Pennywise singer Jim Lindberg leaves to pursue his own projects
Singer Jim Lindberg leaves Pennywise to pursue his own projects while guitarist Fletcher Dragge vows that the group will carry on, find a new vocalist, and tour more often.
“What it comes down to at the end of the day,” says Fletcher Dragge, “is that we want to tour more than Jim does. That’s the case with a lot of bands. He’s a family man, he’s got three daughters, and I think we’ve always tried to respect that and tried to work within the parameters of what he wanted.”
The news broke a few days ago that Pennywise vocalist Jim Lindberg was leaving the band. Statements were issued from both sides, and outwardly were quite cordial: Everyone wishes the best for everyone else. But, as usual, individuals evolve, priorities change, and nothing lasts forever except for death and taxes.
Pennywise fans know that the band has been a viable entity since at least the latter 1980s. Dragge wanted to start his own punk band (he’d been in Con 800) and he hooked up with bassist Jason Thirsk who at the time was in PMA, Positive Mental Attitude. “We started talking, we started hashing out some songs,” Dragge says, “and we came up with this plan; we’re gonna do this no matter what and we’re not gonna let anything get in our way. We’re gonna be successful and we’re gonna tour the world. End of story.”
Well, actually just the beginning. There were flirtations with a couple of musicians you probably haven’t heard of, although drummer Byron McMackin soon became a key element. Then, as Dragge puts it, he ran into Jim Lindberg and Lindberg tried out for the band.
“Great voice, great singer,” Dragge continues. “Well, we’re off to the races. We’re loving this combo.” Mark Theodore, the owner of Alternative Groove, put out a seven-inch disc on his own label, Theologian Records. The band got airplay on KXLU and were signed to Epitaph. Off to the races, indeed.
All this is being conveyed to me over tacos at Rosa’s on Pacific Coast Highway in Hermosa Beach. Pennywise is the preeminent South Bay band, up there in the same stratosphere as Black Flag, so it’s only fitting that our conversation should take place on home turf. Later in the evening I’d talk briefly over the phone with Lindberg at his home in Manhattan Beach.
After that initial burst of local success, Pennywise got its first chance to play Europe, but Lindberg chose not to go. Dave Quackenbush of The Vandals joined the band for its six-week tour.
Afterwards, Thirsk moved over to vocals and Randy Bradbury came aboard to play bass. The group wrote its “Unknown Road” album and Thirsk sang the songs. But Dragge took him aside and said: “You’re good, but Jim’s better.”
So Lindberg came back, and he’s been around ever since, nearly two decades. The most significant shakeup in all that time was when Thirsk committed suicide in 1996. Ironically, it was Thirsk and his positive message that seems to have made the biggest impression on the remaining members of the group.
“To me,” Dragge says, “Jason Thirsk is the most important guy in this band. I might have started the band, and had the direction, but he brought the positive mental attitude. That’s what kind of changed my life, because I was on the road to ruin, self-destructive behavior. But he put this band on a track,” and by so doing elevated the group above the often anarchistic ranting of more typical punk bands.
“The most important thing for everyone to know is that I got into Pennywise because of my friend Jason Thirsk,” Lindberg says. “I wanted to be in a band with Jason. We created the message about positivity and we listened to bands like Seven Seconds and Dag Nasty who’re really into a positive image and that’s what we really wanted to put out there. When Jason and I were writing the main lyrics that’s what it was all about. After Jason passed away, it seemed the message kind of shifted when the lyric writing shifted from me and Jason.” Lindberg feels that when Dragge started writing lyrics the group drifted a bit from that positive message and that, to some extent, it became “more about Fletcher’s antics than it was about the message.”
Dragge certainly doesn’t conceal the fact that he likes to party hard, rip things up a bit and cause some chaos. I got a sense of that when seeing the band in concert a couple of months back. As far as songwriting is concerned, credits are divided equally across the board because, as Dragge emphasizes, songs are hashed out and thrashed out during rehearsal (no matter whose material it is), with everyone having input. “At the end of the day, everyone feels like they’ve contributed something to the album, and everyone’s proud. That’s a painstaking process, and it’s not something you actually look forward to in the studio, or having your songs judged, because it’s a band vote on what songs are gonna make the album.”
