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Grumpy Old Punks 

In the age of Blink-182 and Yellowcard, being punk ain't what it used to be. Just ask the seniors in Pirx the Pilot.

Wednesday, Jun 2 2004
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"It's like interviewing three Robin Williams at once," warns Ernst Schoen-Rene.

"We have never in the history of our band answered an interview question," seconds Scott Healy.

And they don't, really. Over two hours lounging in guitarist/vocalist Schoen-Rene's modest but comfortable Mission District living room, the three members of Pirx the Pilot climb over each other's sentences with one-liners and half-truths. When asked how the band got together, drummer Healy explains, earnestly and without hesitation, that bassist Erica Watson's mother married Schoen-Rene's father ("Wait, Erica grew up in L.A.!" Healy exclaims a second later. "There's a loophole in the story!"). When Schoen-Rene is asked about his day job, he nods to Healy, who answers: "He plays video games, and then Sun sends him checks for doing work some other guy does." Minutes later, as Schoen-Rene is discussing his record label, a bored Healy interrupts the seriousness by banging on the cast-iron fireplace. In the rare instance someone actually answers a question, it's noted. "I run a pet hospital," says Watson. "And that's not a lie."

Pirx the Pilot delights in being difficult. After all, that's part of the fun of being in a punk band, even now, when being in a punk band ain't what it used to be. And especially when you're one of San Francisco's lesser-known punk acts, lingering on the outskirts of a once-mighty scene that birthed multimillionaires like Green Day and Rancid. In an era that's seen punk's traditional anti-establishment ethos replaced by the generic pop angst of Good Charlotte and Avril Lavigne, Pirx still insists on delivering social commentary embedded in colorful metaphors. And though it never anticipated anything beyond basement gigs and nights spent in what Schoen-Rene calls "the kind of places where I expect to pick up a piece of garbage and find a dead animal," the band competes for gigs with aspiring punks who long for the big-time fame of Blink-182, with kids who buy AFI T-shirts at the mall.

"Looking the way we look, people used to stare at us in small towns," Schoen-Rene says. "Now they're just like, 'Who's that old guy?'"

Yet he remains in a band of early-30s punk veterans still compelled to make music -- songs tinged with frustration but more mature and polished than those of Pirx's whippersnapper peers, balanced with plenty of self-deprecating humor. It's all part of the philosophy Schoen-Rene outlines on the group's Web site: "Even though much of our public persona seems lighthearted to the point of being trivial, this is just a coping mechanism. If I wasn't truly furious at the world, I'd be in a dance band."

PirxthePilot.com is emblematic of the band's MO. At once ridiculous and subversively clever, it consists of handwritten scrawl and childish drawings rendered in black felt-tip pen. Something of a Web hobbyist (he created the parody site gavinnewsom.org), Schoen-Rene also owns a business developing Web applications for the likes of Sun and Genentech. On top of that, he runs a local punk label called New Disorder Records, through which he met Healy, when New Disorder released the debut album from Healy's former band, American Steel, in 1998.

"The first night I hung out with [American Steel], I got drunk," Healy remembers. "The next morning we were going to meet Ernst at Noah's Bagels. I was nervous, because I wasn't really privy to the fact that guys who own record labels are just guys like Ernst. And I was hungover, so the first time I met Ernst I had thrown up four times."

And thus a musical friendship blossomed. In 2000, Schoen-Rene, formerly of Gods Hate Kansas, hooked up with Erica Watson, once-bassist for Vida, and the two invited Healy to join the burgeoning band. Pirx the Pilot released an EP in July 2001, then in April 2002 a full-length, Fri Night Seafood Buffet. Echoing the wit-cloaked commentary and confrontational melodies within, the cover art featured a photo taken on tour shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, of a restaurant marquee that read "God Bless USA Fri Night Seafood Buffet."

"Those signs were everywhere," Healy says. "It became a game. You couldn't drive for an hour without seeing a sign that said 'Chicken Dinner $2.99 God Bless America.' No wonder everybody hates us. We're going to bless our country but also slip in a promotion."

Pirx the Pilot's latest is Famous in 47 States, and it takes the more straightforward punk of Pirx's earlier releases -- deep, driving guitars, zigzagging bass lines, and skittish, haunting drum rolls -- and lets it age gracefully. Eschewing the low-budget sound typical of local acts, the record offers a polished studio vibe with multiple guitar tracks, colorful instrumentation, and crafty interplay between Schoen-Rene's deep, lumbering vocals and Watson's prettier singsong delivery.

The Sleater-Kinney-esque "Cult of Jogging" begins with essential punk elements and trips them up with violent tempo changes. And throughout, Pirx takes digs at the country, fame, and consumerism. On "Fat American," Watson sings, "Hey fat American I'd like to say/ I had a great dream you'd gone away/ Vanished from the Earth khaki pants and all/ Extinct like the dodo and the minimall." On "Doctor Loaf," Schoen-Rene growls that he's "too stubborn to climb on the backs of friends" -- hence, Famous in 47 States.

"I guess the title is playing with the idea of failure," Schoen-Rene explains.

"Yeah, we just play with that idea," Watson says sarcastically.

"Every kid on tour is like, 'How do I become a popular musician?'" Healy says. "We're successful? We're playing a basement in Missouri."

"Everybody gets to wonder what the 47 states are, so it's whatever state we're not in at that time," adds Schoen-Rene.

Admittedly, Pirx the Pilot isn't really "famous" in any states, though national distribution and the New Disorder connection have enabled two U.S. tours so far, and this summer the band hits the road again in support of its latest. But booking isn't as easy now as it was back when Healy could land American Steel shows simply by saying, "I know Ernst, and I'm from the East Bay."

"Now it's just, 'Oh, you know Ernst? Ernst is a cool guy,'" Healy says.

Once Pirx the Pilot does get on the road, though, at least the band knows what to expect: "We're not going to get paid, they're going to fuck us over, and I'm going to be an asshole to them," Schoen-Rene says matter-of-factly and without bitterness. And, as always, the trio will end up crashing in frighteningly ramshackle punk pads.

"You always get an offer from the guy with the shittiest house in town that's about to be condemned," says Healy. "But there are questions you learn to ask. Such as, 'Do you have hardwood floor or carpet? Do you have Nintendo?'" He adds, "'Do you like to do cocaine?' is another important question."

While some of the delights of touring never change, the current climate is decidedly different from the dozens of other tours Watson, Schoen-Rene, and Healy have endured among the three of them. In the past, looking punk meant getting hassled in Middle America or not getting served at restaurants. Tour vans would raise suspicion, often getting searched at immigration checkpoints in New Mexico and Texas. Now, when law enforcement finds out it's dealing with a punk band, Healy says, the response tends to be: "'Oh, like Green Day and Blink-182?' And you go, 'Yeah!' And they're, like, 'Cool, have a good day!'"

"And the guy's wearing a Linkin Park T-shirt with a sheriff's badge pinned to it," Schoen-Rene jokes.

Now that most of the public's concept of "punk" comes from radio acts like Linkin Park and Good Charlotte, there's something about being in a punk band today that just seems a lot less confrontational and rebellious.

"You turn on the radio and they're all angry -- it's just not clear what they're angry about," Schoen-Rene says. "It kind of diminishes the point, and it's hard to actually come up with a message. But people are still stupid, and everything the U.S. does is still wrong basically. We're pretty silly in person, obviously, but I still like pretty angry lyrics."

Looking to interrupt the rare moment of seriousness, Healy cuts in: "Yeah, and when Ernst and I are 60, we're going to be writing about erectile dysfunction."

About The Author

Nancy Einhart

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