An Interview with Bill Stephens of Naked Raygun

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Recently, I had the pleasure of speaking with guitarist, Bill Stephens or the seminal Punk band, Naked Raygun. Among other things, we touch on what he’s been up to during the lockdown, Naked Raygun’s first record in thirty years, remembering bassist Pierre Kezdy, and what he’s looking forward to the most once COVID-19 breaks.

If you would like to learn more about Naked Raygun, and their new record, Over The Overlords, head over to the band’s social media pages, and dig in. If you’d like to purchase a physical copy of Over The Overlords, you can head here. Once you’ve done that, check out this insightful interview with Bill. Cheers.

Andrew:
Bill, I appreciate you taking the time today. How have you been holding up over the last year or so? What have you been up to?

Bill:
Just like for everyone else in the world, the last year and a half have been a struggle, what with the ups and downs and uncertainties of COVID. The band lost an amazing friend, and bandmate in Pierre Kezdy last October as well. So, it’s been a tough go. On the positive side, we were able to release a new album in 2021, Over The Overlords, so, we’re looking forward to promoting that.

Andrew:
Before we dive into your professional career, let’s go back a bit. What first got you hooked on music?

Bill:
The first music I fell in love with was Soul music in the early 70s when I was a little kid. Soul Train came on the television after Saturday morning cartoons, and I always stuck around for the full hour of people dancing, guest performers always just killing, and Don Cornelius being the coolest motherfucker on the planet. Everyone looked so happy, and like they were having the best time. Also, the AM Radio Top-40 music my mom would listen to in the car was a big influence. Some of those melodies are ingrained into the very core of my being. “Come and Get Your Love” by Redbone still lives in my head on a regular basis.

Andrew:
Who were some of your early influences?

Besides Soul and AM Pop, I discovered all the British Invasion groups like The Beatles, The Who, The Kinks, and The Stones around middle school. That music seemed so much more exciting than the Styx’s and Journey’s that were all over the radio at the time. Not long after, I heard The Ramones and that was it — I was all in on Punk. When I first heard The Ramones, The Clash, and The Buzzcocks, I thought what they were doing was right in line with those earliest albums by The Who, The Beatles, etc. Fast Pop songs that got everything done in less than three minutes. Then, 80s Hardcore happened, and, well, here we are.

Andrew:
Let’s talk about recent events. Tell us about your new record, Over The Overlords. Tell us about the album, and how it came together.

Bill:
From 2009-2011 we put out a series of 7-inches. The plan was to keep going in this vein, however, Pierre had a stroke not long after we released the third single. We were out of action for a couple of years waiting for Pierre to convalesce, and during this period we accumulated a backlog of new songs (Pierre was still writing too!). When it became evident Pierre was not going to be able to return on bass, the band brought in Fritz Doreza who is with us today (Pierre would be able to switch to baritone guitar for live shows). We went into the studio and recorded about five of the new songs, and they sounded really good. And they sounded really good together. So, we thought we might have something good brewing, and we went from doing singles to working on a proper album.

Andrew:
Let’s dig into the lyrical themes on your new album. What message, and emotions are you trying to convey? What do you want your listeners to take away from this record?

Bill:
There are four songwriters in the band, so, I don’t think a Naked Raygun record could ever have a cohesive theme or message. While writing and recording the new album, there was certainly never a meeting held where we posed the question, “What is this album about?” One thing that I think is consistent with Naked Raygun lyrically, no matter who is the songwriter is that when we tend to write about heavier and darker stuff. We like to live in the grey areas, as opposed to the certainties of black/white, so that the listener can interpret the song in a more personal way, rather than being hit over the head with a message. We all process and deal with pain, anger, loss, love, trying to stay sane, being shit on every day, etc. differently, and I think leaving some things up to interpretation lyrically may let a song connect on a more personal, and relevant level for the listener. That said, the new album also features the first blatant political message song the band has ever released, that being the anti-gun “Farewell To Arms.” Oh well.

Andrew:
Over The Overlords is Naked Rayguns’ first record in 31 years, right? The band reunited in 2006 for Riot Fest and has been together ever since. Why did you wait until now to finally release new music?

Bill:
You make it sound like there was a plan, “Let’s meet back here at the studio in 30 years.” [Laughs]. Even back in the day, Naked Raygun has never been a full-time concern for any band member. We’ve always had day jobs. And whereas back in the 80s and 90s, the main concern was rent and beer money. Now, we all have wives, kids, houses, mortgages, and all the other soul-crushing niceties of adult life. It’s quite a feat to get everyone in the same room to rehearse, much less record an album. We’ve also had some extended lay-offs since reforming as people have had babies, health issues, and have had to deal with, and overcome various clusterfucks, and tragedies. All told, it took about five years to get this album done, with VERY sporadic work in the studio. But it’s finished! It’s out! Buy two!

Andrew;
As you mentioned, Pierre Kezdy sadly passed away in 2020, and this is to be the final Naked Raygun album to feature his work. Tell us more about what Pierre meant to Naked Raygun. How will the band be proceeding forth without him?

Bill:
Pierre was never able to return to his bass duties after his stroke in 2012. He was able to play baritone guitar live with us for a few years until his cancer diagnosis. He was good on that baritone too. He could really get some nasty fucked up sounds going on that thing. Fritz [Doreza] has been our full-time bass player since 2014. But through it all, Pierre never stopped writing songs and he probably put in more time in the studio for the new album than anyone else in the band, working closely with Steve Gillis, who recorded us. Losing Pierre’s songwriting talents is irreplaceable. If anyone out there has a favorite Naked Raygun song, chances are Pierre wrote it. But again, the rest of us write songs, and nothing would change live from how it’s been in recent years. I think I speak for all of us, though, that Pierre was such an amazing friend, and such a decent, and unique human being, that losing him affects us all on a level far more profound than just how his death may affect Naked Raygun.

