INTERVIEW: Dead Kennedys
Reawakening The Dream - Punk Rock Legends Return To Rattle The Cage In A New Age Of Apathy: An Interview With East Bay Ray (Dead Kennedys' web site)
By: Vinnie Apicella
At the time of this writing, a resurgent Dead Kennedys will have brought their sarcastic yet socially conscious, politically pointed Punk Rock music through the shores of Japan and Russia for first time ever shows in support of their recently released "Mutiny On The Bay" live CD -- an unlikely event considering they originally played their last show together way back in March of 1986 shortly before disbanding, then personally disjointing about a decade later.
"The fact of the matter is he took money and hid money from the band-- and refused to acknowledge it and still refuses to acknowledge it-- he just got caught in a conflict of interest."- EBR .
By now to most familiar with the scene, the legal battles between former lead singer Jello Biafra and the rest of the band over royalties and rights to their back catalog are old news. The above caption states in succinct terms, the open and shut facts as expressed by founding guitarist and current interviewee East Bay Ray (hereafter referred to as "EBR" or simply "Ray") relating to the Dead Kennedys vs. Jello Biafra court case which began back in 1997. Thus, a band, built on the principles of democracy, having since overthrown the fraudulent attempts by a misdirected despot, have effectively won back their rights and moved forward with a new singer and new home for the catalog at issue -- or "reissue" as the case may be. More information on the case can be obtained at www.deadkennedysnews.com.
To matters of future significance, Dead Kennedys are again a force to be reckoned with in an American Punk community they helped define 25 years ago. Theirs was the urgent voice of discontent that made famous the necessary but often overlooked democratic ideals of questioning authority, equality, and personal accountability in their pointed lyrics and scathing rhythmic attack. There were few competitors. The Dead Kennedys were every bit about musical unity as they were about freedom of expression.
In winning back the rights to their catalog the band has reaped a harvest of sales figure successes surpassing the 100,000 mark of the digitally remastered reissues of all their late great landmark albums. In addition, the band celebrated by scheduling vinyl reissues to be concluded early this year along with a previous reissue of their classic "Dead Kennedys -- The Early Years Live" video and the new "Mutiny On The Bay" CD. "Our reissue campaign on Manifesto Records has been an incredible success," enthuses EBR. "It's great to be back in control of our own music and the fans have really responded. The new remasters sound fantastic, way better than the older CD's that's for sure."
"Dead Kennedys -- The Early Years Live" features the band performing live from various venues from 1978 -- 1981 and includes highlight performances from the acclaimed Mabuhay Gardens, the San Francisco club where they first got their start. While plans remain for a second live tape, EBR reveals additional plans to uncover another unexpected find: "We're in the process of working on a DVD of us recording 'In God We Trust'-- it's actually a recording of us recording. So there'll be a lot of live and in studio footage." How did this surface? "Klaus (Flouride -- bass player) was looking through about 40 or 50 hours worth of tape and he ran across this kind of documentary footage of us doing 'God'. We were originally going to do a continuation of our 'Early Years' video with different songs and venues and such -- which we'll probably still do at some point -- but we just ran across this and thought it was pretty unique. There's not really much in the way of Punk bands recording themselves in the studio."
Of course in the aftermath of the court proceedings, the band's reformation was not only in doubt, their legitimacy to proceed without their outspoken vocalist and chief lyricist, Biafra, would be forced into question. Why can some bands merely get away with "replacing" a lead singer or other dominant presence, while others go on to even greater degrees of success or in some cases implode altogether, is a subject for day long debates of inconclusiveness. "A lot of people (who doubted us) don't realize how important the musicians were to Dead Kennedys," was Ray's brief conclusion on the topic that will shortly garner more attention. Weighted against the principles of the "band" as opposed to one or another member, there may be no single bigger musical interest on the whole, and certainly in Punk spheres, than Dead Kennedys, who concurrent to their courtroom clashes, still provided for a group-related vote to their former frontman.
