THE FLESH EATERS: SPIT IN THE FACE OF EVIL
The Flesh Eaters were one of the first wave of L.A. punk bands and their 1981 album A Minute To Pray A Second To Die is one of their best releases—but as our reviewer Ron Garmon put it this issue, it’s “one of those albums oft-deemed underrated because you don’t see the cover on that many t-shirts.” Too bad, too, cuz that pop-art Hand of Glory would make a great t-shirt. It’s an image from 1973 film The Wicker Man, too: a perfect precursor for a band fascinated with the way evil conceals itself inside the idyllic. The Flesh Eaters were led by the polymathic Chris D., who wrote for Slash magazine, ran his own Upsetter label and zine and eventually helmed Ruby Records—home to the Gun Club and the Misfits and more—while the rest of the band was a rotating selection of L.A. punk mainstays. (Including members of X, Los Lobos and the Blasters for A Minute To Pray.) The result was a paranoid, gritty primal scream of an album, now thankfully reissued on the superlative Superior Viaduct label. (Don’t forget to get a copy of Mono Records’ bonus-tracked reissue of the Flesh Eaters’ 1980 debut album No Questions Asked, however.) Chris D. speaks now about pulp, punk and the poetry of exorcism rites, and the Flesh Eaters will perform live at the Echoplex on Sat., Jan. 10. This interview by Chris Ziegler.
Byron Coley famously called A Minute to Pray ‘the best rock record ever,’ but you know … there’s another quote from him where he said that between your work with labels like Slash and Upsetter and Ruby, your Upsetter zine and of course your work with the Flesh Eaters, that you really shaped a certain L.A. aeshetic. I think the quote was: ‘He defined the parameters of L.A. outlaw culture.’ Can you look back now and see some of your fingerprints on L.A. history?
Chris D (vocals): I can to some degree. It’s something that you really only think about in retrospect. I definitely had an aesthetic sense. I wasn’t a huge fan of the really hardcore punk stuff. Like right before Black Flag took off—when Keith Morris was the vocalist—they still had a recognizable kind of 70s punk style. There was a lot of 60s and early 70s music that I really liked a lot. There was a lot of 60s R&B and blues and fifties country. That’s one of the things where John and Exene, and Dave Alvin and Jeffrey Lee Pierce … even Keith Morris. A lot of people wouldn’t recognize this about Keith because of the Circle Jerks but he has a very universal taste. And he and Jeffrey were very close friends. We all just kind of tied into the same wavelength with musical influences. There were some 60s bands that people were rejecting just because it wasn’t cool to like bands that had long hair or were hippies or whatever you want to call it. But I never stopped liking a lot of the 60s bands that I like.
Who were the rejected 60s bands?
I always liked Jefferson Airplane and Steppenwolf. Then there were early punk progenitors like the Sonics and the Standells and people like that. There were some prog rock groups that I liked. I liked Jethro Tull—the first two albums. Once they started to get too concept-y my interest went downhill.
It’s difficult to imagine going from Jethro Tull to A Minute to Pray.
I liked Ian Anderson’s lyrics, especially. Like for instance there’s a song I love by them—‘Sweet Dream.’ And the very first Jethro Tull album, which was very blues-influenced—it was really like one of the best blues/jazz/rock records when it came out. And they gradually got more bombastic and pretentious. They’re a band that I go back to the early stuff, some of their heavy metal stuff. I like some of the early Black Sabbath. But the first two albums are the only two I can really listen to. It’s not that I hate the stuff that came after. I just got kind of bored with it. Led Zeppelin is the same way. ‘When the Levee Breaks’ is just amazing. But after that I kind of lost interest with them.
Didn’t Black Flag ask Upsetter to put out a record? But the idea fell apart after Keith left the band?
