Cover StoryThree chords & the truth
WDET interviews Brett Callwood about this story (MP3)
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It's Dec. 10, 2006, in the secluded English coastal resort town of Minehead. Normally, the Butlins vacation complex would be closed down for winter; but on this particular weekend, fans of punk and alternative rock have invaded Minehead, because this week the town plays host to the All Tomorrow's Parties Festival, curated by Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore. The lineup is extraordinary, with Dinosaur Jr., the Melvins, Flipper, Gang of Four and Sonic Youth, all performing over the weekend. But on the final night, the fest centerpiece is the "Detroit stage." The Stooges, DKT/MC5 and Wolf Eyes all play, and so does Negative Approach.
That the re-formed punks blast the crowd away, old fans and new, is no surprise to those familiar with the band's ferocious blend of hardcore and UK Oi! punk. But what's unusual is how many of the other bands stand on the side of the stage, thrashing around like teenagers. J Mascis, Thurston Moore, Kim Gordon, Mark Arm (here with DKT/MC5), King Buzzo — all are reduced to fan-kids at the sight of Negative Approach, led by the frankly terrifying John Brannon, laying this U.K. festival to waste. And on this weekend in England, the son of a preacher is treated like a returning deity.
But when Brannon is back home in Detroit, he's an everyman, working a day gig flippin' burgers at the Traffic Jam & Snug Restaurant in the Cass Corridor, after which he's often found propping up the bar at the nearby Majestic or Old Miami.
That's quite a contrast to the man commonly associated with Easy Action, his current Detroit combo. He's the same punk who inspired Nirvana's Kurt Cobain to hire Butch Vig to produce Nevermind. He's the same punk who fronted the hugely influential first-wave hardcore band Negative Approach back in the early '80s, which helped shape that whole genre, influencing everyone from Sonic Youth to Sick of It All. The same punk who started all over again in '85 with his post-punk band the Laughing Hyenas and, again, won over a new generation of fans. All this stuff earns Brannon some respect in his hometown; but this is Detroit, where nobody rises above anyone else. The singer, who's obviously proud of his achievements, would not, it appears, have it any other way.
On stage, Brannon gives the impression that he could snap your neck without a moment's hesitation; and he may not be the only front man to play the "me against the audience" role — Henry Rollins and Pantera's Phil Anselmo spring to mind — but he's absolutely the most convincing. Brannon will often single out an audience member for an uncomfortable stare down. While there's an element of posturing to Rollins, and certainly Anselmo, Brannon is, and has always been, pissed off — pissed off in that blue-collar, I-live-in-Detroit-so-fuck-you kind of way.
When Brannon performs, he says he's taking his frustrations out on each person in attendance.
"I can hang out, have a beer and a conversation, but as soon as I get on stage it's me and the band against the audience," Brannon says. "When I was a kid, going to see a show was threatening and exciting and you might not know what's going to happen. I want to give people that. I want to play every show as if it's my last. There should be some threat in rock 'n' roll. That's what rock 'n' roll's all about."
And to keep the thread of contrasts going, Brannon's a kind gent, almost gentlemanly, offstage. Maybe that's because he luckily circumvented death during a gnarly heroin addiction years ago. He still drinks a shit-load but stays sharp, and he's gifted with a dry wit that gives conversations a certain zing. He'll hold your gaze in a manner that is, initially, disconcerting, but that's how he figures you out. He watches until he knows. And he'll talk intelligently about music for hours.
Brannon's Detroit apartment in the East English Village is compact and humbly furnished and, for a guy who's often on a tour, it's all he needs. The Stooges, Alice Cooper and New York Dolls posters decorate walls as if betraying some steadfast desire to cling to his '70s influences. CDs and LPs litter the floor and cram all shelf space. Cosey, his girlfriend's Cavalier King Charles spaniel (a foofy and incongruously cute dog, named after Throbbing Gristle's Cosey Fanni Tutti) lies curled up on a pillow. It's a strange sight when Brannon takes a seat beside her — imagine Mike Tyson carrying a chihuahua around in a man-bag.
