Ed. note: this interview originally appeared in the most excellent zine Dagger, which clearly knows how to dig deep and uncover some of indie- and punk-dom’s archival treasures. Hence: Alfie Agnew, of the celebrated Agnew family, a veteran of such outfits as Crash Kills Four, D.I. and even the Adolescents. Dagger, incidentally, is not so coincidentally helmed by regular BLURT contributor, blogger, Denverite, and all-round indie-rock bon vivant Tim Hinely. Take it away, suh.
BY TIM HINELY
Punk rock fans you probably know more about Alfie Agnew’s brothers, Rikk and Frank, two Orange County punk rock legends who were in The Adolescents. I remembered hearing a bit about a younger brother who’d spent some time in the Adolescents as well as D.I. with Casey Royer. I did some searching and found out that Alfie (also known as Alfonso) is a math professor at Cal State Fullerton but definitely had his punk rock past. I emailed him and found him to be an amiable chap who was more than happy to expound on his famous family as well as the bands he’s been in and his life in academia. Take it away Alfie… [Below: D.I. does “Hang Ten in East Berlin”]
Were you born and raised in Fullerton, CA?
Pretty much. My family moved to Fullerton from La Puente when I was 3 years old (1972). Went to all Fullerton schools right up through my undergrad degree. Lived in the same old Fullerton house until I came of age. My parents still live there. Lots of great memories for lots of people!
How many siblings do you have? Where are you in family age-wise?
I have 3 siblings. In order of descending age: Rikk, Toni (sister), Frank, myself. So I’m the “baby”! I also have a half-brother Jim and a half-sister Beverly that are older than Rikk.
Were your parents always supportive of you and your brothers’ musical pursuits?
My mother was for sure. My father was supportive to a degree, but he had the burden of trying to get us to balance music with more practical pursuits, earning a living, etc. Not an easy task for him! Music is firmly rooted in our DNA.
What was the first song you remember hearing that really knocked your socks off?
It’s hard to recall a very first one, but “She Loves You” by The Beatles was certainly an early fav, as was Karn Evil 9, Third Impression by Emerson Lake and Palmer. In the early 70’s when I was just starting to form memories, Rikk was pretty into progressive stuff like ELP, Yes, Genesis, Pink Floyd (especially “Relics” and “Atom Heart Mother”), and needless to say, he was my music mentor. We also had a bunch of Beatles and Monkees LPs that Frank and I devoured. There was always a lot of Irish music playing in the house that I enjoyed via my father. Iggy and the Stooges, Ramones, Sex Pistols, New York art-punk stuff, and the rest of punk rock entered the Agnew house soon thereafter.
Do you remember what your first punk rock show was?
I have a very poor memory! Maybe the Starwood in LA with The Adolescents and The Germs? Most of the gigs were in LA back then. I suppose they still are! But my brothers were very cool to me as a little brother, and they took me out and around whenever they could. They and their friends nicknamed me “Foetus” because they were mid-late teens and up to 10 years older than me, so I was hanging out at band practices as early as 5 or 6 years old. It was great fun for me! Many of the venues were 18+ or even 21+, so they’d have to sneak me (and sometimes Frank, even when he was in the band!) in through the back door, and I’d have to keep a low profile to stay in!
I know you spent time in both the Adolescents, with your brothers, and D.I. Which came first?
D.I. came first by 2-3 years. Both were with Rikk, not Frank. Frank and I have done other projects together, though.
Can you talk a little about your time in those bands?
I think I was about 14 or 15, my current band Almost 21 was just about wrapping up, and at the same time D.I. was going through lineup changes after the Royer-Taccone-Maag-O’Brien era that put out that great first EP (see also the Suburbia movie). Casey and Rikk started jamming with a couple of guys (incidentally, from the band Confederate), then I was added in and I brought a couple of buddies (John Knight and John “Bosco” Calabro) from my previous band Almost 21. That was the lineup that you see on the covers of the Ancient Artifacts and Horse Bites albums, when D.I. really took off. Around 1986 the Adolescents were feeling out a return with the original lineup, but brother Frank left the project and I replaced him, and Sandy Hansen replaced Casey on Drums, and the “Brats in Battalions” or 2nd Adolescents lineup was born: Tony, Rikk, me, Steve, Sandy. We recorded the 2nd album, did some shows and road trips. I was still in D.I. at that point. After several months to a year I left both bands to focus on university work, and Dan Colburn replaced me in the Adolescents, and D.I. was going through another series of changes leading to the “What Good is Grief to a God” lineup.
What do you recall being the most memorable gig from either band?
