Critical Mass: A lot of people know you from your time in the Chicago punk scene as founding guitarist of Screeching Weasel. But they may not know that you're also a talented playwright. What was your first play, and how did you get started in theater?
John Pierson: "Well actually, if we are talking about Chicago, I think more people know me from theater. I get many more acknowledgments on the street from my theater projects than any of the bands I have been in. My first full-length play was in high school as the waiter in "Death Of A Salesman." But at Columbia College, I went there for five years and never auditioned once. I was more into taking literature classes than acting. I studied improvisation for about 10 years and still teach classes in that. I toured for a couple years with an improv troupe called Sheila. The first play that I wrote and performed was called "The Philosophy Of Nonthings," which was the inspiration for my production & publishing company called Hope And Nonthings."
CM: Can you give our readers a little history on The Neo-Futurists?
JP: "I teach 8 week classes on Neo-Futurism so a brief history leaves out a major understanding. Here is the website. But we do have a manifesto, which I am including right here:
"Neo-Futurism In A Nutshell"
Neo-Futurism is a new approach to performance that advocates the complete awareness and inclusion of the actual world within the theater in order to achieve a goal: to bring people to a greater understanding of themselves and each other.
Rather than upholding contemporary theatrical conventions of character, setting, plot, and the separation of audience and performer, Neo-Futurism aims to present actual life on stage by creating a world in the theater which has no pretense or illusion. This means that:
1) You are who you are. Your name is your name. Your age is your age. Your appearance, physical condition, and way of speaking, as well as your personal history and life experiences are none other than your own. You grew up in your hometown. You're gay, you're straight, you're married. You've never been to Seattle. You know who you are and what you've done. Use it.
2) You are where you are. In most cases this means on a "stage" in front of an audience. Currently, specifically, this means you are probably reading this interview off a computer screen. That's not a T.V. you're watching (maybe it is). This isn't a castle in the Alps. The gun is fake. If you need a prop, get it. If the ambience is wrong, change it.
3) You are doing what you are doing. All tasks are actual challenges. If you can't do something, you must be actually physically unable to do it. If you're pulling, really pull. If you're having sex, really have sex. If you forget your lines, you've forgotten your lines. If you're not supposed to know what's going to happen next, make sure as hell you can't know. You're not sleeping on stage, you're lying there with your eyes closed. No need to "act" tired as you enter the stage with an empty suitcase. Fill it up with rocks, run around the block three times. You'll be tired. No need to dredge up a lot of emotion to endow that sheet of paper you're holding with all the seriousness and poignance of your father's death certificate. Bring it in. If your father's alive, what are you doing saying he's not?
4) The time is now. Deal with real events in your current life in your current world. If you broke up with your boyfriend on Tuesday, don't say you're still together on Friday. If a politician pissed you off by what they said six months ago, don't complain about it now. It's history. Write about how it affects you today. Theater is the medium to reflect what is going on now, because theater is going on now. Theater takes place in real time and space. That audience is right in front of you right now. Deal with that.
The bottom line is that Neo-Futurism does not pretend or buy into "the suspension of disbelief" - it does not attempt to take the audience anywhere else at any other time with any other people. The idea is to deal with what is going on right here and now.
These guidelines are not set forth as "rules and regulations" but more as a jumping off point with which, it is hoped, people can find a greater meaning in their everyday lives. The aim is to empower and affirm not just the lives of the performers but the lives of the audience members as well.
Revised May, 2008"
CM: Do you find more pleasure in writing and performing as an actor, or as a musician? Or is there an even balance in both?
JP: "For many many years my production of plays was exactly equal to the number of albums I was recording, now they are off a bit, but I think they hover somewhere around 24 each. With Even in Blackouts, people say I was consistently the happiest they have ever seen me. I can feel that while playing with that band. We didn't have as many rules and stress as Weasel. So with EIB, it trumps being onstage for theater. But I really don't think I could live without writing and performing theater."
CM: You have also written books for Hopes And Nonthings publishing. One a book of your plays you had written up until that point, and one called Weasels In A Box. Are there any plans for a new book release in the near future?
JP: "I have a new novel coming out in October called "The Last Temptation Of Clarence Odbody". Which is an alternative story to the famous movie and short story, "It's A Wonderful Life." I'm pretty proud of it, I never thought I would write this type of parody book (fan fiction) but I just couldn't get the story out of my head, and after a year I gave in and started writing it. Three years later, it is about to be finished."
CM: Besides your writing and acting, you have been a part of some amazing bands over the years. Screeching Weasel, The Mopes and Even In Blackouts have all made such an impact in the Chicago scene, your influence is undeniable. Who influenced you as a musician?
JP: "My influences are varied depending on the band. Growing up I was a huge fan of the guitar work of Brian May (Queen), Ritchie Blackmore (Deep Purple, Rainbow), and Martin Barre (Jethro Tull) I think those type of bands besides Traffic and Oingo Boingo taught me that it was OK to be weird. I think this added to my odd clothes wearing in Weasel. Most of the solo work that appears in Weasel I believe was influenced by bands like Judas Priest and AC/DC, with perhaps a little Descendents thrown in. Even In Blackouts was my clashing of those influences with the acoustic bands of my youth, Bob Dylan, Jim Croce, Cat Stevens, and later, Tom Waits. Punk bands that I would consider influences are few, beyond the people I knew like Lint from Operation Ivy and Chris Barrows from The Pink Lincolns. I loved Keith Morris from The Circle Jerks, and Adrenalin OD were another of my favorites."
CM: In the early Weasel days, did you ever think the band would influence a whole generation of punk bands?
JP: "No, I don't think you can ever really know that. But being in a band had always been one of the few things I wanted to do. As a child most kids talk about wanting to be a scientist, doctor, astronaut, but I never had a single thing. I think my family was so busy dealing with divorce, violence and drugs that I never had a chance to consider that stuff. So when I graduated high school I just basically did whatever the hell I wanted, and worked hard to make it happen. And that is still what I do now. I don't ever really settle on being any one thing, but they all seem to have something to do with creativity."
CM: When you formed Even In Blackouts, you literally invented a style of music that was never seen until that point, acoustic punk rock. How did you come up with that idea?
JP: "I don't really believe I invented anything. Nothing the band does is very unique. I think it is great and actually pretty smart, but it's all taken from many different influences. It is rooted in the same philosophy that started Screeching Weasel. We just played the things we were interested in void of any positive repercussions beyond our own enjoyment. I think the fact that Ben and I were just pretty damn dedicated people is what made that work. So when I started EIB I purposely said to myself that I needed to start from scratch and do something different. So I started with elements that I saw as very different from SW. A female choir-trained vocalist, acoustic guitars and what I believe to be darker concepts and instrumentation. But what I tried to apply to the band is the energy that excited me from playing punk rock. I think this shows best in the live performances of EIB. It is difficult to play an acoustic guitar that hard and fast, but the wonderful thing is that it creates a desperate energy, like constantly falling off a cliff. It hurts to play like that. For the first couple tours, I couldn't sleep at night because my fingers hurt so badly. Some nights I even cried.
And what could be better than ending this interview with the fact that I do indeed cry?"
CM: A huge thanks to John for taking the time to talk with Squid Pro Quo. Such a talented and diverse gentleman. Thanks again, John.