JFA Celebrates 30 Years of Skate Punk
In 1981, Phoenix punk band J.F.A. (a.k.a. Jodie Foster's Army) released the Blatant Localism EP on Placebo Records. Remarkably brief — the entire record clocks in at six minutes, 34 seconds — the record defined the burgeoning skate punk scene. Though not Phoenix's first punk band, JFA introduced, with Blatant Localism, a new, Southern California-inspired sound to the scene: faster, shorter, and more focused than the "class of '77" Phoenix punks like The Consumers, and less oblique than International Language, Killer Pussy, and The Meat Puppets.
This weekend, the original lineup of JFA — vocalist Brian Brannon, guitarist Don Pendleton, bassist Michael "Chickenbutt" Cornelius, and Mike "Bam-Bam" Sversvold — will perform at Hollywood Alley, with Brannon and Pendleton performing in JFA, Cornelius performing with The Father Figures, and Sversvold performing with Asses of Evil. It marks 30 years of JFA, and 30 years of grinding, distortion-blasted skate punk coming from the concrete-paved banks, ditches, and abandoned swimming pools of Phoenix, Arizona.
This is Phoenix, not the Circle Jerks
Brian Brannon (vocalist, JFA): Punk was new and dangerous back [in 1981]. It was dangerous to be a punk, much less a skateboarder, climbing over people's fences and skating in their swimming pools . . . Just walking down the street, as a punk rocker, was an ass-kicking offense.
Mike "Bam-Bam" Sversvold (drummer, JFA, Asses of Evil): We were kind of the second generation, because the first generation was people like Charlie Monoxide and Ron Reckless, and people like those guys. They were more into the old, New York-style, gutter-punk guys with safety pins in their ears and stuff. We were full on into the Southern California-type punk, listening to Black Flag and the Circle Jerks.
Michael "Chickenbutt" Cornelius (bassist, JFA; guitarist, Father Figures): Back then, '79-'80 . . . [I] moved here in 1978. I was an ASU student in '78, and I had friends that were in the art scene at ASU, doing the strange art stuff, and the punk rock stuff going on then was kind of arty: art students with blue hair, and that kind of thing. It wasn't like the skate rock or harder punk that came around a little later.
Don Pendleton (guitarist, JFA): I knew Mike [Cornelius] was a good bass player, and I wanted to start a band with a good bass player and drummer — kind of like The Who. In January 1981, we went and saw this D.O.A. show, it was just amazing. D.O.A. was on fire; they played a whole bunch of songs really fast, really tight.
Bobby Lerma (Kludge; drummer, Father Figures): Phoenix's punk rock scene was really different than a lot of other punk rock scenes . . . It was everybody else that didn't fit in anywhere. It was the artsy-fartsy types.
Sversvold: [Brannon's mom] had sewn him this Tarzan loincloth, so he was like this Tarzan kid. And Mike — Phoenix was different back then — we had never seen a black skateboarder back then [laughs]. Don rode a Lonnie Toft eight-wheel skateboard. He had skated for Sims way back in the early '70s. He was the only hippie I had ever seen with a Black Flag shirt. That was about the point where punk rock and skateboarding merged . . . Don and I met at Knights of Pythias. We got to talking; he was like, "I just moved here from California, going to DeVry. I'm trying to start a band; I need a drummer," and I'm, like, "That's odd, I'm a drummer." We couldn't find a pen, so we just picked up one of the beer-soaked fliers, and I scratched my number into a flier with a house key . . . before he started recruiting us, [JFA] was going to be him and the Meat Puppets.
Brannon: It was good to have so many diverse bands like that back then — you know, Killer Pussy, Meat Puppets, Feederz, Grant and the Geezers, which was a rockabilly band, International Language, which was an art-punk band — and have them all on a show with a skate punk band. And no one thought twice. It was, like, "This is punk, and punk is about doing something different and doing what you want to do, doing what you're into, and making things happen."
When we first started, our goal was to play hard, fast, short, and intense. I talked to Tom Waits one time, and he told me that, "Music where the beat is slower than your heartbeat kind of mellows you out; music where the beat is faster than your heartbeat kind of jazzes you up." We were trying to play about 10 times the heartbeat, to really get people stoked. [Like] "I'm going to grind the hell out of that coping right now . . . I'm going to go friggin' way high in that pipe."
At that time, that was a pretty new concept in Phoenix.
"Surf punks? We're not. Skateboard? We do." — "Beach Blanket Bongout"
Pendleton: Everybody skated. It was all about skating. It's all about really loud, big, fast guitars. When you look at the Dogtown era, all those guys listened to Aerosmith and Ted Nugent, because that was the biggest, loudest guitar you could find. When the Sex Pistols and Ramones came out, it kind of flipped overnight. Because, Ted Nugent was not the gnarliest thing anymore. Surfing is about this peaceful, flowing thing. [Skating] is full-on aggression, right?
Brannon: [Phoenix has] great skate terrain: the ditches, the banks, pipes, all the empty swimming pools that would pop up when the snowbirds kicked the bucket.
