by Jessie Lynn McMains
Door County, Wisconsin. Land of shipwrecks, fish boils, caves water-cut into limestone cliff faces, and the balsamic, camphorous scent of cedar. Haunted by the ghosts of history, and many of my own personal phantoms. Door County, Wisconsin. The peninsula that made me punk.
I have tried to trace my path to punk rock numerous times, and the truth is, I have more than one. Look at a map of my life, and all roads lead to punk. Door County is one of those roads, the one which paved the others, so to speak.
Twenty-five years ago this month, I visited Door County with my parents for the second time—and, for the first time, my best friend Ali joined us. Our first night here, we flipped through the most recent issue of the Peninsula Pulse, and stumbled across an interview with a fella who went by the moniker of Patch McPanic—frontman of a punk band called Ballistic Biscuit. Mostly, it was standard interview fare. Questions about influences, new releases, upcoming plans, and the like. Then, there was the final question. What the actual question was, I no longer remember, but I do remember the response:
Actually, Patch did not really reply. Instead, he jumped up, screaming, and began trashing my living room. Then he kicked my chair over and pointed a gun in my face, while threatening to bury me upside-down. He then trashed the rest of my house, just like any punk rocker would do to a hotel room, and left.
We knew it was probably apocryphal, that Patch hadn’t really trashed the interviewer’s house or threatened him with a gun. Still, we were charmed, because at fourteen we were charmed by those sorts of things. The very next day, we headed over to County Sound (RIP) and bought their just-released first album, All Men Are Free.
The album cover was simple: a white background with black text and image. The font alternated between bold-but-messy all-caps lettering and ‘ransom note’ text, and was surrounded by a grainy picture of the kind of metal dog chain which so many punks repurpose into jewelry. It was Xerox-y, cut & paste, classic DIY-punk style.
The music: sloppy musicianship, garage band level recording quality, nothing earth-shattering in terms of sound or lyrics. It wasn’t good. It was perfect. An album equal parts angst and joyful crassness. Songs about killing gophers, overdosing on toluene, bathroom sex. I’m a wuss, kill me! Songs about rejecting patriotism, throwing off the blankets of history. And our favorite—“They Don’t Know Me,” an alienated anthem we stomped to during those first stirrings of our teenage rebellions; complete with a horn section (though it wasn’t ska) and backing vocals by ‘the Oi! Choir.’
No, it wasn’t good. It was great. The lack of polish and finesse, that didn’t matter. It was punk rock. And the fact that no one else we knew had ever heard of them, or would ever hear of them unless we were the ones to make the introduction—that made it even better. They were our perfect, secret, small-town punk rock band. We were obsessed.
For the rest of our stay in Door Co. that week, most of our activities revolved around our newfound passion. We wandered the little towns, we visited the coffee shop and the record store. We looked for anyone who appeared remotely punkish, hoping that they might be one of the members of our new favorite band. Nevermind that we had no idea what they looked like. Nevermind that even if we’d seen someone who fit our image of what the Ballistic boys should look like, we would have been 1000% too nervous to walk up to them and say: “Hey, are you in Ballistic Biscuit?”
One day, we had my parents drive us out to the address we’d found inside the album, for Ballistic Biscuit’s record label—Rotten Logger Records. We posed next to the mailbox and made my parents take a photograph. As we stood there, a middle-aged man in a pickup truck turned into the gravel driveway. He didn’t say anything to us, but did look mighty confused as to why his mailbox was now a tourist destination.
One night, my parents went to dinner and left Ali and I at the rental cottage. We blasted All Men Are Free in the front room, the one with all the big windows which opened out to the northwoods summernight and the constant stream of cars driving up and down Highway 42. We threw ourselves around the room, attempted to slam, but neither one of us had been in a real slam pit before and it’s kinda tough to slam dance with just two people, so it didn’t work. We invented new dance moves; took things we’d seen in music videos and rock documentaries and added our own twists. One of us would stay in the room and dance, and the other would run out to the end of the driveway, or all the way into the road if there were no cars coming, and watch the other. We watched each other’s dark silhouettes in the bright room; watched each other’s shadows skank-pogo-mosh-stomping. Then whoever was out would run back in and say: “Dude, you look so cool. So rad.” I’m certain we did not look cool, or rad, but rather like the awkward, geeky young teens we were. But we felt rad, and maybe that’s more important.
