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The newer Vandals played no part in creating those early tunes, which would seem to make it easier to eliminate the songs from consideration, but Escalante says he too feels no real attachment to the discarded material. "Distancing is an understatement," he says. "We're trying to build a giant wall in addition to the distancing. The stuff that we write now is a lot better than 99 percent of the old stuff, but the old stuff has memories attached to it for some people, which isn't our problem."
Under new membership, The Vandals underwent a massive stylistic change, rendering fruitless any real comparison of its output from the different time periods. The band's early songs were vaguely melodic without harmonies or knockout hooks, embodying the essence of early West Coast punk. When the band resurfaced, The Vandals had injected a curious dose of country into their formula, weaving Western-style guitar lines over Freese's hyperspeed bluegrass drumbeats to create an instantly recognizable bumpkin-punk hybrid. (The group released a straight country album titled Slippery When Ill in 1988. Out of print for several years, it reappeared on Kung Fu bearing the new title The Vandals Play Really Bad Original Country Tunes in 1999.)
The group's wit remained constant, although its targets grew more specific. Early numbers poked fun at wanna-be cowboys and eccentric pedophile photographers -- esoteric subjects to be sure, but no proper names were used. By contrast, later works included "N.I.M.B.Y.," the amusing fictional tale about how concerned citizens rallied to keep Saturday Night Live vet and "Hall and Oates reject" G.E. Smith from moving into their neighborhood, and "Aging Orange," a viciously funny song directed at the band Agent Orange, which accused The Offspring of swiping one of its riffs. (The Offspring's Dexter Holland co-owns Nitro Records, The Vandals' current home). Recent favorites include "My Girlfriend's Dead," in which Quackenbush claims his ex passed on from "leukemia, or sometimes bulimia" to avoid talking about their breakup, and last year's "The New You," in which he laments, Whatever happened to the girl I knew/She was just like you, but way more into me.
The Vandals also veer to the other side of the emotional spectrum, pondering the grim prospect of human achievement's nonpermanence on deceptively perky tunes such as "It's a Fact" and "Flowers Are Pretty." There was a caveman who did some amazing things/but nobody here gives a fuck, Fitzgerald writes in the latter tune. But rather than revealing that these jesters have a philosophical underbelly, such sentiments are, Escalante assures, part of the joke.
"That comes from our brushes with gothic people along the way," he says. "Doom-and-gloom kids with absolutely no problems in the world compared to other times and places. Still, they think the world is going to end and nothing's worth it. We think that's kind of funny, so we just write about it and join in, not very seriously."
The group's inability to take much of anything seriously has resulted in criticism from the punk factions who maintain that underground songs should unanimously deliver a socially conscious message. "We get that all the time," Escalante admits. His standard response: "That's what the hippie movement was for. It's still there. You can join it.
"People latch onto punk rock because there's always a crowd," he adds. "There's always a high distribution for a punk fanzine, but if you put out a hippie fanzine, no one's going to buy it. And if you do a hippie concert or a junior underground Limp Bizkit concert, no one's going to go. They want either mainstream superstar Limp Bizkit or no Limp Bizkit. So the new groups end up on the Warped Tour looking for an audience. Two years ago, Limp Bizkit was there, and they don't have anything to do with punk rock. I watched them every day at 12:15 because it was so ridiculous."