Since joining the Ramones in 1989 – adopting the role of bassist and occasional vocalist – CJ Ramone has achieved legendary status. Following the recent release of his second solo effort, Last Chance to Dance, CJ returns to Australia this month for the first time since Vans Warped Tour ’98, giving audiences a mix of his new stuff and some Ramones classics. Killyourstereo.com caught up with the man himself, who openly chatted about life in the Ramones, life after the Ramones and everything in between.
So you must be looking forward to the warmer weather here in Australia.
Yeah, I tell you… we’ve actually been pretty lucky, we had a mild winter, but I’m getting out of here just in time. I’ve been trying like heck to get back to Australia for the past couple of years and I wasn’t lucky enough to find a promoter, but I think now that I’m on Fat Wreck Chords and stuff, it’s making a big difference. I made it my own little mission this year to get to Australia and New Zealand, and luckily enough, the first promoter we talked to straight off said, “Yeah, we’d love to have you.”
How are you feeling about the tour overall?
Really looking forward to it. From the first time I was there, I said if they ever chase me out of the States, I’m either going to New Zealand or Australia. So I mean, it’s been a long time since I’ve been there, but I just really like the people a lot; people’s attitudes and stuff. Everybody that I met anyway. But when I was on tour, that’s what I would do, is try to hook up with some local kids and get them to take me out to some local bars, and go hang out and have a couple pints and have some fun. I really had a lot of fun there. If I get chased out of here, I’ll be heading over there.
I know you’re going to be doing some Ramones songs. How do you decide which ones to do?
Well, some of them are just my favourites. Others are ones I know the fans want to hear, and then there’s a special little list I try to include songs that I never got to play with the Ramones.
So what’s on that list…?
(laughs) I can’t tell you that! We’ll put out stuff like ‘I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend’ or ‘KKK Took My Baby Away’, stuff like that. Some of the poppier stuff.
You recently released your second solo album, Last Chance to Dance. How was it working on this record compared to your first one?
Well, Reconquista, those songs were written from when the Ramones retired and when I got back into music, so there’s a lot of dark stuff in there; a fair amount of bitching and moaning and complaining and pissin’ and whining and stuff. But it’s a really good record, it really is. It’s a strong record with a lot of emotion in it.
But the new one, most of the songs were written in the time period after I got back into music, so this record’s a little lighter, a little more fun. Lyrically it’s definitely lighter, and just a bit of a brighter record. We recorded it in the same studio, with the same engineer, and me and Steve Soto and the guy who engineered it, Jim Monroe, we all co-produced it.
But you know, the first time around it went so good; it was so much fun, we really had a good time, and Steve Soto brought in Jay Bentley from Bad Religion and Jonny Two Bags from Social Distortion, and Billy Zoom from X, and all these great guitar players and bass players to come in and play on the record. And that record, Reconquista, it got no airplay, nobody really knew much about it because I did it through crowdfunding and stuff. So it really is like a little gem. Some day that record’s gonna be talked about. That record came out so good, I figured, why mess with a good thing? You know, I’m not an experimental guy, trying to break new ground, come up with a new sound, blah blah blah. The songs that I write, you can hear my influences. I’m not creating new things or breaking the mould, I’m just trying to make good punk rock records, stuff that I dig, and I think these last two records speak directly to that. That’s exactly what I did. So I didn’t change the way we did it.
So is that just how you naturally end up writing, with that Ramones type vibe or…?
That’s just how I write… in all fairness to myself, I grew up listening to the Ramones and I played in the band for seven years (laughs). You know what I mean? But it’s funny because almost every review I’ve gotten has been positive – and I don’t mean shiny, great, “The best thing ever!” – but everyone has at least said it’s a good record. There was one where the guy kind of was needling me about sounding too much like the Ramones, but what can I do? Anything other than writing the songs and recording them the way I write them is being dishonest, and not being true to myself. So the way I write the songs is how I write them; how I sing them is how I sing them. That’s just how it is. Steve Soto and I don’t sit down and go, “Let’s write a ‘KKK’ style song, or let’s write a ‘Judy is a Punk’ song.” That’s not what I do; I sit down and I write songs. I come up with a little harmony and put a guitar riff to it and write lyrics over it, or sometimes the exact opposite. But that’s how I do it. I don’t sit down trying to be something. I’m almost 50 years old; my years of trying to be something I’m not are long behind me. My years of trying to be cool or trying to prove something are long behind me. I’m doing what I do now because I love doing it and I have fun doing it, and that’s what I’m doing now.
Was there a reason the record didn’t end up with more songs like closing track ‘Clusterfuck’?
