Negative Approach 2013: a Chat With Singer John Brannon
Let’s get this straight – Detroit, Mich. just may have been the birthplace of American punk and hyper-ballistic rock ‘n’ roll. You tell me if this heritage doesn’t fit that assumption: The Stooges, MC5, Ted Nugent, Mitch Ryder, Grand Funk and Negative Approach – just to name a few. That’s right kids; fuckin’ Negative Approach. NA was the sound of brute force hardcore that cut a bloody swath through the early ’80s. Their recorded output may have been slim but it’s unforgettable – a few compilation tracks, that 7″ with Linda Blair from The Exorcist on the cover and Tied Down; an absolute classic of American hardcore. And yes, I would put the song “Nothing” up there with the Stooges “I Got A Right.” That’s an audacious claim fer sure; but just take a listen to that 2:19 of bass-dominated nihilism and you might just agree.
Now simply put, Negative Approach’s frontman John Brannon is the real deal. Brannon’s lung-shredding howl has distinguished itself over time: sometimes a bluesy baritone. Other times it’s a harsh weapon of primal power. Forget any subtlety or even annunciation when he gets onstage as Negative Approach’s glass-gargling throatsman. In his post-NA ensemble, The Laughing Hyenas he warbled like Nick Cave on a bender. In Easy Action, his other current ensemble, he busts out a mean-as-shit rock n roll howl.
This Detroit legend, which also works as a short order cook, is as intimidating as Henry Rollins but somehow more dangerous and definitely more fucked up.
Noisecreep hung with Brannon at a recent NA gig in Los Angeles and slung the shit about his past, present and the reinvigorated Negative Approach.
You’re from Detroit. Would you consider yourself a product of your Motor City?
We grew up in Michigan. We were surrounded by music. Motown, the three greatest bands of all time: The Stooges, The MC5 and Alice Cooper. Creem magazine. We were saturated with it. All those bands were our heroes. There’s not a lot to do there – you had to make your own fun. You can go many routes. We decided to do music – although we did a few of the other things too! [laughs]
Did you ever, in your wildest, weirdest dreams that Negative Approach would still be playing shows nearly 30 years after you guys called it a day?
Hell fuckin’ no dude! I never thought it would come back together. It all started with Touch & Go doing their 25th Anniversary. They asked us to do it. I was going strong with Easy Action and everybody was doing his own thing. Corey [Rusk] from Touch & Go was like “I really want to have Negative Approach the anniversary gig.” They were the label that put us on the map and they were my buddies. We got that together. That was so much of a success and we so much fun doing it.
Right after that, (Sonic Youth mainman) Thurston Moore calls us up and asks us, ‘Do you guys want to go to England and play with The Stooges and The MC5?’ Hell yes! We also did the Fun, Fun, Fun festival in Austin. Then, all this stuff kept coming up. We were like, we hadn’t done this shit for 25 years and we were having so much fun, it didn’t feel wrong.
What’s the spark that keeps you doing Negative Approach?
It’s just fun man. It’s kinda too late to turn back. We’re the last punks standing. We play. This is what we live for. It’s a rush. Back in the day nobody really saw us, maybe handful of people. We never toured. Us doing this is making a lot of people happy so I’m not feeling too bad about it. I gotta say, the fans are treating us really well. It’s a whole new level of respect. And we’re playing to a lot of kids who weren’t even born when the records were made. We’re just having a good time. It’s fun.
Why do you think NA’s songs have resonated for so long with people?
We just struck a chord with youth and frustration. It’s proven itself kinda timeless and universal. We never went off on the trip where we said, ‘I hate the president’ or ‘I’m a racist.’ It’s teen anthems about basically about growing up, trying to fit in and not being accepted. Those are pretty universal things to say. I guess it’s stood up over time. What we were doing just seemed natural to us. We were young kids and big music fans into punk in the early ’80s. We were into it, but our feeling was ‘That’s cool but we can do something a little harder.’ We were young, pissed of and we had something to say. This is how it came out. Back then it was us, The Necros, The Meatmen – we all wanted to step it up a notch.