The article in the Pulse had included Jeremy Ballistic—the drummer’s—phone number. Our last day on the peninsula, we called it up. We got the answering machine, and after the beep, blurted the first thing that popped into our heads: “Hey Jeremy! Your band has groupies! You guys rule!” (I told you we were geeks. At the time, we thought a groupie was anyone who was a big fan of a band. Only a month or so later, we learned the true meaning of the term, and were mortified.)
Our obsession with Ballistic Biscuit ebbed and flowed over the years. In early 1997, I called Jeremy again, and this time I left a phone number and a less geeky message—I said I wanted to interview them for my zine. He called back and we chatted a bit. That interview didn’t pan out, but he did mail me some stenciled-and-spraypainted patches. I promptly sewed one onto my favorite hoodie, and sent the other off to Ali. In the late summer of that year, we returned to Door County, and went right over to County Sound and found Ballistic Biscuit’s new release: a split album with another band, Fellini 45, which was released on bright green cassette tape. The Ballistic Biscuit side was titled Teen Profit Songs. TPS was better than their first, both musically and recording-quality-wise, but I don’t know that we ever loved it as much as we did All Men Are Free. We did listen to it a lot, though. We listened to it while wandering those same small-town roads, walking down Highway 42 to Leroy’s Water Street Coffee. We made jokes like: “Yeah, we’re into that DCxHC—Door County Hardcore.” We listened to it while working on our split zine in that same front room we’d pseudo-slammed in the year before. The zine included a comic that I wrote and Ali drew, which had a scene where the characters went to a Ballistic Biscuit show and danced to “They Don’t Know Me.”
In 2002, I received an email from their guitarist, Otto Partz. He’d found something I’d written about them and posted on my website, and was amazed they’d meant enough to someone from outside their own small scene that they were mentioned on the World Wide Web. In 2003, I finally met Jeremy, and finally got to interview him—for the Peninsula Pulse—and so everything came full circle. We conducted the interview at Husby’s; sipped Hacker-Pschorr and talked about cheese and punk rock. I admitted to him that Ali and I were the ‘groupies’ from all those years before, and we both laughed our asses off. “Oh wow,” he said. “The first time we heard that message, we were convinced it was one of our friends pranking us. Then, when we figured out that it wasn’t, we were like: ‘We have groupies? Where the hell are they?!’” By 2004, when I began coming up to Door County every couple months rather than once a year, I sometimes got onstage and did guest vocals for Jeremy’s post-Ballistic Biscuit band, The Mullet Hunters.
So much of falling in love with music has to do with hearing it at the right time. Had I discovered BB and All Men Are Free even a year later, I may not have gotten so obsessed. But at fourteen, I was primed for the switch from punk rock dilettante to lifer, and Ballistic Biscuit was there, so they were the band that clinched it. In the twenty-five years since, I’ve heard a thousand albums that I’ve fallen in love with. And I’ve heard a thousand punk bands that are ‘better’ than Ballistic Biscuit, but listening to All Men Are Free now, I love it just as much as I did then. It takes me right back there, to how awful and wonderful it was. When I hear They put rules on me / Sure it works on my zombie-like body, I see the person I was, in that bright room, dancing dorkily with themselves, feeling rad and free.
I still have my Ballistic Biscuit patch sewn on my old blue hoodie. And I’m still DCxHC, for life.
After being out of print and impossible to find online for many years, Ballistic Biscuit’s discography is now available on Spotify, YouTube, and various other streaming services. (There is a Denver punk band also called Ballistic Biscuit. So as to avoid confusion: my Ballistic Biscuit’s albums are All Men Are Free and Teen Profit Songs, and they have a 2017 single titled “What Happened?” All other Ballistic Biscuit songs I’ve found online are by the Denver band.) The Mullet Hunters’ discography is also available on Spotify, et. al.