August 1st, 2011 | Published in Interviews
Call it payback. After all, Fleming was responsible for the killer sound on the best discs by Sonic Youth, Screaming Trees, Teenage Fanclub, and The Posies. So bassist Kim Gordon guitarist Julie Cafritz had no problem returning the favor.
Fleming, who cofounded Velvet Monkeys in D.C. in 1982, pioneered what became known as “alternative rock” before the genre truly had a name. Thirty years on, the tag’s become meaningless when describing music. Nearly everything with big-sounding guitars qualifies as “alternative” these days (at least according to corporate radio). But Fleming—ever the audio architect—has kept busy crafting truly intriguing noise-scapes and mini-symphonies for bass / guitar that defy categorization. His curative work for The Alan Lomax Archives has only improved his ear and his editing skills; he’s spent hundreds of hours restoring and filing tapes by Ken Kesey and Hunter S. Thompson.
With 4, Fleming’s skills come full circle. The youngster who promulgated experimental rock ‘n roll with a 1967 Fender Jaguar guitar and a Dr. Rhythm drum machine works his magic again on the quartet of sonic sketches comprising 4. The Cleveland Sound’s Pete Roche checked in with Fleming last week to discuss the work—and the reissues of classic Velvet Monkeys albums on Don’s own Instant Mayhem label.
THE CLEVELAND SOUND: What made you decide to do another solo work after thirteen years?
DON FLEMING: I had so many files backed up [laughs]. It just took me this long to get going. It hadn’t been at the top of my list, but I finally—over the last couple years—did these on my own at home, trading files with friends through email or whatever. Mainly, I did it because I was reviving my old label, this distribution deal with Iota for digital download stuff. To do it directly as my own label again. Because I’ve got a lot of stuff that I wanted to reissue—my old Velvet Monkeys and Gumball masters. I lot of the stuff that I own, I thought it would be good to remaster it and get it up and running. In some cases I’ll find a partner to do CDs or vinyl. So, just because of this Velvet Monkeys reissue—the first one—I thought I’d toss these four songs out there instead of waiting another seventy years [laughs] to finish an album.
DF: Yeah, yeah. On most solo records I was interested in me playing everything. Because at those points I was still more active; Gumball was still going. So it was a fun way for me to do stuff entirely on my own. And one of the new songs, “Remember Adam’s Fall,” is like that—where I play everything. But the others…I don’t really have as much interaction creating songs with other people, so, yeah. Through the wonders of technology it’s a fun way to take a piece and trade it around and work on it. Because it’s a good thing for me to…I love the Kim [Gordon] one because to me it just sounds like Kim. It’s her sound. Same with the Julie song. I really like the idea of just building. They really wrote the music on this, and I was just adding instruments and writing lyrics.
TCS: Is it alright to kind of walk us through the EP song-by-song?
TCS: The first track, “My Little Lamb,” features music by R. Stevie Moore. The lyrics talk about feeling hollow—and the accompanying video features puppets and mannequins like the one on the EP sleeve. There’s a line about being “tempted by an immoral slice.” Does the piece kind of speak to how lack of virtue might empty a person on the inside?
DF: Yeah, yep. You know, that’s kind of a good question. I’m not sure what it’s about. I wonder myself when I look back at it, after I’ve done it, and it’s like, “Where the fuck is this coming from?” Because in normal life, I’m a normal person [laughs]. But yeah, it’s interesting to me that all four of the songs—well, one I didn’t write the lyrics to…the only thing I can attribute it to is like, this period of paranoia that followed 9/11, and kind of for me personally, the Hunter Thompson-esque despair. The worst side of the beast that you’re staring at. I felt like I was living through that experience or something, because, heh…I don’t know [laughs]!
TCS: That’s just the impression I got from the You Tube video for it, with the CPR dummies.
