Wednesday, May 14, 2014

John Jughead Pierson Interview

Punk rockers come in many varieties but my favorite kind are the ones who possess such a uniqueness, so much that they end up in a class of their own. This is who John Jughead Pierson is to me. He is most certainly a pioneer in the groundbreaking of what would become pop punk, but there is also a creative force inside of this man that branches off into so many wonderful directions. As a teenager who didn't quite buy the mundane life of being like the other kids, he gave me a home and place to find myself only coming second to The Ramones through the music he plays. As an adult, he has given me friendship, encouragement, and a means to believe in myself creatively as an observer to the numerous mediums of art he not only has the talent to perform, but excel at. In fewer words, hell yes, John is definitely someone who makes me proud to be a punk rocker who chooses my own path. This makes him ten times over a suitable interview subject and as an added bonus, he's got some fantastic plans taking shape for yet another installment in the worldwide adventures of Jughead so let's talk to him! Ladies and Gentlemen it is my great pleasure and honor to present this man to you, Mr. John Jughead Pierson...

    Photo Credit: Joe Mazza at Brave Lux Inc.

Sara: Hello John! Thanks for taking a little time to speak with me as these days you're living in the life of a podcast making/neo-futurist/budding wizard are quite hectic. How are you?

John Jughead PiersonAs I write this now I am pretty good. I need to fix a window and paint my bathroom, so that is what is on my mind now.

S: In your book, "Weasels In A Box", you did touch on your youth but for those who haven't gotten the chance to read it yet(get it here), or those like myself who have and would like to know more, let's look a little further into it. Please talk about what it was like for you growing up as a child in Chicago, leading into adolescence and your connections to music during that time frame. How did music find you?

JJPWell technically I was raised in the suburbs. I now have been in the city, Chicago, longer than I lived in the suburbs, but the burbs will forever leave a mark on my personality. My story through music does not come close to capturing the overwhelming amount of people and influences I was lucky enough to experience growing up, but I will try to answer this question through the lens of music. I grew up in a middle class neighborhood, but because of a divorce we were living the life of a lower income family. This caused my three older siblings to rebel something fierce but for myself and my youngest sister it made us cling to our mother that much more tightly. This was probably the genesis of my strange relationship with the word rebellion. Those early days were violent and chaotic yet nurturing, but also a great environment for discovering music. Part of my older brother’s rebellion besides dropping out of school, smoking copious amounts of pot, punching holes in walls, and drinking, was to play his music so loud in his room that no one else in the house could think straight. This drilled into my head the music of Black Sabbath, UFO, Led Zeppelin, Max Webster and Frank Zappa to name a very few.  When he wasn't home, my mother and I would sit next to the radio and listen to softer music like Cat Stevens, Arlo Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Donovan, and Roger Whittaker. The diversity of my musical inclinations was forged by the opposing forces of my brother and my mother. My second oldest brother could play any instrument, but had a passion for none of them. The initiative for me to begin to actually learn an instrument came from watching him easily pick up and play guitar. It ended up being quite a struggle for me to learn, but it started from his influence and then grew into a lifestyle when my best friend John Braun, a great musician, and I decided to form a metal band. The band was called Torturer, but I couldn’t afford a guitar so we didn’t get too far. I mostly watched him learn great guitar licks and pounded away on a casio keyboard. Many years later when I finally got a job at a movie theater, I earned enough to buy a guitar. Then one day I went to go see the movie Repo Man with my friend Matt Nelson, and the influences from that music added the overtly punk element that would lead to forming a punk band. Ben Foster then got hired at the movie theater and within a year we decided to start a band.

S: Osaka, Japan is calling your name, Mr. Pierson!! As of May 21st, you will be relocating to this destination along with your lovely gal Paige to take on a new venture in your career where you will be  working at Universal Studios through April of 2015. This is no simple process with you having to attain many steps in preparation to be there. What has been the most challenging part of it all and what do you look forward to most once you arrive, participating in a different culture?

JJP: Well… the most difficult part has been learning the script. I do not speak Japanese. About 85% of the script is in Japanese and I will be interacting with Japanese children and adults, with a script that has countless deviations depending on the personality of the selected audience members with which I interact. So there are thousands of possible scenarios. Universal has hired language instructors for us. I have been skyping with these instructors a few hours a week for over two months.  Paige and I are very excited about living as part of another culture. We are hoping to do as much traveling as our schedules permit. Plus I hope to hop on stage a few times with punk musicians living and touring throughout Japan.

S: Before leaving, you have been participating in many dates and teaching classes with your theatre company, The Neo-Futurists. You did already travel out once more to San Francisco and just finished a round of shows in Chicago last week. Give us some favorite moments in your life as a Neo-Futurist in 2014. 

