Naked Raygun's Jeff Pezzati on Wax Trax, and why and how the band got back together
Someday a monograph about punk will give Naked Raygun its proper place of prominence in the genre's history. Naked Raygun was one of the most important punk bands to emerge in Chicago during the Reagan era. Inspired in part by the diversity of sounds in that initial wave of English punk, Naked Raygun forged a sound that was considered experimental by many of its peers early on. As the band developed, it moved into a harder-edged direction, but it also kept its knack for inventive hooks and rhythms firmly intact.
Riot Fest founder Mike Petryshyn asked the band to reunite for a Riot Fest show and the outfit has been back together ever since. We spoke with the dryly humorous and thoughtful Jeff Pezzati, the band's founding singer, about becoming involved in punk, going to Wax Trax, being in Big Black and a time not too long ago when one of his post-Raygun bands, the Bomb, played in Colorado.
Westword: You were recruited, as it were, to join Naked Raygun in 1980, and you were in kind of a cover band called Condor at that time?
Jeff Pezzati: Yeah, I was playing in a bunch of bands that were run out of the basement in high school. Played a lot of UFO covers and Thin Lizzy covers. I was even in a bad band that played some James Gang songs, unfortunately. Naked Raygun didn't have a name yet or anything when they asked me to join. Just a couple of guys playing guitar and bass.
What did you think of what they were playing at that time?
I thought they really sucked. They were really rough and unorganized compared to some of the bands that I was in. But they had good band practice etiquette with no one playing over when someone was trying to talk, which was a step up from what I was used to anyway. But I liked their music a lot. Santiago [Durango] used to write all their music, and he completely changed the song from the last practice a bit. Kind of hard to keep up with.
What made that music more appealing to you over time?
Well it was just a real fresh type of sound. It's really wanted to do because I'd been turned on to that kind of music by my brother. I wanted to be part of that music scene instead of the old AOR music scene.
Did you ever make it to La Mère Vipère?
That was before my time. It opened and closed before I got into the scene. I was too young by just a couple of years. I was more of an O'Banion's person.
When you went to O'Banion's for the first time did you go to see music, or did you even perhaps play there?
They didn't have bands when I first started going there. We were one of the first ten bands that played there. They didn't have shows at the time. It was just bar in front and a dance room in the back. It was always packed, and it was really fun.
You went to Wax Trax pretty early on. What was the first record that Jim Nash recommended to you?
Boy, we would go to Wax Trax all the time, and Jim Nash was constantly recommending records. Usually Joy Division records he'd recommend to everybody. He played us a lot of music all the time. I can't even recall all the good recommendations he would come up with. He was like that, though, you know, always pushing the music. He was very excited about music. Good guy to have around.
How did you find out about the store?
I don't know. Just word of mouth. It was one of the only places you could go. There were other record stores, but they just seemed really complete with the records -- the record bins were really diverse. They were always playing records in the store, and they were up on things before everybody else was.
What was the first punk show that you got to see?
That's a good question. I probably saw the Ramones at the College of DuPage in the suburbs before I saw anybody else. It could have been 999, though, at what is now Schuba's, which was called Gaspars. They played there a lot. It also could have been the Buzzcocks at Mothers. It was actually at Mothers with Gang of Four warming up. It was one of those shows.
What was one of the first all local punk shows that you got to see
I think I went to go see Strike Under play. They were so good.
What was their impact on your as a musician?
They had a lot of internal fighting, which is kind of a drag -- two brothers that never got along, and they would beat the shit out of each other at shows. But I thought they wrote really great songs. I would have to say that in terms of their influence, they pushed me to write songs that weren't just two chords.
Naked Raygun had a more experimental sound early on evolved over the years into other sounds. What got you interested in doing the more experimental thing earlier on and then a shift into something more hardcore later?
There was no hardcore. It was just that these bands sounded different. Siouxsie & The Banshees didn't sound like the Sex Pistols, and they didn't sound like the Buzzcocks, the Jam or the Clash. But you knew they were all of the same school. So we wanted to be influenced by those bands and sound unique but not emulate those bands, so no one could really say we were doing what those guys were doing.
So we dicked around, and had rockabilly influences, and a lot of influences from English punk, and as a result, we searched for our sound for a number of years until we came up with a couple of styles that we kind of settled in on. The albums starting with Throb Throb kind of followed that trend. I think that Basement Screams was really all over the place.
The first time some people became aware of the band was when Rat Music For Rat People had come out in 1987.
