Robert Heinlein once wrote “Specialization is for insects.” When it comes to the arts, though, we tend to place our faith in the bug POV. Artists who focus on one medium to the exclusion of all others get more respect than creatives who dare to branch out and add a few hyphens to their job descriptions. And while some of the derision heaped on “multiclassing” (to borrow a D&D term) is justifiable, especially when applied to the musical aspirations of most Hollywood actors (hello and goodbye, Dogstar! See ya, 30 Odd Foot of Grunts!), there are some artists who are able to seamlessly juggle different art forms with ease and live up to Heinlein’s call for developing a wide-ranging set of skills.
Chris D is one of those polymaths. While he’s best known as the ringleader of L.A. punk heroes The Flesh Eaters, Chris D is more than just a bandleader. He’s a prolific and incisive writing, stemming back to his formative years as the original editor of seminal punk magazine Slash. He’s written novels, zines, and a pair of sprawling guides to Japanese cinema. He’s worked as a film programmer, a music producer, and even tried his hand at acting and directing: He starred as the lead in Allison Anders’ 1987 indie flick Border Radio, and later directed his own film, 2004’s I Pass For Human.
The Flesh Eaters, though, remains Chris’s legacy. And while the band is best known for their 1981 swamp-punk masterpiece A Minute to Pray, a Second to Die, they’ve produced a steady and consistent body of work over decades of shifting lineups. Chris D recently reunited with the Minute to Pray lineup (which includes X members John Doe and DJ Bonebrake, Dave Alvin and Steve Bateman from The Blasters, and Steve Berlin from Los Lobos) to tour and record a new album that came out this month, I Used To Be Pretty. Featuring a pair of original songs that takes the band’s voodoo atmospherics and manic, rootsy garage rock in new directions, I Used To Be Pretty also has the Minute lineup reimagining and recording new versions of older Flesh Eater songs.
We recently got a chance to interview Chris D about his experiences bringing the "classic" Flesh Eaters back together, his work as a writer of extensive film guides, and how he feels about being left out of Gun Club documentaries.
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Phoenix New Times: For this record, you reunited with the Minute to Pray lineup and redid a few of your older tunes. What made you want to bring the group back together? And how did it feel recording new iterations of songs you originally recorded with other lineups with the Minute to Pray players?
Chris D: There was always a magic with that lineup. We had enormous fun doing Minute to Pray. I wrote a lot of the songs by just humming the rhythms and vocal melodies into cassettes and give them to Dave and John. And they’d work up the chords to play for my singing these songs and we went from there. And then people like Steve — he added the sax line on “See You in the Boneyard.” That song was heavily influenced by Link Wray and Bo Diddley, but you get that sax in there and it starts to sound like Roxy Music. I just loved that synthesis of stuff. It’s not a conscious ripping off, it’s just what naturally comes out.
And with the new iterations, you can tell they’re the same songs. But it’s more dynamic. The basic structure of those songs haven’t changed, but the mix, the instrumentation, the sound is quite different on each one. And the covers, "Cinderella" and "She's Like Heroin to Me," we had already been doing them live for our reunion shows. We even played "Cinderella" back in '81.
Ironically, we play at a faster speed now than we did in 1982. We play these songs more like we did when we used to do them live in front of hardcore audiences. Not to mention the fact that all of us know our way around a recording studio a lot better than we did back in the early days. I think we were all astonished at how great everything on the album came out.
On the subject of The Gun Club: I heard there’s a documentary coming out about Jeffrey Lee Pierce in 2020 called Elvis From Hell. I was wondering if the folks behind that doc had reached out to interview you? Did you have any involvement in it?
It kind of pisses me off, actually, that nobody’s talked to me when they’ve done these documentaries. Because if it wasn’t for Robin Weiss at Slash — who was one Jeffrey’s best friends — she and I were the ones who gave that Tito-produced tape to. If it wasn’t for Robin and I, I don’t know, Fire of Love may have eventually come out in some form, but I wouldn’t have produced those five or six songs. The album Fire of Love, as it is, certainly wouldn’t have existed.
So it pisses me off. I think I really helped Jeffrey focus and hone in on pairing things down. Although he was very good at self-discipline. There’s virtually nothing I had to tell him to do in terms of how to arrange his songs; He was kind of a natural expert at putting his songs together. I had a simpatico thing with Jeff.
I feel neglected, like I had absolutely nothing to do with helping those guys reach fruition. I and Tito Larriva are the people he did it first with, and did it in a good way that has been critically acclaimed for decades and only grown in stature. So I’m miffed; I keep seeing these documentaries happen and nobody has ever gotten in touch with me about anything. So fuck them.
Circling back to the new album, I was really struck by the new songs. Particularly “Ghost Cave Lament,” which has this really haunting atmosphere. What inspired that song?
