- Dead Kennedys Facebook post (March 21, 2017)
Despite being a highly original and influential guitarist, you could make the argument that Dead Kennedys guitarist East Bay Ray hasn't received the deserved amount of attention and credit for his instantly-recognizable style... quite possibly due to the fact that his ex-lead singer was extremely politically outspoken. We're referring to Jello Biafra, who formed the San Francisco punk firestarters The Dead Kennedys in 1978 with guitarist East Bay Ray and bass player Klaus Flouride. They could have signed to a major label, but chose not to, setting up an indie called Alternative Tentacles, which Biafra controlled. This put him on the hook when his predictions of government overreach came true in 1986: Police raided his apartment and charged him with distributing "harmful matter" to minors because he included a poster of H. R. Giger's Penis Landscape (which has its own Wikipedia entry) in copies of their 1985 album, Frankenchrist. The case ended in a mistrial 16 months later, but the emotional and financial strain broke up the band.
In 1998, Ray, Flouride, and drummer D.H. Peligro (who joined in 1981) sued Biafra over unpaid royalties; the case ended with the back royalties being paid and confirmed the band was run by majority vote. With control of the name, they rebooted the group in 2001 and have kept it going with various lead singers. Ray also has a band called Killer Smiles, who in 2020 issued their full-length debut, Raising The Stakes.
Ray covers a lot of ground in this interview, talking about some Dead Kennedys classics and giving us a music theory lesson on the "devil's interval." He also shares his thoughts on the best punk rockers to pick up a guitar, and what could have been if they hadn't split with Biafra.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): How did you approach the songwriting in Killer Smiles compared to the Dead Kennedys?
East Bay Ray: Actually, it's very similar. A riff will come into my head, and then I record it. At a certain point in time, I go through them and pick out the ones that I like. Then I get together with the lyricist – in this case, Skip McSkipster – and work up the songs.
I listen to a lot of different stuff. One of the things that astonishes people was when we were songwriting in Dead Kennedys, I'd be driving across the Bay Bridge from the East Bay to San Francisco, and I'd be listening to Merle Haggard. But the thing is, it teaches you a lot about song structure and how things were put together.
Songfacts: I've been a long-time fan of the guitar riffs and parts you created for Dead Kennedys. How do you come up with riffs?
Ray: It's just experimenting, playing with the guitar. I try to stay away from clichés, and I never copied a guitar player's style completely. I would listen and try to get the vibe, and in the song, try to find the musical solution or transition of what needs to be done.
Technically, I'm not very good. [Laughs] But that's good for me – I'd rather hear one note from Muddy Waters than 32 notes from a speed metal guitar player who doesn't have soul. I also like to play off-notes – the "devil's interval," if anybody knows what that is.
Songfacts: If you wouldn't mind describing what the devil's interval is, to readers who may not be familiar with it.
Ray: In Western music, there's 12 steps – 12 tones. And usually, what makes a chord is the I, III, and V. And then the sixth kind of sounds like the Beatles, and the flatted seventh is kind of blues and rock-y. But the devil's interval is the sharp fifth or the flatted sixth. It's halfway between the octave. The distance from the bottom octave to that note is the same from that note to the top octave.
It's called the devil's interval because in the Middle Ages, it was actually banned because it's very dissonant. It just doesn't go with anything.
Songfacts: Listening to Raising The Stakes, songs like "You're Such a Fake" and "Area 51" begin with classic guitar lines/sounds you made famous back in the days of Dead Kennedys.
Songfacts: I loved the cover of "Sixteen Tons," too!
Ray: I'm a fan of old country, old Chicago blues, and funk music. I like that song because it relates to nowadays because people are kind of tools of Facebook and tools of Uber and tools of Amazon. Facebook, Google, and Amazon, they've taken the internet over. You've got to play by their rules, and they're basically psychopathic capitalist corporations. Their whole job is to suppress labor.
What the internet promised 15 years ago turned out to be utopian bullshit – it didn't happen. We have less democracy now, we have less communication now. Social media is neither social nor is it media. It's basically designed to trigger anger and fear because that gets more eyeballs, and that makes more money in advertising. They just charge for eyeballs. They don't charge for the quality.
Songfacts: There are definitely pros and cons with the internet and social media.
Ray: Oh yeah. There needs to be regulation. Back 100 years ago, the factory owners figured out that children would work for half the price of an adult, so they started using child labor. It took about 20 years to get a regulation that you can't use child labor. Of course, it raised the cost of everything, but society made that decision.
Basically, in the universe, there is no such thing as a free lunch. Google, Facebook, and Amazon – all that stuff comes with a price, and the price is surveillance capitalism. Facebook has 52,000 data points on people, and it's not there to help you get the ads, it's there to regulate your behavior. And when they do it really well you don't even know you're being manipulated.
Songfacts: Who are your top punk-rock guitarists of all-time?