Neil Hounchell (drummer, Soylent Green): The type of punk that came out of Phoenix is a direct result of that skating mentality — hard and fast. One time, there was a pool over on Seventh Street and Missouri, and TSOL came out from Los Angeles. I remember the property owner came out with a gun, and you'd swear the lights flicked on and the cockroaches just — fssss— took off as fast as we could. It scared the Jesus out of us.
Rob Locker (AZPX Records and Skateboards): I have skated more backyard pools, full pipes, ditches, ramps, street spots, and crazy homemade shit than anyone really cares to hear about.
Cornelius: The one thing we did have was with other skate-rock bands, bands that said they were skate rock. We were like, "Do you skate or don't you skate?" The first time we went to Texas, and we had never played with the Big Boys. We heard they were a big skate band. [They asked us to skate] and we were like, "They really skate," and we were all stoked [laughs]. They weren't one of the bands just talking the talk.
Oh, yeah, there were bands that would say they skated, but they didn't really skate. The most famous thing of that was the Henry Rollins ad for Independent Trucks, and he's like, "Yeah, I ride 'em," and he's riding the skateboard, but no one has ever seen him skateboard before or since.
Sversvold: We actually put out the quote-unquote JFA challenge in, I believe, our first Thrasher interview. We called out anybody who [said they skated]. The Big Boys, The Necros — [they] were always good. They skated with us. I believe Ian [MacKaye] from Minor Threat skated with us. Henry Rollins actually skated a little bit back then. We met him three weeks into joining Black Flag, and he was just a kid. The one that we had the big problem with was Suicidal Tendencies. Mike Muir [vocalist, Suicidal Tendencies], in the video for "Institutionalized," they got Natas Kaupas — he was basically the stunt double for Mike.
He was calling Brian and making death threats: "We're gonna send a bunch of guys to your show and eff you up" and all this stuff. It was pretty stupid. Mike Muir's older brother later became Brian's roommate in San Francisco, when Brian worked for Thrasher; he's the owner of Dogtown Skates. I met [Muir] a couple times, and he seemed like a [good] guy, but he was a pretty rich kid. He didn't skate, and we called him on it, and he got pretty insulted: "You saying I can't do this?" Well, then come skate with us. And he didn't. We just wanted who [were] what they claimed to be — very simple. What's the worst that could happen? You go skating and have fun.
Brannon: Don and I both started writing separate stories for Thrasher [and became] regular contributors. They would assign me to write about some skate contest, and the story would be like: "Well, the skate contest sucked, so we went and skated this pool. There are a bunch of clowns walking around in neon helmets and stuff — they look like kooks to me, the ramp sucks — so we hit this pool and it was rad. Christian [Hasoi], Salba [Steve Alba], Tony Alva, we had a rap session.
Cornelius: I did a tiny bit [of work for Thrasher]. [Brian and I rented a plane with his pilot friend] and we flew over Phoenix looking for empty pools, taking pictures of the potential spots and chasing them down later, and skating the empty pools [laughs]. While we were doing that, we got chased by a police helicopter. We were flying too low, and the police helicopter came by and kind of shooed us out of the area. That was written up in Thrasher, in '83.
Pendleton: In '84, I started writing tour diaries [for Thrasher]. It was like the whole country. It was like the Warped Tour before there was a Warped Tour. We could go to New Mexico, Texas, all through the South, up through New York. Everywhere we went, there would be these skater kids.
Placebo Records: "The JFA era was the Mad Gardens era."
Lerma: This is where Tony Victor [Placebo Records, Madison Square Gardens] came in. He was promoting those shows. So he would find the venues, and he would always put out a flier at the record stores. "Hey, guys, you screwed up the last one, so once again, don't drink in the parking lots; don't get in fights." You know, stuff like that. [He opened] Madison Square Gardens . . . The bands would play in there. You can see on the cover of This is Phoenix, Not the Circle Jerks — that's Madison Square Gardens."
Pendleton: Once Mad Gardens started, it's funny, because people don't realize how nice it was to have a place to play. People, like, took it for granted: "I'll just start a band with three of my friends and get a gig at Mad Gardens." And I'm looking at these guys going, you don't realize, but for years, there was nothing like this.
Cornelius: The JFA era was the Mad Gardens era. When Mad Gardens went under, JFA started to not play as much.
Brannon: [Victor] was just a great marketing guy. In addition to everything else, he really helped put our name out there and get us out there, in a way that a bunch of dumb skateboarders who want to play punk music never would have done. So when Placebo folded, we did kind of disappear from the radar, because we went back to playing empty pool parties and slam-dance dives, and random keggers, and whatever sounded cool to us. We just went back to being ourselves.
Cornelius: [In the mid-'80s], it started to get really segregated. I wasn't really playing in the band so much.
Brannon: In '86-'87, we started going, "If everybody else is thinking [that] to be punk, you have to play fast, then we're gonna do something different. We're gonna play funk, I'm going to wear paisley shirts and stuff, and just get kind of crazy. And not give them what they want, but really give them what they need." Because it's not punk to be like everybody else.
As skateboarders — it's like when you drop into a pool — there are two ways to go about it. You can go, okay, I'm going to carve over the line, hit the sidewall front side, try and get in line with the steps. You can plan it out in your head how you're going to do everything. Or you can just go in there, go as fast as you can, and pump and see where you end up and make it happen.
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