Icons Turn 20

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Posted March 13, 2008 in Feature Story

On February 24, there was no party. There was no cake. There wasn’t even a set of high-fives or handshakes. In fact, from all we’ve gathered, February 24 just ran past the members of Voodoo Glow Skulls like any other random day in the calendar.

That is, until our interview happened, a mere five days later. 

“Eddie! Eddie!,” yells Voodoo frontman Frank Casillas over the phone, angling to grab the attention of his younger brother and guitarist. “I’m doing an interview right now with Waleed from the IE Weekly. He wants to know the date of when the band started. Do you have any idea?”

Eddie doesn’t resolve the issue. Drummer and co-founder Jerry O’Neill offers the exact answer. “February 24, 1988,” Frank returns. “He actually documented it. He said he wrote it down.”

It’s not surprising that the members of the guitar-charged and horn-inflected ska-punk outfit (which also includes bassist Jorge Casillas, trombonist Brodie Johnson and sax player Eric Fazzini) didn’t even notice their double-decade anniversary whiz right past ’em. This veteran Riverside act never broke up and has never endured some sort of self-imposed hiatus—instead, they’ve been consistently slugging it out in the indie label circuit since day one. And so when day number 7,300 rolled around, it was really just another number, just another day in the life of VGS.

But even 20 years on the scene hasn’t softened the band. In fact, Voodoo had just released one of its toughest, most aggressive works to date last year, its eighth full-length album, aptly-dubbed Southern California Street Music.

“We’ve always been known for being a manic, crazy, energetic ska-punk band, and it just seems like the last couple albums, we kind of experimented with a few different styles of music—we’d do stuff that was more poppy, maybe,” says Frank. “And it went over well with the fans. But with this one, we just wanted to reinvent what we’re known for. And just do what our trademark sound is, whatever people would expect from us, for our fans.”

The Voodoo Glow Skulls couldn’t have picked a better time for a reinvention of their original creation. Such staying power has built two entirely unique generations of fans: those who grew up listening to VGS and are likely into their 30s and 40s, and “teenagers who know who we are because they probably got our album from their dad or older brother or uncle or somebody,” says Frank. “It’s kind of neat to be able to crossover and tap into a whole younger generation that probably wasn’t even born when we were putting out our first couple albums,” he adds. 

Southern California Street Music feels closer to the band’s more punk-ified earlier output that got it recognized. And the album’s title alludes to the story of a band that really got its start in the La Sierra and Arlanza neighborhoods of Riverside.

“We definitely feel as though we’re a product of our environment, that’s what we always tell people,” says Frank. “We’re like a—and it sounds kind of funny—but like a musical gang, like with instruments. We’re like the street kids that grew up playing music together, you know what I mean? Three of us happen to be brothers. And for us, the title of the album, our music, where we come from, our lifestyle, all that stuff kind of makes a contribution to the name of the album. We’ve always looked at ourselves as suburban street kids that at one point were living in LA, and moved to Riverside at a young age, and kind of became a product of this area, which obviously has grown, and became our home and our foundation for our music. We got our start here.”

The Casillas brothers—Frank, Eddie and Jorge—were born in the Los Angeles area; when Frank was 11, the family moved to Riverside. He and his brothers lived in the “average Latino household,” speaking Spanish to his parents and English to his friends at school, and became a product of their surroundings, growing up on both dad’s salsa records and the heavy metal scene of the time. “While other kids were trying to excel in sports, we were trying to excel by learning how to play along with Black Sabbath albums,” he recalls.

After he finished at Norte Vista High School, Frank became a DJ while holding down a job in the warehouse of a local department store. Eddie and O’Neill, started a cover band. And on the one aforementioned fateful day, everything simply clicked in the living room of the Casillas house.

“One day, I came home from work, and they were like, ‘Hey, do you want to try singing some lyrics into this microphone?,’” recalls Frank. “They liked it and we were just like, ‘Hey, let’s do this everyday.’” Frank was 20 at the time, and likely had no idea that the “everyday” would literally mean just about every single day up to the present.

Launching in the Riverside backyard party circuit helped bolster the band’s initial popularity, but it wasn’t until they performed at Spanky’s Café did the real momentum develop, especially after getting approached by local label Signal Sound Systems around 1990. However, at the time, releasing an album really wasn’t on Voodoo’s radar.

“We thought, ‘Hey, if you’re having a party, and you have beer for us, then cool, we’ll show up!’ We weren’t even thinking about recording a record, and putting it out, and trying to sell it,” says Frank.

Nevertheless, the band sold quite a few albums locally, and the initial label experience sparked a confidence that eventually landed the Voodoos in the hands of Alta Loma-based indie label Dr. Strange Records, who had just successfully released albums for local punk acts Guttermouth and Face to Face.

Voodoo Glow Skull’s rambunctious, pit-stirring DSR debut, Who Is, This Is?, hit stores in 1994, and became the biggest selling album in the label’s lengthy catalog of well over a hundred releases, with an estimated sales figure in excess of 200,000 copies (some speculating that figure to be over 300,000 sold).

“A lot of it had to do with the timing,” Frank says about the album’s rapid success, which arrived close to the same time when bands like Green Day and the Offspring first tasted commercial fame. “We put that record out at the right time, I think, when punk rock was still very fresh and new and diverse, and anything different was exciting. And to this day, we still sell out of it. We still have a good relationship with Dr. Strange, and we can’t even keep it in stock.”

