Legendary Chicago punk outfit gives The Chicago Ambassador more than a glimpse.
Chicago has a huge musical tradition that runs from bluesmen like Willie Dixon and Buddy Guy to R&B superstars like Curtis Mayfield and rock pioneers such as Michael Bloomfield. While the blues changed from acoustic to electronic, leading to the creation of rock and roll, rock music splintered, resulting in the formation of many sub-genres, including punk rock.
Naked Raygun may not have been formed in the first wave of punk rock, but they bridge the gap between punk pioneers like The Ramones (who they played with) and today’s music, just as Mayfield and Bloomfield bridged the gap from blues to rock and roll.
Naked Raygun has been around since 1980, with a hiatus from 1992 to 2006, but if one were going to write a biography, 2015 may go down as the year they finally received their due. Perhaps this wasn’t seen in record sales, but it was in terms of recognition and respect from their peers, including the biggest rock star on the planet right now: Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters.
It started last September, when after playing their album “Throb Throb” at Riot Fest, festival organizer Mike Petryshyn grabbed a mic and thanked the band, almost breaking down in tears while informing the crowd of how important the band was to him and the music fest. Then a month later, Dave Grohl’s HBO documentary “Sonic Highways” premiered. The 8-part series featured a different city in each episode, with Chicago as the focus of the first episode. In it, Grohl gushed over Naked Raygun, telling viewers that his first concert was a Naked Raygun show at the Cubby Bear and that they are the reason he plays music. That led to a Foo Fighters show at the Cubby Bear that same month, with Naked Raygun lead singer Jeff Pezzati playing alongside Grohl, which ultimately led to an invite for Naked Raygun to be one of three bands opening for the Foo Fighters August 29 at Wrigley Field.
Formed in 1980 by Santiago Durango, Marko Pezzati and Jeff Pezzati, the band has gone through numerous members over the years, but has continued to be one of the most influential punk bands of all-time and arguably the most influential band to ever come from Chicago. The band broke up in 1992 but reformed in 2006 when Petryshyn convinced them to play that year’s Riot Fest. They have been together since, and are by no means an oldies act. They are still at it and have an new album in the works. In addition, their year of recognition and respect will culminate at Wrigley Field when they open for the Foo Fighters along with Urge Overkill and Cheap Trick.
Some of the other members who came and went were founding members Durango and Marko Pezzati; drummers Bobby Strange and Jim Colao; bassists Camilo Gonzalez and Pete Mittler; and keyboardist John Lundin and guitarist John Haggerty; all of whom decided to leave on their own, as Pezzati emphasized to The Chicago Ambassador.
Current members include singer Jeff Pezzati, guitarist Bill Stephens, drummer Eric Spicer and bassists Pierre Kezdy and Fritz Doreza — who split time because of Kezdy’s health issues.
The Chicago Ambassador sat down with the band at their practice space, high above the Cobra Lounge, where no question was off-limits and where they joked with each other, talked about their legacy and plans for the future, past members who are “confused with reality,” as well as Pezzati’s and Kezdy’s health issues and much more.
Interviewed by Bob Chiarito for The Chicago Ambassador.
CA) How much have you guys been practicing?
SPICER) We started a couple months ago.
CA) This is all for the Wrigley Field gig?
SPICER) That and we are working on new stuff.
CA) The last thing you guys put out were the three 7-inch records, one each in 2009, 2010 and 2011. Will you be putting out a new album?
STEPHENS) Hopefully, yes.
CA) Do you have new songs?
KEZDY) There are five new ones recorded.
PEZZATI) There’ll be nine plus a few more.
STEPHENS) We’re so far behind schedule, I say we keep recording.
PEZZATI) I think we should do 12 new ones.
KEZDY) We could do a record and then do some bonus tracks.
SPICER) As you see, we agree on everything.
STEPHENS) And it’s really well planned out. Everyone’s on the same page. (Laughter from the band)
CA) How much are you guys splitting the bass playing (between Kezdy and Doreza)?
PEZZATI) We don’t know. We’re still working it out.
CA) What does it depend on?
PEZZATI) It depends how it goes when the show comes out.
CA) You guys have had a crazy year, from the really emotional thank you at Riot Fest last September to Dave Grohl’s HBO Documentary and then his Cubby Bear gig. What’s that been like?
PEZZATI) It’s been great. It’s been a really nice year. We had a lot of really big shows. We’re not that accustomed to playing fests, but there were some really big shows.
SPICER) Riot Fest was cool. I often wonder about our choice of playing “Throb Throb” though.
