Watch CBS News

CBS SF Talks To Flipper Drummer Steve DePace

By Dave Pehling

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) -- One of the most abrasive and iconoclastic bands to emerge from San Francisco during the punk era, Flipper has been delivering its noisy, dark-humored songs to rabidly loyal audiences for four decades.

Formed in 1979, Flipper initially featured singer Ricky Williams (ex-Sleepers, who came up with the band's moniker), guitarist Ted Falconi (ex-Rad Command), and the former rhythm section of Negative Trend, Will Shatter (bass) and Steve DePace (drums). Drug problems led the group to fire Williams only months after first coming together, but that led to the addition of singer/bassist Bruce "Loose" Calderwood, completing what would become known as Flipper's classic line-up.

Embracing plodding tempos and room-clearing sonic chaos built around Falconi's unique guitar squall and the tandem screaming vocals of Shatter and Calderwood, Flipper stood in stark opposition to most of the band's punk contemporaries in San Francisco and abroad. Playing frequent shows to not always receptive audiences more accustomed to the fast and hard punk aesthetic, Flipper became a mainstay at SF punk clubs including the Mabuhay Gardens, the Sound of Music and the On Broadway.  Still, despite their willful dissonance, the band somehow found a way to cram hooks and sneering, sarcastic humor into the cacophonous grooves of early singles like "Sex Bomb" and "Ha Ha Ha." Both those songs would be covered by countless bands following in Flipper's discordant footsteps over the years that followed.

Flipper - Ha Ha Ha by Baba Booey on YouTube

The band followed it's early 7-inch single success with Subterranean records with a proper debut album, 1982's Album - Generic Flipper. Hailed as a masterpiece of American punk when released, the legacy of the recording has only grown with the influence it exerted over generations of post-punk and alternative rock acts. While Flipper only would manage one more studio album (Gone Fishin' in 1984) and a pair of live albums before splitting up prior to Shatter's death by overdose in late 1987, by that time some of the band's disciples -- most notably longtime Flipper proselytizers the Melvins -- were already making their own records.

Someday by Flipper - Topic on YouTube

Flipper would resurface in 1990 with a new bassist -- John Dougherty-- and a new single for Subterranean. They were prodded to more activity by another admirer, record producer Rick Rubin (who had led his own Flipper-inspired noise band Hose in New York before co-founding Def Jam Records). Rubin would issue their 1992 album American Grafishy on his Def American imprint, but the band suffered another setback when Dougherty suffered a fatal overdose after the record's release.

When the band should have been capitalizing on its newfound cache thanks to the vocal praise of fan and Nirvana leader Kurt Cobain, it instead returned to dormancy for much of the decade. Flipper has been more active since the turn of the millennium, reuniting during the 2000s to tour and record a new album with former Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic in 2009. With longtime singer Calderwood sidelined due to a back injury, in 2015 the band recruited Scratch Acid and Jesus Lizard to front the band for a series of successful dates in the U.S. and Italy.

Flipper with David Yow
Flipper with David Yow (Credit Nick Sternberg)

With the arrival of the band's 40th anniversary this year, DePace and Falconi have returned to activity, taking to the road for Flipper's most extensive run of live concerts in years with Yow band in the fold and previous collaborator Rachel Thoele (of the SF bands Frightwig and Mudwimin) on bass. The shows included an appearance at this year's edition of the Punk Rock Bowling Festival in Las Vegas that featured Flipper supporting fellow punk renegades Killing Joke.

DePace recently spoke with CBS SF about the inspirations behind the band's unique sounds, the current round of 40th anniversary celebrations and a recent new recording made with longtime Flipper champions the Melvins ahead of a series of three greater Bay Area dates in San Jose and Sacramento this week before culminating with a homecoming show at San Francisco's Great American Music Hall on Saturday, July 13, with fellow SF punk veterans the Next and Frightwig also performing.

Flipper with David Yow "Life Is Cheap" @ Alex's Bar 04-13-2019 by FleshCop on YouTube

CBS SF: Flipper had a really unique sound in that you embraced a dissonance that was much more extreme than most of your punk contemporaries. Was that just the band embracing that skronky element of the Stooges' Funhouse album or was there some interest in avant garde or experimental music in your collective backgrounds? 

Steve DePace: When we started the band, initially there was a guy named Ricky Williams who was the singer. He lasted about six months, but the band's sound continued from there, even when he left. Just to take it through Bruce [Loose, the band's bassist and sometimes lead singer], Will Shatter, Ted Falconi and myself, each of us brought our own influences. Both the music we listened to and the attitudes we had about life, the world, politics, you name it. You don't really talk about it too much, but we all brought our ideas to the band, musically and lyrically and attitude-wise. Certainly what ever influenced each of us growing up, you bring that with you.

