On the front of their forthcoming album, Never Gonna Die, we took the time to sit down with Pennywise guitarist Fletcher Dragge to discuss all things old, new, and what keeps them going after three decades together.
Controlling my fangirling wasn’t easy, but hey, it’s not every day that you get to interview your heroes.
Thank you so much for taking the time out to have a chat with me today, Fletcher. It’s definitely cool that you have because this is the first interview that I’ve done, and it’s really awesome that I get to do it with somebody that I’ve always looked up to in the music scene.
Cool! I’m glad I’m here.
So, obviously you’ve got the new album coming out, Never Gonna Die. I was lucky enough to listen to that a few times and it is a genuinely good album. It sort of sounds like you’re very much back to the rawer energy that you had on some of the earlier albums, around Full Circle and that sort of era.
Yep, I can agree with you on that.
It’s really cool to hear that you’re carrying such energy and still able to write music that’s really powerful in that way. This is the band’s 30th anniversary this year, correct?
Yup, 30 years we’ve been going at this shit.
(laughs) Did you guys expect that you were going to stick around for that long when you first came to be?
No, of course not. I think that we just, y’know, we started a band. I started playing music in 1980, playing punk rock and having fun. Just playing backyard parties and stuff, and then the punk rock scene kind of faded away. All the big shows we were going to like Black Flag and the Dead Kennedys and Circle Jerks – all these bands kind of went on hiatus the scene kind of died off a little bit.
My mindset was, “Well, I need something to do on Friday and Saturday nights, so I’m gonna start another punk band, and we can play parties and make our own gigs.” That’s kind of what we did. We got notorious for backyard parties around Hermosa Beach, where 50, 100, 200, 300 people were showing up and going crazy until the cops got there, and we were having fun with that. Then we thought, well, maybe we can parlay this into going on tour and leaving our hometown. We thought maybe we could get around California or something like that, but, 30 years later we’re sitting in a room today talking about going to South America, Canada, Europe, and it’s just turned into an unbelievable adventure.
We never expected beyond our wildest imagination or our wildest dreams that we would we would, one, be able to make a living, and two, make it our dream job for thirty years, and three, be able to go see the world and have these fans respect our music and relate to what we do. It’s been really awesome to be part of this ride.
That definitely carries through with seeing you guys perform live. I was really lucky last year, my big brother Josh, when you guys played the 20th Anniversary Show for Full Circle up in Queensland, he took me along to that. I’d never got to see you guys before, and just seeing how much enjoyment you guys seem to have on stage was really awesome to see. Even after 3 decades it looked like you were really, genuinely stoked with what you were doing, rather than doing it because it was an obligation.
Yeah. You see a lot of bands out there that are, y’know, we call it going through the motions. I think every day I get there, and occasionally there might be times where you don’t really wanna be out there or you don’t want to be on tour, and that might show, but, for me personally, it’s my way of life. It’s my therapy, getting on that stage and playing. It’s what I love to do the most in the world. Hungover, in pain, it doesn’t really matter. 3 people, 300 people, or 3,000 people, I’m gonna have fun out there. We’re at a place where we’ve been through a lot of drama with the band, and we’ve had a lot of heartache… bumps in the road… but I think we’re all at a place where we respect each other’s space and opinions, and we’re a little bit more grown up now. We can appreciate really what we’ve created here.
And I think the most important element is the fans that we have, whether they’re a 16-year-old kid that just discovered punk rock and is at his first Pennywise show, or a 45-year-old guy bringing his 15-year-old or 20-year-old to his first show. The fans just have this energy – especially in Australia – that energy comes off the band on the stage and goes back again, and I think it’s just the best feeling in the world knowing that you’ve created something that somebody can relate to and go, “Yeah, I feel you, I understand those lyrics. They mean something to me and I’m pissed off and I’m gonna go crazy and get it out of my system.” Or, “I lost a friend or a brother, and when I sing “Bro Hymn” I feel a different emotion.” Just being able to connect with people who think like you do is kind of like one big backyard party 30 years later. We’re super grateful to have our fans stand by us through all this crazy shit we’ve been through, and super grateful to be able to travel the world and do what we love to do and make a living doing it. Why would we stop now? Just keep going until we can’t do it anymore!
It definitely does resonate with me. One of the greatest experiences of that particular Full Circle anniversary show was the fact that you guys did play “Bro Hymn” as the closer, and this sort of raw energy that came out of the crowd, you could see that every single person there was resonating with it on some level. Even thinking about it now I’m sort of getting goosebumps, but just hearing every single person in a venue that’s packed to the rafters, just screaming the lyrics back at the stage… I imagine that must sort of be an incredibly satisfying feeling to have that.