Yeah, it was something that I pitched to them. Greg and Chuck—and I can’t remember if it was Robo or Raymond—they were all into it. As it turns out, they actually recorded a lot more than I thought. With that double album Everything Went Black, there’s a whole side of Keith Morris tracks. It’s too bad it didn’t happen but I think everything happens for a reason. To get back to your question, when I was doing stuff with Ruby, they gave me carte blanche. I mean, they had to approve the bands that I picked: bands like Dream Syndicate and the Gun Club, of course. Misfits and Green On Red too, which was originally supposed to be on Ruby and then became a Slash [Records] release. There were other bands I really wanted to put out music for. I really liked Tex and the Horseheads, the Long Ryders … I’m trying to think if I was still working at Slash when the Lazy Cowgirls album came out? I just got a call from Pat Todd [of the Lazy Cowgirls] out of the blue. He just called me to thank me for helping to put them on the map. It’s really a tragedy with that album. I think it’s as good as one of the Ramones’ first albums—the very first Lazy Cowgirls album—and Restless has never re-issued it. The mechanism for distributing records and releases is not that user-friendly but it’d be great if they re-issued that album.
If you made a call out of the blue to thank somebody for everything that they did for you, who would you call?
Probably there’s one or two different girlfriends. So many people in the music scene. John and Exene from X were a big shot in the arm to the Flesh Eaters because I was opening for them a lot—during the first couple albums that were out. And just all the guys from A Minute To Pray. In some ways, John and Exene and DJ were the only ones in a band at that point that was really starting to become mega popular. The Blasters were popular but they hadn’t reached that X level yet.
The history of the people who have gone through the Flesh Easters is really serious—members of X, the Plugz, the Blasters, Wall of Voodoo. When you were making records, were you waiting for a line-up and then writing for them specifically? Or writing and whoever played them was whoever played them?
I really wanted to record an album with Tito [Larriva of the Plugz] in the beginning but he left to devote all his time to the Plugz. He’s a songwriter in his own right, and he was doing one song of his and all the rest of the songs were mine. He was in the band [from 1977] until about February 1978. So he wasn’t in the band that long, just three or four months, and Stan Ridgway who ended up being in Wall of Voodoo was in the band a couple months. I was searching for a steady lineup but I don’t know … I wasn’t as dictatorial as Jeffrey Lee [Pierce]. Jeffrey Lee could be hard on the people he played with it, and that’s not to speak ill of him—that’s just how he was. I worked well with him, and Kid Congo Powers [did too]. But I think there’s definitely some of the same elements in the way I really wanted control over the vision of the band. I really wanted to be the only one who wrote the lyrics—unless there was some lyrics I co-wrote with Julie Christensen when she and I were together and we had Divine Horsemen. On Minute to Pray, I loved John Doe’s songs, and he wasn’t the one who tried to get his song on the record—I was the one who asked. But generally was I was the sole lyric writer and there were also certain musical decisions I would make. For the most part, the next lineup after Minute to Pray lasted for a few albums and we probably could have gone on longer but I just was getting sick of playing really loud music all the time. Our rehearsals were just ridiculously loud. It was just painful. I was wanting to do something more along the lines of Divine Horsemen. And I was the one who broke that line-up up, and said I don’t want to do the Flesh Eaters any more.
You said you had a vision for the band. Was this a vision of definite things you wanted to do? Or was it like an anti-vision—things you did not want to do?
Probably more of the latter. A lot of it was just instinctive. Intuitive. I’m really a strong believer in things that bubble up naturally from the subconscious.
So much of your work is this strange mix of horror films, murder ballads—these intense ideas of love and death and sex and hell. Why is that something that you’ve circled your whole life?
I don’t know. I grew up as a really strict Catholic. That’s had a formative effect. In terms of some of the preoccupations with the romanticism—when I was in high school, romantic poets like Shelley and Keats and Byron and later on a lot of French poets and symbolists and then the surrealists. In some ways the surrealists were really opposed to all the tragic love stuff but there were just a lot of things that just kind of melted together in my brain.
What about Céline? He’s one of the few authors who ever made me physically ill.
