Interview with Joe Escalante of The Vandals

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Interview by Dean “The Pipeman” Piper

The Pipeman:  As an artist, what do you think separates PRB from the rest of the punk festivals?  What about PRB makes it exciting for an artist to have the opportunity to play?

Joe: PRB is simply more punk than the rest of the festivals we play in the U.S. More Mohawks, more politics, more alcohol, etc. It’s like a European festival. 

The Pipeman:  That’s a great answer.  I like how you expressed it is more like a European festival.  That’s a huge compliment to PRB.

The Pipeman:  There seems to be a lot of punk festivals happening these days.  What do you attribute the current growth and popularity of these festivals popping up featuring iconic punk bands like The Vandals?

Joe: Two things:

Joe: One is that there has never been a music movement like punk rock. It is a scene that has a core following that are proud to be a part of something bigger than any other musical or artistic scene that every existed. So, they keep coming back. They don’t want to let go of that. They don’t want it to ever slip away. If you are a member of this club, you never want it to stop. It’s too much fun. And you are a long-time member!

The Pipeman:  True story.  I was recently just talking about how other popular genres throughout the decades faded away while people thought punk would die. Yet, punk has stood the test of time because it is real and because it is so much more than a type of music.  It’s a voice.  It’s family.  And so many other nouns I could use.  What also sticks out in my mind is that what punk stands for and sings about are real life topics that also have not gone away unfortunately and as long as we have issues for humans to speak up on while spreading a united message, there will always be punk rock.  And thank you for being a long-time member and voice for all of us!

Joe: And two, the economy seems to help. More people have jobs now and the ability to pay $100 for an experience that in harder times, they could only spend $20 on. I’m not smart enough to know if this is actually true, but from where I sit, people seem to have more money than they did at any time in my punk career. 

The Pipeman:  That is a great point that I didn’t think of.  I personally believe punk festivals are the most fun as well.  Therefore, it’s worth spending the money on.  I mean look at PRB.  Yes, it’s a punk festival. However, it’s also a whole bunch of cool club shows, a poker tournament, totally cool pool parties with live punk music and man, a circle pit in the pool.  That’s epic!  Oh, and let’s not forget Bowling.  The best part is we come from all over for what seems to be a family reunion taking over Downtown Las Vegas.  No other like it in my opinion.  There is something for everyone while being exposed to classic and new bands. 

The Pipeman:  How does it feel to still be relevant as a punk band and so loved by the fans after almost 40 years?  With all your experience and the benefit of hindsight, what would Joe today tell Joe in 1980 about being in the Vandals and having a career in punk music? Is there anything you feel you still want to accomplish in music after all these years?

Joe: First of all, it is such a blessing to still be able to play a set like the one we played on Sunday at PRB. What an incredible crowd! I would tell 1980 Joe that it is worth it to buckle down and try to write the best songs you can, like the Descendents were doing. Don’t settle for turds. One day your friend from summer camp will start a punk band called NOFX and he will kick your ass with his song writing discipline, so get ready, write some better songs.  Oh, and the world isn’t going to blow up in a nuclear war so lay off the narcotics and go easy on the booze.

The Pipeman:  I totally laughed at your last statement.  Why?  Because I specifically remember me and my bro saying “Eh it doesn’t matter the world is going to blow up from Nuclear War in 1984 anyways.  How is it 2019 and we are still here Ha Ha. 

Joe: My good friend Todd Barnes the drummer of TSOL had a tattoo on his ankle that said “Peace 198?” When people asked what he was going to do in 8 years when it’s 1990 his answer was (in a serious but good humored way), “Do you really think this world is going to be here 8 years from now?” He died in 1999, but the world is still here. 

The Pipeman:  It certainly was a great set, full of energy and great fun.  I experienced in from both the front center of the crowd and up above.  From both those viewpoints, all I can say is WOW!  There was a sea of people having the best time.  That’s a Vandals show! Well I think you wrote great songs and what a great story about summer camp.  Would you write them any differently today? 

Joe: Some of our older songs are sexist. I would be cleverer than that if I did it over again. I took two songs out of the catalog that were written by a former member that were celebrating violence toward women. If people want to hear them, I’m sure they can find them and steal them off the internet, but I don’t want to earn any royalties from those songs. 

