John RosenFat Wreck Chords
By Bobby Gorman on January 8th, 2013 at Commodore Ballroom - Vancouver, BC
Still sweating from their energetic set just minutes before, Old Man Markley‘s banjo player John Rosen sat down backstage at Vancouver’s Commodore Ballroom to discuss the constant evolution of the unique punk meets bluegrass band. As the sound of Nekromantix‘s thunderous bass flooded through the venue, Rosen spoke fondly of their retrofitted tour bus Fiona, the trials and tribulations of travelling with a Chihuahua in tow; but more than that he also opened up about the motivation behind some of his more personals songs, his constant battle with narcolepsy and the fact that, until he joined Old Man Markley, he rarely ever even listened to punk.
Bobby: You guys are coming up to the tail end of this tour with Reverend Horton Heat and Nekromantix; how’s that going so far?
John: It’s been really good. It’s been one of our best tours, I think. The Reverend Horton and his gang are awesome to work with. His crew is just awesome; a great bunch of guys, just a close knit type of family and we made friends with them. It’s been great.
We haven’t hit too severe weather. I mean, it’s been cold but it hasn’t been too bad. I think what’s going to happen is when we go off the tour – we have like three or four more dates with them and our last date with them is in western Montana. Then they continue east, across Montana and then into the Dakotas, Nebraska, and Minnesota, where it’s like, right now, thirty below. So thankfully we’re missing that portion of the tour. We end up going back south from Missoula into much warmer weather and we just tour on our own into Idaho and then central Oregon, central California and then down south.
Bobby: You escape the horrible winter storms that have been hitting everywhere.
John: Yeah, and we were hoping to because it’s treacherous. It’s a treacherous mountain drive. We gotta go through the Cascades. There’s still more treacherous driving ahead of us, we gotta go across the Cascades into Montana, so there’s still more mountainous stuff. It’s always scary when you’ve got a big bus and a trailer and you’ve got a lot of people inside. You’re driving on a lot of icy roads and a lot of mountainous roads.
Bobby: Are you still driving in the refurbished Seattle city bus?
John: We are, we are. It’s the bus that we call Fiona. We are still driving in it. Johnny purchased it with the band fund off of Craigslist. It’s a short Seattle city bus, it must have been like a shuttle bus; but it’s still got the Seattle colors – the green and the yellow. We bought it from someone who had been using it as kind of an RV. It had already been driven around the country a lot. We bought it from someone in LA and then we ripped out all the seats because all the bus seats were in it still. We took out all the seats and a welder friend of Johnny’s welded these bunks. These melted frames with benches that can be converted into bedding areas once you put your bedding on it. It sleeps nine people.
So inside the bus, it’s like a submarine. It’s cozy. It’s a little cramped, your personal space – when you’re laying down at least – begins and ends around four inches beyond your head and feet. It’s very cramped but we have nine people on the bus right now. Seven band members plus a merch girl and a sound guy, a big sound guy too, and we’re able to do it. It’s safe and we’re used to it.
Bobby: It’s still better than a minivan or something like that.
John: Oh yeah. We used to actually go around in a Winnebago. It was Johnny’s dad’s Winnebago that he just lent us to use and that was when the band was eleven people. Right now there’s seven. When I joined the band, it was eleven which was in September 2009. We did a few tours with nine people in that Winnebago. It was a Mini Winnie and it was cramped, it was really cramped. So this is way better than any vehicle we could ever hope to be travelling in.
Bobby: Do you think that’s probably the best find you’ve ever found on Craigslist?
John: I wasn’t the guy doing the shopping. I know Johnny was looking at a lot of other stuff and I know it was the best thing that he found or he wouldn’t have jumped at it. It was great. It had a lot of miles on it but it’s taken us around the country – United States and Canada – over six times. We’ve done about five or six trips across the US, like cross country. And we’ve done two cross-country trips in Canada from the Maritimes – from Nova Scotia – all the way out to here.
Actually the last time we were here, we went as far West as Victoria. We hopped on the ferry with the bus and we went to Victoria.
Bobby: You used to tour with Lucy, John’s Chihuahua right?
John: We did, were you following us back them?
Bobby: I read about it.
