Down By Law

I won’t pretend that it was without trepidation that I approached the doors of RKCNDY, an all ages music club in downtown Seattle. The last member of my family to attend a show there was fourteen, and I was more likely to run into her peers than mine at this show. But I was glad for the chance to see the band whose new disc, “All Scratched Up,” had spent more time in my player than any new punk release in a good many years.

I also had the encouraging company of Cozmik Editor-In-Chief D.J. Johnson, who is *almost* as old as I am, and at least twice as old as the typical RKCNDY customer.

Any reservations I had dissolved quickly once we got to the 12×12 room crowded with ice chests and old couches that was serving as dressing room for all three bands on the evening’s bill (Down By Law played between Canadian newcomers Pluto and local heroes Gas Huffer). Seated at the far end of the room were lead guitar player Sam Williams III and bassman Angry John DiMambro. We settled right into a wide ranging and generally fascinating conversation that touched on the history of the band, punk music and the punk audience in the 1990s.

John: Hi, I’m John and he’s Sam… otherwise known as “Angry John…”

Shaun: So how angry are you?
John: Well man, you should have been there last night.

Shaun: Well, hopefully tonight will turn out better. Both of you have songwriting credits on the new album, right?
John: I wrote “Far and Away” with Dave.
Sam: I wrote about a third of the album.
John: Is that thing running?

Shaun: Yeah.
John: Cause I want to know whenever I’m on tape.

Shaun: Well, it’s on – don’t admit to anything…
John: Don’t worry, I’m not gonna vote for Mumbly Joe.

Shaun: How bout that – are you gonna vote at all?
John: I’m gonna try. I get home that day, so I’ll go in there and flip a coin between Wingnut and Slick Willy.

Shaun: Wingnut?
John: Yeah. I call Perot “Wingnut” because his ears are so big he looks like a wingnut on the end of a pencil.

Shaun: So Dole’s not a factor?
John: No, he’s absolutely not a factor at all except for the comedy value. The only thing that would be good if he got elected is that all that hate would be good for about another ten years of punk rock. Cause Reagan was one of the best things that ever happened to punk music in America.

DJ: He made the Dead Kennedys’ career…
John: Yeah, Jello really couldn’t get behind hating Jerry Brown, but when it came to hating Reagan…

Shaun: So how long have you guys been doing this together?
John: I’ve been in the band for three years. Sam’s been in for four. The band’s existed for five years.

Shaun: Sam, you live in Florida and the rest of the band is in LA. Has the bi-coastal thing been going on the whole time?
Sam: Yeah. Actually, even more so. We had another drummer who played on the last album who lived on the east coast, but the drummer we have now, Danny, he’s on the west coast so everyone but me lives in LA.

Shaun: Were you in LA when you got together with these guys?
Sam: No, never. I knew about them and I wrote to them and said I’d try out.
John: He wrote a letter saying he could play “Rock You Like a Hurricane” like a son of a bitch so they said we have to give this guy a chance. I had nothing to do with that. I hate him.

Shaun: Well, you’re angry. You hate everybody, right?
John: Fuckin A right.

Shaun: Those are basic punk rock credentials – every punk band has to have an angry somebody…
John: I’m pretty mild most of the time – unless I’m driving.

Shaun: Your sound is kind of a roots punk thing – a lot of classic punk anthem styles. Who would you want people to think of when they hear you?
John: It’s kind of like all the bands that influenced us are like that – especially Dave. He listens to, like, Stiff Little Fingers and the Clash and a lot of English bands. That’s where those anthem kind of tracks come from.

Shaun: Yeah, I thought of the Clash and the Ramones, at least the Ramones during a certain period when I actually liked them.
John: We did an in-store at Sam Goody in New York this spring and Joey Ramone was there. It was cool – he liked us and stuff. I didn’t think he was real ’cause I’d never heard him talk before. Even when I saw the Ramones he never talks, he just sings one song into the other. I talked to him and he was a standard New York kind of guy.

