The Vandals Independent Punk Superstuds

The Vandals Independent Punk Superstuds
Composed of one the most versatile and skilled drummers in music today, a guitarist who spends his spare time creating sexually explicit art, a bassist who moonlights as a matador, and a singer whose last name is Quackenbush, the Vandals have built up quite a legacy over the past 23 years. By staying true to their DIY roots, the band has remained relevant and respected, stating that major labels are for "punks who can't do math." With side projects ranging from Guns N' Roses to Oingo Boingo, the influence of these original punks cannot be underestimated. But by not concerning themselves with radio hits or MTV airtime, the Vandals have stayed a band for punk kids. With a finger in almost every imaginable entertainment pie, the band is guaranteed to exit the punk game with mighty shoes to fill. But with a new album out, a new film on the way, and who knows what else in the works, don't expect them to bow out any time soon.

Influenced by bands like Social Distortion, the Clash, the Damned, and Stiff Little Fingers, the Vandals are founded by guitarist Jan Nils Aukerman in Huntington Beach, California; the line-up is rounded out by bassist Steve Pfauter, drummer Joe Escalante, and vocalist Stevo. Before long, the Vandals find themselves banned from numerous local venues, the victims of an anti-punk backlash amongst clubs who feared the "hoodlum element" present in bands like T.S.O.L. (True Sounds of Liberty). An incident with local legend Pat Brown at one of the band's shows doesn't help things. "He was sitting in his car at the Cuckoo's Nest [a punk haunt in Costa Mesa, California]. Some undercover cops came and were hassling him. They were dressed like punkers with trench coats, because that was what they gleaned from the punk fashion world. Trench coats equal punk. They were trying to hassle him, and he didn't know they were cops, so he thought he was getting assaulted. He started driving his car and dragging them, and then all these cops were coming out of wherever trying to stop him. And he ran a few of them over," relates Joe Escalante, the only member of the band who remains today after numerous line-up changes. The Vandals immortalise Pat's actions with the song "The Legend of Pat Brown," which appears on their first EP: "Pat Brown / Tried to run the cops down / Pat Brown / Ran ‘em to into the ground."

The Vandals are the first band to be signed to Epitaph Records, and release an EP, Peace Thru Vandalism. Working with producer Thom Wilson (who would later assist D.O.A., Iggy Pop, Iron Maiden, and the Offspring on their 1994 breakthrough Smash), the band bang out six tracks in no time. "It was a lot of fun because there wasn't that much pressure," Joe Escalante recalls now. "Records in those days were recorded in just a couple of days. You just power through it. You weren't competing with the New Found Glory record — you were competing with shitty recordings coming out of Hermosa Beach."

The Vandals are asked to appear in Penelope Spheeris' film, Suburbia, along with T.S.O.L. and DI. Spheeris had already made a name for herself in the Southern California punk scene with her film The Decline of Western Civilization Part I, a documentary of early ‘80s Los Angeles punk rock. "I saw The Decline, then I joined a band, they got popular pretty fast, and we were in a movie," Joe says. "To me, it seemed like I was going to be in a movie every year. It was artificially easy." The band plays a benefit concert for the Cypress College Young Republicans, a seemingly "un-punk" thing to do. Those who protested the move, according to Joe, "forgot the concept of anarchy — no government." In fact, it was less of a political statement than something unusual to do; the Vandals, to this day, keep themselves removed from the political side of punk. "I wouldn't force my views on anybody. I wouldn't even suggest my views on anybody, ‘cause I'm in a silly punk band. If I was out singing about politics, I think that would be different. But I'm just playing bass in a band with songs about haircuts."

Moving to National Trust Records, the band releases their debut full-length When In Rome Do As The Vandals. Though the recording is marred by personality clashes between vocalist Stevo and the rest of the band, he speaks diplomatically today: "I like it, I just think it's natural to think that your early recordings are amateurish and the songs aren't very well thought out. I know how much effort I put into writing songs on that record and recording them, and it's nothing compared to what we do today." The problems with Stevo come to an end with the discovery of Dave Quackenbush who joins as the band's singer. Owner of an alcohol distribution company that employs "people with mohawks," Dave remains with the band to this day.

