Punk Rock, Lusty Scripts, and Stuff that Matters: An Interview with Brian James Schill

Earlier this month, Brian James Schill first book, The Year’s Work in the Punk Bookshelf, Or, Lusty Scripts, came out from Indiana University Press. We’re pretty lucky to have an in with Brian because, up to recently, he served as undergraduate research coordinator in the honors program at the University of North Dakota and he’s still hanging out on campus. We’ve also asked him to help out with North Dakota Quarterly (so you’ll hopefully be hearing a bit more from him in the coming months and years).

Punk Bookshelf

I started to send Brian really long email questions that were as much about me as about his book, and Brian graciously engaged with me – at length!. So as his book is getting reviewed by places like Los Angeles Review of Books (and, other, less distinguished venues), I’m pretty excited that he was willing banter with me about punk rock, his new book, critical theory, politics, and other stuff that matters. Be sure to scroll down for a sound track!

Bill Caraher: My first question is inspired by an anecdote in the book, when you describe an interview Iggy Pop gave to late-night host Tom Snyder, in which Iggy argues that punk rock is Dionysiac as opposed to Apollonian art. Is your book Dionysiac or Apollonian in its reading of punk?

Brian-James-Schill.jpgBrian Schill: That scene is great, isn’t it?  So far as the book itself is a piece of criticism and scholarship—“academic” writing—it’s Apollonian, I suppose. It’s trying to take all that punk Dionysian content and make sense out of it on several levels—historical, socioeconomic, psychological, aesthetic. And that’s what academics and the news media and markets do, right—solidify and kill living, dynamic cultural objects? That’s, of course, why punk’s own advocates said it was dead by 1978, if not sooner. And I believe that was and remains true. Having said that, it evolves; there is always going to be some Dionysian avant-garde, and it’s not necessarily wrong to categorize something young people are doing in a wild and anti-capitalist sort of way as “punk” even today. For what it’s worth, though, I drank a lot over the course of writing the thing, which is sort of Dionysian.

To follow up on the Apollonian character of the book a bit and to maybe think a bit about the Dionysian, there were times in the book that I felt overwhelmed with the dense web of theory, references, bands, and books. I wondered whether this density was an allusion to the energy of punk, the almost frenetic cacophony of thought and emotion. Did you feel at times, that your book and punk shared something, maybe in intensity, maybe in density of sound, and maybe even in the ragged edginess in which you “always leave them wanting less”? 

I think so. Form and content are always-already intertwined, right? This might also just be a reflection of my brain. I’m wired such that much of the music I return to is stuff that builds layer upon layer and seems to end in what sounds like chaos or white noise but is really just a very precise assemblage of often complementary sounds—an argument that at a distance resonates well. Like Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music (which may be a shit-eating grin) or something like Throbbing Gristle or Cabaret Voltaire. Sonic Youth’s “The Diamond Sea” or Wilco’s “Poor Places.” Both of the latter songs start innocent enough—melodic!—but by the end are absolute noise, fragmented found sounds and feedback loops. I think my methodology and writing are a bit like that. Sometimes it works as prose, as a narrative; sometimes it doesn’t. And, yes, I do think of punk in that way: it’s often deceptive in its form (“Anyone could play that!”) but the content can be very complex and dense. The other answer to that question, though, is that I’d heard somewhere a long time ago from some prig that writing that makes use of extensive quotations and references is more “feminine”—that it’s more “masculine” for a writer to push ideas forward in “his” voice without relying on other voices to clutter up the individual author’s genius or voice or argument. And I thought that was obviously a problematic generalization. So I often go out of my way to draw in as many disparate ideas and references as I can, to write in a so-called “feminine” way in so far as that not only seems to get at the complexity of culture and aesthetics (especially music) better anyway, but is also a middle finger to patriarchy, which is to say the literary market. . On a similar note, though, it’s also no surprise that early punks at least often framed themselves as “androgynous” and that, as the book makes clear, I frame punk, which is to say myself, I guess, as occupying a female subject position generally.

