POIGNANT PUNKS INTERVIEW
(Interview with Johnny Bonnel of the Swingin' Utters, at Al's Bar, downtown L.A., March 6th, 1999 @ 2:00 A.M.)
Interview by Brett Gilwee
Brett: You guys have been playing since '87, yea?
Johnny: More like '88, but we were a cover band and it was just me and Greg, and our old bass player Kevin.
Brett: And you love the Clash?
Johnny: Yea, totally. We did Clash covers, we did uh, Sham 69, um, anything you know, early British punk rock we were totally in to, Buzzcocks, all that stuff.
Brett: Because, I first heard of the Utters through the "Punk Rock Jukebox" compilation...
Johnny: The Cocksparrer thing, yea.
Brett: Is that kind of how you see the band's future, always mates, because they've played now together, what, fifteen years almost?
Johnny: Yea, but longer than that...
Brett: They've been playin' pub rock for days...
Johnny: Early '70's, mid '70's, so yea, I mean, that's a good twenty years, plus. I mean yeah, that would be great, but I don't want to be an old foagie tryin' to play punk rock...
Johnny: You know, it gets kind of pathetic after a while.
Brett: It seems your stuff has gotten a little faster, each time a round, the new album you know...
Johnny: We slowed down a little bit on the new one.
Brett: You think so?
Johnny: Yea, I think so. I think that there's some fast ones, but I mean, there's a lot of slow songs, mid-tempo, I think we tried to make it a little more mid-tempo.
Brett: It sounds to me that the songwriting has always remained strong, you know, Koski's solos have always been real tight. But did you have a little bit more money on this one, to kind of pull out that crisper hard hitting sound?
Johnny: Um, I think it wasn't that. I think it was that we were fortunate enough that Fat Wreck said alright, you're gettin' bumped a bunch of times out of the studio, take as much time as you need to make this album, and then we started takin' it for granted, but we were happy with what we had. This next one, the next one we recorded, we wanted to be quicker about it, 'cause it did cost a lot of money, and we're never gonna recoup for it. So, it was just a matter - we wanted to make a really diverse, mid-tempo, you know, fast, a little reggae song in there, um, folksie Poguesey sound to it.
Brett: Yea, I noticed you like the Pogues quite a bit.
Johnny: That's probably one of our main...
Brett: Darius' accordion.
Johnny: Yea exactly, he plays violin and accordion.
Brett: So, were kind of Irish drinking tunes influential a little bit?
Johnny: Exactly, exactly, that's probably one of our main influences is that type of music, plus, you know, the early British stuff, and the American, uh...
Brett: Because it seems as though some brands of punk rock today have gotten a little poppy, a little bit, a little bubble gum, you know? That's why I dig your stuff as well, you know, the lyrics too. You wrote a couple of songs for this new one, and so did Max?
Johnny: Yea, Max wrote a lot, he wrote like half of 'em.
Brett: Do you sit down and write lyrics in intense meditations, or you know, do they come in wads, or...
Johnny: Um, for me it takes so long to just start one song because I don't know how to play guitar really.
Brett: Lyrics as well?
Johnny: I do lyrics and music, but I play it on a bass, and uh, then give it to Darius and Darius puts chords to it. So it's more of uh, I need Darius to write my songs.
Brett: He's written quite a few actually.
Johnny: Yea he, he writes - he's been writin' shitloads he's got like a big cabinet of all of his songs.
Brett: Yea? Is he a big reader?
Johnny: Yea, he reads shitloads of stuff.
Brett: I've noticed that Darius has come up with some really deep, deeply personal songs, that are just amazing...
Johnny: He's one of my main influences you know.
Brett: I think that's what turned me on to your music a few years back when I started listening to you guys, because I definitely like to just sit, read lyrics and listen to the tunes, you know, that's a big thing for me...
Brett: You know, because that communicates to me a little bit more...
Johnny: Oh yea, definitely, definitely. Uh, and we realize we're not the greatest musicians, you know, we're pretty much amateurs but, uh...
Brett: Well, I don't know about now, you've seemed to really grow as musicians.
Johnny: 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, uh, you know, I hear them sayin' 'I'm not that great', but, you know, 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 soundin' a little more, progressive, you know.