While playing a gig with a band called Doggy Style, the Vandals witness the antics of one Warren Fitzgerald. "He was wearing a dinosaur suit and shredding on a wireless guitar and jumping on people's tables at a 21-and-over cocktail bar. That's what we needed." Warren joins as a guitarist. Once again, the band find themselves being cast in a Penelope Spheeris film, this time in the Randall Jahnson-penned Dudes, featuring Lee Ving from the band Fear, as well as Flea (Red Hot Chili Peppers). The movie is widely panned, but has an unexpected benefit for Joe. "I didn't have any money, my five-year high school reunion was coming up and I couldn't afford the tickets. The filming for the movie was the same night as the reunion, so I got to tell my friends to make my apologies — I was in Hollywood making a film. I was saved."

The Vandals try their hand at country with Slippery When Ill, later reissued as The Vandals Play Really Bad Original Country Tunes. It's entertaining and not as bad as it could have been, but the reasoning behind its existence remains as murky as the Vandals line-up over the next couple of years. "We had a guitar player who had given up on punk rock. He didn't like it anymore, and he didn't think it had anything to offer. He wanted to progress. There were a lot of compromises, and some of our stuff was cow-punky anyway. More songs were coming out like that, and we went that way." The band's technical limitations also pose an interesting problem during recording. Joe, having recently switched from drums to bass, is unable to play all the bass parts. Though Joe is credited in the album's liner notes, the bass is played by Robbie Allen, who would go on to sing back up for the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Joe instead plays drums on the album, taking over from the band's current drummer, whose skills are somewhat lacking. The Vandals' drummer problems are soon solved, however, through frequent trips to Disneyland and the subsequent discovery of Josh Freese. Dave and Joe witness Josh's immense rhythmic talents behind the kit in one of Disneyland's house bands and, upon learning that he is into punk rock, immediately woo him into the Vandals fold. With Josh on drums, the Vandals line-up is complete, and remains so for the next 15 years. At the same time, Joe decides that he needs to "get on with his vocation," and goes to law school.

Fear of a Punk Planet, considered by many the first true Vandals album, is released by Triple X Records. "That's when we started becoming serious about making good products," Joe says. "That's when we really joined the punk rock music industry, where bands like NOFX, Lagwagon, and Bad Religion had been out making great records just for punk kids, not worrying about who else would buy them, and not worrying about what was cool. We probably should have changed the name of the band at that time." Josh continues to drum outside the Vandals, and his work with Dweezil Zappa leads to a guest appearances by both he and Moon Unit Zappa on the record. Actor Kelsey Grammar (Frasier) also sings and plays piano. Josh's work as an active studio drummer continues to this day — he even played all the drums on Guns N' Roses' Chinese Democracy, should it ever be released.

Joe graduates from law school and lands at job as a television executive at CBS. "For my first assignment on the first day, I was handed a list of the Beverley Hillbillies' home phone numbers and told ‘You've got to contact these people, because they don't have agents anymore, and negotiate deals for the Beverly Hillbillies reunion we're broadcasting next season.' It was like that every day. It was great." As part of the CBS team, Joe helps negotiate contracts with Chuck Norris for Walker, Texas Ranger and William Shatner for Rescue 911. The money Joe makes at CBS goes directly into financing the next Vandals record. Keanu Reeves fills in for an absent Joe on bass during a New Year's Eve party. It's captured on videotape by an audience member, but all the band knows of its whereabouts is that "some guy, somewhere, who went into the military, has it… somewhere."

