The Original T.S.O.L. – Version 2003
Mary Ellen Gustafson
I heard somebody call True Sounds Of Liberty an enigma today and decided that’s about the best one-word description possible for this band. Between their history, their attitude, their politics and everything else that’s gone on for the past twenty-seven years, it’s actually an understatement!
T.S.O.L. has a new album out, Divided We Stand, on Nitro Records, the first time in their history more than one album has been released by the same label. Their self-proclaimed non-voting, anti-government, anarchist lead singer was among the melee of candidates running for Governor of California (say what?). The three remaining original members continue to stay clean and sober and “adopt” friends nearing the “point of no return.” The message of recovery is important to them and Jack Grisham told me he often speaks at prisons about getting clean and sober. They choose not to replace drummer Todd Barnes who died in 1999, but rather list him as deceased in their liner notes and use interim drummers on their albums and tours as their Supporting Cast. Oh, and they put together one HELL of a punk rock album that’s still edgy, angry and crazy after all these years!
If you add together the years of the original line up of T.S.O.L. they’ve spent more apart than together. They first crashed onto the O.C. punk scene in 1979 wearing white face paint on their 6’ frames, unorthodox hairdos and atypical clothes while introducing their blazing punk anthems “Superficial Love” (with its classic lyric ‘President Reagan can shove it!’) and “Abolish Government” among others. It didn’t take long for the four kids from Huntington Beach, Jack Grisham (vocals), Ron Emery (guitars), Mike Roche (bass) and Todd Barnes (drums) to be opening for The Damned and The Dead Kennedys and spread their word through California. By ‘81 they released their first LP, Dance With Me, skyrocketed to the top of So Cal punk status and headlined their own 3000+ seat tours with bands like Bad Religion and Social Distortion opening for them. Beneath The Shadows, the second LP, showed how much the band had matured and while “…others of their genre fumbled around ‘into the unknown,’ T.S.O.L. forged a new sound … that made [fans] even more numerous and rabid.”
And then comes the same old story – huge popularity, excesses and all the things (like booze and drugs) that go along with it forced changes and in 1983 Jack and Todd left the band, which continued as more of a rock ‘n roll band and gradually lost its direction. There were many personnel changes over the years and by 1990 no original members were left and the “new” T.S.O.L. purchased the name from the old, a transaction that caused many problems in later years, but which was finally resolved. The original members reunited in 1999 and released the 7-inch “Anticop,” minus Todd Barnes. The LP Disappear was released on Nitro in 2001.
Divided We Stand is an enhanced CD including an interview with Jack Grisham. I watched this before I talked to him in person and had only two thoughts – “what a prick,” and “why the hell is he running for Governor?” For the nine people that bothered to watch the interview, I did ask if it was some kind of joke, because I’ve never run into an artist that obnoxious. It WAS a joke and it was almost left off the CD. However, in between the junk, Jack did answer some serious questions and in the interest of time I took them from the CD interview rather than our live interview. I happened to catch him a couple minutes after he was first informed that the CA Governor’s race was going to be delayed and 15 minutes before he had to leave to be interviewed by the Fox News Network. My time was limited, but Jack repeated some of the points on the CD. He’s a nice guy with convictions and he’s not kidding about being an anarchist, but the governor question was first on my list!
Since you said you don’t vote and you’re anti-government, why are you running for Governor of CA?
I’m an anarchist, but being an anarchist comes with a lot of responsibility and it’s not going to happen. As human beings we are not responsible enough to be anarchists. There’s no revolution coming any time soon, so as long as we keep staying out of what’s going on around us, nothing WILL happen. This is my one chance to do something about it, so I’m running for the highest office in California.
You mentioned the writing/recording process on the CD interview as being held up by arguing and bickering. How long did it take to record the album?
The record took a while because we’re a working class band. We schedule recording time and tours around everyone’s jobs. We don’t make any money off this, so we just try to have a good time with it. We never were trying to be rock stars and we aren’t now. When we record we sit together, like Ron & Mike or Ron & me and we get a little groove going or a guitar riff and we build from there. It’s actually very boring.
Is it true you go home and write all the words after the entire album is recorded?
Actually that part is. While we’re doing the music I just throw in nonsense words and shout out anything and everything. But, I hear the song over and over again in my head so I get a concept in my head and then I go home and write the words. David Byrne uses this method too. Sometimes it makes it hard to remember them during a live show though. If I forget I’ll drop the microphone and keep my mouth moving to cover it up. Once, just for the heck of it, we did a whole show without a single word from the record and nobody even noticed! [laughs]
So how did you guys get back together and start recording again?
We all cleaned up. That’s number one! We had some problems, okay? You’ve got that band that you’re dealing with and it’s like people never understood that band. That band was about as much of a real punk band as you could possibly get, because we were never gonna show up, we were never gonna do what you want us to do, we’re not gonna say what you want us to, not even the kids [fans].
We were just doing this for fun, not to further a career, so we’re not gonna follow a formula and we’re never gonna make the same record over and over again. It’s a joke. It’s about making music and having fun. These bands now, they get a sound and it sells and they continue doing that sound because it sells. We don’t do that. We do whatever we want and if you don’t like it too bad. That’s how we are. Every record is different because there is no formula. Punk rock means no formula!
This is the thing. These bands now, they look like little Army Zombies. They got the same shirts, they look the same … that’s what we went against in the first place, but the trouble was a lot of them didn’t see it. They didn’t understand that. We took a look and said we’re not gonna look like everybody. We’re gonna cut our hair fucked-up, we’re gonna throw dye in our hair, we’re gonna make our own clothes, we are NOT gonna look like these people any more. These bands nowadays, they all look exactly alike. The guys in ‘N Sync look like the guys in Blink 182. There’s no difference. They all got their tattoos, the sideburns, the chain wallets hanging, the studded belts – T.S.O.L. has never been a formula (except when I was out of the band). It was always “Hey, lets just do this and whatever comes out comes out” and that’s how it’s always been. That’s what punk rock was supposed to be about.
There’s one song on the album, “American,” I wanted to ask you about. I know it’s a play on words but I’d like to hear it from you.
“American” is about one person’s terrorist being another man’s freedom fighter. I’m talking about fear or lack of it after 9/11. We live and do what we want and we don’t worry about the consequences or the people who hate us for what we do or have. To this day most Americans have no idea why we are hated so much in other countries, especially if they think we haven’t done anything to piss them off.
What do think about music piracy?
I’m all for it. If I hear a song I go out and buy the record! And on that note I need to leave for the Fox affiliate for the Fox News interview.
I saw Jack’s interview on Fox News that afternoon when they did their CA Candidate of the Day segment. They spent almost an hour on the build-up about the “punk rocker” running for Governor and then gave him about two minutes to talk about part of his platform. Jack chose health care, which surprised the interviewer since he wasn’t expecting a serious subject or a regular guy in a suit as the interviewee. I thought Jack presented his plan and himself very well, especially since the point of the segment was to tear down the individual candidates and for a smart-ass interviewer to interrupt while they were speaking with questions they didn’t have time to answer. I don’t live in CA, but it’s too bad that the “movie star” got all the publicity instead of some of the other candidates that actually had good ideas and innovative suggestions to bail CA out of the mess it’s in. Jack Grisham was one of them!