Shaun: So what’s the story behind “True Music” on the new album? Did you guys really make a show biz video that compromised your principles?
Sam: You’d have to talk to Dave about compromising principles, but we have made a few videos and the last two have been played on 120 Minutes. One of them quite regularly – “Radio Ragga.”
John: “Independence Day” is like a minute fifteen seconds long. US News did an article that said the longest and shortest videos ever on MTV were Michael Jackson’s “Bad” for like 16:23 and Down by Law’s “Independence Day” for 1:15.

DJ: What kind of reaction has there been to being on MTV – considering a lot of people get pissed off if a band gets on MTV…
John: There was one girl who – I don’t know if she wrote a letter or wrote to the Unofficial Down By Law Homepage or what – but she wrote “I hate you guys, you’ve changed, burn in Hell, sellouts.” Like this total stupid trash. I think it was off “Independence Day,” not even “Radio Ragga.”

Shaun: Yeah, you’re sellouts – you might be able to buy strings next week off the proceeds.
John: Something like that. Yeah, I’m just rolling in dough right now. I don’t know what to do with it all. I think I’ll buy a Kit Kat bar.

Shaun: Well, it shows from the spacious and exotic digs here…
John: Yeah, the belly dancers show up any minute. Where did it say in the punk handbook that you had to take a vow of poverty like the Jesuits or be a Communist and sleep under a park bench and eat beans and live off your parents, you know what I mean? That’s my point – where the hell did that come from? I’m not with that at all. And the original punk bands, you know, the Clash were on Epic and the Sex Pistols set out absolutely to rob major labels of as much money as they could possibly get and did it again this year. I don’t know where that came from. I guess the Berkeley Maximum Rock & Roll crowd are the ones who wrote that into the manifesto. So that had nothing to do with punk when I got into it in 1980. Nobody ever thought about that stuff – they never thought about “Oh, that band wants a drum riser, they’re rock stars.” It was never that complicated. Nobody ever thought about it.

DJ: Do you think they get pissed off when too many people start to like “their” band – like it’s not an exclusive club anymore?
Sam: That’s part of it. The guy from Offspring – Dexter or whatever – made a good point when he said the punk attitude has become really elitist – even more so. It used to be if you had long hair you weren’t allowed to come to the shows and stuff, but it’s even more so now. It’s like the people who listen to this music now seem to hate everybody, but they don’t hate them for the right reasons. They just look down on everybody like they’re less intelligent or something. It’s messed up.

Shaun: Well, then, it should be fun for me tonight. I’ve been listening to punk for over 20 years, which is at least four or five years longer than most of these people have been alive. My daughter said it was cool that I was going to RKCNDY and all, but I should be ready for everybody to stare at me ’cause I’d be the oldest person in the room. What kind of audiences do you get at shows?
John: Depends on where we are. We get a lot of the 16-22 year old crowd. On the east coast we get a lot of straight edge people mixed in with some punks. We played with Bad Religion at the Palace and that was our crowd mixed with their crowd and the reaction was about equal. Their crowd was older – mostly over 21 – so it’s mixed across the board.

Shaun: I ask because you have a traditional kind of sound I think would appeal to people like me who were there for the early days of punk, which is not true of all the bands out there today.
Sam: You’re right, it seems like we would appeal to an older audience more, but just the fact that we’re on Epitaph Records is a factor that contributes to our audience being so young. We’re looked at as an Epitaph band and lumped in with bands whose crowd is younger, so they come to our shows too.

Shaun: One of the elements of that “traditional” sound is some social conscience in the music, which used to be prevelant in punk but isn’t so much any more. And there’s a sense of humor in the music that I really appreciate.
John: You’ve just named all the elements that I know as punk rock. When I went to shows in the early eighties hard core and punk was one and the same thing, and now some of the punk bands are a lot faster than we are – we tend to be, I hate to use the word pop but what is punk but fast pop in some ways.

Shaun: Three chords with your foot on the gas…
John: We’re a lot more melodic than some of the bands. We do songs that are slower and like that. I never thought the word traditional would apply to punk, but we listen to a lot of bands that are more traditional, from the early eighties and stuff. Now stuff has got this really fast galloping beat and the image of the people is significantly different than it was when I was going to shows 16 years ago. The danger element has been to some extent removed. It used to be, when I went to a gig I never knew if I’d be coming back home or not. It was, “Well, let’s see what happens tonight. Maybe I’ll get home, maybe I won’t.” It could be the police or somebody waiting for us outside or whatever.

