Mike Palm doesn’t do a lot of interviews. In fact, he tries to avoid them like the plague. He freely admits that he doesn’t like the process and that, while freestyling his way through every answer, he’s desperately trying to come up with something interesting to say. But he’s overthinking it, because Agent Orange’s story is plenty interesting enough.
This is, after all, one of the first bands to blend 1960s surf music with the energy of punk rock. That might not sound particularly revolutionary today, but back when the band formed in 1979, in an artistically sparse Orange County, it was a very new approach to what was still a new musical genre.
Palm is the only remaining member from those early days; the lineup has changed numerous times over the years, though the current incarnation has been stable since drummer Dave Klein's arrival in 2009. The band's last album, Virtually Indestructible, was released two decades ago. Palm wants to put that right, but Agent Orange is always on the road and the frontman doesn’t think that a new body of work is an endeavor that should be taken lightly. This is typical of a man who has always, admirably, done things on his own terms, never wavering from his original surf-punk vision.
“Inevitably, if you know what you’re doing, [the sound] becomes more refined and it becomes more of a focused version of what it was,” Palm says. “I have to say, it’s kinda working like that for me. There may have been some slight changes along the way, but the genre that I chose and the way I chose to present my sound is somewhat unique. It was then and it is now. I’ve just expounded upon that original vision. It’s all working out. It just gets better and easier every year.”
The band may have been born in the OC, but nowadays Palm is based out of San Diego, while drummer Klein lives in Highland Park and bassist Perry Giordano is in Riverside. Still, the band will always be closely associated with Orange County. Palm recalls that, back in the early 1980s, young OC punks would venture to the bright lights of L.A. to see what was going on.
“Especially in the early days of the punk scene, any competitiveness was just for fun, if there was any at all,” he says. “Orange County was still no man’s land as far as punk rock goes. So of course we were in L.A. seeing what was going on, seeing the bands. If anything, you could look at it as encouraging and inspirational — other artists doing something cool.”
After years of hard touring and playing every dark corner and crevice of the known punk-loving world, Palm has a privileged perspective on the state of punk rock in 2017. While many people bemoan the modern scene, complaining that it’s watered down and filled with sellouts, Palm is optimistic.
“I have to say that punk rock is alive and well in so many places,” he says. “We play in the most out-of-the-way places, but I can tell you that there’s a strong scene in every little town in the entire world. It’s real, and the funny thing about it is, it doesn’t matter where you go, whether it’s Europe, Alaska, Brazil, up in Canada or anywhere in the United States ... you look around and the people are all wearing punk-rock T-shirts.”
Palm still feels inspired and excited about getting onstage in front of a rabid crowd. That connection with the audience is what it's about for him.
“It’s what you want to do as a musician,” he says. “You get up there and create something out of nothing. You definitely feed off the energy of an audience. I’m focusing on live performance because that’s the most exciting thing going on. It’s no secret this band has had problems with record labels in the past. Now we live in a world where record labels are kind of worthless. I’ve always felt that the direct connection with the audience is the most important thing, and I’ve proved it by stepping back from the traditional music industry and forging my own path.”
On Friday, Feb. 10, Agent Orange plays the Whisky a Go-Go. As is the case for many SoCal bands, playing the Whisky, even now when it’s hardly the hippest joint in L.A., remains an achievement to treasure. Back in the early days, a young Mike Palm aspired to play storied Hollywood venues such as the Whisky, Roxy and Troubadour. He won’t take it for granted.
“When we first started out, we were high school kids playing parties and people’s garages, school parties and stuff,” Palm says. “Then you go to L.A. and play some of the seedier clubs. Moving up and playing the Whisky was a big deal. It’s amazing to me to think that the Whisky has so much incredible history that goes back way before me. For that to be still there and active on the Sunset Strip, to me it’s something that means a lot and I don’t take it lightly. It’s a big deal.”
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At the Whisky, Agent Orange will play the tried-and-tested set that they've been pulling out for a while. No new material means limited shuffling. But Palm and the boys will be fired up and ready to feed off of that audience energy.
“I can only say that we’re coming off a string of dates in Colorado, so the band is going to be warmed up and ready to go,” says Palm.
And you know he means it.
Agent Orange plays the Whisky a Go-Go on Friday, Feb. 10. Tickets and more info.