Jack Grisham lives in a haunted house. For those who know the TSOL front man, that probably isn't much of a shocker. Anyone who's read his books, heard the band's classic track "Code Blue" or knows anything about their history is aware that Grisham's mind is hardwired to live with (and fuck with) the dead. Onstage, his proclivity for white face paint and black eyeliner and long dresses makes him look about as ghoulish as anything you'd find in a Dario Argento flick.
So it makes sense he'd find the only haunted property on the block in his middle-upper-class neighborhood of Huntington Beach and move in with his wife and teenage daughter. In its former life, the domicile was the first schoolhouse the city ever built, way back in 1900. According to Grisham, the place was already occupied with spirits before he moved in. During any given time of day or night, you're liable to see lights and electronics flicker on and off, chairs move, hear strange voices in the halls, and a host of other creepy, pants-shitting surprises.
"We've had two separate psychics say it's a boy and a girl, two kids and some adult—supposedly the kids are cool, but the farmer guy is like lost or something, and he's not cool," Grisham says matter-of-factly as he sips a mug of black coffee. Sporting pajama pants, a vintage Mickey Mouse T-shirt and tousled head of faded green hair (which he typically slicks back), the 55-year-old punker looks a bit like the Joker on his day off. "We're supposed to even have some paranormal researchers come out here in the next couple of weeks to check the house."
Part punk museum, part bohemian art gallery, Grisham's house is already littered with small shrines to the undead past, albeit more colorful and cool than scary. Chief among them is a painted portrait of him from his days as a rebel heartthrob in the early 1980s. It sits right above an old piano on which he plunked out the first chords of songs that would become The Trigger Complex, the band's first album in eight years (released Jan. 27 on Rise Records). In their own way, the 88 keys of ebony and ivory unlocked the spirit of inspiration that compelled Grisham to make what he considers to be a true roots record.
"I hear these punk guys say, 'We're going to go make a roots record,' and go make something that sounds of Johnny Cash," Grisham says. "And I'm like, 'Well, maybe that's somebody's roots, but that's not my roots—that's not what I listen to.' If I was gonna make a roots record, it would sound like Sound Effects by the Jam or Machine Gun Etiquette by the Damned."
Sitting around his living room coffee table with guitarist Frank Agnew and bassist Mike Roche, Grisham searched for themes, lyrics and riffs that reminded him of a time when punk included a hefty side of pop, à la the Kinks, Gen X or the Jam.
From there, it was a matter of getting his band mates together—no easy task these days considering drummer Chip Hanna lives in Arizona, lead guitarist Ron Emory is based in Iowa, and keyboardist Greg Kuehn is up in LA. Once they had the foundation of the album ready to record, the band just had to get into the studio for a few days to lay it all down.
"We decided not to practice the fuck out of these," Grisham says. "We just said, 'Here's the song; here's how it goes,' and we just went from there and kept it fresh. . . . For me, I just like listening to the bass and drum parts because they're so tight. I was telling Mike Roche, 'This is the best you've played in years; you might be old and falling apart, but you're playing awesome.'"
From the first shot, Trigger Complex feels like a poppier caliber from the rest of the TSOL catalog. Album opener "Give Me More" is a blast of energy that blows a hole in your head, leaving plenty of room for TSOL's jagged shards of Brit pop aesthetic to fill your newly opened mind. Throughout the album's 13 tracks, the songs revolve less around the punk cliché of scaring the masses and more around making them dance, think and, yes, even laugh. For Grisham, the point of maintaining a punk mentality 40 years later is about being different, not subscribing to what now amounts to a stale rehash of "plain wrap anarchy."
"I don't know why they did that to punk rock later on, like, with the looks uniform and the sounds uniform," Grisham says. "It's, like, everything that we fought against . . . Thirty years ago, you sound like that and wore clothes like that, and you were challenging people. Now, if you walked on the street looking like that and sound like that, the average guy on the street says, 'Killer, Redbull!'"
These days, Grisham can still use punk to quell his fascination with the afterlife, but in a way that's more self-reflective than crass. A perfect example lies in the lyrics of the album's lead single, "I Wanted to See You," a song inspired by ghosts other than the ones that live in his house.
"The first song I put out was about missing someone with a great longing, like, you'll never see these people again," Grisham says. "I was sitting out in my back office one day, thinking about all my friends and girlfriends that are dead. There's a line in there where whatever relationship I've had or whatever they said to me, it still influences me now. Like, whatever I do, your voice is in my song, and nothing here is anything like you, so I just want to see you now."
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Though all the voices of the dead swirling around him might sound like a bit of a downer, in some ways, it inspires Grisham to live with even more enthusiasm as he passes through middle age with the same fire he had when TSOL was putting out album after album. In the end, he says, the dead inspire him to keep living life on his own terms.
"If I died at this moment, like right now, then I have basically lived my life doing whatever the fuck I wanted at any time I wanted without listening to anybody," he says. "If I died right now, I go out on top."
Of course even when he checks out, he says there's little chance he'd ever really take a minute to rest. "I have a whole list of people who I would haunt," Grisham says with a smirk as he sips his coffee. "And it's not going to be pleasant."
TSOL perform with the Dwarves at the Observatory, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana, (714) 957-0600; www.observatoryoc.com. Sat., 8 p.m. $15. All ages.