VANDALS WITH CARE

Joe Escalante, bassist and founder of the Vandals, knows something about real punk rockers, in part because he and his bandmates (guitarist Warren Fitzgerald, vocalist Dave Quackenbush and drummer Josh Freese) have seen their share of poseurs.

"[The Stone Temple Pilots] used to go to high school with Warren," he says by way of explanation. "Back then they played in a Duran Duran cover band and used to yell, `Punk sucks!' at him every day. Now, all of a sudden, they're doing interviews saying that they met each other at Black Flag concerts that didn't even exist."

Unlike STP, the Vandals are the real thing: a Huntington Beach, California, party band that evolved into Orange County's favorite punk-rock delinquents. For Escalante, 31, the mayhem has been raging for thirteen years--longer than most Vandals fans have been eating solid food. Yet Escalante insists that the musicians who once sang the quixotic lines "America stands for freedom/But if you think you're free/Try walking into a deli/And urinating on the cheese" aren't ready to throw in the towel. "If someone enjoyed a Vandals show once and then came to see one of our shows now," he claims, "they would probably walk away thinking, `Wow, I didn't think they could ever get any more insane. But they did.'"

The Vandals' new, full-length video, Sweatin' to the Oldies (on Triple X Records, which has also released a separate CD with the same title), is ample proof of that. Narrated by Escalante and directed by Jeff Stein, best known for his work on the Who documentary The Kids Are Alright, Sweatin' to the Oldies captures the Vandals in all their juvenile splendor. Featuring off-stage interviews with each of the bandmembers as well as some of the most entertaining live concert footage this side of The Decline of Western Civilization, Oldies manages to chronicle the Vandals' distasteful musical hijinx in hilariously lurid detail.

Particularly appalling--and funny--are scenes featuring Fitzgerald, whom Escalante lovingly refers to as "the mutant boy." A man with a substantial I.Q. and sociopathic tendencies, Fitzgerald swears too much on stage, masturbates in public and (thanks to his double-jointedness) plays his guitar in ways that would make a contortionist flinch. Escalante vividly recalls the first time he and Quackenbush saw Fitzgerald in action: "He was up there wearing this dinosaur costume like your mom would make for Halloween or something, and he was playing the guitar with his dick. We thought, `My God, what do we have to do to get this guy in our band?'"

Although these freak-show antics are highlights of Sweatin' to the Oldies, the Vandals' patented thrash-and-burn style of music also shines. A good portion of the tape's sixteen tunes were written while Ronald Reagan was still in office, yet they sound anything but nostalgic. "Mohawk Town" and "Urban Struggle (I Want to Be a Cowboy)" stand as definitive precursors to today's flourishing cow-punk movement, and "Lady Killer," a funky punk/rap sendup, predates the Beastie Boys' License to Ill by almost five years. When Escalante wrote the song back in 1981, however, he wasn't trying to set any new musical trends. "Rap was just something that we were fascinated with at the time," he remembers. "But I couldn't see putting down our guitars and becoming the Beastie Boys or anything like that.

"You know why?" he continues, laughing. "Because I'm stupid! Yet another bad decision by the Vandals."

Fortunately, Escalante and his partners in crime have been more successful in their endeavors outside the band. Freese and Fitzgerald work as professional musicians: The former has played drums with everyone from Suicidal Tendencies to Juliana Hatfield, while the latter is a member of Boingo (formerly Oingo Boingo) and a composer of movie soundtracks. By contrast, Quackenbush runs his own beer distributorship, and Escalante divides his time between the Vandals and CBS television, where he works as an in-house talent coordinator.

Given these impressive credentials, it's not surprising that many prominent record-company reps are starting to give the Vandals a second look, especially now that California punk bands Green Day and the Offspring are receiving national media attention. Escalante concedes that his group has been approached by a handful of major labels in the past few months. Nevertheless, he is reticent to discuss the chances of a deal. "We're not looking for someone who has a master plan for selling millions of records to people who want to be punkers or don't know what punk rock is," he says. "No matter how much money I make, I'd rather continue to sell my records to real punkers.

"I'm 31 years old now," he adds. "So if we go down in history [as one of the unsung heroes] of the Orange County punk scene, that'll be good enough for me."

The Vandals, with Pinhead Circus. 8 p.m. Monday, August 29, Mercury Cafe, 2199 California Street, $8, 294-9281.

 
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