“These people don’t need handlers and managers, they need a fucking truthsayer,” says T.S.O.L.’s Jack Grisham as he watches one of Coachella’s young artists — a relatively androgynous pale lanky twentysomething under a mop of dyed red hair. “They need someone to say ‘You look fucking terrible in that jacket’ or ‘This song might sell, but you’re going to fucking hate it in a year.’ They’ve got all these guys kissing their ass, but they need someone telling them the truth that they can’t just fire.”
Having joined the punk scene back in the ‘70s, Grisham has been involved in the music industry for longer than most of the other Coachella performers (and their managers) have been alive. As open as the frontman of the festival’s lone old-school punk band is to other types of music — two of Grisham’s favorite acts this year were Chicano Batman and Radiohead (although he takes a lot of shit for the latter not being punk enough) — the Huntington Beach-based singer has a cautionary tale for some of the fresher stars of the desert’s massive festival.
“I can’t tell you how many ‘next big things’ I’ve seen disappear over the years,” Grisham says. “I just want to tell them that next summer, the only ones who care about them might be their mothers and their therapists. It’s like when I was a kid in school and had a crush on some gnarly chick. I’d be home jerking off to her yearbook photo or whatever, but you stay around and that chick who was banging in seventh grade looks fucked now. It’s the same thing with these bands. You used to see it in the ‘70s and ‘80s where bands would sign these big multi-million-dollar deals and then the next week they’d be gone, but these bands didn’t even sign those deals.”
But while every artist swearing by their “Next Big Thing” title would write off Grisham as a cranky old man for spoiling their premature celebration, the 55-year-old Long Beach native has more than enough reasons to doubt the younger bands’ chances at success. Aside from seeing countless musical prodigies fizzle out after a song or two, Grisham’s old enough to remember the various acts that many of today’s Coachella bands are unintentionally copying.
“Some of the new stuff is cool — my kids get me into all kinds of trippy shit — but some of it’s a drag because they’re modeling it after things that I saw the original of,” Grisham says. “I know the people who haven’t seen the original might think it’s badass, but it’s like if you would’ve seen the bomb they dropped on Nagasaki, you wouldn’t think this bomb that Donald dropped was really a big deal. If you see the real shit, the rest is just whatever.”
Where things get particularly interesting for Grisham and the rest of T.S.O.L. is that the band is far from being a nostalgia act. Following the release of January’s The Trigger Complex, the local punk icons have found a new way to pour some extra youth into the band while quietly etching their names in the Coachella history books. For the last two Sundays, True Sounds of Liberty was joined onstage by FIDLAR’s drummer — and son of T.S.O.L.’s keyboardist — Max Kuehn, making them one of only a few father/son duos to ever play the festival together.
Of course, even with the youthful lineup change, Grisham and his band still kept true to what their fans have come to know and love over the decade. Beyond the wide range of punk rock sounds put out by the quintet, the group’s live shows are equally known for the frontman’s love of well-decorated suits (which are then auctioned off to fans with the proceeds going to charity). But as someone both known for his bold and “bitchin’” style choices on-stage as well as his longtime commitment to punk rock before it was a fashion statement, Grisham struggles to understand exactly what’s going on with the aesthetic of the festival’s attendees these days.
“I see these crews come in here, and they look like the Village People,” Grisham says. “When I was a kid going to shows, everyone there looked like a crew. They’ve all got the same vibe. I was looking at this crew the other day, and there was like a hippy dude, a David Bowie glam guy with real tight pants squeezing his ass together like Nacho Libre, a bondage chick, a Coachella chick with the little way-high short shorts that weren’t cool in the ‘80s, a ska guy, and a techno guy. It trips me out because there’s no uniform or anything. Like I don’t know what the fuck is going on.”
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Even with the questionable fashion choices and inflated artist egos, Grisham had no qualms with his band’s venue at the festival this year. The Sonora stage was a hit with many rock fans at Coachella, bringing young acts like the Interrupters and Tacocat together with veterans like Guided by Voices and T.S.O.L., and that’s not even counting the hundreds of overheated visitors who were just there to take advantage of the air-conditioned venue — a perk that made it much more comfortable for the mountain of a singer to wear his signature suits during the performances. But beyond the controlled climate (and friendly stage organizer, according to Grisham), the real highlights of the Sonora were the human mishaps that so rarely happen outside of “rock-oriented” stages.
“Some of these bands take their music to the stage and it’s all synced up so every beat is placed and they’re all perfect, but the biggest difference is just that we’re not synced to anything other than our hearts,” Grisham says. “The [Sonora] stage isn’t perfect. They’re already making computers that can make pop songs, but the one thing about humans is that we fuck up, and that makes it cool. The whole stage is just allowed to fuck up, because we’re all humans. I guess maybe they could program computers to fuck up. Maybe they could turn one computer into a random drug addict and another one into a fucking scumbag who steals our songs and rips them all off.
Until programmers start creating punk rock robots complete with random fuckups and debilitating personalities, bands like T.S.O.L. will have to provide the human imperfections for all 125,000 people in attendance — although Grisham is still hoping for a punk-themed desert festival he’d call "Paddy Wagon" (in response to Stagecoach). As for the veteran punk’s favorite Coachella memory? It’s actually from one of the previous years Radiohead played the festival and has nothing to do with any of the performances going on during the two-day event in 2004.
“I came out here one year, and they gave me a job to work on this cool stage with Danger Mouse and some other people I really like,” Grisham recalls. “Behind the stage, Andy Dick just all fucked up laying out on the ground, and they gave me this big fucking Maglite. So I walk over there and shine the light on him, and my buddy and I just start fucking with him. But then the police see us fucking with him and think it’s a real situation, so now we’re surrounded by police who are just waiting for something to do. Andy starts to get up, but he’s all fucked up and like ‘What’s going on? Am I being Punk’d?’ Then the cops check his pockets and find a whole bunch of mushrooms or whatever in his pockets and arrest him. We were the ones who got him arrested just because we were fucking with him.”