An Interview with Stephen DePace of Flipper
By Andrew Daly
Dialing back to the ’80s, you’d find that San Francisco’s Bay Area bristled with thrash metal. But if you turn the clock back to just a few years prior, the Bay Area was a proverbial hotbed of punk rock ecstasy.
Of course, many were vying for supremacy amongst the spike-headed and leather-clad masses. Still, of all the punk rockers storming stages and shocking audiences, Flipper stood out as an outlier among the seething droves of hopefuls aching for exposure via three chords and a downbeat.
Through a sublime mix of noise rock, post-punk, hardcore, and good ‘ole punk rock, Flipper barnstormed the Bay Area’s collective consciousness, making a name for itself via energetic live performances and a string of seminal early recordings in Album – Generic Flipper (1982), and Gone Fishin’ (1984).
In the wake of those recordings, the members of Flipper —Ted Falconi (guitar), Bruce Loose (vocals/bass), Will Shatter (vocals/bass), and Steve DePace (drums)— soldiered on until 1987. While no new music was recorded during this time, the band’s legacy was further cemented amongst the underground. Still, a mix of drugs and little to no income led to Flipper disbanding.
In the ensuing years, Flipper has weaved in and out of the zeitgeist, coming up for air for two more records, American Grafishy (1993), and Love (2009), with long bouts of inactivity in between. But these days, Flipper is moving onward and upward, with Falconi and DePace now being joined by fellow veteran punk rocker Mike Watter (Minutemen, Firehose) with the intent of touring the world and, hopefully, recoding Flipper’s long-awaited fifth album.
In truth, when it comes to Flipper, there are some certainties. Surely, more shows await. But the fact remains that a volatile history and a problematic commercial landscape linchpinned by short attention spans and a fickle consumer base leaves more than a fair bit of uncertainty with regard to new music. But still, Flipper’s legacy looms large, and its shadow is still cast wide. Beyond that, we wait and see. Time will tell.
While on tour with Flipper’s rejuvenated lineup featuring Mike Watt, Stephen DePace dialed in with ClassicRockHistory.com to recount the long and varied history of one of punk rock music’s most iconic groups.
What first sparked your interest in the drums?
I don’t know; really, it just appealed to me. When I was a kid, I took piano lessons, guitar lessons, and drum lessons. Drums were something that I just gravitated towards. When I was about 15, my cousin came over to my house and asked my mom to buy me a drum kit because he had just bought a bass guitar and needed someone to jam with. She gave us $80 cash to go buy drums from a pawn shop. So, my cousin and I both learned how to play by playing along to old blues records. That’s what kicked it off for me.
Paint a picture of the music scene you were exposed to leading up to the formation of Flipper.
The San Francisco punk scene was amazing. I discovered the scene in 1977 when I went to the Mabuhay Gardens by total chance. It was the Mecca of the punk scene in S.F. All the bands played there; it was the only punk club at the time. All the musicians and other artists in the scene hung out there every night. I began going to show there more and more frequently. There were three bands a night, seven nights a week. It was great and very inspirational.
Walk me through the formation of Flipper.
Ted Falconi drafted me to join Flipper. All the members had come from bands that had broken up. Ted had been in Rad Command, Will Shatter and I were in Negative Trend, and our first singer Ricky Williams had been in The Sleepers. Ted was kind of the catalyst and rounded us up to form a new band, Flipper. Ricky Williams gave us our name because he had a slew of pets at home, all named Flipper. Ricky only lasted a few months and shows with us; unfortunately, he was pretty messed up on drugs. He became impossible to work with. Bruce joined the band, and it worked out.
How did the band end up signed to Subterranean Records, and what do you recall regarding the recording of Album – Generic Flipper?
As we wrote songs and played shows, we developed a fan base pretty quickly. Steve Tupper of Subterranean Records approached us to record a song for a compilation he was putting together. We recorded our first Flipper song, “Earthworm,” for the four-song EP called S.F. Underground. In 1980 we established a working relationship with a recording studio in S.F. called Hyde St Studios. We began working at the studio, helping them fix the place up, and they paid us in studio time.
We would accumulate enough studio credit to go in for 8 hours at a time. When we had two songs recorded and mixed, we would release a single. We did that three times, releasing three singles before we began recording songs for our first album. We continued working for studio time and recording songs over the course of many months until we had enough songs recorded and mixed for Generic Flipper.
Gone Fishin’ was a stout follow-up but would also be the band’s last for nearly a decade. What led to the initial fracture of Flipper in the late 80s?
Generic Flipper was released in 1982. We recorded Gone Fishin’ in the same way we did Generic, with working for studio time and then recording songs over the course of time. That album was released in 1984. We were playing and toured a lot, and we recorded lots of shows while on the road. We released a double live album called Public Flipper Limited. We also released our own compilation of our singles and other songs that had been released previously on other compilations.
We assembled them all onto our own 12″ album called Sex Bomb Baby. Those albums were released in 1985 and 1986, following up Gone Fishin’ in 84. We finished up our 1987 tour in S.F. at a club called the IBeam. As it turned out, that would be our last show with Will Shatter before he died of a drug overdose on December 9th. His death was the end of the band at that point.
What led to Flipper’s reformation in 1990 and the subsequent recording of American Grafishy in 1993?