The apartment has a very "student digs" feel, in keeping with the man who, like a punk-rock Peter Pan, never settled into a conventional adult lifestyle, instead choosing to tour with his buddies as much as humanly possible. While he's worked hard for such seemingly easy unaccountability, there's a kind of sadness about Brannon, a distance disguised by musical aggression, and the way he lights up, kidlike, when he talks of his girlfriend Sandra Barrett, from the Boston-based band Major Stars (whom he met at All Tomorrow's Parties in England). It all suggests that the singer's not entirely happy living by himself, or in a van. He is, however, used to feeling alone.
John Brannon was born in Pontiac, in August 1961, and he would spend the early years of his life moving between New York, New Jersey and Michigan. "My dad was a minister," Brannon says. "That's why we moved, because my dad had to go to seminary school in New Jersey. He had a preaching gig in upstate New York, then he got a job in Detroit, so we moved here. He wasn't a Bible-thumper at home. He was into it, but he never threw that shit on us."
After six years on Detroit's west side, the family moved to Berkley for a year, then, when Brannon was 9, to Grosse Pointe, where the young Brannon's anger began to blossom as he noticed the financial challenges that his parents faced compared to the apparently easy lives of his classmates. His parents soon divorced and, inevitably, Brannon felt it. Like so many other teenagers who considered themselves outsiders, Brannon found salvation in rock 'n' roll.
"I grew up in the '70s with the glam rock thing," Brannon says, smiling. "All the good bands — Alice Cooper, the Stooges, Bowie, T-Rex, Roxy Music — that's the stuff I was listening to when I was 10. We had all these great bands in Detroit. I was always too young to go see them, but you'd always hear about them. We had CREEM magazine. That was our bible. You'd always hear the stories. Alice Cooper being local, Stooges, MC5 — they were playing everywhere and, as a kid, you'd always hear this shit. I went out there and bought the records and discovered it. By the time I was old enough to start going to gigs, all of that shit was done."
Before he finished high school, Brannon had formed Static, a band heavily influenced by the theatrical garage-trash of Alice Cooper.
"Static was my high school band," Brannon says with a wry grin. "This was '75 or '76, and we were coming out of the glam thing. We were dressing up like Cooper and the Dolls but we sounded more like the Dead Boys. I wore makeup and had long hair. That lasted a couple of years and then it kind of fizzled out. I was young and dumb, and I started to realize that this shit was stupid."
With the desire for kohl and glam out of his system, and with punk rock gathering steam on both sides of the Atlantic, Brannon discovered a music far more intense.
Beginning in 1981, Negative Approach helped rewrite the rulebook of what it meant to be an aggressive punk-rock band. The left field, artistic approach of Talking Heads and Pere Ubu was ignored, and the snotty social commentary and power chordage, such as the Pistols and Sham 69, was cranked up, sped up and shouted out with more ferocity. NA and the other bands who made up the first wave of the "hardcore" scene (the Necros and the Meatmen locally; Black Flag, Minor Threat and the other Dischord Records bands nationally, among others) played songs that usually clocked in at less than two minutes and aimed directly at the throat. Lyrical wordplay was less important than getting a point across. Uncompromising and refreshingly honest — much like early rap — hardcore attracted a following of disillusioned youth worldwide and, as pioneers of the first wave, Negative Approach's influence is acknowledged to be enormous by fans of the genre.
"When we started Negative Approach, we held onto our back influences, like Alice Cooper and Dead Boys — the shit that stood the test of time," Brannon says. "We kind of wanted to do an American version of the English 'Oi!' thing, without the racism. We were bored white kids from the suburbs that shaved our heads. It had nothing to do with politics."
NA went through numerous lineup changes before Brannon put together a settled, committed lineup. He'd decided that the best place to find punk musicians would be the local skateboard park, and it was here that he stumbled into bassist Rob McCulloch. Rob's brother Graham was in a band called Youth Patrol and, when that group ground to a halt, Brannon pulled him into NA too, along with Youth Patrol drummer Chris "Opie" Moore. Before long, other like-minded bands would join NA in creating a whole new community. "We created a scene out of nothing," Brannon says. "We started doing underground shows. We were like, 'Fuck this, half of our audience can't get in because they're 15-year-old skateboarders'. That was how the whole do-it-yourself thing started. There was a real sense of accomplishment, because everyone was young and starting record labels, getting records out. Local fanzines like [Lansing's] Touch and Go were getting nationally distributed. That was a big-ass fucking thing."
