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Interviewed by Jim McDonald


At the age of seventeen I was introduced to the music of Screeching Weasel. Their snotty Ramones influenced punk soon became a favorite, and remains steady listening some fourteen years later. Band leader Ben Weasel has become something of a punk icon. Aside from Screeching Weasel he has released two solo albums, and authored two books, several magazine articles, and a very amusing blog. I had the opportunity to speak with Ben concerning his new album "These Ones Are Bitter", the stellar backing band he put together for this release, digital music and religion.

Jim McDonald: How are you today?

Ben Weasel: I'm good, how are you?

JM: Quite well, thanks. I got the audio stream of "These Ones Are Bitter" and wow, that's a good album.

Ben Weasel: Well thank you!

JM: How did you put together the backing band for the new album?

Ben Weasel: When we came out with the Screeching Weasel best of album in 2005 I was doing cuts for that and AP did an interview where Mike Kennerty of All American Rejects interviewed me. I guess they do a feature where somebody in a band goes and interviews an old guy in a used to be band. One of the questions he asked me was what are you doing musically, so I said give me your phone number, I'll call you and talk about it. At the time my intention was to put together the new album and I had gotten frustrated with trying to perform and sing and put together a new band. The band I had been playing in before that had been an abject failure in every which way so I thought what if I wrote a new album and basically form a collaboration where I had fourteen songs and I got fourteen different bands to do the songs, but it's a new album of new material. I thought that would be kind of neat, cause it's so hard for me to put together a band. It's so frustrating.

My intention had been to ask Mike if the Rejects would like to do a cut. He said they'd do that but he wanted to hear some of the songs. So I sent him a bedroom demo and he picked a tune and said he liked it and that he felt I should do it on my own and that he'd like to produce it. It kind of snowballed from there. The short story is that he demoed one of the tunes and he did such an amazing job that it became apparent that if he was on board as guitarist and producer and was helping out with arrangements that worse case scenario we'd have a very, very good album and possibly a great one. He recommended his friend Chris from the Rejects as drummer, and from there I some how ended up with Dan (Andriano of Alkaline Trio) on bass. Again, that was threw Mike as well. I'm originally from Chicago, but I'd never met Dan. To this day I've never met Dan. He tracked his parts himself. I've corresponded with him by email and he seems like a very nice guy and of course he's incredibly talented.

I ended up with a situation where by far, with no disrespect to anyone else I've worked with, but in my opinion I had by far the most talented group of musicians I've worked with to date. Not just talented in being good at their instruments, but talented in a creative sense. That's a big thing. I worked with some talent people in Screeching Weasel but they didn't have a lot going on creatively, as in here's a good idea for this part. It was always pretty straight forward. So I had these guys interpreting my songs from a really different perspective and I think it really worked out for the best. I mean, there's kind of a new take on my songs, and yet they're still my songs. They're definitely mine, but it doesn't really sound like anything that's come before. I think that's a pretty amazing achievement because I've been doing this for twenty-one years.

JM: The first thing I thought when I heard the first track on "These Ones Are Bitter" was wow, this doesn't sound like a Screeching Weasel album.

Ben Weasel: And yet it does in a weird way. I agree with you, but I don't think it's such a big difference that it's like night and day. It's not so radically different there's not a sense of familiarity because it's still me and it's still my songs. Ninety-nine percent of the Screeching Weasel songs were written entirely by me. I think it's impossible to not have that element there and I had no intention of sitting down and saying I want to write something that doesn't sound like Screeching Weasel. I just said I'm going to take my best songs and put them on a record. In many ways it doesn't sound anything like it, but it's not so far removed from it, I hope.

JM: The melodies are familiar, as are some of the guitar lines, but what really struck me as different was the production. There are so many layers of instruments. It sounded a lot more finished than any release I've heard from you in the past.

