The Vandals, OC Punk's Merry Pranksters, Claim a Place In the Coachella Sun
Logo by the Vandals | Design by Dustin Ames
There are probably a few punks out in San Pedro who remember the first time the Vandals lived up to their name. It was sometime around 1982. The band's former lead singer Stevo Jensen was working as a janitor at Fountain Valley High School, where he used to steal formaldehyde frogs that were waiting to be dissected by students. However, during a gig at Dancing Waters, as the band banged out the power chords and thwacking drums of the song "The Frog Stomp," Jensen unleashed the deceased hoppers into the crowd.
"The bouncers were trying to stop Stevo from squishing the frogs, but they were slipping and sliding everywhere, and everyone in the crowd was going insane," remembers Mike Martt of LA punk band Tex & the Horseheads. As he retells the story, he's overcome with laughter. "It was absolute mayhem. Frogs were everywhere."
Not too long after the incident, the Vandals were booked to play another show at Dancing Waters, but only under the provision that no amphibians were allowed. "So Stevo shows up to the venue with frogs hidden in the bass drum of [Joe Escalante's] drum set," Martt says. This time, the venue was packed—at least a thousand people were in attendance. "The beginning of 'The Frog Stomp' started, and Stevo brought out the frogs, if you catch my drift," Martt says. "The venue exploded into chaos, and the frogs exploded, too."
An upgrade from frogs to flamingos
It's been decades since those early days of West Coast punk, and the Vandals have consistently raised a middle finger to cookie-cutter Orange County culture and punk's holier-than-thou ethos. The reputation they gained after throwing dead frogs into the crowd only intensified with the beef they started with the shit-kicking cowboys at Zubie's, the country-and-western bar next door to the legendary Cuckoo's Nest, that was immortalized in the Vandals' song "Urban Struggle." And as the years passed, their unrepentant joy at not just playing but performing as OC punk's merry pranksters never ceased. The band that once packed in riotous crowds in the '80s now entice the children of those fans to shows such as their Annual Christmas Formal, a jolly tradition that has lasted more than 20 years.
And now, OC's favorite punk rock dads, who span in age from 43 to 55, are gearing up to play one of the biggest festivals in the world—even though they haven't put out a new record in more than a decade. They knew Goldenvoice CEO and Coachella founder Paul Tollett when he was a scrawny college kid, so it seems oddly fitting they've finally been given their place among nearly 200 acts on the sun-soaked festival's lineup. "I think for a lot of bands, there's a weird thing that happens when you're put on the Coachella lineup," says Dexter Holland, lead singer of the Offspring. Nitro Records, a label Holland created with Offspring bassist Greg K. and ran until 2013, put out four of the Vandals' 10 albums. (In 1996, Escalante—who is also a former entertainment lawyer, TV executive and radio host—started Kung Fu Records with band mate Warren Fitzgerald and released their past three records, including 2004's Hollywood Potatochip.) "It's almost like being knighted in a certain way because Paul Tollett has a very specific agenda of how he wants Coachella to be and the image he wants it to have," says Holland.
Like Holland, plenty of the band's longtime supporters view their sets on April 17 and 24 as an acknowledgement of the Vandals' enduring legacy. "It's a testament to the iconic status they've finally achieved in punk rock," Holland says.
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While riding shotgun in a journalist's red Toyota Corolla on a recent Sunday afternoon, Escalante would rather pass himself and his band mates off as a bunch of cantankerous old men. "We're probably the grumpiest group of musicians you've ever met," Escalante says in a dry tone, as the car turns onto Pacific Coast Highway from his beachfront property in Seal Beach. "I don't know of a [punk] band who's stayed together longer than we have—it's been, like, 30 years now. It's like we're married." A subtle smile cracks on the side of his mouth, suggesting maybe the Vandals' decades of matrimony haven't been so bad.
Minutes later, the car pulls up to the driveway of drummer Josh Freese's house, just north of Belmont Shore in Long Beach. Escalante calls him to come out and hitch a ride only to find out that Freese is actually at his home away from home, the popular Second Street taco joint Super Mex.
There, Freese and lead singer Dave Quackenbush are huddled around a table, munching on tortilla chips while cracking jokes. "Took [you] long enough," says Freese to Escalante as he arrives.
"I thought when you said 'Here,' you meant your house," Escalante shoots back.
"We've been here the whole time," says Quackenbush.
