This weekend, Alex's Bar celebrates 14 years of coolness with anniversary shows. Friday's lineup includes the recently reunited bands Final Conflict of Orange County/Long Beach, and hardcore band BL'AST! from Santa Cruz. You can also see the Stitches and Smogtown, and Saturday's show features Swingin' Utters, Old Man Markley, the Black Tibetans, Devil Dogs and Transistor LB.
Yeah, those are all great bands to interview, but I knew I had to speak to Final Conflict singer Ron Martinez. Not only was the 48-year-old a staple of Orange County punk (he booked shows everywhere — including Chain Reaction — and worked at Greene Records), he's been a friend for a decade and we hadn't spoken in far too long because he moved to Austin, Texas, four years ago, which might have something to do with the healing of my liver.
Friendship aside, Final Conflict was always a powerful live act. And the group's 1987 record Ashes to Ashes slays and if you don't own it, you should because it's like that dream you had when Black Flag and Black Sabbath became the same band.
OC Weekly (Ryan Ritchie): You had a different bass player for your Texas shows than your Los Angeles show. So what's the current lineup?
Ron Martinez: The core of the band is Jeff Harp on guitar, Nick Manning on drums and me on vocals. We have a cadre of former members to choose from who will play with us based on if they are available or not. So any given show could have Warren Renfrow, Shane Mclachlan or Travis Laws on bass. Either way, it's a person with band history. Warren is a member from the Ashes to Ashes lineup and to us he's more than just a band member. He's been my best friend since I was 17 years old. He was in the band before I joined. Whenever we book a gig, Warren wants to try and play it. However, he's in multiple bands, has a crazy work schedule and is a family man, so there's going to be times he can't do a gig. For the shows this weekend, they are local, so it's easy for him. It gets a bit harder if we play out-of-state shows.
What prompted the reunion?
Jeff and I had been talking about it for a few years, but never set a timeframe. It just was an idea we'd get around to doing eventually. Then I moved to Austin and my booking agency and other musical projects kept me from thinking about it much. You know…life getting in the way. Last year, our friend Timmy Hefner asked us to play Chaos in Tejas fest in Austin. It felt right, so, yeah, why not? We played two
gigs with Shane on bass. It was great. We followed that up by playing Power of the
Riff fest at Echoplex, this time with Warren, and it was a good time.
You and Jeff were distant for a while. What brought you back together and is everything cool now?
Anyone who knows me and Jeff knows about the rift between us years ago. I can say most of it was caused by individuals posing as friends. People spreading hearsay and animosity brewed between us. I was doing my own thing and playing in other bands and pretended that it didn't bother me, but it did. It caused me to not speak to someone I looked up to and I didn't want to speak about the band for a long time. Jeff and Warren are my big brothers and in any family you get in fights. This was no different. Two brothers in an argument and Warren was a neutral party. Five years back, Jeff approached me at an Alex's Bar show and extended an olive branch. We are far too old to continue being angry over things other people stirred up. I love and respect Jeff a great deal and am happy we are friends again.
What's the status of the band moving forward?
We are taking things in baby steps. For now, it's just shows here and there. New material exists and is being recorded. Will it be released? Not sure yet. I think we'll wait until it's done and then decide if it's worth releasing. We've had some great bands ask us to go on the road with them and if so, it would be maybe a week here or there. As far as getting in a van and being on the road for three-to-six weeks? No way. We want to keep this light and fun. We had an east coast tour with Eyehategod booked in September last year, but it was cancelled when their drummer passed away. He was a good guy. I felt really bad for them.
What's the set like? Is it only Warren-era songs?
The set list consists of what I guess folks would call our classic material. We have been playing Ashes to Ashes in sequence, just like the record. Also, early demo songs and a couple of later period tunes. People have reacted positive to it, I mean, they come for some nostalgia or in the case of the younger people, they hope to get a taste of what it might have been like in the past.
Why didn't you get the '90s lineup back for these shows?
Because we had the ability to have Warren back with us. Former bassist Travis Laws is on deck if needed when Shane's not able. Our former bassist James is a fireman now. Last I heard he was living up north. Ron Avila (former drummer) is living in Portland and playing in multiple post-punk and black metal bands. I played with Nick Manning for years when I was in 46 Short. He's a beast, so when Jeff and I discussed getting the band together Nick was number one on my list.
What happened to the Ashes to Ashes drummer?
He's living back east. H's got a family and living the life of a citizen. He hasn't played in a band since Final Conflict. He found me on Facebook. It was great to hear from him. He still plays drums. Maybe one day he'll get on stage with us and play a few songs…one can dream.
Is it hard to practice with you in Texas?
Not at all. The rest of the guys are in Long Beach and Anaheim and they stay rehearsed. In Austin, I start rehearsing about a week before a show. I go to a local studio, blast mp3s of the set list through a PA and sing along. It gets my voice in shape. We do one rehearsal together in California and we are good to go.
Is playing Long Beach any more special than playing elsewhere?
The show at Alex's is definitely special for multiple reasons. Long Beach is where we cut our teeth back when we were kids. We played historic shows supporting bands like Bad Brains, MDC and GBH at Fender's Ballroom. I first met Alex Hernandez when he was booking at The Foothill in the late '90s and he got my foot in the door to organize shows there. I remember back then he was saving his profits to open his own place. What I learned from doing all the band management and from Alex in how to promote shows grew into me running my own booking agency. So, playing Alex's Bar anniversary in the town that we came up in, it's come full circle. Plus, the majority of the people who used to go to Fender's all frequent Alex's, so it's like a homecoming reunion. We are really excited about the show.
I know you've seen plenty of reunions. Some good, some bad. Were you worried you wouldn't be able to be as good as you used to be?
Jeff and I made a pact that if the band couldn't sound as good as we used to, then we'd not perform. We are very deliberate in making sure we play the songs exactly the way they were recorded. No updating or trying to "improve" them. I was really worried if we would be able to still play as fast and angry. I'm 48 years old now. Fortunately, my voice still sounds the same as it did when I was 20…meaning I sound like a little kid having a tantrum. And the guys, no bullshit, they destroy. We can run circles around quite a few bands younger than us and hopefully not break a hip in the process.
Does Final Conflict with Shane singing still exist?
Shane is still a member of the band but now plays bass. I'm back in the band as the vocalist…if what I do can be called singing.
What do you miss most about living in Long Beach?
Consistent warm weather. Alex's Bar. MVP's veggie burgers, Taqueria La Mexicana on 4th St. and most of all my friends.