I was on my way to meet Rikk Agnew at Scoops in Chinatown, when I got a text from him saying that he doesn’t do ice cream. Of course not, it suddenly occurred to me. How could the key member of Adolescents, Social Distortion, Christian Death, D.I., and so many other gnarly bands be seen in public eating something ridiculous like an ice cream cone? Oh man.
Then I replied, adding that Scoops has non-dairy options, and he was down. Whew! It turns out that Rikk, who has shaped the sounds of punk, hardcore, and goth, is a total sweetheart who doesn’t like dairy but loves nothing more than eating ice cream with families and is down for playing a benefit to help support for music education for elementary school kids in Chinatown.
Rikk has also just released a kickass new album called Learn.
It seems like you’re genuinely having a blast singing and playing on Learn. After being an underground musician for 40 years, is it still just as much fun as it ever was?
Oh, yes. If it wasn’t, I wouldn’t be doing it. It’s got to be fun first.
But after so many bands and all the ups and downs, it would be so easy to be jaded or bored or over it.
For most bands, it stops being fun when they get too concerned with being competitive, making it to the top, making money, and all that stuff. That doesn’t mix with art and music as far as I’m concerned, but it’s not like I’m going to turn down a million dollar check…
That would be a byproduct and not the purpose.
Thank you. Very well said. That’s not the reason at all.
So are you a machine who automatically cranks out song? Are you addicted to the process of working on them? Do you have a lot to say? How have you kept going for decades?
Well, it sounds strange but the only way I can describe it is that I have a connection to the cosmos, the muses, and the universe. The beats, the pulses–they come down to me. I can’t sit and write a song. It doesn’t work that way. It just hits me.
So does your brain catch hold of a melody? A lyric?
Actually, the whole thing just flows in.
The words, too?
Just the music. The words are a whole separate thing. Words are usually personal politics and everyday experiences that affect me emotionally. I’m a very emotional person.
Whether commenting on Kelly Thomas being beaten by cops in Fullerton or changing the world, I can tell the content matters to you.
It’s mostly experiences that I transform into poetry. I like to use a lot of tongue-in-cheek words and little excerpts from other peoples’ songs, like The Beatles and stuff. Usually, I put it together phonetically like a puzzle before trying to make a stream of a story.
There’s also a sense of playfulness with your spelling as well as your tone. I feel like you’re pushing people’s buttons as much as you’re getting on a soapbox.
Yes, and I like to create my own spelling of words. My brother Frank is the same way. We do it because it helps us to remember things.
Isn’t he connected to the cosmos in a different way? Isn’t he an astronomer or something?
Oh, that’s Alfie. He and a team of three other PhDs at Cal State Fullerton have been working quite a long time on the theory of gravitational waves that Einstein had set out to prove almost exactly 100 years ago. When they broke through recently, it made world news and I’m so proud of him.
Maybe there will be a star or something named after you!
Back to “I Can’t Change The World,” I was wondering who is the “we” that you’re singing to. People in bands? People in the crowd? Parents?
Basically everybody on the planet. I’ve belonged to this thing called Nichiren Shoshu of American and been a Buddhist since 1988 or 1989 and we believe in this thing called kosen-rufu. It’s a theory–well, I think it’s real–that if everyone in the world took one smile or be positive for just one second, the world world miraculously heal itself because Mother Earth is a living creature. We’re in a symbiotic relationship with her.
That’s a big audience, but you’re not going to reach everyone with that album cover! Where did you find those intense portraits?
Originally the album cover was just going to be a picture of my face in red and black, but the overseas booking agency said that the album needed something more intense. I thought, okay fine. That was five years ago and this picture will get people’s attention.
I was looking up Krokodil on the Internet, and was under the impression that the person was suffering from Krokodil abuse. But then I dug deeper and found out it was caused by a virus caused by manmade toxins in the environment. But whether it was drug induced or created by toxins, it is still a shocking statement to say “Learn.” If anyone wants to figure out why, they can read the lyrics or talk to me. I’ll explain it.
How did Lisa from Frontier react when you told her about the concept?
She backs me up on it and believes in me. It’s like what punk was originally. We weren’t out to be nice or pretty. We wanted to shock and get attention. And then give the message. My message is always positive, even if it sounds like I’m bitching or angry. My modus operandi is to get people to be positive or, as Bill and Ted would say, be excellent to each other.
So you have the Rikk Agnew Band, which reminds me of early Adolescents and your All By Myself solo record, but you also play death rock with the Gitane Demone Quartet and what else?
I’m in five bands now! One of the others is called Ann B. Davis, with Casey Chaos from Amen who was also the bass player for Christian Death during the reunion. And then there’s the original bass player James McGearty from the Only Theatre of Pain lineup and we had George, but he’s a policeman in St. Louis and the commuting and work were just too much. We parted ways with him and now we have Hoss, the drummer who played with Mondo Generator. We’re recording an EP and then there’s going to be an album and then we’ll go out and blast it out there. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard the band Amen but they were like Korn, Slipknot, and that sort of thing. I was in the band in the mid ’90s, but now we’re taking that sort of music and mixing it with Gothic deathrock. Good songs, amazing stuff.
The other two bands?
I’m in a band called The Only Theatre of Pain, which is kind of a tribute to the album with a singer called Steve Skeletal who’s a 6’5″ version of Rozz. We do the album and songs from back then so I’m in my own tribute band. They asked me to do it and I said, why not? And then I recently joined the Deadbeats. That’s a dream come true for me. I used to watch them in the ’70s at The Masque. The new double album is great. It’s a unique thing we’ve got going on with a unique stage show, too.
