Why Justin Pearson Refuses to Be Complacent

Three One G record label founder challenges orthodoxy.

Posted May 31, 2018

“I'm sorry to say, but it's not over

I've been through it before

And I'm bound to go through it again.

But still how come it happened?

Been shot time and time again.

Maybe it's because we're all so incomplete”

From “Blue Note” by Swing Kids.

Justin Pearson knows how to push the envelope.

Not only has Pearson committed to playing bands that fuse hardcore and extreme metal like The Locust and Swing Kids, but Pearson also has founded Three One G Records, which has been the label to some of the most extreme bands out there such as Cattle Decapitation and Dead Cross. His new book The Race to Zero is a compilation of over twenty-five years of his incendiary and thought-provoking lyrics.

And at the core of his music and his approach to life is a simple directive – don’t be complacent about the world around you.

Photo by Becky DiGiglio
Source: Photo by Becky DiGiglio

Pearson, at a young age, felt the personal effects of what he described as a culture that did not allow for diversity. “I grew up in Phoenix Arizona, and it was very white trash,” Pearson told me. “Nothing was able to stand out, no matter what kind of social politic it was. It was this weird strip mall cowboy culture.”

Then tragedy struck and Pearson’s father was killed, resulting in Pearson moving to San Diego. Initially, for Pearson, San Diego provided no safe harbor. “My dad was murdered when I was around 12, so when my mom moved me to San Diego it was a really big shift in my environment on many levels,” he said. “It was horrible–the world that I was living in was very strange.”

Pearson recalls one incident in which he was physically attacked by skinheads. “I was already into skateboarding and punk music. And it was crazy because when I was 12 and I moved to San Diego, I remember getting beat up by these weird neo-Nazi skinheads and punks,” Pearson described. “And that was a strange thing to conceive because I was like, ‘We’re into the same shit.’ But they would spray paint swastikas on their skate ramps and shit like that, which is pretty cliché…But I don’t feel that they were overtly racist. I just feel like it was kind of a jock, dickhead mentality.”

While Pearson obviously was not happy to have been assaulted, in retrospect he feels that the incident helped clarify his feelings on dividing and excluding people, which would be an important foundation for his developing political beliefs. “Without realizing it until I got much older–I was really against that concept of dividing people. I was completely against the shit,” Pearson recalled. “Obviously I’m going to be against getting beat up by guys, it’s going to make me hate them. You guys stole my Misfits t-shirt and my Dead Kennedy’s shit–records and shit like that. But you hate me. Why? And they were rich too and I wasn’t. You could just go buy these things and I really couldn’t. It was a really weird thing to think about.”

More, Pearson found that while he was rejected and attacked by the skinheads, he was embraced by some of the Mexican kids in the neighborhood. “And so there were all these younger chulos and guapos that welcomed me into their group because these racist skins and punks hated me. So I was like, ‘This is a trip.’ Kind of identifying with a different culture,” Pearson said. “They all called me ‘crazy Spike’ because I had spiked hair. That was my gang name.”

These experiences fueled an interest in understanding social and political issues. “So already at age 12 I’m trying to conceptualize race relations and weird social norms,” he said. “Most kids at the age of 12-13, the different cliques they are dealing with, are not dealing with fascists, getting beat up and put in the hospital.

“The hostility and the awkwardness projected me into this strange realm of social politics.”

Above all, though, Pearson feels that these experiences resulted in a deep commitment to question and challenge social and political norms–to fight complacency. “Normally if I would have grown up in Phoenix I would have just become this white trash punk rocker. That would have been fine, but I’m grateful that I got to see different things and realize that things could be way different,” he explained. “You have complacency where you have people just accepting some sort of norm out of convenience. I guess it’s fine for some people. But for me, it ties into the cheesy punk ethics–question everything.

“I did–I literally questioned everything.”

Soon Pearson was embracing more non-traditional and extreme forms of music. “So I just kind of got into really obscure music,” Pearson recalled. “So, the stuff that came out of there was pretty jacked up in a good way–just really weird and not really traditional. My tastes were pretty eclectic.”

More, Pearson found music that was not only extreme sonically, but also in terms of the political message of the artists. “I grew up listening to bands like Fugazi and Dead Kennedys. So, I was on this political slanted route from age 10, maybe 11,” he explained. “If you were asking me what my biggest life influence was, it’s John Lydon. I grew up on the Sex Pistols. They were very provocative and very confrontational and it made sense.”

Pearson recalled being particularly impressed with Dischord Records, which was founded by Ian MacKaye of Minor Threat and later Fugazi. “One of my biggest influences was Dischord. It made sense to me to me to have ethics and morals – not ‘this is going to sell,’” Pearson said. “It was more about community and taking chances and ‘this is sweet, this is rad.’ I’m never going to play a live show but I’m going to put this out because it’s so cool.'”

