" I knew at the time that there was something special about that film, from the people involved to the incredible performances, and the bonds that were made "
ander Schloss was a lanky grocery store clerk playing in a funk band when a British UCLA film school graduate named Alex Cox cast him as "Kevin the Nerd" in the 1984 quasi-punk, sci-fi cult film Repo Man. He went on to contribute to a number of Cox’s films—as an actor and composer—including, Straight to Hell, Sid and Nancy, Walker, El Patrullero, and The Winner. Equally known for its’ soundtrack, Repo Man has enjoyed nearly as much notoriety among rank-and-file punks for showcasing seminal bands Black Flag, The Plugz, Suicidal Tendencies, and the Circle Jerks—Schloss would become a card-carrying member of the latter. Schloss has collaborated and toured with the likes of Joe Strummer, Scott Weiland, and Thelonius Monster, to name a few, and has remained an important figure in the Los Angeles music scene to this day. We recently talked to Zander about his debut role in Repo Man (now available in on Criterion Collection’s new deluxe Blu-ray edition), its mercurial director, and his career in music to date.
Where does the Zander Schloss journey begin?
I was born in St Louis and I’m the youngest of four children. After my mom and father split up, my mother asked if any of the kids wanted to come out to California with her. And, I said yes, because I had started playing guitar and thought that it would be a better place for me to be a musician. So, I left and came out to San Diego with my mother. I went to high school out there and went to Los Angeles shortly after.
Did you have formal music training?
Yes, but not for my first five years of playing. I must have some natural musical ability because I remember my parents gathering around me as a little kid when I’d be banging out songs on the piano at the next-door neighbors and they’d say, “look at what little ‘Zandy’ can do.” (Laughs) I also gobbled up every piece of music that I could get my hands on from the age of twelve to my last year of high school. All my basic rock chops, like Hendrix and Led Zepplin. Later on, I lived with a jazz teacher named Peter Sprague for a year and was under a strict practice regiment, transcribing Coltrane and Charlie Parker solos; running scales and arpeggios—really, really disciplined jazz studies for a year, and then I went to music school in Los Angeles. What the training taught me more was to keep me dexterous and the different options that I had, variations of chords, music theory and all that stuff.
Had Alex Cox been aware of your life in music before casting you in Repo Man?
Alex was actually going out with my step-sister, Abbe Wool, with whom he co-wrote Sid and Nancy; so there’s a bit of nepotism in the story. When I moved to LA, I did a number of student films at UCLA and Alex was doing post-graduate film work there. Alex was interested in what I was doing in music, and at the time I was in a funk band called The Juicy Bananas with guys from the Englewood and Watts areas. We actually had a song called “Bad Man” on the Repo Man soundtrack.
What were the circumstances surrounding your getting cast in Repo Man?
I was around Alex a lot as he was writing the script. Now, Alex might get very mad or offended, but I assume that the Kevin character was lightly based on my personal hygiene and my actual life. (laughs) I was working at the Nature Mart food store and we’d talk about my career aspirations of moving up the ladder at the grocery store, kind of like Kevin.
Did you know you'd get the part?
I was there working on the film as a production assistant when the executive producer Michael Nesmith (of The Monkees) and Alex were watching the rushes. Chris Penn, Sean Penn’s now-deceased brother who was originally cast as Kevin, approached the role with more of a comical sensibility, being really animated and goofy. It might have worked on SNL, but he didn’t quite get it. Kevin was supposed to be a dead-serious character, meant to believe the things he was saying, or his mentality of working his way up the ladder to be manager and being part of the work force. He was really meant to believe that and it needed to be played seriously.
Yeah, there’s something sweet and innocent about Kevin. The first time we see him on screen he’s earnestly singing the theme song to a 7-Up commercial.
Yeah, he didn’t think that was ironic at all. Anyway, Alex and Michael were watching the rushes, and since I delivered them I heard Michael say, “God, that’s just horrible. What are we going to do?” And Alex said, “Well, the only other person I thought of playing the role is Zander, but he’s got no acting experience at all." I remember Michael saying, “Well, why don’t we give him a shot.” I didn’t know for two weeks, and continued being a production assistant. I was always going to contribute music with my group the Juicy Bananas. But then a day after my 21st birthday, I was told I’d be playing Kevin in Repo Man... Then I was shooting that scene in the grocery store the day after my 21st birthday.