CA) Why is that?
STEPHENS) We pulled it off.
SPICER) I know, but I imagine a lot of people standing in the audience who didn’t know who we really were.
STEPHENS) And now they do.
SPICER) And they never heard “Throb Throb” before.
STEPHENS) Now they have.
SPICER) I imagine there are thousands of very confused people out there.
STEPHENS) That’s ok.
CA) What do you guys think about the whole Riot Fest controversy with Humboldt Park?
PEZZATI) It’s a shame. It’s ridiculous. I think they fixed up a lot of that park like they were supposed to. It was hard to fix the park when it rained every freaking day. I think they put a lot of money into the park. The Park District hasn’t had anything to say about it because they knew they fixed it up, they just held their tongue. I think the alderman had a hard-on for them.
CA) Do you guys feel like you’re starting to get some of the mainstream recognition that has eluded you for so long?
DOREZA) No. (Laughter from the band)
STEPHENS) Well, yeah. We get mentioned in a lot more outlets and venues.
PEZZATI) We still have our jobs.
KEZDY) (To his bandmates): I Emailed you that 60 Minutes thing…
STEPHENS) You mean like a year ago?
SPICER) Pierre is especially on top of things. (Laughter from the band)
KEZDY) I just watched it off the Internet, somebody sent me a link.
SPICER) He (Kezdy) was probably like, ‘What the fuck, this isn’t clown porn!’ (Laughter from the band)
KEZDY) The fact that it gets on 60 Minutes and Dave Grohl mentions our name and a little animated version of one of our album covers…
STEPHENS) (To Kezdy) In the link you sent us?
KEZDY) Yeah, it had the Jettison guy going across the record cover.
STEPHENS) I did not see that. Maybe I should start paying attention to what you send me instead of just straight-out deleting it. (Laughter from the band)
KEZDY) The fact that after all these years of trying to get recognition and become a bigger band, and working and doing it all ourselves, all of a sudden, this guy comes out and he says we’re the reason that he decided to start playing music, and he’s now the biggest rock act going on. It’s kind of given Naked Raygun this credibility that wasn’t there before. We were working all these years and doing a lot of stuff, then one guy comes along and says something and all of a sudden…
PEZZATI) When we played with the Dead Kennedys we got bigger, when we played with the Ramones we got bigger.
KEZDY) I think that [Grohl’s recognition] is the biggest thing.
CA) Do you think you missed out on some recognition from the national scene because New York and California got more attention in years past?
KEZDY) Yeah, perhaps.
CA) You guys always had your jobs. Talking to other musicians about you guys, some have told me that it was too bad that you never went on tour for a year or two at a time. It’s kind of a Catch-22 because you have to make money to live.
SPICER) We toured a lot though, we used to tour twice a year.
PEZZATI) We toured twice a year.
SPICER) There were a lot of bands that would tour and twice a year would take six weeks off. We did the opposite. (Laughter from the band) We were running away from success.
STEPHENS) We mocked success from a distance.
KEZDY) I don’t know if touring would have helped that much. I remember meeting up with Black Flag and Soul Asylum. We played with them somewhere.
KEZDY) These guys, they had been living out of their van for a year. They looked and smelled like crap.
SPICER) They were miserable.
KEZDY) They put on a good show. Of course, you play for a year straight and you don’t have to think about what you’ve been doing. What ever happened to Soul Asylum?
STEPHENS) (To Kezdy) Well, they became huge.
KEZDY) They did, in a certain way. By that time, we were already in our 30s. No one was going to sign a band with guys in their 30s.
SPICER) No one was making it big until Nirvana came along.
STEPHENS) And no punk bands were making it big until Green Day came along.
CA) Was part of it because you had your own sound and maybe the labels were looking for bands that sounded similar to other bands?
PEZZATI) The labels don’t know what they want.
SPICER) I think it’s because we broke up right when the getting was good. It was perfect timing.
KEZDY) We can look back and say, ‘We were the the guys out there with machetes, blazing a path through the jungle, while other people were able to follow and bring their wagons through easily. And what did we get out of it? Sore arms. (Laughter from the band)
STEPHENS) Sunstroke. Dysentery, yellow fever, cannibalism!
CA) Was getting signed to a major ever a real goal of yours?
PEZZATI) No. We just wanted to be heard by as many people as possible. We got wined and dined by a couple music labels, but they were just interested in us as another band. They released an album a day, so it would have been a bad deal.
SPICER) Well, back then it was different. The labels had a lot of power; it’s not like today.
