Something Else! Interview: Punk pioneer Jeff Wolfe of the Furys

“There’s always an audience for rebel music,” says Jeff Wolfe, and he should know. In the late 1970s Jeff and the Furys, the band he co-founded, were at the forefront of Los Angeles’ burgeoning punk rock scene — sharing stages with Iggy Pop, Patti Smith and David Johansen.

The Furys’ debut single “Hey Ma”/”Jim Stark Dark” was DiY before DiY existed. The band formed their own record company, Double R Records, printed and pasted the sleeves together, then went out and sold the records themselves. The first pressing of the single sold out, but the Furys follow-up “Say Goodbye to the Black Sheep” did even better, netting Jeff and his fellow Furys radio play and high profile gigs. In fact, “Black Sheep” was so iconic and crucial to the scene that it was included on a Rhino’s 1993 compilation DiY: We’re Desperate – The LA Scene (1976-79), still the most incisive audio snapshot of that era.

Recently, Jeff has launched a revived and rejuvenated line-up of the Furys, releasing a self-titled EP that joins two newly recorded songs (“Wicked White,” “Tear it Down”) with a pair of gems from the band’s rich back catalog (“Black Sheep”, “The Girl is Not At Home”). On August 1, 2014, Jeff and The Furys will be in L.A. playing The International Pop Overthrow Festival — described as “speed dating for the rock ‘n roll set” by the New York Post‘s Mary Huhn.

Yet, there’s much more to Jeff than punk rock fury. He’s fronted the Horse Soldiers, a country/Americana outfit, for decades — and I had the pleasure of working with him when he composed music for a film I co-wrote and co-produced, the horror/comedy Return of the Killer Shrews.

Speaking from his Los Angeles home, Jeff shares stories sweet (the startling effect that Furys songs have on young listeners) and salty (a tale wherein the Knack encounter a stream of urine). Above all, Jeff tells us how his life, and all our lives, were saved by rock ‘n’ roll …

PATRICK MORAN: Why did you decide that this is the right time to revive and reinvigorate the Furys?
JEFF WOLFE: This whole idea stemmed originally from when I began receiving royalty checks for “Say Goodbye to the Black Sheep” from airplay on Little Steven’s Underground Garage on SiriusXM radio. When my teenage son began asking me about the band, the wheels really began to turn.

PATRICK MORAN: Speaking of your decision to reboot the Furys, you’ve credited two influences — the Fleshtones and your son Ethan. Tell me how they affected you.
JEFF WOLFE: Ethan came to me a couple of years ago, “Dad, were you in the Furys?” I hadn’t mentioned that era much when he was growing up; it was in the past and I was busy with the Horse Soldiers. It turns out he and his friends were all interested in the bands from that era. Besides preferring analog to digital, they also began to dress like we did back in those days. I eventually gave him a bunch of cassettes and records for him to make a compilation CD-R of the Furys, which he then distributed to his pals. As you know, Pat, I had written a song for Steve Latshaw’s picture Return of the Killer Shrews called “50 Years,” which I had recorded with the Horse Soldiers.

When the movie wrapped, Steve and I decided to take a weekend jaunt to Gene Autry’s Pioneertown out in the California desert near Palm Springs to have a drink or two or ten and relax. Much to our surprise, as we were having a sandwich in the ancient honky-tonk located adjacent to the site, the Fleshtones were playing. Of course, I knew them back in the old days and was genuinely surprised to see them playing such an odd venue. But when the show started, it was packed with 20-somethings from Palm Springs who had made the trip to come and listen, as Johnny Cash once sang. The band, as always, was great and the large crowd was diggin’ it. Steve turned to me and said: “You need to get The Furys going again.” Voila! The die was cast.

PATRICK MORAN: You’re the only original member of the Furys. What happened to the other original members?
JEFF WOLFE: Chaz Maley is a high school teacher in Las Vegas. Doug Martin still plays the occasional gig in Orange County. Gary Embrey works for an upscale hotel in Newport Beach. Joe Conti is still playing piano and kicking ass on harmonica. Gregg Embrey has been in the medical profession for many years.

