These days, it’s more common to see one or two dashes between musical adjectives, whether it’s “electro-funk,” “pop-rock” or any one of the seemingly endless combinations of genres used to describe a band’s sound. But in the mid “70s, a genre emerged out the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia that was completely new. It had its own sound, speed, scene and attitude. It was called punk.
Of course, punk wasn’t left alone for very long. It soon diversified into a multitude of subgenres that, being not only innovative at the time, have spread their influence across generations. One of the first bands to create their own brand of punk was Agent Orange. Hailing from Orange County and traveling two or three hours by bus just to get to the beach, the original trio blended California surf music with punk. The resulting surf-punk combo was something that had previously been unheard of, and within a few years Agent Orange hit it big.
In the 32 years since the band started, Agent Orange has seen some drastic lineup changes. But with 13 North American dates approaching and a new single that came out last October, they’re still going strong. The only remaining original member, singer/guitarist Mike Palm, candidly discussed with the Concordian his musical roots, skateboarding and the current state of punk rock.
Concordian: When you play shows now, are there mainly new fans in the audience or do you see a lot of diehards too?
Mike Palm: That’s the great thing about being around as long as we’ve been around. We have a core following and some of them come out of the woodwork for our shows, but there’s always an influx of new fans. We appeal to a broad range of people: the skaters, the punks and the college students. It’s a good mix of everything.
Are there any plans for a new album?
There are always plans for new recordings. The only problem has been taking time off the road. We were able to get in a recorded single last October, and that went really well. After touring through Canada, we’re going to stick a little more to the West Coast of the United States and that will give us a little bit more time to get in and do some recording. We’re really trying to arrange our schedule to make time for it.
Agent Orange is known as being the original surf-punk band. Did you guys know that you were onto something when you first started making music?
I wasn’t searching around for my sound or anything like that, it’s something that I grew up with. In many ways it’s something that I look at as being the sound of my hometown. Surf music was invented in southern California. If you grew up in Ireland then you would be into Celtic music. It’s something that you lived, and it was carried on by your relatives.
So it’s a cultural thing.
Yeah, that’s the way I see it. Maybe if I grew up in Chicago I’d be a blues guitarist, or in New Orleans, I’d be playing jazz. Surf music was something that, musically, suits the lifestyle [of] hanging out at the beach. And punk infused the energy into it. [Surf] didn’t have the attitude until punk really exploded. It couldn’t have been a better melding of musical styles as far as I was concerned. In the early days of surf music, most of those players were very young and inexperienced. It was more a matter of going after a sound and a feel. You didn’t have to be a virtuoso player; you could just pick up a guitar and do it. It was easy to do and it really fed off of the energy more than anything.
How did skateboarding factor into punk culture back in the early “80s?
For starters, punks were all poor. Skateboards were the cheapest form of transportation you could own. Everybody had a [skate] board and since we were from southern California there were plenty of empty swimming pools. It just doesn’t work listening to Barry Manilow and skating a half pipe. You have to have something that has some life to it 8212; some energy 8212; and punk fit the bill so perfectly. It couldn’t have been a better match.
Do you still skate?
Yeah, whenever I can! This last tour was the first time we didn’t bring boards with us, but we usually try to take some with us just in case. Because you never know what you’re going to find out there on the road. [But] it’s a little bit risky when you have a show almost every night. Nobody wants to break his arm. First and foremost, we’re musicians who skate 8212; we’re not skaters who play music. We skate for fun and we’re not taking any unnecessary risks.
You guys emerged right around the time that the hardcore punk scene began to develop in Orange County, but you didn’t want to associate with that scene, right?
We were probably one of the only bands that were vocally opposed to being pigeonholed into the hardcore scene. What really happened is that a writer in L.A. wrote a story about punk in the Los Angeles Times, and because of that article, all the punk bands were banned from any significant clubs in the area. Unfortunately, we got lumped in with all the others. Even though these other bands were having riots and causing all sorts of trouble by starting fights with the police, that really wasn’t our intention. We just wanted to have fun; we weren’t out to cause trouble. So to be excluded from all these clubs that we had worked so hard to build up a reputation to be able to play at was very frustrating. For about a year there, we weren’t really able to do anything in Los Angeles. We reverted back to playing small clubs in Orange County and things like that. So being connected to that scene was a detriment for us for at least a year. We were vocal because we wanted to be out there; we wanted to be playing these clubs and we wanted to be in front of bigger and bigger audiences all the time. But other than that, our every day existence was pure O.C. punk. We were hanging out; we were part of the scene every day. But the press portrayed punk as this nasty evil thing that should be banned.
