By Margaret Welsh
Pittsburgh Current Music Editor
Negative Approach doesn’t always get as much credit as, say, Minor Threat or Black Flag, but its lasting influence on hardcore has been significant. Formed in Detroit in ’81, the band’s furious, violent songwriting was punctuated by honest-to-goodness riffs, informed by local (for them) icons like the Stooges, the MC5 and Alice Cooper. NA also took cues from bands like Discharge and Blitz, but brought a fresh — and enduring — level of nihilism and belligerence to the genre.
The band broke up just a couple years after it began and frontman John Brannon went on to start rock ’n roll bands Laughing Hyenas and Easy Action. In 2006, NA reunited to play its label Touch and Go Record’s 25th anniversary. It was meant to be a one-off but, Brannon says, “We kept getting offers.” Thurston Moore invited them to England to play with the Stooges and the MC5. “And we were like: YES. And it was at that point that I met some guy from Belgium and he was like ‘We want to fly to Belgium and have Discharge warm you up.’ And we were like, ‘What the fuck, right? Ok.’” That turned into more shows, and then actual tours.
NEGATIVE APPROACH with CHILLER, MOWER, CHARGED D.I.S. 8 p.m. Tuesday, Nov.19. Blumcraft, 460 Melwood Ave., Oakland. $10. All ages.
Brannon spoke with the Current after sound check at a show in Memphis: Negative Approach and Easy Action are currently doing a duel tour, with Easy Action opening for Dinosaur Jr. and Negative Approach playing whenever Dino Jr. has the night off. “Everybody in Negative Approach is actually in Easy Action, so it’s kind of schizophrenic,” Brannon says. “I always have to look at my pass to figure out what band we are tonight.”
Negative Approach comes to Blumcraft, in Oakland, tomorrow, November 19.
You tour kind of non-stop and still keep things pretty DIY. I’m curious about how you stay sane and healthy.
We’re all sick as hell right now, trust me. [Laughs]
Its non-stop, it’s crazy. But you know, we wouldn’t do it if we didn’t like what we were doing, going on and playing, getting out there and doing the shows. We’re masochists. We’ll do it till we die.
Any self-care routines?
No. No. [Laughs]
As years have gone by, I’ve given up some of my evil habits. We can’t party like we did, you’ve definitely got to pace yourselves. Cause, uh, middle aged drunk people on stage is not attractive to the kids. Our whole thing is just to do the best show every night.
At a certain point drinking and partying and playing stops being wild and just becomes sloppy.
I mean, you know, we could do that when we were kids and bounce back. We definitely want to give the best show. And we have a lot of competition, all these young bands. We gotta show them how we can do it.
You play Pittsburgh pretty often, do you have any memories or impressions of the city?
That’s always a great place. Pittsburgh is, you know, its Midwest to us. The people are always cool, the people are always crazy. It’s always a fun time playing there. Got a bunch of friends there. The kids go nuts.
It’s a pretty welcoming punk scene.
Yeah, they have that Midwest feel where it’s not ultra-hipster. It’s like, ‘Let’s go see a show and have a good time.’ We feel at home there, you know?
What’s it like to be performing in Negative Approach at this point in your life? What’s your relationship to the project these days?
We started out when we were just kids. We had no idea that 30 or 40 years later hardcore was going to be huge. We were just going for the moment at that point, we were just happy to have a record out.
We had no idea that it would carry on to the level it is now. I mean, everything is punk rock now. When we were [first] doing this shit we were fighting the war. People were trying to beat us up because we were punk rockers, and had shaved heads and whatnot. Now punk rock is the norm. It’s like punk rock in grocery stores and in elevators. It’s just amazing that people are still interested in this shit. We weren’t really looking to the future at that point.
We never get bored playing that shit because we took so much time off. And the kids go nuts. Nobody ever saw that shit, it’s a whole different generation. I mean, we’ve got a whole following of 14-year-old girls with green hair that know all the lyrics to all the songs and we’re like, is this really happening? It’s kind of crazy that it’s going on.
When you’re performing in Negative Approach do you feel like you’re accessing your younger self?