KEZDY) There’s like a cycle. There came a point where they wanted to keep whatever was going on in the 1970s going before they realized they couldn’t do it and they had to change their ways a little bit. But punk rock was still way on the outside, not accepted. Then after awhile, they realized most of the talent — the labels had no where to draw from, so they drew from punk which became ‘alternative’ and a bunch of other things. Call it whatever you will, but eventually they had to incorporate it because that’s what they do, they suck talent and make money from it. It’s their job. They do it in a brutal fashion. Punk rock was a revolution against that, because they dominated for so many years. But then they shot themselves in the foot, and then the Internet came and changed everything again. There have been a lot of changes. Some of it was just bad timing for us.
STEPHENS) You know, we don’t think about it, it’s not an issue.
PEZZATI) We don’t have any regrets.
STEPHENS) No regrets, no ‘what ifs.’ Things were what they were and personally, I love how things are now, that we could do whatever the fuck we want, which is a lot more than bands who may have had much more success, much more fame at some point. We have a lot more going now.
PEZZATI) Who’s going to see Dexy’s Midnight Runners now? Nobody, hahaha!
CA) The music press tends to talk about the Chicago sound, the Chicago punk sound. Do you think there is such a thing?
PEZZATI) No. We are one of the more popular bands to come from the Chicago scene, so they talk about our sound, but it’s very different.
CA) You still call Naked Raygun the second biggest woah-woah band?
KEZDY) Second most famous what?
PEZZATI) Second most famous woah-woah band in the world. Next to the Misfits.
CA) The Misfits still have you beat?
CA) How did all the ‘free shit’ start with you guys?
SPICER) We were playing a show and Pierre had a bag of stuff and said, ‘Here, here’s some free shit’ and starting throwing it out. Next time we played the audience started yelling, ‘Free shit!’
KEZDY) It started with, we ordered from a company in Florida and this lady, she got to know me so when we would order pens or combs or something, Eric and I would put our heads together and we’d write something funny on the order. We’d get the same woman on the phone every time and she’d say, ‘What are you guys doing this time?’ and I’d say ‘We want some match books with Regulation Signal Flares’ written on it or combs saying ‘Get your hair cut’ and she loved it.
CA) Seems like you guys, along with some guys from other Chicago punk bands, look like regular guys — there are no dog collars and mohawks with you guys. Is that a conscious thing or just who you are?
Pezzati) It’s just who we are.
CA) (To Stephens): When you joined the band, before they met you I heard you were asked what you look like and you said you had a beard and long hair?
STEPHENS) Yes. (Laughter from the band)
CA) Was image ever any kind of consideration?
STEPHENS) Officially, no. But yes. (Laughter from the band)
PEZZATI) We have a cleaner look. Sometimes we’d be asked, ‘You all in the service?’
KEZDY) We were one of the only punk rock bands that didn’t have tattoos.
DOREZA) (Showing his arms) Now I make up for the rest.
STEPHENS) There’s no, ‘Let’s look like this.’ It’s just people who look the same. Does anyone want to see Rob Zombie and the Buzzcocks? No, because it’s distracting.
CA) You have your long time fans, and a new generation of fans. What are the crowds like nowadays compared to years ago?
STEPHENS) Same crowd, just older.
SPICER) And they bring their kids.
KEZDY) My kid is in school, and a lot of times I hear from her friends, ‘My dad is a huge fan of you guys’ or, ‘My teacher knows who you are.’ Or my daughter will say, ‘I have a friend of mine who is really into you,’ and she’s 15, so she’s obviously been turned on by her parents or someone older. In Chicago, obviously Naked Raygun has a very mixed following age wise.
STEPHENS) It’s very mixed here. You go to smaller towns, and it’s older.
CA) Are they a little tamer than they used to be?
SPICER) They are drunker.
PEZZATI) Not really tamer.
CA) When you guys formed Ruthless Records with Big Black and The Effigies; was that out of necessity?
Pezzati) That was a do-it-yourself project, to come up with a name and have some legitimacy with your record label that didn’t really exist. It was so you could call up the distributors at the time and say, ‘This is Jeff from Ruthless Records and I’m pushing this Naked Raygun record’
CA) Is that something that other bands have copied?
Pezzati) I don’t know, I’m sure some have.
CA) You guys got back together in 2006. Pierre, were you still in Pegboy then? (Band erupts in laughter)
STEPHENS) He was ruthlessly fired!
CA) You guys are friendly with them?
STEPHENS) Larry [Larry Damore, lead singer of Pegboy] was at our Riot Fest show.
