It was most welcome to get news this fall that Flesh Eaters gigs would be happening in 2015, and particularly gratifying to find out that these shows would include the lineup that recorded the landmark A Minute To Pray, A Second To Die in 1981. That album combined the talents of five brilliant players, John Doe (X) on bass, DJ Bonebrake (X) on marimba and percussion, Dave Alvin (Blasters) on guitar, Bill Bateman (Blasters) on drums and Steve Berlin (later to join Los Lobos) on sax, backing up the infernal wailing of Chris D, who has helmed an unknown number of lineups under the Flesh Eaters’ name since 1977. It remains one of the high-water marks of LA’s post-punk period in the early 80s, a big left turn from the louder-faster pummel of hardcore into the dark side of traditional American music, expressed in a most non-traditional way. They had all the abandon of the best LA punk bands, but also a sophisticated set of weapons at their disposal, both literary and musical, and a unique, layered sound that remains unmatched to this day.
Chris D was also the head of Ruby Records, a Slash subsidiary, and responsible for producing or financing several other key statements of the era, including the debut albums of the Gun Club, the Dream Syndicate, the Misfits and Lydia Lunch. This past year has seen the re-release of A Minute To Pray… on vinyl and CD, as well as the Gun Club’s Fire Of Love, on Superior Viaduct, and thanks to acquiring what he describes as a “bee in his bonnet” this past year, he’s decided to return to music, and do it with his most esteemed collaborators.
We talked to Chris D by phone this week about the forthcoming shows, the influences behind A Minute To Pray…, the legacy of the label, and why this kind of thing hasn’t happened more often.
I wrote earlier this year about the reissues of A Minute To Pray… and the first Gun Club album, as I was listening to those albums back to back, it felt to me both albums, as different as they are were made by people who were excited about American roots music but were trying to play it in a way that was authentic to its time and place. Do you think that’s a fair statement?
Yeah, I think that’s a good description. My influences were a little different than Jeffrey’s but there’s probably more similarities than differences. I was really influenced a lot by indigenous African music on that record, and I was also listening to a lot of blues, and the jazz influence came through Steve Berlin, he played the sax. And DJ Bonebrake with the marimbas.
I also thought I noticed, subtly, what sounded like references to Flannery O’Connor, were either of you guys into her?
I can’t remember if Jeffrey was into her or not… I don’t think I’d even read any Flannery O’Connor at the time. I was familiar with her, and the movie they made in the sixties, but I didn’t read anything by her really until much later, about the late 90s, where I read Everything That Rises Must Converge and Wiseblood. But, yeah, that’s the first time anybody’s drawn that comparison to the records. Jeffrey didn’t talk about it, I probably talk about it more than he ever talked about it, but he definitely was a well-read person and I’m sure he would appreciate that insight, that Flannery O’Connor might be somewhat of an influence on him.
I was a lot more influenced by French symbolists from the late 1800s and surrealists from the early part of the 20th century. But, you know who was a big influence as far as the blues goes was John Lee Hooker and Howlin’ Wolf. There were definitely influences from them and, I’m trying to think who else. Ah, I can’t think… Anyway.
Was there anything that prompted the recent reissue of some of the Ruby catalog? Any chance we might see some more?
Yeah, Steve Viaduct is the one who approached me about that and, about two years ago I was in the Bay Area at his record store stranded doing a book reading. There’s a book I came out with in 2009, also called A Minute To Pray, A Second To Die, it’s about 500 pages long. It’s got all my lyrics and poetry that I was writing between 1972 or so and 2009. It’s got excerpts from novels that I’d written and a few short stories. But I was doing a reading up there, there’s a couple other books that had come out, a novel and a short story collection. So I was up there to promote those, and Steve talked to me about reissuing, actually, Forever Came Today, which is the album that comes after Minute To Pray. And it has a different lineup, although Steve Berlin returns on saxophone. And I thought at first Steve was just interested in doing that one but he told me later he was going to try and get the rights to Minute To Pray as well, and reissue that one. He didn’t mention Gun Club at the time.
But the thing that is problematic with all of that stuff is that it’s property of Warner Bros, which owns all of Rhino Entertainment, which owns all of the Slash/ Ruby catalog. So there are other labels like Atavistic Records that have released some of my other Flesh Eater records and the first Divine Horsemen album. And there’s another label called Drag City Records that was interested in reissuing Forever Came Today, and kind of came up against a brick wall because of the terms that Warner Bros was asking for. He would have to use their pressing plant to produce the vinyl and CDs, and the orders you have to place, how many you’re going to press, was cost prohibitive for the first two.
Now I don’t know if Steve is just a real good negotiator, or how he was able to come to terms, I really wasn’t privy to the fine print and the negotiations but those records came out. I don’t think there’s any plans to do any of the other records, like Days of Wine And Roses by Dream Syndicate, or the Misfits Walk Among Us record, or Lydia Lunch’s 13.13. Forever Came Today is supposedly still going to come out next year, which we’re looking forward to. That’s a record that’s never come out on CD before, and I think it’s going to be reissued on vinyl and CD as well.
