INDIE LEGEND DON FLEMING REVIVES VELVET MONKEYS CLASSIC TO COINCIDE WITH ‘4’
Born in the Deep South town of Adel near the same Okefenokee swamplands Country-rock legend Gram Parsons once perused, multifarious Georgian musician-producer Don Fleming joined the Air Force and spent time in Denver during the ’77 punk explosion, gaining access to the Ramones, Runaways, and Nerves. Now residing in Montclair with wife and kids, the ambitiously inquisitive music obsessive continuously expands rock’s plasmatic perimeters, keeping one foot in the resplendent past while digging deeper into its unrevealed future. Spending downtime working at deceased ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax’s New York archives only increased his tenacious desire to acquire massive musicological minutiae.
“I saw the first Sex Pistols show in Atlanta,” Fleming commences. “Before they moved to Chicago, Wax Trax Records attracted early punks to Denver. It was a hub. Jello Biafra (mischievous Dead Kennedys front man) roadied for the Ravers, who got belated exposure on an amazing Colorado underground vinyl comp, Rocky Mountain Low. By ’78, I became guitarist in Bruce Joyner’s Stroke Band and we released one album, Green & Yellow, which I’m preparing for reissue. I joined a Newport News, Virginia punk band, then ended up in DC to witness Dischord Records DC post-punk scene.”
Reaching an early creative zenith with the Velvet Monkeys, Fleming countered the West Coast’s fashionably sunlit Paisley Underground post-psychedelia (defined best by Dream Syndicate) with darker hued New York-based scruff on ‘82s cassette-only masterpiece, Everything Is Right. Now re-released on Fleming’s righteously designated boutique label, Instant Mayhem, the luxurious debut contrasted California’s dazzling day-glo fluorescence with caliginous neon-lit radiance. Its ominously foreboding organ-based jaunts brought echoplex, vibrato, and glorious distortion to murkily cellar-dwelling elliptical catacombs from the dankly deteriorating dustbins of time.
Mysteriously gruesome “Shadow Box” and greasy garage-rocking gristle “See You Again” recall Nuggets-era elucidators such as the Seeds, Electric Prunes, and Count Five. They ghoulishly gallivant through the Ventures ‘60s surf instrumental, “The Creeper,” adding a cryptically blistering “Blue’s Theme” sendoff. Even the roughhewn cosmic debris appended to the backend fit beside the bleakly desolate tombs and chillingly betwixt escapades.
Fleming got involved with many subterranean projects thereafter, including scorching ‘90s bubblegum punk trio, Gumball, and before that, Jad Fair’s astonishingly amateurish pop-cultured enthusiasts, Half Japanese.
“Jad would say, ‘this one’s fast and it’s about a robot.’ It either worked or it didn’t,” Fleming explains. “At that point, the band was in a good space and sounded great on ‘87s Music To Strip By and ‘88s Charmed Life. Often, we’d crank out thirty songs and then decided what to mix and release. Jad’s a master at that. Sometimes you do that and throw out five things because they suck.”
Building a solid reputation as a nimble producer, Fleming soon took the reins for some of the greatest post-grunge offerings. On top of working with Sonic Youth for spectacular long-players such as ‘90s Goo, ‘98s A Thousand Leaves, ‘02s Murray Street and ‘06s Rather Ripped, he brought his pioneering pop-rooted in-the-red feedback styling to cherished emblematic treasures by Teenage Fanclub, Hole, Screaming Trees and Posies. Able to collate vibrant post-Beatles dramatic grandeur to punk’s blustery nihilistic ferocity, snottily sordid impulsiveness and humorous satirical inklings, the fussily adept knob-twister was, to some extent, responsible for the scintillatingly full-throttled aggression Seattle’s grunge scene thrived on.
“My production style was influenced by music made in a very narrow amount of time from ’72 to ’76. There were great multi-tracking studios with fantastic tape machines and the best compressors and the way it all got mixed,” Fleming claims as we share a piney fruited India Pale Ale. “It was Todd Rundgren’s production of Badfinger’s Straight Up that really got to me. When I go to a new studio I get accustomed to the room by putting Straight Up on the turntable or CD player. That’s the one album I know more than anything.”