Along similar lines, one strand of influences that I really wanted to know more about – as a kind of honest counterpoint to their more erudite reading – was popular culture. My punk tastes often drifted to songs like The Germs cover of Chuck Berry’s “Round and Round” or The Heartbreakers playing “Do You Love Me?” or the Voidoids covering Fogerty’s “Walking on Water” or the Minutemen’s “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” How does this aspect of punk fit in with the more intellectual side of punk reading. Surely this isn’t just ironic?

Agreed. Not just ironic—in many cases not ironic at all. I think a lot of these covers are borne out of a genuine love of the songs in question—the bands’ love of pop music. Like most of Nirvana’s covers of David Bowie or Leadbelly or the Vaselines. Hell, some popular songs deserve to be heard by everyone—they’re just perfect little musical compositions, like “Sympathy for the Devil” or “Jolene,” or most of the Moana soundtrack. Many of these covers, though, are also inversions and/or critiques, right? So you could look at Saul Williams’s 2007 cover of U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and see what he’s doing with that song’s content as a black American writing during the George Bush years. Or—the Raincoats’ cover of the Kinks’ “Lola” or Silkworm’s BRUTAL, almost asexual cover of the Faces song “Ooh, La La,” which feels like an attack on the sexist granddad of the song, a gaslighting of Rod Stewart that turns both the granddad and Rod Stewart, which is to say sexists, into the very objects that their own discourse, in the song, turns women into. In these cases, I feel like the bands may be intellectualizing the songs that were not originally supposed to be treated as such. Complicating the songs’ ideological assumptions and impact and so on by presenting them to an audience in a skewed or self-critical way. Didn’t John Doe of X once point out that all this pop music—even punk—is just “folk music”? I buy that to a degree, and if that’s true then of course punks are going to cover their favorite progenitors in homage just like Dylan or the Beatles did.

I get that punks looked as much toward their pop, or even in the case of the Mekons and Wilco, their country and folk, predecessors and your literary critique did a nice job defining punks as embracing certain intellectual positions. But my question is how do we place this movement in its historical context in both the US and the UK? Did their literary tastes position them politically or did their politics drive them to read certain literature?

The latter. So, if the premise of the book to theorize punk as the embarrassing and embarrassed underside of the market economy, my point was that this subjectivity, especially in socioeconomic and/or ontological terms, pushes punks toward a particular series of texts or authors that also articulate what it feels like to be in the position of what Judith Butler called the “abject subject.” Put another way, it is punks’ experience as having been essentially turned into animals by capitalism, the Church, the state, and the professional class that turned them on to Burroughs, Kafka, Philip K Dick, Rimbaud, Henry Miller, Nietzsche, and so on. Those authors articulated similar feelings of shame as abject subjects in ways that, say, Hemingway or Heidegger did not (at least not as explicitly), which is why those authors don’t come up in this book and are typically not referenced by punks. And, yes, that experience is especially salient in the middle- and late-1970s and after in the U.K. and North America. I’m tempted to reference Franco Berardi’s 2015 book Heroes here (which I had not read before my manuscript was submitted to the publisher back in 2016). Berardi calls 1977—my birth year and the so-called “year punk broke” and all that, right?—the year of “passage beyond modernity,” the year “human history came to a turning point.” Not because of punk or the death of Elvis or Star Wars or the incorporation of Apple computers, but because that time marked the full emergence of neoliberalism as ideology. So the “events” I just described are simply symptoms of that emerging ideology, with which we’re still grappling today. I’m also reminded of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men here. In that book—which is set in 1980–you have Chigurh as this unstoppable personification of history and/or neoliberalism conducting business without regard for others in a truly free market sort of way. Everyone is subject to his will and altered for their having crossed his path. And the old timer sheriff references punk at the end, equating the emergence of this “new kind” (Chigurh) with kids who (in resistance to that ideology) have “green hair and bones in their noses.” Maybe it wasn’t that punks’ own politics drove them toward a certain literature so much as political economy as a category drove them toward that literature at that time and after—even today, although with less regularity. I think that Julian Temple’s The Filth and the Fury film does a good job of exploring this idea too.

