Welcome. You’re invited to have a virtual drink with my friends. Today, I’m pleased to introduce you to the multi-talented Jeff Penalty.
Punk rocker-documentary filmmaker-reality TV show producer-screenwriter Jeff Penalty speaks in sentences as hyphenated as his life. Energetic, optimistic, self-reflective, and utterly humble, Jeff bounces effortlessly from thought to thought. I first met Jeff Penalty (aka Jeff Alulis) at USC film school. He was the bright kid with the buzzed hair who talked a mile a minute. None of us knew that in about a year, he’d become the new lead singer for the iconic punk band Dead Kennedys. I distinctly remember my reaction when I heard the news: “Jeff Alulis is what?!” Then certain elements clicked and it started to make sense.
“It was essentially Rock Star with Mark Walhberg, only with better music,” Jeff said. “I watch that movie and it’s really bizarre some of the parallels, the relationships, the details. It wasn’t anywhere near that same scale, but it was the same situation at the heart of it. Of all the movies to have lived out, it’s not a bad one.”
Jeff still seemed a little awed by the turn of events. “My whole Dead Kennedys story starts when I came out to LA. I would go see bands play. I became friends with this guy, Landon, who was in a local band and we had a mutual favorite band, Screeching Weasel. He would let me get up and sing a Screeching Weasel song at the end of his sets,” Jeff said. “After I graduated from film school, Landon went on to book local shows. Through his connections, Landon ended up as the tour manager for Dead Kennedys when they reunited.”
Dead Kennedys reunited in 2001 without lead singer Jello Biafra. Punk purists were skeptical, including Jeff. “They were playing at the Key Club,” he said. “And my friend said, ‘You should come see them. You’ll be convinced. It’s exciting and I can get you in on the guest list.’ And I thought, ‘All right, if I can go for free, I’ll go.’”
Jeff was more than convinced. He was “blown away.” Excited after the show, he told Landon, “‘Hey, if the new guy doesn’t work out, I want the job. You have to at least get me an audition. Just singing one song in a small practice space with those guys and having them tell me I suck would be an honor.’”
Landon brushed Jeff off saying, “You never know. You never know.”
In 2003, Jeff got a call from Landon. “He said, ‘Hey, write down this date. Write it down. Write it down.’ I was like, ‘Why? What are you talking about?’ He said, ‘Today’s the day you became the lead singer of the Dead Kennedys.’”
Dead Kennedys’ singer, Brandon Cruz, had broken his shoulder and couldn’t continue the tour. The band had four dates in Norway when Jeff jumped in. After a secret gig at the Viper Room “to get used to each other,” it was off to Oslo. Jeff fronted the band from 2003 to 2006, performing more than 50 shows.
“It was an ideal situation,” Jeff said. “Once a month we would go out on the road and play a couple of shows, but there was a lot of downtime in between. I would come home and work on documentaries or writing. It was the best day job anybody could ever have in Los Angeles.”
Not only was it his ideal day job, this had been Jeff’s teenage dream. “When I was 14, listening to their albums, I remember singing along in my room and just being all into it, you know like kids do and thinking to myself, ‘Man, it would be so cool if someday I could be the singer for the Dead Kennedys.’ Then I’d shut myself down saying, ‘You idiot, why do you even think stupid thoughts like that? It’ll never happen. First of all, they’re never gonna get back together. That’s just never gonna happen. Second of all, if they do get back together, they’re gonna get back together with their original lead singer, Jello Biafra. Third, even if for some strange, bizarre reason they got together without Jello Biafra, what makes you think they would ever even find you, or give you an audition, or give you a chance of all the people in the world. How do you think you would end up on that stage? You need to stop being ridiculous with your weird fantasies.’ This was the internal monologue I had of shutting myself down. But it actually happened years later.”
Immediately, I can see a 14-year-old Jeff thrashing, singing, dreaming, and shutting himself down. I wonder how many other 14-year-olds have done exactly the same thing. How many 14-year-olds are out there right now dreaming and shutting themselves down? How many adults?
“The whole experience taught me that nothing is impossible,” Jeff said. “When you feel like things are hopeless or you think things are super-dark, you could get a phone call tomorrow where it turns out you’re the lead singer for the Dead Kennedys.”
It may sound like Jeff hit the lottery at random. But the impromptu Screeching Weasel set-enders that proved to be his unwitting audition for Dead Kennedys were born from his love of music and performing. By putting himself out there and being authentic about who he was, he created the path for opportunity to find him.
“Not to get too crazy philosophical, but the endless surprises life can put in front of you is something to look forward to,” Jeff said. “The future is unwritten and the world is there for the taking if you’re willing to put in the work and take a few risks.”
So where do all the other hyphenates I mentioned come into play? As it happened, Jeff’s career as an award-winning filmmaker and reality TV producer started before the Dead Kennedys gig – and it started with another band. When Jeff moved to L.A. to go to film school, he timed his arrival so he could see The Bouncing Souls play. He met the band afterward and formed a friendship with them.
“Just as school was winding down, they called me up because they wanted to make a DVD from existing footage of their long career,” Jeff said. “They had tried to put it together themselves but it kept falling apart, so they were looking for a fresh perspective.”
The Bouncing Souls believed that Jeff and his producing partner, Ryan Harlin, would “get” the project but still objective about how to tell their story. Jeff wrote and co-directed “Do You Remember? Fifteen Years of The Bouncing Souls.” The film won best feature documentary in the 2003 Los Angeles DIY Film Festival.
Off that documentary’s success, punk band NOFX approached Jeff and Ryan to shoot a documentary about their 2006-2007 world tour. The documentary led to “NOFX: Backstage Passport,” a show Jeff executive produced and co-directed for Fuse TV.
“NOFX was a band I was a fan of since I was in high school. And again, like the Dead Kennedys, I would think to myself ‘Man, it would be so great to meet those guys. I bet I’d totally get along with Fat Mike,” Jeff said, referring to NOFX’s lead singer. “And as it turns out, we do in fact get along pretty well.”
“To be able to go around the world and have all these experiences with NOFX and then have it turn into its own TV show is just remarkable,” Jeff said.
“If I could time travel back to visit my younger self, I’d say, ‘Hey, listen, yeah high school is a sh*tty time for everybody. It sucks. It seems like it’s always gonna be awful, but I can tell you right here you’re gonna go on to sing for the Dead Kennedys and tour the world with NOFX and work on all these other crazy projects and have all these other crazy experiences,” Jeff said. “I’d blow my younger self’s mind.”
I have a feeling a 50-year-old Jeff would blow now-Jeff’s mind because he has many more good things in front of him. Jeff’s working on a follow-up documentary to “NOFX: Backstage Passport” and writing original screenplays – several of them. When he takes his scripts out, I’m sure someone is going to call and take him on another amazing adventure.