Fleming joined alt-rock supergroup, the Dim Stars, for a very welcomed self-titled ‘92 affair. Connecting with Sonic Youth pals, Thurston Moore and Steve Shelley, they coerced ex-Television idol Richard Hell out of self-imposed limbo, getting Hell’s illustrious guitar partner in the Voidoids, Robert Quine, to come onboard as well. A venerable spike-haired punk icon whose tattered and safety-pinned clothes inspired trashy fashion maybe more than his valiantly unprepossessing tunes affected underground rock, Hell saluted the totally unemployed and great unwashed minions with ‘75s youthfully enlightened denunciation “Blank Generation.” But he’d been reluctant to record since ‘82 and then stayed inactive after the Dim Stars lone recording. Remarkably, his three incipient compositions elevate this singular undertaking, retaining a perkily elastic groove that recalls Television’s best. Though the crushing guitar onslaught and scabrous rants proved extraordinary, some of the odder second-half fodder seemed undeveloped and capricious.
“Richard (Hell) would agree. There was too much fluff,” Fleming consents. “But we needed that to make a full album. Certain songs stood out. Then again, our filler is killer. Some was improvised. Others were Hell-Quine ideas they had previously worked on. Obviously, working with the usually reticent Richard was a highlight. Plus, bringing in Robert Quine for a session was insane. Thurston had the band name first, the Dim Stars, and convinced Richard to do a single for his Ecstatic Peace label. That was fun and we decided to do more sessions. Richard likes to just hang out, do a little writing (such as ‘96s semi-autobiographical novel, Go Now) and have the same lifestyle he always had living in New York City. It’s hard to get him out to record. He’s a homebody.”
At my humble domicile, Fleming and I had a few brews as he answered some apropos questions.
DON FLEMING: It’s Stevie’s upbeat pop sound contrasting my dark lyrics. With each song, I wanted to ‘get’ that person I worked with. I wanted it to be their sound that I added my paranoid, dismal lyrics to. It adds drama. I don’t know where any of my lyrics came from, but for me it’s more interesting than talking about topical stuff. I had a melodic idea I showed him and worked it out. I wanted him to work around the main riff and showed him how I wanted to sing that part. By the time I drove home, he’d practically finished. He’s been extremely active lately. He moved from Bloomfield back to his home state of Tennessee and hooked up with these young guys (Tropical Ooze) touring for months. He’s the happiest he has ever been and finally went out on tour.
Long-time friend and associate, guitarist Kim Gordon, icily rails against your rugged voice on the ominous “Torn By The Hands That You Could Not See.”
Kim Rancourt from When People Were Shorter And Lived Near The Water writes a lot of good lyrics. He did a couple songs with Andrew WK recently. He had written those lyrics and Kim Gordon said, ‘I tracked these guitar ideas in my basement.’ It was done on-the-fly, recorded with open tunings. I asked if I could put different parts together and arrange a song out of it. She said, ‘Go for it.’ So I put together different riffs and tried to find the right lyrics but thought mine all sucked. So I looked at a pile of stuff I got from Kim Rancourt and it just clicked and I got the mike working.
The hysterical double entendre of “Clockwork Cockwork” seems related to old bawdy Blues records. Is it a true tale concerning your busy cock monster?
It’s in the eye of the beholder. (laughter) I have a ceramic rooster that came from France. On “Clockwork Cockwork” I’m talking about a bird. I like writing songs about birds. I had one on a B.A.L.L. record called “Bird.” I read Keith Richard’s book and the Stones had a song about a “Little Red Rooster.” So it was time to do another song about another rooster. People could think what they want. Julie Cafritz (of Free Kitten) wrote the guitar part. She’s a big Facebook hoster and posted one of those SoundCloud files. To me, it was from beginning to end a fantastic song. I emailed her and asked if I could add vocals, drums, bass, and Roland synth noodling.
On “Remember Adam’s Fall,” the muffled phase shifting guitar paraphrases Jimi Hendrix “If 6 Was 9,” then your gruffly huffed spoken word desecration goes off on a menacing Captain Beefheart-like tangent.
I used phrases out of an autobiography by Irish playwright Brendan Behan, randomly culling a bunch of excerpts. I’m very much into the history of Irish uprisings. And there’s a bit of Irish inside me. (laughter)
Moving on to your production work, you produced one of your favorite ‘70s artists, the infamous Alice Cooper, for worthy ’94 comeback, The Last Temptation.
I wanted to go back to that sound I loved from the original Alice Cooper band. Put the needle to the record and get an Alice song. I went about that by telling Alice he’s gotta play the harmonica like he did on the first few records. He said, ‘Yeah, cool!’ I’ve spent time as more of a historian going to these prestigious studios where these records I listened to as a kid were made, learning about 3-track recording, for instance, which is a different way to record. You have to layer it a certain way and do drums and bass at the same time a certain way. It’s about getting back into the techniques used to make records I grew up on.