Kinda, yeah. It’s like an adrenaline rush just playing. The music was good, and I still feel the same way about the lyrics. We didn’t really get into the political thing … the lyrics were kind of universal teen anthems. All that stuff I wrote, I can apply that to how I’m living today. So I’m not embarrassed to sing those songs. And it has kind of held up, you know, how I feel about everything. There’s a lot of things I don’t like, maaaaaaan. [Laughs]
I would imagine that going between Easy Action and NA from night to night, you’re probably playing two different characters.
It’s kind of different but completely the same. Negative Approach is a more youth-oriented thing, and Easy Action is kind of where we are today, it’s beyond the Hyenas and it just kind of has the feel of everything I’ve done on my records, and just what we’re doing today. With Easy Action don’t have any pressure to be a certain thing, we just do exactly what we want. If we want to write, like, a ballad, we’ll write a ballad. If we want to do a blues song, we’ll do a blues song. A hard rocker, we’ll do that. …We don’t feel like we have to fit into any mold.
Every band I’ve ever been in has been very untimely, I’ve never felt the pressure to keep up with the Joneses, do what’s popular. I mean, people usually catch up to what I’m doing 20 years later. And it becomes popular. Like, ‘Oh, ok. You’re finally getting it, ok that’s cool.’
Do you feel any kind of responsibility as a kind of punk elderstatesman?
I’m not trying to be a fucking role model. I’m just a music fan, I just like playing it. I just love that the kids of today are catching up to it. Like I said, a lot of the lyrical content was universal teen frustration …anti peer pressure, just trying to be yourself. And that’s always going to fit in with a generation of kids, that lyrical content. The lyrics were just good, the music was just good. It’s simple, it raw, its rock. People just relate to it, I guess.
When did you first start getting interested in music?
I gotta say, I probably started out with the Monkees. Watching the Monkees, and I was like, ‘Oh these guys all live together. They’ve got a band. They can’t pay their rent, this is cool.’ I mean, that’s when I was 6 or 7. And being from Detroit, my favorite is Alice Cooper. … I think I was like 10, I bought School’s Out by Alice Cooper. And at that point I was like, I want to be a singer. I love this shit. I still love that shit.
We were music fans before punk rock came along. I was probably 17, in high school, when the Sex Pistols came around. And we checked all that shit out. When I was growing up it was the glam rock thing, Bowie, T-Rex, Roxy Music … We were checking all that shit out too.
You mentioned something earlier about how punk rock is pretty much everywhere — what do you think is “punk” now? Or, I guess, what is happening now artistically that’s sort of dangerous?
[When] we were getting into punk rock, going to the record stores and hearing about a band, taking a chance and buying a record: you really had to explore to find out what you liked. Now everything is laid out for the kids. There’s nothing dangerous about it. Like I said, it’s just everywhere. It’s so, like, commercialized.
I think being normal is the most dangerous thing going on right now. People are still so scared to be themselves. We’ve always just done what we want. ….Just be yourself man: there’s too many people, like, cloning out everything. It’s all laid out for them. It’s too easy. So, there’s nothing dangerous about it.
We went to early gigs, we’d see a band and it would be, like, scary as hell. We’d be like, ‘Oh my God.’ Now it’s, like, eh, whatever. We’re trying to bring the element back, trying to scare the kids.
I think a lot about when I was younger, and how scary and dangerous music could sound, and how you could feel like you were doing something bad just by listening to it.
Right. Oh, totally.
It’s so rare to feel that when you’re older.
There’s nothing really freaking me outgoing on today. I tend to go back to all the shit I listened to in high school. From before I even got into punk rock. I mean, I listen to everything but I still go back to my early roots as far as shit I listen to.
Are there any younger punk bands that you’re into right now?
They’re not really punk, there’s a band from Detroit called the Stools. We just played with them in Austin. They just came out on Third Man. They’re kind of garage-y, kind of like the Cramps. Raw, stripped-down garage rock. They’re, like, really young kids. …Off the top of my head that’s probably the coolest young band I’ve seen on this tour.
There’s no one really blowing me away, I can’t really be like, “Oh here’s the band you’ve gotta check out.” I go see bands all the time, but it’s really got to move me to really hype it up, you know?
Anything in the wider world that’s inspiring you lately?
I don’t know, man, I’m just trying to stay alive, and keep playing [Laughs]. You know, I just …. I don’t know. I don’t know if I can answer that. I’m just trying to keep going.