Adults of the Black Hole: An Interview with Steve Soto of the Adolescents by Janelle Jones

Interview by Janelle Jones
Photos by Donofthedead

A veteran of this whole thing they call the punk rock, Mr. Steve Soto has been a part of some pretty okay (!) bands, from the beginning of it all back in the late ’70s and early ’80s. A founding member of such luminary outfits as Agent Orange and, of course, his primary band to this day, The Adolescents, a band that perhaps means so much to him because of their uncanny ability to resonate with practically every kid via their timeless songs dealing with, in Steve’s own words, “being an outcast, an alienated teenager.” It’s no surprise that this idea is exactly what got this guy into the whole punk rock lifestyle in the first place. Other bands on Steve’s ever-growing resumé include Manic Hispanic, 22 Jacks, Joyride, and Punk Rock Karaoke. Here, the exceedingly amicable bassist discusses his past, present, and future.

Janelle: So you still live in Orange County, I guess, by the area code?
Steve: I live in Long Beach, which is right outside O.C. It’s like the bastard son of O.C. TSOL is from Long Beach and always got considered [to be] an O.C. band. But yeah, I spend a lot of time in O.C. Most of the shows I go to are there, so definitely there’s still a lot of good bands.
Janelle: Has it changed much from when you grew up?
Steve: Well, the area has obviously… it just keeps getting developed more and more. But as far as the music scene goes, when we were kids it was amazing around here. Just in our neighborhood in a mile-radius or whatever, you had Agent Orange, Social Distortion, Adolescents; if you pushed that out a little further there was The Crowd and TSOL. It was an awesome place to grow up and to be able to be a part of all that. Over the years, the music scene fluctuates a bit: sometimes it seems there’s not a lot going on and then certain bands’ll come along and get everyone charged up and motivated again. There’s a lot of good bands playing right now. It’s changed in the fact that I would say it seems more fragmented than it used to be. It used to be more centralized around two or three clubs and it was just punk rock, and now there’s emo clubs and rockabilly and all that, but there’s still a good music scene here.
Janelle: Who were your favorite bands to play with back then?
Steve: Number one favorite band to play with was Circle Jerks. We played a lot of shows with those guys. Besides being one of my favorite punk bands of that whole era, I loved that record, Group Sex, I think is one of the best punk rock records ever and it’s only like eighteen minutes long too, which is super-cool. But they were always great guys and we always had a lot of fun playing with them. TSOL were good friends of ours back then. We did a lot of stuff with them. The Crowd, those guys were a little older than us and kinda came before us so we looked up to them. It’s weird now ’cause when you’re a teenager and they’re in their early 20s they’re like old guys, cool guys. Now we’re all kinda the same age and hang out, and every once and a while my wife and I’ll go to dinner with the singer of The Crowd and his wife. His name’s Jim Decker but he used to go by Jimmy Trash and in the back of my mind it’s like, “I’m having dinner with Jimmy Trash, that’s so cool!” [laughs]
Janelle: So, what led the young Steve astray back in the day? [laughter]
Steve: Sometimes I wonder how I ended up in all this because I came from a total Beaver Cleaver family: my dad worked, my mom stayed home and raised the kids; they were totally supportive of everything I did. My dad coached my little league team. It wasn’t like I came from some horrible existence and had to find punk rock to save myself by any means. I just kinda stumbled into it, and in spite of all the positive things all around me growing up, I fell in with the wrong crowd. It was exciting for me; I was playing music and I like doing that. Music was really boring then [with] bands like Journey, Boston, and Steve Miller, it was all kinda sad. A guy that lived around the corner from me started playing these punk rock records and it was like, “Whoa! This is pretty cool!” It’s funny; there was an article in the school newspaper about these guys that listened to The Ramones. That was the first time I heard them, and these guys were two football players but they showed a picture of them in their football uniforms and a picture of them with leather jackets on. This is like ’77 and that was the first time I remember going, “I gotta hear these Ramones.” So it was just kinda floating around out there and I stumbled into it and just followed it all the way into the dark side. [laughs] You got beat up at school for looking like that. I don’t wanna sound like the guy that goes, “We walked two miles to school uphill in the snow,” but I would come out