Swingin’ Utters: No Labels Need Apply (from August 2001)
“We’re a cross between The Pogues and The Ramones – You come up with a title” -Johnny Bonnel (Pastepunk.com interview)
Labels. Everyone uses them. Everything has it’s own neat little label. Products are made and shipped each and every day and each one of them fits under a little label. Clothing. Electronics. Books. Food. The music industry is no different. Every band can be neatly summed up by one nice little label. Or can they? Can each band be branded one specific genre?
Well, the Beatles were pop…or were they rock’n’roll? Perhaps punk is more easily classified. Are the Cockney Rejects punk….Oi!….or rock? What about the Ruts? Punk…reggae…rock? And the Who? Mods….rockers….mockers? It seems that one definite label doesn’t always apply neatly to everything. Music is constantly crossing genre lines and in labeling music, we often, quite accidentally, help stagnate it.
Face it kids, labels needn’t apply to every band out there and the Swingin’ Utters are one such band. Eager to avoid the sweeping labels that sometimes are associated with the punk rock scene and the limitations these labels sometimes create, the Swingin’ Utters have branched out into one of the finest examples of music I’ve heard in the last twenty years. The back of the split LP with Youth Brigade describes the band as such: “there will always be a bit of sadness to make you appreciate how fucking wonderful this band is becoming, has been and where they’re capable of taking you.” My sentiments exactly.
Shite ‘n’ Onions is committed to not only informing readers of the current happenings in the Irish-folk-punk-whateverthefuck (or whatever label you want to throw on it) world, but also educating and paying tribute to the forebearers of the current trend. I can think of no other band worthy of success or said tribute then the men who make up the Swingin’ Utters. They are: Johnny Bonnel, singer, Darius Koski, lead guitar, violin and accordion, Max Huber, lead guitar, Spike Slawson, bass guitar and Greg McEntee, drums.
People have always labeled the Utters. In fairness, it is often easiest for a critic to describe a band with labels. Sometimes this helps to generally paint a picture for the reader of what to expect if they listen to a band. I do it in nearly all of my reviews and certainly some of the all-time great bands do fit neatly into a label. Take the 4-Skins, for example. I doubt anyone likens them to Blink 182 or accuses them of ‘inspiring’ the world of, say, techno, or even, for that matter, pop punk. They are textbook oi of course and have written countless genre classics. But then there are other bands that don’t fit as easily into a preexisting category. The Utters…what about the Utters?
Over the years, the label I have seen most associated with the band is the oi or streetpunk label. While certainly not an insult, sometimes this particular label has a tendency to strangle the life and air out of a band, to stifle talent and creativity. And creativity and talent aren’t normally associated with it (I happen to love it, even if it is simple-minded.) “There’s a lot of oi that I love” Max Huber said. “Now, I go back to some of those records and they fucking suck. Seriously. Some of those records are terrible. The Last Resort is so bad.” Darius Koski puts it this way: “I’ve always thought the oi thing was kinda weird. I mean, we all listen to that type of music and we have a lot of friends who are skinheads and blah blah blah and skinheads are in the band, but I’ve never, ever considered us an oi band.”
