FOREWORD: I remember hitting dense traffic in Manhattan driving down the East Side Highway and being half-hour late for my Bouncing Souls interview at a tiny West Village bar. By that time, lead singer Greg Attonito had left. But the rest of the band was cordial and drank a few beers as we spoke. At the cusp of Jersey’s hardcore post-punk resurgence, this New Brunswick-based quartet was in top form in ’99 when Hopeless Romantic was released. ‘01s even better How I Spent My Summer Vacation, ‘03s Anchors Aweigh, and ‘06s The Gold Record followed. A tremendously entertaining live band, the Bouncing Souls have thus far survived. This interview originally appeared in Aquarian Weekly.
Buddies since they went to junior high in south Jersey, the Bouncing Souls continue to solidify their pop-punk-hardcore reputation on their fourth and most focused disc, Hopeless Romantic (Epitaph Records). More secure in the studio and tighter as a unit, vocalist Greg Attonito, guitarist Pete Steinkopf, bassist Bryan Kienlen, and drummer Shal Khici spit out catchy, boisterous, oft-times comical, high-gloss confections like it’s ’87 all over again.
The Bouncing Souls mine the spirit of punk-y antecedents, proudly wearing their badge of courage. I witnessed the Bouncing Souls at Tramps the first time, Thanksgiving Eve ’97. There was more fan nudity, comedic banter, and stage diving than at the recent May ’99 gig. But the quartet came off better than ever the second time, thanks to an ever-expanding repertoire, sharper instrumentation, and more melodic chant-alongs. The band not only got great response from the rambunctious “East Coast, Fuck You” and other well-worn staples, but also a pertinent version of Oi! Classic, “Ole” and rip-snortin’ new originals like the Brit punk-spiked “Fight To Live,” the bohemian football-styled chant “Bullying The jukebox,” and the jittery “Hopeless Romantic.”
I spoke to Pete, Bryan, and Shal a few days before their latest, and last, Tramps show.
What did the Bouncing Souls try to achieve with Hopeless Romantic?
BRYAN: We wanted to satisfactorily express ourselves and pull it off. Our songs have their own personality, and we try to tweak whatever knobs to make it right.
You’ve used Thom Wilson as producer for the last three studio albums. Why?
BRYAN: He has become part of the inner circle as a non-performing fifth member. He knows us on a deep level.
SHAL: He knows our music well. Like a best friend, he’ll tell us, ‘you could do better than that.’ We had this instrumental with a cool groove we thought was ready. Thom thought it was half-written because it was just a riff and a drumbeat. Meanwhile, we were satisfied already. We were gonna call it “Rinaldo,” after the Brazilian soccer player.
BRYAN: We’re like ‘watch our licks.’ Thom was like, ‘all right you lazy bastards, why don’t you write some fuckin’ lyrics.’ So we added guitar licks and came up with “Undeniable.” The songs that seem less characteristic of us happened spontaneously, like “The Whole Thing.” Thom was like, ‘That’s an idea. Now develop it.’ Sometimes we’ll smoke a big fat joint in the studio, play our instruments, and get on some kind of wavelength. That happened a few times on Hopeless Romantic.
PETE: Thom helped us get relaxed to the point where we could expand our songs.
Unlike most punk bands, the Bouncing Souls genre-hop through pop, hardcore, and hard rock with no ill effects.
BRYAN: We like all those styles, except we’re not afraid to be everything we like. Nobody likes just one thing. We respond to honest music with pure integrity.
The song “’87″ reminisces about hardcore’s peak year.
BRYAN: I think the first wave of hardcore was best since it came from somewhere within humans. Forever after that, a second wave of people only imitated that. We don’t imitate anything, The bouncing Souls have developed a unique approach.
PETE: Everyone in the band has different influences. They all show up in the music.
But how could four middleclass Jersey suburbanites embrace visceral punk firsthand?
SHAL: I think I could speak for everyone when I say everyone’s had messed-up stuff happen in their life. Regardless of what economic bracket, it doesn’t matter. Everyone’s had crazy experiences to develop angst.
