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Utter Madness 

Slamming 'em back with the Swingin' Utters

Wednesday, May 8 1996
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Even after nearly a year of touring, the Swingin' Utters apparently still need to blow off some steam. Plunging head-on into the anthemic "Teenage Genocide" at last week's packed show at the Trocadero, newlywed vocalist Johnny Peebucks rallies the Utters' Army with growls and curses, while guitarist Max Huber, who recently lopped off his signature white-blond mohawk, leaps across the stage with road-worn expertise. The audience -- a mix of fledgling teen-age punkers and older, somewhat grizzled bootboys -- erupts into a flurry of sweaty slamming and beer-sloshing.

Originally called Johnny Peebucks and the Swingin' Utters, the Bay Area quintet claims that the bizarre origins of its perverse moniker have plagued them ever since they were first revealed to the press. Surprising-ly soft-spoken offstage, Peebucks (aka John Bonnel) was christened with his pseudonym after he pissed his pants during a beer binge and tried to pay for some grub at Taco Bell with a soggy bill. The "Swingin' Utters" half was inspired by a drunken conversation revolving around a pregnant cat whose teats were so full that they, well, you get the picture. Eventually, the band chose to drop Johnny's name from the title, which only fed the punk rock rumor mill.

"We would play shows and kids would come up and tell us that they heard Johnny had OD'd or committed suicide," laughs guitarist Darius Koski. "We'd say, 'No, he sang tonight,' and they'd walk off all disappointed or some shit. It's funny, papers still get [the name] wrong after all this time. I mean, christ, we know how to spell 'udders.' "

Friends first and foremost, the Utters -- drummer Greg McEntee and bassist Kevin Wickersham round out the group -- have a volatile chemistry and high-energy performance style that quickly took them from playing dives like the now-defunct Sixth Street Rendezvous to becoming Gilman Street's "house band," supporting Rancid, and eventually signing to punk indie Fat Wreck Chords after a major-label bidding war.

The all-important Rancid connection was made when the Utters played a Gilman show with the East Bay punks. "It was amazing!" says Huber, who currently doubles as the Utters' manager. "I gave Lars [Frederiksen] a 10-inch, and he called me prior to their first European tour. We started hanging out and became great friends. We owe a lot of our success to them. They've gone out of their way to get us on tours, get us contacts, stuff like that. But that's how it works: The bands that go before help out the bands that are coming up."

Upon the release of The Streets of San Francisco on ex-U.K. Sub Nicky Garratt's local New Red Archives label last year, a big word-of-mouth buzz (and a BAMMIE for Outstanding Debut Album) soon led the Utters out of the bars and into Troc-size arenas. Their early recordings were recently re-released as More Scared: The House of Faith Years on USA Side1/Dummy. None of that, though, could really prepare them for what was to come in Europe, where the latest punk revival has been greeted with open arms.

"In Norway was the most insane show I've ever played," McEntee laughs. "From the very first song, they just went fucking crazy. Kids piled onto the stage and surrounded us so I couldn't see the rest of the band. They were blowing whistles and yelling. In Italy, they kept hugging us and tearing off our clothes, then they started stealing anything they could -- drumsticks, cymbals, anything. They kept asking us for our pants and our shirts -- even the guys! It was crazy."

But the U.K., the Utters feared, might be a different story. The band's sound is clearly derivative of Belfast's Stiff Little Fingers, and the looming possibility of performing in front of some first-generation punks was a tad daunting. "I definitely thought we'd get shit," McEntee says, "but instead the Business showed up wearing Utters' Army shit and high-fiving us. All these guys like Blitz, the English Dogs, Chaos U.K., and the Subhumans came out to see us, and they were really cool. It was a strange feeling because I used to worship those guys when I was 15."

Despite a great working relationship with New Red Archives, the tiny label's limited resources made it apparent that the Utters would have to find a new home and better distribution for their next record. The band was swamped with offers from majors (such as Epic) and indies alike in the last six months, but like Rancid, who decided to stick with Epitaph despite their big-league success, the Utters wanted the kind of commitment and single-minded attention that a major just can't guarantee.

"The [big labels] made it hard," Huber admits, in reference to several financially lucrative offers. "But we're on Fat now. And that is exactly where we wanted to be from the very beginning."

With the exception of a Cocksparrer tune they covered for Punk Rock Jukebox (Blackout!), the boys have not been in the studio to record new material in over two years. With a recent record deal and a surplus of fresh songs, the gang is anxious to start recording, and to do it right; for the Utters, that means making sure all the members contribute new material. "I wrote most of the songs on Streets," Koski explains, "only because that was the material we had ready at the time."

"We've never been the sort of band that has one leader," Wickersham adds. "The new album will be more reflective of who we are as a band."

"It'll be punk!" Huber interjects. No doubt.

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Silke Tudor

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