This week's issue contains a story on the Skabbs, a punk band from the Lawndale/Torrance, CA, area that broke up before any of their recordings ever saw the light of day. Jackpot Records, the record label from the same folks running the fine Portland record stores, has issued the long-overdue 17-track Idle Threat, a terrific collection of Skabbs recordings from 1977-1978. It's a remarkable, sad story—lead singer and songwriter Steve Salazar died in 1979 of a lifelong heart defect—with a great denouement: The Skabbs' recordings have finally been released, and the band has reunited for a string of West Coast shows.
I interviewed Skabbs bassist Mike Enzor for the article, and his responses were thoughtful and fascinating. We could only cram so many quotes into print, but here is the complete Q&A with Enzor. It's well worth reading everything he had to say.
The Skabbs play a free, all-ages show at 6 pm today at the downtown Jackpot Records store (203 SW 9th). They also play tomorrow night at Dante's (1 SW 3rd) with Sam Coomes' new project, the Deep Fried Boogie Band.
MERCURY: How does it feel to have these recordings finally see the light of day? Was there frustration and regret over the years with people not having heard them?
MIKE ENZOR: It feels great, yeah. Just to hear a record label say they liked the stuff and wanted to release it was like vindication after all these years. I wouldn't say we were frustrated that no one had ever heard our music. Sure, we were frustrated back in the day, but we've had 30 some odd years to get over that. One of my personal great regrets though is that we didn't put out a 7-inch or something back in the day. If we had done that, either self-released or with one of the small LA punk labels of the day, like Dangerhouse or Bomp or something, it would be like we existed. The only thing we had to prove our existence were some flyers and our cassette recordings, of course.
How did the band form? Something I read said you just wanted to make music less gross than Foreigner. Were you all friends first, and then the band came after? Or did you become friends because of the band?
The four original guys (Andy Thoreson, Andy Gonzalez, Steve Evans, and myself) all knew each other since high school. We'd never been in a band all together before, but we found ourselves hanging out together a couple of years after high school, and the band just kind of grew out of that. Even then, we didn't really think we'd be a real band. We were just doing goofy stuff with saxophones, doing stripper music, just stuff to crack ourselves up. Then we "heard about" punk rock. It was really more an intellectual decision than anything else. Like, "Hey, maybe this is gonna be the next big thing, and maybe it'll kill off this corporate crap passing for rock 'n' roll these days."
The next step was asking Steve Salazar to write punk rock songs for us because we didn't think we could write songs. Our drummer, Andy Gonzalez had met Steve while playing in a touring company of Godspell, and then joined Steve's band Shorty's Portion. Steve had a degree in musical composition from USC and was writing symphonies as well as pop songs, and he had a bizarre sense of humor. He wasn't really familiar with punk, so we gave him some records to listen to (Ramones, the Jam, and the "God Save the Queen" 7-inch) and a couple days later he gave us a cassette with his demo for "Long May She Wave," which was a crass answer song to "God Save the Queen." It was perfect for us. It was like he perfectly understood the concept we already had in mind. Also, he had such a unique voice we knew he had to be our lead singer. Fortunately for us, he decided to join.
What was Steve Salazar like? How did his personality and his songwriting intersect? That is kind of a weird question, but I guess I'm wondering if his personality shone through in the Skabbs songs.
I've never met anyone like Steve Salazar, and never will. A completely unique individual. First of all, there were his physical disabilities. He was born with a hole in his heart and he had operations when he was an infant and a couple more operations while he was a kid. All the while, the doctors told his parents he wouldn't live long. When he beat the odds and made it to adulthood, he stood just under five feet tall and weighed under 100 pounds. He was incredibly fragile. He'd get winded just walking down the street. It was our job to watch over him and make sure he was okay. His little brother, Mark was there to take care of him much of the time, too. As far as his personality goes, I felt kind of intimidated by him because he was so smart. He had this enthusiasm for the arts; music, film, books, etc. A really inspiring person to be around. Of course he had a dark side too and a hot temper, but it all added up to a fascinating package. Some people got him, others didn't. Kind of like the Skabbs.
His songwriting was a direct result of his personality. He'd find humor in mundane things. One time we went to McDonald's (one of many) and by the time we got home he had written a song called "Weight Before Cooking." He loved the macabre and true-crime type stuff, so current events like the Hillside Strangler case made it into our songs. I'd compare him to a Woody Allen, or Frank Zappa. Someone with definite opinions about the human condition, but he approached things with art and humor. He'd become a despicable character like the parolee in "Idle Threat," or bluntly tell the tale of a guy named Terry, who Andy Thoreson knew from the party scene in Hermosa Beach in "Terry The Girl Kicker." I think he fantasized about being a notorious gangster, or a liquor store owner in Beverly Hills. He would have loved Quentin Tarantino's films.
After he died, his mom—who is a total jewel, God bless her—told me he was somewhat satisfied because in the last year of his life, he had a girlfriend (lots of sex), had a warrant out for his arrest (for parking violations) and was the front man for a crazy rock 'n' roll band (which probably killed him).
What was the scene like in Lawndale and Torrance at the time? Were there many like-minded bands at the time, or were you fighting an uphill battle?