JJPTeaching, the other track I could have followed to express my childhood story, is about as important to me as music. And this past year I was lucky enough to be given the space to create a new class with a fellow neo-futurist, Dan Ker-Hobert. He is a writer, performer and puppeteer. So we conceived and taught a class on the use of inanimate objects in theater. I could write a whole paper on that experience so I won’t get into it here. Also in the show Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, I got to do such fun and bizarre things in front of hundred upon hundreds of audience members as put on random clothes with strangers to the blaring sounds of No Means No, have an astronaut figurine crawl down my back and stick an American flag in my ass, I got to smash an orange on stage like a star gone super nova spraying citrus everywhere, create dance pieces with suitcases, and sing songs from God Spell very badly to uproarious applause and laughter.

S: I was also wondering, with the weekly switch out of plays in "Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind" and your many years being a part of it, have you kept a tally of how many plays you've written? Surely it's massive!

JJPI have written and co-written over 20 full-length plays and I can only guess as to how many short plays I wrote for Too Much Light.  I have probably written around 500 of them.

S: Jughead's Basement. This idea to create a podcast focusing on records in your own personal collection that have had a great impact on your own life has taken on quite the life of it's own! In the year and a half of it's existence, 12 episodes have materialized, and you've picked up quite a following along the way. It's a project that I'm extremely proud to have participated in twice and is always a fine way for people to learn more about something they treasure. I know it probably would be too difficult to choose only one, so name off some highlights from this experience that you've enjoyed most in putting these episodes together.

JJPYes, that is very difficult. All these records are important to me so they all have importance in different ways. But moments that come to mind are:
1.The Lillingtons coming through and helping me get an episode out on schedule by making themselves available for interviews and being extremely honest in their telling of their story.
2. The frustration of getting Jesse Michaels to talk about Operation Ivy, then the complete joy when he began excitedly talking about the meaning of his lyrics. That was pretty wonderful.
3. Getting all the band members from The Feelies to be interviewed and then being invited to their sold out shows at the closing of Maxwell’s in New Jersey.
4. The conflict between members in Naked Raygun but their complete willingness to talk about the band and their roles in it. That one was the hardest to edit, but one that I am most proud of the outcome.
5. AOD because… well because they are AOD, and underrated and incredibly kind, and funny.
6. The Queers is probably the most thorough I got with a band, and I was happy that I reached out to, not only the band members but, writers, engineers, and producers.
 I’ll stop there, but I could name something for each.
 7. Well then there is The Jazz Butcher, talking to my heroes from the early 80’s and chatting with David J. from Bauhaus and Love And Rockets.

S: Another aspect of the podcast I greatly enjoy is the personal openness you have during your interviews. One moment as example was during your interview with Cory from The Lillingtons on the "Death By Television" episode. He was talking about how being a musician wasn't something that came naturally for him and you related, stating it was quite the same for you. Tell me about your start as a guitar player.

JJPI started the story about playing guitar in a question above but I can add some more detail. Once I did get a guitar it was a struggle to get good at it. I just didn't have the inherent talent for musicianship. I can dance like a motherfucker, I have great rhythm when it comes to that, but my ability to keep a good rhythm the first years of playing guitar were a little less to be desired. I also played way too hard, and broke multiple strings every time I played. I had no interest in solos and didn't have the quick wrist movements to play them fast enough. (I blame this on my years of NOT playing video games. The constant finger pressing on a joystick is very similar to the quick vibrating motion of using a pick.) So rhythm became very important to me, once I got better at it, it was all I wanted to do.  My SW stance of extremely spread legs was a purposeful exaggeration of The Ramones but it was also the only way I could play fast. I learned to play with my whole arm instead of my wrist, and the quick movements would throw me off balance, and the farther I spread my legs the more control I had. And the fact that up until a few years ago I had more flexibility than the average person, allowed me to get very low to the ground. 
I started Even In Blackouts for many thought out reasons but one of the main reasons to start with acoustic and no drums was so that I had to force myself to get better at keeping rhythm.

    Photo Credit: Kelly Sullivan-Cappellini

S: 1986-2001... That's an amazing amount of time to dedicate to a band, also two and three times over how long a punk rock band can usually last!! Even with thirteen years gone by since your being a part of it, you continue to inspire people everywhere with what you did as co-creator of this band. No matter how much time passes, the punk rock universe is eternally grateful to you, respects, and will never forget your contribution. What does the Screeching Weasel legacy mean to you in present day? Is it something you still feel a deep connection to?

JJPI couldn't even lie and pretend it doesn't mean as much to me now as it did then. It was a baby I helped birth and then raise. Many years later there was a painful divorce and I lost all custody. But that doesn't mean I don’t think about it all the time and care about it’s every step. I’m not even exaggerating. That is how it feels.

