Since Donald Trump won the presidency several weeks ago, artists from every facet of underground music have talked about just what this election means to our country and liberty. In times of duress, it’s best to look for people who have been in similar situations before, even if nothing can quite compare to Trump and his ilk. Guitarist Raymond John Pepperell – best known by his nickname East Bay Ray – is an integral part of the Dead Kennedys, both their classic 80s lineup and current incarnation. His guitar sound and licks, which were stylistically antithetical to anything in the 80s hardcore scene, have since been picked apart, studied and copied by countless guitar players. And the Dead Kennedys canon is perhaps the best example of informed, politically conscious music in the past three decades; Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables and Frankenchrist are as topical with the ascendant alt right as they were when the Moral Majority tried to dictate what was “appropriate” art back in the 1980s. More than a decade after a widely covered lawsuit against former bandmate Jello Biafra (which will not be recounted in-depth here — a Google search will direct you to ample coverage) Ray still travels the world as the Dead Kennedys with his original bandmate Klaus Flouride and D.H. Peligro. We talked to Ray about history repeating itself, his guitar sound and that time he met Jeff Hanneman.
I was listening to your catalog before talking to you and all of the Dead Kennedys songs seem incredibly topical given where we are as a country.
I think people have their heads in the sand. I have a lot of friends who make the argument that “a lot of people are stupid and it’s stupid to vote for Trump,” but that’s not how it works. I saw a documentary on politics where a consultant said that elections are 20 percent reason and 80 percent emotion. The advantage of emotion is that it makes people go to the polls. Trump is a direct result of Google, Facebook and Amazon’s design of how the Internet works, which is you get everything for free because it’s paid for by advertising. What you end up with is nothing but clickbait. Things that are untrue and outlandish get more clicks than facts.
What these big tech oligarchies have been trying to sell is the idea of direct democracy and access. What they fail to realize is that there is a difference between democracy and mobocracy. A democracy takes an educated electorate to look at the issues before they decide. A mob is just someone hitting the buttons. Someone had the utopian fantasy that crowd opinion is better than an individual opinion and that leads to a lynch mob, not individual conscience. What we have now is crowdsourcing of justice. That way you get more clicks and more money. Journalism is clickbait. Music is clickbait. You need journalism for democracy and we don’t have it.
With the Internet, it’s easy to create a bubble where you only hear or see things you agree with. This is true on both sides politically.
Yes, your filter bubble. The Arab Spring was all PR. What happened with (former Egyptian president) Mubarak was that the generals decided to get rid of him, not Twitter. Other people have talked about how the Internet will eliminate hierarchy. Utopian dreams are still being sold to us. People believe stuff like this and it’s dangerous. Utopians always end up in a nightmare because they don’t take into account actual human nature.
The right wing utopians want to take us back to the cookie cutter culture of the 1950s. And you criticized the left-wing utopians on things like “Holiday In Cambodia.”
Exactly. Unfettered free market capitalism is as big of a myth as communism. It does not exist and never has. The closest thing to a free market was 4,000 years ago on some trade route. Wyoming has about 500,000 people and many are anti-government but the government put in Jackson Lake, and that’s where they get all of their electricity. Without federal government financing, there wouldn’t be infrastructure.
You wrote the Dead Kennedys music in the midst of Reagan. There were stark policy differences between Reagan and the Democratic party. But Reagan famously worked with (House Speaker) Tip O’Neill. Trump is saying we will deport people based on religion. He works with people who are openly racist. I never saw us heading in that direction as a country.
It is absolutely worse now. And the culprit is the Internet and social media. There was a great article in The Atlantic on the original sins of the Internet. But even they didn’t get into how the Internet has destroyed professionalism. The New York Times got rid of their ecology writers and global warming is one of our biggest issues. But they couldn’t afford it because no one was interested.
What’s the craziest thing you’ve seen written about yourself or your bandmates on social media?
I don’t pay much attention because it’s so crazy. The Internet has unleashed the Id. I think Google is the second biggest company on the planet. Facebook has billions of dollars and is run like a Russian mob. We have a Dead Kennedys Facebook page and when we try to post a tour they squeeze the amount of people that can see it. Then a window pops up saying you could pay to increase your reach. It is extortion and gangsterism. But they don’t care because they are making millions of dollars and think they are geniuses. The Russian mob rips off my songs and Google makes money for it. It’s no different than someone taking your social security number or taking a family photo and using it in an ad. This poor woman did a breast-feeding video for a company and someone cut that into a porn film and used her real name. People need to have ownership of files they create. Without consent, how can there be liberty? This is something that was discussed in The Federalist Papers. Politicians don’t seem to get that.
I wanted to get into your guitar playing. How did you discover the instrument and what were your early years of playing like?
There was music around me. The teenagers in the neighborhood had 45s and my Dad was into country blues like Son House and big bands like Duke Ellington and Count Basie. My mom was into The Weavers with Pete Seeger. So I had good music around the house. We got my father to drive us to a Rolling Stones concert. After that, my brother picked up drums and I picked up the guitar. We then formed a little band together.
How long did it take you to master the instrument?
I wouldn’t say I’m a master (laughs). I’m a master of a style of music. To be honest, it was just having a boring life; I’d come home, practice, have dinner with the family and then do my homework at night. That was my life in high school.
Did you learn to read music or just copy what you heard?
