Joe Briggs (not to be confused with the lead singer of The Briggs) has been writing in about punk for some years now, thinking about what it is, reviewing individual releases, brilliantly taking the piss and most recently writing fiction. Ned Samuel asks him what it’s all about.
You can find Joe’s work on somedaysthethundergetsyou.blogspot.com, isthispunkrock.tumblr.com, and in his zine Brutalist Shimmy. He also does a podcast with his friend Tommy called Full Throttle Lazy, and has collaborated with cartoonist Mitch Clem on Nothing Nice to Say.
First things first, how did you get into punk, and what keeps you interested?
I got into punk in a fairly boring way. Through bands like Blink-182 and The Offspring. I heard those bands and I liked them a lot so I started looking for more stuff that was like that, stuff on the same label, stuff they mentioned as being influences, following up on the punk bangers on the Tony Hawk soundtracks. I started getting classic punk albums, Fat Wreck, Epitaph stuff and what-not. If there was one classically epiphanic moment it was getting a copy of Punk-O-Rama 6 from the local independent record shop (which sold only CDs, being 2001/2002) and hearing True Believers by the Bouncing Souls and thinking “Yes. This is it.” When I was 16/17 I found a punk webforum that opened up a whole world of stuff in every direction, Oi!, folk-punk, pop-punk, gruffpunk. I got massively into 80s hardcore, Bad Brains, The Dicks, C.I.A.. There’s a great Stewart Lee article where he talks about how the internet has destroyed many notions of canon so you stop getting into things slowly, in the accepted way or order, you just get into whatever. So alongside real classics like Black Flag, I was downloading Nunfuckers demos on Soulseek and all sorts of obscure shit, scouring Kill From the Heart’s 80s hardcore archive for bands that dropped one single and then disintegrated, F, Jackshit, stuff like that. The internet meant it also wasn’t a steady progress towards rawer harder stuff. I was also big into Plan-It-X folk-punk (thanks to AM! and Reinventing Axl Rose, a massive album for me and I know a lot of other people, another thing, like True Believers, that kind of laid a rough path in its lyrics as a sort of better way to go) spending a year blasting no-fi nihilistic Johnny Hobo songs about suicide and drugs I was cool enough to do. After that I spent a solid year or so burning Screeching Weasel’s discography into my skull along with plenty of other ramonescore pop-punk. From there it gets even messier, the final Paintbox album blew my mind and led me deep into Japanese hardcore and punk, Los Crudos got me into hispanophone stuff, New Bomb Turks into garage, I thought Charles Bronson’s Discocrappy was wild, blogs introduced me a million things. I’ve never really hung with just one kind of punk.
I think this desire to always find new shit is some weird compulsion, like a musical version of Sarah Winchester and her Mystery House, basically I don’t want to become static. Because you bump into the people you hung out with when you were 13 and they’re still blasting Blink-182, Linkin Park, Papa Roach, Sum 41, you realise that they, just like the people from 40 years ago still just listening to Pink Floyd, found one thing and never moved on, never developed in that respect, they turned into exactly what I really did not want to be when I was that age. So that compulsion is probably part of what keeps me invested in this culture, but mainly it’s just such an impossibly important part of my life in so many respects now, friends, relationships, philosophies. I’ve known so many great people through it, had amazing experiences. I have no idea who I would be without punk rock. The thing about True Believers, is that ultimately it’s a song about a journey undertaken, but one, if not completed, then with many miles on the clock. So when you here it at 15 you’re not actually relating to what the song’s singing about, you’re engaging with it in the hope that you can achieve it. As a teenager you don’t really have shit-all life experience most of the time, so a song that promises something ahead, that resonates with lived-in struggles can really fucking grab you. At the same age I used to listen to those late Johnny Cash albums a lot, things loaded down with a shit-ton of history, and really feel them, really feel the pain and years in them, even though my life was entirely removed from everything on there. There’s a grasping for epicness, or for a part of a bigger picture, definitely for belonging, that comes with the time when you first start to define yourself. And that belonging doesn’t come easy. A few months ago, shortly after Static Shock Weekend, True Believers bounced up on shuffle and I listened to it for the first time in probably a couple of years and had another holy shit moment, no longer feeling a pang of alienated wish-fulfilment, but realising that this dumb kinda bro-y pop-punk actually did speak honestly to a lot of stuff I’d been through, that I was part of. The hope living in this silly song tucked in the middle of a five quid label sampler from half my lifetime ago had coalesced into a shabby sort of reality, the promise, unspoken in so many punk songs of my youth: GIVE THIS PUNK SHIT EVERYTHING YOU’VE GOT AND YOU’LL BE ALRIGHT, that promise realised. I’ve actually become the wanker that can say hello to twenty people at a show, can have a long conversation with someone about my favourite Italian hardcore records. I’ve made it this far. I’m not gonna back out. Punk rock is what I’ve got. It’ll never be a religion but it might just be a faith. And faith requires work, engagement, struggle. So I can’t get out of it now. Plus I just got this Porno Cassettes 7″ and Your Face, A Fucking Disgrace downright kills. Another reason to stick with it for another day.