Brett: Yea. So the early stuff, what were you doing during the early years to make ends meet and uh, keep the band alive?
Johnny: Just been workin', I usually just been bartending, I bartended for like, uh, ten years in Santa Cruz. Just lived on my own, and you know, drank at the bar I worked at. Max, Max worked at a bar too - bartended, managed a bar.
Brett: Because I've noticed that on a lot of the earlier songs on "More Scared" and your artwork on the back side...
Johnny: Oh yea, right.
Brett: You know, it's a great piece too.
Johnny: Thanks man.
Brett: Do you think you definitely have kind of a working man's mentality a little bit, did you feel cheated a little in the early days?
Johnny: Well, 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?
Johnny: If you work hard for what you do, and you get, you get money for what you do, you feel great. That's the bottom line. I mean, it doesn't matter if it's shit job, shit pay, I mean, I always feel fuckiní'awesome when I get the paycheck. You know, it's like I worked hard for this, you know, I deserve it. You don't feel like you're stealing from anyone, you don't feel like a fuckin' creep or a thief. You feel like uh, you know, you've worked hard for what you've done, so, I took that into everything. -- I also did a cover for, there's a band called the "Beltones".
Johnny: I drew a cover for their uh, new C.D. out, its called "On Deaf Ears", it's on TKO records, if you want to check out more of the artwork. I also did, there's an E.P. coming out of ours, I did the artwork for that, it's gonna be out in a coupla months.
Brett: That's great, do you do a lot of charcoal and stuff like that?
Johnny: It's uh, graphite on butcher paper, I mean, yea...
Brett: Does the artwork come naturally to you?
Johnny: I took two classes in college.
Brett: Did you really?
Brett: Where did you go?
Johnny: Uh, I went to a bunch of colleges then finally dropped out of San Diego State, uh, San Jose State, um, Cabrillo college which is local Santa Cruz, or a community college. And then yeah, I just kept pluggin' away at it, I've been pretty lazy about it, but right now, I'm really gettin' into it. On the new one I did uh, linoleum cuts, which are, you cut out, it's almost like wood cut, then you put black ink over it, and a bunch of paper on it.
Brett: And you have to cut into the wood, like carve it in?
Johnny: You carve, yeah, you carve out the pieces. Yeah, it's a new E.P. comin' out on Fat, it's called uh, "Brazen Head". I did the cover so, yeah, I'm totally into that, any band that wants me to do their covers...
Brett: You seem like a natural, the one on the "More Scared", uh, it definitely seems like kind of a somber mood, guys just getting out of a factory...
Brett: The guy on the left with the cigar seems kind of hardened, a hardened factory worker, and the guy on the right seems to express a little more nostalgia a little bit.
Johnny: Yea, it's uh, that's mostly what I draw is progressive stuff like old working class looking, almost depressing, but a little bit like "what are you looking at" type picture of 'em. I wanted it to be portrayed like, they got a picture taken of 'em, and they're like 'why are you takin' a picture of me?' You know, 'what am I doing, I'm standing in line.'"
Brett: It seems to come through in songs like "9 to 5" and "Petty Wage" and "Almost Brave", "Time Tells Time" even.
Johnny: "Time Tells Time", yea.
Brett: My Dad's a uh, actually a Union attorney, so I think I got a little bit of that from him.
Johnny: You definitely get very involved in them, it's very important, you know, workers rights are, definitely should be fought for, and withheld, and they're working hard for it, making a living, whatever that should be, right you know, 100 percent. Maybe not be like, you know what I mean, there's so many people out there, getting paid for doing shit, sitting on their asses.
Brett: Right, you need to look out for each other. If not, things get kind of screwy...
Johnny: Yea, exactly.
Brett: Management kind of takes over, makes the decisions. A lot of your songs are very inspiring too, on the "Sounds Wrong E.P.", "The Dirty Sea", songs like that. They are inspiring in the sense to break out and kind of do your own thing.
Johnny: Yea I think Darius, yea Darius wrote "The Dirty Sea". Darius, he's a really good songwriter, he's definitely one of my main influences. When I sit down and to try and write songs I think, what would Darius write? He's always got weird - it's almost like fuckin' Elvis Costello.
Brett: Do you guys write together at all?