The Pipeman: I think it is great that you did not want to earn royalties off songs that celebrated violence towards women.  It says a lot about you as a person and very punk rock to make the message more important than the money. I love it!

Joe: Additionally, racial jokes were common there. As a Mexican, I was the butt of many, but I don’t think our older lyrics have a problem in that area, thankfully. Our jokes are mostly about food, and stuff like diarrhea, and searching for love. 

The Pipeman:  Since you are also an attorney, I would like to know what your feelings are about the legalities of music royalties today compared to before streaming and downloading?  Please give a perspective as a lawyer and a perspective speaking as a musician. Do you have an idea that should be implemented which could be more beneficial for the artists?

 Joe: As a former label owner, it’s great to have people buy music out of the air that I didn’t have to manufacture and store. But royalty rates are super complicated. Kung Fu spent $250,000 on a royalty program, just to pay people money, and within a few years it was obsolete. So have sympathy for your label, because those programs cost more today. 

The Pipeman:  I’m so glad you addressed this question as a label owner.  As a businessman myself who is also passionate about music, I think very few people look at the businesses in the music business like record labels and need to stop pointing fingers sometimes.  Why? Because the people outside a business someone owns or operates don’t realize what goes on behind the scenes especially when it comes to the costs of running a business and the true numbers opposed to what it looks like. It is quite an expense to run a label as well as plenty of liability.  I think we all need to see the full picture opposed to just looking at the surface and making assumptions.

Joe: Good points. And no band ever thinks they’ve sold enough records. They never think that if they wrote better songs it might help. They just blame the record label as the reason they have not sold millions. So, in the end, you’re dealing with an army of disappointed young people who view you as the impediment to their success, not the helper. The end. Unhealthy. 

Joe: As a musician and a lawyer who never really practiced law for more than a week at a time, I never became smart enough to know if the musicians were getting enough. Thankfully, I joined the band I’m in never believing that I would make any money at it,  so I don’t agonize over royalty rates. Everything is gravy to me. 

The Pipeman:  See, to me, that is the attitude of a true artist.  Let’s face it!  If people go into music to become rich or a rock star, it’s the wrong business.  This is a business of passion about the craft, and as you put it, everything else is gravy.  Go in to create and have fun and any other benefits should be unexpected.

Joe: Right, I don’t begrudge people tracking down every penny, but I don’t. I have a day job for that.

Joe: They are too hard to understand completely. Musicians want more, but having owned a label, I know that the problem with labels is not that they don’t have enough expenses to pay out. So, I have no answers. 

The Pipeman:  You are right.  Going back to what I was saying earlier.  It looks like there is a lot to share, but in reality, with all the expenses the money goes to many different directions that is not always obvious to someone looking in.

Joe: And you can never do enough promotion for a band, and that expense has skyrocketed, while revenue from sales has plunged. But the artist wants it all and expects someone to pay for it.  My late brother used to say that when you are helping artists, the best you can hope for is that they will be only slightly ungrateful. 

Joe: Regarding rates, people have a lot of misconceptions. In 2003, ex-members of a band I had been in for a long time hired a lawyer because they “estimated” I was making a royalty of $10.00 per CD on a release they played on, and on which two of them wrote music. Ten dollars per CD! Can you imagine one of them actually convinced the other two, and a lawyer, that I was collecting ten dollars per CD from BMG Records?  Two of them had not been asking for royalties at all because they made a deal to trade royalties for other concessions 15 years earlier, but when they were convinced that the royalty was higher than they ever imagined, they wanted to renegotiate. Who could blame them? 

Joe: In hindsight, I should have agreed right away, but I wasn’t getting $10.00, so any offers I made were never going to be accepted anyway. So, we went to court. Eventually they discovered that the royalty, including publishing for 18 songs, was about $2.30, not $10.00. Things calmed down after that and we reached a positive court affirmed settlement, which was nice. Today, everyone just cashes their checks and hopes they will keep coming. 

 Joe: But are the rates we’re receiving from streaming and jukeboxes, etc. fair? I have no idea. 

