The erstwhile band frontman is “still scared shitless” that one day he’ll have to get a real day job. But with a successful record label (SideOneDummy) still going strong and a side career in standup comedy continuing to pick up steam, he has nothing to worry about.
BY JOHN B. MOORE
A punk rocker in his early twenties, first with Wax and then 22 Jacks, Joe Sib toured with everyone from Social Distortion to The Ramones. He went on to co-found the record label SideOneDummy along with his roommate, guitarist Bill Armstrong. The label introduced a generation of kids to everyone from Flogging Molly to Gaslight Anthem, and in just under 20 years has become one the most successful punk rock record labels in the world.
So what’s a guy raised on Black Flag and California burritos do to top his past achievements? Standup comedy, obviously.
He started out a few years ago with a spoken word show California Calling which took him from bars to clubs to larger and larger venues. Though crammed with humor, it was more of a memoir out loud about growing up as a punk rock kid. A show several years ago at a Hollywood comedy club, though, led him on his current path to standup comedy.
After a night after performing at a Comedy Central Showcase at the Improv last month, Sib got on the phone to talk about his new career, how Flogging Molly ended his band (sort of) and the SideOneDummy story, 20 years in the making.
BLURT: I remember about a year or so ago, when you were touring with California Calling, your spoken word show.
JOE SIB: That’s really how I started (with standup). I wrote some stuff and started performing it live. I did that for about three years and did it everywhere and got invited to do a show at The Improv in Hollywood and that’s the first time I ever did anything in a comedy club and that led to me sort of wanting to try standup. I just loved the atmosphere of the club… sometimes when you’re in a bar show, people really aren’t focused into what’s going on, it works well for music, but not when you’re trying to tell stories or jokes. As much as The California Calling stuff had some humor, people were asking me, “You’re funny, but can you do what you do in 10 minutes or 15 minutes. And can you do stuff that’s more than just your love for Black Flag?”
Was it hard, coming up with topics?
For a while I tried to write jokes, but I’m just not a one-liner guy. Mitch Hedberg is the best of the best, but that’s not me. I had to lean on the stories, which is my strength, and had to figure out what would work for the audience. I tried to force it for a while and knew deep down the stuff wasn’t funny. Then one night I just started talking about being married and my son and my daughter and how my whole life has been about raging against authority and now I can’t be anything but the authority… and also the trials and tribulations of being in a relationship with someone for 21 years. And those were the things that just connected with the audience, so I started writing more about that stuff and it’s been two years now.
Early on, did you every have those nights when you were so obviously bombing on stage?
Oh yeah man, you get that flop sweat. I remember when I first starting doing comedy you could really tell when something wasn’t going over. I will say that with comedy, I feel the audience generally does want to like you. I didn’t realize that until recently. My only thing to compare it to is being in a band. Doing comedy to me isn’t nearly as scary as being in a band. Yes, there are hecklers and it can get ugly really quick, but when I was in a band I had people physically jump on stage and hit me. I remember in the ‘80s, in one of my first bands, we were playing in San Francisco and I had long hair and I was up on stage and we’re doing our thing and I stage dive and start crowd surfing. I realize that these six guys are taking me further away from the stage, they throw me on the floor and I realize these are six skin heads with Doc Martens and they proceeded to dance on me. That hasn’t happened to me in comedy yet, so if someone wants to yell “You suck!” I can handle that.
But it’s got to be a little bit more intimidating doing standup. If you’re in band, the audience is either fans of your stuff or at the very least punk music. It seems like the audience at a comedy club is a crap shoot.
When you’re the headliner in anything, music or comedy, those are your people and it’s generally a great experience, but when you’re the opening band, you’re what stands between the fans and what they want to see. You feel it quick if you’re not delivering. I still feel that my music and my time on stage in a band has helped me as a comic. There are a lot of similarities.
SideOne has already put out an album by Erik Griffin (best known for the TV show Workaholics). I think you guys have plans for another comedy album. Do you ever worry about getting approached by fellow comedians who you just aren’t into looking to get an album out there?
That’s actually a really good question. I’ve been really fortunate to work with Erik Griffith. He really got it and understood quickly what we wanted to do, he recorded it, it came out great and we’re already talking about the next thing we want to do. But Erik’s more like a band than anyone else I know. He tours like a band, he’s constantly on the road. As far as it goes with others, I have so much respect for so many other comedians, but compared to them I’m a baby, I’ve only been doing this about three years, so I’m not getting those requests yet… But If I see someone amazing that I want to work with, I’m gonna approach them.
I guess it’s not that different than mediocre bands finding out you run a label and badgering you for a deal.
Yeah. I’m pretty up front with bands I talk to… When I want to work with a band I tell them straight up, “I want to work with you.” I want to make that clear at the beginning as opposed to stringing them along with meetings and the band leaves thinking “Are they into us or not?” I used to hate that when I was in a band and you’d meet with a manager or an agent, some bullshit meeting that went on for an hour and you walk out and get in the van, driving for the next six hours asking each other “Do they want to work with us or not?” I’ll be completely honest. I may say, “I love what you guys are doing, but it’s way too early for me to get involved, but let’s start a relationship and see if there’s anything I can do to help.”
(Below: Joe Sib in 1985)
Do you mind talking a little bit about how you and Bill started the label? There’s a long history of punk bands that start labels to put out their stuff or music from friends, but rarely does it last very long or get as big as an Epitaph or SideOne. What were your plans when you started it?
When we started the label, I don’t think Bill or I ever thought it would be around for 19 or 20 years. I was still in 22 Jacks at the time, so I thought, we’re going to do this, put out a couple of records, and 22 Jacks is going to explode and I’m going to be on the road with my music adventure for a long time. I was 26 or 27 when we started the label, so I still had the rock dream and was touring, I wasn’t married, didn’t have kids and didn’t have a life outside of punk rock. I graduated, moved to LA and started playing in bands right away. I think when we signed Flogging Molly, two things happened, at least for me. I was in my thirties, had just gotten married, was in the band, and we weren’t going to the next level. We had just signed a band that wasn’t just made up of our friends. All of a sudden there’s people to answer to, a manager… It was a huge opportunity, but also a lot of responsibility.
At that point I said I gotta put the rock dream on hold, because I’ve got people depending on me to deliver and you know this could turn into something, because we could all see that Flogging Molly was something special. When that record came out, I finally thought SideOneDummy might actually have a chance to be a company that sticks around for a few years… then Gogol Bordello comes into the picture, then the Warped Tour comes into the picture and The Warped comps and we’re doing more and more and the label continues to grow and before you know it you’ve turned 45 years old and the label is still going. Bill and I have never had a job outside of being in bands and doing SideOne.
Bill and I are still scared shitless that someday we’re going to have to go out and get real jobs. That’s the driving force really.