Originally appeared in Cosmik Debris
Interviewed by DJ Johnson
I'm just ridin' the train.
I'm just ridin' the train.
It won't stop
Won't slow down
Can't get off
And on and on and on now!
That pretty much sums up the feel and pace of Crazy Uncle Paul's Dead Squirrel Wedding, the first full length album by Philadelphia's punk powderkeg known as Thorazine. This is not music for people who suffer from fear of confrontation: disgust, anger, and threat of bodily harm are the fuel for many of these high voltage pounders. The band--Jo-Ann Rogan (vocals), Elliot Taylor (guitar), Dallas Cantland (drums) and Ross Abraham (bass)--fires off these ferocious body shots with muscles flexed. They ain't fuckin' around.
After listening to the album several dozen times, I had certain expectations: I figured Jo-Ann would begin the interview by castrating me. Failing that, I figured she'd just blow my brains out and be done with it. Well, her lyrics suggest she may not think much of males of the species. So imagine my surprise when Jo-Ann turned out to be just the opposite of all that. Shock of shocks! They're all nice people! Shhhhh... don't tell anyone.
Fresh off the road, all four musicians participated in this interview. I was anxious to hear about their battle with Smith-Kline, the drug company that tried to force them to change the name of the band. I was doubly anxious to find out just what the hell the story was behind the title and cover of Crazy Uncle Paul's Dead Squirrel Wedding. And I wanted to find out how Ross got a bass sound that caused my inner ear to implode, even with the stereo on "mute!" Yup, I had a LOT of really annoying questions, and they didn't shoot me once. So I wrote it all down, and here it is.
DJ Johnson: In "Antiquated Male," you sound very dangerous. In fact, in a LOT of songs, you sound very dangerous! But talking to you is a shocker because you seem so nice. Is the anger real, and are you able to get most of it out through singing?
Jo-Ann: I spent my early 20's extremely depressed, suicidal, with low self esteem because of abuse in my childhood, and growing up a fat kid. I had no outlet for all this anger and was directing it at myself. Joining Thorazine gave me a place for the misguided anger. My life has changed a lot. Being able to put all my anger out onstage and in rehearsal I have had very few suicidal thoughts in the last few years. I've actually become almost well adjusted without Prozac! PUNK ROCK SAVED MY LIFE HALLELUIAH!
DJ Johnson: Because your music is so angry and tense most of the time, I would imagine you just couldn't do it if you were in too cheerful a mood. What kinds of things do you do to get ready for a show... to get in the mood?
Jo-Ann: Hmmmmm... Not much. The music starts and the anger and aggression kick in automatically.
DJ Johnson: During lulls when the band isn't gigging or practicing for a while, do you feel the pressure and frustration building up?
Jo-Ann: Yes. Elliot went into a research medical study before the tour for two weeks to make some extra cash. I started losing it toward the end. Ross and I kept meeting in the kitchen and grumbled to each other constantly. It's rare for us not to rehearse a couple times a week, so I am usually ok.
Ross: I don't know about pressure, but I really start jonesin'. I start getting very anxious. If it were up to me we'd rehearse everyday, but with our separate schedules we are only able to rehearse three days a week.
DJ Johnson: Do some people make assumptions that you might rip 'em up and keep their distance?
Dallas: You don't know the half of it! These damned scaredy-cat kids today keep a 10 foot distance between them and the stage. It was cool at first, but we want fans, not underlings!
Jo-Ann: Sometimes Dallas gets some nasty e-mails about how I have a set of testicles under my dress! Actually the whole band looks a bit intimidating when we are all together, which is a good thing because clubs rarely gyp us on our pay!
DJ Johnson: Do you respond to that kind of e-mail? Any good "scared the crap out of the guy" stories?
Dallas: I usually stay away from it anymore because when I meet 'em in person, they're half my size and age, and I despise bullies. The funniest one was a couple summers back. This one kid talked all this smack online, and when he saw us in person, he went to Jo-Ann to find out which one was Dallas. Jo pointed me out and he went "Tell him I'm sorry, 'cause I ain't goin over there!"
