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Vandals | Look What I Almost Stepped In | interview | Warren Fitzgerald | punk | Lollipop

The Vandals

Look What I Almost Stepped In... (Nitro)
An interview with guitarist Warren Fitzgerald
by Scott Hefflon

The first song on Look What I Almost Stepped In (Nitro), "Behind the Music," talks jokingly about how you decided to go for a "radio single" this time out...
Nitro really liked the record and thought they could do something with it. And you can tell from the attitude of the first song that we were like, "Cool. Whatever." It's not like we're high-fiving each other each radio add we get... We want people to hear the music, but we're not writing our Grammy speeches yet.

I didn't realize you were in Oingo Boingo before this... How long has this line-up of The Vandals been together?
It's been this line-up for about a decade, and we've been on Nitro since '95 - so that's half a decade - and this is our fourth record for them. Ever since we signed with Nitro and put out Live Fast Diarrhea ('95), we've been more of a band, more prolific...

So you got more organized and took the band more seriously?
Well, one of the main reasons we're still together is that it's always been pretty casual. It's not like we have band meetings and stuff... We try to do it right and learn from our mistakes and other bands' mistakes. Then Joe (Escalante, bass) and I started Kung Fu Records, just to have a place for our music and our film stuff.

What was the impulse to start a label?
When we went on tour, we had all these new bands opening for us, and we thought it'd be a really good way to help out. Our thinking was, "OK, here's a band no one knows about. I can produce their record, Joe can deal with the business of getting it distributed, and we can take them on tour and expose them to people who come to see us." Joe's psychotically ambitious. I don't think he sleeps. I like to produce records, but when the record's done, I'm done with it. Joe likes to do as much as possible with each record.

So you make good partners because you each come from two distinct schools of thought...
Nah, we're pretty much on the same page. It's not like Joe's all business and I'm the brooding artist weirdo who's all about "This is my Art"... I'm very critical, and I'd rather produce my own ideas than subject someone else to my rambling ideas.

I like the idea that you were signed to Nitro, the label Dexter (from the Offspring) started when his band started to make an embarrassing amount of money, and soon after, you started Kung Fu to support bands yourselves.
It's a generational thing... Epitaph was started by Brett from Bad Religion, who signed bands and took them on tour. When the Offspring started to take off, Dexter started Nitro and did the same thing. He signed us to his label, we started our own label, and know we're signing bands and taking them on tour. Eventually, one of the bands on our label will start a label and the cycle continues...

Have any of the bands on your label talked about starting their own label?
Not in any official capacity, but I think it's coming. Take a band like The Ataris - they really like Useless I.D. from Israel. They really wanted to help the band get heard, so they did a split with them. So everyone that likes The Ataris got to hear Useless I.D.. It's the same theme that continuously perpetuates.

Tell me of The Vandals' signing to Nitro.
The Offspring used to open crappy, local shows for us in and around L.A. in the early '90s when there really weren't a lot of venues booking punk shows. They were on Epitaph at the time, and it was like, "Oh, cool." Back then, it was a miracle if a band'd sell 15,000 copies, but that was still a lot more than us. We actually recorded Live Fast Diarrhea without a label, but when Dexter heard it, he was interested in putting it out and took us on tour with him. Of course, we were opening for the Offspring this time... That time period, '94 or so, was really interesting because punk bands started to become successful. Originally, Nitro was Dexter's back-up plan, just in case his band didn't do so well.

The Vandals and Guttermouth were two of the first bands on Nitro, right?
Yeah. Dexter started Nitro partly because Epitaph wasn't interested in Guttermouth - which is ironic because Epitaph just signed Guttermouth - and I think we were the second band on the label.

Fat Wreck Chords was in full swing before "the punk explosion," right?
Yeah, that's another amazing success story, though maybe on a smaller scale mainstream media-wise. They do good business, have a distinct sound, and they have a reputation so kids'll buy a record by a band they don't know just cuz it's on Fat. There's a continuity that people've come to expect. NOFX takes Fat bands on tour to Europe and across America and really helps out bands... Joe and Fat Mike have been friends since, God, since junior high or something. It's funny because I remember seeing NOFX in the mid-'80s when I was in high school and I felt really sorry for them because they were so awful. But they tried so hard, they were relentless... But they got their shit together, became a really great band and toured and put out records consistently, and now their millionaires.

You've produced pretty much everything on Kung Fu?
Not everything, but most of it.