Shaun: My memory of LA in the early days was that one of the most adventurous things you could do was go to a Black Flag show – they were invariably busted – every show was busted.
John: Yeah, until around the period Rollins joined…

DJ: Are there still scenes reminiscient of that anywhere that you’ve played? Places where the scene is still more alive than elsewhere?
Sam: Where I live in Tampa the violence is still pretty prevelant. It’s not like today where at a live show you may see people shooting each other, but it’s a lot more like an old punk show ’cause there’s always a fight. No matter who plays, there’s a always a big fight. The music scene isn’t as happening, but when a band comes through it seems to me like it’s like it was back then.
John: That’s totally true in Florida, and in some other places, but the one thing we mentioned earlier was humor, and even in the early eighties when all this crazy stuff was going down, there was still a sense of humor about it. You know what I mean? Like, I remember one time this bouncer at the Dead Kennedys beat some kid up and like 20 punks just surrounded the guy and he started pleading for his life. They pulled his pants down and stuck his head in the toilet – they didn’t even beat him up, they just totally humiliated him. It seems kind of sick to say it’s funny, but it was funny to me back then.

Shaun: Humor was integral. The way people were looking and acting. If you couldn’t laugh at yourself doing that, you had serious emotional problems.
John: Exactly. If you’re walking down the street with a green mohawk, you’ve gotta have a sense of humor.

Shaun: No mohawks in this band…
John: No.

DJ: One of your labelmates, Rancid, has gone far with that…
Sam: Yeah, that’s how they went…
John: They’re a really good band. I listen to their music and I totally hear the stuff I listened to before, what I know as punk rock. They look like that, but they back it up, and they were around before.

Shaun: So the band has an unofficial website – is there an official one?
John: No, not yet.

Shaun: And a fan just put one together?
Sam: Yeah, I have a computer and I e-mail the guy back and forth. His name is Shawn and he lives in Canada. He did it on his own and I just stumbled onto it, but I help him out with it some now.

Shaun: So you’re into the whole internet thing?
John: If I get into it I’ll never get out of it.

Shaun: I understand – I’m a junkie myself and as the editor of a webzine DJ probably spends 15 hours a day on line.
Sam: I think it’s a cool thing. I really dig it, and I’m kind of hooked on it.

DJ: You guys ever listen to ska? You were talking about Rancid…
John: Yeah, I listen to ska. I like Rancid’s stuff, but that’s like rock to me. I like really pure ska, the sixties stuff like Prince Walker, and Madness, the Specials – that next wave from the early eighties. I keep going back to the early eighties.
Sam: It seems to me that they’ve already done pretty much everything that can be done with that form of music and the bands that come out today just really bore me. It seems like they just do the same song over and over, but that’s just my opinion. I don’t listen to anything that came out after, like, ’84 as far as ska…

Shaun: Of course people say the same thing about punk bands.
Sam: Yeah, that’s right. I should cut some slack because people who don’t listen to the music say it all sounds the same to them, so that could be my problem too. But what really bothers me is the Ska Corps that people have come up with now. Like, the Bosstones, they’re okay, but there are about 30 bands trying to do the same thing – mix melodic punk and ska and it’s so unoriginal sounding to me.

Shaun: So there have been a lot of personnel changes in the band since the beginning. How has the sound developed?
Sam: There are different songwriters in the band now. Dave’s really the only guy who’s been in the band for the first and last albums and there’s new writers now and Dave’s writing has changed. I think it’s definitely more advanced than the first album.

Shaun: Did you write “Gruesome Gary” or is that one of Dave’s?
Sam: That’s Dave’s.

Shaun: Is he a real guy? Would he know himself if he heard that song?
Sam: No, I think Dave made him up as a universal bully.