DJ Johnson: Do you see a lot of surprised faces in the crowds? People who had no idea what the band looked like? Most tough sounding bands don't look so tough in person, y'know...
Dallas: YES! So many bands today aren't what they think they are. Punk rock today is divided new-school and old-school. I could go on and on with a list of bands from each camp, but I think you've got the picture. Here's a little piece of info I wonder if Jo told ya. Ruffhouse Records had a rep at one of our shows without our knowing it. A friend of ours who recognized him asked him what he thought. "Their musicianship is superb, but they don't have "the look" and I can't do anything with 'em."
Jo-Ann is the baby of us at 30 years old. We're not "the beautiful people" from Melrose Place" or something. You're looking at real, everyday people when you stare into these faces. Most adults 25 years and up look at us and remember when bands looked like us all the time. We were "the look." Now that everybody looks like non-threatening skinny wimps still wet behind the ears, WE SCARE THE SHIT outta most kids that show expecting another band that looks like Offspring. We were called "greasy, sleazy, sweaty people who play nasty music" in one article. This is generally how kids see us. We must be threatening in some way, shape or form, because we've never been stiffed on our money. Even in clubs notorious for it. There was one night here in Philly where the management had to tell us that we generated no cash and when I was being filled in, they called the bouncer over. He was shuffling his feet and rubbing the back of his neck nervously instead of me!
Ross: People are scared to come close to the stage when we are playing for fear we will kick 'em in the head. People are intimidated. I have gotten the comment that we look like mean bikers.
DJ Johnson: How did you get hooked up with Dionysus/Hell Yeah?
Jo-Ann: We sent out some demo's to labels I thought had cool ads. I never called after the tapes. Lee Josephs sent us a letter and put our 7 inch, Coffee, Tea, or Thorazine, out. We toured four times off that little 7 inch, so while we were in LA on tour he recorded Crazy Uncle Paul's Squirrel Wedding. We will be recording our 2nd LP in March.
DJ Johnson: What's the story on the lawsuit by the drug company? Is that for real?
Jo-Ann: Yes it is. We got a a 'cease using our name' letter from Smith Kline about 2 years ago. Dallas hit the net with the news, then all hell broke loose. A local entertainment paper wrote about it first. Then the daily papers picked it up and sent it over the Associated Press wire. ABC news radio picked it up, then TV news. We wound up in magazines like Newsweek, New Republic, and Playboy. Because of the press we had lawyers offering free counsel, which was cool because we could not afford a good lawyer. The press actually helped a lot because they portrayed us as the poor punk rockers that the big giant corporation was picking on. Smith Kline threatened us but never pursued the suit because we became more trouble than they wanted to deal with! At this point, they've never pursued the suit so the longer we have the name the less they can do about it. The little guy sometimes can win!
DJ Johnson: That kind of makes you heroes. We all dream of beating the big guys at their own games. Do you get many people coming up to you at your gigs wanting to talk about that?
Jo-Ann: They used to all the time, but it pops up less and less. It is cool to beat the big guy, but I don't want to be known as "that band that got sued" forever.
Ross: It happened and it is over.
DJ Johnson: Ever think about writing an "in your face, Smith Kline" song?
Jo-Ann: Sure, you got lyrics?
DJ Johnson: None that wouldn't end your career in a big freakin' hurry. That's why I don't get the big bucks. So who is Crazy Uncle Paul, and what's the story behind that cool structure you named your album after?
Jo-Ann: Ok here is the tale... One nippy fall night, Ross, Dallas, and I went to a party. Elliot was working at his soundman job, as usual. It was a very boring party. A guy walks up and says, "wanna see somethin' weird?" We immediately say to him, "what can you shock us with?" He had some Polaroid shots of the squirrels. Our first question was "how did you get them to stand still?" He proceeded with the story.
