Friday, June 28, 2013

Moping and Cheating: An interview with Dan Vapid

Note: The following interview comes from a skype chat I did with Dan that, upon editing, will eventually be available in a longer podcast form.

Dave: I want to focus a good chunk of this interview on your two current projects, Dan Vapid and The Cheats, and The Mopes. But first I just want to get some background information on you. So lets start at the beginning. Based on your Screeching Weasel bandmates, I’m wondering what your childhood was like. I ask because when I talked to John and from what I’ve read about Ben, they both sort of had chaotic upbringings.

Dan: Yeah I had a very chaotic one as well. My brother had been in rehab like three times, and I also had a kind of a tumultuous upbringing. In a lot of ways I kind of related to Ben on that level because my brother had gone to drug rehab, and Ben had gone to drug rehab for two years. I think music got me through a lot of stuff.

I discovered music at the age of five. I remember being in my front yard and the neighbor across the street was telling me about Kiss. So I went over his house and listened to Kiss and David Bowie. I really liked Kiss a lot; it was a lot of heavy metal during childhood. That evolved into speed metal when I was about 13, and I saw the guys in Metallica were wearing shirts of hardcore punk bands.

Dave: Right, like the Misfits and Black Flag.

Dan: Sure, and of course I wanted to know what that was since those guys were listening to it. Then when I heard hardcore I fell in love with it. I started off in a hardcore band called Generation Waste.

Dave: There’s one live Generation Waste song on youtube. Did anything from that band get a proper recording or a release?

Dan: We had a demo tape. Back then bands had demo tapes that they would sell at their merch tables. Ours sold really well, and we played with all kinds of bands. We played with the early version of Screeching Weasel quite a few times, The Exploited, Corrosions of Conformity, Reagan Youth, and the Adolescents.

It was really good exposure and experience for me as my first band. But ultimately I was discovering that I liked the punk music with more melody to it. It started with Bad Religion and Social Distortion, and then I went back to the really early stuff, like the Buzzcocks, and The Jam, but of those bands it was the Ramones that really did it for me. This was at a time when most bands from Chicago were playing hardcore, and the only people at the time who were really into doing melodic stuff were Ben and John in Screeching Weasel.

Dave: So Generation Waste ended around ‘89, and that was the same year you joined Screeching Weasel and formed Sludgeworth, is that right?

Dan: Generation Waste broke up some time in ’88. Then there was a period of time I was trying to put a band together and nothing was taking off. I couldn’t find the right people, and it was just a year of trying to figure it out. Then finally some stuff had fallen into place by the time I put Sludgeworth together, and Ben asked me if I wanted to join Screeching Weasel. I was really excited about that because I was a big fan of their latest album at the time, Boogadaboogadaboogada!.

Dave: I found a show poster from 1990 where the line up was Sludgeworth, Chia Pet, and Trenchmouth. Do you remember anything about the band Trenchmouh?

Dan: Yeah that was Fred Armisen’s band! Sludgeworth used to play with Trenchmouth all the time; we played probably 15 shows with them. So yeah, I remember Fred.

Dave: Were you friendly with him at all?

Dan: Sure.  I didn’t really hang out with him or anything but when we played together he’d be cracking jokes, and I kind of remember him being funny. You know looking back I also remember thinking I had friends that were funnier (laughs). So when he did become famous on Saturday Night Live it was one of those things where I was a little surprised.

Dave: Getting back to your music, you actually started writing the earliest Mopes songs with B-Face when he was with The Queers and you were playing second guitar for them.

Dan: Yeah we were writing stuff for the first EP, Lowdown Two-Bit Sidewinder. We had been on tour and at the time were listening to a lot of Goofy Greats, a compilation album of novelty music from the ‘60s. That’s kind of how that whole thing transpired. It was meant to do just one time, but everybody was like “We gotta do another one!” I had songs that I’d written a while ago that were just sitting there, so basically half of The Mopes Accident Waiting to Happen album were songs that I had laying around which didn’t really fit Screeching Weasel. I can remember when Weasel did Anthem For A New Tommorow, Ben asked me “Do you have any songs?” I said, “Well I do but they don’t really fit.”

