Punk goes acoustic


May 16, 2003


There's a moment in every show by Even In Blackouts when the group unplugs its instruments, pushes the vocal mikes aside and performs completely acoustically, briefly turning the harshest rock-club environment into a quiet living-room hootenanny.

It would be an audacious move for any rock band, but it's even bolder considering that, regardless of its choice of instruments, the Chicago quintet is otherwise a driving and energetic pop-punk band, and it's led by one of the giants in the genre, a man who's inspired Green Day, Blink-182, Sum 41 and dozens of other groups.

John "Jughead" Pierson spent 15 years as the guitarist, co-founder and primary motivating force in the hugely influential Screeching Weasel. Though it went on hiatus and returned several times during its turbulent history, the group finally came to an end about two years ago. Pierson has always thrived on the energy of live performance--his other outlet in addition to punk rock is as an actor and writer with the celebrated Neo-Futurist theater troupe--and he eventually grew frustrated with bandleader Ben Weasel's reluctance to play live.


*5 p.m. Saturday

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*(773) 486-2700

"Ben and I always said that it wouldn't be the band without either of us," Pierson says. "That was my thing, touring, and after all of that went away, I became less and less important to the band. The thing that's different about us breaking up this time is that it's the first time that I decided to call it quits."

After spending so much of his time as pop-punk's Keith Richards to Weasel's Mick Jagger, Pierson decided it was time to form a band of his own. But he came up with a unique twist on the formula. "After 15 years of being in Screeching Weasel, I wanted to do something that was a little bit different, but I didn't want to go against my influences," he says. He was vacationing in Italy, sitting in Palermo and strumming on an acoustic guitar, when inspiration struck in the form of a song called "Missing Manifesto."

The tune questions the need for a generation to have artists they believe in, and the difficulty for those artists to find a reason to create. "It's this urgency to see thing differently/Giving one another distance for out vanity," it goes. "We are in search of a missing manifesto/We are in search of a myth."

"I never really wrote my own lyrics before--I wrote for the theater, but I never really wrote songs--and then something just came out," Pierson says. "And since I wrote it on the acoustic, I really wanted to do an acoustic project, and I just came up with the idea of getting punk rockers together to do some acoustic songs. I specifically auditioned people who were punk rockers instead of acoustic players, and I wanted a bunch of young people who would be anxious and willing to tour."

Pierson initially thought the band would only perform live--the name came from the acoustic nature of the project, since it would be able to play "even in blackouts," sans electricity--but as the sound came together, he felt compelled to capture it on tape. After an initial limited run on his own label, the group's stellar debut, "Myths & Imaginary Magicians," has now been reissued with wider distribution on Lookout! Records.

In shaping the sound, Pierson was largely influenced by New Jersey's legendary Feelies, a band that often employed sparkling acoustic guitars at frantic, revved-up rhythms. He wanted a sound that was beautiful yet compelling, fragile yet powerful.

"We sat around for six months learning how to do rhythm without drums," he says. "I wanted to focus on getting the same energy out of an acoustic guitar that you can get out of an electric. Once we got that going, we found our singer, Lizzie Eldredge, and then we went in the studio."

A strong and self-assured singer with a pretty but gripping voice, Pierson found Eldredge through a fortuitous coincide. "We were at [producer] Mass' [Giorgini] studio in Lafayette, Ind., and she was just hanging out, visiting some friends that were recording. She wasn't there to do vocals, she was just singing along outside the door, and Mass heard her and knew that I was looking for a female vocalist. He just grabbed her and said, 'I have somebody that would like to meet you!'

"Lizzie had never been in a band before and she fit perfectly," Pierson continues. "I had all these auditions lined up for other singers, and she came in and sang a Screeching Weasel song she'd never heard before, and I was like, 'OK, auditions are over! We've got our singer.' That happened with all the musicians; the first three people I auditioned I wound up putting in the band."

It didn't take Pierson long to find his voice as a songwriter. As a playwright, he honed the ability to couch poignant truths in sarcastic and sometimes absurd humor. (His work is collected in a strong anthology, The Incomplete Philosophy of Hope and Nonthings.) But he always tried to keep his theater identity, Ian Pierce, separate from his punk-rock alter ego, Jughead. With Even In Blackouts, the many sides of Pierson at long last come together under his own name.

"I think it hit me as sort of a shock that I could write a song," he says. "I just never realized it until I was sitting there without the band, without 15 years' worth of luggage with Screeching Weasel. I think the one that probably really did it for me was 'For Pete's Sake,' the one about my friend Peter who died in New Orleans. It's just one of those things--suicide hits you, and I tried every medium to try to put forward how I felt about that, and I was finally able to do it in a song."

The band has been busy touring since the release of the album--in addition to playing rock clubs, it often books what it calls "living-room shows," performing acoustically for groups of 20 or 30 people in their homes--and the buzz is starting to build. "Most places we've gone, the people who are running the venue actually come up to us and say we haven't seen something this fun or original in a long time, and that's probably the best compliment we can get," Pierson says.

Even In Blackouts is gearing up to record its second album--Pierson plans to invite guest musicians to contribute a range of other acoustic instruments this time, from banjo and trombone to violin, cello and piano--and he is busy writing a novel, Weasels in a Box, to tell his side of the Screeching Weasel story, complimenting Ben Weasel's version, Like Hell. (Pierson has published all of these tomes through his independent press, which can be found online at www.hopeandnonthings.com.)

Though he is clearly moving forward, Pierson isn't turning his back on his past: One of the best moments on "Myths & Imaginary Magicians" is a spirited acoustic cover of Screeching Weasel's anthemic "Hey Suburbia." Shout out your request and Even In Blackouts probably will perform it when the group takes the stage Saturday at Fireside Bowl, opening for Pink Lincolns.