Greg Hanna (The Dickies)
In this interview with Greg Hanna, formerly of The Dickies, we discussed:
Cris: What drew you to the bass guitar?
Greg: A couple of things. When I was a kid -- fifth or sixth grade -- my dad was a drummer. He was a jazz drummer in the Detroit area playing seven nights a week all through the '60s putting food on the table like that. So the first thing I wanted to play was drums.
I learned how to play drums in middle school band and did that for a couple of years. I was playing drums in my first rock band when I was in eighth grade. We had two guitar players and a drummer. We needed a bass player, but nobody at our school played bass. My uncle had an old Harmony hollow body bass guitar, this old, funky thing that I wish I still had. He gave that to me. My junior high band teacher was a bass player. He gave me two lessons. Just like the old bass player joke, I had two lessons and a gig.
My first paid gig was when I was 14, sitting in with some of my dad's bands. My dad would talk to the venue owner and say, "Look, he's under drinking age, but I'm his dad. He's just playing bass." Somebody would tell me what key and I would just play something. I'm sure most of them were clunkers, but it was an incredible learning experience.
Cris: Although, you had been playing drums, so you must have had a decent sense of time.
Greg: Yeah, that's definitely something I had going for me. Really, at that early stage it was learning the mechanics of playing bass, which I fell into pretty quickly.
Cris: So you transitioned to bass, but you could've easily gone back to the drums. What made you fall in love with the bass enough to stick with it?
Greg: When I first started learning how to play bass, I would sit for hours on end in my bedroom playing along to records. I would play along with the albums of Alice Cooper, Blue Oyster Cult, early Van Halen, Motown stuff.
As, I started listening to more bass, I started falling in love with more bass. I'm not the lead singer guy. I'm not the lead guitar player guy. I'm not the drum solo guy. My whole thing is playing what I call "dead man bass." If you're seeing a band live and they're chugging along and then the sound man just drops the bass out, you're like, "What happened?" You're not drawing attention to yourself.
Cris: So then to skip forward a little bit, how did you become a member of The Dickies?
Greg: In the late '90s, early 2000s, I was in a band with D. H. Peligro from the Dead Kennedys. I did a bunch of recordings with him and a bunch of touring. We were doing tours where we were making $70 a week and honestly living in a van. I look back now, I'm like, "That was great. We were making $70 a week and had the biggest smiles on our faces."
But anyways, we played a few gigs opening for The Dickies. I had been a Dickies fan for ages, so it was cool getting to meet them and talk to them. I found out they needed a bass player and asked for an audition. Stan Lee had me come over to his house. He's a very interesting character. He's a great guy. He'd give you the shirt off his back, but he is hard to describe. If you know him, you're just like, "Yeah, that's Stan."
After I got the gig, Stan called me up and said, "Well, the other guy had really good stage moves, but you knew the entire set, so you got the job."
I was with them for a good 10 years.
Cris: I'm curious how you describe The Dickies to people who are not familiar with them. The quick answer is they were a punk band, started in the late '70s, etc. But that doesn't seem to encapsulate them.
Greg: It's a great question, Cris. I always say either The Dickies were your favorite band ever or you never heard of us. There's no in between. I would describe them as the Godfathers of what I would call pop punk, because 1) they're not screaming. The vocals are not screaming. We're singing, and Leonard (Graves Phillips) is huge on Beach Boys harmonies, vocal harmonies. If you're going to be in that band, you better be able to sing backup vocals. So they're singing instead of screaming.
2) They stayed away from politics, so they didn't put a date on themselves. I don't know if you remember that punk band from Canada, DOA. Every other song -- or the Dead Kennedys even -- every other song was about Ronald Reagan. Boom, you're kind of like timestamped into the 1980s.
Which is fine. Reagan inspired a lot of great punk rock lyrics. A lot.
The Dickies have never done that.
Also, their songs are hilarious. It's a punk rock band that doesn't take themselves too seriously and they don't take punk rock too seriously.
Cris: I can't think of any other punk rock band that necessarily could've done the theme song for a children's television show.
Greg: That's right. Who's going to do the “Banana Splits”? There were some other punk rock bands that had senses of humor but some of it was maybe rather crass too.
Meat Men were a great hardcore punk band. No political lyrics. Hilarious lyrics, but rated X. So there's that angle too.
Leonard… and I've said it many times before… songwriting and lyric writing, the guy is a genius and he's good at poking fun at himself as well as everyone else. And he does it in such a way where you're not being hit over the head with a hammer with it.
The Appeal of Punk
Cris: What drew you personally to punk?
Greg: I was born in '66. When I was 10, sometimes you'd be watching Don Kirshner's “Rock Concert.” There were a couple other shows similar to that late at night. If you were lucky enough to tune the rabbit ears to get it in, you might see a Ramones video... Well, I say video. This was way before MTV. But some sort of film of them playing.