The Pipeman:  Thanks for sharing the story about your actual personal experience with royalties as a musician.  As a published author, people always assume that I keep all the money from a book sale and want me to give it to them for free.  If I make a $1 per book, that’s huge.  It evens costs me money to buy my own book.  People don’t realize this, and I bring it up because it is the same with music.  OF course, there was no way you were making a royalty of $10 per CD. Personally, I don’t understand anyone associated with the business for any period of time ever being convinced there was that high of a royalty. However, it is true of the times where a bunch of people get you fired up about something you forget to think about the common sense of the situation.  It bothers me many times to see the fighting that is created in the music business sometimes.  That drama should stay in other worlds and out of music.  Yes, I totally understand if someone wants what is fair and due to them, but let’s not let the outside voices make it worse just to cause a distraction and wedge. 

Joe: Well put. What happens sometimes is that someone has a gripe, and they keep modifying it every time they talk to a lawyer until they’ve crafted a story that a lawyer will believe will make him or her a lot of money. The first lawyer says, “This would be a good case if X.” Then the person with a gripe adds “X” to the version they tell the next lawyer. It’s the same with car accidents, and some crimes. They just modify the facts until they can find a lawyer who will take the case.

Joe: A lot of lawyers with boring lives want desperately to become a glamorous “entertainment lawyer.” So, my theory is (which is worth very little) that they trolled and trolled until they found a guy that was desperate to become an “entertainment lawyer.” The problem is that he didn’t have the experience to know that none of this could be true. But as I said, in the end a settlement was reached which was a good thing. It was just rough getting there. 

The Pipeman:  What do you see in the future for The Vandals and the punk rock community in general?

Joe: In general, I don’t know. Beer, tacos, craft beer, Vegan tacos… what’s next?

The Pipeman:  Best answer yet and love how you included Vegan tacos.  Shout out to at least 3 vegan food trucks I got to experience at PRB.

Joe: I wish we had the chance to hear Warren’s answers to questions like these. He’s 10 times more entertaining than me, but he’s hard to wrangle, so it’s just me.

The Pipeman: I think your answers were right on the money and definitely insightful.

Joe: We have to think of something to keep this party going. As long as promoters like Kevin Lyman, John Reese, and the Sterns Bros. are willing to invest in this scene, and agents like Stormy Shepherd and Daryl Eaton are working on behalf of the bands, we can keep doing this until we our fingers fall off.

The Pipeman:  I love it!  Can’t wait for more.

Joe: As far as the Vandals go, we have a few tricks up our sleeves and some fun stuff coming out this summer. Look for a bizarre piece of merchandise and a song written by my great uncle and radio star Baron Keyes, who you can google.

The Pipeman:  Can’t wait?  How do the readers keep updated about what is coming out and happening this summer and beyond? Very exciting!  Any other hints you want to give us on these new things?

Joe: We use Facebook and Instagram and our tour manager Lindsey is on their daily communicating with our fans and we check it out too. I used to do it but as of a year or so ago, it’s all Lindsey. She keeps everything up to date. And we just bought a Go Pro 7 to make more content for social media. I think it’s August or September when Cleopatra will release the new music. 

The Pipeman:  Tell us what other events and happenings you and The Vandals have coming up that the readers should be aware of and check out.  Is there anything else you think the readers should know?

Joe: Here’s a couple things: 

Joe: We just signed with new agencies for Mexico, South American, and Japan, so look for something to be shaken up in those territories. As a Mexican, I apologize for not playing there more often. That may change soon. 

The Pipeman:  We need you to play on the border so Mexico and US can unite for a no walls Vandals show.

Joe: That would be too political for us. We are good friends for over 30 years, but we don’t know the politics of each other really, and we don’t want to. I know Dave and I are not registered to any political party, but I’m not sure about Josh and Warren. And I don’t care. But I think it’s common knowledge that I voted for Alejandro Aranda on the last cycle of American Idol.

Joe: And check out my other band, the Sweet and Tender Hooligans, if you are into Morrissey and the Smiths. 

The Pipeman:  That too is good music that the readers should definitely check out.

Joe: Thank you.

Joe: And while you’re at it go to my IMDB page and see what TV episodes I’ve been writing and vote generously for them so that my overlords think my writing is the S**t.

imdb.me/joeescalante 

The Pipeman:  You and your writing are definitely the S**t.  Thanks for all the info and your candor.  Most of all, thanks for all the great art you have dedicated a lifetime to create for us!

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