Who are you producing now?
Actually, we're working on something a little different now... For the first feature film we're doing, That Darn Punk, we're doing a soundtrack to go with it with songs from the movie and unreleased material from different bands. And we're putting some bands in the studio to do one song for us. It's kinda fun to work with a band for two days, but not have to do a whole record. And a few of the bands, I'm sure I'll be working with again.

You did a WebTV show, Fear of a Punk Planet, for, before they went under, right?
Yeah, downloadable or streaming or whatever... I'm not very good with the technical side of computers, but I think if you had a dial-up modem, it became more of a slide show. It was pretty tricky cuz the screen was only about two inches wide... We did six episodes, the premise being Degrassy High meets Saved by the Bell at Gillman St. with a guest band every week. So it was kind of a Larry Sanders behind-the-scenes thing, but done in a Saturday morning sit-com style. But Den blew though 200 million dollars, and that was that. But we're going to release the video on Kung Fu by the end of the year. Each one's about 22 minutes or so and ends with a band. Most of the bands act in the episode, or at least have a few lines, so it's really fun. We had NOFX, Sick of it All, Strung Out, Good Riddance, Bouncing Souls...

No Vandals episode?
No, that'd be impossible to do because Joe and I play characters on the show. Unless we did an "evil twin" episode, and we never got that far.

Tell me more about the full-length movie.
It's called That Darn Punk and it's going direct to video. No screeners, no screen release, blah, blah, blah, just video and DVD. It's a $20,000 movie, which is basically like doing a record for about $14. We own a 16mm camera, all the editing equipment, and we have a sound stage. We filmed a lot of it out in the desert, so the only real expenses were the film stock and the processing. You can go through $20,000 like nothing... That's basically the catering bill on a medium-sized movie. I haven't seen the final cut for it because it's still being edited, but I'm doing the score for it as well as the soundtrack. And the cool thing about the soundtrack is that it'll be a good compilation, even if you've never seen the movie.

Are there cool cameos by bands and stuff?
Yeah. Joe's the romantic/action lead in the movie - his first major acting experience and the director's first major directing experience - and he plays a guy in a band that happens to be The Vandals but is called The Big Tippers in the movie. The band name's stolen from a scene in That Thing You Do where the band's trying to think of a name. Little trivia for ya... And Guttermouth's in the movie, some live performance shots and stuff. Basically, it's a punk movie with a little bit of gunfire and action and relationships and stuff.

Back in "my" day - probably your day as well - we had movies like Suburbia and Repo Man...
Exactly. That was part of the inspiration and motivation in making the movie. It was feasible. Suburbia is not a good movie. It's not well-acted, it's not well-written, but punk kids'll watch that movie endlessly. They memorize it and love it. Repo Man is one of my all-time favorite movies, because what else was there?

While I don't know how well it did, I think SLC Punk is a great new addition to punk movies.
Yup, and that's 15 years later... So now we're up to, what?, four movies of this type. Another impulse was the video we did, Sweatin' to the the Oldies, the kinda documentary home video. That thing sold really well, and some of the kids who come see us live have seen that thing repeatedly. They recite dialogue from it! We figured out that when we released Live Fast Diarrhea - about a year after the original release of Sweatin' to the Oldies - it was the equivalent of doing about nine months worth of touring. Except we got to sit at home instead...

You're in a position to pull in some good names and stuff. Like in Glory Daze...
Yeah, we just did the soundtrack for that, but that was Ben Affleck's first lead role. From all the years of being in a band, we have a lot of friends who are comedians and comedy writers and actors - all with varying levels of success. For my movie - the one I wrote and'll play the lead in - I'm calling in every favor from every recognizable face I know to have some fun and play a part.

When's it due out?
Probably in April. We're in pre-production, scouting locations, but most of the casting is pretty blocked in. But once you get rolling, sure it's a pain in the ass, but it's the lead-up planning that takes the most. That's one thing we learned from doing the first film. It was done sporadically over a year and a half, it was like, "OK, we have two days off, let's go out to the desert to shoot the scene that comes after that scene that we shot six months ago." The next one'll be a more concentrated effort...

Also, someone could've grown a beard or gotten a haircut...
Yeah, continuity is really a problem when you work like that.

They've even gone so far now to film multiple sequels at the same time... I think Back to the Future was one, and The Matrix is another...
Yeah, when you have everything together and a winning franchise like that, you might as well. And Keanu's got a tour to do...