The Utters, while undeniably influenced by legends of the oi and streetrock sound, like Sham 69, Cock Sparrer and the Business, as well as the ’77 punk of the Clash and Stiff Little Fingers, have evolved into so much more than just a poor copy of the past. Lyrically, the musings of Koski, Huber and Bonnel are far beyond 90% of their contemporaries. They explore real life, as it is, but in an “everyday-sort-of-elegant-hooligan” way. They seem to preach “the stars are best viewed from the gutter, drunken on your back” mentality much like a Joe Strummer, Shane MacGowan, Tom Waits or Paul Westerberg, but with a more lyrical, prosey-poetic style, seemingly influenced by Elvis Costello, Jack Kerouac or James Joyce. Musically, now more than ever, they have carved out their own sound. Over the last few albums, (“Five Lesson Learned” and the newest, simply self-titled, the most) a definite folksy influence has reared its head. They aren’t content with playing in the piss-stained pub built by others – they’re building it themselves and staining it with their own piss. “There’s more to their sound than aping their musical forebearers, enslaved to imitating the indisputable and feared musical drinking champions of the pubs and streets…”
“These guys aren’t post punk or post oi, they’re post Pogues!” -Todd and Money (BYO Split LP Jacket)
So the description reads on the back of the BYO split and it is currently the label I see most associated with the band – “Poguesy.” For those of you not familiar with the Pogues (all one of you) the almighty Pogues are the standard by which all other ‘Irish punk’ (more about this label later) bands are judged. The Pogues combined the fury and aggression of punk and combined it with old Irish songs from singer Shane MacGowan‘s upbringing, added instruments like the tin whistle, the banjo, the mandolin and the accordion (the latter two the Utters both utilize) to create one of the most original, and in my eyes, best bands of all-time. The band doesn’t deny the Pogues greatness and are all huge fans. Singer Johnny Bonnel put it like this: “I don’t think any band that does incorporate this type of instrumentation with the energy of punk should deny a Pogues influence. They were the first band to do this well.”
Certainly, the influence the Pogues currently exude over the streetrock and Oi scene is great, but it is not new to the boys in the Utters. Daruis Koski’s accordion playing skills were showcased on the first album, “The Streets of San Francisco” way back in 1994. Koski, also a classically trained violinist, explains: “There was a bit of accordion on our first record but there would’ve been a hell of a lot more if we had the time and money.” In a sense, the Utters later albums typify the sound they have always wanted to achieve but couldn’t due to lack of funds, studio time, etc. The move from smaller labels to a larger independent like Fat Wreck Chords has helped the band realize the sound it wanted. “Honestly, all of our records would sound a lot more like this one (Five Lessons Learned) if we had the time and money we had on this one.”
“I just don’t want to be pigeon-holed – we are anyway because we’re a punk band – we ARE ALLOWED to play a lot of different styles of music.”-Darius Koski (Flipside Interview)
Labels and pigeon holes certainly don’t appeal to Koski, and the oi label isn’t the only one he’s tiring of hearing. “I actually don’t really like my songs being called Irish songs because I’m not really going for that at all and none of the songs I’ve written have anything to do with Irish culture, at least not purposely. I don’t have a drop of Irish blood in me, I’m half Finnish and half Persian, and that’s it, so I would love for people just to know that I’m not writing Irish songs, not that there’s anything wrong with them but I just get that sooooo much.” I find this attitude extremely refreshing. As I’ve pointed out, the number of bands using the term “Irish punk” or covering old Irish folkies has grown to a large number which has caused many to dismiss it as ‘a trend’. And much of it sounds like shit anyway. When I asked Johnny his thoughts on it, he simply replied “Sounds like crap. Make it stop”
Simply because the Utters utilize the mandolin and the accordion does not make them “Irish Punk.” These instruments have been around folk music and music in general for many the years. The Utters deserve respect for utilizing these instruments and sounds many years ago. Songs like “One in All”, “London Drunk” “A Promise to Distinction” “Fruitless Fortunes” “Mother of the Mad” and “Smokestack Dreams” are all fucking wonderful examples of this bands complete understanding of how to incorporate this folk sound with the energy and brutal fucking honesty of the punk rock genre. It pays respect to the sounds of the folk past as well as raises a fist with the past and present soul of the street hooligan. Makes me want to pour a pint and put on a record.
While the Utters no doubt love the sounds of acoustic folk/punk, it is Johnny Bonnel and Daruis Koski’s side band, The Filthy Thieving Bastards, that really opened the floodgates for Pogues comparsions. I, myself, at first, used such comparisons. They seem to sound a helluva lot like the toothless one’s old band, in spirit and in execution. In some ways, this seems fair -Johnny’s voice has always been compared to MacGowan’s (a compliment if there ever was one) and my friend thought “One in All” was Shane. They do use similar instrumentation. Lyrically, however, Darius and Johnny aren’t singing about ‘The Broad Majestic Shannon’ or “The Sunny Side of the Street” nor are they musing about spending time in a disheveled bar in Cork. They simply are singing songs that relate to their own lives, propelled along by a spirited soundtrack, which happens to include mandolin, accordion and acoustic guitar. So, the more one thinks about it, the less it becomes “Irish music” or “Irish Drinking Songs.” No lyrical connection to the Emerald Isle and, as previously stated, the Irish weren’t the only ones to utilize mandolins or accordions. Old folkies, country artists and bluegrass boys did as well, and as Daruis said, these are also among the Utters influences. “I love traditional music of all kinds. I love traditional American country music, bluegrass, etc and also the Irish stuff but I’d prefer the Pogues over the Dubliners or the Clancy Brothers anyday.” Johnny adds “I listen to both the Dubliners and the Clancy Brothers but some of the other older stuff wears thin on me…old bluegrass shit is a little more toward our liking in the Utters.”
