June 5, 2014
by Bryne Yancey

It’s funny how the treatment of predictability can so vastly shift from punk band to punk band. Take Pennywise, for example; for a quarter of a century, they’ve steadily built an always-larger-than-you-think fanbase by sticking to what’s worked with little deviation. Their fans know what to expect from them, and vice versa, and there’s no ignominy in the relationship. Outside that fanbase, however, Pennywise’s sonic consistency is a running joke, a perpetual reminder that their music is risk-averse, lowest-common-denominator bullshit for bros in Oakleys and cargo shorts.

Meanwhile, on a much smaller level and in a different subsection of punk, there’s Banner Pilot. The Minneapolis, Minn. based group have been churning out catchy, earnest, Midwestern-informed pop-punk for nearly a decade now, and as their fanbase has steadily grown and their recorded output improved—their fourth full-length Souvenir, released by Fat Wreck Chords in April, is their best yet—they’ve gained momentum by establishing a formula and tinkering with it ever so subtly on each subsequent release. Hell, even the sequencing of their albums has yielded noticeable patterns: A shorter, immediately driving opener as heard on Collapser’s “Central Standard,” Heart Beats Pacific’s “Alchemy” and Souvenir’s “Modern Shakes”; a similarly quick track two as heard on Collapser’s “Pensacola” and HBP’s “Forty Degrees”; an anthemic ballad track four as heard on Collapser’s “Starting at an Ending,” HBP’s “Spanish Reds” and Souvenir’s “Heat Rash”; A longer, slower track six as heard on HBP’s “Expat” and Souvenir’s “Letterbox”; a 5-plus minute closing ballad as heard on HBP’s “Division Street” and Souvenir’s “Summer Ash.”

Obviously, Pennywise and Banner Pilot are very different bands, for very different fans. But if both bands are sticking to tried-and-true formulas, why does the double standard exist? Why is one band judged harshly for barely evolving, while another is seemingly celebrated for it?

With a 16-year head start, Pennywise’s recorded output dwarfs that of Banner Pilot. This is also obvious. But let’s take a look at their timelines from the perspective of album number instead of year, starting with Pennywise’s fourth album, 1997’s Full Circle, their first without late bassist Jason Thirsk. Thirsk is the tribute subject of the album’s closer and frequent laughingstock, “Bro Hymn.” What Pennywise and their fans likely regard as a thoughtful obituary to a dead friend and former bandmate, their detractors look at it as a moment of unintentional self-parody, augmented with the use of the word “Bro” in the title. “Bro” now has a well-earned negative connotation, often associated with vapid, sexist young men who join fraternities, play lacrosse, wear board shorts everywhere and pump their fists whenever possible. But in 1997, “Bro” was just a largely meaningless word both inside and outside the SoCal punk scene, and a term of endearment for many. Whether or not “Bro Hymn” has aged well as a song is irrelevant; in a way, its wide ridicule is almost a direct result of the evolution of language in our culture.

The bulk of Pennywise’s latter-era songs—Thirsk was the band’s primary songwriter in their early days, and the shift in tone is apparent after his unfortunate death—deal with vague political issues interspersed with more personal, moral topics, with an often rudimentary approach to discourse (see one of their biggest hits, “Fuck Authority”). Meanwhile, it’s arguable that Banner Pilot share the limited lyrical scope characteristic with Pennywise, although the issues they sing about—loneliness, malaise, and the long, brutal Minnesota winters that can intensify them—are very different in tone and harbor immediately relatable themes for many. It could be argued that both bands see their “limitations” as a strength, not a weakness, as focused, not limited. Both bands lean on cliches, and seem happy to do so. Write what you know, right?

Pennywise and Banner Pilot are just two examples, though, that highlight a larger issue: The inherent cliqueness that exists within subsections of the larger punk scene. Obviously, taste is subjective, and everyone relates to bands for their own personal reasons, be them superficial or profound. This isn’t an argument over which band is better, because that opinion varies from person to person, as it should. But is it beneficial or fair to be judgmental and reductive toward these other subsections, with the knowledge that personal taste isn’t being tossed aside while doing so like it should be?

The bands that fill these needs have more in common than we think, and at the end of the day, are the punks over here who think Pennywise are dumb for not advancing their sound or politics any better than the punks over there, who find Banner Pilot’s weathered, mostly mid-tempo, melodic punk not nasty or aggressive enough? As punk fans, we often embrace formulas that fit into a tidy little box when they most closely mirror our own lives and experiences, and it’s okay to continue to do that. After all, these bands and their music are often there for us when no one else is—that personal connection between fan and artist rolls deep. However, it’s also healthy to step outside ourselves every once in a while, and try to understand why something that doesn’t work for us, works for others. We’re still all under the same umbrella, and for better or worse, we always will be.