after school to ride my bike home and it happened a couple times, people slashing my bike tires and beating me up. When I was in Agent Orange, Mike (the singer) and I went to the same high school and then our drummer went to a different high school with Mike Ness and Dennis from Social D, so the three of those guys came over to our school just to hang out with us one day. The whole varsity football team decided they were gonna come down and beat the crap out of us because we had funny-looking hair. [laughs] And as stupid as that sounds, it was pretty scary back then. Every once in a while we’d be out and a truckload of stoner guys would jump out and punch you and kick you just for liking a different kind of music and cutting off my hair. It was pretty weird, but at the same time, we all rallied around it and it made us tight as friends. That whole early Fullerton group of people (Social D, Agent Orange, and The Adolescents) all banded together because we had to and there was definitely an us-against-them mentality. In a lot of ways I think that’s where Casey (Royer, drummer of The Adolescents) was going when he wrote “Amoeba”: it may be small now but it can grow. That was kinda our feeling.
Janelle: That explanation makes it seem there’s a little more to that song than that Casey was just on drugs in science class, right?!
Steve: [Laughs] Right.
Janelle: That’s what you usually say…
Steve: Especially about “Amoeba,” we’ve done so many interviews, a lot of times it’s just a very flippant “Casey’s on acid in science class.” And if you ever talk to Casey, he’s someone that’ll give you ten different answers every time. That’s just his nature. But I’ve had the discussion with him before where we talked about that and we were talking about punk rock and how it evolved and grew, and he’s like, “That’s what I was trying to say with ‘Amoeba’!” But that could be his hindsight going, “That’s what I’ll tell everyone!”
Janelle: Yeah, “That sounds smart!”
Steve: Casey’s really hard to tell. Rikk’s easier to pin down, like “Kids of the Black Hole” is pretty much word-for-word a true story about Mike Ness’ apartment. There’s no deep or hidden meaning; it’s all right there. But “Amoeba” we’ll never know! [laughter]
Janelle: Shrouded in mystery… What did your parents think of your interests?
Steve: My parents are pretty conservative, so they were a little thrown off by it, but at the same time, my dad listened to jazz and all different kinds of music. So on that end, he played a lot of music for me and he’d listen to my records. I think that was his way of making sure I wasn’t listening to anything too out-of-hand. And in the same sense he was playing me stuff he thought I needed to hear. But I had tons of records I’d never play him because I don’t think my dad would’ve gotten the Dead Kennedys “Too Drunk to Fuck.” [laughs]
Janelle: But some of it he was into…
Steve: Yeah, I played him the first Clash record and stuff like that. He listened. Overall, they were conservative, but they were pretty cool about letting me go out and do stuff. I snuck out too, you know! Between my craftiness and their coolness, we found a middle ground, I guess.
Janelle: So you said it wasn’t too rough at home. What about most of your friends and bandmates? Like, you think of the movie Suburbia… Some people you knew came from homes like the characters depicted there?
Steve: Mike Ness came from a pretty dysfunctional family. Tony (Cadena, singer of the Adolescents) came from a really dysfunctional family. My mom told me years later that when she used to drop me off sometimes at Tony’s for rehearsal she used to feel so bad for them because they lived in a whole different set-up. The Agnews’ parents got divorced right when we started putting the band together. Most of my friends were from broken homes except for probably like the guys in Agent Orange weren’t. But when I got into The Adolescents, like the people who hung out at the black hole, a lot of them came from broken homes and that’s when I started meeting people like that. But there was a whole crew of guys from Fullerton, we all went to the same high school and everyone had both their parents and came from normal homes, we just were…
Janelle: Disillusioned?
Steve: Yeah, and bored. I think the suburban punk definitely is in it out of boredom more than anything else. And you’re pushed, too, to go to college and do all that stuff. There’s a different kind of pressure; it’s not like your home life’s horrible, but at the same time, I’ve had friends whose parents expected a lot out of them as far as careers and things like that, so instead they just cut loose, drank, and went to punk rock shows. Rebelled against the whole thing.
Janelle: About Agent Orange, you were an original member…
