You might think of Flipper as a depressing, downbeat band.
With at times plodding, monolithic rhythms, vocals delivered in either a deadpan or a scream, lyrics that touch on suicide, plagues, ecological disasters, and war, and savage guitar noise throughout, courtesy of Ted Falconi, they certainly don’t sound very cheerful on paper.
But consider this clip of Flipper performing the song “The Wheel”, with an audience member onstage, singing counterpoint to vocalist-lyricist Will Shatter’s declamations of “I am the wheel.”
At first, the “guest vocalist”—Flipper’s Stephen DePace has no idea who he is—mostly riffs on the words “I will shatter.”
Later on, he incorporates bits of the Rolling Stones’ “Shattered”, creating a singularly inspired, absurdist mashup.
Shatter, in particular, can’t stop laughing, even as he spins his arm around in a wheel-like motion, called “the Flipper wheel.” He keeps his vocal deadpan, but it’s pretty clear he’s having one hell of a lot of fun.
Shatter died in 1987.
Bruce Loose, the band’s other vocalist and songwriter, suffered a broken back in a car accident and is no longer in any shape to tour.
David Yow—Jesus Lizard/Scratch Acid vocalist—has taken some time off from his acting career to front Flipper on a 40th anniversary tour, with a stop at the Astoria. The Straight talked with founding member, drummer Stephen DePace—yes, the same Stephen DePace who has an IMDB listing for a bunch of cartoons!—about the band’s formation in a previous feature.
Here, we dig into the guts of Flipper.
Georgia Straight: There’s a really heavy quality to the band, but I never found Flipper depressing. I always found Flipper uplifting in a weird way, maybe because I was depressed. How did playing with Flipper feel, for you, in the early days?
Stephen DePace: Super fun! The early days of Flipper, we really were very enthusiastic about playing in the band and being in the scene in San Francisco. And we rehearsed seriously. I think most of the bands were pretty serious in San Francisco about writing songs and being creative. And everybody worked hard! I know we did, we worked hard in the early years. We had a strict rehearsal schedule, we rehearsed three nights a week, Monday-Wednesday-Friday, and then usually we’d go out to the Mabuhay and go catch a show and socialize. That was a thing too, going out as a band, like, everybody in the band going to hit a club, and kinda showing up as a little gang to network and socialize with all the other bands. So we all loved being in the band, we were passionate about it, we all took it very seriously, we worked hard… we wanted to play and gig as much as possible, and we wanted to travel outside of San Francisco.
…although there was a another side of that, too. Ted and myself loved the idea of getting out and hitting the road, but it took awhile to do that. We were able to play around San Francisco quite a lot, and develop ourselves. We started in 1979, and there were a few different clubs we played at quite often. but it probably wasn’t until 1982 that we did a national tour. And you know, Bruce and Will were kind of the flipside of the coin. They loved being in the band and they loved playing shows, and, y’know, all of that kind of stuff—being creative—but travelling and touring, they weren’t really so into it.
And then again also, those two guys were—I always say this, those guys were punk rock to the bone, like, really punk rock. Generally speaking, in the San Francisco scene, all the bands say the same thing, and this was true, I absolutely agree with this: no one ever thought of being “successful” in the sense that you were gonna be a rock star. No one even thought about getting an album. The most you could hope for was to be able to record a single, in some way, and the thought of being able to afford to record a full album, or getting a record deal, quote unquote. There was one record company in San Francisco that emerged, they were called Subterranean Records, but there were no like big signings or big advances going on. It wasn’t the easiest thing in the world to figure out how to record a record at the time. You had to have money, you had to have a studio, and nobody knew what they were doing…
So there were these punk rock compilations that were being done. The very first thing that Flipper did was on a 7 inch compilation called SF Underground. There were four songs, and four different bands, and we were able to record one song... Our very first song that we ever recorded was called “Earthworm,” and that was a pretty bizarre song.
I believe we recorded it in somebody’s house, with some amateur recording equipment, with this guy Steven Tupper, who owned and operated the record label. And then there were all these other 12” compilations that were coming out—a record label would figure out how to record somewhere and each band would go in and do one song, or submit a song that they somehow recorded. Like I said, it was a dream to be able to record an entire album, so bands would get one song onto a compilation with ten or twelve or fifteen other bands. And that worked out, that was like a big opportunity at a time. And that was really great for people who could buy the record, too. They could find out about all these different bands, in whatever city it was.
