San Jose's No Use for a Name marks 20 years with 'All the Best Songs'
By Garrett Wheeler
THESE DAYS, No Use for a Name frontman Tony Sly is living easy—with a comfortable home in the 'burbs outside San Jose, a loving wife and daughter, and soon the release of a greatest-hits record called All the Best Songs. Two decades after they set out to conquer the punk-rock world, the members of the South Bay's own No Use for a Name have finally arrived at a level of success most musicians can only dream of, and well, they're just happy to be here.
"It's funny looking back 20 years later," Sly recalls, "thinking man, if all this ends tomorrow, I've already had a great career. I feel like we're some of the luckiest people in the world." The humility speaks volumes for a guy who sold more than a million records. But it wasn't always a cinch—in fact, far from it.
The Bay Area punk circuit was anything but welcoming to the Cupertino kids, not that it was really hospitable to anybody. "I remember doing these shows on First Street, back when downtown [San Jose] was pretty much wasteland," says Sly. "We'd be playing a few feet away from the crowd, while some guy's getting beat up with a metal pipe by a bunch of skinheads."
Despite the wild crowds that frequented the rock dive bars of the late '80s, the burgeoning punk scene provided Sly and his band the exposure they needed to gain a devout local following. The fan base consisted mostly of those reveling in the rebellious attitude of the skate/punk culture, and the unruly bawdiness of NUFAN's hardcore sound fit their soundtrack perfectly. As the '80s punk movement gave way to '90s alt-rock, NUFAN found itself evolving, undergoing numerous lineup changes as well as diversifying musically.
For Sly, experimenting with the band's sound became an essential outlet of expression: "We look at every record as something different. Staying fresh and innovative is what being a musician is all about. At first, changing styles is weird. I would write a song, and the band would be like, 'That doesn't even sound like our band.' But as everyone contributes their own style, it becomes your band."
NUFAN's willingness to test new approaches paid off, and it was soon touring with legendary punk outfits like the Offspring and NOFX. The band's biggest break came in 1994 when punk went pop, and the video for "Soulmate" found its way onto MTV's playlist. With the success came demand, and the group's touring schedule had it set for a life on the road. For Sly, it was all part of the gig. "After a while, [touring] became a familiar thing. Now touring is so common for me it's become normal life. Getting on a bus and driving to strange cities and staying in weird places is totally common."
One listen through the new collection, All the Best Songs, and it's clear that NUFAN has matured over the years. Simple three-chord riffs have given way to melodically complex arrangements, and Sly's vocal abilities are noticeably stronger than his early scream-prone days. In his lyrics, Sly writes with greater appreciation for the world outside of punk rock, at times delving into social and political realms. Sly's frustration is no more evident than on the aptly titled "It's Tragic" from 2005's Keep Them Confused. With lines like "How could millions be so stupid?" one thinks immediately of the 2004 presidential election. "I write lyrics about whatever bothers me at the time," Sly says of that album. "At that time, Bush was getting elected for the second time, the war in Iraq was heating up, so it was really easy to write political lyrics." Despite the apparent Bush bashing, Sly adds, "I think most political talk should be left to politicians. I'm not completely sold on the whole liberal thing. It's easy to be liberal when you have a bunch of money and to say [that] the red states are wrong when you've never had to buy something with a food stamp."
OK, fine. Leave the politics to the politicians. But as for punk rock, leave it to San Jose's No Use for a Name.
No Use for a Name plays Friday at 9pm at the Blank Club, 44 S. Almaden Ave., San Jose. Tickets are $10. (408.292.5262)
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