Speaking of music/movie crossovers, if Johnny Depp, Kevin Bacon, Keanu Reeves, and Don Johnson can do music, why can't you do movies?
I think the worst was Bruce Willis. I like his acting, but his fictitious blues character is worse than Blues Brothers 2000. I can't believe no one in the meeting for that movie ever said, "You know, this is going to suck." And I'm usually a fan of really bad ideas and really bad movies. The idea that so much effort goes into something you know off the bat is going to stink, I dunno, I just kinda respect that.

To double back to you as a producer, I didn't realize you'd produced No Doubt's cover of one of your Christmas songs.
"Oi to the World" is actually Joe's song, but yeah, it's a Vandals song. That was fun because they're old friends of ours. It's funny because Orange County is such a small scene, we're all friends - so bands you wouldn't necessary associate together are actually friends. It was great to see No Doubt get huge, and they were nice enough to take us on tour with them and cover one of our songs. And shit, I've known the guy in Sugar Ray for like 12 years. Mark McGrath may be a supermodel guy now, but I remember when we were all playing crappy 21+ clubs in the early '90s. They used to play frat parties in San Diego doing all covers, like KROC flashback weekend, and their original songs sounded like Ted Nugent. Then they got heavier, and then poppier.

Is it weird to watch people/bands become famous and turn into something other than what they've always been?
It's bizarre. But life in general is bizarre that way. Think of where you are in your life versus where you thought you'd be a few years back... The Offspring was the first... Actually, Social Distortion did fairly well commercially and came from Orange County. So to see No Doubt get huge, and Gwen get into US Magazine's top 50 sexiest people and you, like, hang out with her all the time, it's pretty weird. But it's cool, and I just look at it like winning the lottery.

One of your bands on Kung Fu, The Ataris, seem like their following Blink 182 to stardom. Tell me the story of meeting the band.
When the Vandals were touring, we found this guy, Kris Roe, in Indianapolis with a four-track tape of great songs. He moved out to Santa Barbara and we got him in the studio with the drummer from Lagwagon and released the record. He played everything else. By the time we put out the record, he'd gotten a band together. And that's what it's all about: great songs. Fat Mike really liked the record and wanted to do an EP with them. It was all really casual and we feel it really helped the band. They got exposed to the Fat crowd and played the Fat tour, but they're still a Kung Fu artist.

Thing I like best about the story is that it shows promise for talented unknowns. That it's not always who you know. You can be discovered if you're really that good.
Man, he was so green when he came out here. He'd never been anywhere, he'd lived in Indianapolis all his life, he was 19 or so. His life experience was, ya know, minimal... But he took the opportunity and is making something out of it. He's really prolific too. All he does is write songs, which is cool. If you're a songwriter, that's what you're supposed to do.

I've always been outraged that "songwriters" have the audacity to take a year and a half to write an album's worth of material, and there are usually only two or three good songs on the thing. What are they doing with their time and how dare they?!?
The worst mistake musicians make is thinking that something's good just because they made it. That's horseshit. Just because you did it doesn't guarantee anything. Everyone's capable of writing good songs and bad songs, it's just a matter of being objective and able to filter out the bad stuff. It's also a matter of having the motivation to write enough material to be able to discard what doesn't work. Put it back in the pot... I've put stuff on record that I thought was great when I wrote it, and then thought was so-so when we were done with it, and now I can't even listen to it. But I've found one thing to be true: Every fucked up and bad thing I've ever recorded, at some point, in some city, someone will come up to me and tell me it's their favorite song. But we try not to use that as a justification for releasing just anything we think of. I'd say we've grown and expanded as far as tempos and textures and stuff, but you really have to watch that you don't become self-indulgent. Like "Hey, I heard tango the other day, and I think we should incorporate tango into our music."

On the other hand, your Christmas record, Oi to the World, was very risky, yet is the most fun and creative thing you've done.
That record sold worse than any record we've ever done. By a long shot. That's why we recently repackaged it so it wouldn't look like a Christmas record, even though it is. Now we hopefully won't get all the returns on December 27th.

Did you know it was going to be an uphill battle when you did it?
No, but it wouldn't've mattered. We recorded that album for $2500, so it's far and away the cheapest record we've ever done. We did most of it in my home studio, so we were able to cut a lot of costs. It's also my favorite record because I got to play my keyboards and we got a string section to come in for one of the songs. That was half our budget right there. But to hire a string section to play a love song for a penis was worth it. Another reason I liked doing the record so much was because we could get away with a lot more... We could use a string section without people saying we'd lost our edge. It was liberating.