I’ve always been into flamenco guitar music, and it’s never really entered into influence on my songs until I transposed a flamenco riff on one of the songs on the Ashes Of Time Flesh Eaters CD that came out in 1999. There was a song called “Blood Wedding” and I used one of Manitas de Plata’s riffs on the chorus on that. Although it’s virtually unrecognizable, it’s got that kind of rhythm.
I wanted to do something like that again, but in a more dissonant way, like if the Minute to Pray lineup had done back it back in ‘81. The closest song I could compare it to off Minute to Pray would be “So Long,” which is a very orthodox African-influenced song and a very moody, angry song. So I wanted to do something like that with really distorted guitars playing flamenco style guitar, which I’ve never heard done before. When I was listening to this stuff later, it reminded me of what Robby Krieger used to play on the early Doors albums. And those guys were very eclectic. They were influenced by a lot of other kinds of music beside rock — one of the big influences for Morrison was blues.
“Ghost Cave Lament” became this mood, walking blues sort of song. With peaks and valleys of emotions. It’s really a magical song because what you hear on the album is the second take. It came together like that. We added some stuff for texture, like I had Steve Berlin place some soprano sax on the choruses. DJ ended up adding some additional marimba tracks to complement his original one. And those vocals, those are all my original vocals. I doubled my vocals on the chorus, and then when everything was done I had Julie come in. I wanted her to sing something without words at the very end, like she was this spirit that had been hiding or was actually dead that was coming back from beyond. I didn’t want words, but I wanted that banshee wail. And she nailed it within a couple of takes. Everything about that song just fell into place.
Speaking about the Doors: when you were at Slash Records, did you ever interact with Ray Manzarek while he was producing those X records?
No, not really …J ohn and Exene were already friendly with him, I don’t know how they got in touch with him or if he got in touch with them. But they were big Doors fans already, as was I, and somehow Ray found that out and checked ‘em out. It was all John and Exene, basically, getting him involved.
It was a fit for them. Ray certainly realized there was a continuance of the spirit of what The Doors were doing back in the '60s and early '70s. There’s a throughline there: You could go to someone like Patti Smith, who was influenced by The Doors. She was a big influence on me, as was the Doors and other unorthodox interpreters of blues rock like Captain Beefheart. And The Rolling Stones: I was always a Stones guy. Everything from the early Stones up to Exile on Main St. was a big influence. There’s lot of other stuff: The girl groups in the '60s, Motown, Howling Wolf.
While you were at Slash, you were an in-house producer for a few Paisley Underground bands like The Dream Syndicate and Green On Red. Being a Stones & Doors guy, I was wondering what your experience was like seeing this parallel L.A. scene of bands inspired by The Beatles and Byrds coming up around the same time?
Green On Red weren’t Eagles fans. I’d really question that unless you’ve seen that in print –
Oh no, no, I said Beatles.
Oh, right! Yeah, of course. I hated the Eagles.
As all right-thinking people should.
The Byrds, I could definitely see that. With the Paisley bands, I’d definitely think more of the Velvet Underground and Lou Reed. They definitely have that lineage as well. I’m a huge Velvets fan, and some of the low-tech stuff and dissonant rhythms and guitar sounds on Minute to Pray come from that. Actually, a friend of mine who interviewed me for something else compared the productions I did for those bands to Tom Wilson, who was this minimalist guy who produced the first three Velvet records. And some Dylan records, too.
I can see that comparison because I was very minimalist when it came to producing stuff. With the Paisley bands, I wanted to get the grittiness of those guys. Replicating their live sets without any of the sloppiness or technical problems you’d have with P.A.s.
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To me, those bands had a very garage band aesthetic. Dream Syndicate, Green On Red: They were throwbacks to that 60’s psychedelic, rhythm and blues influence … and The Long Ryders, that was another band I wanted to get on Ruby Records, which was a part of Slash. But Bob Biggs didn’t really see it. He was the head of Slash and everything got either yea or nay’d by him.
You’ve written a few pretty comprehensive film guides in the past, and I heard you’re working on one about international film noir right now. What do you get out of doing this kind of work?
A lot of this stuff is like missionary work. I’ve talked to other writers who write about film, and I think this is true of a lot of film programmers as well — I found this out while I was working with the American Cinematheque. There’s a mission, especially if you’re an artist, a creative person yourself, and you see these people that pour their heart and soul into doing these films and capturing a specific vision and fighting producers and distribution companies to keep it true. To keep their work from getting polluted or diluted or edited down into run of the mill approaches. When you see people who really risk their livelihoods, who choose to stay hungry, to remain true to their vision.
Those people fascinate me because I can relate, and I know a lot of musicians and writers who are like that too. It’s all caught up with the artistic impulse, where it’s something that goes beyond the desire to make money because it’s a vocation and it’s something you have to do. You cannot get away with not doing it.