Jose "Joe" Escalante is the owner of Kung Fu Records, as well as an amateur bullfighter, independent moviemaker and - most importantly - bassist of one of my favorite punk bands in the world, Orange County's The Vandals (immortalized in a famous episode of The X-Files back when the show actually had plots). They just released their ninth full-length studio album, the incredibly entertaining and catchy Internet Dating Super Studs, as well as a double-disc live DVD called Sweatin' With The Oldies that Joe was kind enough to send me but it's just sitting there on the bookshelf because I don't have a DVD player. Regardless, I was tickled pink when Joe, the only member of the band who has played on every single LP, agreed to a telephone interview one fine evening.
(Some woman): King Fu Records!
Is Joe in the office right now?
Yes he is! May I ask who's calling?
This is Mark Prindle. I'm supposed to interview him right now, but I think his publicist gave me the wrong phone number.
Oh! Okay, let me get him.
(Some man): This is Joe.
Hi! This is Mark Prindle.
Oh, is the interview right now with you?
Oh great! I knew I had an interview at 3, but I didn't know it was with you.
Are you free right now?
I'm in the office, but I have time for an interview, sure!
Cool! Sorry it took so long to get this set up. When I didn't hear from you for a couple months, I thought you might not have liked the drunken review I wrote of the new CD.
No no, I like your reviews (http://www.markprindle.com/vandals.htm)!
Oh yeah, your reviews are seriously among the most insightful and accurate descriptions of our albums that I've ever seen.
You're just making fun of me now.
No, I'm serious! When I first read your Vandals reviews, I emailed them to everybody and said, "This is a guy that's been paying attention. This guy knows what we're doing."
Well, I'm a big fan! I was thrilled when I got that reader comment from you about When In Rome, Do As The Vandals.
Yeah, I agreed with you on that one.
I don't like it anywhere near as much as your other albums, but I don't loathe it the way you seem to. What is it about that record that you dislike so much?
I just don't think there's very much good stuff on it. We were just hacking out stuff, like "Here's a song, okay here's another song." That album was just, I mean you can hear the progression between that and Fear Of A Punk Planet - it had a couple good songs, but there was no refining of any of them. We were just like, "Here, here's how it goes," then we'd memorize it and it would never change. Now there's refining of songs when we write, so we record albums that we can be proud of years later.
In that American Hardcore book, they say that Stevo was really violent.
No, he wasn't.
I mean, they said that like whenever there was a fight, he would be involved.
So what happened to the band in the seven years between that album and Fear Of A Punk Planet? Did the band completely break up? Or did people just leave and get replaced one at a time until you had the current line-up?
It was always one at a time. Shit? Hang on a second?.
What's going on?
I'm trying to make dubs of a Tsunami Bomb video. I'm the only one here that knows how to use this equipment. I'm also working on a Mest DVD. We're doing a series of live DVDs - did you get the Vandals DVD?
Yeah! Thank you for that! I guess I have to actually go out and get a DVD player now.
Yeah, you do! There's a lot of great bonus stuff on there. That's the first one in our series, then the others will be bands that aren't on Kung Fu. Do you know Mest? I'm working on that one right now.
Yeah, they're one of those major label punk bands - they're on Maverick.
Oh. No, I've never even heard of them!
They're the second band. The third is gonna be the Alkaline Trio. Fourth will be Guttermouth. And the fifth will be Piebald. Do you know them? Piebald?
I've heard of them. I've heard of all of those except Mest.
Mest is in like the Goldfinger world. They're on tour with Homegrown and Goldfinger. And they have the same manager as The Ataris, who are on our label. Originally, I was just doing the guy a favor by including them in the series. Sometimes when you're on a major label, the Warped Tour and the punk core elude you because they feel like you're not in their world, so he wanted them to get a release out on Kung Fu. But then I saw them play and they were really good!
Really? Then why are they on Maverick?
They do pop-punk better than anybody. Their songs aren't amazing or breakthrough, but they're really good and the guys are actual punk rockers - ruining every opportunity they get, breaking things, messing everything up, then going on stage and playing great. Most of the pop-punk bands I know are just trying to get rich. And these guys are on a major label so you'd think they'd be that way too. But they're not. They're trying to stay true to punk rock. What were we talking about?
I was asking about the years between -
Oh yeah, between When In Rome and Fear of a Punk Planet. Well, we put out the country record Slippery When Ill.
