Cliff Roman is one of the founding members of L.A.'s punk godfathers The Weirdos. A fantastic band fronted by the singing/guitaring Denney brothers, they unfortunately broke up in 1981 having never released a full album. This has been remedied somewhat over the years by the 1990 reunion album Condor, 1991 retrospective Weird World and now a brand new Frontier Records compilation of remixes, rarities and live material entitled We Got The Neutron Bomb. Cliff was kind enough to speak with me on the telephone for half an hour one chilly evening in late September. Let us now enter the conversation, where my big bold voice is in bold and his plain Jane voice is in plain text.
Is this Cliff?
Hey, how you doin'? This is Mark Prindle calling to interview you.
I'm real good, Mark. How you doin'?
Oh good, good. So tell me what's going on with the Weirdos. I didn't even know the new album was out. I just ordered it online yesterday from Frontier. What are you guys up to?
We finally came out with our follow-up to Weird World I. I don't know if you're familiar with that.
Oh definitely, yeah. I love that record.
So we got the CD out, and we're gonna be doing some shows and hopefully sticking with it now.
Do you think there will be a follow-up to Condor at some point?
Yeah, possibly. Possibly. We've talked about doing that - going back in the studio and writing some new material.
Do you play in other bands when the Weirdos aren't together?
Not really. When I left the Weirdos, I was in a band for a while called Martini Ranch. But I didn't really play a lot after around '80-'81 or so.
What did you end up moving on to?
Oh, just various things.
But I sorta got back into playing a couple of years ago. There was a show called The Class of '77, and I made an appearance with the Circle Jerks and we did "We Got The Neutron Bomb." And after that show, I got into playing again. I was invited to play on a recording by Sonny Vincent and went back in the studio and worked on Weird World Volume 2. We did that earlier this year. We did remixes and sort of dug up some rare stuff, some rehearsals, some live shows - it's really good.
Are all the songs from your original two EPs available on the Weird World CDs? Or are there some that are still missing?
Now which ones are you talking about?
The W.W. - that one. See, I don't have copies of either of those, so that's why -
What Will You Do?
I mean, I'm sorry, that's Who? What? When? Where? Why?
Okay, yeah. I've seen it, but I don't own that one.
Weird World I has an alternate mix of "Fort USA" and "Happy People." Those two tracks. But one of them was an alternate mix, so it wasn't actually on the original Who? What? When? Where? Why? . That's never been out in its original form on CD, and we didn't use anything from it on the CD.
Okay. And then what was on Destroy All Music? That single?
That single? Okay, that was our first single. "Destroy All Music" and then "Life Of Crime" and a song called "Why Do You Exist?" And "Life of Crime" was on Weird World I and "Destroy All Music" will be put on this new one.
Oh good! Okay. Did you keep up with the Denney brothers when you guys weren't together?
You guys were friends for a long time before that?
Yeah. John and I have known each other since high school.
Oh wow. And you were considered I guess to be among the first punk bands in that L.A./Hollywood scene, right?
By the time you got out of it, had it already gotten really violent like it became? Or had that not happened yet?
Do you mean where there'd be fights at shows?
Sometimes it kinda got like that. We started playing in early '77 and we played mainly L.A. and San Francisco for about three years. Three or four years. So by that point, maybe when some of the hardcore bands kinda came around, there was more of that kind of thing going on. Whenever we played shows - it would happen all the time - cops would come and shut `em down `cuz it was just either too loud or - we did a small club we played once in the summer of '78 where the security guards kept stopping the show because everyone was dancing. They were pogoing, and they'd never seen anything like that before and they thought. Everyone was just kinda having fun; they weren't being violent or anything. But they stopped the show several times.
On Condor, I noticed that even the songs that you don't play on have your songwriting credits on them. Did you bring in ideas a lot or did you guys write together?
I would bring in pretty much the whole song, even almost the total arrangement for the most part for just about every single song.
Oh. And what percentage of the songs do you think you were responsible for, as opposed to -
Really!? Oh, I didn't know that! God, those are great songs! Did you do any more writing over the years, because that's just such a - I mean, you have an incredible talent for that, if that much was you!
Yeah, I'm still writing now!
I've got a whole bunch of new songs. I sort of got back into writing by putting a guitar in my hands. See, I started out playing guitar in the band. At one point, I moved to bass and I wrote some songs as a bass player. Kind of when Condor came out, I was playing bass in the group. And then when we did those sessions, Flea was a friend of ours, and we actually invited him down to play some bass on there because we thought it would be kinda cool to help the record and have him on there and stuff. And so he (*cell phone rings*) played bass on some of the tracks - can you hang on a second?
(to his cell phone) Hello? Hey! I'm on a long distance call. Are you at home? Yeah. Okay! Alright, bye!
(to me) Hi.
Hey! Do you have to get going?
Sorry about that.
So.. What were we talking about?
Oh, you were talking about Flea.
Yeah, so he played bass, but I wrote just about all of the songs. Our original bass player Dave Trout maybe wrote three songs, and there might have been two or three others that the other guys wrote. But all the rest were basically creations that I kinda started, and came up with the verses, the choruses, the intros, the bridges, everything.
