Behind every famous, successful band are at least a couple of groups whose influence far outweighs their notoriety or income. So, as frontman for seminal Chicago pop-punk outfit Screeching Weasel, Ben Weasel (a.k.a. Ben Foster) is essentially the Guy Behind The Guy. During its heyday of the early and mid-’90s, his band heavily influenced a generation of followers, among them Green Day (bassist Mike Dirnt played on the band’s 1994 album) and The All-American Rejects. Where some people in the same position might resent the success of those who followed, Weasel is perfectly content living the quiet life with his family in his adopted hometown of Madison. Well, it’s not that quiet: Screeching Weasel has reunited after a five-year layoff, and he reassembled his post-Weasel band, The Riverdales, to release two albums, 2009's Invasion USA and the new Tarantula. Before Screeching Weasel hit the Triple Rock to play a pair of sold-out shows tonight and tomorrow, The A.V. Club talked to the frontman about reuniting his band and making a living from it.
The A.V. Club: In a 2008 interview, you said the thought of a Screeching Weasel reunion hadn’t remotely crossed your mind. Why the change of heart?
Ben Weasel: You gotta say things sometimes when you can’t say the truth. I was in a position where I had just resolved a legal dispute with my ex-guitarist that had gone on for two years, and I had already booked all of my shows for 2008 under my own name, so I didn’t want to undermine that by saying “Yeah, I’m going to be doing that” or whatever. I think it’s better to maintain focus. So that’s the long and the short of it. I didn’t really feel, and I still don’t feel like I’m in a position to go into the details about it, but it just seemed better to focus on what I was doing at the moment.
As far as what changed it along the way, I think ever since we stopped in 2001, John [“Jughead” Pierson, guitarist], the guy who quit, made kind of a big deal about having quit, and we tried to get together a new tour in 2004, and the offers just weren’t there. We changed booking agents, the offers still weren’t there, and then the second booking agent we were working with said, “Well, why don’t you do a one-off in Chicago and Milwaukee? They’ll certainly be successful, and we’ll use them as a basis to try to drive up these guarantees.” But John didn’t want to do that. He said if we don’t actually get in a vehicle and tour, he doesn’t want to do it. On my part there’s been an interest for a while, and I just sort of felt that if John doesn’t want to do it, I’ll respect that because he was there from the beginning, and I always said I wouldn’t do the band without him. But when we had this dispute, everything changed. He’s a good guy, and I like him, and he’s talented and I think he’ll do well, but things got really ugly there. I sort of got to a point where I said, “Why am I not doing my own band after all?”
AVC: How have your goals for your bands changed now?
BW: I think in the wake—actually not in the wake because it’s still going on—of this digital revolution, I’ve had to change my focus and focus more on live performance and less on recording. … And there’s been a few people here and there who have piped up asking if we’re going to do a Screeching Weasel album. Who knows? Certainly not real soon unless something comes along to make me change my mind, which I don’t see happening.
Recorded music has been devalued so much, and that’s the main thing that I want to do. My main interest and creative work is creating work: writing the songs and of course rehearsing and arranging them and getting them down on a recording. That’s always been the thing I’m most passionate about. But I literally can’t afford to indulge that passion anymore, so it’s really gotta be live music. Which is fine.
AVC: You’ve said you made money self-releasing your solo record a few years ago. Even though it wasn’t as much as Screeching Weasel made in their heyday, it isn’t enough to pay for another album?
BW: There are three different issues here: One, probably under the best of circumstances, or under most likely circumstances, I’m not going to do as well as I did at Screeching Weasel’s peak because that was also the peak of their genre, and it was really the peak of independent punk-rock record labels and distribution. A lot of things converged at one time to enable us to enjoy the kind of success that we did. So that’s issue one. Issue two is that I’m guessing with the Riverdales album, we’ll earn a profit. It probably won’t be very large, but then we get to issue three, which is, when you factor in all the work that you put into something from its inception to its completion—writing, rewriting, demoing, re-demoing, arranging, arranging again, changing the arrangements again, throwing with the lyrics, rehearsing, recording, the mixing, all that—and then going out and promoting the record, at some point you have to ask yourself, “When is just doing it for the sake of the music enough?” In my case, I would say that’s becoming much less the case.
It’s not a popular sentiment, I realize, and it’s probably the last thing a fan wants to hear from a musician—we’re all supposed to pretend we don’t care about money—but I think like anybody else in the world, even if you really love something, if you’re doing it and you’re not making money, that’s one thing. But if you’re doing it and you’re not making money because people want it but choose to steal it instead, then that’s really demoralizing…
I think we’re just beginning to see the effects of this, and the funny thing is it’s hard to comment on it as it’s happening, because it’s still radically changing, but my guess is, and has been ever since I figured out what illegal downloading is and file sharing and all that, that it’s going to be bad for music, and specifically going to be bad for the people on the fringes and who are a little bit quirky. Right now in punk rock, in my little subgenre of pop-punk, the most popular bands by far are essentially the ones who just copy each other. They’re not really bringing anything new to the table. Some would argue, and I would agree, that it’s always been that way. But I don’t think the gulf has always been as wide as it is right now, and I think it’s just going to get worse. If there is less money to be made, then record labels are going to take fewer chances because the risks are much higher. The end result of that is it’s bad for music; it makes it far less likely that interesting music will be heard. I would like to think that with the advent of Internet technology and cheap home recording that a great band will more often than not put their stuff out online and get an audience if they’re good and deserving, but I just don’t think that’s going to happen.