Dave: One of The Mope songs, “Squeaky Clean”, was first played as a Screeching Weasel demo, which years later appeared on the bands Thank You Very Little compilation. So at least one of them was deemed close enough to fit. However I was listening to that version of it, and then listening to The Mopes version of it, and they sound totally different. The lyrics are the same but I could see how the way you planned it out in your head, if it was intended to sound like it did on The Mopes EP, then I could see why you would tell Ben, “I have this song but it’s not really Screeching Weasel material”.

Dan: Yeah I think that was exactly it. Then there were some other songs where I thought it was more appropriate for me to sing them than for Ben to. Sometimes I would come up with stuff I thought he would be good at, but a lot of times there was a little bit of a disconnect, and that was the case with those songs that became Mopes songs.

Dave: By the time you guys recorded that first EP, you had left Screeching Weasel again and B-Face had just left The Queers. Was your departure a reaction to Weasel deciding to stop touring, and you just wanting to work on other projects if you’re not going to be playing live?

Dan: There’s a lot behind that. God I don’t even know where to begin with that! It really is a long story but to sum it up there was a bit of a falling out between Ben and I, and it’s a really long complicated story.

Dave: Yeah, what else is new (laughs)?

Dan: By that point when we had done the first Mopes record the intention was to do something that was fun because at the time it just seemed like Screeching Weasel wasn’t very fun. In the very early days it was fun and then it became, in my view, just very business-like, very calculated, very unfun. B-Face had gone through some stuff with Joe Queer, and he was kind of burnt out and was just like “Let’s just do this thing and just have fun with it.” That was kind of the whole point of it from the start.

Dave: So then you guys got John and Dan Lumley to fill out the rest of the band. Had Lumley already replaced Dan Panic in Screeching Weasel at this point? Were you guys ever bandmates in Weasel?

Dan: No, Dan Lumley and I were not.

Dave: So did you just know him from his drumming with Squirtgun?

Dan: Yeah I knew him through Screeching Weasel producer Mass Giorgini, who was playing in Squirtgun with him. Everybody was friendly, and it was just kind of one of those things that fell into place.

Dave: Did The Mopes ever do a tour?

Dan: No we never did a tour. We had played San Francisco at some Lookout! Records festival once, and we’d played Insubordination Fest its first year. We only played locally maybe two or three times, I think that’s about it. We were just a band that was a side band. At the time we formed we all lived in different parts of the country. At the time I was living right outside of D.C. in Alexandria, Virginia.

Dave: What were you doing out there?

Dan: My ex-girlfriend at the time was going to school at Georgetown and I just went with her. I lived there for two years, then we broke up and I came back to Chicago. But during the time I lived there, B-Face lived in Boston, Dan lived in Lafayette, Indiana, and John was still living in Chicago, but always traveling. It was one of those bands that you couldn’t really make work full time.

Dave: The lineup of you, and Lumley, and B-Face was the lineup that would record the first Methadones album Ill at Ease.

Dan: That’s correct.

Dave: So because the first LP from The Mopes was so drastically different from the EP, why did you decide to change the name of this group of musicians to The Methadones? I know you said before that you felt the songs you were writing at the time weren’t Mopes songs, was it because John Jughead wasn’t involved anymore?

Dan: That’s part of it, but there are a couple reasons. One is that at that time in the late ‘90s I went through this phase of really hating pop punk. I was like “this stuff sucks!” A lot of the stuff I was hearing at the time I didn’t like. In my mind when I had started The Methadones it was kind of a reaction to that. I wanted it a little faster and a little darker. At the end of the day it’s funny, because I kind of slowly crept back into doing what I’d been doing all along. When we made Career Objective I wanted to do something more like the Dictators or Turbonegro, but there were a couple songs on that which were kind of pop punk songs and I liked those the best. So by our third album, Not Economically Viable, we were more of a pop punk band again (laughs). I guess at heart that’s what I really truly like.

Dave: Did you approach John at all about being on the first Methadones record, since there was the whole Riverdales thing where he was the only member of Screeching Weasel left out?

Dan: I honestly don’t really remember what happened, it’s a good question. I’ll have to ask him. But that Methadones lineup was only for the first album; by the second one I had the lineup that was used pretty much all the way till the end.

Dave: Speaking of the Riverdales, did that seem weird doing that tour with Green Day where it was you, Ben, and Dan Panic? You had this whole back catalogue of Screeching Weasel songs that you put years into, and now you’re playing to this huge amount of people but you’re pigeonholed to playing only one Riverdales album worth of songs.