PATRICK MORAN: Who is in the current line-up of The Furys? When and how did the new Furys come together?
JEFF WOLFE: I went through a few trial runs with various musicians before I came to this lineup which includes Robert Lane, Chris Silagyi and Kelly Fair.

PATRICK MORAN: What can you tell me about the background of your current band-mates?
JEFF WOLFE: I had been looking for a bass player for a while, and had mentioned it at a Horse Soldiers rehearsal. Bobby chimed in and said, “I know someone: me!” Considering that he plays acoustic 12-string guitar in the Horse Soldiers, I never figured him for a bassist, but he’s been involved ever since. He’s a talented guy. Besides the Furys and the Horse Soldiers, he has his solo project Lane’s Laire and he also has done some acting and directing.

When the drummer position became available, I called my first choice: Kelly Fair. I had been a fan of Kelly’s playing since he was in the Real Impossibles, back in the ’80s. In fact, there’s a video of the RI’s on the YouTube performing the Bobby Fuller Four classic “Let Her Dance” that features yours truly as guest vocalist and Kelly on drums. Kelly is a fine musician and a great guy. We’re thrilled to have him on board with the Furys. I’ve known Chris Silagyi for over 35 years, ever since he was a member of 20/20. Both bands shared few bills back then. My girl Lori is also a friend of Chris’ and she put the idea to him. “What a blast!” was his response. Besides being a fine guitarist, Chris is an excellent vocalist and a worthy keyboard player. Plus he looks cool — always an asset!

PATRICK MORAN: Your current EP includes two new recordings. When and where was the new material recorded?
JEFF WOLFE: “Wicked White,” which I wrote with Gregg Embrey in 1977, had never been recorded properly. I felt the song’s theme — cultural alienation perpetrated by the onslaught of technology — was even more relevant today. And, it’s really catchy. As such, I felt it was a good one to revive.
“Tear it Down” was one of the last songs I wrote with Gregg; it’s a great rocker and I felt it needed to be heard. We tracked these songs at the end of ’13 and beginning of ’14 with these guys that were in the band briefly in the ’80s, Glen and Francis. The tracks were done at Glen’s studio.

PATRICK MORAN: Are there still plans to release a DVD and box set?
JEFF WOLFE: A label from Seattle approached me about a box set about 18 months ago. I diligently prepared a track listing for a three-disc set. It was a fairly laborious task, as I had to find sources for the rarities and live discs they wanted which were primarily on cassettes, buried in my archives. After finding the material, reviewing it, and choosing which tracks to use, I was aghast to find that the label had gone out of business. Argh! So I’m now communicating with some other labels about taking the project on. The Furys recorded over an album’s worth of studio material that never saw the light of day, and there are multiple live sets from both the Orange County and the Hollywood line-ups from the ’70s and ’80s that are very good to excellent quality — certainly viable to release. I’ve been working with Steve Latshaw on a DVD documentary on the Furys. Originally, it was to be a part of this box set so we’re circling the wagons and coming up with other ways to distribute. We have tons of live footage from the ’80s and many celebrity interview subjects on board.

PATRICK MORAN: How is the songwriting split up between band members? And when it comes to lyrics, are lyrics autobiographical, or are they written in character?
JEFF WOLFE: Originally, Gregg Embrey wrote music that I would then integrate lyrics, melody and chorus into. However, this format was not written in stone. “Say Goodbye to the Black Sheep,” for example, was written as a poem with melody long before I had heard Gregg’s music. As such, the day he taught the band his music for the piece, I was able to leap right in there with my stuff that fit immediately and seamlessly; the guys were amazed! Other methods included me presenting Gregg with a set of lyrics and having him concoct a music passage that worked in the context of the words. Other times he may have an opening line or two — or a chorus — and I’d fill in the blanks. It was a great songwriting partnership; I’m proud of many of the numbers we came up with. Chaz Maley wrote a few songs for the group as well, notably “Moving Target,” which was the a-side of our third single. There’s a song I wrote with him called “Sitting in the Front Seat with Anna,” that’s a keeper, but is quite obscure, appearing only on a live show from the Nugget a Go Go in Long Beach in ’79. I have that entire set and have restored it; it’d make for a great stand-alone release. You can hear our ska version of Them’s “Here Comes the Night,” as well as many fine original songs that were never recorded.