In January of 1990, Ted called me and said he had a friend that he wanted me to come to check out. His name was John Dougherty. He played the songs great. We learned all the Flipper classics and began writing new songs right away as well. We recorded and released two new songs on a single, once again on Subterranean Records.
By this time, our old friend Rick Rubin, founder of Def Jam Recordings, had moved from New York to Los Angeles and founded a new label called Def American Recordings. I sent him the new single, and he called me one day and said he liked the single and wanted to see us play down in LA. He had been a Flipper fan for ten years at this point. We set up and show in L.A., and he came to check us out with the new bass player. He signed us the next day.
What challenges did Flipper face leading up to the second hiatus, which lasted nearly 12 years thereafter?
We continued playing shows and writing songs until we had enough for an album. We recorded the album in 1992. It was released in January 1993. We toured a lot in 1992, 1993, and into 1994, at which point Bruce Loose was in an accident whereby he broke his back. We waited for a year for him to recover, but it became evident after a year that it might never happen. At that point, I moved from S.F. to L.A. for a fresh start and to take a break from music.
Flipper went dormant again until around 2005, and the last studio album to date seems to be Love from 2009. Why the long lag between recordings?
In 2005 we reformed to do a benefit show for CBGB. Bruce looked terrible. He was skinny as a rail and white as a ghost. He was walking with a cane. Playing that show inspired him to get back surgery to repair the damage. He was much improved afterward, and we carried on. John Dougherty had died of an overdose a few years after Bruce’s back injury.
So, when we reformed for the CBGB benefit, we drafted our old buddy, Bruno De Smartass. He stayed with us until late 2006, and then we asked Krist Novoselic to join forces with us, and he said, “Yes.” He was with us from 2006 until 2008, during which time we wrote and recorded songs for the album Love and also recorded a live album, Fight. Both were recorded by Jack Endino.
Over the years, Flipper has seen legendary bassists such as Krist Novoselic and Mike Watt hold down duties for the band. From the drummer’s chair, what were those experiences like for you?
Working with Krist was certainly a treat for me. I loved that experience. I was a bit nervous at first but soon became comfortable with it. Both he and his wife made us feel very comfortable at their place in Washington. We would go up there and stay for several days at a time; then they would come down to the bay area for several days at a time. We went back and forth like that for the duration that he was in the band.
Mike Watt is great to play with, especially from my perspective. We seem to play together as a rhythm section better than any other bass player I have ever played with. Every other bass player in my experience plays in their own world, and I do my best to play ‘with” the bass. Mike Watt is the first guy that I have played with that, for whatever reason, I feel like it’s easier to play with. I can’t really put my finger on it, but it just seems easier to sync the drums with the bass.
Flipper’s overarching importance cannot be understated, with bands such as Nirvana and the Melvins claiming major influence from the band. Speak on Flipper’s legacy, influence, and enduring relevance amongst an ever-shifting punk and alternative scene.
Flipper has always been authentic in whatever we do. I think authenticity is key if you want to remain relevant. In a lot of cases, bands try to fit in or sound like every other band that is happening at the time. Flipper has always done whatever it is that we do. I really can’t define what it is that we do. We just play… what comes out comes out.
I think the influence we had on other bands stems from that authentic and unique sound as well as the spirit of the band. We did embody the spirit of punk rock from the beginning. We were just lucky enough to have just the right combination of people in the band that brought just the right mix of talent and attitude. I don’t really know how to explain it. The Beatles would not have been the Beatles if it were not for those four individuals. The same goes for every band that ever made a difference. A lot of it is the luck of the right individuals being in the right place at the right time.
Both you and Ted Falconi remain as original members. What do David Yow and Rachel Thoele bring to the band that makes Flipper a viable entity moving forward while still preserving the legacy?
David Yow and Rachel Thoele both contributed greatly to the band. Yow, of course, is a legend in his own right. He brought his charisma and stage antics to the show. He was great. He was there for us at the right time. We worked with him initially in 2015, then in 2019, when the 40th anniversary was upon us, he toured with us throughout the year.
Then again, in December of 2021, when we wanted to get out and play at least a hand full of shows after being locked up for the pandemic. At this point, David is focused on acting, and that is his real passion these days. He is doing really well with that too. He is working a lot as an actor.
Rachel has been a friend of Ted’s and mine for decades. In fact, she and I were roommates back in the early ’80s. She was in a couple of all-girl punk bands back then. So, she is like a sister to us. We have been playing with Rachel, on and off, for more than ten years now. She brings a lot of talent to the table.
How will you replace David from a vocal standpoint?
Since David Yow moved on to focus on acting, we were in need of a singer. I asked everyone I knew for suggestions and ideas. Mike Watt was one that I had asked for any ideas, and after some time went by and it seemed that we were still in search mode, he suggested that he could do bass and vocals for us and maybe try that out. So, that is where we are today—a trio for the first time in our history.
I touched on this earlier, but it’s been a long time since Flipper’s last studio effort. Will we see another offering from the band in the future?
I love working in recording studios, and I miss that part of being in Flipper. We haven’t written new material or recorded new songs in about 15 years. I would like to get back to that. We need to do some work first, learning and performing our catalog with Mr. Watt. Hopefully, that will organically lead us to write new material. So, for both myself and Flipper, we are just going to get out there and play till the wheels fall off. We hope to stay creative and keep moving forward.
Stephen DePace of Flipper: The ClassicRockHistory.com Interview article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2023
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