INTERVIEW WITH MARK STERN AND SHAWN STERN
INTERVIEW AND INTRODUCTION BY DANNY BARAZ
PHOTOS BY DANIELLE JOHNDRE
When I sat down to pick the brains of two out of three of So. Cal’s godfathers of punk rock I knew my job would be easy. I just didn’t know how down to earth these punk rockers would be. pulling no punches, Mark and Shawn Stern vented about the scene, politics, the evolution of punk rock and the back stabbers.
Start with your names and where you were born.
M: Mark Stern. I was born in Canada.
S: I’m Shawn Stern, and then there’s Adam. We’re all brothers.
M: He’s at work. He does animation and stuff.
“WE PLAYED PUNK ROCK BECUASE IT MEANT SOMETHING TO US. IT GAVE US AN OPPORTUNITY TO VOICE OUR FRUSTRATION WITH THE POLITICAL SYSTEM IN THIS COUNTRY AND THE ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL JUSTICE PROBLEMS THROUGHOUT THE WORLD THAT STILL EXIST TODAY.”
I want to talk about the evolution of punk rock.
S: Well, I can only tell you where we come from. We started listening to Punk Rock in ’77. I heard it on the radio. I read an article by Hillburn in the ‘Times’ when the ‘Pistols’ were coming to the U.S. on tour and I actually heard Elvis Costello’s ‘My Aim Is True’ on the old station KMET. We had a band in high school and we were just doing covers of Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith. KROQ was AM/FM back then and they started playing Sex Pistols on AM radio. Then we went and saw the Dickies play. That was my first punk rock show. We had been to lots of concerts like Aerosmith and Led Zeppelin and Lynyrd Skynyrd but those bands were playing in huge arenas and really didn’t have a hell of a lot to do with what we were doing. We saw the Dickies at the Whiskey and it was mind blowing. Actually, when we got to the club we were walking in the back door and this huge bouncer guy, they called him ‘Lurch’ because he looked like ‘Lurch’, let us in. I think we thought we were getting a deal because he let us in for $5. I guess the Dickies had a huge guest list but we didn’t know them. Anyway, the opening band plays and they were fucking horrible. (The band was called Vom and were fronted by this rock critic named Richard Melzer who was a fat old hippy and his band sucked. I read something where he said punk rock was about how anyone could get up and play cause it required no talent. I think he missed the point, it was that anyone could play and voice their opinions, but a fat hippy that couldn’t sing is not punk rock! Some people might argue that point with me!) Then this chick comes walking down from back stage. She smelled pretty bad. She looked like some French hooker, in her fifties. She was really skanky looking. She was wearing garters, and a mini dress and she started dancing on stage, which wasn’t very appealing. Then she proceeds to pull out a bloody tampon from between her legs and starts putting it in her mouth. Our friends are like, ‘This is gross! We’re getting the fuck out of here.’ I said, ‘Nah, just wait’. Then the Dickies came on and just blew our minds. For me, that was it. I said, ‘I’m not playing covers of any of these fucking rock bands any more. We’re gonna write our own stuff.’ That was winter of ’78. That was the show that the Dickies got A and M to sign them.
M: They all were back then..
S: That’s how it started for us and we had gotten into it because we were going to see all these rock bands that had nothing to say. They were just about sex, drugs and rock’n roll and making money. It was kind of like a lot of Punk bands are now.
It’s funny how that cycle repeats itself.
S: Once the corporations get involved they take out all the intelligence and dangerous elements and water it down. They create bands. Like that label Drive-thru records. That’s all they do. They keep producing the same boring crap. I heard one band ‘New Found Dorks’, they’re horrible, on the radio about a year ago. They were on their first big tour with Anti-Flag and Less Than Jake. The Anti-Flag guys were like ‘Who the hell are these guys?’ I was driving up to this gig at the Palace and I heard them on the radio talking ‘Who are your influences’? Uh… ‘Storm Troopers of Death’ and Blink 182.
