In the mid-80s celebrated American avant garde musician Frank Zappa posed the question: Does humour belong in music?
In 2013, more than 30 years since they started out with their tongues firmly planted in their cheeks, California punk quartet The Vandals serve as a lasting answer - a resounding yes.
Formed in 1981, The Vandals have been a constant in the punk scene and have earned themselves a reputation for playing some of the goofiest rock ever committed to tape.
The mere titles of their 11 studio albums give a fair indication of what to expect - Hitler Bad Vandals Good, Look What I Almost Stepped In and Internet Dating Superstuds.
The band’s bassist, and one of the founding members, Joe Escalante, has no trouble with the ‘‘joke’’ tag.
‘‘If we were a serious political band, the things that were an issue when we started were like bug spray in California crops and the apartheid system in South Africa,’’ Escalante said. ‘‘After you’ve solved those two problems you’ve got to go looking for more stuff. When for us, we’re kind of a wacky band like The Dickies or Devo, The Weirdos.
‘‘To me you can always find four guys to agree on what’s funny to them if they have a similar background, but how do four guys agree on what’s the latest political urgency - so I’m glad we don’t do that.
‘‘Those people that do that, good luck to them. But you know a lot of them paint themselves into a corner and they can’t play big festivals because it’s sponsored by Coca-Cola or something. I had a feeling that being a joke band was a good idea and I think that we’re all happy that’s what we’ve always recognised ourselves as.’’
A self-proclaimed joke they may be, but it hasn’t stopped The Vandals from amassing a healthy worldwide following, which still sees them in demand on stages far and wide.
This Sunday they’ll be one of the acts playing the annual Soundwave festival at Sydney Olympic Park. While in Australia, they will also serve as the support act for Blink 182’s solo shows.
It’s somewhat of a rare chance for local fans to sample the band, who pick and choose their appearances as time permits.
These days the band, which also includes vocalist Dave Quackenbush, guitarist Warren Fitzgerald, and drummer Josh Freese, have much to occupy their time away from The Vandals.
Escalante is a qualified lawyer, and among other things serves as a part-time judge and radio host.
‘‘It’s like a men’s club,’’ he said of getting out on the road. ‘‘You get together and you get on a plane, you drink together and you eat together and you get on a tour bus. It’s kind of a fantasy camp, men’s club kind of thing and a bit of a reward for making a few sacrifices in your past.
‘‘The pressure’s off for us trying to get to some next level. We’re perfectly happy with the level that we’re at. The most important thing is we’ve stayed friends - we’ve been the same four guys in the band for 25 years. We still love hanging out with each other. I think that was more important than anything because none of us got in the punk rock business to get rich.’’
Escalante said he enjoyed being part of festivals like Soundwave, which this year includes a who’s who of the American punk and heavy metal scenes.
‘‘It’s fun to walk around at the airport or backstage and talk to the guys in Slayer and Metallica, guys I know from a little bit of this and that. It’s fun to reconnect with those guys - I know the bass player for Metallica [Robert Trujillo]. I made his deal to get into Metallica - one of the few legal deals that I’ve ever made.
‘‘And then Blink 182 are old friends of ours; Offspring are old friends of ours; Sum 41 are old friends of ours. For us, that’s half of it and if we have a good show - and we’ll do the best that we can to put on a good show, but sometimes you don’t know the circumstances. The Blink 182 shows, they’re pretty controlled. They’re night time and we’re playing before a pumped up crowd - we should be allowed to do our thing, although, if you’re the only thing standing between these people and seeing Travis Barker playing the drums you could get stuff thrown at you for 45 minutes.’’
Escalante said the notion of longevity was never really considered by the band members.
‘‘One thing that I said to everybody in about 1989 was, ‘one day we will just spend most of our time sitting around and telling people that we know Josh Freese [who also plays for Weezer, Devo and Sting among others]’ and that has come to pass, and that was after our first track with him as our drummer,’’ he said.
‘‘I really didn’t know what would happen. When I went to law school I thought we were gonna hang it up then. And then after that things changed. When we started the band - and wanted to be a punk band - we knew full well that this would guarantee that we would never have any money or commercial success in the music business and that was okay. We were making a statement. We didn’t want that, we just wanted to be punk.
‘‘When I graduated law school that’s when the Offspring and Green Day and Rancid started getting all huge and then at that point it became a business that could last a long time. We’ve been kind of lingering around ever since as a band that kind of survives in that world. It is kind of a business; we’re not in the big time leagues, so it’s not a full time business for us, but it’s certainly worth it to stay together and play music and occasionally record it.’’
Of his legal mind, Escalante, says it has been a blessing and a curse.
It did however, help him when it came to creating his and Fitzgerald’s own record label - Kung Fu Records.
‘‘Sometimes it gets in the way,’’ he said. ‘‘You get legal paranoia and fear of creativity and risk taking, but in the long run, my record label started after Epitaph started, after Fat Wreck Chords started and for me to catch up and play in the same league as them, I probably couldn’t have done it without being my own lawyer.
‘‘Then after a while we got to a certain level and then we had to hire lawyers, but we had to do all of the video work, because there was never going to be enough money to do all of that, but it helps sometimes and it hurts sometimes.
‘‘It’s good to have a day job because that is the key. One of the keys to punk rock is, if it is not your sole means of survival then you don’t have to compromise.’’
It’s been a while between releases for The Vandals but Escalante had good news for Australian fans.
‘‘We have an EP that we’re about to release in March which is an entirely Australian themed EP - it’s sort of a love letter to your country,’’ he said.
‘‘We’re wrapping it up right now. The rest of the world is probably going to be mad because we haven’t released anything in a long time, but we decided to concentrate on just the one country and it’s yours.’’