THE $WINGIN' UTTER$ ARE HITTING THE '90'S PUNK ROCK SCENE WITH A REFRESHING SOCIAL REFLECTION IN TUNE WITH BRITISH FORERUNNERS THAT FIRST SMASHED THROUGH TO AUDIENCES OVER TWENTY YEARS PRIOR.
BRETT GILWEE REPORTS.
JOEY MEDINA TAKES THE PHOTOGRAPHS.
MARCH 6, 1999
When singer Johnny Bonnel, his arm madly swinging about, suddenly emptied nearly a full bottle of Budweiser on me and half a dozen others stomping in the front row during frantic mid-song, I wiped my face, downed my own Bud, and thought to myself, "that's alright, this is punk rock."
Punk is dead for some, perhaps. The nihilist anti-establishment anarchy credos born from such bands like the Sex Pistols in 1977 England, their blitz on the rock scene finally providing an alternative to the oversimplified solutions of hippie sap fantasy, were quickly pigeon-holed and made manageable. Not only by greedy record company execs but, in many respects, by the burgeoning punk rock scene itself. Short cropped hair, mangled safety-pinned attire, and the "no future" attitude became as passe as the music conglomerate companies, like EMI and CBS, that attempted to control and exploit the suddenly new and untapped market for all they could. In just a few short years the punk scene would quickly taper off. Its high volume of energy and passion fading out after a brief but brilliant burn, and suddenly the cynics were right, punk was dead, outdated and old fashion for those who would look to believe in such notions. For some contemporary bands however, such as those that would find an audience agitated by self-absorbed record company produced rock culture icons with empty chorus, there still exists that punk rock core. The focus being the furious dissatisfaction with mainstream society and warped present-day economics that had made the punk wave possible to begin with. It would seem that the west-coast punk rock quintet, the Swingin' Utters, have embraced and communicate just that.
Although lately, 90's punk rock has shifted its course. Many of the most accessible "punk" bands have carried on and repeated the late '70's failings with naive themes of teenage rebellion and young lust. The most available tangents of the frenzied music today are found synonymous with "extreme" sports games, bubble-gum movie soundtracks, soda ads, and just about everything else that attempts to tap into the disposable income of the so labeled Gen-X counter-culture. To date, the Swingin' Utters have successfully avoided such pitfalls by simply stepping back from overextending means and remaining true to their primary medium, letting their music speak its own volumes.
Interestingly, the Utters nor are ones to point fingers at fellow artists. From the group's conduct to a tune like "Windspitting Punk", an Utters song that slams the hypocrisy of underground music labeling, it would seem that to become "corporate" does not translate into artistic compromise or personal greed, but rather presents an availability option for the band's music to those that mean the most: the fans.
At present though, one must still dig just a bit deeper for Utters product than commercial television, main strip billboards, and album ads found in highly circulated publications. Upon discovery however, one can truly find that late '70's punk rock roots have not been candy-coated and dulled, but are still firmly planted and absolutely vigorous.
For the Swingin' Utters, the early British punk influence is readily apparent. Guitarist Darius Koski's white loafers exactly resemble the footwear once worn by The Clash front-man Joe Strummer and lead singer Johnny Bonnel's spray painted shirt displays adoration for Clash self-made fashion and for influential bands and singers: Shane MacGowan, former lead of the Pogues, is painted across the front of Bonnel's button-up like an interstate road sign. From their high speed buzzsaw sound to the weight and well realized songwriting, the Swingin' Utters seem to live and express the essence of early punk rock through and through at a time when the scene urgently needs such smarts.
Pleasantly absent from the Utters' songwriting are the shallow hackneyed punk themes of mere blatant anarchy that protest all forms of authority without much in the way of serious contemplation. Much of the Utters'
music, a large portion written by Koski, although not explicitly Socialist, is instead driven by intellectually composed lyrics that express a lost individualís pent-up frustration, dissatisfaction, and at times, a depressing but always keen awareness of social class structure and its means toward exploitation. Disillusioned with aspects of management including current government, the songwriting seems to explode forth from the heart of a laborer not necessarily alienated but hopelessly trapped within the greater vocational workings of that which inevitably will tire and drain the passion for life. Much of the earlier songwriting in fact seems to express a nostalgia for younger innocent views, daydreams, fancy, and simple solutions that are found no longer possible while rooted firmly in the real complicated workings of the world. In a word, there is hurt. But for all its pessimism, the songwriting does at times yield to brief moments of inspiration and the empowering oneís own destiny. Dissatisfied and disappointed for the most part however, the Utters' message represents the candid wounded voice of early punk rock and the struggles it has always sought to maintain.
