Interview: Steve DePace

When you think of San Francisco bands, you think of The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Santana, Journey,… and Flipper? Well, some people do at least.

Flipper formed 40 years ago was part of the fertile San Francisco punk rock scene. A major influence on bands like Nirvana and Jane’s Addiction, Flipper embraced noise, chaos, and unpredictability both in their studio recordings and live shows. Their first album, Album – Generic Flipper, is often hailed as a punk rock classic, and their signature song “Sex Bomb” has been covered by countless fledgling bands just learning their chops.

This interview was for a preview article for for Flipper’s concert on 7/26/19 at the Majestic Ventura Theater. It was done by phone on 7/2/19. (Nick Sternberg photo)

Jeff Moehlis: How is the tour going so far?

Steve DePace: Man, the tour’s going fantastically well – amazing, incredible, beyond my expectations. You know, I didn’t know what really to expect, but everything’s just going beyond my expectations. Every single audience so far has been so incredibly enthusiastic, and really into it, and really appreciative for us coming to their town. Yeah, it’s been really fantastic on every level. We’ve been getting a lot of people thanking us for coming to their town. They haven’t seen us in ages, or people that got turned onto us in the ’90’s or the 2000’s or whatever, and haven’t had an opportunity to see us.

We just got back from Midwest dates, and we played in St. Louis among the other cities. In St. Louis, a 12 or 13 year old kid named Finn, who has cerebral palsy, his mom brought him to the show because somehow he discovered Flipper, and he’s a Flipper fanatical fan. He absolutely loves Flipper, and his mom brought him to the show – he’s in a wheelchair, and luckily it was an all-ages show, and they let him in. He sat in his wheelchair on the side of the stage, and just had the biggest smile on his face. We invited him to come up onstage, and he got out of his wheelchair, grabbed the microphone, and was singing along with “Way of the World”, which is his absolute favorite song. He was kind of singing along, and just the happiest kid in the world at that moment in time. Then he stayed up there for the next song, “Shine”, and we played through that song with him up there center-stage. His mom had to drag him off the stage [laughs], this kid was loving it so much. It was amazing. Our singer David Yow traded shirts with him. The kid was wearing a shirt that said, “I’m Here to Rock”. David switched shirts with him for a little while, and they switched back. It was just a whole really amazing experience. That was just a few nights ago in St. Louis.

It always amazes me – kids somehow discover Flipper and love it, and are coming to shows, and people who haven’t necessarily been around since the beginning and got turned on in the ’90’s or the 2000’s or more recently. All ages, every generation, they’re coming to the shows, and they’re so, so, so, so grateful that we’re finally out touring and getting to their town. The shows have been amazing.

JM: How has it been working out with David [Yow] on vocals?

SD: David Yow is beyond perfect for this position. He just gets it. He just fits right in. He’s an amazing, amazing singer and frontman. Super enthusiastic, super into it, really connects with the audience. The audience loves him, and we love him. He just fits in so perfectly, it’s amazing. So the energy level has been kicked up several notches, and we are doing great shows.

We have our friend Rachel [Thoele] on bass – she’s an old friend of ours. Ted [Falconi] and I have known her for many, many years, probably almost 40 years. She’s doing great, and things are going really well. We are going to be going out to Europe in August, and we’re just continuing our dates in the U.S., kind of doing regional runs here, there, and everywhere around the country.

We’re still connecting with other old friends and associates. We just did a recording project with The Melvins, which is coming out now. Just over the last few days we went and did a recording with this current line-up. We did a recording with a company called Joyful Noise Recordings in Indianapolis. We just did a single which is going to be coming out at some point. So we’re out there, we’re doing recording projects, we’re doing shows, we’re going to Europe, we’re planning to go around the world and all around the United States, and so far everything has just been going phenomenally well.

JM: As you’re well aware, Flipper is 40 years old this year. How would you describe the San Francisco music scene when you guys first started out, and what made Flipper stand out in that scene?

