Return to the Valley of the Yakes

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

By the time the punk-rock revolution finally arrived in the Valley around 1978, the music quickly began to become filtered through the overheated minds of its desert practitioners. Groups like the Consumers, the Nervous and the Chemists offered up a uniquely Arizonan take on the anarchic sounds coming from New York and the U.K. Unlike the rigid, dogmatic style emerging from the ranks of L.A. punk, the Valley scene was much more open, running the gamut from the "New Wave burlesque" of Killer Pussy to the more commercial sound of Billy Clone and the Same. While most of those groups have faded from memory (or passed from this mortal coil entirely), one band -- Jodie Foster's Army (or JFA) -- has managed to stay alive and active.

This week, the group returns to Phoenix with its first new CD in nearly a decade and a pair of homecoming shows that will mark the band's first local performance in more than five years.

Formed in 1981, JFA's original members -- singer Brian Brannon, guitarist Don Redondo, bassist Mike Cornelius and drummer Mike "Bam-Bam" Sversvold -- made a lasting mark as one of the few Arizona punk bands from the era to achieve something more than local notoriety. But the group Rolling Stone once deemed "the premier skate rock band of all-time" had a much more practical reason for making music. "The idea was that everybody skated and they wanted to make music to skate to," recalls front man Brian Brannon from his Huntington Beach, California, home. "At the time, Don was influenced by a lot of the early Orange County slam-dance music -- T.S.O.L., the Adolescents, the Crowd -- stuff like that," says Brannon.

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.

Merging the fast, aggressive Southern California sound with its own unique desert perspective, JFA went on to record a string of successful albums for Placebo Records as well as appearing on countless compilations. But the group's identity and reputation has always been most closely associated with the near-cultlike religion surrounding the art of skateboarding. "Oh, yeah," says Brannon. "For us that's what it was really all about." The band was so linked to the skateboarding scene that it even developed its own line of boards, which are now highly sought-after collectors' items.

Despite being the group's mouthpiece, Brannon was actually the last member to join the band. He says the group, then using the name the Breakers, had already formed and was looking for a singer when he met Cornelius at a Scottsdale skate ramp. "Then I met him again when I snuck out to go to a party at the Hate House, which was a big punk-rock gathering place in downtown Phoenix."

That night Redondo's other band, the Deez, was playing onstage when Cornelius recognized Brannon in the crowd and approached him with an offer. "He said, 'Hey I remember you, you're a skater from the ramp. We're putting together a band and we need a singer. Can you scream?' So I got right up next to his ear and went, 'Yeeeaaahhh!!!' I guess it was pretty loud because he looked at me and said, 'Yeah, man, you're in.'"

JFA and the Arizona punk scene of the early '80s were able to thrive in large part because of the existence of a number of hospitable venues. Clubs like the Salty Dog, the Solid Gold and the Star System played welcome host to roving bands of sun-stroked punk loonies. Myriad stories abound about the inspired craziness that went on both on and offstage during those chaotic years. But if there was one club that truly symbolized the wild and woolly attitude of early Phoenix punk, it was Madison Square Gardens. Originally a wrestling club, Mad Gardens (as it was affectionately known) was a charming dive located on Van Buren. Some of the best and most notorious moments in Phoenix music history happened inside its chain-link-fence-enclosed ring.

It was a time and place central to JFA's development, and Brannon looks back fondly on those years with equal parts nostalgia and bewilderment. "Mad Gardens was a great place as long as it lasted. I just remember some really crazy nights that were like scenes out of Fellini films," he says, laughing.

"One night someone had stolen a tank of nitrous oxide from a dentist's office. They had these bleachers there. So the band was playing and the guy with the nitrous would just pop up from beneath the bleachers and hand out free hits of the stuff. I remember everyone was lunging, jumping and rushing over to where he was, just going crazy trying to get at the stuff."

Although JFA's hard and fast sound (and its physical fans) put it squarely in line with the So-Cal hard-core scene, for his part, Brannon considers the Phoenix punk bands of that period to have been a much more creative and open-minded breed. "I just loved a lot of the bands. The Arizona scene was more quirky than California's. That's what I liked about it. It wasn't as defined. You could just do what you wanted to do, and we were glad to be a part of that."

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."

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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