Ben Weasel: There's a really, really simple reason for that. We had the time. It's as simple as that. That's not the only reason. Part of the reason is what I said before. Mike threw himself into this body and soul and just poured everything into this. He was very meticulous and spent a great deal of time coming up with these parts and layering them. You're exactly right. What you're hearing when you listen to it, well you'd probably have to listen to it in a professional studio with a well trained ear to hear all the parts and all the stuff that's going on on it. There are layers upon layers of stuff going on there, and it was actually a really tricky record to mix

I don't even know how many albums I've recorded, but it all that time, even at my best when I really prepared I never, ever, ever had the time to do all the things I wanted to do and to do them the way I wanted to do them because the money wasn't there. Studio time costs money. Also, I was working with people most of the time who I could barely drag to the practice room once a week. I know there are bands who work like this, but I have never in my life been in a band where I could sit down with all the members in a room and be like here's the tune, let's figure out the arrangement. Let's talk about the riff. Let's figure out what you guy who is really proficient on drums or guitar or whatever can do here.

I couldn't do that because for a lot of the time we weren't talented enough, and I absolutely include myself in that. But what I don't include myself in is that we had people who just weren't willing to work It got worse and worse, especially in Screeching Weasel, as time went on. Toward the end of Screeching Weasel members came in who really wanted to work, but they weren't very creative minded. It was no fault of their own. They would bust their ass, and that was great, but for many many years I worked with people who either weren't creatively inclined and couldn't do the creative work, or they just didn't want to. So the combination of working with people who weren't interested in making the greatest record ever, and even if they were the money wasn't there to do things.

This time we started with a budge of zero. It was by far the worse situation I've been in, but we lucked into a bunch of free studio time. Like somewhere in the neighborhood of five weeks of free studio time, and every second of that was used. And as I said, Dan tracked his bass parts in his practice room, which cost nothing, obviously. So the only thing we paid for was the mix, which we did up here and we took a week to mix it. I've never spent that much time on a mix before. I did the vocals up here in Madison (WI) and that cost some money as well. If we had been charged for the amount of studio time we used I never, ever could have gotten anyone to give me that amount of money. It would have cost a phenomenal amount of money. The whole record ended up costing a few thousand dollars, and yet we spent way more time on it than anything I've done before.

JM: What can you tell me about the title of the new album? When I first heard "These Ones Are Bitter" I thought the title fit the lyrics perfectly. After a few more listens I wasn't as sure. Some of the lyrics seem to be bitter, but tempered with patience.

Ben Weasel: I think they really are bitter songs, and if it's tempered with anything that's probably less intentional on my part. That's probably just a function of me getting older or something. The title first of all came from an idea I had for the art. The first thing was the idea for the art, and I was trying to teach myself how to draw and paint and I kind of lost patience with it because it takes a lot of patience to learn how to do that. I had an idea that was basically very similar to the image that ended up being the cover. The original idea was going to do probably between thirty or thirty-three songs. It was going to be a double album. It's a concept album about primarily, not every single song, but primarily about the break up of this relationship. Even with all the time we had we couldn't record twenty-eight songs. That became evident early on. Hopefully some day part two will be done, and if it is done it will be called "Those Ones Are Sweet".

JM: Oh, that's nice.

Ben Weasel: Yeah, that was a phrase I like "these ones are bitter, those ones are sweet". It's sort of a bittersweet thing, and I think that the concept of, and I don't like talking like this because it's pretentious and arty, but I think it's true. When you're talking about anything creative or artistic, if I can use that term, there's you're intention to sit down and say here's this thing I'm going to do and all these various things that are going into it, and this subtext connects to this other part. Throughout the album there's repeating phrases, words and lyrical phrases that repeat intentionally, and musical phrases and chord progressions that repeat and it's really deliberate and intentional. I've been listening to the album and I'm finding other patterns as well and I'm going oh, I didn't intend to do that, and that's part of the process as well. When you're doing things like this things will come up that are unintentional, but will support your thesis, for lack of a better word.

The concept of bitter/sweet I thought was a really good one to discuss the breakup of this relationship. The songs are sung so that the narrator switches from male to female in the relationship, so you're getting both points of view. I've already read some kind of negative comments from people on the internet saying things like oh it's a whiny pop punk song about a girl. No, it's not because if you're referring to such and such a song it's actually a whiny pop punk song about a boy, strangely enough. There are two narrators, and they basically switch voices. A lot of that has to do with the last band I was in having a woman sing half the songs. A lot of these songs started out in that band, as short-lived as it was.