Who played on that one?
I played drums. The bass player was a guy named Robbie Allen, though it says I played bass. He ended up in Candlebox, and then as a backup singer for the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Jan Ackermann played guitar and Dave Quackenbush sang. Robbie was never actually in our band. But our drummer at the time, Doug, wasn't good enough to play on the record, so I did it. And I wasn't good enough to play bass, so Robbie did.
Why did you switch over from drums to bass anyway?
Bass was easier. I got sick of touring with the drums and having to deal with all that equipment. Then we ran across Josh Freese. We'd seen his band a couple dozen times at Disneyland because Dave and I had season passes.
He played in a Disneyland band!?
Yeah! And then we heard he was available and that he liked punk rock, so we went to talk to him. Our album was being produced by Bob Casale from Devo, so that convinced him to join the band. He loved Devo. It's great; lately he's been more committed, going on tours with us and everything.
Why didn't he tour with you before?
Because he was making too much money doing other things!
Is it true that you practice law?
Kind of. I own a law firm. When you own a law firm, you don't do any of the legal work.
Oh, so you're not actually a lawyer.
I'm a practicing attorney. I just don't have to practice much anymore, because I've hired other people to do the work.
When the heck did you go to law school?
It was 1989. The band wasn't doing much, and I said, "This is ridiculous. I'm going to law school." Then we went on a European tour, and I thought, "Okay, I'll do the tour, then go to law school and that'll be the end of the band." But it turned out not to be the end! We kinda just kept going and said, "Let's make a great punk record and not worry about getting on the radio or anything." By that point, we had Josh, Warren and Dave, our current line-up. So we recorded Fear Of A Punk Planet and we liked it so much we said, "Let's go play these songs at Gilman St. and any all-ages punk rock club and fuck this whole bars thing." Because that's all that punk had to offer between '85 and '90. All the old bands like the Vandals and the Dickies and DI were playing at bars. So we said let's get out of that and play with Lagwagon and bands like that - Bad Religion, who were just getting good again.
So what happened with law school and everything?
After I graduated law school, I got a job working as a TV executive for CBS TV, negotiating talent deals.
Anybody big and famous?
The biggest deals I negotiated were Chuck Norris when he did that Walker, Texas Ranger show, and William Shatner on Rescue 911.
But then when The Offspring and Green Day got big, Nitro Records gave us the opportunity to quit our full time jobs for a year. So that's when I started Kung Fu Records. I had money put away, so we moved out of our big house into this apartment and basically took a chance on our music.
Is the label doing well?
The label has paid off in a big way. Not only do I make a lot more money than I did before; there's also a lot more freedom. I can tour whenever I want. But I will say that it's a little too much work. Everything's gotta be a good deal for punk bands - it's gotta be cheap. A punk band can't pay $20,000 for video, you know? So I make it for them. It gets draining.
That actually brings up another question I wanted to ask you. Having been on both sides - being in an independent band AND owning a label - would you say that bands who complain about their record labels are just not understanding what goes into it? Or do record labels really rip artists off as much as the artists say they do?
If you're talking about Fat Wreck Chords, Nitro, BYO, Hopeless, Epitaph or something like that, usually the bands complaining are doing so because they're not selling a lot of records. Everybody thinks they should be selling more records. It takes a long time before you grasp what is reasonable for a punk label to achieve. Some things they should achieve - The Vandals have totally reached that understanding, they have a great attitude, they know some things are impossible. But then, most labels would be like, "Hey, we gotta get a radio hit! Do this thing, do that thing," and they don't have to do that a lot here. They trust us, because they know if they have to do something, I'm gonna have to do it too. Play shows, make videos, sell records?. They didn't want to make a video, but we finally got one down.
You made a video? Like an MTV video?
We have the raw footage and someone to edit it. That's a great new development - getting someone else to do it!
What song is it?
I LOVE that song! Those false endings are so hilarious.
We picked that as a single because it's a good punk rock song. We're trying to say to people that we're a punk rock band and we're not trying to get on the radio. We're not out to make an MTV hit. We didn't pick a slower one that we thought would be more accessible; we wanted to do a song that was representative of our album.
That always bugged me about Bad Religion - that they always make videos of the slowest songs on their albums.
