Flipper: "We had people reporting that they'd seen our graffiti on the Great Wall of China"

Flipper (due tonight and tomorrow night at the Lion's Lair) got its start in 1979 in the creatively fertile arts and music scene in San Francisco. Formed after the break-up of Negative Trend and including two former members of that band, Will Shatter and Stephen DePace, Flipper didn't set out to be the godfathers of grunge or to write music that was pretty much the antithesis of the hardcore movement that crystallized after the turn of the decade. Rather, Flipper charted its own trajectory with dark, sometimes brooding, electrifying songs sometimes reflecting an exuberant desperation and a worldview cynical in so much as cynicism meant a skepticism of the rhetoric perpetrated by the Ronald Reagan administration and his notion of "morning in America."

Flipper released a handful of records in its first run of activity until Will Shatter tragically died in 1987. The group pulled it together in time for the 1993 album American Grafishy. Two years after that album, Flipper effectively went on hiatus for ten years, before returning and ultimately writing and recording a new album with one of its longtime supporters and fans, Krist Novoselic of Nirvana fame. The result was the 2008 album Love, which sounded like the band was back to form.

Chris Ritter of the band Crash, a former resident of the Bay Area and in bands at the time of the heyday of the punk scene, facilitated interviews with Flipper, and we were able to speak in depth with Stephen DePace, Rachel Thoele and Bruce Loose. What follows now is our conversation with DePace, the band's original drummer and continuous member. The friendly and gregarious DePace discussed the formation of the band, its pranks and the unexpected covers he's heard. Check back tomorrow for our interviews with Thoele and Loose.

Westword: What brought you guys together to form the band in the beginning?

Stephen DePace: One of the original, founding members, Will Shatter, and I were in Negative Trend together. That band was happening in 1978. That was my very first band. Pretty cool experience for me. That band went through several different personnel changes, and I was in the middle version of the band. I departed along with the singer and then a couple of other guys that joined. Eventually the band [broke up] permanently.

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A little time went by and Will Shatter basically started putting together this other band, Flipper, and asked me to join. I guess Ricky Williams had left the Sleepers or whatever. Somehow, magically, we all came together: Will Shatter, myself, Ted Falconi and Ricky Sleeper. Ricky didn't last too long in the band, probably less than six months or so. We may have played one or two gigs with him, but we never did any recording with him. He was kind of a real mess, so we let him go, and we picked up with Bruce Loose. That particular line-up really clicked, and we started recording and playing gigs very shortly after we initially got together.

What caused us to get together...There was an amazing scene that was developing and brewing in San Francisco in the mid-to-late '70s. I came on the scene around '77, '78, and there were a whole lot of people around. Everyone was an artist of some kind or another, a musician, a photographer or doing films or all kinds of different mediums people were working in. There were people hanging out in the scene from the San Francisco Art Institute and so on.

Everything kind of revolved around this club called The Mabuhay Gardens, also known as the Fab Mab. It was kind of a clubhouse. It functioned as not only as clubhouse for everybody to kind of hang out at but a venue and stage for everybody to play on as well. It was a really great mix and collection of people that were there every night of the week, basically. It was the place to go.

With that pool of musicians and other artists and stuff like that, it was fairly easy to network and connect up with people. If you wanted to join a band or start a band or somebody dropped out and you needed a new person or whatever, it was fairly easy to find somebody. You could throw a rock and find somebody to put a band together with, you know what I mean? We were lucky in that. If you wanted to do that kind of thing, if you wanted to be in the scene, if you wanted to be in a band, you could just show up and do it.

You mentioned the Mabuhay. What do you remember about Dirk Dirksen?

He was hilarious. You know what his schtick was, right? He would berate everyone and belittle everyone and put you down and talk shit about you right to your face, call you names and all kinds of stuff. I remember one time in particular: Flipper was well known for playing until they literally pulled the plug on us. We used to play these ridiculous two or three hour shows. One time, it got to be two a.m. and Dirksen told us to get off or stop or "Your set's up," or whatever he said to us, and we continued to play. He pulled the plug on us, shut down the power on stage, and that left me on the drums with no power for guitars and no P.A. for the vocals.