Negative Approach was very much Brannon's band, and he had a clear vision of how everything should sound, going so far as to tell Opie Moore to keep his drumming simple, to take a primitive approach to his playing. "That was pretty much the whole concept," Moore says. "To be as harsh and straight-ahead as possible."
Just after forming, John Brannon, plus other members of Negative Approach, fellow local hardcore band the Necros and Washington, D.C., pioneers Minor Threat, found themselves on Saturday Night Live in 1981 as the audience for a performance by Lee Ving's infamous L.A. punk band Fear, which had been given a leg up onto the show by their friend John Belushi.
"The original cast had left. Belushi was just coming back to do a spot," Brannon says. "So we're all hanging out in the green room. The dudes with the headphones and the clipboards are running around all terrified and shit. Belushi's hanging out because he wanted to hang with all of us. I had black spiky hair, and Belushi's like, 'You should get a mohawk.' Somebody had their clippers, and Belushi gave me a mohawk. Fear played, and we were just doing what we do, going nuts. I think that was America's first glimpse of slam dancing and crazy punk dudes. The microphone gets knocked into the audience, and of course I grabbed it and I yelled, 'Negative Approach is gonna fuck you up.' That aired over live TV. That was kind of a thrill. I was about 18. When I got home, I wasn't feeling the mohawk, so from that point on I was a skinhead."
NA's first recorded output was a song on the Touch and Go Records sampler Process of Elimination, compiled by Tesco Vee of the Meatmen. NA's track was "Lost Cause." "That was the first time we went into a recording studio," Brannon says. "The band had been together for a short time. We had a handful of songs and we meet up with the Touch and Go people. The next thing you know, we were in their magazine and we were gonna be on their label."
"Lost Cause" set the tone for NA's subsequent recordings. While other hardcore bands got bogged down in political rhetoric, Brannon's songs were centered around normal issues that he'd face on a day-to-day basis. (One recurring theme saw Brannon defending himself for how he dressed, the music he liked and generally not fitting in.) Every word was a spit-in-the-eye to his perceived antagonists. John's Brannon's voice set NA apart from all other hardcore bands. Ferocious, unrelenting and highly emotional, Brannon's was a pulverizing, pitched shout of unspeakable origin, as if he was yelling right at you. And the band boiled the essence of punk, including that of the more aggressive bands, such the Exploited and the Germs, down to the bare minimum. It sounded like cars crashing in tune. There was little in the way of dynamics, but that sledgehammer-heavy, no-frills approach proved effective in releasing the frustrations, not only of Brannon and the band, but also of the audiences. Violence wasn't unusual within the crowds at hardcore shows in the early '80s.
Brannon, in performance, became a man possessed. He'd stomp side to side like some street-thug, staring down anyone stupid enough to catch his wide, wild eyes. It was like he wanted to mercilessly pummel everybody in the room. The little nihilist kids in the crowd lapped it up.
The band's self-titled debut EP saw them break new ground — 10 songs on one 7-inch record, the longest clocking in at 1:51. With art featuring an image from The Exorcist, NA was dragging culture's disillusioned young punks into their fucked-up little world where anything was possible. Heads turned.
"When the first 7-inch came out with the picture from The Exorcist inside, forget about it," says Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore. "That was the greatest hardcore EP ever. People like John Brannon and [Minor Threat's] Ian MacKaye were my new heroes in music."
Brannon remembers the first EP as a happy accident, the glorious result of clueless abandon.
"We decided to put a 45 out, and we started thinking about how many minutes we'd have per side," Brannon says. He swigs from his beer and continues: "I didn't know anything about making records. We decided to put 10 songs on the 45. I don't think anybody had really done that. For us, it was an album. It was the whole set on a 45."
NA would build its reputation playing with like-minded outsider bands from around the country, including Bad Brains, the Misfits, the Circle Jerks and Black Flag over the next year, though it was an '82 summer show with Minor Threat and the Meatmen at Detroit's Freezer Theatre that people talk about above all others, though not for the right reasons.
