Joe Escalante lies semi-conscious on a cracked, dry lakebed somewhere north of LA, clad only in his socks and boxers. The two thugs who've kidnapped him are nudging him to get up, and since they're both waving guns in his face, he's happy to oblige. But then the kidnappers start arguing over him—there's at least one suggestion of buggery—and then they start shooting at each other while Escalante stands there with a look of bewildered terror epoxied onto his face. In the confusion, he seizes the moment and starts running across the lake's hellish expanse—during which, for some reason, a Nerf Herder song comes blaring out of nowhere. One of the goons finally notices Escalante escaping, so he hops into a rusty, red convertible, floors it, and aims squarely at Escalante's fleeing backside, getting closer and closer until . . .
"Well, that's some of what we've got so far," says Escalante, who's just previewed me a scene from That Darn Punk, a direct-to-video movie he's producing. Set for a February release, the film features all the Vandals as actors, with Escalante, the band's bassist, in the lead role of Dirk Castigo. He describes it as an action flick about a guy who gets kidnapped for cheating on his girlfriend, then goes on a bunch of adventures trying to get away from the killers who've snatched him, learning some—ahem!—"valuable life lessons" along the way. And then he gets shot in the head.
That Darn Punk is the first feature from the film division of Kung Fu Records, the indie label that Escalante and Vandals guitarist Warren Fitzgerald started a few years ago, around the time their two-decade-old band were born again, this time into an improbably profitable life. A follow-up, Selwyn's Nuts, is currently in production, starring Fitzgerald (who also penned the script) and directed by Escalante. Naturally, there'll be soundtracks for both, with music supplied by Death By Stereo, Rancid, and such Kung Fu bands as the Vandals, Assorted Jellybeans, the Ataris and Longfellow.
"It's always been in the back of our heads to make movies directly for the punk audience," says Escalante, sounding like a savvy marketer during our chat in the Vandals' rehearsal space, a tiny enclave tucked into a corner of Kung Fu's Hollywood compound. He uses the word "kids" a lot to describe his audience but with a tone of respect instead of marginalization—he is obviously familiar with the typical Vandals fan.
But films are just one of Escalante's and/or the Vandals' enterprises: there's Fear of a Punk Planet, a formerly internet-only TV series (it has been dubbed a punk-rock Saved By the Bell) that he's releasing on video. There's Schwing!, a quarterly golf magazine he publishes that's aimed at under-30s, launched earlier this year with financial backing from No Doubt drummer/Vandals freak Adrian Young (No Doubt recorded the Vandals tune "Oi to the World" for the A Very Special Christmas 3 compilation; expect to hear it Friday night at the Sun Theatre during the Vandals' Christmas Formal show). There's their merch line, which includes the $35 embroidered Vandals cargo shorts, the $30 embroidered jeans shorts, and their self-produced bootleg concert CDs. The bootleg series predates the mammoth 25-disc Pearl Jam bootleg output released earlier this fall (several discs on which Eddie Vedder can be heard thanking the Vandals personally from an assortment of European stages, since the Vandals opened two weeks' worth of shows for Pearl Jam on their summer tour there). There's also Escalante's side career as a lawyer, once his main gig back when the band wasn't doing so hot; his current client list includes the Long Beach Dub All Stars, Pennywise, and the estate of Bradley Nowell, among others.
And—speaking of side careers—there's drummer Josh Freese's unusually active one as the drummer for A Perfect Circle. He has also played with everyone from Devo to Axl Rose—for a time, Freese was even pegged to be the new Guns 'N Roses drummer, until the Perfect Circle gig came up. Their drummer's renown has flipped traditional band roles: while Freese is the most famous Vandal, singer Dave Quackenbush —whose preppie wardrobe makes him easily mistaken for a Young Republican —is the most anonymous; Escalante is the band's elder statesman/historian, who does most of the press interviews; and during shows, guitarist Warren Fitzgerald, a spazzy little kid trapped in a grown man's body, easily overshadows them all, frequently diving face-first off monitors or running completely nekkid around the stage.
But the 2000 model Vandals isn't the same monster that first blew out of Huntington Beach 20 years ago, neither literally nor sonically. Those Vandals, along with groups like TSOL, the Adolescents and Social Distortion, were one of the original OC punk bands, yet there are no original members left—Escalante joined in 1982, Quackenbush in '85, Fitzgerald in '87 and Freese in '89 (Escalante even says he considers 1989 to be the new birth year for the Vandals—at least with the current lineup).
