When news broke late last year that clothing store du jour Forever 21 was selling a Flipper T-shirt, the media response spoke volumes about the band’s level of fame. The bulk of the press focused on how the item, which was directly inspired by a handmade shirt Kurt Cobain wore during a Nirvana Saturday Night Live performance in 1992, was an affront to Cobain’s legacy instead of what it had to do with Flipper itself. The cynical, mischievous punk band has several notable fans (Cobain, R.E.M., Moby, producer Rick Rubin, The Melvins’ King Buzzo), a highly regarded record (1982’s Album—Generic Flipper), and a much-covered song (“Sex Bomb”) yet limited general renown. Forming in 1979 in San Francisco, Flipper has experienced early notoriety, seen in-band deaths (most notably, bassist Will Shatter in ’87), engaged in a tongue-in-cheek feud with Public Image Ltd., cycled through a couple of breakups and reunions, and now exists as one of those West Coast punk bands that only occasionally tours outside of their home turf.
The band performs at Lion’s Lair on March 29 and 30 alongside Crash (Thursday) and Glass Hits (Friday), playing shows loosely tied to the openings of the photography exhibitions Punk Passage: California And Beyond, 1977-1981 at CPAC (which features work by Ruby Ray) and Bruce Conner And The Primal Scene Of Punk Rock at MCA Denver. Before Flipper stopped by, we spoke to drummer Steve DePace about the band’s reputation, their equivalent to “Stairway To Heaven,” their iconic logo, and the true story behind the Forever 21 hubbub.
The A.V. Club: Much has been written about the uneasiness of Flipper’s place in the California scene when the band started, and in 2009, you described Flipper as “the band you love to hate.” What was the tension actually like in those days, and has it been glorified since then?
Steve DePace: Well, to be honest with you, yeah, those kinds of things came up in the press. From my perspective, none of that was ever directly afflicted upon Flipper as the band or the people in the band. I think that music reviewers and journalists came up with that. The first time I saw it was in the entertainment section of the Sunday paper in San Francisco, the Chronicle. There was a full article done on us and the title of it was “The Hated Flipper.” Then, “the band you love to hate” came up in the press as well, and that was because journalists and reviewers were checking out our sound, our music, and our songs.
We started in 1979, but around about 1980 or so, the hardcore scene came into effect and there were straight-edge and hardcore and fast-and-serious punk bands, thrash bands, and all that going on. Our music was very different and really stood out from the masses. Our stuff was slow, grungy, drudgy bass-driven kind of stuff, and obviously very different from the hard, fast, thousand-mile-an-hour songs that were, for the most part, being done by the hardcore punk bands at the time. We stood out from the pack, but nonetheless, our shows were extremely chaotic. It was rock ’n’ roll. It was what it should be: out-of-control madness, craziness, lots of fun had by all. As my friend and journalist Carlo McCormick from Paper magazine said, “You know, people used to come to all the Flipper shows at CBGB’s and they would bitch about Flipper, but they would sure as hell be there for every show,” so there was something going on that was loved by people who chose to bitch about us and loved by people who hated us.
As to how it affected us, we never had bands coming to us, saying, “Hey, we hate you. You’re different.” We never had fans coming to us, saying, “We hate you. You’re different.” We never had any of that coming at us directly, so as far as I was concerned, yeah, we were different from most bands that were out there, but we played along fine on every bill and we never had any problems or issues except for a little bit here and there, which is to be expected. The only clashes and violence that took place were mainly, in the beginning, between Los Angeles and San Francisco bands, and that had not so much to do with the different styles of music but that LA/SF rivalry that has been going on for ages.
AVC: In that same interview, you said that “Sex Bomb” was “the ‘Stairway To Heaven’ of our generation,” in terms of how often young bands played it, which is a pretty bold claim to make. What do you think makes it so immensely coverable, and do you legitimately think that there are thousands of covers of it out there?