Andrew:
I wanted to go back a bit now. Naked Raygun is retrospectively looked back on as one of the more influential Punk bands of the 80s. What were the circumstances which lead to the initial disbanding of Naked Raygun?

Bill:
Around ’92, Eric [Spicer] told us he was quitting the band. He had gotten a for-real adult job and was getting married, and starting a family. I decided I didn’t want to play in the band without Eric, and it was high time I found some gainful employment instead of the odd jobs I was doing to facilitate being in a band. Jeff also had his first kid on the way, which was probably going to change what, and how much the band was able to do. On top of all this, our singer was married to our manager. I’ll spare myself the rage inherent in dragging up old memories of that less than ideal arrangement. If anyone is really interested, watch Spinal Tap. That’ll fill in the blanks. So, that was it. The band just kind of petered out, and everyone went their separate ways.

Andrew:
As I mentioned before, Naked Raygun regrouped in 2006 for Riot Fest. What brought the reunion on? What’s changed during the band’s second go-around that has kept things fresh, and moving forward?

Bill:
After the breakup in ’92, everyone except Eric continued playing music throughout the 90s and 2000s. Fast forward to ’06, and Eric has the itch to play again, and he gets word there’s this new Riot Fest thing, and that they’d love to have Naked Raygun reform, and do a show. Eric gets all jacked-up and approaches the rest of us all excited, and whatnot, and what he gets is, “Yeah…I don’t know….” three times over. But he was very persistent. Eventually, the rest of us caved, and we agreed to do the show. We started rehearsing, and we were awful. I mean really fucking awful. It took a lot of work to get to decent, and a ton more work to be ready to do a show. There was no way we were going to blow all that work for just one show, so, we decided to just become a band again. We’re still here! New material came naturally, and we only do what we feel like doing. There are no goals, and very few expectations as far as the band is concerned. And we’ll keep doing it until it stops being fun, or we can’t physically pull it off anymore.

Andrew:
Easy ones now. What are a few of your favorite albums, and why?

Bill:
I’ll stick to newer stuff I’ve been listening to. I just can’t get enough of Get Some by L.A. Exes. Picture the Shangri-Las reborn as a Mersey Beat combo. Amazing songwriting too. A Hero’s Death by Fontaines D.C. is a Post-Punk masterpiece. You know something’s right when two band members show up in Jesus and Mary Chain shirts for the album photoshoot. I’m also in love with The Mutt’s Nuts by Chubby and the Gang. Who knew that trashy Punk and Blues harp would blend so well?

Andrew:
What sort of equipment do you use in the studio, and the live setting?

Bill:
My live rig is a Matchless Clubman with a Matchless Hot Box as a preamp. No pedals. My guitar is an aluminum-bodied Telecaster I pieced together from mostly spare parts. It has a Duncan JB for the bridge pick-up. Fritz runs a Gibson RD Artist through an Acoustic head, and Eric has a really nice DW kit. In the studio, we use Pierre’s old Gibson G3 through an ancient Ampeg head for bass. DW drums again. I’ll use my Matchless in the studio as well as Fender, Diezel, Boogie, and Guytron amps that are owned by the studio where we record. Guitars that ended up on the new record include a Fender Telecaster with a Super Distortion in the bridge, a Rickenbacker 330, a Fender Stratocaster with a Duncan Invader in the bridge, a Gibson Explorer, a Memphis 335-copy, a Tele that’s been converted to a baritone, a Tele that’s been converted to a Bass VI, and a cheapo Ibanez acoustic that was laying around the studio.

Andrew:
You’ve shared the stage with the likes of Bad Religion, The Offspring, Stiff Little Fingers, Urge Overkill, Cheap Trick, Foo Fighters, and more. Looking back, what are some of your favorite/proudest moments of your time on the road?

Bill:
Big shows with big bands are always fun. Looking out on a sea of people never gets old. But honestly, the best shows tend to be in some out-of-the-way place in a small shitty club with a broken A/C. There are a couple/few hundred people that are really glad to be there, and really glad you showed up. If things go well, by the end of the set everyone should be dripping wet, looking like they fell into a pool with their clothes on. Those are the shows I live for and remember the most.

Andrew:
Last one. What’s next on your docket? What are you looking forward to most in the post-COVID world? Do you plan on hitting the road, or playing any festivals in 2022?

Bill:
We’ll keep on promoting the new album until no one is interested anymore. Rehearsals are starting soon and then hopefully we’ll get some shows booked.

Interested in sampling the work of Naked Raygun? Check out their new album below:

Dig this interview? Check out the full catalog of VWMusic Interviews, by Andrew Daly, here: www.vinylwritermusic.com/interviews

About Post Author

Andrew Daly

With an immense passion for music, a disposition for writing, and an eagerness to teach and share both, Andrew decided to found VWMusic in 2019 as a freelance column under the column Idle Chatter. Over time, the column grew into a website that now features contributors who further the cause of sharing both a love of music and the art of journalism with the world through articles and interviews. While Andrew enjoys running the website, his real passion lies in teaching and facilitating others to do what they do best, and giving them the opportunity to explore their passions in the process. Some of Andrew’s favorite artists include KISS, Oasis, ACϟDC, Elvis Presley, Ace Frehley, The Rolling Stones, Rush, The Pretenders, Led Zeppelin, The Gaslight Anthem, Iron Maiden, John Lennon, The Melvins, Noel Gallagher, Regina Spektor, Rory Gallagher, The Stone Roses, The Strokes, Thin Lizzy, Elvis Costello, Van Halen, Neil Young, Blur, Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, and many more.
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