Naked Raygun

A candid conversation with singer Jeff Pezzati
by Sal Serio
November 2015

Naked Raygun

Naked Raygun

Fans of the regional Upper-Midwest punk rock scene, whether young and still stage-diving in to the mosh pit, or the “senior scenesters” who had been there the first time around and are content to enjoy concerts from the bar stool in the back of the hall, are all quite familiar with the name Naked Raygun. The tuneful but edgy punk rock legends have been at it since 1980, and since reforming in recent years to play Chicago’s premier event Riot Fest, are proving that they haven’t lost any of that energy and electricity. With a new album in the works, singer Jeff Pezzati spoke with Maximum Ink’s Sal Serio about their upcoming December 4th appearance at Milwaukee’s Turner Hall.

MAXIMUM INK:  Is the current Naked Raygun line-up four guys, or five?

JEFF PEZZATI:  Five, yeah. After Pierre [Kezdy] had his stroke, we found he had a tough time playing some of his bass parts. He had a stroke about four years ago now. So, we’d been going through a couple of bass players. For a while we played with just four people when Pierre couldn’t play at all, but he’s recovered somewhat and he can play. We’d like to have him stick around as long as he wants to be around. He’s still a great songwriter. So, he plays baritone guitar in the band, kind of fuzzy, and we have Fritz [Doreza], another fellow from Chicago, playing regular bass and singing back-ups. [The current line-up is completed by Eric Spicer on drums and Bill Stephens on guitar.]

MI:  So, you’re doing these three early December shows, Milwaukee, Chicago, and Lombard [IL], and the band Direct Hit! is opening all three.

JP:  Lombard… Mecca of punk rock. [Sal busts out laughing] Actually, it was supposed to be an East Coast tour, with Milwaukee and Chicago put in there at the beginning of the tour. Our manager figured out a better way to do it, just these three shows, and we’ll go out and play other weekends toward the East Coast. I think he’s got it planned so we play weekends mostly, and not be stuck somewhere on a Monday or Tuesday. It makes more sense, more people [can] go out on those days, and we have the capability of flying places, if the guarantees are good enough. As far as Direct Hit!, I don’t know them, [but] I’ve listened to the music a little bit. I think our manager is big on them right now for some reason… he probably owes someone a big ass favor. [both laughing] I’m just kidding.

MI:  Will you be playing material from your upcoming album at these gigs? When is the album coming out?

JP:  Yeah, well, we have been playing one song quite a bit. The release date was supposed to happen already. We were originally going to put the singles on there, which came out a couple years ago, but we decided not to do that. So, I had to write all new material. We had to get a couple more songs in to the whole thing, to get it more filled out. It probably won’t be out ‘til Spring. [The record] was done at Transient Sound recording studio, which is Steve Gillis, a guy that used to be in the band Filter. It’s a nice studio that he built near Irving Park, in Ravenswood, Chicago. He got a really good sound for us [and] was easy to work with.

MI:  I’d assume there will be touring in the Spring and Summer to promote the new album?

JP:  There will probably be East and West Coast tours, and some weekend things around the center of the United States. There’s no talk yet about going to Europe, but I sure would like to get to Japan someday.

MI:  Well, you certainly have had some pretty high-profile gigs recently. This Summer opening for Foo Fighters twice, and also last Fall when Raygun was on the bill with Bad Religion, Stiff Little Fingers, and Offspring.

JP:  It was very nice to find out Dave Grohl is a real down-to-earth person. He’s a real nice guy, and his band is great too. He had been influenced by Naked Raygun and had been giving us shout-outs for years, [but] really wasn’t able to do much for us, except for that. It’s nice that he felt compelled to do something for us [now], that really helped us get some good exposure. Although, we do have good exposure in Chicago, [but] it never hurts to get more. It was a huge crowd at Wrigley Field, of course, it was 45,000 people, and we played Indianapolis two days before that, with them, to 22,000 people, so hopefully we played in front of some new people who liked us, and maybe they’ll start listening to us too.

MI:  And Cheap Trick was there too!

JP:  Cheap Trick was great. It was really nice to finally meet those guys. I got to meet Rick Nielsen a couple months before that, and he’s a really nice guy, and very easy to talk to. They’re also one of my favorite bands of all time, so it was an honor to play with them.

MI:  Yeah, me too! Their first album is, like, my favorite album by anybody, ever!

JP:  Unbelievable. Their first album is incredible. “Mandocello”… it’s such a great record. “Taxman Mr. Thief”… what else is on there? Is “He’s A Whore” on there?

MI:  Oh, yeah! Absolutely. “Daddy Should Have Stayed In High School”, “Oh Candy”, “Hot Love”…

JP:  Is “Auf Weidersehen” on there?

MI:  Uh, no… that’s ‘Heaven Tonight’. But, yeah, the first 3 albums are all really good.

JP:  Yeah… incredible albums. ‘In Color And Black And White’ is so good.

MI:  Hey, are you aware of the Steve Albini re-recorded version of that album?

JP:  I am! They did that a long time ago now, right? He told me when they did that.

MI:  Yeah, late 90s.

JP:  [Steve] said it was just as good as the original, maybe better. I didn’t get to listen to it, but I know it’s around.

MI:  Okay, back to the Foo Fighters connection. You guys did an episode of ‘Sonic Highway’.

JP:  Right, we’re on the first one. [Grohl] came to Chicago when he was very young, and visited his cousin, who was in a punk rock band, Verboten, of all bands, who, I thought had a guy lead singer, but it happened to be his cousin and she’s female. I remember that band, they were very young, like in 5th grade and stuff. Jason Narducy, from that band, plays with Bob Mould now.

MI:  Oh yeah, the same guy who’s also in Superchunk.