DF: Yeah, it’s kind of a…I made the video, too. The imagery fit the words, even though it wasn’t exactly about that, but somehow it works, you know? Oddly, I did this new one for the Kim song—I don’t know if you’ve seen that one, but it’s all pictures of people with fish. You know how when people catch fish? And it’s like, it really worked better than I imagined. One of them, there’s a picture of a guy holding a fish in a gas station and all the bright lights are on. He’s getting gas, but he’s showing off his fish, and you see the pumps…I always think of this vision of fish being “alive.” They’re always looking, with their big eyes. Kind of like, “How the fuck did I get out here?” And as that one comes up, the lyrics are about gazing on paradise. So the fish is like, “So this is it? I’m on the other side of the water. And I’m dead.” So yeah. I like the dark imagery, you know?
TCS: Next up is Kim Gordon’s bit, “Torn By the Hands That You Could Not See.” If I’m not mistaken, the words for that were written by someone else, too, right?
DF: Yeah, a good friend of mine, Kim Rancourt, was in this band When People Were Shorter and Lived Near the Water back in the 80s-90s, I guess, and he writes a lot of lyrics. He actually just wrote some songs with Andrew W.K. He wrote the lyrics.
TCS: You’ve produced Andrew W.K. before.
DF: I produced one of the recent ones, yeah [Close Calls With Brick Walls]. So the connection came from that. Kim’s just…I like his lyrics a lot. And that [song] song was one where I tried to write my own lyrics, and nothing really…they all sucked [laughs]! Kim gives me lyrics all the time, and I was looking through some, and that one clicked. It fit. It works.
TCS: The next song is “Clockwork Cockwork,” which Julie Cafritz plays guitar on. There’s a lot of Freudian, phallic stuff at work here. The narrator says he has a cock, meaning a rooster—but clearly he is talking about his genitalia.
DF: It depends on your mind, where you take it. I don’t know. To me it’s more of a comedy song. Just tongue-in-cheek, obviously. But one where, again, I had the lyrics a long time and tried to write music to it. But I had this piece that Julie wrote—it was one she’d posted on her Facebook page, kind of like, “Here’s a guitar part I wrote.” And I wrote her back like, “Julie, can I make a song out of this?” The Kim one was a little different in that Kim gave me a bunch of audio tracks of sort of…not necessarily finished songs, but parts and pieces of things she’d been jotting down. And I did an edit of several of them and put ‘em together, sort of creating the piece out of that. Little bit different.
TCS: Yes, I could hear at least four or five different guitars layered in there.
DF: Yeah, it’s different songs, different pieces she wrote. So I would keep parts to create an arrangement. So that one I built, sort of based on those parts.
TCS: The final track on the EP is “Remember Adam’s Fall,” which you alluded to before. The verses here shift from describing a woman’s shapely legs and hips…to British officers bullying “Kevin” into turning informant. I take this refers to Kevin Barry, the young IRA guy?
DF: Well, that one isn’t all lyrics I wrote. They’re excerpts from Brendan Behan, an Irish writer. They’re from his autobiography. I just went through the book and grabbed phrases from different parts, that sort of fit. So that was more of an experiment at the time. Because I was really into the book. And there’s a [record] label called Thick Syrup, and they asked me to contribute a song. So I decided to do it. They had some other people on it. I thought it would be fun….
TCS: This was for the compilation ’78 LTD?
DF: Yeah, yep. Exactly. So I did that. And I had this guitar part that didn’t have lyrics, and I was reading the book and thought, “I’ll try this as an experiment.” Come to think of it, on a couple of these things I’ve done a couple sets of vocals on them. Different sets of lyrics until I get one where I feel like, “This is good; I like this.” So that was one of them.
TCS: Yeah, I sort of picked up on the Kevin Berry reference. There’s a line about him being a “lad of eighteen summers” who “held his head high” even as he marched to his death.
DF: Well, it’s very IRA. Brendan Behan was a part of that world—in prison with a lot of IRA people. That was definitely his world. So that’s where it comes from. Quotes out of the book, basically.
TCS: It intrigued me, but being Irish, I was able to make it out.
DF: I’ve got some Irish in me. The Flemings are actually from Ireland, so….But yeah, he really is a great writer. He was originally a theater writer. He wrote a couple plays. That’s what he’s most famous for—but his books are really good, too. There’s two autobiographies, and they’re great.
TCS: I’ll have to check out the books, then! Moving on to your remastering work, could you discuss the process behind reissuing the Velvet Monkeys’ Everything is Right?