Céline is somebody that I kind of admire but I never really read any of his stuff in depth until about three or four years ago. I read Death on the Installment Plan. But there are a lot of other French writers who were a lot more influential [on me.] There are certain just … the first things I see in the world, relationships between people, and I don’t know if it’s the people that I’ve been attracted to or it’s a fault or flaw in my personality, but there’s some of this stuff that’s … kind of self-immolation. I’m really lucky I’m still alive. There are periods where I would have been diagnosed as clinically almost suicidally depressed. None of that stuff has gone away, but I have a lot more … I don’t want to call it wisdom, but I’m certainly wiser than I was when I was in my thirties and forties.
You’re going to be playing all these songs live again. Have the songs on Minute to Pray changed for you at all? Do the songs feel different now?
There were songs I purposely wrote from a standpoint of a character. They weren’t my point of view. ‘Digging my Grave’ is from the point of view of a killer. I don’t know if I’d write a song like that today. I can picture myself writing today ‘River of Fever.’ I don’t know if can picture myself writing ‘Satan Stomp,’ even though ‘Satan Stomp’ is kind of a archetypal mythical look at Satan that wasn’t meant to be realistic. I was kind of naïve because I really expected a lot of people to see that the record was trying to exorcize demons, not summon or invoke them. That’s the one thing I wish I’d been a little more careful. I don’t have any regrets about any of those songs. Some of the energy in some of the songs is super dark even for me now.
That’s a hand of glory on the cover, right? What occult purpose do those serve?
Yeah. It originated in Europe—it was definitely a way of casting a spell. I got that image from the original version of The Wicker Man. It was the scene where he wakes up—the really straight policeman who’s investigating a murder on that pagan island. He wakes up and that’s next to his bed. I just liked the image. There’s no underlying subtext to the cover.
You’ve said you wanted A Minute To Pray to be an act of exorcism—how? Is there anything specifically exorcistic happening? Or are you just like screaming to get the demons out?
I’m just confessing that dark stuff and getting it out there. And trying to throw up a mirror so people who were feeling the same thing could say, ‘Oh, I’m not the only person that feels that way.’
Confession by proxy? An interesting idea.
On the inner lyric sleeve I actually put excerpts from a medieval rites because I thought it was very—it was really something to spit in the face of evil, basically. That’s definitely more where it was coming from. It wasn’t coming from you know this whole ‘I am so evil!’ thing. That was something that bothered me about some of the other bands that had death-rock imagery. They were really seriously into that shit, you know? And in a destructive way.
I heard that got your album on the Gene Scott show and he yelled about it being a devil record.
I don’t know if it was Gene Scott—I thought it was a local televangelist show that got nationally syndicated. They were comparing it to Ozzy Osbourne, and to me it was worlds apart. But I took it for what it was worth from who it was from.
I know you’re an actual published film scholar—how much of that fed into what you wanted to do?
There’s a big crossover. That’s what I really wanted to do—be a filmmaker. That’s what I went to college for. But there was just no real support system that I could plug into once I got out of college. My second love was music. Even though I couldn’t play an instrument, I had a really strong sense of melody, a musical sense, and as far as lyrics go I was confident about my writing lyrics. And there were a lot of different vocalists who influenced me. Music was kind of my second love, and it’s partially just the kind of personality I had, which is somewhat introverted—not really the kind of guy who would go out and steamroll his way into the movie industry. There were some independent movies being made back then, and if you happened to get lucky and get sucked into Roger Corman’s school of filmmaking … [Otherwise] there was no real mechanism or scene, and just everybody I met that I became friends with was in the music scene. Like starting Slash magazine and meeting Claude Bessy and his girlfriend who were the editors of Slash. Then from those guys, going to the Masque all the time, and becoming friends with X and the Blasters, and meeting people from a lot of other bands like Tito from the Plugz … that was the scene I kind of plugged into and it was just a natural thing that happened. My one big regret is that I wish I was more a musician—I could play guitar on stage, at one point I got to where I could play guitar and write songs but there was no way I could sing and play guitar at the same time.
You never considered playing while sitting on a comfy chair and singing?
I could never keep rhythm, you know? I was all thumbs.
