Published Nov 22, 2009Few punk rock bands have had the monumental impact of Southern California's Youth Brigade. Comprised of the Stern brothers, Adam (bass), Mark (drums) and Shawn (guitar/vocals), the power trio have proven indelible to the ongoing revitalization of this enduring musical genre. Their list of accomplishments seems endless: classic, anthemic albums such as 1982's Sound And Fury and 1996's To Sell The Truth, forming the Better Youth Organization, a collective intent on inspiring positive internal action from punkers and proving them as active, contributing members of society to onlookers, the ensuing BYO Records, which was responsible for kick-starting the careers of some of punk's more memorable acts including 7 Seconds, Alkaline Trio and Bouncing Souls as well as offering titles from NOFX and Rancid, concocting the first-ever international multi-punk band tour with cohorts Bad Religion and Social Distortion in a converted school bus circa the early '80s ― captured on celluloid and available as the unforgettable film Another State Of Mind ― and more recent, fun engagements such as an annual punk rock bowling tournament in Las Vegas. Youth Brigade is continually active, endlessly energetic and eternally adored.
At that, they celebrated their 25th anniversary in 2007, planning to issue a commemorative box set. Due to the grandiose commitment involved along with running a label, playing in a band and organizing tournaments though, they missed their own party by a solid two years. However, as Shawn relates, the set featuring a book chronicling the band's impact on punk, a feature-length DVD discussing the scene, Youth Brigade and BYO as well as a 31-track CD of bands covering BYO material, Let Them Know: The Story Of Youth Brigade And BYO Records was finally released earlier this year. The trio may now let the jubilee begin.
This box set celebrating your 25th anniversary has been quite the undertaking to the point where you're two years late with it.
Shawn Stern: Yeah, we were coming up on it a few years ago but of course it passed. I told my brother as he was freaking out a couple of years back that we weren't gonna get our 25-year anniversary box set out on our 25th year. He thought people would feel we're flakes. I said that if we put out a mediocre box set in our 25th year, they'd remember that more than a 25th anniversary set that's great but didn't necessarily come out at the right time. It's better to do something great than something on time. We weren't advertising it or anything. It just became such a big project that it ended up taking so much time.
How did this whole endeavour come about anyway?
We were sitting around thinking about what to do. The first idea was to do a compilation but so many people are getting their music for free, it's killing labels now. It's changing how labels can do business nowadays. Then we thought about doing a movie on the label, the band and the punk scene in L.A. Well, even that they could download. Then we thought, well, if we made a book and put it all inside that, it's something everyone would want but can't just download. They'd have to buy it to have it. It took a lot of time. It's been a monster. It nearly drove my brother insane because he's the one who put the whole book together. He's the art department for BYO. It was a lot of work but he did a great job.
What a monumental task. Did you finally achieve what you'd hoped for since it took two years longer than anticipated?
The LP became a double-LP and we actually had to cut one song. We'd asked a whole bunch of bands to be a part of it. Lots of people wanted to do it but trying to get them into the studio and record a song? It's always best to ask for the song but bands want to use all of the songs for their new records. That's when we came up with the idea of having everyone cover a track from one of our releases. That gives them a huge catalogue of songs to choose from and brings it back to BYO. We got 31 bands to cover 31 punk rock classics.
It sounds like things went as planned.
It worked out really well. We got a lot of bands doing some pretty interesting takes on different songs. You hear the influences of some of these bands on the covers. It's obvious they grew up listening to 7 Seconds or Youth Brigade. It's interesting how there are some bands that get covered a lot. One Man Army got four covers, Youth Brigade and 7 Seconds had a couple, Bouncing Souls had a couple but we only put out one One Man Army album. Or Alkaline Trio has six songs that we released and two bands covered them.
The book is interesting because it's not your typical "This is what happened" scenario.
When we decided to put this book together, since me and my brothers are all surfers, there's a magazine called Surfer's Journal. There are all these surfers around from when it was just starting and people didn't know what it was. They were making things up at the time, which is what we were doing with punk rock. They'd do these interviews with them but the interviews are more of the guy just telling stories. You know, "Yeah, one day we were surfing this place and the swell started getting really big..." It's an interesting way to tell stories, which is what we tried utilizing in the book. We got a lot of different people. Some are from the movie and then other people that we didn't have a chance to interview that did shows with us or something like that. They weren't too involved but were there at some point. We got Jack from TSOL who wrote a great story about this huge show we did in 1982 called Youth Movement '82 that they played on, Tony Adolescent wrote about when we premiered Another State Of Mind and he was really drunk. Near the end of the movie he jumped up and knocked the video projector over.