"That's My Girl" has keyboards...
Yeah, that's my "Good Vibrations" rip-off. Almost note-for-note. That and a few other songs on Look What I Almost Stepped In have a real Oldies-style to them. The reason for that being that when I listen to modern rock radio, I get really offended really quickly. "Great, more fourth generation Limp Bizkit going on and on about the same nonsense." So I flip to the Oldies and start laughing and feeling a lot better. The songs are fun because there's a naive quality to them. And they're short and based on simple structures. They have an optimism you can't get away with anymore without sounding like a complete idiot. "What About Me?" is four oldies mixed together - "the birds in the trees" aren't "chirping in trees," they're "deformed and diseased." (mumbling of other references and specifics I didn't ask him to repeat) The thing is, when I steal something, I usually steal the most obscure part, so no one really notices.

Except the "Good Vibrations" rip-off.
That's an homage. That's different from a rip-off. I'm really self-conscious about what I steal. It's either going to be really blatant and intentional, or it'll be old and obscure and backwards. I think a lot of bands listen to the radio and try to sound more like it, and that's the last thing I want to do. I hear a drum beat or a harmony in an Oldies song, and I try to make it mine by working it into a punk context. Music is a cannibalistic process anyway...

"Weird Al" is my favorite cannibal. He's been called a pop culture cuisinart.
We're all big "Weird Al" fans. In fact, we mixed our record where he mixed his last record, and we were more stoked on that than anything else that'd ever happened there.

I bring up "Weird Al" because both times I interviewed him, I really got the sense that he's a "research" kind of guy. He said that sitting around watching TV in his underwear is part of the creative process, and I agree. And I think you're similar in that you soak in the ideas in the course of your everyday life, and the ideas gel as you hang out and watch bad movies.
Put it this way: I've never written a song while on tour. Being in the bus, everything is inconvenient and a group activity, there's no privacy, no mental or physical space. You wake up every day and have to ask where the toilet is so you can poop. Everything's a hassle. Eating, laundry, everything...

Some people love that stuff. It makes the mundane exciting. But there's no room to contemplate anything.
It's interesting because you get to meet freaky people, the kind you see on Jerry Springer and are amazed actually exist. Whether it's pregnant teenagers smoking cigarettes and working at Burger King or an Olympic fencer, they're out there. And that helps when it comes to writing lyrics or coming up with characters for movies - you don't really have to create outrageous characters, you just have to recognize them when you see them.

But what about the depth, the motivation of a character? You may see a great, freaky character, but you can't really get to know them and figure out what makes them tick.
That's true, but I've spent almost half my life on tour, and I can fill in a lot of gaps. And within a small window, I'll often ask everything I can think of to find out what's going on. Which is kind of odd because I don't exactly have the best vocal communication skills in my everyday life. But there's always the anominity aspect because I'll probably never see the person again... And that's the one thing I do like about touring: You go, make a mess, and you're not there to clean it up. But that's a small perk for the day-in, day-out routine. It's the repetition that gets to me... You go somewhere, set everything up, you do your thing, then you take it down and go somewhere else.

Is the rest of the band anti-touring as well?
Definitely. Dave's got an alcohol distribution business, Joe and I have the label, Josh does his sessions... We've always had our other things going on, and that's helped relieve the pressure of being in the band.

Is Josh, with all the projects he's been in, some kind of road hog?
No, not at all. That's the funny thing... He's been on tour with A Perfect Circle for five months, the longest tour he's ever been on in his life. And he's been on a lot of tours. He's doing it because it's a casual side project, but it's also very successful, so they have to do it now... But he's a total drum slut: He plays sessions for everyone when he's home. It's his passion to play with fuckin' everyone and do as much as possible. "Stevie Nicks is doing a record? OK, I'll play drums on it." The list of people he's played with is ridiculous. So now he's missed five months of sessions, and I guarantee that's killing him more than anything.

But there are plenty of drummers who probably hate the tedious precision of the studio and just wanna tour and rock the world.
Sure, there's a great appeal to touring, especially when you're younger. When you're fresh out of high school, shit yeah, you wanna see the world, you wanna get laid, you wanna see and do things - that kind of Nomadic, Spring Break thing. But me, I'd rather produce records, make something that'll last, then go home and watch TV.
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