"It was just a Huntington Beach party punk band back then," recalls Escalante, "and I wasn't even in it when they started. I was just trying to become their drummer for a while," a job he landed before eventually switching to bass. The band's first decent-sized show was at a place called Jack Lord's Barracuda Room in Buena Park. "It was actually a VFW hall," Escalante says, "but I was making the fliers and thought that it wouldn't be very glamorous to say we were playing a VFW hall, so I made up a name."
Early Vandals shows tended to attract rough surf-punk crowds, which got the attention of the cops, which naturally helped get the Vandals banned from clubs and cities almost as often as Suicidal Tendencies. Old songs like "The Legend of Pat Brown," about a real-life Vandals fan who once tried to mow down some Costa Mesa police with his car ("Pat Brown! Tried to run the cops down! Pat Brown! Ran 'em into the ground! He's no zero! He's a fuckin' hero!"), and "Anarchy Burger (Hold the Government)" didn't exactly endear them to authority figures, either.
Their biggest fuck-you, though, was "Urban Struggle," an aural middle finger aimed at the country music shitkickers who used to hang out at Zubie's, a since-demolished, Costa Mesa cowboy bar on Placentia Avenue that was next door to the fabled also-since-demolished Cuckoo's Nest punk club. Back when punk rock actually seemed threatening—there was such an era, wasn't there?—the Zubie's and Cuckoo's Nest crowds would frequently brawl with each other.
During this time, there were Vandals like founder/guitarist Jan Ackermann, who now works for the federal Drug Enforcement Agency (ironic, since it's his axe you hear on "Anarchy Burger (Hold the Government)"), and hyperactive singer Stevo, who's now a masseuse in Hawaii. Not all these lineup changes were exactly harmonious: by 1989, there were actually two separate, feuding versions of the Vandals in existence—shades of the Byrds and Fleetwood Mac.
Differences were eventually sorted out, and by the early-'90s, the current Vandals lineup of Escalante, Freese, Quackenbush and Fitzgerald had been cemented. Punk rock, however, was in one its low moments, and the band had been reduced to a depressing punk nostalgia act playing Thursday nights in LA rooms like the Coconut Teazer, and occasionally getting an oldie spun on one of KROQ's Flashback Lunches. "Those were dark times—very dark," remembers Escalante.
The band thought their future—if they still had one—was with the all-ages crowds. "At first," Escalante says, "we thought we were too old or too important to be a part of that scene. But when we started devoting some energy to all-ages, low-priced shows with good bands, regardless of how much we were getting paid, that's when things started to turn around. A lot of older punk bands like us didn't do that; they still wanted X amount of dollars. We had to put aside any egos—it didn't matter what you were making or what accommodations you were getting; you had to just go and play. It was a lot of work. It wasn't easy."
Slowly, the Vandals started resurrecting themselves, and these younger crowds decided that this "new" band they'd never heard of before—one that many weren't even alive for during their first early '80s go-round—was good.
"We'd open for way younger bands, like Unwritten Law and Lagwagon. Their fans didn't know who we were, but they liked good music, and we were playing it," says Escalante. "Also, the younger punk kids actually bought our records and T-shirts, which the older punkers did not do."
Eventually, the two punk generations that Vandals shows were attracting started fighting each other, a sort of bizarre replay of the old Zubie's-Cuckoo's clashes.
"That was interesting," Escalante recalls. "We'd play with Blink-182, and there'd be some assholes yelling for us to play 'Pat Brown' and these old songs while we were trying to concentrate on new songs. At one point, we just told ourselves we wouldn't play those songs until these people went away."
"It's funny," says Fitzgerald, who pipes in via speakerphone from his home in the Naples area of Long Beach, "because there was a period there where, after we put out Live Fast Diarrhea in '95 and The Quickening in '96, when it was starting to work, and then older people would show up—which was a small percentage, but they were very vocal—and yell for 'Pat Brown' or some particularly old song, and if we did play it, that person would be happy, but the rest of the audience would just stare at us because they had no idea what it was. They only knew the new material."
"So the old tunes weren't really doing anything for the 90 percent of the people at shows who were now supporting the Vandals and the new material," continues Escalante, "and the people who weren't supporting the new stuff were only coming to shows to try and relive their glory days, and quite often were beating up the small kids standing next to them. We'd get a lot of people screaming fuck-yous at us because we weren't playing the songs they wanted to hear, but we'd smile and just say, 'That guy won't come back.' The guy he was punching, though, he might come back. We'd rather have him."
The fan base the Vandals now concentrates on "are people who have really only been following us for four or five years," Escalante says. "The people who've been following us for a long time usually come to our shows, see that it's mainly 16-year-olds, and usually don't come back."
The Vandals now find themselves going full circle—with their younger fans.
