Escalante promptly flew into town, caught a show and a rehearsal, and signed the group to his label. It's a standard story these days: fun-loving punk group attracts a hometown following, packages its material to independent labels, catches someone's ear and gets a deal. But in the early '80s, when Escalante's band The Vandals released such witty melodic nuggets as "Anarchy Burger," "Wanna Be Manor" and "Urban Struggle," underground groups had no such hope of making a breakthrough. Today, with Blink-182 having cleared the path for lighthearted guitar pop played by bad-boy types, a group shaped like the early Vandals -- young, photogenic, witty, rebellious -- might incite a major-label feeding frenzy. Instead, the original band fizzled out after a few seminal releases and a pivotal cameo in Wayne's World director Penelope Scheeris' tragicomic Suburbia.
"We got into a style of music where there was no hope for any of that kind of success, so we never tried," Escalante says. "Today, there is hope for that kind of success, so the bands have to keep it at least in the back of their minds, even if they're really punk. If you make a song like this or play a bunch of free radio shows, you could be huge. Today, it's hard to tell who the real punk kids are and who are the kids who like punk but are really trying to become rock stars."
When The Vandals resurfaced in the early '90s, Escalante, formerly the band's drummer, manned the bass as the initial lineup's only holdover. Joining him were flamboyant guitarist Warren Fitzgerald, late of Oingo Boingo; Dave Quackenbush, a vocalist with a smug, talk-show-host-style delivery; and Josh Freese, an amazingly talented drummer who's also recorded with Chris Cornell, Devo, Guns n' Roses and dozens more. After testing the waters with Fear of a Punk Planet, a disc best known for a thrashy send-up of Grease's "Summer Lovin'," The Vandals' revamped squad assailed the work of its predecessors, more than doubling the already swift tempos of the band's standards on the live disc Sweatin' to the Oldies. Fitzgerald showcases his improv comedy skills on that disc, and even during abbreviated Warped Tour sets, he'll riff for a good five minutes over a muted rhythm-section backdrop. (Three years ago in Lawrence, he transformed his shorts into a diaper-style thong, explaining, "I'm putting the ass in Kans-ass.") However, old-school fans won't hear a set list filled with early gems on this year's Warped Tour. And they have only a rowdy segment of their own subsect to blame.
"Some people would come to our shows that wouldn't buy any of our new stuff and weren't interested in it," Escalante explains. "If you're a musician, you're much more excited and inspired by an audience that cares about your newer music. When you see a guy who's forty years old with a mohawk and a moustache punching kids in the slam pit, yelling 'Pat Brown! Pat Brown!' [the early Vandals' signature song], you go, 'Hey, I've got an idea, let's not play the song that guy's asking for, and maybe he'll go away.'"