An Interview with Ben Weasel of Screeching Weasel

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Screeching Weasel Members Quit After Singer Attacks Women Onstage - Rolling  Stone

Screeching Weasel is an American Punk band which has been around since 1986. In that time they’ve released fifteen awesome studio albums, several of which are absolutely essential to any Punk Rock collection regardless of which format you collect. Albums like My Brain Hurts, Wiggle, Anthem for a New Tomorrow, How to Make Enemies and Irritate People and Bark Like a Dog are some of the finest Punk Rock albums the 1990’s has to offer. In 2020, Screeching Weasel put out its latest studio effort which is called Some Freaks of Atavism, and I believe in time it will be looked back upon as yet another classic within the genre. Today, I’ve got the leader and founder of Screeching Weasel, Ben Weasel with us. He’s a cool dude and I was happy to get to know him better. If you’d like to learn more about Screeching Weasel, head over to their website here. Once you’ve done that, give this interview a read. Enjoy.

Andrew:
Ben, thank you for taking the time to speak with us. It’s been some year, hasn’t it? What have you been doing to keep your mind off the ever-raging dumpster fire that is 2020?

Ben:
Working!

Andrew:
Tell us a bit about your backstory? How did you get into music?

Ben:
Into playing it? I discovered The Ramones. That gave me the idea that maybe I could make music instead of just being a fan. I loved ‘70s Rock and Metal but I was never going to be able to play guitar or sing like those guys. The Ramones showed me I didn’t need to be preternaturally musically gifted to be in a band.

Andrew:
As an artist, who are some of your earliest influences? As you’ve evolved musically, how have those influences changed?

Ben:
50s and 60s Rock ‘N’ Roll and Pop, and 70s Rock and early Metal. I also took a lot from sitcom theme songs and commercial jingles. I don’t think my influences have changed much. 

Ben Weasel on New Screeching Weasel Album 'Some Freaks of Atavism'

Andrew:
Tell us the story of Screeching Weasel. How did the group come together?

Ben:
I went to a Ramones show in the summer of ‘86 and immediately started planning to put a band together. I was 18 and living with my parents. I approached a guy I worked with who played guitar but he said he didn’t want to be in a band. So, I wrote up a newspaper ad and told the guitarist my parents wouldn’t let me put our phone number in the ad, and asked if I could use his. I thought if he was getting the calls and saw a real band was coming together, maybe he’d change his mind. And it worked! We got a call from a drummer and then John, the guitarist, decided he wanted in, and he was in the band through the early 2000’s. We started rehearsing right away in my parents’ garage and within a couple months we were playing gigs and recording a demo. It was terrible but it was fun, and since Punk was so unpopular then, we weren’t really risking anything by not exercising any quality control. Weirdly, we got a lot of positive attention, probably more for the attitude than the music.

Andrew:
Let’s talk about Wiggle. That album is iconic for the genre. What do you recall about the recording of that record? Looking back, do you feel it still holds up? Or are there things you wish you could change?

Ben:
I’m not a big fan. It wasn’t a fun record to make. In the 90s none of them were fun records to make but that one was particularly difficult for several reasons; the main one being we were trying to follow up a successful record and I put a lot of pressure on myself. I didn’t have a solid and cohesive enough group of songs. It’s all over the place stylistically – relative to what we had been doing, anyway – and my vocals are awful. I managed to get rid of a lot of the pitchiness and other bad habits you hear on previous recordings, but only by shouting everything. I sounded like Froggy from the Little Rascals. We should’ve waited another year before recording a follow-up to My Brain Hurts but we were on a schedule of a record a year. I was worried people would forget about us if we didn’t have a constant stream of releases out there. Another problem was the other guys had pushed for a democratic approach on the creative side. There was an awful lot of speechifying and voting going on, which always results in chaos. Lesson learned: Bands shouldn’t operate as democracies.

Andrew:
Throughout the 90s the band released a string of amazing records, Anthem for a New Tomorrow, How to Make Enemies and Irritate People and Bark Like a Dog. In my opinion, they’re some of the best of the genre (during that decade). Looking back, what are your thoughts on those records?