I remember seeing the Sex Pistols, the Ramones, bands like that. Then around '81 or '82 a friend of mine gave me a copy of the very first Dead Kennedys record, “Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables,” which is an amazing hardcore record for anybody that hasn't heard it. And it's before they started getting very political. A lot of stuff on that record is a lot of fun. And it was the speed of the music that attracted me and as a kid, honestly, some of the course language.
So that's just being honest. That's really what attracted me to punk rock. Then as you know there are all the little sub-genres of punk rock. Some things you like, some things you don't. For me, it was mostly the more aggressive, higher energy stuff because I had been skateboarding since '74, so a lot of that music was the soundtrack to skateboarding for me.
The Ramones Documentary
Cris: You mention the Ramones. You're in that 2004 Ramones documentary and I'm curious, what's something you learned from the Ramones?
Greg: Probably the biggest lesson I learned from the Ramones is the show must go on. These guys hated each other and had all sorts of drama and strife personally. But they would play the entire set backstage and then they would go out on stage and play the set for the audience. I've seen the Ramones play a bunch of times. They'll go out there and hammer a two-hour set with no set list and no break in between songs. The song ends. One, two, three, four,” boom, onto the next one. Let's see you do that.
Cris: Why would they perform the entire show backstage first?
Greg: From what I've read and heard from other people, Johnny Ramone was the taskmaster of that band and he was all about preparation and readiness. He kind of ran it like a military unit.
Cris: So in your mind they were one of the ones that really set the bar as far as just giving your all for every performance.
Greg: Oh, yeah, no doubt about it. I saw one of their tour itineraries from the '70s or '80s and they were playing 250 shows in a year. I think the most we played in a year was probably close to the 200 mark. Let me tell you, that turns your brain into mush. So I can't even imagine 250. That's practically the entire year. You think about travel days and stuff like that, it's pretty much a year. So my hat's off to them and doing it for as long as they did.
Cris: So, what stands out in your mind when you think back on your time in The Dickies?
Greg: A few things. One, definitely being in that documentary, “Too Tough to Die.” That's definitely a standout point.
I would say it's a lot of little things and some of the amazing people that I got to meet. I mean, you can name any punk rock band that was active in those 10 years I was in the band. They either opened for us, we opened for them, or we were on a festival bill with them somewhere. Every single punk rock band you can think of, period.
There were lots of little, amazing things that happened. We were doing some shows with The Damned. Patricia Morrison, who's Dave Vanian's wife, was playing in the band at the time, but she was also pregnant. They were going to do a soundcheck, but she was having some morning sickness. So they asked me, "Hey Greg, can you do soundcheck with us?"
I'm like, "Yeah! Let's play ‘Neat Neat Neat’ right now." I could've died right then and my life would've been complete.
Being able to meet guys that you read about and listened to those albums and looked at the covers, guys like The Damned, who are some of the nicest gentlemen you could ever want to meet. Klaus (Flouride) from the Dead Kennedys, one of the sweetest people ever. I never thought that some of these people would become friends. And that I would sit down and talk to them as friends and not just like a fan to a band.
Some people have asked, "Don't you miss it?" Well, yeah, you take 24 hours out of a day and you've got that one hour you're on stage. That's incredible. That's why we do it. That adrenaline shot.
But what nobody talks about is the missed flights, the stolen guitars, the in fights with the band, dealing with adult children. It doesn't matter if you're Metallica or a band of 16-year-olds, somebody's ripping you off. And it doesn't matter how big a band you are, it's just a bigger ripoff.
That kind of stuff can grind you down after a while.
But all in all, I could not be more grateful for those experiences I had with those guys.
Cris: I'm curious... you were doing that and then you played with Pete Anderson and you're doing blues work, which seems like a huge jump in the sense that punk and blues seem like distant relatives at best. So I'm curious though, from the perspective of a bassist, what do they have in common?
Greg: Well, first of all with blues, as we know, a 12 bar blues chord progression is one chord, four chord, five chord, and that's in also like 99.9% of all rock songs, and also a lot of jazz. I've always loved the blues. My dad would take me to go see blues acts. Some of my favorites like Koko Taylor. I was very fortunate to see Koko before she passed away.
Mose Allison. My dad and I just stumbled on it at a bar called the Soup Kitchen in Detroit. My dad was like, "Let's go see some music." We go to the Soup Kitchen. The doorman's like, "Get in there. Mose Allison is playing."
As far as blues and punk rock being related, that's where I start talking about what I would call street music. So, blues is a street music. It's a music for the people. I don't think punk rock is anything more than just blues for suburban kids. Whether you're singing about your wife leaving you or you're singing about how Reagan is messing you up financially, it's the blues.
