"I'm constantly ratcheting up and turning back down the Ben Weasel act."

Screeching Weasel may well be known as a seminal Chicago pop punk band but frontman Ben Weasel is just as well known for being as outspoken and self-assured as they come. Big Cheese talks to him about “people talking shit”, “the Ben Weasel act” and why he likes Sarah Palin…

On Screeching Weasel’s 25th anniversary this year…
“It's pretty cool. We were split up for a little over 11 years of that time which I think helped. It sucked that we kept splitting up but I burned out doing things the way we did them.”

On his influences…

“I was a huge Ramones fan. I decided to start a band after seeing them play in 1986. I thought they were the best rock band of all time. I still do. At the time I listened to a lot of the SST stuff. I liked Black Flag almost until the end. I liked the way they dissed punk rockers. We all listened to more hardcore then. I was young so I bought records every week after I got my paycheck. I was into music enough that I'd give anything a chance. I listened to some college radio to hear new stuff. I still listened to some metal, and my car stereo was set to the oldies station. But mostly I listened to as much new punk music as I could afford to buy.”

On Screeching Weasel’s seminal 1991 album ‘My Brain Hurts’...

“‘I knew ‘My Brain Hurts’ was going to be a great record. It was the first batch of songs I'd ever written where everything I'd wanted to do and kind of occasionally come close to doing with my song writing finally came together. I'd somehow figured out how to write songs during that time between ‘Boogada’ and ‘MBH’ even though I didn't really have anything like an active band at the time, or any prospects for putting one together.”

On tumultuous relationships within Screeching Weasel over the years…
“I think it all comes down to my outlook and approach. I don't know if that approach helps creatively but it definitely helps performance-wise, whether it's on stage, in the studio, or even doing an interview. I'm constantly ratcheting up and turning back down the Ben Weasel act. The advantage to that is that people always talk about you. I'd much rather have people talking shit than saying nothing. Getting no reaction at all is my worst nightmare. I've never had a nightmare about being booed off the stage but I'll dream about an audience just standing there or quietly filing out, and I'll wake up in a cold sweat. That's probably why I started crowd baiting in the first place.

“The downside to having a reputation as being a notorious curmudgeon is that sometimes people in your day-to-day life will take advantage of that to try to get things out of you. That caused a lot of problems in the band. When people use your public persona against you, it's going to cause problems. That's what happened when I moved on without Jughead - he tried to sic the fans against me by going public with his complaints about me. Which, obviously, only made it that much more clear that I couldn't work with him anymore. Those guys knew I wasn't my public persona but they'd sort of play it like I was sometimes. If any of them ever chose to blow off steam about me, they weren't going to have to look far to find a sympathetic ear. That caused a lot of problems – mostly for them, ultimately.

“But I'm not an easy person to get along with, nor do I want to be. I expect the other musicians to work hard, and a lot of them don't want to. I suffer fools badly, and most musicians are fools. I don't tolerate drunks. I'm loyal to a fault, and I expect loyalty from the people I work with. Most people can't handle being loyal to a guy with a public reputation like mine. It's easier to go along with the crowd. It's tough being in this band, and I like it that way. I want to work with people who have balls and brains and want to work hard when we work, but not be on the road constantly. It's not easy to find people like that. It's kind of a miracle that I've managed to keep any semblance of a band together.”

On reforming Screeching Weasel with Danny Vapid and the disapproval of founding member Jughead…
“We started talking about it at some point after I'd gotten the rights to the name and everything else back. We did a show billed as Ben Weasel where we played the ‘My Brain Hurts’ album. Jughead heard about it and sent Vapid an e-mail asking him how he could work with me, who he referred to as ‘that man,’ and telling him he was ‘very, very, very disappointed’ in him, because we went out and played my songs under my name. At that point I think we both sat there asking ourselves why the heck we weren't just doing it as Screeching Weasel. If the guy's going to take the attitude that I oughtn't have the right to play my own songs under any name, why not just do it under my own band's name? If Jughead disapproves, ho hum. He's going to disapprove no matter what we do. If he really believes I don't have a right to do exactly what I want to do with my band, too bad - he's wrong. I can understand why he's upset. But to deal with it in public was a Bush League thing to do, and pretty dumb because I'll be damned if I'm going to let him peddle that storyline unchallenged. Although in a way I'm indebted to him for doing so since that's always going to serve as a reminder of the sort of thing that helped me decide to move on without him. He's a good guy at heart but he can be very selfish, and he can get petty and small when he doesn't get his way.”