Dan and Ben Weasel playing together in the Riverdales
Dan: Yeah totally. The very first show that the Riverdales played with Green Day was a big festival with Radiohead, Beck, and the Foo Fighters. We opened the show, and it was during the day so I could see all 10,000 of these people in the audience, it was very intimidating. I remember after that set I was a little bummed out thinking that Screeching Weasel was much better of a band, and that really depressed me. I thought the first Riverdales record wasn’t that great, and Ben felt the same way. Looking back we’re both like “Man that record really kind of stinks!” But we had got the break that we got when we got it and we were trying to do it as a new band. If it were the Riverdales at a later time maybe it would have been better, but we just had that first album.

Dave: So you were talking earlier about how you’ve felt you had to write specifically for one band, like you’d say “Oh I wrote this song but it’s not Screeching Weasel material so I’ll save it for The Mopes” then “I wrote this song but it’s not Mopes material so I’m gonna make it into The Methadones”. With The Cheats was it the same sort of thing, since the band is ¾ of The Methadones.

Dan: It was. It’s not anymore.

Dave: Oh who left?

Dan: Mike Byrne is no longer in the band.

Dave: Well at that time did you consider because of that ¾ using the name Methadones? Or again did you feel like “This is gonna be something different, these songs are gonna be something different, so I’m gonna go with Dan Vapid and The Cheats”?

Dan: The Methadones were just something to me where I felt the band had run its course, and I think we all felt that way. We all liked each other, we got on each others nerves like any band does, but it was kind of at the point where it just felt stale. Every time we were playing it was hard for us to be into it, and it was that way for a while. I felt like we were always working on the band and we were constantly pushing it to make it work. At one point I was just like “I don’t want to make it work anymore.”

Dave: Let’s talk about the first Cheats album. To me it sounds like it could have been a mixtape of songs that you’ve written for your various bands. Some of the stuff like “Girl Group” would sound like something from The Mopes EP, and then these other songs would sound like a Screeching Weasel thing or a Riverdales thing. Was this a conscious effort or did some of these originate as songs meant for other bands?

Dan: Well a couple of them were supposed to be Riverdale songs but the Riverdales broke up.

Dave: Which ones were those?

Dan: They were “Baby Baby Get Over Yourself”, “I Just Wanna Be Happy”, “It Lives By Night”, and one more, I think it may have been “Torture Chamber”. I thought the way to approach that first album would be to just do whatever I wanted to do, no niche writing. If it sounds like a Riverdales song, fine. If it sounds like a Screeching Weasel song, fine. If it sounds like a Methadones song, or even something completely different, that’s fine. So if it sounds like a mixtape I think that’s cool, I guess it was somewhat intentional.

Dave: Is the second album gonna be like that as well?

Dan: There are some elements that are kind of like the first album, but then there are some that aren’t.

Dave: So when is that gonna be out?

Dan: The release date is July 30.

Dave: And what label’s putting it out?

Dan: That’s our label Torture Chamber Records. We put out our own records now.

Dave: Oh that’s cool! Do you plan on releasing any other bands or just your stuff?

Dan: We had talked about it but its kind of an issue of time and money. It’s possible that we will. For now we’re just focusing on our own stuff.

Dave: And is there gonna be a tour after that?

Dan: This month we’re playing Dayton, Ohio, Ft. Wayne, Indiania, and right outside of Cincinnati. Then we’re dong Insub Fest. In August we go out to the West Coast. There were some plans to go to Europe in October; those are still getting worked out right now. Plans for the rest of the year we’re also still working out.

Dave: Does everyone in the band, like you, have a family and kids where it gets a lot harder to tour?

Dan: No but they do have jobs.

Dave: (Laughs) that also makes it hard to tour.

Dan: Yeah the drummer is a manager of a Whole Foods, the guitar player is a graphic designer who works out of home, and the bass player is also a graphic designer but for a bank, so he has to work in a cubicle.

We do as much as we can do with where we are at in our lives. We manage to do about 30 or 40 shows a year. That’s as much as we can do with this lineup. If I wanted to try to get some other people maybe…

Dave: But you like who you’re playing with.

Dan: Oh yeah, we’re all really good friends.

Dave: Lets get back to songwriting. You’ve said that when you were writing for the Riverdales you’d try to think about how Dee Dee Ramone would write a song. Was that a Riverdales specific thing because that band was meant to sound a lot like the Ramones, or do you try to channel other specific musician’s writing styles when you’re working on songs for your other bands?

