Dogwood circa 1998 (from left): Jason Harper, Josh Kemble, Russell Castillo, Evan Smith and Sean O’Donnell
Applying a "Christian" label to punk rock is often considered blasphemous to purists. Yet it seems ironic those purists would reject anything that doesn't conform to punk's established tenets. After all, punk itself is all about nonconformity.
San Diego's Dogwood—reuniting after a decade of retirement for two shows in Southern California—is familiar with the above Catch-22. With a high-speed sound reminiscent of early Offspring and vocals akin to the likes of NOFX and Lagwagon, Dogwood hit their heyday in the late '90s and early '00s, most notably after Tooth & Nail Records released Building a Better Me in 2000. They're not exactly Black Flag, but Dogwood remains a far cry from the safe sounds of contemporary Christian artists such as DC Talk and Amy Grant.
"We were writing about real life stuff that was happening in high school, like the party life or our girlfriends getting pregnant, just all this kind of stuff that's happening to any kid. We just happened to be able to write it from a spiritual context, or a lot of questioning context like 'If there is a God...' kind of thing," says Josh Kemble, lead vocalist since the band's inception around 1994. "When you're 17 or 18, there's no one there to tell you the answers, so we can just yell it out to the air and see what happens."
The original members of Dogwood—whose lineup changed a lot during their decade-long career—bonded in their Escondido high school photography class over their mutual love of music and extreme sports videos. They were especially big fans of Taylor Steele's surf movies and Mack Dawg's snowboarding films that screened at SOMA, eventually deciding to start their own band in hopes that their own music would make an appearance in some of those movies.
"All we wanted to do was be in these snowboarding videos with Pennywise," laughs Kemble, referring to the Hermosa Beach-based punk band.
But, due to the fact that two of the four members were active church members and their practice space was part of a church campus, they were instantly labeled a "Christian" band. This meant the punk rock element took a backseat despite the fact that the band's lyrics often dealt with the same desires and struggles as secular punk bands.
"I think it got immediately categorized as [a Christian band]," confirms Kemble. "It was more of we wanted to get on the videos... because it wasn't all 'evangelical' or Biblical-based or anything like that. It's kind of the stuff we knew, but it was also stupid high school stuff, or just writing about going snowboarding."
Dogwood's early days were marked with an eagerness to play anywhere for anyone—youth group rallies, skateparks and house parties, eventually moving to bigger venues like SOMA and other clubs around San Diego and Tijuana. Under the tutelage of bigger Christian bands such as P.O.D. and N.I.V. (No Innocent Victim), Dogwood released their first official release within two years (1996's Good Ol' Daze) and was touring full-time within three. They also began releasing records along the way: 1997's Through Thick & Thin, 1998's Dogwood and 1999's More Than Conquerors, which was released on the more high-profile Tooth & Nail Records.
However, other bands weren't as enthusiastic about a religious aspect seeping into their countercultural scene.
"There were bands that thought that we didn't belong just because we were saying that we were Christian. They were like 'That has no place in punk rock', that kind of thing. We got along with everyone personally, but they would say stuff back when there were [message] boards," admits Kemble. "I guess we weren't always looking to party. We were just playing music."
After their final album (2003's Seismic), Dogwood continued to tour with a rotating cast of members until slowly succumbing to family demands after their final tour in 2006. A decade later, Dogwood is reuniting for two shows only: January 13, 2017 at The Observatory and January 14, 2017 at Ventura's Ventura Theater, both with Five Iron Frenzy and headliners MxPx.
"We never technically did a farewell show, and technically it is a reunion because we haven't played in a while, but it isn't 'our show'," says Kemble. The band does receive frequent requests for gigs around the country, but with the band members living everywhere from Temecula to New Jersey until recently, it's been impossible to reunite for a handful of shows until now. When whispers of a new tour or recording arise, Kemble laughs it off.
"I'm never close-minded to anything [but] I feel like when we stopped playing, we kind of passed the torch to another generation of musical styles, like Pierce the Veil," he says. "I mean, I can barely think of any San Diego punk bands right now. Maybe that style has faded away."
Even with the "Christian" characterization hanging over their heads, Kemble assures me that Dogwood remains steadfastly punk, first and foremost.
"The church will judge you harder than anyone else sometimes, and it's very unfortunate, [especially] for artists because artists won't ever really fit into a Christian mold," he says. "I don't have to do anything that [the church is] saying as long as I'm living the right way. And that's why I saw Christian bands or Christians get out of the scene, or not say that they're a Christian band—because of the church. Not because of other bands who hated them. We just didn't think about it. We just dealt with it because we were easygoing. It was just snowboarding, snowboarding, snowboarding, skateboarding, surfing, The Offspring. That's it."
Dogwood play Jan. 13 at Observatory North Park