Ted Falconi says he doesn’t know how old he is because he stopped counting birthdays after he turned 50. He’s totally serious, and why the guitarist of the band Flipper would be so defensive of his age is odd for a punk rocker, especially when he's undeniably old. His hair is a rat’s nest of shoulder-length, salt-and-pepper dreads, and his voice has a slight wheeze to it. He’s even got false teeth, but that’s because they got knocked out in a fight 15 years ago.
“I was 'rat-packed.' Ten kids jumped me all at once,” Falconi says. "I was taken to the hospital in an ambulance and woke up four, five hours later. They had busted out all my teeth, and there was no police report."
That’s the kind of story you should expect from Falconi, who's spent the last four decades playing with Flipper, punk’s ambassadors of nihilism. Flipper was the antithesis of the lightning fast hardcore punk scene of the '80s, focusing their songs on dissonant, mid-tempo grooves that they drove into the ground. And while the hardcore bands did all they could to get a pit going, Flipper made it clear that they did not care what their audience did, even going as far as frustrating crowds on purpose by playing one song the entire night.
“It was even more punk rock than so much punk rock,” Mudhoney singer Mark Arm says.
The list of Flipper's biggest fans reads like a ballot for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: Kurt Cobain, Rick Rubin, Moby, Henry Rollins, and many more. Much of that adoration is owed to the band’s co-founder Falconi, whose mind-melting guitar style defines the group’s sound. Falconi also designed the band's iconic “angry fish” logo.
Looking back, Falconi says there's plenty of factors in his life that influenced his work with Flipper, but there’s one that stands out above all: the Vietnam War.
“If I hadn’t gone to Vietnam, I probably wouldn’t have started Flipper,” Falconi says.
Going Around the Draft
Falconi grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His parents were both immigrants -- his mother was Slovakian, his father was Italian -- and when he was 17, they helped him enlist into the army so he could avoid the draft.
“Drafted, I would’ve been artillery or a front line troop,” Falconi says. “What I enlisted into was an extra year but I was indoors.”
Stationed in Da Nang, Vietnam, Falconi worked in communications. He spent his days sitting in a bunker, passing on messages intercepted from the Viet Cong to his fellow troops. North Vietnamese soldiers used the large radio antenna near his bunker as a guide for their rockets when they fired on a nearby heliport. There were a few craters near his office from projectiles that missed their mark.
Even with an office job, being stationed in Vietnam had plenty of risks. Daily life was loud and scary, full of squawking radios and explosions, and sometimes the blasts were so big he could feel them from yards away. He says he was always aware of who was behind him when he was out in public, especially when he was driving.
But that didn't stop him from living a little wrecklessly.
"You know in Apocalypse Now, when they're talking about surfing in Da Nang? That was me," Falconi said. "And I was the only guy I knew that had a surfboard in Da Nang."
Falconi spent two years in Vietnam, from '67 to '69, and he came home with a new determination to live by his own rules. The army showed him how to focus on his goals and work to reach them.
"If you’re in the military, they tell you to build a bridge across this river and in a week you’re moving trucks across it," Falconi says. "Here, they build a bridge and two years later they’re still building it."
Coming Back and Finding Punk
After Falconi got out of the Army, he moved to San Francisco. It was 1970, and for the next decade, Falconi would dedicate his life to art -- mostly sculpture. He earned an MFA in art from UC Berkeley and almost completed a second master's degree in music from Mills College, where he experimented with early synthesizers and other noise-making instruments.
But it was John Gullak, guitarist for the Mutants, who introduced Falconi to the electric guitar. The two were hanging out at Joe "Target" Rees's studios in San Francisco, where the Mutants were being filmed, and Gullak let Falconi play around with his guitar and amp.
“I never had that much loudness,” Falconi said. “So a week later, I had a guitar and amplifier, and I was starting a band.”
