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Mike Palm is not a bitter man, or, if he is, he doesn't show it—frustrated, sure, but not bitter. He grew out of bitter a while ago. So he politely, diplomatically answers all of the questions you have about Agent Orange, one of the first and more famous bands from the original OC punk era. Naturally, he wants to chat about the new Agent Orange CD, Greatest & Latest: This, That-n-the Other Thing, which isn't really new-new but mostly re-recorded takes on old Agent Orange songs. He smiles while talking about the band's most recent tour, a quick run up the West Coast that included a stop at Seattle's Experience Music Project museum, where Palm sat in on a panel discussion of skate punk, the kind of sonic boom his band is most famous for. He tells you how excited he is about the new album (of course); that his current lineup—bassist Sam Bolle and drummer Steve Latanation—is the strongest it has ever been in the band's 22-year history; that they're gearing up for a fall tour which will take them to Europe and maybe later to Japan, Australia and Brazil ("The Brazilian kids are nuts for this music," Palm says); and that despite all the bullshit Palm has endured since forming the band as an angry young 14-year-old, the fact that they're still around screams something about endurance.
Bullshit endurance we'll get to in a sec. First, there's the back story.
Along with Social Distortion and the Adolescents, Agent Orange were one of the most popular North County bands to emerge during the late-'70s/early '80s first wave of Orange County punk. Unlike those groups' mostly slash-and-burn approach, Palm and his band (then including Scott Miller, James Levesque and, for a spell, future Joyride/22 Jacks player Steve Soto) sounded distinctly Orange County, perhaps because they injected Dick-Dale-inspired surf-guitar breaks and more obvious melody lines amidst all the thrashiness. In 1981, they released the Living In Darkness album, which included "Bloodstains"—not just a classic OC punk tune but also a classic punk tune, period.
Agent Orange's largest following, though, came via an army of skateboarders. Including their music on the soundtracks of various skate videos, the band was one of the first to tap into the then-still-kinda-underground subculture.
"Southern California was certainly the hotbed for the whole surf/skate scene, but Agent Orange wasn't really a 'skate punk' band," says Palm over lunch in a garish "theme restaurant" at the Block. "We never had skateboarding on the record covers, never wrote songs about skateboarding. That's just what skaters were looking for at the time: aggressive, high-energy music to skate to. Back then, we were just trying to get over Boston and Foreigner, and that's not good music to fly out of a pool to. In fact, I skateboarded before I started the band. Just as my skateboard equipment started falling apart and the commercial skate parks started getting shut down, that's when I shifted over to music."
Agent Orange's recorded output over the years hasn't exactly been prolific. Greatest & Latest is only the fifth full-length album in the band's long, storied life span (and that includes a 1991 live album, their sole release in a 10-year gap between 1986's This Is the Voice and 1996's Virtually Indestructible.) Palm explains that that is partly because he's happiest when he's out touring and partly because of a long bad-luck streak he has had with record labels—one that has made him justifiably uneasy about committing to any sort of binding legal contract (though he says he's pleased so far with Cleopatra, the imprint that put out Greatest).
Now to bullshit endurance: Palm's label hassles started pretty much when the band did. A week after he turned 18, he signed a bad deal with Robbie Fields of Posh Boy Records—one that gave Fields the publishing rights to the songs on the Living In Darkness album. He sued Fields. Years later, Palm reached an out-of-court settlement with Fields, the terms of which Palm says "weren't bad," though they still left him without the rights to his own work.
Palm financed his suit against Fields with a cash advance from a deal with Enigma Records—but it turned out that the Enigma deal wasn't so hot either. Enigma was a metal label, not a punk label, more interested in bands like Poison and, more infamously, temporarily transforming a Jack Grisham-less TSOL into a schlocky hair spray act, something Palm hints they also tried to do with Agent Orange.
"The label approached me with a lot of off-the-wall ideas, and I'm glad I shot them all down," he says. "With Enigma, they just wanted to spend all their time working with Poison. I can't argue with that—it sure paid off for them—but we suffered because of it. Our records were sort of overlooked there, and that was frustrating."
Agent Orange won a release from Enigma, but the rancid taste of previous pacts kept Palm out of the studio for a while. "That's what affected the whole recorded output situation," he says. "I'm not telling you I had no songs and that's why we didn't put out records. I'm saying it was a business problem. Still, I'd rather put out five records that people will want to buy in 15 or 20 years than 10 records that no one will care about in six months. My entire catalog is still in print, so I think that shows my theory works. I really don't see any reason why we need to put out very many records, anyway. I like touring, and I like taking time off, and being a musician affords me that luxury.