Joe Escalante may not be a textbook Renaissance man, but as a 43-year-old who's already made three successful career transitions he may be close. The half-Mexican, half-Irish Los Alamitos native is a former CBS Television lawyer who left to tour with his punk band the Vandals and start an independent record label. His Kung Fu Records features some of the biggest punk acts of the last decade; Escalante produced the first album of "Blink 182," the commercially successful alternative band. The talk radio buff also created "Barely Legal Radio," for Indie 103.1, a show for those wanting to get in the entertainment business and need legal advice. He's now looking to expand the show, exploring cable TV and other opportunities. In between his business obligations, he continues to play his bass and is an amateur bullfighter.


Question: How did you get started in music?
Answer:
I started playing drums when I was a kid. I played drums in school bands. I did play a little bit with a rockabilly band, but the first real band I was in was the Vandals. And that's when I picked up bass.


Q: And when did you get started with the band?
A:
The Vandals have been together in this version since 1994, but it started as a total joke back in 1989. When we got our drummer, Josh Freese, in the '90s, it got more serious. Basically it's more or less a men's club. We're all really good friends and have a great time.


Q: Despite your musical interests you decided to go to law school, though you didn't follow the traditional path after graduation.
A:
Yeah, most people had to go to a law firm and be tortured and I got to go to a network and I wasn't even in the law department. I worked in the business affairs department so I would negotiate my deal and send it to the law department and a lawyer would draft my contract for me and send it back for my approval. The very first day I'm talking to very powerful agents all over town and having lunch with them at fancy places on the expense account. It was great.


Q: You must have some great stories.
A:
My first day at work my assignment was to contact the entire cast of the original "The Beverly Hillbillies" and to make deals for their reunion show. None of them had agents so that was just me calling them personally and that was hilarious. I would like call Ellie May and conference in one of my friends.


Q: What were the drawbacks?
A:
You're usually the enemy. When (the actor) comes in there's already been an ugly negotiation with their agent who's telling them, "This guy's a jerk, man."


Q: Why did you leave?
A:
When Les Moonves took over, he transferred me out of in-house and to making deals for outside suppliers like Paramount, Warner Bros. and Disney and it became a job that was too easy. It wasn't the same job. I used to put together whole entire shows and now I was making one negotiation for one show. Like, "OK Moesha, how about $435,000 per episode?" and the guy on the other side would want $440,000. And so you'd argue about $5,000 for about a week and then your boss and his boss would just decide.


Q: Sounds miserable.
A:
I had an offer from a record label to quit. They would pay the Vandals a salary for a year just to do more touring and I thought: "That will never be offered to any punk band ever, so I'm going to take it and then I'm going to start a record label."


Q: So the band had gotten pretty serious at that point?
A:
I was always in the band but it was just a hobby. Around 1994 the kind of music we were playing exploded. The Offspring sold 11 million records and cited the Vandals as one of their main influences. Green Day and all these bands that we were playing with (got big, too). And all my friends had record labels and they kept telling me: "You should start a record label."


Q: So what was the idea behind Kung Fu Records?
A:
There were a lot of great bands. You find one, make a great record, the band gets in a van and you tour, place a couple of ads in the fanzines and you sell the records. You take them (on tour) with your band or borrow bands from your friend's label. It was a fun little community and everyone would help each other. There were very few labels. Now there are more record labels than people.


Q: Is that why you are cutting back on the label?
A:
I'm in two bands and a radio show. It got so big and so complicated that I couldn't do them all well anymore. Since the majors got involved in punk rock, kids don't care where their punk rock comes from. There was a time when they wanted it from an indie label. So to develop punk bands now, you have to develop them exactly how the majors are developing them and that involves among other things, bribing magazines and radio stations, and tours; and I'm not interested in that.


Q: What does that leave for Kung Fu?
A:
We've still got the catalog, about 120 releases, and occasional DVDs, one full-time and one part-time employee in the U.S. We're also selling the catalog in Europe. It's more efficient and profitable than we are here. It's a very strong label and distribution system, a licensor. We license stuff for labels here that don't want to hassle with all those territories over there.


Q: Where did the idea of a radio show come from?
A:
I had been thinking about it for a long time and then I had some business with Indie because they're the only station that would play stuff from Kung Fu Records. So I had meetings almost two years ago regarding the Vandals and other Kung Fu stuff. I got along with Michael Steele, the program director, at the meetings and I kind of threw it out. He pretty much said 'When can you start?'


Q: What's involved in putting a radio show together?
A:
On Thursdays all day long I prepare for the show. Preparing for one stupid hour can be a whole day and that can be a problem. Sometimes I'm over-prepared and have too much stuff for my little hour. I'm just learning and since I only do it once a week it's like starting over every week. I've got to record promos, think of promos, write promos and go through shows and pull out calls that are good to make a "best of" episodes for when I'm not here. I'm cutting up songs, picking out songs to play as bumper music and cutting up calls to make promos of the calls.


Q: What do you do in your spare time?
A:
I play bass one to three hours a day. And I have a bizarre bullfighting hobby. I train with these guys in Griffith Park every Saturday mostly, Mexicans and Ecuadorians, and they get together and practice bullfighting. It's called de salon. One guy holds the horns, pretends he's a bull and the other guy is the matador. Then I give you the horns and you pretend to be the bull and I'm the matador. That's how you practice bullfighting.


Q: Do you fight real bulls?
A:
Every once in awhile if you get enough money you can pay to go fight some calves or young bulls at a ranch somewhere. Next weekend I'll go to San Diego and train with a couple of guys down there and then go to Mexico to Tecate and I will do what's called the tienta. We will test animals for a rancher and he marks down whether they are good or not and whether they should kill them or they should be saved for breeding for the real bull rings.


Q: How did this start?
A:
My family's been into bullfighting since way before I was born, so my dad took us every Sunday during the season to Tijuana. My mother got into it, too. Sometimes she would go even when my dad wasn't there.


Q: Have you killed any bulls?
A:
I've killed seven bulls in the ring. But this is amateur bullfighting. These are 600 pound bulls, not the 1,000 pound bulls you see in the big fights. They're still bigger than lions you'd see at the zoo. They'll toss you.


* Joe Escalante
Title:
Founder
Company: Kung Fu Records
Birth: 1963
Education: B.A. with emphasis on Old Norse, UCLA; J.D., Loyola Law School
Career Turning Point: Was offered a salary to tour with his punk band in 1996. He left his job at CBS Television, toured for a year and started his own record label when he got back.
Personal: Plays bass in two bands, the Vandals and the tribute band Sweet-n-Tender Hooligans; hosts Indie 103.1 program providing entertainment legal advice
Hobbies: Bullfighting, movies with his wife, Sandra, at the Mann Chinese Theater

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