Mischief Brew: Punk Rock is Like a Circus
Mischief Brew interview from Profane Existence #27. Erik Petersen talks about punk rock, folk and personal politics.
Feeling heartbroken after hearing the terrible news that Erik Petersen, the lead singer of Mischief Brew, has passed away at the age of 38, I’m continuing to bring back memories about his punk rock legacy. Jak Kerley, a close friend of Erik Petersen and a fervent admirer of his music, has already wrote a piece about his friendship with Erik for DIY Conspiracy. And here’s an old interview with Erik for Profane Existence #27 published in the fall of 2007, this was the first Mischief Brew interview I’ve ever read, it gave me a great insight into band’s music and politics. Rest in peace, Erik!
Is Mischief Brew a full band or is it Erik Petersen accompanied by random friends?
A little bit of both, actually! It’s become more of a band over the years. In the studio we’ve had lots of accompaniment and collaboration, with people from various bands and projects chipping in (Leftover Crack, World/Inferno Friendship Society, Guignol). Live, it’s pretty much a three-piece… and random assortiment of friends indeed. The current line-up is myself on guitar and voice, Shawn St. Clair on bass, and Chris “Doc” Kulp on drums, percussion, trumpet, marimba… Pretty much any other instrument. I feel like I’m part of a tiny circus.
How did you get started doing acoustic performances? Did it start as purely a solo act?
It all started by accident… In the later years of The Orphans, I was fascinated with the idea that rebellion in music didn’t originate in punk rock. Woody Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd” has all the elements of a punk song. Travelling, Robin Hood bandits, outlaws, shooting the deputy… It was nothing new, even in punk circles: even beyond The Pogues, The Levellers, and Billy Bragg, there was also bands like Chumbawamba, Blyth Power (ex-The Mob and Zounds) that combined punksong with folksong. Meanwhile, I got into more traditional folksingers like Pete Seeger, Stan Rogers, Utah Phillips… All what you could call radical storytellers. I started listening to Gypsy music, jazz, old country… a lot of LPs from the dollar bin in thrift stores. All of it came together as inspiration for me. I wanted a band, but for whatever reason it never happened… so I started playing solo at punk shows.
Can you tell us a little bit about your previous music experience? Who were The Orphans?
The Orphans was the first band I was in that actually got our shit together enough to play shows and make a record. I grew up on rap music, then got into metal, then heard Dead Kennedys while skateboarding and it all took off from there. I remember a teacher at my high school gave me a beat up cassette of Dead Kennedys’ “Plastic Surgery Disasters”. I heard the song “Terminal Preppie” and it all suddenly made sense. I had never felt so liberated hearing a song. Then from there we got into Black Flag, 7 Seconds, Circle Jerks… in retrospect, I’m glad I got into old school punk first before bands like NOFX, Green Day… the old stuff seemed much more real and pure. So The Orphans were basically fast snotty punk rock. I think that my time in The Orphans was the best, just because at that time in my life I needed to feel liberated through song: authority figures, teachers, parents all coming at me from different angles telling me all this was just a phase. It wasn’t a phase, now I’m almost 30 and I’ve been playing punk rock for half of my life.
Do you come from a musical background? How were you exposed to traditional folk music and what brought you to playing this style?
Well, I always listened to music growing up, I took piano lessons when I was very young… My mom played a little piano and my dad had an acoustic guitar which eventually became mine. But traditional folk, never. I feel lucky that the first music format I understood was vinyl and cassette, not digitial files.
What sort of shows do you play and are you more comfortable in front of some audiences than others? Do you ever get heckled when you play at punk shows?
I play all sort of shows with all types of bands. I’m not really sure why, but my songs seem to cross musical boundaries, with people from all walks of life getting into the music and appreciating it. Beyond the subculture: “normal” people, for lack of a better term. I’m pretty open to any type of audience. But overall, it’s even a mystery to me as to why the music spans beyond the boundaries of punk and anarchism. As far as heckling goes, I’ve been heckled but I can roll with it. I heckle back. When Mischief Brew played Lexington this drunk dude in the front took off his shirt and kept whipping it at me. So I kicked him in the chest. But overall, I consider Mischief Brew a punk band. We’re rooted in the punk scene and have anarchist-punk ideals. No matter where we venture to, however I grow as a songwriter, I don’t think it will ever shed that. I mean, hell, we cover Rudimentary Peni!