I learned mostly by ear. I can read music but I’m not good enough to do sight-reading. In rock and punk, it’s not really written down and can’t really capture everything. How do you write a guitar string bend?
When you were at Cal (Berkeley) in the early 70s it was still a very political place. Is that where you developed your political conscience?
I think I got the political conscience from my parents. In the 60s they were involved with the Civil Rights movements, particularly (protesting) against something called red lining. That’s when real estate companies would put red lines around neighborhoods and charge people more based on skin color. When I was at Berkeley I was a busser in a café and what I noticed was that some of the socialists did not leave tips – it was all talk and no action. And I remember talking to anarchists who were like: “Down with the system” and I was like “let’s not have sewers?”
Your guitar sound – no one can replicate it. That’s true for all memorable players. How did you get your guitar to sound the way it does, that ethereal surf quality?
I’m not sure! On some of the records, the tone is actually a bit tinny. I was always very into the sound and I’m a bit of a geek in that I can take a Marshall or a Fender amp apart. I started with a Fender amp and slightly converted it to a Marshall and tried different resistors and capacitors until I got a rich sound. I just liked experimenting. I never listened to surf music directly but I’m sure I heard it in my neighborhood growing up in the suburbs. I also like double picking (repeating each note in a melody twice) like Dick Dale. I got an Echoplex (tape delay effect) because of acid rock. That and double picking gave the guitar that sound. I also liked the sound of spaghetti westerns – that desert, echo sound. I’m a weird combination of 2+2 = 5. It’s like hardcore punk combined with spaghetti westerns. What makes it unique is when you mix a few things together. And that’s what all artists do, even writers.
Were you double picking on most of the Dead Kennedys albums?
No. “Police Truck” is but “Holiday In Cambodia” isn’t. It depends on the songs. When we started we had another guitar player. When he left I started doing things like hitting an open string and then going high up on the neck. It was jumping an octave, basically.
The language of hardcore was created in the early 80s but when I hear other hardcore guitarists they seem literal and straightforward. Was your playing at all a reaction to that?
I was doing what came naturally. I would rather listen to one note from Muddy Waters than a bunch of notes from some metal guitar player. Honestly, I couldn’t figure out some songs and decided to do something that sounded good. It was like incompetence drove my creativity – not being able to get things note for note. But I did consciously try to sound different. Cole Porter said: “make the familiar sound different and make the different sound familiar.” And that’s what I did. Many of our songs have classic 1930s song standard structure. We take something that sounds familiar and make it different.
Can you give me an example?
“Holiday In Cambodia.” It’s like a Motown song. It has a verse and a pre-chorus with this tension going into a chorus, which is the release. It’s a Motown arrangement.
Where did that riff come from?
It was written in a jam session. Klaus started playing the bass line. I just played right over the top of it. We were bored with standard guitar riffs and just kept trying something different. I honestly can’t say what the source is. My parents weren’t playing schlock music around the house.
People have also tried to break down the riff in “Satisfaction” but the Rolling Stones have said something familiar — that it just sounded cool.
Exactly! It’s something that is very hard to articulate. The left-brain is the logical narrative side and the right brain is emotional and impressionistic.
Soloing was sort of frowned upon in a lot of 80s hardcore. How did you bring soloing into the Dead Kennedys music?
We didn’t have a rulebook. And we didn’t listen to hardcore that much. Klaus listened to 30s big band stuff and Biafra listened to garage band stuff that had solos. It’s not something we ever discussed. There was just no formula.
What keeps the guitar interesting for you? Do you approach playing your old material different?
Two years ago I had carpal tunnel surgery. Things aren’t as easy as they used to be. We can’t do as many shows in a row. Because of the pressure in my hands, I have to change my posture when I do barre chords. The only other thing that’s changed is that we’ve steadied the tempo and made it more solid so we can get all the notes. We have more respect for the songs and music and let them do the work. There are a lot of good songs.
Did you ever hear from any metal guitar players that were influenced by the Dead Kennedys?
A number of years ago we did the Full Force Festival in Germany with 40,000 people. Slayer was headlining and we were like two bands before them. Rob Halford actually played before us. We felt like The Beatles at this metal festival because we have melodies. (Jeff) came up and started talking to me and we ended up talking about music on his bus. It was late at night but we ended up talking about the Bay Area.
Jeff always had a Dead Kennedys sticker on one of his guitars.
That’s right. People have sent me pictures of that. I guess I just don’t listen to heavy metal much outside of Led Zeppelin and AC-DC. I’ve been listening to Sun Records from the mid-50s and when I was in Chicago I got a tour of Chess Records from Willie Dixon’s grandson.
The lawsuit and court case have been resolved for well over a decade. What is the reception like for the band now, and is that in the rear view?
No. Biafra is a media darling. In order to save his reputation, he’s had to cut Klaus, D.H. and I down. The bottom line is that he stole $76,000 from the band and he lied to us and the fans, whether people want to accept it or not. He hasn’t been man enough to say he made a mistake and he’s afraid to play with us. Last year I got death threats on Facebook because we played in San Francisco in Biafra’s backyard. Death threats? That’s how crazy it is. But we sold out The Fillmore.
There have been multiple generations of fans that have followed since you wrote those records. Could it be that the younger fans aren’t as concerned with the bad blood as much as they just want to hear the music?
What the band has built up recently is just through hard work and we haven’t had much help from the press. Biafra has deliberately badmouthed us for ten years and it has nothing to do with the music. Most of the things I see are about how bad we were to him.