These days I pretty much write on my own. I have a huge back catalog of material. I’m planning on bringing in some more of the archival songs such as “We Talk, We Dance” and “Mr. Please Man” but I also have lots of new stuff that I’m happy with: “Long Hard Road”, “Ghost Walk”, “Today”, “My Own Adventures”, “I Can’t Complain about Yesterday,” so many more. I’m also pondering doing a Furys version of “50 Years” from Return of the Killer Shrews. Many of the songs are autobiographical, but some indeed are character-driven. For example, the southern intellectual on the run from the cops in “What’s Done is Done” from the mini-album the Furys did at EMI America called “Indoor/Outdoor.” “Today” is about a bad boy who thinks he’s a messiah until he learns otherwise.

PATRICK MORAN: The EP also includes the Furys’ 1978 hit single “Say Goodbye to the Black Sheep.” Are you surprised by its staying power?
JEFF WOLFE: You know, Pat, I knew we had a good song after it was written, and subsequently knew we had a great recording of it after we wrapped our session at Media Art in Hermosa Beach at the end of ’77. But I never, ever expected that people would still be digging it almost 40 years later! What amazes me about these royalty statements is the airline airplay, and the large amount of plays in Mexico.

PATRICK MORAN: The Furys are playing David Bash’s International Pop Overthrow Festival, August 1, 2014. What can you tell me about the gig?
JEFF WOLFE: Mr. Bash is a good guy. We keep threatening to get together for some chow; he’s invested in hearing some of my war stories from back in the old days. We’ve played IPO a couple of times before but this booking on August 1st will be the first time we’ve worked at Club Fais Do Do in Culver City. I’m looking forward to all of our LA Westside fans being able to make this date.

PATRICK MORAN: Have you played many gigs leading up to International Pop Overthrow? Where else will The Furys be playing in the future?
JEFF WOLFE: We’ve done the IPO a couple of times before. We did a great show last summer that celebrated the Furys as the first band to play Chinatown. The event was called Chinatown Summer Nights; we had about 600 kids in front of the stage and about 20,000 wandering around Chinatown. It was incredible to see a 20-something girl singing along to “Waiting for Surrender,” a relatively obscure track from “Indoor/Outdoor”. She knew all the words! We have more dates coming up in the LA area. I’m really invested in taking the Furys to Japan, so we’re talking to an agent now about that. Of course, I should probably get a passport before too long!

PATRICK MORAN: What’s your favorite part of the creative process – writing, recording, or performing?
JEFF WOLFE: Beyond everything else, I’m a singer. I’m always singing: in the car, at home by myself or to Lori; and she hasn’t gotten sick of it yet, amazingly! As such, everything else is a path to the stage. I find recording and rehearsing laborious, a necessary evil as it were. However, I’ve always been a writer; Gary Valentine from Blondie called me a “poet” in his book, although I’m not sure if I would go that far. But I’ve always written songs, even when I was a youngster. I had my first “poem” published in second grade and have never looked back.

PATRICK MORAN: Let’s talk early days. How did you meet Gregg Embrey, and when and why did you decide to start a band?
JEFF WOLFE: I met Gregg in art class in high school around 1967. I was drawing Bob Dylan, he was drawing Frank Zappa. Obviously, we were destined to be pals. Around 1976, I decided we should write and record some songs together, maybe even form one of those wild rock n roll bands we’d heard so much about. So we did.

PATRICK MORAN: When did manager Michael Compton come into the picture? What can you tell me about him?
JEFF WOLFE: Michael — who called himself Jett at the time — was working at the record store my brother managed. We stated hanging out. A lot. We’d march around suburban Orange County, smoking reefers and bitching about the horrible state of the world, especially popular music. This must have been around ’75. Once I got the band going, I knew Michael was intelligent enough, aggressive enough and knowledgeable enough to manage us. Which he did, quite brilliantly, for around three or four years.

