On the phone, Klaus Fluoride sounds every bit like the middle-aged man he is, now 25 years older than he was when he started playing bass for seminal San Francisco punk band Dead Kennedys. He is also a lot more grounded than you might expect, and just as fired up about politics, too.
What you don’t get from his slow, laid-back voice, though, is how he wears glasses with thick black indie-rock frames, or how he’s left a postage stamp-sized patch of grey hair beneath his lower lip — the only elements that hint that this semi-dorky dad has a history, and a present, that’s anywhere near cool.
But cool it is. And legendary. The band Fluoride (born Geoffrey Lyall) formed with East Bay Ray (Ray Peperrell ) and Jello Biafra (Eric Reed Boucher) in 1978 has been credited as one of the founding groups of punk rock, famous for intellectually political songs like California Uber Alles and Holiday in Cambodia, frontman Biafra’s mesmerizing, spasmodic stage presence and a constant swirl of controversy. And now reunited after their 1986 breakup, though without Biafra, Dead Kennedys continues to tour (though sometimes as DK Kennedys and sometimes with their original name) — and continues to sell out shows.
They’re even still releasing albums, though not anything new yet. After winning rights to the music following a bitter court battle with Biafra that kept them tied up for years, the band released Mutiny on the Bay, recordings from 1982 to 1986, and Live at the Deaf Club, live recordings from 1979. And last month, they released a remastered version of their 1980 album, Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, which was not only their first, but has since become a seminal album in the punk rock canon.
It may seem a bit strange that a band famous for its anti-corporate, noncommercial image would do something like rerelease an album — a move that seems gimmicky and profit-driven. But Fluoride said the group carefully weighed that concern.
“We don’t want to just put something out there for somebody to buy for no reason,” he said.
But Fluoride said there is a good reason to put out the album. First and foremost, technology is so much better now than it was in 1980. Fluoride likens the contrast to the difference between playing Pong on an Atari and playing Grand Theft Auto on an Xbox.
And Fluoride’s right — the sound quality on the new release is fantastic, and so different. For the casual listener, the contrast might be miniscule. But to the trained ear, the remastered version will sound crisper, cleaner, clearer and more textured than the old, gritty version we grew up on. There are notes in the introduction to Holiday for Cambodia, for example, that I didn’t even know existed until playing the rerelease. It’s also a bit slower, since the first version was recorded at the wrong speed. This version, says Fluoride, is how Fresh Fruit was intended.
Beyond the technology issue, there’s also the fact that this is the album’s 25th anniversary. And that it’s only been a few years since the band could legally release the album anyway. But even so, Fluoride & Co. didn’t want to release the CD all by itself; an extra bell or whistle, they figured, still wasn’t enough to justify a new purchase for fans. So they tried to think of what, if anything, they would want to see if they were fans — and what they came up with is the 56-minute documentary charting the Kennedys’ inception, including interviews with Fluoride, Ray, several music writers, the band’s former manager and Biafra’s ex-wife.
It’s easy to be skeptical about the DVD, too. Yes, DVD extras can be striking and informative, but most are just fluff — making money off what should have stayed on the cutting room floor. And moderate Dead Kennedys fans might consider this DVD just that. But die-hard DK fans, or those unfamiliar with the inner workings behind those big, menacing consonants, will love this addition, especially the live concert footage from the early days. Really, the only thing missing is footage of Biafra now, but Fluoride says the band did the best they could with that.
“He waffled, but ended up declining,” said Fluoride, who wouldn’t expand on Biafra’s reasons. “I’m not going to attempt to journey into the mind and the workings of what makes him do what he does.”
In fact, Biafra has been at the center of controversy surrounding the band from day one. First there was his decision to include an H.R. Geiger painting of a sea of penises as album cover art, which enraged Tipper Gore and her cronies; then Biafra’s lyrics in Kill the Poor inspired outrage among conservatives who didn’t get the joke; and finally there was Biafra’s bid for Mayor of San Francisco in 1979 (in which he came in fourth).
Next came the lawsuit, pitting Biafra on one side against Fluoride, guitarist East Bay Ray and drummer DH Peligro on the other; and dividing fans who had to choose loyalties. (It was settled in 1992, in favor of Fluoride, Ray and Peligro.)
And then came the controversy around the band’s reunion — though even that started as a fluke.
It went something like this: The band released Mutiny on the Bay in 2001 because they finally could, and planned a CD release party at the Key Club in Los Angeles. They expected to do a signing and meet-and-greet and then go home. But Peligro suggested they play a reunion show.
“Biafra’s probably not going to want to do that,” said Fluoride, who was right. But Oxnard native and former lead singer for Dr. Know, Brandon Cruz, agreed to stand in, and the others decided to perform in what was supposed to be their one and only reunion show. The new group began to practice, and word spread so fast that the show sold out two weeks in advance.
(Since then, Los Angeles singer Jeff Penalty has replaced Cruz.) But reactions were mixed. Some fans loved the chance to see their favorite punk band again, even without Biafra. Others didn’t — and still don’t — consider the band “The Dead Kennedys” without him, and call the new version a cover band.
For the most part, though, Fluoride says fans are appreciative. Anyone who takes the time to see a show, he said, has a positive reaction to it. Old-school fans come. Some bring their kids. And some kids come on their own — brand new fans of a new generation.
He says it’s a little strange to have fans who weren’t even born when the band put out Fresh Fruit, but he also says the band, unfortunately, is even more relevant today than it was then. Fluoride points to the recent Supreme Court nominees, a more evil Republican Party and about five minutes’ worth of other issues as proof that the world is worse off now than it was 25 years ago.
The band is so adamant about their beliefs that they even bailed out of a recent show in Los Angeles where they were on the bill with Suicidal Tendencies, Marky Ramone, The Germs and more), because they discovered Coors was a sponsor — and they don’t believe in Coors’ business practices.
“They’re not a nice company,” said Fluoride.
But he’s quick to add caveats to the claim that the Dead Kennedys are a political band.
“It’s not governmental politics … it’s social politics,” he said. “Holiday in Cambodia wasn’t even a governmental political thing, as much as it was about the kind of person who would need a holiday in Cambodia to slap them into reality.”
And while Fluoride hopes to influence people, he doesn’t see the band as a political leader as much as a provocateur.
“Our role is to pique an interest, and for somebody to, at that point, go and do some research of their own …We should never be an end-all for where you start and stop a political discussion,” he said, nor should any band. “If you’re looking to a rock and roll band for answers, I think you’re being either really lazy or really stupid.”
And as for the question of new music?
Though the band is working on new songs, said Fluoride, they’re taking their time releasing it. Unlike the early days, when all four members lived close together and could rehearse five hours a day, the band’s members are split across two parts of California. And CDs are now expected to be almost twice as long as the albums the Kennedys recorded two decades ago. What’s more, they know anything they create now will be held up to strict criticism.
“Life is different,” said Fluoride. If they’re going to put out an album with new material, “we want to at least match ourselves, if not better ourselves with something else.”