I continued to play, and the crowd was digging it. He carried a sack or a sock with a bunch of coins in it for if he ever needed to whack somebody. He very casually walked around behind my drum kit. I see him doing this, and I'm like, "What's he going to do?" He walked around behind me and came around to my right side and whacked me on the knee with that sack of coins or whatever it was. That was it, I stopped. He was fun. He used to always called Ted "Lawrence" or "Larry" or something like that. He goes by Ted, that's his name, but he was always like that, and he was a funny guy.

Was there a particular reason Flipper wrote slower songs than most of the bands in the punk scene in San Francisco at the time you were starting out?

You know what? There was no particular reason. That was definitely not something we contrived or planned out or whatever. When four people come together and plug in and turn on and crank it up and start making noise, whatever comes out comes out. I don't know why it came out the way it did. It was the sound and the style that each individual brought to the table, and it was kind of what seemed natural to play.

When we started -- again Flipper started in 1979, during that mid-to-late '70s period of time in San Francisco and in other places like L.A. too, but San Franciso in particular -- the music scene and the bands in the scene, and I've said this a million times to people, every single band was really different, eclectic, unique. There were no two that sounded alike, and there was no one who ever came up with the idea of, "Hey, I want to sound like that band."

That's not how anybody thought. The hardcore punk scene wasn't really happening yet. When that came into vogue, everything changed, and all the bands wanted to sound the same, and everyone wanted to be that thrash/hardcore stuff, really fast music. That's great, but that wasn't who we were. In the early days everyone was so different and coming up with all kinds of different sounds and styles. That made for a great atmosphere. You came in and you could do your own thing and be different, be unique, and be appreciated.

Later on, again, hardcore came into fashion and it seemed like 90 percent of the bands out there wanted to play exactly the same and sound exactly the same. You couldn't really differentiate from one band to another. Everybody kind of had that same style. Maybe within that scene, the real fans of that stuff could figure out who was who but I couldn't.

I will say this: Bands like the Bad Brains and stuff? They were unique and different and out of control and amazing. They did a variety of stuff. They would play reggae and fast punk but they were just great musicians. I'm talking about the bands that came along after that. I think the people who create and originate and start a particular style of music, the ones who are the first wave of bands that start a particular genre or style of music, are usually the best and everyone who comes afterwards are copycats.

Again, the punk thing all started for us, basically, in America, for the most part, with the Sex Pistols. Certainly in San Francisco and that scene, I wasn't even really aware of the Ramones until after I discovered the Sex Pistols. And the Sex Pistols were a freaking rock and roll band. A dirty, gnarly rock and roll band is what they were. They were certainly not a thrash or hardcore band by any stretch. That stuff was life-changing when you heard the Pistols. I don't think anybody tried to copy or be like them. But I think on some level you wanted to emulate that intensity and that kind of anarchy music. The energy, the essence, the attitude.

Ironically, Flipper began being compared to Public Image [Ltd.]. When Public Image came around, there were a whole lot of comparisons between Flipper and Public Image. There was something on some level that people found similar. We got to play with Public Image when they first came to San Francisco on their very first tour. We got to be the support for them. Later, in 1985 or so, Public Image, as an homage to us, kind of copied our album cover concept -- a generic version of the thing that they did.

And you also put out the Public Flipper Limited Live LP?

I came up with the idea for that title. It was my answer to their copying the generic concept. By the way, there was no animosity. I thought it was unbelievably cool. I was 99.9 percent it was not coincidence. How many bands have done a fucking generic design for their album? We were the first in 1982, and 'round about 1985, Public Image came out with one. A different color scheme but the same kind of concept, for sure. They were well aware of us. We played with them, and there were all of those comparisons made. So I thought it was kind of a compliment that they copied us.

