Adolescents' Tony Brandenburg: 'We Play Music for People That Don't Expect Cultural Food to be Spoonfed to Them.'
In this week's issue, I interviewed Shawn Stern of Youth Brigade and Tony Brandenburg of The Adolescents to determine what has kept punk alive for all these years. Both musicians have obligations outside of their perspective bands, with Stern running BYO Records and preparing for Punk Rock Bowling and Brandenburg being a parent and a elementary school teacher. Yet through it all, both bands continue to tour.
So, what's The Adolescents' secret to success? "Stubbornness. That's it, a very strong will to see this thing through until its done," said Brandenburg in our two hour interview. In the abridged version of our Q&A, Brandenburg discusses The Adolescents breaking up and making up, a current cultural lull, and sharing the stage with the Vivian Girls.
The Adolescents and Youth Brigade are scheduled to perform at Clubhouse Music Venue on Saturday, January 21.
Up on the Sun: Did you guys hand pick Youth Brigade to bring on tour? Tony Brandenburg: We actually did, we're all friends. We've done shows locally with them a number of times and they were talking about going out. We were saying that we were going to go out and it's better for our bands to play together because we compliment one another, rather than one go out and three weeks later another one go. In times like this, it's just not good for the audiences because they support both bands. It's kind of a way to streamline it, not just for us, but for others too.
We're not competing each other, we're actually working together. It's a really healthy way to work collaboratively. We have a great time together too. We're all friends like I said, so it works out really, really well. I bet you've known each other for a while.
Yeah, more than 30 years.
Oh wow, it's amazing that both of you stuck around this whole time.
Yeah, and them too, I'm impressed [laughs]. They have to because they're brothers, but we didn't have to. We're not obligated to even talk to each other. Big question: can you walk me through the band's history a bit, particularly what caused the band's hiatuses?
When we were playing at the beginning of the '80s, the way we looked at the dynamics of the band was you play in a single band, you don't play in a number of bands. It didn't really translate to us that you could be in more than one band, and so when one of us would become interested in playing in a different band, it became a...I don't want to say it was a loyalty thing, because it wasn't that intense. It wasn't a boyfriend/girlfriend thing like "You're my boyfriend" or "You're my girlfriend and you can't date anyone else." It was more like when we were in a band, we didn't realize that you could actually sit down with a calendar and schedule so that your bands didn't overlap or come into conflict.
When members of the band decided to join other bands, they thought they were obligated to leave. So Steve [Soto] and Frank [Agnew] joined Legal Weapon and they thought "Okay, because we're joining Legal Weapon, that means we can't be in the Adolescents anymore." It never dawned on any of us that actually they could have played in Legal Weapon and played in The Adolescents and there would have been no conflict of interest at all. It wouldn't have been a conflict of scheduling, it just be a matter of organization.
But when you're 17 years old, you don't think in terms of sitting down with a calendar and drawing a red line through certain days and times to schedule one band versus using a blue pen to schedule the other band. It took us years to figure that out, so really, that kind of singular behavior in the band lasted for almost 10 years. We never equated that you could divide up your time and there were also inner band conflicts too. We went through personnel changes from within the first three months of the band where we went through something like three guitar players and two different drummers and between the first and sixth months.
It's really about obligations. Early on when we started to conflict within the band and band members left, Rick [Herschbeth] and Casey [Royer] actually started D.I. and we found that to be a conflict. Steve and Frank joined Legal Weapon and that was a conflict and after this went on for the first 14 months or whatever, [with] John [O'Donovan] joining another band, all these things led up to a revolving door.
By the late '80s/early '90s it was just a matter of personal choices to leave. In the late '80s, I wasn't mentally or physically adjusted enough to tour anymore. I did and I didn't like it, I couldn't do it. It was interfering with the rest of my life, so I said, 'you know what, I cant do that.' Others really wanted to do it, so there were some hard feelings, but it wasn't anything that was impossible to work through. It was just time for me to leave. When I left, the band recorded another record. There was always a band that was recording and touring just without the same line up. That was a really mature decision for you to make at that point.
I can't say that I wasn't angry, I was like, "What do you mean you're making a record without me?" It was my choice to not make it and to not record it. In retrospect, I think that the product that they put together as a unit was...I thought it was Bomp-y, but I thought it was interesting. It wasn't something that I would have been able to do. I think Steve's vocals on at least three of the songs on the [Balboa] Fun Zone record are outstanding. There's four songs on that record that I think are incredible, incredible works of art. Rick's song "Tattoo Times" was great, I thought it was funny. It was the first thing I thought since "Amoeba" that caught this kind of tongue in cheek spirit of the band and I think he did a really good job with that. I would have never written a song like that, so I think in the long run it worked out to get the band a lot more depth.
