Russ Rankin sings for Good Riddance, supports Food Not Bombs and the Vegan Action Network, skates, surfs and plays ice hockey.
How have you seen punk rock change since you became involved with it?
Russ: Well, it's gone from being underground to being mainstream, a real big, general, obvious change. I go back and forth between thinking it's funny and feeling genuinely threatened by it, and a sense of loss. MTV is a thing I always thought was a joke. I loved to make fun of MTV and bands used to sing "MTV get off the air" and stuff, and now bands are falling over each other trying to get on there, punk bands, so that's interesting and scary. There are a lot of people at shows now who probably wouldn't go to a punk show 6 or 7 years ago because punk shows were scary back then. It wasn't like a high school thing, like it is now. Actually, at that show in San Diego this last week, I saw something that really made me stop in my tracks and consider this whole thing. You know those shirts the girls are all wearing now, those tight shirts with the rings and they go up above the belly button to show their pierced belly buttons? I saw a girl with a shirt like that, a brand new one, and it had a Dead Kennedys logo on the front and I was thinking to myself, "Hot off the shelf at Hot Topic." The Dead Kennedys have been broken up for how long, and was this girl even conceived when they were putting out music? What would they think? That's what really struck me. I'm used to seeing the newer bands, or contemporary bands, with those shirts because that's the style now, but a band that hasn't been around in a long, long time and a band I would consider a true, influential punk band, a pioneering punk band, that really threw me for a loop when I saw that. It makes me think about all that stuff, the way it has changed and what its appeal is now as opposed to what its appeal was then.
Is it better now or worse than when you got involved?
Russ: I think in some ways it's better and in some ways it's worse. It's better for us because we play bigger shows and more people come and we get more money. It's better for us because there are more outlets for bands to get records out and a lot more places to play and a larger audience that would buy something that sounds like this, whereas before, you were pretty much making music for a select group of people and it was hard to find punk records. You actually had to go out to out of the way, little hole in the wall stores to find what you liked, or order it through the mail. I think that's a good thing, because I think it made the people that were really into punk, you could really feel like you were doing something different. You were going against the grain, whereas now it's being spoon-fed to you. I have to separate [whether] I think it's better or worse as being a person involved in punk or a person who's in a band right now because there are a lot of advantages to being in a punk band right now, especially a band that's on the label we're on, that plays the music we play, but as far as being a person that's been into punk for the last 12 or 13 years of my life, I don't like it at all as much as I used to. I'm waiting for it to go back underground, which I think it will when MTV stops playing punk videos.
Do you think there's anything wrong with punk?
Russ: I can say a lot of stuff I think is wrong with punk, but at the same time, I've always thought punk is really one of those things that should never really be defined, like "This is breaking the rules of punk." You know what I mean? As much as you'd like to say things you'd want to change, if punk had rules then it wouldn't be punk. If it was like, "You're not punk if you do this, you're not punk if you do that," then it really wouldn't be punk. It would be fascism or something like that. I don't like the violence at shows. Shows used to be a lot more violent, but it didn't seem to be the same. Especially in Southern California, I've noticed tough guy, meathead, macho attitudes, people who go to shows to fight, people who go to shows to throw gang signs for whatever little town they're from. It's stuff like that and I think it's such a waste of time and it's frustrating to think it's come to that. I really think MTV trying to soften up punk for mainstream consumption is a sad thing that really should be forgotten about and not taken seriously.
What's good about it?
Russ: I still believe, like I did when I first got into it, it's the one thing I do in my life that still moves me and I can feel passionate about and makes me feel like I'm alive and doing something. It's an outlet and a lifestyle. It's an attitude. I would be lost if I didn't have it. It's made all the difference to me and I feel like one of the reasons I enjoy being in a band now is it's an opportunity to give back what was given to me when I was younger and feeling alienated and hating everybody and not feeling like I belonged anywhere, offering to younger people now the chance to be given what I got, to have some valid form of music or a lifestyle or something people can grasp on to. I think that's really important.
