“Yeah it’s a really heavy album on a lot of fronts,” admitted Pennywise founding member and guitarist Fletcher Dragge talking about the band’s fourth album Full Circle, released in 1997. “We wrote that album after Jason (Thirsk, bass player) died. The first thing we did when he passed away was to get in the studio and start writing that record and obviously, we were very angry. We were sad. We were confused and I think for us it was like therapy getting in there for six to eight hours a day with everyone bringing in songs and ideas and just hashing them out. There was a lot of yelling and stomping of feet, a lot of emotions because good feelings, bad feelings, sideways feelings… it was just our therapy in a way and when we would get a song to where we wanted it we would just keep beating it to death until it was right and then we’d feel a sense of relief, you know? It was a case of okay, now we’ve got that done let’s move onto another one so by the end of it we had a record that was played way too fast by Byron (McMackin, drums) because he was tripping and Jim (Lindberg, vocals) put a thousand lyrics into songs that only needed two hundred. I put way too many pick up notes on guitar and Randy (Bradbury) put too many bass lines in and we shoved it all in there and went into the studio and recorded it and we wound up with a record that was extremely difficult to play and had no radio hits on it and was just a top to bottom, rip your head off emotional rollercoaster. It’s time to break that out and dust it off twenty years later and come out there and see if we can pull it off live so it’s gonna be a crazy ride.”
Australian audiences are in the privileged position of being the first in the world to hear Pennywise honour this momentous record when the band tours here in November/December and Dragge concedes to feeling some nerves ahead of the experience, mainly because many of the songs on the album were not written or played in a manner that would see them easily translate to the live arena.
“We never thought we would play the album in full,” he laughed. “When we wind up in the studio writing songs for any album some of them are so difficult to play. You would think that because we are punk rockers and we play a bunch of bar chords, it would be easy but we do play fast, and we do play kind of weird, intricate stuff – although it doesn’t appear to be that way on the surface. If you’re a kid trying to learn or cover a Pennywise song – and I’ve seen a lot of bands do it – you can make it sound good but to do it the way it was done is pretty difficult. We had a lot of times where we would say fuck, that song is never gonna be played live because just getting through it in the studio is a task so we would joke and say we’re never playing that one. You’ve gotta play an hour and a half set every night so if you play those certain songs that are gonna blow your voice out or blow your elbow out or whatever you tend not to put them in the set so there are about five or six songs on this record that we never play and there’s probably two that have NEVER been played live so for us to go back and listen to those songs… trust me, I am tripping out (laughs). When I started practising these, I was like holy shit! I have no idea what I did here or why I did it, and it’s biting off a lot but at the end, it’s twenty years, it’s Australia, so we’re gonna get it done, and I think we’re gonna pull it off. It’s gonna be tough, but I think we can make it translate to the crowd as it should. It’s gonna be fun… and scary!”
Full Circle has been widely credited as being a defining album in punk rock history but while being humbled and honoured at the distinction Dragge insists the band themselves are blissfully oblivious to the influence it has had on an entire movement.
“It’s weird,” he shrugged, “because I think as band members we were very… I guess there are ego’s because we are in a band and you have to have an ego if you’re gonna be in a band, but I don’t know. We’re pretty far removed from actually thinking that we are in a band. It feels like we are just normal guys and that’s our job. Things like it being called a defining album, I don’t know. I never pay attention to stuff like that, but I know people like that album. I know it’s sold a lot of copies and I know there are bands out there who actually cover those songs – a lot of bands actually – and it’s one of those things where we are super honoured to have someone say that, but at the same time we are just about trying to put out good music that our fans can relate to. You listen to a song and get moved by the lyrics and can feel like that is part of your life, and I relate to that. Hopefully, we help people through hard times and commiserate with the world we live in and situations, and I think that is all we’re looking for and for someone to say that record did that… it’s pretty crazy. It’s an honour to have that title bestowed on us, but at the same time we’re just four guys who are trying to play music and get stuff off our chest.”
Dragge is one of three original members still left in Pennywise and looks back fondly at the era which spawned and influenced a punk band that is still as vital 29 years later as when they played their first notes in anger.
“I got into punk rock in 1980 and the first four years were insane,” he recalled. “It was awesome. There were shows every weekend. You had Black Flag, Dead Kennedys, and Descendants the list goes on and on, and it was just one of those things where it petered away, and I was just sitting around and thinking we need to do a band, so we have something to do on Friday nights (laughs). There was no more gigs and bands were breaking up left and right so I called up Jason and said let’s start this band, and the vision was to be in a band that would someday go on tour, and we weren’t gonna give up until we got in the van and left our city and played somewhere else and that was the goal. That was one goal of getting on the road, but the real goal was getting a keg of beer and playing backyard parties on Friday nights and making sure we had something to do on the weekend. That was first and foremost. We were bored, so we figured out a way to make our party and make our gig, and that was the birthplace of it. We would go around and offer to buy a keg of beer for someone’s backyard party. It was like if you supply the backyard we will buy a keg and play and that turned into a whole thing and before you knew it there was two kegs of beer because everyone knew they were gonna get free beer at this party and they were gonna get to see Pennywise play and that morphed eventually into a backyard party at the Whisky on the Sunset Strip with all of our drunken friends there paying for beer (laughs). We didn’t have a whole lot of big goals. We just wanted to play music and have fun. We weren’t ever talking about putting out a record, but that happened slowly but surely as well. We are just stoked to be here still 29 years later and have the friends we have.”
The musical climate of that era was vastly different, particularly in the world of punk rock. Punk bands didn’t get played on the radio, and the whole lifestyle and associated influences were frowned upon by the general public, but Dragge argues that that period of uncertainty and apathy was the perfect breeding ground for those who were unaffected by societal values.”It was a completely different period,” he nodded. “Punk rock was not popular, and a lot of glam metal and stuff was taking off. I remember a friend of ours saying why are you wasting your time with this punk rock shit? I will never forget them saying that I was wasting my time. I was like fuck you; we like punk rock. This is what we do, this is what I was raised on, and this is the picture I would like to portray. I think people that are in bands and don’t love and eat and breathe the music that they are playing are not enjoying life. I always tell bands first and foremost to play the kind of music you wanna play. It doesn’t matter if it’s popular. If you love it and it is what’s in your heart, and real you’re gonna be successful eventually. Just do what makes you happy and fuck the rest of them, so we stuck with punk rock and sure enough, that same guy that was saying we were wasting our time was eight years later asking for backstage passes and free beer so – it wasn’t the thing to do when we did it, but we were doing what we believed in, and eventually everybody came around and-and said fuck we like this, so that’s an accomplishment in itself. Years later when the radio was like hey, we’re gonna play ‘Fuck Authority’ it was like all things were fulfilled because we wrote a song that should never be on the radio and it becomes one of our most popular songs and it is true and from the heart and it’s real and pulling no punches. Now you have everyone and their brothers trying to get on the radio and have a hit song and be successful. We’re just trying to write stuff that means something to us. To have the radio and that whole commercial side of the industry accept us for who we are was a really good feeling.”