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Interview with Bill Stephens (Naked Raygun)

Bill Stephens (Naked Raygun)

Naked Raygun is a punk-rock leviathan, and, until recently a band’s whose recording presence was sorely missed. When it comes to the Chicago musical underground, and U.S. punk in general, every road seems to lead back to the group.

Alt77’s has had the pleasure to interview guitarist Bill Stephens. The following is a conversation about Naked Raygun’s earliest influences, their return to live shows and recording, and how their punk ethos fits into the current socio-political climate.

First of all, thank you so much for agreeing to the interview. It’s a real thrill, as was checking out your new album Over the overlords.

You’ve just released a new album, the first in over three decades. How easy is it to get back in the swing of working together on new material? 

When we reformed in 2007-ish, the band spent a couple of years playing oldies sets. Just the novelty of being back together and on stage was enough to keep things fun and interesting. But inevitably the itch to work on new material in rehearsals rather than playing the same 30-35 year old songs we had been playing for the past 30-35 years takes over.

Raygun is slightly unique in that everyone in the band writes songs, be it individually or in collaboration. So there are always tons of ideas flying around, both good and bad. I think we approached new material somewhat tentatively at first, not knowing what the interest level or reaction might be to new songs.

But after a well-received string of singles between 2010 and 2012, we fell back into the groove of always trying to come up with new stuff both individually and as a unit. 

Arguably the band’s myth has grown consistently since the release of your last studio album. Is it odd to witness Naked Raygun’s enduring influence? Does it take some of the pressure of new material?

1. What’s odd is talking about a new Naked Raygun record in 2021! It’s amazing and humbling that the band still has a solid fan base and can still generate interest. But the fact that we’re still around and kicking is a testament to the quality of the music Raygun has put out over the years.

If the music wasn’t still fresh-sounding and relevant we wouldn’t be here speaking today. We’re certainly not still around because we’ve maintained our youthful beauty.

2. Quite the opposite. I think the high regard the band still receives from fans puts way more pressure on the band not to release a total shit-sandwich of new material that detracts from the body of work we’ve created.

Look, I’ve bought new music by bands I’ve loved who have come back after an extended length of time and the new stuff turns out to be just awful. It’s depressing. Sometimes it makes me rethink how I feel about the band. Sometimes I pretend the new music didn’t happen and doesn’t count towards the band’s legacy.

The last thing we want to happen with new music is having people wish you had never made it in the first place. Judging by the reactions we’re getting to the new album, though, I think we may have pulled it off.

Is promoting a new record any more or less exciting today? 

I don’t know about more or less exciting. It’s certainly different! Way back when you might do some local press and do some fanzine or college-radio interviews if you were playing out of town. Maybe a feature in a free weekly in larger cities. Now, with social media, podcasts, online media, etc etc etc, it’s a totally different game. It’s a lot more hands-on and more work now, but it’s good to work to be able to do.

By most accounts, Chicago was a very conservative city when you began the band. How much has that changed? Does it play into making new music?

I don’t know if the city was any more conservative than other large northern cities at the time, but it certainly was more parochial than it is now. It was also a total rundown shit-hole. But from places like that comes punk rock. Chicago is much more cosmopolitan and international now, which has both positive and negative aspects.

It’s hard to quantify how much the city has influenced our songwriting, as Chicago is the only place we’ve lived. If anyone out there would like to pay for the band to write and record a new album in, let’s say, the Caribbean, we’d love to see if the music came out any differently. Maybe we could take yacht-rock in a new direction.

Do newer Chicago punk bands have it easier or harder now?

New bands certainly have more resources than we did in the 80s and 90s, what with the internet, social media, music streaming, Bandcamp, etc. Recording technology is, of course, from a different planet now. I know people like to wax nostalgic about analog recording but I say fuck that. Do you know what a pain in the ass 2” tape was? Give me Pro Tools anytime.

The fact that someone like Billie Eilish can record an album with her brother in a bedroom at their parents’ and have it become a massive global hit is still mind-blowing to me. Hooray for digital! But in the end, I suppose a band is going to have a hard or easy time of it depends on how much they have their shit together and how good the songs are, same as it’s ever been.

Naked Raygun, for many, became the premier Chicago punk band during the 1980s. How difficult was it to gain an audience?

Practice a lot, write good songs, play out as much as you can, put on a good show. If you’re any good, people will come to the shows. Same formula now as it was in the 80s.

What about the early songwriting? You always seemed to have a clear vision for your work. Did writing well-structured, melodic songs come naturally from the start?