How have you seen the crowds and people at shows change?
Russ: Well, a lot of it is like I told you. The macho guy attitude, that seems to be a little more prevalent everywhere. In a lot of ways, a lot of stuff hasn't changed. One thing that bothers me now and I never thought I'd say this, but I don't even really want people to slam at our shows any more, because I think when you start seeing slam dancing and how to slam dance instructions and whole shows devoted to how to run around in a circle in a pit on MTV, then I think it's really time to move on to a different form of dancing. I mean, I look out at the crowds now when we play and it's a lot of kids and you know that kids learn how to slam watching Offspring videos and so I think that when MTV starts to take something like that and exploit it, punk needs to stay one step ahead and reinvent a little bit of itself to do something different. Seeing a pit at a show doesn't mean the same thing to me any more because to me, it's kids repeating what they've seen on TV. It's people doing something that, at the time, was thought completely outrageous, but was really a release and a bonding thing. I don't know if you went to shows a long time ago, but it was different then. It was a weird thing. People from the outside would go into a punk show and go "Oh my God, what are they doing?" Now people stage dive and crowd float when Coolio plays on Spring Break on MTV. It's the new American way to dance and the new American way to dress. And also, I'm fed up with the macho thing. That's why I enjoyed playing with Propagandhi, because we had a band that, if we're going to say something like "Can you guys not be hurting each other, not running into each other and stuff," then the band that's playing with us is going to say the same thing and back us up. All too often, we play shows and say "We want everyone up front to sing along, we don't want to have you guys running around hurting each other," and then the band after us goes "Slam, you fucking pussies!" It happens to us a lot. I know it's going to make us unpopular, but we're really not too stoked on the whole slam dancing/mosh pit thing right now. We don't go as far as Propagandhi and as far as some bands, people who will totally stop playing if there's any slam dancing or completely heckle the people in the pit through the whole show. I don't have any problem with bands that do that, but for us, we've played a lot in California which is one of the places where there's always going to be slam dancing and I got used to the fact that it's going to happen and all we can do is to try to encourage people to look out for each other and not hurt each other, and if people can come up to the front of the stage and not slam and sing along and jump up and down or dance or tap their feet or get into us and not feel threatened by the pit, then I don't care if people slam. What I hate is when there's a show where there's maybe 300 people there and five guys who probably couldn't even spell punk five years ago want to have a pit and so, because these five guys are running into each other and everybody else, people feel like they can't come up to the front and watch the band. That's what I feel is wrong, which is why, if it's a show like that, we try to make sure there's room on the stage for people if they want to come up and sit right along the front of the stage or on the side so they can be up front and be with the band because it's a lot more fun for us. We end up playing these shows where everybody's in the back and there's this big, wide-open circle with five tough guys walking around with their chests puffed out. I think that's lame. I don't like that at all.
Do you see any problems with the way people act at shows?
Russ: I think the slam dancing thing needs to be controlled and not use it as an excuse to beat people up. The tough macho fucks need to go home and not come to shows. Try out for the wrestling team or something. One thing that's cool that I like about our shows is that I've always loved the way that punk shows, when I used to go, the audience and the band were each a part of the other's experience. That's why I hate shows with barricades when we get far away from the people, and I like it when people participate in our set by singing along and talking to us. I love putting the mike down so people can sing into the mike and stuff, because I'm straight-edge and I have been for years, and I used to go to straight-edge shows and I loved that part of it, where people could participate. It makes me happy that people know our songs and feel good about singing them, so I think it's a really cool thing. We seem to get that at pretty much all our shows now. There are people who come up and sing along, and I hope it continues. I hope we get a reputation for that so that people will know when they come to our show they can do that, that we encourage it. Also, the more people who are up front singing along, the less room there is for the jocks to beat each other up.
What can we do to make the scene better?