With a clear direction from the very beginning, the Swingin' Utters are in no way newcomers to the underground scene. The original group, which included Bonnel, drummer Greg McEntee, and former bassist Kevin Wickersham, started out nearly eleven years ago as a cover band in Santa Cruz, playing house parties, small gigs, anything they could.
"We did Clash covers, we did Sham 69, anything, you know," Bonnel says when speaking of the band's former years. "Early British punk rock we were totally in to, Buzzcocks, all that stuff."
By the early '90's the Utters found themselves as a full outfit with the addition of guitarists Max Huber and Darius Koski and a new home, the city of San Francisco. Fresh to the completed ensemble was Koski's reflective songwriting as well as at times an almost folk-like sound. A trained violinist, Koski employs traditional instruments like the accordion on many tracks on both previous and the most recent albums. Sighting the Utters' influences as stemming from both the early British and American punk sounds, Bonnel claims that traditional music born around the U.K. region, such as Irish drinking ditties, have also played an influential part on the band.
"We realize weíre not the greatest musicians, you know, we're pretty much amateurs," the lead singer modestly comments. "Don't get me wrong, I think they blow doors on a lot of bands, you know what I mean? I think they're great, [although] you know, I hear them sayin', 'I'm not that great', but we can do our own style our way and we know how to do it our way so, it works out you know. If you plug away at it enough it's gonna start sounding a little more progressive."
"Plug away" is what they did. Struggling in the early years, two of the band members toiling as bartenders, the Utters made music onto whatever means they could. Finally after a three year stint of short E.P. releases between the years of '91 through '93, which have since been compiled for a full length album, the Utters caught the attention of Rancid guitarist and fellow San Franciscan Lars Frederiksen who agreed to produce their 1994 release affectionately entitled The Streets of San Francisco. Soon after, the band signed on with one of the city's largest independent punk labels, Fat Wreck Chords, which has released both A Juvenile Product of the Working Class and the Utters' latest L.P., Five Lessons Learned.
Although now having completed tours throughout Europe with the likes of Rancid and others and having been booked on a Vans Warped Tour line-up, the Utters still do play bars and hidden-away venues that can pack in no more than fifty persons at best - and why not? It's just a place like Al's Bar, a joint which is quite possibly infamous to just about all live music fans but the L.A. punk rock community, where the Utters can feel at home.
Al's Bar is a dive tucked away downtown on South Hewitt Street that sports "archaeological-quality" graffiti on its ceilings and beer stained walls and a dwarfed stage that sticks the performing musicians right in your face. But fans don't come here for the smashed bathrooms or alleyway smoking "patio". Al's gives off an air of a house party space or a generous sized garage bash where one can strike up a conversation with performers over a cheap beer. Absent are the sharp-eyed bouncer heavies or the arrogant restrictions placing fans and the band in different worlds. As much as I could tell, the "dressing room" consisted of merely an adjacent space to the stage area that was packed only with guitar cases, drumming gear, and amplifier equipment. As for the Utters before their set, they were not hidden away in some exclusive room like some self-proclaimed rock gods, they were leaned against the walls, sitting amongst friends in booths, and generally hanging out with the fans, rapping about their music, the scene, or whichever came up.
After a brief introduction with Max, I speak with Greg about the possibility for an interview after their set. "Oh yea, anything for the fans," he tells me as if it was a well rehearsed creed, but to his credit the drummer's attention is elsewhere: he is eyeing a gorgeous Bettie Page look-alike in a leopard print bodysuit who is leaned up against the bar. "There's a lot of hot girls here," he observes, and with that a slick McEntee boldly walks over and introduces himself.