Probably one of the most famous ones that came out was Let Them Eat Jellybeans. The Dead Kennedys had started their own label, and Flipper had a track on that album, “Ha Ha Ha”—it was the first track, track 1.
It was another big deal to be able to go out on a national tour, and I’ll give credit to Jello Biafra for kind of enabling Flipper to get out and do our first tour. He put us on that record, and we did some of these compilation records, and then we were lucky with Subterranean, because after that 7” they put out, they offered to put out other singles for us. So we put out three different singles. They may have all come out around 1980, 1981. And it was all very DIY: I remember stuffing the sleeves ourselves. Two of those records [including the single “Love Canal”] had fixed covers, but “Sex Bomb/Brainwash”—we maybe pressed up a thousand of them, I think, ultimately—we just had plain white sleeves, and for weeks and months, we had all of our friends, at different houses, making up the artwork, with crayons, markers. We had various little stamps made up. We were making our own record covers. So it was all very DIY.
And then around about 1980, there was an ad in a newspaper in San Francisco, where this recording studio was looking for people to come down and work and earn studio time. I answered the ad, and went down there, and they were kind of remodeling this recording studio. It was an established studio, it had been there for quite awhile, and it had a great history, all these bands from the '60s and '70s had recorded there. But these new guys had bought the studio, so they were remodeling the whole thing, and they were looking for people to come down and give them time and labour, and they would give them studio time. So we did that, and I ended up working there myself for about ten years or more, and I earned all this studio time, and paid for these recordings that we did. Our first album, it took us about a year to record piecemeal, to assemble all those songs, so while I was down there working, I’d earn enough time to record a song, and then—that kind of went on and on for the course of about a year. Like I said, it wasn’t the easiest thing in the world to go in and record an album.
Let me cut in for a second, because in terms of compilations, before we get too far from that, there’s a very specific question I wanted to ask. I have the Eastern Front live compilation, with DOA, the Lewd, and so forth on it, and Flipper does this hilarious version of “Ever”, which gets interrupted by some sort of fracas onstage, which gets recorded too. What happened, do you remember?
Yeah, I do! That is an amazing recording, I love that. Every time I listen to that recording, I just crack up.
So yeah, initially, that came out on that Eastern Front compilation, and then later on, about 1986, we put out our own compilation, called Sex Bomb Baby. And that particular album is a collection of our singles and various tracks we had put out on other compilations. So that was one of them. And I remember what happened: on that song, there’s so many things going on, it’s incredible, there’s some guy standing off to the side of the stage, making up his own lyrics, talking about how this is the “punk rock Woodstock,” and various other things, and it was all off the top of his head, it was perfect. And then the violence starts to occur, and he’s, like, narrating the violence going on…
This is the “all right/ a fight/ beat on his ass/ with a piece of broken glass” stuff? That’s the guy—he’s not a member of the band?
No, that guy’s not in Flipper! That guy’s standing off to the side, and somehow he got a hold of a live microphone and started singing along to what was happening. And he was making up his own stuff, describing what was going on. “Kill him, kill him! This is the punk rock Woodstock! This is… the end of the show.” It was so amazing. And at the end you hear, some other person jumps up on stage and says, “Hey, you’re beating up on little kids, man!” That’s going on, and then you hear Ted stomping across the stage to the microphone, and he says, “When you get up on this stage and you fuck with our equipment, you are no longer a little kid, you are an adult!” And he’s, like, screaming in this guy’s face, and the guy’s, like, “Okay, okay.”
So what had happened was, some guy had climbed up onto the stage and was tackling and harassing Ted. And he was rolling around on the stage and grabbing Ted by the knees, and he got caught up in Ted’s guitar cord. He was probably fucked up on something, or whatever. So Ted started fighting him off with his guitar, hitting him with his guitar: “Get off of me, get off of me.” So [as to the question of] “Why are you beating up on little kids,” the kid had jumped up onstage and was tackling people and tackling Ted and was fuckin’ with him. And then the other kid jumped onstage, and Ted came up with his retort, y’know.
It’s a brilliant recording.
It’s so amazing! That was punk rock, man. That whole thing right there was punk rock.
Was that typical of Flipper shows, this level of anarchy?
Absolutely, absolutely. And Flipper became known as that. Our shows were unpredictable, wild and crazy.
