Interview with The Defenders: By Justin Maurer

Dec 26, 2010

I grew up in early ‘80s Los Angeles and remember my Dad’s band The Defenders practicing in the living room of our little house. The guys were surfers and skaters who grew up in L.A. around the famed Dogtown area of Venice and Santa Monica. Kenny, Dave, Lawson, and my dad Paul, started The Defenders in 1980 with an equal love for raw, wild punk and British new wave bands like the Police. Like most of the original L.A. punk bands, they looked to England for inspiration. Locally, they looked up to bands like X, Black Flag, Love, and the Doors.

My Dad was into theater. He played Gollum in an L.A. production of The Hobbit and Snoopy in the musical, Charlie Brown. This gave the band’s unique vocals a very pronounced, theatrical feel. In high school he played drums in a Kiss cover band called Dreams, and, yes, he wore the full-on Peter Kriss cat makeup.

From 1981 to 1986, The Defenders played venues like Madam Wong’s, Filthy McNasty’s, The Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, a few college shows, and a ton of parties. When I popped out of the womb, the band became less of a full-time project and, sadly, never released any recordings. Kenny, the bassist, moved north and became really involved in the EastBay punk scene in the late ‘80s. Years later, Kenny discovered some old Defenders demos. I began harassing them to release their two best tunes on vinyl. I personally loved “Animal Eyes,” which my band Clorox Girls used to cover. Finally, in 2010, two unreleased songs from a 1982 recording session saw the light of day. Pretty flabbergasted and surprised by the release, I caught up with my dad Paul and the rest of the Defenders. Below is what transpired.

Paul Maurer: Vocals
Kenny Zaak: Bass
Dave Dal Ponte: Drums
Lawson Ward: Guitar

Justin: How did you guys get into playing music?
Kenny: I grew up in Culver City and got into rock music specifically because of the Beatles. The minute I saw their debut on The Ed Sullivan Show, I decided that’s what I wanted to do with my life. I remember jamming in the summertime with Dave in his family living room in Los Angeles in 1981. We were soaking in sweat with our shirts off, jamming, playing some British faves from the ‘60s and ‘70s. We had no idea about starting a band. We were just jamming for fun.
Dave: I started playing drums when I was six at a party that my parents took me to. One of the people living in the house had a drum kit. He brought out a snare drum and gave me a crash course on the spot. It was a lot of fun. I was hooked. I pleaded with my mom to sign me up for lessons. She was reluctant, due to the noise and the fact that she wanted to maintain her sanity.
Paul: I remember coming from work and wearing a suit to our first rehearsal. The guys must have thought I was pretty lame. We met at Dave’s garage at his parents’ pad. Lawson, the guitarist, strolled in late, and that became habitual for him. I was a bit pissed off for having to wait. They goofed around a bit before finally playing something I knew, probably a Rolling Stones song. I sang in my normal choirboy voice.
Lawson: I was the party animal out of the whole bunch. I still toke bud every day. Most of my time on the weekends back then I was performing on the boardwalk in Venice with my Pignose amp. I actually had a space and an act called “Faces of the Times.” I would wear old president masks, like JFK, Nixon, and Reagan and sing funny rock covers. When I wore the Nixon mask, I would sing and play, “I’m going down... down... down to the ground.” When I used the Reagan mask, I played a little boom box with Pink Floyd’s “Money” and played the guitar solo note for note. The JFK mask character’s soundtrack was “I Feel Good” by the funk master, James Brown. I was one of the first guys to have the spot in front of the Sidewalk Café, next to the guy who juggled chainsaws. Back then, I used to make two hundred dollars a day on the weekends in Venice.
Paul: As a kid, I was in the church choir and another orchestra. I would always jump at any excuse to get into a female environment un-chaperoned. My mom thought it was cute to have my other brothers and me play together: my brother Steve played the accordion; my brother Mike the guitar; and I was on drums. She would dress us up in the same style clothes. I accepted this because, otherwise, I would not have been able to jam on my drums at my parents’ house. I was allowed to make the attic my drum room. I assembled my set facing the window and my bass drum did a great job of hiding a medium-sized marijuana plant in full sun.
I dumpster dove this very large, purple-cushioned arm chair, and there was a record player in the room, too. It was really cool.
I only had a couple of records—a Rolling Stones 45 and a few other albums. By listening to complicated bands in the seventies, and not being very good on the drums, I thought it was impossible for me to be in a rock band. However, in high school three guys were desperate for a drummer and I could sing pretty well. We called ourselves, Dreams. We dressed liked Kiss and our audience would poke fun at us by shouting, “Wet Dreams, Wet Dreams!” Really positive first experience.

