In Rank Your Records, we talk to artists who have amassed substantial discographies over the years and ask them to rate their releases in order of personal preference.
Swingin’ Utters frontman Johnny “Peebucks” Bonnel is a man of few words, which is fine since his band’s catalog truly speaks for itself. The band exploded on the punk scene in 1995 with their Lars Frederiksen-produced debut The Streets Of San Francisco, and save for a hiatus from 2003 to 2010, they’ve consistently released impassioned albums that merge street punk with elements of folk and even country to create a unique amalgam of music that follows in the tradition of the acts that inspired them like The Pogues.
This month, they released Drowning in the Sea, Rising with the Sun, a double LP retrospective collection featuring some of their favorite work over the years. Swingin’ Utters have had a number of member changes over the past few decades but Bonnel looks back on the act’s history fondly, except when it comes to his vocals on some of those early releases. We caught up with the frontman while the band was on the road to have him rank the act’s eight studio albums.
8. Five Lessons Learned (1998)
Noisey: Why is Five Lessons Learned your least favorite Swingin’ Utters album?
Johnny Bonnel: I was going through some personal problems at the time and I was not really into the way the vocals turned out, but I love all the songs and music. It’s just, on my end, that album seems to be the least energy, the least passion. That’s interesting because I’d imagine that for fans that would be one of their favorites.
Exactly, I know. I’ve come across other interviews where they’re really surprised that I would say that [this is my least favorite album] but I can’t help the way I feel. It was just kind of a bad time in my life on top of that. We were losing our original bass player Kevin [Wickersham] and the recording process was a little tedious. It was me singing the same line over and over and over again until I got it right, and back then I didn’t really know how to sing. I didn’t know what [producers Ryan Greene and NOFX’s “Fat” Mike Burkett] were talking about when they were saying it was sharp or flat and I just couldn’t figure it out. I worked my way through it, I just wasn’t happy with the end results. Is it true that Fat Mike and Foo Fighters guitarist Chris Shiflett played on this record?
They did! Kevin split and we didn’t have a bass player to do these songs so we sort of had a revolving door: Mike played bass on one or two [songs] and Shiflett played guitar on a few and did a few solos. There were others: John Maurer from Social Distortion played on it, [Swingin’ Utters guitarist] Darius [Koski] played bass on some. It was just whoever we could find to play bass on a song.
7. A Juvenile Product Of The Working Class (1996)
I feel like this album is also a fan favorite. I’m not going to say that about every record, I promise, but these two in particular.
Yeah, I know that. [Laughs] It’s bizarro-land with me. It’s just a personal thing, the quality of the vocals on those two records, I was not as psyched on. It’s once again just a vocal thing with this one. I like a lot of the songs on it but after coming off The Streets of San Francisco I just thought it sounded weak. What was the recording process like working with Fat Mike and Ryan Greene for the first time?
It was super exciting, the only thing is I didn’t know too much about the recording process and they knew shitloads, and they were sort of guiding me through the process. That’s one of the reasons that I feel like I’m holding back a little bit [on the album], I was learning how to do things and it was all a bit intimidating to me. But it was exciting times. It was when we were probably writing our best songs, everyone was pitching in and punk was sort of exploding and becoming mainstream. I just wish I had a second chance to do those vocals over. Did you feel like the band was gaining a lot of momentum at this point with signing to Fat Wreck Chords as that punk explosion was happening?
For sure. We didn’t expect to be signed to a label like Fat because they were one of the heavy hitters as far as labels, and when that happened it was super exciting for us. We were a lot younger then, so everything was pretty new but when we met Mike and Erin [Kelly-Burkett] it was a no-brainer. They were two really cool people and very supportive and it was a really good label to be on at the time when everything was exploding.
6. Swingin’ Utters (2000)
Why is the self-titled album relatively low on the list?
I think it probably has something to do with the front cover of the album. We took a photo for that with a friend of ours who is a photographer and we sort of adjusted it in Photoshop and he got really upset and I felt really bad. We didn’t ask his permission and I just had a horrible feeling about this record after that. Were you more happy with your vocal performance on this album?