Ben:
They’re all flawed to varying degrees. I get why people like them but they’re not anything I ever listen to or feel particularly proud of. For every good moment there are at least three or four bad ones. Songs that shouldn’t have made the cut, bonehead arrangement decisions, sub-par performances. And on top of it, we were usually under pretty serious budget restraints. It was fairly ridiculous to try to make albums with the kind of money we had.

Screeching Weasel - BARK LIKE A DOG - Amazon.com Music

Andrew:
The band has had many stops and starts, and has experienced many lineup changes. Why do you feel there has been so much change throughout the group’s history?

Ben:
Early on, and through much of the 90s, there was a limited pool of available talent. You had to first of all find people who could play and were willing to play Punk. That narrowed the options considerably right out of the gate. It’s not like today where you can find great musicians who are into Punk. Then to find people who were willing to play melodic Punk was even harder. Generally, the better the musician, the more likely he was to look down on melodic music. Even after Green Day hit it big, it was still tough. So sometimes we had people who given the choice probably wouldn’t have opted to be in our band. And obviously those people would end up quitting or being replaced by people who were more invested.

Another reason is we were always self-managed. We never got any tour support from Lookout. We never had a booking agent. Until the late 90s, we printed and sold our own merch. I spent most of the 90s working seven days a week. That combined with the typical inter-band conflicts that every band experiences led to me burning out fairly often.

Andrew:
Since the reformation in 2009, the band has released three alums, First World Manifesto, Baby Fat: Act I and in 2020, your newest record, Some Freaks of Atavism. How did the process compare to the old days of making records together? What’s changed for you all as a band creatively?

Ben:
The biggest factor has been our producer, Mike Kennerty. He’s done a great job of balancing modern production techniques with what my writing and performing calls for. He understands my strengths and weaknesses and knows how to get the best out of me. The first record I did with Mike was my solo record, These Ones Are Bitter. I think First World is a small step back from that because we were being a little too deferential to the band’s legacy. It made sense at the time since it was the first thing we recorded after having been inactive for ten years, but it’s a little sterile for my liking. But with Baby Fat we pulled out all the stops. It’s the only record other than My Brain Hurts where I went into it feeling I had nothing to lose, so I went for it in a way I never had before, and Mike matched me step for step. That’s one of my favorite records I’ve done. Same with Some Freaks Of Atavism. At this point in my career I’ve hit a sweet spot. Somehow my ambitions are coinciding enough with what the fans want from Screeching Weasel that I can afford to do what I want without thinking too much about how it’s going to go over. I can afford to judge an idea solely on its merits. I guess part of it is also the freedom you get when recorded music loses most of its monetary value.

As far as the process goes, almost everything in pre-production is done by each of us in solitude, which suits me well since I don’t like rehearsals and recording sessions. I write and demo out my stuff here, then Trevor out in L.A. polishes up the demos, and Mike Kennerty down in Oklahoma tweaks them. Once we more or less have things down, we send it out to the other guys so they can work on their parts. Theoretically, I’d love to get back to recording together as a group to give the recordings more of a live feel, but I find that process so draining I doubt I’ll ever do it again. And this way is a lot cheaper. But for the most part it’s not that different from what we were doing thirty years ago. In the old days, I’d be there for a lot of the recording to be able to monitor how it was going, but I can do that remotely now. But from My Brain Hurts on, we tracked all the instruments individually so that’s nothing new.

Andrew:
Tell us more about the new record. Where can we get it and what formats will it be on?

Ben:
I love it. The fans seem to be into it too. I had a blast writing and recording it. I’ve never been happier with the performances of my bandmates than I am on this one. I don’t know what else to say about it. If you haven’t heard it, give it a shot. It’s streaming everywhere. We did a few pressings of vinyl but that’s all sold out. I think there are a few cassettes left at our Big Cartel store (https://screechingweasel.bigcartel.com).

Some Freaks Of Atavism by Screeching Weasel on Amazon Music - Amazon.com

Andrew:
Let’s switch gears a bit now. Tell me your thoughts on the current state of the music scene these days? What’s it like out there for an indie artist?

