Interview: Klaus Flouride

Forty years ago, the Dead Kennedys released their first single “California Uber Alles”, which humorously warns of a New Age dystopia courtesy of then-Governor Jerry Brown.

“California Uber Alles” also appeared on the band’s classic 1980 debut album Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, along with such satirical and darkly humorous songs as “Let’s Lynch the Landlord” – which is kind of self explanatory, “Kill the Poor” – a Jonathan Swift worthy proposal to use neutron bombs to kill poor people without damaging property, “Chemical Warfare” – a fantasy about gassing country club members, and “Holiday In Cambodia” – which manages to be critical of both the brutality of Pol Pot’s regime and Americans who seem more absorbed with their own so-called problems that they ignore atrocities elsewhere in the world.

The rest of the band’s core discography is the In God We Trust, Inc. EP, the Plastic Surgery Disasters, Frankenchrist and Bedtime for Democracy albums, and the compilation Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death. Other notable songs include “MTV – Get Off The Air”, “Too Drunk To Fuck”, and “Nazi Punks Fuck Off”, the latter a not-so-subtle response to the punks who used Nazi symbolism as part of their style or, even worse, dabbled in neo-Nazi ideology.

The current line-up for The Dead Kennedys is original guitarist East Bay Ray, original bassist Klaus Flouride, drummer D.H. Peligro who joined in 1981, and vocalist Ron “Skip” Greer who joined in 2008. Original singer Jello Biafra is no longer performing with the band. Biafra was sued in 1998 by other band members in a dispute over songwriting credit and royalty payments, and the court ruled in favor of the other band members.

This interview was for a preview article for for the 10/4/19 Dead Kennedys show at the Majestic Ventura Theater. It was done by phone on 9/13/19.

Jeff Moehlis: You’re celebrating the 40th year of the Dead Kennedys. Why do you think people are still listening to the Dead Kennedys 40 years on?

Klaus Flouride: For one thing, the music was good and different. For better or worse, there weren’t many bands that used our sound as a template, let’s say, like for instance the Sex Pistols or the Ramones. So it sounds different. Also, unfortunately, a lot of the topics are still topical [laughs]. We do keep getting new people in every time we play. It’s really kind of cool that way.

JM: Thinking back to those early days, what was the good, the bad, and the ugly about the San Francisco punk rock scene?

KF: I don’t remember a whole lot of bad about it. Actually, it was healthy, in that there were challenges about who can outdo the other person, or one band outdoes the other. It was great in respect to being a hot plate for so many different kinds of styles and bands coming out – everything from The Avengers to Flipper to Negative Trend, and Crime, for Chrissakes [laughs]. There was a scene in San Francisco that kind of gets overlooked at times, but there was lots of good stuff coming out of it.

JM: I’m a huge fan of the first album Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables. What are your reflections on that album?

KF: We basically thought that this was the one that we were going to get to do before we break up. We didn’t expect it to sell anything, really. We were doing it so we could do a European tour. I mean, we had the songs, so that was good, but we couldn’t do a European tour just on the strength of “California Uber Alles”, so one of our people in the UK offered to fund the record. I’m not sure if it was Iain McNay, but Cherry Red offered to fund the record, and gave us a check for I think it was ten grand. And we did the thing for seven grand or something, and split the money thinking that was the last pay we were ever going to see [laughs]. And it just sort of took off. But we put a lot of thought into the sequencing of the songs and recording it.

JM: “California Uber Alles” is arguably the band’s signature song. Do you remember your reaction when you first heard the lyrics to that? Do you think, “Wow, we have something really good here”?

KF: I was happy with it, because it was doing the thing of seeing how far we could push the envelope. And not just shock for shock’s sake. That was one of the things we didn’t want to do with the band, even with the name, to not have a reasoning behind the songs that we did.

JM: One of my favorites is the song “Kill the Poor”. How did that song come together?

KF: It was around the time that the neutron bomb came out, and the whole thing about it was it doesn’t cause any physical damage to the property. It’s an air explosion with radiation left over. So it made sense – leave the property intact for the people who aren’t quite in the shadow of the bomb, and then move in and take over. Kill the poor.

It was obviously tongue-in-cheek. There were some countries, unfortunately, that had regimes that didn’t understand, maybe because it wasn’t their first language, that it was meant to be taken sarcastically, ironically. I mean, ironically, that record was pushed in a couple of countries. So we sold records – that single – for the wrong reason, in a way.

JM: Another standout on the first album is “Holiday in Cambodia”. I read somewhere that the band spent more time arranging that one than the others. Is that accurate?

KF: I don’t think it was more time. Actually, it came together with the four of us quicker than most things. First, it was Biafra and Ray and myself, I remember, in Ray’s living room. I came up with the bass riff, Biafra was humming the melody and throwing words out, and, when we plugged in, Ray got his guitar riff with his Echoplex and stuff. And Bruce / Ted was drumming, and he came up with his part. Bruce also came up with the drum beat that was a big part of “California Uber Alles”, the bum-ba-ba bum-ba-ba bum-ba type thing. But the group, all the way through, operated basically as a four-way input thing.