When we started out, everything was called “punk rock.” And then there was New Wave, and then “hardcore,” you know? The New Wave stuff was kind of different, but it came after punk rock, it became the commercialized “punk lite” style that record companies were attracted to, the poppy sound and the New Wave fashion. And then hardcore also came out of the punk scene, and that became its own hardcore style of both music and fashion, and it became a uniform, in both regards. [But originally], punk rock was very eclectic. Every band was different. No one ever thought about trying to sound like somebody else. Hardcore music became its own sort of thing, and a lot of it, if not most or all of it, had to be the same tempo, super fast. But Flipper—that slow, melodic, grungy music that we played—it stood out, both in the punk scene and in the hardcore scene. The hardcore scene kind of took over for punk rock: everything was hardcore. And that made us stand out even more. Punk and hardcore became this fast music, and Flipper continued doing what we were doing, and we really stood out from the crowd, because we were very unique. Our shows were chaotic and crazy, so I think the hardcore crowd and kids and other bands still had this respect for us, somehow, someway, because of that. One of the things that people would say about Flipper was, we were called “the hated Flipper,” or “the band you love to hate.” And my own perception of what that was all about, we were hated on the one hand because we were not this hardcore music, yet on the other hand, we had more chaos going than they did.
Or, well… the hardcore scene had the pits and thrashing and all that stuff going on, and that was pretty wild and crazy, but it was also pretty violent. And Flipper never stood for violence. Our chaos was more “fun” chaos, getting our audience up on the stage with us, to dance around, stage dive, grab the mike, sing along, and people would come up with instruments and jam. [Note: David Yow continues this tradition, inviting people with kazoos to jam along with “Sex Bomb”]. Yes, there was a little violence here and there, but it was never really part of our show. On occasion it would just happen. Most of the violence that ever occurred at a Flipper show was amongst ourselves! There were a handful of shows where we would get into fights amongst ourselves onstage—fistfights and all kinds of madness. We were out on tour with the Dwarves in 1992, I remember, and we were getting into fistfights amongst ourselves. I remember walking into a club, and the Dwarves had arrived before us, and we walked in and they were all sitting at the bar, and they looked at us as we walked in and they were, like, “You guys are crazy, man! You’re supposed to beat up other people, not each other!” (Laughs). So I dunno man—yes, there was a lot of chaos, and a lot of wild craziness going on, but really good chaos, chaos in a positive way, was mainly what was going on with Flipper. Ninety percent of the time it was a positive chaos.
So there are songs like “If I Can’t Be Drunk”—the version of that, on Public Flipper Ltd, sounds like the band, or at least Will, was actually pretty drunk while you were performing. And the lyrics—“if I can’t be drunk, I don’t want to be alive”—are really quite downbeat. And of course Will died of a heroin overdose, later on. So how fucked up was Flipper, when you were performing? Did you all get into drugs, or were you drinking a lot…?
Well, you know, you mentioned that song, and it reminds me of another really cool aspect of Flipper, especially, in the early days—that we would come up with stuff really spontaneously. That song was recorded at place called the On Broadway, which was above the Mabuhay Gardens. There was a wake that was happening for a person, a female drummer in a punk band. I’m forgetting her name right now, but she died from alcohol abuse and drug abuse, basically drank herself to death. I think she died at a party, just drank so much alcohol that she died, at a very young age. And that’s where that song came from, there was a wake for her and Flipper came onstage and we didn’t really have a song to play, or whatever; we were kind of in that mood. And we literally just started jamming a whole new song, and Will came up with those lyrics off the top of his head. So that song was very spontaneous, and it came out really cool, and we did end up performing that song after that, but it was written spontaneously onstage. There was another song that came out on one of our singles, called “The Old Lady Who Swallowed the Fly", and obviously the lyrics were from a nursery rhyme, but the music was recorded at a rehearsal. We used to record our rehearsals quite often. We created that music as it was being recorded; it was a brand new song, with no lyrics to it, and Bruce stepped up to the mike and started reciting this nursery rhyme to the song. And it came out great.