Ben:
It’s fine for us. When the recorded music industry went down the toilet, we were able to make up a lot of that money with gigs. In recent years, that’s become a little tougher since show attendance has been going down pretty much across the board for several years now, but we’ve managed to keep hanging in there, which is a testament to the loyalty of our fans.

For younger artists, I think it has to be harder than ever. The Internet was supposed to democratize everything, but all it really did was remove money from the equation. Logic says if you have virtually unlimited access to music, you’re going to discover more new artists than you would’ve otherwise, but I don’t see that happening. Unlimited choice seems to have a paralyzing effect. Nothing’s special or outstanding anymore for many of us. It’s all generically-labeled music. Obviously, that makes it more of a challenge for a young artist to break out. I’m not sure what can be done about it.

Andrew:
There are a lot of artists out there whom are fantastic, but get stuck in the underground, while others go on to great success. What is it about our culture that causes this to happen? Do think the general public is truly listening?

Ben:
No, but it’s not really their fault. We’ve been turning away from listening for a long time, at least since the early 20th century. The Internet has accelerated the process. And artists haven’t helped. Too many of us have bought into the romantic notion that the personal is of greater value than the universal. That was certainly my view for too long. When listeners take chances on new music, they do so in good faith. They’re seeking the transcendent, and we’re serving them up our neuroses. I think that’s lowered the bar considerably, and most listeners probably aren’t fully aware of it. There’s just a vague but persistent sense that something’s missing.

As far as some bands not succeeding, I’ve been observing for something like 35 years, and I’ve found that truly great artists who don’t succeed are pretty rare, and they usually have themselves to blame. They make bad business decisions, they develop drug or alcohol problems, they get dragged down by bandmates they won’t fire, or they have shitty attitudes. Fans, record labels and promoters all desperately want great new music. Yeah, it’s tough to get noticed, but it’s always been tough. If you persevere, you’ll generally find an audience. But you’ve usually got to be willing to be broke and unpopular for a while first. I’m not advocating that as an experience. I’m not a “pay your dues” kind of guy. If there’s a way around that, by all means, take it. Don’t pay any dues you don’t have to. I’m just saying, the way it usually works is you’ve gotta go through tough times before things come together for you. Most people lack the patience and endurance for that.

Andrew:
In the world we live in today, we are more or less dominated by capitalism and the never-ending barrage of social media. How has this effected music as an artform? Is an artist’s ability to get their music out there hindered by all this, or helped?

Ben:
I addressed some of this earlier, but as to an artist’s ability to get his music out there, that’s interesting, because I think it’s harder than ever, even though it ought to be laughably easy. I mean, promotion is basically free. You can record something in your bedroom and have it up on YouTube immediately. But how do you get people over to your YouTube channel? It turns out what looks at first glance like a level playing field is still as lopsided as ever. We’re faced with the same problems we’ve always had in getting our stuff in front of people, only there’s far less ability to recoup any of the money we spend on promotion, because recorded music is basically worthless now.

We might have been better off in the days where you had to put music on cassette tapes and mail it out to people. Hope for a good review in MaximumRockNRoll or Flipside and sell some demos. It was actually a more efficient system. I honestly think I had an easier time promoting shows by walking around with a bucket of paste and a handful of flyers than I do now. It wasn’t very effective, but the same telephone poles and kiosks were always in the same places. But if you spend a couple hundred bucks on Facebook ads to promote your shows, you can’t go back and do it again. They’ve changed everything. 10 years ago, we regrouped every winter to keep up with and respond to all the changes these companies were making to try to get more money out of us. Now it changes every couple of months. If you promote a show on Facebook for a couple hundred bucks in January, you’ll find doing the same thing in April won’t work again. Now you have to spend 3-400. There’s no explanation as to why because there’s no transparency and nobody holds these companies accountable. Nobody even knows how to hold these companies accountable. And if you don’t play the game, you don’t exist.

We’re trained to expect everything to pop up on our social media feeds. We’ve agreed to let Facebook and Twitter decide what we see and don’t see, because it’s convenient. For an artist, it’s terrible. You have to fight, but it’s a losing battle because it’s rigged. What can you do? Go back to the days of mailing out physical newsletters? Bring back fanzines? It’s not gonna happen.