After Balboa Fun Zone, you released OC Confidential almost 17 years later. Why was there such a delay in the next album?
We put out a couple of collections, live records and stuff. We were playing together, but we weren't writing together. That was mostly due to [the fact that] we were writing and bringing all of our material to other bands. I'd say that period right there was pretty productive. There was probably an Adolescents-related record from one of the ex-members on the blue record [once or twice] a year. D.I. would put out a record, I'd put out a record, Steve would put out a record, so we were all working and we were all doing stuff, but we weren't doing stuff as a collective group.
What's your recording process like?
When we put out a CD or mp3s now, in my Tony-centric worldview, I always think of it in terms of this half goes on side one and this half goes on side two. When you get one of our records, they're balanced. If you start it in the middle of the CD and you don't like it, chances are pretty good that you don't like it because it's going to be very close in balance for the number of songs, number of minutes, I think all of that out. I look at the times of the songs, I move them around, I interchange them, I make sure that when you start and finish that there's a balanced narrative. If you took a pair of scissors and cut them down the middle, they're always balanced. There are going to be about 20 to 25 minutes in each half, always, because it's just the way I think.
When it comes to making music, I always eat up all the songs. I always apply them to my life as I'm living it right now even if the song is 60 years old. Isn't that the same feeling that someone's really touched by a Christmas song or the National Anthem or whatever and they have that feeling inside, they're really living in the present connecting to a song that's more than 100, or 200, or 500 years old. People in churches do this all the time where they feel this spirit when they're being touched by music and it's giving them euphoria of some sort. They're embracing a song that could be 1000 years old but they're using it in the present tense.
I have a lot of trouble with people that say "I really only like this old song because it reminds me of something at that time." To me, that's not a dynamic. A dynamic is liking something that's an old song and applying that to one's life in the present.
I've got tons of criticism in my life from different avenues because I say this about life in general. You don't have to live by somebody else's definition of what your potential is. You have to definite what your own ethics system is and hopefully it's one that allows you get to get along with other human beings. You also have the capability of creating or living a life that isn't necessarily the one that other people have mandated what your life should look like. I live by that, I try to teach that to my children, I try to teach that to people that come into contact with me.
You can be the person that you want to be if you're willing to work towards that. You don't have to be limited by the boundaries that other people establish. You can be Steve Jobs or you can be just some guy named Steve. Your capacity is really going to be limited by what you allow other people to impose on you. The guys at Apple were brilliant. I think Wozniak, Jobs -- these are brilliant people -- Gates, there's a reason why they've gone as far as they have. They were able to not be limited by the boxes that people try to build to around them. Where that circle is drawn, they drew a line from that box and connected it to something else, like the way that the brand works.
You guys got back together for the 20th anniversary of the blue record in 2001 and have stayed together ever since. What is it about the past decade that has made the band more cohesive?
We have a shared history and that's really important when we deal with a lot of the same things. You won't find people that are more dissimilar than Steve and I, we have a shared history and we have a shared present.
The social world that we live in in the music world, that social music world is very similar. We come from the same place and we work in the same world now, which is different from the one that we came from, but we also live in separate worlds. I'm in the world of education for most of my day and my family with three kids. My life's been touched very significantly by autism. Steve also has family that's been significantly touched by autism. When we sat down and started to work, he looked at stuff and just went "You're talking about this, this is what you're saying here," and I'm able to say, "Yeah, that is what I'm saying here." He gets it, he understands it. We've been able to work together really well because we are dealing with a lot of the same kinds of issues even though our lifestyles are different.
What do you think has kept The Adolescents going for almost 30 years?
Stubbornness. That's it, a very strong will to see this thing through until its done.
When you first formed, did you expect the band to last this long?
I expected the friendships to last. I knew when we were doing it that it was important at the end, in the big picture. I couldn't see to the end of the month, let alone to the end of the decade or the millennium, but I knew that when...I knew from the minute. Sometimes you meet a person and you know this person and I, we have something very, very special and we are going to be involved in a relationship for a very long time. I don't mean that in a romantic way, but it could be. I'm not saying that that doesn't happen.
If a person can have love at first sight and just know I see this person, I'm attracted to this person, and in talking to them, I know that this person and I are going to spend a lot of time together. You can have that with a friend, when you sit down, you start to have a conversation, you start to find that at the core, the very basic core, that there's a bond that can't be broken. I would say, yeah, that existed. Steve had that with Frank, Steve and I have that together, it's a very strong friendship. I've had that bond with friends, its just from the moment I sat down with Steve and we started to talk, I knew that we had a friendship and the friendship was going to last as long as I was alive. As long as I was alive, him and I were going to be friends.
