Looking back over the 42+ years that have passed since he co-founded one of Los Angeles’ seminal and most formidable punk bands, T.S.O.L., vocalist Jack Grisham doesn’t miss a beat when insisting that he is not a good singer.
“I do it, but it’s very uncomfortable,” Grisham says in a matter-of-fact tone. “I sound like me, and I am what I am. But when I got into punk rock, I never actually thought about singing. You just kind of screamed it. Next thing I know, I’m still doing it, still making records. … I like a lot of soul and pop music, and I like melodic punk,” he adds. “When I’m listening to punk it’s Generation X or the Jam, things that a lot of people don’t even consider punk. … Those guys could sing!”
Despite his detached self-criticism, Grisham is an iconic vocalist of Southern California’s late ‘70s and early ‘80s punk, death rock, and hardcore scenes. T.S.O.L. forged its fiery and confrontational sound and image amid the epicenter of LA’s early ’80s punk scene, alongside Black Flag, Fear, Cheifs, and the Circle Jerks. Blasts of Marxist and anarchist political leanings punctuate the full-on contempt in Grisham’s unrestrained voice, and the blistering tones and melodies summoned by guitar player Ron Emory.
In the beginning, Grisham’s short-lived band Vicious Circle developed a reputation for stirring up an atmosphere primed for violent altercations with brutal, shotgun-style blasts of jagged punk songs bearing titles such as “I Want to Die,” “Love Of Hate,” and “Complete Kaos.”
But with the arrival of T.S.O.L.’s self-titled EP for Posh Boy in 1981, followed that same year by their debut album, Dance With Me (Frontier), lyrical poetry and haunted tones blended with a punk charge, giving rise to a proto-goth etherealism.
This year, a new documentary film, titled Ignore Heroes will chronicle the group’s early days, its triumphs, stumbles, and resurrection. Grisham, who directed the film, says it’s not your typical rock doc, and feels more like “a fucked up Ted Talk,” featuring stand-up, live interviews with people who were either with the band, who paid the band, or who tried to kill the band. … And some animation.
“No famous rock guys, no one saying we influenced them,” Grisham says.
In the meantime, T.S.O.L. (True Sounds of Liberty) is in the van, traveling across the country, powering through a career-spanning setlist touching on everything from 1982’s “Weathered Statues” 7-inch, to songs from their latest album, 2017’s The Trigger Complex.
“Before the pandemic cut our legs out from underneath us, we were playing 90 shows a year — a lot of shows,” Grisham says. “Now, we’re like those guys who play pro ball for 20 years, they make every game, and never have a problem till they slow down. Now, it’s like every injury, every fall we’ve ever taken is catching up,” he laughs.
Grisham, now 60 years old, says it was drummer and vocalist Grant Hart of Minneapolis’ avant-garde punk trio Hüsker Dü who inspired him to delve deeper into writing lyrics.
“I still have the rhyming book that Grant gave me,” Grisham says. “I’m not that much of an aware kind of guy, I just go around doing whatever, without paying attention to much of anything. Grant was the one who asked me, ‘Have you ever looked at this book?’ It’s just a little thesaurus-type of thing that’s filled with rhyming words — probably something that he got in high school.”
Couching Hart’s knack for crafting gut-wrenching melodies around simple, powerful punk charges reveals previously hidden layers of depth within T.S.O.L.’s litany of classic numbers.
T.S.O.L. emerged at the dawn of the 1980s, in Huntington Beach. Grisham, along with guitarist Ron Emory, bass player Mike Roche, and drummer and former Vicious Circle cohort Todd Barnes bridged SoCal punk with the emerging hardcore scene by way of dark imagery, and a full-throttle guitar assault in songs such as “Superficial Love,” “Abolish Government,” “Sounds Of Laughter,” “Wash Away,” and “Code Blue.”
The latter number, which appears on 1981’s Dance with Me, is a necrophiliac love song blasting lyrics that feel tailor-made for scaring concerned parents in the Reagan era into sending their disaffected teens straight to the nearest psychiatrist — “And I don’t even care how she died. But I like it better if she smells of formaldehyde!”
