By David Ensminger
For another current interview and photos of Agent Orange by David Ensminger see here:
As a member of a bridge band, like Social Distortion and the Adolescents, that spanned both the first punk wave and emerging hardcore, how did you see the scene or genre change?
The hardcore era took over pretty quick, and once again I think it was mostly due to the press. You can trace this all the way back, well I don’t know about New York, maybe they were a little bit ignored, but by the time the whole thing was picked up by the English press, God, everybody knows what they did with that. In the States, especially in L.A., one of the big things right off-the-bat was, I don’t know how people remember this, but there was a LA Times article where they coined the term “slamdance.” In the same article, they said we were a band “banned forever,” along with other bands as well. The article said all these bands had been blacklisted from all the clubs. I don’t think a blacklist really existed until they printed that article. It was like, “It’s well known that all these bands are banned…” So, for me, I felt like, I don’t care. If they don’t want us, I don’t want to go there anyhow. We’ll find some place to play. I just had a “never give up” attitude, really, no matter what happened like that. I just figured that Agent Orange would find some way somehow to keep playing. I always looked long term at things. Yeah, maybe we’re banned this month, but we’ll just get out of L.A. How about that? That’s a novel concept (laughs).
Steve Soto stresses that media coverage ended up bringing in a thuggish mentality because the “violence” was highlighted by the press. All the people that were psychotic or had violent tendencies started showing up.
I think that was inevitable anyway. Yeah, advertise it as such, who’s going to show up with a flowerpot on their head? They are going to show up with a leather jacket and a switchblade. That’s what everybody thought it was. If you didn’t know, you certainly weren’t going to come unprepared. This whole false picture that the press painted, a lot of kids followed it. You still see it in out of the way places. I hate to use any place as an example, especially now, because it took a lot of years, but basically everyone is pretty well clued in who needs to know. There was a time when we would fly to… I am going to use Alaska as an example, even though it’s not a great example. There’s probably other places. Out of the way places where you fly in and some kid would meet you at the airport with an orange Mohawk. He just cut it that morning because he made damn sure he was going to fit in, no matter what. Agent Orange is coming and it’s going to be punk as hell. Then they took one look at us and they’re like, “Oh man. These guys look so tame” (laughs). Cause it’s not all visual. That’s not what it is all about. Plus, some people think they really need to … Well, punk rock is a visual thing as well. It’s just funny (laughs).
In early Flipside, you describe the rivalries between Huntington Beach and places like Riverside.
Exactly. For me, I had a girlfriend in Huntington Beach. I lived in Placentia, inland. It was all I could do to ditch school, get on the bus, ride for three hours, get to Huntington, spend the weekend there, barely make it back to Orange County for school on Monday morning, or whatever it was. There were scenes going on all over the place. Once again it was one of those things where people had preconceived notions of what was going on, and the preconceived notions became… well, played out. Huntington is the only place which I would say was really like people think it was. Maybe Hermosa Beach, pretty violent. There was definitely factions that planted the seeds of hardcore and kept it simple.
When you look back at the media coverage of places like Cuckoo’s Nest and Fleetwood…
The Cuckoo’s Nest was notorious, but I tell you what. As far as what anyone thinks about the Cuckoo’s Nest, it was amplified times ten at the Fleetwood. I saw so many things go down there. I don’t know if people have any original footage of photos from that whole scene, but that was something incredibly unique. If you try to imagine the meanest, nastiest, Southern California hardcore scene going on… Well, the one thing, I will say that I did avoid was that place where they did all the Golden Voice shows. The Olympic. I avoided a lot of the Olympic shows, and I hear there was a lot of senseless violence. A friend of mine got beat up real bad and ended up in the emergency room. It turned his life around, changed everything.
Do you blame hardcore for pushing women out of the scene?