Nirvana’s breakthrough smash, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was based on the dynamic energy and full-on arrangement of Boston’s ’76 breakout anthem, “More Than A Feeling.” So there’s an analogy hearkening back to the loud, resilient, guitar-based rampage of yore.
Yeah. This gets back to ‘what is folk music?’ What is tradition? What is the songwriting process? Before there was electricity, songs went town to town, like in England. The songs were all tracked and copied down and then put in this book, The English & Scottish Popular Ballads by Francis Child in 1882. What you found was that a song would sometimes start in the north of England and work its way down to the Southern towns. You’d find variant #40 on the opposite side of the island. What stayed the same was the melody and then the lyrics got changed. It was like telephone tag. The songs that were hits went through the whole country. Someone at the pub would sing it.
Did you learn that working at Alan Lomax’s Archives?
That’s been my main gig for ten years now. I did archival work on and off for years before that. I’ve learned a lot about the historical process of music, copyrights, publishing and all these arguments going on now – which are valid. It’s fascinating. Mechanical royalties and the way publishing works are the fuel that makes the music biz run. Going through Lomax’s history has given me a reference of how people worked in the Thirties and why certain processes happened. In the Fifties, a hit was a song three different artists did and got into the Top 10.
A pure white bread artist such as Pat Boone could steal Little Richard’s Tutti Frutti” and get it higher up the charts than the better original.
I differ from the idea that white’s stole (black R & B). Everybody steals from everybody. That is the process. It goes back and forth. That’s what’s amazing about America is that black and white met and combined styles. That’s what rock and soul are – Euro-African music. The immigrants put that sound together and it spread around the world. People sing a song in the pub, then labels press them up on shellac – which is made from a Thai insect – to vinyl, then CD’s and now digital. I’m real happy with digital even though I don’t think it sounds nearly as good as the best analog. It depends on the equipment. If somebody takes out the compression on the vinyl version it doesn’t sound right. It’s a conceit. That background hissing noise could be conceived as either good or bad, but if you take that out you ruin part of the sound.
As an archivist, when we restore Alan Lomax tapes and acetate discs for the Library of Congress, we always do the first transfer completely straight. There’s no EQ, no noise reduction filters. You want to use the best needle on an acetate to capture the original sound. You may go through a few needles on an acetate until you find one that’ll hit the walls best and give the most bang for your buck. We didn’t have tape before the Forties, so the early Lomax stuff is on fragile discs. They’re old as hell. We did a box set of 50 hours of Haitian material. Having the opportunity to study world music and different cultures and how music developed is a mind-blowing, mind-opening gig.
I’ve always had a lassie-faire attitude about being a musician. I love to play, record, and make records. But I never liked the business end and always saw it for what it was. Ultimately, I was in it for the right reasons at the time but knew it’d ultimately defeat us and break up the band. At the same time, you wanna do it. I liked being on Columbia for Gumball’s Superball record because a lot of bands I like were on Columbia. What sold me on Columbia over Geffen Records was knowing all the freebies I’d get from the catalog. There were more CD’s to pilfer.
I could go on with a litany of things that are wrong with the major labels. My latest one is about bands now taking the plunge and learning the way advances are set up. You have to payback the advance before making any money. The label could make millions of dollars on the 85% they’re taking and the artist gets a mere 12 to 15%. It’s based on some land scheme and the artist ends up bearing the brunt of the entire contract while money is coming in. They charge everything to the artist and the percentage is so small you could literally have guys in the band needing day jobs for three years. Meanwhile, the label people have salaries, health care, vacations, ridiculously expensive dinners, and live off the backs of musicians. I knew that going into my major label deal. The reality is we sold the same amount of records we did as an indie, but for the major it was horrible.
That’s why Eminem and Rick James’ estate are suing the labels. They want to change the split to 50/50. Rightfully so, digital downloads cost no money. In the old days, labels would complain about paying for all the manufacturing, storage, warehousing and shipping of vinyl and CD’s. It probably came from 78 RPM language in some old contract. Now it’s there for digital and people are like, ‘Wait a minute. You fucking upload it online once and everyone else sells it. How could you be claiming 85%?’ Labels say it’s a license and should fall under the licensing deal 50/50 – which is ridiculous. The label should get 15% only. The labels have to pay mechanicals to the publisher – 9 cents a song for every download. That’s the label’s only real cost. They make a lot of money on bands that never payback the advances labels give them – which never went into their hands. It went to the studio and producer.
