John Ross Bowie talks '90s New York pop-punk
SplitSider March 11, 2013
John Ross Bowie Talks '90s New York Pop-Punk
by Josiah Hughes
Independent musicians are often thought of as self-serious crybabies, holding their craft to the highest imaginable standards and scoffing at anything resembling fun. Often, that's not the case, however, as many musicians moonlight with comedic output, and vice versa. From follow-worthy Twitter accounts to viral videos and other projects, we're here to point out some of the most interesting crossovers between the worlds of independent music and comedy.
Snotty, goofy and distinctly North American, the subgenre hyphenate known as pop-punk often gets a bad rap. Decidedly self-aware and often self-deprecating, however, hardcore's dorky little brother is also home to some of the most subversive, hilarious and heartfelt songwriting in independent music.
John Ross Bowie is a long-time staple of the Uprights Citizens Brigade, a regular on Childrens Hospital, and a recurring actor on The Big Bang Theory. He's nailed bit parts in Curb Your Enthusiasm, Happy Endings and The League and is currently working on Dark Minions, an animated show he's developing for Amazon. Before he became a comedic powerhouse, however, Bowie spent the mid-'90s as the frontman for New York pop-punk trio Egghead.
As he's quick to admit in our interview, Egghead. were one of the only pop-punk groups in New York at the time, ultimately paving the way for later torchbearers like the Ergs. The group disbanded in 1998, at which point Bowie wisely decided to get into comedy (he wasn't the only one — guitarist Michael Galvin wrote last year's cult indie flick Fat Kid Rules the World).
In 2010, Egghead. reunited for some shows and recorded a new album called Egghead. Would Like A Few Words With You. In our interview with Bowie, we discuss how sleeping on floors and playing with shitty ska bands prepared him for life as a comedian.
Much to the dismay of many people around me, I'm obsessed with pop-punk. If there's one thing I love talking about at any time of the day, it's pop-punk. Do you still care about pop-punk?
Ugh. I cannot believe I signed off on this interview. Is it too late to back out? No? Alright.
I do, I guess. I still listen to it. Not a ton of new stuff, although I like the incredibly hooky, anthemic Japandroids, as well as Riverboat Gamblers, the Menzingers, Motion City Soundtrack, Alkaline Trio — all of which could be classified as at least offshoots of pop-punk. Ted Leo and Superchunk both write really melodic punk, and I enjoy them immeasurably.
Tell me about when, where and how Egghead. formed.
As briefly as possible: One version of Egghead. was my senior year at Ithaca College — Me, Travis Knight (not the NBA player) and Mike Faloon all started playing local house parties and club shows in central NY. Travis moved to Atlanta after graduation. The Egghead. that recorded and toured was formed when myself and Faloon and Michael Galvin (who asked to be referred to as Johnny Reno while in the band) were all living in New York in the mid-'90s. We had all met at our college radio station, and it was a better mesh than the first version, and we started writing songs together. We had a decent run of about four years.
On your MySpace page it says “Sometimes people get drunk, log onto message boards and credit them with starting the New York Pop-Punk scene.” Care to elaborate?
I wish I could find a link that could prove this, but yeah, sometimes people like to point out that there was ZERO pop punk in the greater NYC area at that time, and you’d find Egghead. on a bill with speed metal or gutter punk or funk, Jesus, so many funk bands. A couple of great bands like the Ergs and the Unlovables credit Egghead. with making it okay to do punk love songs in New York.
Was the New York punk scene open-minded towards songs about data entry and weird smells back then or were you scoffed at?
We were not necessarily welcomed with open arms. There were some places — notably the Continental on 3rd avenue — which seemed to really understand what we were trying to do, do fun garage-y, melodic punk that didn’t take itself too seriously, but for the most part we had to leave town to be appreciated — we had a following in Jersey, and out on Long Island, and down in Baltimore. But our own city was a tougher sell.
I should add that we were not ostracized — we were friends with Furious George, and the Sea Monkeys and artier bands like the Negatones — bands who didn’t sound like us, but we dug each other and played some wonderful shows.
In many ways, I think pop-punk has always been a form of comedy. Would you agree? Have you always secretly been writing jokes when you write songs?
I couldn’t agree more. So much of my sense of humor was shaped by the Ramones, the Dickies. The Dead Milkmen. By the albums, but also by the live shows. Front men like Leonard from the Dickies and Rodney from the Milkmen taught me a LOT about working a crowd. Watching those guys, then being in my own band, made up the bulk of my stage training before I transitioned to acting at 27.