Right! And they have success because they have history of MTV airplay. We've done that before - picking a midtempo song that we think might be a hit. But we're not gonna have a hit, so why should we release the one weird midtempo song as a single rather than a fast punk one that's more representative of our sound? I don't know if that was a good idea or not, so who knows what kind of reaction it will get. But music review people will at least be able to say, "Hey, this is a record that's more of what the Vandals are all about!" Part of that is because the song we chose to push is more typical of us than some weird song. I'm sick of punk bands whose albums are good but then their single is the most non-punk thing on there. For a band our age - that could work for younger band like The Ataris or MxPx, but The Vandals? We're old - there's not gonna be any radio or MTV!
I noticed in the press release that came with the CD that Warren is making a big deal about how this album is for the fans and it's a return to the old sound and you're not trying to make a hit record. So was the last album designed for radio success? Well, not all of it. I mean the more commercial stuff like "Kick It" and "Jackass."
Well, what happened with "Jackass" is that Dexter from the Offspring wanted to write a song with us. What were we gonna do, say no? We wanted to do whatever he wanted to do. But that's a song that I think everyone in the band was in total disagreement about. A lot of people in the band didn't want to do that song. Then it was used to sell the record and it wasn't representative of the record. It wasn't representative of The Vandals.
Are those lyrics a true story or -
No, it's made up.
Oh, I thought maybe your wife had -
Well, a long time ago I had a girlfriend who sang for Sin 34, and one time I went on a date to watch one of her shows and it was very uncomfortable.
Because it's just weird when your girlfriend sings angry punk rock music!
I actually really like that song. The one that bugs me is "Kick It."
I like "Kick It"! Dave wrote it and it's really different from anything else we've done.
It just sounds so designed-for-radio-success.
No, that was "Jackass." "Kick It" was more genuine. It wasn't like, "Hey, guess what? Here's a weird song!"
Why are most of your songs credited to Warren? Do you like his songs the best or do the rest of you just not have time to write as much as he does?
e's better at it and I don't have the time. I barely have time to write anything anymore.
Is there going to be a point when you're so busy, you won't want to play in the band anymore?
Nah, I won't want to leave the band. It's still fun! Brett left Bad Religion when the band was going to a major label and there was so much pressure. But with these guys in our band now, there's no pressure. If nobody has time to tour, then we can afford to not tour. And when we do tour, Kung Fu keeps running while I'm gone. I have 10 or 11 employees at various levels keeping it going. The only thing that nobody else can do but me is the video and film stuff. So that takes up most of my time. But I'm looking to hire more people, so the place can function completely while I'm gone.
Now let me ask you a bit about your bullfighting.
Well, generally speaking, not a whole lot of rock musicians are also bullfighters.
That's true. But there are lots of bullfighters that happen to be musicians.
So how did you get into bullfighting?
It's just something I grew up with. I grew up in a Mexican family and it was part of our culture.
Did you grow up in Mexico?
No, we were in Orange County, but we were an hour and a half from the border and that's where we went sometimes on Sunday outings, to go to the bullfights. Then a few years ago, I saw on the Internet that some guy had a bullfighting school. So I said, "What an asshole! I gotta check that out!"
What does your wife think about this hobby?
She likes it!
How often do you do it?
I train every Saturday at Griffith Park when I'm in town, then I usually have two bullfights a year where I kill something. It's expensive! It's one of those hobbies like dog sledding. Every time you kill something, you're killing a very valuable piece of meat. But you get money from the butcher, so that helps.
What does it feel like, though? To kill an animal?
It's really - I don't know. It's really cool. I mean, I know for some people, that's their job everyday and it seems like it could get depressing. But these animals are really pampered and live a lot longer than animals going to slaughterhouse.
Yeah, because they're raised to fight. When the time comes, it's a big day for the matador, but it's the price the bulls pay for having a good life. Otherwise, they wouldn't have a good life. When a bull goes into a pro ring, it's four and a half years old. A typical hamburger is made from a bull that's one or two years old and has been pretty much tortured and castrated, living in terrible conditions. Everybody knows bulls don't have a fun life in slaughterhouse. But in the bullfighting world, they come from a really valuable genetic strain; they're fighting bulls.
I'm glad you explained that, because on the site (www.vandals.com), you say something about how if people really understood bullfighting, they'd approve of it. So I was wondering what that meant.
Yeah, exactly. The females are killed a little earlier, but they're still pampered. Some are tested and don't charge, and those are killed right away for meat, because they can't afford to feed 'em, you know? But the one in the ring has had the best life of any livestock. And yes, the last 20 minutes suck, but before that, it's led a pretty great life.