SD: I came into the scene in 1977, which was right at the beginning of it. It started just a little bit prior to when I discovered it. It may have started around 1976 or so, but by ’77 it was in full swing. When I discovered the scene I was working a regular job in the mailroom at Bank of America. I was recently out of high school, and I had been out on my own for a little while. At this point in time, I was probably about 19, and I discovered the Mabuhay Gardens in San Francisco, which was the center of the whole punk scene at that time. It served as a real sort of clubhouse and center of the scene. When I came into the scene and discovered it and started going to shows, the Mabuhay had three bands every night, seven nights a week. I started going to a lot of shows and discovering a lot of bands, and there were a lot of bands in the scene.

It was a very eclectic scene. Each and every band was completely different from the next. Everybody kind of looked different and sounded different, yet it was all part of the same scene, which was also more than just music. There were photographers, there were artists of all kinds, there were a couple of people running around with film cameras and video cameras. So lots of different artist-types were attracted to that punk scene with the same sort of punk rock attitude of get out and do it yourself, you don’t need to wait for anybody to help you make it happen.

That contrasted with what we used to call the big corporate rock music that was happening at the time, which was completely out of reach and out of touch and inaccessible. If you were a teenager who aspired to be a musician, and you looked up to the likes of, say, at the time in San Francisco, The Grateful Dead or Journey or Jefferson Starship or any of those bands that were around at the time in that area, wanting to do that seemed unattainable. Whereas, if you go to a punk rock club and you’re standing literally right next to the bands, on the same level as the bands that are playing, all of a sudden it’s accessible. You could reach out and touch it, and talk to it, and get to be friends with it [laughs], and do it ultimately. So that’s exactly how it felt to me.

And indeed, that’s how I got involved. I happened to see a band called Negative Trend play one night, and I happened to see a band called The Avengers play one night. I approached one of the guys in The Avengers, Jimmy [Wilsey], who was the bass player in The Avengers, and later he went on to be the guitarist in the Chris Isaak band. I asked him how I could go about getting into a punk rock band, and he told me exactly how to go do it, and I went and did what he told me to do, and next thing you know I got a phone call from a guy named Will Shatter who was in this band Negative Trend who I had seen not too long before he called me. They were looking for a new drummer and a new singer, and I went and auditioned and I got in the band. We recorded this really classic EP with four songs on it, and we toured and played shows. That was a great experience. That was my first punk rock band. Then Will Shatter and myself moved on to join Flipper after that, about a year later. So in 1977 I discovered the punk scene, going to a lot of shows. In 1978 I joined Negative Trend, and in 1979 I joined Flipper. And then, I never looked back after that.

But the scene was really good. It was a healthy scene, a happy scene, there was a lot of music and a lot of other stuff going on. Like I said, there were a lot of photographers that were documenting the bands and the scene, and a lot of other types of artists as well. Joe Reis from a company called Target Video was documenting all of the bands that came through town and played in San Francisco on videotape. Video actually went on tour in Europe before a lot of the bands were able to go on tour. Joe Reis brought video of all the bands to Europe and was having shows of video [laughs] in the late-70’s / early-80’s. So he was really helping introduce the bands from America to Europe. So it was a fertile scene, a very productive scene, a very eclectic scene. Before the “hardcore” scene came into vogue, the original punk rock scene was varied and eclectic and very artistic. And then hardcore kind of narrowed everything down to a certain style of music, and a certain style of fashion. Prior to that it was varied and eclectic, but then it became very sort of uniform.

Flipper stood out in both scenes. We were a unique group, we had a unique sound. We were developing and thriving in the punk scene, and then when the hardcore scene hit and everything was fast and furious, we ultimately stood out from the crowd because we maintained our style of sort of slow, dirgy, grungy, art noise, which is one description that I heard attached to us. I think that’s an accurate description. There was definitely a performance art aspect to Flipper, especially in our recordings. We were very experimental in our first couple of albums, in the way we produced our first two studio albums, experimenting with sound effects and all kinds of different things. We were wide open to doing basically anything we could think of. We would try it in the studio, and there weren’t any rules to follow. Those records came out the way they came out just based on us trying different things, and whatever sounded cool and funny and different.

Our live shows definitely had a chaotic kind of crazy, wild aspect to them as well. So it really fit into the whole punk scene. You know, wild abandon. Every show was different. There was an aspect that you never knew what would happen at a Flipper show, which was exciting. Anything – there could be a flood, there could be who knows what [laughs]. We played at a club called The Sound of Music in San Francisco in a really gnarly part of town. We played there a lot. On one occasion somebody blew up the toilet with a cherry bomb or something and the whole place flooded. It was all four inches of water, and the crowd was just splashing around and having a great time. Anyway, that’s the way I’d describe the scene at the time. It was a really great, fun, fertile ground for artists and musicians.

