Interview in Punk Planet #37

By Trevor Kelley

For Lance Hahn, the '90s began with major label interest and ended in an emergency room. As a few of his close friends spent the latter half of the decade living comfortably as a result of punk's financial windfall, Hahn found himself closing out the millennium from a hospital bed, where he laid stiff and contemplated how he was going to pay his extensive medical bills. The last thing J Church's frontman thought about was his relevance within such a musically fickle decade - hell, he was just happy to be alive.

Six months later, when Hahn and I meet up in Downtown Berkeley, he seems filled with life. After we polish off a few rounds of Arnell's Pizza, he agreeably discusses his ailing heart and appears eager to reflect on the past decade - and his place in it.

The obvious starting point is J Church, who along with Jawbreaker, Monsula and, most famously, Green Day, helped define the often revered '90s Bay Area DIY scene. More than most of his contemporaries, Hahn was the prolific one: maintaining a staggering release schedule that would take his band's sound towards pop punk bliss - on a number of full lengths and a long list of 7"s. Hahn would issue some of those EPs on his own label, Honey Bear Records, along with discs by The VSS and Unwound. Somewhere along the way, Hahn also managed to work at Maximum RockandRoll 'zine while playing guitar for certified platinum collage demigod, Beck.

Most everyone Hahn surrounded himself with had walked such a line, whether it was Mac McGauhan or Billie Joe Armstrong, throughout the '90s. In one way or another, most of Hahn's friends had to wrestle with fame. Some signed to majors and were dropped or sold millions of records; others just broke up and joined him in a world of insecurities as it all came to a close.

It was an interesting time, certainly, and on the eve of the release of J Church's fifth proper full length, the ambitious One Mississippi (Honest Don's), Hahn set aside discussing his latest 26 song opus to discuss a decade he won't soon forget.

What was the best thing about the '90s?

The best part of the '90s is that I didn't die. [laughs] Back in April or so, I thought I had bronchitis, so I went to the free clinic and they just freaked out. First, they thought I was either on crack, speed or cocaine. They kept asking me that over and over again before sending me to the emergency room over at San Francisco General Hospital.
When I got there, they rushed me into the emergency room and started giving me all this aspirin and stuff because they were so confused about what was happening with me. My blood pressure was out of control and my pulse was so fast they thought I should have been dead. They had trouble understanding how I could walk in my state. They started to immediately run some tests on me. At that point, I was sure I was going to die. They thought I should have been dead. [pause] I really should have died.

Because of your pulse rate?

Partially. They said that in my condition, I should have had a heart attack and died. In fact, for the first day or two they were convinced that either I had a heart attack and didn't realize it, or I was on the verge of having one. So, they had me hooked up to all this machinery for about a week because they were certain that the heart attack was coming. It was really crazy.
For a while there, I truly thought I was going to die. They couldn't figure out what was causing it- I'm a vegetarian and I pretty much quit drinking at that point, so it seemed like there was no reason for it. This is something that only happens to people in their eighties. So that caused them to go back to square one and test me for more stuff. They were sure I had one of two things: either full-blown AIDS or full-blown cancer- those were the only two things that would cause a condition like mine. So they ran tests on me and, thank god, they proved that I didn't have either of those things. But sitting in the hospital bed for a week thinking about those possibilities was just crazy.
I was in the hospital a little over a week and I still go there now, at least once a month, to get my blood done. I have to take medication every day. I'm still not over it. I don't know if I'll ever be over it.

What did they diagnose it as?

They said I have malignant hypertension and if I stop taking my medicine I'm going to die. They also noted that I have really high blood pressure. I don't have medical insurance, so I never go to the doctor and I never looked into it. They said I probably had really bad malignant hypertension for at least a year before I went to the hospital, but they said it could have been anywhere from four to five years and I just didn't know it. As a result of that, my heart got enlarged, and once it gets too big, it can't shrink down again. Once it does that, it'll be like that for the rest of your life. So, as a result of enlargement, my heart began pumping too fast, which caused it to push up against my lungs, thus, filling my lungs with blood - that's why I thought I had bronchitis. Then, because my heart was enlarged, it produced too much blood, which screwed up my kidneys. So I was pretty fucked all over! [laughs] Plus, I'm going to be in debt for the rest of my life. But I'm always in debt, so what can you do?

Jesus, that's awful.

