Los Angeles in the late seventies was alive with the sounds of distorted guitars; a melting pot of anti-establishment, counter-culture, blood stained creativity that seemed inevitable given its prior pristine image of flawless silver screen stars and snowy sanded seashores. Although a late bloomer, Los Angeles rode the waves of punk flowing in from London and New York, with lines round the block of the Sunset Strip in anticipation of the latest teeth shattering group to grace the stage of legendary nightclub, Whisky a Go Go. The Germs, X and The Runaways greeted the audience with acerbic intensity that more than inspired soon to be punk aficionado John Roecker.
‘Going to the city was the best education I could have gotten,’ he illuminates, ‘because everything was alive and on fire.’ Roecker has since made a name for himself directing Heart Like a Hand Grenade, a documentary about the making of Green Day’s concept album turned Broadway musical, American Idiot, producing a stop motion animated feature about cult leader Charles Manson, Live Freaky! Die Freaky! and more recently showcasing his song writing dexterity on debut record, One Foot on the Mattress, The Other on the Floor. At 51, Roecker still possesses youthful, boyish looks, with a humble air and willingness to engage with fans cementing why it is he has established so many high-profile musical friendships over the years.
Live Freaky! Die Freaky!
The eighties saw heavy metal invade the Sunset Strip causing Roecker to become disenfranchised by the once burgeoning scene of punk bands with their live fast attitudes leading to the subculture unavoidably dying too young. Yet with the rise of Nirvana and grunge leading music to take a turn for the dangerous once more, Roecker returned to LA striking up a friendship with X lead singer Exene Cervenka driving the two to open ‘You’ve Got Bad Taste’ a kitsch store specializing in ‘off-colour’ novelties such as, among other things, paintings by the infamous serial killer John Wayne Gacy. ‘I would get in my car and go to these old warehouses’ explains Roecker. ‘I’d find boxes of dead stock, it was like going on an archaeological dig but instead of mummies I would find a box of Mr. T air fresheners!’
Hitherto the Ohio born punk did not always possess the confidence he does today, opting instead to pursue creative endeavours in his own time citing that there were so many remarkable artists out there that there was no way he could ever compete. ‘ In retrospect,’ he declares ‘that was total bullshit, I was just scared.’ So with the nineties waning Roecker shut up shop after four years in favour of becoming an independent filmmaker, striking up a friendship with Green Day frontman, Billie Joe Armstrong. This was an artistic partnership that would span several years beginning with Disease is Punishment, a live concert film focusing on Green Day’s enigmatic New Wave Punk side project, The Network. Although Green Day has never directly stated their involvement in The Network it is obviously them behind the masks and obscure pseudonyms with Roecker fulfilling the role of the group’s fictional manager, Dr. Svengali.
It was around this time that Roecker’s friendship with Billie Joe blossomed with the two of them talking for hours on the phone. ‘I explained to him how I miss albums that had a start to a finish,’ John recalls, ‘I told him he should go to some Broadway shows to get inspired because I feel musicals are cohesive.’ It was around this time that Green Day’s 2004 magnum opus, American Idiot, was conceived, which, after much persuading, Roecker spent nine months in the studio alongside the band filming what eventually became the documentary Heart Like a Hand Grenade. Unfortunately, despite an initial one night release in Hollywood’s renowned Grauman Egyptian Theatre the film didn’t see the light of day until 2015 after a deal was struck up with Warner Bros. ‘Would the film have done better if it came out after the album? Yes,’ admits Roecker.
As a child Roecker used to regularly go thrift shopping, describing the musty second-hand stores of LA being the home of sharkskin suits and old relics that once furnished the homes of the Hollywood elite. One of the items that pervaded these stores were copies of the book ‘Helter Skelter’, a true crime novel revolving around the infamous Manson Family. ‘It was everywhere, I used to joke that if the bomb went off it would be the only thing that survives!’ And thus the premise of Live Freaky! Die Freaky! was born, centering on a group of nomads in a post-apocalyptic world who discover the book and proceed to misinterpret it as the Bible. ‘I was always interested in people who followed,’ explains Roecker, ‘People who gave up their lives for someone else. The Jonestown Massacre that happened in the late seventies had a deep impact on me. Nine hundred lost souls taking their lives for a mad man but one thing that always fascinated me was Charles Manson and his family; a con artist who manipulated beauty queens and football stars to become murderers all in the name of making a name for himself.’
With a desire to create a film that was technically challenging, Roecker decided to use stop motion animation also noting, ‘there were a lot of sex scenes in it and I would be too shy to ask my friends to perform those filthy acts in front of the camera so puppets it was!’ Roecker’s friends just so happened to be famous musicians, which led him to utilise Billie Joe as Manson with Green Day’s Mike Dirnt and Tré Cool alongside Blink-182’s Travis Barker, Rancid’s Tim Armstrong and Kelly Osbourne in supporting roles. The film was eventually completed on a shoestring budget of $10,000 ‘which is incredible when you think about it but maybe not when I recall stealing sand from a kid’s sandbox in the park to use in a desert scene!’
More recently Roecker met musician Dylan Melody and together under the moniker Roecker/Melody produced the album One Foot on the Mattress, The Other on the Floor. ‘Dylan was the one person that said I could actually write music,’ gushes Roecker, ‘his influence on me was what that orange orang-utan that occupies The White House right now always says: HUUUUUGE!’ The pair hung out at Roecker’s LA home drinking and writing music, eventually building a studio in the back house to record demos. Upon completion, the album was released by Frontier Records, home of early California punk bands such as The Adolescents, Circle Jerks and Suicidal Tendencies, the very groups that had had such an impact on John in his formative years.
One Foot on the Mattress, the Other on the Floor practically acts as a tribute to Roecker’s influences with its fast paced, no-nonsense punk rock displaying fragility with a macabre sense of fun. ‘What the Hell Happened’ laments musical heroes of latter years selling their souls for a comfortable life (‘both used to be so clever and cool, now you both just follow the rules’) while ‘It’s Lushotology’ serves as a doctrine for Roecker’s Scientology-parodying religion, whose motto is ‘less guilt, more booze.’ Elsewhere ‘Broken Cocktail Dress’ wears its musical theatre influences with pride concentrating on the plight of an individual proclaiming their love for a troubled soul.
In essence, although older and wiser Roecker is still the same young man who stood in line outside Whisky a Go Go, yet this would suggest he hasn’t moved on but an upcoming 28 song musical entitled LIE that deals with the relationship between Charles Manson and Susan Atkins proves otherwise. It’s more like Roecker has stuck to his beliefs, retaining his unique voice and aesthetic but with a drive that always leads him down fresh and challenging avenues. ‘There is a part in the beginning of my film Heart Like a Hand Grenade where I open the door to the studio and walk in to see the entire band,’ concludes Roecker. ‘At the end of the film you see me back at the studio but when I try to open the door it’s locked. You can come to your own assumptions on that, but with every door locked there is always another to smash down!’
Written by: Matthew Barnard
Photo credit: Kevin Scanlon of LA Weekly