I've heard Ted talk about having some jazz and whatnot in his background. I specifically remember him talking about discovering the electric guitar, but that wasn't until 1977 or '78. Prior to that, he played piano and acoustic guitar. He studied music. He has several degrees from studying art and music.

Will Shatter went to high school in England when the punk rock thing hit, so that was the stuff he was listening to, like the Sex Pistols. His father worked for some corporation that had him working over there. So he had those influences. When I met Will in 1978, he turned me on to music I'd never heard of like Leonard Cohen and Lou Reed and early Roxy Music.

Roxy Music - Virginia Plain - Top Of The Pops - 24th August 1972 by Bryan Ferry on YouTube

Bruce Loose, I have no idea what his musical background was, but he grew up in San Francisco with a hippie mom during the '60s. Complete, 100 percent hippie lifestyle, so he was probably listening to the folky stuff. In fact, his step father was the manager of Country Joe and the Fish back when they did Woodstock and all that. So he grew up around that kind of hippie, folky '60s rock kind of stuff that was happening in San Francisco.


Myself, my earliest influences were the Beatles and the British Invasion bands and all of that. Then I got into Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin and Sly and the Family Stone, and Tommy James and the Shondells and Isaac Hayes. A little bit of reggae stuff later on like Bob Marley. I had a pretty wide, eclectic range of music I'd listen to. I bought records and every day coming home from grade school, I remember I really looked forward to listening to records when I got home. I started buying records when I was 13 or 14. Maybe even younger, like 12. I started buying singles and albums. I really loved music from an early age.

I started playing drums a little later, like 14 or 15. I'd play in my basement; put on a record and put on headphones and play along. So I was never influenced by folk or jazz at an early age. Is was more rock and pop, if you want to call the Beatles pop. And then into the heavier rock later on. As a drummer, I was really into the heavy rock beats you'd hear with Led Zeppelin. I loved the Rolling Stones, though Charlie Watts did play what I'd call heavy rock. I guess he came from more of a jazz background.

Sex Pistols - Anarchy in the Uk - 1976 - Live by machinegunkelly111 on YouTube

When I became aware of punk rock, the Sex Pistols were the first band I heard and I loved Paul Cook's drumming. I think that's what I brought to the band: just a basic, 4/4 heavy rock beat. Ted Falconi and his approach on guitar was not at all traditional, in any sense or form. I don't even know where he got the idea to play the way he does. He under stands music and notes and chords, because he studied it in school. He plays chords, but he's just creating this sonic...noise, but with the right chords [laughs].

Bruce had vocal training, because he had been in a boys choir, but he had no musical training on bass, and neither did Will Shatter at all. Those guys just picked up the bass guitar and kind of taught themselves notes that sounded good in progression. They didn't know an A from a C from a D. They just plucked notes until they found a series of three or four notes that sounded good together. There was no musical science behind that at all. Lyrically, they both had their own style and attitude that they brought to their writing; their views on life and politics and all the rest.

So everybody just brought to the table what they brought to the table. I've been asked this question a million times and it's always been the same answer. When we walk into a room and I sit down at the drum kit, the guitarist and bassist plug in their amps and we just started making noise. Generally, it would start with a simple bass riff that either Will or Bruce would play. We'd add a drum beat and guitar noise to it and the singer would find some sort of influence in what was being played and be inspired.

Those guys would either have lyrics pre-written or they would write lyrics to the music while we were playing after having some thought or idea. I've seen Bruce do this where he'll sit down with a note pad and while we're playing a new piece of music, he'll start writing lyrics and then step up to the mic and start singing them. So we would work though songs like that. For example, our very first song that we recorded was called "Earthworm." That came out on a little 7-inch compilation EP called SF Underground. There were four different bands with four different songs from the very early days of the San Francisco punk scene [Editor's Note: No Alternative, The Tools and VKTMS were the other three bands featured].

SF UNDERGROUND Various Artists (FULL EP) by Thomas J. Foley on YouTube

That song "Earthworm," the lyrics were written by Will Shatter and he told me how he came up with those lyrics. He never smoked marijuana because it made him paranoid, but he did this one time and he got paranoid. And he said he literally crawled under the blankets in his bed with a flashlight and a notepad and wrote the lyrics about being an earthworm from an earthworm's perspective [laughs]. So those guys wrote their lyrics from whatever space they were in. I guess no matter what your artistic platform is, whether you're a painter or whatever you might be, your influences and attitudes come out in your expression.