More to the musical point, do you see the punks as different from, say, prog rockers (who often positioned themselves in much more overtly literary ways) or even the the long tail of the hippy movement (the Grateful Dead, for example) or the flowering of R&B, blues, (and, ultimately, on of my favorite genres punk blues – famously the White Stripes, but also the Oblivions and bands like that)?

I do. Acknowledging that punk in some ways can be connected to the hippie movement (the Fugs, etc.), I think the two groups (and I’ll unfairly lump the prog rockers in with the hippies just to piss off my friends who like Pink Floyd and King Crimson) are going in very different directions ideologically. Just think of the difference between what Electric Light Orchestra was trying to do with synthesizers and performance in the early-1970s (or even Kraftwerk) versus the band Suicide. That’s a fissure that cannot be papered over. I think many punks—in 1977 or now—saw the hippie movement and prog rock as an endorsement of a self-congratulatory postwar hedonism and “spectacle.” As self-indulgent and ironically apolitical in ways that not even country and western or folk music were at the time. Acknowledging the social and political critiques embedded in The Wall or songs by the Grateful Dead, punks saw that cluster of often self-centered artists-musicians ultimately apologizing for and bolstering rather than critiquing political economy, structural violence, and so on. I mean, what emerged out of that “counterculture”? Neoliberalism itself:  Bill Clinton, Steve Jobs, Ken Burns, arena rock, Ben and Jerry’s. Fucking Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles. I’m generalizing, but most of that music was really pretty self-serving at its core—arguing on behalf of the establishment that the market and “pop” can be a force for good and we can use capitalism to save the environment and ourselves or reform our public schools and all that nonsense. Punks are still skeptical of that argument, for good reason, if the last 40 years have been any indication. Were they literary? Sure. Yes, Steely Dan is a William S. Burroughs reference. But Led Zeppelin ponced around singing about Hobbits while Emerson, Lake, and Palmer were all into Romantic and epic poetry—William Blake, Greco-Roman mythology. Fine. But where this music looked backward, to pre-Modern aesthetics, punk and postpunk typically look forward—the revaluation of all values, science fiction, the avant-garde, post-capitalism. And again, that ideology is evident in the punk aesthetic itself. And, yeah, there is the connection between punk and R&B/blues so far as many punks were very explicit, if in imperfect or ham-fisted ways, in their attempts at solidarity with people of color through their valorization of Reggae and later hip hop.

Milkmen_Album_Cover_Final_for_DigitalAlmost finally, I just listened to the Dead Milkmen’s latest EP, and on the cover is a picture of an oilcan and you can imagine the lyrics. What’s the role of punk rock these days in the world? Does it still matter? Has it adapted? Has it needed to adapt? Is it still relevant?

The Dead Milkmen are great. I always play “Punk Rock Girl” for my kids and they get annoyed, which is, of course, my goal. I’ve been on the fence about this question since, probably, 1990. I think ultimately punk does matter still—but, yes, only so far as it adapts in a Left Hegelian sort of way. Nirvana and Riot Grrrl mattered. Pussy Riot matters. These groups and the offshoots they produced have done and are doing radical stuff in the world. Think Occupy Wall St. That said, it certainly “matters” less today than in 1977 or 1991 because both our political culture and the media landscape have obviously changed so much in the last few decades for the reasons of political economy alluded to earlier. Politically speaking, as I point out at the end of the book, punk might be able to remain relevant in the West only so far as it is absorbed by feminism and/or gets redistributed as a sample on a hip hop record (think M.I.A. using Suicide’s “Ghost Rider” riff on her “Born Free”). That sort of activity—appropriation by women, people of color, and other “abject subjects”—is what keeps punk from turning into Cheap Trick or becoming a parody of itself not only by keeping the aggressive, “intellectual,” and critical punk sound current, but by engaging in “punk” activity itself, whether detournement or radical politics. For my money, that’s the new punk or avant-garde. And I have to reject the claim that somehow the alt-right is the “new punk rock,” as the opportunists at trumpispunkrock.com would have us believe. The other side of this is our evolving media culture. First, the musical waters are just muddier today—it’s harder to make a statement that gets people’s attention. I’m not talking MTV or iTunes or social media, but the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the FCC, ProTools, and all that, which have literally changed how (and how much) music is produced and consumed—and what type. The Sex Pistols could never happen again, at least in that way. And in some ways, DIY is so easy now; making a record and getting it distributed online is easy. There are thousands of bands and punk-affiliated subgenres now. But does anyone hear them and have they altered what most people listen to routinely or shifted the country’s politics in any measurable way? Not really. Which leads us to the depressing conclusion anticipated by Adorno or Guy Debord that all this radical culture is very easily recuperated by the culture industry—that your rebellion is expected and anticipated by the system and will eventually benefit capital or the spectacle…. I don’t necessarily buy that argument entirely, but I guess the reader will have to draw their own conclusions about punk’s relevance in the face of such points of view.