JM: Listening to that first album from the beginning, you hear about killing the poor and lynching the landlord, then it comes to “Stealing People’s Mail”, which always cracks me up. How important was having a sense of humor to the band?

KF: It was one of the top things that, at least, I was insistent on. I’d been playing in R&B and blues bands and stuff like that, and there wasn’t much of a sense of humor in those. The attitude was, “Oh, that’s not the right way to do this thing”, and we made sure that we didn’t follow those rules. We were inspired by everything from The Weirdos to The Screamers, and then there’s Devo and The Residents. We threw as much [Residents’] Duck Stab humor in as we could, basically.

JM: I know that the Iguana Studios Rehearsal Tape is going to get a proper release very soon. That has demo versions of a bunch of great songs. What do you think of those recordings?

KF: We had to do lots of work on that, remastering it to make it basically listenable. There was a bootleg of that going around but this sounds a lot better to my ears, at least. It’s remarkable that it was that good that early on. We had the two guitars at that point. 6025 was playing with us. That and the Deaf Club CD are good examples of when we had the two guitars going in a live situation. The Iguana Tape is basically the equivalent of a live situation, without the audience. There’s no dubs or anything like that. It’s just how we played.

JM: Do you have any memories that you’re willing to share from the early Dead Kennedys tours? Like, how crazy was it to be touring with a name like Dead Kennedys?

KF: The first tour we went to the East Coast, I don’t think we drove out there. We flew out there because World Airways at that point had $100 tickets to New York City. It was this really goofy airline. We got there, and we were told by our manager at the time that records would be in the stores, everything was fine, it would all be great. The first place we played was Hurrah’s in New York, to about 10 or 15 people. That was fun chaos.

But the Dead Kennedys name really reared its ugly head when we were in Boston. We were playing The Rat [the Rathskeller] in Boston. There was an Irish bouncer when we were trying to get in to do soundcheck who said, “No, you’re not going to go into the club.” It was a club on Kenmore Square. I don’t remember why they had a bouncer at the door that early in the day, but they did. He just said, “No, there’s no way that you’re going to play in this club with that name.” Fortunately our manager at that point was Irish also, and he came up and talked him into letting us in.

Then we had to play two sets that night. That was pretty chaotic. That was fun. For the first set, people just sat there and stared at us, so I think at the end Biafra took a pitcher of beef off of the waitstaff’s tray and spilled it all over the front row of people. During the second set, the waiter came over and poured a pitcher of beer on Biafra, which was just fine with us [laughs]. It all worked out fine.

JM: How would you say the band’s approach to the In God We Trust EP and the Plastic Surgery Disasters album differed from the first album?

KF: For In God We Trust, we recorded it for just about nothing, and videoed it at the same time at the back of Target Video Studios, which was a place in San Francisco on South Van Ness. They have an archive of incredible videos from the late ’70’s. But the tape at that point started to degenerate when we were just mixing, so we had to go in and re-record the whole album. We went to, I think it was Mobius Music Recording, or it might have been partially there and partially at Studio C at Hyde Street. But we knew at that point that we were going to get a release out of.

And the same with Plastic Surgery Disasters. There was a lot of thought that went into that, and a lot more went into the preparation and the recording, and the fidelity and everything.

With In God We Trust, what happened also just in the past few years, the way the tape was disintegrating, the people at Fantasy Records had figured out a way to stop that, and make it so you could use the tape, by baking it, quite literally. So we baked it, and then we could re-release the original recordings, and because it was at Target Video we had a camera in the room the entire time for the original recordings. So that came out as sort of our first of the deep cut things. It’s called In God We Trust Inc. – The Lost Tapes.

JM: The cover photo for Plastic Surgery Disasters is pretty shocking. Do you remember how you convinced the photographer Michael Wells to let you use that?

KF: I wasn’t part of that, so I can’t say that I do remember. I think it was from something like Newsweek.

We always had trouble with covers, left and right. The back cover of Fresh Fruit’s first cover was a picture that I’d found at a garage sale, on a sidewalk. In ’77 I got that, before the Kennedys even existed. The first gig we had without 6025 I put out a picture of that. You can probably find it on the internet, but it says “New and Improved Dead Kennedys”, and it’s got the skull and crossbones and stuff on the drummer head, and on one of the guitarists.

Then we finally put it on the back of the album, and it turned out that those people saw a review of the record that only used the back for the review of Fresh Fruit. They were from Southern California, and they were called the Sounds of Sunshine, and they sued us for I think it was three million dollars, because we’d hurt their work. I think we settled for giving them three thousand and we’d remove their likenesses, which is why the next cover came out with the heads chopped off. But it turned out that they were a Christian rock band. I thought that picture was from the ’60’s from the style, but it was from the ’70’s. That was just like, “OK…” Then when we found out that they were a Christian rock band, we also found out that they’d recorded some of their stuff at the Wall of Voodoo recording studios, and we said, “How’s that going to play?” to them [laughs], and they settled fairly quickly.

