I conducted the following interview with Flipper vocalist Bruce Loose (far left in photo) for an SF Weekly story which will run in a couple of weeks. In the meantime, here's a very lightly edited transcript of our conversation. I've been a Flipper fan since 1983 or 1984, when I was in junior high; they were one of the first punk bands I heard. I started out with the Dead Kennedys and Black Flag, Flipper and the Red Spot compilation, long before hearing anything by the Clash other than "Rock the Casbah," which was on the radio. When the Flipper catalog was reissued on CD and made available through the Amazon MP3 store late last year, I was overjoyed. And their twin new CDs, Love (studio) and Fight (live), are great, a very worthy extension of their artistic legacy. So enjoy this interview, and if you're in California, try to catch them live...they're playing San Francisco's Café du Nord in July, and doing some Warped Tour dates before that.
Is this the SF Weekly?
Yes, is this Bruce?
Yeah. So what’s up? Let’s speak.
Okay, please tell me about your surgery, to start. What was the story there?
Oh, I injured myself in high school gymnastics. It was a simple-looking injury at the time, they didn’t have extreme diagnostics, but they found out it was a total destabilization of my system starting. Over the years of working, various auto accidents, this and that, falling off the stage, things like this, my back just went through normal degenerative disc disease breakdown. I ended up having surgery utilizing three levels of my vertebrae with titanium bars and big screws. They were going to do it to my sacrum but I wouldn’t be able to bend at all if I did that, so they saved me that, but I’m riding on one bad disc there, and I do set off a little nerve pain now and then. But other than that, I’m way better than I’d been for the past ten years, 'cause I was basically in bed for the past ten years, unable to function. There was a large bone spur digging into the lowest level, and they did lamendectomies for that to release the compression. That was basically them taking a little auger, like you’d use with a piece of wood to ream out a hole, and they ream a hole around your nerve. Had they missed, I’d be paralyzed. But they did a good job. So there’s the story in a nutshell of what it is with my back. All these stories of major car accidents and that stuff – no, I’ve just had fender-benders all the time, and lots of lifting accidents. There was a time after the CBGBs [farewell shows], when we were touring with Bruno [DeSmartass], and we were in Providence, Rhode Island, and we were doing soundcheck and I walked right off the edge of the stage. There were no rails up, no colored tape, nothing. And I slammed down on my left leg, which is the one that has the nerve damage in it from the bone spur digging into it, and I hit so hard I knew something dislodged in my back. I went in for further diagnostics and they started me out on trying some sort of a steroid shot, and I responded to that, which meant they could do further investigation. And then I finally went to the UCSF Spine Center and was afraid of surgery for about a year and did shots for about a year until they didn’t work anymore, and then I gave in to the surgery. For me, it was a good thing. It’s restarted my life, rekindled everything. But you know, it’s kind of like a blessing and a curse. Here I was totally bashed up and I’m out pushing myself and there was a little stage fall. Seriously, I mean, you know, what’s a three-foot drop onto one leg? You could do that anytime, right? Well, not in my condition. There it is. That was kind of the final bump that pushed everything, and I’m glad it happened. Cause I’m so much better. They guaranteed me a 50 percent reduction of pain, and I’m sure I’ve gotten at least 85 percent. But the 15 percent that’s there, when it acts up, it’s pretty fuckin’ bad. So what do you do? You just fight through it. Take your medication and go. There’s that story in a nutshell.
Did getting through the surgery and everything give you the impetus to restart the band on a serious level?
Well, it definitely helped facilitate the physical ability for me to continue on in the band. It was getting hard there just before the surgery, it was really getting to be a push, and you know we were pushing to do those recordings with Krist [Novoselic] and doing shows at the same time to help meet costs and everything. And towards the end, right before the surgery, it really felt like the band was torturing me, but they weren’t doing anything other than trying to play. And it’s really being back onstage and having an audience, that’s what really got me back. It was doing that CBGBs show where I had to sit on a stool for 90 percent of the show. That show alone brought back why I do this and why I do what I do and what my fuckin’ stupid purpose in life is, you know?
