The Vandals' Joe Escalante: "Who doesn't like nonsense?"

A new track is coming!

The Vandals are returning to our shores for Soundwave 2015 and they’ll be bringing their delightful brand of East Coast Californian (pop?) punk with them. I caught up with bassist Joe Escalante for a chat about many things, including the band’s longevity, legal battles and golfing for punk rockers.

Good day, Joe; first up – how have you guys managed to keep the same line-up since the late eighties? It's all about a lack of pressure. “I think it’s the lack of pressure; we don’t put pressure on each other and we don’t put pressure on ourselves, and also realising that it’s a punk rock band. It’s not a mainstream, success story and if the phone rings and it’s a good show then we’ll go play it. We try to record – we used to be able to record a lot more when we were younger – but there’s no pressure to do that. We don’t put pressure on ourselves to do that either so I think it’s just that lack of pressure.” He mentions the fact that this easy-going attitude also helps when it comes to their drummer Josh Freese’s availability; sadly Josh won’t be coming to Soundwave next month; so who will be on the drummer’s stool? Joe clarifies “We’re bringing Derek Grant from the Alkaline Trio, and after thirty years we’ve found three or four great back-up drummers who are also, kind of, members of the band; our fifth guy Derek Grant has been substituting for Josh for 20 years, same goes for Brooks Wackerman (Suicidal Tendencies, Infectious Grooves et al); he’s been with us for 25 years. So we’ve got all these extra drummers lying around; they’re contributing band members but Josh is still here when he can be.”

Speaking of drummers, you started out on drums before switching to bass, right? “Yeah, I started in high school, doing the best I could. I played drums on our first three records but when the bass player quit, at that point I just asked the guitar player, who was basically in charge, if I could play bass and he said ‘Absolutely, go ahead and then we’ll look for a drummer’ and then we eventually found Josh Freese and it turned out pretty good.”

And what about your other job as an entertainment lawyer? “Yeah, I went to law school and then I ended up working for CBS as a television attorney – I did that for four or five years – and then Green Day and Offspring and all that stuff took off so we went out and did it. For about ten years we were a touring punk rock band and now things have slowed down so we just do other things. I still work in television a little bit but I’ve never been like a real lawyer in a courtroom or anything like that.” Come now! You’re being far too modest. Didn’t you defend the band when Variety magazine attempted to sue over the cover of Hollywood Potato Chip (2004)? “Right. We were sued by that magazine twice; the first time, we hired lawyers and they wanted to compromise so much that we ended up with a bad conclusion. Then they sued us again and this time I did it myself because I wanted to put it to bed once and for all, and these lawyers didn’t have the balls; they didn’t want to take the risk. They were probably being prudent but that second time, I knew we had to go really hard at them so I did it myself, and I spent about a year doing it. It was a terrible year but at least we won and put it behind us, and it cost them probably close to a million dollars to try to pretend that it was damaging to them for a punk band to do a parody of their precious font. It was a bad time but we came out on top.”

Hollywood Potato Chip (which is apparently a euphemism for dried jizz) was (aside from the remix album and B.B.C sessions albums in 2005 and 2009 respectively) the band’s last 'proper' release. Why no new tracks? “Yeah; it really did kind of take the wind out of our sails. It was a big release and a lot of money was put in to it and a lot of effort, and then these guys ruined it and it cost us a lot of money, it hurt the tours, and then after that; who wants to record another record? And then we got sued again and we’re in the middle of a law suit – it takes a toll on you – and now everything is behind us, we’re doing a lot of recording but we just haven’t recorded enough stuff that we'd like to release.”

But get this – Joe adds “But we are releasing one song on the Soundwave compilation! One new track that we recorded especially for you people in Australia. It’s a Vandals version of Mark Jackson’s I’m An Individual…” If you don’t know the tune, Google it – you will be suitably horrified and confused…

I mention conversations that I’ve previously had with Madball and Sick Of It All regarding how climate affects the punk sensibilities of America, particularly the East/West Coast differences. Joe puts his spin on things thusly: “They’re absolutely right; compare Madball with The Vandals; two bands from the same era but two different worlds. We [both] used to tour with Agnostic Front – and I think you’re right; weather has a lot to do with it. Let’s compare East Coast punk rock and West Coast punk rock – and then go all the way over to England, where punk rock kind of started and you have the Sex Pistols and The Clash, singing about the lack of opportunity, societal problems and a stratified society where you can’t get a break and you’re gonna be poor the rest of your life, and the system is keeping you down – that’s not the same as in the United States where you at least believe, especially when you’re young, that  you can be anything that you want; you can be rich, you can be free, there’s very little government oppression, but we still like that punk rock and we’re still influenced. Now the East Coast, they also have all these American opportunities but they’ve got the grit of the Rust Belt, the industrial cities, and that cold, harsh weather – it’s a hard life! Compared to on the West Coast, where we’re living in suburbia, there’s the beach and the mountains and the deserts and the wide open spaces so yeah, I think you’re less angry and it’s a different kind of music.”

The Vandals seem to prefer humour over gritty observations when it comes to their lyrics but do you ever get the urge to make a statement; fuck the government or something? “We disguise a few messages in our funny lyrics here and there but also, maybe one of the reasons we’ve been together so long is that there’s not a dogma where you have to believe this or that, like if it was a Christian band and everyone would have to be on the page, or if it was a band like Anti-Flag where everyone has to be on the same page with that stuff. I think that maybe one or two people could keep that up and the rest of the guys just wanna play music and you end up painting yourself into a corner; you can’t eat meat or you have to be of one political persuasion, you gotta boycott this or that – and that’s fine and I love those guys – I hate to single them out but it’s the first thing that comes to mind. I love those guys but I couldn’t find four people that I could play music with and be on the same page with. So in regard to the nonsense; who doesn’t like nonsense?! We can keep it up for quite a while…”

The Vandals seem to just avoid slipping into the pop punk genre, how do you manage to avoid this? He mentions the influence of bands such as NoFX, Lagwagon, T.S.O.L (True Sounds Of Liberty) - even Blink 182 - and the influence of the Warped pop-punk tours, before adding that “Warren Fitzgerald, who’s our chief song writer, he writes good pop punk songs and then we make them into Vandals themes instead – they’re not too ‘poo-poo pee-pee’ but they’re not political statements but again, we try to make them a little bit complex and say something, even though they’re nonsense.”

Bugger! My time is almost up so I seek clarification on one final thing; did you guys really bring out a golfing magazine for punks called Schwing!? “Yeah! That lasted seven issues and it was published by the people that make Thrasher.” He laughs and continues “It was a little too soon! It was golf for people with tattoos and the world wasn’t really ready for it! It did great in the advertising – every golf company wanted to advertise in it – but it did terrible on the newsstand shelves but it lasted a while.”

I’m glad I got that clarified.

The Vandals, out next bloody month for Soundwave.