While we've had disagreements and spats and whatever like any healthy relationship has, it's always been of a nature that it wasn't so significant that we wouldn't speak to each other again. We have that kind of a friendship, so that bond is very strong.
Did I see the band going that way? No, what's kept us together is that we're friends. The root of any strong anything is a bond and a belief system or a belief that what's being done is important. Whether it's a marriage, a partnership in business, or a band, you can say Mick Jagger and Keith Richards don't live together, they don't work together throughout most of the year, but deep down at the very root of all of that, those two guys are friends.
What has been some of the best and worst times for the band?
I've always been forward thinking, I've never been a backwards thinker, and that for me is a signal that times are kind of dead. I see that right now. I see it culturally, I see it in politics, I see it in music, I see it in everything. A lot of people worrying about how great things were, but not how great things can be. How things suck right now and how they can be better. How things suck right now and it used to be better before. How about how things suck right now and how we're going to make it better right now. Not a 10-year plan, what are we going to do right now to enrich our music scene, what are we going to do right now to enrich our culture?
I get up and I leave my house two to three times a month to share that message. We don't have to be backwards thinking people to make music right now and present new ideas right this second, not walk away from the past, but weave it into the present. Like I said, I take my old songs and play them now, I'm always thinking now. When I listen to records that came out 20 years ago, I always think of them in terms of right now. What does this song mean to me right now?
Genres keep fizzling out, but that doesn't change the fact that bands are still making punk music today. What do you think has kept it alive?
It's good music, it's the bottom line. It's designed by people who are skeptical and question things, so even when we go out and play, the cynics and the skeptics are there. They'll challenge what we're doing, they'll challenge what we did then, they're gonna challenge what we do in the future.
The reason is because by design, we play music for that kind of thinker. We play music for people that don't expect cultural food to be spoonfed to them. They want to take the spoon and feed themselves. If they don't like what's on the spoon, they're going to throw the spoon at us. By design, our band is developed to put up with that kind of listener. We put up with that kind of human being. We put up that person, that kind of thinker since we were children, and we know how to handle it.
So its not like...if we put something out and someone calls it generic or put something out and somebody calls it one dimensional, we're not going to get all butthurt about it and whine and cry about it. We're gonna say "Fuck you, go make your own." Who said you had to listen to this? Who said you had to be on this? Who said you had to be into this? There's so much choice now that if a person doesn't like what any of our bands do, they can go elsewhere.
Either take a bite and jump in or go to another pool. That's why there's a longevity. People always come back to it. I have very rarely gone to a show that I haven't run into somebody that I've known from anywhere from 30 minutes to 30 years and the reason is because people come back. They go away, but they come back. And why do they come back, because there's something here that touches people in a deeper way than a simple pop song. Tell me about "Kids of the Black Hole," specifically about the black hole itself.
It was a crash pad that we hung out in when we were in our teenage years. It was a one bedroom apartment in the middle of Fullerton. It was really Mike Ness' home and that's what the song was about. It was about how we had collectively ended up in this place. We came from these different places where we didn't have a voice and where we didn't have a future and we ended up in this place that was lovingly called The Black Hole, but when you think about it, we came from a place that was nowhere and we jumped into a place that we called The Black Hole.
I saw this video of you and the Vivian Girls performing "Amoeba." How did that happen?
I have a friend that's friends with the Vivian Girls, they're from here. He said, "Do you know this band called the Vivian Girls? They are big fans and they play 'Amoeba.'" I started to laugh and I go, "They're called what? They're called Vivian Girls, really? I've never heard of them." He goes, "Really you haven't? They ran a story about them in Vogue." I was like "Look at me, do you think I read Vogue?" He said, 'yeah, but they're a great band. You should come down and watch them and here's a link to their band.' I listened to them and I thought 'gosh, what a great band.' They had this really garagey crunchy noise vibe going on, really great vocals, nice harmonies, they played on this cool vintage gear, what a great band. It was like night and day from what I do, and they like the band, really?
I listened to them and I heard a snippet of them playing "Amoeba." He said, "Won't you come down, they're playing at The Echo." They were playing upstairs at The Echo and we were playing downstairs with Mudhoney. They came over and they said "We're playing upstairs, we'd be really excited if you came up to watch the band." So, I went up and they explained that they played "Amoeba" and asked if I would sing it with them and I said sure. No rehearsals, no practices, nothing. Went up there and I played the song with them and they were dead on. They did a great job. They were really, really cool. It came together really, really well. I was really touched and really flattered...I still am. It was really neat, they're a great band.
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