Search the iPod of any pop-punk fan over 12, and you'll find the names Screeching Weasel and the Riverdales. Search their closets, and you'll find where many of those sound files came from: dusty compact discs that have sat untouched since the download era began.
Ben Weasel knows this, and he sees no point in stuffing more into his fans' closets. The former Screeching Weasel/Riverdales frontman has just dropped a new solo album, These Ones Are Bitter. With the exception of a limited-edition vinyl LP, the record is available only via download.
It's the first album on Weasel's digital-only label, Mendota Recording Company. "If the thing flops, I haven't lost that much money, because I didn't put up that much money," says Weasel, on the phone from Madison, Wisconsin, his home for the past year. "If it exceeds my expectations, which are very low, I can feel like I was the first one on my level who did this."
But his level is one not easily categorized. Though the Riverdales toured with Green Day in 1995 and influenced numerous mainstream punk bands, Weasel himself avoids the spotlight. "I've always been more comfortable in an underdog role, and when that wasn't my role, it became boring to me," he says of the Green Day tour. "It gets to the point where it's like punching a fucking clock."
Weasel (born Ben Foster) has been kicking up a racket for the past two decades. Rooted in the Ramones' three-note leads, catchy choruses, and minimalism, Screeching Weasel became one of the most emulated punk bands of the '90s.
The band broke up in 1994 and morphed into the Riverdales, a back-to-roots band that turned its back on modern pop-punk. Two years later, Screeching Weasel returned, releasing a few more albums before disbanding for good in 2001. The Riverdales, calling it quits in 1997, regrouped in 2003 for a final album, Phase Three. By then, Weasel had released his first solo album, 2002's Fidatevi. The album was far more personal than most of his previous work.
On These Ones Are Bitter, however, Weasel adopted a narrative approach. "On the new one, I'm writing from the perspective of two characters in a relationship that's breaking up," he explains. "Some songs were written from the male perspective, some from the female perspective, and one that's both."
Despite the subject matter, the songs are brighter and poppier than those on Fidatevi. All of pop-punk's essentials are present: vocal hooks, simple guitar leads, and a lot of oohs and ahs.
Compared to every other album Weasel has made, what's different about These Ones Are Bitter is the execution and production, courtesy of Weasel's Iron String Quartet. The group consists of guitarist and producer Mike Kennerty and drummer Chris Gaylor of the All-American Rejects, together with Alkaline Trio's Dan Andriano.
There's a difference between polished and slick. These Ones embodies the former, but doesn't succumb to the excesses of the latter. It is, after all, a pop-punk album. This might not sit well with fans who expect every new Weasel recording to sound the same.
They're the same people who think Weasel teamed up with Kennerty and Gaylor in an attempt to capitalize on their success. The truth, of course, is a lot more random.
When I was doing press for the Screeching Weasel collection on Fat [Wreck Chords], they had me do a thing for Alternative Press where guys in famous bands interview their idols," says Weasel of his first conversation with Kennerty, who had chosen Weasel as his idol. "Mike asked what I was doing musically. I said, 'Here's my phone number.'"
Weasel has tentative plans to release a follow-up to These Ones Are Bitter while continuing to develop Mendota. But first he must gauge the success of his current digital-only release.
"I know I'm not going to change the world with this stuff," he says. "But it would be great to say I was able to do it, that I was the underdog, but was able to pull it off." Twenty-one years and more than a dozen albums later, that's something Weasel has proved more than capable of handling.
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