Johnny: Uh, no, we're pretty separate about it, he 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 like, 'what do you think should go here', and everything.
Brett: Does the music come first?
Johnny: Uh, not for me, I don't think for him either, I think he sort of hums a tune in his head and sings lyrics to it and then, lays down the chords. For me it's always lyrics first and then, I try and figure out a song to it.
(A girl comes by at this point)
Girl: Excuse me I'm just looking to see if there's anything left here. Nooo, some broken drumsticks, nooo, water bottles empty, no, happy no.
(Darius approaches, still packing shit up)
Johnny: (To Darius) Alright man I did an interview with Brett, sorry.
Johnny: Sorry I didn't load, I did an interview with Brett here.
Darius: Oh, that's ok, somebody had to, ha-ha.
Brett: Sorry it's so late.
Johnny: (To Darius) I said some really bad things about you guys.
Darius: Well, it's all true.
Brett: It sounds like you guys have quite a few political influences to, um, whose idea was it to sample Martin Luther King on "Bigotís Barrel", I know you wrote that with Kevin.
Johnny: Yea Kevin, uh, I was like, "there's some medium in this, there's kind of like a weird jam session goin' on right here", Kevin was like, "let's put some sort of speech or something on it". And I was like, "yea, yea, that's good, something that sort of relates to it." Well, he got it from a library or something like that.
Brett: I was listening to the tune at home, and I was like, "hey that's 'I Have A Dream', so I downloaded it and read it over.
Johnny: Yea it's pretty gnarly isn't it?...
(my buddy Joey says hey at this point)
Brett : What happened to um, I read an interview with Max, and he said that uh, a guy was going to do an 8mm film with you guys, a documentary?
Johnny: Oh yea, uh, his name's Ethan Minsker, uh, he lives in New York, he's been friends with the band for ages, Max more, childhood friend. But uh, yea he wants to follow us on tour and uh, and do merchandise for us and do a documentary while we tour.
Brett: And you're going to wait 'till you headline on that?
Johnny: Um, not necessarily, we're doin' a "Plea for Peace" tour which is like uh, you know, an anti-racist action, that type deal, with a band called the Skatalites. And you know, punk bands.
Brett: Whose organizing that?
Johnny: Um, I'm not really sure, but, uh, it goes all over the States, that's going to be in April and May, or, yea, all of May and June, a little bit of June. And uh, we're gonna go out with NOFX for ten days too, so that will be pretty cool.
Brett: How would you feel about a film on the Swingin' Utters?
Johnny: It would be awesome, I'm um, I'm just, uh, pretty nervous about it, you know? To be filmed the whole time you tour. It's pretty fuckin' boring to tell you the truth, I don't think it would be that exciting but, I don't know, maybe he can make something out of it.
Brett: I'm suddenly thinking of the film "Rude Boy". Is that a favorite with you?
Johnny: Yea, it's interesting, it's pretty cool. I mean, I'm a huge Clash fan so anything I see with them I go ballistic, I'm like, "fuck that's gnarly". But a lot of that stuff though they re-did, you know, re-shot - re-did some of the sound. I don't know if you read the book Last Gang In Town but they re-did the live sound for one of their songs live and they watched the film as they recorded it, live, and when he goes away from the mic, he goes away from the mic. They re-created the sound, it was really gnarly. But itís funny that they re-created it, even guitar fuck-ups like you'll see Mick Jones look down, and then they'll play it that way, like they'll really fuck up.
Brett: Are you comfortable being on film? Because I saw the Fat Wreck Chords video compilation and you guys seem like you're really angry and you weren't talking to the camera. Were you goofing around a little bit?
Johnny: Oh yea, he told us, he's all, "don't say a word". That was just a joke. He was all, "look off in this angle".
Brett: But you look so serious.
Johnny: Well that's what he told us to do. When you see Max, Max is like smiling.
Brett: It looked like they just tried to insert the recorded song over the live footage.
Johnny: Yea, it's totally thrown together. We were like, "fuck, we don't want to make a fuckin' video, just film us live and try to keep the words to it". It's a little off.
(At this point Darius starts honking outside in the van)
Johnny: I gotta go.
Brett: Hey, thanks Johnny, that was great.