So you know, in the music and the art scene there’s drugs everywhere, there’s alcohol everywhere. Our first singer, Ricky Williams, got into drugs at a really early age, and that obviously didn’t work out [Williams was fired from the band for being too stoned to perform, as discussed in part one of this interview, and later died of a heroin overdose, in 1992]. Will Shatter started dabbling in heroin and eventually got clean, and—I started to talk before about the flipside of a coin: Ted and I were very ambitious and adventurous and we wanted to go out and tour and play, and Will and Bruce never really wanted to leave town. They were more involved in drugs, in the early days, than anyone else, and when you get involved in drugs, you don’t want to leave your hometown, because that’s where your connection is, right? That’s where your drug supply is. And the other thing I started to talk about was success. Being any kind of a success was very anti-punk-rock. I mean, it was like the idea of being a rockstar—not that we wanted to be rockstars; that was never a thought in anybody’s head—but even on a punk rock level of things, like…
…when we did our very first tour, it was very successful, and [earlier in the conversation] I started to give credit to Jello Biafra. The Dead Kennedys went out on a big national tour, before we did; I think they were the first band in San Francisco to really go out on a big US tour. And that Let Them Eat Jellybeans comp had come out with our song on it, and we happened to be Jello’s favourite band, very early on, so he went he went out on that first tour, every radio interview and press interview he did, he would be asked what other bands he liked, what are the other bands happening in San Francisco, and he would say “Flipper.” So he spread the word about Flipper across the States. When we went out on that first tour, it was very successful; every show, we were headlining, on our very first tour, and all the shows were full of people. And we came back, and Bruce and Will were kinda pissed off, because it was so successful. They didn’t want to be successful in that way. They didn’t want to be popular. And they shut the door—they slammed so many doors on opportunities for us. They did that time after time after time, they would say no, no, fuck you, go away. Any opportunities that would come a-knockin’. So any success that Flipper enjoyed was in spite of those two guys!
Well, wait a second, though—these two guys wrote the lyrics, and for me, that was always the main draw to Flipper. So, I mean, they were also part of the reason that Flipper was successful, no?
Of course Flipper’s success is because of them, and Ted and myself as well, but they both spoke against success! They both preferred to be home in San Francisco and play local shows, they didn’t really enjoy touring, they didn’t want to be known around the world. They didn’t want to be bigger than you could get in San Francisco. That was my impression, and their actions supported my impression…
And Bruce turned into a very self-destructive person. Will, I wouldn’t say he was trying to be self-destructive, but he got into a self-destructive lifestyle. He played around with heroin, and then he would want to kick heroin, so he would get into speed, and use speed to kick heroin, and then he would go back to heroin and back to speed. It was a back and forth thing for him. Eventually he did clean up, and his future was looking good. He had gotten married. His first wife was a junkie, and they got into the junk thing together, but his second wife was not. And so he cleaned up, and they got married, and she was pregnant with his first child, and like what happens with so many junkies, they clean up and then they decide to get high again, and they remember the amount they used to get high with, and go right to that, and they have no tolerance that they used to have, and they shoot up that same amount, and it kills them. That’s what happened with Will. He was planning on moving out of San Francisco up into the suburbs somewhere, living the married life with a kid and so on, and he decided to get high one more time. Unfortunately, there was no one around to call 911 or save him, and his wife came home and found him on the kitchen floor.
And Bruce has had numerous overdoses. He survived all of them, but one of them, he ended up in the hospital in a coma for awhile. He was on a very self-destructive path. And, y’know—it didn’t work out for him, unfortunately. In the midst of a big success story for us…
I mean, we haven’t gotten there yet, in the history of Flipper, but after Will died… he died in December of 1987, at that point, I thought, okay, that’s the end. I never even thought of reuniting and replacing him. It never even occurred to me. So I went on a long vacation—I went for eight months, jumped in a car with a friend of mine and we just drove and rode around the United States for eight months. And I just continued to kinda get away and clear my head and figure out what I’d do next, that sort of thing. And when I came back home to San Francisco—this was in 1989; I came back home in November of 1989— the big San Francisco earthquake hit, and that was a huge deal. Then in the beginning of 1990, I got a phone call from Ted Falconi, and he said he’d been jamming with this new guy, and I should come over and check it out.
So I went over, begrudgingly, y’know, and met this guy, and jammed a little bit. Bruce was doing okay at that point in time; I think he was on Methadone, and he was married and had a young child and was trying to keep it together. Anyway, we decided to put Flipper together with this new guy named John Dougherty. We played our first show in April of 1990, and it kinda took off. And we went back to Subterranean Records and we recorded another single [“Some Day”/ “Distant Illusion”] with the new lineup, and I sent that single to Rick Rubin.