What girl wants to get in a pit with a bunch of guys that, you know, it’s physically impossible? I wouldn’t say it excluded them. The same way it didn’t exclude the people who didn’t have the guts to get their teeth knocked in. There were enough guys out there making a big thing, that’s the thing that probably attracted the most attention. There was a lot of energy going on. But there were always a lot of women in punk rock, especially in the L.A. scene. One of the first bands I looked to, and I ended up kind of hanging out with them a bit, is the Avengers. It’s the only band the Sex Pistols acknowledged in America. They’re a great band. The list goes on and on. Don’t even get me going because for me, personally, everybody has their own preferences. I personally, I mostly listen to female vocalists.
I don’t know why? It appeals to me. I don’t care if it is punk rock or jazz, bossa nova, whatever.
Do they capture something that male vocalists don’t?
I think so. There’s a certain quality to a female voice.
Were you at all aware of Darby Crash’s ambiguous sexuality? People say it might have drove him towards misery.
I don’t know if that is really the case. I don’t think he was being tortured by anybody or anything. I think he had his demons. He had a little plan there too, you know, that maybe wasn’t much based in reality. The suicide thing was probably a bad plan (laughs).
People say that as he became more aware of his own homosexuality … he was worried about how he night be treated.
I suppose that may be true. It never occurred to me. He always seemed so confident to me. It wasn’t something I ever considered to be some sort of issue whatsoever. That’s one of the things early in the scene, there was a certain alliance, you know, with… I can’t even explain it, to tell you the truth. People gravitated to… Guys like that got it, they got it. Much of it was based on pre-punk stuff. For me, it was like Ultravox, Roxy Music, Brian Eno, and I probably would never have known about any of those bands if I hadn’t been running around with the guy that ran the AV dept. at my junior high. He was a really super cool guy. He was really knowledgeable about art and music and performance art, and he exposed us to so many really brilliant things, like the Los Angeles Free Music Society. If it would have been some old woman teacher running the AV stuff, I wouldn’t have learned a thing (laughs).
Didn’t your older brother and cousin turn you onto surf?
My cousin was the bass player of the surf band, the original Surfaris, and my older brothers lived through that whole era. I guess those records were mostly passed down from my oldest brother. That’s one of those things to. Back then, they just moved on to the next thing, whatever it was — the Grateful Dead, Rolling Stones, whatever it was. The old surf records just got passed on immediately. A big stack of 45 records.
Why did it speak to you so strongly whereas they moved on?
I don’t know. It’s weird, I almost feel like a natural archivist or something. I don’t think that everybody has that in them. I find myself trying to save things that I think may be lost in the mist of times. If there is something that I think is important, I’ll steal if I have to, to make sure that it doesn’t disappear forever (laughs).
That’s sound like Greg Shaw of Bomp.
I didn’t go as crazy as someone like that. I remember back in the days, people would find records or books from the U.K. or different things that I assume no one could find, or I wouldn’t see them anywhere, or never expect to find them again. I just knew those people were flaky and those things would be lost in a matter of days, so I’d trade them for a stack of Flipsides or something. Whatever it took to make sure that thing didn’t get destroyed or lost. I sort of think of myself as an archivist and historian, I guess. I value musical history so much. That’s the main thing. It’s fascinating to see how things go from one thing to the next, how people are influenced.
Do you feel connected to the sound of 1950’s rock’n’roll?
There’s no denying that that old technology cannot be beat in terms of audio fidelity, which is another thing I have to say. It’s kind of a shame. At the time, we all acted like we didn’t care because it was the punk thing to do, but the punk rock era really produced a lot of substandard recordings. It’s too bad that many more bands weren’t recorded better. I was listening to the Screamers today, for instance. There’s a band that was never recorded properly. I saw them live, and they were so incredible and different. No guitars: just keyboards and crazy treatments. It never came across recording-wise, and I know for whatever reason they chose not to record, but there’s an example. A lot of bands chose to record and ended up with recordings that could have sounded so much better.
What do you think of the X records with their production?