The music for that one is actually written by Dan Root. Dan plays in the Adolescents now, and he’s been in a couple of big bands – Tender Fury and One Hit Wonder – so Dan’s a big songwriter in his own right. He’s a really great songwriter. But I asked him and Steve each to give me something to write lyrics to, and that was what Dan gave me, and those lyrics just fit.
Even though you’re not technically releasing records under the Ramones band name, is it still important to you that Ramones fans like what you’re putting out there?
Oh yeah, hell yeah. Absolutely important. I don’t know if there’s anyone who can really relate to the position that I’m in – maybe the kid who’s playing bass in Metallica, but yeah, I was a huge fan before I was in the band. So I’m one of the Ramones fans, and that’s why on my earlier stuff that I did, Bad Chopper and Los Gusanos, I didn’t put the Ramone name on it, because I didn’t really feel like it lived up to the Ramone name. You know, they were fun projects, I had a good time doing them, but Reconquista’s the first record that really lived up to the name. Putting that name on a record… I would really be completely embarrassed and not able to show my face in public if I ever put out a really bad record and put CJ Ramone on it. If it was CJ Ward, it would mean nothing. If I was doing it as myself, I could go off and do some crazy funk project, or like Dee Dee, a rap album or something. As long as it doesn’t have the Ramone name attached to it. But once you attach that name to it, there’s a huge expectation that goes along with that, and Reconquista was the first batch of songs I wrote that I felt kind of lived up to that.
So I brought the name back, one, because I was trying to save it from the gutter, which is where it ended up, with everyone talking about who fucked whose girlfriend, who was a drug addict, who had mental problems, who was an alcoholic – all this really negative stuff that everybody started talking about. I felt like they were kind of dragging the whole legacy through the dirt. But sitting around complaining doesn’t do anything about it, so that’s why back around 2010, I got together with Daniel Rey and Brant Bjork from Kyuss, and put together a really mean Ramones set, and we did the songs at the speeds they were on the records, and we did all the harmonies, and Daniel did all the cool little guitar parts on it and stuff. And Brant Bjork from Kyuss, total metal drummer, believe it or not grew up, learned how to play drums listening to Tommy. And he can play Tommy’s style like nobody else I’ve ever played with. And we went out and we did all Ramones music, and the fans really really dug it a lot, and I felt like, hey, at least I’m doing something to save the legacy. But of course, then it rolled into Reconquista and now Last Chance to Dance. But putting that name on something, I really take it seriously. It’s really important for me to feel like what I’m doing is living up to it, so besides letting the fans know, “Hey, it’s me, CJ Ramone,” but that’s like a matter of course, I want them to know it’s me. But it has to be good; it has to live up to it.
Well, as a Ramones fan I like both the records a lot.
Right on, thank you very much, I appreciate that.
And is that the general consensus from other fans? Is it all positive?
Yeah, yeah, I literally have not had anybody go, “You know, the album’s okay,” or, “It’s not the Ramones.” Most of the fans that have heard it are like, “It definitely has a Ramones sound to it, but I hear your style in there too.”
Yeah, I think that’s what’s cool about it.
Yeah, and that’s because like I said, I’m just writing songs and putting them on there. As long as it’s good, as long as I like it, that’s what I do. And you can see the distance between ‘Clusterfuck’ and ‘Til the End’, which is on Last Chance to Dance, that’s a big big difference. That’s like an eighties hardcore song to a fifties love song almost. So it covers a lot of ground in between there. But if you look at ‘Baby I Love You’ and ‘Wart Hog’, it’s the same thing. The Ramones covered a lot of ground. That’s one of the biggest things I learned from them too. You know, coming from a metal background, which is really what I listened to and played as a kid, everything is about being pissed off, you know? And pop is either about being in love or having your heart broken. And progressive music’s just about being able to play a million notes a million miles an hour, and making it sound all ethereal and whatever. That’s what I always dug about the Ramones – all the emotions are in there. They’ve got their love songs, they’ve got their hate songs, they’ve got their sad songs, they’ve got their happy songs. They’ve got their melancholy songs, you know, ‘It’s a Long Way Back’ or something like that, all the way to a punk rock ballad like ‘Love Kills’, you know what I mean? So they really cover a lot of space, and that’s something that I always dug about them, and that’s part of my style.
When you first joined the band, did you think about the fact that you were always going to be part of the Ramones history?
No, no. The thing that I wouldn’t even allow myself to think about or struggle with was the fact that I was taking Dee Dee’s place. Dee Dee was always my guy in the band, I was always a Dee Dee fan. Loved Dee Dee. I think he’s one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll songwriters of all time. He was batshit crazy, absolutely, but just something about that guy… there was something about him, I just loved him. And I just couldn’t even think about the fact of replacing Dee Dee. And that’s not what I was trying to do. The way I looked at it and the way I thought of it was: I got hired to do a job, and I’m going to do it the best that I absolutely can. And that’s what I did. I totally went for it and did my best to do my best.