Pearson feels that because San Diego was more traditional, there were fewer opportunities for non-traditional art forms and artists to present their work. Ironically, Pearson credits the more conservative vibe of San Diego with not only the development of his musical taste, but also finding a community of other artists who shared his passion for music and non-complacency.

“I think growing up in San Diego, it was a very strong conservative hold on things like art and stuff like that…it wasn’t like bigger cities like San Francisco or Los Angeles, or New York or wherever,” Pearson explained. “We had no platform. And so people were putting on shows on top of parking structures, down in the sewers and things like that. It kind of set a tone for going against that–the concept of complacency. I didn’t really have an option. It was a lifestyle that I had to be immersed in.

“It chose me–I didn’t choose it.”

Soon, Pearson went from listening to and appreciating more extreme music to playing music. And Pearson found that like many of the bands he emulated, his music and politics went hand in hand. “So by the time I was 15 and playing music, I was already pretty much submerged into politics. I played in a band called Struggle and I went on my first tour. I wound up doing a record with this label Ebullition. And it fit in this sort of leftist mindset of social politics outside of the actual music,” Pearson described. “And everyone involved in that scene was very on par about certain political ideologies. So, that went hand in hand with the music right away. Obviously, we’re playing certain notes but it was about the message and, more so, the lifestyle.”

Pearson felt that many of the world events at the time fueled his interest in political issues. “It was a strange time to grow up. There was a lot of stuff happening; the Rodney King riots, the first installment of the Gulf War,” he recalled. “So, I was very active politically.”

For Pearson, his music has been a labor of love in which music and social causes were fused. “I didn’t have any money. And we didn’t make any money. When I was 15, the majority of the shows we were playing were benefit shows. It wasn’t that we wanted to play music – we had to. The only way that we could function in this world and survive was if we had an outlet,” he explained. “So, the majority of shows we were playing were these weird benefits for all kinds of social issues. What 15 or 16-year-old kid thinks about that stuff and cares? And thinks, ‘I’m going to spend my time doing this?’ It was weird going to Tijuana and playing shows that were benefits for workers rights and going home with nothing. That’s fine with me and it makes sense, but I don’t know if a lot of people at that age would do that kind of stuff. So it was a weird way of thinking.”

Pearson was particularly committed to speaking out against anti-gay bias. “We were all anti-homophobia. I really identified with that, and bands like Born Again, Downcast, really set me in a direction,” Pearson said.

Soon, Pearson also committed to veganism and animal rights causes. “I think by the time I was 15 I was fully interested in having a plant-based diet. But I was more interested in the political side of it, not necessarily the health side of it,” he explained. “Time goes on and we’d do animal rights benefits so it was always par for the course. We’d do benefits for animal shelters and things like that.”

Pearson explained his choice to be vegan as tied to the unethical way that factory farming operates. “There’s that whole argument that other animals kill animals–what does it matter if we kill animals?” Pearson said. “But other animals don’t incarcerate these beings for the sake of consumption…I’m never going to eat meat ever again in my life. There’s no question in my mind about it.”

One of the things that really impressed Pearson about the animal rights movement was how bands from different genres could come together on a cause. And for Pearson, it redefined the definition of “punk.”

“I remember that there was this compilation that came out–Animal Liberation Front Benefit compilation. It had punk and hardcore bands on it. But it also had KRS-One. And that was my first exposure to a Hip Hop artist–I was like, ‘Fuck man! This is so rad. KRS-One is fucking punk,” he recalled. “Punk was more than just music. And then I started redefining what punk was because punk wasn’t just a fast beat and a Mohawk. It’s like James Chance from the Contortions or someone redefining any type of social norm, I suppose. Talking about complacency–James Chance is more punk rock than most punk bands and the guy was playing the saxophone and dressed in a suit. And KRS-One is talking about being vegetarian. He was speaking to a demographic that wasn’t necessarily accepting of something like that. That was just insane to me.”

Pearson traces much of the punk rock ethos back to the Situationist art movement. “You go back to Dadaism or even more specifically the Situationist movement, which inspired the Sex Pistols and it still inspires me and the stuff that I do,” Pearson explained. “Situationists were very in your face, strange, obscure, political slanted stuff. Which kind of ties into the more progressive elements of any social movement, be it animal rights or women’s rights, gay rights, environmental rights – where you can have a message that’s not necessarily overtly offensive. There’s just a little bit of confusion involved maybe where you have to think about it–a little highbrow. That’s kind of rad when you have to think about it.

“When you have art that’s sincere and challenging, then you’re going to change people’s way of thinking.”

As time went on, Pearson started seeing trends in the music scene that he had seen on a more sociopolitical level. What for him started out as a more non-conformist, rebellious subculture starting to create norms of its own. And those who violated those new norms received the same harsh treatment he did when he was a kid and didn’t fit in with traditional standards.

“After a few years of playing in Struggle and meeting everybody affiliated with the label Ebullition, I started seeing too that things were very complacent in that realm as well.  There was a lot of criticism towards other bands,” Pearson recalled. “I remember that label put out this magazine called Heart Attack and they were criticizing bands like Antioch Arrow for the way they looked, because they weren’t overtly political, and writing them off as sort of this weird gimmicky thing. To me, they were one of the best bands ever and very influential.”