So I just wanted to acknowledge it, and I felt that was the best way to do it. We had this record we were putting together, and it was a planned release. The only thing we didn't have for it was a title. It just dawned on me when I saw that Public Image generic album and I just went, "Whoa, we've got to answer this." Then bam, Public Flipper Limited -- it just came to me. It worked so perfectly, and it fit the concept of the record. It kind of acknowledged the whole thing with PiL. I hope Johnny got a little chuckle out of it and that kind of thing. But we never heard anything back from their camp on that. It was pretty cool.

The cover art is a board game, right?

It is a board game. It was a double live album, so you opened up the album cover twice -- you opened it up like a book, and then you opened it up again. Then you basically had four twelve inch by twelve inch panels. So it was 24 inch by 24 inch as the game board. It came with all of the game pieces and everything. The whole complete game together like that. In those days, who put out a game with their album? Nobody. It was amazing, too, because kids really had a ball with that. Everybody would play the game and talk about it.

Who designed it?

Well the record label we were on at the time, Subterranean, Steve Tupper found an artist to draw out the whole cartoony cover. I think all of us pitched in with the whole concept and the ideas and all of that stuff. It was a bit of a group effort, and I'm not certain of the guy's name who actually drew it out. But it was really well done.

In the early days, you guys were notorious for creating a challenging environment for the audience. Like chaining the doors shut and playing a song like "Sex Bomb" for an hour or however long. Why did you perpetrate those sorts of things?

Again, it's just one of those things to be kind of anti-mainstream and different and stand out. It wasn't really something we sat around and talked about and planned out. It was more impromptu what you feel like at the moment doing. A lot of that stuff was perpetrated by the singers and the guys that were up front in the band, annoying the audience and all that stuff.

For the most part I just wanted to play drums. That kind of shit did happen, and you know, it was...it was met with interest by the audience. The audience kind of dug it, and it was just another element that made us stand out from the rest. The cynical kind of attitude and the we're going to do it like we're going to do it. Fucking with the audience and all of that.

Are they any of those hijinks of which you're particularly proud, and which were especially memorable?

You could probably ask Bruce more about that, as far as actually fucking with the audience. As far as other types of hijinks, there was graffiti and stuff was all over San Francisco with our fish logo with a tagline -- "Flipper Rules." That kind of stuff was getting tagged all over San Francisco, and it permeated out into the world, and we had people reporting back to us that they'd seen our graffiti on the Great Wall of China, the Paris Metro and all over the place.

Even more recently, a handful of years ago, we got a picture sent to us of our graffiti on the security wall between Israel and Palestine. Yeah, there's graffiti on the wall that says, "Flipper still rules," and it has the logo up on the wall in spray paint. One of the coolest things was there's a street in San Francisco called Clipper Street, and we had some people -- and I think Ted was involved in this -- who had some really good looking stickers made up of the letter "F" that totally matched the size and font of the street sign.

So they went up one night and slapped these "F" stickers over the "C" and the street became "Flipper Street" for blocks and blocks. That stayed up for a while because it takes the city to get around to fixing things. It took them a while to scrape that off the street signs. That was a good one.

Love Canal is a reference a lot of younger people wouldn't recognize right away. Why did that incident inspire you guys to write a song?

It was one of those things that was topical at the time, and it was one of those things that was an outrage. We're still dealing with this corporate attitude of profit over people and who cares how many people die and get sick. I believe Will Shatter wrote the lyrics on that one. He probably saw the news item on 60 Minutes or something and was inspired to write a song about it. I can't recall if Will or Bruce wrote those particular lyrics and Bruce sang it. Normally Bruce would sing the lyrics he wrote and Will would sing the lyrics he wrote. But there were a couple of exceptions to that rule where it just made more sense for one to sing the other's lyrics for whatever reason. It was a fucked-up situation.

The song "Sacrifice" seems even more relevant now. Did that come about a similar way?

It's obviously about war and that kind of thing. Being drafted into the military and sent off to fight a war. You know, "Sacrifice, sacrifice, sacrifice." That kind of thing. We've been involved in so many skirmishes, wars and military things, it's still relevant today. At the time in the '80s, I don't know if the lyrics referred to anything specific but probably not. But it may have been inspired by a specific conflict we were involved in. There were so many things we were involved in everywhere.