Beyond. It’s beyond words. You can’t really describe it. Obviously that song was dedicated to Jason Thirsk, our bass player who passed away 20 years ago, and it’s an emotional album, Full Circle, because it deals with a lot of loss. We lost Jason right before that album, and obviously that song was dedicated to him at that point. Everyone’s lost somebody in their life, and you feel that pain, and when you’re at a gig and you’re singing “Bro Hymn” with us, it’s obviously going to bring back memories of that person that you lost, whether it’s a friend, or a brother, or a parent, and it becomes an emotional connection. It’s very rare in music when a song connects with people like that, and I’m not just talking about the, “whoaaa whoa oh” like a soccer chant, I’m talking about the lyrics themselves.
I’ve been brought to tears many nights playing that song because I’m thinking about my brother, or about Jason, or about our merch guy Ben, the list goes on and on of people, and it’s just one of those songs that has a lot of emotion, like you said, and to be able to connect with people like that. Whether you wrote a book, or you made a movie that people like, or you painted a picture, it’s all the same type of thing in a way, but for us it’s live and, y’know, in the moment right there. Every night’s different. The other night we played in Sacramento, and a guy that lost his brother… he was at a Pennywise show in Sacramento, on the guest list, coming to the show, and he lost his brother that night. He got the news and had to leave the show, and he was able to come to the show this time around and get up there on stage and sing “Bro Hymn” for his brother. That’s a big deal for him, his brother was a huge Pennywise fan. Stuff like that is really touching.
That is hugely special to have that connection. I think that’s possibly absent a lot from a lot of music, but it seems you guys have always had that resonance to a lot of what was going on around you. That comes through pretty strongly with the new album. It seems in some ways a lot more positive than what previous ones have been, it seems more mature in that way.
Yep, I see that for sure. We always try to put a positive spin on things and we always see the problems going on around us in the world, and I know when Jim’s writing lyrics, he’s pulling from a lot of different areas, and wherever there’s a negative situation, there’s room to repair that with positivity. We’ve always tried to, even if we’re yelling, y’know, fuck authority, which is a call to arms about people abusing their power, we’re basically saying, “Hey, we are taking back control. We can do this together. We can fight these evils of the world.” So there’s always a positive spin. But I think a song like “Keep Moving On”, it’s like hey, life’s gonna throw you a bunch of roadblocks and there’s gonna be good days and bad days, but you’ve gotta get up and you’ve gotta remember the good days. You’ve gotta go forward and you’ve gotta make new good days and fresh starts.
I’m all about not living in the past, trying not to hold grudges, and not really looking too far into the future. I want to plan a little bit, but, I could be gone tomorrow, so if I have the opportunity to do something fun today, and something that’s gonna be a new adventure, I’m going to take it every day that I can. Life is short, so I think you find some of that on this album. You’ve gotta live it right now because you never know when it’s gonna be gone. We’ve always promoted that message, and at the same time we want people to be responsible… but then at the same time we’re irresponsible… it’s kind of like, you’ve gotta find a balance in life.
You definitely do. Balance is really important.
We’ve got a song, “American Lies”, which is basically like, “What the fuck is going on in America right now?” People are just outta control, country’s divided, we’ve got a maniac in the White House, and some people think that’s okay. It’s not, and we’re going to yell about that, because we know that we can make America a better place. It feels like we’re going in reverse, so we’re going to talk about it. I’m going to do an interview about it, and tell you that. Australia’s a good example of a country that is doing it better than America, and I know that because I’ve been there many times and I’ve been to America many times. People say, “If you don’t like America, why don’t you leave?” No, I love America, I just don’t like the problems that we as voters are allowing to happen in America because we don’t vote, because we’re lazy. There’s more people that don’t vote in America that don’t vote. That’s insane.
We live in this democracy, our voice counts, and people are too fuckin’ lazy to get off the couch, and because of that, we’re letting the 1% run this country into the fucking ground. And here we go with this huge gun debate, and Australia’s been all over it and involved, and people are saying, “What happened in Australia when they did a buyback on guns?” Obviously, homicide by gun went down, and it’s like, we’re so fucked up we can’t even look at what you guys did as though it isn’t even a solution, because, oh we need our guns because if the Army comes after us we need to defend ourselves. Yeah, shithead, you’re gonna defend yourself with an AR15 against a Blackhawk helicopter and a tank?
