Interview with Zander Schloss and Alex Cox, “Straight to Hell” by Martin Wong

My all-time favorite American movie? Repo Man. First punk band I ever saw and first favorite band? The Clash. Connecting them is my friend Zander Schloss, who played Otto’s friend Kevin in the former and then acted in Alex Cox films with and made the Walker soundtrack with Joe Strummer. Zander was Joe’s lead guitarist and musical director on tour and in concert, too. Zander has also been in the Circle Jerks, Weirdos, Thelonious Monster, and Sean & Zander. He’s also a solo artist whose patient, lovely, and melancholy songs will melt your heart without insulting your brain. When Zander told me that Alex was directing a video for his stripped-down version of “Straight to Hell,” I had to ask them some questions about it.

Zander Schloss, Alex Cox, Joe Strummer

Martin: Tell us about how you met Alex Cox and the place of Repo Man in your life.

Zander: Alex and I met through my stepsister Abbe Wool, who, at the time, was a fellow student at UCLA film school. I had recently moved to L.A. and was going to school at Guitar Institute of Technology after a year of living with my jazz mentor, post high school.

I had aspirations to become a film composer and would hang up handmade flyers in Melnitz Hall (at UCLA), saying, “I will score your student film for free.” I only got one bite. [laughs] My stepsister let me do the music for her student film, Rita Steele Private Heart. She would eventually go onto co-write Sid and Nancy with Alex.

Anyway, I was also playing in a funk band called the Juicy Bananas down in South Central. Alex had taken a liking to my band, who would later contribute a few incidental tracks and the song “Bad Man” to the infamous Repo Man soundtrack.

Alex had begun writing the script for Repo Man shortly after leaving UCLA. I believe, some of the basis of my character, Kevin the Nerd, may have been biographical. He seemed to get a kick out of me and we had been hanging out quite a bit. I also think that I was the inspiration for Napoleon Dynamite and invented the fauxhawk. [laughs]

I would come to the Repo Man office from my minimum-wage grocery store job with stolen bags of groceries and tales of my great aspirations to rise up the corporate food chain ladder. Sound familiar?

When the film went into production, Alex gave me a plush new job as a production assistant, picking up cigarette butts on the lot. Unbeknownst to me, I was soon to become a big Hollywood star and a major player in the film industry. [laughs]

Seriously, I have to say, there was something very special about the cast, crew, and just about every aspect of Repo Man. I remember thinking to myself, “This is going to be something very important.” I never really had that feeling about any of the other things I’ve done, with the exception of the Walker soundtrack.

Repo Man and my friendship with Alex Cox were the catalyst for my career with the Circle Jerks, my work with Joe Strummer, and all the incredible experiences, opportunities, musical contributions, and world travel that was to come. That was the flash point for it all.

ZANDER SCHLOSS


Repo Man and my friendship with Alex Cox were the catalyst for my career with the Circle Jerks, my work with Joe Strummer, and all the incredible experiences, opportunities, musical contributions, and world travel that was to come. That was the flash point for it all.

Martin: Alex, Zander was one of your regular actors. Can you tell us when you met him and what you like about him on and off-screen?

Alex: The first time I saw him, he was playing a guitar. More than forty years have passed and nothing has changed. He is a very good natural actor, and a nice chap. It is always a pleasure to be around Daddy Z.

Martin: Tell us about the first time you met Joe Strummer. How did he become a regular in your movies?

Alex: I met Joe in London after the English shoot of Sid & Nancy—which was then called Love Kills—asked him if he would like to see the film when we had a rough cut, and perhaps write a song for it. He ended up writing five songs for that film. The record company would only let him write two, so he did the other three under assumed names. He played one of the lead roles in Straight to Hell—and wrote songs for it, too, including co-authoring “The Weiner Song”—and acted in Walker, for which he also wrote the entire score. He was involved in my films for as long as it interested him; then he went on to other things.

Martin: Zander, you spent a lot of time with Joe in Alex’s movies and then in Joe’s band. How did Joe affect you as a musician, a punk, and a person?

