Production Strategies

“I was into the guitar before I got into punk rock,” says Dead Kennedys’ guitarist, and one of punk’s most distinctive 6-string stylists, East Bay Ray. “But when I saw punk rock live for the first time—which was a Weirdos show at the Mabuhay Gardens in San Francisco—that’s when I said, ‘Wow, this is what I want to do.’”
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Other than providing shards of Echoplex-infused slabs of sound that have more in common with Syd Barrett than Johnny Ramone, Ray produced the Dead Kennedys’ first single—the classic “California Uber Alles”—as well as Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables (the band’s 1980 debut album), Plastic Surgery Disasters, Frankenchrist, and Bedtime For Democracy.

“My dad had an Ampex tape recorder, so when I first started jamming with friends, I was the guy setting up the mics and getting sounds,” says Ray. “I also read every magazine article and book about music production that I could get my hands on. So, in the Dead Kennedys—except for the media, which was handled quite well by [vocalist] Jello Biafra—I was kind of the bandleader. I booked the studios, made the recording schedules, bought the reels of tape, and paid the bills. And I made sure that the Dead Kennedys were all about pre-production, because, back when we cut Fresh Fruit, studio time was really expensive. Before we ever stepped foot in a studio, we would mercilessly edit and shape the tunes as a band, and push each other to be more creative. Then, when we hit the studio, all we had to concentrate on was getting a powerful performance.”

And the performances still stand up. Tracks such as “Holiday in Cambodia” and “Kill the Poor” leap from the speakers with a timeless, unmitigated fury that must have been captured live in the studio.

“Not necessarily,” corrects Ray. “The point of a recording session is trying to capture the energy and feel of a song, right? So even though a tune may only be two minutes long, it may take hours—or even days—to make it sound like it’s a live, one-time moment. It’s like making a movie. A production team doesn’t just flick on the lights and cameras and shoot a scene. A lot of work and preparation goes into making a scene look spontaneous.”

When he tracked Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, Ray relied on a Japanese Telecaster copy, a DOD overdrive, a solid-state Echoplex (“I know a lot of guys think the tube ones sound better, but I feel the Echoplex’s warm sound comes from the tape, not the unit’s circuitry.”), and a Fender Super Reverb.

“At the time, I didn’t have a Marshall like a lot of the other punk guitarists,” explains Ray. “And even with an overdrive pedal, I still couldn’t get that huge, sustaining Steve Jones-style sound. So I close-miked the Super with a Shure SM57 or a Sennheiser MD421 or MD441, and I’d double pick low-string riffs to keep the sound going. People have said it sounds like surf music, but I never listened to Dick Dale or any of those guys. I was simply attempting to produce as much sound as possible.”