S: In your preface of "Weasels In A Box", you talk about how it was mostly written during your travels through Europe, as well as having told me before about a similar situation of writing on the move with "The Last Temptation Of Clarence Oddbody". With you soon making a drastic environment change, can we hope for a return of John Jughead Pierson the Novelist?

JJPI could say I’m a renaissance man and I can’t be tied down to one art form, but I can also say I never really learned how to focus on any one task at a time. I have the idea for a new book called The Plight Of The Lampoons. The story of a cartoon family inexplicably appearing in a real life small suburban town and the struggles they go through understanding their situation and possible immortality. I've written a few chapters and hope to have it done before I die. Hopefully much sooner, I on the other hand am not immortal.

S: Screeching WeaselEven In BlackoutsThe Mopes! Your tenure as contributor to songwriting and arrangement is quite extensive so I would like to know, who of those three have given you the funnest experience in doing so? Also give me one "wow" moment from this history where you felt amazed by what was taking shape and being created.

JJP: Even In Blackouts, by far, is the best band that I have been in. Where it failed was in my inability to understand the right audience for it, and how to get them to listen to it.  Once the band became, Me, Liz Eldredge, Gub Conway, Nathan Bice, and Phil Hill everything fell into place. They were the best musicians I had ever played with, and they were the most fun to hang out with. Every time we played, whether for 3 or 300 people, it was vital to me. In those moments the band, and the people in it, were all that existed. The time together was spontaneous, exciting, emotionally fulfilling, and creatively challenging.
One of the most amazing incidences was when our ability to get a label to support us got worse and worse, the fans helped to raise the money for us to turn my basement into a studio and to record our last album by ourselves with Bice at the helm. Then we had a series of basement shows where people came from all over the country, and some from the UK, and stayed with us, helped make food, and drank with us all night and into the next day. You can’t beat that.

S: This past December you traveled to Italy at the request of The Manges for a very special occasion. It was the celebration of their 20th anniversary as a band and as a former member, you were included in the set they played that evening. Please talk about the experience of participating in this moment and the effect this band has had on your life! What do The Manges mean to you John?

JJPI really didn't believe it would happen. Mass, from The Manges, approached me many months before the performance with the idea of having all the guitarists that had ever played in The Manges to join them on stage for their 20th anniversary. There were five of us. It was all hush hush then. We began to work out details but the flights were more expensive than they had ever been before. After about a straight month of Mass and I searching flights we finally found one where I could fly into an area which Andrea, the singer, lived. He lives pretty far from the rest of the band these days and drives down for rehearsals. So it worked out. This doesn't sound so exciting, but I mention it here because everything with The Manges always seemed like a far-fetched idea, that eventually through our mutual cooperation, we would make happen. Both The Manges and I have shown a dedication to each other that far surpasses it being about respect for each other’s bands. Long ago it became obvious that we had forged a pretty meaningful friendship. I went into to debt buying a van to take them on one of their first US tours, then years later Mass bailed me out of a crisis in mid winter with no gas for my home. We do these things without a second thought for each other. There are hundreds of examples. Simply, they are important to me because there isn’t anything about them that ISN'T important to me.
Here is a three part blog post that may answer this question better… because it’s longer(click here to see).

S: Besides The Manges anniversary show, and a great performance at what is appearing to be the final Insubordination Fest this last summer with The Mopes, you also hosted two shows right in your own basement. The first being a warm up night before insub for The Mopes  and then this last September a show for your "Boys From Wyoming", The Lillingtons. I think one thing I really appreciate just looking in from the outside at who you are as a person is your lack of social barrier and absolute kindness with fans. When a lot of musicians at your level wouldn't be open to an idea like this, what makes you say yes?

JJPThat’s a hard question for me to answer, I think because I don’t really see doing it any other way. Music, theater, any kind of performance has always been about sharing, an experience, a fear, a paranoia, a heartfelt story, and for me the best way to do this is to try to break down as many barriers between performer and audience as I can, while still maintaining a performative nature. I had a basement in my house, and The Lillingtons were coming to town, and both them and myself wanted to have a show at my house.  Mostly because they had strong memories of staying here for a few weeks many years ago while they were rehearsing in my basement for a tour and a record. The same for The Mopes, we had to rehearse before the show at Insubordination Fest so Vapid and I figured we may as well have a practice show at the house. And then I was like… well then we might as well make hotdogs, burgers, and supply a keg of beer. That was great. The show was a hundred times better than our Insubordination show. We were on our own turf and there was no pressure. I have done many shows before this for Even In Blackouts. The whole idea of that band is singing along with our audience, cooking food, drinking and talking. To me there is no Even In Blackouts without that experience.  Even while I was in Screeching Weasel, I would spend all my time before and after the show in the audience, talking to friends, selling merch, and signing shit. It didn't matter to me, whether they saw me as a star or just a weird person roaming around, it was a pretty great experience.

