The theme of California punk in the 1980s was us versus them — with the likes of former DKs frontman Jello Biafra railing against corporations, landlords, and a certain ex-actor turned politician. But the bands who came after that, especially the ones that sprang from the Gilman scene, took more of their energy from the music than from some predictable lefty message. Berkeley punks in the ’90s were more likely to glom on to fun stuff, the “TV Party” side of California punk, churning out a mixture of angst and amusement — the stuff teenagers are made of.
Few bands embody the yin and yang of antiestablishment fervor and youthful optimism as well as East Bay punk rockers the Enemies. Mike Pelino, the band’s singer, guitarist, and main songwriter, was virtually raised at Gilman, thanks to a big sister who dragged him from his sixth-grade bed and brought him to the all-ages club. Pelino’s mother once freaked out, in fact, when she stumbled upon a Spin article celebrating the Gilman scene. In a gigantic two-page shot of Green Day rockin’ out, there was her twelve-year-old son in the pit, as clear as day. He was one of the scores of kids that snuck out at night to crowd against the cozy stage and marinate in the sounds of bands like Operation Ivy, Crimpshrine, and of course, Green Day.
It often takes years to attain “house band” status at Gilman. Bands put in their dues with lots and lots of opening slots and build up an audience, slowly moving up the five-band-per-show ladder as the parade of older headliners — bands like MTX, Jawbreaker, Op Ivy, Rancid, Screw 32, AFI, and most recently, American Steel — either outgrow Gilman’s little stage, sign to a major and get banned, or simply burn out and call it quits. Among the latest bands to percolate up as headliners are Pitch Black, which packed its recent record-release show at Gilman; Sharp Knife, which has the biggest buzz; the Cost; and the Enemies. “We had over three hundred people at our last show,” says Pelino proudly. After watching a lot of others work their way up, he’s more than ready for his band’s turn.
Pelino didn’t actually grow up in Berkeley. He lived in Concord, which may explain the extent to which he needed punk rock. “Concord is boring. You sit around, you climb to the top of Mount Diablo, you get stoned. You play guitar. You wait until you are eighteen, and then you move.” The one cool thing about Concord, he says, is that there was an easy way out. “We were lucky enough to have a BART station,” he says with a laugh. “It took till we were about twelve years old to realize, hey, we have a gateway to Berkeley!”
The enthusiasm of Pelino’s youth — and let’s face it, at 24 he’s still in the midst of it — carries over to the Enemies’ Lookout Records debut, Seize the Day, the band’s second full-length release. The music might be classified as garden-variety energetic punk, but the songwriting in this case transcends the garden. Pelino is a master at transforming what amounts to a pop song into a rollicking punk anthem. His vocals are reminiscent of that old Gilman crooner, Billie Joe, but with less whine and more brine — well-suited to rally the safety-pinned troops to a soft war.
Catchier than the clap, Pelino’s latest songs are powerful, exuberant, and yes, angry. But he isn’t pissed at George Dubya or WorldCom. He assails acquaintances and emotions. “I write about what has pissed me off, but I don’t write a pissed-off song,” he says. “I write songs that kind of turn it around and always show the people who have pissed me off how to get out of their situations.” On “Something to Lose,” for instance, Pelino sings “You’ve got something to lose …” then does an about-face, adding, “They call it nothing.” He’s the snot-nosed punk whose glass is half-full.
The band has existed as the Enemies since 1996. Before that, Pelino and drummer Jason “Nipple” Willer (who is rumored to have a third nipple, like James Bond’s nemesis in The Man with the Golden Gun) played together in an Enemies precursor, the sophomorically named Second Hand Spit. On bass was Pelino’s childhood pal Rick Jacobus, with whom he’d been playing since sixth grade. The original drummer, who shall remain nameless, had to quit the band for an extended holiday in juvenile hall. “It’s a good thing he’s not in the band now,” says Pelino of his fighting, drinking, and drugging ex-bandmate. “He’s been in and out of jail ever since.”
Family members of new drummer Jason Willer are devout Mormons, and were less than thrilled to learn about the reputation of his predecessor. Nor are they happy to have their son in a raucous band called the Enemies. “They hate what I’m doing,” he admits. “But they love and accept me.” Apparently they love and accept him enough to let their baby-faced, spiky-haired heathen child tour all last year as drummer for the UK Subs. “It was great, but now I’m devoting all my energy to this band,” Willer says.
The young trio released a full-length CD on San Francisco’s New Disorder Records in ’99, a “punk-as-fuck,” self-titled hardcore album that was powerful but didn’t quite have the band’s sound nailed down. Back then it was just pure boilerplate punk anger, with songs like “Black Heart Lies,” “War,” and “Get Bent.”
Just as it seemed like the Enemies were getting rolling, bassist Jacobus quit to go in a more metal direction, and was replaced, ironically enough, by noted metal musician Dave Edwardson of Neurosis. Pelino and Edwardson bonded over, of all things, Pink Floyd. The Enemies even covered “Wish You Were Here” on a split EP with Pitch Black — all one minute and ten seconds of it. This is, after all, punk rock.
Now, at least, the band finally appears to have settled on a solid lineup. In the meantime, Pelino has become more confident and creative as a songwriter. He’s grown out of writing songs that just seemed like stuff a punk band should perform, and into compositions that actually reflect something personal. “He’s got a good knack for songs,” says Edwardson, who was drawn to join the Enemies after seeing them play. “He’s got an innate talent for coming up with something that’s really powerful yet catchy-hooky at the same time. The songs sound really natural and infectiously catchy.”
“We are really gaining momentum now,” says Pelino, as any proud papa of a new record would say. The group is scheduling a tour and hoping that Lookout’s release of Seize the Day this week will create more than a blip on the finicky East Bay music scene’s radar. “People are still loving music here,” says Pelino, ever the optimist, who dismisses contentions that the East Bay scene is jaded from its two decades as a major tour stop for big-name punk bands. “I think people do care, and they do go to shows. It’s just that we are used to it and we don’t make it out to be a big deal.”
People care. Seize the day. Pretty upbeat stuff for a band that calls itself the Enemies. “My sister gave us that name,” Pelino admits. “I still like it, but it doesn’t really fit us anymore.
“But it’s too late for that,” he quickly adds.
See? Glass half-full.