Zander: Just a little background… When I first met Joe, he was just leaving the studio as I was arriving. I was in London playing guitar on the Sid and Nancy soundtrack. Joe seemed to be in a great hurry to get out of there and was a little bit grumpy.

The next Joe encounter was in the lobby of the Almería Hotel in Spain. This time I was greeted by a warm and affable Joe. With much enthusiasm, Joe sat me down before I could even go to my room and unpack my bags. He said, “See here, your character Karl The Wiener Man needs a song to sell his wieners.” Right then and there, we wrote the lyrics and music to “Salsa y Ketchup” in one sitting. That catchy little wiener jingle would end up being performed by me in the film Straight to Hell, and to this day is my most requested song of all time.

Reunited once again for Alex’s film Walker, Joe and I spent three months together in war-torn Nicaragua with the Sandinistas. Joe was asked to do the score and called on me to contribute all things Latin, picked and plucked, for the soundtrack. Up until then, we were mostly just buddies acting in Alex’s films and contributing soundtrack music separately. This was the official beginning of our ongoing musical collaboration.

To finally answer your question, I’m not sure that he affected me or I affected him musically. We most likely had a musical impact on each other. At the time, we shared an affinity for Latin music. Though he was open to any and all great music as am I.

I guess hanging out together in Spain during Straight to Hell, listening to all the incredible flamenco and then later in Nicaragua—listening to everything from marimba to cumbia to FSLN propaganda songs—may have had a simultaneous impact on both of us. It may have been the inspiration for the formation of The Latino Rockabilly War.

“Punk rock means exemplary manners to your fellow human beings” or “Without people you’re nothing”

JOE STRUMMER


As far as his effect on me as a person, let me just say this: Joe is not only on the plaques for the great music that he wrote for The Clash and his other projects, but because of who he was as a person. He was curious, socially conscious, and available to everyone he encountered. Some of the slogans such as “Punk rock means exemplary manners to your fellow human beings” or “Without people you’re nothing” were witnessed by me in action and absorbed implicitly from the countless hours that we spent together. Joe treated me as an equal and was very generous creatively. He taught me how to be a gentleman on and off the stage.

I have taken his effect on me as a person into every situation I encounter and everyone I meet.

Martin: Can you tell us a little bit about your solo treatment of “Straight to Hell”?

Straight to Hell, Joe Strummer, Zander Schloss

Zander: While I was Joe’s guitarist and musical director, I occasionally tried to get him to take a more acoustic approach. Much like what we had forged together on the Walker soundtrack. In our live concerts, there were times we might break things down a bit but we would quickly return to rockin’. That’s just where we were: Joe was like a welterweight fighter coming onto the stage with something more to prove, having only been out of The Clash for a few years. I was ready to rock, too, being an angsty young gunslinger from the Los Angeles hardcore scene coming into post-punk London. I had an awful lot to prove to myself and the audiences, stepping into Mick Jones’s shoes when we would cover those Clash songs.

I always enjoyed playing songs like “Straight to Hell” and “Armagideon Time” with him onstage, because they were mid tempo and moody, allowing me to stretch out as a guitarist and play to the emotional quality of the lyric.

As you know, Martin, I have been experimenting with slower tempos, space, and reducing things down to their very most essential level in my own music. My goal is to give myself and the listener a lot of room for dreaming. Space is also where the transcendence and healing begins.

Suffice to say, things are bad right now. I know I need healing more than ever.

I have felt sad and defiant all my life, and especially for the last four years.

ZANDER SCHLOSS


I thought to myself, why not break “Straight to Hell” down? So I grabbed the 12-string, dropped the pick in favor of the fingers, and dug into the emotional meat of the lyrics he had written. Some people say it’s the saddest Clash song. It is also very beautiful, strong, and defiant. I have felt sad and defiant all my life, and especially for the last four years. Right now, it seems more than justify able.