Tell me about the whole thing with Krist. How did he come to join the band in the first place?
We were just sans a bass player with Bruno needing to step out and do his family and be on a real work schedule, and we were looking around for someone to play. And one of [Flipper drummer] Steve [DePace]’s friends in Seattle mentioned maybe Krist Novoselic would be a good idea. We got hooked up with Krist through Thurston Moore, and it was basically just to do the All Tomorrow’s Parties show in England, but when Krist came down and started rehearsing with us and learning our stuff and understanding where we were coming from, he just kinda popped out an ad-libbed bass line and we all went along with it, and it clicked. We all realized we didn’t have to just be sitting back and doing the same old stuff, becoming a punk rock revue type of band. So that was kind of a thing that affirmed to me that we still have some gumption about us. It could have been any bass player, in my mind, as long as they had pushed us to try. My writing has gotten a little bizarre and conceptual beyond what Steve and Ted could really comprehend what I’m doing – I’ve gotta simplify my stuff down and figure it out. My composing is stuck on some weird jazz level that works with some stuff but not everything. I gotta get out of those scales and go practice some other ones.
The new songs seem less negative than in the past…
Well, things change in life, right? I had one person tell me that I was angrier than ever, but that was the pain screaming through my body. Flipper has always been a means and a device for getting a message to people, and if it’s time to fuckin’ chill down the anger, it’s time to chill down the anger. There’s definitely hope in this world, I mean we may not make it through this bullshit of trying to go green and all this crap – you can’t just build a green society out of nowhere, you gotta go green from the get-go. Whether we all make it through this or not, it doesn’t matter. The time is now and that’s what you fuckin’ do, is what you enjoy. It’s rudimentary, it’s all planted in our brains already, we just need to follow it.
I’m intrigued by the live album, because it also seems to manifest the change you’re talking about. I started listening to you guys in about ’84, when I was still in junior high, but I never saw you live. But a friend of mine saw you play in the ’80s, and when I asked her what it was like, she said “I’ve never been so insulted in my life.” And I’ve also heard about [deceased bassist] Will [Shatter]telling the audience at one show, “The more you heckle us, the longer this song gets.” So are you less interested in battling the audience these days, or are people no longer showing up looking for conflict?
I’m challenging them even more, but I’m taking a different tack. I’m challenging them to have fun, to deal with the situation as it is and have a great time. The last show we just did in Auckland, New Zealand – we just came off a little tour of Australia and New Zealand – the audience was just so into it. They were so open and they came with no pre-concepts. They fed us great energy and that fed into the music and the music feeds me, and it’s magic when it happens. If you’re insulted, you’re insulted. If you get a good time out of it, you get a good time. I’ve noticed that when people come in with preconceptions about what we’re supposed to be and how we’re supposed to sound, those are the people who walk away going “I’ve been insulted,” “I didn’t like the music,” stuff like that. People that walk in open-minded have the best time. There was a young woman that came by in New Zealand, a professional woman, hanging out with her friends, had no idea what she was coming to see, and she was just like – she was so out there with her dancing and everything, and we hung out afterwards, and it was like…getting to know people, it’s a people-to-people exchange. We’re not a fuckin’ band up there trying to be rock stars. If we get there, whatever, fine. The connection is made to the people in the audience. One person at a time per show. I wish it was a hundred. I wish there was a thousand of me, that I could go out and talk to everybody at the shows. It’s hard to spread yourself, but you know…I don’t know what to say. I’m very jubilant about what’s going on right now. I’m having a really good time and expressing that in my stage show. Maybe people will be less insulted. Will was really into trying to take the shit out of the persona that we all think rock-star-ism is supposed to be. I have one friend who’s like, “Yeah, sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll!” He’ll call me up every once in a while like, “Man, I bumped into this chick at the show, we had sex, blah blah blah,” and I’m like, Okay, you had your rock ’n’ roll experience, you happy? It’s ridiculous. Just because you stand up and try and do a little something, people will have preconceptions. It’s funny what people walk away from, or what they think at all, or how they deal with it.
