Interview: Shawn Stern of Youth Brigade and BYO Records

words by Chris Aitkens | photo by Joe Zilch
| Tuesday, February 9th, 2010

Youth Brigade photo by Joe ZilchIn 1980, Shawn Stern started Youth Brigade with his brothers, Mark and Adam, after a failed attempt of making a skinhead swing band. He later founded Better Youth Organization Records with Mark, which is now considered one of the most important punk record labels.

Youth Brigade’s journey as a band has not been an easy one. Some of their difficult travels have been chronicled in a movie, Another State of Mind, where Youth Brigade and Social Distortion tour North America in an old school bus.

BYO Records celebrated their 25th anniversary in 2007 and recently released Let Them Know: The Story of Youth Brigade and BYO Records, a massive box set chronicling their entire history (see the review here). Youth Brigade has been among my favorites in my playlist, so I was very excited to talk to Shawn Stern.

First things first: why did you abandon Canada and move to California?
(laughter) Well, I was only 10 at the time and didn’t have much choice. My dad had quit his practice as a medical doctor and started writing for the CBC when I was maybe eight years old. He was bored of being a doctor, after going through school, medical school, an internship, and having a practice for a few years. Pretty crazy, right? So, he was writing first for a musical variety show called “Music Hop,” where Gordon Lightfoot got started. Then he was getting jobs in Los Angeles, staying in an apartment for months at a time, and finally he just realized that he needed to be in LA. So we loaded up the station wagon and drove across the country in the fall of 1970.

Being in a band with two of your brothers (and then later, one brother), did you feel your relationship with your band members was superior to the relationships other bands have between members?
For me, it’s easier to be in a band with my brothers because I’ve known them all their lives and – since I’m the oldest – I tend to win the majority of the arguments! The fact is that being in a band is often similar to being in a family, so being in a band with your own family means the stupid little things that bug you are not a big deal. Small fights that might break up bands are just day-to-day living for me and my brothers.

You and Mark have always been full of ideas. Have you ever had ideas that didn’t go over so well?
Oh, lots, doesn’t everyone? Anyone who says all their ideas are great probably pisses champagne and shits gold!

Any stories of your first tour that we didn’t get to see in Another State of Mind?
[There are] so many great stories on that tour that didn’t make it into the film. We played at a club in Chicago called COD that we were told was owned and run by the mafia. We got in a huge fight with the security, and Mike Brinson – the roadie who is always changing his hair color – punched out the manager or owner. Cops were called, and somehow we managed to talk our way out of going to jail. The cops escorted us in the bus to the city limits and told us not to come back. Once they left we turned around, went over to Articles Of Faith’s house and partied all night.

Why did you decide to change your music so drastically when Adam left? What inspired your brothers to start Royal Crown Revue?
I don’t think it was a “drastic” change when you consider where we were at the time and the music that was influencing us – bands like U2, Simple Minds, The Chameleons, The Alarm, Love & Rockets, and stuff like that. The punk scene was changing [and] dying, a lot of bands got faster and noisier and moved into metal and speed metal. We were never into that. We always liked melodic music, so that’s the way we went. I like the songs we did as the Brigade.

Royal Crown Revue was Mark’s thing. They started out just doing it for fun and people liked it and things just steamrolled from there. I had actually tried to start a swing skinhead band before Youth Brigade, but we just weren’t good enough back then.

Tell me about That’s It.
I hadn’t played music in a few years, my brothers were playing regularly with Royal Crown Revue, and people were interested in writing songs and playing shows with me, so I started a band. I had been doing a lot of activist work on renters’ rights, peace and social justice issues in my neighborhood of Venice, so that was where I was coming from when I started the band. The first Gulf War started and we were protesting that. It was fun for awhile, but I got busy with the band and honestly, the old hippies that were involved in the politics were just so ridiculous and narrowly focused – it just got frustrating. I realized I needed to be making music because I was good at that and people wanted to hear my music.

What brought Youth Brigade back together?
Both That’s It and Royal Crown Revue were on tour in Europe in 1991 and we met up a couple of times. Lot’s of people, old friends and new fans, were asking about Youth Brigade getting back together. We discussed it and realized it could be fun, and since people were interested, why not? So, we decided to try and write some new songs, tour, and see how it went. We’ve been back together ever since.

How does it feel when you see bands that you have helped grow (such as Bouncing Souls) become more successful in a shorter span of time?
I never did this to be “successful” in a monetary or popularity way. We started playing music because we believe we have something to say, and as long as people are interested in that we’ll keep doing it. I’m happy when bands that I love, like the Bouncing Souls, are successful, because that means punk rock is alive and well. They are a great band, have great things to say, are very good friends, and carry on the tradition that we helped start. When they are successful it helps us all.

After about 30 years of playing music and 25 years of owning BYO, does your mother still believe that should have gotten “normal” jobs?
She pretty much gave up that idea once I bought a house 12 years ago. She realized that I must be doing okay. Now she just wants grandchildren.

You still use the word “youth” a lot. Do you think it still applies to your music and your audience?
I think, for me, “youth” is more about how you feel than about how old you are in years. I’ve met some 15-year-olds who seem like they are 80 and 80-year-olds who seem more like 15-year-olds. I think that, unfortunately, the society we live in pushes us to conform and give up our ideals and dreams, to basically become “consumers” and just be cogs in the machine. Punk rock, for me, says you don’t have to do that. You can do what you want, think for yourself, and fight against the mindless mediocrity that seems to pervade our world.

You’ve recently been touring around the country promoting Let Them Know. How has that been going?
It was great – we did dates all across Canada with the Bouncing Souls and had a lot of fun. We did the Riot Fest in Chicago, The Fest in Gainseville, and the Fun Fun Fun Fest in Austin, as well as a bunch of other shows around the United States. We are about to do more West Coast dates in the next few months and go back out on the road in spring and summer around North America, Europe, and hopefully we’ll finally get to South America and Australia as well. Hopefully I will have some time [to] write some new songs. We live in exciting times, but the world is truly a mess, and people need to wake up before it’s too late – but I’m a glass is half full kind of guy, despite the odds. I believe that we have the ability to fix the problems we’ve created, if we have the will.