Do you always play alternative places and events? Have you ever played traditional old school folk events? In your opinion, what is the most bizarre show you have played?
Usually alternative places and events, that’s where I feel most at home. Because the music transcends genre-boundaries, I do indeed end up working with older folkies now and again. I like doing it, it’s funny watching the young punks come and go crazy in front of all their parents. As far as the weirdest show, that’s tough. In the early days I played this commune in Poughkeepsie, the people at the house didn’t even know I was scheduled to play, and then all of a sudden all these anti-Hudson-River-Pollution activists showed up and put their pajamas on and had me play in front of a hearth fireplace. There were long-haired guinea pigs running around with sharp fucking teeth that would bite me. That was pretty weird.
Do you think that acoustic punk is becoming accepted in the mainstream now that Against Me! has been signed by a major label?
I think of Against Me! as more of a rock band now than a folk punk band. But maybe, who knows? With bands like Flogging Molly and Gogol Bordello headlining huge festivals, it’s definitely a sign that mainstream punk is integrating sounds from different cultures. I think on the whole, that’s a good thing. I’m personally not interested in anything in the realm of mainstream, it’s never been my thing. But I also have no problem with Against Me either. I’ve never been one to get upset when a band gets huge. I think it’s funny. I remember when punk houses resonated wth the whole “Green Day sold out” argument. Then it was Rancid. Then it was Chumbawamba. Now it’s Against Me. They’re just the hot band of hate. Yet, I never hear, “Gogol Bordello sold out.” Which is probably because Gogol Bordello wasn’t rooted in the DIY punk scene. This scene we’re in is very unforgiving when it comes to bands getting popular. As a side note, let me just say that I think Gogol Bordello is a bit overrated. Check out bands like Balkan Beat Box, Firewater, World/Inferno Friendship Society, Romashka, Guignol… There are tons of “Gypsy-punk” style bands that do it way better and less gimmicky.
Please tell me about Fistolo Records—for example what does the name mean? When did you start it and why? You have recently done some non-acoustic/folk bands—will there be more of this in Fistolo’s future?
Fistolo pretty much started along with Mischief Brew. Denise (ed. – Erik’s wife) and I started all this together. She’s always been more organized than me… and She was the one who took it to a new level. She used to book shows in Baltimore (The Orphans actually cancelled on her once at the last minute, before I knew her!), and she did silkscreening, which was another thing I never did. So we had patches and T-shirts, the first Mischief Brew demo, old Orphans 7″s and tapes… all of a sudden we had a little catalog and a mailing list. Eventually we made enough money to put out the first official Mischief Brew CDEP “Bakenal”, so we realized, “I guess we have a label.” Fistolo is the name of a devil in Italian folklore. We’re both 50% Italian and love Italy, plus it fit the whole theme of deviltry, mischief, trouble-making, anarchism. Like everything else, it started by accident. We never really planned it out or really thought we’d end up releasing stuff by other bands, but now we have.
As far as the non-acoustic stuff, yeah, I definitely didn’t want Fistolo to be pigeonholed as solely releasing one genre of music. I definitely thought there wasn’t a label that represented acoustic-esque punk bands. These bands would always be the odd band out on another label. But we also had The Orphans discography in our catalog… and later started working with Witch Hunt just when people started writing us off as a folk punk label! We also helped release the Stockyard Stoics / Filaments split 7″, which I’m totally excited about. Overall, I consider the label “Carnivalesque Punk Rock.” Not so much defined by a sound, but a feeling, a tone, a mood. Punk rock is kind of a circus anyway… travelling, collectivism, the bizarre and outlandish. Definitely expect all sorts of styles in Fistolo’s future.
You have recently released an exclusive online collection of your early demos at downloadpunk.com. What brought about the decision to do an online exclusive? Will there ever be a physical version of this release?
It’s kind of funny… The physical version of this release is being released on cassette by Dead Format, which is a tape-only label from the Lehigh Valley, PA. So you got the modern online exclusive on one end, and the old school demo tape on the other! But as far as a CD version, not at this time. We’ve toyed with the idea of releasing the first demo “Mirth” as a limited benefit CD or something.
