TSOL have been an institution for nearly 40 years in the punk scene. One of Southern California’s first mainstays in the hardcore scene, True Sounds of Liberty have been an ever-evolving and expanding artistic vehicle.
With the release of The Trigger Complex, the band’s latest with new label Rise Records, their sound has taken yet another turn, which is nothing new for a band that has constantly experimented with sound and embraced everything from punk to hardcore to death rock to rock and roll. What is surprising about The Trigger Complex, however, is not only that its a pop-rock record, but that it loses none of its artistic integrity for that. Its an extremely entertaining listen that lost nothing when it lost the perceived punk “heaviness.” Instead of rollickers about necrophilia or the political woes, it is thirteen songs of the difficulties of interpersonal relations, regrets, and person issues – and it still rocks. I had the opportunity to speak with the amazingly insightful vocalist of TSOL, author, and photographer, Jack Grisham.
I’m going to start with a question you are probably getting a lot in the last couple months. As a punk rocker for the last forty years, and particularly during the Reagan Era as well as really helping shape the punk rock scene, does punk have a particular purpose in a regime such as the one we are suddenly under?
I’ll just say, “Yeah,” to that, but you see something strange happened. It’s almost like we’re desensitized to protest if that makes any sense. Like before we were worked up – you had a song before and it was shocking like, “My god! They are talking about this and they are talking about this.” And it was shocking and it really inflamed people. But now it seems like they have just been inflamed so much that they are burnt out. Its just one more protest story and one more fucked up politician and one more screwed deal and nobody really gives a shit enough to be affected. Its like, have you ever watched a movie like Predator or one of those that is loaded with so much violence that after awhile you just become desensitized to it? How many heads can you see get chopped off before its just nothing to you anymore? And I wonder sometimes that the way that we have been so saturated with the media and online that that we just get to a point with all the lies and the scams and the whatever that its just one more lie, one more scam; its never enough to actually shock someone into doing something about it. You can only say, “Oh my god, this is horrifying!” so many times until you’re in a state of almost PTSD rather than something that’s going to activate us.
It’s like diminishing returns on horror.
Exactly. And then the other thing – nobody even knows what’s true or not. Like with this alternative news or fake news and whatnot. You could show them anything and its “fake news.” Its crazy. I don’t know what’s happened. I don’t know if it will ever be enough anymore. Maybe it’ll just be that we are lead to slaughter now.
Oh god I hope not.
Well…yeah, me too, but I mean look what goes on and look what people get away with. It’s crazy man. Whatever I don’t know if I’m making sense.
Well I wonder, too – The Trigger Complex is a different sound, not that that is new for you guys, but it seems to be dealing with more interpersonal issues – broken relationships and alienation – and less political ones. Was that part of the impetuous for this sound – going softer and incorporating some of those earlier punk and rock roots that you grew up with?
I think when we get down to anything; I’ve always been a big fan of, “Look, you don’t even know who you are. You don’t even know the enemy of yourself is and yet you want to attack this enemy.” So I’ve always been a fan of self-realization, self-awareness, so there is some of that in that record. But its also, you know, it’s a pop record is what it is. It’s a pop record. It’s not like I sat back and said, “I’m gonna make some kinda protest piece, where fuckin’ every lyric has got to be about something.” You know? Its like sometimes you just gotta say, “Fuck it,” and put on a pop song and relax. Cause its too fuckin’ much man! It’s just bangin’ your head against the wall. Sometimes you just gotta relax for a minute. I mean, I’ve said that at shows before. Just, “You know what guys? Let’s just leave all that shit outside for an hour. Fuck it. Just leave it outside. Just enjoy each other. Lets just have common ground – for an hour. Lets just know that we are all here for an hour.
You know you guys have changed sound so much and kind of experimented within these genres and you, yourself, are so involved in all sorts of different kinds of art: writing, visual art, and photography. Do you find there’s a theme that runs through your interests or your passions or are you just a general conduit for whatever comes through you?
For me what I like is, if you’re looking theme-wise is I like to wonder how people work. Why they work. What they think about. What drives them. What happened to them when they were kids. What we don’t’ see moves them. What makes them take a certain decision—conscious or subconscious.