On new album ‘First World Manifesto’ and writing the first new Screeching Weasel album in eleven years…
“I had a ton of finished and partially finished songs lying around, and lots of ideas. I keep a list of song titles that I can take from if I come up with a song and need lyrics or a title, and I'll also just sit down with a title sometimes and try to write a song from it. So there was plenty to work with. But I'm a glass half empty kind of guy so I was predicting gloom and doom. When the whole thing started coming together I was pretty surprised but really excited about it. This is a really good line-up. The guys work really hard on their parts and they're not afraid to go a little over the top sometimes, which is something that was always hard to sell to the guys in the old line-ups, either because they just couldn't play well enough or because they felt like they shouldn't do anything outside of what they perceived to be the constraints imposed by the band's legacy. I'd be like, "Guys, I'm the songwriter and I'm telling you, go nuts and if I need you to dial it back I'll tell you," but I just couldn't get through.”

On supporting Sarah Palin…
“I don't know if I'd say I support her politically. I had no problem with her being on the ticket with McCain. I figured there's no way she could be any worse than Biden, and I haven't seen anything to change my mind on that since. I backed McCain because he was a centrist - he's the first Republican I ever voted for. Palin is more of a traditional conservative so I doubt I'd vote for her in a primary. I don't agree with much in conservative politics. I prefer centrist candidates, the exception being that I won't vote for anybody who's not strong on foreign policy. I think history will be very kind to George W. Bush and Tony Blair regarding their approach to foreign policy in the middle east. Foreign policy was by far McCain's biggest strength and by far Obama's greatest weakness.

“I like Sarah Palin as a public figure though. She's a great performer who excels at playing the role of the heel, and I love people like that because I do the same thing, albeit on a much smaller scale. I don't agree with her politically on much, but she drives all the right people bananas. I think a lot of the animosity toward her comes down to people not liking how she sounds when she talks. Apparently a lot of Alaskans migrated from Minnesota and North Dakota so they have that same kind of accent. There are a lot of ex-Minnesotans around here so
I'm used to that accent and it doesn't bother me.

“I think the people who despise Sarah Palin are often the same people who despise middle America. I live in Wisconsin. I love it here, and I love the people here. I'm not friends with any punk rockers. The people I associate with are all normal people with regular jobs and families. They're like any other group of people - some of them are jerks, some of them aren't, and most are both. But I think there are a lot of people on the left who, consciously or not, hold regular people in contempt. Back in the 2004 election the term ‘Jesusland’ became popular with that crowd and I think that really says it all. For them Sarah Palin represents everything that keeps the country from being what they think it should be, and she's an easy target.”

On today’s pop punk scene…
“The pop punk scene is pretty fractured from what I can tell. There's no cohesiveness. It's much more clique-ish than it was in the ‘90s, probably because so many more people are doing it. I don't know if I have three top bands. I really like Sonic Avenues out of Montreal and the Steve Adamyk Band from Ottawa. My guitarist Drew plays in a great poppy band called the Sugar Stems. He also plays in the Jetty Boys, who are really good. I like some of the more melodic Fat bands too, like Banner Pilot and Smoke Or Fire. I'm not sure if they're even still around but the Briefs have some great tunes. I like a lot of the older people who are still plugging away too. The Queers have always been great. The Manges are better than ever - their last two albums have been their best ones yet. Chixdiggit! are another older band who seem to be getting a little more active again - they're terrific. I really only just discovered them so they're new to me. Kepi Ghoulie is as good as ever.”

‘First World Manifesto’ is out March 15th on Fat Wreck.

For more of this interview, look out for the upcoming issue 131 of Big Cheese, in shops next Friday (March 4th) and up for pre-order very soon.