John: We did. We toured with the Chihuahua and the Chihuahua’s a great little dog. I love animals and the Chihuahua was great to have around, I thought. Not everyone in the band was crazy about the Chihuahua being on tour with us. Chihuahuas by their nature are very nervous, very jumpy and she got really nervous and jumpy. It was just tough at times. We were playing smaller venues at the time and some of the venues were just tough because we would have to keep her in the Winnebago. This was when we were in the Winnebago and it was the summertime too and the Winnebago just got really, really hot. So we would bring her out but then bringing her out and having her at the venues was terrible too because the noise was so loud, it drove her crazy.
Bobby: And so many people and smells.
John: So many people and yeah, smells. For dogs, that would be awful. So ultimately we decided not to bring her along anymore. Johnny and Annie are married and Lucy is their baby, and I love Lucy too and I think initially they were just not too keen on being away from her.
Bobby: So it’s a bit more calming now without the Chihuahua anymore?
John: It is. It would be really impossible to travel with the dog now. The venues and the gigs are just bigger now, so it would be completely chaotic. Bigger venues and bigger gigs are always a little more chaos anyway, so throw a Chihuahua in the mix and just forget it.
Bobby: It is the beginning of 2014, at the end of 2013 everyone came out with their year end lists. What were some of your favourite albums of last year off the top of your head?
John: Oh boy. Well, there’s a Vancouver band that I really like called The Crackling. I don’t know if you’re familiar with them. I don’t even know how I would describe them. *Johnny walks by* – Hey Johnny, how would you categorize The Crackling’s music? It’s dark, really dark.
Johnny: It definitely falls under folk but it’s more than that. It’s really almost punk rock. I’ve never really heard anything like it.
John: Yeah, they’re amazing. When we were on tour, we listened to that album to death; I did at least – whenever I was up front driving. I can’t describe it.
Let’s see… my favourite albums… most of my favourite albums are not punk. They’re not punk. There’s a folk duo out of Los Angeles called The Milk Carton Kids. They released an album last year, I can’t remember the name of it; but it was the latest release. The Milk Carton Kids kind of sound like early Dylan with a little bit of Simon and Garfunkel thrown in. They’re young guys, Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale – the Milk Carton Kids, they’re awesome. That was a great album.
The Punch Brothers are a bluegrass – or, I don’t know if you’d call them bluegrass necessarily. Bluegrass people would not call them bluegrass in a die hard traditional way because the Punch Brothers are very progressive in their take on bluegrass and the songs the play. The songs they play, a lot of them are rock or classical but they have traditional bluegrass instrumentation. The line-up is upright bass, mandolin, acoustic guitar, banjo, fiddle. The banjo player is an amazing banjo player named Noam Pikelny. If you every get a chance, look into them. The Punch Brothers, and again, I can’t remember the name of the album! But it was an album that came out winter of 2013, or 2012 possibly.
Bobby: Down Side Up came out in March last year and it’s been popping up on a few year end lists as well – have you been surprised at the accolades?
John: Yes. Not just surprised, I’ve been pleasantly surprised. I always love to see stuff like that, absolutely.
Down Side Up was a bit of a departure from our original sound. The first album had a little bit more of a grittier sound and Down Side Up kind of represented a different side. We had songs on there that definitely represented the punk side of us, like Blindfold which we played tonight. But there’s a lot of songs that sort of veer off the beaten punk, bluegrass path; if there is a path of punk bluegrass. There’s some ballads in there.
I wrote two songs that, in my mind, fit the least. It’s hard to say what fits and what doesn’t – it’s an album, it’s our album, so everything fits on it. But I wrote Beyond The Moon which is the song about Gary Busey. I wrote that which is a quirky song.
Bobby: It stands out.
John: It definitely does. Initially I felt guilty for that. I felt as if… it seemed a little too funny and it wasn’t meant to be a funny song at all. In my mind, I always thought people were going to interpret it as a novelty tune and question why it’s even on the album. That always made me feel kind of weird about that song. I had very mixed feelings about the song and for a while I couldn’t listen to it at all because it just made me feel weird.
It’s a very personal song as well. Again, it’s not intended to be a joke. It’s about something very close to me and I was exposing a side of myself that I don’t expose a lot.
Bobby: Made you feel vulnerable.