Yeah, it's bad, especially considering that a day before - or even a year before - I could have dropped dead because of it, but it's at a point now that I have it under control. I can't go on a two-month long tour ever again, but we can still do stuff. We're still doing the new record.

One Mississippi will mark the 10th year you've done J Church, right?

Well, nine years, because Cringer broke up in 1991, but J Church was even practicing before Cringer broke up, so it's been right around there. It's hard to even think of the band as a year old, because there are always different people in it. In the 10 year's I've been doing this, there have been 40 different line-ups. [laughs] Really. There's no one in the band currently that was in the band four years ago, much less nine years ago!

Obviously, J Church is what consumed your life for a good chunk of the '90s. With that in mind, what do you think punk rock achieved in the last decade?

Everyone has argued back and forth about the major label thing and how punk went mainstream, thus, destroying it for a lot of people, but for us, we're not really a "punk" band in sound, so I feel more connected to the ethics. Someone like Bikini Kill or Fugazi was really important this past decade. 20 years ago there were punk bands breaking through - people are still mesmerized the way Crass were a part of that. While they can seem really dated now, at the time Crass was really relevant and helped change people's attitude to the music business. I think Fugazi achieved the same thing. Within the punk scene they've been criticized a lot, probably more than even Nirvana or Green Day, which is really ironic because if you know about J Church or if you read Punk Planet, then your life is affected by what Fugazi did. Hell, there was a time when every punk show was $10. No one questioned a $10 or $15 door price. Going back as far as 1986, the idea of a $5 door price was ridiculous. When I first moved to California, there were very few people fighting the $15 door price. There were very few people who applied ethics to whatever they decided to do. Because of the anarchy crust punks, that idea got kind of ghetto-ized and Fugazi brought it back - they made these ideas seem more contemporary.

Also, they did it in a way that was really artistic and intellectual. They weren't just these street preachers who lived with their parents. It was a whole lot more.

I'm not trying to sound ageist, but they're all my age, if not older than me, and that does make a difference. Despite what anyone says, I'm 33 years old and there are not a lot of examples of people my age who continuously do this sort of thing. Most people my age are married or have kids and haven't been involved in a long, long time. Most of them would be floored that I still go to Bottom Of The Hill or that Fugazi are still together. In an age bracket centered around settling down, if you see people like Fugazi sticking to their guns on this stuff and still doing things that are relevant, to me that's really exciting.

No doubt, being able to produce music in the time period you recorded the bulk of the material, I think you got a really good vantage point on the way music operated in this decade, from both ends. There were people, friends of yours even, that took a really unlikely route for a punk band: signing to a major. And then, of course, there were bands like Fugazi. I would think that watching this community progress the way it did, would have only run second to the music.

Yeah, it really did. J Church has always been really lucky. Generally, people have always known who we were. There was never that struggle in the first five years to get our first single out. From the very beginning we were putting out singles and people knew who we were. Which was good because on the one hand, it allowed us to never get caught up in any of the great trends of the '90s, but at the same time, we could be peripherally involved. Everything has its peak and if you've been completely associated with it, when the trend disappears, you will as well. That was never anything we had to deal with. We were always peripherally connected. It wasn't like anyone thought of J Church as a Riot Grrl band, but those were our friends. So when Riot Grrl came and went, we weren't lost in that trend, but we were somewhat involved in those ideas. Obviously, we live in the Bay Area and you can't help but be entrenched in that scene, but it has never been completely ours. I don't think people constantly associated us with Green Day. People may associate us with them because we live in the same area and we're friends, but we never had a huge hit. We never would up on Warner Brothers or at Woodstock. [laughs] Nothing against those guys, but we were never a part of that.

A lot of bands around here became a part of that though. Did you feel at the time, when the curtain got pulled back and you were all invited in, that you got to see too much? Seeing your friends make millions and get on the cover of Rolling Stone had to affect you in some way.

Yeah, but for every friend I had on the cover of Rolling Stone, there was a friend that lost the rights to their songs or whatever. See, it's hard for me to say the curtain was pulled back and all of a sudden we realized that hopping in bed with the majors could be a big mistake. Before Nirvana, it never occurred to anyone that it was possible to talk to a major label. We didn't even know what an A&R person did! The concept of signing to a major was so far-fetched that no one even considered it. But, all of a sudden, when there's people standing around throwing money at you, I think you can't help but become curious. I've said this before, but I think that when it came to the Bay Area, every band was instinctively opposed to signing. Nobody thought it was great that Warner Brothers or DGC showed up. Most people just casually checked out what the majors had and were really quite hesitant to even do that. No one thought it would be worthwhile. A lot of bands decided it was - some got lucky and others made a lot of mistakes. For us, getting lucky meant that we didn't sign.