"The Freezer Theatre was in the [Cass] Corridor, an old storefront," Brannon says. "We'd been doing gigs there for about a year and a half and this bill was put together — Minor Threat, Meatmen and Negative Approach. In the parking lot, right where the Old Miami is, a riot started over something stupid. Somebody looked at somebody wrong, or somebody fucked somebody's girlfriend at some party. I've never seen anything like it. We were trying to get our equipment out of there. The cops were arresting everybody. Bricks through windows, blood. That was the end of the Freezer Theatre."
Larissa Stolarchuk had been in the Detroit band L-Seven (not to be confused with the '90s all-girl punk band L7), and had earlier introduced Brannon to the members of the Necros, the Meatmen and the people at the record label/fanzine Touch and Go. She also played a big part in helping NA book and promote shows. When Brannon was kicked out of his mother's house for hosting a hardcore concert there while she was out (Ma Brannon returned midshow, and that was that), he appeared at Larissa's door and began living with her. After about a year, the friendship blossomed into a relationship.
"She was definitely my girlfriend all through Negative Approach and half of the Hyenas," Brannon recalls.
With Stolarchuk helping with the booking, NA toured all around the United States, with the members working themselves into the ground but roping in new fans and making connections with other bands in every city they played. NA gigged locally at every opportunity and, through determination and hard work, honed its live show into a frighteningly intense and musically tight affair. Which makes what happened next seem all the more tragic to Brannon.
In 1983, NA went into the studio for the last time, to record the Tied Down album. A terrifying and astounding piece of work, Tied Down was hampered by the fact the band broke up between the recording and the release. So Brannon didn't have a band to tour the record with.
"The other guys wanted to go in a different direction, but we had all these great songs," Brannon says, ruefully. "I knew the album was going to be great when it came out, so I just got some local guys and formed a 'fake NA'. We did a Tied Down tour for about three weeks and a lot of great shows. At that point though, I knew it was over."
Opie Moore says he mainly left NA to experiment with different styles. "I was getting sick of the fact that it started getting popular," Moore says. "People started showing up to get into fights. Musically, I was tired of playing loud and fast and I wanted to do something else. John wanted to keep it going. The rest of us were kind of sick of it. It wasn't a horrible exit, but I definitely decided that I was done. I didn't think about it too much."
For Brannon, what was once exciting and fresh was becoming stale, redundant and clichéd.
"Hardcore, to me, had run its course," he says as his brow furrows. "Things were repeating themselves and taking on the 'metal' edge. We were like the soundtrack for all these kids to show up and beat the crap out of each other. It had a couple of years where it was golden and it meant something. But you've got to move on. I'm glad it ended when it did. I was broadening my mind on what's out there."
Negative Approach ended later in 1983. With L-Seven also fizzling out, it only made sense for Brannon and Stolarchuk, soon to rename herself Larissa Strickland, to begin playing together.
Enter the Laughing Hyenas.
Brannon: "Larissa and I were still living together and we were like, 'Fuck it, we might as well form a band.' We loaded up my van and decided to move to Ann Arbor. We met Kevin Munro, who also changed his second name to Strickland. We decided to start this new band. We went to see the Birthday Party, and that just changed my life. It just made so much sense to me. Hardcore was over and there was definitely something else going on that we wanted to get with."
It was important to Brannon, for camaraderie, that the band all live together. "We went to Ann Arbor and eventually got a house," he says. "We all lived together; it was kind of like the Monkees. I didn't want any shit about not showing up for practice. We were into this and it was us against the world. We weren't quitting and we were definitely on a mission with that band."
Though creativity blossomed in the Hyenas' Ann Arbor house, so did heroin use.
"Drugs had a grip on us for a long time," Brannon says. "Everybody had bad habits. Heroin was my drug of choice. It just seemed like a good idea at the time. There were no underlying issues that led me to try it — I was young and dumb, and I wanted to experiment and get high. It was fun for the first three years and it was a nightmare for the rest of it. We just got caught up in that whole thing and it was really hard to quit. I gotta say though, we were doing a lot of drugs, but it was the most prolific period we had."