How that parlayed into playing with Pete is Dusty Wakeman, who was the engineer for a lot of the Dwight Yoakam stuff but also an amazing bass player, said, "Hey, Pete Anderson's looking for a bass player. He's doing just straight up blues." I love straight up blues. So I met with Pete at his house in Glendale and played a little bit. He's like, "Well, the gig's yours if you want it."
Pete's got a great setup at his house. He has a full studio in the garage behind his house. It's a working studio so he's got bands in there 24/7 as well as his own projects and stuff, so it's nice for him because he can just go back there and whenever he's ready to record, he can hit the button.
We would rehearse there and everything. It was headquarters for Pete. I really loved what Pete was doing. I got to play some tracks on “Even Things Up,” which is a great blues record. And Pete, besides being an amazing guitar player and songwriter, is also a blues historian. He'll pick up the guitar and he'll play any obscure blues song for you.
I had always used the "less is more" approach. I even learned the "more less is more" approach with Pete. So that was a period when I went to flat wound strings on my bass and not slapping with my thumb but picking with my thumb and more on the fret board. It just turns into this dead, flat, straight line if you were to look at it in Pro Tools.
I learned a lot about music with Pete. I did a few recordings with Pete and a few tours.
By that point I had been married for a little while. We had a baby on the way. Bought a house in Van Nuys. The road and this really wasn't working anymore. That's when we decided about the next chapter.
Music for TV Shows
Cris: I also read that you've done music for TV shows like “Burn Notice” and “The Shield.” What was the most challenging aspect of making music for television?
Greg: Luckily there wasn't anything too extremely challenging because my two partners, my two buddies, Johnathan Merkel and Danny Osuna, we all went to music college together. We all got our bachelor's degrees in theory together. We all knew each other's playing inside and out. Johnathan and I were playing jazz casuals for 40 bucks a night, four sets a night, playing “Autumn Leaves” and “Blue Bossa.” So we were very in tune with each other's playing.
In order to play any kind of style, you need to respect it. If you don't respect the style, you're certainly not going to get the gig and you're certainly not going to capture that feel for like a TV or film song.
Probably the biggest stretch, we did a song for season four of “Sons of Anarchy.” It was like a modern rap rock song with Spanish rap vocals over it. So for me it was different because it was drop tuning super low. But again, respecting the style. So I think that's key. I've had some people ask me about studio work. I tell them, "You've got to respect the body of work." You have to.
About the Bear Suit
Cris: On the silly side, how did you get the nickname "Plushie"?
Greg: There's definitely a story on that.
When I first got in The Dickies, things like MySpace, actual band web pages with message forums, that was still a thing. I remember going on tour and Leonard and I would be looking for the nearest Kinkos just so we could check our emails.
I was doing the first tour with them. We were at a Kinkos and Leonard's on The Dickies message board. Under "subject" it said "Your new bass player." He goes, "We have to read this." He clicked on it and it said, "I love your new bass player. I want to have sex with him while he wears a bear costume and I wear a puppy costume." That's all it said. Leonard goes, "Oh my God, Greg, who do you know that knows how to sew?" My sister's amazing ... She has worked in museums and such. Her woman cave is a sight to behold. She's got like 17 sewing machines.
So she made this polka dot, Wonder bread, bear suit for me. After getting it, we were playing somewhere in Northern Los Angeles. There was this guy in the crowd and he was staring at me right from the downbeat. He had to be 350, maybe even 400 pounds. He was super tall. He was looking at me with these googly eyes. If he was a cartoon, you would see hearts floating.
Midway through the set, he climbs on stage, grabs me, knocks me into my amp, knocks my bass out of tune, and starts hugging and kissing on me.
Cris: Oh my God.
Greg: I'm yelling for security. They're standing up front just watching the kids mosh or whatever. Finally stop the show. They're dragging the guy out. As they're dragging him out, Cris, they're literally dragging him out backwards. He's on his heels and his arms are outstretched reaching for me. I was just like, "Huh?"
Little Dave, our other guitar player, goes, "Your bass is out of tune. Dude, your bass." I'm just like, "Dude, did you not see ..."
Then the rest of the story...
My wife, before I met her, had just moved from New Jersey to Los Angeles. One of her girlfriends was seeing Stan in the band and they came down to see us at a benefit show in downtown Los Angeles. I saw her before the show. She didn't know I was in the band. I was like, "This is the most beautiful woman I've ever seen in my life."
So we play the show. You can see the suit has a broken heart on it. She comes up to me after the show. There's a tap on my shoulder. I turn around. She goes, "Mr. Bear, who broke your heart?"
That was it.
After we started dating, we had a show at the House of Blues and she said, "Hey, check out your bear suit." She put the two little safety pins in there, fixing the broken heart.
We've been married for over 10 years now and have a four-year-old son.
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