So how was your relationship with Dee Dee then, since he was still contributing to the band?
Me and Dee Dee were friends, he was a great guy. He threatened me on a couple of occasions, but if Dee Dee threatened you, you knew you were friends. He was just crazy, he really was crazy. But you know, one of the last conversations I had with him, he was doing a show in New York City and I went to see him, and he brought me up on stage to do a song with him and afterwards he said to me, “You know CJ, you’ve always been really cool to me and treated me with respect,” and just said all this really nice, super kind stuff to me, and I was just completely blown away, because it was so unlike Dee Dee to do anything like that.
As you mentioned it before – even though it was kind of panned by everyone, I actually really like Dee Dee’s Standing in the Spotlight, and I wanted to know how you felt about it?
You know, I always felt like, there’s some really good humorous stuff on that record, and that’s what I loved about Dee Dee. I can’t write lyrics like that, I cannot write the way Dee Dee writes lyrics. His sense of humour is just so unique, and on that record, you know, people were actually trying to take it as a serious rap record. And he didn’t mean it to be a serious rap record. He was being funny; he was just being funny, goofy Dee Dee. And for that I love it, because he really accomplished it, you know? The humour in it is there and it’s Dee Dee and that’s what I dig about it. But as far as him being a rapper, like a serious rapper… no. No no no no no. That I can’t back at all (laughs). He really was such an unbelievably talented guy that it doesn’t matter what he does, I’m going to find something to like in it. As long as his personality comes through on it a little bit, I’m going to like it.
Yeah, that’s how I took it, I just thought it was fun.
Yep, and that’s exactly what he intended it to be, was fun. Because when he left, he felt like the Ramones were just like a revival band, and that’s what he said when he quit: “I’m sick of being in a revival band.” He wanted it to be fun and exciting and new again, you know? And that’s why he did a rap record. That’s why he did that. He really was a really, really cool guy though.
You were credited as sort of keeping the band “young”. Were you happy to take that role?
Oh yeah. I wasn’t trying to keep the band young, I was just going out on stage and just losing my mind every night. I didn’t realise it would have any kind of effect on the rest of the guys, but from what Johnny said in interviews, and what Joey said, me being up there jumping around, doing what I was doing, kind of kicked them in the ass and made them step their game up a little bit. But I’m totally happy with my place in the Ramones history and what my contribution was. And my understanding of my contribution doesn’t come from what I think it was or anything; it came from Tommy and Johnny and Joey and Dee Dee, who each told me what my contribution to the band was, and what I did for the band. And the fans have told me. You know, the fans tell me, and to me, I don’t really need anybody else’s opinion or anybody else to weigh in on it. I really could care less; those are the only people whose opinions matter to me.
Being a little younger than the other guys, what was the group dynamic like? Did that make a difference?
Yeah, it definitely made a difference. When you’re the youngest guy and the lowest guy on the totem pole, it always makes a difference. There were times when I tried to give Johnny advice on some stuff that was going on in the band with business and whatnot, and his response to me was, “When you have as many years’ experience in this business as I do, then you can tell me how to run the band.” (laughs) Which, you know, I could respect, but at the same time it really annoyed the hell out of me because I knew what I was talking about. And I mean, my nickname in the band was Baby Ramone. I was Baby Ramone, that’s what they used to call me. So you can imagine what comes along with that. There just wasn’t a whole lot of respect for my opinions and stuff, but at the same time, Johnny, who ran the band, didn’t really listen to anybody else’s opinions. He did what he thought was the best thing to do and for 22 years, he guided that band – well, actually it’s more like 15 years, because Tommy was actually the one who created the whole thing and managed the band in the beginning, as well as played drums. But it was just like being in a family; always internal conflict. Like I said before, who fucked whose girlfriend, who had mental problems, drug problems, who had drinking problems – it was all stuff like that, but that’s how families are. Every family I know, there’s always some kind of ridiculous drama going on for no other reason than families are full of drama.
But as a fan, was it kind of weird for you joining the band and seeing all this stuff going on that you had no idea about?