Yeah, what song was that? "Rocks of Sweden." When we were asked to do a compilation, and we were asked to do a lot of songs on skate videos, we would always donate a song we had out or was in the works or already recorded and we could send them a copy we already had. We never actually recorded something new for any compilation or skate video that didn't appear somewhere else already. For the skate videos they would send us t-shirts and stickers. They would never pay us. But we got a lot of cool skateboard t-shirts.
There's a song Naked Raygun and other bands played often back then called "Bomb Shelter." Who wrote that song?
I'm not sure with "Bomb Shelter." It was written by Camilo [Gonzalez] or somebody in Silver Abuse or The Wayouts or Santiago [Durango]. Both bands played it for a long time. We stopped playing it a long time ago. I saw Santiago re-write it once, so I know he had something to do with changing it in some fashion, but I'm not sure who originally wrote it.
What made Jim Colao such a great drummer?
Well, he had so much rhythm. He had such natural rhythm. He had a lot of innate rhythm that comes natural to him, and it shows in his drumming. Eric Spicer calls it "monkey drumming." Some of those songs really shined in the rhythm department because of him. They had a good, snappy beat because of him.
I don't think we would have sounded the same on those records without him. He went on to some other bands that became popular. He was in this hip-hop or rap band and they would show up at those type of clubs and they would say, "We didn't know you were an actual band." He was very hard to work with, especially these days. I get along with him if I see him.
At one point you played bass with Big Black. How did that come about?
Well, Steve [Albini] had recorded this EP called Lungs in his house, or in Montana, or somewhere. He saw what was going on in Chicago, and he wanted to put together this band Big Black, and I told him I would be a part of it if he needed me to play something. I could play guitar, and I could play bass.
So I started playing guitar, and the way Santiago tells it, Naked Raygun used to live in this coach house, at least a couple of us, in Lincoln Park; and Santiago was upstairs, and I was playing guitar along to the drum machine, and he finally came down and said, "You can't play guitar, let me play guitar. It sounds horrible." So I switched to bass, and then we went out as a three piece and played.
I was in the band for a couple of years at least. I'm on two or three releases, and we did one pretty big East Coast tour and ended up with the Meat Puppets in Boston. It was at the Channel. Actually, we didn't play. We were scheduled to play, and the Channel said to the Meat Puppets, "Hey you guys, pre-sale tickets really suck, and we don't think anybody's going to come, so you're going to make half the money."
Then they walked over to Steve, and said, "You're not going to make any money." They were real fuckers. So Steve said, "Okay, let me think about this." We got in the van and thought about it for half a second, and then went back in, and Steve said, "Hey, fuck you. We're not playing The Channel show." Then we drove home.
Obviously Naked Raygun was on hiatus for several years. What was the catalyst for you guys getting back together?
Really it was Eric meeting Mike [Petryshyn] at Riot Fest and him pushing for a Naked Raygun at reunion featuring us, that one year at Riot Fest, when it was still indoors at The Congress. He really wanted us to get back together, so he gave us a lot of money, and made it worth our while, and so we played the show, and he became our manager.
Clearly no major differences in that membership?
Not that line, no major differences. That line up with Bill Stephens on guitar and Pierre [Kezdy] and Eric. Bill never had much of a say. He joined just in the last couple of years. Maybe 1989-1992. We called him the new guy and he didn't talk much, he just did what we told him to do.
It sounds mean but if you've ever been in a band you know there can be too many chiefs. It's better if you follow one person's idea whether it be good or not and follow it to the grave or start over. But we knew what we were doing and he tagged along, which was just great.
There's a certain sound or a certain spirit to what Chicago punk, or whatever it is you'd call End Result. How would you describe that sound or the character of that sound or the feel of it?
Naked Raygun's sound is the second greatest "whoa whoa" sing-a-long band you've ever heard. The first being Misfits. We're kind of like the Beach Boys but sped up. Chicago sound, I think is a little more diverse, especially lately. A lot of different kinds of music has come out of here. But Chicago...pretty much guitar-oriented stuff comes out of here. No Depeche Mode kind of stuff comes out of here. It's kind of working class, delivering beer and stuff. So it's a little less glitzy. Not a lot of guys dressed in drag playing music.
The Bomb played in Denver in recent years?
The Bomb played Denver and Fort Collins about three or four years ago with a different line-up than we have now. Those were pretty good shows. We played with Bill The Welder in Fort Collins. In Denver we played a small punk rock club in town with a bar right in the middle of it. Some people were there, and a band called Reno Divorce, [I think], played with us. Really nice guys. They played Chicago once, and we met them here.