Right. So how did Flipper connect with Rubin, anyhow?
In the early '80s, when we did start touring and playing in New York, New Yorkers loved us, from the first time we came and played there. New York turned out to be a pretty big market for us; we went back time and time again. We played CBGBs numerous times, and we played other clubs in New York, all over town, and Rick Rubin was this college kid who kept coming to our shows, especially at CBGBs, and this is prior to him starting to the record company, like—we’re talking '82, '83, '84. I think he may have started the label in '84, maybe '85, out of his dorm room at NYU. So fast forward to 1990, and Def Jam was a huge thing, was a big deal. And in, like, 1986, 1987, Def Jam was a huge deal, and I was thinking to myself: “We’re making these records with Subterranean, and there’s no money in it at all, we’re barely covering costs and we’re not getting ahead.” We literally never made any money on any of those albums, and like I said, I was working to earn this studio time to record them, and the record label would put up the money to manufacture the records and distribute them. And we never saw any money from it (laughs). So it was a losing proposition, especially for me, because I was putting in the labour to make the records, and then there was nothing coming back. So I was thinking to myself, there must be a better way. And I was thinking to myself, “We should approach Rick Rubin, he loves us, he’s been a fan of ours since the early ‘80s, and he’s got this big record label now.” Although at the time it was mainly hip hop. And then all of a sudden he put out—what’s the heavy metal band?
Oh yeah, he put out Danzig, you’re right, but that’s not the one I was thinking about: he put out Slayer. And so all of a sudden I’m going, “Well, it seems like he’s kinda broken away from the hip hop thing, maybe this would be a good time to approach him to see if he might want to do Flipper? Although he seems to be doing this death-metal-or-whatever stuff.” This was in 1986-87, and it did occur to me to talk to him at the time, but I didn’t have the chance to do it, you know: Will died.
And so fast forward to 1990, and we reformed with the new guy, and we put out the single, and I thought to myself, well, before we get going too far with Subterranean, I already know we’re not going to make any money with this record label, so why don’t we try to graduate to the next level, with the new lineup—a fresh new start, a new decade, all of that. So I took that single and mailed it off to Rick Rubin, and got a call from him that he loved it, and he said, “When are you guys going to be coming down to LA?” I said, “I’m not sure yet—as soon as I book a gig in LA, I’ll let you know.” He goes “Okay, do that.” So I booked a show at a club called Club Scream—it was also known as the Club With No Name, because there was no sign, no name out front, no nothing. So I got it booked at the Scream, and we came down and played and I invited Rick to the show, and he came down and saw us play; and he came up to me afterwards and he said, “What are you guys doing tomorrow, I’ll take you for lunch and we’ll talk.”
So the next day we met him for lunch at Venice Beach at one of those outdoor café’s, and he said, “Okay, I want to sign you guys.” So we signed with him!
It took awhile to do the formal signing; this was a much bigger label than what we were used to, but at the same time, it was an independent record label. But he had a distribution deal, a co-venture with Warner Brothers records at the time. He had just freshly penned this deal, and they gave him $30 million start-up money. So he went and got himself an office, he had it designed and built out – it was the penthouse office in a high rise office in Burbank, a couple blocks from Warner Brothers records. And he started signing bands, and the new label was called Def American. And we met him and had this lunch talk in 1990; we didn’t actually sign the deal with him until, I think it was a year later: it took so long. It was a whole new experience. We had to get lawyers. We had never had a lawyer before, really. And y’know, lawyers string things along. It’s all about billing hours, and we didn’t know that. Law firms are all about billing hours: we became familiar with this term, “billing hours.” You know, like, I wondered why whenever I called this lawyer’s office, the guy would spend ten minutes talking to me about baseball and football and whatever, before we even got into talking about the reason I called him… it’s like—y’know… (chuckles).
There’s another funny ending of that story: a year went by, and nothing had been done. Probably at that point we had paid him about $10,000, and our entire advance was $25,000, and we had to make the album, and pay for rehearsal time, and all this other stuff. I think each of us made $1,000 off of that advance. The rest of it went to business stuff, and the lawyers got ten or twelve thousand dollars out of it. And after all of that, nothing had been done. We didn’t have a contract, nothing had been finalized. It went on and on, and I got another bill from them for another like, $10,000. I called them up: “You gotta be kidding, man, you haven’t even finished with all the other stuff we paid you for, and you’re hitting me up for another $10,000 bill? We’re done.” So I fired them right there. And I had this thing in my desk drawer – a little rubber cheque, about a quarter inch thick, foam rubber, and it had the lines to fill out: “pay to,” et cetera. I filled it out to them and I mailed it to them for the bill they had sent me – a big fat rubber cheque. And informed them that their services were no longer needed. I hope they had a chuckle out of it, but that was the end of it. They never chased me for any more money.