Yeah, absolutely. When I got into the band I thought I was joining a gang. That’s really how I always looked at the Ramones. I thought it was going to be like a gang, I thought we were going to be hanging out, drinking beers and doing all the stuff that gangs do. And I got there and I realised very quickly that it was a very different situation, and there were multiple camps within the organisation, and learning how to walk the tightrope between all the different camps was not always pleasant but it was necessary. And that was part of the job, it was part of what I had to do, and I learned quick, and I maintained my friendships with everybody in the band. And that’s not to say that I always got along with everybody. I had my arguments with people, but it’s any situation – if it’s your job, if you’re in the military, even in your group of friends and stuff, if you’re not the kind of person who can’t speak their mind and give their opinion and argue it vigorously, you don’t get a lot of respect. So if I had just sat there and let everybody bitch slap me all the time for everything I said, I wouldn’t have gotten any respect. I spoke up for myself, I maintained my own personality and my own beliefs and everything, and in the end… I mean, there’s been a lot said since the band retired. I think a lot of people kind of worked to minimise what I did while I was there and how close I was with everybody, but I mean, I was asked to speak at Dee Dee’s funeral. I spoke at the graveside. You don’t get asked to speak at the graveside if you’re not friends with somebody. And with Johnny, two of the last people he asked to see were me and my manager, Gene Frawley, before he passed, you know? That’s not something that everybody got to do – even anybody else in the band. So, you know, I’m comfortable with what I did in the band and with my relationships with everybody. Regardless of what you read and what you hear and everything else, the truth of the matter is that I was a real, serious part of the band, and I did my job really well while I was there. I can say that in full confidence. And like I said, I maintained my friendships with everybody regardless of their own problems with each other and the dynamics that already existed before I got there. I was smart and paid attention and learned how to survive, and stayed friends with everybody regardless of anything else.
Although it was sort of the tail end of the Ramones when you joined, you were part of a lot of really awesome things, one of them being the Simpsons episode. How was that experience?
Yeah, I always said, Lemmy mentioned me in a song and I got to curse on primetime TV in The Simpsons. I mean, that’s a career in itself (laughs). That’s a tough thing to top. But yeah, that was a lot of fun. It really was, it was a lot of fun. And I think I got the best line.
You did, yeah! So they must have liked you.
(laughs) Yeah, yep, absolutely.
I know you’ve been working on an autobiography. Are there any updates on that?
Well, I’m hoping that by the end of this year, into the spring of next year, it’ll be totally complete – edited, the whole nine yards, everything. I’m really going to make an effort this year to finish it up because I’m so deep into it, there’s no way I’m just going to let it go. I’m really deep into the book at this point – I’m three, four hundred pages into it, so I’m hoping by the end of this year I’ll get it knocked out.
So what kind of stuff will it focus on? I mean, is there a big emphasis on the Ramones?
It’s going to be my whole life up until the end of the Ramones, because even before I was in the Ramones, I’ve just had one of those crazy, real random event type lives, where it’s all just bizarre. If I read the book and I didn’t know me, I would be like, “This has got to be bullshit, this kind of stuff doesn’t happen to one person,” you know what I mean? But that’s just the kind of life that I’ve had. I’m that guy, I just have that kind of life, and that’s why I start out as a kid. You know, I really wanted people to read the book and understand why I was the way I was, why I am the way I am. And why I fit into the Ramones, how my personality allowed me to fit in there. And that’s really what the whole idea behind the book is for me; it’s for people to understand who I am and where I’m from. And that’s kind of a tough thing. I went through a really tough time period when the Ramones broke up, and went through some real traumatic stuff, and I never had time to sit back and think about it all and put it all to bed, because I became a single dad and I just really had a lot of problems. And it all happened in the same time period, and I never had time to sit down and make peace with it.
So what happened was, when I started writing the book and I got to some of these parts that I hadn’t thought about in years, that were just kind of locked away, it really made me stop for a while, because I realised, “I have to process all of this stuff that I’ve written down. I have to work through this stuff before I’m going to be able to go on.” And that’s what I did, I actually put it down for a long time, because it just brought up a lot of bad stuff, and it was a struggle to deal with it all again. But it’s good, it’s very therapeutic. It’s just like writing a song about a bad situation. Once you write that song and you put it down and you hear it on vinyl for the first time, you get up on stage and play it, that’s it. It’s gone from your mind; it’s gone from that place where you just keep all your dark stuff. And you get it out. And that’s kind of what writing this book is doing for me.
Good, it sounds really interesting. Now just to finish up – after your break from the music industry, are you back for good?
I’m hoping, I’m really hoping! Realistically, what I’m trying to do is get back to touring full time. When I first came back I said I was going to do five studio records, and then maybe a live record, and then at that point I’ll see where I am. And who knows, maybe I’ll move on to writing or something like that, but at this point I’m only two records in, and if I do a record every two years – this one came out 2014, so I got three more to go, so it’ll be in 2020 – so that’s got me hanging around for a little while longer.
Catch CJ Ramone on tour this February.