It's Saturday morning in the Bay Area, and most good little punk rockers are tucked away safe and sound in their beds. But not the Peechees' Chris Applegren: He's wide awake as he discusses the intricacies of his latest passion--Final Fantasy VII, an epic game made for the Sony Playstation system. "It's three CDs long, and it has kind of this whole Star Wars theme throughout, where these rebels fight, you know, the big corporations," he enthuses. "Right now I'm at this part where I have this submarine and I'm exploring the ocean floor. It's amazing. I started having dreams about it when I first started playing it."
In the three months since then, Applegren has only reached the halfway point of Final Fantasy's second level. But he has a good excuse for having thus far failed to complete the journey: his hectic schedule. In addition to fronting the Peechees and playing with two side projects, the Lefties and the Original Two, the lanky 25-year-old vocalist is the president of Lookout! Records, debatably the most influential indie label on the West Coast. The company introduced the world to Green Day and Rancid, laying the groundwork for the long-delayed mainstream acceptance of punk. He's justifiably proud of the imprint's accomplishments. "We haven't gone out there and become huge," he concedes. "But I think we've had, and will continue to have, a cultural effect on the landscape of independent music. And I'm really excited about that."
Applegren is just as positive about the Peechees, a band whose other members are nearly as harried as he is. When she's not attending to her Peechees duties, drummer Molly Neuman contributes to the Frumpies, a queercore combo, and works as the general manager for Lookout! Bassist Rop Vazquez is a Lookout! staffer as well (he spends his days in the company's mail-order department), and he also contributes to the Original Two, the Lefties and yet another group, Ropstyle. And guitarist Carlos Canedo divides his time between power-chording for the Peechees, toiling at his full-time job ("He doesn't like to talk about it too much," Applegren confides. "He thinks it sounds kind of boring") and indulging in his hobby, salsa dancing.
Given these commitments, it's a minor miracle that the Peechees ever got together in the first place, let alone found time to make so much good music. The act's 1997 long-player, the appropriately titled Games People Play, is typical of the act's efforts. Pumped full of gouging punk riffs, jagged pop arrangements and snotty, boho attitude of the sort found on "New Moscow Woman" and "Return of the Rocknroll Nurse," the album lays waste to 90 percent of the music being made by today's hackneyed rock-and-roll populace. In short, Games was one of last year's best platters--but don't expect the modest Applegren to admit it. The most he'll say about the disc is, "We're really happy with it."
Of course, the Peechees don't need to crow; their impressive punk-rock pedigree speaks for itself. Prior to forming the group in 1994, Applegren was part of Lookout! signees Bumblescrump and the Potatomen; Vazquez and Canedo made glorious noise together in Rice, also on Lookout!; and Neuman sat behind the skins for the seminal riot grrrl vehicle Bratmobile. According to Applegren, the four met through their participation in these earlier projects.
"Basically, it all started when I met Molly at a Bratmobile show that I went to," he remembers. "She was in Olympia, Washington, at the time, but she loved to write letters, so we started corresponding. Then I got to know Rop and Carlos when we went on a tour of the West Coast together in 1992. When we got to Olympia, Molly was flying back from the East Coast, having just finished a tour with Bratmobile. We hooked up with her there, and then she decided to come back to California with us and stay a few weeks. We all just became really good friends."
Shortly thereafter, the musicians started writing material together. The collaboration started out on a casual note. "Carlos and Rop were living in San Diego at the time," Applegren explains, "so Molly and I decided to fly down there to record some songs--for fun, really. We got together and practiced. We tried different variations, like me on drums, Molly on guitar, Rop singing. Just different things. We recorded one song with our current lineup, and it just so happened to be the best of the bunch, so we went with it."
The band played its maiden gig at a San Diego skate park, and before long it had produced an EP, Cup of Glory, and a debut full-length, Do the Math. A feisty slab of brassy, four-on-the floor punk-rock trash, Math was lauded by reviewers, but Applegren downplays its quality. "It was sort of a stepping stone," he claims. "It was recorded under extenuating circumstances in San Diego, and looking back, I'm surprised at how well it turned out. I mean, so much of the way our band works is that it's based on our individual personalities. We really had no idea how that first album would turn out. For all we knew, it could have been a mess. But now I think the two records work kind of like companion pieces."
