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“There’s No Shortage of Blood and Crazy Motherfuckers”: An Interview with John Brannon of Negative Approach

We talked to the legendary hardcore band about going out and fucking people up.
December 9, 2013, 4:30pm

Two years ago, writer / publisher / provocateur Henry Owings of Chunklet Magazine fame penned a manifesto for VICE calling out what he saw as pretentiousness among certain circles of American fans of Norwegian Black Metal, NBM-love having reached the closest it may ever get to a fever pitch on this side of the Atlantic. He even compared its champions to Jandek fans, which is (or should be) considered a particularly low blow among independent music fans. Owings then followed his diatribe--really, a mix of digs, tough love, and witticism--with a suggestion for those looking for authenticity and truth in their music without the “kvlt”; listen to legendary Detroit hardcore / rock vocalist John Brannon instead.

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The article, of course, attracted its share of vehement dissenters, many of whom seemed to lack a sense of humor, and even more of whom--and I’d put money on this--had never been in a room where John Brannon was around to pick up a microphone and rip one of his signature, inimitable howls. If they had, they’d likely agree that no matter who or what Owings was ranking in terms of badass, John Brannon and any of his bands--be it ‘80s hardcore pioneers Negative Approach, ‘90s sleaze/art rockers Laughing Hyenas, or long-running, criminally-overlooked rock group Easy Action--would overwhelmingly tip the scales in their favor. I grew up in the Detroit area, so for many years I thought I was biased towards its particular flavors of rock music, but the more time I spent away, the more I realized my favorite local singer was the dude that every punk band everywhere wanted to hear when he played their town.

I recently caught up with Brannon over a Tecate at Reggies Rock Club in Chicago where Negative Approach--who reformed in 2006 after a 23-year hiatus--was playing with The Casualties. We got to talking about Detroit rock ‘n’ roll, his take on punk over his 30-year career, and upcoming records from both Negative Approach and Easy Action in 2014 (Happy New Year to us!). As Owings declared, “John Brannon is the premiere voice of punk, post-punk, and rock 'n' roll. Period.” You can’t believe everything you read online, but that is a bit of truth.

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Noisey: It took me a little while to get a hold of you. I didn’t realize you didn’t have email.
John Brannon: I don’t have a computer. I’m stuck in the ‘70s. I don’t fuck with that shit. I don’t have time for Facebook. I hear about that shit, and I’m like, “Whatever.” I don’t fuck with computers.

So, no cat videos for you?
I can look at my cat. I don’t need videos.

Back in the day, how did you take influence from some of the more flamboyant Detroit rock bands and glam rock and distill it into Negative Approach?
Growing up in Detroit, as kids, we were exposed to Creem Magazine, so it was all about The Stooges, MC5, Alice Cooper, The Dolls, Bowie… I was too young to go to any of those shows when they were cool. In ‘73, I wasn’t seeing Alice Cooper or anything, you know? But those bands still lived there before they got really big, so it was kind of a local thing. I was buying Alice Cooper records and Creem when I was like, 10. That’s what was going on--the early seeds of “punk,” or whatever, was all coming out of Detroit. The three most influential bands of all time: the 5, the Stooges, and Alice Cooper. It all goes back to that. They’ve got that shit on every jukebox in every bar now, but we had the advantage because it was a local, Midwest deal. Those bands were like God, and we figured it was like that everywhere.

I saw that one of the first Negative Approach reunion shows was at a Detroit showcase at ATP.
The first one was the Touch & Go 25th Anniversary, and then we did the first Fun Fun Fun Fest in Austin, Texas, and then our buddy, Thurston Moore, called us up, “Hey do you guys want to come to England and play with the Stooges and the MC5?” We couldn’t turn that shit up. That was a dream come true. I never thought I would put Negative Approach back together, but for Touch & Go we had to do it. Then we kept getting these offers we could not pass up, so a one-off became one week, and then the weeks became tours. We’ve been to Europe five times now. We’ve done a couple of American tours. We’re still alive and still going.