What was your role in the Action Swingers, one of the most underrated ‘80s post-punk outfits?
I was never really in the band, but produced their first single, “Kicked In The Head.” Ned did get me in to play guitar on something.
You worked with Velvet Underground’s Moe Tucker on a few projects.
I played and sang on three of Moe’s albums between ‘88 and ‘92. And Moe did some stuff with Half Japanese that I was on as well, including a rooftop set that was filmed for the Half Japanese documentary. We did a big show with her at Maxwell’s in the early 90′s. She’s super great to work with. It’s all about Bo Diddley with Moe.
As a one-off single, you and Thurston Moore, two lanky gray-haired axe men of underground renown, gave the Tornadoes ’60 #1 hit, “Telstar,” a shimmering neo-Classical Holst: The Planets turnabout by utilizing oscillating keyboards and textural guitar drifts.
That was fun to do. I’m a huge Joe Meek fan – other than the old lady he killed. As a producer, he took it up another notch and made everything that happened in the Sixties possible, leading the way for producers and engineers to become crazy free-thinking experimentalists going, ‘Let’s try to run it through eight of these.’ Joe Meek built crazy stuff, but at the same time, did too much British speed. He began hearing voices and thought the deceased Buddy Holly was talking to him. “Telstar” is wonderful. I think I used Mike Oldfield’s Roland SH5 for that to come up with the melody line. I try to pick up 45’s of oddball instrumental tracks all the time.
Too bad there’s no market for instrumental singles anymore. The last #1 instrumental was probably German keyboard composer Harold Faltermeyer’s “Axel F Theme” from ‘86s Beverly Hills Cop.
Billy Preston had “Outa Space” and “Space Race” in the early ‘70s. I saw the George Harrison tour with Billy on it. Then I watched the Rolling Stones with Billy playing. He stole that show. When the Stones took a little break to powder up in the backroom, the place erupted when Billy Preston stayed onstage to do a few numbers. You go back to the Thirties and Forties, there were loads of instrumental hits. By the ‘80s, labels were all greedy and put a zillion bands through the machine and the three that made it paid for everyone else. The rest broke up without making money. The music reflects that. It was always music for kids – only now there’s no revolution. In the late Fifties, kids rebelled. As an anthropologist, the reasons why had a lot to do with women going to work, empty houses, and kids freedom. Twenty years later in the late Seventies, especially in England, kids had no jobs and were bored and punk started. The recent British riots should’ve caused a revolution, but there aren’t any kids on the street putting new music out to reflect the grief. Kids don’t have bands. They’re home alone with a computer making music.
That’s part of the problem with modern technology. Instead of getting together to form bands, it’s different. There is no revolution. Part of it gets back to technology. Where’s this generation’s new technology that’ll allow them to make music in a new way? The last true technological movement came with sampling on computers. It’s petered out now. It’s up to the kids to rebel and say ‘this is bull shit.’ Certainly, in light of where we’re at in America, it’d be a good time to do so.
By the ‘90s, you should’ve achieved widespread acclaim like famed ‘60s producers George Martin and Phil Spector. You would’ve had Top 10 hits by the Posies, Screaming Trees, Hole, and Teenage Fanclub. But vital bands with an edgy attitude are not promoted properly by major labels. Back in the day, managers, producers, and label honchos promoted the best music. Those songs had an emotional resonance the current crop of slick teenyboppin’ hacks lack.
The disco ideal of ‘It’s dance music and we’ll put it out and sell it’ alongside bad Anne Murray ballads brought on punk. Even Doctor Hook’s Medicine Show, whom I used to love, got stale. I just did a Shel Silverstein show and performed Dr. Hook’s (venereal disease ode) “Penicillin Penny.” When they started doing ballads and not Shel material, it went downhill. I’ve grappled with mainstream bands. I used to think if you were on the Grammy Awards, you sucked. That’s been part of my mentality. ’77 punk hit me at the right age. I loved Led Zeppelin before then, but thought ‘fuck them.’ Now I go back and love all that stuff. But it was all about the attitude. I’ve always been an exploratory detective – a historian. I apply those standards whether it’s going to Miami’s Criteria Studios where James Brown, Hotel California or Layla were done in the same room or elsewhere. For me, I love the history of rock. It continues on in facets now and inspires you to do something new and cool that’s not just the same old shit.