Also, the cover for Frankenchrist, the Shriners tried to sue us for making them look bad. I think the judge just threw it out, of something like that. We never saw court about it. But it was like, “No, you guys in those little cars make yourselves look bad.”

JM: I must confess that when I was a kid, I loved to see the Shriners in parades.

KF: I would’ve loved one of those little cars.

JM: Speaking of artwork, Frankenchrist had the insert that led to the obscenity trial. What’s your take on that whole situation?

KF: There’s all sorts of stuff about that. The record company’s manager at that point, and myself, and Ray, and to a degree D.H. didn’t want the thing at all. That’s because we thought it didn’t really have much to do with the message of the record in general. It was nice that [H.R.] Giger gave us permission to use it and everything, and Biafra had wanted it on the cover and we said, “No, we want to sell some of these records”, and having stores not take them at all is not the way to reach people.

So it ended up on the inside, but the management said, “I’m doing this under protest”, and sure enough we had to take them all back and remove them. But, that said, when it came to the obscenity trial I offered to basically go to defense for Biafra, being that he was one of the one’s that was targeted for the thing. It’s not my cup of tea as far as art, but it doesn’t mean it should be in any way as illegal. It was on display in a museum in I think it was Switzerland, or Austria – I can’t remember exactly where, because it’s a while ago now. So I disagreed with the content of it. I just didn’t think it fit that album, per se. But that’s just me.

JM: For the Ventura show, one of the opening bands is Ford Madox Ford, which has Chip Kinman in it.

KF: Yeah, yeah, yeah. We specifically requested that they get that.

JM: Did you know Chip going back to those early days of the San Francisco punk rock scene?

KF: I knew The Dils tangentially. They’d be having breakfast at the same place I was having breakfast, them and Peter Urban. I knew Tony a little better than I knew Chip. I hardly knew Chip very much at all. I had some conversations with Tony. But I loved the group. The Dils were one of the top groups of that whole scene, one of the most revered and loved groups, and they were really good. They were in sort of the North Beach school, with The Zeros, The Dils, The Avengers, The Mutants. They all pre-dated us. He’s from one of the groups that made us decide that we should start a group.

JM: Going before the Dead Kennedys, I find it intriguing that you were in the band Magic Terry & The Universe, that also had Billy Squier in it. Can you tell me a bit about that band, and what sort of music you guys played?

KF: That was a very strange experimental group, basically. Billy Squier, who was the guitarist and I both had bands that played in Boston together. He said he was putting a band together with two classmates of his, and if I wanted to I could be the bass player. We got a drummer that now lives in San Francisco – he’s an architect now. It had two guitars. But the singer didn’t sing, as much as he shouted lyrics over the top of stuff. The music was arranged to which part of the song he was in.

We played one gig at I think it was the Boston Tea Party, opening for Ten Years After. What we should’ve done is waited to open for The Velvet Underground, because the group had been embraced by Andy Warhol, for instance. He liked the group. It was involved in that sort of scene in New York. We practiced from 12:00 at night until 6:00 in the morning, three floors below ground in New York, in the Bowery. People from labels came to see that group. It was one of the groups that just got on the edge of breaking big, and didn’t. We were going to play Woodstock, but we found out you had to unionize, and we got unionized too late [laughs]. I’m glad none of this gelled, because the Kennedys thing never would’ve happened.

JM: What advice would you give to an aspiring musician?

KF: Keep at it. Don’t expect anything. But if you keep at it, chances are you’ll have a good shot at least getting a following of some sort, if you believe in what you’re doing. I played for 15 years in different things before the Kennedys, and my dad had told me a long time ago, “Get a backup plan, because there’s three million kids that all play guitar and want to be rock stars.” So much as I’m not a rock star, per se, we got to have these great chaotic shows, and the entire time that’s going on I sort of remember my dad saying that, in the back of my head, as I watch the chaos going on, that the three million kids that he was talking about would’ve enjoyed seeing at one of their shows. It’s just a matter of keep hammering at something, and keep experimenting.

JM: Were you at the Sex Pistol’s final concert in San Francisco?

KF: No, I missed that. I beat myself up on a regular basis for that [laughs]. But, no I didn’t see it. I would’ve loved to see that, and The Avengers and the whole thing. It was not to be. I also missed Devo at Mubahay.

JM: I feel like I have to ask… What would it take for the Dead Kennedys to do some shows with Jello?

KF: Well, we’ve been with Skip now longer than we were with Jello. Biafra has turned down all sorts of requests by us and other promoters. I think if he decided that he’d be interested, then it’d be something we’d have to figure out how it’d work. I don’t give it much of a chance. I don’t think it’s got more than a 1-3% chance of ever happening. Plus we’re running out of time, as it were. So I wouldn’t hold my breath if I were you.

JM: How would characterize the influence and the legacy of The Dead Kennedys?

KF: It’s not up to me to characterize that. I’m too much in the middle of the thing to speak of that. I hope that our influence has been inspiring other people to do their music.


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