INTERVIEW: Billy Spunke (lead singer of the Blue Meanies.)
By: Alex Steininger
Alex: First off, how would you describe your sound?
Billy: Relentless, pretty much. It's like using bits of ska, bits of punk rock and jazz. Using everything. Our sound is the way it is because we write cooperatively. Which means a lot of bands, the Smashing Pumpkins lets, Billy Corgan will play and write everything pretty much. But with the Blue Meanies its like "here's my idea." It's layed out onto a chopping block, and everyone gets to change it, chop it, move it, and add their own little pieces to it. So, it's a cooperative song. Cooperative effort, cooperative song.
Alex: Do you handle all the lyrics or does everyone chip in on that aspect?
Billy: Yeah, I handle all the lyrics. There has been a few times when others have gotten involved with them. A few disagreements amongst us. Like "The Great Peacemaker," one of the songs on the new one. It's about handgun control. One of the guys in the band his dad is a collector of guns. I mean a gun can be a beautiful thing when its a fine piece of engineering, but I don't believe a handgun has any place except for killing. That's what I think anyway. So we had a disagreement about guns, but it turns out we agree on handguns. That's the only time a band member has come in and said, "I think we need to re-write this. Change this completely."
Alex: How do you explain the lyrical change from "Kiss Your Ass Goodbye" to the new one?
Billy: I got more serious. The bands been through a big change about three years ago. Right as "Kiss Your Ass Goodbye" was released the band broke up, and re-formed about three months later. So the first band, we were serious, but we didn't see the potential of making an impact. Like there's a song on their called "Grandma's Shampoo" in which we pretty much sat around and said "Haha...everyone will love this." It meant nothing, just us sitting around wasting some time. Now we're a little more articulate. We're thinking about what we're writing, and I'm thinking of what I'm saying. I'd like to get a little respect.
Alex: What are some of your musical influences? Personally and then as a band.
Billy: Personally for me like classic rock is a big thing for me. Queen was my first record ever. Lately I've been into Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. I like Nick Cave, Captain Beefheart even though he's old. As far as popular punk rock goes right now, NOFX gets me. Their real sincere. As far as the whole band goes its all different. The horn section is into jazz, Chaz here loves the noisy side of things. Mike, our guitar player, and Chaz love noise, they're into a bunch of Japanese stuff. It's all different. There isn't one band the while band can agree on, except maybe Slong. Slong has the old drummer from Op Ivy, Dave Mellow, he's in Slong. They did "Punk Side Story." They're a crazy three-piece.
Alex: What are your band goals for the rest of 97' and looking into 98?
Billy: We are going to Japan. We're going to the East Coast after this West Coast tour. We'd like to record a live record. We want to record all over the world, and each track will be from a different club. Say like if we recorded tonight it would be from this show at La Luna in Portland. It would be like a documentary. We actually made a video, our first one, for "Smash The Magnavox" which is an interesting choice for a video, right? (laughter.) Yeah, but we did it all with miniature stuff that is stop action. It will be partly that and partly live footage. We're waiting to see it right now 'cause we haven't seen it. It was an interesting thing, because we've never done a video so we weren't there. We're on tour with MU330 right now and we took a few days off the tour while they filmed a video. They had to be in the video. They were the video. We didn't have to do any of that.
Alex: Wow, unique. It sounds very intriguing and original. Sounds great.
Billy: Yeah, it does sound great. Some people have described it as kind of like the Tool video style. There's a band called Tool, and they do video that is kinda like stop action and shit like that. I'm excited.
Alex: Do you think "Smash the Magnavox" on Skankin' in the Pit helped for your upcoming Japan tour?
Billy: Yeah. Definitely, for sure. I'm not sure how well that sold or anything. I'm not so sure the song actually fit on the comp, it was a stretch but it is what we do. We did a few interviews over in Tokyo, people called us from Tokyo at home. They knew about us.
Alex: What do you do on the road for fun?
Billy: We listen to music a lot, and argue a lot. We're really good at arguing, isn't that right Dave?
Dave: Fuck you!
Billy: We camped. When we get days off we do a lot of camping. We're not set up with stoves or anything, we just get some tinfoil and make a fire. At clubs its so noisy, so we go to these camp grounds and it's like "AHHH!"
Alex: So what's your favorite city to play?