At the 2014 annual Christmas Formal
The ball-busting remarks and short stints of laughter continue as a waitress comes by to take drink orders. "I've been drinking iced teas all week," Escalante tells the server, Mayra. "I think I'll have a Coke." As he places the menu on the table, he makes eye contact with Quackenbush. "Sundays are my Coke day," he says as he shrugs his shoulders and a wide smile forms. Quackenbush and Freese crack up at Escalante's double-entendre. Yep: they never turn it off.
The Vandals trace their roots to 1981, back when wearing studded jackets and starching Mohawks with egg yolks meant you were begging to get razzed by jocks and spit on by preppies. Founded in Huntington Beach by original lead guitarist Jan Nils Ackermann and bass player Steven Gonzales, the band's lineup saw major changes throughout their first decade. "The band existed for about six months before I was even in it," says Escalante, who joined as the drummer but switched to bass in 1988.
He already knew Stevo because he once dated Escalante's sister Mary Ann. Some of Escalante's friends, including Todd Barnes from TSOL, were lobbying the current members of the Vandals to bring in Escalante because the band's original drummer, Vince Mesa, and Stevo didn't like each other, causing a lot of tension. But, Escalante says, he also didn't care too much for Stevo at that time. "When he was dating my sister, Stevo used to torment me with joy buzzers, fake dog poop and bad magic tricks. And he had Sammy Hagar hair," Escalante remembers. "I didn't want to be in some clowny new wave band.
"At the same time, though, the guys in TSOL were calling the guy I knew as 'Steven Jensen' something different," Escalante added. "They kept telling me that I should be in this guy 'Stevo's' band named the Vandals. Then I saw the Vandals play at a party, and I was like, 'Yeah, I want to be in that band.' I still didn't realize Stevo was Steve Jensen."
That was the beginning of a 36-year career for the now-53-year-old. Stevo, Ackermann and Escalante were the band's only consistent members through the early years. Their crazy performances enticed crowds from beyond Orange County to their shows. And their music attracted a fan base that consisted of many wide-eyed young punks who would go on to use the Vandals' raw, witty style as a major source of inspiration. "We were fans of the Vandals all throughout growing up and while we were trying to start our band during the '80s," Holland says. "There was Social Distortion, TSOL and a couple of others, but the Vandals were . . . already Orange County icons while we were getting the Offspring together."
By 1985, the Vandals lineup went through some major shifts. They kicked out Stevo for getting too intoxicated to perform a couple of high-profile shows, causing them to adopt Quackenbush—the band's current front man. In 1987, guitarist Fitzgerald came into the band, giving the Vandals a bigger, heavier sound. And in 1989, the band brought in Freese, one of the industry's most in-demand drummers, who has performed with Guns N' Roses, A Perfect Circle, Sublime With Rome and 311, among others. "You can go to a Vandals show simply to watch Josh play drums because he's that good and also very entertaining," Holland says.
Jensen getting kicked out sparked the band's transformation from literal frog stompers to intelligent comedians who called out Orange County for its bullshit. "The original front man, Stevo, was great but he was such a provocateur—he just wanted to get a rise out of the audience," Holland says. (Jensen passed away in 2005 from unknown causes.)
With the new lineup, "they were even smarter than the audience a lot of times," Holland says. "So they began really messing with crowds a lot—and fans ate it up." One such example is the song "Pizza Tran" from 1990's Fear of a Punk Planet. The song about one man's love for a Vietnamese immigrant girl delivering pizza in her dope white Supra delivers a slice of life that could make punks laugh while subliminally absorbing references about Vietnamese migration to OC after the Fall of Saigon.
The Vandals' unrelenting humor has always made them stand out. They have a way of talking to audiences that sounds as if they are making fun of them while at the same time entertaining them. The band's buffoonery is perfect for putting a crowd on edge, sometimes pissed off, and always ready to slam.
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After a decade of tearing up stages across Orange County, the Vandals really took off in the mid-'90s, along with many of their OC peers and acolytes. They toured nationally with bands such as No Doubt, NOFX and Pearl Jam and released seminal albums including 1995's Live Fast, Diarrhea and 1998's Hitler Bad, Vandals Good.
It was also during this time that they found wild success with younger generations of fans. "When I started the Vans Warped Tour in '95, I wanted to take [the Vandals] on tour with me," says Kevin Lyman, the festival's founder. "They were more than just friends; they were great musicians who put on an awesome show."
By that time their snide, aggressive wit mixed with childish yet on-point humor was polished enough to set the tone for OC's thriving punk scene and beyond. Bands such as Blink-182 and Less Than Jake have placed the Vandals as one of their biggest influences.