The other thing I like about the concept of bitter/sweet as it applies to this record is that I think it's a really good way to describe the style of music that I play. It's very melodic, and it's designed to be catchy and full of hooks, yet there's an edge to it that fans of punk don't really get from mainstream pop music. That's not to knock mainstream pop music, a lot of which I like quite a lot, rather to say when you get that kind of treatment of it, the punk rock version, you're getting something that's a little different and a little more offbeat. So you can't just say it's sweet. It's bittersweet, or sweet and sour or however you would want to put it.

So that's kind of it. There were a lot of different ideas going through my head about the concept and I discovered again, because I had learned it before on a couple previous records, that when you go into a record with a concept about the title and about the art and how that applies to that particular group of songs, you're so far ahead of the game already. You give yourself a leg up that you really don't have if you just say here's this group of songs. You put yourself in a situation where you force yourself to think about the songs and what it means and how it all fits together. Everything just falls together so much more quickly, and I much prefer to work that way.

JM: Interesting. Tell me about Mendota Recording.

Ben Weasel: That's my company, and it's named after one of the lakes up here in Madison. There are three, well four, lakes in Madison. One of them is actually outside of Madison and I've got other companies that are named after some of the other lakes. It's digital only. I kind of wanted to own my own stuff, which I like doing. I probably own about seventy percent of my catalog. It's just licensed out to various companies. I like owning my own stuff because frankly if someone starts ripping you off it's a lot easier to yank it back if they never had any ownership rights to it in the first place.

I also wanted to see if I could do this. If I could do a totally digital release. I haven't bought a CD in a long time. Probably in the last three years I've bought one because it wasn't available on iTunes, it was an old Dolly Parton CD. Other than that it perplexed me and still perplexes me why young punk DIY bands aren't embracing the digital format. It shouldn't really perplex me. Most people in that group are in their early to mid twenties, and people of that age really embrace tradition heavily and I was the same way. They really don't like change. I was in my early twenties when CDs started really becoming big and I said to myself and my friends if it's a CD only release then it's not a real album. If it's not on vinyl it's not real and I'll never own a CD player. The sound quality's terrible and all the arguments, and a year later we all owned CD players.

Now I hear the same arguments for digital, and it's just as lame as it was back then. I think it's a great way for the little guy to if not level the playing field, at least give themselves an advantage. You don't have to fight for a distributor to get your album into stores, and you don't have to fight for that shelf space. The thing that makes it so difficult now in punk rock is, well there was a time when it was difficult to get your album into stores for a different set of reasons. Now the reason for it being difficult to get into stores is that there's too much punk rock and there's too much competition. Back then it was punk rock wasn't popular enough so only the very, very most popular bands could get it because the punk rock section, or often what they called the import section, of a store would be like one tiny section of one little shelf in a bin. Like half a section or maybe a full section in a bin and the rest was more mainstream records.

Now there's not enough space on shelves for records. No record store can possibly carry everything that's released. They can't handle half or even twenty percent of what's released, even if you're only stocking one or two copies of each thing. Along with that, there's a lot more marketing being done and people are a lot more savvy about promoting themselves. It's a lot different than it was before. So it's a lot more competitive is my point. If you go the digital route you're not really battling all that. The only thing you're really competing for is space in people's consciousness, which is no small battle. There's so much stuff out there that no one person could possibly take it all in. I think it's easier if that's all you're fighting for because then it really comes down to can you make a good record. In this day and age if you make a really great record, keeping in mind that's subjective, but if you make a really great record there's no way it's going to be ignored. If you make a great record it's going to be heard, and it's going to enter people's consciousness and people are going to talk about it and be aware of it.

So I can go and do that and avoid all the bullshit. You don't have to hire a manager and you don't have to hire a lawyer to negotiate a twelve page contract. You don't have to compete to be one of the handful of bands that are going to be signed to the handful of punk labels out there that are worth signing to. To me it's the epitome of DIY. I thought I want to own my own stuff, let's see if I can do this. When the album is officially released we'll see if it works. I'm really excited about it. A lot of people are complaining about it, but from what I've heard I think this is the way things are going. The people I've talked to at some of the bigger indie labels are telling me that thirty to thirty-five percent of their sales, and this is as of last October, are digital now. In some cases up to forty percent of their sales are digital so it's probably more now.