Falconi played in two bands before he started jamming with friend and bassist Russell Wilkerson, later known as Will Shatter. Both had played in punk bands, but the sound they developed during long sessions at a warehouse in Fremont were something different -- it was noisy and punk, but it had a groove. After a few months of jamming, they recruited Ricky Williams of the Sleepers to be their singer. Williams also inspired the band's name.
"All of his pets were named Flipper, so we thought it was the perfect name because he wouldn't forget it," Falconi says.
Williams lasted just six months with the band before being kicked out after missing a number of shows. (He died of a heroin overdose in 1992.) The band replaced Williams with Bruce "Loose" Calderwood, and with Negative Trend's Steve DePace on drums, they became Flipper, the band that "rules, OK?"
The band made fans both locally and nationally with their lumbering rhythms and air of indifference to the music scene. But DePace says what made the band truly unique was Falconi's guitar riffs. While the bass, drums, and vocals provided the foundation for each song, Falconi would go almost in the opposite direction with his playing, creating a cacophonous atmosphere that blanketed their punk rumbling.
“When you mix a record, you’ll isolate each instrument to get all the tones right and stuff like that," DePace says. "Whenever we isolate Ted, it’s literally brain-damaging."
It was early in the band's career when Falconi came up with the iconic fish logo. After choosing Flipper as the band name, Falconi worried that they'd be connected to something sweet like the dolphin from the old TV show. To make it clear that they were far from cute, Falconi drew a crude-looking fish with big teeth and x’s for eyes. He also made sure that the fish logo was easy anyone could draw it, which is exactly what fans like Mark Arm and his friends in Seattle did.
"You saw that graffiti everywhere for a while, and you know Flipper didn’t come up [to Seattle] until the ‘90s, so it wasn’t the band doing it,” Arm says.
Never Stop Playing
With the four core members, Flipper toured the nation and released four albums -- two studio recordings and two live ones. They shared the stage with punk luminaries like Black Flag, Bad Brains, the Dead Kennedys, and many others. Among their notable fans at the time was then-Black Flag singer Henry Rollins, who described the band as "heavier than anything" and Falconi's guitar playing as "amazing," putting him in the same category as Black Flag's Greg Ginn and PIL's Keith Levene.
"When I was around him, he was always pretty friendly but also incredibly intense and at times, scary," Rollins wrote in an email. "That's what came out of the guitar: not music, as much as the man."
Shatter, the band's co-founder and one of the main songwriters, died in 1987 of a heroin overdose. The band went on hiatus until they were asked to play some benefits at CBGB's in 1990. The following year, Rick Rubin signed them to Def American, his new label at the time. A little while after that, Nirvana played on Saturday Night Live, and Cobain wore a homemade Flipper t-shirt featuring Falconi's logo. After a decade of playing crappy punk clubs and dealing with drug-addicted band members, Flipper was finally recognized as being more than just another punk band.
"That was pretty cool," Falconi said.
Flipper is still together but they're currently on hiatus. They'll celebrate their 40th anniversary in 2018, but the past three decades haven't been easy. For one, they've had trouble keeping bass players after Shatter died. They've seen four come and go, including Nirvana's Krist Novoselic, who recorded a studio album with them in 2008.
They now have a steady bassist in Bruno DeSmartass, but in recent years Flipper's had to look for new singers. The band split ways with Loose in 2015 because his severe back issues kept him from performing live, and they temporarily replaced him with Jesus Lizard frontman David Yow. Now they're trying out new singers this winter so they can start playing again. Arm was considered a candidate at one time, and they're trying out other frontmen with similar pedigrees.
A retiree, Falconi spends more time riding his bike around Oakland than he does playing guitar. He wants to record more albums with Flipper, but he won't ever start a new band. Falconi says there's comfort in playing with Flipper. If he was back in Vietnam, Flipper would be Falconi's unit -- the guys he's closer with than anyone else because of what been through together. He says he can't imagine himself playing with anyone else.
"But if anything ever happens to Steve, I'm looking for a new drummer," Falconi says, laughing.
For arts stories you won’t read anywhere else, come to KQED’s Arts and Culture desk.