Author Dan Ozzi speaks to Atwood Magazine about his new book ‘Sellout,’ which chronicles the ’90s and 2000s punk rock major label boom.
Stream: A Playlist of Songs from Albums in ‘Sellout’
Jawbreaker’s calling card song “Boxcar” begins with a scathing critique of people who spend more time debating the ethics or a moral code of a “real” punk. “You’re not punk, and I’m telling everyone/Save your breath, I never was one,” Blake Swarzenbach sang in the 1994 banger. While the song remains one of the most resonant indictments of gatekeeping within the punk scene to this day, the band went on to be one of the largest examples of a band who suffered intense backlash after signing with major label, leading to their 20-year breakup, following the release of Dear You in 1996.
Jawbreaker are one of 11 bands featured in Dan Ozzi’s new book Sellout: The Major Label Feeding Frenzy that Swept Punk, Emo, and Hardcore. The book chronicles the punk boom of the ’90s and early aughts through the major label debuts of bands that have become mainstream favorites like Green Day and My Chemical Romance, punk rock mainstays like Thursday and Rise Against, or in a few cases, bands that are no more like The Donnas and At The Drive In.
Throughout the book, Ozzi demonstrates both how making the jump from an indie to a major label roster affected bands’ connections with their audiences (for better or, more often, for worse), the bands’ inner-workings and professional relationships, and their overall mental health. It’s a must-read for fans of any of the bands in it, especially those who saw their rises firsthand – or those who may have grown up with these bands in the limelight.
Ozzi spoke to Atwood Magazine about the shifting culture of punk rock, modern artists embracing the genre, and, of course, selling out.
A CONVERSATION WITH DAN OZZI
Atwood Magazine: This is your second book after co-authoring Laura Jane Grace’s memoir. How did your experience with Laura help prepare you for this? How was writing Sellout different?
Dan Ozzi: Learning to write a book as a process was something that Laura and I had to learn together. This book — just doing it alone — was much lonelier. When you have a partner and, especially Laura, who she and I had a lot of the same instincts, so it just made it easier and more fun to work on it together. We were kind of tag-teaming it. With this book, you don’t have that, and so, you’re trusting your own instincts. When I would do something with Laura, I’d write a page, and I’d be like, “What do you think of this?” And then she’d see it that morning and be like, “This is great! Let’s do this with it.” I’m like, “Yeah, let’s keep going.” But with this book, I write something and then I’m like, “I guess it’s good. I’ll find out in a year when everybody else reads it.”
There’s that Alain de Botton quote about like, “Writing a book is like telling a joke and waiting two years to hear whether or not it’s funny.” I didn’t feel like that as much with Laura’s book, because we both were like, “Yeah, this rocks This is good.” But for that with this book, I was like, “We’ll see!”
I loved the book. Now that it’s been out for about a week, have you seen any reaction from people who maybe speed-read it and maybe thought, ‘I was one of those people who accused bands of selling out’ and thought it was really insightful?
Dan Ozzi: That was something that we had right from the very start — not even since it’s been out. When it was announced, I got these just like hundreds and hundreds of responses, and the most common one was “Wow, finally somebody wrote a book for me. Somebody wrote about my scene, my generation, my music.” Like “Me, mine, mine!” It was overwhelming, and in a way, it was flattering, because I was like, “I think this book might do well, because people seem to identify with. it even before they’ve read it,” but to me, it was very surreal, because I thought of it the whole time in that way too. I was like: “This is mine.” And then once it went out to the world, it stopped being mine. It belongs to everybody else now, and it’s your problem.
It was just such a weird thing, where it almost felt like being taken from you and in a good way too. I’d be really bummed if I wrote something, and it didn’t resonate at all with people. That response, the very personal, it’s great, because there’s thousands of copies out there and thousands of people seem to think like it was a book written specifically for them, which it can’t possibly be true, but in a way, I guess it sort of is.
You’ve mentioned in interviews that bands aren’t really concerned about selling out anymore, but were you ever the person that was like, ''This band sold out! I’m not going to listen to this band anymore, now that they’re on a major''?
Dan Ozzi: For sure. Specifically with Against Me!, Laura and I have like talked about it. It’s not like a secret or anything, but I was such a huge fan, and I really dropped off during their major label period. I just wasn’t interested in what they were doing, and then I re-found them through Transgender Dysphoria Blues, which I think is among their best albums — probably the most important album. Now, that I’m a little bit older, Against Me! is a band that I’ve been following for probably 20 years at this point, and I think with that perspective, of having listened to a band for many, many years, you start to realize that maybe you won’t, like every single album a band makes. Maybe you won’t like every decision that they make. Sometimes you circle back around on bands. There’s plenty of bands who I really liked 20 years ago, and then I kind of cooled down on them, but then I’ll give one of their new records of spin and I’m really into it. So I think that’s a perspective that I definitely didn’t have as a young person at the time. You’re only thinking of that day. You don’t think about the future. You just think about how something affects you right in that moment.