Greg Baker was born and raised in rural Gettysburg, PA. His great uncle Paul, who died in 1967, was an avid squirrel hunter. He came up with the weird idea to stuff them. His wife, Aunt Ruth, sewed the costumes on by hand! I kid you not! They modeled the wedding scene after the church they attended, going as far as using the remnants of the carpet that was in the church. If you look very closely at the photos, there is one seat empty. Uncle Paul died before the last seat was filled! We saw this and had to have it for our album cover, which was as of that moment unrecorded.
We set off to LA and recorded. We returned after the long
tour and recording session to find Greg MIA. We hunted him down and went to his father's
house in Gettysburg to shoot the wedding. We set off on a snowy morning to Gettysburg. We
arrived and Greg proclaimed that his father hated everyone and stay out of his way. While
Nadine and Adina (photographers) were setting up, we met Greg's Dad. He was so great to
us. He showed us his whole collection of Civil War guns and has invited us to come out
again to go shooting. He offered up all the tasty tidbits on the Wedding and made us
coffee! The Baker family had one request. They would like to donate the Dead Squirrel
Wedding to a museum that would restore and display all 74 creatures. If anyone wants to
get in contact with the Bakers, they should write to us. (c/o Hell Yeah Records, PO box
1975, Burbank CA 91507.) The end.
Dallas: We all ride motorcycles and thereās a song from a band I was in long ago called "Vicious Cycle." We're gonna do the tune and it'll probably end up as the cover of our next album. The photo will be us sitting on our bikes.
DJ Johnson: So tell us... who are some of the bands that had no influence on you whatsoever? The ones you hated and rebelled against, the ones you just found laughable... because I think I hear no Cher influence...
Jo-Ann: Whitney Houston, The woman who did Hey Mickey in the 80's Toni Basil, William Shatner (Kirk sings!!), Boyz to Men (fellow Philadelphians), Bon Jovi and other of his kind, Silver Bush, Smashing Pilots...you know all the alternative good music out now.
DJ Johnson: Elliot, how about you? The lack of Buck Dharma influence in your guitar playing is obvious, of course, but there's something else not there that I just can't seem to put my finger on...
Elliot: First of all, who the fuck is Buck Dharma? Was he hanging out with Joey, Johnny,and Dee-Dee back in the day? But seriously, Joe Satriani and Steve Vai I ain't, thank God! I wish I had some Angus Young though. Bangin' out the bar chords with a few cheap licks is my thing.
Cosmik: Who's out there playing these days that y'all actually listen to and like?
Ross: There are some good local Philly bands that I go see. Other than that, everyone wants to sound like Offspring. That is why I am stuck in the 70's.
Elliot: Ramones, Pegboy, Motorhead, Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black, Los Straightjackets, Fear, AntiSeen, Blanks 77... Our Philly favorites are Dr. Bob's Nightmare, The Stuntmen, Limecell, and Flag of Democracy.
DJ Johnson: Where all did you go on the tour last month?
Jo-Ann: We went to Morgantown West Virginia, Rochester New York, Cincinnati, Detroit, Iowa City, Denver, Boulder, Salt Lake City, Reno, Chico, Berkeley, Oceanside, Los Angeles, Albuquerque, El Paso, San Antonio, Austin, New Orleans, Pensacola, Birmingham, Tallahassee, Tampa, Miami, Savanna, Knoxville, and Roanoke. It was a great tour!
DJ Johnson: Any good war stories from this tour?
Ross: This tour we just returned from was kinda rough for me. Four days before we were to leave, I crashed on my motorcycle and broke my shoulder blade. The first two weeks were really rough. I had the bass strapped up really high 'cause I couldn't lower my arm, I usually play with my bass around my ankles. I just ate Percs every night and tried to stand as still as possible 'cause the slightest movement left or right was sheer agony. By the time we got to LA, I had the bass down to my knees, and I almost had full movement of my arm. Everybody was telling me all of these exercises to strengthen my shoulder, but I never had to do them. Playing bass every night was therapy enough. I recommend that if anyone breaks their shoulder, don't listen to the doctor. GO ON TOUR!