On the recent Dead Kennedys reformation, EBR had this to say: "We've only been doing this for a little over a year now. We were re-releasing the records on Manifesto and doing a record release party for the "Mutiny" CD and just kind of fell into it really. The party was going to be in Los Angeles and Klaus, DH, and I were going to be there. We'd planned to meet and greet people, sign autographs and shake hands-- that type of thing. There were going to be some bands playing -- The Angry Samoans, The Stitches, The Cell Blocks-- and DH came up with the idea of us getting up and playing some tunes too. DH also knew of Brandon Cruz from the band Dr. Know, and so we all did a bit of rehearsing and next thing you know there's a bunch of people outside the studio and the rumor hits the street. Then the club ends up selling out like three weeks in advance! We were unannounced and unadvertised; We didn't know how people would feel about the band and the music with only _'s of the original members, but like I said, it sold out-- and there were like 300 more people out front. The promoter was amazed. We had a majority of younger kids in the audience who'd never seen us before and of course some who were older and yeah, it was just amazing. We were amazed at the amount of love there was for the music. That, to me, is when we realized the music's more powerful than the individuals. And there was this agent there offering us more gigs to get the ball rolling and we've been doing it ever since."
Considering the magnitude of touring and venues the band has since played, any lingering questions about whether (they should) or why (they have) have been resoundingly silenced. With successful shows throughout the U.S. and Europe fueled by massive festivals highlighted by Germany's "With Full Force" where DK shared the stage with Biohazard and Slayer in front of a crowd of 46,000, the band, vindicated in their ideological passions of music for positive change, took great leaps forward from their far removed prime with even bigger shows planned for the future. Ray adds: "We've been to South America, we've been all over the U.S. again, we're going to Japan for the first time ever, and Russia-- We're going back to Europe and the UK to bigger places than we did the first time, cause admittedly, there was a lot of skepticism the first time around. People thought we couldn't pull it off, but I'm proud to say the skeptics who came were convinced." EBR and I take a look back reexamine why exactly, when so few bands could survive such a loss as that of a charismatic platform pushing vocalist like Biafra, could come back even stronger and effectively influence a whole new generation of people. Could it be because their words still cut like a buzzbomb through the bowels of a too often brain dead and blind society? EBR discusses a little about the band's history with commentary on the shifting Punk scene from when they began: "Klaus, DH, and myself really have a unique style and when you put them together, it comes out like that 'sound', and also the audiences have been really intelligent. I mean, when we started in San Francisco at the Mabuhay, the shows would consist of an Art band, a Pop band, and a Punk band all on the same bill. You'd have this mix of people and this mix of ideas -- words like 'germinate' or 'crossbreed' would continually come up. By around '83 -- '84 the group's split apart and the Punk scene became one thing, the Pop scene became a sort of New Wave scene, and the Art scene was-- what it was, and by around '85 -- '86 the Punk shows turned into this macho, testosterone-based, power trip thing. It was more about how many people can you knock over -- not every show, but enough -- and it just wasn't fun for us to play them anymore. But the touring we've been doing this last year has reminded me of the golden age of Punk. We have a mixed audience; there are some younger people and we've got the older ones that saw us before. We've had women in the pit -- women stage diving, where it's allowed (laughs) and you know, people are being really responsible and helpful. It's not this idea of how many elbows can you throw and so forth."
"We've always been a very politically and socially conscious band-- and unfortunately, a lot of what we've sung about -- 'Life Sentence', 'Police Truck', 'Kill The Poor', whatever, still applies today."- EBR.
With a band like DK, the message in the music, and really an analysis of the art form at its core, or at least its most influential, will reveal the basis of deviation as drawing democratic-bred distinctions toward difference making whether it's promoting free thinking with furious fist pumps or ass-bearing, nose-thumbing delivery mechanisms; more so than any other musical style or function, Punk Rock remains philosophically unchangeable and so allows for a uniquely generational spanning art with less limitations than most. EBR, obviously moved at the size, mix, and ability of today's DK audience, concurs with said theory (phew!) and reveals the band member tastes as "open" when it comes to musical forms and a sort of "togetherness" and "chemistry" that allowed for DK's uniqueness, and adding: "When I was remastering the CD's I was pretty blown away by some of what we'd done at the time; it was like, wow, I remember that; That was pretty wacky-- we really did take things out there pretty far!" (Laughs)
But then there were your "Too Drunk To Fuck's" that no matter how responsible your intent, could be shielded from criticism just so long-- "That was a top 40 hit in the United Kingdom!" laughs Ray. "But we also had a sense of humor in there definitely, which I think is important." Soon after, we skim over the idea of politics and humor, two perfectly blended and widely used elements to the DK character where songs like "Too Drunk--" inexcusable in the extremes of precedent setting, push the issue anthems, suggests, yes, this was a young band, loose, loud, disrespectful, yet all the more impressive in the accepting of their share of social responsibility. But with all this serious talk, doesn't a name like "Dead Kennedys" evoke instant controversy? Shouldn't it? "I've heard two stories," remarks Ray, "but basically, Biafra supposedly got it from a friend of a friend. That's the story but the question is who the friend of the friend is. That's the part I don't know about. Yeah, I mean, people were just sitting around thinking of cool Punk Rock names-- and that one had suitable shock value." (Laughs)
And? "Well you know from our viewpoint, America in the '60s, before the assassinations, was kind of a time of idealism and people -- what's the JFK line? 'Ask not what your country can do for you but ask what you can do for your country.' And he doesn't mean the government, he means what you can do for your country-- your community and fellow citizens. After the JFK assassination, Robert Kennedy, MLK, America became self-centered and more cynical and still hasn't recovered that innocent idealism that had existed. So the name also signifies the loss of that idealism and our lyrics and music suggesting that maybe it's time to bring those back."