I get what you’re saying about True Believers – which is a banger.
Getting into your writing that taught me a lot about bands outside the ‘it’s on Epitaph/Fat Wreck/Tony Hawk’ or ‘they’re in a book on punk’ canon. What are your influences as a writer on music? Sometimes it seems to draw on stuff outside music journalism, like modernist fiction.
Lester Bangs’ James Taylor Marked for Death and Ellen Willis’s Beginning to See the Light are probably my two favourite pieces of music writing (those two writers and Simon Reynolds are so good they’re the sort of people you can’t read too much cos I’d just get annoyed with myself for not coming close) and there are loads of fantastic music writers around today who also are constantly fascinating/enlightening/intimidatingly good in their writing: Jes Skolnik, Ayeesha A. Siddiqi, Maura Johnston, Bryony Beynon, Ann Powers, Maria Sherman, Zachary Lipez, Sam LeFebvre, Gary Suarez, Todd Taylor, Jia Tolentino, Jenn Pelly and more, but I don’t think anyone can become a good writer if they’re only looking at one type of writing. I don’t think any of those writers just read music journalism, I think someone would be a pretty bad writer (and also go fucking nuts) if they did. If you’re only inspired by one thing you’re probably gonna end-up as a pale copy of that thing, a victim of second-artist syndrome. This is particularly true in writing. In music, especially in punk, there are worship bands that turn their slavish dedication to one sound into a warped monastic virtue, Disaster sound like they didn’t know there were bands that were not Discharge when they recorded War Cry and I love War Cry so much I was drunkenly contemplating stealing an earthenware jar that had I.C.I. printed on it from a fancy pub last night.
But in writing I think you really need to read as widely as possible. I love good criticism of any form. TV writers like Jacob Clifton, Pilot Viruet, Grant Nebel, Emily Nussbaum, Sonia Saraiya film writers like Pauline Kael, Kier La Janesse, Sarah Horrocks, Sean Witzke, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, comic critics, game critics, even if I’m not into something or I know nothing about, I love reading some lay it out and dissect it with expertise and passion and talent.
Most of my reading though is fiction with a bit of poetry and occasionally some theory mixed in. I’m not sure how much a lot of these writers influence me specifically but I’m sure there are bits and pieces of a lot of them, sometimes I might deliberately try and rip something off, a certain bit of phrasing, a technique or two, but I think generally its a slippery collage of various attitudes and rhythms (I think rhythm is probably the main thing I think about in my writing). So some of my favourites are JMG Le Clezio, John Berger, Richard Stark, Dambudzo Marechera’s Black Sunlight, Toni Morrison’s Jazz, Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree, Aaron Cometbus, William Burroughs’s Red Night Trilogy, Kathy Acker, George V. Higgins, James Joyce, Bob Hicok, Terry Pratchett, Zora Neale Thursten’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hal Duncan, Kurt Vonnegut, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Ian McDonald, China Mieville, Thomas Pynchon, Laszlo Krasznahorkai, Warren Ellis, Alan Moore, the Hernandez brothers, Garth Ennis’s Hitman, Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, William T. Vollman’s You Bright and Risen Angels, Lucius Shepherd’s Life During Wartime, Jeff Noon’s The Needle in the Groove, David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, John Brunner, Will Christopher Baer’s Phineas Poe Trilogy, Primo Levi, Yukio Mishima, Grace Krilanovich’s The Orange Eats Creeps, Harry Crews, Samuel Delaney, Steve Aylett’s Accomplice Quartet. Louis-Ferdinand Celine, Velimir Khlebnikov, Daniil Khaarms, Jorge-Luis Borges, Roberto Bolano, Nalo Hopkinson. Qiu Miaojin, John Hawkes’s The Beetle Leg, Edward Whittemore’s Jerusalem Quartet, Alasdair Gray’s Lanark, James Lee Burke, Mark Richard, Fernando Pessoa, Iain Sinclair, Eduardo Galeano’s Memory of Fire, Samuel Beckett’s Company and a bunch more. I always try and read from lots of different literary traditions, in different genres, styles, from different countries, continents. Although a lot of the time I do just fuck it off and read a bunch of Warhammer 40K tie-in novels.