The days of civil war on horseback with musket balls, okay, maybe you could defend yourself against the Army back in those days. This is over, they’ll drop a nuke on your fuckin’ ass! It’s retarded. The argument is retarded, and the bottom line is guns are dangerous. Certain types of guns do not need to be in the hands of American citizens.
I’m not trying to take guns away from Americans, but the assault rifle… fucking put it away. Get rid of it. Leave the home owner with a homeownerd a handgun. Won’t that be enough to defend yourself? You’re gonna hear all sides of it, and we’re gonna talk about living free and enjoying life, and we’re going to talk about the problems we see in the world, and we’re gonna speak our piece and hopefully someday, some kid who grew up on Pennywise and Bad Religion and the Dead Kennedys and Minor Threat is gonna be running America, or Australia, or wherever. Running the entire fucking world!
Somebody that was raised properly.
(laughs) I can’t wait. Being raised on punk rock is probably not a bad place to start, because it seems like it has always been a place that the disenfranchised have gravitated towards – it seems like a very active way to express that rage, and express discontent at these power structures that are massively unbalanced.
Yeah! You look music, and you have, like, gangster rap that was pretty much rebelling. NWA were rebelling against a system of oppression and police brutality, and that record was so fuckin’ punk rock, it was sick. You’ve got the Dead Kennedys, you’ve got Bad Religion, you’ve got Minor Threat coming with a more positive take. And then you look at Poison or Motley Crue, and you go, these guys are singing about fucking chicks and doing cocaine. Like, okay? There’s a place for that in society.
Then you look at country and western, what’re they doing? The Dixie Chicks tried to make a stand, and they got ousted from the music scene because they went political for a second. They denounced George W. Bush, right? Punk rock is the place where people with half a brain go to speak their mind and to fight against the inequalities that are created by the government system that doesn’t work for everybody. It’s working for the fucking rich in America, and it’s not working for the middle class and it’s not working for the poor. So, if you come up from a poor family or a middle class family, you’re probably gonna wind up listening to punk rock and trying to bring about some change and educate people.
If you grew up in the hood, you’re probably gonna be listening to some gangster rap, and that’s it. It takes all types of music, but I think punk rock is one of the most moral types. The message is moral, and it’s usually one of equality and peace.
even if we’re talking about tearing down the White House.
(laughs) I don’t think that’s necessarily not preaching peace, though. That’s sort of trying to disrupt the status quo preaches this ethic of disrupting peace to begin with.
Yeah, I can see that.
It’s trying to give the people that have basically just had it stripped away from them.
We live in a country that’s a democracy, yet, the popular vote doesn’t win the election! It’s insane! We stand by, “Hey, Hilary got 3 million votes more than Trump, and Trump’s president.” I mean, I wouldn’t have voted for Hilary anyway – didn’t like her, not into it at all – Bernie Sanders was my guy. But, the thing is, that we live in a country where we’re so uneducated that we don’t even understand what the electoral college is and how it’s devised to make sure that they can sway votes and manipulate votes. On top of that there’s another thing called gerrymandering, where they can move district and country lines around to help the vote as well. We’re not living in a democracy when the majority vote cannot win.
It needs to be done away with, these fucking old systems need to be done away with. Congress needs to be done away with. Term limits need to be imposed, because you can’t have a 70-year-old, fat old white man up in congress who doesn’t even know how to use a fuckin’ smart phone or a computer making fucking laws for 2018. It’s fucking absurd. Our kids are uneducated; they don’t know what’s going on. We need to change this system – tear it down and start it over with a fresh generation. Now, you have kids in America pissed off about these school shootings, and they are rising up and they are saying their piece and they are being heard. And now you’ve got the other side, the NRA, calling them names and making fun of these kids, and it’s like… how dare you. These kids watched their friends get massacred and they want change. The politicians are fuckin’ stupid because these kids are about to turn 18, and when they do, they’re voters.
The midterm elections over there are going to be pretty interesting.
If I were a politician, I’d be listening to these millions and millions of kids who are about to start voting, because one thing that’s going to happen because of Trump being such a maniac and this gun shit — these shootings – happening, is that more people are going to vote because they’re so pissed off about what’s happening that they’re finally realising, well maybe I should’ve got off the fuckin’ couch!
I guess that’s where Australia differs, we’re made to vote.
It’s important for us to talk about it in interviews and it’s important for us to talk about it in songs and it’s important for us to say our piece on stage, because that’s our platform to try to change the world and make it a better place. We’re just gonna keep yellin’ and screaming until the wheels fall off.