Chicago’s urgent guitar-scrabbled “25 Or 6 To 4″ stands out for its industrious production value. But the single got mixed differently than the album version.
That’s an example of a great single that has better compression than the LP version. That’s part of mastering – making the plate to press it. It hits the compressor. You hit it harder with the 45 RPM single because you’ve got wider grooves to deal with. When you hear that song on the radio, the station might add their own compression. Some use echo. You hear the compression the most at the hissing quiet sections. That means the compressor is really pumping. What you hear now on SIRIUS is remastered sound that’s cleaner without the distortion. Distortion causes harmonic overtones you don’t hear anymore if you don’t distort it in an analog way. Satellite radio has digital compression that’s different coming through speakers. It doesn’t add anything positive and it’s not a pleasant sound. People jump into technology, things evolve in the stupidest possible way, and you’re living with that for a hundred years.
You take more chances in your own bands like the Dim Stars, B.A.L.L., and the solo efforts than you do with the straightforward production of outside bands.
Absolutely. I’m a drill sergeant in the studio – Sergeant Rock. That’s the way I like to do things. I’m good at telling everybody ‘here’s the plan.’ I’m trying to get the best live take. Drums have to be in tune. I don’t care as much about the guitars being in tune. That’s how I’m tracking bands. If I don’t get it on two takes, I rarely do a third. I need a song to be edgy. Even with the most pop-styled bands. With my own stuff, I’m not afraid of falling off the cliff – in fact I try to for the most part.
How’d your production affect the mighty Sonic Youth?
I think one of my strong suits as a producer is getting great vocals takes from singers. Some singers try to stop every other fucking line when they think they blew a note. I make singers do full takes of the song every take. It’s the only way to deliver it as a story. Kim and Thurston asked me to come in and “produce” their vocal sessions on those albums.
Veteran drummer Jay Spiegel worked with you on many projects. What’s so intriguing about his percussion technique?
When we first started the Velvet Monkeys, we were a garage-y three-piece with a drum machine and a Cramps-like Acetone organ. There was a Farfisa tone. We had a great sound tied into that drum machine. But at a certain point that drum machine didn’t do everything we wanted so we got a basic drummer. Then Jay came along and opened up the sound. He’s a rare breed. He hits hard but has melody in him. He plays things off the song arrangement. He doesn’t just play beats. He’s like Buddy Rich – coming from a jazzier background. Dave Grohl (Foo Fighters/ Nirvana) does that, first or second take, it’s done. With Dave, it’s like a cannon going off. Jay’s at a higher level as well.
You worked with one of Jersey’s finest rock outfits, the Smithereens, on admirable ’99 re-entry, God Save The Smithereens. What did you add to their sound?
Some songwriters you have to leave alone and go with what they have. But with the Smithereens Pat DiNizio, he works his songs out so well and loves the songwriting process. He wanted a sounding board so I went out to his place, sat with acoustics, and worked out tempos, keys, bridges, beginnings and endings to bring the songs to a new level. I don’t want to be heavy-handed, but I try to bring out the best of each song and push the artist a little.
For the Posies beautiful pop showpiece, Frosting On The Beater, you brought out a riper emotional dynamic.
Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer are great composers and each had a lot of songs so narrowing it down to the right set of songs and sequencing them was important. When making the album, I tried to sequence demos for a running order. That shows me if there’s enough variety, dynamics, and songs in different keys. From the Alan Lomax point of view, I’m coding the music. With the Posies, Ken’s songs were drifting into the 12-minute mark.
Did you bring a fuller, richer sound to Teenage Fanclub’s beguilingly melodious highpoint, Bandwagonesque?
Everyone said it sounded like Big Star, but I was going for Badfinger. We went to an English country studio with great old gear and Vox AC 30 amps, the Holy Grail of vox amps. I said, ‘What’s the story with these?’ They said those belong to Status Quo. I said, ‘Hook ‘em up.’ I’m a guitarist who’s always into hooking up the right guitar with the right amp and getting the studio sound for that. Onstage, you need the loudest amp possible to shoot the sound out. In the studio, I have tiny amps that sound bigger then those live Marshall stacks. You don’t need any fuzz pedals. The right pickup makes it sound like “Pictures Of Matchstick Men.” I love pedals, but I like starting with the basics – great guitar through an amp.