Hey I like SOD!
S: (laughs)… New Found Glory and the Drive-Thru bands are just piss poor imitations of Blink 182, who are a piss poor imitation of NOFX. That pretty much set the tone, those bands that sing loud songs but might as well be the Backstreet Boys. To me somebody went and said, ‘Oh punk rock. The kids are into it. They found some good looking young boys, dressed them up in skater clothes…
Put some tattoos on them…
S: Yeah put some tattoos, some piercings, spike their hair, put a little color in their hair and wrote a few songs for them.
M: It seems every band that’s on that label seems to sound exactly the same.
S: So… there’s your evolution. Laughs.
M: Now you got a band with a little bit of the NOFX kind of sound, then they throw in that Rage Against the Machine breakdown and then combine all the popular elements of music into one song.
S: Yeah a lot of them were in high school when the ‘Big Hair’ thing was going on.
Tell me about it. I was in High School then.
S: Their big brothers or sisters might’ve been listening to punk rock, but they were growing up with Poison or Guns n’ Roses. Even though they might say punk rock is cool, that’s where their roots lie. You can hear it in their music. Their guitar playing is full of excessive annoying guitar leads and they sing stupid love songs. I never understood the hard rock/metal thing. A bunch of young boys standing in front of a long haired singer who is usually skinny and looks like a girl from behind, screaming in a falsetto voice.
What’s going on there? How did that become mainstream?
S: That became popular because girls got into it and then the guys went to see the girls.
What do you think the future of music is? Recycling?
S: It’s all recycled.
M: There are good bands like Anti-Flag. They’ve been around for like ten years though.
S: One Man Army is good, and Pistol-grip who are on our label from Pomona. There are lots of kids who are rediscovering the roots of punk rock and it’s great. We played punk rock because it meant something to us. It gave us an opportunity to voice our frustration with the political system in this country and the economic and social justice problems throughout the world that still exist today.
They may be worse today because not a lot of people are talking about it.
S: Yeah they’re definitely worse because you’ve got George Bush the ‘selected’ President. What happened in New York last year and what just happened in Bali is just going to keep on happening. There are too many people in this world who wake up and just don’t know if they are going to have enough food to eat or a place to sleep. Unfortunately, the people in this country don’t realize it but the lifestyle that we lead here is brought to us on the backs of people in poorer countries. That’s one of the main things that punk rock has been about – addressing the problems of the world. It seems like most bands now are all about makin’ money and singing songs like, ‘Everything is hunky-dory.’ Then you’ve got this new thing called ’emo’ where everyone just sits around and cries about everything.
S: Yeah! What problems do you have that your life is so bad? You live in America, where you don’t go to sleep hungry at night. How bad is your life that you have to cry all the time?
It seems like people really can’t be bothered by what’s going on across the ocean.
S: That’s why people are so blown away that it came here. We played with Circle Jerks a week after 9/11 and people were saying, ‘Tone it down Sean. Don’t say a lot of stuff.’ I didn’t go off about it because I didn’t want people freakin’ out. Then, Keith Morris got up and said, ‘What happened back East is a terrible thing but I’m surprised it didn’t happen a lot sooner’. It’s true, but people were throwing things at him. You kind of expect it. You can’t go around acting like the leader of the world and try to impose your political and economic will on the rest of the world and not expect that some people are going to be pissed about it. Especially when you know this countries greatest export is it’s culture, which is held up in front of the world like this is something you should aspire to. This is something that everybody, if you lived in a democracy like America could be living this life too, and it’s not true. It’s not true for most of the people living here and it’s certainly not true for most people around the world. Eventually, religious fanatics will just think it’s their way or die. That’s all there is to it. Those people will always prey upon young disillusioned people and recruit them to their cause, whether it’s Al-Qaeda or White Supremists or religious fanatics in Waco. It happens all over the place.
