You cannot discuss punk or hardcore in Orange County without mentioning T.S.O.L. As some of the original pioneers of the sound, they were among the first wave of Southern California punk and hardcore music along with Social Distortion, Adolescents, and The Vandals.
T.S.O.L. formed in Long Beach in 1980 by Jack Grisham on vocals and Todd Barnes on drums, along with guitarist Ron Emory and bassist Mike Roche. Despite their lineup having undergone several changes over the years, the band has remained active almost uninterrupted ever since.
Their first EP, “T.S.O.L. (True Sounds of Liberty),” was released in 1981, followed that same year by their first full-length, “Dance With Me.” While the earlier featured anarchistic, politically-driven lyrics and the latter focused more on darker and horror-themed topics, both leaned towards hardcore punk music. In 1982, the band released “Beneath the Shadows,” a critically-acclaimed album that would also establish their goth rock sound which would be more prevalent on later releases.
The band will play a pair of SoCal shows this weekend to celebrate the 40th anniversary of “Beneath the Shadows,” and I had the unique fortune to catch up with Jack Grisham about four decades of Orange County punk, the current politics and chaos we live in, and that time Fletcher from Pennywise tackled him off an eight-foot stage during a show.
Kevin Gomez: Hey Jack, good to speak with you. How were your holidays?
Jack Grisham: It was good. Just sitting around waiting to work. Everything’s shut down and I just want to work. We were on tour when this [pandemic] started in March of 2020. I was up in Washington when it started to hit the old folk’s homes, when they didn’t know what it was. We stopped our tour right in the middle – we had just played the Viper Room and our name was on the marquee for over a year. Since then, we’ve only played like five shows. We were playing 85-100 shows a year before that.
KG: Wow, that’s wild. That brings us to this weekend and celebrating 40 years of “Beneath the Shadows.” Pretty remarkable achievement. I know when it was first released, there was some backlash from hardcore punks who didn’t “get it” at the time.
JG: This is what I try to explain to people. We did the album, which was more of a goth record, but when we played the live shows, we would play hardcore songs off the first album, then heavy piano, with a light show – it was a whole show. It wasn’t the songs off that album, so it didn’t stand out as much. Some bands I watch and it’s the same songs for an hour. So, “Beneath the Shadows” worked live, live it always played great. But people… they struggled. (laughs)
KG: I think you see that with any genre and with any band. It could be a rock band deciding to go electronic or experiment with prog rock and some fans will turn their back.
JG: You can gain fans by experimentation, you can lose them too. The cool thing is that there were so many, especially here, they liked all of it. It took a while, but they came around. For me, listening to it now, I struggle with it. Out of all the T.S.O.L. records, aside from the hardcore stuff because I can do that, it wasn’t until “The Trigger Complex” in 2017 that I actually feel good about my vocals. I think I actually sing better now than I ever did. As I’m listening back to “Shadows,” it’s like, cringe (laughs). I’m a better performer than I ever was a singer.
KG: All the more reason to come see you guys this weekend; it’s a chance to improve those songs and bring them to life on stage.
JG: Right, and just to clarify, we aren’t performing the entire album. It will be a selection of songs off that album and then some from our usual setlist. That’s the thing about being around so long is you have to cater to the audience, without exactly catering to the audience. You don’t want to get trapped playing just one album and alienating a lot of the crowd, who came to see your other songs from over the years. So, for those coming out, it will definitely be an interesting selection of our songs.
KG: A term that gets thrown around often in punk rock is “sell out.” This album wasn’t even a switch to a major label, but was that ever thrown around because you guys had changed genres and moved more towards a goth sound?
JG: No, that never really came out. They knew what we were. We never had trouble with that because no one was buying it. My friend, Wayne Kremer (of MC5) said, “I’ve been selling out for years but nobody was buying.” You didn’t really think about that shit because back then, no one really cared. Back then, no one even cared about punk rock. I didn’t even think people would be into punk this long. Like, really? People still like this? (laughs)
KG: I got the chance to interview Mike (Magrann) from CH3 recently, who I know recently opened for you guys at Alex’s Bar. We got to talking about punk in the early ‘80s and the Cuckoo’s Nest. Do you have any particular stories that stand out from playing there?