But like it or not, punk has translated into the digital realm. Major labels were too slow to accept this, and they wasted tons of time, money, and resources doing stupid shit like suing file-sharers. They shut down Napster, which was certainly far from a political entity… yet the closest thing to anarchism to happen to music, maybe ever. It was a revolution, not in the sense of a bloody revolt… but more like the printing press. It filled a gap, liberates people by putting the tools in their hands. All of a sudden, major labels aren’t needed. Now, I also think artists need to be compensated for their work… we’re all taking time off work to tour, record… and this shit costs serious money to do. The “market” is still growing and changing. At this point in my life, I see a store like downloadpunk.com as a great thing. It’s a sub-project of Hopeless Records. When we email them, the owner writes us back, always thanking us for working with them. You can control all your releases better than any other online store, and manage each individual artist page. We still sell through iTunes but we like to do all our exclusives through downloadpunk. Just to keep it in the family. I don’t think the CD format is dead yet and I don’t know if it will completely die. But it’s also funny to hear punks lamenting the death of the compact disk… I remember when bands were scoffed for releasing stuff on CD. So vinyl won’t die, and now there are tape-only labels again… CDs will get cheaper to do or bands will be forced to be more creative with their packaging.
How would you describe the state of the punk movement in Philly these days? My own experiences over the last few years have been pretty intense—is this always the case or is my perception that warped by only being there during big festivals?
I have a love/hate relationship with Philadelphia. Recently I’ve been shit-talking it, probably too much… all the bigger clubs are owned by larger booking entities that masquerade as independent promoters. Plenty of 21+ shows. After the Pointless Fest riot and fiasco, everyone talked shit on R5, but it wasn’t R5’s fault. I think R5 is a great thing. Because when you get to level of Bright Eyes or Against Me, at least these bands can come to Philly and play a non-Live Nation/Clear Channel show. I think that’s important. What Philly really lacks now is a mid-sized all ages punk venue like ABC No Rio or Charm City Art Space in Baltimore. There are basements for sure, but they come and go so frequently.
Speaking of festivals, do you know if there will be another Pointless Fest? Do you think such gatherings are worth doing in spite of being magnets for idiots and troubles?
There will never be another Pointless Fest, that’s for sure. It’s really unfortunate. As with most things that get fucked up in the punk scene, it’s usually the actions of a few careless idiots. I think the concept of the fest is a great thing, because on the whole what we are involved in is a punk community. And it’s great way to bring bands together from different countries into the same line-up, get old friends together. Is it worth it? Well, nothing is worth people getting mugged or sexually assaulted, or beaten and arrested. The tension between the hardworking people in the punk community and the scumfucks is building up… and after what I saw first hand at the last festival, I don’t think Philly will be the final fest-gone-bad. Granted Philly cops aren’t known for their compassion and de-escalating skills. But also I don’t think we should be giving up, settling for “well, I guess we can’t have fests anymore” just because of a relatively small group of apathetic assholes.
Who is the pirate pug? Anyone who knows you will well knows about your love of pugs—would you say obsession is an appropriate term?
Ha! Obsession, very appropriate! The Pirate Pug is actually a Frug (French Bulldog/Pug mix) that we adopted a while back, named Tiggy. He only has one eye, and we have to take care of his other eye. There’s so much wrong with dog-breeding. I don’t necessarily think licensed AKC breeders are the problem. Men in Black made pugs really popular (just like The Omen made Rottweilers popular in the States). Puppy Mills and shady breeders churn out these poor dogs, and they’re all inbred and taken away from their mothers too young, and they all have health problems. Pugs naturally have a lot of health problems, and people get them because they’re cute, but then realize what a pain in the ass they are… and have to give up them. So we work with pug rescues. We will never have another puppy again (unless it’s rescued).
Rescuing dogs is expensive and a lot of responsibility. There are so many problems with dogs in America, so many unwanted dogs put down each year. I just love pugs, I can’t explain it. Maybe cause they look like trolls. But yeah, anyone thinking about getting a pug: be advised that the puppies are maniacs, and they can have a lot of health problems. I’d suggest looking into rescues and no-kill shelters if you’re looking for a specific breed of dog. But getting back to your question, we made Pirate Pug stickers with Tiggy’s face on it to help pay for his eye-surgery. More info about this (and all Mischief Brew/Fistolo matters) are at www.mischiefbrew.com and www.fistolo.com Every little bit helps!