Eventually we got the deal signed, and we recorded the album, and it was released in January of 1993. So that’s how long it took, from the time we had the lunch with Rick, to the record finally being released. In the meantime, in 1992, they did reissued Generic Album—it was the ten year anniversary of the album at that point, and they also reissued the compilation, Sex Bomb Baby. And then we put out the brand new record.
So the new album came out on Def American, and it sold very well; they pressed up 25,000 copies initially and that sold out and they repressed it, and they were very happy with it; they signed us for 25 grand, and they sold 25 thousand albums, so it made them money, and they spent money on us. They gave us tour support, stuff that we had never had before. We had marketing and promotion and PR. So now there were hundreds and hundreds of reviews and articles written about us, and we had the respect of magazines, Flipper stories, y’know. And we were selling records—that was a lot of records for us to sell. So things were going really well. We were out on the road one time, and they called me in my hotel room and they told me that they were picking up our second option, that we were going to make another album, and we were going to do it all one more time.
And then in between tours, Bruce Loose got into a terrible car accident, up in the countryside where he lived; he rolled a pickup truck down an embankment, and was pinned inside a pickup truck, so that ended our whole thing, y’know? He was done, he had a broken back, so that was the end of it.
That happened in 1994, and in 1995, I decided I’d move to Los Angeles, and figure something else I was going to do with my life. I ended up getting a job in the animation industry… I worked for a great animation companies, which was a really fun experience: I worked for Hannah Barbera cartoons, and I worked for Warner Brothers animation. And people became aware that I had been in Flipper. Like, all these artists in the companies I worked at knew that I was in Flipper, and they thought it was the coolest thing ever. Did you ever end up hearing about a cartoon called Pinky and the Brain?
I was working on that cartoon at Warner Brothers, and a couple of the artists said, “Do you mind if we used Flipper in a couple of the cartoons,” and I was like, “Yeah, that’d be great!” So they used us in one episode as graffiti, in this high school that was all grafitti’d up everywhere, and then there was a “grunge” episode, where Pinky and the Brain moved to Seattle to start a grunge band, and they were going to take over the world, right? They were going to create this amplifier that would hypnotize people and they would be under the power of Pinky and the Brain. So they animated cartoon caricatures of two of us in the band. I gave them photographs of us, and they created caricatures, and in the end we were in this quick scene where we were running across a rainy street in Seattle carrying guitar cases with the word “Flipper” on them [occurring just after the five minute mark here, from the episode, “The Pinky P.O.V.,” which initially aired in 1998] . We ran into a coffee shop. So it was cool, like that.
So I got re-interested in music, because this producer came up to me and said, “Hey, I heard you have a music background, and I’m in a pickle right now, because this music supervisor quit on me, and I don’t have time to find somebody, do you think you could help me? I need to find some bands to record songs for these Scooby Doo movies.” And I go, yeah, I could do that, and I started finding bands to record songs for these Scooby Doo movies. That kinda re-sparked me, so I ended up managing bands for about five years, between 2000 to 2005. Nothing ever came of it - I accomplished great things for these bands, and solo artists and whatnot, but you know, they would end up quitting and breaking up. So I decided to quit doing that, so 2005 came around, and the phone rang, and it was CBGB calling, from New York. They told me that they were doing a series of benefit concerts to try to save CBGB’s, and they went down the list of all the bands that had played there over its 35 year history, like, the favourite bands that they had. So they called Flipper! We had played CBGBs a lot in the 1980s, and our shows were amazing and fun and crazy, and they were always sold out.