JG: Back then, you’re just a kid doing whatever you wanted. It was totally wide open. There were no rules. Unless you got caught by the police, there were no rules. It’s like free love in the ‘60s but it’s dirty, free love. We’re not talking about a couple hippies cuddling in a field. You’re getting laid in the back of a car in an empty parking lot. But for a kid, you’re going crazy; you’re drinking, you’re running wild, you’re getting hurt in a good way. You get so spoiled and jaded.
KG: Something Mike had been talking to me about punk in the ‘80s, was the prevalence of violence at shows. How it stopped being fun, forcing some to leave the scene or nearly quit their bands. Nowadays, some argue that the punk scene is too safe, or they miss that danger.
JG: You can argue that it’s too safe until you end up getting stabbed. Back then, then problem was it became punk-on-punk violence and it was really a bummer. It depends on what end of the stick you’re on. I’ll tell you what is too safe – a lot of these bands are too safe with their sound. Some of these bands stay rooted in this late ‘70s look and sound. It reminds of the guys obsessed with ‘50s music, they look like Fonzie or something. There’s a song on “Beneath the Shadows” called “Forever Old.” Because even back then I was becoming disillusioned with the scene. Bands were just doing the same shit over and over again. You’re not experimenting, you’re just… selling.
KG: Exactly. A huge part of punk rock is about taking chances and evolving. Not playing it safe.
JG: Yeah, that’s always been one of my complaints. When I first got started, it’s like The Go-Go’s were considered punk rock. So, you’ve got The Go-Go’s and Black Flag on the same bill together. This is bitchin.’ You get to see all sorts of shit.
KG: Yeah, that’s why it was so ballsy for you guys to put out “Shadows” and experiment with new sounds and explore the goth side.
JG: What’s interesting is it wasn’t ballsy compared to how when we got into music, people were doing stuff like that. They were doing all kinds of crazy things and experimenting. It was wide open. “Shadows” was almost like a retro record. (laughs)
KG: In the ‘80s, Orange County was a hub for punk rock music. I know there were also scenes in the Bay and Northern Cali, but why has OC remained such a hot spot for punk with waves in the ‘90s, and even today?
JG: A lot of it went to the surfing and the skating. Say whatever you want about punk rock and Orange County, but we kept that scene going. All these old bands used to complain about the kids from the beach, they used to hate us. But if they had to rely on their fans from Hollywood coming out to support them, they would have never made it. So, you got these young skater and surfer guys with this aggressive music and the craziness, it fits right in with the lifestyle here, man.
KG: I’m assuming the success of “Beneath the Shadows” led to your cameo in (Penelope Spheeris’s) “Suburbia.” (The 1984 film depicted runaway kids who find comfort amongst the punks squatting in abandoned homes. The film featured live performances from T.S.O.L., The Vandals, and D.I.).
JG: At the time I was on-and-off dating Jennifer Clay, the lead actress in that movie. I don’t know if anyone knows how we ended up in that movie.
KG: When you first saw it, did it have a huge impact on you?
JG: No, not at all. This is what an asshole I am, I went to the premiere and I walked out. (laughs) It was too weird for me. I eventually saw it in a theater, and it was so bizarre to see yourself on the screen. To me, we just looked ridiculous on the screen. Meaning our whole culture. Like, is this who we are? I think it was a good representation of the punk scene, but I don’t know if I really believed in the fact that we were really going to do something. I wasn’t that idealistic. Like, yeah right. Go read something. Go put down the 40 and pick up a book. (laughs)
KG: In addition to music, you’re also a pretty established and talented photographer. What came first for you: music or photography?
JG: I used to shoot when I was a little kid, but I stopped. I got into it later. You know what’s funny; when I was a little kid I had a Super 8 camera. I used to write stories, make movies, and shoot photos. Now I’m an adult and I write stories, I make movies, and I shoot photos. (Jack has written several novels including a semi-biographical book titled “An American Demon: A Memoir,” and a short story entitled “Code Blue: A Love Story,” partially named after the famous T.S.O.L. song.)
KG: I know through the band and your personal life you’ve always been pretty politically outspoken. Hopefully this isn’t reaching too far back, but I know you made a run for Governor of California in 2004 recall election.
JG: Yeah, but just to bitch about healthcare in California. It all needs to be junked. It’s time to let it go. It’s all a mess. The left’s too left, the right’s too right. I never thought we’d need a strong moderate from either party. You know, it’s about being conservative on some issues, being liberal on others. It’s just wisdom, man!