But as far as the music or the art, the thing is really, I get bored. I just get bored. I wanna try I wanna experiment I wanna see what I can do! No one ever said, “Okay, you’re gonna make a punk rock band and you’re gonna develop this look, keep this sound and sell it for as long as possible.” And it kinda creeps me out that those guys do that still! They say, “Well I’m maintaining my punk roots!” It’s like, dude, what are you even talking about? You’re a fucking dinosaur, guy! You’re not maintaining anything! You’re stagnant. You don’t challenge me! You’re just standing still!
You know, it’s funny you say that because many of your contemporaries are still around—and many, in fact, are on your new label Rise Records. 7seconds started around the same time and The Bouncing Souls and Hot Water Music from not long after. What was it like working with Rise for The Trigger Complex?
Well so far they’ve been great. The thing with TSOL is we’ve basically worked with a different record label for every record we’ve put out. We’re that friend’s crazy partner where she’s totally hot, but no one can stand them. That’s the thing with us – we’re very enticing, but no one can stand us after awhile! When they find out what incorrigible pricks we all are! Rise has been really easy man, really simple. They heard the tapes, man. They heard some…what do they call them? Whatever the fuck they call them! They heard them and we just talked on the phone! And rise just said, “Hey, you wanna make this record over here?” Cause you know we had already paid for this record ourselves. It was already done by the time we went to Rise, and it was something where I was kinda planning that we would put this out ourselves. And the producer at one point looked at me and was like “Hey, I sure as fuck hope you aren’t gonna put this out yourselves…” So that’s what he said and I laughed.
You know, you look at these labels and I get it. Some of these bands these days don’t realize these labels also have to pay bills. Some of these bands think these labels should just support them as artists and just that’s it! Its like hey, guy that’s fucking wonderful but your “art” has only sold a hundred copies! Who’s gonna pay for that? Its like me, I’ve put out records by myself. Like I’ve crowdfunded money, and you know what? I hate to say it but you kinda start feeling for some of these record labels that people give them so much shit. I mean it’s hard to establish that business and come up with money and sell these people’s art. Real art doesn’t really make a lot of cash. Not always. It’s very rare, so it’s nice.
So the guys at Rise did alright. They made some money off of some bands and then they were able to take that money and then give it to other bands that they liked that maybe aren’t gonna make that money. It’s like our band, you know were not gonna sell fuckin’ 100,000 records or millions of downloads. I mean, that’d be bitch’n, but it’s not the case. So those more commercial bands kinda subsidize the bands like us. Its funny cause I hear these kids at the labels for “selling out” and signing a popular band and I’m like, “Good! I’m glad they have a popular band and now they can pay for your ungrateful ass, you fuckhole!” They’re not grounded in reality, these people.
Going back, in terms of crowdfunding your own projects, and everything you’re involved in – the books, photography, etc. – what keeps you so productive? How do you hold yourself accountable? It must be something beyond just being bored!
Cause I’d kill myself if I stopped working! Picture your standard nut ward or old folks home. And you know they make those people knit blankets or grass baskets or some shit cause even the fuckin’ loonies would go crazy! I think it was Chaucer who said, “Idle hands are the devils plaything.” If I’m not making or creating or doing something…Ill go fucking nuts. And then I get depressed…and then I get bummed out. It’s almost like a festering sore that if I’m not constantly draining it, it will just overtake me.
God, that’s a very vivid allegory.
And I wanna learn! I wanna learn from people. I wanna learn how to shoot a good picture. I wanna learn how to write a good book. It’s about really holding yourself to a higher standard and constantly trying to improve. Sales and someone liking it just really isn’t enough for me. Everyone could like something and I’ll say, “…but it could be better.” This old artist guy said something to me and I fuckin’ loved it! He’s like 90 years old and he said, “ Jack the right ripe fruit rots on the vine.” And what he’s basically sayin’ is just like that he always needs to be learning and risking and experimenting and putting himself out on the line, or else he’ll rot. And its like I just don’t understand these bands that are just okay with doing that! I would rather be attacked for creating something that people don’t like than loved for creating something that didn’t challenge me. Something that I have taken no risk in whatever.
Just out of curiosity, are there any bands that are either around now, or were back in the day that you do see as also chasing that idea? Of constantly pushing their limits? Or that you always go back to that you do see as having that kind of spark?