CBS SF: I read that Ted Falconi studied Moog synthesizer and music at Mills College, which was an epicenter for sound experiments. It struck me that there is no one else in punk who has that kind of background...

Steve DePace: Yeah, he studied at Mills and he studied at UC Berkeley. Mills is a women's college for undergrads, but there are men in the masters programs. So he was in a masters program at Mills, but but then he was also in a masters program in Berkeley. I don't know how many degrees he has [laughs]! He did tell me that he studied Moog synthesizer.

CBS SF: Flipper had such a unique sound, especially for the time. It was almost like you were a post-punk band right in the midst of the birth of San Francisco punk. I guess there were some precedents. Devo had their own avant-garde tendencies. Were there any post-punk bands that emerged after Flipper that you felt a particular affinity with in the early '80s or beyond? I mean besides the Melvins, since I'm sure we're going to talk about them in connection with your recent recordings...

Steve DePace: We had several descriptions put upon us during the '80s. One was "the Grateful Dead of the '80s." They called us that because most punk bands' songs were pretty short and fast for the most part and our songs were long and slow. On certain songs, we would jam on for 15, 20 minutes and, in some cases, longer than that.

Flipper - (I Saw You) Shine (Live) by boredom on YouTube

Then it was "the hated Flipper." Because when hardcore came into vogue and everything was uniformly fast and furious with short songs and the fashion style was all kind of uniform, we became "the band you love to hate." But another one was that we were called "grungy" or "grunge music." A "grunge band" was another label that was sort of thrust upon us, and that was a full ten years before grunge was attributed to the music scene in Seattle.

In fact, I was flipping through a Rolling Stone magazine, and I forget who the writer was, but it was talking about bands that sounded grungy. Neil Young was one. There were a few bands mentioned as sounding grungy, but Flipper was another one in this article from the early '80s. So I don't know how it eventually got attributed to Seattle and all that, but Flipper was definitely a kind of grungy looking and grungy sounding band. That word sort of sounds right [laughs].

The Melvins definitely say we were a gigantic influence on them, and they turned Nirvana onto Flipper. I would say in terms of bands that were influenced by Flipper, Nirvana was a big one. But it started in the early '80s. There were quite literally thousands of bands that covered "Sex Bomb." Every teenage garage band in those days covered "Sex Bomb." It was an easy song to play. It got played on college radio across the country, so people were familiar with it. I've heard from bands from all over the world that covered it.

But Nirvana is the most notable band that talked about being influenced by Flipper. Noveselic told me one time that Cobain took all of his punk rock influences -- all the bands he listened to and loved, among them being Flipper -- he took that and coupled it with his pop sensibilities. He put the two together and came up with their music and their sound. It's pretty cool. It's great that we were able to have that kind of effect and impact on music in general.

And the flip side of that is we were also really able to touch the fans. People who aren't necessarily musicians. People who tell us that that Flipper saved their life. That still happens to this day. We were just playing in St. Louis a few days ago and happened to be an all-ages show. After soundcheck, I walked out of the club and saw this kid in a wheelchair and his mom waiting to get in. His name was Finn and he was probably 12 or 13 years old and he has cerebral palsy. His mom brought him because Flipper is his favorite band and "Way of the World" is his favorite song.

And the kid can't talk; he's got this little iPad thing that he uses to communicate. I gave him a t-shirt and he got into the show and was sitting in his wheelchair off to the side of the stage when we came on and started playing. I looked at him and he had the biggest grin on his face. And when we started playing "Way of the World," that kid got up out of his wheelchair and came up onto the stage. He went center stage and grabbed the mic and he wanted to sing that song so bad. I mean he couldn't do it, but he was going through the motions of singing the song, holding the microphone and smiling ear to ear. And our singer David Yow was hugging and kissing him and stepped off to let him do his thing. And the audience sang that whole song word for word as the kid was up there with the mic.

They sang it for him. It was so moving and incredible. It affected us unbelievably. And he stayed up on stage for another song; we did a song called "Shine" after that and he stayed up there and the audience sang for him again. The kid was just so happy. It was literally the time of his life. So for us to have that kind of effect on people in various conditions and various states of mind, it's pretty incredible. I'm very humbled by it. I don't really understand it, but I acknowledge it and I'm happy about it. Because that's really the point of music: to move people and inspire people and make people happy. If we can accomplish that, I think that's the most you can hope for.

