Life Is The Only Thing Worth Living For: Flipper Interviewed

Life Is The Only Thing Worth Living For: Flipper Interviewed

How the San Francisco group survived death, drugs, and disaster...

Steve DePace is reflecting on the way journalists used to refer to Flipper in their early days. “They started calling us The Grateful Dead Of The 80s, because of how long we were jamming out our songs,” he chuckles. “Then when hardcore happened, journalists started calling us The Hated Flipper, or The Band That Everyone Loves To Hate.”

Again, he pauses to laugh at the memory. “A lot of the kids were frustrated ‘cause they couldn’t slamdance – they were used to hardcore, and when we came on stage and played super-slow, they just couldn’t figure out what to do.”

By this stage you may be wondering exactly how Flipper managed to transcend this vitriol and bewilderment – because what’s the point in a punk band you can’t mosh to? And how exactly did they become recognised as one of the most important bands to emerge from the US punk underground in its most fertile period? Luckily, DePace suspects he may have the answer.

“At the same time,” he continues, “there was a really good, positive, chaos energy in the room. Our audiences used to love to come up on stage with us, and jump on the microphone and create new songs, or dance around on stage, whatever.

“We were all there together, we were all in it together, we were all feeding off each other’s energy.”

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That energy initially saw them through eight years, during which they took the feral howl of punk rock and slowed it down to a precariously sinister crawl. Their unhinged racket predated both Black Flag and the Melvins’ idiosyncratic switches to a metallic crawl, while years later Nirvana were also fans – that’s a homemade Flipper t-shirt Kurt Cobain’s wearing on the ‘In Utero’ sleeve, getting the groundwork done for a new generation to rediscover their savage magic in the ‘90s and beyond.

The band first formed in San Francisco in 1979, based around a core of guitar-toting Vietnam veteran Ted Falconi, bassist Will Shatter, and DePace on drums.

A livewire 23-year-old called Ricky Williams was their first frontman and came up with the band’s name (“All of his pets were named Flipper,” Falconi once told KPBS, “so we thought it was the perfect name because he wouldn’t forget it”), but he was fired within six months. Spells with The Sleepers and long-running post-punkers Toiling Midgets would follow, but Williams’ story was cut tragically short in 1992 as he died following a heroin overdose. It’s a dark theme that lamentably punctuates the band’s history.

Following Williams’ departure, the band added Bruce Lose (later renamed ‘Bruce Loose’ as he wanted to be ‘less negative’) to the lineup. Here, a congenial DePace picks up the thread with the breathless conversational energy of a born storyteller – he evidently loves telling this one.

“When Ricky was in the band, he was strictly the singer and Will Shatter was the bass player,” he explains. “When we brought Bruce into the band, all of a sudden we had two different guys who each played bass, wrote lyrics and sang. They would switch up usually during a show – it was about 50/50, each guy would sing half the songs, and play bass on half the songs, and they would switch out over the course of the show.”

At this stage, the band were notorious for jamming out their simplistic, proto-sludge riffs into 20-minute mantras – hence that ‘Grateful Dead Of The 80s’ tag – with venues often cutting the power to make them leave. Once they began to condense their set, however, they emerged with the material that would comprise a series of early 7”s and, eventually, their debut album. “I call it the ‘classic Flipper catalogue’,” explains DePace with an audible grin, and well he might. 1982’s ‘Generic Flipper’ is a bona fide punk classic, burying humour, optimism and a wide-eyed joy at their own capabilities beneath punishing waves of guitar scree, bludgeoning riffola and knowingly neanderthalic heaviosity. It is, DePace agrees, their definitive recording.

“That album was recorded over the course of a year,” he recalls. “We were working at a recording studio, in trade for studio time. We took our time, we weren’t rushed, we didn’t have any record label looking over our shoulders or anything like that. We really experimented in the studio, with different effects and the way we mixed and the way we recorded.”