Dan: Definitely. I have a song on the last Riverdales album called “I Don’t Wanna Live Forever”, and I thought what it would be like if Dee Dee Ramone and Paul Collins from The Beat wrote a song. (Laughs) I was like “What would they do if they got together and they had a conversation?” You’ve got to allow yourself to still kind of be you while being creative, and sometimes when you’re really trying to sound like a certain thing you’ll do a poor job at it. I’ve always been a big fan of the Ramones but I’m also a fan of a lot of music, and it does make its way in there.

Dave: There was one interview I was reading where they were asking you about some of your songwriting influences, and you mentioned a bunch of musicians, then you said George Carlin, which I think is really cool. Can you give an example of a song where his outlook on life or the way that he works with words influenced the lyrics?

Dan: I think what I may have said is that there are certain people who just say inspiring things, be it George Carlin, the Dalai Lama, or Albert Einstein. They always have great quotes. I can’t really give you an example of George Carlin off the top of my head, but I find the way he saw the world to be pretty unique and influential. It can’t be duplicated.

Dave: So what were the influences when you were writing these new Cheats songs?

Dan: It’s really all over the place and there are small bits and pieces of lots of things. I like a lot of indie music, The Weakerthans, Jets to Brazil, Elliot Smith, Rhett Miller, and the Old 97s. I’m a really big fan of Death Cab For Cutie, I know that surprises people, but I absolutely love them. That stuff is kind of influential in a smaller way, it doesn’t give the kind of influence that will directly affect my sound but there’s certain ways that they might approach things that will affect the way I approach a song. They’ll do certain things in terms of how they fill out the sound, like doing a backing vocal or keyboard, or the way they approach a lyric. I still keep my guitars loud, and I still keep it abrasive and melodic, but there are certain ways that those artists influence me.

Dave: I need to mention the famous moment where you’re waving your hand in dismay at Ben after he punched a female fan at the final Screeching Weasel show you did with him. It's become entrenched in my mind alongside the video of a miserable Johnny Rotten asking if you’ve “Ever got the feeling you’ve been cheated?” at the last show the Sex Pistols did with Sid Vicious.

The famous wave
Dan: (Laughs)

Dave: I actually read Rotten’s book recently and he said the two of them ended up speaking once after that show, they got into an argument about Sid’s drug use and then never spoke again. Do you see the same scenario with you and Ben where you’re never gonna be on speaking terms?

Dan: I don’t really have any reason to talk to him. I’m not really angry about it anymore but I was angry about it for a really long time.

Dave: To end this on a happier note you and John had a falling out when you and Ben had reformed Screeching Weasel without him. After you left what was the reconciliation process where now the two of you are going to be playing together in The Mopes again?

Dan: He wanted to do an interview for his podcast and he reached out and said “Hey I just wanna see how everything is going”. I immediately dropped any bad blood. I didn’t really have anything against him to begin with. I think he felt upset that I had joined the band again, and felt like I was doing it without him. It was never a conspiracy where Ben and I were trying to get rid of John. I think it just kind of came with time and putting some stuff into perspective. Now we’re fine. We don’t really talk about it, it’s just one of those bumps in the road.

Dave: Who came up with the idea to reform The Mopes for the Insubordination Fest show?

Dan: That came up in a facebook thread (laughs). Somebody had said something about having The Mopes play Insubordination Fest, and I said “Well I’d be down if they were.” I had been in contact with John recently, and had been in contact with B-Face recently, and I thought they would be interested. I asked them and they were.

Dave: And is Lumley gonna be playing drums as well?

Dan: No Lumley is not playing in the band. The last time we played in 2005, I asked him and he said he was more into going back to playing metal.

Dave: Really?

Dan: Yeah he’s really into metal a lot. He was just like “Hey that’s cool thanks for asking me guys, but I just kind of want to stick to playing metal again.”

Dave: So who’s drumming now?

Dan: It’s the drummer that I had in The Methadones and in Dan Vapid and The Cheats, Mike Soucy.

Dave:  Thank you for taking the time to do this. Is there anything else that you’d like to say or plug before I let you go?

Dan: Just the new Dan Vapid and The Cheats record Two. It’s available on Torture Chamber Records on July 30th, digitally, on vinyl, and on CD. Look for it on Interpunk, bandcamp, and maybe even your local record store, hopefully we’ll have it in there this time around.            

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