The Father Figures started with a 50th birthday party, which is either the least or most punk thing ever.
Traditional agitated punk wisdom would suggest that guitarist/vocalist Michael Cornelius, bassist/vocalist Tom Reardon, and drummer Bobby Lerma lead pretty square lives: All three are married with children (Cornelius is actually a grandfather), gainfully employed, and happily settled into middle age. Picking kids up from school and punching the clock doesn't leave much time for smashing the state.
But then there's that other element of punk, the one that suggests that "being punk" is less about sold-at-Hot Topic anarchy and more about actual freedom. The idea that just because you age doesn't mean you have to mellow out. By that logic, The Father Figures, and the band's excellent new LP, All About Everything, is sure as hell more punk than you.
"[Punk] always seemed like it was the safe place for everybody who didn't fit in anywhere else," Lerma says. "For me, as a kid, it was pure 100 percent freedom — to do what you wanted to do, dress how you wanted to dress, go to the thrift store and get the craziest pants that you wanted to because you thought that they looked cool."
Cornelius, Reardon, and Lerma share a background in Phoenix's storied punk history. In the 1980s, Cornelius was a founding member of JFA, a band that defined "skate punk" on a national scale. Reardon played in Religious Skids, a band that secured the coveted opening slot for a show featuring Fugazi, or "the dude from Minor Threat's new band." Lerma played in The Voice and other bands and joined the guys in frequent skate sessions. Phoenix was punk rock's Wild West — a place where nearly anything went, fueled by a daring skate culture and endless landscapes of abandoned concrete. Separated from national trends, things got weird and woolly — with JFA, Meat Puppets, and Sun City Girls creating strange new punk sounds that couldn't have been born anywhere other than the desert.
"We never got a feeling that any of this was going to be any more than today," Cornelius says. "Today we do this; tomorrow it's gone, done. No one cares; it's over. We had no foresight to see where the Meat Puppets might end up or where the whole punk rock scene might go."
JFA played shows around town just to see what they could get away with and got banned from a number of venues in the process. Cornelius was having fun, but JFA was getting more serious. The band was becoming increasingly popular and scheduled a nine-week summer tour across the country. The shows didn't pay well enough to keep up with rent, so Cornelius quit the band.
It wasn't intentional, but he ended up taking a 13-year break from music, focusing on work and starting a family. Lerma's path essentially was the same — he'd hang out at shows and catch friends' bands, but he settled into a mostly domestic life. Reardon juggled both — playing in bands like Hillbilly Devilspeak and Pinky Tuscadero's White Knuckle Ass Fuck — while simultaneously starting a family and working hard at his career.
In 2009, the three found themselves jamming in Lerma's band room. It was a no-pressure situation, and Reardon and Lerma didn't think it was anything substantial. Then Cornelius asked them to perform at his 50th birthday party at the Ruby Room, a scant six weeks away. The jams became practices, and the three quickly realized they had something going on that felt good. Cheekily named, The Father Figures were born.
The band's debut album, 2010's aptly named Lesson Number One, combined the musicians' fragmented influences, skirting the lines of angular post-punk, heavy stoner rock, and Cornelius' prog rock fascination. The record doesn't sound disjointed, but the band's disparate influences can be heard butting heads (you should hear them bicker about the merit, or lack thereof, of The Cure's "Boys Don't Cry").
"What was really important was getting used to how each other played," says Lerma of the band's style on Lesson Number One.The band's sophomore album, the brand-new new All About Everything, finds the trio progressing well beyond getting a handle on each other's playing.
"The first record is us, but this record is The Father Figures playing [with] our collective voice," Lerma says. "Fleecing the Peace" rides a gang vocal chorus, propulsive bass lines, and a math-rock guitar lead. "Maid in China" skips along a brisk thrashing ska rhythm, detailing lyrical concerns about war and terrifying foreign policy before a cresting, bluesy guitar solo. "Hollow" seethes over a minimal, trebly, in-the-red guitar, skewering politicians on both sides of the aisle while recalling And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead on Source Tags and Codes.
If any song sums up the album's spirit, it's "Switch," an ode to the band's collective pastime: skateboarding. "It feels like I'm 15 again," Reardon emotes while describing the thrilling sensation of dropping into a bowl.
"I want to skate all the time, but I can't. My body won't let me," says Lerma. "[The song] is an old man's love letter to skateboarding."
Reardon jokingly called The Father Figures a "post-skate-rock band," but the label fits. All About Everything is out via AZPX, which doubles as a record label and a skateboarding company. As if that wasn't enough Thrasher cred, production of the album was postponed when Cornelius broke his elbow in a skateboarding accident. The Father Figures put recording on hold for five months while Cornelius recovered. No one in the band skates too much these days, beyond quick trips to the grocery store, but it doesn't matter. It's a lifestyle choice, Cornelius says.
"The skate thing is just part of the DNA, really," Cornelius says. "Just because I can't actually go out and ride a skate park and do stuff in the pool anymore doesn't mean I don't think I'm a skateboarder anymore. I'm still a skateboarder."
Like skating, punk is the band's lifestyle — and Phoenix has noticed, as the band has opened for bands like No Age, X, and Public Image Ltd. Reardon, Cornelius, and Lerma haven't mellowed out with age, and they haven't run out of things to be angry about. But there's a zen to their approach — a refined attitude that comes only with maturity, both personally and musically.
"We'd rather have fun before having a big message," Cornelius says. "We'd rather be ironic before we're direct."
"I think part of it is that we don't suffer for our art," Lerma says, laughing. "We don't have a bunch of strife in our lives that fuel our art."
How punk is that?