[NYE 2017]

Pennywise guitarist Fletcher Dragge on today’s political climate, the next album and Las Vegas

Dragge, second from the left, leads Pennywise into the House of Blues for New Year’s Eve show.
Photo: Josh Coffman
Ian Caramanzana

Since forming in 1988, the Hermosa Beach punk rockers of Pennywise have taken their angsty, melodic formula of politically-minded skate punk around the world. Fourth album Full Circle just turned 20, and the band recently embarked on an anniversary tour in Australia to play it cover-to-cover. We chatted with guitarist Fletcher Dragge about that celebration, the current political climate and Pennywise’s next record. The quartet performs on New Year’s Eve at House of Blues.

Tell me about your trek through Australia. It was awesome. We celebrated the anniversary of Full Circle by playing it front-to-back, and it was well-received. Things got crazy. They tend to get loose out there, which makes for some fun performances.

It was maybe our 15th time being out there; there are a lot of Pennywise fans who live in Australia. People love that California sound, and even though the music is fast and hard, there’s a completely different vibe there. If you get into a fight in the United States, it’s more of a bar fight where fists are flying everywhere and everybody gets involved. [In Australia], it’s more laid back. There are less people trying to be cool and tough, and more people focused on the music, which made for some great shows. We also toured with The Bronx—a band we’ve been wanting to play with for years. That’s a solid bunch, and it made for some great nights of music.

Full Circle includes the politically-charged anthem “Society.” What do you see as the biggest difference between society now and in 1997, when the song was released? It’s funny you mention that song, because we try to bring up that sentiment before we play it every night. Those messages of angsty rebellion and the ills of society that we’ve pointed out are more poignant than ever. I think it’s sad that we can write a song about the world being in disarray 20 years ago, reflect on it, and see that things have only gotten worse.

The song was a cry for help and a push for people to fix the problems we addressed in it. [As it stands,] our country is really divided, and it operates how politicians, the government and the rich want it to work. The super rich and powerful have the pull to put certain people in the White House and senate, so they all work together to pull the strings to do things that benefit nobody but them. And it’s so divided between the Republican and Democrat parties; everybody who offers alternative viewpoints get pushed through the door. There are no cracks, and it’s divide and conquer.

The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. We know this, and somehow accept it. We put our kids through years of college to have them work for places like Walmart and Taco Bell. We’ve been forced into this perpetual downward spiral, but people are too focused on the Kardashians, so they don’t care. When we’re all united, we become a powerful force more capable of running the country.

As a punk band for 20 years, how have you seen the genre’s ethos of rebellion change? Punk output tends to become watered down over time. Pennywise has always been a band that proudly wears its heart on its sleeve. We’re into the positive aspects of it all, even though we tackle the tough subjects.

[But] we are really pissed right now. We’re known to be a political band, but that’s only because we think you should be aware of what’s going on, and make positive changes to fix those problems. When you get to travel the world, it becomes apparent that America is doing a lot of things wrong. Sure, we are doing some great stuff right now, but there are things that are just broken. We try to convey that in our songs but always remind everyone to have a blast everyday, because life is short. You only have a limited time on this planet.

The latest Pennywise record, Yesterdays, came out in 2014. Is there a new album in the works, and if so, when can we expect that? Yes. Expect to hear it within the next couple of months. We worked with Cameron Webb, who has done some work for us, NOFX, Social Distortion and many more. We’ve got 14 tracks recorded, and we’re actually listening to the mixes today. We don’t have a title just yet, but we’ve got a couple of things floating around.

What is it sounding like? I’d compare it to Full Circle-era Pennywise, which is pretty cool. Most bands tend to look back and attempt to rewrite people’s favorite albums. That’s actually hard to do. This time around, we tried to bring back that sound, but expand on it. Long story short, it sounds sort of like the old stuff: super fast, classic, angsty Pennywise but with a fresh take. It’s a good mix that diehard fans will love, but critics will slam.

Pennywise has a long history of playing in Las Vegas—from Punk Rock Bowling to club shows. Why do you think the band’s music resonates with this city? It’s one of those cities that seems big, but it’s got a small town vibe. Las Vegas is a city packed with good, high-energy people who love showing support.

We’ve had many good times in that city. Two years ago, on New Year’s Eve, we played at Larry Flynt’s Hustler Club. That was very out of character for us. We showed up, and we wound up playing on some tables with a piece of plywood on top—something they just threw together. It was packed! We played to around 500 people, and we even had a personal backstage suite. We had a lot of beers that night.

Pennywise with Strung Out, Good Riddance, Mercy Music. December 31, 9 p.m., $30-$75. House of Blues, 702-632-7600.

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