Justin: What was prompted you to write originals and play out? The Defenders played a lot of gigs for the deaf community. How did that come about?
Paul: Kenny was hard of hearing and taught me sign language. He suggested that I volunteer at a camp for deaf kids in the mountains. The bennies were that it was also an all-girl’s camp, which hosted the deaf camp. That means lots of young women counselors. I got more than I expected, however. Before the deaf camp began, this yellow VW Bug pulls in, and this fine booty exits with a cute blonde head on top. I began to flirt heavily with this deaf counselor with a great smile.
A few days into the week, one of the counselors told me that she did not like me. Unbeknownst to me at the time, he was secretly her boyfriend. I was very depressed. She showed up a few months later at the trailer I was living in, wanting me to help her find a place to rent. We were married by Kenny a few years later, and I got really good at sign language. Kenny was always doing things differently, and he felt that there was a niche for us to get gigs by playing for the deaf community, which was pretty big in Northridge. We played at Cal State Northridge, deaf parties at different clubs, and I often signed and sang at the same time when we played regular shows.
Kenny: Dave’s family belonged to St. Bernard’s in Los Angeles, the parish that housed a deaf ministry at the time. The deaf love to socialize and they needed music for a spring party. Yes, they can feel the music, so rock is good! We got word of their need for a band. It was all covers, whatever we felt like doing. We didn’t think anything of it, but we were immediately tight, despite this being the very first time we played together.
Justin: was there a particular show or band that kicked you guys in the ass to start playing? What pushed you in that direction?
Kenny: In the early ‘80s, L.A. was struggling to find a new scene. There was something called “new wave” that was nebulous, undefined, and blatantly commercial. Van Halen was beginning to reach their zenith. I remember reading in the LA Times about a new Irish band that was coming to Los Angeles in 1982 to play at the Hollywood Palladium. The reviewer couldn’t stop gushing about them, so I went with a friend to check them out. The band was U2 before they hit it big. They had a definite punk vibe and yet they were more than punk. I liked them immediately and bought their first album, Boy, at their show. It was a cassette, and I kept playing it over and over in my car. Equally important for us as budding songwriters was the way U2 sang about the world and the mess it was in. U2 inspired us to start singing about political and social justice.
Dave: It wasn’t any one show for me. I loved all kinds of music. I remember sometimes playing for hours, listening to bands through headphones while sitting at my drum kit. If I was low on money, occasionally some friends and I would sneak up into the hills above the Greek Theatre to listen to bands. We were escorted off the premises a couple of times, but it was all part of the music experience. I remember Mötley Crüe was just starting to play the Hollywood clubs. I wasn’t into the whole burning pentagram thing, but I did like the hard-driving guitars and drums.
Kenny: Dave, Lawson, and I used to cruise over to the Sunset strip on Saturday nights to check out bands at clubs like Gazarri’s and the Roxy. Occasionally, we would see some arena shows at the Inglewood Forum like David Bowie, and Van Halen. Hey, it was the ‘80s! At the Hollywood Bowl, Lawson and I saw the great jazz trumpeter Miles Davis’s final concert. He died a few weeks later. I don’t remember too much about that show because we were definitely in party mode, but I remember how special it was to be there.

