Cutting tracks at San Francisco’s Hyde Street Studios with the Dead Kennedys, East Bay Ray plays a Coral rather than his usual Strats or Tele. Note the omnipresent Echoplex on the table next to his Telecaster. Photo by John Cuniberti

East Bay Ray, who was born in Oakland, California, in 1958 as Raymond Pepperell, is a punk icon. His band, the Dead Kennedys, launched what critics call the second wave of American punk and defined the sound of hardcore. Their music was aggressive, defiant, and the polar opposite of the synthesized cheese popular in the ’80s.

Their influence was immediate, too, spawning armies of copycats, and is still felt a generation later. Classic bands like Slayer, newcomers like Deafheaven’s Kerry McCoy, and many others cite them as a primary influence. Their controversial name and radical politics got them a lot of attention, but their legacy is their great songwriting and high-caliber musicianship. The Dead Kennedys spent countless hours crafting songs, perfecting arrangements, sculpting tones, modding gear, and nerding out in the studio. And their solid work ethic and professionalism stood in stark contrast to the mediocrity so prevalent in DIY punk.

The Dead Kennedys took their art seriously and were anything but one-dimensional. They played hardcore—East Bay Ray can rifle through quick successions of distorted power chords with the best of them—but they were much more than that. Spaghetti-western twang, slapback echo, and unorthodox clean tones were also integral to their sound. East Bay Ray toured with a vintage Echoplex, although he kept it in the rear of the stage on his amp and away from diving moshers. And he crafted a tone that had much more in common with ’60s surf than the sounds usually associated with punk and heavy metal. His diverse influences include his father’s collection of swing and delta blues 78s, Merle Haggard, the Ohio Players, and the music his mother listened to.

“My mother was into things like the Weavers, Pete Seeger, and Frank Sinatra,” he says. “And my father took my younger brother and I to see Lightnin’ Hopkins—we were too young to drive. We also had him take us to see Muddy Waters, who we’d learned about through the Rolling Stones.”

In 1986, when the Dead Kennedys called it quits—at least until reuniting with a new singer in 2001—East Bay Ray stayed busy recording and producing. He played on Sidi Mansour, an album of Algerian Raï music by vocalist Cheikha Rimitti that also features Robert Fripp and Flea. He was involved in projects with groups like Hed PE, Frenchy and the Punk, Pearl Harbor, Skrapyard, and many others. He’s featured on Amanda Palmer’s “Guitar Hero” and recorded with Killer Smiles, his collaboration with Skip (aka Ron Greer, also the singer in the current DKs incarnation). He will be back on the road with the Dead Kennedys this summer.

I would come up with things that were outside the rulebook, because I really didn’t know all the rules at the time.

Our plan was to write a retrospective article about East Bay Ray’s career and influence. But after speaking with him—and discussing his history, tones, gear, production experience, and insights in depth—we felt the conversation was just too good not to share in his own words.

When did you start playing guitar?
It was in high school. My father took me, my brother, and our friend John to a Rolling Stones concert. My dad waited outside. We were in the second or third row and it was just crazy—it was wonderful. Afterwards my brother took drum lessons, I took guitar lessons, and John took guitar lessons. After college I played in a bar band in Hayward, California, at the Bird Cage and the Sensuous Woman [laughs]. I was making money getting out of college and I said, “Oh wow”—you know, I was making $100 a week or something. Then I discovered punk rock at the Mabuhay Gardens in San Francisco. I saw the Weirdos playing. I said, “This is what I want to do.” I phased myself out of the bar band and put an ad up in Aquarius Records and Rather Ripped Records. Klaus Flouride (Geoffrey Lyall) and Jello Biafra (Eric Boucher) answered the ad.

What was the attraction to punk?
The energy. The little hairs on the back of my neck stood up. At the time, in the late ’70s, the radio was all disco and the Eagles. Neither one rocked my heart very much.

Yet your influences are very diverse—you can hear it in your music. Where do they come from?
Most good musicians I know listen to a variety of music. I love spaghetti western stuff. One of my favorite records of all time is Elvis Presley’s Sun Sessions—that is one of the records that inspired me to get an Echoplex, to get that slapback echo. I love the psychedelic stuff like Syd Barrett in the early Pink Floyd. In the ’70s I was listening to ’60s music, I guess. I had peculiar tastes. I was into funk music—Ohio Players are one of my favorites. I listen to a wide variety of music. Good musicians need that alternative influence. If you just listen to punk rock you end up sounding kind of generic. But if you listen to music outside of punk rock, you become more original.

Another thing is that punk rock is just a style, but the music underneath is very similar. One of the reasons our songs have lasted so long is the structure underneath has a lot in common with a Beatles song or a Motown song or even a ’30s standard. There are basic constructions underneath that make a song work that are applicable to a reggae song, a country song, or to a jazz standard—and it’s very similar across the different styles.

Looking like a Sun Records artist in his red shades and matching guitar, Ray says Elvis Presley’s recordings for the pioneering rock label inspired him to get an Echoplex. Photo by Pixie Vision Photography

The interesting thing is to make it different. I love this quote from the famous songwriter, Cole Porter. He says, “Make the familiar sound different and make the different sound familiar.” That’s one of the things we did: We made the familiar sound different. But also we have some songs that are in 11, 13, and 6/8 time, so we made the different sound familiar.

There is a lot of modal and atonal stuff in your music, too.
Even though I went to college and have a degree, when it comes to music I’m less intellectual and I don’t have a lot of super technique. I would come up with things that were outside the rulebook, because I really didn’t know all the rules at the time [laughs]. I played like that, and then afterwards I realized it was a total modal thing. But that wasn’t done deliberately and consciously; that was just done because I liked the sound.

For example, would “California Über Alles” be that kind of thing?
For that we said, “We’re going to do this kind of Boléro operatic style”—that one was more deliberate. I mean, all of the songs are different. Some songs are from jam sessions, some are more based on an idea that one of the musicians brought in. “California Über Alles” was one of the ideas that Biafra brought in. We just added dynamics and chord changes, but kept the basics.

One thing that distinguishes you from other guitarists is your twangy Fender tone.
I’ve had both Gibsons and Fenders. The original Dead Kennedys guitar was actually a Japanese knockoff of a Telecaster. I put a humbucking pickup in at the bridge. Fenders have a little bit longer scale and the strings go hard over the bridge down into the body, so they naturally have a bit of a twangier sound. That’s how my sound started: I liked the twangy sound with the fatter humbucking pickup. Like on “Holiday in Cambodia,” I play a bunch of arpeggios and they really ring out. I find on a Les Paul that they just don’t ring out as much. A Les Paul is good for one-string type stuff, because it is really fat, but when you start playing two strings it’s not as articulate as a Fender would be. But the stock Fender pickups are just way too low power for my sound.

And you have that gray Strat.
Yeah, that’s a Frankenstein Strat.

Was that also a Japanese knockoff?
I would not spray paint a real Stratocaster [laughs]. At the time I had a sunburst Stratocaster, but that [gray guitar] was basically Frankenstein parts. I bought the body, neck, and pickguard, and put it together. I may have taken the neck and the parts off the real Strat and put them on that guitar.