KG: I think you pretty much addressed it, but would you ever be interested in running for something local, maybe city council? Do you think it’s possible to be elected or to make a change?
JG: In Huntington, the City Council is a mess. I don’t know if I would ever do it again. It was a good lesson to watch these people. The power-hungry people. I’ve learned that if you want to lead, you shouldn’t. It’s almost like a gold pan you use for prospecting that you strain away layers and layers of dirt and grime. You can jump into politics idealistic, and you want to make changes. But you have to give up a little, then a little more and a little more and by the time you get the point where you can actually make a change, you’re just another ass-kissing politician.
KG: With all that said, how do you stay sane amongst all the chaos of the last five years of politics and two years of an ongoing pandemic?
JG: You just don’t talk about it. Don’t buy into it, don’t discuss it. I try not to discuss politics with people and get involved. As for my city, I wish (those in charge) could just focus on our city itself and trying to fix it. So many of the city councilmen talk about national politics. No. Whether you’re from the right or the left, we can both agree we love this city. Now, what can we do to make this city better and make this a stronger community? I hope that helps answer your question.
KG: Yeah, I think you hinted at it and for me I’ve given up paying attention to the news altogether. It’s all become insane and sensationalized. I don’t know if that’s the right answer and it probably makes me ignorant to a lot of topics, but it makes me happier and less anxious.
JG: Yeah, that’s the thing. They did such a great job at destroying our faith in news. What a bitchin’ move. Talk about anarchy, that was a great one. On a daily basis I read some news briefings that I skim to keep up with what’s happening.
KG: One topic I keep seeing being discussed in comment sections is critics who argue that punks used to be about anti-establishment, but now there’s a strong push to get vaccinated and follow COVID protocol. Are those mutually exclusive or how do you reconcile that?
JG: I’ll tell you what punk definitely never was: it was never billionaire real estate developers waving the flag. Like, what the [SIC]? Punk’s always leaned hard left. Now, punk is following the hard right? We have a song off the first album that says, “President Reagan can shove it!” (from “Superficial Love”) Do you know I never got hate mail for that song until Trump was president? Like, are you kidding me? You guys want to talk to me about punk rock while you’re waving that flag? I’ve been called a communist, a leftie. And then I would get hate from the other side for protecting the right of the right to speak. Look, they have a right to speak whether you agree with it or not. So then, I’m getting punks calling me a fascist. It’s like never before in punk rock.
It comes down to this. Are people really dying? Has the death count gone up in the last two years? Whatever it is, I’m talking about the actual death count. I’m not even talking about what the causes are. I’m not following the government, I’m following science. I had a punk rocker write me and tell me I’m no longer a human being because I got the shot. And it’s just like, you can’t argue with stupid. It’s not worth it for me. That’s why I tell people, if you enjoy seeing us play, go now. Because I’m getting tired of it and I’d much rather enjoy writing books and making movie. I don’t have to deal with that kind of stupidity on a daily basis.
KG: Okay, switching topics back to punk music. The year is 2018. T.S.O.L. is headlining a show at the Observatory. Not even a minute into “Dance With Me,” Fletcher (Dragge, guitarist and co-founding member of Pennywise) tackles you off of the seven or eight-foot stage. Were you actually injured from that?
JG: I was hurt bad. He was so wasted that night. Fletcher and I are great friends. We text each other often. In his mind, he’s going to grab me and we’re going to stage dive into the crowd. What are you thinking, with two 300-lb guys going into the crowd? Some 15-year-old girl is going to catch us and carry us around? It was crazy because prior to that I was having some heart trouble, so I had been on blood thinners. A couple of weeks before that I had stopped taking them. My cardiologist saw the footage of it and said if that would have happened while I was on the blood thinners it would have been catastrophic. I would have essentially bled out. As it was, I was bruised from my neck to my butt. But it didn’t affect our friendship at all. I was pissed at him for maybe a second, but we’re friends. He donated to the movie. He’s a really good guy.
We are happy to hear things turned out well and you continue to make music. Thanks for speaking with us, Jack!
Catch T.S.O.L. this weekend at The Observatory in Santa Ana on Friday, or The Regent in Los Angeles on Saturday. Both nights will be supported by D.I., Anarchy Taco, and Toxic Energy