Ben Weasel Talks Fat Mike, SXSW & Not Taking Shit - YouTube

Andrew:
Are you into vinyl? Tapes? CDs? Or are you all digital now? Where do you like to shop for music?

Ben:
I’m all digital. I have a pretty sizable collection of opera CDs I built up because it’s hard to find halfway-decently translated libretti online, but I just import them into my laptop. I have an Apple Music account, which I sort of love and sort of hate. I have a list you wouldn’t believe filled with stuff to listen to and I doubt I’ll ever get around to most of it. But I hate it because if anything gets pulled from the streaming world, I probably won’t realize it right away. I have a few playlists of some Bach partitas I’d added from Apple Music. I tried listening to them last night, and they’re gone. It’s a little reminder of how ephemeral all this is. It’s as if you have a huge record collection, and every once in a while, one of them just disappears. In a streaming world, you don’t own anything. You can’t catalog anything. You can’t rely on anything.

Andrew:
What are a few albums that mean the most to you and why?

Ben:
The Ramones Leave Home is my favorite of their albums. I listened to it relentlessly as a teenager. It’s practically embedded in my DNA. And I love it just as much today. I’ve never gotten tired of it. I also have a lot of affection for Tullio Serafin’s Rigoletto with Callas and Gobbi. I own an awful lot of recordings of Rigoletto and none of them come close to the Serafin. We use the overture as the opening music for our live shows. Another album I never get tired of is Dolly Parton’s My Tennessee Mountain Home. It’s absolutely charming, and the songs are about as well-written as songs get.

Andrew:
Once COVID-19 is finished with us, what’s next for both you and the band?

Ben:
We’re in the middle of demoing a new album which I hope to release in 2022, but other than that I’m not sure. Nobody knows when things will go back to normal, or even if they will. We’ve been slowing down the past few years anyway in terms of live shows. As I get older the travel takes more out of me. I’m sure we’ll keep doing fly-ins here and there. And we’ll keep making records as long as we can.

Andrew:
Last question. In a world that’s been so confined by the constraints of capitalism, big business and the alienation caused due to the internet age, how do artists find their footing these days? What advice would you have for younger artists?

Ben:
I don’t know. If I were starting out today I wouldn’t have a chance. I think the days of an offbeat band being able to carve out a little niche for itself without going into debt in the process might be gone forever.

Screeching Weasel at Club Nokia - Los Angeles Times

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Published by Andrew Daly

Since he was a young child growing up on Long Island, NY, USA, Andrew has always loved writing, music, drumming and collecting music on CD, tape and vinyl. After losing his life-long vinyl collection in 2014, Andrew began his vinyl collection from scratch again when he met his future wife Angela in 2015. Andrew’s love of music only further blossomed as his collection spanned all genres possible. After amassing over 3,000 albums in under two years, he knew it was time to finally follow his dream of being a music journalist, and thus, Vinyl Writer was born.

Andrew’s not only the go-to friend for music trivia, but his intricate knowledge of the ins and outs of the music industry allows him to develop engaging questions that really tap into each artist and individual to deliver insightful and enjoyable interviews. He’s proud to share his love of music with the world through his writing, and the result is nothing short of beautiful: articles and interviews written by a music addict, for fellow music addicts.

Andrew lives on Long Island, NY, with his wife Angela and their four cats, Oliver, Patrick, Charlie and Kevin. Andrew’s collection of over 4,700 vinyl albums, plus several hundred tapes and CDs, tells the story of his passion for all that is music. Andrew works as a Horticultural Operations Manager by day and runs the Vinyl Writer website by night. Andrew is also the admin of several Facebook groups dedicated to music.

2 thoughts on “An Interview with Ben Weasel of Screeching Weasel

    1. Absolutely. Ben’s been at the game a long time, and it would be fun to have a Greatest Hits album for sure. Some artists feel like releasing one marks the beginning of the end of their career, so in that regard, let’s hope it takes another few decades before we get one!! Thanks for popping by and stay safe!

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