They sound pretty good. They sound pretty close to what that band actually sounds like. I think they probably fought pretty hard to get that sound, just the way it was supposed to be, rather than over-produced, which is what everybody from our era battled constantly. That’s what it was like back in the day. You had to fight with the engineers and try to get what you wanted. Half the time you didn’t get it anyhow (laughs). That’s what’s so great about now. We’re in an exciting era. It’s the first time since the 1960s when, well, even in the 1960s you couldn’t even really record things at home. Now, you absolutely have the ability to record at home. No questions about it. It’s cheap. With a little bit of investment, with a little bit of thought, you can come up with perfectly acceptable recordings, especially for punk rock. Format wise, you have your choice now. You can do downloads, CDs, vinyl, whatever you want.
Did you know the engineer Chaz Ramirez (Eddie and the Subtitles, Social Distortion records)?
I didn’t. It’s funny. There were guys in the Fullerton scene I never really kind of got close to. I think part of that was because I spent so much time in Huntington Beach. Once I met my girlfriend up in L.A. , she was from Huntington, I was used to hanging out down there. A few years earlier my brother had a bike shop right next to the pier, so I spent a lot of time down by the beach. It made sense for me to hang out down there. I thought what was going on in Orange County was just going to get me into more trouble. I didn’t need to be hanging around the Black Hole (the Mike Ness apartment). That’s no place me, anyhow (laughs!).
Punk always gets pigeonholed by academics as a white, male, middle class phenomena, but even tonight there were many women and Hispanics.
By that’s over how long, you know.
But even back in the day…
There were black punk rockers. Of course, they were out there, and for the most part, they were accepted. That was the great thing about punk rock, up until that time. If you weren’t one thing, or another, you had to be accepted by “those” people. Punk rock was the first unified group to not be a group of the very same people, and if anything, that was what created more frustration than anything. And all the things I complained about in those early interviews. The early days of the scene were just so vibrant. You just never knew what to expect. It was always something totally spontaneous. The more different, the better. The cooler you were if you just came up with something totally outrageous.
The Adolescents spoke about being locked out of the studio when tracks were being mixed.
That was common practice at the time. I think so. I poked my head in a couple of times to see what was going on. It was a fiasco. They were smart to keep us away. We would have beat the hell out of someone (laughs). It’s too bad we didn’t have the control. That’s the thing. We were young, we were naïve, we signed contracts we shouldn’t have signed, we didn’t have proper representation, no one was looking out for us. To this day, I know I am getting the short end of the deal. It’s all going to come down someday. Hopefully, it will go smooth like it should because things haven’t been right for a long, long time. I think there is a lot of guys who can say the same thing. It’s too bad there wasn’t someone there to look out for all these guys. Somebody in Flipside had an interview and they talked about Robbie Fields was an idiot because all he had to do was keep everybody happy. He already had them under contract. He could have gotten multiple records out of each of those bands. Instead, he pissed everybody off and got one record out of each of them. That was it.
How did you not end up on Frontier?
That’s a good question. My brother ended up working for Lisa Fancher for quite awhile. I consider Lisa a good friend. She’s still interested in working with us. At this point, I am not sure what any label could do. Now that everything is back in artists’ hands, I think it’s a good time for us to take advantage of that. Posh Boy came forward, and he seemed interested. We did the Rodney on the ROQ album. That was main thing. After that came out, he saw the potential, and stepped right in. I wasn’t opposed to the situation.
The Angry Samoans mock Rodney, others praise him…
He’s an easy guy to mock.
He’s a straw dog, easy to knock down?
Especially if you’re a punk. He’s an easy target, a funny little guy.
How do you feel personally about him?
I think he’s a great little guy. Everybody knows his history. He’s the mayor of Sunset Strip. The whole thing with the L.A. scene. Being a DJ with KROQ, he definitely had some power there. His show was very influential. For me, I honestly sat there with a tape deck and taped his shows. I would start a song, and you never knew what he was going to play, and he was always playing something that was always so new. You didn’t know what it was. You didn’t know what you were going to get. It could be…
Like the John Peel of America?