Both Math and Games were released not on Lookout!, but on Olympia's Kill Rock Stars, which began as a supplier of feminist rock by the likes of Bratmobile, Bikini Kill and media darlings Sleater-Kinney but later branched out to include performers such as punk-turned-singer-songwriter Elliot Smith and the harebrained noise-metal duo GodHeadSilo. Why would the president of Lookout! choose to sign his band to another indie? "When we first came out on the scene, there were so many people clamoring to work with Lookout! that we decided not to, sort of unoffically," he says. "I don't want to sound like a junior achiever or something, but Lookout! could only work with bands that had established themselves and been around for a few years. We didn't fit that criteria at the time, and I didn't want to make concessions to myself and my friends that I wouldn't make to regular artists. Plus, I like being able to be an artist and have that kind of mentality with the Peechees, and then run a business, and not meld the two together more than I already have."
In Applegren's case, that's not easy; as one of the prime instigators of the so-called Lookout! sound associated with Operation Ivy, Pansy Division, Screeching Weasel and others, he's become something of a hero to young punks. However, he and Lookout! owner Larry Livermore are probably best known for signing the aforementioned Green Day and releasing the popular trio's first two albums, 1990's 39/Smooth and 1992's Kerplunk. Applegren admits that he had reservations when Billy Joe Armstrong and company hooked up with Warner Bros. in 1994. "I was concerned for them. They had been really successful before they went to Warner Bros., and just knowing them personally, I was worried, because that whole industry can just chew you up and spit you out. I was afraid that by taking that next step, they would gamble the success they already had. Because you really can't go home again. They could have put out another record if they had flopped with their major-label debut, but they never would have gained their audience back."
That didn't happen, of course: Dookie, Green Day's bow for Warner Bros., went multi-platinum, thereby increasing the sales of the band's Lookout! offerings. "Those records have been tremendously successful for us," Applegren notes. "And although Green Day may have surpassed them in different kinds of ways with their major-label stuff, I feel they're really important records because of the cultural effect they had on the punk-rock scene at the time."
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Green Day has not completely severed ties with Lookout! "We still do business with them," Applegren confirms. "Billy records stuff with some of our younger bands, and stuff like that." But the increased cash flow enjoyed by Lookout! in the wake of Green Day's success began to ebb after the Great Punk Crash of 1996, when the majors (motivated by slow sales) largely turned their backs on the movement. For this reason, Lookout!, which had taken advantage of the good times to add diverse artists such as the Phantom Surfers, the Hi-Fives and Neurosis to its lineup, is being forced to retrench; this year will see considerably fewer than the 27 new titles that Lookout! put out in 1997. "We haven't been as successful as some of the labels here in the Bay Area in terms of exploiting the situation as it stands right now, or as it stood a year and a half ago, when punk rock was really profitable," Applegren allows. "I think we're a little more self-conscious about the things we decide to do around here." But he hopes that by focusing on quality, not quantity, Lookout! can still prosper, albeit on a smaller scale.
In the meantime, Applegren is cheered by how the Peechees are coming together. Vazquez and Canedo recently moved to Oakland, and a raft of new songs resulted; the band expects to unveil some of them during its current series of dates. The future is more of a mystery. "We don't have any specific goals in mind--like, we've got to do this in such and such a time, or whatever," Applegren says. "We just want to be self-sustaining, and so far, we've certainly achieved that. As for where we'll be five years from now, I really don't know. We'll just have to see how well we can maintain the level of energy we have right now. It's sort of like a body-in-motion kind of thing."
Before anything else can happen, though, Applegren has something he needs to accomplish: "I'm just trying to get to that last level of Final Fantasy before we go on tour."
The Peechees, with the Prima Donnas and the Emirs. 9 p.m. Saturday, March 14, 15th Street Tavern, 623 15th Street, $5, 572-0822.