Russ: I think it goes to your individual scene. For instance, here in Santa Cruz where I live, for years and years, there was no place to have shows. Once a year or once every six months, somebody would get up some money, rent a hall and put on a 6 band show and all of a sudden, you'd have a show and everybody in Santa Cruz and the surrounding areas would come. Because there weren't shows very regularly, most of the people would come in groups of their friends, nobody really knew each other and there were invariably tons of fights and violence and problems because you had the cliques of people and one guy from one group would bump into another guy from another group in the pit and invariably there would be a fight and the show would get shut down and the cops would come and it sucked. Then what happened, one of the upsides of punk popularity, we used to be one of about 3 punk bands in town for a good 6 or 7 years, and now there's probably 10 to 15 punk bands here and when the punk bands started popping up because punk was getting popular, then there started to be places to have shows. When you have shows on a regular basis in a town, after about a month of it, if there's a show every week, the same people are going to the shows every week. You see the same people at shows, so even if they aren't your friends, you see them at shows and you get familiar with people and there's not as much conflict and animosity and to me, that's how you build a scene. You have people that are participating on a regular basis in either putting on shows or playing at the shows or doing fliering or whatever and you see each other all the time and you form a relationship, like "This is our scene." Take pride in your scene sounds corny, but really, that's what I mean. Take it personally if there are people at your show who are fucking things up because what usually happens is a small percentage of people fuck it up for the larger percentage of people, whereas if the group would exercise its group conscience, you could tell the smaller group of people to get your shit together or you're not coming to shows anymore. There are always more of them than there are of the idiots and it's frustrating to be at a show where, like I said, there's 300 people and 3 to 5 guys ruin it for everybody and nobody does anything. It's frustrating as a person in a band because there's only so much I can do. I can't tell people what to do. It's their show, it's your scene. I used to go to shows all the time at Gilman Street up here in Berkeley and it had a really strong scene. If people were fighting, or starting anything, they didn't need bouncers. The entire crowd would separate a fight, point to the door and say "You need to get out and you can never come back." The same people were there every week and they'd recognize them. They put up little fliers that said "Banned from the scene" and they'd have a person's picture. It sounds extreme, but it worked. They had good shows there, it was a safe place to go and enjoy a really good show and I think more places need to do that, especially if there's places or scenes that have consistent shows where there's a lot of things happening pretty much all the time. People need to get together and realize they're going to miss it when it's gone when it gets shut down because of violence and fights and vandalism or whatever. I think people really need to question things more, especially the brand of punk and the whole punk shtick that's being commercialized and handed to us as the corporate world's version of punk. We really need to question it, especially younger kids who don't know anything else so if anyone younger gets hold of this interview, check out some older bands. Don't just go buy the bands you hear on MTV, find somebody at a show that looks like they've been around a while and see if you can borrow some stuff. Get some roots, find out what it's really all about and then go back and see if you really want to buy into this whole MTV punk thing. They want to market it as this really extreme, cool thing, but yet make it watered down and sugar-coated and safe enough so that your mom and dad can drop you off at the Memorial to see the Offspring and not fear for your life. I get a big laugh out of Alternative Nation. I mean, alternative music started as an alternative to MTV and mainstream radio, and for them to claim it as their own, it's really ironic to me. If you look at their history, they take forms of music, try to get the jump on what's going to be hip and they make what's hip, they pretty much run the game, they take a form of music and all their VJs change their image to look that way, all their ads are geared that way with music and snowboarding and skateboarding and all kinds of stuff. They take a form of music, they beat it into the ground, and they squeeze every last bit of anything that was ever good out of it and then they throw it away and go on to something else. They've done it with New Wave, heavy metal, grunge, rap and now they're doing it to punk. Now, it's almost time for them to go on to something else and that's what I'm waiting for.
Final thoughts? Anything you'd like to add?
Russ: Not really. Go vegan sounds really dumb. Basically question things, look into different forms of music, look into making political activism anywhere from a small to grand scale part of your involvement in punk, whether it's picking up a record by Propagandhi or Consolidated or checking out a book by someone like Noam Chomsky or learning a little bit more about the history of our country and why there's a need for dissent and not use punk as an excuse to go beat each other up and pick up chicks.