Rachel Thoele of Flipper: "There would be times they would get up and play one song, but still it was amazing"
Flipper with Rachel Thoele performing Sex Bomb at the Lion's Lair 3/29/12
Rachel Thoele of Flipper (due tonight at the Lion's Lair) got her start in the Bay Area punk scene in her first band God (or G.O.D. aka Girls On Drugs or Girls Over Dosed). But the first band she was in that many people got to see was Frightwig, the legendary art punk band from the '80s that was often referred to as "the female Flipper" but really sounded pretty different if just as intense and sometimes scary.
After leaving Frightwig, Thoele became a founding member of the similarly-minded and equally renowned, experimental punk band Mudwimin. During that time, Thoele had become a veteran of the underground scene in San Francisco and she got to see the flowering of creativity as it was happening both as a witness and as an active participant.
In 2009, she replaced the departing Krist Novoselic in Flipper, one of her favorite bands. If you've been able to see Flipper with Thoele you know she was the perfect choice, as she brings her own commanding presence and wicked sense of humor to the band. We had the chance to speak with the friendly and humorous Thoele about her musical life before Flipper and as a full-fledged member.
Westword: How did you become aware of punk rock and underground music?
Rachel Thoele: The last gig that the Sex Pistols played was an all-ages show, and I went there with some kids I was in school with. It was intense, and it completely disrupted my whole idea of whatever I liked, and I instantly fell in love with it. Everybody was super free, and it was just really fun. So that's how I got into it in one day. My boyfriend, for the summer, went to stay with this band Legionnaire's Disease, when I was fifteen in Texas. And my mother, without having any idea where she was sending me, sent me there for a month. And that was pretty crazy too.
She was an artist, and later she said to me, "You need to learn how to play an instrument because you haven't picked up art." I wasn't then a photographer yet. She said, "What do you want to play?" I said, "Electric bass." So she bought me an electric bass. I thought I was being an asshole. But she bought me the electric bass and sent me to lessons.
What was your first band?
It was called God. Which was also "Girls On Drugs" or Girls Over Dosed." It was all girls -- a sax player, a woman who played two drums standing up, a bass player and a guitar player. Back then, we played similar places that Flipper played, like the Sound of Music. I remember we played an Irish bar and weird warehouse shows. We all lived at this warehouse called the A-Hole on 3rd and Bryant. I guess, at that point, I must have turned eighteen. Just whatever we could get.
At that point, there was a big scene, and there were a lot of collective shows being put on. It wasn't like you were trying to make it or anything. You were just part of the scene of a group of people. There was a collective feeling to the San Francisco scene at that time.
Did you ever play the On Broadway?
I know I did that with Frightwig. And it's hard for me to recollect if God did.
Did you play the Mabuhay Gardens before it shut down?
You know, I think God played the Mabuhay. And I think Frightwig played it when I was in the band, too. They allowed under age people to go there because they served food. I think it was limited to certain nights.
You remember Dirk Dirksen? Do you remember if he had some choice words for you bands or if you got to see him weigh in on other bands?
I can't really wax philosophically about Dirk Dirksen. He was quite a character and super interesting. But we didn't interact. I don't know if he noticed my band. We were so young; we were probably like little kids to him, so I don't remember anything like that.
Were you involved in Frightwig right after God, and how did that band come together?
One of my best friends, Mia [Levin], started it with Deanna [Ashley]. They started it, and they had had a drummer or two already, and they had this woman Paula Frazier in it. So they had two bassists early on, before I think anybody was doing anything like that. They went through quite a few drummers. I was just one of the drummers before they had Cecilia [Lynch], who stuck with them for a while.
How long were you in the band?
I'm going to guess I was in Frightwig for a year, and I went on to start the Mudwimin, and I was in a band called Schrödinger's Cat, Dog...there were lots of weird little bands.
Back then how did people react to Frightwig?
People liked it a lot. Frightwig was infinitely likeable. I grew up in San Francisco, so there were other girl bands and stuff back then. It wasn't that weird. Twelve years ago, I played and this New Zealander came up, and he was like, "I've never seen women play music before!" But back then in San Francisco, it wasn't that unusual. Frightwig was pretty good. We were just really rockin', and hard and we had bad attitudes. It was fun.
Were you aiming for a certain kind of music with the Mudwimin?
Not really. I think we all had slightly different ideas of what we were aiming for. So it was a collective creation. A lot of the songs sound different because all of us traded, and all of us played everything. Our voices weren't that different from each other. It was super fun. With that band it was all just about expressing ourselves and I think we were angry. One of them just passed recently, which is sad. I went to the memorial a few months ago.
You were involved in punk before hardcore came along. Do you feel shows changed or do you feel they did at all?
Well, it would depend on what shows you were going to. I was primarily in this sort of insulated San Francisco art punk scene, for lack of a better word. Those didn't change. We all went to each other's shows and everybody was just super creative: Thinking Fellers Union [Local 282], Three Day Stubble, Tragic Mulatto. That kind of stuff.
