25 years. A quarter of a century. That’s how much time has passed since Huntington Beach punks the Vandals unleashed the sheer brilliance of the Live Fast Diarrhea album on the world – a collection of short, sharp punk nuggets that breathed new life into a quickly fading career.
This isn’t a band that revels in reminding people how old they are, but the anniversary of Live Fast Diarrhea is one worth celebrating. So, they’re putting it out on gloriously brown-splattered vinyl.
“There’s this guy called David Stowe, and he’s kind of a helper in the punk scene,” says bassist Joe Escalante. “He helps people with their merchandise, and he makes watches for a lot of punk bands and different things. And he suggested it. We’ve never done anniversary-anything, because we don’t like to point out the fact that we’re older than some. People thought we were a brand-new band in 1994 when we started playing with bands like Lagwagon and Blink 182. We don’t try to correct them, that we had a career for 13 years before that.”
That’s right, the Vandals formed in 1980, putting out the Peace Through Vandalism EP, and When in Rome Do as the Vandals Do, Slippery When III and Fear of a Punk Planet albums and rising up in the OC punk scene, but Live Fast… was undoubtedly the breakthrough. They look back on it fondly.
“In our band, [drummer] Josh Freese is the one who listens to the music the most,” Escalante says. “He’s got four kids, and they drive around in the car and they get curious about it. So he’ll play our records. I don’t have kids so that never happens to me. But this one we all knew was a different record for us, because it was the first that we paid for ourselves. Most bands save up to record, make a record, put it out on their own in the punk world. But we got a deal right away with Epitaph. They folded really quick and they came back, so we were bouncing around labels, but we always had a deal. Until this period, in between the late ‘80s and early ‘90s where, for us, it looked like it had tailed off.”
That was indeed a rough time for punk, which saw the Vandals and others on the scene such as TSOL, the Dickies, Adolescents and Agent Orange, performing at 21+ clubs for $1000, when previously they’d insisted on playing at all-ages venues.
“It was a dark period, and then we started making personnel changes,” the bassist says. “We had Warren Fitzgerald [guitar] and Josh Freese added to the band. Live Fast Diarrhea becomes the first record we made like a punk record where we paid for it ourselves. We recorded it, pretty cheaply. Warren produced it, so it’s a self-produced record. Our very first EP has Thom Wilson producing it – he was a famous punk producer at the time. But still, we were starting over.”
When Live Fast… was done, the Vandals sold it to Nitro – the record label belonging to Offspring man Dexter Holland. That was a relationship that worked out well for everyone – Holland was delighted to have the Vandals on his label, and the Vandals were delighted to take advantage of the perks that came with that arrangement, including flying on a private jet.
“1996-2006, all of a sudden the Vandals is a full-time job for us, and we thought it was done,” says Escalante. “It started with Live Fast Diarrhea. You don’t play bars anymore – you go and open for Lagwagon. This is a band that represents the new punk rock where all the bands have to have great songs. When we started in the ‘80s, all you had to do was have some kind of image and aggression, and you could rise to the top of the scene. The Go-Go’s were one of the very few punk bands who said, ‘What if we had good songs?’ All of a sudden, they’re the biggest girl band in the history of the world. NOFX were awful. Then they wrote amazing songs. We thought the same thing.”
Escalante says that, much of the time, it feels impossible that 25 years has passed since they recorded the album. Other times, it feels like 50.
“It’s one of those things where the time goes by really fast,” he says. “In that 25 years, there’s been a ten-year period of full-time professional rock musician-touring all over the record. It’s bizarre to me that it’s about 30 years with the same lineup, and it’s weird to me that it keeps going and there seems to be no end in sight other than these pandemics which, to us, you take a year or two out of our career and it won’t matter. I feel bad for younger bands that lose momentum. For us, we’ll take some time off.”
That busy decade climaxed with the Hollywood Potato Chip album in 2004. Since then they’ve kicked back a bit, performing at festivals in the States and Europe when they feel like it, and releasing the occasional track. This year, they put out the song “The Curse of the Unripe Pumpkin” — a quirky old Halloween tone that was in fact written by Escalante’s great uncle.
“He was a very flamboyant radio star in the ‘30s and ‘40s,” Escalante says. “I found that song when Cleopatra Records asked us to be on a Halloween compilation, and I knew that my uncle had written a Halloween song because my grandma was always singing it to me. I just thought it was a great song. I didn’t know how to find it, but I found it by searching the radio archives of his show. That’s the kind of stuff we do now. We did a Dr. Demento compilation, and I think we’re gonna do a yacht rock compilation for Cleopatra. They bought Kung-Fu Records, so we’re trying to do whatever they ask because that was very nice of them. You have a few loudmouths on social media telling you to put out new records, but it’s really important not to listen to them.”
So that’s what they’ll continue to do, and the pandemic will likely impact their work very little. They’ll still put out tunes when they feel like it and then, when everything opens up again, they’ll play the occasional festival and New Year’s gig. They don’t need to live fast anymore.
The Live Fast Diarrhea reissue is out August 14 through Craft Recordings.