Return to the Valley of the Yakes

Skate-punk pioneers JFA make their long-overdue return home

The Gardens' demise in 1984 signaled the end of Phoenix punk's true golden period. However, JFA soldiered on despite the breakup of its original lineup (Alan Bishop from the Sun City Girls played with the band for a time while original bassist Mike Cornelius left and then later rejoined the band).

In the late '80s, the band suffered a near fatal blow when its label, Placebo Records, went bankrupt. "Placebo kind of overextended themselves doing some different weird kind of bands," recalls Brannon. "They ended up going under, and at that point we didn't have a record company, but we still kept playing. Unfortunately, there was really nobody outside of the people that came to our shows who knew that we were still around for a while."

It was at that point that Brannon decided to take the plunge and leave Arizona. In September of 1990, Brannon moved to the Bay Area to become an editor at (skateboarding bible) Thrasher magazine. Redondo, who had returned to his native Huntington Beach in Southern California a year earlier, enlisted a new rhythm section in bassist Bruce Taylor and drummer Mike Tracy and the band continued long-distance for several years until Brannon came south to L.A. "We were still going, but it was hard," says Brannon. "Whenever there was a cool gig, we would do it. At that point, it became a lot more underground. But we were still playing shows."

Only Live Once: The group's present-day lineup.
Only Live Once: The group's present-day lineup.
Mad Gardens memories: JFA's original lineup during its early '80s heyday.
Mad Gardens memories: JFA's original lineup during its early '80s heyday.

Without a label and with full-time jobs, the group members continued to perform, playing to new audiences and familiar faces alike. "When you don't have a record out for five or six years, people forget about who you are. But we would always try and play with new bands, cool bands that we liked, and we'd play for their crowd and hopefully win them over," says Brannon.

Aside from a couple of singles on its own label, Buzzkill Records, and a split CD on New Red Archives, the group's just-released album Only Live Once (from Chicago-based indie Hurricane Records) is its first full-length recording since the Placebo era. The group completed tracks last fall at Pennywise's Stall #2 Studios in Hermosa Beach. Despite the big-name trappings, the album was made in a genuinely punk fashion.

"We did the whole thing in two days. That was all the money we had, so we recorded and mixed it in just two days," says Brannon. "There's a few little rough things in the mix. On one song, you can hear Don turn his guitar on to do the lead -- normally you'd chop that stuff out. But I'm still very happy with the way it came out."

Given the group's extended time away from the studio, Only Live Once is a surprisingly strong affair. From the psycho surf punk of the disc opener "Clown Party" to the comedic word play of "Lincoln" and "Coffee Shop Mofo," JFA still manages to come through with a much more convincing hard-core sound than many bands half its age could ever muster.

Unlike most of its skate-punk brethren, JFA has always been a much more musically ambitious outfit, as evidenced by the group's incorporation of a variety of unusual (for a punk band) sonic and stylistic touches. It's something that can be heard in the ominous organ intro to "Lightin' Storm" and the discordant keyboard fills of "The City." Still, the disc doesn't betray JFA's bread-and-butter mix of furious speed riffs and pulsing rhythmic spuzz.

The timing of JFA's return is fortuitous. A renewed interest in traditional vert skating is starting to grow, along with the construction of a number of new skate parks -- a trend that bodes well for the group's old-school aesthetic.

"There's really a revival going on with these old guys who haven't killed themselves from too much indulgence," says Brannon with a chuckle. "Vert skating is coming back. Street skating kind of killed that for a while, but with the new skate parks you're seeing all these old crusty guys coming out, and the same thing is happening with the music."

To underscore the point, last week the band played on a Southern California bill that featured its early-'80s contemporaries China White, the Crowd and the Adolescents. It seems as if skate-punk has come full circle; Dumbfounded -- a group fronted by the 13-year-old son of Adolescents' guitarist Frank Agnew -- opened the show.

The current resurgence has been a boon for JFA and Brannon, who admits that the band doesn't take a very proactive approach to its career. Still, he's hopeful that the renewed interest in skating and its attendant music will continue.

"It seems like none of these bands or none of these skaters are going to get really huge and be superstars, but that was never really why we did this stuff in the first place. It was just to have fun. And it's just great to see us and our friends still doing it."

JFA is scheduled to perform two shows on Saturday, August 28, at the Mason Jar. The band will also be making an appearance on Punk Rock Radio, which airs Friday, August 27, from 10 p.m. to midnight on KFNX-AM 1100.

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