PATRICK MORAN: Who came up with the band’s name, and what does it mean?
JEFF WOLFE: Gregg and I were hanging out in the back of our pal Marty Black’s car after a photo session. We’d recorded the tracks for our first 45, but we needed a name to release them under. There are two schools of thought: mine is that we named the band after the Furies, the Greek/Roman goddesses of vengeance. Gregg’s take is we named the band after the Plymouth Fury. Both work for me.

PATRICK MORAN: What do you remember about recording and releasing your first single, “Hey Ma/Jim Stark Dark?” Did you consider yourselves DiY pioneers with this release?
JEFF WOLFE: I was really driven to do this. I got Gregg to find some players — including his brother Gary, one of the greatest drummers I’ve worked with — and our friend Marty found us a recording studio in Santa Monica. So we made the trek up there and recorded and mixed “Hey Ma” in one six-hour session. I always thought that the track needed more work, but six hours was all I could afford. It was my first time in a recording studio. “Jim Stark Dark” was the first song I wrote with Gregg. He didn’t get the Rebel Without a Cause reference until we were cutting it at Mark Mortensen’s home studio in Santa Ana. I’ll never forget that look of revelation on his mug when we were tracking the background vocals.

Indeed, we were some of the earliest purveyors of the DiY movement, although it wasn’t even called that back in 1977. With the help of Mike Compton, Carol Lynn and Marcy Blaustein, we stuffed those 45s into these really cheesy Xerox’ed sleeves we had made. We even had to individually cut off a flap at the top, as that was the only workable cover we could find. The four of us sat there for hours with scissors, trimming away and stuffing the records in. We had made 500, thinking we’d sell 25 and have 475 left in my parents’ garage. Lo and behold, we sold out the first week simply by driving around to local record and book stores and conning them into buying it — 75 cents, wholesale. After that first run sold out, I had enough to print up another thousand with a decent sleeve. We managed to get some college airplay on the thing, and even got to be Licorice Pizza records’ single of the week.

PATRICK MORAN: Is it true you sold your record at swap meets — out of the trunk of your car?
JEFF WOLFE: Swap meets, record stores, book stores, even thrift stores. Mike Compton and I would drive around and hit people up to buy it, two here four there. I remember one store took five copies. Wow, were we excited! And, yes, we literally were selling them out of the trunk of my ‘70 Mustang.

PATRICK MORAN: I understand you had an encounter with the legendary/infamous Kim Fowley.
JEFF WOLFE: Gregg and I took a notorious meeting with Kim and Harvey Kubernick at some studio in Hollywood. They had heard “Say Goodbye to the Black Sheep” on KROQ and wanted to sign us up with Mercury. Gregg was silent, I was hesitant; we both wore shades. I hadn’t heard a lot of good stuff about Kim’s production/management deals or about Mercury. I distinctly remember an interview with Rod Stewart years after “Maggie May” was an international hit, and he still hadn’t been paid. Of course, the great Graham Parker wrote a song about this same dilemma called “Mercury Poisoning” a couple years later.

Anyway, Kim could tell I was balking at the deal he was presenting. He offered to get some teen-age girls in to suck our cocks. Paula Pierce — later of the Pandoras — was my teenage girlfriend during this time and she was quite proficient at this task, so that wasn’t really a viable offer. He then suggested getting some teen-age boys in to perform the same activity; this offer had even less credibility. We left there anything but crestfallen. Shortly thereafter, I ran into Kim at the Capitol Records swap meet. He started yelling at me, saying “this guy would rather sell records out of the trunk of his car than be on Mercury and produced by Kim Fowley” … which was true. I guarantee you, Pat, I made more money that way than I ever would have being signed to Kim’s deal with Mercury!

PATRICK MORAN: The Furys also had a notorious run-in with the Knack.
JEFF WOLFE: We were booked to play the Troubadour with this band we knew very little about called the Knack. I guess this was around 1979. Word was out on the street that they had gotten a record deal with Capitol by copping the “new wave” look and approach, but were actually known as session musicians. In other words, poseurs. A big part of the DiY-before-it-was-called-DiY credo was rejecting the whole “rock star” bullshit. This kind crap made my skin crawl. Well, once we got to the venue that afternoon for sound check, there were these guys who arrogantly would not get off the stage and allow the Furys a decent amount of time for sound check. In other words, the dreaded “rock star” behavior. Argh! It was subsequently revealed to us that these guys were claiming that we had slit the heads of their drum kit. Complete bullshit, of course.