Looking at that discography, it’s virtually all records that have gone on to become viewed as essential documents of their time. I mean, you really had your finger on the pulse for a minute there! Did you have any idea at the time that these records would still be considered so important decades later?
No, I really didn’t at the time and in retrospect looking back I can see why people say that, and I appreciate that view. But at the time I just trying to find bands that I thought I could work with, that I liked. There were other band that I wanted to do that didn’t end up getting picked up by Ruby, because I got overruled by Bob Biggs who owned Slash and Ruby. I had to get the OK from him before I went ahead with stuff. Some of those records really took a lot of persuasion on my part, and some of the other people who worked at Slash, to get Bob to put ‘em out. The Gun Club albums is one of them. The Misfits album is another that really took a lot of trying to talk Bob into realizing that there was going to be some commercial potential.
The thing that’s kind of ironic, some of those records didn’t sell particularly well when they came out. They’ve built up a cult afterwards. But even the Misfits one, which was probably the best selling one, of all those, at the time it didn’t sell that well. And it’s a little fitting in retrospect that these records have picked up a respectable following and belong (in print)… people have worn out their vinyl copies and stuff.
What were some of the records you wanted to do that got nixed by Bob Biggs?
Tex and the Horseheads and The Long Ryders are the main ones that come to mind. I know there were a couple others but I can’t remember.
Was the fluid lineup of the early Flesh eaters a deliberate choice of yours, to keep it shifting, or is that what happened as you tried to get a consistent group together?
It was just kind of naturally what happened. I was trying to get a steady lineup together and some of the people that I was picking, particularly guitar players, were song writers in their own right, like Tito Larriva and Stan Ridgway were a couple of the guitar players I worked with before the Minute To Pray album. And the guys who ended up playing on the first EP, first 7-inch, were a whole self-contained band called the Flyboys, So a lot of these folks I ended up asking to play with me had already started bands or were about to start bands on their own. And had their own ideas about the direction they wanted their music to go in. And it really wasn’t until after Minute To Pray, on the third album, Forever Came Today and fourth album A Hard Road To Follow where I had a steady lineup of people that… we could have gone for probably a couple more albums, but I got to the point in late 1983 where I was really sick of playing super-loud music, and wanted to take the music in a little bit different direction. It was retro music influenced, and it was more of a country influence, which is what ended up becoming Divine Horsemen, that band.
This is the third time you’ve gotten the Minute To Pray lineup together, I was at a couple of the shows in 2006. What was that experience like for you?
Well I think it probably wouldn’t have happened in 2006 if we hadn’t gotten a call from Mudhoney. They were doing a festival in England called ATP and had actually gotten in touch, they didn’t have my contact information and they got in touch with John Doe. Because of playing with X, they specifically wanted the Minute To Pray lineup to play with them at the festival, They were getting to pick most of the bands that played with them that particular weekend at the festival in 2006.
I don’t think those shows would have happened otherwise. It really didn’t occur to me to get the Minute To Pray lineup together on my own, sad to say. I was busy at the time, working at the American Cinematheque as one of the film programmers and I wasn’t playing music at all. So that surprise came out of nowhere and this time around, I hadn’t been playing music since the last time I played music besides the Minute To Pray lineup in 2006, was in 2003-2004 when I did the last Flesh Eaters album, which actually only played in the studio and didn’t play live, that particular lineup. That was an album called Miss Muerte.
So I haven’t done any original music since around 2004, and I just this last year was extremely frustrated on a lot of levels, both personal and professional. And I just got a bee in my bonnet so to speak. I really wanted to play music again, and I thought the best way to do it would be to get the Minute To Pray lineup together again. I’ve known those guys… we tried to do some shows since 2006 and it always fell apart because one of the people were doing gigs with their own bands. For instance Steve Berlin was going to have us open for Los Lobos at a couple of LA shows around 2007 or 2008, and that didn’t happen because Lobos ended up cancelling their headlining status and touring with John Cougar Mellencamp, ended up opening for him on those shows.
And then I tried to put together a short Italian tour in 2007 or 2008, somewhere in that time period. There was a woman who used to work at Cinematheque, a friend of mine from Italy, who was back in Italy and was programming a science fiction film festival, that’s one of the oldest science fiction movie festivals in Europe, it’s in Trieste. She and I had talked about the band playing at the festival and screening the one film I directed, and maybe trying to pick up some other Italian dates, and it just couldn’t come together because there were once again personnel conflicts with the others, I think this time Dave Alvin couldn’t do it for whatever reason at the time period we wanted to do it.
So I’ve been kind of frustrated trying to get that lineup together again. But starting in late spring, early summer, I just started talking to the guys about trying to do something in early January. I thought that was enough, seven or eight months lead time was enough that we maybe could get something together. Probably (since) September, we’ve been working on it. John Doe’s kind of excited about the prospect. All those guys like to play in the lineup but John kind of closes it. He’s been helping get the shows together as far as, where we’re gonna play and all that stuff. We somehow managed to make it all work. January’s a good month because those guys usually have down time in January, that’s usually time they take off. So they’re actually working through their vacation time by playing these shows so… it’s kind of an achievement that it’s come together.