It's All A Blur
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.
"But most of those punk bands back then were taken advantage of," Palm continues, "and we were no exception."
That's being kind. To this day, Palm is still dealing with the bad choices he made when he was young and naive. That bad deal he made as an 18-year-old with Fields came back to haunt him in 1994, when Fields submitted a claim against Epitaph, then the Offspring's label. The claim sought a penny-per-album royalty for the band's alleged lifting of a key surf-guitar riff from Agent Orange's Palm-penned "Bloodstains" for the Offspring's "Come Out and Play." The Offspring told Fields to drop dead; Fields never filed a suit.
But the brief legal fight seemed to drag on; to Palm, it must seem like a tin can tied to his trousers. "This comes up all the time in interviews, and I can't say I don't care because of course I do," he says. And so he patiently explains his side of things: he had nothing to do with filing the claim but didn't disagree with it. "I could show you interviews in which [the Offspring's front man] Dexter Holland outright admits that he took that riff from my song and used it in his song," Palm asserts. "In the rap world, when something like that is taken as a sample, they pay for it the same way I pay for guitar strings and picks."
What might have remained a minor disagreement between intelligent people became big news when the Offspring talked about Fields' claim on MTV. "They were saying that I was out to sue them," Palm recalls. Important distinctions—it was Fields, not Palm; it was a claim, a kind of request, not a lawsuit—were lost on most. "Some punk kid's perception of that is to think that I'm the bad guy," Palm says. "But they don't understand that the Offspring are millionaires and I'm just trying to retain whatever little tiny thing is mine."
The petty feuding raged on. A year later, the Vandals released an album on Holland's Nitro label that included a song called "Aging Orange." The tune was a pointed attack on Palm ("I'm Palm-Palm head, and I wrote one good song/But that was almost 20 years ago," it began), reaming him for what they saw as an brazen attempt to take money from punk upstarts.
"I thought the song was lame and out of line," Palm says now. "You think there was some ass-licking going on there?"
When told that the new Agent Orange and Vandals albums share the same Aug. 29 release date, Palm can only roll his eyes. "Great," he says. "Maybe we should all have one big party."
In an odd twist, the Offspring covered "Bloodstains" outright this year for the soundtrack of the film Ready to Rumble. "It's great that they recorded 'Bloodstains,' but it doesn't help me personally," Palm says, playing Willie Dixon to the Offspring's Led Zeppelin. "Sometimes I feel like an old black bluesman who got ripped off."
That Palm can still make music despite the headaches is something of a marvel. And there is new music to talk about, albeit not entirely new. Greatest & Latest is the band's first album in four years, but for the most part, it's a re-recording of older catalog material. The few exceptions are "Message From the Underworld" (a Weirdos cover) and two new songs, "What's the Combination?" and "It's All A Blur."
Palm says he has already gotten a lot of feedback about "Blur," in which he wrote about all the people who constantly approach him with not exactly accurate stories about Agent Orange's old days. "You'd be amazed at the number of people who remember these things that never happened," he says. "Riots, shows, crazy stuff. How do you tell somebody like that that they're wrong and it didn't happen? You just don't because in their minds, it did. That's the lyric 'No one knows what happened because every story fades with time.' And it's true."
While it seems strange for a band whose creative output has been relatively small to re-record an album's worth of old songs, Palm says he's got some good creative reasons to do so, basically improving on what he feels were inferior original takes. "The way it was with the punk bands back then, everyone wanted to record things pretty cheaply," he says. "I was never happy with the original energy level or the sound quality. Those original Agent Orange songs were great for their time, but they don't really hold up. Sure, these are old songs, but I don't think of them that way. They're played better now, with a fresher approach. For people who haven't heard us before, I don't think I'd want them to start by going back to the beginning—for a young kid just getting into punk rock, I'd hope they would pick this up first because this is what the band sounds like now."
With Greatest & Latest, you get a sense that it's also Palm's little way of somehow reclaiming songs he had lost. "A lot of people will say these songs are classics and that they shouldn't have been messed with," he says. "And in a sense, that's true—Living In Darkness is a classic; that's why it's still in print and people still buy it. If you want to go back and hear what the band sounded like at its inception, you can—I'm just saying that if you want to know what Agent Orange sounds like in the year 2000, this is a perfect example."
Then Palm gets philosophical. "The only way this band has been able to survive this long has been through a direct connection with our audience. And that has been accomplished through live performances, hanging out—not putting up the rock-star barrier—and being involved with things the fans are into," he says. "A lot of surfers and skaters are into the band. We all skate and surf, so we're right there with them. We're in better shape now than we've ever been."
After lunch, we're walking out to the parking lot, when Mike Palm the dicked-around, embattled punker transforms into Mike Palm the fanboy, just to be clear on something. "You know, I don't if this will have any effect or not, but I'm gonna say this anyhow," he says. "You can mold this story to any angle—it's all in your hands now. But I do want to say that it's really hard for me to do an interview and not come off bitter in some way. A lot of things have happened to this band."
But, Mike, I tell him, you have been fucked over. You have a right to be bitter.
"I have been. But you know what? To me personally, as a music fan, I wouldn't want to hear about that. I talk about it because people should know the truth—people should know what's going on and why things are the way they are and why things happen the way they do. But ultimately, from day one Agent Orange was just supposed to be a fun band—not a political band, not trying to change the world, just trying to be a high-energy, fun punk band. Fun. Remember fun? It is fun, you know.
"The heart and soul of Agent Orange is really still in just being a fun punk band," he concludes. "And someday, it's going to all get back to that. All this stuff is going to be behind me. And the CD is part of that —getting these things out, properly recorded, with the energy they deserve. Now I can move on."
AGENT ORANGE PERFORM with supa group, cell block 5 and roller AT CLUB MESA, 843 W. 19TH ST., COSTA MESA, (949) 642-6634. Sept. 8, 10 p.m. Call for cover. 21+.
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