Under the Sun

Punk Rock of Ages: The Father Figures Dote on Skate Music

The Father Figures (from left) Bobby Lerma, Tom Reardon, and Michael Cornelius are working on new music.
The Father Figures (from left) Bobby Lerma, Tom Reardon, and Michael Cornelius are working on new music. Jim Hesterman
The Father Figures didn’t have big plans for Father’s Day. The band’s guitarist, Michael Cornelius, thought he might go to Tucson to visit his stepdad. Drummer Bobby Lerma, who used to play with the Jeff Dahl Group, planned to hang out with his wife and daughter that day. “My kids will probably throw a shirt at me,” shrugged Father Figures frontman Tom Reardon.

The popular local punk band is dedicating this year to writing new music, Michael said last Saturday over a cup of hot tea at Fame Caffe. “It’s not that we’re taking the year off,” he clarified. “It’s more that we’re not booking a bunch of shows until we have some new stuff to play in those shows.”

“We want to come out with a whole new set,” added Tom, who fronted Hillbilly Devilspeak and who moonlights as a music journalist for Phoenix New Times and several others.

“Instead of an album, we might do a series of singles,” explained Michael, who’s famous for his place in seminal ‘70s skate punk band JFA. “Two songs per single. Then, we’d compile those onto a new album.”

The last Father Figures album was 2017’s Heavy Lifting. The band calls its music “post skate punk,” a description Tom came up with.

“It’s hard to classify music,” said Bobby, who’s 49, “and we don’t fit easily into any category. Our music
pulls from so many different areas. We don’t cater to the hardcore scene.”

“Yeah,” Tom interrupted. “We’re not hardcore.”

“We’re not poppy enough for the pop people,” Bobby continued. “We’re not post-punk.”

“But by putting a category on music, you’re limiting it,” Michael interjected. “That can change the experience. You’re trying to link your mind and your ears.”

Bobby thought it was just human nature to put labels on things. “I get it,” he said, after a bite of coffee cake. “But I think we defy labels a little bit. I like to think we’re different.”

All three of the Father Figures write, Bobby said, and no one member dominates the songwriting process, which is collaborative and sometimes takes place, Tom said, via group text message.

“I’ll send out lyrics, and the other guys will give feedback, and I’ll come back with another draft,” he explained. “A cool phrase will come up. Or one of these guys will say, ‘I think this riff should be like this.’”

“Tom will write a whole song just based on a title I give him,” Bobby said. “I’ll give him a rhyming couplet and he’ll come back in like 30 minutes with a song. We seriously finish each other’s songs. Michael will write a bridge for Tom’s piece. For a year, we were all about writing bridges.”

Tom, who’s also 49, is the best at nailing punk anger, Bobby said.

“You rein me in sometimes,” Tom pointed out. “You’ll catch me screaming at a wall and you’ll say, ‘That’s a little too obvious. Make it more personal.’”

The Father Figures came together 10 years ago, on Memorial Day weekend. “It wasn’t supposed to be a band,” said Michael, the band’s 59-year-old elder statesman. “We were just supposed to be getting together to jam. Bobby’s wife and kids were out of town, and I said, ‘Let’s get together and make some noise.”

The three had played together before, and Michael had produced Bobby’s first punk rock band tape in 1983. They’d once tried to start a band called The Homeowners, with Bobby on drums.

“The Homeowners was an excuse to get together and drink beer,” Bobby said, and the other two laughed. “Then Tom asked me to come fill in on drums for one of his stoner rock bands, and I failed miserably. I just don’t have that rock gene. It was embarrassing.”

“It was a valiant effort,” Tom said. “Anyway, the Homeowners didn’t get very far.”

Inspired by a New Zealand band called Cut Off Your Hands, Bobby and Tom started talking about forming a new band. “Tom asked who we could get to play guitar, and I said we should call Michael Cornelius.”

Michael asked the guys to play music with him at his 50th birthday party. “By the time we got to the birthday party, we had a full set and we’d booked two shows. And it was like, ‘I guess we’re a band now.’”

They got their name from a friend of Bobby’s. “I thought it suggested a totalitarian band, like a Russian propaganda idea,” Michael said.

“And we were starting a band at more advanced ages,” Bobby pointed out. “So it felt appropriate.”

Tom gets a fair amount of Facebook mail from younger fans and musicians, he said. “They do want to hear from us older folks about how to save some time and pain and effort. And we don’t tell them!”

“They don’t want to hear about how much easier it is today,” Michael said. “About how hard it used to be to book a venue and then you had to go out and put flyers on cars.”

“You actually had to go make a flyer on a Xerox machine!” Bobby said, and shook his head.

“Now we have better clubs, with bathrooms that you actually want to step into,” Tom said, “and the internet to tell people about your show.”

“They want instant gratification,” Michael said of some of the younger punks. “But to be fair, there’s a lot of old people in our scene.”

Tom thought that was true. “There’s a burgeoning over-40 punk rock scene in Phoenix,” he said. “It’s very supportive,” Bobby thought. “Not competitive. And very incestuous.”

The audience is the thing, Bobby said. “A lot of them have been going to punk shows since the late 1970s. You can’t fool these guys. They’re clever and smart and creative, and they’re out there, the know the music, and you can’t fool them.”
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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela