30 Years below the surface… A Conversation with RF7 and Bo Clifford
Nick Lamagna and Felix Alanis are the founding members of RF7 and the writing team for essentially all RF7’s music. Felix is the lyricist and Nick the musician. Together with Walt Phelan on drums they formed the core of RF7 for twenty years. In 2002, Walt decided to work on his own projects and Felix brought in Big Mike to play drums. Mike had been exposed to RF7 through his dad, who had been into Punk when Mike was a little kid. Felix originally met Mike when he was a bouncer at Mr. T’s Bowling Alley, a Punk club in L.A. where RF7 played in the late 90s/early 2000s.
I met Felix around 1980. I was helping him get distribution for the, 'Public Service' compilation he was releasing on his own label, Smoke 7 records. The 'Public Service' release included BAD RELIGION and REDD KROSS, and solidified a piece of Punk Rock history for RF7.
Nick and Felix met me at my place in North Hollywood on March 21 2009.
..Felix) Okay Bo, how do you want to go about this?
..Well, I was thinking, the first thing that would be interesting to know is, how did you and Nick get together? Did you live near each other? Did you advertise for a guitar player, or what?
..Nick) Empire Records & Tapes, Simi Valley!
..Felix) I opened a record store, back in 1978, I was about 20 then. One day Nick came into the store. I was sitting behind the counter as usual writing poems.
..Nick) Ah yes, the little yellow steno pads… Felix still uses them today.
..Felix) So Nick walks in, looks around, and sees all this equipment in the back room. I’ve got a set of drums, some recording equipment, a couple of guitars, and so Nick, ever the opportunist comes over to me and says, "Hey what’s that?" pointing at the writing pad on the counter. "Poems," I told him.
..Nick) Fuck, yeah, here I am 19, high school dropout, and I see this stoner guy with his own record store, a rehearsal room in back, and he was selling pipes and bongs and other drug paraphernalia… I mean come on, I wanted in on that.
..Felix) So we talked for a few minutes and then Nick goes, "Shit, I can put those poems to music." It sounded interesting to me; my guitar playing was so limited I thought it would be cool to hear some other ideas.
..Nick) I took the steno pad home and started reading this shit and remember thinking, Fuck; this dude has some cool shit to say.
..So then what…
..Felix) So Nick comes back about a week later with his guitar and says, "Hey I put four of these lyrics to music, check it out." So he plays me the songs and, it’s like, magic. Nick was an amazing guitar player. Then he looks up and asks, "By the way, do you think me and my band could use your back room to record some songs we’ve been working on?" Little did I realize, this was Nick’s true agenda, record his other band.
..Nick) Well it was at first, but I did like the lyrics and the songs.
..Felix) Until you heard me sing them.
..Felix) I couldn’t sing for shit, and these songs were like, Bad Company, AC/DC rock songs.
..Nick) I can’t lie, Felix sucked.
..Felix) But luckily I had what Nick wanted, plus we got along really well…
..Ok, so let’s take it down the road a little further. How did forming the band happen?
..Nick) So, I kept trying to help his singing along, and we got Walt to come play drums.
..You knew Walt back then too?
..Felix) Nick did.
..Nick) We played in a couple of cover bands after we dropped out of high school, Walt was my best friend. So when I told him I met this guy who owned a record store, and was old enough to buy beer, Walter said, "Fuck yeah, I don’t care if he can sing or not."
..Felix) Nick also knew a bass player, but I don’t remember his name…
..Nick) Joe Roman.
..Felix) Oh yeah, right. So a couple of months into it, Nick brought this booking agent guy to our practice. This guy listens to us for awhile, and then at the end of one song, he stops us and says, "Hey, take that last song you just played and try it again as fast as you possibly can."
..Nick) ‘Scientific Race’.
..Felix) Yep, a really slow version.
..Nick) So we did it. We played it as fast as we could and it forced Felix to, more like yell, than sing, and I thought, "Wow, now he sucks at 10 times the speed!"
..Felix) Right, but when we finished the guy goes, "Have you heard the SEX PISTOLS? Or the BUZZCOCKS, or RAMONES?