Billy: Chicago! Because it's our home town, but outside of that New York. Manhattan. It's not so much the city, it's the crowds and the shows. And then you step out the door and your in Manhattan. It's unbelievable. We also like Montana a lot. Manhattan and Montana.
Alex: What do you enjoy and hate about the music business?
Billy: I enjoy getting free stuff. I like the end result, the music that comes out. What I hate is, well it comes down to not talent...some of the best bands out there won't get recognized because they don't have the money. It's just so sad.
Alex: Back to Chicago, let's talk about your Chicago rain out on the Warped Tour.
Billy: It was miserable. We got there it was a beautiful, and then lightning struck and it just rained so hard! Bands would start playing and it started to rain. Like seven bands played. It was so awful, yet it was great. We ended up buying a few kegs of beers and having a bar-b-que in the parking lot. It was cool because we got to hang out with Pennywise and the Bosstones. It was cool, cause were always star struck. I'm glad it happened now, but I hated it at the time. You couldn't get dry.
Alex: If you could change anything throughout the bands history, musically or anything, would you?
Billy: I would, no I wouldn't change a thing.
Alex: What are your highest and lowest points so far?
Billy: Let's see. Getting this new record out was a high point. Finding out a few days ago we get to go to Japan, right on, I'm still riding that high. A low point, gee whiz, probably breaking down in the blistering heat in Bakers field, California. You know all the money we makes goes right back into the band for repair, so each time the van breaks down its a low point. But that's about it, I'm pretty easy to please.
Alex: If you could tour with anyone, who would it be?
Billy: Anyone? Dead or alive?
Alex: Give me the dead one and then one that is alive.
Billy: We would be opening up for the king, Elvis Presely would be here, but he's a little too dead. I would love to be on tour with No Doubt. You know why?
Billy: Because there would be thousands of people there each night, and we would get free grilled cheese sandwiches. But um...yeah, as far as something for real. MU330 is a great band to go on tour with. Great people, and we hang out a lot. I'm on the dream tour right now.
Alex: Didn't you tour with Goldfinger and Reel Big Fish twice?
Billy: We toured with Goldfinger and Reel Big Fish, and then with Reel Big Fish for a second time. But it was something we had never done before. It was weird, at first we didn't want to associate ourselves with anything they stood for, or it seemed they stood for. So we had to sit down and ask ourselves if we wanted to take this tour or are we going to lose our fans, is this going to suck? Are they going to be rockstars? So we thought let's find out. We've never done this before, let's find out. And they rocked! They are a rock n' roll band, that's all they want to do...play rock music. They came out and blew me away ever night. Not like they were doing anything inventive, but they came out and blew me away. They did it great. There's no bullshit about the those guys. They're great.
Alex: Is there any road experience that stands out in your mind?
Billy: Yeah, I have this story. The other day we played in Reno, Nevada at what seemed to be a great place called F.S.U., a small punk rock club. It was in a garage. A lot of people came, I don't see what the problem was. We got $100 and they bought us a couple pizza's for us and MU330. One of the guys who owned the club didn't seem to take a liking to us. He thought we were messing up his parking lot. It was a big parking lot and there was like kids drinking beer and smoking on it, and he was blaming the mess on us. I don't quite get it, it was really unclear, but at the end of the show these guys were screaming at MU330, while they were packing up their stuff. So they were yelling at them like "You come to our town and get paid and disrespect us." Each band got like $100, and after bonus points each band ended up getting $185. "You rape us of our money, you take our $185 and come and destroy our scene. You guys are nothing but a bunch of faggots," are what these guys are yelling at us. So Dan yells, "Fucking faggots? What does that have to do with anything?" So this guy, a total jarhead, jumps up on stage and decks him. And he layed out flat. It took so much restraint for MU330 and the Blue Meanies to hold back. There was 16 in our whole group, and there was like 5 or 6 of them. Had we not practiced restraint we would have totally ripped apart there club and destroyed their scene for real. We were all juiced up on adrenaline, and they said we were in the wrong. We just came and played a show, the kids had a blast, it was a great show, I didn't see the problem. I just getting paid $185 to them is more than Reno will ever cash out. I don't know. That was a low point. That was just a week ago.
Alex: What made you want to go into the music business?
Alex: What inspires you to write songs? Life?
Billy: Yeah, lyrically what goes on every day. "Smash the Magnavox" is about my family. How real life isn't how it is portrayed on the TV. Like the Bradys, Keatons, and the Cleavers. I think it's a bunch of bullshit. It's like those Styrofoam TV bricks, you just want to break it. And this song is about dismantling the TV. You just get really pissed off at the TV a lot cause it sucks. So yeah it's just shit like that.