Do you think that punk’s dead?
Oh, far from it. There was a time when punk was completely misunderstood and feared by most people, which was really fear of the unknown. Most punks are pretty cool and non-violent. But the shock value aspect was all for the fun of it. And it scared everybody. So in the early days it was a dangerous thing. You didn’t know what was going to happen when you walked down the street wearing a leather jacket and spiked hair; you didn’t know what you were going to come up against. It was an interesting time, but those times are pretty much over now. It’s understood well enough now ? at least people understand what the concept is. It’s lost its danger. But we like to see what’s out there in between the big cities. We like to play out of the way places because, more likely than not, there’s a little scene out there in the middle of nowhere that no one knows about and nobody stops to check it out. So if we have the opportunity to play a small town, we get to see what their punk scene is like. That’s a great thing. There are punks everywhere. I think with the passage of time, and obviously media [exposure], people have gotten a lot more clued-in to what it’s all about. Now, it doesn’t really matter where we are. We actually just played in Juneau [Alaska] for the first time. Juneau’s an interesting place because you can only arrive there by airplane or boat. And guess what? There are punks there! It’s the greatest thing to see. Punk is so far from being dead. It’s so alive in every little nook and cranny of the world.
What has kept Agent Orange alive after all these years, seeing as so many punk bands from that era have split?
Early on in the band, we had membership changes and different things: management problems, label problems ?it really hasn’t been a very easy road. I’m not going to let any of these things, whether they’re little things or even the major things, get the best of the band. I believe in it, and I believe in it enough to not give up so easily. I think that part of it is that I was always disappointed when a band I really liked would throw in the towel. I’d be all excited about the next record and the next thing I knew, they’re done, they’ve broken up and you never hear from them again. So I never want to do that to my fans. I always figured if they’re staying tuned, then there should be something there for them to check out. Whatever it is that’s affecting the band, it will probably blow over. The whole thing is just about looking long-term and saying, “let’s keep this thing alive, let’s keep doing this,” and I think it’s paid off.
How big is your record collection?
My record collection isn’t vast. I know some record collectors that have astonishing collections. Mine is fairly basic; it’s not outrageous by any means. Beyond that I have a lot of CDs and I buy a lot of downloads. I’m still a music fan. I’ve pretty much kept everything I’ve bought since day one. I still have the first record I ever bought.
What was it?
[Presenting…] The Fabulous Knickerbockers. Great record.
Is it true that you think of yourself as almost a music archivist or historian?
Some people call it a hoarder!
So what are you listening to these days?
I listen to a lot of really random stuff. I’ve always had an open mind to music and I thought of that as being one of the most important aspects of punk in the early days. One of the first rules of punk was to have an open mind. Try something new, give something different a chance, you know? Don’t be close-minded about things. My musical tastes have always been really varied. I still like to listen to classic punk stuff a lot. I’ve been delving into the Buzzcocks a lot lately. I’ve always liked them, but I never realized how many records they put out and it’s a lot of material! A lot of times I’ll go backwards like that and listen to something [from the past]. The Rezillos, for example, are a band that I knew about and never listened to that much but that I’ve been listening to a lot lately. At the same time, we went to Brazil last year 8212; I think it was our seventh time there 8212; and I gained a real interest in bossa nova music. I like Latin jazz, instrumental music and just about anything. As far as new bands go, a lot of the stuff I hear comes from bands that I play with on the road. I just kind of grasp onto whatever comes into my orbit.
Do you still love touring as much as you used to?
I think the travel aspect of it starts to get a little tedious after a while. It’s also very difficult these days with security and having to scale down our entire operation into what you can carry onto a plane. That aspect of it isn’t all that fun, but once I’m out on the road there really isn’t anything better. To be able to travel and play in different places, it’s really the greatest thing ever. As much as we grumble and complain, we must love it because we always do it.
Agent Orange will play at Foufunes Electriques on Feb. 4.