JM: Speaking of the live shows, in the book Gimme Something Better, Jello Biafra talks about a show where you opened for Public Image Ltd at the South of Market Cultural Center, and actually calls it his favorite show ever. Do you remember anything about that show?

SD: I do. I do remember it. This was at the very beginning of our career. We started in 1979, and I think this was 1980 or ’81. I remember us being super noisy [laughs]. In order to get that show, and get that spot as the only opening act for the show, I found out who the promoter was that was putting on the show, and I had all of our friends and fans call that phone number for the office every day for weeks. They received hundreds of phone calls of everybody requesting Flipper be the opening act for that show. And lo and behold the guy called me up, and said, “Well, it seems like you have an awful lot of fans, and they really want you to play on this show, so we’re going to offer it to you.” So that’s how we got on the show.

We were pretty loud and noisy, I remember that [laughs]. I don’t know, it was a big thrill for us. It was probably one of the biggest shows we’d ever played. I think there were probably about 3000 people in the audience, and it was really fun.

It just kind of came full circle for us over this last set of shows we just played. When we did Chicago a couple nights ago, Martin Atkins, who was the drummer in PiL at that time when they first played San Francisco and we opened up for them, he came up as a special guest to the show we just played at Reggies. He sat in with us on a second drumkit, and we did a couple of songs with him. It was really fun and phenomenal. It was great.

JM: I want to ask you about Flipper’s signature song, “Sex Bomb”. How did that song come together?

SD: It started with the bass riff. I remember we were in this tiny little rehearsal room, and Bruce Loose started playing this riff and we all kind of jumped in and added to it – guitar, drums. I guess Will Shatter came up with “Sex bomb, she’s a sex bomb, my baby – yeah!” [laughs] And that’s it. Yeah, pretty darn simple. That song has a real storied history. First of all, I was going to mention that a critic at the Boston Globe reviewed that song, and said that it sounded like “‘Louie Louie’ boiled down to a burnt pot.” I mean, really basic.

Another thing that happened in Boston, the big college radio station in Boston… Back in those days in the ’70’s and ’80’s, college radio across the country was playing punk rock. Commercial radio wouldn’t touch it. Commercial radio went for New Wave, which was a lot more palatable for the general commercial audiences. Commercial radio didn’t touch punk rock, but college radio played punk rock across the country. There was a big college radio station in Boston, and one of the DJs announced that he wanted to dedicate his two hour show to bands that would send in their renditions of “Sex Bomb”. If they would send it into him on cassette, he was going to spend the whole two hour show playing local bands doing “Sex Bomb”. Well, he got so many submissions that they ended up doing a full weekend marathon, a 48-hour marathon of “Sex Bomb”. I mean, that’s pretty incredible.

And then, of course, I’ve heard stories of bands around the world who covered “Sex Bomb”. It was one of those things, like if you were a kid at the time and you were going to start a band and you were going to try to figure out how to play a song, “Sex Bomb” was the song to play because it was so simple. A few notes on the bass and a simple drum beat, and away you go. So lots of bands covered it. Even famous bands covered it later on. There’s a story about Nirvana playing “Sex Bomb” at a house party way in the early days of the band, somewhere up in Seattle. There’s a million stories like that.

So, yeah, it just turned out to be one of those things, like an anthem, and still to this day we play it at the end of our set, and we always bring the audience up onto the stage for that song. The audience comes up and fills out the stage and they’re dancing around and banging around and slamming around and having the time of their life. Everybody’s smiling and laughing and dancing and having a great time. It’s just a really cool thing.

JM: You mentioned Will Shatter a few times, and sadly he’s no longer with us. How would you describe Will Shatter?

SD: He was a friend. He was a real sweet guy, he was a really nice guy. He was a caring guy. He was also very cynical about things, and he had his own sort of dark humor. He liked dark music. He liked Leonard Cohen and Lou Reed, and he turned me on to some music that I had never heard before. He turned me on to early Roxy Music, and like I mentioned Leonard Cohen and some other stuff.