Who Is, This Is? was the springboard that immediately thrust the band into the national touring circuit, with two of its members (Joe Hernandez and Joe McNally) fresh out of Poly High. “They went literally straight from the graduation ceremony into our van, to go on our first tour,” says Frank. “So a lot of it was new and it was very exciting for us. We never would have even imagined that we’d be able to play outside of Riverside. And to be able to drive to Minneapolis to play in somebody’s basement in front of like 80 kids or whatever was, to us, a big accomplishment.”

But if the band’s Dr. Strange stint made them a national name, it was their move to mega-punk indie Epitaph that created Voodoo’s global profile. Suddenly, everyone knew what Riverside was all about—or at least, who was representing it.

“[Voodoo] was one of the few bands that I always used to defend the Riverside music scene,” says J.R. Griffin, former editor of Mean Street, a music magazine based in Riverside at that time. “Definitely, I’d always bring them up, like, ‘No, we have our own music scene.’ They were one of the defining bands in the Inland Empire.”

Of course, hooking up with Epitaph was a no-brainer. “For a band from Riverside to be on that label? It was like, shit, you know . . . sign us up,” Frank recalls.

The Voodoo’s first album for Epitaph, Firme, was released in 1995 and set another landmark in the band’s career. With a healthy recording budget in tow, VGS linked up with famed rock producer “Gggarth” Richardson. Frank notes that Richardson took a liking to the band and recorded it for a fraction of what he’d normally charge. Firme was another success, and a year later, VGS convinced Epitaph head Brett Gurewitz to re-release a version of Firme entirely in Spanish.

“We just did that to represent our background and roots and whatnot,” says Frank. “That record, believe or it not, we still sell it at shows, and we have a lot of non-Spanish speaking fans that prefer that version over the English version. That record has even inspired them to take a Spanish class and learn Spanish.”

After fulfilling their four-album contractual obligation to Epitaph in a fast five years, the Voodoo Glow Skulls were soon free agents. But they weren’t into the idea of having to start from square one—instead, the Voodoo’s sought to sign a deal based on its reputation alone. They had already struck a relationship with Chicago-based Victory Records’ chief Tony Brummel, so Frank decided to see what could be established.

“We noticed Victory was doing pretty good stuff with some of their bands,” Frank recalls. “It wasn’t necessarily our demographic of music that they were putting out, but they had the diversity going on with their bands. So we called Tony and said, ‘Hey, Voodoo Glow Skulls need a home.’ And he agreed and signed us. He gave us a fair deal—it wasn’t like the deal we got with Epitaph, but at the same time, we wouldn’t be indebted to a record label for a load of money.”

One way the band avoided such monetary pitfalls was to self-produce its own recordings. They had gained aplenty from their production mentors—the aforementioned Richardson and Gurewitz, plus Oingo Boingo’s John Avila (who co-produced the band’s 1998 album, The Band Geek Mafia)—and with Eddie at the helm, turned a home garage into their own recording haven.

The Voodoo’s have since released three albums with Victory (2002’s Steady as She Goes and ’04’s Adicción, Tradición, Revolución, in addition to last year’s LP) and Frank still deems the band a full-time operation, making a majority of his income from merchandise and show revenue. Though he’s now living in Arizona with his family, he still has a perspective on the Inland Empire music scene that only two solid decades of experience can cultivate. 

“It has grown to a certain extent,” he says. “I think that finally the whole perception that Riverside is some smoggy hick town is pretty much long gone. Luckily, bands like us and Alien Ant Farm and other bands that have managed to be successful kind of put it on the map for music, which I’d like to think has opened some doors and paved the way for other bands.

“But as for the scene now, I think it lacks togetherness, man,” he adds. “I think back in the day, when Spanky’s was around, it was very cool. You could have a ska band, a punk band and a metal band all on one bill. And everybody could go and have a good time and it wasn’t all cliquey. And now, it seems to me that punk rock in general has become so subcategorized and people aren’t just that open minded about music anymore.”

People, however, are still open-minded enough to accept VGS as part of their musical palates. And for Frank, keeping Voodoo current and fresh simply means doing things their own way.

“We try to not get caught up with what’s going on around us. Like, ‘Oh, this band’s putting a song that’s all over the radio, so we’ve got to try and write a song like that.’ We don’t try to do that. We do what pleases us first, and what we think is going to appeal to us. And we figure if we like it, then our fans are going to like it. A lot of people appreciate that, man, and that’s what keeps us fresh and exciting and keeps us wanting to do this. We figure if we don’t know what’s going on—out of sight, out of mind kind of mentality—we can just come in and do Voodoo and concentrate what we do. And somehow, after all these years, it still comes out as being unique, in our trademark style.”

And does Casillas feel like he can go another 20 years with his band’s fresh, trademark style? 

“Twenty?,” he counters. “We’re shooting for another ten, for sure. You know, I’m 40-years-old and there are guys that are over 50 that are making comebacks in punk rock bands right now. But for us, it’s like, why break up and then want to come back ten years from now and make a comeback, when we can just keep doing it?”

Voodoo Glow Skulls play the Anaheim House Of Blues on April 29

 


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