Swingin' Utters Keep the Punk Alive

Darius Koski is one sure-handed dude. After all, any guitarist who moonlights as a butcher has to take extra-special care of his digits. With all the blood and sharp tools slicing and dicing into a variety of carcasses, it’s a wonder he hasn’t ended his musical career by way of self-inflicted error.

But while Koski is quite adept at delivering cutlets and filets (he says he could open his own butchery if it weren’t so time-consuming; the workload takes more than 60 hours per week), he makes it perfectly clear his priority lies with his other gig as lead axe man for Bay Area working-class punks Swingin’ Utters.

“In every job I’ve ever had since we started the band, I’ve always made sure that I had the flexibility to leave on tour or to record or whatever else I might need to do,” he says. “That’s very important to me.”

That may be the case, but for most of the past decade, Swingin’ Utters have been spending more time at the office (or, in Koski’s case, the butchery) than onstage. Koski and company exercise their musical sides as weekend warriors, taking dalliances from their day jobs and families to play one-off gigs here and there. For a band whose members migrated toward middle age without ever garnering any mainstream or financial success, such is life.

Yet for a group that first began bashing around backyard parties and smelly decrepit venues way back in 1987, Swingin’ Utters are a success simply because they are still going. And there are still willing ears waiting to hear what they serve up next. The real world—bills, families, illness—gets in the way sometimes, but since when has tunnel-vision been a tenet of happiness? Amid the mundanity of being regular folks, they’ve kept the rock-&-roll flame lit by consistently carving out time to do what they love.

“I guess we could have been totally self-focused and not lived up to our responsibilities, but we’re not assholes,” Koski says. “When you actually give a shit, you can’t be gone on the road for most of the year.”

Swingin’ Utters rode the swelling late-’90s wave of the Fat Wreck Chords (the label owned by NOFX leader “Fat” Mike Burkett) scene as full-time road dogs, issuing releases annually. Their following grew, and they toured with high-profile bands such as Bad Religion and NOFX, selling a decent amount of records (for indie standards). After Y2K, the band spent the “aughts” as part-timers spinning their wheels between working band and working stiffs.

Now, the group are transitioning again. Their new album is complete (Here Under Protest is due out in the fall), and they have concrete plans to hit the road in multiweek tours to support it.

“We’re really excited about the record, and its going to be the busiest year for us in long time—probably a decade,” Koski says. “We’re going to be pretty active for the foreseeable future.”

Unlike the majority of punk bands who formed in the past 30 years, Swingin’ Utters aren’t just a 1-2-fuck-you power-chord outfit with sardonic vocals carrying the same old rhythms. Yes, there are pit-swirling tracks filled with vigor and blood in their grab bag, but they offer a multipronged attack. From sad acoustic numbers bolstered with accordion and strings to sparse offerings carried by the sandpaper soul of lead singer Johnny “Peebucks” Bonnel, the band deliver live sets that are always dynamic and moody. Images of Tom Waits and Bob Dylan are evoked almost as often as Stiff Little Fingers. Even the punk ethos of fierce contrarianism and counterculture is just an afterthought amid the band’s textured compositions.

“I really don’t give a shit about any of that anti-establishment and anti-exposure stuff. . . . That’s not important,” Koski says. “I understand why we’re classified as a punk band, but we listen to a lot of other music that is just as influential to the songwriting.”

In preparation for getting their “road legs” back, the group are playing several one-off shows in and around California for the next few weeks. After more than 20 years of slinging his tunes around the country, Koski is heartened to see that the affection for his music and his band is still there. While most crowd members now have a bit less hair, more wrinkles and larger guts, there is still a gleam of youthful exuberance keeping things fresh.

“Our crowd is mostly older; some people even bring their kids along. But what gets me the most excited is seeing kids there on their own,” he says. “The fact that we still appeal to that age group makes me excited [enough] to keep playing and writing.”

Swingin’ Utters perform at the Ink-N-Iron Festival, Queen Mary, 1126 Queens Hwy., Long Beach; www.ink-n-iron.com. Fri.-Sun. Visit website for performance time. $35-$70. All ages.

This article appeared in print as “Utter Punks: Swingin’ Utters live out 30 years of punk between day jobs.”

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