While tracks like ‘Life Is Cheap’ see them concocting bleak hellscapes from political disaffection and nightmarish vocal effects, and ‘Living For The Depression’ offers a parody of standard issue punk nihilism, the record climaxes with a glorious explosion of sound titled ‘Sex Bomb’. Just shy of eight minutes, it sees a loping bass riff anchor set against squalling saxophones and wild guitar noise, while over the melee Shutter yells, “She’s a sex bomb, my baby! Yeah!” It’s as joyous a rock’n’roll proclamation as ‘awopbopaloobopalopbamboom’ and utterly addictive.

“We brought in two saxophone players,” says DePace, once more relishing the opportunity to reminisce. “Those guys were amazing – we brought them into the studio, they listened to the recording, and then they went out into the hallway and came up with the part. Each of them went off on free-form solos. One of those sax players – his name was Ward Abronski – he’s a jazz player, and he’s doing things on the saxophone I’ve never heard before. Hitting those high, high, high notes, the squealing stuff… it sounds crazy but that takes a LOT of skill and talent to create that.”

At the time of our interview, the band are scheduled to reunite with Abronski for a show in their home town, with the performance set to reaffirm that ‘Sex Bomb’ is their unlikely party anthem.

“Everywhere we go,” our hero adds, “we try to enlist local saxophone or horn players for ‘Sex Bomb’. In the early days it was always our encore song. We don’t really do encores any more, but it’s still our final song, our big finale. “We bring audience members up on stage and they have the time of their lives. It’s just the whole audience on stage, dancing around, jumping around, having a great time... So it is a party anthem, a natural party anthem.”

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The classic era took in one more studio album – 1984’s ‘Gone Fishin’’ – before the hard-touring band took a hiatus. Before they could decide whether to continue, however, a decision was made for them in horrific circumstances, as in 1987 Will Shatter overdosed on heroin and died.

In the aftermath, DePace jumped in his car and drove around the United States for eight months, staying with friends like GWAR and the Bad Brains along the way, returning home just in time for the Loma Prieta earthquake that severely damaged San Francisco and Oakland in 1989. At this point, an unexpected second chapter began in the Flipper story, although it proved short-lived.

Depace explains: “In January of 1990 I got a call from Ted, and he had met this guy who might be a good fit for Flipper. So Bruce and Ted and myself got this guy John Dougherty on bass, and we wrote songs and started playing shows, and ended up getting signed to Rick Rubin’s label, Def American, and we recorded ‘American Grafishy’.

“John joined up with us in 1990 and the band continued through the end of 1993. During that time we toured a lot and we made that record, and then Bruce broke his back in an accident. He was driving his truck on a country road and he went off the side of the road - he crashed his truck and it rolled over. That ended everything, abruptly.”

This was in 1994, and the following year tragedy mounted upon tragedy as Dougherty became the third member in the band’s history to die following a heroin overdose. Twenty-four years after the fact, DePace is still shocked by the senselessness of it all.

“Drugs were always around,” he says. “Some people got into speed and others got into heroin and others switched back and forth… I’m trying to get to the root reason of why people do that. I really don’t know why.

“Will Shatter died because he had actually cleaned up – he had gotten married and his wife was pregnant, and he had stopped using. And then one day, somebody came by his house with heroin, and he decided to get high, and as happens so often with people who are junkies and then they quit and then they use again, they remember the amount of heroin they used to use and they use that same amount, but now they have no tolerance, and it kills them instantly. That’s how he died.

“I never got into it. I was able to observe at a young age how people become addicts and how their behaviour changes, so I kept my distance. I tried to keep the guys around me from getting too deep into it, but I wasn’t always successful. And it was unfortunate. We lost a lot of really talented people to the use of heroin.”

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In the intervening years, DePace went on to work as a production assistant at Hanna-Barbera and Warner Bros., working on cartoons like ‘Johnny Quest’ and ‘Animaniacs’ – anarchic enough for a punk rocker, you might think. He even got back into music, managing the side project of the Dead Kennedys’ D.H. Peligro, before another very important opportunity came his way.

He explains: “In 2005 I got a call from CBGBs in New York. They were putting together some benefit concerts to save the club from being evicted, so I called Ted and Bruce and I was able to talk them into getting back together.