The heavy drug use, Brannon says, never affected the gigs. "We always performed, if we were sick or not, even if we couldn't get our shit. We kept it to ourselves. It wasn't the main emphasis of the band, but it controlled a lot of us for a long time. We had our ups and downs, and there was definitely drama. I think everybody in the Hyenas OD'd at one point or another. It certainly happened to me. The ambulances would come and it was pretty scary. I just felt like a jerk when I got to hospital. They'd ask me if I was trying to commit suicide and I'd tell them that I had just gotten hold of some really good dope. It was so fucking stupid. I wouldn't recommend heroin to anyone. Stay away."
The Laughing Hyenas would record the now-collectable demo cassette Stain using recording equipment salvaged from Dumpsters, but before long would renew acquaintances with Touch and Go Records and make a new one with a soon-to-be legendary producer.
"[Touch and Go] hooked us up with Butch Vig," Brannon says. "He ended up producing every album anybody's ever heard. We did four records with him. Butch kinda saw where we were coming from and really did a great job. Of course, after he did Nirvana's Nevermind, it was impossible to get in there. I remember talking with Tad [Tad Doyle, a Sub Pop recording artist] and Kurt [Cobain], and Tad was like, 'We really like that Laughing Hyenas sound.' I was like, 'You gotta go to this dude Butch Vig.' Of course, Nirvana did just that, and the rest is history. Butch went on to do Garbage and record everyone in the world. That was a dream come true — to work with a guy who is so talented."
Butch Vig or no, Mudhoney main-man Mark Arm remembers being turned on to the Hyenas. "The whole package of the band was amazing," Arm says, enthusiastically. "The original rhythm section was unbeatable — Kevin and Jim [Kimball, drums]. Larissa's guitar playing was amazing. John's insanely brutal vocals over the top — it was pretty amazing shit. It pinned you against a wall."
The Come Down to the Merry Go Round EP was the band's 1987 Touch and Go debut. Their debut album, You Can't Pray a Lie, followed in '89, and the sophomore album, Life of Crime was released in '90. Around that time Brannon's life had shaken up considerably, particularly because he was trying to get clean.
"Larissa and I broke up probably right before Life of Crime came out," Brannon says, shaking his head. "You can't be in a relationship if one person wants to quit drugs and the other doesn't. There were periods where we were straight for a minute, but she wasn't saying no and I was. It was getting bad, and I had to get away. Larissa introduced me to a nice little thing called gin and tonic. That's when I started drinking heavily. Yes, I was just swapping one bad habit for another, but at least I could travel and not have to worry about having my stuff. That was a big deal. We'd always try to have our supply of heroin and it didn't always last, which caused a lot of fighting on the road. Who's got something? We've got to go and get something. We put ourselves in a lot of shady situations out of town. Guns shoved in our faces and things like that."
Following the release of the Life of Crime album, bassist Kevin Strickland and drummer Jim Kimball left to form the band Mule. Kimball was replaced with Todd Swalla, formerly of the Necros. Strickland's place was initially taken by Kevin Ries for the Crawl EP, then by another former Necro, Ron Sakowski, for the Hard Times album in '95.
"Things began to get really difficult," Brannon admits. "I was living with another girl. Larissa was doing her floating-around thing. She didn't have a secure place. ..."
By then, the Hyenas were struggling. Nobody could hold down a job because the band toured incessantly. For a seven-year period, the members of the Laughing Hyenas had little life beyond the band. Indeed, on some tours they'd eat out of Dumpsters to survive. If they could get enough gas money to get to their next show, they were happy.
Ron Sakowski recalls a lot of ups and downs. "Any band that is recording, touring, practicing and dealing with life in general has ups and downs. But we had quite a bit of fun. We played a lot. Larissa was prolific at booking shows all the time, then she got sick of it and hired a booking agent. After that, the shows varied a little bit. It was cool. It was three years of touring and putting out the Hard Times album with them."
Despite the fact the Hyenas were showing signs of slowing down, Brannon was loath to let his beloved band go. "I'm never one to give up," he says. "I always want to take things to the end and push it. At that point though, a lot of things were coming up. Larissa went down to Florida to take care of her folks because her mom had cancer, and her dad ended up dying, which came out of the blue. She was totally devastated and she didn't know what to do, and I knew the band was over. I knew she'd have to be down in Florida taking care of her mom, who ended up dying a year after that. We had a good run, we did what we did and things come to an end."