Before Negative Approach broke up in 1984, you toured with a completely different lineup of guys. Not the McCulloch brothers or any of the people who were in the band during its heyday. Could that version of Negative Approach continued?
No. The reason I did that was because we recorded Tied Down. The original band broke up. I was getting a lot of pressure from Touch & Go who were basically like ‘We’re putting out this album, what are you going to do?’ I was really proud of the album. I thought it came out great. I put a band together to tour on that. Looking back, I’m not so sure that was the right thing. I was proud of the album and I wanted to go out and show kids the songs. But continue on? With the people I was playing with: no. They were a bunch of fucking pussies. They were young and dumb. I was pretty focused in terms of what I wanted to do. They were dudes I picked up from other bands. You gotta have a drive to do this and I could only jam with certain people. If you’re not in it for everything I can’t jam with you.
Could there have been another record after Tied Down?
There is. It’s out. It’s called Friends of No One. Those were the songs I was writing after Tied Down. The song ‘Tunnel Vision’ which is on the Total Recall (a comprehensive NA compilation released in 1992) album isn’t on it. We never had a good tape of that. The one we put on Total Recall was from a show at The Paradise in Boston in 1984. That was from a live tape of the gig I recorded with my little hand held. At that point, we were taking things to the extreme. Looking back, some of that material was a little ahead of its time.
Cut to 2006. John Brannon had spent a decade (1985-1995) in the Laughing Hyenas, a car-wreck of blues, post-punk and dirge that would ultimately end in drugs, bad vibes and the death of guitarist Larissa Strickland who overdosed in 2005. Since then he’d been fronting Motor City rock combo Easy Action. And yes, they are named after an Alice Cooper record. However, all it took was a couple early reunion gigs and Negative Approach was also back in action. They haven’t looked back since.
The Laughing Hyenas ended on a bad note. What made you want to continue making music and ultimately for Easy Action?
It was a series of personal drama and drugs that ended the Hyenas. We had been doing it for so long. Drugs, frustration were a couple of key factors. All good things come to an end. It was time for a change. It was the end but we still wanted to jam. At that point, we put a band together after the Hyenas to have fun that Harold, Ron and me. We kinda just got together and started doing covers: lots of Alice Cooper. The we started writing songs and it was like “Oh no, we’re back in this again!” We really approached Easy Action as a band that would get us past some of our old hassles and have fun again. I don’t think we can get over doing this. This is what we do.
I’m really proud of the Hyenas and what we accomplished. A lot of young kids are starting to get interested in the band: ‘Oh, the dude from Negative Approach” had another band? I’ll check it out!’
Your vocals have only gotten harsher over the years. How has that happened?
Oh yeah, I’ve been singing for so long. It’s gotten better. I sing better now than when I was a kid. It’s probably more intense now. I have more control over it now. I’ve been singing for 40 years! In the Hyenas, that was a different thing but my voice had the intensity of hardcore. It’s an instrument. You learn how to use your instrument. The more I’ve been doing it, the harsher it’s gotten.
It’s been seven years since Brannon – along with guitarist Harold Richardson, bassist Ron Sakowski and drummer Chris ‘Opie” Moore (the only other remaining original NA-er) — have been rousing crowds in the U.S. and Europe, with pit-inciting classics like ‘Evacuate’ or ‘Can’t Tell No One.’ They may be pushing (or a hair over) 50, yet they deliver with every iota of the intensity of their “old school” days.
What have been some of the most unexpected great shows and killer reactions?
The first couple times we went to Europe were some of the most intense shows. Playing with the Stooges which was a dream come true. The next time we came back after that we played Belgium and they had Discharge warming us up. What the fuck! The kids just stood there and they did not dig Discharge – it wasn’t their original lineup with Cal or anything. Then we played and it was a fucking riot.
Is there any chance of seeing any new music coming from Negative Approach?
Yes. Over Christmas Opie came up. He called me up and was like ‘What would you think if we wrote some new tunes?’ I’m like really? Yeah, we’ve kinda thrown in towel. We’re gonna write a new album; hopefully have it together by this Summer. We definitely want to keep it on par with what we’ve done. Coming back to it is kind of weird but we’ve been playing as a band for the last six years. It’s time.