So I had to call everybody in the band – it had been ten years, and I didn’t know if Bruce could do anything; last I had heard from him, he had a broken back. He had suffered some drug overdoses, and been in a coma. Ted had gone off and was homeless, living in his car, and, y’know, he had his own problems. So it was like, “How am I going to pull this band of misfits back together to go and do this?” And we didn’t have a bass player, because our second bass player John died of a heroin overdose on Halloween 1996. All I had was Bruce and Ted, and they were all fucked up! I really wanted to do this, but I had to locate those guys and talk to them and convince them to go do this. So they decided to do it, and I called a friend of ours named Bruno [“Bruno DeSmartass,” who had guested with Flipper before], to play bass with us, put it all together, and we went out to New York. They bought us a whole night to rehearse in New York, and that was, like, the first time I had seen Bruce in ten years. He was skinny as a rail, white as a ghost, walking with a cane, and very frail. In fact, I think he did those performances sitting on a stool, at CBGBs.
Anyway, both shows were great, they came off really well, and we were re-inspired and decided to carry on. Initially we were just going to try to muddle through those two shows, and there was no plan to do anything beyond that, but they were great, but afterwards, we were like, “let’s keep doing this, let’s try to make it work.” So Bruce went through a whole bunch of stuff to try to get himself in better condition, better shape. He went through back surgery to repair the broken back, and they fused together some of his vertebrae, then he recovered from that and we decided to carry on. We played for about another year or so with Bruno, and then he left, and we ended up, lo and behold, getting a hold of Krist Novoselic, ex-bass player of Nirvana, and he came on board, played a series of shows with us in Europe, and from there, we decided to record a new studio record with him [Love, released in 2009]. Jack Endino [of Nevermind and 8 Way Santa fame] was the engineer. And we recorded at Krist Novoselic’s property in Washington. And we recorded a live record at a couple of different clubs up there – one in Portland, one in Seattle, and put it out simultaneously with the studio record.
So Krist was with us for a couple of years, then he decided he wanted to stay close to home, and we wanted to go out and do some touring. He didn’t really want to do so much of that, so he left the band, and we ended up getting a friend of ours named Rachel [Thoele, of Mudwimin], and she came on board. In 2009 and 2012 we toured Australia-New Zealand and UK-Europe with her. By 2012, Bruce’s back was getting bad again. And touring became an issue. It was really hard on him, and even though he’d had his back repaired somewhat, it was still a degenerative situation, so touring and travelling and bouncing around in tour vans and playing every night took its toll. And by 2012, he was kinda done. So nothing happened for three years.
And all of a sudden I got a call out of the blue from our Italian booking agent, who said there was this Italian promoter who wanted to bring us out to Italy and play three shows, and he was going to pay all expenses: he was going to fly us out, put us in hotels, drive us from town to town, take care of us, and pay us a fee on top of all of that, so that we would walk away with money in our pockets and have a little week long vacation in Italy. I was like, “wow man, I really want to do that.” So I called Bruno, and I called Ted, and I said, “hey, there’s this opportunity, would you guys want to do it?” They said, “yeah, man, but we don’t have a singer!” I’m like, “okay, I know. I wanted to see if you guys were into it, and now let me start thinking about who we can get as a singer.” And I went out one night in Los Angeles – I’ve lived down here since 1995. And I went out to see this old San Francisco band called Chrome. Chrome had been a band on Subterranean Records, back in the day; they were one of our label mates. So they were playing at a club in LA, and I went out to see them. So I’m watching the show, and they went, “oh, we’re going to have this guest singer come up and do one song with us, and it was David Yow. David had been in Scratch Acid and Jesus Lizard, and he was a friend of theirs, and he did this one guest spot with them. I watched him do it, and I went, “wow, man, maybe he would work?” I called one of the guys from Chrome the next day. “Hey, I’m thinking about asking David Yow if he would do these three shows in Italy, could I get his number off you?” I left a message on his voicemail, and he called back the next day, and he goes, “Hey man, I listened to your voicemail, that would be great! I would be honoured to do these shows with Flipper, man – that would be amazing.” [Yow has been a Flipper fan since seeing them in Austin in the early '80s]. So we figured out a setlist – 10-12 songs or something – and rehearsed them, and we flew out. I had put on my Facebook page that Flipper was reuniting, with David Yow, and doing three shows in Italy, and all of a sudden that got picked up and was in Pitchfork and several other internet publications. It turned into this big deal! And then we got offers from promoters and bookers all over the place, and ended up booking ten more shows in the US, on the West Coast and in New York.
