We Interviewed the Sleepers' Guitarist Michael Belfer

I recently got the Sleepers' guitarist Michael Belfer on the phone to talk about his days in the band, and it was a real kick. Here’s what he had to say while I poured a few beers down my throat.

Mar 6 2013, 4:14pm

One of the sole reasons I get out of bed and put on pants in the afternoon is the recent reissue campaign the Superior Viaduct label is doing for the back catalog of the Sleepers, San Francisco’s early 80s art punks.

Earlier in the year, they reissued the band’s only full-length LP, Painless Nights, a lushly psychedelic classic that triumphs over any obscure trench-coated limey post-punk record from the same era. This past week, they shot out the redo of the bands’s first self-titled 7” EP, which contains five tracks of unconsciously moody riff rock, like the Stooges with a girlfriend and/or cough-syrup problem.

I recently got the Sleepers' guitarist Michael Belfer on the phone to talk about his days in the band, and it was a real kick. Here’s what he had to say while I poured a few beers down my throat: 

VICE: So let’s start at the beginning with how the Sleepers started.
Michael Belfer:
It must have been the fall of '76. I was working at an ice cream parlor on University Avenue in Palo Alto. There was no way you could avoid seeing Ricky [Williams, the Sleepers' vocalist]. He would walk up and down University Avenue mostly by himself, and he just already looked like a rock star; he wore a black leather coat and the whole bit. One day he came into the ice cream parlor, and I offered him a free ice cream cone and said, "Hey! Come over here! I wanna talk to ya." I kept at him over a period of months about wanting to do a band with him. I wanted him to be the singer, and he kept telling me ‘No man, I’m a drummer.' My plan was to convince Ricky to sing and get Tim Mooney in on drums, since he was the guy I was playing with for years. At that point, Tim and I had been playing in the garage for four or five years. People would come and go, so we were trying to get something solid going.

Ricky was already the drummer for Crime at this point, correct?
Yes, he was in Crime.

Was there any ill will from those guys? Did they think you were poaching Ricky to be the singer in the Sleepers?
Oh, no! Not at all. Although, I think Ricky wasn’t all that happy playing with them. I remember when Ricky brought that first Crime single over when it came out. We just started to know this guy, and he comes over with this single and his picture is on the front, and we were like, "Whoa!" Records at that time were things only super famous people did. I never knew anyone that actually made one. But when we put it on, we couldn’t believe how incredibly bad it was! It’s all over the place! Who knew twenty years later Thurston Moore would declare it a work of genius.

Yeah, he’s good like that.
After hearing that, it gave me the courage to take our music out there and play shows and try to make a record. I thought, We can blow this stuff out of the water. I met Thurston a few years ago, and he was telling me about these Sleepers clips on YouTube I didn’t know about.

The show you guys played at Hurrah’s in '81 is on there.

Oh, Christ! That show is horrible! I think that’s the only known footage of that lineup of the band. Ricky really fucked up that night. That show broke the band up; they all quit on me the next day.

What exactly happened?
We were just met with so much adversity on that tour. The guy who put out Painless Nights was holding the record back because he was bitter at us; I guess he could feel that we regretted working with him. So he held the record back. There were no copies to be found anywhere. Then, he flew out to New York with a guitar in a case that he didn’t know how to play. He just decided to follow us around. He’d carry this guitar, walk into the club, and say he was with the band, even though we didn’t really want him there. When we were in New York, we were staying with a girl named Ray Anne Deanstag, and he wanted a place to put this guitar and his other stuff. So he leaves this guitar at her place, and her and my girlfriend at the time Kim Hunt pawn it and go buy drugs with the money. This happened without me knowing it.  At the time, I was in a cab with Ricky and our tour manager, Patrick Roques. We pulled into the Union Square area, and Ricky somehow spots someone doing a transaction and he jumps out of the cab and ran and grabbed this guy. The guy was selling Ricky’s favorite pills, tuinals. I don’t know how he spotted the guy. I didn’t know what was going on, but Alex did. He chased Ricky and finally cornered him in an alley. The guy he bought them from ran away, and Ricky just looked at Alex and swallowed them all.

We get back into the cab and go back to Ray Anne’s place at Avenue B and 14th Street. Ray Anne and Kim look really happy and tell me, "Hey! We got you some dope!" I was like, "Uh… OK. How’d you get the money for that?’ They tell me, and I hit the roof.