What, are you trying to get my ass kicked?! I don’t know! To be honest, I don’t know. I can’t honestly say that for a lot of people. I don’t want to seem like a fuckin’ asshole, but I think some people cater – and I get it! I mean, they have bills to pay. I understand the thought behind it, but paying the bills can’t be the end-all of playing music. And I’m not talking about going out on tour – that’s one thing. Going out on tour pays the bills. Going out on tour feeds my kids. I don’t want to be crass, but a T-shirt sale puts fuckin’ fruit loops on my kids’ breakfast table. That’s something I gotta do. But I’m talking about going out and selling what you’ve created. In the creative aspect of it, I know guys that are safe because safe sells. I don’t know that I see a lot of people really risking. I mean we don’t want to see fuckin’ Spinal Tap III: Jazz Infusion. We don’t wanna fuckin’ see that. But you know what I mean? But then again you can argue, “Yeah, and Jack can’t fuckin’ pay his bills.” (Laughs) “So maybe the mothefucker should start catering to people!”
Do you know who Hunt Sales is? Hunt Sales was a drummer. He played with Iggy Pop, he played with David Bowie. Hunt was killer. Hunt and his brother Tony. The best rhythm section, man. So fuckin’ solid. Anyway, I was working with Hunt for a while and he looked at me and he’s got this kinda New York Jewish thing. Like “Hey baby…” and he said, “…you know what, Jack? You’ve played hardball your whole fuckin’ life. Don’t play softball now. Fuck those pricks!” and there is something to that. It’s just not always a comfortable way to live.
Jumping back again, and as a photographer myself mostly for punk shows and musicians – how did you become involved in photography?
Think of the other end: I’m one of those band guys that people take a lot of pictures of. And I’m vain as shit! Its like I’m older, man! I used to be really good lookin’, but now I’m this 55-year-old man, you know? Sometimes the vanity—I look at myself sometimes and I’m like, “Motherfucker!” and I’ve always liked people, but I’ve always had trouble making connections to people and getting close to people. So through that lens I can get close to them and I can have intimacy. If you look at my shots, everybody I shoot I make them directly look at the camera. Like I’ve caught them, seen them, walked in on them – whatever it is. Mainly for me it’s the eyes because it’s my way to look someone directly in the eyes without turning away, because I struggle to do that. I struggle with intimacy, you know? God only knows what black secrets hide in my heart! I’m not brave enough – whatever the fuck it is. Through a photograph I can look people directly in the eyes and not turn away. And now I’m learning! You know how that process is. You know its funny; a guy said to me one time, “How come you never learn a discipline that will actually make you money?” I write, I play music, and I photograph and those aren’t really moneymaking plans. And especially in America! This isn’t a country that subsidizes the arts or does something that encourages it. People that write or play music or shoot photos are looked down on. The arts are looked down on in this country.
And, you know, they’re about to cut all arts funding – some a minute fraction of the budget – and put it right back into military spending!
Yeah, it’s killer! It’s fucking killer! Hey guy, just kill people, don’t take their pictures. Which is funny. We should all just have a day where we just fuckin’ kill people. They want us to be like that? Let’s give’em a taste of it.
Like The Purge!
Oh my god, can you imagine? And that’s the thing too, if there ever was a purge, they’re not gonna keep me around.
You’re first on the list?
I don’t have that importance. However how I think isn’t welcome. They don’t want someone that wants to move, challenge. There are a lot of punk bands that they would keep around because its controlled anarchy. They make use feel as if we are acting out, feel as if we are doing something, feel as if we’re rebelling, but not really. But anyone that really does, really steps out, and really comes up with an idea that goes against that is removed.
And what you say kinda brings us full-circle, too, in that in terms of protests and rage getting diminishing returns. Of protests being more of a placating move for the general populace to make them feel like they are doing something. We get riled up for like half a second and then we move on.
It’s never enough. I have some friends that want me to run for Congress for 2018. You know, who knows…I don’t know…who knows.
Could be interesting…
Yeah. The one good thing I will say about Trump now is that he has set the bar so low that someone like myself seems legitimate! And I fuckin’ love that, man! It’s killer. I can’t wait if I do run and someone brings something up I can say, “Yeah, just like our president!”
Well, you got my vote.