(Fiscal Spliff at Thrillhouse. All photos by Daryl.)
Listen to them here: https://fiscalspliff.bandcamp.com
Barreling down the I-5 in the back of Fiscal Spliff’s van, I began to wonder why I put so much effort into not romanticizing punk. In a sense, I’ve felt betrayed by my own expectations of what living the life entails, but from time to time I found myself in these situations where Parliament Funkadelic blasts from the stereo, cigarette smoke and strawberry air freshener are engaged in an losing feat of dominance, the seatbelts are non-existent and the bomber is apparently all gone, but the California sun is setting behind the rolling hills and the drive is almost over, and I think: Well, this is fucking romantic. And who couldn’t use a little more romance in their lives?
Russellville, Arkansas’s Fiscal Spliff have been a band for several years. While the lineup may be ever-changing, the mission has always been consistent, high-energy, southern-fried punk. The lineup for this West Coast tour featured lead singer and guitarist Clay, a true southern troubadour who spends his time in the back of the van reading Bob Dylan’s Chronicles. He’s a shredder and apparently breaking a string doesn’t even matter. Dylan is on drums, and is pretty well versed in the flows of 36 Chambers. There’s a fill-in on bass, Braydon, the lefty. He’s also done time on drums with such notable acts as Nato Coles & The Blue Diamond Band and The Hudson Falcons. And Forrest is on guitar and backing vocals. He’s the reason I landed in this van. We met in Arkansas over the summer and now here I am, squished amongst the bags and bodies. The drying and dying San Joaquin Valley stretches out in every direction. Slowly sinking into the aquifer, its future is uncertain; its fate both neglected and exploited. But all we can do is drive on—we gotta be at the show in Oakland at seven.
My intention wasn’t to find a new band to love. I just needed a ride to the Bay. But I gave Fiscal Spliff a listen shortly before meeting up with them on Friday afternoon, and decided I thought their band was pretty ripping and I wanted to see it live. It might be too based in rock’n’roll for the punk purists out there, but for those of us who like to have a good time, it fit the program. I haven’t spent much time in Arkansas, but the time I have spent I look back on fondly. I look back and see a community that I share similar values with. Very DIY, very punk, and, unfortunately, very overlooked. If I could go back to Little Rock right now, I would, but I can’t so I might as well tag along with the boys and get as much of it as I can from them.
Friday evening delivered us to Sgraffito in Oakland. I played there a couple months earlier and was happy to return. Friends slowly trickled in and I began to answer the repeated question of “Are you playing tonight?” with an enthusiastic “Nope.” It’s really beneficial to travel other than to solely tour. When I’m out playing shows, the shows are the number one priority. Exploring and relaxing take the backseat to being prepared and ready for whatever we have to do next. Not to mention the pressure of wanting to play well, especially in the Bay Area. Maybe if we nail it, MRR will put us on the cover, and other delusional thoughts are gone when you’re at the show as an observer. Punk may have effectively destroyed the divide between the band and the audience, but sometimes it’s nice to stand way in the back and have no responsibility other than donating five dollars.
Fiscal Spliff at Sgraffito.
The bands all gloriously tore it up, especially Fiscal Spliff who annihilated my expectations. Their recordings do very little justice to the nitro-boosted steamroller of their sound. But it got late and I hit the eject button of the punk rock wonderland, opting to get picked up by an old friend and taken to their house to catch up and sleep on a surface that wasn’t a hard wood floor.
* * *
With my host up and leaving for work at the crack of dawn, I was able to take my time and slink out of the house as I wished. Once in that beautiful East Bay sun, I set out for some coffee. The plan for the day was to check out the Clarion Alley Block Party, head to Thrillhouse Records to see Fiscal Spliff play again, and then walk to bus station to catch the bus home to Los Angeles. I had several hours to kill before Clarion Alley and planned on doing anything other than making plans. I ended up taking the BART over to the city to walk around and try to find places that had left a mark on me in my teenage years.
Growing up, I was lucky enough to know older punks who lived in a cramped apartment in the Tenderloin. For some reason they allowed my friends and me to travel up here and stay with them while we acted like maniacs. It was through these people that I discovered that punk could be more than a passive, consumerist subculture, and there was a vibrant, incendiary counterculture within the underground. They exposed me to radical politics in a non-pedantic way, and were living, accessible examples of people who played in bands and published zines. They ruined my life, and I couldn’t be more thankful.
I found the steps to their old apartment at 444 Larkin easy enough, but unfortunately the taqueria around the corner is now a sushi place. I credit this taqueria as being the first place I ate a truly great burrito, and now it only lives in my memories. All too indicative of the changes that are happening in the city.
Continued down Market and made my way to Dolores Park. It’s a great place to be alone in a sea of people, but be careful not to be too indiscriminant with your eavesdropping because there’s the possibility you’re surrounded by terrible, awful people. I got my fill of overheard conversations by an assortment of San Francisco’s aspiring yuppie class and headed to Clarion Alley.