When asked about the Filthy Thieving Bastards origins, Johnny said, “Darius and I wanted to do some acoustic numbers as a stripped down Pogues rip-off band that just sort of snowballed into a great writing outlet for me. We wanted it to be only acoustic to separate it from the Utters, but I cheated, I’m sorry, no more electricity” he jokes, (like he’s the anti-Bob Dylan, taking flack for going from acoustic to electric) referring to the two electric cuts on the album. The FTB album is excellent. There is something more genuine about it than most of what floods the ‘folk/punk’ market. It has a “lived in” feel, like a Faces-style “old raincoat” which will never let you down. Johnny and Darius have obviously logged the time in the hangover poems they recite, and have looked the future in the eyes with pride, and, maybe a bit of heartache.
Todd: How much do you drink as a band? Johnny: More than anyone would want to know”
A common-theme that does run through both the Pogues albums and the Utters/FTB is the love of a good night out on the booze and the consequences the following morning. The Pogues had “Streams of Whiskey” “Sally Maclennane” “Bottle of Smoke” “Boat Train” “Gartloney Rats” and many, many others that sang the praises of booze, and the Utters are second in line, with many a good tale themselves. Songs like “London Drunk” “The Black Pint” “Brazen Head” and “The Green Glass” all lend a sympathetic ear toward the life of a drunken rogue. However, they seem to have just as many that explore the weariness that it all brings as well, the morning sickness, eyes matted shut, dehydrated hell and the coming down of it all, just like Shane himself did with the Pogues. It not all red roses, and the seedy, un-rosy view of it all is explored as much as the good times, because, life is equally both singing and puking, and the Utters sing about real life as it is.
It is well known and well documented that the Pogues crew (Shane and Spider the most) were hardcore imbibers. Shane’s drinking binges alone now rank along side his idle Brendan Behan (who died in his 40’s due to drink) and that of Welshman Dylan Thomas. Both were geniuses to be sure, but both lives cut far too short. The seeming contradiction of both the tragedy and elation of the drink is how it is – it’s just like that sometimes. And it is documented as such by poets like Huber, Koski and Bonnel. Max explains “you could say I’m miserable now because I drank way too much last night. And I’m drinking again. You’ve got to have some vice.”
The Utters backpages are full of boozy tales the Pogues may even envy: tales of drinking in Spain and showing up for shows with mouths and clothes stained red from anight on the puke. Johnny’s drunken night fairly tale on the mountain, where he pissed himself and went to Taco Bell, paid with a piss-drenched dollar bill, actually led to the bands first moniker “Johnny Peebucks and the Swingin’ Utters.” I asked Johnny, given the band’s hard-earned rep for fondness for drink, who might win in a band drink-off, the Pogues or the Utters. “Give ‘em the nod for Shane alone” was his reply. Maybe…..well, most likely, but ones thing seems certain, the universal theme of the underdog drunk and the daily upheavals he faces seems to have secured itself a place in the Utters music and attitudes.
Labels. Darius and the Utters have grown tired of them. As Max states: “The labels and the banners are meaningless. For us, it’s either good or bad.” Don’t classify them. Just listen and enjoy the sounds of a band making some of the best music around these days. It’s “something different than straight 1-2-3-4 punk rock” as Johnny explains. This band doesn’t conform to a label – The Swingin’ Utters are, simply, the Swingin’ Utters.
By Sean Holland