Recently I interviewed someone who went through what Green Day went through and he said something that really stuck with me: In the case of his success, he thought how he climbed was important, but what he did when he got to the top was much more critical. To me, the majority of bands from around here, especially the ones who made millions, shrugged off such a notion.

Yeah, but that's not exclusively a Bay Area thing. That can be traced back to Nirvana. Nirvana really broke things wide open and because they came from a more punk-inclined scene, they really proclaimed how relevant it was to struggle. Once they broke, that's when a lot of indie bands who would have never been in our community before, decided that we were the new way to super-stardom. After Nirvana, all these bands that didn't understand what Nirvana stood for, looked at them as a blueprint for how to sell millions of records. Suddenly, you had people putting out 7"s who would have never even thought about it before. Most of these bands probably didn't know what a 7" was until their manager suggested that they do one. Suddenly these were the people we were surrounded by. Music should be about ambition, but after Green Day, that sort of thing lost focus here. Everything changed once there were millions of dollars to be had.

Aside from the tourists who stopped in, what was wrong with punk in the '90s?

There was a time when I first started getting into all of this stuff, that people would allow themselves to get into anything. It wasn't weird that you listened to the Buzzcocks and at the same time, one of the really weird Gang Of Four records. Labels were putting out all sorts of records. There weren't specific labels for the emo side or the straight-edge side of things - it wasn't so specific. That was what disappointed me about the '90s. Certainly, it started in the '80s, but in the '90s music became completely uniform-ized. Scenes became their own industries: there's no anarcho scene any more, it's the vegan / crusty / anarcho "industry". People like Fugazi set an example and there's a very important reason for why they are doing all of this. Copy-catting music, these days, is not enough. Fitting a category is not enough. In fact, it's counterproductive.

It's funny, I think the thing to me about the '90s that really worked, was that there were tons of people who made themselves out to be great examples. But the thing is, no one picked up on that. At least, not immediately. That's why you have Slint knock-offs, or whomever, still emerging today. Obviously, with Fugazi, people picked up on the ethics almost immediately, but with countless other musicians, their deference came much later. I think the '90s will mean a lot to the younger generation and its relevance is only going to come out in hindsight. Honestly, I think there's going to be a lot of inspiration supplied from the last 10 years, especially when people finally look back.

In the last 10 years, the most inspiring punk happening for me between the first time I saw Bikini Kill and the first time I saw Fugazi. For me, that's what I'll remember. Really, those are the only two times that I found a live performance to be really shocking. I wasn't expecting how open both of those bands were on-stage. It wasn't like a punk show, they were doing something more than that. Being in a band, things can get really bad. There have been times when we've been playing and I thought to myself, "Why do we even play live? Why don't we just make records and stay in our bedrooms?" But, when you saw something like Bikini Kill or Fugazi, you felt like those people were making a difference. At the time, there weren't a lot of women involved in this scene other than the token bass player. [laughs] But Bikini Kill was controlling it all, while at the same time creating this scene. That's what made the '90s for me. Not that everything else sucked, but those are things that I think about most.

When other people inevitably have this conversation elsewhere, where do you hope to fit in with it?

I don't really know. I suppose - and I don't mean this in a token way - that I diversify what's happening in the underground scene. Obviously, on an intellectual level, a lot of what we're doing is different than any of the other scenes. I'm not saying we're this totally unique and different thing, because we're not, but we don't fit in with any of these particular scenes. We're not like Naked Aggression or The Promise Ring or like a lot of the bands we've been on labels with. But we're successful. We've been on MTV and first off, we're ugly and, secondly, I'm Chinese. When I was growing up, there were no Chinese people on MTV, except for the bass player for Rod Stewart. There were no examples of Chinese musicians, not that I'm a strong example, either. But I am an example. Hopefully we're an example for people who want to do what they want. The fact that we're doing this and not announcing ourselves as anything, to me that's all I want people to pick up on. Maybe that's what people will latch on to. For me, I'm just happy to be alive: hey, I survived the '90s!

 

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