JP:  Yeah! So, he’s had a long, steady, career, which started out very young. So, she took her cousin, Dave Grohl, to the Cubby Bear, to see Naked Raygun, and he said it changed his life. He gave us all kinds of credit when I met him [and] talked to him personally. He even went so far as to say he didn’t think he’d be in rock music if it wasn’t for me, but then he kinda said something that I have a hard time believing. He said he didn’t think there would be a Nirvana if it weren’t for me. Which… I never heard him say that before, but maybe he was just a little emotional or something. He was really carrying on, and I said, this is too much! It’s nice, but… it’s really heavy.

MI:  When you mentioned the Cubby Bear, it made me think of Albini again, because I’m pretty sure I saw you play there with Big Black, in 1984. It was Steve’s birthday, and someone made him a cake that looked like a dick. Do you remember that?

JP:  Yeah. Steve won’t play the Metro, he has a bad problem with Joe Shanahan. He has a lot of problems with a lot of clubs.

MI:  Are you guys still friends?

JP:  Yeah, we’re still friends. I talk to Steve and bring people for tours through his studio on the spur of the moment when I drive by. I met Michael Feerick there, from an English band called Amusement Parks On Fire. They’re really good, really thick, beautiful music.

MI:  It’s been 35 years since the start of Naked Raygun. What’s different, and what’s remained the same?

JP:  Well, it’s the same jokes [making me laugh again] and the same old stories. Pierre rehashes this black ice story and Bill makes fun of him, the same way he always did. What’s different is, we get more hotel rooms now, and we fly places. We have a big manager, Mike Petryshyn, and he does Riot Fest, so he has a lot of power. [He] convinces people we should play places and get lots of money. It’s much more comfortable touring now, than it used to be. It used to be everybody in one hotel room, no matter how many people there were. Everywhere, all over the floor. Now, each person gets their own room, which is pretty nice. Songwriting is tougher, because we know more about music, and I think the more you know about music the harder it is to song write, and you run out of ideas. It seems when you’re younger you’re just peeling off ideas left and right. You’re not so critical about them, and they can become good songs, you just “fix” them. Nowadays it’s got to be perfect to write one, otherwise you chuck it right away. So, it’s a little frustrating, in that respect. You have more subject matter to write about, because you’re older. I have no problem writing lyrics.

MI:  What’s different now, in the content of your lyrical statements?

JP:  I think it’s pretty much the same, there’s always a “tragic love song” theme, and the “disappointed with the world” theme, and then there’s the “ashamed to be an American” theme. And there’s a “disappointed with all of humanity for being such loathsome creatures” theme, but there’s the love theme that always brings it back to goodness. [laughs]

MI:  Do you remember what the tipping point was, when the band got more exposure, and increasingly more popularity?

JP:  There were two key times, as far as I am concerned. You can go back in history and look at a marked increase in attendance to our live shows. And those were, when we played a multi-band show at Metro under WNUR’s [Northwestern University’s radio station] name, for the release of a compilation record they put out [‘The Middle Of America’]. We came off very well at that show, it was very well attended, and after, we jumped up from, like, 250 people to 500 people coming to our shows. The next time it happened was when we opened for the Dead Kennedys at the Palacio Theatre, which was the only show that ever was there. That was north of Irving Park on Sheffield, which turns in to Sheridan right there. It’s now condominiums, but when we played in front of the Dead Kennedys, after that we played to more than 1,000 people every time. Those were the big changes, and I think our music was starting to soak in. It took less back time then it does now to discover a band. Because there are so many bands now, there’s so much music out there. You can’t figure out if something’s good, or really not good. Back then there weren’t a lot of bands, so you could rise quicker in the ranks, and that’s what we did. Our music soaked in quicker, we knew we had three solid albums behind us, with ‘All Rise’, ‘Throb Throb’, and ‘Jettison’… not necessarily in that order.

MI:  It seems like both events were mid 80s, like 1984, 1985-ish. Does that sound right?

JP:  Yeah, it does.

MI:  Do you see much of a difference in the Chicago music scene, then and now?

JP:  No, I really don’t. It’s all over the place. There’s so much music going on, and there’s young kids playing subterranean lofts that you’ll never get invited to, and you wouldn’t be able to get in even if you showed up. And there’s big shows going on at big venues by big bands with big money, with $65 ticket prices, and, everything in between.

MI:  When you look back at the Naked Raygun catalog, is there a favorite era, for you? Or a favorite album, or song even?

JP:  Yeah, I’m very prejudiced in that respect. My favorite album is ‘All Rise’. I wrote every song except for one, and I think they’re really good. I’m pretty proud of that record. It sounds good to listen to, clever lyrics, good “woah-woahs” [laughing], I was really hitting it on all cylinders.

MI:  Well, that’s pretty much all I was going to ask, although I was curious about your years with Big Black, but we kind of touched upon that…

JP:  Yeah… Steve Albini is his own worst enemy [making me laugh again]. He’s my friend, but he says things like, “These days, to see Naked Raygun live, is like watching your favorite high school girlfriend get fat” [both laughing] Which is really funny, and it doesn’t bother me, because nothing really bothers me. Any publicity is better than no publicity. But, Steve wouldn’t fucking know what we’re like because he hasn’t seen us in two decades! He hasn’t seen us at all, he doesn’t come to shows, he certainly doesn’t come to OUR shows. How would he fucking know? In that respect it pisses me off, that he has the gall to let the people reading the articles think that he goes to shows or something.

MI:  [cracking up] I shouldn’t be laughing, but…

JP:  It IS funny. He may be right, but, hey… we were still your girlfriend at one time. He likes to think of good quotes. He doesn’t rile me up. Steve [and I] get along really good. I like [him].

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DVD: What Poor Gods We Do Make Record Label: Riot Fest Records
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