But, as Martt points out, it's uncommon for bands to stay as relevant or prominent—or together, for that matter—after experiencing a complete transformation, as the Vandals did. "A lot of bands fall into the cracks of obscurity," Martt says. "They never get to make it because they've fallen off to the side into the punk-rock hole of nothingness—but that didn't happen with the Vandals, and that's what makes them great."
The band members refer to themselves as "old farts" and explain that they don't do interviews anymore because they're not releasing any new music. But their spot on the ever-trendy Coachella lineup speaks of a whole new level of relevancy. "That just shows you the state of music that's coming out of this area right now," Quackenbush says jokingly of OC's music scene. "The best they can do is some old, crusty-ass band!
"We've played a million fests, but being on the Coachella lineup is big," Quackenbush continues. "It's the best because people out here believe it's a big deal, so it is. People are like, 'I don't even like music, but this is awesome!' It adds some excitement to the performance."
Their inclusion this year is even more special considering how far back Tollett goes with the band. Escalante says that without Tollett and his influence on the overarching music scene, Los Angeles—and the world's—music history would look a lot different. "We've always respected him because of the efforts he made to save Goldenvoice concerts at the very beginning of his business venture," he says. "He worked so hard to make Los Angeles the friendliest city in the world to the kind of punk rock we played, too. So we kind of can't help but be fans."
According to Lyman, who became friends with Tollett during their college days at Cal Poly Pomona, the Southern California punk scene is very near and dear to Tollett. "But it's so great to see how [Tollett] always pays homage to the roots of where we all came from and, more important, where he came from," he says. "There's always that kind of connection to his past."
"What's crazy is that he did it—he actually did it all on his own," adds Freese. "He made it, he bought all the land. . . . He's fucking nonstop."
Freese—who played at the first Coachella when he performed in 1999 with A Perfect Circle—remembers that inaugural festival being considered a failure. "[Tollett] was so bummed," he recalls. "I had lunch with him about six months after, and he was devastated. He was talking about how Goldenvoice was going bankrupt and how he was totally fucked. He actually took me to lunch to see if I'd give him a hundred bucks." He and the rest of the band erupt into laughter. "But, seriously, now people fly in from all over the world to this world-famous desert destination."
The band's memories of Tollett (and even the jokes at his expense) show that they have more than just a fondness toward the Goldenvoice founder; they also have a deep respect for him. "It's a place where Paul McCartney walks around and does his thing," says Escalante. "It's become that kind of festival."
The band recall playing festivals in different countries and running into Tollett. "We used to see him all the time at other festivals," Quackenbush says. "And we'd ask him what he was doing there, and Tollett would always say, 'I'm just doing my homework.'"
Performing at Coachella represents a step up for the Vandals, who have played just about every grimy, disgusting European mega-fest you can name. "Even at, like, Bonnaroo, it's hot as fuck, and there isn't a whole lot around," Freese says. "And Bonnaroo is dirty. Coachella is on-point. The weather is right when it starts getting hot, but it's not that hot yet—it's right at the cusp. Coachella is the perfect festival. Tollett's done an awesome job."
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As a fan and friend, Holland vouches for the Vandals' live show. "Whenever we were on tour, if the Vandals were on at 4:30 p.m., everyone was on the stage at that time because we all knew that was going to be the best part of the whole day," he says. "You never knew what they were going to do."
As a seasoned front man, Quackenbush is always sure to have some witty line ready. "There was one time they were on tour and Quackenbush says to the crowd, 'George Bush is the worst president we've ever had,' and, of course, the crowd goes nuts," Holland recalls. "Then [he] follows that up with, 'It's quite interesting because his son George W. Bush is the best president we've ever had!' And, of course, he's immediately bombarded with an overwhelming chanting of boos." Holland laughs hysterically.
"Their shows are like a reunion for everyone—it's like a family because we all know one another," he continues. "We all have this connection. It may not always attract the biggest crowds, but it sure is the rowdiest crowd."
The band may have once thrown frogs for attention, but they're not going to do that at Coachella, alas. Nevertheless, they march into Indio ready to raise their gleeful anarchy for fans and first-timers alike.
"There's honestly a million reasons why those guys are punk-rock legends," says Holland. "Coachella needs a band like the Vandals to shake them up a bit and give them a taste of what Orange County punk rock is really about."
The Vandals perform at Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, 81-800 Avenue 51, Indio, 888-512-7469; www.coachella.com. April 17 & 24. Visit website for show times. $399-$1,124.
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