How did Krist Novoselic come to join the band?

There was about a ten year hiatus between 1995 and 2005. In 2005, we came back together again because we got a call from CBGB. We weren't playing at all then and had no plans on getting back together again. Bruce had some serious back problems and issues and stuff like that, so he was in bad shape at the time. We got this call from Hilly [Kristal], and it was just too good to pass up. They were trying to do these "Save CBGB" benefits and stuff, and we were invited to come out and play. So we pulled it together and went out there and played and we pulled it off, and it was really fun and amazing. We played two sold out shows in I think July or August of 2005.

After that, we played a couple more shows. We played in L.A., and we did a big show in San Francisco, and we were kind of off and running again. We were playing with a friend who went by the name Bruno DeSmartass. He played with us from 2005, when we initially got back together again, through. I think September 2006. During that time, we did a lot of really cool stuff. Then he had some other things he had to do, and he gave us notice and left the band.

So we were booked for All Tomorrow's Parties in England, and we didn't have a bass player. That particular festival was being curated by Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth. They came through San Francisco, and I went to the show, and I approached Thurston and said, "Hey listen, we want to do this festival with you guys." And he was like, "Absolutely, you're on." And I said, "The only hang-up we have is that we don't have a bass player."

I came up with the idea of Krist Novoselic based on the whole Nirvana thing. I did a Google search on him, and it didn't appear he was really doing anything, and he was free and clear just noodling in his studio. So I mentioned the idea to Thurston Moore, and he thought it was an amazing idea, and it would be a perfect fit, and that he would be willing to reach out to him. So he did. He got back to me and said, "Hey, Krist is into it. Give him a call. Here's his number." I did, and he actually responded by saying that he was honored to be asked by us to join the band.

It started with the idea that we would just go do this festival and maybe a few other dates around it and see what happened. It ended up he was in the band for two years, and we recorded one studio record and one live album, and those were released several years back. And he was in the band for two years.

When it came time for us to really get into doing some heavy touring, he bowed out. He did not want to get out and be away from home for very long periods of time, and he bowed out at that time. Then we recruited our current bass player, Rachel [Thoele], who was an old friend of ours that we'd known for years. She's a great bass player and a great musician. We gave that a shot and it's worked out so far.

How did you meet Rachel, and why did you think she would be a good inclusion into the band?

At one point in time, we were roommates, and we lived in a big punk rock house in San Francisco. I think when I first moved in, she was already living there. Anyway, she lived there for several years. So that's how I initially knew her. Plus I knew her from Frightwig and Mudwimin, bands she was in the scene. Frightwig had a somewhat similar and style to Flipper, and they were referred to as the "female Flipper" for a while there.

Another Nirvana connection: Kurt Cobain wore a Frightwig T-shirt on the MTV Unplugged broadcast. He wore a Flipper shirt on the Saturday Night Live broadcast when Nirvana first played SNL. Come full circle and now Rachel is in Flipper. To be honest, [having her in the band] was suggested by Bruce. He said, "Hey, why don't we try Rachel out." It seemed to click, and I think she's a great musician, and I really like playing with her so it seems to be working out.

How did you meet Rachel, and why did you think she would be a good inclusion into the band?

Aw, man, I really like Jack so much. He's such a great guy, such a good soul, a funny dude with a good heart, and he's really generous with his time and efforts, energy and talent and skills. Krist Novoselic brought him in. Krist and Jack have remained close friends since the early Nirvana days. To this day Jack periodically goes and hangs out at Krist's place. He's about three hours south of Seattle, but Jack goes down there all the time and hangs out for days at a time. So Krist suggested it and said, "Hey, we can bring Jack Endino down here and set up our own recording studio, and we can do some recording."

