Punk Politics

By Dan Burnside
(aka Danny Angel)

(published in 1995)

"Music is actually secondary to what we do," says Craig Billmeier, bassist for San Francisco-based punk outfit All You Can Eat.
With duct tape-wrapped, shoulder-length dread locks, Billmeier hardly looks the part of a budding rock star, which is exactly the point. Billmeier, 22, and bandmates Devon Morf, 26, Danny Buzzard, 25, and Myron Isaacs, 29, have joined the growing ranks of bands seeking to redefine the roll of music in our culture. Rather than take advantage of punk music fans, the band focuses on the opportunities to travel and make friends in the United States and abroad.
When the band played in Brazil, it took little more than the request of one kid and the opportunity to play somewhere new to get the band interested.
"We did it because I got a letter from a kid in Brazil saying 'Play here, play here,'" says vocalist Morf. "The kids were 16 and had never booked a show."
By way of underground fanzines and other connections, Morf found other kids in Brazil interested in having an American band play and put the responsibility of setting up the show into the youths' hands. A venue was found, transportation was arranged and the rest is history. Touring is still expensive, and the band still has a $2,000 debt from their last tour. Yet few bands get the opportunity to perform in these countries. Morf says that frequently a show in another city is set up by having three contacts in an area who know how to set up a show. Most of the planning is done hoping that the people setting up the show will follow through on their end of the deal.
"We go into a place and get the people involved," says Morf. "A lot of the people at the shows are the people involved in setting up the shows."
Morf, looking equally eccentric with his shaved head and 50s-era glasses, serves as the acknowledged driving force of the band. Morf stresses that none of the members want to make money or to be successful in the traditional sense. "All You Can Eat is just four guys having fun," says Morf. "The initial founding of the band was to do our own seven-inch and tour the United States."
The band has achieved that and more. Since its inception in 1989, the band has released two CDs, approximately of 15 singles and has songs featured on roughly 30 compilations. In addition, the band has toured the United States, Japan, New Zealand, Australia, Thailand, Hong Kong, Uruguay, Brazil and Argentina. Self-described as a bunch of goofy dorks who like toys and comic books, the band cranks out its unique blend of diverse and melodic hardcore in an energizing fashion that wills the audience to get involved.
All You Can Eat represents a growing underground movement within the rock and roll community. Based on the DIY (Do-It-Yourself) philosophy spawned by such now legendary punk rock groups as The Misfits and Black Flag, a new generation of musicians is turning its back on major label record companies in favor of a more grass-roots approach.
The band prides itself more on its incredible energy than its music. Aaron Muentz, editor of The Probe, a Bay Area music fanzine, says that the band is hard not to like, and always entertaining .
"People can't be passive," says Muentz. "Devon gets them into it. He's not obnoxious about it either."
At a show in a San Leandro residence a few years back, Morf had the audience jumping off couches into an out-of-control dog pile as he sang, wrapped in duct tape, wearing nothing but a pair of mirrored sunglasses. When asked what they thought of the band after the show, many of the exhausted audience members said they couldn't remember a lick of the music, but they knew they had fun. The band wouldn't have it any other way. "We're goofy," says Billmeier. "We're fun live. It is the best attribute of the band."
Morf says, "We put the best show on for the kids who come to see us." In some ways, he says, he would really rather play someone's living room than on stage, because that way the band can establish more of a real connection with the fans and create less of a pretentious rock band atmosphere.
Morf's words are backed by his actions. When the police shut down the band's most recent gig, Morf and the other members of All You Can Eat invited friends, fans and members of other bands back to Billmeier's apartment to sleep and watch videos before the band went to Oregon the next day.
The band stays away from corporate sponsorship, although members of the band insist they do not wear their resistance as a badge. The idea of resisting corporate involvement is fast becoming one of the staples of the modern punk movement. Bands like Green Day and The Offspring have been criticized harshly by the fans and media for achieving success by way of major label contracts and MTV.
"They don't have a fear of it," says Muentz in regard to All You Can Eat's aversion to big business. "It is more about making friends and getting to travel and see different cultures. Playing is an excuse to do those things."
In the past, bands featuring experimental or non-mainstream music found it difficult to get their music heard, much less book a tour. The Misfits, the seminal horror movie punk outfit that played from 1977 to 1983, popularized the trend of putting out cheap seven-inch singles as a way of getting their music heard. Seven-inch singles, a dying format for music distribution, could be produced by the band cheaply and give fans a collectable way to follow the band. Black Flag, another of the movement's grandfathers, made its mark via its breakneck touring schedule, playing multiple dates to scaled down audiences. The movement has grown immensely since its infancy in the 70s and a whole philosophy of life and ethic has grown up with it.
Scott Jones, an employee at City Records in Pleasanton, California says the bands fear losing face with the fans more than they worry about selling out.
