The matador of punk

He plays bass in one of the most legendary punk bands around today, runs his own record label, and directs movies and videos – and still finds time for a spot of bullfighting. Jim Seton spoke to The Vandals' Joe Escalante.

It's fair to say that The Vandals' bass player Joe Escalante is kind of busy. When he's not touring the world with one of the premier league punk bands of the moment he's at home writing songs, running his own record label, directing and filming movies and videos, and if there's any time remaining, enjoying a spot of bull fighting.

It's all in a day's work for the surprisingly softly-spoken and relaxed Joe – for someone so busy you'd expect a caffeine-fuelled whirling dervish, but not Joe.

The Vandals – Joe's number one job – are about to embark on a European tour which sees them play Leeds Cockpit on Tuesday, November 26. The tour marks a return to form for the band, with their latest album, Internet Dating Superstuds, winning over both the critics and the fans.

"We're really pleased with how it's come together," says Joe, "It's more straightforward, the fans have said: 'We like The Vandals because of this...' so here's the album they wanted. The critics have been pretty much behind it saying: 'This is what The Vandals do best,' and they're glad to see an album like this. You can kind of tell how comfortable we are with our albums by how many songs we play on our live set. The last album we didn't play too many of the songs live, but this we'll be playing a lot more from."

The Vandals, who last appeared in Leeds at last year's Leeds Festival, and have had a steady run of success to the point where they are now able to shift over 100,000 albums a time, have a reputation for being energetic live performers and have never shied away from playing Europe – although they may not have always enjoyed the experience.

"At first it was a chore," says Joe, "But the more you work at it, the more you learn about how to tour over there, and what makes sense for your band. It starts to become real enjoyable and now we all look forward to it.

"Now it's one of our favourite places, and it has always been that way in the UK right from the beginning. The rest of Europe hasn't always been great and was kind of painful."

This month's date at the Cockpit isn't just about The Vandals though. Jo is bringing across two up-and-coming bands from his Kung Fu Records stable – Audio Karate and Tsunami Bomb.

The latter, a four-piece from Petaluma, California, are creating quiet a stir with their debut album The Ultimate Escape, a refreshing take on the punk rock sound with some super crisp vocals from the mysteriously named singer Agent M.

Ready

"They had been working hard and playing a lot and we'd been watching them," says Joe on discovering Tsunami Bomb. "It was something that for a while we didn't think was ready and we didn't want to sign them up just so we could prevent them from going somewhere else. We did like them and then they had a line-up change.

"They had a keyboard player and with her on board you didn't get the full effect of Agent M – as she's called – of her vocal abilities and her stage presence. When they dropped the keyboardist – I think she quit – and they made the decision to not replace her, Agent M then stepped up and became a real performer and started really taking control of the stage – the difference was night and day.

"We took them out with The Vandals as we were curious to see how they were developing and by the end it was totally obvious to us and a done deal."

Joe adds that one of the most rewarding aspects of owning his own label is being able to bring on new talent and give the young bands the chance to go out on tour and develop their sound: "That's the good part, to be able to give then whatever opportunity they can to take their own talent to the next level, and then when you see it all happening, yeah, that's the most satisfying thing of all for sure," he says.

Running Kung Fu Records is very much a hands on experience for Joe who co-owns the business with fellow Vandal, guitarist Warren Fitzgerald, who recently provided the lead electric guitar work on the Tenacious D album. Joe adds: "It's a pretty good day job but it is a real day job.

"I have to get here early every morning and work late at night and sometimes I can't write as many songs as I used to but I feel a lot of people are that way. A lot of people as they get older have to go get a job and they can't even be in their band anymore and I'm at least able to be in my band still, but it does mean that Warren has to step up a little and take over the song writing duties."

When not running his own label or recording and touring with The Vandals, Joe turns his attention to film-making – which he sees as a possible career once his days leaping about on stage are over – and has filmed two features and numerous videos. After all that if there's still energy to burn, Joe takes part in his favourite pastime – bullfighting.

It might sound strange to us but Joe is a trainee matador. He says: "Everyone's got to have a hobby, so yeah it's true. I only live about two hours from the Mexican border. My dad's Mexican, my mom's not but she's a big bull fight fan and I've just grown up around it.

Hobby

"Here it's not that weird, there's a professional and amateur bullfight world here – it's not that much different from rock climbing or anything like that.

It's an expensive hobby. I have to pay every time a bull is killed and even when I'm just practicing. It's fun, For Mexicans and Spaniards it's like winning a gold medal, you cut an ear in the bull ring and that's the dream of a lot of kids.

"I thought I would get a lot more heat from it than I do. In all the years I've been doing it I've received two pieces of hate mail and I was almost disappointed, I was like 'Where are all the punkers.'

"The main thing that people don't understand is that someone does eat the animals when they're killed and they live a much better life than any animal that ends up in a slaughter house."

l The Vandals play Leeds Cockpit on November 26.

jim.seton@ypn.co.uk