedicated underground network that motors along between the five year intervals when big business brings out "punk fashion" as a means of hawking shit. What's going on right now is nothing new. And the "scene" is no lamer now then it was in 95 or 85. It's the same. It's the people who live through it who change. Old jaded assholes say that the scene has gone downhill because they can't relate to it anymore. Well no shit. You're 25 fucking years old. Punk rock is (if it's anything) a youth movement. It's the most exciting and vital as a "scene or community" when you are between the ages of 12 and 20 (at least, it was for me.) That isn't to say that when you get older you can't be involved, or even love it. I mean, I'm 26. I have friends who are in their 30's who are still into it. But the main group of people who are doing punk rock as a lifestyle have always been teenagers. When the kids today get older, they will say "back in '02, the scene was amazing. Now it sucks. It's full of pussy ass bands who are all over MTV. Fuck this." It's an endless cycle.
Is a band's popularity chiefly dependent on their music or lyrics?
I don't know or care.
Is there a problem with people who enjoy a band's sound but do not agree with the group politically?
People who tell others what they can and cannot enjoy and why are idiots. I mean, there are some circumstances in which it's kind of strange, like a Nazi who enjoys Public Enemy or a kid who loves Skrewdriver just for the music (even though, I think that's impossible, because Skrewdriver is one of the worst bands ever.) but ultimately, if you are telling me what I can or can't like and why, fuck you. Your opinion has no place in my opinion.
Is there a problem with people who enjoy a band's sound but ignore the group's message?
No. Except in situations like the ones that I just mentioned. There is a problem when people are idiots. No matter what. The way people listen to music has NO BEARING on whether or not they are idiots.
Who has been the most influential for the state of punk today (music and message) and why?
I don't know. Because I don't know what the state of punk today is.
Does a bands signing to a major label affect their integrity and music?
It really depends on the band. Business decisions and artistic decisions can be separate. I've never been on a major label, so I really don't know.
Do you feel that it is easier to write about political and societal subjects or rather more emotional material?
It really depends on the day. It's whatever is on my mind.
Who/what are your personal political influences?
Well, I really just judge for myself what I believe to be right and wrong in terms of politics. I don't have any influences except for the actions of the people and things that I'm thinking about.
Have the politics of punk changed over the last twenty years developed as a result of outside influences or an internal change?
Again, I don't understand this question, but I'm pretty sure that I've given my opinion on this general issue already.
Are the majority of the proverbial "kids" really paying attention to and supporting the message of your lyrics?
I don't know. What is that message? It's so different from song to song. There are lots of smart, cool kids out there, and there are lots of idiots. It all boils down to that.
The voter turnout for the midterm elections was along the lines of twenty to thirty percent of Americans, do you think this is a result of apathy among youth culture or the lack of information available on elections?
It's both. Kids don't believe that voting can make a difference, and don't know how to register and don't know when elections are coming up. It's sad, and it's just what the old people running the show want. Cheney and Bush don't want young people, or non whites voting. They want old, white men voting. It's pretty shitty that so many kids play into their hands by not caring.
Related to Fat Wreck Chords: what do you think of Fat Mike's recent political activism against the President and the establishment of the Punk Voter website?
It's great. I'm behind it 100%. Mike is a very smart guy. Punk rock is lucky to have him.