    Even In Blackouts

S: There are many titles you've worn in your vast and still growing career. Book Publisher, Musician, Playwright, Performer, Director, Author, and Neo-Futurist. What are three moments as a result of these experiences that you feel the most pride for in your life?

JJPI often forget that I have gained a lot of knowledge traversing these multiple life choices. When I can apply this knowledge to helping others, while teaching, or chatting online, or talking after a show, that makes me feel good. This I must say should also imply that I DO crave the attention, or some amount of fame, but I feel that is often put in check by my need to actually relate to people as humans and not just as fans. I think what I gained from Screeching Weasel was the ability to go almost anywhere in the world and have someone there to show me around. I love to travel and this semi fame has opened up countless possibilities to visit cities, states, and countries I never would have imagined going to when I was a child living out my preteen and teen years in a small suburb. My instinctive choice to mingle between writer, performer, and director right out of college, with a few of my friends and peers has directly lead to me becoming a Neo-Futurist. This company has allowed me to write, perform, and direct practically anything I've wanted. Plus I get to once again travel across the country performing theater and teaching. I have plenty of pride for my work in Even In Blackouts but it is also tinged with huge amounts of doubt and pain. Sometimes I wonder if I’m the only one that likes that band, and perhaps at the end of the day it is only important to me, Liz, GubBice, and perhaps the Lipmans, and maybe that’s all right. But when talking about Pride this is the most tainted pride, far beyond any taintedness from my long time now falling out with Ben Foster. I will always be proud of the work I did in and for SW. EIB hits places a bit more personal, sensitive, and vulnerable. It’s the music where I got to share my thoughts put to music. It’s very small amount of acceptance in the music world irks me to no end. So yes, pride, but also disappointment in myself and in the cards that were dealt for that band.

S: With the many titles you've carried out creatively and many times spent as a recording artist in the studio, tell me would you ever consider adding on the role of  "Producer"?

JJPI love the idea of Producing! I always sat in on all the mixes of Screeching Weasel, and I co-produced all of the Mopes and Even In Blackouts records. I would gladly open myself up to producing for a band, I would just need some kind of financial compensation. It’s hard to spend that much of my mental and physical time thinking about a project, and I doubt I could take on any other work while producing. I would just want to have the one focus to make sure I did it right.

S: Give a look in your own personal taste as a music fan. What have you been listening to a lot of lately? Also, if you were forced to choose(I'd have to be made to do so at gunpoint!), what are the two records in your collection that you cannot live without?

JJPI have made an effort lately to listen to all the music that has ever influenced me. This is daunting but necessary and enjoyable. I hardly have the chance to listen to new bands. I go through phases where new music disappears from my life and then at some point becomes important again. I could live without music, I would just prefer to have all music accessible at all times. I will sadly refuse to name two records, even though I’d like to give you a satisfactory answer. If it were one record it would probably be Mary Poppins, that I could say for sure. Although I would prefer the movie along with it.

S: Time for your curtain call, Mr. Pierson! I want to say again,thank you so much for taking the time to answer these questions as I know any little breaks away from your many obligations right now are precious and few, and I wish you the very best of luck with your new adventure in Japan! Here's the last question of tradition with me as your interview conductor. Think about this band... Your first moments of hearing, maybe seeing, or even meeting them. This can also be as easy as a list of favorite songs/albums or a bit of everything. What is your top five for The Ramones?

1.  Ben and I spent a year taking a couple community college classes together. During the time driving to and from the College we really only listened to: the radio personalities Kevin Mathews and Steve Dahl, and The Ramones "It's Alive".

2. Me, Matt Nelson, and Eric Specht, in my senior year of high school, we used to drive around in Eric’s car listening to music and driving on the sidewalks running over garbage. On one occasion I can remember listening to I Wanna Be Sedated as we almost ran over a class mate who happened to be walking home from school… on the sidewalk.

3. I love correcting people who only know the surface area of punk when they say the Sex Pistols started Punk Rock. I love letting them know that The Ramones and The New York Dolls were two of the US bands that influenced those early UK punk bands.

4. New Years Eve 1984 we got stranded in the middle of an intersection during a snowstorm, we cracked a champagne bottle over the back of the car, sang Auld Lang Syne, deserted the car in the middle of the culdasac and then traveled on foot through the torrential snowstorm, where we ended up camping at a friends house and watching Harold & Maude and Rock ‘N’ Roll High School.

5.  Lastly my reoccurring memory is informing pop punk fans that The Ramones are NOT my favorite band.  I love them, they helped to create a style that has influenced the people who have influenced me, but in terms of punk influences and enjoyment for me I would put above them The Circle Jerks, Angry Samoans, Adrenalin OD, The Stooges, and Velvet Underground.

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