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Sonic for the Troops
Local punk heroes the Vandals rock soldiers in Iraq and other hot spots
Punk rock was founded on badditude, but Huntington Beach punk heroes the Vandals are all about good 'tude and good times. Since 1980, the hilarious band have been playing songs such as "Anarchy Burger," "Christmas Time for My Penis," "Shi'ite Punk," "I Know, Huh?" and "Aging Orange" (har) and making albums with titles such as Live Fast, Diarrhea and Internet Dating Superstuds.
Having just returned from an Australian tour, the Vandals are now working on BBC Sessions and Other Polished Turds, which bassist Joe Escalante calls "a joyful collection of B-sides and recordings we've done at the BBC over the years." The Vandals are also busy planning a new studio album.
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Escalante claims the title of longest-serving Vandal, having started with the band in 1982. (There are no original members left.)
"I never imagined us recording at the BBC, that's for sure," he comments, in reflecting on the band's atypically long and successful trajectory. "I just imagined [the Vandals] as a punk band that would play when not performing life's other obligations. That's exactly what it is now. It's bigger than I thought it would be, but punk rock is bigger than I thought it would be, so relatively, it's not that far off from what I imagined. If your punk band is your main job, how punk is it really?"
The Vandals are not Escalante's main job (he's a morning DJ on Indie FM 103.1; the owner of Kung Fu Records, the Vandals' label; and a lawyer, strangely enough), nor are they the main occupation for singer Dave Quackenbush (who runs an alcohol-distribution company), drummer Josh Freese (a studio musician) or guitarist Warren Fitzgerald (Orange County girl Gwen Stefani's musical director). For a band with pronounced imbecilic tendencies, the Vandals are unusually industrious about their business concerns, probably due to a career history dotted with legal contentions over rights and ownership. They've emerged with a solid sense of independence, and they pity the holdouts still playing by the old rules.
"Today, the record business is so bad," Escalante says. "I feel for anyone writing checks to participate in it."
Fitzgerald agrees: "The industry is a faceless, dying beast with an abacus in its hand and a nostalgic longing for the 20th century, when they could rape the customers and musicians at the same time. . . . The industry will adjust or lower its expectations in order to survive at all. Honestly, if someone asked me about music as a commodity when I was 16, I would have been offended by lumping the two things together. But I think once the dust has settled with new technology and such, a new paradigm will stabilize. As of now, it's a mix between the Wild West and Armageddon."
The band navigated the Bush version of such apocalypse, performing for troops in Iraq, Afghanistan and Germany, and they were accused of being supporters of the president's war. "The band and Kung Fu Records paid a great price in Europe for playing for the troops in Iraq," Escalante says. "We are done over there. Can't get arrested. We have gone back and played in Afghanistan and for troops in Frankfurt, and we will continue to do this. . . . All the American punk rockers understand what we do over there, with very few exceptions. That makes it fun to an American, rather than, say, a German."
"Playing for the troops was an eye-opening experience," Fitzgerald adds. "When I feel like things are rough or a pain in the ass, I picture what these kids are going through—it's very intense. As far as the controversy is concerned, I'm still shocked by it."
The Vandals openly express gratitude for their luck and longevity. For his part, Escalante notes that the best thing about playing in the Vandals is "main stage at the Warped tour. It doesn't get any better than that. It's the pinnacle of our chosen lifestyle. And if you have a kick-ass tour bus to be escorted to after your grueling 30-minute set, you are on fire!"
The worst? "Trying to pretend you are still punk with a kick-ass tour bus to which you are escorted."
The Vandals perform with Ozma and the Chuba Cobra at the House of Blues, 1530 S. Disneyland Dr., Anaheim, (714) 778-2583; www.hob.com. Sun., 7 p.m. $15.