Off again to buy my partner and I another round of drinks, I notice that the Utters' new bass player, Spike Slawson, although heavily sauced, is playing fooze-ball with two burly punk rockers equipped with studded jackets, pointed hair, and the original Clash release T-shirts. "Quite a difference" I think as I visually contrast Al's with Sunset Strip's Whisky 'a Go-Go where I had seen the band play only a few months prior. But the refreshing accessibility cannot be attributed solely to Al's small space, the Utters carry the attitude around with them, making it clearly obvious that their fans are everything.
After a brief but excited set of sweat, sing-alongs, random fanzine camera flashes, and spilt beer, Al's finally begins to empty out just after 2:00 A.M. on this Friday night in early March. While the other band members load up their equipment into the van, I sit down for a good while with lead singer Johnny Bonnel and do my best to forget about the 20 oz. cups of Samuel Adams and bottles of Budweiser I've put down throughout the evening.
Sometimes known as Johnny "Peebucks", in reference to a time when Bonnel attempted to hand a Taco Bell cashier a soiled dollar bill after a late night drinking binge while camping with friends. "Have you been swimming," the cashier asked of the wetted dollar, "nope," Johnny replied, "I just pissed my pants."
The first thing I'm struck by about the matured Bonnel at present however is his sudden certain change of disposition. Just ten minutes prior, the singer was affectionately crossing his arms in expletive gestures to the howling crowd packed in at Al's while leaning back and forth over his microphone stand as he belted out lyrics. As he sits with me now on the edge of the stage however, it's apparent to me that this frenzied vocalist has assumed a completely opposite nature: he is calm, composed, and collected under his black wool coat which seems to almost hide the punk rock temperament within. Though perhaps the man has a lot on his mind at this very moment, such as a worried wife and a newborn daughter awaiting his return in a hotel room in the city. Anxious to get back to his family, this 31 year old father admits to me just like every new dad with a child, "I don't get any sleep anymore."
I begin the interview by discussing some of Bonnel's major influences in which he counts the band's lead guitarist, Darius Koski, as one.
"[Darius] writes his own songs and he never asks me, 'cause he's got it down, do you know what I mean? I always ask him for input," Bonnel says of his close friend. "When I sit down and try to write songs I think, 'what would Darius write?' He's always got weird shit it's almost like fuckin' Elvis Costello."
A bit later in our conversation I bring up Bonnel's artwork, one of his early pieces having been used for the outer sleeve on the Utters' More Scared compilation. Anxious to discuss his personal work in which he usually employs graphite on butcher paper, Bonnel tells me that he first picked up his craft during his college years, drifting between San Diego State, San Jose State, and a local Santa Cruz community college. Although now experimenting with linoleum cuts for the cover of the Utters' just completed E.P., Brazen, due out mid-June, Bonnel's graphite work seems to perfectly visually express the quite somber mood found in much of the band's songwriting.
"That's mostly what I draw is progressive stuff like old working class looking, almost depressing," Bonnel remarks in reference to his black and gray More Scared piece which depicts portraits of middle-aged laborers. "But a little bit like, 'what are you looking at' type pictures of 'em. I wanted it to be portrayed like they just got a picture taken of them, and they're like, 'why are you takin' a picture of me?' You know, 'what am I doing, I'm standing in line'."
When I ask Bonnel about the jobs he worked in the early years just to keep himself and the band alive, this singer who knocks out lyrics on stage to such Utters tunes like "Petty Wage" and "Tied Down, Spit On" has a surprisingly inspirational outlook.
"I was always taught to work as hard as you can and, the rewards for what you do, makes you feel like a king, you know what I mean? If you work hard for what you do and you get money for what you do, you feel great. That's the bottom line. I mean, it doesn't matter if it's a shit job 'n' shit pay, I mean, I always feel fuckin' awesome when I get the paycheck, you know, it's like I worked hard for this, I deserve it. You don't feel like a fuckin' creep or a thief, you feel like, you've worked hard for what you've done, so, I took that into everything."
Indeed, and after an almost eleven year haul, Johnny Bonnel and the rest of the Swingin' Utters have the rewards of a generous and profound body of work to look back on which continues, as they still do, to make an impact with punk rockers and music fans across the board.