I remember seeing the Dead Milkmen in Philly in… 1993? And Rodney used the whole “Bitchin' Camaro” intro to go on in this scathing tirade about Rick Santorum that was really funny and literally decades ahead of its time.
Who are some of your favourite lyricists?
I still love Rodney from the Milkmen. Adam Goren from Atom & His Package. Dr. Frank from the Mr. T Experience wrote “Even Hitler Had a Girlfriend” and “I’m Like Yeah, But She’s All No” and if there are better song titles in the American canon, I’ve not heard them. Currently, I’m in love with Craig Finn’s lyrics, and John Darnielle. There’s a lot of funny rap out there, too – more people should be listening to Jean Grae, out of New York. She has a song called “Haters Anthem” which is filthy and hysterical.
The DIY element of punk is something that a lot of people are drawn to. Is that something that appealed to you? Is that something that informs who you are today? There's also a strong element of DIY in the Upright Citizens Brigade. Would you say that those are similar scenes at all?
I’ll answer these two in tandem, as they’re related. Yes, the DIY aspect of punk rock (Release your own record! Book your own shows!) is very similar to the ethos at UCB (Write your own sketch show! Get up at the improv jam even though you’re a little drunk!). What attracted me to punk rock initially was that you didn’t have to be a GREAT musician to do it, you just needed some gumption and an instrument. So when the band broke up and I was drifting around, and I started taking improv classes, the same idea took hold — maybe you didn’t have to have gone to acting school to be an actor! It was pretty audacious, and I have taken a lot of scene study classes since then, but I threw myself into the deep end without any formal training. It was very much like Paul Simonon writing the notes on the neck of his bass.
Were you getting into comedy at the same time as doing music, or did one come first?
Yeah, the band had to break up, and I had to sink into a mournful depression before comedy came along to save the day. I don’t think I could have started taking improv classes if I hadn’t clocked all that time in a band, getting up in front of people who may or may not want to be there. Once you’ve been the one pop-punk band on an all-ska bill in Virginia, not much else scares you. Maybe combat.
There's a distinct nerd persona that carries all the way from Egghead. through your role on Big Bang Theory. Were you actually a nerd as a kid? Do you think you're still a dork?
I was kind of nerdy as a kid. I wore glasses starting in the 5th grade, and had just YEARS of orthodontia. But I also got laid here and there in high school. It’s complicated. Yeah, I’m still pretty nerdy. I look forward to Brian K. Vaughan’s writings and if you don’t get that, congratulations, you’re probably pretty physically fit and you stand up straighter than I do.
What was it like to get the band back together and put out an LP?
Great. We’d learned a lot in the interim, about both songwriting and recording, so I’m pretty happy with the result (2010’s Egghead. Would Like A Few Words With You, on KnockKnock Records, available on iTunes!!!) It’s fun, too, because there’s old songs on it, and also a song about being a father, so it’s a pretty diverse record.
Do you ever miss going on tour?
A qualified no. Egghead. stayed in some dismal settings and drove through some profoundly unsafe conditions. But I’ve had the opportunity to go on tour with the UCB Touring Company a couple times, and that’s magical. No heavy lifting, nicer accommodations that the college puts you up in, game crowds. I got to do improv in Alaska with those guys — an insane cast (Brian Huskey, Seth Morris, Lennon Parham, Jason Mantzoukas, Eli Newell, myself), got to perform at UAFairbanks, then go get faced at Oktoberfest and then look at the Northern Lights. THAT I miss.
What are some bands that you listen to now?
Aside from the pop-punk stuff listed above, I like a lot of softer stuff, like the new AC Newman, Mike Doughty, Okkervil River and TV on the Radio. They’re all doing a lot of interesting, unclassifiable but hook-laden music and a lot of show tunes. I’m a huge Stephen Sondheim fan — no joke — and Michael Galvin and I go on double dates with our wives to see little productions of his shows around LA. I listen to the cast recording of In the Heights a lot, because it makes me pleasantly homesick for New York — I’ve lived in LA for over ten years now.
What's the best pop-punk song of all time?
I’m gonna give you three, because this is my time. They’re deep cuts, but all available on iTunes. “Cross-Eyed Tammy” by the Dickies, “Samantha” by the Unlovables and “Hang Up” by the Parasites. This list subject to change in about twenty minutes or so.