BRYAN: I was a pissed off kid with a bad attitude. I don’t know why.
Have kids become more conservative since ’87? How has the hardcore audience changed?
SHAL: It’s just different. Kids are a bit more conservative since the market crashed around ’87. Hardcore shows change as much as our perception has changed. My version of hardcore in the late ‘80s was going to CBGB’s matinees. I thought it was totally dangerous and everyone was gnarly. There were a shitload more fights, but I was younger and smaller, and everything seemed bigger and more dangerous. It’s a whole different scene now. MTV is guilty of squashing the entire underground as any kind of threat. Instead of kids rebelling, they made the underground into a marketing tool. So there’s no political threat and it’s safe.
Do you make videos for any songs?
BRYAN: I like making videos for the art of it and for kids with cable stations and home video use. Our motto is: we draw the line with MTV. We dislike that shit. It sucks.
PETE: You turn it on and think, ‘This is everything I hate.’ Except Celebrity Death Match. That’s creative.
BRYAN: Otherwise, it’s like watching watered down Jerry Springer for frat boys. I’d rather watch VH1 Legends and Where Are They Now. When MTV took the revolution concept and put it on television, they snipped the balls off and re-sold it. Bouncing Souls aren’t kidding ourselves into thinking we’re a political threat. Our thing is the music we deliver on a person to person basis. If we could make one kid feel good about their life, then maybe he’ll overthrow the government. (laughter)
Tell me about “Bullying The Jukebox.” That song could rival the Dropkick Murphys with its in-your-face attack.
BRYAN: Yeah. I could see that. It’s sung like a pirate.
SHAL: It’s a true story about this one weekend where we were at a bar trying to bully the jukebox by putting $20 worth of coins in for one hour of play.
How’d you come up with the sordid Hopeless Romantic?
BRYAN: I was in bed with my girlfriend and wrote it in the middle of the night. It was directed at her, but not in a vicious way. There’s highs and lows of relationships. My point was, you put your heart on a plate and serve it to a girl like an idiot. That makes me a hopeless romantic while she’s a hard brick wall. Also, “Hopeless Romantic” is about romanticizing good ‘80s pop. We still feel its presence. It goes out to all the kids with big hearts. As ninth graders, we fell in love with music’s power.
Hardcore shows sometimes get out of hand because of misguided anger and misunderstandings amongst young, crowded fans. How could that be avoided?
BRYAN: Kids go to hardcore shows to let out aggression. My personal vibe is, be free to do whatever you want without bullying other kids or running the pit. If that happens, then you speak up. Otherwise, there should be an element of danger and an element of chaos with kids going ape shit, losing their minds, and looking scary.
PETE: It has to be positive. You could tell from onstage when you look out and see someone kicking a kid and acting like a redneck. It’s embarrassing.
Your nine-song live disc, Tie One On, was recorded in bootleg quality at the Continental. Why leave in chatter, missed notes, and unwanted distortion?
BRYAN: You play a live show and chances are you’ll go out of tune, break strings, and fuck up. It’s live. When you make a studio record, you make sure it sounds perfect. But in a live show, whatever happens, happens. We spent no money enhancing the live record. It’s an honest, cheap, punk-y show. And it’s sold cheaper than a normal CD. Any kid has his chance to tape it off a friend for free if they think they won’t like it. It’s not glorious, glamorous, or well produced. And it ain’t pretty. Anything goes. We feed off the crowds’ energy. It’s how we’ve lived for the past ten years.
What advise would you give to kids interested in starting a punk band?
BRYAN: Anyone could do it, but you can’t be a pussy and chicken out when the times get rough, because people throw obstacles at you from day one when you start a band. So few people make it. You have to have a song inside you and the guts to sing it. We blew off college and disappointed our parents. But now they accept us and think it’s cool. Remember, if you fill the world with bullshit, you’re doing a disservice. Find out who you are, and then be it.