He had gone to high school in England, and had become acquainted with the punk scene over there, which started a little bit before it started here, or at least before it started on the West Coast. He was American, but he spent his high school years in England, because his dad had a job that took him over there. When he came over here, he was already into the punk scene. I was in Negative Trend with him, and then we both went over to Flipper, so I knew him and played with him in two different bands. We used to have a lot of fun together.

Unfortunately he got into heroin, and when he died it was doubly unfortunate because he had cleaned up, and was no longer using. He had a girlfriend who he married who was pregnant with his son, and they were planning their lives and their future. I guess he had one last temptation. Somebody came over to the house and had something, and he decided to do it one more time. They were planning on moving out of San Francisco and getting a house somewhere and raising their kid and all that. I guess he decided to try to get high one more time. As so many people do, they no longer have the tolerance, and they remember “Oh, this is the amount that I used to do, so I’ll do that.” And of course now they have no tolerance, so it kills them. That’s exactly what happened to him, and that’s exactly what happens to a lot of people. So, anyway, it’s very unfortunate that that’s what happened to him. That’s what happens, kids.

JM: I’m one of those people who first became aware of Flipper through Kurt Cobain, who talked about how influential Flipper was on Nirvana. Do you hear that in their music?

SD: Yeah, I do. Krist Novoselic put it, I think, perfectly. Flipper and other punk bands were a great big influence on Kurt, but in his own music he took the influence and the sound of punk rock, and coupled it with “pop sensibilities” [laughs] was the term that Krist used. He just combined the noise factor and the rawness of punk along with catchy tunes, catchy melodies, and smart lyrics and so on. You know, it was rough, it was raw, it was rock, it was punk, it was pop, it was all those things put together. I mean, you’ve got to give it to him. He wrote some, I don’t know how else to describe it, just hugely hit-oriented songs. Just very catchy, and at the same time with a lot of energy. You’ve got to have that raw energy. Music these days is so much different. I think it’s a lot to do with technology. I think technology to a huge degree has destroyed music. But, anyway, Kurt was definitely hugely influenced by Flipper and a lot of other punk bands. In terms of Flipper, I can certainly hear it in that raw sort of energy and noise and feedback, that kind of thing.

Krist told me that Buzz [Osborne] from The Melvins turned those guys on to Flipper. Krist said that he took the Generic album and listened to it in its entirety three times in a row. He just played it three times over and over and over. And on the third play, he said it just hit him like an epiphany, and he just got it all of a sudden. He just really understood that it was this art noise/performance art music, kind of this perfect mix between art and music put together. He just kind of got it and really dug it.

When he joined up with us around 2008 I think it was, he joined the band for a couple of years, when he agreed to come on board and play shows with us and eventually we recorded together, he said that he was quite honored to be asked to join up with us. Ironically enough, I would never have guessed this, he said that no one ever really asked him to play with them before. He said he had never been invited to join any other bands. I know he had a couple of other bands after Nirvana, but he said that since then no one every really asked him to join up with them or sit in with them or join forces with them, or anything like that. He was quite honored to be asked by Flipper, because they had so much respect for Flipper and so on and so forth. We had a great couple of years with him. It was a lot of fun.

JM: Did you ever get to hang out with Kurt Cobain?

SD: No, I never did, unfortunately. I never got to meet him. I had the opportunity one time, but somehow it didn’t happen. We went as a band – Flipper – we all went as a band to see them play at the Cow Palace in San Francisco for a big New Year’s Eve show with Pearl Jam and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. I was friends with the Chili Peppers. I wasn’t at that time – this was like New Year’s Eve ’91/’92 – I wasn’t super familiar with Nirvana, nor was I familiar with Pearl Jam at the time. But I was friends with the Chili Peppers, so I was more focused on those guys. Later I started really checking into the whole grunge scene, what was going on with Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and all the rest. But I don’t know, for some reason I wasn’t acutely aware of what was happening up there. I was still based in the Bay Area/San Francisco, and more plugged into that scene.

I mean, I’m glad they came through and I got to see them. I do remember hearing them play that night. They were, in fact, like the loudest thing I had ever heard. When Nirvana was onstage that night at the Cow Palace, they were cranked up to 12. I couldn’t really even make out… All I heard was volume. I just heard the loudest music I’d ever heard before, and I couldn’t quite even make out what was going on. It was just so loud. I was like, “Wow, whoever these guys are, they are frickin’ loud!” [laughs] Anyway, yeah, unfortunately I would’ve loved to have gotten to meet him.