DJ Johnson: What I want to know is how the hell did you play Thorazine music on Percodan? That shit zaps me out and makes me go slo-mo.
Ross: Throughout the day I would take aspirin cause I am not into that constant fog feeling. When it came time to play I would use the live energy to get me through the show. At the end of the set I'd be toast, that's when the Percs came in handy.
DJ Johnson: Were you able to get your usual sound and play like you usually play? Seems like playing with a busted wing would make it pretty hard to stick to your technique...
Ross: No. I had to break everything down to the basic minimum, the root changes and maybe a fill if I was able. I usually play with a hard machine gun attack close to the bridge.
DJ Johnson: Speaking of sound, what's your setup like? It sounds like you're really pumping the wattage.
Ross: I use an Ampeg SVT pro III. It has an all tube pre-amp and it kicks out 450 watts. After checking out different cabinets I went with Mesa Boogie stacks. It knocks down small buildings, so I'm happy.
DJ Johnson: Elliot, what kind of equipment combinations do you use to get your sound? 'Cuz it's a kick ass sound!
Elliot: I use a Carvin Halfstack, which I bought from the band Shelter, it even has "SHRED ZINE" still painted on it!!! I use the clean channel. For distortion I use a Boss turbo Distortion, with a switch pedal to switch between regular distortion and turbo distortion for leads. I also use a Cry baby wah-wah once in a blue moon. I play a Gibson SG standard and a Ibenez 540 XT Custom.
DJ Johnson: Are you able to get your sound pretty consistent between live and the studio?
Elliot: My sound is always the same although I think I sound different live from the recording. I feel it is fatter and louder live. It seems that recording analog does my sound justice. The LP, which was recorded and mastered analog, sounds closest to live. When converted to digital CD, it loses a lot of beef and midrange.
DJ Johnson: That's interesting, because I thought you were playing a Fender guitar, and I only have the CD version of Uncle Paul. It still sounds good, but maybe just a bit more brittle than I'd expect from an SG. Have you tried to counteract what digital takes away?
Elliot: I think that is something the engineer has to do. If I was the engineer I would of kept more of the low and mid range. The reason it sounds like a Fender is because you hear more of the high end. There is nothing I can do to counteract the digital transition. All I can do is make my amp sound as good as possible and hope for the best.
DJ Johnson: Do you all record as hot as you can without blowing up the sound board?
Dallas: You know it!!!
DJ Johnson: Dallas just looks like he doesn't even need to be miked to get a major sound.
Dallas: Actually, because I play with a traditional grip and don't stomp through pedals, I do need to be mic'ed. Though apparently, I'm an easy set-up and soundmen love my minimalist approach.
DJ Johnson: Elliot?
Elliot: Again, that is something the engineer is in charge of. If it were me recording us, yeah, I would make the recording as HOT as possible without distorting.
DJ Johnson: What is the typical Thorazine crowd like? IS there a typical Thorazine crowd?
Jo-Ann: No, actually there is not. It is funny. We appeal to many people who typically don't come out to punk shows. We have people from the Society for Creative Acronisms, office workers, drunk punks, Dungeons and Dragons type gamers, and on and on. We always seem to draw a very mixed crowd in Philly.
DJ Johnson: So many bands say there is no real punk scene anywhere anymore, but at the same time, there seem to be pockets here and there. Is there a punk scene in Philly now?
Jo-Ann: Exactly like you said. Pockets. The scene here is very fragmented. If you play a bar, the all age kids hate you. If you play an all age club, all the bar people hate you. The drinking laws are very fucked up here. You cannot step foot in a bar till you are 21. We have a couple bands like Dr. Bobs Nightmare, the Stuntmen, Flag of Democracy, and Limecell that we always seem to play with here.
Ross: There is a scene in Philly, but it is made up of cliques. I despise the whole idea of scenesters and cliques, so I tend to stay in the background of the Philly scene avoiding the cliques as much as possible.