(laughs) Absolutely! And if you’ve got a platform, it does make sense that you’d use it to approach people at a grassroots level. It seems like in the modern world with the kids that are coming up and approaching adulthood now, there is so much more action then what there has been in generations. We’re sort of at the crest of the wave of a very interesting time in history.
It’s coming from social media. Social media is used as a tool to sell us things, but now, things are getting through the cracks and stuff is flowing both ways, bad and good. But, you have a lot of kids now that are a lot more aware, because kids don’t watch the fuckin’ news. They don’t watch CNN. They watch Facebook and Instagram and now when things start to go viral, you can now involve a 14-, 15-year-old kid when you could never get to them before.
Definitely. Kids are accessible in a way they never were before.
Change is in the air, the kids are the future of the world, and they’re getting smarter. They don’t like what’s going on. They’re the future leaders, so the adults better smarten up because the kids are coming for them. We’re gonna keep teaching the kids, and the adults, about changing the world as much as we can and what we think is wrong with it. And especially our country. We want America to be great, we just don’t want the Trump way of trying to make it great again… because he’s not gonna.
It’s sort of funny that you say that, because it seems a lot of people are so ready to jump on the, “if you don’t love it, leave” wagon. And it’s like, well… I wouldn’t be saying these things in the first place if I didn’t actively love it. If I was apathetic towards it, why would I want to improve it?!
I just had a big argument on Facebook with some people about that. And I try to be polite, but, it’s like… don’t give me this shit that I don’t love America because I’m complaining, and don’t tell me to leave America if I don’t like it. I’d absolutely love to live in Australia – I’d move to Australia in a heartbeat right now. I’d love to live in Norway, or Italy, or Spain or something, I’d love to. But I love America. This is my home, and I’m gonna fight for what’s right. I know what’s fuckin’ right.
That’ll be the punk upbringing.
Healthcare is not a privilege that only goes to the entitled. You don’t leave a mother and child dying on the street because they can’t afford it. You reach down, and you pick them up, and you fix them. You have the resources to do it, but these pharmaceutical manufacturers and these insurance companies and these fucking lobbyists that are running the shit, they’re taking a basic human need and putting a price on life or death. It’s fucking disgusting.
Greed is a powerful motivator.
If you’re complaining about America, you’re unpatriotic. No, motherfucker, if you’re not complaining about the wrongdoings of America, you’re unpatriotic. You’re okay with saying that everything is perfect and to leave it alone, when you know that it’s not right. We can look to all of these other countries that healthcare, and have good retirement for their elderly, and have good education to make their kids smarter, because smarter kids make a smarter country… don’t tell me America is perfect. If I’m complaining about it, it’s because I want to make it perfect. So, if you don’t like my complaints, you fuck off and you move the fuck somewhere else.
There’s sort of this weird connection that goes on between patriotism and inaction. It seems to be the loudest voices about patriotism tend to be the ones that are slumped there on the couch just idly consuming and calling people out all that they can.
Yup, idly consuming. They think because they put an American flag on their front porch, or they put it on the back of their pickup that they’re being patriotic. No, you’re not.
Teachers in America are getting paid shit wages. Who wants to be a teacher when you don’t make any fuckin’ money? And if you don’t have good teachers, you don’t have smart kids. And if you’re not putting your kids into college, then you don’t have smart kids. So where does the dumb kid go to work? Wal-Mart, Taco Bell, and McDonalds. These huge corporations are making sure our kids are not educated, so they can only go get a shitty, minimum wage job at Wal-Mart and live in poverty. And guess where they eat? Taco Bell. And they shop at Wal-Mart. They can’t go out to a nice restaurant. The rich and powerful have figured out a way to keep the American kids uneducated, and they’ve created a new slave race. Send it over to China, get it built over there by children who pollute the air and water, bring it back, pay some uneducated kid in Ohio $9 an hour with no fuckin’ medical benefits to work here and sell that product to people who can’t afford to buy shit at a nice store. It’s a vicious cycle. People need to wake up.
You don’t just put the American flag up and you say, no, America is not great and here’s why. You educate yourself and you try to invoke this change to make this country better and make it great like it used to be. It’s a tough battle, but we’re still fighting it.
It seems like it’s going to possibly be an unending battle, but, it seems like the message that you guys are trying to carry with this album is very much one of, effectively, calling on yourself to do better and trying to initiate change and positive influence through that crystallisation of yourself and the ways that you can improve.