“We needed a bass player since John had died, so we enlisted our friend Bruno [DeSmartass], who had played with us in the past, toured with us in the past, and he was an old friend and a great bass player.

“So we played one night with Sham 69 and one night with the Dead Boys – we had a great time, and it was inspiring enough that we decided to continue.”

DeSmartass swiftly dropped out, however, which afforded Flipper the chance to approach one of their most high-profile fans ahead of a slot at the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in 2006. This is how Nirvana’s Krist Novoselic joined the band. It proved to be a smart move.

“Actually it was Thurston Moore who helped me to get in touch with Krist,” says DePace, with all the infectious fervour of a fan who’s just met his lifelong heroes.

“Thurston was curating that festival that year, and he said, ‘We’d love to have you.’ I said, ‘OK, we have one problem, we don’t have a bass player… I have this idea about Krist Novoselic, what do you think?’ And he goes, ‘Man, that would be perfect. I’ll call him for you.’

“So Krist called me, and he said he was honoured to be asked to play with us, and he told me about being a big fan of Flipper and having listened to ‘Generic’ over and over again and loving it, and how Kurt Cobain really loved the band…

“It was all just so much fun and we had a great time, so when we got back home, we said, ‘Why don’t we try to write some new material and see what happens?’ So we began rehearsals up at Krist’s property in the southwest part of Washington state, and when we were ready to record we called Jack Endino [Sub Pop’s one-time in-house engineer and architect of the grunge sound] and worked with him.”

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The fruits of those sessions, 2009’s ‘Love’ and its accompanying live album ‘Fight’, should have put Flipper firmly back on track, although Novoselic was less keen to tour. Undeterred, the band added Frightwig bassist Rachel Thoele to the lineup and continued until 2015, at which point Bruce Loose also left the band, with lingering health issues following his car crash proving less than conducive to life in a touring punk rock band.

Ever resourceful, the band found yet another solution in the form of David Yow, one of noise rock’s great frontmen thanks to his legendary stints with Scratch Acid and The Jesus Lizard. It’ll be him holding the microphone as the band return to the UK for a series of 40th anniversary shows this summer, while depping on bass will be the Minutemen’s Mike Watt. It’s an incredible lineup, and it has not escaped DePace that they’re lucky to be able to call upon punk rock’s foremost elder statesmen to become part of the Flipper legend.

“It’s very exciting,” he says, barely containing his enthusiasm. “We’re very fortunate that we’re in that position – we’re a band that’s influenced all these people, and we can reach out to them and have them be both interested and honoured to be asked. Joining forces, being creative together… yeah, that’s a great blessing and really fun.”

With Flipper now down to two original members, you could be forgiven for thinking that the band might want to slow down after four decades in the game. However, DePace says that he and Falconi are ‘like brothers’, adding with no little admiration that his bandmate is ‘the only one in the world who plays guitar they way he does’. In fact, along with Thoele and Yow, they’ve recently been working on a collaborative release with brothers-in-sludge the Melvins, and seem as excited for the future as they are to revisit their history. So with all this in mind, how does DePace reflect on his time with Flipper?

“Well, I’d probably not want the guys to die who did,” he says, with a mournful laugh. “I wish Will was around, I wish John was around, I wish Ricky was around… Ricky died many years after he was out of the band. It was his drug use that caused us to kick him out of the band, his drug use was just above and beyond. He wasn’t conscious enough. And Will died during a time when we were on hiatus and we weren’t sure if the band was going to continue because he was starting a new life, and then he died because of a stupid mistake. John Dougherty also died because of a stupid mistake. So I’d probably want those guys to still be alive.”

He pauses, before adding: “Other than that, I can’t think of anything I would change.”

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Flipper have announced a full European tour for their 40th anniversary - catch them at the following shows:

July
30 Nottingham Rescue Rooms
31 Bristol The Exchange

August
1 Blackpool Rebellion Festival
2 Glasgow CCA
3 Leeds Brudenell
4 London Garage

Words: Will Fitzpatrick

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