I really like the notion of craft being more important than art though. Repetition and drive being more than inspiration. Those pulp writers like Michael Moorcock or Theodore Sturgeon or Donald Westlake who just cranked stuff out. Films makers like Takashi Miike, Sam Fuller, Johnnie To, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, where each film is a part of what they can do, another section of their palette, not putting everything into one massive thing, the great stuff arriving just as another slice in their oeuvre, not with the blaring fanfare of masterpiece. The idea of making art for your dinner as much as writing for your muse is what I really get down with. I think New Bomb Turks’ Born Toulouse Lautrec probably has a greater single influence on my writing philosophy than anything else. “All work is honorable/Yet art is just a job/Let me spend my paycheck on a beer/No heroes, no leaders, no artists, no gods/I’m a worker, you’re a worker/Wouldn’t you like to be a worker too?”
Also, inevitably, I think a lot of direct spurs to writing are from bad writing. Many of the things I’ve written (there’s a great Stephen King quote about how realising that some published writers are shit is really important for developing as a writer) have been out of spite. Nothing pisses me off more than a positive review of an album I like which entirely misses what I think the point of why the album is good. There’s a lot of terrible writing out there, and I have a certain list of words or clichés that I always try to avoid when writing: musical recipes, ‘the bastard lovechild of’, the word ‘honest’ being used as a synonym for ‘I agree with the politics on show’, the word ‘poetic’ used to describe lyrics. The one that’s been pissing me off lately is the phrase ‘step forward’ as if music is some kind of linear progression to one point of bland critical consensus.
And then obviously, all the other shit that happens to you. Other interests, friends, twitter, work, TV, the news. It’s impossible to put everything into everything, but something goes into everything and everything goes into something.
You recently contributed a short story to punkPunk! which is an anthology of short fiction based around (perhaps obviously) punk. How did the writing process differ from music journalism? Are you drawing on the same writers? And also, what’s it about?
With criticism you’ve always got something to latch on to, for things to revolve around, no matter how digressive you get, with fiction that doesn’t really exist, you’re freer, which is cool but also scarier. I’d be drawing on the same writers and things that inspire me but some more than others. George V. Higgins doesn’t really come into play so much if you’re writing music criticism, because his novels are 90% dialogue, but in fiction he’s someone who I think is essential to have in the back of your mind. I wrote fiction first. A few short stories, several abortive attempts at novels, the first of which when I was 14 or so which was an inevitably embarrassingly terrible bildungsroman inspired equally by Rancid songs and American Pie where the barely-veiled version of me was supposed to get laid at the end of the story. Thankfully it is lost in a dead computer. The furthest I got into any novel was 35000 words or so into a post-apocalyptic thing which did have some nice stuff in it I think but didn’t really hang together at all and was pretty structurally sexist in a lot of ways. I’ve cannibalised bits from that that I thought were worth saving into other stuff. I really started writing music criticism out of frustration that albums I liked and bands I loved weren’t being written about it the way I felt they deserved to be written about. Then the Is This Punk Rock? blog basically began as a joke that got out of hand and I ended up writing 150,000 on it. I did get kind of disillusioned with writing fiction for a while mainly cos I just decided that real shit was more important, knowing real people and having genuine experiences seemed more worthwhile than flattening encounters into caricatures, stuffing the tough entanglement of life into plots and paragraphs just felt trite. I realised that in some ways I’d been using it as a crutch to distract from the fact that I was not in a great place in my life in a lot of ways. I still feel that in some ways. I want to get back into to writing more fiction, but hopefully I’m better situated to craft something that doesn’t ring as false as a lot of the stuff I penned felt.
The punkPunk! thing happened cos I’d already started kinda thinking of that as a good descriptor for my writing and I googled it to see if anyone else had thought of it and I found the call for submissions so I punched up one of my older pieces and the guy liked it. The story’s kind of just a punk rock vignette, not much really happens. It’s inspired by a bunch of things people have said to me that have stuck with me all spliced together, a couple of situations I’ve been in. A weird thing is that there’s one part of the story, about people singing along to Doug Mulray’s fakepunk classic I’m a Punk, which was not based on my personal experience, but a few months after I submitted the story and it got accepted, I was in a bar after a show where that happened and I felt like I was living in a Goosebumps story about a magic typewriter. Maybe I really should’ve persevered with that terrible novel at 14.
Alright, to wrap up, let’s pretend you sang in a classic 80s hardcore band. ‘So finally, Joe, what do you have to say to the kids?’
I can’t think of much that wouldn’t be incredibly patronising, so I guess just: try not to act like a prick, don’t be too hard on yourself when you inevitably end up acting like a prick. And up the punx, whatever that means for you.
[interview conducted by Ned Samuel, originally published in No More Gigs issue 5 in a slightly different form, April 2015]