Some of the South Bay’s least-documented legends have been making music under the name of Instigator for the past three decades. Last weekend, I was fortunate enough to witness their live show (the first one in several years) at the VFW Post in South Redondo Beach. After the show, current band members Chris Sueta, Smitty, Joe Vangelisti, and Evan Etzel filled me in on their unwritten history.
It was summer of ‘81 when Joe and “Sueta” formed Instigator at age 19 and 15, respectively, in South Redondo. At this time, both were self-proclaimed “gnarly music rats”, making it a point to attend every punk rock concert on their radars. After a night of memorable performances by revolutionary groups T.S.O.L. and Circle Jerks, they figured it would be wise to start a group of their own. With Joe singing and Sueta drumming, they summoned fellow locals Glen Peters and Eric Capucci to take the roles of guitarist and bassist. This original line-up made their debut at a Redondo party, in the days when it was ordinary to spot a row of surf degenerates – sometimes a hundred strong – kicking back and maintaining a general ruckus on the Esplanade wall by the Topaz jetty. When the surf was poor and the sun was hiding, however, the band members spent their days at Recycled Records in Hermosa Beach. There, they had the chance to snag the newest punk 45’s and albums (to name a few… Nip Drivers, Minutemen, Suicidal Tendencies, Saccharine Trust) brought to the store by local underground record labels. As Instigator’s presence expanded beyond the South Bay, they often shared the stage with these bands in Hollywood, Santa Monica, and other surrounding areas. They continued to consistently play shows through the ‘80s, with Ted Ziegler stepping in as their new guitarist around 1986.
Sometime in the early ‘90s, the band took a well-deserved break, and Instigator lay dormant until the turn of the century, when Torrance-raised Smitty (of Prop 13 and The Choice) joined the group on bass. It was with this line-up that they finally entered the studio to record their repertoire of the ‘80s. The final product, titled “Sorry We’re Punk” and released around 2004, is the only official documentation of the band’s music. In their original incarnation, they never thought much of recording an album or being in the spotlight; they were simply out there getting their rocks off. As Vangelisti put it, “We’ve always just wanted to be a garage band. It didn’t matter that we were the guys on stage – it was about being with our brothers… having fun… that’s also why we never really sold anything; we mostly just give stuff away.” With an album finally released and a new generation of Instigator fans on the scene, the group was back in action for half a decade. In recent years, though, Ziegler and Smitty moved out of the area, making Instigator performances few and far between.
Last weekend, Smitty made it down from San Luis Obispo for the event at the VFW, bringing along Evan Etzel to handle the guitar in Ziegler’s place. The performance was a fine display of elegance and savagery that can only be found in the South Bay, and I can’t help but hint that we may be seeing more of this in coming months. In the meantime, if you’re game for a round of “Where’s Instigator,” check the water at Topaz or sleuth around Boeing’s rocket-building facilities… ER