Justin: How has L.A. changed from the ‘80s when you guys started out compared to the present?
Paul: I never went to downtown L.A. at night. L.A. was a pit. I am shocked to say that now. Downtown seems like the place to be. There are nice restaurants and lots of activity now all over downtown.
Kenny: I moved to San Francisco because of a job opportunity in 1986 and never looked back. My move was one of several reasons why The Defenders broke up. I was actually glad to leave L.A., with its sprawl and smog and celebrity veneer. I would return for occasional holidays and that only confirmed my disdain. But, today, I do notice that L.A. is cleaner and less smog-ridden, with snazzy public transportation. The celebrity vibe has gotten worse, though. I now live in Portland but, really, my heart is still in San Francisco. In the early ‘90s, I was very involved with the EastBay punk scene. I was bass player for a band called Ringer, and we hung out with Screw 32, AFI, Schlong, Operation Ivy, and so many other great groups. We even opened up in an underground club for the band that would become Green Day.
Justin: My Dad has claimed that The Defenders were the first band to sing about World War Three and nuclear war. What is your reaction to his claim?
Paul: I know other bands played a song or two about war, but I do not know of any band dedicated to trying to help save the world from self-destruction with song. We probably had close to ten anti-nuke originals. The TV movie, The Day After, which was a realistic portrayal of life after nuclear war, really fueled our cause and made our music all the more real for us.
Dave: I remember playing a gig with several of the nuclear proliferation-type songs in one set. It may have been the mood I was in that day or World War Three lyric overload, but I was ready to change it up.
Kenny: In the ‘80s, bands weren’t really singing about nuclear proliferation. I’m not really sure if our audiences got our message, but everyone seemed to be having a good time.
Justin: The early ‘80s in L.A. were known to be notoriously violent, at least as far as the clash between the police and punk rock fans in L.A. and OrangeCounty. It was called “Black Flag violence” in the LA Times and was national news. My Dad has told me plenty of times that violence at punk and hardcore shows was a huge turnoff to him. Do you recall people slam dancing at your shows or doing the “HB Strut”?
Dave: No violence, really. But I do remember some friends having some fun slam dancing a few times. No injuries or trouble, just fun. The cops made an appearance at a gig or two to tell us to turn it down.
Kenny: Although some of our songs had a definite raw punk edge—“Animal Eyes” is the prime example—we weren’t really a part of the L.A. punk scene. Our music was diverse, and that may have worked against us. Audiences weren’t sure if we were punk or what. But our followers liked us, and I guess that’s all that counts.
Paul: I remember a high school gig we did and a few kids were slamming and bloodied a few other kids. I stopped singing and wanted the band to stop playing, but Dave the drummer called me over to play drums for him while Kenny and Lawson kept wailing away. I’m a drummer, too. After I took over the drums without skipping a beat, Dave jumped off stage and joined with the crowd. This became a tradition every concert after. It was not until I took you to a punk gig ten years later that it occurred to me that slamming could be a crude way of hugging and showing affection. Then I got into it myself and had a lot of fun.
Justin: You guys had a few ballads to mix things up. Was more sex or lack of sex a factor for the band?
Kenny: We had a couple of dreamy weepies called “Dear, Dear Lisa” and “Another Time, Another Place.” That was the pop influence on our songwriting. Sex? If it was happening, Paul was very discreet about it, at least to us. Dave had a steady girlfriend who came to all of our shows. Lawson was a party animal, and I guess I was too, but contrary to stereotypical band myth, we weren’t cruising the streets of Santa Monica looking to score.