Let's also address the topic of singers a little bit further. Most people in the Punk community probably know of Brandon Cruz from fronting the band Dr. Know, so it's not like some fresh-faced little kid (oh, then you have seen the '70s sitcom!?) coming in off the street looking for his first big break. Brandon's definitely logged some mileage in the scene for a while. "Yeah, and like I said before, we're going back to Europe to nearly 50% bigger venues and basically the band's message is still the same -- only the singer's have changed-- only the voice has changed. Ultimately what's more important, the message or the personality? But from back in the day, we'd already played some shows with Dr. Know with Brandon singing for them, so we're all pretty familiar with each other. And Brandon does his own style; he's been a lead singer for a while so he's got his own routine going." Any possibility of there being any new "fruit" to pick from in the near future? "We've talked about it but right now we've been so busy touring and running around-- but it's possible." Each of DK's records offer a distinctive sound that embody the spirit of Punk aggression yet flawlessly transcend it, often breaking into a variety of mixed fragments that fall between Pop, Goth, Blues-- and Rockabilly fueled guitar jams augmented by Speedracer style scales on a high speed picking spree that kicks sand in the face of the traditional sixties' surf scene. EBR discusses a little about the earlier influences that helped develop DK's musical dynamic: "As a musician it's an honor for people to come and hear me play," begins Ray. "These riffs that I created and recorded, to have them recognized and valued is really special to me as a musician. It was bizarre in the beginning, but my dad exposed me to a lot of Duke Ellington and the Blues-- stuff like Lightning Hopkins and Muddy Waters back in the day. I was never really into '70s music when I was growing up. Klaus's line was that he got into Punk Rock because of The Eagles-- he didn't like The Eagles (Laughs). Since then I've discovered AC/DC and Aerosmith. These are the kind of big '70s bands that were pretty cool. And I've also discovered The Ohio Players and the funkier stuff of the time. So I used to listen to all sorts of stuff when I was young-- and probably was very eccentric in that way. But as a guitar player, the 'Sun Sessions' with Elvis Presley was a big influence. Then there was Scotty Moore playing his guitar into an echo unit like 'Mystery Train--' that sound of 'Mystery Train' was what inspired me to get an Echoplex. I also liked the first Pink Floyd record with Syd Barrett on it -- again going back to the idea of an echo-- and then there are some people who say I've got a 'surf' sound-- like that Dick Dale style of double-picking, but I never really listened to 'surf' music so maybe it's just the idea of growing up in California."
Some small talk ensues about fellow Punk vets, The Damned, and how each, while different, stretch conditional components of Punk music to richer extremes -- Dead Kennedys will actually be playing with them in the UK in April -- where elements of Goth, Drama, psychic fill effects, and so forth make strange bedfellows to the ideals of traditionally aimed fury where "Lynching Landlord's" or "Smashing It Up's" are concerned, but then-- "Especially on the CD 'Plastic Surgery Disasters' and 'Frankenchrist' a lot of those elements exist-- there's a kind of Avant Garde Jazz type mix." Furthering brief themes of individual album content, Ray adds that "Frankenchrist" gets a little bit "freaky" with an increased use of "western trumpets," and, "some of them are really short," regarding the songs on "Bedtime For Democracy" bow out, and then I'm reminded of "I Spy," the song, and again drawing comparisons to many of DK's mid-point jam sessions when suddenly "Enter The Dragon" appears in the background and there's Bruce Lee slipping carefully through the dark amidst subtle theme music, precursory to violent outbursts and fearful aftereffects-- Ray's never seen the movie.
