Dale Stewart was a founding member of the seminal Fresno hardcore punk band Capitol Punishment, which started up in 1981, played through many changes and lineups, and finally called it quits in 1995. Osmosis Online talks to Dale about hardcore punk in the 1980s, the changing music scene, and the music and other projects that he’s working on these days.
Osmosis Online: When and where were you born?
Dale Stewart: 1950 in Pittsburg, California. There’s some good things about reaching milestones and getting old. Like a sense of satisfaction that comes with accomplishment and in certain situations a feeling of authority. The respect that some people give me because I’m old is at times very comforting.
OO: What first got you interested in music?
Dale: 11-13 years old listening to am rock-n-roll radio, I was moved by some of the songs of ’61-’63. Driving back from the lake one night with the family, “I Remember You” by Slim Whitman was on the radio. It was a magical moment and I made that emotional connection with music. But, it was seeing the Beatles on TV in ’64 that made me set out to learn to play guitar and try my best to mimic them. I found out Beatles songs were too difficult to play, so the first few songs I learned were “Rumble” by Link Wray, “Louie Louie” and “Gloria.” Two years later I played my first gig at a Battle of the Bands in a teenage cover band called Copasetic Copulation at the Fresno Memorial Auditorium. By that time we had added “Brown-Eyed Girl”, “Tobacco Road” and “Little Red Rooster” to our set list.
OO: When and how did Capitol Punishment come into being?
Dale: In 1980, Jocey (Capitol Punishment bassist Joceylin Fedreau) and I were playing in a new wave-y band called Altered Features but we really wanted to play HC punk. The punk records and gigs were funner than the New Wave bands and scene at the time. I was working at Tower Records and Eric Tsuda worked at Wherehouse Records right down the street and he would come in after they closed up to check out the punk 7-inchers. We hit it off and when I found out he knew of a drummer who was able to play the uptempo punk beat we started rehearsing in his living room.
Four months later we rented a 500 person capacity dancehall, booked the Dead Kennedys, and placed ourselves as the opening act. We had no idea that because we were playing HC punk we had an advantage that many other bands at the time didn’t have. We had clear, competent leadership in people like Tim Yohannan (editor/publisher of fanzine Maximumrocknroll [MRR]) and Jello Biafra (lead singer of the Dead Kennedys), a focused ideology and a dependable audience. All you had to do was just stick to it, keep your band together and you would learn and grow. The doors of opportunity opened over and over for us punk bands those first few years in the early ’80s.
OO: What was the response like in the early Capitol Punishment days? Were the shows big? A lot of people?
Dale: We had humble beginnings. It took us two or three years to get the band up to snuff. ’81-’83 we were just not that good. Our song, “El Salvador” on the Not So Quiet on the Western Front compilation (a 1982 punk compilation from West Coast punk bands: http://www.alternativetentacles.com/product.php?product=198) attests to that. It’s decent, but there were a lot of other bands better than Capitol Punishment at the time. It was when we got Mike Branum on drums and then worked on the material for a couple of years that did the trick. It was about ’84 that we honed the band into a hot live act. Having that pro drummer did it for us. Of course you need some good guitar, but for me it was the drummer that made the difference. Every song could be maximized to its full potential with that hot, tight rhythm section.
We did get to play some big shows early on in the opening slot. I remember calling promoter punk Wes Robinson (http://www.myspace.com/ruthiesinn) in ’83 and asking for a gig, and to my surprise he put us on an opening slot for The Bad Brains, The Lewd and Wasted Youth at the Elite Club in San Francisco. He paid us $10 all in change. We were happy to just be on the bill. Looking back, it was pretty damn sweet to play such big gigs.
OO: However humble the beginnings, by the time I finally heard Capitol Punishment (in 1986), you guys had a big following and were really the elder statesfolk of the Fresno Scene. You had big fans in the Bay Area and across the US, not to mention Germany. What was it like touring in those days?
Dale: ’86-’87 were our biggest years. Gilman Street Warehouse (Berkeley all-ages punk venue founded by MRR) was just getting started and we were headlining there. We were playing support for big national acts at larger venues like the Farm and The Stone in San Francisco. It was a dream come true, but that lineup had been together for over five years by that time. We were having a hard time getting along with each other, outside projects were beckoning, and we were all growing into separate lives. When bands that fill stadiums can’t get along well enough to stay together even with such enormous rewards, it’s easy to see a second-rate band dissolve because of differences. It had been just 2-1/2 years earlier that we were the new kids on the block, but in less time than it takes to pay off a car loan we had become in some ways has-beens. I can’t really say that the bigger shows were always more enjoyable because the weight of the responsibility to deliver put a lot of pressure on us. If we failed we lost so much more than at a smaller gig.
OO: You also started your own record label, Stagedive Records. How did that all come about? There weren’t nearly so many DIY labels back in the early 1980s.
Dale: Here again, at the time it seemed pretty small. There was Hospital Records, Dental Records, 415 Records, etc. etc. I understood early on from working at Tower that many of those startup, independent labels were just some guy in his bedroom.
If you knew the basics of making a record, which was published a lot in punk ‘zines at the time, and had the few hundred dollars to pay the studio time, printing and pressing, why shop around for a label when you could start up your own label based on the strength of your debut release?
Stagedive Records seemed like a good name that I figured no one else wanted to use at the time. Now there’s several organizations using that name. And several Capitol Punishments and even other Dale Stewarts, too.