In those days, both bands would play two sets each. We came out and kicked ass; the other band looked like neophytes in comparison, with their phony Beatlemania b.s. Chaz, never a wilting flower, noticed the singer and his girlfriend — the infamous Sharona — in the alley behind the venue, entering by the back door. Full of beer and chutzpah, Chaz decided to let go from the upstairs window of our dressing room. Hilarity ensued. We managed to play the second set with an equal amount of vigor. I recalling running over the tables at the front of the stage, yelling, while all the little girls that drove up from Orange County, Chino, Riverside and Covina yelled back. The Hollywood lineup of the Furys played a show with the Knack many years later in the mid-80s at Wong’s West in Santa Monica: All was well. Good show too. It was packed and there was a pretty decent payday.

PATRICK MORAN: How did the Furys get a residency at Madame Wong’s in Chinatown?
JEFF WOLFE: There was this fella hanging around the scene called Paul Greenstein. He had this idea to get bands like the Furys to play this little restaurant in Chinatown, Madame Wong’s. The idea seemed daft enough to work. So I drove up there and met Paul at the venue. It was tiny. There was a pillar in the middle of the stage. It had the cheesiest hula girl décor imaginable, and there was an incredibly steep flight of stairs to get into the place — a lovely experience when carrying band equipment. Perfect! So we went in there in early October of ’78 and rocked the joint. It was packed too, even that dreaded staircase was jammed with kids. It’s a good thing there was no fire marshal action. Or maybe they were paid off, who knows? The Know followed us with their power-pop stylings. We ended up doing quite a few shows with those guys during this time.

So much happened and so many people were on that scene. I met my girlfriend Lori Crutchfield there when she was a waitress — and Furys fan — and hooked up with her decades later. Nicky Wonder, now with Brian Wilson’s band, was a busboy. Any and all of the bands from that era played ther — or later at Hong Kong — and The Furys were the first! I ended up back in Chinatown just last year to be interviewed for Christy Shigekawa’s documentary on the Hong Kong Café (Wong’s competition) which was on the opposite side of the courtyard. I figured being at the site would be the best place to talk about those times. It was wonderful to see the locations again and recall how there would be hundreds of kids — punk, mod, rockabilly, new wave, power pop, mainstream — all gathered there to take part in something that ended up becoming a cultural landmark. The site of Wong’s is now a private residence and the Hong Kong is a gift shop.

PATRICK MORAN: The Furys’ sound is rock, but eclectic. Can you share some of yourmusical influences or favorites?
JEFF WOLFE: I grew up in a musical family. My Pop was a jazz fanatic; my mom was an amateur folk singer. So we’d hear “Green Grow the Lilacs” and Errol Garner around the house all the time. I became a record collector early on. After graduating from the Roy Rogers and Gene Autry’s Golden Records, I started buying 45s. My first, in 1959, was “Battle of New Orleans” by Johnny Horton — which satisfied my history and my folk music fixes. Of course, I also became deeply involved in Elvis and Rick Nelson’s music too. Naturally the Beatles changed the world, blah blah blah, but I also connected with a lot of the garage bands that were playing around LA: the Seeds, the Music Machine (who played a dance at my high school; they opened with “Under My Thumb,” so it must have been ’66), the Leaves. I listened to the Who, the Miracles, the Kinks, James Brown, the Yardbirds, the Byrds, the Mothers, the Temptations, even bubblegummy stuff like Herman’s Hermits and Paul Revere and the Raiders.

Of course there’s the big three after the Beatles: Dylan, the Stones and the Beach Boys. Kids like me were lucky in that era in that the radio wasn’t genre-fied like it is now. You could hear Sinatra and Dino on the same playlist with ? and the Mysterians, Mantovani and George Jones. It was wonderful! When the early 70s came around, you started getting that great kick-ass country sounds like Waylon, Willie, Haggard and I never stopped listening to Johnny Horton, Rick and Elvis — plus reggae was emerging too. I recall vividly the impact that the Israelites album by Desmond Dekker had on me. All these influences, plus a thousand more, added to all the books I was reading as well as all the stuff the other guys in the Furys were into made for a fantastic musical/cultural stew.