I had hoped to see a little more Crass and the Minutemen in the book, but maybe they were both too obvious! Are there other bands that you wish you had included more from?

Yes—more Mekons, more Crass, more Riot Grrrl generally. A lot of good content is missing for many reasons: the publisher’s parameters in terms of book length, my own lack of time, and my own lack of deep familiarity with many bands. I admit to being simply more familiar with the American groups than the English ones generally. We’ll see what the response is—I get that the book is a departure from the typical ethnography/sociology/oral history that tends to be current in punk scholarship these days. When I envisioned my project, I had as targets Marcus’s Lipstick Traces and Savage’s England’s Dreaming—both of which are way too cumbersome, but nonetheless amazing. Those books are sort of outliers too methodologically in that they’re a mash-up of history (teetering on historiography), criticism, critical theory, sociology, philosophy, and theology. I was trying to do that sort of thing, and maybe biting off more than I could chew. In other words, I entered the project with some (naïve?) pretention. But overall, I hope the result is compelling for many readers of different background or interests—not just sociologists or ethnomusicologists.

I also wonder what you’re listening to these days, and what a playlist would be for reading your book? 

With kids and such I listen to much less music than I’d like. But I’ve really been on a Preoccupations kick (fka Viet Cong) for some time now. That’s a Canadian postpunk band that took a lot of criticism for their original name, for obvious reasons. But their eponymous record is perfect. I’ve been listening to the Slits’ first record a lot. Sleater-Kinney, Silkworm, Nick Cave. Music by my friends’ bands—OUT and Minutes. Then I’m also trying to bone up on my classical and newer instrumental stuff—especially at work. Brahms’s Violin Concerto in D (op. 70), which Paul Thomas Anderson used to great effect in There Will Be Blood, some Beethoven, Wagner, Philip Glass. Don Caballero. John Coltrane. Can I say Weird Al? I saw him live for the first time last summer, and his show was honestly just about the most subversive pop event I’d ever seen.

Here’s an incomplete playlist for the book:

The Velvet Undergrounds’ First Record.
Richard Hell, “Blank Generation
Patti Smith Group, “Radio Ethiopia
Devo,“Jocko Homo
Germs, “Lexicon Devil
Descendents, “Milo Goes to College
Refused, “Worms of Senses…
Suicide, “Ghost Rider
Black Flag, “Slip it in
Silkworm’s “Lily White and Cherry Red
Scritti Politti’s “Jacques Derrida
Bad Religion’s “Stranger than Fiction
Pere Ubu’s “Modern Dance
Joy Division, “Interzone
Mission of Burma, “Max Ernst
Orchid, “Tigers
Candy Machine, “A Modest Proposal
Sonic Youth, “Sister
…And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, “Baudelaire
Green Day, “Holden Caulfield

Bill Caraher is an Associate Professor of History at the University of North Dakota, a co-editor of NDQ, and the co-editor of Punk Archaeology (2014).