SDP: Not recorded, but I’m saying that there are thousands of bands around the world who, especially during the ’80s, [covered the song]. You know how when you’re first getting into a band and you’re playing house parties and in your garage for your friends and that sort of thing? A lot of bands covered that song. There was a time when a lot of people covered “Louie Louie,” and I’ll tell you why. It’s because the song is so damn simple, anyone can play it, and I think that when you’re learning how to play in a band, you want to play the simplest, most basic stuff, so that you can learn how to play your instrument. Also, it was kind of a funny, cool, sexy song that was very simple and relatable. There’s nothing complicated about the lyrics. “She’s a sex bomb / My baby / Yeah.” I mean, that’s it. [Laughs.]
I can give you an example. In the early 1980s—around ’82, ’83—there was a radio station that was the big hip, cool radio station in Boston, and they ran a little contest, and they asked local bands to send in their tape of “Sex Bomb.” They were going to take all the submissions and play it over a weekend; a couple of hours or something was the original plan. They got so many submissions that it turned into a 48-hour, Saturday-Sunday marathon. That’s how many bands just in Boston sent in their Flipper tapes covering “Sex Bomb.”
I heard that Nirvana covered “Sex Bomb” when they were first starting out playing house parties and stuff like that. That was the song. I didn’t make up that thing where it was the “‘Stairway to Heaven’ of our generation.” A friend said that to me, and I thought it rang true. At least [for] the punk kids that were around in the ’80s, that was definitely the “Stairway to Heaven” during that time.
AVC: Guitarist Ted Falconi had a great quote about his sound: “I never got the guitar to do sax riffs—I was more into jet engines.” What was your approach with the drums?
SDP: [Laughs.] Well, you know, I just always wanted my drums to be big and bold and boomy like cannons. Maybe if his [point of comparison] is jet engines, mine is cannon fire. But yeah, I like the big, solid beats that hold down a song. Especially with Flipper, everything was so chaotic and loose with guitar, vocals, bass. The songs really need the solid drums to hold it all together. If the drums fell out of a song, it would sound like complete and total chaos. With the drums holding everything together, it’s kind of controlled chaos.
AVC: What about Flipper’s sense of humor and attitude? You’ve always come across as a cynical, self-aware bunch, so what informed that perspective?
SDP: That might be a question better answered by our singer Bruce [Loose]. Will [Shatter] is no longer with us, but him and Bruce really had more of the upfront sense of humor and cynicism as the two guys that were doing the singing and talking and banter. Ted and I were a little more just the quiet types doing our thing. Everybody in the band brought their own personality, sense of humor, influences (musically and otherwise) to the band when we all got started. I used to think about that all the time—What is it about Flipper that makes us unique and different?—and I think it’s a combination of each and every individual in the band [who] has their own influences in life and so on. You bring that all to the table and put it all together and hopefully, it meshes and works out, and I think it did in our case.
AVC: Having been part of this group for so long, how have you seen the dynamic of the band change? What were your relationships like early on and what are they like now?
SDP: Okay, I can tackle that question. In the early days, when we came together, everything was fun and exciting, and there was a cool scene to be a part of. We used to hang out a lot more with each other. We rehearsed a lot more. We would rehearse like three days, four days a week. We’d go out together after rehearsal, hit the clubs, whatever. There were a lot more functions, barbecues, get-togethers, parties, and that sort of thing. As the years went by, [one of] the major changes that occurred in the band [was] when we lost Will Shatter in 1987. None of us thought we’d ever get back together again and then we did like a year or two later with a new guy named John Dougherty. Well, that’s a new person coming into the mix, bringing his own chemistry and talents and skills and influences and all of that into the band, so everything changes. Like I was just saying before, when you have a certain combination of personalities and chemistry, and then something changes, it’s like the whole thing changes, so musically, we changed. Stylistically, we changed. Dynamically, we all changed. I think [Dougherty] died in ’95, ’96, and so once again, he’s gone, and then we had two or three other bass players. We’ve gone through a number of personnel changes [with] the bass, and each time a new personality comes into the band, dynamics change, the sound changes, etcetera, especially since the bass guitar is such a key instrument in our band. A lot of times, the songs we write start with a bass line.
AVC: Flipper’s fish logo is a very distinctive image. Ted has talked before about doing graffiti of it, but it’s unclear whether or not he was the one who designed it. Could you give us some background on the logo’s origin?