That's interesting. I had never heard anything about that.
Bullfighting plays a big part in Mexican art and history. So many families earn their money in Mexico and Spain raising bulls. So when you look at it from that perspective, you're proud to be a part of it. But yeah, if you walk in off the street, it can look barbaric.
When you bullfight, is your life put at risk? Could a bull kill you in the ring?
There's more of a chance that I could be paralyzed or have an eye gouged out. There's not much chance of a fatality.
Why is that?
The ones I fight could toss me, but I'd be rescued right away. In the professional ring, one big swoop and it's over; those guys honestly are risking their lives. But those are the experts who've been fighting bulls their whole lives. The best bullfighter is a guy named El Juli - when you see him, it's like seeing Tiger Woods. Except Tiger doesn't come close to death every time he swings the golf club.
Can a bull win? Or is he killed either way?
The only way a bull can win is if he does well, follows well, charges beautifully, never stops and will keep going and going. If that happens, then the audience will insist that the bull be set free, and he'll become a very valuable seed bull. But if it REALLY wins, like if it kills the matador or injures him to where he's carried away, then the bullfight is over and another matador comes out and kills it right away.
How far would you like to go with your moviemaking career? What are your goals and whatnot?
I just finished filming Selwyn's Nuts, and I'll be editing that on tour after I finish the Tsunami Bomb thing. It stars Warren Fitzgerald!
Will that be in theaters or -
It'll be just like That Darn Punk, released on DVD.
What was the audience reaction to That Darn Punk?
If people like weird movies, they like it. Some people REALLY like it. An average movie fan will think it's stupid and... not a good movie! But people who don't care how good or bad it is - they're just so appreciative that we made a movie for punk people. The one we're making now is like "Let's write a movie for Vandals fans."
How'd you get into filmmaking anyway?
The first one was a guy wrote a movie and he wanted me to put out the soundtrack. I told him I'd pay for the movie if he changed it to have something to do with punk rock. If he did that, he could make a movie for 20 grand. And Warren wrote Selwyn's Nuts!
Did he? Cool! Is it funny?
Well, it's the very first movie he's ever written, and I would have loved to tell him that it sucked, but it's great. Every page is very funny.
What's it about?
He plays a roadie for No Use For A Name, so he goes around on tour with them and they abuse him. Then he falls in love with a girl in an electric wheelchair and it goes on from there.
How long til it's finished?
It's due out in... March maybe? I still have so much work to do though. Putting in sound effects, tweaking the sound, all that stuff.
Did you all write your own segments for the Internet Dating Super Stars enhanced CD?
Yeah, everyone came up with their own thing.
Were they scripted?
It was like Blair Witch where we go, "Okay, here's the scenario" and then we make it funny.
Were those kids in Dave's segment in on the joke? I mean, did they intentionally act like that or were they really that embarrassing?
I didn't know those kids in Dave's film.
Did you film them?
No, it was a friend with a Camcorder.
Did Warren's date really speak no English? Or was that just a joke?
Warren's date really did have very limited English-speaking skills.
Your section was hilarious. With you and your wife reading the Bible and then your dates dragging you to a Slayer concert?
Yeah! We had a lot of fun doing that.
And I loved how you politely asked the metalheads in the parking lot who was performing that night. After they said "Slayer," what did you ask them? I couldn't make it out.
Oh, I said, "How does that glorify Jesus?"
If you listen closely, you can hear them yell "Faggot!" as we drive away.
Has your audience been gradually growing larger and larger over the years or remaining about the same?
Ticket sales are definitely getting larger, but record sales are pretty much the same in the U.S. with every release. In Japan and Europe they're growing. They're growing a lot. This record has sold four or five times what the last one did in Europe. Maybe 10 times what the last one did in Japan.
So why aren't sales increasing in the U.S.?
Because for a lot of people, if a band has ten albums, there's no urgency to buy the 11th. An average Vandals fan owns six Vandals albums. What does he care when an 11th comes out? But if we come to his town, he'll be there! Why would he miss it?
So why are sales so high in Europe?
In Europe we don't have as many records available. We're not as well distributed over there. The four Nitro records were distributed alright, but those are the only ones. Our new one is actually getting the biggest push that any of our records has ever had in Europe. The crowds get bigger at about the same rate that they get bigger in U.S., but the record sales are increasing at a larger rate.