..Nick) We were listening to CHEAP TRICK at the time, agghhh!!
..Felix) We said no, and the guy goes, "You got a whole fucking record store right here…" So he goes out there and comes back with a couple of STRANGLERS albums and the SEX PISTOLS album.
..Nick) He puts on the SEX PISTOLS, and I said to myself, "Fuck, that guy sings fucking worse than Felix!"
..Felix) Little did we know…
..Nick) Fuck yeah, little did we know how fucking great the SEX PISTOLS were, and the DAMNED, the GERMS, the CLASH, and a ton more.
..Felix) The STRANGLERS, MOTORHEAD…
..Nick) Huge influences…we started listening to everything we could find.
..Felix) Within a week Nick was dying his hair, Walt was wearing ripped clothes and they were hanging out at the Starwood and the Whisky in Hollywood and watching fledgling bands like The CHIEFS, BLACK FLAG and SOCIAL DISTORTION burning it up.
..Nick) There you have it, the rest is history.
..So it started in Simi Valley with a couple kids trying to cash in on a good situation, (laughs).
..Felix) And some guy who saw a band just at the right time and gave them a little push in the right direction.
..Nick) That guy was booking lots of bands at the time.
..Felix) Did he ever get us any gigs?
..Nick) No... But speaking of gigs, we did play a few parties, in Simi Valley, where we would play rock cover songs, to the drunken hippies …
..Felix) Nick would be singing…
..Nick) Yeah, and then we would bring on Felix for the last four or five songs.
..Felix) Then the party was over…
..Nick) Felix could clear out a backyard party faster than a cop’s siren!
..Felix) So we had to get out of Simi Valley, to where my new found yelling sound could be appreciated.
..I must say, I can’t believe you have any vocal chords left at all!
..Nick) Shit, he’s better now, than ever…
..Felix) I guess that’s a compliment?!
..Well okay, that’s a better story then I expected. Let’s move on to your recordings. Basically, I don’t count the EP, it’s neither here nor there to me.
..Nick) Sure, ‘Acts of Defiance’ - it’s worth $400 on E-bay, I wish I had a copy.
..I guess I sold mine too early; I only got $150 for it haha!! Your first full album, ‘Weight of the World,’ is one of my favourite records, even still. Your sound was there, your songwriting was coming together, and Nick’s guitar playing was off the charts.
..Nick) I love Punk guitar.
..One of the things that is interesting to me now, is that, well, now, Nick you live up north…
..Nick) Yes, San Francisco, the melting pot of all that is evil.
..Felix) Nick’s ability to resist temptation is very low.
..And Felix you live down here, so you have this kind of long distance artistic teaming up that certainly creates its own dynamic. I mean today, when writing a song, does Felix send you the words and you add the music? Or do you send him the music and Felix puts the words to it?
..Felix) We’ve done maybe three songs that way.
..Which way, the second way?
..Felix) Well, the way where Nick sends me the music and I put the words to it. But Nick and I, we have this, well, we lived together for a while…
..Nick) Writing songs and getting drunk everyday...
..Felix) Pretty much... So anyways, we have an amazing song writing connection.
..Nick) The Jagger/ Richards, combo of our generation!
..Felix) I travel a lot; spent a lot of time in airports or on planes, so I write a lot of lyrics. Then when he can, Nick will fly down and stay at my house for a long weekend. Maybe four or five times a year. So we enter what we call the storm; it turns into three or four killer days…
..Nick) Thursday night, Friday, Friday night Saturday, of a blurry song writing binge. The eye of the storm.
..Felix) We may write 10 or 12 songs, and then we’ll create demo recordings of them.
..Nick) So then I fly back home, Felix plays the songs for Tony, they pick out about four or five and rehearse them with the guys a few times.
..Felix) Big Mike on drums and Xavier on bass, for the last few years.
..So getting ready to make an album, how long does that take?
..Nick) I’ll fly back down a month later or so, on a Thursday after work. We will usually write three or four more songs that night, and tuck them away.
..Felix) On Friday we’ll get the whole band together and rehearse the four or five songs we’re going to record.
..Nick) Then we all go back to Felix’s house and party ‘til about 3:00am.