DJ Johnson: Do you get into it, as far as going out and seeing other bands at clubs and hanging out?
Ross: I like to go out and see a lot of different bands. As soon as they are done playing I like to hang out at the danky old man's bar and play pool.
Jo-Ann: Well, Elliot and I work in bars and clubs, so we see so many bands every week that if we do get a day off we don't go out to see live music. Elliot sees 16 bands a week!
Dallas: I don't drink, so there is really no reason to be in a bar and the all age kids just piss me off. Occasionally, if a band is recommended or they are friends, I go out.
Elliot: I am a soundman at Upstairs at Nick's, a club here in Philly. I see more bands than Valentino had women. We have a punk scene as well as other stuff, too. We rarely just go out to see bands because I work at the club and I play myself. Everyone needs a day away from live music sometimes.
Jo-Ann: Ross is actually the biggest show goer of the group. He usually shows up where Elliot and I are working.
DJ Johnson: What do y'all do for entertainment in Philly when you're not playing?
Elliot: Computer games are cool. I have recently gotten into an old flight simulator called F-29 Retaliator. I like to read sci fi novels and Stephen King. I love to ride my motorcycle. Everyone in the band has one and we ride around town together quite often, when it's warm.
DJ Johnson: Ever go on any long road trips on the bikes or go to any rallies?
Dallas: I've found that the guys in this town aren't into long trips. They'd rather go from bar to bar picking up chicks and getting drunk.
Elliot: Jo-Ann and I often go on long trips... when it is warm of course.
Jo-Ann: We usually wind up riding in town together. This past summer was Ross' first summer riding, so we didn't go too far all together. Out of all of us, Dal is the most active in the motorcycle world. This summer we were supposed to be on tour but it got bumped to the fall, so Elliot and I did a lot of riding. It was a BLAST!
DJ Johnson: How about you guys? What else do you do for kicks?
Dallas: I am very active in the martial arts, war games and computers.
Jo-Ann: On my day off, the last place I want to be is a bar. I am into my computer, reading... I also am the one in the band who does most of the organizing it takes to go on the road, which I use to help other band who want to tour.
Cosmik: Did you find anything resembling a "scene" while you were touring?
Jo-Ann: I am not sure. We feel we are never anywhere for a long enough period of time to give a proper judgment. While on the road, you come to town, play and leave. The judgment would carry no weight.
DJ Johnson: You and Elliot live together and work together. We know what that did to Stevie and Lindsay, right? How hard is it to make a relationship like that work? Ever want to kill each other?
Jo-Ann: Sure, I guess so, but we are very close friends as well as lovers. Even though Elliot is my lover, he wears many hats. For example, I react differently to Elliot "Band Member" than I would Elliot "Lover" or Elliot "Co-worker." If we are fighting in our personal life, we have to sometimes put that aside to rehearse or work, then later we can pick up where we left off.
Elliot: It's not easy sometimes, but we work things out. We
DJ Johnson: Before we finish this, I want to ask about the new songs. What are they like? Would they fit on Uncle Paul, or is this going to be a big departure?
Jo-Ann: I feel that some of the songs on Uncle Paul's were written when we first got together and we have grown some since then. The feeling will probably be the same, but I will let you know, since all the songs are not written yet.
Elliot: It will still be Thorazine, hard, fast and loud. I think I am too close to put my finger on the differences between the old and the new.
DJ Johnson: When you're writing new material, do you ever pull back a little and say "shit, this one's TOO mean!" You know, songs about sharks and castration and that sort of thing? Because I'd love to know what is too mean for Thorazine.
Jo-Ann: I think the only topic too mean are the ones that offend one of us personally... Other than that, all is fair game!
Dallas: We're not into the whole shock-value thingy, but nothing so far has too over the top. I don't wanna rag on cripples or something though. I personally don't do anti-God songs.
Ross: If I saw a news headline that read "DIVER DICKLESS
FROM SHARK ATTACK," I'd write a song about that.