How do you think these perceptions of these albums have changed since they were first released?
Dan Ozzi: Some of them have solidified their place. I think that probably the greatest example of an evolving consensus is Jawbreaker’s Dear You, which people were so mad about at the time. I think it was getting reviewed before people would’ve even heard it. They were just so mad about the decisions of the band that they let that cloud their judgment on the album itself, which they said it was too produced and too slick. But here we are, 25 years later, and they’re headlining Riot Fest and playing those songs, and I was there, and they sounded amazing on a stage like that. And so I think, time really proved their worth. The phrase “Ahead of their time” gets probably thrown around a lot, but truly, they were ahead of their time, and they proved that.
That’s an album that I’m so glad that we don’t still think of this as this colossal failure. It went on to inspire so many other bands. I interviewed Rob Cavallo, who produced that album and he was like, “After that album came out, like years later, you’d hear bands like Panic! at the Disco or Fall Out Boy, and you could hear that they were just inspired by ‘Jet Black’ or ‘Accident Prone,’ you could tell that the person writing that had been inspired by that.” So yeah, that’s a great example of a shifting consensus.
Something I thought was interesting was that the time period covered in the book goes from when I was born up until I was 13-years-old. Most of these albums came out when I was too young to follow music or follow the discourse. What do you hope someone who was maybe too young to know or even be born for this albums takes away from the book?
Dan Ozzi: It’s strange, because I’ll go to Against Me! shows now, and I’ll be among these young Against Me! fans, and sometimes Against Me! will play a song from Reinventing Axl Rose, and they won’t even know it — the crowd. And then that makes me realize, if they don’t know this album, I don’t think that they have any idea how mad people once were at this band for their label choices. So, I’m not trying to dig up old history and reopen old wounds, but it is interesting that I truly don’t think Against Me! fans now—or some of them — understand how much heat this band took at the time, and just the cultural climate that they were in. Again, I feel a little bit bad about reopening that wound, but maybe also too, this as a way that we can sort of like, put a bookend on it and we can just look back at it and say, ‘Wow, that was a crazy time.’
Bands like Green Day were banned from Gilman, Jawbreaker had angry audiences, but then by the 2000s, bands like Against Me or MCR had more backlash online. Do you think either form of sellout backlash is worse or how they affect bands differently?
Dan Ozzi: I think in the ’90s pre-internet, you had to really work to let a band know you were pissed off at them. You know? You had to you had to do work. There’s a story about this punk in there who for Green Day and Jawbreaker, he would show up at their shows with flyers and kind of make people feel bad for attending the show and make them feel like scabs crossing the picket line. He handed out flyers that said, “We are asking you to walk away from Jawbreaker.”
Then, in the message board days, it got a little easier to talk shit online, but with that, I wonder if people still meant it as much. I think if you’re so mad that you wake up, get dressed, get in your car, go to a show, and be prepared to waste a perfectly good Friday handing out flyers, I think you must really hold that opinion very strongly to go through all that work. If you’re just firing off comments on a message board, it might just be something you’re mad about in the moment. So I don’t know. It does seem like a different gauge, but the sentiment is the same.
The book explores how sexism played into the sellout accusations against The Distillers and The Donnas. Do you think that those efforts get amplified more because it’s a band with women?
Dan Ozzi: I really wanted to have The Donnas in the book, and I didn’t want them to seem tokenized either. I think their first album is so good. I listen to it all the time, but I knew I wanted them in there for two reasons: Number one, you know, the book starts with this overnight growth that Lookout Records had after Green Day, and The Donnas was kind of like the last band that Lookout had, before they just tragically collapsed. I knew that there they were important to help the arc of the story but also, I spent five chapters describing what happens to young men in this system that is really sort of parasitic sometimes. And I was like, ‘Well, I can’t imagine how much more difficult it must be for young women.’ So talking with them, I had a bunch of questions for them about sleazy interviews or sleazy A&R guys, and they kind of did go through the same machine, but there was just like an added layer of slime on top of it.
It’s not even sometimes that it’s like predatory, like people were trying to sleep with them. A lot of times, it’s just sometimes taking advantage of them from a business perspective where people dismiss them as just like, ‘Oh, well it’s just the female band,” or it’s like ‘Oh, it’s okay to just like make off comments to them.’ There was just this sense that it seemed okay to be dismissive of them. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure they got really gross guys hitting on them, but there was also this added layer of like, ‘Oh, isn’t that cute?’ which you wouldn’t say to Green Day.
It’s like the crappy interview question of ‘What’s it like to be a woman in punk?’ or ‘What’s it like to be a woman in a band?’