You know, another unfortunate thing is that in April of 1994, just prior to his being discovered dead, we had gotten a phone call. At the time we were signed to American Recordings, and I had gotten a phone call from the record label telling me that we were invited to go on tour with Nirvana in Europe. We were slated to go for two weeks with them, I think, in Europe. That was just prior to Kurt’s overdose in Italy, and then his subsequent return to the States. They were going to go back and finish up the tour at some point, and we were slated to go back and do a couple of weeks with them. And then unfortunately he died, so that never happened.

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

SD: Pick up an instrument, learn how to play it. Leave the computer behind. If you’re going to play guitar, play guitar. If you’re going to play drums, play drums. If you’re going to play bass, play bass. If you’re going to sing, sing. And learn how to do it like that before you involve advanced technology [laughs]. I mean, that’s my advice.

If you’re going to talk about the way that people used to play in bands, they’d play real instruments. Nowadays you can create anything you want in the computer. You can create the music in the computer, the drum beat, all the different sounds, the melodies, the rhythms. You can create all that in your computer. And you can make your voice sound like anything you want, and so on and so forth. That’s not being a musician. That’s not being in a band, you know?

Running your vocals through Auto-Tune, that’s horrible, horrible, horrible. That’s the worst thing that has ever been invented. Oh my God. It’s just the most annoying thing I’ve ever heard in my life. Every pop record, every pop singer, every hip hop singer, everybody runs their voice through that. And it’s one of those things where the industry demands it and requires it. Radio won’t play it unless it’s run through Auto-Tune. It’s just the most horrific, horrible thing I’ve ever heard in my life. So stay away from Auto-Tune. You don’t need to be the most perfect singer in the world to play rock ‘n’ roll or punk rock or hardcore, or any of that. That would be my advice.

You know, learn how to play. The way I learned how to play, I put my favorite records on the stereo, and I put headphones on and I played along to them. That’s how I learned how to play. So, pick something simple, not too complex or complicated, and do that. Nowadays, you’ve got your phone and your Apple Music and your earbuds or your Bluetooth headphones. Put that on and pick your favorite songs, and play along to them, which is essentially exactly what I did 40 years ago. And then find a couple of different friends who play different instruments, and you can all learn how to play together. You’ve got to get in the room with your friends, get a drumkit and a guitar and a bass, and find somebody who wants to be a singer, and there you go.

JM: You mentioned that you asked Jimmy from The Avengers what to do to get into a punk rock band. What did he tell you?

SD: It was a pretty simple thing at the time. This was before internet, before social media, before anything like that. Now it would be much easier to do. At the time, there was a punk rock record store in town called Aquarius Records. They carried all the punk rock records that were coming in from England, and all the rest of it. They were the only record store in town that carried punk rock records. It was a small, independent record store. They had one of those cork bulletin boards, just one of those things where you could put a little piece of paper or index card up there with a pushpin. He told me just do that, and write down on a little postcard, “Drummer looking for punk band”, and my phone number, and just go put it on the bulletin board. He said, “Someone will call you.” [laughs] That’s what he said. Go do that, and someone will call you.

And the one and only phone call I got was Will Shatter. Sure enough, he went there looking on the bulletin board, and saw “Drummer looking for punk band”, and he was a punk band looking for a drummer. He called me up. I think that call came in within a week after I put the little notice up there, and that was it.

I mean, nowadays you’ve got social media, you could post something on your own Facebook or Instagram or Twitter or whatever. You can just post “looking for whatever”, “I play drums, I’m looking for people to play with” or whatever it might be. “Looking for people in this town, in this neighborhood,” whatever it might be. Because there are still record stores around, but I don’t know if they’re the best place to provide that service. Nowadays, it’d be even easier. Some kid could do what I did on their social media page, and probably get a thousand replies in the same minute. But that’s how you do it. You’ve got to reach out. You’ve got to announce that this is what I do, and this is what I’m looking for. People will call you.

JM: That phone call changed your life, right?

SD: Yeah, totally.


No comments for “Interview: Steve DePace”

Post a comment