Dead Kennedys bassist Klaus Flouride: “If you want to make the stuff that you play stand out, you need to leave a lot around it”

You’re on tour in Brazil. Your bass is too. You get to the gig. The bass doesn’t... A nightmare scenario - and one that befell Dead Kennedys bassist Klaus Flouride in 2013.

Still missing four years later is his 1966 Fender Jazz in Lake Placid Blue, on which the So-Cal punk pioneer had played his jazzy, arpeggio-heavy, surf-indebted punk rock melodic lines for three decades.

“Even the flight crew was waiting for their luggage, but nothing came off the plane,” he remembers. “It could be sitting over some guy’s mantelpiece. My fantasy is that it one day finds its way back from the storage hangar, which isn’t going to happen. I don’t ache about it; I had it, I used it for a while. I’d like to think someone’s using it, playing it, thinking, ‘This is a great instrument’.”

Step forward luthier Tony Schroom, who secretly built Mr. Flouride a new instrument that even featured the same stickers, scratches and battle scars.

If you want to make the stuff that you play stand out, you need to leave a lot around it

“He wound the pickups himself: he made the equivalent of Seymour Duncan Quarter Pounders and put them on - tailpiece, bridge, everything. It sounds great, although it’s heavier. That helps sustained notes like in [Dead Kennedys song] Moon Over Marin. It’s a thin line to walk to get that sustain but without getting the squeal. I don’t want to use compression pedals, because that takes dynamics out of things.”

Klaus Flouride (yes, he spells it that way deliberately, chemistry fans), born Geoffrey Lyall in 1949, has music in his blood. His musician father played in bands in New Orleans speakeasies from the late 1920s through the Depression years.

Lyall the younger was soon to pick up a Stella acoustic guitar before trading up to a Gibson and then a Silvertone electric. A gamut of pickup bands, garage messarounds and even the occasional gig led to the more serious proposition of a band called Thursday Parade.

“I was coming out of my one year of college. The band already had a guitarist, and power trios were the way to go with Cream, Hendrix et cetera. They asked me if I could play the bass and I said, ‘Sure’ - but I didn’t, so I bought a Danelectro for 20 bucks,” he continues.

The bassist namechecks the ubiquitous James Jamerson and the Motown bands, although he first became aware of bass as a separate instrument through the Beatles and Jack Bruce. 

“The live Cream stuff just left me cold,” he notes. “I saw them once and it was just dreadful, but I did like Jack’s playing as far as constructing counter-melodies: I realised it could be a semi-lead instrument.”

That said, he recalls the transition from guitar to bass as ‘as much a hindrance as a help’ at first.

“I just wanted to fill in as much space as I could with as much weird stuff as I could. I didn’t leave any air. That was something I’ve realised over the last 15 years, although something like [Kennedys song] The Prey has a lot of air in it. If you want to make the stuff that you play stand out, you need to leave a lot around it.”

Lessons learned

Back to the late 60s, and enter Billy Squier, who enticed Lyall to the group Magic Terry & The Universe. 

“We were on the fringe of the Andy Warhol scene,” he recalls, “We would go to [hip NYC bar] Max’s Kansas City when it was a discotheque upstairs and a restaurant in the back. After that imploded, I played in mostly R&B and blues-orientated things, and I started learning about simplifying the bass.” 

My tutor said: 'Listen to yourself. What makes their opinion about your own playing better than yours?'

Some of the more purist members of those groups encouraged Lyall to go for lessons, where he learned something very important. “The tutor asked me to play with a pick, and then he asked me to play it with my fingers, and I sort of muddled through it after about five times,” Lyall remembers. “He said, ‘You play it much better with a pick, so what are you doing here?’”

“I said, ‘Well, the band thought it was a good idea’. The tutor immediately said: ‘Don’t listen to them. Listen to yourself. What makes their opinion about your own playing better than yours?’”