With the Laughing Hyenas going on hiatus, Brannon had to look elsewhere to get his musical fix. Harold Richardson had begun hanging out with the Hyenas guys as they were winding down, and a friendship evolved. "Harold had all my shit stored in his basement for about four years," Brannon laughs. "I had to admit to myself that the Hyenas were over. Harold and me started talking about forming a band, because he had just gotten thrown out of his band. This is around '98. We got together because we wanted to jam."
Towards the end of 2000, a three-day spell in the slammer scared Brannon into putting the needle down for good, proving that the much-maligned American incarceration system does actually work every now and then.
"When I got thrown in jail, the reality hit," Brannon says. "I had to go cold turkey in jail and that wasn't any fun, but I'm kind of glad I got arrested because it gave me a reason to quit. I had been on and off for a few years, caught up in the vicious circle. It's really hard to stop. After going to jail, I just pulled it together. A lot of my friends weren't so lucky — they're either dead or in jail and they aren't going anywhere good. I had a lot of good people in my corner trying to get me off it and I've been straight for about 10 years. Now I just drink a lot of beer."
As the band that would become Easy Action began to take shape, a familiar face was put on bass. "We pulled Ron [Sakowski] in directly from the Hyenas," Brannon says, smiling. "I started writing songs, we started doing gigs and we took it from there. Al Sutton from Rust Belt Studios in Royal Oak produced Crawl for the Hyenas. We wanted to make the first, self-titled Easy Action record in Detroit, because I was so used to going out of state to make records. We called Al and that worked out. That was 2001. We followed the debut up with the Friends of Rock 'n' Roll album in 2005, which came out on Reptilian Records like the first album. We went through a million drummers and, after Ron, 20 bass players. We finally got Matt Becker to play drums and Toni Romeo (formerly of the Trash Brats) on bass, and this is the definitive lineup of Easy Action."
Easy Action is a far more straightforward rock 'n' roll band in the classic, Motor City sense than either the pummeling, primitive hardcore of NA or the brooding art-noise of the Laughing Hyenas. Harold Richardson agrees. "It's a rock 'n' roll band," Richardson says. "If you're familiar with Detroit rock, it's pretty much that. It's named after the Alice Cooper record."
Mark Arm is perplexed as to why Easy Action hasn't broken bigger by now. "I think it's a crime," says Arm. "Friends of Rock 'n' Roll is one of my favorite albums of this last decade. I don't understand. There might be a reputation that goes along with John Brannon. The Hyenas were notoriously difficult to deal with. That probably carries over into Easy Action."
So it seemed that Brannon was destined to work himself into the ground with Easy Action, touring at every opportunity like the Hyenas, working their local rep and releasing the odd record. Was Brannon doomed to repeat past errors, or just ready to hit the repeat button?
After dismissing the idea as ludicrous for two decades for fear of becoming artistically redundant, regardless of the obvious financial temptation, John Brannon finally buckled and reunited Negative Approach in September 2006 to play its first show since 1984, part of a Touch and Go anniversary show in Chicago.
"I got approached by Corey Rusk from Touch and Go Records," Brannon says. "He said that they were doing a Touch and Go 25th anniversary gig with all these bands playing that they had put out over the years. I was like, 'Oh, I don't know, man.' I'd just gotten the news that Easy Action was going to New York, and every time we go to NYC we stay at Opie's house. I said to him, 'I got the call from Corey.' He was like, 'I know, I know.' Eventually, it came together."
Joining classic NA members Brannon and Opie would be Ron Sakowski and Harold Richardson, as the McCulloch brothers were not in a place in their lives where they could rejoin NA and do justice to the band's legacy.
"We practiced twice in Harold's basement," Brannon says. "Opie drove out to Detroit and we rehearsed a couple of times. It sounded pretty good, and that's when we knew we could do it. We played Irving Plaza with Easy Action, then got on a plane at 6 a.m., flew to Chicago and did the gig in front of 7,000 people. A big outdoor event. We had the greatest time. The energy, the fact that NA had really only played to a couple of hundred people before ... it was the most overwhelming thing."
If that first Negative Approach reunion show was one of the biggest rushes of John Brannon's life, just a few months later he would receive one of the biggest blows: Larissa Strickland/Stolarchuk died. The singer was devastated.
