The histories of punk and metal are littered with the empty shells of bands that had a massive influence on generations of musicians and fans without ever receiving an appropriate degree of recognition for their seminal efforts. Fortunately, some iconic bands stick around long enough to continue making their presence felt. One listen to the brand new Poison Idea album, Confuse And Conquer, should make it more than apparent that the Portland punk legends are a vital and vibrant force, even 35 years after they originally formed. Despite a sporadic and often turbulent career, frontman Jerry A. has weathered the storm for long enough to know that punk rock dedication is a commitment for life.
With classic albums like Kings Of Punk and the immortal Feel The Darkness, Poison Idea raised the bar for balls-out punk rock with a discernible metal edge, receiving plaudits from across the heavy music spectrum along the way, not least when their songs were covered by both Pantera and Machine Head during the ‘90s. Looking back to those very early days, however, Jerry is eager to stress the humble nature of his band’s origins.
“The real starting point was the very first Wipers show,” he says. “The Wipers were the band in Portland… everybody needs to check out that first record, Is This Real?, because that was life-changing shit for us. That first show… I’d never seen anything like that before – I was, like, 13 or 14 – but it changed my life. I didn’t know what I was seeing and hearing, but I knew that I loved it and I needed more of it in my life.”
“Portland wasn’t like London or LA, but that made the scene more exciting in a way,” he continues. “But dressing like a punk rocker could get you punched in the face real easy! What we had was a city full of rednecks and then all these punk kids… more than once, someone stopped their car and got out and attacked us, just for dressing the way we did. But that just made us more determined, I guess.”
The inevitable footnote at the end of any Poison Idea biography is the untimely passing of talismanic guitarist Tom ‘Pig Champion’ Roberts back in January, 2006 due to “undetermined causes”. While the band’s importance to punk’s evolution is their most admirable achievement, it is also true that Jerry A. and his band mates were widely renowned for their somewhat unhealthy and reckless lifestyles for much of their existence. Drink and drugs were a seemingly integral part of the Poison Idea ethos that plainly had a disruptive and, in the end, calamitous effect on their ability to function properly as a unit.
“Yeah, that’s pretty fair!” Jerry laughs. “We were just like a lot of kids, really. We started off drinking a lot of booze and then when the booze stopped working, we moved onto drugs and that’s when it started getting hard to get our shit together. Tom’s death wasn’t expected at all, though. You always think you’ve got one more day, you know? I was picking him up from his house, to go to rehearsal, and I found him. It was a fucking drag, for sure. But did it sober me up? No, quite the opposite. I went straight to my drug dealer and got high… I went back to Tom’s place and passed out on his bed. I was there for a long time and then I woke up and that’s when it hit me… I thought ‘Fuck, it could’ve been me!’ These days I might still have a couple of glasses of wine at dinner but that’s about it. You have to slow down at some point and I take Poison Idea seriously, you know? We can’t go out all drunk and fucked up every night.”
At this point you may be wondering why Metal Hammer is making such a fuss about a punk band. The fact is that Poison Idea are the most joyously metal-friendly of US punk crews, those Pantera and Machine Head tributes forming the tip of an iceberg of support and acclaim from within metal circles, much of it based on the towering brilliance of 1990’s Feel The Darkness album; a turbocharged onslaught of muscular hardcore punk and blazing guitar work that is simply one of the most powerful and important albums in punk history.
“Man, I’m glad people look at Feel The Darkness like that,” says Jerry. “We were focused on making the best record we could, but we didn’t think about making a classic or anything like that. I just wrote the songs I wanted to hear, like Just To Get Away… that was me writing a song that sounded like someone wanting to get away from everything, from normal life and all the bullshit. A friend of mine said I should write a song about that, and I just thought ‘Okay, so what would that feel like… sound like?’”
“We all grew up listening to lots of different stuff. Obviously I fell in love with punk rock, but there were different influences in there too,” the singer explains. “We all listened to hard rock and heavy metal. Tom was a big heavy metal fan, he loved all the classic stuff like Priest and Maiden and Sabbath… he could play all that shit, too, so I guess that’s why there’s a connection there. When Tom joined we suddenly had great guitar solos… the previous guitarist couldn’t really play that well, but the band totally changed for the better when Tom signed up.”
As for having his songs covered by Pantera and Machine Head, Jerry is still thrilled by the idea and welcomes the endorsement from the metal world.
“I love them both. Pantera’s version of The Badge is super fucking heavy!” he laughs. “What they did with the breakdown in the middle… man, we heard that and thought ‘Damn, we should’ve done that!’ Machine Head did a really fuckin’ great job, too. Both bands totally nailed those songs. It was flattering, you know? And I guess a lot of people discovered Poison Idea through that. We get a mixture of everybody at our shows these days, from the old punk guys and the metal guys through to really young kids. We still don’t get too many women at our shows, though… I’m afraid we’re not a bunch of pretty boys in make-up, by any means ha ha!”
With a refreshed line-up and a new album that is every bit as distinctive and strong as the band’s past works, Poison Idea may have travelled a long way since their snotty, youthful early days, but Confuse And Conquer suggests that there is plenty of gas left in this tank. The band hit the UK for a seven-date tour this week, kicking off in London on Thursday. If you give even the slightest shiny shit about punk rock, you need this band in your life. And despite everything that life has thrown at them, Poison Idea ain’t going anywhere quite yet.
“Touring is tougher now, for sure. I can’t spend months travelling around in a shitty van anymore,” Jerry concludes. “But I’m really enjoying it. The new guys are fuckin’ great and we’re having a good time. This new album is really good, I’m happy with it, but the next one will be better, I promise you. I think we have more time to write this one and I have a feeling we’ll get close to something like Feel The Darkness. I have a great feeling about everything right now!”