Justin: What was the craziest thing to ever happen at a Defenders show?
Paul: I remember that after we played at the Hollywood Biltmore Hotel, one of my co-workers from Missouri came with me. He met the Tiparillo model—the woman who did commercials for the cigar brand—during the gig, and wound up going home with her.
Dave: At one of our shows, a friend of mine got a hold of the trigger for the fog machine as we were finishing up our set. He pressed the button repeatedly until visibility was about two inches on the stage and dance floor.
Kenny: We were doing this gig at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. Lawson and I wrote a drinking song called “Have Another Round” and, for a special effect, Paul had a pitcher of beer that he chugged as he sang. During the guitar solo, Paul dumped the whole pitcher over his head, splashing the beer all over the stage floor. I don’t think the bar owner was pleased.
Justin: The late ‘70s and early ‘80s were a time of unparalleled widespread distrust of national government in the U.S. You guys wrote a lot of songs about nuclear war—obviously being children of the Cuban missile crisis—JFK’s assassination, civil rights, and Vietnam. But the ’70s and ‘80s seemed to be less about politics and more about partying, in general. Being young men during this time period, what was your personal experience like, growing up here in L.A.?
Kenny: I lived a somewhat sheltered life. Most of my summers were spent at the beach, either ToesBeach in Playa del Rey or Santa MonicaBeach, near the pier. A lot of my friends surfed, but I never learned how to swim, which is why I became such a good skateboarder. In 1975, I had an apartment right near the Venice Boardwalk, and that was a good scene. So, yeah, my teen and college years were basically tied to the mellow SoCal lifestyle. Of course, the tumult of the ‘60s and the narcissism of the ‘70s swirled around me and influenced my life. I have a strong sense of social justice and empathy for the oppressed, but I also know it’s important to take care of myself. Ultimately, L.A.’s laid-back narcissism pushed me away from Southern California.
Dave: As a kid not old enough to vote at the time, I tried not to get hung up on all that political stuff. I do remember going down to the post office and registering for the draft. Fortunately, it never came to any more than that. Music was a creative outlet and escape for me, to some degree.
Justin: Did The Defenders have some sort of united social conscience or political attitude? I’m assuming most of you guys lean towards the left. At the time in the ‘80s, what were your political leanings? How did you find Ronald Reagan’s America?
Kenny: I think during The Defender years we all shared a similar vibe as far as politics go. In the 1980s, the Cold War seemed to be heading down a path of nuclear proliferation. I wasn’t a big Ronald Reagan fan, but he did seem to instill in Americans a sense of pride that was lacking from the Watergate years. I’m still a flaming liberal Democrat, but marriage, children, and mortgages have a way of bringing out a more conservative outlook.
Paul: I think our message and song themes speak for themselves. The songs clearly portray an urgency to stop war-like rhetoric and thoughts, get the word out that, “Nobody wins at war,” and do something before it is too late. Like, you know that a baby is produced by parents, but once out of their bodies, it becomes an individual. I think our songs were fertilized and borne by us, but they seemed to take a life of their own focusing on peace and love.
Justin: Would you say that Los Angeles has a specific “sound?” Would you say that Love, The Doors, The Eagles, Van Halen, X, and Black Flag all have some sort of common thread, or do you think the urban highway spread and feeling of individuality had something to do with why these bands sounded differently?
Kenny: If there is a classic L.A. sound, I think it resides in the tight vocal harmonies of the Beach Boys, the Eagles, Crosby Stills Nash and Young, America, and other groups, all of who have had some kind of L.A. connection. The sheer aural pleasure of their harmonies masked the often-contentious relationships between band members, and isn’t that what Los Angeles is about? Image over reality. I think the punk scene reacted against this “sheer veneer” and was very successful at it, gaining a faithful following without succumbing to mainstream success.
For example, the Knack was from L.A. and had punk roots, but once “My Sharona” hit number one, their careers were over. Punk and mainstream success go together like oil and water. With that in mind, I think the L.A. sound truly represents the diversity of Los Angeles. There is no “one sound,” just as there is no “one community.” The trick as a band is to break out of the pack with something that is truly unique.
Paul: The mainstream bands at the time were all complicated. Great performers, great skill, great delivery, and a complicated style. Growing up, it seemed unthinkable that I could ever be that good. Therefore, I felt a bit depressed that I would never be in a good band. St. Monica’s Catholic school was totally integrated.
Justin: In the early to mid-‘80s, you guys straddled a lot of scenes, but The Defenders didn’t really fit into any of these scenes: hardcore, new wave, new romantics. How did you see yourselves?
Kenny: No, we didn’t fit into any category or genre. We tried to do many styles and, in the process, mastered none. Part of the problem was that we were basically a party band, and party-goers like to hear whatever songs are popular at the time. If we only ditched the covers and focused on our originals, particularly in the “Animal Eyes” mode, we might have been more successful.
Justin: How did you find playing Madam Wong’s?
Paul: I remember that Madam Wong’s West was still playing disco.
Kenny: Y’know, I’m not really sure how we got booked at Madam Wong’s. I think it was through a friend of a friend. It was on a Sunday night, so the crowd wasn’t that big, but it was Madam Wong’s and that was really something back then. There was an opening act, but I can’t really remember who they were.
Justin: Worst place to play?
Kenny: One of the worst places we ever played was for the old L.A. club for the deaf in some seedy part of downtown L.A. Late night, inner city, dark alleys, the whole bit. The club itself was in some rundown building that had a depressing aura, but it was a good gig. The only gig we did outside of L.A. was in Riverside at the school for the deaf. We did a lot of parties and shows for the deaf community, mainly because Paul was a sign language interpreter. I think we were the only band in California to do that. I’m still not really sure how Paul managed to sing while signing so fluently. American Sign Language has a whole different syntax and word order than spoken English. To speak and sign simultaneously is hard enough, but to sing and sign—Paul was awesome!