DF: Well, I have Instant Mayhem as the label. Then I license it to them for digital. They’re a distributor, so they get it up on iTunes and eMusic, and the eight thousand other things out there. I licensed the first to CDs to Travis—the guy at Thick Syrup. He’s doing CD runs for both of those. My EP, and the Velvet Monkeys one. I don’t want to do any physical [media] myself, because I’ve already been through that world [chuckles]!
TCS: Yeah, it’s all digital nowadays, save a few vinyl aficionados.
DF: I don’t mind doing the digital part because that’s…I’d rather be direct. I wouldn’t suggest that any artists go through labels. Just do it yourself! And it’s great, because it’s coming back around to be a lot more effective.
TCS: Did your years of experience as an audio archivist come to bear on remastering your own music?
DF: Well, yeah—it’s a big part of it. I decided to start the process of restoring all my old tapes. I have…we did like…there are seven years’ worth of stuff stored at the Alan Lomax archive. So I was part of that process. But I had done archival work years before, even before I was in bands. I was in a studio in D.C. doing some work they’d commissioned. So I ended up doing work more recently for two films that came out—one on Hunter S. Thompson, and the other on Ken Kesey, called Magic Trip. And in both cases I went through a lot of audio. There were hundreds of cassettes Thompson had recorded in the 70s, and I ended up transferring them all, to make them available to the people doing the film. So they used parts of them. And with the Ken Kesey one, it was all reel-to-reels they’d made in 1964 on his bus trip. When they came across the country, loaded on acid in the multicolored bus. They were making a movie; it just never got finished. And so I transferred hundreds of hours of audio tape that came from the Kesey estate. And I have all the gear to do it. I bought all these tape decks—because you have to have different assemblies and speeds and heads, and really good converters. I have a very, very good A-to-D converter that really delivers it. So I’m saving it, putting it all through this great, clean, high-rate converter. And that’s really the key to it. That’s the thing you’ve got to spend the money on. Otherwise, I’m just using ProTools. Saving everything to ProTools at a high bit rate and cataloging it. I kind of learned…I definitely know the archival procedure. So that’s what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to do the cataloging and restoration on my own archives. Because I saved everything; I have hundreds of cassettes. Live shows. All the multi-track studio stuff we did, mixed-down stereo reels. Basically, that’s the idea. And as I do them, I’ll upload them into the commercial world and disseminate them. I’m doing what an archive does. Restore, and then disseminate.
TCS: Will you follow up with other remasters, putting the Velvet Monkeys stuff out again in sequential order?
DF: I’ve been trying to do that. I wanted to go more or less chronologically. But it’s proving to be…it’s holding me up at the moment. Because I’ve got some stuff ready to go that’s from later on. I’m finding that to add extra on, I’m going through a lot of tapes. Because I wanted to add live stuff from, you know, that lineup or around that time. Stuff like that. So I have the main stuff ready, but I’m having to go through and transfer a lot of stuff. So it’s bogged me down a little bit. But the thing is—the model for me—is that I’m not in a hurry to do it [laughs]. And I wasn’t in a hurry to get the new solo record out! I just want to methodically get stuff done, and do it well. And when it’s out, then great! It’s available. So to me, that’s the model I’m following. Quality, not quantity.
TCS: The last thing I wanted to ask about was the movie Backbeat. You and several others like Thurston Moore (Sonic Youth) collaborated on the soundtrack for the film, which chronicled the Beatles’ early Liverpool experience. What was that project like?
DF: That was a really fun experience. I got brought into that, more or less, by Thurston. Don Was was the producer, and he had contacted Thurston about doing this thing. And Thurston was like, “Sounds great. But here’s the only rule—we won’t practice. And we have to record the whole thing in like, three days.” And to his great credit, Don Was was like, “That’s great!” Just put the band together, show up and do it. Because the idea was, they were rough versions, or live takes, or them practicing. And that’s the way we all track anyway; not go back and keep redoing everything, but have fun with it. So we’d basically learn the songs right there in the room together, and by the second or third take we’d know it well enough to get a good take. And it really helped create that energy.