SDP: Sure. Once we had the name, then it was like, “Okay, now, we need a logo,” so Ted had a whole art school background and stuff like that. He came up with the logo out of the blue. Like our songs, it’s a very simple logo—a very simple line drawing—and anyone can learn how to do it or copy it. When we started getting really popular in San Francisco, a lot of our fans were definitely graffitiing and drawing that fish all over the place. People came up with the saying, “Flipper rules,” and that was going up all over the place. There was a street in San Francisco called Clipper Street and someone—don’t know if it was Ted or somebody else—made stickers with the letter F that matched the exact size and font of the street sign, and went up and slapped these stickers up over the C, and it became Flipper. [The person] did that for blocks and blocks on this street called Clipper, which became Flipper Street for many months before the city got around to coming and scraping the stickers off.
People were inspired to tag our graffiti all over the place. I got reports from two different people that Flipper was on the Great Wall Of China. I got reports Flipper was in Paris on some major building. A few years back, a friend of ours—in fact, a guy that lives in Denver now—went to Israel/Palestine, and there’s that security wall that now has a lot of graffiti on it, and somebody wrote “Flipper still rules” on this wall with our logo, and there’s pictures of it. [Laughs.] To this day, it’s just everywhere. It is a pretty cool-looking logo, I’ll definitely give you that.
AVC: How did you feel about the bootleg version of the Flipper shirt that made it to Forever 21 last winter?
SDP: Well, to be honest, it wasn’t a bootleg. We were approached several years ago by a company that puts out shirts that were worn by or seen by famous people. The story of that is, as everybody knows, Kurt Cobain made his own Flipper shirt. He kind of copied it from a couple of different places. The Flipper fish was the logo up in the corner of our first album, and then the font he used for Flipper was on one of our singles—I think it was the Sex Bomb single—so he put the two together and made a T-shirt. Lo and behold, we were approached by this company, and they wanted to put that particular shirt out. We were kind of selling that one ourselves. We just put it on a plain white tee, and they were selling like crazy at shows. People want ’em, y’know? Kids were relating to ’em because of Kurt Cobain, not because they even knew who Flipper was, but because Kurt Cobain had that shirt, kids wanted to have that shirt. Nirvana fans wanted to have that shirt.
We didn’t know anything about the Forever 21 part of it, but this company that we licensed the image to did manufacture the shirts, and they were selling them at different retail outlets and on their website. I guess Forever 21 approached them and they wanted to do a cheaper version of the shirt, so they did the deal, but we weren’t aware of it. The first I heard about it was when it hit Rolling Stone and everybody was sending me the article. I didn’t know anything really about Forever 21. I came to find out with all the hoopla that they’ve had some troubles in the past with kind of ripping off shirt designs and stuff like that, but in our case, it was actually licensed to them on the up-and-up. But they apparently got scared over that whole thing—the controversy—and they pulled the shirts out of the stores and off the website, so Forever 21 is no longer carrying that design to the best of my knowledge. However, the company that we originally did our agreement with, they are still selling the shirt on their website.
AVC: Was that company Worn Free?
SDP: Yeah, that’s it. Worn Free.
AVC: Flipper is from a very different world than Forever 21. How do you feel about a Flipper T-shirt coming into this place?
SDP: I guess there’s a couple of ways to think about it. You can think about it, like, “Oh man, no way, no how. Get me out of that store, I don’t want anything to do with it.” But on the other hand, you can think about bringing your image to a whole new bunch of kids. The young kids, [the] teenagers and twentysomethings that go into that store—if they buy the shirt, they might want to discover what it is and who’s the band and whatever, whatever.
Another way to look at it [is from when] one of our fans posted on Facebook had said we’ve invaded like a Trojan horse. We’ve invaded this particular corporate store—a place where we have no business. Somehow or another, we got in there, so they were kind of giving us kudos for that. But again, I don’t know. I know a lot of bands would be against being in that store and if [Forever 21] were and are a corporation that is all about ripping off bands and that kind of thing and bootlegging stuff, then I wouldn’t want to be in there, but with us, it was an above-board deal. They didn’t rip us off and they were paying us money through this other company. I don’t want to say, “Feel like a sell-out” or anything like that, but there are a couple of ways to look at it. If a kid wants to buy your shirt, does it matter whether it’s in Forever 21 or... What’s the name of that other chain that sells all the kind of punk rock/goth stuff?