John: I felt very vulnerable. Very. It made me feel very vulnerable. And the other song I wrote on that, which is another song which is outside the mold that we sort of cast on our last album, is the last song on Down Side Up – the song called Too Soon For Goodnight. It’s another confessional I guess. It’s a song about my troubles with narcolepsy which I’ve had ever since I was a kid.
You’ve probably heard the lyrics before but it’s really about my issues with my narcolepsy. How it makes me feel, how it makes me sad at times, how it frustrates me. There’s a line in it that goes “The show isn’t over, I’m doing my best / I swear that this evening won’t be like the rest” and the show that I’m referring to is just any TV show that my wife and I could be watching on the couch at home. Because inevitably, if I don’t have coffee in the evening, if I sit down to watch TV with my wife, I’m asleep – sitting up – within ten minutes. When we first got married, that was really frustrating. It was really frustrating.
Bobby: Because you want to spend time with her.
John: Yeah, definitely. But also my dad had narcolepsy too and I just remember how my mother used to yell at him for falling asleep. So in my mind, growing up with that kind of dynamic, I was like “Oh, I shouldn’t fall asleep, that’s bad!” and she was like “no, it’s cool.”
Anyway, the song is basically about all the emotional issues that I wrestle with regarding that issue and that problem in my life. Which isn’t so much a problem anymore; I take coffee and I’m fine.
Basically, the type of narcolepsy that I have is not what the media reports. The media likes to report on this sub-set of narcolepsy. There’s one type of narcolepsy called catalepsy, which is where a person can be talking and suddenly fall asleep in mid sentence.
Bobby: Like that Rat Race movie with Rowan Atkinson.
John: Right, right. I don’t have that. What I have is called High Sleep Latency and basically High Sleep Latency means I get drowsier much quicker and much more often than the average person. If I’m doing anything that is passive, sitting down watch a movie, listening to a lecture – it was hell when I was in school, especially college, staying awake in classes – driving in rush hour traffic when it’s bumper to bumper.
Actually that song references a car crash because a few months before I wrote the song, I was involved in a car accident as a result of falling asleep behind the wheel. That’s what that song was about.
I did a whole sleep study about my narcolepsy because it was such a problem for me. I was prescribed these pills called Provigil which is essentially mood enhancers. And they just made me feel so wired that by the end of the day I couldn’t even breathe. I took them for one day and then threw them out. So shortly after that I was inspired to write the song because I was trying to wrestle with these things as a result of the sleep study. There we go, that’s all I’m going to say about narcolepsy.
Bobby: One big album that came out last year was the Fat tribute to Tony Sly and you guys did the Feel Good Song of the Year. Did Fat Mike ask you to do it? Or did you pick the song or what?
John: I’ll be honest with you, I don’t know. And maybe Annie knows *grabbing Annie’s attention who’s sitting across the room* Hey, can I ask you a question?
Annie: It’ll cost you.
John: How did we get picked to do that song on the Tony Sly tribute?
Annie: Oh, Johnny chose it.
John: Okay, Johnny did.
Annie: Yeah, our guitar player chose it. He liked it. He thought that it had really good harmonies and thought that the banjo and the fiddle could really pick up. Like the fiddle would take up the slide picks that Tony was doing and he thought that it would just lend itself really well. And so we asked if we could do that one and Mike said “yeah, nobody had chosen it yet.” It was kind of like first pick. If you chose a song and it was picked, then you had to do another. I think, I mean ours wasn’t taken.
John: That’s so interesting I never knew that.
Annie: He just picks up a banjo and is like “okay, that song?” Why not? Let’s do it!
John: Oh, we’re going to play this song? Good.
Bobby: You look at the bands on that compilation, it’s like a who’s-who of punk history. Is it kind of surreal looking down the list and seeing you guys on it as well?
John: Yes. That’s a very interesting question and I will explain.
The majority people in this band come from a punk background. Now, despite my Mohawk, I did not. I did not come from a punk background. So I really learned about punk through playing with this band. And I’ve listened to punk since I was a kid. I remember in high school, way, way back, going to a Bad Brains concert and a Gang of Four concert in Northridge, Los Angeles. So I listened to it but I didn’t listen to it with a discerning ear. I had friends who listened to it and invited me to shows and I would go, but it wasn’t something that I was really super into.
