With "alternative" music festivals proliferating like intestinal bacteria, Saturday's "KUKQ Fest 1995" is trying to be something different: "A duel in the fucking desert." At least, that's how "antifest" evil genius and KUKQ program director Jonathan L. describes his latest brain child, which features dual headliners Circle Jerks and Skankin' Pickle and is being billed as "Punk versus Ska: Round One."
For now, though, his enthusiasm for the impending festival at Party Gardens is tempered by a worst-case possibility. There's no guarantee that when bands enjoying only cult-level prominence mix it up in 110-degree heat, the result will be the musical Fight of the Century.
Even so, Jonathan asserts, "I'm not interested in big names. I never was."
He is, however, interested in running down the corporate trappings and carnival "schmaltz" of a certain megafest.
"Lollapalooza was a great idea when it began," KUKQ's director says. "I don't think it's that great anymore." Not with soaring ticket prices. Not with an atmosphere that Jonathan describes as an industry feeding frenzy. Not at a festival where "all these record companies fight over who's gonna have who on the bill."
Once promoters start throwing in tattoo booths, body-piercing demonstrations and virtual-reality playgrounds, he says, the musicians become almost an inconvenient afterthought.
"I love tattoos," Jonathan says, "but why have a tattoo booth while the music's going on?"
So KUKQ Fest will have no tattooing. Instead, it will have free cigars for the first 50 people through the door; leather-clad women parading about with body jewelry; and a boxing ring stocked with hairy-backed brutes (a.k.a. bona fide pro/am boxers) taking shots at one another throughout this "nice night of aggression."
Jonathan suggests his gimmicks are less offensive than Lollapalooza's because they reinforce his event's aggro-rock theme, which might be described as a Vegas fight night, postapocalypse. "People aren't going [to Lollapalooza] for the music anymore," he says. "They're going for the event."
The KUKQ promoter has arranged his own share of great and not-so-great events. The first Q Fest took place at Scottsdale's Big Surf in 1989, predating Perry Farrell's traveling circus by two years. Featured acts included Red Hot Chili Peppers and Camper Van Beethoven. Ten thousand people showed up. "We maxed the place out," Jonathan recalls.
But it was 1991's two-day bash with Front 242, Havana 3 A.M. and the Sisters of Mercy that brought MTV snooping around. In fact, the network's late-night program 120 Minutes devoted an entire hour to the Phoenix festival. Jonathan hand-picked the bill, saying he used "purism and passion," rather than commercial success, as the barometer to sort rock from schlock.
Nonetheless, 1992 found 16,000 people at Desert Sky Pavilion grooving to college-rock luminaries such as the Rollins Band, Material Issue, Social Distortion and Sugar Cubes. That high point, however, was followed by the radio station's "biggest bomb," a July 4 event featuring Peter Murphy that drew fewer than 4,500 revelers. "I didn't think it was a good idea to do a show on a 115-degree day," says Jonathan. After a pause, he adds: "But that's what I find myself doing again this year."
KUKQ Fest '95 pits L.A's venerable Circle Jerks against the San Francisco ska-core outfit Skankin' Pickle. Several other acts--including locals Kongo Shock and Plinko--round out the bill. While no one will call these bands amazing product movers, they do boast healthy subterranean followings. Especially the Circle Jerks--punk veterans who started playing in 1980, back when Black Flag and Fear were household names (at least in households where purple Mohawks were the rage).
Anyone who thinks Circle Jerks are irrelevant geezers better listen to their new album. Oddities, Abnormalities and Curiosities proves these punks haven't lost a step. The power is still there, but now "it's a little more complicated," says guitarist Greg Hetson, who pays the rent thanks to his gig with Bad Religion.
"We've tried to evolve and become more melodic," bassist Zander Schloss says. Even vocalist Keith Morris, a guy with kerosene in his veins, says the group's updated sound "is not all in-your-face." Despite this latter-day semisophistication, the Jerks still have more in common with Sid Vicious than Wim Wenders.
Morris is almost always unpredictable in concert; his past stunts include convincing 800 lunatics to chill out by lying down in the middle of a show, despite the ankle-deep layer of slush the crowd had tracked in.
Facing the Circle Jerks is Skankin' Pickle, a band that can't be put into one musical category. "We used to call our sound 'Ska-Funk-Rasta-Punk,'" says guitarist Lynette, who worships her distortion pedal and admits she has "never really been much of a ska fan." After six years, though, Lynette's reconciled herself to the trombone and sax that compete with her Stratocaster.
Pickle's guitar slinger admits it's hard to play any style of music without instruments. Last month, the band's equipment and van were stolen from outside a San Diego motel.
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"I'm sure the van ended up in Mexico a half-hour later," she says, groaning. "Some mariachi band got themselves an early Christmas." Thanks to the miracle of credit, Skankin's members have replaced enough gear to get back to the business of shoving a punk peg into a ska hole. This clash of styles makes for a high-energy show that can sound like Devo meeting early Oingo Boingo.
Headliners aside, KUKQ Fest 1995 organizers have stacked the undercard with bands that share a passion for hard-edged, uncompromising music. In particular, San Diego's Unwritten Law will bring its melodic, three-chord pop punk to town. That Southern California skate/surf sound has landed the group gigs with Green Day, Rancid and Pennywise. The sophomoric, infomercial-addicted Blink, for whom every second word is still "rad," will also perform, along with All, Kongo Shock, Plinko, Dave's Big Deluxe, and punk lounge act Love Jones, who will emcee the evening and perform between sets.
This summer's KUKQ Fest lineup guarantees a swarming mosh pit, but one capped at 3,000. And given the bands' limited appeal, Jonathan L. talks less about attendance and more about keeping what could be his last festival "as pure as possible."
And as aggressive as possible?
"Musically aggressive, sure," he declares. "But I don't think these boxers are gonna try to kill one another. At least I hope not.