DWK & U.S. Thugs

Last Gang in Town

Ben Saari: At the Ashtray house, where Jake, Lenny, and Jesse lived, there was a crew of us that came together, and we started calling ourselves DWK, Death Wish Kids. After the Poison Idea song. Because it made us sound a lot more badass than we were.

We were pretty self-conscious of that. We were a bunch of geekcore kids who ended up living in North Oakland. And we realized we had to get a little bit harder if we were going to survive, on some level. But then on another level we realized we didn’t really to become vicious gangsta thugs. All we had to do was convince people that we were! So we called ourselves DWK.

Christopher Appelgren: DWK was this sort of jokey fake gang around Filth. It was Joel Wing, and Jake from Filth, and Jesse Michaels.

Jesse Luscious: DWK, Drunks With Knives, Dumb White Kids, whatever.

Robert Eggplant: Death Wish Kids or Dumb White Kids — it was just about friendship, a punk gang. Jesse and Anna and maybe Eric Yee were probably the nucleus. My first two years at Gilman, those people spent a lot of time together hanging out.

Ben Saari: We were really drunk a lot of the time. We started doing quite a bit of crank then too. We gave each other tattoos, in the most unsanitary, disgusting, way possible. We were all sitting in a circle, and we would take a rusty razorblade and cut DWK into our shoulder blades, and then spit into an ashtray and rub the ashes into the wound. I don’t think any of us have Hep C. At least not from that.

Robert Eggplant: It’s one of my only tattoos. I’m pretty sure Jake got the tattoo, Jesse got the tattoo, Eric Yee got the tattoo.

Ben Saari: After the Yohannan crew left Gilman, in the early days of handing it over to the Alternative Music Foundation, that guy Lou was essentially running the place. When I hear the word “scumbag,” my memory of what Lou looked like physically is what pops into my head. He was overweight, bad pasty complexion, heavy breather. Just a fucking dirtbag. We started to hear these creepy stories from street kids and especially young women, about what Lou was doing.

He’d have these dinners at his house where he’d get everybody loaded, and try to coax everybody into fucking each other while he watched. That was a pretty gross thing for a dude in his 30s to be doing with a bunch of teenage kids. So we started to get pretty wild about it.

Everything that I heard was hearsay. I heard it from people that I trusted, though. So we started the Graffiti Campaign. We started writing personal threats to him on the walls of Gilman, like “Hey, Lou, how’s the statutory rape business going? Heart, DWK.”

My ex-girlfriend was working security, and she knew who I was, and who we were. I was writing A-Head on a lot of stuff. It was a happy face with an anarchy sign on its forehead.

This notice went up about graffiti in the neighborhood. They were looking for people who were writing specific things, asking them to stop writing it in the neighborhood. I was pretty fucking drunk during this period. But on one level that made sense to me. The club probably shouldn’t fuck with the neighborhood. The club was important. I had spent most of the geekcore era chasing out Scab and Screamer, and the Mad Punx guys. And now we were sort of playing their role. Except that our beef was a little bit more legitimate than their beef.

So I decided that I would just sign it with my name, address, and my phone number! I wrote a note that said “Hey Lou, I’ve been writing DWK, A-Head. This is my name, my address, my phone number. Go ahead and kick me out.” I was told at that point that I’d been 86’d. I never went back.

I was fairly self-righteous about what I was doing. I was like “I’m not even gonna talk to these people, because this club’s getting run by this fucking rapist.”

After the Lou era, I started going back to the club and it was never an issue. There’s the repetitioning process, you’re supposed to go to a meeting and beg for forgiveness. But I didn’t really think I needed to do that.

DWK sort of fell apart when Jesse went down to Nicaragua. I subletted Jesse’s room the whole summer that he was gone. Ashtray fell apart too. Everybody moved out and went to different places.

Eric Yee and Eggplant kept hanging out with each other from DWK and then they started hanging out with the Green Day guys a lot. So they drafted Billie Joe into DWK.

Robert Eggplant: It kind of got bastardized by Lucky Dog and Billie Joe. They probably felt a part of that scene, but they weren’t necessarily.

Ben Saari: Everybody else decided that wasn’t cool for Billie Joe to be in DWK. We had this meeting where we figured out who the second generation people would be. And we decided that Billie wasn’t okay, but Lucky was.

So of the new people left, the two new guys that Eric and Eggplant had let in, we would let Lucky stay, but Billie had to go. I think that really fucked with Billie.

I kind of understand why. Being told you’re not our friend anymore, or whatever is fucking lame. But we were just retards, you know? We tried to bring the stupid and the dangerous back to punk rock and we had succeeded. We were really stupid and kind of dangerous.

In the long run, I think it’s probably better for Billie that he wasn’t associated with us. In the end we would’ve drug him down into all kinds of debauchery.

James Washburn: Lucky dealt speed for a long time. He was a total asshole, but he was cool. He was from Pinole. His dad worked for the sanitary district. So when his dad would come home Lucky Dog’d always say “So how was work, shit-sucker?” That’d make his dad so mad. That’s kinda fucked up, you know? You got this kid who doesn’t fuckin’ work with bright green hair and you come home and he calls you a shit-sucker. That’s gotta be hard.

It’s a tragic story. After Lucky finally killed himself from speed, his mom and dad were both killed in a car accident a year later. And he was an only child. It wiped out the whole family.

Christopher Appelgren: DWK, it might have been one of those things where it could stand for a lot of stuff. The response from Tim and this other guy John, was U.S. Thugs. It sounded tougher than DWK.