The cause of death appears to be an overdose of pills, but Brannon insists that he's never been given a straightforward answer. "For some reason, I really thought she was gonna be at the NA reunion show," Brannon says, looking into his beer. "I had been talking to her on the phone about once a year, but she'd start yelling at me or something. She was married and living in Florida. So I thought she was going to go to the Touch and Go deal and then I didn't see her. A few months later, we got the word. That was kind of fucked-up. It was never clear how she died. They were saying she OD'd on Xanax or something. She was a one-of-a-kind guitar player. Everybody that knew her, I'm sure, had a love-hate relationship with her. She could be the sweetest person, but if she had a smile on her face she was probably up to something. She definitely created a style out of nothing, and those Laughing Hyenas records are just so amazing. No formal training. Just a desire to do it."
Brannon picked himself up, dusted himself off and moved forward. After the success of the first reunion show, NA traveled to England for the aforementioned All Tomorrow's Parties Festival, after being personally invited by Thurston Moore.
"Thurston gives us a call," Brannon says. "He's like, 'We're putting this show together in England. It's going to be the Stooges, the MC5 — are you guys interested?' I'm like, 'Fuck yeah, we're interested.' OK, so we do this first reunion show, and the next thing you know we're playing with the Stooges and the MC5, which is a dream come true. Who would have ever thought in this date and time that we would get to play with Iggy, let alone the Stooges, and the MC5 with Mark Arm. That was so fucking exciting."
For Thurston Moore, the decision to put NA on the All Tomorrow's Parties bill was a simple one, once he'd heard that they'd re-formed.
"I just had to have them play. They meant so much to people like me who were really into American hardcore," Moore says. "I was an anomaly because I came out of this experimental art rock scene and everybody loved punk rock but they kind of looked down on hardcore. They thought it was like beating a dead horse. I thought it was an interesting and valid genre."
While recent NA performances have been mind-blowingly intense, Brannon insists that he and Opie are having fun this time around. "It just seemed like the time was right," Brannon grins. "We're taking it seriously as far as the performances, but we're going to have some fun with this. Everybody gets along. I don't have to deal with any bullshit. Everybody's professional. It's just a real satisfying feeling that I finally get to play to these kids who never got to see us. They never let that band die. The records still sell like crazy. Every time I go anywhere, there's a new Negative Approach bootleg in the stores. The DVDs are out. There's all this shit and hype. We didn't ever lose the energy and drive to show motherfuckers how it's done in Detroit. I still have that in me, and I'm still pissed-off. I still have something to say."
The John Brannon that sits down to be interviewed in 2010 is a man at ease with himself. He still drinks heavily, but he's 10-years-clean and he still never cancels a show. Sandra Barrett, his girlfriend, has put a spring in his step, and — though he claims that there is still much to be pissed-off with, saying that "there will always be people that don't get what I'm doing and there are still plenty of assholes, although pretty much anything can piss me off" — he has plenty to celebrate.
Easy Action continues to be his main concern; it is here that he feels he is most artistically relevant, playing new songs to, in many cases, new fans and not relying on his past glories. "NA is a side thing," Brannon says. "It's not like we're going to go into the studio and record a new NA album. It'd be kind of absurd. You can only do the past so much. I'd rather give the public new Easy Action material. As far as rock 'n' roll goes, you haven't killed me yet, so I'm not going to let up any time soon."
John Brannon will always remain a cult hero. An acquired taste. Niche appeal. But those who love his music really love his music. It may seem ludicrous to some, but he's been described as an Elvis-like figure by hardcore and punk rock aficionados. It's incredible that, after all of these years, he's never put his name to a bad record. John Brannon has every right to look back on his career to date with pride and to look forward with excitement. But how does the man himself want to be remembered when it's all over?
"Just a motherfucker who gave his all," Brannon says. "Did not compromise, stuck to his guns. When everybody was saying, 'You can't do this,' I turned around and said, 'Yes I can.' That's been my life story. Every band I've started, they might not get it at first but they come around. I'm gonna give 100 percent to everything I do, and I stand behind every record I've ever made. I want people to know that if I'm associated with something, it's definitely worth a listen."
Negative Approach plays on Saturday, July 31, at St. Andrew's Hall, 431 E. Congress St., Detroit; 313-961-8137.
Brett Callwood is a music critic for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.