If and when war breaks out, it will spread globally, because sides will be chosen?
S: Hell yeah, they will.
What role do you think music and art will play. Will it be the same role they played in Vietnam, or do you think it will be more submissive? I haven’t really seen anything that’s in opposition to any government propaganda that’s been spewed.
S: There’s opposition but it’s a tense time because of what’s happened.
M: It’s pretty underground.
S: There’s been some rallies and stuff but it’s hard to get support after what happened last year. It’s still a touchy subject because people are pissed. They want revenge and it’s understandable. The fact is, if we go and bomb Iraq, we’re just giving the fundamentalists exactly what they want. You’re just saying ‘We’ll take the bait.’ All the Muslims that are sitting on the fence saying, ‘Don’t hate Muslim people because of a bunch of assholes’, just like we’re saying, ‘Don’t hate Americans because there’s a bunch of assholes in government that bombed your country’, and all those sitting on the fence will say ‘Well, now it’s war’. They’re going to choose sides.
They’ll choose to go with their family who’s being bombed rather than some ideal that they couldn’t even live up to anyway.
S: You’re right. It’s very possible that it could start World War III. People don’t want to talk about it. They just want to bury their heads in the sand. That’s what happens in this country.
M: People are just realizing how vulnerable we really are. They thought we were safe.
Surrounded by two oceans and two allies.
S: Where there’s a will there’s a way. It doesn’t take much to fuck people up, especially if you’re willing to fly a plane into a fucking building.
The most dedicated wins.
S: Exactly. If you’re going to take people out like that, there ain’t a lot you could do to stop it.
On a lighter note, what do you think is in the future for Youth Brigade? You going to keep the machine rolling?
M: We’re working on stuff. We’re just slow going.
S: We’re just busy. This is the twenty year anniversary for the label. It’s been such a busy year. People get so busy with their lives. That’s what capitalism does. It just works the idealism out of you so that you can’t make a living being an idealist and trying to fight against the system. You have to join it one way or another. Hopefully you can do it in an alternative way and you don’t have to work for some corporation and you can try and continue to fight. We managed to create a business out of punk rock but still maintain what we started out doing. We’re still trying to change things but we live in the reality of the business end of it. I’d much rather be doing this, helping friends, than working at some crappy ass job.
What bands including but not limited to BYO do you guys have respect for?
S: I still have a ton of respect for Fugazi. Ian’s still doing his thing. NOFX are good friends of ours. I have a lot of respect for Mike. He’s doing a great job with his label, Fat Wreckchords.
M: The bands on the label of course, like Dillinger Four. Pistol-grip is a good band with a lot to say.
Do you guys still skate?
M: Nah… we surf all the time.
S: We skated more when we were kids. Then we were in the punk rock scene so much. Like all those guys said in the last issue of Juice with Alva on the cover, skating is what you did when there was no surf. That’s how it was for us.
M: We were never serious skaters. We used to go looking for pools back in ’75. We skated some of those early pools, like the Keyhole and Dog Bowl. We were at half of those sessions. I was looking for us in the ‘DogTown…’ movie but I didn’t see us. I remember we would skate the pools, then when all those guys would come around, I’d tell them, ‘Hey, we found this pool. Come check it out.’ They’d get in there and Tony (Alva) would just start shredding. Then they’d say ‘ Hey, go for a ride’. I’d say, ‘I’m just going to smoke this joint. We’ll watch’. They just blew us away. They were doing shit that no one had ever done before.
S: The first time we skated with them we went to this place called ‘Deep Canyon.’ Marty Grimes went to school with us. His brother Clyde eventually went on to play in the Untouchables. We all used to jam together. Marty called us and we went up to Deep Canyon, which was a new development at the top of Benedict Canyon. It was all brand new paved streets, and at the bottom was a huge reservoir. Those guys were just going off in that reservoir. It only lasted a few months and then they put up pipes to stop people from skating.