Yeah. I mean, for me, I was growing up listening to Black Flag, obviously from my own back garden in South Bay, they were like, fuck everything, tear it down, I just wanna die. And I was just like, yeah, that’s kinda how I feel. And then I listened to some Dead Kennedys, and I got a little bit more, hey, this is political! And then you throw some Minor Threat in there with a more positive approach at how to make your life better and how to make yourself better, and I start taking all these sources of information through music and I’m like, well, nobody really taught me this in a book, I didn’t learn this in school, but these guys are teaching me, and I can understand what they’re saying.
Kind of how it was for a lot of kids.
I took that and tried to turn myself into a positive influence from that. I’m not perfect… I’m still a maniac, I still like to have a couple too many alcoholic beverages and break shit, but, I try to do some good shit too, and I try to make music that is hopefully gonna make the world a better place someday. And we already know that it’s working because we have thousands of people telling us, “You saved my life. I got through really hard times. I was gonna kill myself and I put on a Pennywise record.” Like, thousands upon thousands of people have said shit like this to us. Personally, in emails, in letters, and you know you’re doing something right because of that.
Like I said, we’re not perfect, and I know we make mistakes. To take these things that I learned from bands like Minor Threat, and bands like the Dead Kennedys, and to implement that in my way of life, and to duplicate that through the music we create with Pennywise is pretty cool. We’re kind of like educators in a way. And we’re kind of like world leaders. You can literally ask a kid who the singer of Metallica is, and he’s gonna tell you James Hetfield. And then you can ask them who’s the vice president, and they don’t fuckin’ know the answer! Ask them what’s congress, what does it do and they’re like, what are you talking about? I know Facebook, and I know who Eminem is? So, we have a responsibility as songwriters, especially Jim, to try to educate people properly, and try to pass on good information that we’ve learned. Like Jim always says, be cool and leave the world in a little bit of a better place than when I came into it. I couldn’t agree more.
Absolutely. And it seems that the areas that you guys came from, in the South Bay area of California was a very fruitful area when you guys came up in that regard… with bands like Descendants and Black Flag and those sorts of guys, and even 98 Mute with Jason’s brother Justin – these bands that are carrying a similar overall message to you guys, and you can’t help but feel a lot of that drive and that positivity was sort of a product of the environment that you guys came up in. It seemed like it was a moralistic, “okay, well we want to do the right thing”.
Absolutely. We were in the hotbed of punk rock in the early stages, and it felt right for me. I didn’t get into any of the normal sports. I wanted to surf and skateboard in backyard pools, and I liked punk rock music. I didn’t like all the typical music that my friends were listening to, it just didn’t hit me. And then when I heard Black Flag and the Sex Pistols, it was different. It was like, well, I understand this. This has made a connection with me. And it’s really been a lifelong connection, and I was like, this is what I wanna do, this is what I wanna say, I believe this and I stand by this. I know it’s not popular and people are lookin’ at me like a freak. In those days, you were a freak if you said “fuck the government” or “fuck the police”. Y’know, cut your hair. You were frowned upon. Now it’s okay – society has changed. Now you can have tattoos on your face and walk into a restaurant and still get seated. You can have a mowhawk. Everything’s been accepted, but it was through a lot of hard work and intelligence. People started realising, these aren’t just a bunch of dumb kids cutting their hair and screaming obscenities.
They actually have a message, and when you look into it, it’s actually true and logical and moral. We’re not like some fuckin’ gangster rap band talking about raping women and calling women bitches and killin’ people. We’re talking about, like, hey, fuck you, society’s broken so let’s fix it, don’t be a sheep. Follow your own heart and your own dreams. I think what we’re doing and what a lot of bands are doing is respectable, and we believe in it, and we’re passionate about it so we’re going to come out on stage and bring it to the audience. You can tell who’s being real and you can tell who’s being fake, and I think Pennywise fans realise that we actually believe what we’re doing, and that’s why they’ve stuck by us for 30 years.
And hopefully they’ll stick by us for another 30. Although I’ll be pretty fuckin’ old by that time. Might be in Vegas by then, so you’ll have to come see us in a bar lounge, but hey. If I can do it, I will be.
I’ll definitely be there with bells on if you guys are still doing it after that long!
Thanks so much for the nearly 25 years that I’ve been listening. I listened to About Time going to sleep every night for about a year, so it very much shaped my understanding of music at the time in a lot of ways, so to actually get to interact with you on a personal level here has been really cool.
All good Ben, I appreciate the support.
I’m definitely looking forward to hopefully seeing you guys next time you’re back.
That’ll be good. Hit me up and we’ll drink a beer!
Sounds like a plan. Cheers Fletcher.
Interview by Benji Aldridge @norks