I haven’t really heard enough of John peel to know what that means, I just know that if you’re into punk rock and you’re in Southern California, you would absolutely listen to Rodney’s show on Sunday night. There’s no question about that. In fact, when we started playing parties, playing more punk rock, we played a party in Huntington Beach. About half way through the night, everybody was getting kind of lubed there, and we decided to pull out “You Drive Me Ape” by the Dickies. Well, the thing is, they hadn’t released it yet. They had gone and played it on Rodney’s show the weekend before, and here it was two days later, and we had already learned it, but we could play it twice as fast. We pulled it out and played it, and guess what? There were only two guys who recognized it, and it was the guys from The Crowd! (laughs). You know they were home listening two nights before! They heard it too. Everybody tuned it.
That show was an epicenter.
Really. He had certain connections. I think he was friend with the guy from Zed Records in Long Beach. I don’t know what the situation was, but somehow, due to his day job, I think he had frequent trips to London where he was able to make personal buys and hand carry those records and put them in the racks of Zed Records. I think he was passing that stuff right on to Rodney, who got such advanced copies of that stuff. Hot off the pressing plant in London, right into Rodney’s hand. It was great. What could be better? It was free too. Just tune in. The two things that were the biggest influence for us were Rodney Bingenheimer’s radio show and the Capitol Records swap meet. I don’t remember how often they did it, but it was an all-night event. I had to be like 14-15 years old then, and we’d stay out in Hollywood in the Capitol Records parking lot all night until the sun came up digging though records and magazines, eating this stuff up. Spending my entire inheritance (laughs) between the Capitol swap and Zed Records.
How involved were you with the visual representations of the band — flyers, record covers, graffiti, etc.
That was one of the things that appealed to me from the beginning. I kind of always figured I would end up a graphic artist. That was sort of my aim, and then I get this impression that everybody in the world wanted to be a graphic artist, and that I was wasting my time, so I decided to be in a band instead. Funny how that worked out. Now everybody and their grandma’s got a band (laughs). But it gave me an outlet for my art too. I was able to design all the record covers and T-shirt designs and the logo. Unless the record label took that away for whatever project that was going on, but especially in the early days we were finishing it all up ourselves. Turning it in as a finished product. I remember we turned in This is the Voice and the record label could not believe it was so subdued. They were expecting something very punk, and we wanted to do something understated.
You ended up on the same side of history as Green Day and the…
Offspring. I’m a huge music fan. That’s why I got into it in the first place. I wasn’t looking for the money potential or my goal wasn’t to get chicks. My brother worked at the Fender guitar plant in the 1960’s. I grew up with the whole thing of rock’n’roll as rebellion, doing something completely different, which is what everyone is looking for, especially in rock’n’roll. So, it all fell in place.
What bands today speak to you now like bands did in 1978 or 79?
My brother is a guitar tech. He is getting ready to go out with Interpol. Listening to them, there was something that struck a chord. I really like the two guitar interplay. I sorta like the monotone vocals, the drummer is really great, and the bass player has a great tone. Everyone once in awhile I’ll go back and listen to something from back in the day, and Ultravox is one of the bands. In the last couple weeks, I’ve gone back to listen to that stuff. No wonder I like Interpol (laughs). Once John Vox left the band, they shifted pretty drastically. But I really started liking other things like Gary Numan in the early days. I’ve had multiple opportunities to see him play, actually bought my ticket, was absolutely gung-ho, then I ended up with some crappy punk gig somewhere where I had to do an Agent Orange set (laughs). I caught him one time. The other thing is all the amazing opportunities I’ve had that I missed, like the times when he had the big stage sets. It’s one of those things I kind of miss now from rock’n’roll. A lot of bands really did have great stage sets. I know, it seems like, what are we talking about? Pink Floyd? You know who always had the greatest stage sets? Johnny Rotten. No matter what band he was in, he always had something super cool. Not necessarily expensive or over-the-top, sometimes something understated and simple and cool.
Did you see that legendary PIL show at the Olympic?
I did. I was there. It was a great show. A very simple stage set up that was very effective. He had one of those florescent halos. He just held it over his head. Simple. What do those cost? Three bucks? That is genius. Just something to dress it up (laughs).