AVC: Hot Topic.
SDP: Yeah. Does it matter if it’s Hot Topic or Forever 21? They’re both in the same mall across from each other, so what’s the difference? Again, I would feel strongly about it if Forever 21 was the kind of place that really was ripping everybody off and bootlegging shit, but again, I don’t go into that store so I wasn’t really familiar with anything about that [store] at all. It was thrown in my face.
It’s best not to be associated with stores or retailers that rip off bands and that kind of thing, but in our case, they didn’t, so I don’t know what to think. I wanna see as many kids wearing our shirts as possible because, y’know, why not? What band wouldn’t want their shirts to be on as many kids as possible? It gives a kid a reason—if they’re not familiar with the band—to kind of try to seek us out. We want ‘em to get to our music and come see us play and all that kind of stuff. Hopefully, the generations will keep coming and checking us out.
AVC: With so many famous people, including Kurt Cobain and Rick Rubin, being known for being Flipper fans, the band itself doesn’t seem to be as well known as the idea that these famous people are Flipper fans. The Kurt Cobain Flipper shirt at Forever 21 seems to be associated with Kurt Cobain as much as it is with you, even though it’s ultimately your shirt.
SDP: That was pretty funny, too, because most of the controversy about that—all the controversy about it—was that Kurt Cobain was being ripped off. They didn’t even mention Flipper. In a sense, they showed the picture of the shirt and the shirt said Flipper, but the whole shit was about Kurt Cobain being ripped off, so yeah, you have a real point there in that the band is not quite as famous as the famous people who like the band or whatever. But I don’t know, man. It’s weird and bizarre. On the one hand, I think it’s pretty cool that people like Rick Rubin and Kurt Cobain were so fucking enamored and so influenced by our band, but on the other hand, it’s a little frustrating that more regular people—music fans—didn’t discover the band. Whatever it was that we did struck a chord with these [notable] people, and a lot of these people grew up to be in big famous bands and/or major executives and producers in the music business. Maybe they had some sort of vision that most people didn’t, but that happens a lot. Somebody was just talking about this on the radio.
A lot of people who create a certain style of music don’t get the same kind of fame and fortune [as] some of the people who were influenced by that music style and went on to do their own thing and became big and famous, so the ones who influenced the ones that got big and famous kind of get left behind. All you get is those famous people talking about you. A lot of times, that will bring more people and more fans to you, but the mainstream is never going to be a Flipper fan. Pop music fans are not going to be Flipper fans.
AVC: How does it feel to be in that situation, to be in this very interesting role?
SDP: Right. Well, it’s really cool on one hand, and on the other hand, it’s frustrating when you’re struggling to pay your bills. Sometimes, when you’re struggling to pay your bills, you’re going, “Oh, damn, man. Why couldn’t we have been Nirvana?” because those guys don’t necessarily struggle to pay their bills. It’s the luck of the draw. What can you say? You’re in one position or you’re in the other. I don’t think it’s cool or right or good to be bitter. I’m definitely not bitter and none of us are. It is what it is.
I think that in the grand scheme of things, Flipper being who Flipper is, and having done what we did, and having influenced all the people that we influenced, and having all the fans that we have and stuff like that, I think we’re pretty lucky. There’s a whole lot of bands out there that never get off the ground, and there’s a whole lot of bands out there that last one or two years and then it’s over—[bands] that never get a record made. [Since] there are so many more bands now than there were years ago, the competition is far more intense now. The record industry is in the toilet, so basically, everybody is left to their own devices now to do whatever they can, so if Flipper was starting out now as opposed to 33 years ago, we wouldn’t get anywhere near as far as we did. Also, a lot of things that happened with us—all the deaths in the band and people coming and going—definitely held us back. We probably could’ve accomplished more had we not had some of those issues and problems, but y’know, we did the best we could and here we are still chugging along.