Flipper’s reputation precedes them.
The San Francisco punk band became legends for their slow-churning, noise-addled sound, which mixes a DIY hardcore spirit with a penchant for feedback and the occasional fit of aggressive atonality. Flipper’s uncompromising sound ultimately led them to become known as a band more confrontational than most. A 1985 article in Spin described them as “the band you love to hate,” a sentiment later echoed in Stephen Blush and George Petros’ book, American Hardcore: A Tribal History. And in the liner notes to the 1995 reissue of the group’s Sex Bomb Baby, Mudhoney frontman Mark Arm described the band as “unusually slow, sloppy and messed up.”
The intense, unconventional approach Flipper took to music might explain how they’ve seemingly gone down in history as antagonistic toward their audience. However, the band’s drummer, Stephen DePace, says in a phone interview that this doesn’t reflect the reality of their early days. In fact, he says the Bay Area scene in the 1980s was more cordial and positive than people realized.
“We played a lot of shows with hardcore bands in the ’80s, and I don’t remember there being much of a problem or clashing,” he says. “We did our thing and they did theirs. We all hung out and played the same clubs together.”
Infamous lore aside, Flipper’s uniquely abrasive sound has elevated them to punk royalty, and demand for their fun-loving bruising has risen anew. After a promoter in Italy contacted the band about playing a series of shows there, the group reunited to play their first of live shows since 2012. DePace, founding guitarist Ted Falconi and longtime bass player Bruno DeSmartass are all on the lineup, as is The Jesus Lizard frontman David Yow. Yow fills in for founding vocalist Bruce Loose, who retired from touring after a back injury made it too painful to endure the physical demands of live performing.
It’s easy to listen to Flipper and come to the conclusion that it’s a physically taxing style to play. In the late 1970s and early ’80s, Flipper went against the grain of punk rock by moving at a much slower pace, their songs lurching forward with a mixture of sardonic humor and pure menace.
Their lengthy 1980 song “Sex Bomb,” featuring a simple, repeated riff and squawking saxophone, became an underground favorite and was covered numerous times. And in the ’90s, the band saw a renewed interest thanks to an endorsement from Kurt Cobain, who cited Flipper as a major influence on his music.
When the group first launched, however, DePace says nothing about their music was premeditated.
“You never come at it with a preconceived notion of what you want to sound like,” he says. “Each one of us individually brought our own influences, and that kind of comes out in your own style. So when we all started, it was as simple as you get four people in a room, and everyone plugs in and turns on and cranks it up and makes noise. What comes out comes out and you kinda go with it. It sounds the way it comes out. And that’s what came out: this slow kind of dirgey melodic…what came to be known as grunge, sort of.”
Flipper has taken on many shapes and forms over the years, having gained and lost different members with each incarnation. Original bass player Will Shatter died in 1987, and his successor John Dougherty died in 1992. When the band toured in 2006, however, they brought Nirvana bass player Krist Novoselic to fill in the low end. And now with Yow on board, the band begins a new chapter. With each new stage of their career, DePace says, the names might change, but the feeling is still intact.
Flipper play Oct. 22 at The Casbah
“Flipper...the way it’s shaken out is that over all these years, is at its core it’s a certain style of music and a certain kind of attitude,” he says. “And the people that have come into the band fit that attitude and style we’ve established as our own. Having said that, with each new person that comes into the band, there’s a new dynamic and a new chemistry.
“At its core I think we’ve maintained the same essence,” he continues. “And with each version of the band there’s some difference in style and performance and presentation.”
The journey from being a scrappy group of troublemakers in San Francisco in the late ’70s to the band they are today has been a long one. But despite setbacks, changes in lineup and long intervals of inactivity, something keeps pulling the band members back together. DePace says more than anything, they simply enjoy having the opportunity to make some noise again.
“We’ve been rehearsing every day long hours, and I love it,” he says. “I want to do it every day. And as it should be, the longer you play an instrument the better you get at it. We all feel like we’re playing the best in our lives, and with all these years of experience behind us, you should be playing better today than you did 20 years ago. If you’re not, you’re doing something wrong. We’re going to do it until the wheels fall off, or it’s not fun anymore.