..Felix) Then everyone crashes at my house; I wrestle them up around 9:30 Saturday morning.
..Nick) Tina, Felix’s amazing wife, makes us a huge breakfast and we head to the recording studio.
..Felix) By about noon we are set up and ready to record. We do the basic tracks, drums and guitars, ‘til about 4-5 o’clock, then we take a break while the drums are taken down, then we’ll record any back up vocals. Then everyone usually takes off and it’s just me and Nick, and Nick goes to work on putting down the guitar overdubs and leads.
..Nick) Sunday we go back to the studio and Felix adds his vocals.
..Felix) That usually takes about two hours.
..Nick) One Take Felix!
..Felix) Then we will get a quick board mix, make two copies and I take Nick to the airport for his flight home.
..Nick) We just repeat that process until the project is done.
..Felix) For this new record, ‘Hatred On The Rise’ we did four sessions; two with the old band - Walt, Robert and Steve - and two sessions with the new guys. In those four sessions we did the 16 or so songs that are on the record.
..So once the material is written, it comes together pretty quickly; you don’t waste a lot of time fucking around, you cut it, mix it and bang it’s done.
..Nick) Right. Felix is a process driven man... OK, let’s go get some food and beer!!
(An hour later…)
..Felix) So where were we?
..We started with some history, and then walked through your writing and recording process. So why the gap in your releases?
..Felix) Well there really wasn’t too much of a gap, or at least hasn’t been since 1987.
..Nick) There was the four years starting in 1983 when we didn’t speak.
..Felix) True, we’d just come home after a particularly stressful road trip…
..Nick) Stressful and successful, we played a couple of huge shows with the LEWD and we got to spend the night on Tim Yohannan’s floor…
..Felix) And look through his record collection, where his copy of ‘Fall In’ was one of his favourites.
..Nick) Anyway, when we got home we all said we’d call each other and get together in a few days.
..Felix) And four years past!
..Nick) Then Walt runs into Felix by accident and the next thing I know, we’re recording Felix’s solo album.
..What? I never heard of any solo album?!
..Felix) There’s not. It’s what Nick calls the RF7 ‘87 – Now Who Cares’ album.
..Why do you call it his solo album?
..Nick) Because it’s not really an RF7 album; it’s the guys from RF7 - Nick, Walt and Felix - getting together to play Felix’s songs.
..Felix) Nick and I wrote the opening track and we tossed in an outtake from our last recordings in 1983, called ‘We Got Diseases’. But other than that it was songs I had been playing around with, with some guys I knew from my day job.
..Nick) Even your buddy, Tim Yohannan, God rest his soul, panned it. Then there was another gap until 1992. But still not a formal break up…
..Felix) And that’s when we really got serious about playing together again. Even Robert came back and played bass when we recorded, ‘Traditional Values’.
..Nick) Great record, total Punk perfection; Byron Coley loved it. I’m sorry... it was just at a great time for us, except of course, Spike Marlin.
..Felix) Spike had a love/hate relationship with Nick. He loved Nick’s guitar playing but hated everything else about him.
..Nick) Spike chased me through the studio parking lot with a baseball bat!
..Felix) For setting his car on fire, as I recall…!!
..Nick) It was an accident…
..Felix) So, anyway, from there we realized we needed to keep it together and since then we’ve put out a new record about every two or three years. Basically it takes a year to write and record, and another year to get it put out.
..Nick) It’s as fast as we can go… We try to stay continually writing, that’s what we love to do the most.
..So now then, moving forward, let’s talk about the new record. What’s on it? What do you think’s good?
..Felix) Reuniting the original band was a cool surprise, and then challenging the new guys to keep up with what the old men had recorded was fun.
..Nick) Love Tony, Big Mike and the "X" man.
..Felix) I think it brought the whole project up another level…
..Nick) We record, you decide!
..You’re a guy Felix, that I think a lot of people under estimate. You got a lot going on that doesn’t show itself on the surface. I’ve always thought you are a much deeper individual then most people give you credit for and that the songs you write come out of that depth, out of your vision of what’s going on around you. Then, every once in awhile, you throw a stunner out there, and I think on the new record the stunner is obviously, ‘I Left My Arm in Fallujah’. That’s a song that will make somebody really sit up and take notice.