“We always did whatever we wanted to do,” Grisham says. “There were times when I haven’t seen Ron or Mike in over a year, and I won’t see them until I walk onto the stage at the show and say ‘what do you want to play?’ … We’ll do that,” Grisham says. “T.S.O.L. was in Penelope Spheeris’ film Suburbia, and we played two songs — “Wash Away” and Darker My Love.” “‘Darker My Love’ wasn’t even recorded yet,” Grisham adds. “I said we wrote this one last week, let’s do it!”
While lyrics in other songs such as “President Reagan can shove it!” from “Superficial Love” place T.S.O.L’s mystique firmly in the 1980s, having songs such as “Sounds Of Laughter,” featured in the recent HBO documentary, Tony Hawk: Until the Wheels Fall Off, helps bolster ongoing interest in the group with younger listeners.
“There’s always something like the Tony Hawk documentary happening for us, and there is a huge age gap with the people who come see us,” Grisham says. “We see little kids in the audience all the way up to somebody’s grandfather hanging out, and it’s because we’ve been playing for such a long time. If you were 30 years old when T.S.O.L. started in 1980, you’re 72 now,” he laughs. “If you were 40 years old back then, you are 82 now!”
On stage, it’s the physicality of performing their songs that propels each one forward. “Fuck You Tough Guy” from 2003’ Divided We Stand, is one song that Grisham says is among their most exhilarating numbers to perform.
“To move to those sounds … I play that song like I’m a fan and not a creator,” he says. “The bass starts moving, and I feel like I’m a kid listening to this band play, and I’m just dancing along to the music.”
Since 1999, original T.S.O.L.’s members Grisham, Emory, and Roche have remained in place, restoring order after a long stint beginning in 1983, during which Grisham left the band, and vocalist Joe Wood took lead the group. Eventually, the Wood-led T.S.O.L. saw a total turnover leaving none of the band’s original personnel in the group, as they adopted a prosaic blues-rock and hair metal plod. Guns N’ Roses drummer Steven Adler famously sported a T.S.O.L. T-shirt in the 1988 video for “Sweet Child O Mine,” raising their profile with MTV viewers.
After leaving T.S.O.L., Grisham released a synth-driven six-song EP under the name Cathedral of Tears, and later fronted the sophomoric hard rock band Tender Fury. Later, he rebounded with the more pop punk-oriented sound of his band the Joykiller, and he explored blue-eyed soul and alt. rock with the short-lived group the Manic Low.
In his 2011 memoir, titled An American Demon, Grisham offers a brutal, true-life account of the depravity and extreme violence that surrounded the group’s defining years — much of it at his own hands. “When the book was finished, I really didn’t want to publish it, because it is so brutal,” Grisham says. “It is an absolutely true book, and I’m glad it’s out there.”
Keyboard player Greg Kuehn joined T.S.O.L. and added opulent piano flourishes to the songs on 1982’s Beneath the Shadows LP.
Drummer Todd Barnes died in 1999 after suffering a brain aneurysm related to excessive drug abuse.
All of the original members of T.S.O.L. have battled substance-abuse issues over the years, but post reformation, they have all cleaned up and remain sober.
The group’s current drummer Antonio Val Hernandez joined T.S.O.L. in 2017. As the story goes, he was a mail delivery carrier in bass player Mike Roche’s neighborhood. He was a fan of T.S.O.L., and one day looked in the window and saw a T.S.O.L. photograph. He realized that he was delivering mail to the same Mike Roche. Soon, they became friends, and after some convincing, he became T.S.O.L.’s new drummer.
With post-production work on Ignore Heroes wrapping up soon, and T.S.O.L. playing shows across the country, Grisham is also staying busy with a new book.
Maturity may be a bad word when mentioned in the same breath as punk rock, but for Grisham, if anything has changed over the years, he says he’s more aware of how his words and actions are perceived, and how they affect others.
“It’s kind of trippy, man, but I’m just more aware these days — I’m less willing to be hurtful to people, inflict damage.”
Still, T.S.O.L’s extremely catchy punk melodies still rage today with just as much urgency as the day they were penned.
T.S.O.L., Skin Jobs, and Twisty Cats play the Earl on Monday, June 13.
This story first appeared in the June 2022 issue of Record Plug Magazine
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