Search through the iPod of any pop-punk fan over the age of twelve, and you'll see the names Screeching Weasel and Riverdales in the artists menu. Search through their closet shelves and you'll find where many of those iTunes files came from rows of compact discs that have sat untouched since the digital music era began.
Ben Weasel knows this, and he sees no point in contributing to the morgue of dead discs. The former Screeching Weasel/Riverdales frontman has just released a new solo album, These Ones Are Bitter. But you won't find it in FYE or Sam Goody or any non-virtual store for that matter. With the exception of the limited-edition vinyl release Edmond Records has planned for later this year, These Ones Are Bitter is available only in digital format.
It's the first album on Weasel's digital-only label, Mendota Recording Company, a project he knows will likely be a challenge given the "you gotta hold it to own it" mentality of many music fans. But without having to shoulder the cost of CD replication and having spent next to nothing on recording costs, Weasel's not exactly betting the farm on it.
"If the thing flops I haven't lost that much money, because I didn't put up that much money," Weasel says via phone from Madison, Wisconsin, his home for the past year. "If it exceeds my expectations which are very low I can feel like I was the first one on my level who did this." But his level is one not easily categorized. Though Weasel had his taste of the big leagues the Riverdales toured with Green Day in 1995 and influenced numerous mainstream "punk" bands, he prefers to stay out of the spotlight. "I've always been more comfortable in an underdog role, and when that wasn't my role, it became boring to me," Weasel says, describing the Riverdales' three-month tour with Green Day. "It gets to the point where it's like punching a fucking clock."
For the past two decades, the Illinois native (born Ben Foster) has been kicking up a racket both musically and as a former columnist in punk rags like Maximumrocknroll and Hit List, as well as his own fanzine, Panic Button. (Many of those columns would later turn up in his book, Punk is a Four-Letter Word.) Screeching Weasel formed in 1986 and dissolved three years and two albums later, only to reemerge in 1991 with a new lineup and a new full-length, My Brain Hurts, an album that laid the blueprint for the generations of pop-punk bands that followed.
Rooted in Ramones-styled minimalism and armed with an abundance of oohs, ahs and whoh-oh-oh-ohs, to say nothing of the melodic, three-note guitar leads and catchy choruses, Screeching Weasel became one of the most emulated (read: ripped-off) punk bands of the 1990s. The band broke up again in 1994 and, with the exception of guitarist John "Jughead" Pierson, morphed into the Riverdales, a back-to-roots band that negated any semblance of '90s pop-punk, going instead for the "golden era" Ramones sound. Two years later, Screeching Weasel came back from the dead, releasing a few more albums before disbanding for good in 2001. The Riverdales, having initially called it quits in 1997, regrouped in 2003 to release Phase Three, its final album. By then, however, Weasel had already released his first album, 2002's Fidatevi. That album was far more personal and reflective than most of Weasel's previous work (with the possible exception of Screeching Weasel's Emo). On These Ones Are Bitter, though, Weasel adopted a narrative approach.
"On the new one, I'm writing from the perspective of two characters in a relationship that's breaking up," he says. "Some songs were written from the male perspective, some from female perspective, and one that's both. I wanted to do something that was not as I wouldn't say the last album was a confessional, but it was personal. I wanted to get away from that."
Despite the ostensibly dour subject matter, the songwriting on These Ones is a lot brighter and poppier than on Fidatevi. All the essential pop-punk elements are here the vocal hooks, three-note guitar leads, oohs and ahs and this time around, there's more of each packed into every song. For example, the opening track, "Let Freedom Ring," starts off in familiar Weasel mode, beginning at full steam with a terse, catchy guitar lead that's followed by the introductory "welcome back" verse. Before the song's halfway mark, however, it gives way to a Fastbacks-styled instrumental breakdown (sans over-the-top guitar solos) before changing to a higher key and resuming the main hook, creating a crescendo on top of a crescendo something Weasel employs throughout the album.
What's most different about These Ones Are Bitter compared with every other album Weasel's made is its execution and production, courtesy of Weasel's Iron String Quartet. The group comprises guitarist Mike Kennerty (who also produced the album), drummer Chris Gaylor of the All-American Rejects, and Alkaline Trio's Dan Andriano. It's hard to refer to a punk album as polished without sounding the obvious alarm bells. But there's a difference between polished and slick, and These Ones embodies the former without succumbing to the excesses of the latter. It is, after all, a pop-punk album. This might not sit well with the lowest-common-denominator types who expect every new Weasel recording to sound like My Brain Hurts. They're the same people who think Weasel teamed up with Kennerty and Gaylor in an attempt to capitalize on their success. The truth, of course, is a lot more random.
"When I was doing press for the Screeching Weasel collection on Fat [Wreck Chords], they had me do a thing for Alternative Press where guys in famous bands interview their idols," Weasel says of his first conversation with Kennerty, who had chosen Weasel as his idol. "Mike asked what I was doing musically. I said, 'Here's my phone number.'"
Given Weasel's frustration with trying (and failing) to assemble a full-time band and the fact that Kennerty and Gaylor were willing to work for free, the decision was an easy one.
Weasel says he has tentative plans to release a follow-up to These Ones Are Bitter and continue developing Mendota. But first he must gauge the success of his current digital-only release.
"I know I'm not going to change the world with this stuff," Weasel says. "But it would be great to say I was able to do it, that I was the underdog but was able to pull it off. Part of the fun is doing something you shouldn't succeed at, but succeeding anyway."
Twenty-one years and more than a dozen albums later, that's something Weasel has proven more than capable of handling.