As to who writes the material that most represents the band – that’s for diehard fans and historians to wrangle over. Dragge writes a lot with Bradbury, but the impression is that there’s a fair amount of mix and match. Dragge pointedly wants to assure Pennywise fans that the quality of the songs on forthcoming records will not suffer in the wake of Lindberg’s departure.
“For me, the least of our worries is to write an album. Me and Randy have a hundred songs right now, and Jim’s probably got 500 – outtakes and songs that never made it into the studio. I’ve been writing Pennywise songs for 20 years: We feel we can write a super-strong record and we’re fired up about it.”
“The end-game is to get out and play the songs for your fans,” Dragge says. “The heart and soul of Pennywise is our fan base. Coming out on stage and the energy, the kids singing the lyrics or kids jumping up on stage – that’s the payoff. That’s always been the high priority for us.”
He says that if everyone in the band had agreed, they’d have toured twice as much over the last 10 years. This seems to be what Dragge lives for, and clearly the band will be seeking a replacement vocalist who won’t be reluctant to go out on the road for weeks on end. He says he’s got messages on his phone from 60 guys in other bands whom they’ve known for years: “They’re saying, Hey, I’m ready, I’m your guy.”
It’s very interesting to an outsider, because there is a certain amount of posturing from Dragge about how the show will go on (maybe it’s part of his persona because he is, after all, physically imposing, the Shaquille O’Neal of punk rockers): “We’re not retiring, we’re not giving up, we’re getting up. We’re getting up swinging, and this is a glitch, a speed bump for us. We’re gonna get it done, and we’re gonna have fun doing it.”
At the same time, a great deal of his affection for Lindberg comes through: “It’s funny, because, you know, for a second we’re scared. You’re not sure what the future’s gonna hold, but you’re disappointed that one of your family members has left. A lot of different emotions are running through you but, at the same time, you’re Pennywise.”
And he defers, as he does repeatedly throughout our conversation, to the fans.
As does Lindberg. The fans really are very, very important to these guys. But Lindberg, in some not disrespectful way, sees fan expectations as potentially limiting, especially for those artists who want to break away from the mold and try something new or different.
“I think it was very difficult with the later albums for us to change and grow and evolve as a band because our fans expected a certain style of music from us; they expected a certain message from us. The band’s written over 120 Pennywise songs, and it gets difficult to just continue that without repeating yourself. You get kind of pigeonholed into a certain style of music. I’ve been writing music for a long time; I’ve a lot of songs I’d like to get out there, and try different styles of music. And I really didn’t feel like it was possible to do that within the band.”
Fletcher Dragge and presumably Pennywise members Randy Bradbury and Byron McMackin are about soldiering on, more or less in the same vein they’ve been pursuing since day one. Jim Lindberg, on the other hand, is already the author of one published book, Punk Rock Dad, has a novel in the works, a documentary based on the first book, is involved with havocTV (the number one rated sports video on-demand channel), and is in the rehearsal studio playing new music with friends. Artistically, he says, “I’ve never been happier.” One guesses that the days of Pennywise mauling at each other’s songs is not his best memory; that’s not always an asset where creative integrity is concerned, even if it benefits the band at large. Essentially, some individuals work best in a group setting, and others do not.
We talk about the last tour that wound up two months ago in the Nokia Center across from the Staples Center. It had been a corporate-sponsored tour, “and that,” says Lindberg, “really wasn’t something that I felt was right for our band.”
Nonetheless, the L.A. concert was, he adds, “a good show. And, to me, it felt like the final show. Other people said that as well… I think everyone in the band to a certain extent knew that this [his departure] was inevitable.” Touring, for Lindberg, had become too much of a point of contention with the rest of the band. “I’ve always said that we were gonna do this until it wasn’t fun anymore, and I didn’t want it to get to that place.”
“If Jim wants to do other things that fulfill him, more power to him,” Dragge says. “Go do it, good luck, move forward with your life; that’s what we’re about; he’s doing it.”
“I’m really proud of what we accomplished together,” Lindberg says. “Myself and the other members of the band went through a lot together, and I’m absolutely honest when I say that I really want the best things for all of them. It just felt like the right time [to leave]. And the main thing is I have sincere appreciation for everyone in the South Bay; we really did it for everyone in the South Bay.”
Having Pennywise as one of our own is something to be proud of. This isn’t about endings; it’s clearly about the start of another chapter.