In fact, some people took punk rock orthodoxy to such a degree that a hardcore pioneer was assaulted at one point for “selling out.” “Jello Biafra getting beat up–I know him and he’s really down to earth. It’s garbage,” Pearson said. “The thing with punk was–again going back to that nihilistic ideology–even when you talk about how Jello got beat up. You have that stupid, ‘Fuck the World’ mindset. That’s not really what punk is. It’s totally what punk is not. And that’s totally the weird thing about how it’s misconstrued by so many people culturally.”

“If it wasn’t for Jello, the people who beat him up probably wouldn’t be who they are.”

Eventually, this is one of the reasons why Pearson was motivated to start his own record label. “And then I started Three One G, I was able to retain this political standard and political mindset of what that community had. I was also able to step away and relate to–they weren’t really outcasts–but they weren’t accepted by that group,” explained Pearson. “And then I started realizing, I could be the other things that are cool to me that aren’t part of one thing. Also too, to have the ability to play shows with cumbia bands or to play a show with Jello Biafra lecturing. Or play a show with Crash Worship. I was very non-complacent in that way because there were all kinds of artistic expression happening at once. Not everyone was on the same page politically or socially but they were accepting and understanding of each other’s backgrounds. And I think that was really important.”

Pearson is also careful to be more inclusive in his approach to other people who are not vegan. “We’re going to hate people who do this or do that? To me, my mom’s never going to be vegetarian. Do I hate my mom? No, I love my mom more than anything,” he said. “There’s personal choice and then there’s lifestyle. You live your life as an example and as an influence possibly. So, when somebody doesn’t have the ability to live a healthy vegan lifestyle, I’m not going to shun them or say that they’re doing wrong. If it’s part of someone’s culture to go hunt and kill an animal and eat it or use their skin, that’s part of their culture. I’m not going to debate that.”

In fact, Pearson himself engages in behaviors that are not considered orthodox in the vegan community. “It comes from personal experience and the ability to make your own decisions. For one, a lot of people in the vegan mindset would be opposed to my beliefs. But I wear leather that’s second hand. And I go back and forth on it because I think that synthetics are horrible for the planet and it’s destroying the earth and animals as well,” he explained. “So, for me, I struggle with what’s the best route for me to function in this world and have proper clothing. I could have a leather belt that could last me for twenty years or thirty years. Or I could have a synthetic belt that will last me ten and I have to get three of them.”

Pearson has put a great deal of time into debating this decision. “I’ll argue with myself. I’ll think, ‘I have this leather jacket – this sucks.’ But then I’ll think ‘I’m going to wear it because it’s a jacket and it exists and I just won’t buy a new one. And that’ll be that,” he said. “I struggle with that and I don’t know which is right and which is wrong. But I think what is ultimately right is the fact that I’m even acknowledging it and addressing it and contemplating it.”

Pearson feels comfortable that if he keeps thinking it through, he will find the best decision for him. “For me, personally, I just try to do my best. Someone hands me something for free that’s an animal byproduct.  Or I find it and I obtain it for free, used–I feel that we shouldn’t throw that away. It already exists. So, then there’s the whole concept of karma,” Pearson explained. “There was death and then there’s this negative energy involved in that. Did I create that? I don’t want to support an industry that’s just going to slaughter animals. It’s such a complex topic. And you try to find the personal route or justification for the things that you do.”

And he thinks that the process of trying to understand the complexity of the issues are more important than following a strict set of rules – and will also be more likely to lead to the best outcome. “Most people don’t get to that point. And I feel like we need to be a little more lenient on ourselves, especially if we want change. I understand that you’re wearing a leather jacket. It looks like a certain type of fashion and you could influence other people along those lines,” he said. “It’s just a struggle and I know it’s going to be a constant struggle. But all I know is that I’ve done my best. I’m not going to eat meat or dairy ever again in my entire life. And I don’t have a problem with that.”

Pearson is happy with the effect he’s had on people like his mom. “My mom doesn’t have to eat meat. She’s just going to. But I definitely think I’ve made an influence on my mom over the years,” he said. “She’s been a little bit more knowledgeable about food sources and things like that. So, if you’re going to shut everyone off and be very militant about it, for the most part, people aren’t going to pay attention. They’re going to think you’re a jerk and not listen to you. No one wants that as far as the ability to change.”

Pearson has no plans to ever stop being vegan. “People will say, ‘Are you still vegan?’ I don’t even understand why that question comes up. It seems weird. Just assume that I am and that will be it. I made that lifestyle choice 25 years ago and I stuck with it. It’s fine.”

And he will keep making music and speaking out against complacency. “I think with my heart and my mind. I do what I think is best. And I’m still figuring it out. It’s not about the money. It’s about this community and cultural ideology.

“Which is what keeps it going for me.”