I guess nowadays there are so very many independent labels. I really don’t know what they do because as far as I can see if you’re a happening band with a following and you’re online, you already are a record label with the same publishing tools available to anyone with a computer.
There was that connection in the ’80s with the labels, the wholesale distributors and the record stores and it was the only game in town. What do you need with a label and a store nowadays? Any artist already is a label, the store is the Internet and the record is an MP3 file.
OO: Obviously the Internet and digital distribution have changed how bands are able to reach out to fans. Don’t you think the challenges of the time (in the 1980s) shaped Capitol Punishment?
Dale: The bright and creative minds that made those wonderful fanzines of the 80s like No Idea (Florida punk fanzine) and MRR published information that was vital to a band’s success. The bands that didn’t read those ‘zines or go to punk shows missed out on getting an edge. The mainstream media at the time wasn’t very interested either. And that made it so underground. Challenges, yes, but of time and distance not of ideas and personalities. If you liked someone or something and showed interest it would usually work out to be fun. The zines were the glue of ideas that held the different scenes together. Capitol Punishment was at the right time and the right place.
Analog. Cassette tapes. It all worked out quite nicely.
OO: It seems a little obligatory and perhaps passe to ask at this point in time, but what did you think of the rise of pop punk in the 1990s and the whole commercial emo genre?
Dale: By ’94 I appreciated pop punk but by then it was too late jump on the bandwagon. Emo passed me by and I never really got it at all. I remember people touting Hot Water Music, and I just didn’t get it. Music is aimed at a certain audience and subgenres of punk were never aimed at aging, over-the-hill punk musicians.
OO: I know that you’ve started archiving the Fresno punk scene online. And I know that you’re working on a documentary about CP and the Fresno Scene. What are your goals with all of that?
Dale: I have all this information about the whole ’80s Fresno Punk Scene, all 38 bands, 14 ‘zines, hundreds of photos and dozens of gig flyers. Plus, I was there from the beautiful beginning to the dirty end and knew or knew of every band and mover in the scene. I’ve been writing it and publishing it on my Web site since 2001. (’80s Fresno Punk Scene History: http://www.stagedive-records.com/fresnopunkhistoryhome.html). But, I have to eat my breakfast before I can eat my lunch, so I’m working on the Capitol Punishment video documentary first.
OO: The music that you’re working on these days is more acoustic, folksy, but still has a lot of the same political spirit of your CP songs. What brought about that change?
Dale: I would probably still be carrying the hardcore punk banner if there wasn’t that plethora of extreme violence at the punk gigs ’97-’03. I mean, I saw some pretty gnarly fights back in the ’80s, but nothing like the late ’90s and around the turn of the century. And, man I tell you, it was not only the skins but the other thugs, too. The two of them fighting it out at a lot of the gigs in those years. Scene wars. All of it so damn scary. I had to get away. I was over 50 years old and 25 years of punk rock was enough for me. There’s no slam dancing at the folk gigs and hey, no fist fights!
But, I still carry parts of my punk ideology with me. The precious things I learned from my mentors. Like the political message in my lyrics, my DIY ethic and outsider point of view.
OO: So, are you still playing gigs? Where can one come out to see you play?
Dale: I do play some gigs from time to time. Some are fun, some are heart breakers and I wonder which one will be the last. One of the funnest gigs I get to do nowadays are interviews in front of an audience or on Internet TV, then I play a song or two. I’ve also put my energies into making videos and posting online. http://www.youtube.com/user/dustups
OO: What kind of music gets you personally excited these days?
Dale: I used to have a dream of a radio show where I could play all my favorite music. The only problem is my point of view is not shared by a radio audience. I have a lot of weird, selfish reasons why I like certain songs and artists. It just doesn’t translate to a public listenership.
Jocey and I watched Jeff Guinn, author of Going Down Together, the true story of Bonnie and Clyde (http://www.c-spanvideo.org/program/285273-1), give a speech on C-Span and I got so damn inspired about the telling of the myth of that criminal duo. Got online and found the most wonderful song by Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot from 1968 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nB112Vbl8-A). I had this song in the back of my memory and I just fell in absolute love with the video. They were so beautiful and so cool. Both the Barrow gang and the French interpretation from the 60s. Learning how to play the song. It’s quite difficult. Talking instead of singing. I also like a song called “Apologize” by the Catheads and “Don’t Want to Know If You Are Lonely” by Husker Du.
OO: If you could change just one thing about how the whole shebang, would you? And if so what would it be?
Dale: I wouldn’t change anything, it’s all worked out okay. I’m still alive and still playing music, no thanks to all the people who were there smiling and back-slapping me when I was on top. Last time I played a gig in the Bay Area was 1994. When I needed some help they couldn’t throw me a bone. And, so I gone back to doing the same thing I was doing in the late ’70s before I discovered punk rock.
OO: I know you’ve always had affection for Fresno. How do you characterize your relationship with the city?
Dale: I’ve always said, It’s not where you live, it’s who you are. There’s good and bad about every place you could live in. Fresno is a city of half a million so it’s big enough to provide some opportunities. Which is worse about my city, the depressed economy or the heat in the summer? You can live here on a small amount of money and get away to the mountains or the coast to escape the heat. The rest of the year the weather is downright pleasant and if you know how to live there’s plenty of space here to make art and be creative.
Dale Stewart’s YouTube page: http://www.youtube.com/user/dustups?feature=mhum
Songs at Reverbnation: http://www.reverbnation.com/artist/control_room/dalestewart#?tab=profile&subnav=profile_songs
Capitol Punishment “Elephant Man” music video (also below):