Yeah, because I was learning a little more what [Greene and the band] were talking about, and they were guiding me through the process. There were more songs on that album I could let loose a little bit on and there’s a really good variety of stuff there. There was a real folk and punk feel to it. That record had some orchestral instrumentation on it as well. Did you feel like you were branching out on this album in some ways?
Yeah there was mandolin and violin and cello, just a number of different instruments. We were just trying to make a really diverse record. We try that every record but I think on this one we stretched it really far. I like a lot of the songs on it but that whole cover debacle is sort of why I have a bad feeling about Swingin’ Utters. It’s weird how something like that can stick with you and color your whole perception of it 17 years later, right?
For sure, and for me that’s my brain. It just focuses on the negative aspects of things and won’t let go of it. It’s kind of nightmarish inside here. [Laughs]
5. Here, Under Protest (2011)
There was an eight-year gap between this album and the one before it. What was it like coming back and recording Here, Under Protest?
It was exciting because we had songs, we just weren’t touring. We were just playing locally and playing West Coast dates once in awhile. It was during a time that our kids were pretty young so I sort of said I didn’t want to tour during that time and I let the guys know about that. That’s why there was such a lull back then, it was mainly because of me. Once my kids grew up and understood what was going on, it was easier to explain things to them. So when we put out that record, we were like, “We’re back and don’t forget about us, we’re still making music.” What was it like for you to be off the road for that long?
I had a lot of guilt, you know? I’m Catholic. [Laughs] But it was good for me just to be with the family and watch my daughters grow up and be a big part of it. It’s good memories for me but I still have guilt in the back of my head because the band members were all waiting on me and wondering when we were going to get back to this. But finally I understood [when] it was time to start doing it again. It wasn’t really a negative time, it was just exciting in a different way. Raising kids is a lot of hard work but it’s super rewarding. What was the studio dynamic like for this record after the break?
We were still recording stuff for our side projects so it wasn’t like we were out of the studio for that long of a time. Also, we were playing shows and we were writing, it was just a time when we weren’t recording Swingin’ Utters stuff or touring extensively so we would try different things and put out different-sounding records under Filthy Thievin’ Bastards, Druglords Of The Avenues, the Re-Volts, all of those side projects that started kicking in right about that time.
4. Poorly Formed (2013)
What sticks out to you about Poorly Formed?
That was when [Dead To Me and One Man Army guitarist/vocalist] Jack [Dalrymple] started writing for the first time, I believe. He wrote a little bit on Here, Under Protest but he sort of came out of his shell and wrote a lot more on Poorly Formed and I really like it. It’s a weird record and it’s different than the past records. It was exciting for me to have a people like Jack and [bassist] Miles [Peck] pitch in on writing because they’re super talented dudes. How did Jack end up joining the Swingin’ Utters?
We’ve all been friends since the beginning and the Swingin’ Utters and One Man Army played all the time together and he’s an obvious talent, so it was a no-brainer when we asked him. We thought he would say no but he was down and we got super excited. He still plays with us but sometimes he can’t come out on tour because of his job… but those are the breaks. What’s it been like to have people come in and out of the band, especially when it comes to songwriting? Do you feel like everyone brings something to the table?
Yeah, I really like tapping into other people. I think collaboration is the beauty of music. It’s a bunch of brains just trying to figure a song out and just seeing where it goes. I don’t know, it’s kind of exciting and also kind of nerve-racking to see how it’s going to turn out or if you’re going to hurt someone’s feelings or step on someone’s toes. But we seem to work well together and we seem to know each other pretty well so I get really excited when I write songs with the other members as opposed to just me by myself. It’s a way more exciting way to write music. It’s more imaginative, it’s more creative, and it’s got more artists’ hands in it so it makes it more original to me.
3. Dead Flowers, Bottles, Bluegrass, And Bones (2003)
This was the first album you did without longtime guitarist Max Huber. What was that like?