The timing is right for all things Joe, with the lack of leadership that we are experiencing, the upcoming elections, the George Floyd murder by cops and mass protests, and the pandemic and its politicization. I have gravitated back to Joe for all the good reasons described in the last question. How did Joe affect me as a person? Gimme some truth!

I personalized “Straight to Hell” because I interpret that sadness and anger for a long-standing lack of justice as the essence of the song, anyway. I needed to do it right now and hoped that I could share it with whoever may need to hear it right now too.

I also felt that Alex Cox was the absolute perfect choice to direct the video. I figured he’d feel the same way and bring in the necessary imagery to reflect that.

Martin: Alex, what’s your take on how the video for “Straight to Hell” came about?

Alex: I think Z was going mad in lockdown. The Circle Jerks had been about to embark on a massive international tour, and then the plague came. To entertain himself, he started recording solo versions of songs he liked. This one turned out pretty good, I think.

Martin: Zander, any other Clash or solo songs stand out as favorites to play and why?

Zander: So many do for so many different reasons. Musically, I loved playing “London Calling” for its eerie sound and rockin’ stomping feel. “Magnificent Seven” for its winding, sophisticated disco punk feel and stop-on-a-dime breaks. The exuberance of “Spanish Bombs” and “Police on My Back” are undeniable. The sheer rocking power of “Brand New Cadillac” and “What’s My Name” were a blast to play. I could really tell that Joe was having a lot fun on those, so it would inspire me to play hard and the audience would go wild. The Clash’s great catalog and our set list seemed to go on and on.

We had post-Clash tunes such as “Trash City,” “Nothin’ ‘Bout Nothin’,” “Gangsterville,” and “Highway One Zero Street” that were really fun to play. Not to mention, all the great covers like “Ride Your Donkey,” Pete Seeger’s song about the Spanish Civil War, “Viva la Quince Brigada,” and The Pogues’ “If I Should Fall from Grace with God.”

I literally can’t even begin to describe how much fun we had on and off the stage.

Martin: Any other new projects you guys can tell us about?

Zander Schloss

Zander: Well, I’m glad you asked that Martin. I veered off of putting out more single releases from my upcoming solo album, Song about Songs, to bring forth my interpretation of “Straight to Hell.” It seemed to demand me to stop whatever I was doing and bring it into the world now before I get back to my own personal business. This will be the first single release from our new independent label, Piece Of Pie Records.

My friend Tom Carolan (former head of A&R at Atlantic Records) and I started Piece Of Pie during COVID times. The purpose of the label is not just as a vehicle for Zander Schloss music, but to have fun supporting and releasing music from other emerging artists who are not only good people but great artists. Artists who are motivated to work hard because they’re passionate and making finely crafted songs for all the right reasons. Artists who contribute true, beautiful, and necessary music into this crazy world just for the sake of doing it well.

I’ll get back to what I was doing shortly. I’m gonna release another single or two with accompanying videos, and then when things open up, release the entire Song about Songs album on streaming and vinyl. Available on Piece Of Pie Records. Ha! Please follow us on Instagram and Facebook.

I’m chomping at the bit to make more grown men cry and age-appropriate ladies fall in love with me.

ZANDER SCHLOSS


You know me Martin… I’m already a hundred steps ahead of myself. I’ve been writing my second record, which will be an even more apocalyptic landscape in its sadness. I’m chomping at the bit to make more grown men cry and age-appropriate ladies fall in love with me. I’m planning to record my sophomore album, tentatively titled Schloss-Angeles, hopefully in the late fall of this most dreadful year.

When late spring of 2021 comes, I hope to be back on the road touring a virus-contained world with the Circle Jerks.

Until then, let’s all do our part to flatten the curve, vote Trump out, and help those who are more vulnerable than ourselves.

Alex: Right now, I’m working on a coronavirus cure in my home laboratory. Stage III testing begins shortly. Once we’ve dealt that, I’m going back to my day job. The U.S. rights to Repo Man have reverted to me, so Zander and I will be shooting the sequel, The Wages of Beer.