Afterwards, David was kind of in a place where he was really into doing his acting stuff. He was pursuing a whole bunch of different movies at the time. So he said “this was a great experience doing these shows with you guys, I loved it, I had a lot of fun,” but at that point, we were looking for a commitment. We wanted to do a lot more, and he goes, “man, I just can’t commit, because I’m into this acting thing right now and I’m up for all these different roles.” [Yow’s notable turns include the Sundance-winning Netflix film I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore, the anthology horror film Southbound, and Upsidedown Cross]. So he had to pass, he had to bow out. That was in 2015. It was a real letdown for us—nothing against David, we wished him good luck and there was no hard feelings—but the air was let out of my balloon, and I didn’t have the energy to go try to find somebody else again, because it was just a fluke that I had seen him at a show. When he moved on, I kept wracking my brain—“Who could we find?” We tried somebody out, and it didn’t really feel right. It was just kind of a bummer.
Then 2019 rolls around and in January I realized it was kind of Flipper’s 40th anniversary. And I wanted to do something! I called David out of the blue—“I just thought I would call you first, because I really want to do something with Flipper, and I’m going to do something; there’s no two ways about it. I’m going to go look for singers; but I thought I would ask you first. If you say no, that’s great, I’m gonna go find somebody else.”
So he goes, “Well you know what, I’ll do what—I’ll do anything you want me to do in Los Angeles.” He was ready to commit to one gig, in LA, that was it. So I go, “okay, all right, we’ll do a show in LA.”
I was absolutely committed to the idea of touring the 40th anniversary of Flipper, but t looked like we would have to do this with a bunch of different people. How’s that gonna work? Well—we’ve worked with a lot of people over the years, we’re friends with a lot of bands, I’m just gonna see if I can recruit different singers and different bass players to join me and Ted. We’ll collaborate with people, we’ll do shows, we’ll tour, we’ll make new records, we’ll do all these things. We’ll be able to celebrate the anniversary and be creative and do all these different things. That was the concept. It started out with one show in LA, and I got a booking agent. I told him the situation—"We’re going to do things with different singers, starting with this one thing with David Yow,” and he goes, “Okay, I’ll book your shows for you.” He booked us a show in LA, months in advance. And I said “go ahead and book San Diego and Long Beach—I’ll ask David if he can stretch it out a little bit and instead of maybe just doing LA, would he be willing to do Southern California.” So I got him to agree with that. And meantime, I had told this booking agent to book away – because I’m doing this, I don’t care. He’s like, “Well, these promoters want to know who the singer is going to be!” And I’m like, “I don’t know, man, just tell them it’s Flipper and we’ll figure the rest out later.” We get a whole bunch of shows booked, right, and all these promoters are waiting to hear who the singer is going to be. And I called our European guy – “start booking the tour, man!” “Who’s in the band?” “I don’t know! It’s Flipper, so just start booking away!” He’s booking a European tour in the month of August, and nobody knows who the singer is going to be, or who the bass player is going to be, but people are willing to book the name.
All that’s being done, and I called up David—“Let’s have brunch.” I take him out to a nice brunch, and we’re drinking Bloody Marys and eating good food and I go, “David, I got all these other shows booked and I got a European tour booked. I’m just going to ask you, out of respect to you – to give you the option. I’m going to go find another singer or singers, but I’m just gonna throw it out to you; I’m fully expecting you to say no! But I’m doin’ this, and here it is… I’m just gonna put it on the table here, and leave it up to you.” And at that point, I had booked Northern California and Pacific Northwest dates, about fifteen shows, and European dates, and he looked at it and goes, “Wow, man. I want to do it all I just need permission from my boss to get time off” – because he has a really good dayjob; he does photo retouching and creates big billboard movie posters, and he’s paid well for it, and in addition, he’s doing his acting stuff; he’s still doing movies. But at this point in time, he was just feeling the music bug again. And in fact the only reason the only reason I had approached him anyway was because I had heard he had done some reunion shows with Jesus Lizard.
Anyway, he decided he wanted to do everything we had planned, and went to his boss and got permission to get all the time off. So now he’s committed to all the dates we have through October, because I’ve added more shows now on top of the initial list I handed him. It’s all looking good. And Rachel said she would play bass again. So we’ve been rehearsing, and we did those three Southern California shows a few weeks ago. And we’re going to be going and playing Las Vegas, May 24th, we’re going to be playing the big Punk Rock Bowling thing with Killing Joke. So we’re off and running!
Flipper with David Yow plays the Astoria on Friday (June 7). Event page here.