He was on that record but I think he was going off on his own direction because we recorded a lot of his songs and he was singing them and then [Fat] Mike sort of came in and said, “These songs sound like a Max solo project, they don’t sound like Utters songs, let’s keep moving in the direction you’re going with the other songs.” Max was also moving to New York, I think he might have even been living there at the time. We’re still great friends and keep in contact but [not having him around] was different because he was a big part of the band. He wrote a lot of those early songs that everyone loves, and [when we play] live his songs are the ones that most of our fans love. There have been a lot of member changes within the Swingin’ Utters over the past two decades. Has that been difficult or is that just kind of part of being in a band for you?
I think it’s just part of being in a band. You lose members because of personal things and all of it’s been on pretty good terms. Every band member hasn’t left in a huff or anything. It’s more like, “I’m moving on, I’ve got other things I want to do” or “I just can’t tour anymore.” It’s never been like, “This music sucks, I’m out of here” or anything like that. They just have personal things they want to take care of or they’re moving in a different direction. There’s not a negative connotation, this stuff just happens in bands all the time. What was the inspiration for the title of the album?
I think I ripped [the title track] off of a Pogues song. I sort of changed the lyrics to “Broad Majestic Shannon” and just wrote my version of it—and if you read them side by side I think you can see it. I haven’t looked back at it since then but maybe I’ll look at it tonight.
2. Fistful Of Hollow (2014)
What’s a memorable moment from this album for you?
This is when Miles sort of started writing and we wrote a song together called “End Of The Weak” and that’s probably my favorite because I’m really happy with the way it turned out. Miles gave me the song instrumentally and I thought it was amazing; it had such a weird, sad-but-happy quality to it and that’s my favorite feeling in music. It’s got a lot of sadness but it’s also got some hope buried inside it. One of the reasons that I like that album so much is because Miles and Jack participated a lot more on that record and I really enjoyed the way they write songs and their personalities. You could hear their personalities in the songs. That record came out pretty quickly after Poorly Formed. Were a lot of these songs written during the same sessions or did they just come together really fast?
I think they were coming together fast because Jack would send me something and a half-hour later I’d be like, “Okay, this song is done,” and we’d go in the practice pad and demo it so we could send it out to the rest of the guys and they could learn the song. For some reason the writing process came really easily during that time and I think it had a lot to do with all of us clicking. Sometimes when I get instrumental songs from Miles or Jack, the music fits right in with what I’m thinking. I’ll just catch a glimpse of some word when I’m listening to it and that’ll be the title and I’ll just rattle off a bunch of lyrics that seem to work. I might do a little bit of editing afterwards but the writing process was so quick [with this album] it’s crazy.
1. The Streets of San Francisco (1995)
Why is the band’s debut your favorite album?
Because that was my first record. It’s a full length and it has 19 songs. [Rancid singer/guitarist] Lars [Frederiksen] produced it and Rancid was blowing up. We got to tour Europe with Rancid. I was likely drinking way too much at the time and forgot a lot of things, but that was probably my happiest time. I just remember listening to that album after it was recorded and being so proud of it. I would play it every day and run in place to get my stamina up for touring. It’s just one of those records that brings back a flood of great memories. I probably wasn’t in the best frame of mind at the time but as far as the band goes it was really happy and exciting times. What was it like working with Lars and what do you think he brought to the table?
I liked his enthusiasm. He loved our songs, so that’s what you want in a producer or a label. We had a couple of battles about certain things but they were pretty minor, and he just wanted us to make a good record. He wasn’t overproducing anything, he wanted to capture the rawness of it and we appreciate everything he did for that record. It was just cool because Rancid was pretty big at that time so he was kind of a celebrity and we didn’t know too much about production. We knew what we liked and he didn’t seem to interfere too much with that so he just tried to get the best takes. I liked the vibe of it. We were having a lot of fun recording it and I think he brought that out of us. How does it feel to play songs off that album 22 years later?
I still love it. They feel like they’re really old songs because they are, and they seem dated at times but I love them. Almost every song on that record has a certain thing to it I like. There’s not one that I really hate. I just like the fact that there are 19 songs. I know that Fat Mike doesn’t like that, I know certain band members don’t like a lot of the filler and stuff like that, but I just like the whole warts-and-all process. I like albums like Sandinista! by The Clash. To me, they are a little bit more interesting because it shows the ups and downs of a band who are trying new things.
Jonah Bayer is on Twitter.