The Accidental Punk: Ex–Circle Jerk Zander Schloss Gets Back to His Roots
It was 1988(ish) and I was yelling at Zander Schloss in particular, but hoping for any member of the Circle Jerks to hear me.
"15 minutes," I screamed over and over.
The Jerks were playing a shithole in Phoenix called Rockers on the west side of town. "15 Minutes," which was released on 1985's Wonderful, has one of my favorite bass lines and I definitely wanted to hear it, hence the screaming. Eventually I got the attention of Schloss, who wrote the song. He looked at singer Keith Morris (now of OFF! and Flag) and said, deadpan, "I think this guy wants to hear '15 Minutes.'"
Morris just sort of shrugged, and the next thing I knew, there it was. Schloss grinned at me while I freaked out. I was already pretty hooked on Schloss, considering he was in the cult classic movie Repo Man (1984) and in one of my personal faves, 1987's Straight to Hell (both films directed by Schloss' friend and collaborator, Alex Cox). But from that moment forward, I was a huge fan.
Schloss is one of the fortunate musicians who has managed to have an interesting and eventful career in the four decades he's been active in the Los Angeles music scene. Now 55, the multi-instrumentalist (Schloss plays guitar and bass, as well as a variety of stringed instruments from around the world) is getting ready to take his solo work on the road in 2017, after having played in several notable bands. In addition to his work on bass in Circle Jerks, Schloss also played bass in The Weirdos, guitar and banjo in the Low & Sweet Orchestra and collaborated frequently with Joe Strummer of The Clash, among many others.
The recent solo material Schloss has been working on is exquisite. Who knew the consummate punk-rock nerd has such a silky smooth singing voice to accompany his gifted guitar playing? His work on songs such as "Sin of Wasting Time" and "Stone Skipping" is reminiscent of Duncan Sheik's work on his highly underrated 1996 album, Barely Breathing, but with considerably more substance and gravitas. As a lyricist, Schloss touches on the themes of love, loss and heartbreak deftly while providing a level of musicality that needs to be heard.
I got the chance to talk to Schloss on a couple of occasions earlier in December and here's how it went.
What are you up to these days? Tell me about your new solo endeavor.
I was working in a thing called Sean and Zander [with Sean Wheeler of Throw Rag] for the last eight years. That busted up last December. We were supposed to record an album with Mark Lanegan producing and unfortunately, some of the material Sean and I were doing, Mark was not gravitating toward. [He] was more into some of the songs I was doing on my own. That caused some tension.
We’d been trying to pen some songs for a third record. I’m always writing, and some of the songs Sean had not written any lyrics for, so I had to take care of my children. I realized my little babies were being neglected, so I wrote lyrics for them. I spend an awful lot of time crafting my music, so there was a little bit more care taken. As a result of that, my solo career was born.
I did a five-song EP, mostly for getting some business people involved. It was created with a little bit of a gloss, a little bit of a sheen on it, so nobody could find any fault with the recording or anything distract them away from the songs. Everything has to be pretty high-gloss these days.
Where can people find this?
People can purchase it on Bandcamp if they go to zanderschloss.com or they can just listen to it on SoundCloud if they don’t want to pay. Unfortunately, most people don’t, so … [Laughs]
I’m a 55-year-old folk singer. [Laughs] Nobody is really clamoring around it going, “Oh my God. This is going to be the next big thing. This is going to do such huge business for us.”
It’s tough. I completely understand. You’re bridging some gaps here, especially with your punk-rock roots.
My [solo] stuff has really nothing to do with punk rock. I don’t mind building a bridge out of it, but ... I’d rather play for a captive audience, rather than an audience of knuckleheads who just want to beat each other up and get drunk. [Laughs]
I have been in service of the punk-rock industry for quite some time, but I’m from St. Louis, Missouri, and I started out playing and being interested in all kinds of music. What I really gravitated toward when I first started playing guitar was [people] like Doc and Merle Watson, Bob Dylan and Neil Young.
I moved up to Los Angeles after I graduated from high school and got into a funk group down in Compton. My first gig in Los Angeles was the Watts Tower Festival [in 1983] with a band called the Juicy Bananas.
I know that name. [Juicy Bananas appeared on the Repo Man soundtrack.]
Before I got into punk rock, I had a career in jazz and funk and R&B. I went to music school and lived with my jazz teacher for a year. Everybody in the punk scene always made fun of me because I was a real, trained musician.
When people ask me if I’m one of the punk rockers who has now arrived in the acoustic, singer-songwriter music, I’m like, “No. This is full circle back to my authentic self. My truest and most innocent self.”
Wow, I had no idea. How do you get from there to punk rock?
When I heard the Circle Jerks were looking for a bass player, I was basically living in an office building on Hollywood Boulevard between Ivar and Cosmo. I had done a score for a porno film called Mother’s Pride back then. My original intention was to score films. I had been doing a lot of student films at UCLA, which is where I met Alex Cox.
I was walking up the street counting pennies for a burrito, and a couple of people from the cast of Repo Man pulled up and said, “Hey, man, the Circle Jerks are looking for a bass player.” I was like, “Why are you telling me?” and they said, “It looks like you could use a gig.” [Laughs]
I actually auditioned for the Circle Jerks. They said, “Learn three songs,” and because of my jazz training, I learned every song off of Wild in the Streets and Group Sex. I came and I auditioned with my fretless [Fender] Jazz bass. [Laughs]
That must’ve got some looks.
Definitely got me some looks. They asked me, “Why do you want to be in punk rock?” and I said, “Well, I’ve been playing in this funk band down in Watts and Compton called the Juicy Bananas and I don’t think black music is ever going to go anywhere. I want to get rich off of music, so I want to get into punk rock.”