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What’s it like to revisit your teenage or young-20s self on stage every night when you sing these songs?
We never got into “I hate the President,” or political stuff. The songs are basic teenage anthems that are kind of universal. It’s fun coming back to it. It’s kind of a trip, man, but it’s fun. Back in the day, nobody ever really saw us. We did some East Coast shows, but the guys in the band were 15 or 16, so it’s not like we could really tour.

But you did get on Saturday Night Live…
That came out because the Necros were playing with the Misfits and John Belushi was at the gig, and he was having Fear on [the show] the next day. I was actually just roadie-ing for the Necros. It’s weird because all the guys from Minor Threat, and Iron Cross, and the Meatmen, and a couple of guys from Negative Approach are there, and Belushi was like, “Fear’s going to be on. You guys should come down and we’ll destroy NBC.”

They just trusted Belushi to put that together?
He got us all in and past security. It was America’s first look at--it was kind of cool--all the original ‘81 hardcore bands.

Was it pretty cool coming home to Detroit after that? Had people seen it?
Oh yeah. All of my friends watched it and they were like, “What the fuck?” I guess it was shocking for the time--the fact Fear was on TV, and in the audience were what became all of these major hardcore bands.

At what point did you start to realize you had a cult following?
I kept hearing shit, and I saw the bootlegs pop up, and I was like, “Really?” I really didn’t think too much of it until we played the reunion gig and there were 6,000 people there. It was like, “Whoa, there might be something to this.” I mean, I had friends telling me, “My band does this song,” or “Hey, there’s this bootleg,” but I wasn’t really paying attention. I was doing Laughing Hyenas. I put it all behind me, and I was more interested in doing new shit.

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Is there any baggage that comes with it? Do people have misconceptions when they meet you when you’re out on tour?
They’re always, “You don’t look like you do on the album covers,” and I’m like, “Well, I was 18. That was 30 years ago. I chose to be bald at that point. I’m 52 now, and I’ve got a full head of hair, so I’m going to let the freak flag fly.”

There’s a whole new group of kids--the 14-year-olds that come out--and they think we’re a new band. Someone tells them to check us out, and now we’ve got these legions of 14-year-olds that know “Ready to Fight,” and “Can’t Tell No One,” and it’s kind of a trip, but it’s a good thing. Nobody really saw these shows back in the day. Everybody claims they saw them, but they probably weren’t there. It’s great to go out and play these songs.

What’s the reaction you get from the kids?
They go nuts! And back in the day it was a total sausage fest, but now we have all of these little girls that jump on stage and want to sing “Ready to Fight.” For us, it’s a trip that it’s stood up and we get a rush out of playing, so I don’t feel bad about doing it. It’s not about getting back together for some kind of cash in. If I didn’t feel it was right, we wouldn’t even be doing it. There are so many old punk bands that get back together, and they blow, I’m sorry. I love all these guys I play with. I have no regrets doing it again.

Thirty years later, do you feel more affinity now with the original hardcore bands or with Midwest rock ‘n’ roll?
I’m glad we can show them how we did it back in the day. A California punk band or a New York punk band is not like a Midwest Michigan band. We had our own groove going on. Bands like the Necros and the Meatmen definitely had their own style. The Midwestern sound is definitely separated from all that shit. I get to travel a lot, but Detroit’s home. I’ll always come back to it. I don’t give a fuck what anyone else has to say. There’s nowhere else I want to live.

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What do you think about some of the stuff in the news that either makes Detroit out to be a train wreck or “the next urban utopia?”
They’re always talking shit. I don’t know, man. That’s where I live, that’s where my mom lives, that’s where I grew up. I love Detroit. They always try to make it out to be an apocalyptic wasteland where 70 thousand rabid dogs are running down the street. I mean, you’re from there, so you know, there are places that are bad, there are places that are good, but you should try to stay out of trouble and you should probably carry a weapon.