Clarion Alley Block Party
The Clarion Alley Block Party is a temporary autonomous zone celebrating local musicians and artists. Bands played on opposite ends of the mural-laden alley while DJs spun records in the middle. It may sound like a cumbersome set up, but thanks to the hard work of many volunteers it’s a truly inspiring event of subversive art and action. Throughout the day, a diverse selection of bands set up and cranked out their jams while people danced and laughed and drank, all in a setting of total self-regulating freedom. The Bay Area holds it down when it comes to illegal shows, and they’re always exhilarating to attend. I ran into half of Fiscal Spliff, and we walked around the Mission swapping tour stories: the long drives, long nights, and the all-too-brief moments of redemption. We agreed that North Dakota is a wonderful place to play shows, we just wished it was easier to get out there.
Inverts at Clarion Alley.
Of all the fantastic bands that played Clarion Alley, there were two that really stood out to me. Inverts, who feature members of Margy Pepper and No Babies, play damaged, relentless hardcore punk. It’s consuming and abrasive, but the track that really seemed to nail it was a dirgey, plodding one called “The Repulsion Is Mutual.” A seething counterattack to the judgmental, heteronormative wonks who have the gall to recognize any moral superiority in their faulty, delusional outlook. It was a very cathartic song.
Fleshies at Clarion Alley.
Right after Inverts played, it was time for Fleshies. Now entering my fourteenth year as a fan of the band, their songs feel just as fresh and chaotic as they did when I was a teenager. They’re a band that covers all the bases of what I think a great band should be. They’re political (“Killer cops, killing cops who hunt down and kill cops who kill killer cops.”), personal (“This song is about friends who are no longer with us. I don’t want them to be dead. I want them right here with us right now. Please stop doing dope.”), their stage presence is energetic and confrontational, but never in a macho way, and they are unafraid to be goofy, reminding us that it’s a show—we should be having a good time. Seeing Fleshies was the impetus for the whole trip, and even if every other aspect of the trip was awful, it would still have been worth it. Right after they finished, I said my goodbyes and hustled down to Thrillhouse Records.
Fleshies at Clarion Alley.
When I got down into the basement of the store I thought I was seeing the end of the first band, but it was in fact the last band… of the afternoon show! A Saturday DIY double header. Thrillhouse is one of the best punk record stores you’re gonna find. Beautifully stocked with new and old punk, tons of re-issues and used copies, it’s a painful feeling to walk in there without the ability to drop a couple hundred dollars, but being able to see rad bands play in the basement is a decent concession.
Got to hang out one last time with the boys in Fiscal Spliff, savoring it, knowing this would be the last time our paths would cross for quite a while. Once they started, the worrier in me told me to leave halfway through their set so I wouldn’t miss my bus home, but I fought the nagging feeling and enjoyed every beautiful second. A band like this could be riddled with clichés, but I honestly believe they’re the real deal. No punches pulled. Just loud and reckless. Born and bred in a part of the country that the media—mainstream or punk—ignores. Right now, major metropolitan cities are eating themselves alive. Realtors and developers are destroying the cultural foundations of what made these cities so desirable in the first place. As we face these obstacles, we have to look to places like Russellville and Little Rock to provide a different perspective. We have to look to musicians who still exist in a place where you can pay $133 a month for rent (true story). They may not have a functional kitchen and the landlord may be shady as fuck, but they can get by. That’s the punk I remember falling in love with.
Dylan of Fiscal Spliff.
We’re not a sexless culture of paper pushers and eBay-record-collecting assholes. Endless pragmatism is punk’s death sentence. We’re a culture of freaks and weirdos, passionate artists, and outcasts. Writers and traveling musicians who live out of backpacks and vans, and survive on collective goodwill and unbridled enthusiasm. Exchanging favors replace consumerism, and hugs replace handshakes. You need to romanticize your life to take it to inspirational levels, show the world what is possible, and watch that inspiration come back in cultural dividends.
I left after Fiscal Spliff finished and walked through a city I’ve spent a lot of time in, but never lived in. It was a Saturday night, and people were out doing what people do on a Saturday night. I cherished every second of that walk, my ears ringing from Clay’s wailing licks. As I had predicted, I got to the bus station on time to board the 10:30 bound for Los Angeles. And as I pulled my travel pillow from my bag and propped my head against the window, I thought of all the people who make up our community, and how being able to meet and know them is the greatest achievement of my life. And as the city lights passed by, the bus headed south on the 101, I looked out past my reflection and into the night, silently thinking about and thanking each and every one of you.
Daryl is the managing editor of Razorcake. He’s also a musician having served time in bands such as Spokenest, God Equals Genocide, Desidia, Bird Strike, and currently Marriage Material. But seriously: listen to Fiscal Spliff.