What were your favorite movies during the time that you were writing and thinking about the songs that were going to become Minute to Pray?
‘Pray til you sweat!’ was really a line from a movie, a really crazy big-budget Western called Duel in the Sun, where Gregory Peck plays a sociopathic cowboy and Jennifer Jones is a half-breed who’s in love with him. And there’s a scene where the actor Walter Huston is playing a character who is a fire and brimstone preacher and he’s trying to exorcise Jennifer Jones’ character from being in lust with this evil character, and he keeps telling her, ‘Pray til you sweat!’ stuff gets stuck in my memory. I was reading a lot of pulp noir—Jim Thompson, James Cain. It really started to become more pronounced in ‘82 or ‘83, and then it really got into it in the Divine Horsemen stuff—combining that with a lot of imagery that I had in my head from French poets and surrealists, primarily, and symbolists from the late 1880s and 1890s. It wasn’t stuff that I was consciously trying to emulate or copy. It was kind of getting thrown into a blender and it just would come out.
What’s your take on Mickey Spillane? Sometimes he’s so contemptful and inept that it’s almost psychedelic.
I like Mickey Spillane a lot but I’ve never been able to read a whole book of his. I like him in short bursts. His delivery is great but his ideas were kind of mediocre and pedestrian. They’re really cliché. Kiss Me Deadly—in the book, the thing that’s missing is the package of dope, and when they made it into a movie, it’s a radioactive isotope. So that can be the perfect distillation of kind of interpreting Mickey Spillane in the right way.
You were drawing specifically from African folk music and field recordings for A Minute To Pray, too. Punk was barely five years old at this point. Why were you already looking back so far into the past for inspiration?
I was listening to a lot of blues and 50s and 60s R&B and also there were white guys like Link Wray—Link Wray and Bo Diddley are kind of inextricably linked. But I really became obsessed for a while about seeing what happened if you actually took some African chants and African rhythms, like drum patterns, and transposed them—like actually took them directly from their origin. Not filtered through decades of living in America. Just went right to the source—listening to African records that had more indigenous native music and transposing that directly to songs. Like if you listen to ‘Pray Til You Sweat,’ ‘Satan Stomp,’ ‘So Long’ and ‘Divine Horsemen’ … all those are really just transpositions directly from African music.
How? Did you figure out how to play along with them? How literal was this transcription?
Dave Alvin just reminded me how I did it. I had a little cassette recorder. I’d sing the melodies into the cassette recorder and then Dave Alvin and John Doe split the songs up and figured them out—like how they’d go instrumentally, and if they were doing something that I thought was slightly off, I would tell them.
You weren’t even playing guitar? You’d just send a tape of you chanting and singing?
That’s the way I wrote a lot of the music. Once I got into Divine Horsemen, I was trying to be able to play guitar so I could actually write music on guitar. But I’d still come up with vocal melodies just driving around in the car singing by myself. People talked about how much the blues and R&B had its roots in African music. There’s African-American people who’ve been living here since who knows? 1700s or early 1800s? And how did their folk music evolve once they were in America? I wanted to see if I did a direct transposition from African music to instrumental punk rock—70s garage band punk rock—if it would hold up? If it would sound similar. Some of it definitely does. There’s parts of ‘Digging my Grave’ where you could see both influences. I just was really fascinated by the idea of doing it. You had this filter of decades and decades of oppression on African Americans and all that shapes their music. And I wanted to see it you went directly to the source and tried to transpose it to a four- or five-piece instrumental combo, would you get a similar sound? Which I thought it did. There are definitely recognizable things from both of the spectrums.
THE FLESH EATERS ON SAT., JAN. 10, AT THE ECHOPLEX, 1154 GLENDALE BLVD., ECHO PARK. 8:30 PM / $17-$19 / 18+. THEECHO.COM. THE FLESH EATERS’ A MINUTE TO PRAY A SECOND TO DIE IS AVAILABLE NOW FROM SUPERIOR VIADUCT. VISIT THE FLESH EATERS AT FLESHEATERS.COM.