Jack was amazingly generous. He came down and gave us his time, skills and energy and built a little studio to record in. He came out to three different shows we played and recorded the whole shows, and that's how we ended up putting together a live record. He's so funny and great guy to hang out with. He's a real pro at what he does. We've worked with other great people and we had a long time engineer in the early days, Garry Creiman, that did a lot of albums if not most of our albums in the '80s. He was also very cool and fun to hang out with and very talented. Jack was just a little different and everybody's different that you work with but he's definitely a real gem of a guy.

The font used for Love is the same as that used on the Crass records. Why did you go with that sort of visual representation?

That comparison has been mentioned to me before. I don't know that it was a conscious thing. We kicked around a whole bunch of ideas for album covers. The particular fish that's on the record was originally drawn by one of our previous members, John [Dougherty]; he was on American Grafishy with us. It was kind of his design. Then Ted came up with the font and all of that stuff. I don't know if it was conscious on his part but he may have thought it looked good.

Did it surprise you to learn that Flipper has been so influential on many later musicians?

Yeah, over the years it has surprised me. It's not just one or two; it's so many. Probably the biggest and the one who has kind of shouted it out the loudest has been Nirvana, Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic. There have been so many others. I mean R.E.M.? That was a real surprise. They're huge fans, and they covered our song "Sex Bomb" and recorded it and put it on a 7-inch single that they gave out to their fan club as Christmas gifts one year. That was around '96, '97, '98 -- somewhere in that range.

They had a thing, where every year around Christmas time, they sent out a 7-inch single to their fan club members. A friend of mine from London told me about it. I didn't even know about it. We were notified that they did it or anything. They just did it. We tracked it down, and I got a hold of Henry Rollins, who is friends with Michael Stipe, and he said, "I'll fax Michael right now and get you guys some copies." I just thought that was amazing, and they did such a great job with the packaging. It was really, really cool. So many others, some of whom you'd never think.

Like Lords of Acid.

Yeah! Lords of Acid! That was really crazy. I just listened to that recently and I haven't listened to it in years and I was like, "Oh my god, what a heavy, heavy version of that song!" That was crazy but really cool. I was in New York on my own one time, and I walked into CBGB and Concrete Blonde was playing. I knew the guy that was touring with them as their sound guy. He was a friend of ours in San Francisco. I ran into him earlier that day somewhere, and he said, "Oh yeah, come by the show tonight. Concrete Blonde is playing." So I went by, and I literally walked into the club. They were already on the stage, and they started playing "Sex Bomb." I couldn't believe it.

It's amazing to me, and it's cool, and I love it. Obviously, it's great to be acknowledged and respected like that. And not only famous bands and well-known artists but a million kind of garage bands and little punk bands all over the place have covered that song. I'm still getting notices that current bands are covering our songs.

We're dealing with a band in Australia who covered "Life" and put it on their upcoming record. And Unsane, they just recorded "Ha Ha" -- an amazing version of "Ha Ha," and it's going to be on their new record, and they're going to be touring this summer with the Melvins. To this day, people are covering our songs and I think it's great.

There's a band from Denver that recently broke up called Hot White who covered "Ever," and their guitarist, Kevin Wesley, did at least one solo show where he did a version of "(I Saw You) Shine."

Very cool. This was in Denver?

Yeah, it might have been at a DIY space called Rhinoceropolis or at this festival in the summer called the Westword Music Showcase.

Oh, man, cool, man, cool. Have that guy come out to the show. Awesome. I have to say I am so looking forward to this Denver thing; it's going to be amazing. This two day party between the gallery photo openings and the two nights at the Lion's Lair, and I guess we're doing something at Wax Trax in the afternoon. That'll be cool for the under 21 crowd. We're going to play a short set, and I think they're doing a pizza party, and I heard they're going to get Flipper fish logo pepperoni pizza. The art exhibits are going to be amazing. Ruby Ray's show is on the 29th at the Colorado Photographic Arts Center, and Bruce Conner's show is at the 30th at the Denver MCA. It's going to be a great two days.

Flipper, with Crash and Glass Hits, 10 p.m. Thursday, March 29 and Friday March 30, Lion's Lair, 2022 E. Colfax, $15, 303-320-9200, 21+.

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