Alex: What do you want the listener to get out of your music?
Billy: To just try and accept something new, out of the ordinary. I want them to hear the Blue Meanies and go, "I don't know what that was they were trying to accomplish." I want them to think. Especially musically, but lyrically too.
Alex: What made you want to leave Fuse and sign with those Money Grubbin' Whores at Thick Records?
Billy: Money! Totally, but distribution was a big thing. For bands to sell records you need to have a way to get out to other record stores, etc. Fuse's distributor went under. We knew it was coming, so we knew we had to get out. And Thick had a better idea of where we were coming from. I wouldn't say that "Kiss Your Ass Goodbye" was a failure, but we wanted more. Fuse didn't want to advertise. Advertising is something they decided they weren't going to do. And Thick wanted to advertise. So for the first time since we put out or first record in 91 we had advertisements in magazines. So that felt really good.
Alex: Has it brought a lot more fans your way?
Billy: Yeah it seems to be working. But um...Thick does those great picture discs! Like that 10" we did.
Alex: Was that the start of you knowing you wanted to sign with Thick, the 10"?
Billy: Yeah. That's another thing. Vinyl doesn't sell, so you need to be into the estatics of music to make those, and picture discs are such a beautiful thing to look at! So we hooked up with Zak and found out he wasn't into money that much, he's really not a money grubbing whore at all. He's into the estatics of music and the presentation.
Alex: Yeah, but it's a funny slogan.
Billy: Yeah, its hysterical.
Alex: How do you feel about "Full Throttle?" Billy: When I first heard it was I was like, "It's too fast." It was just too relentless. Like pulling your hair. But after listening to it a few times, I was like "Damn!" You just got to prepare yourself for it, and get involved in it. Then it's the best. It's a great way to release those doldrums.
Alex: Do you have a favorite song on it?
Billy: I like "The Noise of Democracy" a lot. But full on lyrically Magnavox is a favorite of mine. And "the 4th of July" is really cool. Then there is "Deep in the Hopes." It's near the end. That was a tough one, because we were in the studio and I didn't have any lyrics. I was racking. The song was very difficult, and I couldn't figure out what it needed, so I was freaking. I was calling my girlfriend, and she told me I better start writing. Then an hour before we went out there, I said I had no clue what I was doing, so she said good luck. Then I went in there and just told them to role the tape. What you hear on the record is me just going out there and saying this is what it is. I picked Hopes, like the beer, because...I wouldn't say we have a problem with it, but we like to drink. We were just embracing that fact. Trying to say, every morning when we wake up...god this sucks. You know, hangovers.
Alex: Was there ever a moment you thought that song wouldn't be on the album?
Billy: Yeah, it was discussed. But I'm glad we put it on there. It really captures the moment, and is extremely challenging. I'm really glad its on there. I'll never forget it. Going up to a microphone and not knowing what your going to say.
Alex: So what are your thoughts on the current attention ska is receiving from the media?
Billy: Oh yeah...you know the other day someone threw a Rolling Stone at us. And they were talking about Ska being the next thing. No, Electronica and bass and drums are the next big thing. But no...Swing is the next big thing, like the Cherry Poppin' Daddies. It's really weird. Nobody really knows. But it kinda helps us, but they're just throwing out ideas.
Alex: Where do you think ska will be in a year? Do you think the hype will die down?
Billy: Yeah, I think it will die down for sure. It's like a good thing for this summer. Next summer it's going to be wools, and linen, and heavy metal. Poison is going to be back. That is another thing Rolling Stone is talking about. Glam bands. I really am in to the whole drum and bass, hip-hop, electronica thing. I don't go to the shows and all, but that is the one music that our generation has created. I want to be a part of that, definitely. It's just...evolution of rock is great. That whole genre is interesting. I don't want to grow old and say, "Those kids are listening to weird things these days."
Alex: How do you feel about tonight's show being labeled a "ska show?"
Billy: Is it? Well you know tonight, we'll go on and we'll be too loud and half the crowd will leave. I guarantee by the time we go on half the crowd will be disburse.
Alex: Anything I left out that you would like to cover?
Billy: Not really. Everyone is welcome to e-mail us at [email protected]. We get most of our mail, so e-mail us!!!!