CBS SF: That seems like a good point to talk about Yow a little bit. When I saw him with the band back in 2015, he seemed perfect for Flipper. I read that during the break between that round of dates with Yow and now, you tried out other singers. I was curious if there was anyone of note that you auditioned? Was Yow still the best fit in the end?

Steve DePace: Yeah, Yow is perfect. He's just amazing. We had a wonderful time with him in 2015. We did a total of about 13 shows with him. There were three shows in Italy and about ten shows in the States. We did west coast and east coast. Well, at least the one show in New York. After those shows, David said he couldn't really commit beyond that. He had a great time and loved it but he was focusing on acting and had a bunch of things coming up. So that was that.

Flipper with David Yow "Shed No Tears" Live @ The Acheron Nov. 6, 2015 by Stefan Sonic on YouTube

During that interim between then and now, we were kind of racking our brains. Because he really was so perfect it was difficult to match that with somebody else. Who could we get? Nobody else was coming up with any ideas, so I was kind of left to come up with someone. We did try someone else out; I won't say who, but it didn't measure up. I did have a handful of ideas and talked to a few people on the phone, but we weren't really enthusiastic about any one idea to really go after it.

I ended up getting sidetracked with health issues and I really didn't think about it again until I heard that David was doing some reunion gigs with the Jesus Lizard. So I thought, "Oh wow, maybe he's thinking about music again." I didn't reach out to him, but I had it back in my head that if maybe we pull it together someday he'd be into it. I didn't really get serious about that until 2019 rolled around and it struck me that it was our 40th anniversary and it would be a really momentous occasion. 40 is a big milestone. It would be a great occasion to try and do something.

So I though about him first and I thought, "Well, in case he's not interested, there are a lot of people in the world who might be." In January of this year, I got really inspired. I was really fired up to do something. In my mind, I was like, "I WILL find somebody. I will find multiple people." It was the right time and I had the right attitude and the right energy and I was ready to go. And that just wasn't there between [the tour in] 2015 and now. When David moved on in 2015, it was so perfect and fun with him, the wind was kind of taken out of my sails. I was just kind of like, "Ugh. Now what?" Because it takes a lot of energy to get out and find the right people to do this kind of thing again.

But I was super fired up. I was going to make this happen, period. I reached out to David first, but if he had said no, I would have moved on and I would have definitely found people because I was ready to do it. And that's what I had in mind really: to work with a variety of people that we've worked with in the past and we were friends with or associated with, et cetera, et cetera. So I was ready to reach out to a whole lot of people and do a variety of different things, whether it be collaborating on recordings or pulling people into the band for touring. Everything.

Flipper with David Yow "I Saw You Shine" @ Alex's Bar 04-13-2019 by FleshCop on YouTube

So I reached out to him first, and I told him, "We're going to go do this thing. Out of respect to you -- you're amazing and we love you-- I'm going to let you have first option on this. Tell me what you think." And he initially agreed to do anything we would do in Los Angeles, because he lives here and I live here. And then we expanded that to Southern California gigs. And then we had brunch one day and I told him all that I was planning and all that was in the works, and all of a sudden he was interested in doing all of it. Which included a European tour and dates across the United States that were being booked.

And he just said, "I want to do all of it! Let me see if I can make this happen." So he looked at his schedule and so far so good. He's been good to go on everything we're doing. It's been great. We're loving it. And we are working with different people. We have an old friend of ours Rachel Thoele playing bass with us in the States and we have Mike Watt going to Europe with us in August.

Ted Falconi and I did a recording collaboration with Buzz and Dale from the Melvins and just last week, we recorded a song with David Yow and Rachel and myself and Ted in Indianapolis for a record label called Joyful Noise. That's a label that David has done a lot of things with and they've worked with Dale from the Melvins and a lot of different cool people. So we recorded a Flipper song, "Love Canal," in Indianapolis and we did sort of an homage to the Beatles. We recorded and video taped the performance on the rooftop of this record label like the Beatles did on the rooftop of Apple Records. And it came out great. That's going to come out on 7-inch vinyl for a series that the label does called Almost Live. That'll be coming out some time in the next couple of months.

CBS SF: That's interesting. I was curious, with Yow returning to the band, if you had any plans to record new material with him or maybe release live recordings from this tour?

Steve DePace: Yeah, there's the 7-inch I just mentioned, and then there's also serious talk about plans to release a live album. So that's the next thing we're working on. We've recorded a couple of different shows now, so I think we're going to release a live record with David as well. Probably through this same record label.