CA) They play some of your songs I know.
Pezzati) Larry comes to our shows.
STEPHENS) We all know all those guys. I think the only one who has any issues is Pierre. (Laughter from the band)
KEZDY) [Former guitarist] John Haggerty lost his mind, and I’m fine with that. People can lose their minds.
CA) Is there a rift with John Haggerty?
KEZDY) I think that he doesn’t want to talk to me. I was willing to talk to him all these years. He doesn’t want to talk to me.
CA) Is there bad blood because he left Raygun?
PEZZATI) I don’t know why he left, he never said why. He just left. He never told me why.
KEZDY) He did not leave on the best of terms. He demanded a quarter of the band’s assets, which were negligible. Still, ’til this day, former members think that we make millions of dollars and they want their slice of the pie. ‘Hey buddy, there’s no pie at all!’
STEPHENS) Actually, there is probably enough money to buy a pie and they can have a slice. (Laughter from the band)
PEZZATI) It’s not the quitters. It’s called Naked Raygun. Everybody else quit. They were never kicked out, they quit. That’s important to remember.
KEZDY) They are a little confused about the way things are, about reality.
PEZZATI) We don’t think about them [former band members].
CA) To go back to the Wrigley Field gig, how did that come about?
PEZZATI) Because of the Sonic Highways thing. After that, they asked us to play Wrigley Field.
CA) Are you going on before the Foo Fighters?
PEZZATI) We’re going on second.
KEZDY) There’s Urge and then us, then Cheap Trick and then the Foo Fighters, which is exactly how it should be.
SPICER) Did you see that there was a local thing, maybe online, that said ‘Cheap Trick, Naked Raygun and Urge Overkill to play Wrigley Field — will allow Foo Fighters to close.’ (Laughter from the band)
CA) Are you guys friendly with any of the bands that will be playing Wrigley?
PEZZATI) We know Cheap Trick.
STEPHENS) We know Nash [Nash Kato from Urge Overkill].
SPICER) Nash used to live up here. We’d hang out after practice, and Nash would come stumbling in. I’d sit here and drink beer with Nash until crazy hours, and he’d fall asleep on the couch. I’d go get a blanket…
STEPHENS) And tuck him in! (Laughter from the band)
CA) I interviewed Urge Overkill a few months ago and they were pretty interesting. We also interviewed their “Stalker,” who said she wants to parachute into Wrigley with a parachute that says U/O Sucks! (Laughter from the band)
PEZZATI) What does she have against them?
STEPHENS) Same thing everybody else does. (Laughter from the band)
SPICER) Urge had the world by the balls for awhile, living large.
STEPHENS) Seriously, I couldn’t go out without seeing Nash.
SPICER) He was dating Chrissie Hynde.
STEPHENS) It was before that. I used to see Blackie [former Urge Overkill member Blackie Onassis] all the time. I’d see Nash walking in with his suede jacket. He used to hang out with Jim Ellison [lead singer of Material Issue] all the time at Danny’s Tavern.
SPICER) He [Jim Ellison] auditioned for the band and we told him no.
STEPHENS) I knew him when I was 17. I set him up with women. And then when Material Issue started getting big, he’d walk right by me. But when I joined Raygun he was like, ‘Hey Dude! What’s up?’ (Laughter from the band)
CA) You guys all work regular jobs still?
PEZZATI) I don’t. I just fix up my house.
STEPHENS) Jeff lives off all the money he’s embezzled from the band. (Laughter from the band)
SPICER) The rest of us work.
KEZDY) Not me.
STEPHENS) He’s a country gentleman.
KEZDY) I like to sit and drink mint juleps on the veranda. (Laughter from the band)
CA) Does the Wrigley gig have any special significance for you guys?
PEZZATI) I hate the fucking Cubs.
SPICER) I never stepped foot in there.
STEPHENS) I’ve never seen a show there. I’m a Bulls fan.
SPICER) I watch hockey.
PEZZATI) My great aunt was a big Cub fan who was cremated. On the one day the fans are allowed on the field, family members had her ashes in their pockets and spread her on the field.
KEZDY) You’re going to be playing on top of your great aunt. (Laughter from the band)
PEZZATI) I guess I will be.
KEZDY) We used to sneak onto the El train and go down to Wrigley. And once we bought our first ticket, back when they had the old wooden slat seats, at about the 8th inning all the kids would line up in left field and stand next to one of the rows. If you were lucky enough to be next to a row, the Andy Frain would come by and give you a number, and when the game was over and the Cubs lost, you would have to go from left field to right field, lifting up every seat in your row because they were not spring loaded. That way, they could sweep the peanut shells and beer cups and whatever. When you got to the other end, and it was a lot of work, they would give you a free pass to get back in the grandstand for the next game. That way, we got to see the Cubs all summer long as a kid.