How come you never play on the East Coast? Or do I just keep missing you somehow?
We don't do too great on the East Coast, so usually we just go there on the Warped Tour and that's it. But we'll be over there on a headlining tour in late February.
Excellent! I'll be there. Oh, I also wanted to point out just to point it out - it was that X-Files episode that got me into the Vandals.
Really? Wow! That's great! I remember when that happened, I had kinda forgotten that it aired and the guy at Time Bomb, who our first two records are licensed to right now, called me and said, "What the hell happened? All of a sudden your sales went through the roof!" Sales were pretty dramatic after it aired.
And that was Giovanni Ribisi and Jack Black on that episode, right?
Yep! It's a classic episode.
Do your live shows attract violent punks at all? Or just the more fun-loving sort?
We used to attract a mix - a lot of the fun-loving ones but too many violent ones too. I'm talking a long time ago - before '89. You can see the last remnants of them on the Sweatin' To The Oldies DVD. We were opening for D.I. at that show. Luckily, we have managed to purge our audience of those meatheads. And we're very happy and proud about that.
So who is your audience now? Young kids or 29-year-old guys like me or what?
A lot of kids -- 16,17, 18 year-olds. A lot of them. All the old people went away. They kept yelling for "Pat Brown" and we wouldn't play it, so they'd yell, "Fuck You!" and we'd say, "Yeah? Okay! Bye!" Our new audience doesn't want to hear "Pat Brown"; it'd put 'em to sleep! Then there's the 13-year-old "old school" addicts who only want to hear the early stuff, which is basically like me being into Sha Na Na when I was 13.
To you, what separates the Vandals from Bad Religion and NOFX and every other punk rock band out there?
Ummm?. Our record sales? I don't know - Bad Religion has got political lyrics, we don't have those. I don't see too much -- I don't try to tell people we're different from those bands. If anything, we try to be LIKE those bands because we identify with those guys. Like them, we're committed to creating very good punk rock this late in our careers. We definitely want to be associated with them.
You ARE different though. Warren has a really unique playing style - he always throws in a bunch of little melodies and guitar tricks that you don't notice until the third or fourth listen. Plus you have those weird vocal harmonies.
Yeah, Warren's got his own thing he's trying to do. He's pretty intellectual in the studio. He doesn't listen to a lot of - he's not totally up on current punk rock but he's not oblivious to it either. He pretty much does his own thing.
I think the new one might have his most interesting playing yet. There are tons of great leads on there.
Some of his stuff is too much for kids - it's too weird for them! Over time it will be appreciated, even if it's not appreciated by someone who would appreciate Bad Religion or Pennywise.
I definitely appreciate it.
Well, we really appreciate your site.
Oh! Well, thank you! We've been on for an hour, so I guess I should let you get back to work. I'm actually going on vacation tomorrow for two weeks, so the interview won't be posted until after that.
Oh yeah? Where are you going?
Australia! Do you know Neil Hamburger?
Yeah, I love Neil Hamburger.
He's a friend of mine! I'm gonna see him while I'm there.
Seriously? I'd love to put out a Neil Hamburger DVD. Tell him this - this DVD series we're doing - the first one is the Vandals, next will be Mest, third Guttermouth, fourth Flogging Molly, fifth Piebald - these are committed, then we're going from there. But we really want to do a Neil Hamburger one!
Oh cool! I imagine he'd be really into that.
Tell him I'll email him after I get back from this tour. His would be the first one we do that isn't a band, and I don't know if we'll ever do another one that's not a band. Maybe we could do a few other comedians too, like David Cross and Paul F. Tompkins. But people we know, like the Alkaline Trio, if we tell them we're doing a Neil Hamburger DVD, that'll get the band excited.
Oh yeah! All the punk bands like him. The Alkaline Trio, the Vandals - it's hard for me to know who all is in the special club of people who love Neil Hamburger. Brooks Wackerman is a huge, huge fan. Maynard from Tool loves him. Wow, yeah - tell him I'll email him some information and he can do anything he wants with the DVD. Then we'll give the audio to him, and he can release the audio on another label and not give us anything!
Okay, I'll let him know! Thanks again for taking the time to speak with me. And keep up the good albums!
No problem! Talk to you later.
For more about the author please visit www.MarkPrindle.com.