Okay, and so what's this I've been reading then, with all of the positive build up about your comeback and recent successes, that you're banned from playing certain clubs in San Francisco-- still? "Well the booker's a personal friend of Biafra's-- something the reporter failed to report. Yeah, it's basically got to do with personal vindictiveness and nothing more. The clubs are going for the old fogy music or something. They're the music mafia clubs here, which makes it kind of funny that we're banned. It's like, what else is new for The Dead Kennedys?" Who are some bands you follow from the Bay Area you think have potential to make a move? "My favorite local band is The Glamour Pussies. They are like ultra-Punk. They don't care (laughs) but they actually have some pretty catchy tunes. They're made up of all women who wear different, wacky outfits every time they play. It reminds me of way back when the first time I saw The Weirdos play before we formed. They inspired me to put together a Punk band-- so this is like, wow, it's not clich? ridden, shall we say? So that to me makes it real Punk!"
Biafra said, 'Let the audience decide', way back over a year ago-- and then the audience was coming to the show and guess what? He files a lawsuit against us-- That should tell you all you need to know about that (Laughs).
Ray and I return to the idea of carrying on in the future without their original singer; He, shrugging off the notion of potential backlash by the old school traditionalist, and me, dissatisfied to let the issue yet rest regarding the loss of an outspoken, almost iconic figure who'd apparently granted his ego an insurmountable head start-- "If you come and actually see the show and judge for yourself, which is what DK is about-- that's what was so funny about us being banned in San Francisco. DK is not about telling people what to think; it's about telling people to think for themselves-- and the powers that be got corrupted. But some people don't want to change and I understand that. It's an old school way of thinking but nobody's the way they used to be. It's a fact, everything changes one way or another." On playing the old classics again-- "Yeah we've played 'em all-- I'm subjective of course, but it's actually better than it used to be-- musically speaking. No it's not fresh and new, but musically, the actual notes and our musicianship shows a better quality. But Punk isn't a religious cult either. There are those people that want to turn music into some sort of religious item and it's just really bizarre."
On the issue of the band's potential and perceived loss of credibility through commerciality stemming from some people's objections to a certain reissued, or "reselling" of an American Punk legend, EBR concludes: "People can be small minded and bitter; Some will discover a band in a club that's underground and then when that band becomes successful they don't like them anymore. It's like a reverse designer jeans philosophy or something-- (Laughs). My identity exists because I know this band that nobody else knows-- it's like an in/out identity I think, where it's not really about music, but in a certain sense, it's got to do with being cool. It comes from insecurity. With a band like Dead Kennedys, we're opposed to that kind of rigid thinking and-- it's like, get a life. You know, there are bigger issues in the world today-- like, what does Iraq have to do with Al Queda and all that other of stuff? The government wants to eliminate taxes on dividends so only working people will be taxed-- So yeah, there are much more important issues to debate." Right now, regarding their decision to play together again, it appears as though East Bay Ray and the rest of DK's remaining members are winning that one hands down.
Some quick EBR clips that didn't fit into the overall scheme but were too cool to cut out:
"Nirvana came out in the '90s and brought that kind of Punky sound that became much more acceptable to the people, and as a consequence, people rediscovered us. Actually our sales went up when Nirvana came out."
"A lot of music on the radio is overproduced--"
"I've always had a soft spot for one-hit wonders."
"To be honest, when we broke up, all of us thought, well, in two years we'll be having day jobs."
"A good band has a chemistry between people. There's a difference between a solo record and a band record."
"When I saw The Dictators I was like, wow, this is better than a lot of the bands that are getting promoted on the radio!"
"Really good Rock bands I describe as having an operatic aspect -- they have music, they have costumes, they have characters. Even The Beatles and The Stones, The Sex Pistols, The Ramones-- they have characters, costumes, and music."
"Back when the lawsuit started, people were like, 'How can you do that?' Well how can we let someone rip us off? You know that wouldn't be Punk."
"I met Slayer-- one of the guitar players is a DK fan. It was Biohazard, Slayer, and us. Yeah, it was big."
"We weren't influenced in our decision to shut it down in the mid '80s because of the popular music scene. It was just that the audiences were changing and our own well had begun to run dry at the time."
"I put an ad in the paper and a record store-- Klaus answered and Biafra answered. So we started working on songs and got a drummer and got another guitar player and we did our first show in July 1978. We had our drummer for about a week!"
"The Beatles sued one another-- The Sex Pistols sued one another-- The Misfits sued one another-- The Beach Boys-- I mean, okay, it makes good copy for your daily paper or tabloids, but ultimately, the music's much more powerful than any of that. Do you care now that The Sex Pistols sued one another?"