Playing with the Adolescents was pretty cool anytime, since I was somewhat of a mascot with the original lineup and looked up to them as a kid. With D.I., it was really a series of shows when our popularity really skyrocketed, but perhaps I can point to one of the early shows at Fender’s Ballroom in Long Beach, when it became clear that we were now one of the biggest and best-liked SoCal punk bands. The crowd response was insane, surpassing the headline acts we were playing with by a wide margin. The crowd knew our lyrics and would sing along, massive slam pits and stage diving, standing room only, etc. That’s when we became a large-drawing headline act and all that goes along with it. It was intoxicating!! [Below: D.I.]
Were you playing in any other bands that I we might not have heard of?
My very first band was called The Attack. I wrote all the music, I think all the lyrics, and was the drummer. We played the Cuckoos Nest once. I was maybe 11 or 12 years old! The other guys were all older than me, in high school. When I got to high school, I met some cool guys, some of the few punks, and we started Almost 21 in my freshman year. Lineup: Jay McCarty on vocals, myself on guitar and vocals, Hal Hughes on guitar, Tom Hughes (first Mark “Sneak” Engels) on bass, and John Knight on drums. Another band out of that small pot of high school punks was Subculture/Subversion/Aversion, which included the Tatar brothers Joey and Eddie (now of D.I.), and John “Bosco” Calabro. Almost 21 was getting a pretty big local following before splitting up, and we recorded a demo that has recently been released as a 7” vinyl on Gummopunx Records.
What was next? Did you go back to college?
I started college right out of high school in 1986. I was balancing both music and school for a couple of years, then it became impossible to balance touring with upper division university work. I chose to stay in school and leave the music biz.
Please tell us about your current life in academia? How did you get there?
As an Agnew, it is my nature to pursue everything intensely. I fell in love with mathematics and physics like I had already done with music. Once I got into these subjects, I knew I wanted to make a living learning ever more about them, so becoming a university professor, a nice blend of teaching and research, was the obvious choice. I went straight from high school, through my undergrad and grad school to complete my PhD in Mathematical Physics at Oregon State University. I did a postdoc at SMU in Dallas, then got my professorship at CSU Fullerton, where I’m currently a full professor in the mathematics department, and a faculty member in the Gravitational Wave Physics and Astronomy Center (GWPAC).
Who are some current bands that you like?
The singer of Crash Kills Four has a stepson that’s in a couple of really good bands, “Red Curtain” and “Getting Married”. But to be honest, I’m quite a bit out of the loop on current Bands, regretfully. I’m sure there’s great stuff out there, there always will be, but I don’t have time to keep up like I used to. If anything, I keep discovering old gems from the last century!
Care to list your top 10 desert island disc?
10? That’s tough! Ok, I’ll have a go. At the moment, in no particular order: Odessey and Oracle (Zombies), Sgt Pepper (Beatles), Pet Sounds (Beach Boys), Brain Salad Surgery (ELP), Grace (Jeff Buckley), Ziggy Stardust (Bowie), “Blue Album” (Adolescents), “Black Album” (Damned), Priest=Aura (The Church), Grains of Sand (Mission UK). (I left out all my classical and jazz faves!)
Do you play any music these days?
I got back into music about 3 years ago. Thank heavens! It was really missing in my life, and I am much more complete and happy because of it. Bosco and John Knight got a hold of me after 20 years to do some recording, just for posterity. I was hesitant as I was quite rusty to say the least! But I agreed. Then I couldn’t put my guitar down, and now I play, write, and record quite a bit. The recording project with Calabro and Knight resulted in the Crash Kills Four CD/digital download we released last year, titled “A Raincoat, Shoes, and Pornographic Blues”, after one of the A21 songs we re-recorded for the album. Those that are interested in more info can check out crashkillsfour.net or our facebook page. I’m very proud of that work, and it has been very well received! It is very authentic 80’s SoCal style punk, and most of the songs were written back then. In fact, Gummopunx Records also released a special 12” vinyl version that includes 3 new songs. We’ve played several shows in SoCal. My biggest partner in crime nowadays Sean Elliott, ex of D.I. and Creepy Nice Guy. We play with Rikk in “The Detours”, a band formed originally in the late 70’s and was a sort of musical embryo of what would later define the Adolescents and D.I. sound. We also have a project we’re working on that I’m particularly excited about called “Professor and the Madman”. We have one rule: No rules! So the music style is all over the map, and because of this, it is the most fun project I’ve done in a long time! We have a website professorandthemadman.com and a facebook page for more info, and we released (free!) a “Halloween single” on Oct. 31 that includes two songs from an album we will release in the next couple months. Things should get really get rolling in the next several months with record releases and shows. [Below: Crash Kills Four]
Any closing comment? Final thoughts? Anything you wanted to mention that I didn’t ask?
Not really, your questions were pretty thorough, thanks!! It’s always fun to talk about exciting old days, as well as those to come.
Note from Tim Hinely: If anyone knows who took any of the above pictures please do let me know as I do want to give credit where credit is due. Thank you.