Sounds like getting stories from people was the easy part.
The funny thing is when you ask people to write stories, some are really bad at writing a story. I don't understand how difficult it is. I'd tell them to be simple: a paragraph or two that's not about kissing our ass or telling us how we were such an important part of your life or the punk scene. That's not what this is about. Maybe a show we did together or a show we promoted... something that had to do with what's us in some way or another. A lot of people seem to have difficulty with that.
People are strange. If you give them too much freedom or none at all, they can't handle it.
Yeah, they froze up. I had people who said they'd love to do it but didn't know what to write about. I'd prompt them, like, "C'mon, don't you remember that time we were in Las Vegas playing black jack or punk rock bowling?" I wouldn't ask someone who I didn't think had one but it's amazing how many just can't write.
I'm surprised you even managed to get some of this archival material. It's pretty comprehensive.
The hard part was trying to find video and photos for the movie and book. We never carried cameras around and the people who were taking photos or video, they're always just a fan so they're shooting the band, not always the audience. You don't see the crowd or whatever. It's hard to get those shots to illustrate the points we were making. It doesn't hurt the movie though.
This all speaks volumes about your past but what about the present state of Youth Brigade? You've been quite active lately.
We've been busy with this and the label. We're amazed and thankful that we're still doing this. It's something we love. Someone asked me the other day about us going out like Mötley Crüe playing for fans back in the day. I said that was a sad, sad picture in my mind: fat, balding people. We're lucky that we still have young people interested in the band. I guess that's a testament to punk rock that it can still reach across generations because it still has something to say as opposed to all these bands out there that just sing sappy love songs. I've got nothing against love but I think there's a lot more to love and the world than singing the same boy/girl soap opera over and over again. That's always been the reason I was drawn to punk rock in the first place and made it my life since I was a teenager. I think we're just amazingly lucky to be doing this for so many years and making somewhat of a living, not having to work a straight job for someone else we hate.
It's important to note that while running a label is working for yourself, you're probably putting in more hours for less pay than a typical day job. People don't understand that.
Yeah but it's something we love. It's definitely not easy and we're not rich but we do all right. I could have taken a job at a corporate place but it's not what I'm about and I've never considered it.
Well, there are thousands of people that are thankful you have that mentality but some people think that if you have a label you must live on Easy Street. They don't understand the hard work and that it's a labour of love.
It definitely is. If it was so easy, a lot more people would be doing it. Although there are a hell of a lot more bands out there nowadays. More bands and more labels. It's gotten a lot easier in the last 15 years with the digital revolution. There are some good things about that and some not-so-good things about that.
Having been around before the digital era, you've seen this impact. Now, a person posts a song on a networking site and considers themselves a label.
What's worse is when we played at that NXNE Festival this past year. We played and between us and the Sonics was the Rock Star Energy Drink Rock Band Battle Finals. The irony? Here you're having a music festival for a week and there are over 500 bands yet one contest with a $100,000 prize... these four kids are gonna get up and pretend they play music. They don't and have no talent other than to dance around like fools pretending they're in bands to further the corporate dreams of a video game and an energy drink and they'll win $100,000 which is probably more money than all of the bands who played NXNE made combined. There's something seriously wrong with that.
Maybe it's a gateway for them to discover a desire for playing an instrument...although I don't hold out much hope for that.
Me neither. I love lots of different kinds of music but some of the electronic stuff out there sounds like a kid who used to smoke bong hits and play video games realized he could just smoke bong hits and hit a keyboard hooked up to a computer and make sounds that seem like music. Now he's making "music" and getting paid for it. I'm not sitting here advocating everyone needs to go and be classically trained. Hell, I learned how to play my music by teaching myself or from other people. You should play an instrument though. Playing a computer is not an instrument.
It's a tool.
Exactly, and the music they're making sounds like it was made by tools.