There are a lot of people people moving to Detroit and buying these buildings and renovating them, so I’ve got to say it’s making a comeback. We grew up in Cass Corridor, and that place has completely changed. We had the Freezer Theater and the Clubhouse back in the day, and there was nothing but dope, hookers, and pavement at that point. Now there are Thai restaurants, and yogurt places, and chicks jogging with fucking headphones on the Wayne State Campus. Back in the day, nobody was living down there. I mean, I was…

So, what’s next after this tour?
We just recorded a new track. It was a split with Mudhoney, the Melvins, and Die Kreuzen for the AmRep Festival. We went into the studio and recorded Sham 69’s “Borstal Breakout.” It was just a quickie, like, ”You guys have got to go into the studio tomorrow,” so we went to Ghetto Studios and laid that down. So that’s a new track, but we’re starting to write some songs now and we’re actually working on a full-length album. I figure, after 30 years we should write a new song.

When I get off this tour, Easy Action is going into the studio. We just had a 45 that came out, and we’re going to bust out a full length. We’ve been waiting for that. We finally got a new label [Sojourn Records] and they’re going to re-release all the old shit, so that’s going to come out on vinyl. And I mean, we’ve got the songs--we’ve been sitting on them for a couple of years, so we’re ready to go as soon as I get off the Negative Approach tour. So, I’m doing both, I juggle both.

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There’s a crossover between members in those bands. Now that you’re writing a bunch of new stuff, how do you separate them? Thirty years later, is Negative Approach more like Easy Action?
the fact that we’re putting Negative Approach’s name on it--It’s brutal. We’re going into it like we want to fuck some people up with this shit. Easy Action is a different groove. You’re going to call something “Negative Approach” it’s got to be a continuation of what we laid down. Two different mindsets.

Different mindsets, but there is still a thread between the three major bands you’ve done.
Yeah. It’s a progression. Regression. Whatever you want to call it. It keeps going on, you know? I try to keep it aggressive and interesting.

Do you think your shows get as crazy as they used to?
There’s drama every day. Some shows are crazier than others. There’s no shortage of blood and crazy motherfuckers. It’s not watered down. It’s pretty much guaranteed that when we play, “Ready to Fight,” there’s going to be blood. We’ve all been knocked down a few times. The kids take over on certain songs and storm the stage. I dig it when they’re up in our face. I don’t like that barrier shit. I want people right up my face and look them in the eyes--no separation between the band and the crowd. That’s how it was, that’s how it should be. Things have gotten watered down--people’s idea of punk rock, but we want to whip people into a frenzy and have a good time.

There are still some bands that remind you of how visceral punk is, and how it is meant to be.
Well, there are some bands that do it good, and some bands that think they’re doing it good, and some bands that do it for other reasons than for what it’s supposed to be. Punk for profit. Some kids today view it as, “I’m going to start a band and six months later I’m going to get a record deal. I’m going to be on a tour bus and I’m going to be getting laid and I’m going to buy a house.” Let’s not forget, kids, we were out there fighting the war to make this shit happen.

It wasn’t easy in the beginning, and now it’s such a universal thing. Between MTV and the Internet everything’s so laid out now; How to dress, how to act, how to sell your product. Kids think these things are expected. “I’ve been playing for six months, I should be sleeping in a tour bus.” We’re still sleeping on floors, fuckin’ driving in a shitty van, and fuckin’ taking it to the streets. Keep it real, or don’t even fuck with it. There are too many fuckin’ pussies out there. We’re from Detroit, man. We play hard, we party hard, we work hard. The Midwest attitude, as opposed to some kid from L.A. thinking they’re going to get some band together and be “the next big thing.” We’ll see you two years after that when you’re working at Denny's.

So, music is still the most important part of it?
Oh, it’s for real, for us! It means something to us. That’s why we’ve never given up. It’s been great that Touch & Go Records was able to put out all the Negative Approach albums and the Laughing Hyenas albums. The fact that we can still make records, and tour, and people show up. We’re cool with that, man. That’s all we need. It’s not about the money. It’s about going out and fucking people up. That’s all we want to do.

Jamie Ludwig liked SNL better when Ian Mackaye was stagediving on people - @unlistenmusic