Secret Agent Man

Not that you should run for cover. In fact, it is your duty as a fan of power/fun punk and good old rock 'n' roll to submit and make yourself vulnerable. Agent 51 have a classic sound that will drive your spy rig straight into enemy territory with the confidence of true invincibility.

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by Mark Whittaker


If you haven't heard by now, Agent 51 are slowly detonating across the stages and airwaves in a city near you. You've been warned.

Their second full length LP, Just Keep Runnin', released on their own Suburban Hooligans Records, is deadlier than a hollow-tip bullet and gaining as much velocity with a growing fan base due to blistering shows, tight quick rock, and a commitment to keeping their profile low and independent.

Their first album, Red Alert, was a siren call to all and did amazingly well and still is being picked up by those wanting to know the truth. Perhaps you saw Agent 51 on the Vans Warped Tour, or heard about them winning the Ernie Ball's Battle of the Bands, or heard their sound in various ESPN/snowboarding spots and video games. Either way, Agent 51 is a mine field of punk and conspiracy information that makes you want to turn against Fearless Leader and join the ranks of this amazing outfit.

Lead singer/guitarist, Chris Armes, called me up one night -- as to not have me tap or trace the call -- and we spoke about what makes an agent of SoCal punk do what he does. And why. And how. This message will self-destruct …

What is it about Poway, Calif. (home to Blink 182 and Unwritten Law) that creates such great punk bands?

Something in the water man. I went to high school with Blink 182, in fact I had a couple of classes with Tom. He came into class once with these little demo tapes that he was selling for $5. I felt sorry for him, so I bought one. Now look what happened. I don't know, there's just not a lot to do here. It's really isolated. A lot of kids would start bands to fill the boredom.

What happened when your band first formed?

I just turned 18. Eric, our guitar player, was 17. Everybody else in the band, like our old drummer and bass player, were around the same age too. We were all just getting out of high school and had the same vision of what we wanted the band to be. We wanted something completely on our own. A lot of bands at the time were sounding like the Fat Wreck Chords type, you know, like Lagwagon, and NoFx. Those are great bands, but we wanted to throw in some diversity, such as Pinhead Gunpowder and the Ramones influence. A lot of bands down here go for the speed approach to punk, like if it's not fast it's not punk. Which is completely untrue.

A lot of your songs resonate with early '80s punk, such as the Misfits and 7 Seconds, as far as the chorus is concerned. Were they influential at all?

For me personally? Yeah, Misfits, Rancid. In fact, we've been getting into the Misfits lately, the old Plan 9/Ruby Records days, which really comes across on the album. We got Shawn Stern of Youth Brigade to sing back-up on "Straight Outta Hell." That's him on the bridge in fact. We went to L.A., met up with him and said: "sing on our record bastard!" He was the coolest. I was surprised when he called up and said that he'll do it.

The first album, Red Alert, did really well when it came out. What was the band's reaction when you realized that you could really do this?

It was great. The sales were really gradual actually. The more places we played, the more records we sold. We recorded that whole album, 20 songs, in 20 hours. Just one right after the other. I had just broken my wrist and recorded with a cast on -- so if you look in the liner notes and on our web site, you'll notice that I am Chris "Broken" Armes. It was pretty rough. Right before recording I had to cut out this big section of my cast so my thumb could be a little freer. We didn't get a lot of interest from record labels mainly because they are interested in Soundscan than when they are sold at venues. The majority of the albums we sold were from the gigs that we played. We didn't have that push to get on a bigger label, but we got a lot of attention from the album, which is really cool.

How did the first tour go?

It was pretty cool. We played Vegas, Arizona, San Jose … in fact, we got a really good response in San Jose. But when we played San Francisco, they just hated us. I mean, they wouldn't take stickers or even clap after a song was over. We had gotten separated during our trip and had just gotten back together, so we were all stinky and sweaty. We had fun though.

So what are some of your favorite bands to play with?

Well, Youth Brigade definitely. Them and the Swingin' Utters have been totally cool. Totally down to Earth, nice people. It's funny to watch Shawn Stern and all get on this bus and drive across the country. That takes a lot of balls. It's really hard to get gigs these days.

How did the whole secret agent thing come about?

That was more or less my idea. I've always had an interest in UFOs and conspiracy theories. We all had an interest in it though. Plus, there weren't a lot of bands out there singing about UFOs. So, we figured why not incorporate some of that stuff in our songs? A lot of bands sing about the government when they take a political stance on their songs, but they don't sing about that kind of thing. On the way to Vegas once, somebody had emailed us anonymously, leaving these weird messages about UFOs, how we were going to find something under some code name. It was really freaky. We made this stop at my friend's house and somebody had slipped us this book with all of these copies of what appeared to be military documents on UFOs into our gearbox. The rest of the band and everyone we knew swears up and down that they didn't do it. So, we're still trying to figure out who was doing it. I still have the book somewhere in my closet. There's like Harry Truman signed documents about UFOs. It's weird.

So how does the song "The Last Pirate Standing" fit in?

That was our first attempt at writing a humorous song. We wanted to have a drinking song, since we were in that vein anyway, so we wrote the song. I don't know where it came from, but we ended up having our engineer's kids sing on it. We just took it all the way.

What about cover songs?

Yeah, we actually do a lot of covers. We did Merle Haggard's "Swingin' Doors" on the first album. We do anything and everything. Most of the time we do "Highway To Hell" by AC/DC. We did a couple of Pinhead Gunpowder covers. We played "Pour Some Sugar On Me" at this party a couple weeks back. Yeah man. Just rockin'!

How is Just Keep Runnin' doing?

Great. After just three weeks we were almost out of our first pressing of 1,000. So we're getting ready to order the second one. We're doing everything ourselves for this record -- we have our own record label, doing our own distribution, and we're not going through anybody else until a bigger label comes around and says "hey, we'll help you out."

How important was it to start your label, Suburban Hooligans?

It was totally important because we spent so much money on recording that we had to get back every penny. Even if you are on a small, indie label, you still have to give out 50 percent. The con side is that you are spending so much time on the phone, booking tours and gigs, getting more merchandise, taking care of the whole business side of it, going to local music stores to see how much money you made, calling distribution, agents, blah blah blah. You're doing this on a daily basis and you're like "where's the time that I get to write?"

You do most of the songwriting, but how much input from the other three guys comes into each song?

It depends. Eric wrote a couple of songs on the album. What I do when I have an idea for a song is I'll bring in the skeleton and say, "you guys expand on this idea." I make sure everyone gets their 2 cents worth in because I want this to be a full band. I don't want to seem like a dictator. It has to be a democracy.

You have a song on an upcoming PlayStation game.

Yeah, "Canyon Fighter." It's actually a lot of songs that were on the album but without vocals. Some are with vocals, but most are just background music. Hopefully that will go out to a lot of people and get more interest in the band.

How far do you want to take Agent 51?

All the way man.

Listen to Agent 51 here.

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