By Sarah Bennett
By Adam Lovinus
By Jena Ardell
By Nate Jackson
By Gustavo Arellano
By Nick Keppler
By Nate Jackson
By Alex Distefano
Joe Escalante lies semi-conscious on a cracked, dry lakebed somewhere north of LA, clad only in his socks and boxers. The two thugs who've kidnapped him are nudging him to get up, and since they're both waving guns in his face, he's happy to oblige. But then the kidnappers start arguing over him—there's at least one suggestion of buggery—and then they start shooting at each other while Escalante stands there with a look of bewildered terror epoxied onto his face. In the confusion, he seizes the moment and starts running across the lake's hellish expanse—during which, for some reason, a Nerf Herder song comes blaring out of nowhere. One of the goons finally notices Escalante escaping, so he hops into a rusty, red convertible, floors it, and aims squarely at Escalante's fleeing backside, getting closer and closer until . . .
"Well, that's some of what we've got so far," says Escalante, who's just previewed me a scene from That Darn Punk, a direct-to-video movie he's producing. Set for a February release, the film features all the Vandals as actors, with Escalante, the band's bassist, in the lead role of Dirk Castigo. He describes it as an action flick about a guy who gets kidnapped for cheating on his girlfriend, then goes on a bunch of adventures trying to get away from the killers who've snatched him, learning some—ahem!—"valuable life lessons" along the way. And then he gets shot in the head.That Darn Punk is the first feature from the film division of Kung Fu Records, the indie label that Escalante and Vandals guitarist Warren Fitzgerald started a few years ago, around the time their two-decade-old band were born again, this time into an improbably profitable life. A follow-up, Selwyn's Nuts, is currently in production, starring Fitzgerald (who also penned the script) and directed by Escalante. Naturally, there'll be soundtracks for both, with music supplied by Death By Stereo, Rancid, and such Kung Fu bands as the Vandals, Assorted Jellybeans, the Ataris and Longfellow.
"It's always been in the back of our heads to make movies directly for the punk audience," says Escalante, sounding like a savvy marketer during our chat in the Vandals' rehearsal space, a tiny enclave tucked into a corner of Kung Fu's Hollywood compound. He uses the word "kids" a lot to describe his audience but with a tone of respect instead of marginalization—he is obviously familiar with the typical Vandals fan.
But films are just one of Escalante's and/or the Vandals' enterprises: there's Fear of a Punk Planet, a formerly internet-only TV series (it has been dubbed a punk-rock Saved By the Bell) that he's releasing on video. There's Schwing!, a quarterly golf magazine he publishes that's aimed at under-30s, launched earlier this year with financial backing from No Doubt drummer/Vandals freak Adrian Young (No Doubt recorded the Vandals tune "Oi to the World" for the A Very Special Christmas 3 compilation; expect to hear it Friday night at the Sun Theatre during the Vandals' Christmas Formal show). There's their merch line, which includes the $35 embroidered Vandals cargo shorts, the $30 embroidered jeans shorts, and their self-produced bootleg concert CDs. The bootleg series predates the mammoth 25-disc Pearl Jam bootleg output released earlier this fall (several discs on which Eddie Vedder can be heard thanking the Vandals personally from an assortment of European stages, since the Vandals opened two weeks' worth of shows for Pearl Jam on their summer tour there). There's also Escalante's side career as a lawyer, once his main gig back when the band wasn't doing so hot; his current client list includes the Long Beach Dub All Stars, Pennywise, and the estate of Bradley Nowell, among others.
And—speaking of side careers—there's drummer Josh Freese's unusually active one as the drummer for A Perfect Circle. He has also played with everyone from Devo to Axl Rose—for a time, Freese was even pegged to be the new Guns 'N Roses drummer, until the Perfect Circle gig came up. Their drummer's renown has flipped traditional band roles: while Freese is the most famous Vandal, singer Dave Quackenbush —whose preppie wardrobe makes him easily mistaken for a Young Republican —is the most anonymous; Escalante is the band's elder statesman/historian, who does most of the press interviews; and during shows, guitarist Warren Fitzgerald, a spazzy little kid trapped in a grown man's body, easily overshadows them all, frequently diving face-first off monitors or running completely nekkid around the stage.
But the 2000 model Vandals isn't the same monster that first blew out of Huntington Beach 20 years ago, neither literally nor sonically. Those Vandals, along with groups like TSOL, the Adolescents and Social Distortion, were one of the original OC punk bands, yet there are no original members left—Escalante joined in 1982, Quackenbush in '85, Fitzgerald in '87 and Freese in '89 (Escalante even says he considers 1989 to be the new birth year for the Vandals—at least with the current lineup).
"It was just a Huntington Beach party punk band back then," recalls Escalante, "and I wasn't even in it when they started. I was just trying to become their drummer for a while," a job he landed before eventually switching to bass. The band's first decent-sized show was at a place called Jack Lord's Barracuda Room in Buena Park. "It was actually a VFW hall," Escalante says, "but I was making the fliers and thought that it wouldn't be very glamorous to say we were playing a VFW hall, so I made up a name."