When I went over to Lumberjack Mordam with this thing to see if they'd get behind it they were like you're doing the right thing, this is where everything's heading. It's great for them because they do the work that I don't want to do, I give them their cut it costs them nothing in warehouse space. It costs them nothing in shipping. All around it's a really cost efficient way to do things, and then I can take the money, a fraction of the money I would have spent printing physical media, and I can hire a publicist and get out there and promote this thing.

Occasionally I hear people say I don't like this, I want something I can hold in my hand, and it boggles my mind. Then go get a blank CD and burn the CD and print out the color art that will be downloadable from my website. Now you've got something you can hold in your hand. I think what they really mean, even if they're not aware of it, is I want a professionally produced CD with professionally produced art. They're saying I want this done at a professional printer. I had never known until I started Mendota how good color printers have become. I went out and bought one since I knew I was going to do this project and I knew I would have to print some out and I'm just amazed at the quality. I was totally unaware of how good these things are. Like I said, you burn the CD, print the art, and there it is. For spending the four and a half minutes that took you I'm going to charge you four dollars less, and I think it's a good trade off. It's not just the four dollars that's the issue for me, it's all these other things. Where are these things going to be stored and who's going to distribute them, and how am I going to fight for shelf space against people I honestly can't compete against.

I would think that the smaller bands would be embracing that, but really they're not. They're all like no we're waiting for a label to put out our album, and if you're going to wait for a label to put out your album you'd better be an incredibly amazing band. Not only that, but you'd better be independently wealthy in order to be able to tour the amount of months out of the year that any label is going to want in order to sign you. It's a very different thing than it was when I started. In some ways it's a good thing that it's different. You can't do things the way you did in the mid nineties. It's not like that anymore. You've got to build a better mousetrap or you'll be left using a thousand CDs that you printed up, or that your friends printed up, as coasters.

JM: I can see what you mean. I put out a CD through an indie label a few years ago, and I have hundreds of copies left in my basement. I can totally see the advantage of going without a physical product. Even when I buy a CD I only use it once. I throw it in my computer, rip it to my MP3 player and tuck the disc away for storage.

Ben Weasel: Yup. That's exactly what I do. I sold the vast bulk of my record collection. I now literally only have like three quarters of a shelf of records, just stuff I have sentimental attachment to. Rare copies of my own records or stuff that people gave me. I sold the vast majority of them, and I was so happy when I moved last summer because I didn't have to move all these records. Now I'm discovering that I'm getting really hostile toward my CDs, which really don't take up that much space. But I do the same thing. I do a little online radio show now so I get promo in all the time and I pop it in and import it to iTunes. After that it either gets sold to the used record store, or if it's something I really like it goes down to the basement.

There's been no need for me thus far to ever pull the CD out again. As technology improves and you're able to convert these files, I found a great program for when my old hard drive crashed. I thought oh my god, I'm going to have to reimport all these CDs. I found this great program called Senuti, iTunes spelled backwards, that allowed me to take everything from my old hard drive, put it on my iPod and move it to my new hard drive. Normally you can't do that with iTunes. What could have taken days and days ended up being forty minutes, or however long it took to transfer it. Now I finally wised up and bought an external hard drive my entire home music library is backed up.

It's funny, some of the objections that come up like I want something to hold in my hand, are like what if I lose a file. Don't you back up your files? What if your hard drive crashes? What if you leave a record too close to the heater? Basically, don't be an idiot and then you won't lose it. Take care of it the same way you would take care of a record or a CD. There's a lot of people out there, and I don't think that they're jerks or anything, I think it's a perfectly natural thing, who are suspicious of a new thing. People are saying look, I don't want to give up the physical media, but my idea is that whole concept lost me with the idea of CDs.

When CDs came around art became irrelevant. Not totally irrelevant, but when CDs came around cool album art just didn't f*ckin' matter anymore because it was squashed down to this little square. The insert didn't really matter. I've never in my life been impressed by a CD booklet and I've seen literally thousands of them. Whatever you want to say about vinyl, the packaging of that was the coolest thing ever in integrating a piece of art and music in concept. To cling to the last vestiges of that concept as it exists in CD form is not something I'm interested in. I've never thought much of CDs. They're fine, they were more convenient than records, but a great record always sounded better than the best CD if it was the same album. There was no contest when it came to presenting the art, photography, drawing or whatever it might have been.