They thought that was the most ridiculous thing they’ve ever heard. In retrospect, I think it was the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever said.
Were you completely serious or were you just fucking with them?
I was completely serious. I was just a naive kid. If you’ve seen Repo Man, my character in Repo Man, I basically was just like that. I looked like I was 16 when I was 23 or 24 years old. I was really, really naive.
What about Straight to Hell? That was huge for me. I’ve sung your song (“Salsa y Ketchup”) many times.
Well, that was not just my song. That’s a co-write with Joe Strummer. I had met Joe when I was doing some guitar work on Sid and Nancy with Pray for Rain [a film scoring and songwriting collective]. Joe was doing music for Sid and Nancy, as were The Pogues. When we went to Spain to do Straight to Hell, Joe met me in the lobby of the hotel and said, “Hey, man, I think [Schloss' character] Karl the Wiener Man needs to have a song to sell his hot dogs.”
I always thought that was all you.
No, that was the start of my collaboration with Joe. When we did the film Walker, about the Sandinistas, Joe asked me to play all the stringed instruments on the soundtrack. That started my career with Joe Strummer. I think a lot of people were a little bit pissed off at me. I was playing with the Circle Jerks and Thelonious Monster at the time. People thought I was jumping ship to go live in London and play with Joe Strummer. I was like, “C’mon, man! What would you fuckin’ do?”
Joe was telling me, “Hey, man, you’re a great guitar player. You shouldn’t squander your talents playing bass with the Circle Jerks. Come and play guitar and be the musical director of my band and score films with me.”
As much as I love your work with the Jerks, I don’t blame you one bit.
It’s so funny. I did the Walker soundtrack and the Permanent Record soundtrack and we did a solo album called Earthquake Weather. I was working in tandem with Joe, and as actors, for a couple of years before we started working together officially. I remember Joe being very ambitious and motivated to make music back then and explore different genres of music. He still had the energy of a welterweight prize fighter onstage, it wasn’t like Joe Strummer of The Mescaleros. He was still spitting and stomping his leg and cutting his arm on the rusty bridge [of his guitar].
That must’ve been crazy for you, to have gone from living on Hollywood Boulevard and counting pennies for burritos to playing with Joe Strummer.
It was pretty cool the way things started to happen. From Repo Man I had the idea that I had arrived at this plateau and I thought I was going to stay at this plateau and I ended up living in my car for a while, then living in that office building and scoring a porno film and playing with the Juicy Bananas. I didn’t have a phone or a bed. I peed in a public bathroom and went down to the health club to take showers. I was working at the Chinese Theatre selling popcorn.
From the Circle Jerks and Repo Man and touring with the Circle Jerks and doing films on location, for a while there, it just took off and I was in the whirlwind and I was living the dream. When Joe got dropped off of Epic Records, I was sort of thrust back into the Hollywood scene. I created the band Too Free Stooges with Dick Rude [also from Repo Man], and played in Thelonious Monster and The Weirdos and the Circle Jerks. I was doing a lot of drugs and playing a lot of gigs. Got myself pretty strung out on heroin.
That’s no good. How long were you in that scene?
It was probably like three or four years. Now it seems like a long time. I kicked heroin in 1991 or something like that. I started a band called Sweet & Low with Josh Freese and this guy named Rob Rosa, who was one of the original members of Menudo. I disbanded the band two gigs into our career and then Rob asked me to go down to Puerto Rico to do some writing and recording with another member of Menudo. I said, "No thanks, Robby," and that turned into the recording session that produced "Livin' La Vida Loca" with Ricky Martin.
I'm like the musical equivalent of a rat that jumps on a burning ship.
I'm not a smart rat. [Laughs]
A series of near misses.
Yeah, I started a band called The Low & Sweet Orchestra. All of the sudden, Jimmy Iovine was interested in signing us to Interscope. We got signed for a six-record deal to Interscope. It was pretty crazy.
I started playing with the Circle Jerks [again and] got signed to Mercury Records and Scott Weiland asked me to play in a band with him called The Magnificent Bastards, so I was signed to three major labels at the same time and on retainer with Scott Weiland. I went from not having a pot to piss in to basically getting rich and being on major labels.
It's so fucking topsy-turvy. It's just insane.
How was all that in terms of staying sober?
I felt like I needed to keep my wits about me. I put together a super-powered team of business people around me. Playing with Scott Weiland, it was difficult to keep sober during that period of time. I wasn't going to meetings. I wasn't completely abstinent off of alcohol and drugs, but I wasn't doing heroin or smoking crack.
Those are two good things to stay away from.
I'm 11½ years sober now. In the late ’90s, when all the shit came down, I felt like that was just it for me.
I'm hoping, with what is going on in the world now, that people will [make music] for the right reasons. Maybe I should tell the truth, maybe I should say something that is necessary and beautiful and truthful. Maybe I should be direct and authentic about my art. I think we really need it. It's great looking cool. I like looking cool, but that is just a byproduct of me doing what is necessary.
Zander Schloss on stage performing with Sean Wheeler in Sean and Zander
How has the process of becoming a lead singer been for you?
It's a new instrument for me. It's an instrument that I've picked up over the last eight years. I finally learned that I needed to listen to my speaking voice and sing in my own voice. If I play guitar, it's second nature to me and I don't have to think about it. I'm trying to get to that point with my singing.
I'm sort of undercover doing some residencies and some private gigs. Under-the-radar gigs. Pretty soon I'll be out there on the road singing every night, and that'll be very helpful. For anyone who wants to pursue a career in being a singer-songwriter, you have to knock down those 200 crappy gigs where nobody cares and build up some scar tissue so you're ready when you hit that big stage and people start listening and clapping and paying attention. That's what I'm about to embark on.
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