Are there any particular anecdotes about filming that you remember?
I do remember the scene in the store with [actor] Luis Contreras picking me up and pushing me into the other shopping cart, and I had a huge bruise on my side. The stunt coordinator said that if I didn't have padding on, I would have broken a couple of ribs.
What was Alex Cox’s directorial style? Was the director as eccentric as what we’d eventually see?
Alex had written such a great script. The dialogue and characters were so rich. There wasn’t really a need for a lot of improvisation, for people to run away the characters… He also had an incredible troupe of actors, between Harry Dean Stanton, Emilio [Estevez], Tracy Walter, Sy Richardson. Everybody was cast perfectly and did their lines perfectly. Alex was easy going and confidant on that film. Now, as time went by, Alex would change on different films. Depending on whatever setting he was in. If it was Sid and Nancy, he was in his punk rock phase; if it was Straight to Hell, he was Sergio Leone (or even worse, Sam Peckinpah). And, by the time we got to Nicaragua to do Walker, Alex had completely lost his mind and became General William Walker—completely insane and unreasonable (Laughs). I mean I understand though; he’s a one-of-a-kind director, and I feel sad and sorry that Hollywood didn’t accept what he was doing. As far as filmmakers are concerned, he could have been one of the greatest, up there with Coppola and Scorsese, if he had not bucked the system so much and played along a little bit.
Did all the Repo Man participants-crew, cast, musicians think you all were involved in something momentous?
It’s funny you should say that, because when I look back on that time period, the so-called golden days of punk rock. All the bands we toured with then have since become god-like entities and at the time, to me, I didn’t think about that. I kept my nose in my work and had a great time with a bunch of really cool people, I didn’t think it would become such a wide-spread, popular movement that has now inundated our pop-culture.
Was Emilio Estevez into punk rock at all?
Not really, Emilio was a jock. But that’s ok because I was a hippy (laughs). But, my point is, I knew at the time that there was something about that film, the people involved, all these incredible performances, and the bonds that were made. One time, while watching the dailies, it dawned on me when I heard Tracy Walter deliver his monologue about not driving, I remember thinking “I’m involved in something that is very very special.”
It seems like it was the purist form of film school for you—serving all these purposes on the production, from acting, providing music for the soundtrack, to running the dailies.
Oh yeah, every film I worked on with Alex, I was always wearing a couple of different hats. I’d be involved with doing the music (performing or scoring music) and acting. There’d be times when I’d be writing the underscore for my death scene in Straight To Hell… or collaborating with Joe Strummer from The Clash and Miquel Sandoval for a song I’d sing in Straight to Hell, “Karl’s Disco Weiner Haven.”
Have you ever run into Emilio after all of these years?
I have not…
Let's talk about the great music you're making with partner-in-crime Sean Wheeler. I think So Low She Rose is one of the better songs written in the last couple of decades. Do you prefer playing acoustic instruments and being in a duo?
I love it, because I’m tired of playing music that needs a lot of volume. I’m very happy doing what I’m doing with Sean, and we’re doing final mixes and doing art-work for our sophomore effort, coming out at the end of this summer and into the public’s greedy little hands (laughs). We start a tour soon with Joe Buck (formerly of Hank III’s band) and a woman named Rachel Brooks.
You guys seem to complement each other really well.
We do complement each other. We’re two completely different species of animal that seem to have a symbiotic relationship, because I do things that Sean can’t do and Sean does things that I can’t do. And I also love the aspect of our act… it's not so complicated, as far as personalities are concerned. It’s more like being in a marriage than a band, and we actually get to do whatever we want. We just went on tour in Alaska and Hawaii. We played a festival in Yellow Stone National Park where we camped out for three days. We both had separated tents.
Any parting words?
Yes, I want to make a shameless self-promotion. Watch out for some solo work in the not-so-distant future, tentatively titled, Schloss Angeles.
For Sean and Zander tour updates click here