Richard the Roadie: The U.S. Thugs thing was kind of an offshoot of that. U.S. Thugs was just actually a group of friends. Lars, Tim, this guy Eric Yee. It was just a group of guys hanging out that don’t drink, that have way too much time, sometimes. It was this exclusive thing, almost like a weird private thing. But it wasn’t this big deal.

Christopher Appelgren: It was like this jokey rivalry. “Are you down with U.S. Thugs?” It wasn’t serious in the sense, there was no rumbles or anything like that. Only in the most kind of ridiculous ways.

DWK had to be from the East Bay. John Reed was a transplant, he wasn’t from the East Bay so he couldn’t be in DWK. So U.S. Thugs had to take him. It’s hard to explain.

There was kind of a social line in the sand. The guys in U.S. Thugs had a brotherly closeness. Part of that was in response to the shit talking, maybe the intensity of that feeling of like, “You need to be down with me. If you’re talking shit, you’re not down.” Which was just a real different idea than what had been a part of the Berkeley punk scene. Everybody talked shit. Everybody was friends with everybody. It kind of defied some of those rules.

Jesse Luscious: It grew through the loyalty of Rancid and their friends. I think that’s how it happened, but then it became much larger than that.

Adrienne Droogas: U.S. Thugs was supposed to be this whole thing about not drinking. Everyone was gonna be sober and not drink and not party. Have a group of people that they could hang out with together. The Oakland punk scene is very much a party scene. Lot of drinking, lot of drugs, all that kind of stuff. And so, not drinking in the midst of that can get really challenging.

They were all sober, and this was a way to kind of, “We’re U.S. Thugs, and we’re tough, and we’re gonna not drink, and we’re a crew.” So they started this whole thing and everyone was gonna get the matching tattoos. Lars has his U.S. Thugs tattoo. Tim does. They all got the tattoos.

Lars Frederiksen: U.S. Thugs was pretty much a family thing. It actually started out with us wanting to make a band. Me, Tim and this guy John Reed. But Rancid was already going. It was going to be like four-minute Oi songs and we just didn’t do it. So we were like, why don’t we just start a crew? And that’s what we did. It’s like all our friends. You go anywhere in the world and whether it’s DMS or U.S. Thugs or whoever it is, they’re your boys. We have a family in pretty much every town in the United States. [corporate dethburger interview, unable to contact]

Janelle Hessig: U.S. Thugs was just ridiculous. It was this little macho gang. They were down for the brothers, like, “Man, he’s my brother! I’m down for him, I’d take a bullet for that guy!” Just that kind of attitude.

Jesse Luscious: It got a life of its own, and transmogrified into this weird, horrible, violent bunch of people with tattoos. I don’t understand how that happened. I think people elsewhere were taking it more seriously than anybody here was taking it.

Janelle Hessig: John Reed was this great dude. He was my penpal before he moved here from New York, and he was this total dork, total spaz. Drank a lot of Mountain Dew and listened to the Descendants. He was a really talented cartoonist and filmmaker, just a funny goofy dork. And then he started roadying for Rancid, he started lifting weights and becoming “a man,” and his sense of humor started dissipating.

I met up with them on tour once, and there was this scene at Denny’s. John wanted another plate of fries. Lars was his 12-step sponsor, and he was talking him out of this plate of fries. Like, “You don’t need those fries, man — you’re better than that.” It was the most ridiculous thing.

Adrienne Droogas: Rancid started to become really popular. And it started to escalate. People’s perception of U.S. Thugs was that it was this real thug, tough-guy thing. And I’d be like, “No, it’s about not drinking and supporting each other, and not partying.”

Richard the Roadie: We went on tour one time, and it just morphed and got worse and worse. Just ’cause people are sober doesn’t mean that they’re happy hippie people either.

You take the first six, ten, 12 people — it was people that were sober that were really struggling. It’s always hard for people to be sober. We’re talking about Rancid blowing up, all these pressures. There’s three guys that don’t drink. Not by choice. They don’t drink ’cause it’s really fucking bad for ’em. They drink, and they disappear or die. So for them it was this really intense struggle.

On the outside it seemed really tight and really fucking deep. And slowly one person jumped in, and another. It became this really cool support network. People from Sacramento jumped in, it got bigger and bigger.

And then it got out of control. People don’t like people being sober. There’s a lot of animosity. You couple that with Rancid’s popularity. Couple that with some of the people, who weren’t people people. You talk shit to ’em and something’s gonna happen. You try and fight ’em, they might wanna finish it. It’s not like it was a bunch of little kids doing it. I just stayed the fuck away. I didn’t wanna be a part of it.

Adrienne Droogas: I remember going to see Agnostic Front play at CBGB’s, and Roger the singer walked out wearing a U.S. Thugs jersey. I was like, “Umm, Roger, can we talk for a second? Like, what’s going on?” He was friends with all them, so he knew. It was just crazy to be in New York, and see him walking out wearing this U.S. Thugs jersey.

There was a Sacramento U.S. Thugs. And then some girls started getting U.S. Jugs tattooed on them. Other people got U.S. Mugs, with a coffee cup, you know. It totally turned into its own little thing.

Lochlan McHale: Everybody’s gonna have their own definition for it. For me it’s like a union for musicians. Those guys have shown me all sorts of stuff. That’s more of my family than my blood family. Those are the guys that I see almost daily. Every single person is involved somewhere or another in music, whether it be record label, band, producing, studio. In the Bay Area alone you have Sacramento, East Bay, SF, Campbell, and that’s just here. People in New York, Florida, Texas, every major city has at least a few guys in it.

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