It seemed like shows didn't change that much. It wasn't like we were suddenly playing with hardcore bands or hardcore people were coming to see our bands or anything like that. I think it was just a slightly different genre. I didn't tour that much so it didn't seem to like suddenly there was hardcore but I'm sure other people could tell you different.
When I was first going out and I was super young, I used to dance a lot. In pits there used to be a lot of caring, and people would make sure you didn't get hurt. And now, years later, it doesn't seem like that. A friend of mine was told, "If you can't take it, then don't be here." And it never used to be like that. But I noticed that change years later.
Did you see Flipper pretty early on?
Yeah, I was totally into Flipper. They were one of my favorite bands. [It's tough to say] as a far first show, but I'm going to guess I saw them at either the Sound of Music or the Mabuhay. I just really liked the way their music sounded. It really affected me. I mean, my style was affected by that, so it's really easy for me to play it. I loved the mood, the feeling and the attitude. It just felt like being home, kind of.
Bruce actually lived near my mom. When I was seventeen and still living with my mom, he lived around the corner. Now he lives near my mom up north. He likes to joke that, "I lived near her mom then, and I live near her mom now, and what she doesn't realize is that I'm actually her father." Which is funny because obviously he's not my father.
Then I lived with Steve and Ted in a big house called Mission A on Mission Street. I lived there for five years, and Steve lived there a lot longer. Ted was in and out of there now and then. We all knew each other from quite a while ago.
Were those guys different off stage rather than on stage?
I didn't ever see anything like that. Three Day Stubble are obvious different off stage than they are on stage where they have personas. But I never really thought of Flipper as being that. That's one of the things I feel kindred to with them. There's no reason to get up and be somebody else, really. What's the point of that? For a certain kind of entertainment it might be. I don't know. I can't act. I tried to do drama once but I can't. It's the same with the stage.
Do you remember any of the pranks or antics Flipper would pull on stage?
There used to be times when they would fight. Or they wouldn't be getting along, or they'd be on something or other, so it wasn't very together. No matter what it was, it was really cool. You never felt really cheated. There would be times they would get up and play one song, but still, it was amazing. I know they would have fights but I don't think they were pranks. I think they were actual.
When they approached you about playing in the band did they tell you why they wanted you to be part of Flipper?
I actually approached Bruce. I heard through his ex that Krist wasn't interested in doing it anymore, and I said, "I'd really like to do that." Eventually Ted came over and tried me out. Bruce wasn't living in the city. He brought me over to Steve, and they accepted me.
But I was lucky. I'd been away for ten years. I'd been playing bass the whole time. I'd been working my ass off playing several days a week, so I was really in good shape when the opportunity came along. I was playing with some friends that never really turned into a band, but we were heartily jamming quite a bit with many different varieties of people.
I was also in Goat Fluffer. It was all girls with three basses and a drummer. Two of us were named Rachel. It was really heavy, needless to say. There were no guitars and I got to play noise in that band by putting my bass through all kinds of effects. It was super fun. Another one of the members had been in Caroliner Rainbow.
Is there a particular model of bass you prefer?
I like G&L basses. I've had the same bass for fifteen years, and I love it. Mine has a volume for each pickup, and one of them is kind of live-ish, so it buzzes, which drives Steve crazy, but it has a really beautiful tone.
How would you say touring has been different for you from the 80s compared to how it is now?
The first band I toured in was Schrödinger's Cat. The only reason we did it was I happened to be going to Europe for the first time in my life. That would have been about '84, and we had only played six shows and they really wanted to go. They said I would go if I could book shows. Back then, because of the whole lack of computers thing, you could make up shit.
So I made up this completely false resume of who that band was that had played only six shows. In Berlin, I took a bunch of acid and my friend drove me to all the clubs there, and I literally booked six shows in one night just by going in there and going, "Hey! I'm from America and I have this band!" We had a CD and the songs sounded really cool and it was novel.
I haven't been to Berlin since, and Flipper is going to go there next month. It'll be interesting to see how it differs. I haven't toured with a band to Europe since then. I did a trip with Flipper to Australia. So I guess I have trouble answering your question because I have a lack of experience. But it seems to me the whole internet thing makes it harder to completely make up stuff.
How have you found Flipper as opposed to some of your other bands?
I was almost always in girl bands, not because I particularly liked to be, but because it's what fell into my lap. I loved their music, and they like to practice and like to play. It's a totally different feeling just jamming with them. Practicing the songs is a real pleasure. As opposed to playing with some people who just aren't into it. It's joyful. We have a Live in Tasmania tape.
What was that like playing there?
I assumed it would be kind of a desert area. But actually it reminded me of the northwest because there's a lot of trees and hills. We were there during a cold season. It was cool, and it was a great town. It seemed like a lot of people were on mushrooms. We played this inn that you could stay in in Hobart. People could stay at the inn and see a show and they put up the bands. I toured there again later with Neil Hamburger.
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