PEZZATI) (To Kezdy): When was that, 1932? (Laughter from the band)
STEPHENS) When I was growing up, the Cubs were so bad that if anyone showed up after the 6th inning, you just walked in for free.
KEZDY) Pretty much after the third inning, everyone moved down in their seats.
PEZZATI) I went there in the 1980s and we were the only ones in the whole section.
KEZDY) It was a different time. But being at Wrigley, it will be fun for me to be there. Aside from that, I stopped going to Cub games.
PEZZATI) It might be better now; they have a real owner.
STEPHENS) They have a great team.
KEZDY) I can’t afford it.
CA) As far as the new album, is there a goal for when it will be put out?
SPICER) When we’re done recording.
STEPHENS) I’d say sometime in 2016. Maybe. Definitely this decade. I could promise you that.
KEZDY) I feel very strongly. I know no one listens to me, but I really want this to be a great record.
STEPHENS) (To Kezdy): Then why don’t you start writing more songs?
KEZDY) I’m just about to do that. (Laughter from the band)
STEPHENS) (To Kezdy): Why don’t you take control and make sure it’s a great record?
KEZDY) I want to take the time. It’s more important that we get a great record out than if we rush.
PEZZATI) It’s like our old records. If we put out a really great record, it will stand up by itself. You don’t have to have a big splash with your album that doesn’t go anywhere like these new bands, these single young girl bands with songs that you can’t remember after you turn off the radio.
STEPHENS) I do, they are awesome.
PEZZATI) I can’t remember any of those songs.
STEPHENS) I got Charli XCX tickets, she’s playing at Lincoln Hall.
PEZZATI) I don’t know what that is.
CA) I don’t either. Speaking of that, is there any guilty pleasure that your fans would be shocked that you listen to?
STEPHENS) I only listen to pop music now. Charli XCX is my favorite right now. Katy Perry. I have 1989 by Taylor Swift on vinyl.
CA) C’mon, are you full of shit or what?
STEPHENS) No. (Laughter from the band) My favorite song right now is ‘Suit and Tie’ by Justin Timberlake. (Stephens proceeds to play a portion of ‘Suit and Tie’ from his phone at this time.)
PEZZATI) I like Morrissey. All different types of stuff too, but I like Morrissey.
SPICER) I don’t listen to music.
CA) (To Pezzati): Can I ask how your health is?
PEZZATI) Mine or Pierre’s?
CA) Well, both actually.
PEZZATI) It’s different every day.
SPICER) They’re broken. (Laughter from the band)
CA) (To Kezdy): You had a stroke, correct?
KEZDY) Yeah. The stroke was a huge problem, but I have depression. That, to me, is much worse.
SPICER) We broke a perfectly good bass player and singer.
KEZDY) So yeah, we have issues.
PEZZATI) I have a good neurologist who helps me maintain course. I have moments during the day when it’s bad, it’s hour to hour.
CA) (to Pezzati): It’s Parkinson’s?
PEZZATI) Yes. I’m good in short sets.
KEZDY) He (Pezzati) does a remarkable job onstage. Some days are a lot harder and he has to work harder.
PEZZATI) A lot of factors come into it. The amount of sleep, what you ate in the days before, it’s a complicated mixture of things that have to happen in order to feel good the next day. Sometimes, no matter what you do you’re not going to feel good. Then I’ll have a good three days. It’s hard to put your finger on what it is. It’s a mystery, but I have a good neurologist.
CA) This is by no means a farewell show. Do you see yourselves continuing for a number of years?
KEZDY) Sure, why not?
STEPHENS) We’ll play until no one shows up anymore, including us.
KEZDY) The reason we do it and the reason we continue to do it is obviously not the money.
STEPHENS) Or the fame.
KEZDY) Or the fame.
STEPHENS) Or the women.
KEZDY) Or the women.
STEPHENS) Or even the drugs! (Laughter from the band)
PEZZATI) It’s for the free food at Cobra.
SPICER) And the beer!
STEPHENS) We have gotten a lot of free alcohol over the years.
KEZDY) We do it because we like it.
In addition to the August 29 Wrigley Field show, Naked Raygun is scheduled to play several September dates in California and they said they will likely play a couple Chicago shows before embarking on an East coast tour in December. To find out more, click here to go to the band’s website.