I think that people just don't want to let go of the physical media, but if you talk to teenage kids or people above thirty they embrace the digital thing. They love it. The younger kids are growing up with it, and once you get over thirty years old you've got a wife, maybe you've got kids, you don't like things that take up a ton of space. You want less of that. If you can fit your entire music collection on your computer, especially if you grew up moving year after year to a new apartment, if you don't have to drag these things along it's a total godsend. It's on your computer, you've got it backed up - it's a no brainer. It's the people in their twenties that are really hostile to the idea, and hostile to the point where they take it really personally.

The main thing about Mendota is that I wanted to do something for myself. I didn't want to do anything to like f*ck with the fans. I didn't want to short people or anything like that. I wasn't trying to make a statement. I wasn't trying to short anyone, I wasn't trying to f*ck with anyone, I just wanted to put out a record myself DIY cause I want to own my own stuff, and I want to control how it's presented and how it's marketed. Even from people who are really into it and want to buy the record I've gotten an almost universally hostile reaction. I guess I should have been prepared for that, but I wasn't trying to upset anyone, I was just trying to do business in a smart way.

JM: Do you plan on releasing any other artists through Mendota?

Ben Weasel: You know, it really depends on what happens. I would say the likelihood isn't high because so far all I've heard from the type of bands I'd like to sign is an extremely hostile reaction to the concept. So you've got a lot of bands who don't have labels who don't want anything to do with this concept. I've put out feelers to a bunch of bands and they've all pretty much slammed the door in my face. Not all of them, but I would say if I do anything it's probably going to be more on an EP level. I don't want to spend a ton of time working on promoting a band's album because in this day and age that's a lot of responsibility.

Expectations, even from the youngest bands, are really, really high. Much higher than they used to be as far as what they expect a label to do for them and this is a one men bedroom operation. I don't have a staff and I'm never going to have a staff. I can't do business the way Fat Wreck Chords does and I love Fat, I've got two records out on their label, it's a great label. I can't do things the way they do, and I don't want to. Nothing against them at all, I think the way they do business is great, but I don't wanna do that. I think a lot of young bands have those type of expectations, they think I need to get on such a tour or I need to do this and that, and I'm not the guy who can do that for them.

I think the best thing that could happen for me is that if this is successfully I could go to some of the bands I like and say look, I sold x amount of albums plus x amount of single song downloads - this is what I think I can do for you with an EP. Then it's not so much pressure. Maybe just put a really kick ass EP together. A really fun thing would be to get them out here to Madison to record, get in there and produce or co-produce the thing and have some fun with it. It's completely dependent on how this record does. If it goes well and there's money there that's great, but right now I'm just trying to get out of the woods.

JM: I've been reading your blog off and on for a few years and you've mentioned being a Buddhist.

Ben Weasel: Did I? I was a Buddhist for a few years.

JM: Is that not the case any longer?

Ben Weasel: No, I'm not. I was for a few years, but I left around three years ago. I left there and joined the Catholic Church.

JM: Really? I hadn't heard that.

Ben Weasel: It's probably because I didn't advertise it. When you tell someone you're a Buddhist they think it's the greatest thing in the world and it's cool and it's groovy and it's not a real religion, which is bullsh*t. They think it's so cool because it's not all uptight and pedantic like Christianity, which again is bullsh*t, it's just as pedantic and uptight if you want to use those terms. If you tell someone you're a Catholic you might as well tell them you're a Nazi. I told a few friends and family members that I was joining the church and just got a really, really brutal reaction so I said you know what, I'm just going to keep that under wraps for a while.

JM: OK. Would you prefer we not discuss this?

Ben Weasel: I don't care. I'm not at all embarrassed. I'm a total defender of the Catholic Church. I think it's amazing and I think it's terrific. If somebody else brings it up and wants to talk about it that's cool, and I'm happy to talk about it, but I'm just saying the reason you didn't hear about it is that I didn't advertise it.

JM: That's surprisingly cool. I didn't expect that at all.

Ben Weasel: Thanks.

JM: What prompted your conversion to Catholicism?