Steve: I started the band with Mike and the drummer Scott. That was our first band. I was in Agent Orange up until right after Mike started writing. I’m like, “I’m gonna start writing songs, too,” but he wasn’t having any of it. He was like, “I’m gonna write all the songs for this band,” so I went and started The Adolescents and was like, “Look! I don’t need your band! I have my own band.” We had a little competitive thing going on between us for a while. In all honesty, it fueled The Adolescents because that was our whole thing, “We’ll show them!” And we did, in a roundabout way. Their band did great, which is awesome, and so did ours. We did a show one time where we played over them. That was kind of our big moment, like, “See! You should’ve played my songs, Mike!” We love ’em now, but for a while back then before Casey was in the band, we kept trying to chase down Scott Miller and get him to join The Adolescents. He wasn’t having any of it. [laughter] That was a fun band to be in. Mike’s a great songwriter. I played on “Bloodstains” and four songs that are all demos that are on the first record reissue.
Janelle: You’ve been in a ton of bands… So now it’s just Adolescents and Manic Hispanic or anything else?
Steve: I play in Punk Rock Karaoke, which is Eric Melvin (NOFX), Greg Hetson (Circle Jerks, Bad Religion) and Derek O’Brien (Social D, D.I., current Adolescents drummer). That keeps me pretty busy.
Janelle: Do you have a regular job too?
Steve: No, just livin’ the punk rock lifestyle. Actually last summer I tour managed Flogging Molly for about five, six months, and that’s my closest brush with a day job lately. I love that band, but tour managing is just outta control. [laughs] It’s just nothing I wanna do. I’m actually looking for a bar to buy and have my own punk rock club in O.C., so that’s what I’m hoping to accomplish here in the next year or so. Give the kids some place to hang out, listen to a good jukebox, and get wasted. I don’t drink anymore so I’m not worried about it. [laughs] I won’t get high on my own supply.
Janelle: Is that something you’ve been thinking about doing for a while?
Steve: I probably thought about it more in the last year. I’ve booked clubs before. It was actually my wife’s idea. We were talking about what we wanted to do with our future, and we started talking about opening a bar because I’d had a lot of experience in it. There’s a lot of punk rock bars around here, but not a lot of them are owned by punks, it seems. It’s kinda people that are just cashing in or whatever. She thought that it’d be cool to have some place that was legitimately punk. Make it almost more of a clubhouse than just a club itself. I want it to be special; somewhere where people wanna just go meet their friends and hang out.
Janelle: So you’ve tour managed, booked clubs. You said Derek records. Did you ever think about recording other bands?
Steve: I’ve produced bands. I get into helping bands make records and working with them on their songs and I wanna do more of that, but the technical end of running a studio doesn’t appeal to me; I’m not really a technical person.
Janelle: What bands have you produced?
Steve: There was a band called Los Infernos, I did one of their records. A lot of small bands from around here. I produced the Manic Hispanic record we’re putting out. Pretty much all the records I produce, they’ll say, “produced by The Adolescents,” but that’s just me not trying to look too power-hungry! [laughs] Tony and I did a lot of stuff on this last record (The Adolescents’ OC Confidential).

Janelle: You’ve had vocal duties in bands, but also sang back up while playing bass. What do you find to be pros/cons between being a frontman as opposed to primarily concentrating on bass?
Steve: I like singing and playing my own songs, but I hate talking in between songs and doing all that. I don’t wanna be there like, “Come on everybody! Is everybody having a good time?” Some bands never do that. I saw Husker Du a bunch of times and they’d just play their songs and let their songs speak for themselves. As much as I like singing and playing my own songs, I think Tony’s a really awesome frontman, so it’s fun for me to watch him work a crowd. He does that way better than I ever did. Same thing with Manic Hispanic: Gabby is such an amazing frontman. Sometimes I’ll be half-playing and half-watching them. I like doing all the back-ups. On all the records I do that a lot. But I like both; sometimes I’ll still go out and do shows with Joyride, which I was in a long time ago that I pretty much wrote all the songs and sang, but for the most part now I’m backing up Tony and liking it. [laughs] I guess it boils down to, if it was a singer I didn’t believe in and didn’t think was that great, I’d be like, “Let’s get rid of him and I’ll do this,” but with Tony and Gabby, they’re both on the money, so I have no problem taking a backseat as far as singing goes.

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