Yes, writing catchy pop songs is, and always has been the goal. If we can write a song that drives you crazy because you can’t get it out of your head, then we’ve done our job.

Is writing songs different now considering the band’s legacy?

No, we just write songs with whatever ideas fall out of our collective asses. I think if we started thinking or worrying about how a new song might fit in the Naked Raygun oeuvre, we’d probably just end up with an album full of shitty “Rat Patrol” knock-offs.

Is it true that “Naked Raygun” is a play on the Sex Pistols’ name? What punk and non-punk groups influenced your earliest days?

Haha! That’s the rumor, isn’t it? You’d have to ask Marco Pezzati, Jeff’s older brother who I guess technically started the band. He came up with “Naked Raygun”. Jeff was originally the drummer. But even if you could track Marco down, you probably wouldn’t get a straight answer.

The biggest influences that show in the sound of Naked Raygun come mostly from U.K. bands of the late 70s and early 80s: Buzzcocks, Wire, Stranglers, Damned, Ruts, Chelsea, Killing Joke, SLF. And even though it doesn’t necessarily come through in the music, I’d say the biggest influence on the band collectively is David Bowie. All the 70s versions of Bowie. Definitely.

Your lyrics continue to find a great mix between personal matters and political issues. Naked Raygun lived through the 1980s. Is 2021 really that bad?

Short answer? Yes. Actually, it’s the same old shit now as it was in the 80s, or whenever, just different flavors. The difference now is the constant bombardment of information every day, all day long. And rarely is that information newsworthy because something good happened. Pre-internet, if you were interested, you read the paper, maybe saw a half-hour of television news and that was it for the day. Now, the shit storm of bad news is just never ending.

Considering the current climate, is making a political statement nowadays a bigger risk than on albums like Jettison, for example?

No, I don’t think so. The problem with punk bands getting political is that they’re generally preaching to the choir. I would love to hear Taylor Swift and Dua Lipa sing about their radically progressive political agendas. While an anti-gun Naked Raygun song may open a few minds, it will affect about zero change. An anti-gun Harry Styles or Bruno Mars song? Who knows? I’m continually disappointed by how apolitical hip-hop is as well. There’s just no excuse for that.

Do you see a change in how the U.S.A. is viewed around the world, as compared to the 1980s? 

I think the US is as hated and admired as much as it’s always been. Maybe a little more hated currently because the stench of Trump is still pretty strong. This country needs a good hosing down to get rid of that stink.

What constantly amazes me, though, is the endless droves of people wanting to move here, no matter how big a shitshow and clusterfuck this country is. Although that’s probably more of a testament to how shitty their situation is in whatever part of the world they’re from, rather than how wonderful the US is.

Heavy touring helped establish Naked Raygun. How strange has it been to be without live shows? What are you hoping for once they return in full?

It’s been boring as fuck, that’s how it’s been. I just hope things get back to how they were pre-pandemic. Which will happen eventually, one would hope, but who knows, right? I’ve been to a few shows recently since Chicago loosened Covid restrictions.

I don’t have any problems with showing a vax card or wearing a mask to see a show, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t detract from the experience of seeing a band. It’s so bizarre being in a room of a thousand people all with masks on watching a band. Of course, I’m the guy who pitched a fit when they banned smoking in clubs, so….

Let’s play pretend: The city of Chicago offers to organize the largest event to celebrate the city’s punk rock history. Who should headline such a festival besides you?

I’m going to piss-off a bunch of people by forgetting them, but here goes:

Naked Raygun, Effigies, Strike Under, Bollweevils, 88 Fingers Louie, Product 19, Pegboy, Rights of the Accused, Out of Order, Smoking Popes, Zoetrope, Life Sentence, White Mystery, Bloodsport, Apocalypse Hoboken, Shot Baker, Blue Meanies.

Anyone I forgot can just show up and play as well. There’ll be a backline, so just bring guitars. Also, one super-huge 21st-century arena band will be allowed to play, so I guess Rise Against and Fall Out Boy can fight it out with baseball bats or something.

Let’s play pretend: You’ve covered songs by Stiff Little Fingers and Buzzcocks. But, if asked to give your take on a Bob Dylan tune, what would you choose?

“It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”! We could totally turn that into a Raygun song. If anyone out there is putting together a Dylan tribute record, give us a call!

Finally, is this a brand new chapter for Naked Raygun? What can we expect for the future?

Right now we’re pretty focused on promoting the new album. Hopefully, we’ll be able to a few shows soon as well. After that, who knows? Maybe we can feature on that upcoming socialist-themed Taylor Swift record.

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