Dan Ozzi: For sure, and if you ask Blake Schwarzenbach, ‘What’s it like to be a guy in a band?’ and obviously the culture has changed, but they definitely had it differently.
The ideals of ‘No racism, no sexism, no homophobia, etc.’ are well known and have entered into the mainstream cultural lexicon. Punks do seem to have gotten more accepting, but do you think punks have gotten more accepting overall?
Dan Ozzi: One thing that I didn’t hadn’t realized, until I started working on that book with Laura was how woefully lacking the punk scene was on gender identity issues, because I had grown up listening to punk records and listening to punk bands on stage, and I did definitely grow up with that mentality that “We stand against homophobia and racism,” but she kind of said, “Did you ever hear anything about gender in punk?” And I was thought about it, and I was like, “No, not really.” And obviously, she didn’t either, because she was very closeted about her dysphoria. Over the last five years or six years since she and I wrote that book, I definitely thought about my relationship to gender and getting out of the binary thinking of gender, and that was definitely something that I had not thought of. None of the punk records that I listened to advised me to rethink things.
The greatest takeaway that I’ve gotten from punk is that it really teaches you to continually unlearn things, and reassess how you feel about things and gender was definitely something where I’d had the same of way of thinking since I was a kid. I feel like now gender conversations are much more prominent in punk, and I don’t know what will be next. Maybe punk is behind on something else, but it has been really nice watching gender be added to the list of things that punk teaches you to unlearn.
With the rise of artists like Machine Gun Kelly or Travis Barker collaborating with mainstream artists do you think there’s another punk rock-mainstream/major label boom imminent?
Dan Ozzi: Maybe, but it seems like on a mainstream level, we’re really only making room for Travis Barker and people who work with him. You know what I mean? It seems very nostalgic. It doesn’t seem like a torch passing. It seems like he’s just sort of puppeteering. It seems like cosplay to me. It sucks, because there are real punk bands right now that are absolutely killing it, and I don’t think that they’re ever going to be looked at the same way, as people who are dating Kardashians.
Bands aren't as concerned about selling out, but I’ve seen the way people interact with MGK or a few months ago when there was the whole debacle with Tramp Stamps, and people accused them of being an industry. Do you think that the backlash that those artists receive is in the same vein as what bands got for selling out?
Dan Ozzi: I think people who are drawn to this kind of music — at least hopefully — have pretty good bullshit detectors. People spend so much time online that I think that they can suss out when things are organically popular versus when they’re suspiciously popular. So I think industry plants are maybe harder to sneak past the goalie now, and it sucks, because I get so many email pitches from labels or publicists and they throw around like, phrases like indie and DIY, as like descriptors, but it’s like: is this DIY? I’m getting this from a publicist who’s paid like $4,000 to handle this campaign. I think people hopefully are always going to have that sort of like bullshit detectors.
You also released the zine Where It All Went Wrong this year. Was that born out of the book or just a passion project?
Dan Ozzi: I see it as a direct response to Sellout, because it’s completely different in every way. I was working on those at the same time. And Sellout is a book that took several years and several other people were involved. It goes through legal reads and copy edits and many, many rounds of edits, and I have to clear a lot of things, and there’s just a lot of red tape. Don’t get me wrong: that’s great. It makes for a very sturdy, solid book. Then, I finished it in March, and then I had to wait like six months for it to even be released. Also, I’m not present in it at all. It’s completely objective, and I wanted it that way. I’m just documenting.
So then when you look at Where It All Went Wrong, it’s a complete reaction to that, because it’s all about me. It’s a personal essay zine. I wrote it and didn’t wait six months. I published it like two days later, and nobody else looked at it. It was just I was in charge of the entire thing. Don’t get me wrong, Sellout was a very rewarding process, and I’m so proud of it. But it was such a process that in a way I think it made me crave just instant gratification writing.
Like you said before, writing a book, you wait six months to find out if a joke is funny, but you were able to fire this off into the universe right away.
Dan Ozzi: The lifespan that Where It All Went Wrong had was so weird, because instead of printing a quantity and selling out of them, I put them up for pre-order, and I was like, ‘Let’s see how many I sell.’ I sold so many copies that when I got the delivery, it barely all fit in the trunk of my car. Then, I kept having to print more. I would just sell them, and then while I was shipping the first order out, I would get another 200 orders, and I had to send 200 more out, and then I did that, and I got another 100 orders. It was very unexpected, because like I said it was just a silly byproduct of my real book that I just put it out there with no expectations, and then people really got into it, and it was so humbling and unexpected, and people have sent me really nice emails about having very strong emotional attachments to it, which is so wild to me, because I I feel like I write in a way that I’m like, ‘Look how uniquely stupid I am.’ And yet, people look at it and have been like, ‘Yeah, me too. So it feels it feels cool.’
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📸 © Anthony Dixon
A Playlist of Songs from Albums in ‘Sellout’