With much of their back catalogue currently out of print, The Vandals record a live album and video titled Sweatin' To The Oldies, composed primarily of material from When In Rome and Peace Thru Vandalism. Rarely do these songs feature in Vandals set lists anymore. "If we do play those songs, people start yawning and walking away." Warren begins a brief, three-year stint with Danny Elfman's Oingio Boingo, playing guitar on two albums, as well as the Grammy-nominated farewell video, Live At The Universal Amphitheatre.

As punk bands like Green Day and the Offspring garner mainstream success, the Vandals sign to Nitro Records, a new label owned and operated by the Offspring's Dexter Holland and Greg Kriesel. Nitro releases Live Fast Diarrhea, a record produced before the band had even signed to the label. "It was just a real punk rock experience. ‘Everyone go to your home four-tracks, write the best three or four songs you can and bring them back. We're going to make a punk record.'" The album marks Warren's debut as a producer, which aides in the band's comfort level. Warren would go on to produce all subsequent Vandals albums, as well for artists like the Ataris and Jughead's Revenge. Long-time Vandals fan Chris Carter approaches the band about including them in an upcoming episode of his show X-Files. "I was totally thrilled," Joe says. "It was far and away the best show on TV. To be a part of it was just a real honour," Joe states. The episode airs in October under to name "D.P.O.", and features Giovanni Ribisi as a young Vandals fan with the power to harness lightening. Jack Black also stars in the episode.

With a title taken from late-night radio talk show host Art Bell's theory of the acceleration of the rate of strange occurrences on our planet, The Quickening is released on Nitro. The album includes a song called "Aging Orange," which calls out ‘80s punks Agent Orange for attempting to sue the Offspring for royalties with the lyrics: "I'll take out my frustrations / On one of these ungrateful new punk rock bands / ‘Cause I invented socks / And I invented gravy / I made up the cotton gin / But no one ever paid me." Joe has since apologised to the band, remarking that, "At that time, I was writing a bunch of songs that were silly and stupid and the rest of the band didn't like them. So I go ‘Here's a mean one.' Everyone thought it was funny, except for the band that it was about. Afterwards I felt bad. It was the wrong thing to do." In the same year, Joe and Warren start up Kung Fu Records. Things are rough right from the beginning: "Someone tried to totally destroy our label by circulating a paper saying that we were a major label and a big scam. Here I am: I quit my job, I moved out of my house in the hills and into a small apartment, I poured all of my money into a small independent label that my wife and I were running, and someone came out of the woodwork to try and destroy it with anonymous letters that they tried to get published in fanzines and on the internet. We still suffer from that to this day, where people think we're a phoney label that's owned by a major." In 2003, Joe would find out who circulated the letter, but would only say that it was "someone very rich and on crack." The label inaugurates its existence with the release of a Vandals Christmas album titled Oi To The World. The title track would later be re-recorded by No Doubt, and go on to become the Vandals' only Gold record.

1998 to 1999
Described as Saved By The Bell meets Gilman St., Fear of a Punk Planet, a Vandals-produced series of half-hour shows, begins airing on the Digital Entertainment Network, or The seven episodes remain up until goes out of business, at which point Kung Fu acquires the rights to release them on DVD. Starring the Vandals, as well as Kyle Gass from Tenacious D, the series is "so ridiculous that they're not a big priority. They finish their second album for Nitro, Hitler Bad, Vandals Good. Tired of being interviewed by skating and boarding magazines and feeling stupid for not taking part in either, the band starts up Schwing!, a punk rock golf magazine. The first issue features No Doubt on the cover, with Tony Kanal sporting a "Golf Is For Pussies" T-shirt. With coverage divided between golf tournaments and golfing punk rock bands, the mag is well received, although it only sells well enough to live through four issues.