Justin: What for you, personally, is your fondest memory of The Defenders?
Kenny: I think doing Madam Wong’s West was definitely a high point. In the ’80s, that was one of the premiere music clubs in the L.A. scene. We were very excited about playing there. The gigs at Filthy McNasty’s in the Valley were good, too, because of their excellent sound system. Funny thing was that place was also a Chippendales-type of club for the ladies, with male strippers. I remember one time we actually went onstage an hour or so after the floorshow, so there were all these ladies screaming at scantily clad gentlemen right before our set. Paul was laughing his head off.
Another high point was when we played at a rehearsal dinner the night before Paul’s wedding! It was a pool party on the west side. It was a blast. Just about everybody ended up getting thrown into the pool, too.
One of the last things we did as a band was to record the theme song for a deaf children’s TV show called Festival. Lawson and I wrote the song, which was upbeat and innocuous. The producers had apparently seen us perform—maybe at the school for the deaf—and thought we would be perfect for the theme song. So there we were, in a Hollywood television studio, recording “Festival,” and then lip-singing and playing to our own recording in front of the TV cameras, camouflage and all. Paul sang and signed and the producers would later insert clips of deaf celebrities signing the word “festival” when we got to the refrain. This was shortly before I moved to San Francisco, so I have never seen the show. Surely, a tape exists somewhere out there.
Paul: This is a two-part answer, as we kind of had a short comeback. The Hollywood Biltmore Hotel gig was our best performance, and I think one of our last. However, twenty years later, after your band Clorox Girls played some club in L.A., LA Weekly did an article on you guys and Kenny happened to see it. Kenny noticed my son’s last name and got in touch asking if you were related to me. You responded yes, and Kenny and I got back into contact. Kenny knew where Lawson and Dave were, and we planned to all have dinner together. After dinner, we started goofing around with a piano and guitar. We remembered almost every song. Because we never professionally recorded before, Kenny—always the leader—suggested that we practice for a couple of months and professionally record afterwards. The experience of recording, for me, was unreal. In the studio, I sort of was a human metronome for the others, trying to keep them together.
Kenny had been practicing all along and was still playing bass and writing songs. Lawson was still teaching and playing guitar, but Dave had not touched his sticks in twenty years. Then, with thousands of dollars of equipment that I sang into, and crystal-clear headphones, I sang by myself. It was a combination of memories of past youth, current emotional release, hearing my own voice as never before, and the excitement as a virgin recording that made this an exhilarating experience and something I will never forget. And, who says The Defenders’ career is over? Now with a 7” and professionally recorded CD called Early Warning, maybe some of us will get more action in the future. With all these wars going on, I am sure there will be war movies. Maybe our originals will be discovered.
Justin: What happened after The Defenders breakup in ’86?
Kenny: I moved to San Francisco. The Maurer family started traveling the country in their mobile home. Dave and Lawson graduated college and started job hunting. Life moved on. 
Justin: What do you do now?
Dave: I’mmarried and have two great kids—boys, spend time at little league games, football, track, and still listening to music daily and playing drums occasionally.
Kenny: I’m trying to crank out a living as a songwriter and author.
Paul: I am single and an entrepreneur philanthropist. I am trying to save the world by developing a plan for poor farmers in Argentina to make more money under the trees than they would make cutting them down and planting grass for cows or other monoculture. If we can show them how to earn more money by planting profitable crops in the shade of rare, giant trees, these trees and animals will not go extinct. The trees will begin to suck back the CO2 contributions to global warming, saving all humanity.
Justin: What do you think about the first-ever release of “Animal Eyes” on 7” vinyl? Did you ever think it would see the light of day?
Kenny: The release of “Animal Eyes” on vinyl is such an awesome surprise. We recorded the songs as a demo to help us get more gigs. It was 1982, at the height of our gigging. We talked about releasing a 45 single, but that enterprise was so expensive back then and we had no way of financing it. We were lucky just to find someone to record us at all. That “someone” was Pat Woodland, a friend from Pacific Palisades who was trying to establish his own career as a singer-songwriter. He had a professional four-track mixing board and we recorded in the basement of his family’s house. But the finished product was a studio reel-to-reel and none of us had a way to play it. So the demo just sat in a box in my apartment for many, many years.
Meanwhile, I had lost touch with Paul, Dave, and Lawson. In 2007, I had just moved to a new house and discovered the old reel-to-reel in a box of stuff. The label was worn out and I wasn’t really sure what it was. At the time, I was working on another music project at a Portland studio and I asked the engineer if he could play the tape on his equipment. I was overwhelmed by what I heard! Pat Kearns, who had engineered the Exploding Hearts, ended up doing the mastering.
It was Paul, Dave, Lawson and me, cranking out “Animal Eyes” like it was yesterday. The Defenders were back! The release of “Animal Eyes”/ “Time to Say Goodbye” on vinyl is the culmination of a project that we never got around to finishing. So people are discovering The Defenders all over again. I couldn’t be more surprised or happy.
Justin: Any words of advice to young musicians today?
Kenny: If you’re gonna be a musician, the only advice I can give is “enjoy it!” Be a musician simply because you enjoy making music. Forget about fame and fortune. Those will only come if you work hard at your music and enjoy it, but fame and fortune shouldn’t be your reason for being a musician.
Paul: Don’t sweat over the little things. Have fun. Practice a lot, but do other things too, like sports and volunteering for worthy causes. Be kind to everyone. Remember that no matter what you firmly believe, consider that you may be wrong. 99.9% of arguments in relationships are due to misunderstandings, so shut the fuck up and listen more. Question your beliefs way before reacting on them. Go with the flow. Use condoms and ear protection!

Thankful Bits is supported and made possible, in part, by grants from the following organizations.
Any findings, opinions, or conclusions contained herein are not necessarily those of our grantors.