When I was growing up, what I was really into musically was bluegrass. I had been playing the banjo since I was thirteen so that was pretty much how I occupied my teen years: learning to play the banjo by ear by listening to albums, slowing down albums because initially I didn’t have a teacher.
I know of these bands now, having played with Old Man Markley for four years I’ve learned about these bands. So for them, I would say more so than me, these were bands that they grew up listening to and idolized ever since they were ten, eleven years old. So for them, I know it was a real treat for them. And I also know, without havened listened to them as long as my band mates have and not having these bands as part of my youth, I can appreciate the fact that my god, we’re in the company of these great punk bands that I now know of. And yeah, that’s awesome. It’s freaking awesome.
Bobby: So when you guys do covers, like the Science of Myth from Screeching Weasel or the Youth Brigade cover that you did for BYO’s 25th anniversary compilation and stuff like that, do you just go “okay, this song?” Do you get to give it a fresh listening and bring something from the outside of the sound into it?
John: Oh yeah, that’s what so great about taking a punk song and chiselling it into an Old Man Markley song. It’s fun arranging it, it’s great. And for me, it’s fun coming up with solos that will match maybe a guitar riff. Like we did with the Tony Sly thing, my opening banjo thing was my attempt to match the *starts humming the start of the song*. It’s a different rhythm but I focused on the same melody.
Bobby: At the same time, one problem that punk runs into is they only listen to punk music. So when they’re writing their own songs, they only have the punk influence. Now with you growing up on bluegrass, do you think it’s important to have these multiple influences? Are you able to add more to your song writing when you’re not just listening to one style or one genre?
John: Yeah, it’s always helpful. But the thing about us is that not only are we a punk band or a bluegrass band, but we’re also a band made up of very, very talented musicians which cover the entire gamut of musical genres. You know, we’ve got Joey Garibaldi in our band and he’s a huge, huge punk rock fan. He’s been a punk rock fan since he was in grade school. But he’s also the biggest Billy Joel fan that you’ll find on the planet. He loves Billy Joel and he can sing every single Billy Joel song – every single song, not just the hits. So we’re a band of musicians that appreciate all types of good music. So if it’s good, regardless of the genre, we appreciate it and we love it. We listen to a lot of different styles, it’s not just punk.
Bobby: Which broadens your horizons and appreciation of music.
John: Yeah, totally, totally. I think that’s the thing with every band. If you have a band made up of accomplished musicians, these are people that understand music so all kinds of music are going to speak to them on some level. They may not like it all, but something is going to speak to them from all different genres. And it does.
I mean, I’m a huge fan of the music of the seventies and the pop of the seventies because that’s what I grew up with. Elton John. Billy Joel. Paul Simon. James Taylor. Which you wouldn’t expect a member of a punk band to necessarily confess to.
Bobby: Like you said, when you’re a good musician, you don’t want to limit yourself. You understand the intricacies of what makes a good song a good song, no matter the genre.
John: Right, it will speak to you. If you understand music, good music will speak to you regardless of whatever box you put it into.
Bobby: I know you used to be managed by Mark Stern, I don’t know if you still are.
John: Yeah, we still are.
Bobby: I interviewed Mark Unseen many, many years ago. The Unseen are on BYO and also managed by the Stern Brothers. He said the first thing that they told him was to incorporate the band and keep good tax records because the IRS will screw you over. Not always the most exciting advice ever but useful. What’s some of the most useful advice the Stern Brothers have given you over the years?
John: Some useful advice? *turning to Annie* What’s some of the most useful advice the Stern Brothers have given us over the years? I can’t think of anything off the top of my head.
Annie: Mark told us whatever they say, always hang your banner. Always hang you banner. If they tell you you can’t hang your banner, hang it. Somehow hang your banner because people who don’t know you still won’t know you after your set if you don’t hang your banner.
John: We did a big show where we didn’t hang our banner. It was one of the first Dropkick shows, we didn’t have it there and in the middle of the set they were shouting “who are you?!?!” So it was a little disconcerting.
Annie: Their crew wouldn’t let us. It wasn’t that we didn’t put up a fight, it was that we literally weren’t aloud to that night. But after that night, we made sure that we had means regardless of what anybody said. So that was some good advice.
John: There you go.
Annie: Simple and easy to follow.