Oh wow! I didn't know that. Why did you originally break up?
Oh you know, we'd been playing for about four years and at that time, in the early `80s, the music scene in L.A. was just kinda dead. The big bands were the hardcore groups and labels weren't that interested, and we ended up just playing like little clubs and it just wasn't happening. And then also, we coulda kept going at that point, but we all had other interests. Our lives, you know, things like that. So we just sort of stopped for a while. Then about five years later, we did some more shows from the mid-80s to the early 90s. We did some shows for about four years there.
I saw you guys on the Condor tour, I think opening for the Circle Jerks?
Yeah, okay. I'd never heard of you at that point. And there were just so many great songs in that show. That's why I went out and got the record immediately. Really, seriously! When I first heard "Helium Bar," I was just like, "This song only has one chord! This is great! What is this?" Crazy stuff!
It's basically one chord, but we throw in a couple others actually!
Yeah! And I guess I sort of like - I was very much an artist for a while, and I sort of approached the guitar in more of a visual manner as far as writing songs, like in a minimalist sort of way sometimes. You know, "What can I do with just this one chord? Or this one rhythm?" And that's how we came up with songs like "Helium Bar" and a few others like that.
From a visual point of view. That's interesting. Do you still do visual art-type stuff?
What kind of stuff do you do?
Drawings, paintings, collages, stuff like that.
Do you ever show any of it?
No, I haven't really shown anything. What happened was I was going to art school, and that's where I met our original bass player Dave Trout. I was California Cal Arts at the time, in the early `70s. But when I got out of college, I just got into music, and so we sort of manifested our - we were doing things like performance art and graphic arts and it sort of all came together in the band. Things like our clothing, our graphics on our flyers and posters, artwork and performances - just a total performance package.
Are your new shows gonna be like that as well?
Coming up with new looks? Or some of the old looks?
Yeah! New looks and now there's new technologies. We're putting together some video footage that we're gonna project. We're not gonna try to look like we used to, but we're gonna try to come up with new ideas on how we're gonna look and stuff.
How come you didn't - It was confusing to me even at the time why only the two of - isn't that just the two Denney brothers on the cover of Condor?
Yeah, let me explain that. At the time, we wrote some songs, we were gonna do the Condor album, but I wasn't gonna be playing with the band at the time. I was doing some different things. Actually, I was in the music business. I was working for a management company at the time. And so I was actually managing the band at the time. I couldn't go on that tour with the Circle Jerks. Originally I was gonna go and play bass, but that wasn't to be. So we thought, "Well, I'll manage the group." Yeah, I probably should have been in that - I was there AT the photo session. I should probably have been involved more, or more, you know, visible than I was. I know that is kind of confusing. It's sort of like that's what happened back then, you know?
Yeah. So you actually weren't on that tour. Who played bass on that tour?
Actually, the guy who played bass's name was Murphy. I don't know - I can't remember his real name, we called him Murph. And he's in, umm. He plays in this big hit band. A big TV group called uh. Sugar Ray.
Whoever that guy is!
So we were auditioning some guys, he called up and came down, and he fit and had a bass and was available, so he went on the road with those guys. John, Dix and our original drummer Nicky Beat, and Murph on bass. After they did that little tour - I think it was like a three-week run - he wasn't with the band after that.
Will you be doing a little national tour like that again?
We're hoping to, but we're focusing on the west coast right now. We've got these three - we're calling them "tour-ettes."
Heh, thanks. We're doing a weekend in the L.A. area, a weekend in the Seattle area and a weekend in the San Francisco area. We're also gonna hit San Diego. We want to re- establish ourselves here where we're based, and hopefully go on to play - our plan is to, according to my agent, he wants us to tour Europe and the East Coast and possibly Japan.
What's your main motivation for getting back together at this point? Did you miss it or was it because it was time to put together the second compilation or -
Just to go play some more, I guess. You know? Just go do it some more. We have the opportunity, there's a lot of interest in the band - there's always been a lot of interest in the band - and we just found ourselves at the point where we're all ready to take up the calling.
It's not really like a reunion, basically because we don't feel like we're reuniting. It's not a reunion type of thing; we're just playing shows.
Did you ever get into any of the hardcore music?
What do you mean? Like, like -
Black Flag, Dead Kennedys, that kind of stuff.
Yeah, I always liked those bands, but I wasn't a umm, you know, big collec-, you know, I wasn't - not really, you know, but I always liked their stuff. I liked early Black Flag. I'd seen them a few times.
I guess they must have started pretty soon after you guys did, right?
Yeah, those guys and the Dead Kennedys. When we used to play in San Francisco, Jello used to like study us at the Mabuhay. He used to come down and sort of like hang out and watch us from the side of the stage. When I saw them when we were in San Francisco, I thought, "Oh look, that guy kinda dresses like we do!" I think they even used to open for us too up there. And Black Flag - those guys used to come to our shows when they were kids! They used to come and see us before they even started their bands. They're all like big fans of our group - all those people.
Yeah, I imagine they would have to be.
Yeah! If you talk to them about the early days in L.A., they'll talk about the Weirdos.