We get back in a cab, get to the show and the pills start to take effect of Ricky. The entrance of Hurrah’s was one long, narrow flight of steps up to the club, so he can’t make it up the stairs. I’m running up the stairs and see Ricky behind me being led up by two girls. They didn’t know who he was; I think they just felt sorry for him. I turn around and curse him out. He raises his hands violently and screams something like, ‘"Fuck you, man!" He tried to throw a punch in slow motion, and he and the girls tumble down the steps.

So, I get backstage and announce to the rest of the band what had just happened. They can’t believe the story and just then the promoter comes out and yells at us to get on stage. We try to explain to him the situation, and he says, "I don’t give a fuck, you get on stage!" So, we decided we would do an instrumental set that night.

We get on stage and start, and Ricky must have heard the band from outside. He woke up from his stupor, got really angry, and burst onto stage. That video on YouTube doesn’t show the entrance he made. But in that video, you just see him gargling, making no sense. The way the set ended was with Ricky cursing the band out while on his back.

So what happened once everyone got home?

Once we got back home, we officially broke up. The drummer already had a gig with Grace Slick waiting for him back home, and his career took off.

I don’t know how, but I’m going to try to backtrack to stuff from before that Hurrah’s story. That first Sleepers 7” came out pretty early compared to some other US punk stuff. How’d you have the jump on some other bands from your area?
There were a lot of those bands that got mired down by their backers. We self-financed that EP and didn’t have to wait for anyone else’s money. We recorded that EP in two sessions. None of us had any engineering experience at all. We were pretty much at the mercy of the engineers there. It didn’t matter what we said, they did what they wanted. It’s all part of the charm of the record now.

To me, there’s always been quite a contrast between that first EP and the Painless Nights record.
Well, it’s two completely different bands on either record. Painless Nights was a very personal musical experience. I really thought I was sticking my neck out. I wasn’t sure if anyone was going to like it. But we did everything to please ourselves. I think the other thing is the other guitar player on Painless Nights, Mike White, was a very anal guy. He was an operator for the phone company and back in the 70s, the phone company had in-house doctors that prescribed speed and valium to the operators. He always had huge amounts of both. I think that might have had something to do with him being so natty.

I read this story once that someone in Flipper did a bunch of speed and took apart a motor and put it back again in a matter of hours and it worked.
That’s true. The guys that would be Flipper and the guys from the Sleepers and the guys from Negative Trend were all living in a warehouse on 3rd Street in the old American Can Company building. The guy who was our landlord was a speed dealer. I remember this speed dealer guy would love to get people really high on speed and then give them a screwdriver and put them in a room with electronic devices. You’d come back three or four hours later, and the guy would be there with his tongue hanging down to his chin going, "I almost have this." Ricky started Flipper, you know that? He came up with the name and started the band with Will Shatter, but then they threw him out. He was so unruly.

The name Flipper came from Ricky’s pets or something, right?
The name Flipper all came from this night on the beach. We were really high on acid, and it was a dark night. We tripped over something that we thought was a log. Upon lighting a match, he found out it was a dolphin with a big huge chunk taken out of it, probably from a shark. The wound was crawling with insects. When you’re high on acid and see something like that, it’s a little too much. Ricky kept saying over and over again "THEY KILLED FLIPPER! THEY KILLED FLIPPER!" And that was that; after that, everything was named Flipper. He started collecting these weird salamander-related creatures named axolotls. Their lungs come out of their gills and go outside of their bodies. He loved them, and he named them all Flipper.

When the Sleepers were coming together in '77, did what was going on in England at the time have any influence on you? 
Not at all. The thing that really caught my ear was Pere Ubu. I anxiously awaited those singles to come into Aquarius at the time. The only English stuff I remember enjoying was the Damned’s Stab Yer Back and the Sex Pistols’ God Save the Queen. But I wasn’t interested in being in a band that sounded like that. The only thing we knew how to do at that point was be ourselves, y’know? The whole notion of doing a band that sounds like the Sex Pistols was really a bad idea to me. There’s already a Sex Pistols, for one thing. I just think a lot of the power of that music was lost when people just decided to not be true to themselves. I felt sorry for those bands from LA. They looked to England for what was cool, which really represented the LA mentality to me. Which is funny since England was being influenced by what was going on at New York at the time. San Francisco was very eclectic, and I always thought we had a better handle on what the notion of punk was. To us, punk meant to be yourself and to stand behind it. It wasn’t what you wore.

The reissues of Painless Nights and the self-titled Sleepers EP can be purchased at Superior Viaduct.