PATRICK MORAN: After the early incarnation of the Furys split up, you pursued a country/Americana route with the Horse Soldiers. Has that band influenced the new music you make with the Furys? Is there much stylistic crossover between the two groups?
JEFF WOLFE: Since I’ve been working the Horse Soldiers, my singing style has definitely changed — for the better I like to think. I have expanded my range on both ends and have created a more resonant tone. In the early days, my voice was very high end and reedy. I can still hit those notes but there’s more depth to the tonality. Spending five years listening only to Hank Williams and Bing Crosby will do that, ya know? Writing-wise, I’ve certainly felt the influence of Waylon Jennings, Hank Williams and Merle Haggard, but there’s still the Stones/Dylan/Who/Kinks pastiche there too — so hopefully the songs are even more grounded.

PATRICK MORAN: Do you consider the Furys “punk”? Is the music made by the current line-up more punk or less punk than the first singles?
JEFF WOLFE: The Furys got lumped into the punk bandwagon early on, as did many other bands who did not sound at all like what we think of as punk music today. We were loud, fast, obnoxious and had some great hooks — which can be looked upon as punk — but I like to think we had better musicians in the act and substantially better songs. And I always wanted mainstream success, which put us in a different category. In fact, to some of the punk-rock in-crowd, we were pariahs for these same reasons. Considering the level of experience the guys in The Furys these days bring to the table, I don’t think of the band as punk at all. Certainly that’s the legacy, but I feel this music is more magisterial and melodic than your standard “yadda, yadda, I hate the world” punk act.

PATRICK MORAN: Back in 1977, you formed the Furys as a reaction to the terrible sounds on the radio. Are there still terrible sounds on the radio? Are you still raging against the norm?
JEFF WOLFE: When I was a youngster in the ‘60s, the radio and mainstream music was generally pretty great. By the time the ‘70s rolled around, the mainstream sucked: it became vapid, pointless crap. Nothing has changed; indeed, it may be even worse. Auto-tune has made it possible for any amateur with enough of daddy’s money to put out a song and go on TV. It sickens me. I said to Waylon Jennings one time, backstage at the Highwaymen show at the Universal Amphitheatre in 1995: “If you can’t play the song on an acoustic guitar and sing it, you ain’t got a song.” Waylon: “You got that right, hoss.” True words and they certainly still apply today.

PATRICK MORAN: Many of your contemporaries like John Doe have gone completely Americana or folk, but you’re still rocking out. Why?
JEFF WOLFE: I love to sing any genre. As long as it’s a great song with an interesting story and a kick-ass melody, I’m there. Besides the Furys, I’ve been enjoying singing classic country, western folk-rock and swing with the Horse Soldiers for over 25 years now. I even briefly had an act called Jeff Wolfe and the Standards, which was just piano and stand-up bass and ‘lil ole me singing Bing, Frank and Ella songs. But rock ‘n’ roll is my first love and the Furys songs are so wonderful, they deserve to be performed. A great song can transcend genre; I’m all about the song.

PATRICK MORAN: Why do you think there’s still an audience – and a growing one – for bands like the Furys?
JEFF WOLFE: Rock ‘n’ roll, of course, will never die. But it has been severely diluted over the years with poseurs like Poison, Motley Crue and Guns N’ Roses, auto-tuned crap like anything currently on the radio, rap. Even though a few great bands — like Green Day and Queens of the Stone Age — have managed to survive and even prosper, it’s a rare thing. But there’s always an audience for rebel music: loud, moody, magnificent and with a message. I’m optimistic that the Furys will continue to fill that need in audiences of all ages. I learned a long time ago that Pete Townshend — one of my big heroes — was wrong when he said “hope I die before I get old,” as I am really enjoying singing these songs even at this advanced stage.

Patrick Moran

Chicago native Pat Moran is a filmmaker who has produced and written five feature films, and served as producer and editor for Western Classics, a film series hosted by actor James Best. He also writes about music for Creative Loafing Charlotte. The best job title he ever had was "part-time vampire." Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.