Shaun: Well, I think I knew that guy…
John: Yeah, I remember when I cut my hair and I went to school the next day, ’cause the day before I had really long hair and a Led Zeppelin t-shirt and the next day I had an anarchy shirt and my head was shaved. All my stoner friends pretended they didn’t know me. I had a baseball cap on when I got there, and a flannel shirt, and flair bottoms over my boots. I went to the bathroom and threw the cap in the garbage, tucked in my pants and opened my shirt to show the big circle-A on my t-shirt. I went into the hallway and it was like “He’s a punk!”. And the football team chased me into the middle of the quad and put me in a garbage can. They poured orange juice over my head and kept punching me and I knew I’d done the right thing.

Shaun: Heh. The difference between when you and I went to hight school was that for us the haircut was required to get along with the football team. It was the stoners they beat up. So you just made the change over night?
John: Yeah, I didn’t have much of a New Wave period. It lasted about an hour.

Shaun: Actually, punk and New Wave were once the same thing – or it was punk, then New Wave, then punk again.
John: Everything was all punk. Like, Elvis Costello was punk. Television was punk. Blondie was punk. Devo was punk. And with that, you had the Buzzcocks, the Pistols, the Clash, Black Flag, the Circle Jerks, the Adolescents, and it was all together. Because if you listened to any of those people and had a skinny tie or a mohawk or whatever you’d get into a party and they’d beat you up if you tried to drink from the keg.

DJ: Did you like the Buzzcocks?
John: Oh, I loved the Buzzcocks.

DJ: Because there’s a little bit of song structure influence…
John: Yeah, I love them. They’re great. I’ve seen them three or four times and they sound like the record when they play and they’re perfect and they’re so professional and they sing great and they’re fucking punk. That’s punk.

DJ: So, wrapping up, is there anyplace you’d like to say fuck you to? Places they’ve treated you shitty or anything?
John: Fuck you Munich, Germany. Boston, get back up to speed and Portland, you’re getting better but you’ve got a lot of work to do.

Shaun: But Seattle’s terrific, right?
John: Oh yeah, Seattle’s great.

(A voice from behind says “Wait’ll you hear what they say tomorrow night.”)

DJ: Sam, got anything?
Sam: There are too many to name, actually. Not all of San Francisco, but the whole Maximum Rock & Roll scene in ‘Frisco, and Gilman. Fuck all that shit.
John: Yeah, fuck you Gilman and fuck you Bikini Kill. But the PeeChees are awesome. No fuck you to the PeeChees.

The “voice from behind” turned out to be founding member, chief songwriter and rhythm guitar/lead vocalist, Dave Smalley, who took time to speak with us while John and Sam caught the tail end of the Pluto set.

Shaun: So I was asking John and Sam if Gruesome Gary was a real guy…
Dave: Gruesome Gary’s not his name, but it’s based on a real guy. A lot of people identify with that song.

Shaun: One of the things I like about many of your songs is that anthem quality…
Dave: Yeah, I like writing songs that people sing to. That’s something I enjoy. There’s a lot of good singers and songwriters out there but it’s always nice when the audience can sing along.

Shaun: If there’s such a thing as a “traditional” punk band…
Dave: We’re it. With a little bit of mod thrown in.

Shaun: Another song I asked about was “True Music.” Was making a video really a devastating compromise of principle?
Dave: I don’t know if I’d use the word devastating, but it was hard because for so long, without even thinking about it, I’d viewed it as a bad thing because I think that MTV has done a lot of bad things. Kids grow up and if they don’t see it on MTV they don’t think of it as viable or that they’d like it, and of course there are a lot of great bands that don’t get on MTV.

Shaun: But now you’ve been on MTV, so is it a good thing?
Dave: No, I think it’s a mixed thing. I think the main trick is if you’re going to make videos, make sure it’s the song you love as the artist and make sure you do it your way. I know bands that have spent $100 thousand on their videos and had the record company pick the song. We spend, like, $10 thousand and we pick our song and we pick the director and we pick everything about it.

Shaun: How about a video of “True Music?” Think MTV would play it?
Dave: Oh man. I don’t know. Probably not. You know, the one who played it was Matt Enfield from 120 Minutes and he’s been very cool to us. He called me at my house and left a message saying he loved the “Radio Raga” video and he was really nice. Not to say that’s where we want to be with our music, but it’s nice we did it our way and he accepted it. I don’t think we’re the kind of band that would ever be in regular rotation on MTV.