There was/is no scene in Lawndale and Torrance. Period. With us white kids, it was all about what we now call "classic rock." Mike Watt, who grew up nearby in San Pedro, said something about when he and D. Boon were growing up they just wanted to play Creedence covers and never thought about writing songs, because that was something rock stars did and they could never be rock stars. That was our mentality. Most of our peers are still playing in blues bands or classic rock cover bands and are perfectly happy with that. That's the culture and mindset of Torrance. Playing in the Skabbs spoiled me because the original material was so good and the songs were coming fast and furious. It was such a thrill to go to rehearsal and have one or two new songs ready to learn. Bands like Black Flag and Pennywise came after us (as far as we knew anyway) and they were more like Hermosa Beach anyway. We were a few miles inland where absolutely nothing was happening. We played a few gigs at the beach, but we really wanted to play the LA clubs. We just weren't around long enough to make that happen.
Can you walk through the recordings a little? The first four tracks sound like a possible EP, and then some rougher rehearsal recordings follow? It all sounds pretty good to me. Were any of these heard at the time? Do the existing recordings fairly represent the band, or is there stuff that just never got documented?
The first four songs on the album were recorded in a studio, Media Arts in Hermosa Beach. Black Flag recorded Nervous Breakdown there the same month. We recorded a five-song demo and sent it around to record labels, but there was no interest. I guess after that we just figured recording in a studio was too expensive and we weren't happy with the way those recordings sounded anyway, so we recorded our rehearsals with a couple of mics in the room plugged into a reel-to-reel deck. I'd dub the tapes to cassette and then we'd record over the previous rehearsal on the reel-to-reel to save tape. When it came to making this album, we put a lot of work into mastering those rehearsal tapes because that was all we had. I hate that the vocals aren't as audible as they should be, but what are you gonna do? Fortunately there are very few songs Steve wrote for us that we don't have a recording of, and even those songs we have Steve's original sheet music, so we can figure them out if we really put our minds to it.
How did you feel, at the time, about the music and the LA punk scene that came after the Skabbs disbanded? Was it something you always felt connected to?
After Steve died in February of '79, and after the amazing uphill battle of the previous year, I think we all washed our hands of the rock scene in a way. Most of us got married within a year and settled into normal lives. I've always had a deep love for rock 'n' roll, so although I didn't go to shows and wasn't into the hardcore scene or anything, I was very much into records by bands like X, the Blasters, etc., and was amazed when the Go-Go's made it big, but the scene we were on the outskirts of went away about the same time we broke up and it became something else. I wish I had delved into it further at the time. I realize now I missed a lot of good stuff. I was aware of the SST bands and so on, but none of it moved me at the time. Too busy working and raising kids.
What have you been doing in the intervening years, musically and otherwise?
As I said, we all got married and raised families, worked regular jobs, etc. We've all stayed somewhat active musically. For a while in the mid-'80s, the two Andys and I played in a mock-blues band in Torrance called the Blues Abusers where I think we tried to inject some of the Skabbs' personality. I've played drums with Steve Evans for the last 20 years in a casual cover band that plays occasional gigs. And I've played drums and bass in various original bands, trying to recapture that thrill. I built a rehearsal/recording space in my garage which comes in very handy, and my two sons both play in bands. It's a narcotic, that rock 'n' roll, but a good one. Keeps you young.
How did Isaac Slusarenko and Jackpot Records get involved? Did you have any conditions or stipulations about how the songs were presented?
A guy who runs a local record shop came to one of our shows and offered to release a 7-inch of a couple of songs on our Myspace page at the time. That grew into an LP once he heard more stuff, but he wanted to own the masters and control the publishing, so we started looking into other possibilities. Once again, just the fact someone wanted to put out a record was an amazingly positive thing for us. The Salazar family took on the job of being Steve's publisher, so that is a really good thing.
I started writing to small labels that I knew of—I'm a record collector geek and am still into indie rock so I knew about a lot of small record labels—asking for advice about the contract we were being offered. I knew about Jackpot because I'm a Guided By Voices fan and Isaac's brother Chris used to play bass with them. Isaac said the same thing all the other labels said: "Don't sign that contract", and he asked to hear some of the stuff and it went from there. An incredibly lucky break. I don't think we could have done better, and we certainly never thought anything like this would ever happen. We didn't have to make any stipulations because we could see that Isaac got it and, I don't know, we just knew he'd do it right. I mean, Jackpot's a quality label and they've done a lot of reissues, stuff like that. He selected the songs and came up with the sequencing, which was different than how we would have done it, but since it was an archival project, we let him decide since he hadn't lived with the stuff for 35 years! You kind of tend to lose perspective after all those years. Best to let someone with fresh ears decide how to present it to the public. We couldn't be happier with the final product.
How did the reunion come about? Who is participating?
At the end of 2006, Steve Evans and I played a gig with another band that the two Andys were playing with, so we decided to do a mini-Skabbs set. We didn't rehearse together, but we picked out a few songs and worked on them on our own. It was really fun to play those songs on stage together and we were able to cover the vocals well enough, so we started talking about getting together again. That didn't happen for about a year, but eventually we rehearsed a few times and figured we could play a show, and then we played a bunch of shows and it went from there. At the beginning of this year, once the record was ready to go we decided to do a West Coast tour and we asked Steve Salazar's brother Mark to go with us just to help out, sell merch, etc. That turned into him covering some of Steve's keyboard parts and filling in some vocal parts we couldn't do because it's impossible to sing some of those parts and play at the same time (like the rants during "4th of July"). Mark is the only other guy in the world who knows these songs like we do. So, happily, we're a five-man band again and we've got a Salazar on stage with us.
It's about as authentic a Skabbs show as you're gonna get in 2012. Deal with it.