For the album Look What I Almost Stepped In, the band enlists Chris Sheldon and Bradley Cook to mix and engineer respectively; the duo recently finished the Foo Fighters' The Colour and The Shape, and the Vandals hope to capture some of that energy, going so far as to record in the same studio. Look completes the band's contract with Nitro, and the decision is made to move to the Vandals-owned Kung Fu. "People were saying ‘If your label's so great, why aren't you on it?'" Happy to be able to focus their energies on one label, the band remains at Kung Fu. On July 15, Joe makes his debut in the bullfighting ring in Tecate, Mexico, killing a 500 lb. bull. A recent graduate of the California Academy of Tauromaquia. Joe says "I thought it was a secret society or something when I grew up. How would you learn that? Who would teach you? Where would you go? When I found it on, I checked it out and everyone was very cool and nice. It was good for my Spanish, too, and I've been going strong ever since."

Warren lends his guitar talents to Tenacious D's self-titled debut and plays live with them when possible. His friendship with both Jack Black and Kyle Gass results in him co-writing two songs for the film School of Rock with Black and co-star/scribe Mike White. His contribution can be heard on the songs "Fight," performed by Black's band No Vacancy, and "In The End of Time."

Filmmaker Jeff Richardson approaches Kung Fu about releasing the soundtrack to a film he plans on producing titled That Darn Punk. Having already released a soundtrack for the Ben Affleck / Alyssa Milano movie Glory Daze in 1996, the label is cautious. Richardson cuts down his production costs to $20 000 and Kung Fu takes care of financing and distribution of the film. The film stars the Vandals alongside, once again, Kyle Gass. The soundtrack, produced by the label and featuring the music of the Vandals as well as Pennywise and A.F.I., helps propel sales of the film well beyond initial expectations. Yet sales for the soundtrack itself are still under par. "Housewives see a movie like Oh Brother Where Art Thou and think ‘I don't know what this music is, but I sure would like to have it conveniently packaged and put in a CD so I can play in my car.' Kids see a soundtrack and go ‘That is a sampler, and I can buy one of those for a dollar at the Warped Tour. You want me buy that for $15? You are crazy.'" The band releases Internet Dating Superstuds, a net-themed album inspired by Warren's and Dave's obsession with online dating sites. As part of the promotion, fans are given the chance to go on dates with a member of the Vandals by uploading a picture and profile to the band's website, where they are voted on other visitors. Tool's Maynard James Keenan uses a photo of a mutilated penis for his picture. A punk rock version of "Hot or Not" is also added to the band's website.

Joe works to complete his second film, the abuse comedy Cake Boy, which stars Warren as an ill-treated roadie for No Use For A Name who finds happiness with a girl in a wheelchair. The film was originally titled Selwyns Nuts, a name deemed too stupid and unpronounceable. With the release of their latest effort, Hollywood Potato Chip, the Vandals maintain realistic and modest expectations: "It's very hard to get people to buy your 11th or 12th studio album. A typical Vandals fan probably has six or seven records. He or she doesn't have an urge to buy the eighth when it comes out, ‘cause they can get it later. It'll be there. When you come to town, that Vandals guy will be there for sure because he has six or seven albums. So the very thing that motivates him to come to your show does the exact opposite to get him to buy your album."

Essential Vandals

Fear Of A Punk Planet (Triple X, 1991)
"For any Vandals fan, it's really the first Vandals album," Joe says. After ten years of line-up changes and a few uneven releases, the band hits on the winning formula that would endear them to fans around the world.

The Vandals Play Really Bad Original Country Tunes (Kung Fu, 1999)
A re-release of the band's 1989 album Slippery When Ill, the name says it all. While not the Vandals' strongest release, there is something to be said for hearing the band try their hand at country and not fail. An interesting look into the somewhat rough transitional period the band went through before the acquisition of drummer Josh Freese.

Internet Dating Superstuds (Kung Fu, 2002)
Worth the purchase if only for the hilarious videos that accompany it, this album contains such gems as "Disproportioned Head" and "The Unseen Tears of the Albacore." Taking advantage of all the creative promotional opportunities afforded by the record's artistic theme, the band proved once again that they are at the top of their comedic game.