Well, in the ’80s, do you feel like there was a feedback-loop relationship with the hardcore audience, when you were playing with all these bands playing 90-second songs at a thousand miles an hour?
Right. Well, there was a lot of disconnection from the audience. Cause once again, you had an audience of kids that were expecting a certain thing. I found it very interesting that there were some hardcore kids that were very into the scene, but we’d win them over. They were like, “Wow, that was awesome,” or “That was beyond what I was expecting.” That’s always nice, to get a convert every now and then. But for the most part, they wanted only one thing, and they got that. They built that life, they did it DIY, and that’s all fine and wonderful, but where did it go? There’s small cliques that I’ve seen out in the suburbs, little kids in nowhere towns, and they start off with a hardcore scene and I don’t see them go anywhere from that. They don’t progress beyond it, they don’t push themselves to do something different. You find their shit at Hot Topic. To me it’s perplexing.
In a way, hardcore – and this is true of death metal as well – they’re kind of like folk music. They’re people talking to each other, and not talking to anyone else.
That’s an interesting analogy, ’cause folk music to me was just too wimpy in a certain sense. I grew up with late beatnik parents, who were influenced by the late ’50s scene in San Francisco. So they used to take me out to see all this stuff and do all this stuff, and they were always in a folk music club. And every Friday we’d get together with those people, and it seemed like they wanted to communicate but I think it was probably their genre and the medium they used. Last night, I was at a bar and there was an acoustic guitar thing going on, and I could tell the people that were coming up and doing blues and people who were coming up and trying to do some kind of folkie thing – it was just hokey. So that’s an interesting way of putting it. But it’s funny, the last real hardcore show I went to in Concord or Lafayette or someplace like that, I ran into one of these little hardcore cliques that were just sitting there, and who comes strolling along but these guys who called themselves the Rag Time Rebels or something like that. And the girl’s got a washtub bass, just playing a single string with a fuckin’ broomstick, and the guy’s got a mandolin, and they’re playing an acoustic guitar, and they came on after the last hardcore band and just stood up there and played. Nobody asked them to or anything like this, and to me that was more fuckin’ punk than the hardcore acts. They had the gumption to do something that was beyond what was already going on. I don’t necessarily always agree with the “folk-punk,” I guess, but we all live our different lifestyles.
So the old albums are finally out on CD…what took so long? Was there a rights dispute with Subterranean?
It wasn’t just Subterranean, there was also – we just needed to reel in our horses and take control of our recordings. And we basically set up our own publishing, our own record company, as the band. And we make sure that stuff gets out and somebody is printing it up and producing it. That’s what you gotta do. I see a lot of bands that put out their back catalog and after that nobody hears any more about it. So for us it was just getting it together, pulling in loose strings, and that’s when CBGBs called, when we started doing that. We had every intention of always putting that stuff out, it just didn’t get put out by the major labels that promised they would and stuff like this. So forget ’em. Gotta do it yourself.
People I knew were amazed to hear that Gone Fishin’ was finally coming out on CD.
Yeah, well, apparently that one – I didn’t know people liked it as much as they did, ’cause it never had as much vinyl sales with Subterranean in the beginning. But the whole relationship with Subterranean was very convoluted. Stories are all mixed up backwards, and certain aspects aren’t looked at but were done incorrectly. It was a learning experience for everybody. That’s all I can say about that one. The back catalog’s out. There’s evidence enough, we’ve gotta get down to DIY level.
So are you planning on doing national touring this summer?