Playing in all those bands–your brain must on fire right now.
The nice things about being in multiple bands is you have multiple outlets.
One of your best-known songs is about living in Orange County. So when did you come to L.A.?
About three and half years ago. I’ve wanted to since the ’70s. We’d come up here and hang out for weeks at a time at the Masque with Brendan Mullen and the Controllers, or hang with Gerber or Jane Drano, but I never had the confidence that I’d make enough money to stay. Hung out frequently at the Church in South Bay for a spell.
Do you think L.A. is still good for being in bands with all the gentrification going on?
Yeah, and it always will be. It isn’t the location as much as it is the spirit and the people. And for people like Gitane, myself, and others who’ve survived, we’re not above anything. We used to play the Santa Monica Civic or Palladium and now we play little places Cafe NELA, but it’s fun. If we didn’t do it, I don’t know what else I would do! There are so many punks who got into acting like Lee Ving or got PhDs like Milo or Greg Graffin, My Brother Alfie, but they’re still doing it. Why? Because there isn’t anything more fun to do and they feel the same way.
And you can make a difference, too.
I’m glad you include lyrics because they’re really smart. It’s punk that an adult can listen to, but it’s still bratty.
I have an inner child that’s in me that never leaves.
Does your daughter listen to your music?
She was assistant engineer for the Learn LP. She joins me onstage to sing “Amoeba” sometimes and has a blast doing it! But I almost lost her this past August when she was in a bad car accident. She’s healing up pretty well, but you know how it feels to be a parent.
I’m really proud of my daughter. She’s a great artist and an amazing singer. She’s been working for Disney for a while and has other jobs on the side, but she’s a really, really good person, a heart of gold. I couldn’t ask for a better child.
If our children aren’t creative and rebellious, we’re all screwed!
Someone interviewed Tony about that song “I Hate Children” and he laughed and said, “I love children. Children are our future.” It was a personal politic thing about begin the oldest boy taking care of four rugrat siblings when his mom was an alcoholic and his dad was nowhere to be found back then.
Every few Adolescent shows, I’ll hear him tell the audience why they don’t play that song. I love it when he explains that.
And he should. I love interacting at shows. Whether I’m on a big stage or a little one, there is no dividing line and if someone says something, I’ll answer.
I think it’s great how you stay in touch with old bandmates and the new record is on Frontier. It’s amazing and cool and telling that there’s so much love from your past instead of burned bridges.
We all go through our periods, but if you ask any of the punks who’ve been around and they’ll tell you that it’s all about love. It’s like Johnny Rotten sang in “Fodderstompf”: “We only wanted to be loved.” Everyone took it like he was being a smartass but he meant it. I just finished reading his book, Anger Is An Energy, and it’s amazing. He’s one of my heroes.
Like him, you have explored different genres and defied fans when you easily could have kept making the same type of music.
You have to satisfy yourself first. If you don’t, you’ll become a slave to the people and you won’t be where you should be. Even if it makes a lot of people scratch their heads and wonder, “What happened?” As an artist you get bored doing the same thing, so you jump ahead not for competitive purposes but just for fun. It feels like you’re on a mission to keep things rolling and keep perpetuating.
So are you going to tour to support the Rikk Agnew Band album?
Oh yes. I want to do the world.
Is it hard getting all five members to take time off and commit to it?
They’re great and they’re faithful and I want to be on the road for most of 2017 to promote the album. And if they can’t take time off work to make it to Europe or wherever, I have people there who can and they’re all good with it and won’t feel insulted. I’m lucky.
Will you play stuff from all of your bands, as you’ve been doing, or will you just play the new stuff?
Well, more of the new stuff because we’re promoting the album but we’ll also play longer sets. I like to say that we’re like a wedding band because we play old songs, new songs, borrowed songs, and blue songs from the Blue Album.
What do you think about a playing matinee that is not only for music education at the public elementary school but one that will have little kids in the audience?
Well, of course! They can witness who and where the funding comes from firsthand (an education in itself–public relations, organization, hands-on assistance even!) as well as have the best experience of the whole process. The excitement and spirit of the music. The bands. The people. And the interaction between the performers and kids is such healthy and different dynamic. Lots of love, lots of fun.
Is there anything cool about playing in Chinatown? Can you share any feelings or memories of the plaza where so many cool and key shows happened?
There’s everything cool about playing in Chinatown: It’s cultural, festive, and fun. Great feelings, too,
Too many memories and shows to remember but: The Plastics from Japan in 1980 at Madame Wong’s and sitting outside on the curb drinking beer and smoking weed across from Madame Wong’s when Robert Fripp did His Fripptronix thang.
And shows at the Hong Kong Cafe: The Germs – Didn’t get in, got arrested outside by an LAPD undercover sting sweep that nabbed Dez Cadena, Janet Housden, and other punks. I was on many hits of acid! Aaargh!
The Slashers – My band at that time was scheduled to play but we were frying way too hard to play with the Outsiders, The Humans, and an opener.
Adolescents – We played there a couple times, once on Halloween with the Stingers, Speed Queens, and others. Agent Orange and I forgot who else, it was the first time I saw anyone do a stage dive (1978-1979). The OG diver was a blonde waif of a boy that was barefoot and insane looking: Tony Bones a.k.a. Cadena a.k.a. Bee.
Nervous Gender – With Phranc and Don Bolles on board, they were strangest sounding band at that point–more so than the Screamers or DEVO.
El Duce- I first met him there, He was doing an impromptu manifesto post show behind a podium in the back room area, We all gathered, speechless.
I could go on, but wait and read that chapter in my book.