..Felix) So lyrically you’re able to hear the words?
..Oh yeah, I think it says a lot, and the hook is so crystal clear; it expresses things very well. And no doubt it’s a thought that would register with a lot of people.
..Felix) Well, that’s cool already, just to know you could understand it, and connected with it. Shit, I didn’t think anyone could understand the words unless they were put in the CD booklet. I always make the labels agree to print the lyrics in the CD booklets. Maybe, I don’t even need to.
..Nick) Yes you do.
..So, how did you hook up with the guys in Sweden?
..Felix) Big Mike was telling me that this label/distributor in Sweden, Just 4fun Records, was selling bunches of our last CD, ‘Addictions & Heartache’, and they were big RF7 fans too. So Nat, who runs Puke n’ Vomit Records, the label which put out ‘Addictions & Heartache’, suggested we hook up with Just4fun directly on this record and see how it can do as a European release.
..So Just4fun, just said yeah, they would do it?
..Felix) I think I sent them a copy to listen to, and then they said yeah. I say them and they, but I’ve only ever dealt with Stefan at Just4fun. He has really put his whole energy into this and is working every angle he knows.
..So are there possibilities of RF7 touring Europe?
..Felix) They’re working on it. We have a booking agency interested, named Klownhouse in Germany and hopefully we’ll do a few weeks in Europe at the end of summer, early fall.
..Nick) Fucking looking forward to that!
..Felix) Next year will be our 30 year anniversary.
..Nick) We want to make it a big year.
..You’re gonna keep going?
..Nick) RF7 can never die because it’s not about what people think of us, it’s about making music. We’re not about to stop that.
..Felix) We have a better following and get better gigs now then when we were kids, so fuck, as long as it doesn’t feel stupid, I guess we forge ahead.
..Personally, I think RF7 is one of the great bands of the last 20 years and the fact that you have not had wider recognition is, I think, just due to a lack of public knowledge of you, maybe because your releases are so spread out.
..Felix) We appreciate the sentiment, the rest we can’t control.
..No, I really think you guys are an important band.
..Felix) Well fortunately for us, we’re tied to ‘Public Service’, ‘American Youth Report’, the first Flipside video and the Channel 11 documentary, is now on YouTube, So we’re hooked in, I mean we’re forever linked to, BAD RELIGION and BLACK FLAG and REDD KROSS and CHANNEL 3 and TSOL and all the great bands you put on ‘American Youth Report’…
..Nick) DESCENDENTS, MINUTEMEN, SHATTERED FAITH… Fuck, what a line up!
..Felix) So we have credibility through a few key things.
..But even so, that was 25, 30 years ago. Now, you guys are like elder statesman. I mean, an 18 year old kid picks up your new record and goes, "Wow these guys are great", but you’ve been great for 30 years! And then the 50 year old guy who’s been listening to you right along, he thinks you’re still great. I think the potential of your appeal is much, much wider than it actually is.
..Nick) We make the best music we can, the money and fame is for someone else to decide.
..Well, you know, a lot of bands don’t get much respect in their home area, so maybe Nat is right, maybe Europe is the way to go.
..Nick) All I know, is we will play hard.
..Felix) That much you can count on…
..Well hey, it’s been awesome, great talking to both of you, and great seeing you again Nick…
..Nick) Thanks Bo. Enough... Felix... let’s get more beer…
Bo Clifford hails from Detroit. He was a college DJ for the campus radio station, while also working as an artist rep for United Artists Records ("I'd pick up the acts from the airport,get them to their gigs, press conferences and such, on time"). After college, Bo started communicating with Greg Shaw, a writer for Rolling Stone magazine and who had also started publishing Bomp! Magazine. Greg had the idea of starting a record label and asked Bo to work for him. Bo moved to California in 1977. In 1982, while at Bomp!, Bo produced one of the definitive California Punk comps, ‘American Youth Report’. During that period, he was the voice of Club 907 a radio show devoted to local music, on KPFK radio, and was a writer for Slash Magazine. - Felix