Ray: Steve Jones, Mick Jones of the Clash, the Gang of Four guy – Andy Gill. And Johnny Marr – I don't know if you'd consider him punk or post-punk. Ultimately though, the guitar players that influenced me are more like Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf's guitar player Hubert Sumlin, Jimi Hendrix, Dick Dale, Scotty Moore from The Sun Sessions – he's one of the reasons I got an Echoplex. And the other Echoplex influence was Syd Barrett from the first Pink Floyd record.
Songfacts: It seems like Syd Barrett never gets credit for his guitar playing and his use of Echoplex.
Ray: Yeah. He literally just played on the first record [Pink Floyd's The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn] and then suffered from mental illness, so he couldn't go on and continue. He never was really in the public eye after that. How soon people forget.
Some people know who Scotty Moore is and some people don't. There's a great Keith Richards quote: Everybody he knew wanted to be Elvis Presley, and he wanted to be Scotty Moore.
Songfacts: With Dead Kennedys, did you write any of the lyrics to the songs, or was it just music?
Ray: I wrote some lyrics to some songs. Usually there is one song on each LP that I wrote the lyrics to.
Songfacts: "Police Truck" was a song you're credited as a co-writer.
Songfacts: What about "Kill The Poor"?
Ray: I wrote the music to that. That was inspired by the Ramones. Kind of a pop-y riff.
Songfacts: "Your Emotions"?
Ray: That one I wrote the most. That was inspired by a person who was just very difficult to deal with. Their rational mind would leave the building, and you'd get these weird, angry emotions, so, "Your emotions make you a monster."
And the thing is, it's not that they wanted to be that way, but it's how they were brought up – how their caregivers treated them. It's a psychological song, actually.
Ray: "Buzzbomb" is a California car song. We were in California, we had cars and sunshine – I guess that's kind of our tribute to California.
East Bay Ray with the 2020 lineup of Dead Kennedys
Songfacts: Before, you mentioned Dick Dale, and that's something else that is a big ingredient of your guitar sound/approach – surf music.
Ray: Well, yeah. That's interesting, because I never really listened to surf music that much, but when I was growing up, the older teenagers in the neighborhood played a lot of it. I guess it kind of crept into me subconsciously. The echo sound was more Scotty Moore – The Sun Sessions is just one of the best records in my book. And then the psychedelic sound of Syd Barrett. There was definitely a psychedelic sound in Plastic Surgery Disasters [1982 Dead Kennedys album].
Songfacts: Also, when I hear '60s spy movie soundtracks, I sometimes can hear a bit of that in your guitar playing with Dead Kennedys.
Ray: Oh yeah - Ennio Morricone. He was the Spaghetti Western composer. I actually had the honor to see him two years ago. He was like, 92. He sat on a stool, and conducted this big orchestra. It was great.
There's a song on the Killer Smiles record, "The Heart Is Something," where I get to use a twangy reverb guitar sound. On the album, there's punk-rock stuff like "Raising The Stakes" and "It's Broken," but then "Area 51" is kind of psychedelic in the middle. But there's no straight surf song or straight punk song, and there's no Chicago blues song. So, maybe if I get to make another record, I can figure out a way to get those sounds into it.
Songfacts: "Moon Over Marin"?
Ray: Actually, that's kind of a psychedelic one. It's actually a modal song.
An interesting story on that was a record label wanted to put that out as a single because it's catchy. But Jello Biafra vetoed it because I wrote it – he didn't write it.
He said it was too pop-y, but if you take The Clash as an example, one of their biggest songs is "Should I Stay or Should I Go." It's not my favorite song that they do – it's very straight-ahead pop-rock-y. They had such better songs, like "London Calling," "White Riot," and all that stuff. Actually, "Moon Over Marin" would have been a better single than "Should I Stay or Should I Go." The music is higher quality in my opinion.
Songfacts: "Goons of Hazard"?
Ray: Oh right – Frankenchrist  has a lot of psychedelic sounds on it. It's kind of interesting – that record and Plastic Surgery Disasters have more of my influence than any other record in the sense of the more psychedelic guitar sound. Plastic Surgery Disasters kind of has that, but In God We Trust  is very hardcore. And then the other side of the spectrum is Frankenchrist is more psychedelic. There's some of that on the Killer Smiles record, like "Area 51" and "The Runner."
Songfacts: You just mentioned the Dead Kennedys touching upon various styles on their last albums. I've wondered what the band would have gone on to do musically it if stayed together beyond that point in the mid-to-late '80s.
Ray: I wonder, too, because it was a very talented set of musicians. It was one of those situations where 2+2=5, and it's really unfortunate that Biafra went off the deep end claiming that he did everything by himself.
The interesting thing is, Klaus [Flouride, bass], DH [Peligro, drums], and I really, really understand Donald Trump, because Biafra is like that, but on the left. But Biafra really hasn't done a great song since the Dead Kennedys, so that shows it was collaboration. Lou Reed was in the Velvet Underground and went on to have a big solo career, Danzig was in the Misfits and went on to a good solo career. Billy Idol. Morrissey was in the Smiths. They all went on to have great solo careers and great songs. Where's Biafra? He doesn't have any because it was a collaboration.
August 17, 2020
For more Ray, visit his Twitter page, the Killer Smiles' Facebook page, or the Dead Kennedys website.
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