Indie Music Interviews: Don Fleming
In the late 70s and early 80s, Washington D.C. was home to many now-historic music-icons later fueling the vehicles of popular independent music as we know it today. When we hear “D.C. Early 80s,” A few names come to mind: Dischord Records, Fugazi, Black Flag, etc. Amongst the punk and post-hardcore no-brainers, was a thriving circle of musicians with the same Do-It-Yourself mentality driving their music. Bands like Half Japanese, Chalk Circle, The Nurses, Tiny Desk Unit, etc. One particular group to come out of this era was The Velvet Monkeys, founded by frontman and producer, Don Fleming. To a younger generation, Fleming is best known through his work as a producer with a list of credits spanning from Sonic Youth and Hole to classics such as Alice Cooper and Nancy Sinatra.
In 1982, The Velvet Monkeys released their debut album Everything Is Right, a cassette-only release. Nearly 30 years later, that same album saw the light of day again, this time digitally remastered with added live material, released on CD through Thick Syrup Records. Soon to follow, on July 12th, Fleming’s fourth solo-effort, Don Fleming 4, is scheduled to be released on his own label, Instant Mayhem. This 4-track EP has guest appearances from artists Kim Gordon (Sonic Youth), Julie Cafritz (Pussy Galore, Free Kitten), and R. Stevie Moore.
Outside of weeding through a personal archive of cassettes and reel-to-reels dating back to the 70s, for the past ten years, Fleming has been working at the Alan Lomax Archives as well as remastering material from the estates of Hunter S. Thompson and Ken Kesey. I was able to get Don on the phone, after he had spent some time in Italy.
Gravy and Biscuits: I heard you were in Italy, how was the trip? Was it mostly business?
Don Fleming: It was basically vacation. There was a film festival in Bologna. Just watching Italian films, and eating Italian food.
G&B: What is your relationship to the remastering process from you work at the Lomax Archives, and the long-awaited restoration of your own work?
DF: I learned a lot from dealing with the restoration of the Alan Lomax tapes. And I upgraded the gear in my home studio to do transfers of tapes from the Hunter S. Thompson and Ken Kesey estates. I’ve saved hundreds of reel-to-reel and cassettes of my bands, going back to 1974. So I finally started the process with my tapes and that has led to the reissues that I’m doing now.
G&B: You have been working with the IODA (Independent Online Distribution Alliance). How does that work?
DF: They’re a digital distributer, kinda like CDBaby. IODA deals more with labels. I go through them and they go to iTunes and Amazon.com, places like that. Basically they are able to liven your work without you having to deal with the distributors directly.
G&B: The added live tracks on Everything is Right, were these originally meant to be released on the original cassette, or were they live tracks that were of the same time period and found themselves within the same restoration project?
DF: Yeah, the live tracks came from that process of remastering tapes from that time period. It was New Years Eve 1981, around the time I met Jay Spiegel, who is this really powerful drummer. Like Keith Moon on speed. Jay is just right up there with some of the guys I have produced. And when Jay got in there it, it was like BOOM– all the songs were instantly better. It was a very interesting experience listening to some of those tracks.
G&B: The “Favorite Day Live” track in particular. I love this version of the song. My first take on it was that Dr. Rhythm was involved on this particular track, as opposed to Jay, am I right?
DF: I think you have it backwards. The studio track is the drum machine. The live one, Jay starts with the drum machine and then kicks in. For a while, we were kinda forcing him to use it. Alternating, using certain parts of the song with it. He’d use like a hi-hat or something with it, and then kick in. That’s what he’s doing on the live track.
G&B: Are we to see more Velvet Monkey’s material remastered in the near future?
DF: Oh yeah, I’ve got more coming along. I have some material that is ready but would be next chronologically. The next thing after my solo record is To Live and Shave in LA. It’s the record that would have been the bands last record, it will come out on Vinyl and then it will come out digital probably later in August, early September. There’s gonna be more Velvet Monkeys, even some Gumball. That’s the mode I’m in, right now. However long it takes.
G&B: I would love to talk about the Brendan Behan connection in Remember Adam’s Fall.
DF: I am big fan of his writing. It was just a big experiment. I used excerpts of his writing. I have just about read everything he‘s done.
G&B: I was reading up on the time period, his involvement with the IRA and the alleged conspiracies, etc. He was serious.
DF: He was the real deal in many ways. And just a great writer. I really like the autobiographies, those are just the best. You should really get your hands on those.
G&B: Were the other collaborations on Don Fleming 4 as happenstance as Julie Cafritz posting a guitar track online leading to it being a part of the record?
DF: The music to the R. Stevie Moore track was one that we worked out together and then he did the recording by himself at his home studio. And then I added the vocals and mixed it at my home studio. The Kim Gordon song was also different, Kim gave me some music that she had recorded at home and I edited several of the pieces into one new track and then added vocals, bass and percussion.
G&B: How do DIY musicians from the era in which you began compare to like-minded musicians now. How have they changed and/or adapted?
DF: It used to be pretty rare to be a DIY musician. The options were limited on how to distribute your music. Now, thanks to web sites like Myspace and CDBaby, there are literally thousands of DIY musicians. People can record music and have it online within a matter of hours. I think that’s great.
G&B: Do you see that same sort of ambition in D.C., or anywhere, today?
DF: Ambition to be a DIY musician? I think it continues on many levels, but it’s more complex now. DIY used to be underground and now it’s mainstream. So as a result the typical DIY musician isn’t necessarily making experimental or cutting edge music.
G&B: I would imagine today’s indie-artist would have chosen to reformat, or do you find that there is an overwhelming nostalgia for lo-fi analog production?
DF: It seems like most people don’t give a damn about analog recording and production. And at best people are slightly interested in plug-ins that emulate analog. Technology always wins. I’d make the case that analog is hi-fi and that a lot of digital is low-fi. I do use Protools but try to run mics through great analog preamps and compressors to capture the sound that I want to get.
G&B: Would you say your principles as a DIY artist has paid-off now that you have been revisiting a 30-year span of analog recordings? Do you have encouragement for present-day analog purists considering your on-going experience with the process?
DF: I think the main thing that has paid off is that other than the two albums that Gumball did for Columbia that I own and control all of my masters and publishing. Musicians have a bad habit of ignoring the basics of the music biz and often give away their rights to their work. Artists feel that they are being given credibility when they get signed, but the deals are usually super lousy. People in the biz know how desperate artists are for attention and use well established biz practices to make a profit and control the material. Then they throw each release against the wall to see if it sticks. Sometimes they bail on it and don’t even release it, and the band can’t get the rights back. So the best thing that came from my old-school DIY mentality is that I created the masters and licensed them out instead of letting the labels own them.
G&B: Are we to expect live performances in the near future by the Velvet Monkeys, or possibly another collaborative engine?
DF: I’m doing a solo appearance on WFMUs 7-Second Delay next week. And I’m putting together a line-up for a show to be broadcast on The Loft/Sirius radio.
Don Fleming 4 will be released digitally on July 12, via Instant Mayhem, followed by its CD release August 2nd on Thick Syrup Records. Keep your eyes out for more reissued material from the Velvet Monkey’s, Gumball, as well as To Live and Shave in LA’s The Cortège. Don’t miss Don on WFMU’s 7-Second Delay Wed July 13th, as well as a future spot on Sirius Radio’s The Loft.
Interview conducted and written by Casey Morris