"I think they want to appear that they have integrity," says Jones. "I mean, look at Ian MacKaye and Fugazi. He's been doing that for years. His CDs are seldom more than $8."
Record company executives and agents often decide what the average music listener gets to hear. MTV, the original television music station, has formed a monopoly and placed itself in a position to dictate what will play and what will not play. Much of the independent rock scene is a reaction to the MTV "Buzz Clip" mentality, in which MTV makes a band the flavor of the week, only to unceremoniously dump the band when ratings slide. Fans of All You Can Eat and its kin have found a way through underground networks to allow people access to true alternative rock.
More important than maintaining integrity, many bands like All You Can Eat feel that signing to a major label robs the fans of the special relationships independent punk outfits share with the audience.
Alex Koll, a fan who is part of the grass-roots connection that helps punk bands stay afloat, says that a band that signs with a major label is turning its back on the audience.
"A lot of times the bands that you really liked gave you something," says Koll. "They set up a connection between you and them that was kind of personal, and they turned that connection into a commodity."
Morf and Billmeier maintain that corporate involvement would eventually ruin the fun by limiting their control over their music. On a tour through Japan, the band got wind that one of the largest Japanese newspapers was promoting the band, an extremely disheartening development for vocalist Morf. Part of the band credo is based on the idea that they do not want to have the dirty deeds of some corporate monster on their conscience. That, fueled with the idea that they would never want to be in a position where they had to write music to make a living, is definitely part of the band's appeal.
Morf is aware that many in the underground punk scene see All You Can Eat as the perfect example of what punk rock music should be about. Punk bands engage in a lot of infighting and back stabbing, amidst charges of selling out. All You Can Eat wants to stay clear of that debate. And while the band is more politically than artistically motivated, Morf and Billmeier don't want to carry the burden of being known as the most political correct band. They simply want to follow their own consciences.
"We don't have a political agenda," says Morf. "We're not perfect angels." The band has seen its name and image pop up in corporate publications and programs like Metal Edge and MTV. In addition, some of the band's music has been re-released by a fan in Australia. Still, the lure of fame is not what the band wants. Ideally, the band will stay at street level for its entire existence.
If the band does not crave commercial success, then what will become of them when their playing days are over? Many bands, having either run out of money, or not having made any in the first place, eventually sign with a record company in order to pay the bills. The members of All You Can Eat have planned on life after music. Morf has a B.A. in journalism and has written articles for such widely known punk scene magazines as Flipside and Maximum Rock and Roll. Billmeier has recently returned to college after having dropped out when joining the band.
Ultimately, the band members want the band to be together forever. While at some point reality dictates that the band members will move on to pursue other goals, Morf and Billmeier feel that they will still play whenever they can get together. "We're like the A-team," says Morf. "I want to be able to say 'we are getting the band back together.'" Billmeier agrees, "We could play on a beach with our families there."
The band isn't really concerned with what people think of the music, because foreign audiences often have no idea what the whole punk movement is about. In fact, many people in the states have no idea what the punk movement is about. The band gets all different types in its audience as it travels around the globe.
"A lot of the places we go to, our music is pretty foreign. People with white hair, yuppies smoking pipes," says Billmeier. "We played to a Chinese college, and they were not cultured to punk at all."
For many audiences, American music itself may be totally foreign. When the band is in other countries, the exchange of friendship and ideas is more at the root of what the band seeks.
"I gained more knowledge than I could in school," says Billmeier. "I know this sounds clichˇ, but it's all about breaking down barriers."
Refreshingly, the band seems to be more interested in the world around it than in making a quick buck off of ever-present, angst-ridden teens. On a basic level the band may be nothing more than four guys having fun. But in the bigger picture, the band is about bringing music to the people in an attempt to gain knowledge and experiences in a way that most bands never will. Billmeier says All You Can Eat is helping to create a network so that any band can do what they have done.
Peter Wagner, an 18-year-old freshman at Oregon State, has recently become part of the grass-roots network on which All You Can Eat depends.
"I let it be known before I even came up here that I wanted to put shows on at school," says Wagner. "So if anyone was on tour, or wanted to explore Oregon, they could give me a call."
Sporting recently-dyed black hair and a bushy goatee, Wagner hangs up flyers, sets up performances, and provides floor sleep space to bands passing through the area. People like Wagner have taken the place of booking agencies for small bands.
Morf eventually would like All You Can Eat to tour every continent.
"Right now, I'm looking into Antarctica," says Morf, grinning.