Well, we had wanted to, but there’s some family complications going on with one of our members right now, so we’ve had to ease up until this situation clears up. We’re definitely out and doing stuff. You don’t put this effort into anything and then just drop it off. But it’s gonna be limited stuff over the summer. And also, that gives me – I’m finally doing the physical therapy that I needed to do because I can do it without a bone spur digging into me, so I’m working on that. And [current Flipper bassist] Rachel [Thoele] and I are getting along really well as a musician partnership, so we’ve got songs to write. So there’s another new Flipper record. You shouldn’t stop just cause you’ve gotta change members and go through this stuff. To me, they’re just private contractors. If it works out, they can join the fold. You work with people you’re doing stuff with. The relationship with me and Rachel’s been a long friendship, and so we kinda understand the same music and stuff. So mostly writing this summer. We do have that show coming up at the Café du Nord. Everybody should come down to that. It’s in our intentions [to tour], but you know, people have to deal with the things they have to deal with. They put up with a great deal with my back, other things can be given way to. It’s not gonna die or just fade off, it never has, it never will. That’s evident with people being happy with the back catalog being available. I hope they like the new stuff. 'Cause for me, it’s my heart’s passion. I was very challenged doing the lyrics for the new album and stuff, honing them in. I’m not completely satisfied with all of them, because I felt it was a short time to work in. Whereas when we worked with Will, we had a long time working on songs, and we would walk in and say we want to record these, having a plethora of songs to pick from. We’d come up with something new with different bass players, there’s a finite amount of limitation and that’s what you’ve gotta do, that’s what you’ve gotta work on. And to me not having the time to – you know, a good couple of years is what it takes you to learn how the delivery of a song is gonna go, what the right feel is, what lyric changes can happen. I’m finding that already with the stuff we did with Novoselic, I’m like Okay, well I’m still changing the lyrics here, still doing a different meter or a rhythm change with my vocals here, stuff like that. It’s just an evolutionary process, that’s what Flipper does. It evolves its stuff rather than trying to push it. So doing these pushed things was kinda strange to me, but give me five years down the road and I’m gonna be very happy with them. Five years too late.
I just wanna ask you one final question, about Will. Because he never really became a T-shirt martyr the way Sid Vicious or GG Allin or Kurt Cobain or Johnny Thunders did, and I’m wondering if you have any thoughts about why that is.
What do you mean, a T-shirt martyr? Like someone who was put on T-shirts that people wear?
Well, maybe people just didn’t get his message of being anti-rock star, which he was very much about. One of the – I think it’s recorded somewhere, but I can’t remember what song it is, but he talked about putting the band on a pedestal and not to do that, because when the pedestal breaks, it’s gonna hurt, and it’s not just gonna hurt you at the base of the pedestal, but it’s gonna hurt the people on top of the pedestal most of all. So I don’t know, you know? That’s a hard one to call. Maybe if he’d survived, he’d be a living icon rather than a dead icon. Maybe it’s crass to do that to somebody, put them out in that manner. I can understand some people who reach a certain level of fame, but look at Bob Marley. He’s on T-shirts everywhere, right? And all of his sons, whether they’re bastards or his real children, are all out trying to do something with the Marley name. And they’re all pretty much untalented, except for Ziggy. It gets really ridiculous. I don’t know what to think about that one either. Will was not the only icon of the band. He wrote, sure, 53 percent of the material versus my 42 and the rest of the band on its own or [guitarist] Ted [Falconi] or whatever. I don’t know what caused that and what didn’t cause that. I think he would probably be adored more if he was a living icon, had he survived, ’cause he was a brilliant lyricist. He came up with some good words and I’m enjoying still using his words, but doing completely different deliveries than what he did. Or refining his deliveries to a point that he either didn’t have the interest or couldn’t do. I don’t know, but it started out with me being the singer and him being the bass player, and slowly it evolved to where we were switching off, and in the end years it was more me playing bass through three quarters of the set and he would just be very ineffectual at the mic.