CBS SF: I wanted to ask a bit about the recordings process with the Melvins. I think one of the band's great strengths is their ability to collaborate in the studio, whether its with Jello Biafra or members of the Butthole Surfers or whoever. From what I gather, it was just the two songs on the Amphetamine Reptile 10-inch record that were collaborative, the new one "Hot Fish" and "Flipper Blues."

Steve DePace: Actually, we didn't record "Flipper Blues" together. Let me tell you what happened. So as I mentioned before, there was a variety of things I wanted to do for this 40th anniversary. In terms of recording projects, early on I started reaching out to people and saying, "Hey, these are all the different kinds of things we're thinking about doing. Would you be interested?" So I sent an email to King Buzzo and asked would he be interested in recording or touring with us or collaborating on a live performance or whatever. I threw it all out to him.

He got back to me and by coincidence, he said to me, "Well, we're planning to go into our studio to work on a new album." And they were planning on recording a couple of Flipper songs. That was already in their plans. So he goes, "Why don't you and Ted come down to our studio and we'll come up with some other ideas? We'll put our two Flipper covers on one side, and we'll figure something out with you to put on the other side." So they were already thinking along the lines of doing this record with Amphetamine Reptile.

Melvins - Flipper Blues by Irresponsableful on YouTube

So when we got to the studio, the idea I had was to write a couple of new songs with them as a collaborative effort. When we got their Trevor was already there working on songs with them. They asked Trevor to hang out for a couple of extra days and work with Ted and myself and them on whatever we were going to do. Buzz and Dale and Trevor had already recorded the music for "Flipper Blues" and "I Saw You Shine." So we watched Buzz do the vocals while we were there and it was amazing to watch him record those vocal tracks. He was just incredible.

Melvins/Flipper - Sacrifice by Irresponsableful on YouTube

And then together what we ended up deciding to do was record a song that the Melvins have been performing live for decades. For however long they've been around, they've been doing "Sacrifice." And Buzz told me it's one of his favorite Flipper songs and one of his favorite songs in the world. He just loves that song and their rendition of it is f--king incredible. We toured with them in...I don't know, was it 2006 or 2008? We were touring Europe with them and at this show in Ireland, they played "Sacrifice" as a tribute to Flipper. Buzz talked about how he discovered the band and the Generic Flipper album and what it represented to him. He said Generic Flipper sounded to him like the end of the world. And he brought it full circle by talking directly to the audience and telling them they should all go out and start their own band and make their own soundtrack to the end of the world.

So we ended up recording a new version of "Sacrifice," and it came out just amazing. Then we decided to do one new original track. Buzz came up with the title. That was the first thing he came up with and he said he wanted to call it "Hot Fish." And he came up with this riff and we just jammed and recorded it. We never even rehearsed it. We just did a little bit of a run through to get the levels and just jammed it out. And he later came back and put vocals from the lyrics he wrote after we left. So that's how that came about, just me reaching out to Buzz.

Melvins/Flipper "Hot Fish" • Amphetamine Reptile Records by HAZE XXL on YouTube

CBS SF: I had heard rumors that Dale and Buzz might be showing up for the San Francisco show. Can you confirm that? Or do you have any other special guests planned for the night?

Steve DePace: I don't know about them coming up for the San Francisco show. So far at the Great American Music Hall show, we have the opening act the Next. That's with Jimmy Crucifix, an old friend of ours who was in the band Crucifix. I guess the Next was the straight punk band he had before Crucifix. I'm not to familiar with them, but Flipper played with Crucifix back in the '80s. So we invited him to play with the Next and our old friends Frightwig, who people started calling "the female Flipper" back in the '80s, they're playing too. They lost their drummer Cecelia [Kuhn] a couple of years ago, but they reunited. They're going to put on a great show and they're having some special guests.

As far as Flipper goes, we're going to have the original sax player who played on "Sex Bomb" on the album, he's going to be sitting in on that song. And our pal who is sort of the fifth Flipper Bruno DeSmartass {aka Steve DeMartis] is going to be sitting in on bass, probably for "Sex Bomb." I'm not sure what other guests we'll end up having on. But we are working on a feature-length documentary about Flipper, so we're going to have a multi-camera video shoot going on that night as well as recording it for the documentary.

But generally speaking, it's going to be a Flipper homecoming 40th anniversary show and I'm sure the energy is going to be very high. We're really excited. There's no telling what's going to happen. That's also been the essence of Flipper from Day 1. You never know what's going to happen at a Flipper show and that's always part of the attraction: the excitement, energy and chaos. That's never gone away.

Flipper plays the Ritz in San Jose on Thursday, July 11, the Blue Lamp in Sacramento on Friday, July 12, and the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco on Friday, July 13.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.