INTERVIEW: John Pierson [Screeching Weasel/Even in Blackouts]

John "Jughead" Pierson has been a fixture on Chicago stages for twenty-two years. As a musician, he was guitarist for the extremely influential punk band Screeching Weasel, and now writes the songs and strums the chords for the acoustic pop-punk group Even in Blackouts (pictured above: Pierson with EiB's lead singer Liz Eldrege). As an actor, Pierson has been a part of The Neo-Futurists' long-running show Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind: 30 Plays in 60 Minutes since 1996. (If you see them perform, he's the guy with the crate.)

In the spare moments in between stages recently, John took the time to talk with Davecat about music and theatre, theatre and life, and what it's like to be an outsider in a scene you've influenced so heavily. Thanks so much, John: we truly apprciate it.


>>>> How much does being a member of the Neo-Futurists affect your daily life, and your life as a musician? Does any of the TMLMTBGB philosophy of non-illusory theatre, the stage as a continuation of daily life, etc. carry over into Even in Blackouts' live shows?

Being a Neo-Futurist affects every day of my life. Since we write short plays about our true experiences, almost anything in a day can be turned into a performance. It makes one aware of the universal elements in our own unique lives. Too Much Light also helped me to better write in a short, concise form, which lead to me finally being able to write a song. All through Screeching Weasel, I really didn’t think I was qualified to write song lyrics. Everything sounded dumb when shortened, but having to create meaningful multileveled material every week in TML helped me to simplify themes, and confirmed my already apparent style of abstracting nonlinear events, and writing through emotion instead of a literal linear logic.

I don’t know how playing live with music and theater have affected each other. I have been doing both equally as long, so they have always existed together. I tend to be much more out-of-control when performing music, I feel I am only tied to a rhythm and all else is chaos and dangerous potential. Theater, even in random order, is much more controlled, for the most part.

>>>> In the same vein, what connection is there for you, if any, between being onstage as an actor and as a musician? Between writing music and writing plays? Are they different mediums to explore the same ideas you're always struggling to express, or are your music and your playwriting separate?

I think much of this question came out in my last answer. I have been told lately that I am the type of artist who exhausts a theme, in a positive way. For instance in TML every few months I will show up with a play where I stick my head in a crate, or I walk in a crate, or do a head stand in a crate. Crates are a theme I am in the process of exhausting. I try to explore every aspect of a metaphor, challenging myself to make similarities feel different. This crate theme does not carry over into the band. But the writing for the band has a definite series of images and themes that I am exhausting: Ghosts, memory, family, decaying houses, miscommunication, and doors.

>>>> You've been a major figure in the punk scene, both in Chicago and elsewhere. Blink-182, Green Day, and others have cited Screeching Weasel as an influence, and you've been in the pop-punk business since the mid-1980s. How has the scene changed since you've been a part of it? Has time been good to the scene, or is it all going the way of the Fireside Bowl?

This is a hard question for me to answer. Much of my beliefs about scenes and my relation to them are exhaustedly explored in my book, Weasels In A Box. Even in a scene of outsiders, I felt like an outsider, perhaps we were all like that, but I had a harder time hiding it than others. All the bands you have mentioned, I have spent time with, have gotten to know them, but would never even consider myself a close or distant friend to them, I know nothing about their lives and their relation to their scene.

I could say that the kids of the early nineties appeared to be more excited by the foundation of the punk movement, people seemed to put more emphasis on social awareness, still believing in creating change. We believed in helping outcast kids struggling with a school system and culture that felt restrictive; a country that prides itself on individualism but doesn’t support it’s progressive arts, and is afraid of a child who questions his teachers and parents. Even when Ben Weasel was writing a goofy song about a girl, there was always an undertone, a moral system we believed in, fighting depression with activism instead of drug abuse, getting yourself out of a stifling town before it kills you; learning to see the similarities and differences in the things we may fear, like other cultures, sexual preferences, knowledge… Its not that I believe these elements are gone from music, it is the diffusion that is inherent in trying to emulate instead of being inspired. Many of the pop punk bands of today dominate their lyrics with meaningless, sugary, gumball chewing, sarcasm. We felt one of our goals in the punk scene was to rescue it from where hardcore had taken it, unknowingly, to a non-melodic, and very serious, pedantic, political leaning that left out the importance of a sense of humor, and playfulness. We brought back the melody and harmony into punk songs and magnified the playfulness and absurdity we saw in our forefathers: Circle Jerks, Adrenalin OD, Descendents. My one criticism would be that from what I have seen, the preceding generation may have taken the new leaning too far once again.

>>>> Most of the places you perform now are small in size: the Neo-Futurarium seats 150, many of the venues Even in Blackouts has played are bars and basements. What is there in particular that's so appealing about these intimate spaces for you? Would you feel comfortable on Broadway, or playing the United Center if the opportunity arose?

No, I would feel uncomfortable, but I would do it! I am not driven towards that lifestyle, but I do not scoff at them either. It’s just that my passions are planted in the exploration of the intimate. I love hearing the reactions of individuals and not those of a crowd or mob. It helps guide me in my pursuits more honestly. It is not a wise-financial move, but this smallness contains elements that are important to me.

>>>> Do you write specifically for Liz, or are words words and it doesn't (or shouldn't) matter if they're sung by her, another woman, a man, etc.? Likewise, when writing for TMLMTBGB, is the focus mainly on fitting the format, or are you looking to make plays that could potentially be performed by any group of people anywhere?

I think it is very important, this is not to say I can’t write songs from a man’s point of view for her to sing. It is just important to be aware of the point of view and tone, so that I am saying what I mean to say. I was more conscious during the beginning of the band, to write songs that were more sexually ambiguous. What is similar in our lives. I would talk to her about our relationships and try to construct songs that were true for both of us. If leaving were to be so easy is a good example, is speaks of the difficulties of love and personal space, and really has no specific gender. Later I played with putting myself in the woman’s position, and also writing from both sides like in "Curtain." The new record is sprinkled with songs written from the point of view of someone who has to deal with me, and dangerously self-contained people like me. This comes out in songs like "Untitled Conflict Song" and "517 East Highland."

In Too Much Light, is important not to get stuck in any one way of writing. We have to be so prolific that we would very quickly start repeating ourselves if we didn’t take into consideration who we are writing for and what are the circumstances involved in our current lives and environment. This is just as important for me in Even In Blackouts.