Ben Weasel: First of all, after a lot of thought and reading and studying, I dove into Buddhism really heavily and that just tends to be the way I am. If I get into something I get into it like crazy. It's a real good thing I never got into drugs or drinking because I'd be a mess right now. I tend to think I have heavier pursuits. The long and the short of it is I was studying in one of the four Tibetan schools of Buddhism and in that school there are particular prerequisites before you start tantric practice, tantric practice being sort of the highest level of the Vajrayana, as opposed to the Mahayana. What you do is you go and receive what they call a lung transmission where basically a lama smacks you on the head with a text. That then gives you the blessing, or the permission however you want to put it, to go and do the practices for tantra. You can go and get tantric empowerment, but you have to perform these, the practice is called ngondro.

So I received the lung transmission and I began the ngondro. We're talking like a hundred and eleven thousand prostrations, a hundred and eleven thousand recitations of the mantra which is insanely long. It's an unbelievably long mantra that would take like forty-five seconds to say just one. There's a hundred and eleven thousand offerings of a mondolo, which, I don't know if you know any of this, but a mondolo is like this thick band that you fill up with rice and they get smaller as they go up and it's supposed to represent the universe or whatever. And there's a hundred and eleven thousand of something else. The idea is that you're supposed to do a hundred thousand, but you add eleven thousand for ones you might have missed. To do the whole practice if you're pretty intense about it is going to take a couple years.

I started thinking about it and when you get into tantra you're instructed to view your teacher, your lama, as a Buddha. This isn't a metaphorical thing. You're not saying my teacher is like a Buddha, you're supposed to say he is an enlightened being, he is perfect. As you can imagine, in such a scenario the potential for abuse is enormous. If you ever do a Google search on sexual abuse involving Buddhism you're going to find a lot of stuff. Essentially what you're doing is you're saying this person is a god and I have to do whatever they tell me what to do. They are perfect, therefore they cannot possibly tell me to do something that's wrong. That is one of the major, major flaws with the Tibetan schools of Buddhism in my opinion.

The long and the short of it is that I decided if I'm going to take this intense step - there were things I didn't believe and for three years that lamas had told me just put that on the shelf, don't worry about it now, concentrate on meditating. When it came down to it I had to take these things down off the shelf and look at them. I had to decide do I believe in this. Do I believe in karma? No, I don't. I'm talking specifically about the Buddhist concept of karma. No, I don't believe it. The Buddhist view is that the universe is governed by a law of karma. Buddhism is not remotely interested in the concept of creation. Buddhism asserts that there is no creator, but there's no explanation for it. Everything is beginningless.

My problem was that this law of karma. It's completely cold and emotionless like a scientific fact. It says that some actions are morally good and some actions are morally bad. If you do the morally good ones you have a positive rebirth, if you do the bad ones you have a negative rebirth. It didn't make any sense to me, so basically I decided it's not true. There was a logical inconsistency with the main tenets of Buddhism that I just couldn't reconcile. I would argue or debate someone about it. I'm not saying Buddhism is bad, I learned some tremendous things and excellent disciplines. I'm happy I got the opportunity to learn meditation, all that stuff but in the end the dogma didn't fundamentally ring true to me.

I decided to look into Christianity, and originally I was going to look into the Episcopalian church. I figured it's the most liberal, and I have some very conservative views but basically I'm a bleeding heart liberal at heart. I did a lot of reading and when I looked into the local Episcopalian churches, they're like too liberal even for me. I met with the priest at the local Catholic church and I just felt at home. The Catholic Church makes you go through a period of training before you become a member, so you know what you're getting into, and I like that.

JM: That's cool that you had the courage to make a change when you found you were uncomfortable with Buddhism. A lot of people seem to stick with a lifestyle, whether they agree or disagree with it.

Ben Weasel: Spirituality is a big deal. You can't just go changing flippantly or whatever. Buddhism and Christianity share some similar aspects. Both have moral teachings and teach discipline to improve humanity. The difference is that in Buddhism I had to make all these changes myself. In Christianity, all I have to do is allow this external force to change me. Just to allow it to happen and this external force will make the changes.

JM: OK, final question - will you be touring in support of "These Ones Are Bitter"?

Ben Weasel: No. I'll do a few one off shows, but I won't be touring. That part of my life is over.



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