Shaun: Regular rotation on public access punk rock shows…
Dave: That’s fine with me. Actually, one of the things I like about making videos is our videos have been in the top 5 in the country on independent stations and that’s great with me.

DJ: Yeah, I think the first time I heard of Down By Law was on a public access show here called Soundwaves.
Dave: That’s great. A video show?

DJ: Yeah. He plays stuff you’d never see anywhere else.
Dave: That’s good. That’s what public access is all about. It’s like college radio. You’ll hear Down By Law, then the Bee Gees, then Nick Cave, or the Sex Pistols.

Shaun: You’re the glue of the band – the guy who was on the first album and the new album…
Dave: Yeah, it’s coalesced a lot since the early days. I’m definitely the founding member but Sam and John have been in the band for almost four years now, and Danny has been in the band over a year.

Shaun: So there were a couple albums real quick and then a little hiatus?
Dave: Yeah. I really view starting with “punkrockacademy” as almost a new band in a way. I love all the albums we’ve made, but I definitely felt it was more like a band once these guys got in there.

Shaun: Sam says he’s on line a bit. Do you get on the internet at all?
Dave: No, I don’t. My wife’s a designer and she does a lot of computer work but I’m one of those freaks that still writes with a pen.

Shaun: I mention it because Cozmik Debris’ a webzine and I hope you’ll take a look at it.
Dave: Well, I get online once in a while. I’ll look for it.

DJ: You can show the review to people and say “See, even jazz people get it.” Shaun’s our jazz reviewer.
Shaun: Yeah, DJ was trying to expand my horizons, or to reduce his workload, and he put two or three things in [the CD player] and I jumped on this one. It sounded like the stuff I’ve liked forever. It had that ironically traditional punk sound.
Dave: Thanks, that’s what we are, for better or worse. The best songwriters are the older ones, generally. Not always, but I think my songwriting, compared with when this band started four or five years ago, has come a long way.

Shaun: The guys said that being on Epitaph gives you a young audience but there are a lot of people ten or fifteen years older than that young audience that should listen to this music. It’s terrific.
Dave: I’d like to be able to reach more people our age and close to our age…[Dave Smalley is 32]

Shaun: I’ve got more than ten years on you.
Dave: Well, that’s great. I think an older crowd could appreciate a lot of the subtleties in our music. I love the younger kids to love us, I think that’s great, but they may not have as much to relate to in terms of life experiences and things that are going on in the music and the lyrics.

Shaun: Well, a lot of people who were listening to punk music 20 years ago find that the music has moved away and it’s hard to find bands that have the same spirit. It’s not really the sound, it’s the spirit.
Dave: Well, John and I certainly grew up on the Clash and the Jam and the Who. Those bands are part of our blood. For better or worse, we’re carrying the torch now that those groups are gone. We picked up the torch where they set it down and hopefully someone will pick it up when we’re done.

Shaun: But you’ve got a while to go, right?
Dave: I hope so, yeah. I would like to think so. You never can tell, but apparently things are going well. The label is happy and we’re happy.

DJ: Are most of the people who come to see you pretty educated about the music, like knowing the songs?
Dave: Yeah, our crowds are intelligent and pretty knowledgable about the music. We don’t get a lot of 15 year olds who just heard about it through the grapevine. Sometimes, but mostly kids come who love the band. With Down By Law, you either love the band or maybe you don’t give a shit about it, but most the people who come to see us love it.

Shaun: So you could become the Grateful Dead of punk, with a troop of punks following you around the country…
Dave: Hey, give those guys credit. They achieved a lot. And they stuck with a thing and had a whole phenomenon build up around it. Of course, I never would have said that when I was seventeen…

We closed with the customary courtesies and Deej and I got into position for what turned out to be a killer set from the band. Many thanks to John, Sam and Dave for their time, to the staff at Epitaph Records for arranging the interview and to the kids in the RKCNDY crowd for letting an old guy rock the night away with them.

Down By Law is Sam Williams III, lead guitar; Angry John DiMambro, bass; Dave Smalley, vocals/guitar; and Danny Westman, drums.

Interview by :
Shaun Dale