San Francisco punk overlords the Dead Kennedys have been spun through one hell of a vortex over the last 30 years, surviving everything from near riots to one of the bitterest internecine financial disputes in rock & roll history, yet through it all, the band has maintained a strange artistic purity, one anchored—and constantly expanded—by the highly stylized work of founding guitarist East Bay Ray. With an approach that sounds half carnival funhouse, half nightmare meat grinder, Ray has elevated the art of punk guitar with an economical, atmospheric brand of hard jolting fret work that played in a key role in the DK’s success and also helped establish and codify the hyper-aggressive hardcore sound. That fact is almost ironic, as Ray himself is a decidedly mild-mannered character, one whose whimsical, almost detached perspective seems the very opposite of the hard charging meatheads who took up the hardcore banner not long after it was first draped around Ray’s shoulders.
The truth, of course, is that Ray is capable of a broad spectrum of guitar styles, a free-thinking musician who has more in common with the likes of get-around fuzz auteur Kid Congo Powers or Flipper’s noise-blast demon Ted Falconi than he does with the horde of buzz saw mall punk brats who threaten to suck dry what little life punk rock still has. Ray is one a very few players to whom the word unique can be accurately applied, and it seemed like a long over due and very good idea to try and get a notion of what sort of background and interests led him to such a thoroughly bitchen sound. In a recent phone interview, the enigmatic ax slinger opened up on the subject, and it stacked up as a fascinating amalgam of influences.
“When I was a kid, my dad was heavy into jazz and blues,’ Ray said. “He had a collection of 78s, I was listening to Son House, Lightning’ Hopkins, Leadbelly, Duke Ellington, Count Basie—one of my early memories was seeing Lightnin’ perform in Berkeley.” Hopkins of course, was the drastically idiosyncratic Texas blues genius revered for his utterly unpredictable guitar style, a master when it came to throwing down flurries of stabbing, wicked blue notes that, at certain moments, seems somehow related to Ray’s unhinged fretwork.
“I wouldn’t say that Lightnin’ directly influenced me, but I do like to keep it ‘less notes and more meaningful.’” Ray explains, “which I do think I picked up from the blues people. My dad also took us to see Muddy Waters at UC Berkeley—he dropped us off and picked us up after the show, and we did see Count Basie, sat right down front, with all the trumpets.” That kind of exposure—to witness live performances by the certifiable giants of American music—laid a foundation upon which Ray would soon began to build his own distinct musical playhouse, but it wasn’t just Dad who filled the ears of Ray and his younger brother, Ed. “So we always had good music around the house. My mom was into folk stuff, the Weavers, Pete Seeger—and Frank Sinatra. His phrasing is so amazing, it really makes you believe the words. It’s educational to play different kinds of music and my friend John Coate and my brother Ed, we’d sit around and watch the Buck Owens Show. We weren’t really crazy about the music, but we liked Don Rich—and we liked looking at all those Telecasters.”
With Coate on guitar and his little brother on drums, they soon formed a fledgling band. “Later on, in high school, I started playing and it was basically a garage band.” Ray says. “The neighbors used to come over and tell us to shut up, I think I have that on a cassette somewhere, maybe if I find that I could use it on a record! We were doing rock songs, some old stuff like ‘What’d I Say,’ Ray Charles, some honky blues, and some rock.”
Soon, Ray was verging on his singularly elliptical style: “I really don’t know how it came about, just listening to things—I’d hear a song and where most people would try to play it note for note, I’d get a feel for it and then change it around.”
What was perhaps the biggest breakthrough came next: “I got the echo unit because of Pink Floyd, and I started playing with that, using it as an instrument.” With the echo providing a crucial final element to his eerie thrill spree sound, Ray was ready for the advent of punk rock and after a bar band fig during college, the Dead Kennedys formed, just about three years after he began playing in earnest.
The rest is underworld history, and with classics like “Too Drunk to Fuck,” Ray was solidly ensconced as a top beast in guitar demonology, one who has also branched out to some offbeat collaborations, with everyone from Hed PE to caba-punk provocateurs the Dresden Dolls. But, like the point of a compass, it always swings back to the Dead Kennedys, who continue to thrive in the post-Biafra era. On that onerous subject, Ray would only say: “I’ll pass on that, if you want to know anything, it’s all over the Internet.” (Long story short, Biafra was sitting on many thousands of unpaid band royalties, a fact that only came to light after an Alternative Tentacles whistleblower alerted the band; they subsequently took Biafra to court and won—over and over and over, until their tight-fisted former lead singer had exhausted all possible avenues of litigation against them; a weird, ugly story.)
Now, Ray explains, “Skip, the Winona Ryders’ guy, is fronting the band, and so far so good—Skip has really done his homework and now, like our tour manager said, ‘I can understand more of the words.’ I think he’s the best singer we’ve had. And we just got a gold record in the United States, Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death went gold, and we actually checked and two of our records went gold in the UK. We did it independently, that’s the amazing thing. I’m proud of that, because it’s been a tough struggle. We did do it ourselves and did not compromise the music—just played what we wanted to play.”
Dead Kennedys, Shattered Faith, Narcoleptic Youth, Malice of Forethought, The Maxies, Amorium Revolt, 2 Buk Chuk and others at the Wheelhouse Skate Center, 2850 W Florida Ave., Hemet, (951) 652-9968, Friday, June 6, 8PM.