That pick is a hefty .90mm, but Lyall’s background in surf bands was an object lesson in how to play super-fast strums, particularly in songs like Forward To Death or the fills in Holiday In Cambodia.

“They’re slides down the neck,” he says. “Like something from Misirlou,” referring to the Dick Dale surf anthem heard in Pulp Fiction. His other instrument is, perhaps surprisingly, the clarinet. 

“I don’t pick it up that often, but when I do it’s like getting back on a bike,” he says. He also owns a rare C melody saxophone, which is pitched a tone higher than the B flat tenor sax more widely used. The clarinet can be heard on Terminal Preppie, and will also feature on a forthcoming Flouride solo compilation, the latest in a long line of LPs.

In the late-1970s Lyall moved to San Francisco, joining the Dead Kennedys and gaining his current moniker. He found himself amid the possibilities inherent in punk, although he was open to every genre of music out there.

“One of the people that influenced me in the late Seventies and early Eighties was Brian Eno, when I discovered the four albums he did before he went ambient - Roxy with the reins off, his solo stuff. The bass did interesting things; how he used instruments in general still sounds fresh. 

“The Fat Lady Of Limbourg, for instance, has a prominent bass part - maybe even done on keyboard. As far as punk, Jimmy Wilsey of The Avengers was a young musician doing really interesting stuff that was really supportive of the song. He would do octaves, a simple but a really good idea, and I took that and ran with it with the Dead Kennedys.”

One in a million

The Kennedys’ influence on the second and third generations of punk is immeasurable; their off-kilter rhythms, syncopated frenzy, hard-hitting black humour from frontman Jello Biafra and absolutely supercharged performances were instantly recognisable. The renamed Flouride’s bass-lines range from the driven (see Police Truck, Too Drunk To Fuck) to the chordal (Jock-O-Rama, Chickenshit Conformist).

These days he mostly uses the aforementioned unique rebuild on stage, but a Fender Bass IV is the weapon of choice for much of the Bedtime For Democracy album. Outside the Kennedys, he puts that bass to good use in offshoot acts the Legendary Stardust Cowboy and Granny’s Drop.

People call me ‘Sir’ and I always go, 'Do not do that to me'

“The first inclination is to play lead on it. I used it to do chords in the band Five Year Plan, and I used that also as a singer-songwriter. It can build and get intense, almost like playing Ramones chords on the bass when the song requires it.”

Some of his favourite DK bass moments include the break in MP3 Get Off The Web (formerly titled MTV Get Off The Air) and the double-string work on Holiday In Cambodia. 

“It’s going for a Velvet Underground sort of feel,” he says of the latter bass-line. “They’d have droning, so I droned the A and basically played Dazed And Confused against it! I didn’t realise at the time that’s what it was… I didn’t think I even liked Led Zeppelin that much. But sometimes things just happen, and they work.” 

He drops a bomb for every DKs nut: “The Kennedys are always fooling around with [new music], but we’re always comparing it, as everyone else will, to [1980 debut album] Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables. Is it as catchy, as different as that album was?”

Millions of fans worldwide would love to find out. The Dead Kennedys reformed in 2001 after a 15-year break, with a different vocalist: Ron ‘Skip’ Greer is on the mic these days. To Flouride’s surprise and - one senses - bemusement, he has become an inspiration to another generation.

“I don’t say, ‘Of course, I got a free bass, because I’m Klaus Flouride’,” he says. “We always go out after shows and meet the people who pay to see us playing. People call me ‘Sir’ and I always go, ‘Do not do that to me. Do not do that to yourself’.”

However, Flouride is hyper-aware of where he has reached as a musician.

“My dad said, 'There’s three million kids that can play guitar. It’s an easy instrument. If you want to be the one that gets a bunch of people to watch you go crazy onstage, get a backup plan.' Sometimes I’m onstage and I can watch the mayhem going on. And I think, I’m one of those three million kids that gets to actually have that happen.”

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