"As our audience got bigger, we find that now we can throw some old songs out there—we actually play 'Pat Brown' now more than ever because we've lost the older crowd," Escalante says. "But it's still the same thing; newer people really aren't that interested when it's put up against the newer stuff. Some kids have actually gone back and discovered our older songs, but most people who do that are kids who are trying to be so different within the different scenes, which I'm not really interested in supporting—'I am in the unique, individual punk scene, and within that, I'm Mr. Old School Punk, and I'm 15.' And he thinks he's better than the people who like the newer stuff. Get over it."
In addition to their No Doubt connection, much of the Vandals' newer fan base can also be attributed to their alliances with the Offspring. During the pinnacle of Smash-mania, Dexter Holland did the band a favor by continually dropping the Vandals' name and taking them out on Offspring tours; he also wore a Vandals shirt in the "Self Esteem" video. To further help the band along, he made the Vandals one of his first signees when he started up his own label, Nitro.
Since 1995's Live Fast Diarrhea, their first Nitro release, every new Vandals album has sold more than the last. 1998's Hitler Bad, Vandals Good has moved more than 100,000 copies worldwide, and their latest, Look What I Almost Stepped In, will likely surpass that number, particularly since the track "Jackass," with its alluring, infectiously hooky bassline, has been getting steady airplay on some major-market alternative-rock stations—the first mainstream radio exposure the Vandals have ever had, outside of the rare KROQ spin. These days, that's nothing less than a miracle for an indie-label band.
The new album deserves to be heard, too—it's easily their poppiest, most potentially hit-laden disc yet, full of great, old-style punk licks and smart-assed smackdowns that the band has always been famous for, perfectly illustrated by "Behind the Music," a snotty, all-you-need-to-know primer of the evils of the record industry, which the band spews out in just under three minutes.
"Punk kids want bands to be releasing really good records frequently," says Escalante. "They like new music, and that's a really good environment for a band—especially an older band like us—where they're not dwelling on old material. They want to hear something new, and they want it to be better than the last record, and they have a low tolerance for mediocrity."
"Kids don't care about anything old," says Fitzgerald, "And I think that's healthy. If you're a kid and you love music, it should be relevant to your time. If you're going through your parents' record collection loving every bit of it, I think there's something wrong with that."
"We want to be relevant," Escalante continues, "and trying to be relevant to people half our age, that's not easy. That's when we basically become like birthday party clowns, entertaining these kids whose parents are ex-punkers. It's kind of embarrassing now when we meet parents who used to come to our shows, and now we're playing mostly to their kids."
A gaggle of some 300 people—yep, mostly kids—have jammed inside the Virgin Megastore at the Block in Orange for an after-hours set by the Vandals. It's the eve of Look What I Just Stepped In's release. Cops and security-guard types eyeball people suspiciously, perhaps a bit sedated by the strains of Paul McCartney's "My Love" that echo through the mall. The band soon comes out and starts throwing down their snarky pop punk songs both old and new—there's "I Have a Date" and "My Girlfriend's Dead" and "Jackass" and "Live Fast Diarrhea" (crowd: "LIVE FAST!"; Vandals: "DIARRHEA!") and "The New You" and even "Oi to the World" (though, at the time, it's only August). A green-mohawked kid tries shoving his way up front, just to get swiftly booted out—only polite, respectful anarchy is welcome here; sorry.
A teen girl in an I VANDALS T-shirt who wasn't fortunate enough to snag a pass for the show stands just outside the glass doors, mouthing the words to "Marry Me" while devouring a boxful of Krispy Kremes. The band is tighter than ever, even though a sub is filling in for Freese, who's off on a Perfect Circle tour. Fitzgerald starts going into his nasty-little-man routine, threatening to show his bum. Then I notice all the red signage around the store—THE 80'S ARE BACK, AND ON SALE!—of course, so are the Vandals. But some of these signs have this qualifier underneath: IT WAS COOL TO BE SUICIDALLY DEPRESSED, OR AT LEAST LOOK DEAD. Well, maybe the Vandals did look dead there for a spell. But on this night, at least, playing to a roomful of next-generation punks, the Vandals aren't merely alive, aren't just barely breathing—they're rocking. And still pretty damn vital, too. Not bad for a bunch of old dudes.
THE VANDALS PERFORM WITH THE AQUABATS, THE ATARIS AND ASSORTED JELLYBEANS AT THE SUN THEATRE, 2200 E. KATELLA AVE., ANAHEIM, (714) 712-2700; WWW.SUN-THEATRE.COM. FRI., 7:30 p.m. $15. ALL AGES.
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