The new old school
The Vitriolics’ music recalls punk’s earlier days
In today’s punk rock world, new bands seem to fall into one of two categories: pop-punk, like Blink 182 and Fenix TX, or the harder, more grating underground sound. But in the mid-1980s, there was a different kind of punk sound that was common in California, where I grew up.
I first heard this sound in 1989 at a Victim’s Family concert, with Mr. T Experience opening. I was 14 years old at the time and was listening to bands such as DRI, Anthrax and Nuclear Assault. Soon, my thrash metal collection would be replaced with punk rock—more specifically, the type of punk that local band The Vitriolics plays.
I swung by the Little Waldorf Saloon on Sept. 7 to catch a show by Los Angeles band The Bell Rays. I knew I would be interviewing The Vitriolics the next week, and they were one of the opening bands.
After just a few songs, the old memories of moshing around the Phoenix Theater in Petaluma, Calif., came rushing back.
But just because their music is reminiscent of mid-'80s punk rock—or as lead singer Mark Earnest pointed out, more closely resembling the post-punk movement—it doesn’t mean the band sounds old. Their sound is fresh and vibrant, as is their stage presence.
“What we are trying to do is kind of nice, in a way, because it really doesn’t fit in with the trend of the moment,” Earnest says. “I think we could play 10 years from now. We would probably still be playing to 40 people. But in a way, that’s cool, because at least what we’re making isn’t really influenced by whatever’s swinging at the cash register right now. It’s more about what we’re feeling and what we like.”
The Vitriolics already had a clear image of what kind of music they wanted to play when they formed eight months ago. The bassist, Blackie (just Blackie), put up a flyer seeking band mates that said, “If you don’t know what ‘Sonic Reducer’ is, don’t call.”
Earnest knew—it’s an old Dead Boys song. Earnest and former Keen drummer Dean Kramer had already planned to form a band, and with Blackie in, only a guitarist was needed. Earnest found guitarist David Stenhouse from a message Stenhouse left on a local punk Web site.
“Vitriolic” means harsh or caustic in tone, and in keeping with that definition, The Vitriolics’ songs address topics that society doesn’t always want to talk about, like racism and incest.
“The lyrics are mostly introspective stuff,” Stenhouse says. “A little bit gloomy, doomy, but with a flicker of hope at the end of each song. It’s like, yeah, things may suck now, but they can always get better.”
Like many bands, The Vitriolics would like to be able to support themselves by playing music. But they also don’t want to give up their artistic license to pay the bills.
“I don’t want to be on MTV or with a major label," Earnest says. "To me, the ultimate would to be self-sufficient, like Fugazi or Ani DiFranco, as opposed to the label forcing us to go out on tour."