Yeah, you got a lot of mentions in both of those books that came out about the L.A. punk scene (Lexicon Devil and We Got The Neutron Bomb). Have you read through either of those?
Yeah! Well, you know. We Got The Neutron Bomb!
That's a good point. How did you get the title for that?
It was just something that was a news item at the time, and I thought, you know, we were sort of tongue-in-cheek, and I just thought it was funny - "Hey, let's do a song called `We Got The Neutron Bomb!'" See, I used to think up titles. That was another way I used to write the songs. I'd come up with the title first. "Let's write a song called, uhh." You know? I wanted to write a song called "We Got The Neutron Bomb," and I just wrote the song for the title.
And now it's a classic. What do you think is the Weirdos' place in history or punk history or rock history? Do you still get people recognizing you either by your name or just walking down the street? Or is it still an underground thing to you?
There are people who still - I mean, I can go anywhere and nobody's gonna recognize me, you know what I mean?
But every now and then, if I'm somewhere where there's people who are into music or I'm at a show or a club or something and I get introduced to people, they're very, "Oh yeah, wow!" You know? "Oh, you were in the Weirdos!" You know, that kind of thing. "Oh, I love that stuff! I love you guys! I used to see you guys!" You know, whatever. Or "Yeah, I have that record - it's awesome!" But actually, if you go back to when we first started playing, there weren't any punk rock bands in L.A. at all! So we were the first.
And what influenced you to go into that kind of style?
I always was into music, even when I was a kid. When I was little, I played clarinet. And then I played saxophone, and I liked jazz and blues and pop and rock, just like a normal kid. I loved the stuff. Then when I was a teenager, we had our bands and stuff like that. So then when I got out of high school, I collected records. I had a real diverse sort of taste in music. I'd like electronic music like John Cage, and John Coltrane and Miles Davis, and then I liked people like Captain Beefheart and stuff like that. And I always was sort of buying records when stuff would come out, and I used to like stuff - like from the `60s, I liked the bands that were kinda garagey like the Standells or early Kinks and stuff like that. Or Them. And then at some point, I tried playing guitar because somebody had a guitar or a friend or something, and I remember I used to plug it in loud and play open chords like what people would call power chords now. And then what got me wanting to start the group was when I saw the Stooges. When I bought Raw Power right when it came out, I saw the Stooges. And I saw the New York Dolls when they came into town for the first time. I had their record. And then when I met Dave Trout at Cal Arts, he told me he played bass and we saw the Stooges play the Whiskey and I was like, "Hey, let's start a group, man! We've got nothing to lose." And my friend John - I knew John Denney from high school, and he always wanted to be the singer. We used to even have bands that, you know, we never rehearsed or anything, but we'd come up with names and names for ourselves and stuff like that. We were just playing, right? Playing around. So then the Ramones came through, and I went and saw them. And I had the Ramones album and I thought, "Oh, that's a cool style! That's almost the kind of style like I like to play!" It's just loud, fast, short, so that really kind of triggered us. The Stooges, Ramones kind of thing. Then I started writing songs at one point, and we just started to get together in our - we weren't a garage band; we were a living room band!
And then we'd be reading newspapers and stuff, and we'd see that something was going on. Like the Sex Pistols in England, stuff like that. Never heard them, but we read about them. They got a press before we ever even heard them on the radio.
There seemed to be kind of a - I don't know if it was an influence, but some of your music does sound kinda like that surf-spy type thing, like the Ventures or something.
Yeah! One of my favorite songs - when I was at Cal Arts, when I was at the art school there, we had access to video recorders, right? So you could check it out and there was even a production room there, so once I went up there, and I used to love the theme song to "Secret Agent Man." I went up there and they had three cameras on me. I still have the videotape - it's in black and white. This was like in '73 or so. I did a lip synch to "Secret Agent Man." I always loved that kind of guitar sound - that "Ding da ding da ding" or anything with that surf beat. That's the kind of beat we used - a surf beat - on a lot of our songs. And chunky, twangy guitars and stuff like that. We never played surf songs though. We never were a surf band.
I never realized that you used surf beats! Like the beat in "Teenage" would be a surf beat, right?
I never caught that.
Well, I don't know if I would call that one a surf beat. But like "The Hideout." Are you familiar with that song? "The Hideout"?
Mmm, I don't think - no.
Oh man! Wait'll you hear that!
That's on the new one?
Yeah, it's on the new CD. That was on an EP we put out called Action Design. And "Helium Bar" was recorded at the same time. There's even a drum break where it's just, you know, this "Doom tih tih doo tih-tih -"
"-Doom tih tih doo tih-tih, doom tih tih doo."
I have Weird World and Condor and now that I know this one's out, like I said, I ordered it last night on Frontier's web site. I'm really looking forward to that. But I haven't been able to get copies of your original EPs. They're just always so expensive when I see them.
Oh yeah, they're hard to find rare collectors' items now.
Yeah. Okay, I've kept you for a half hour. I guess I should let you get on with your evening.
Thank you so much for talking to me.
And I'll make sure you get a copy of this zine when it comes out.
Alright, have a good evening!
For more about the author please visit www.MarkPrindle.com.