Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Monkey Business: Life In The Rock And Roll Zoo With Don Fleming And The Velvet Monkeys

The Velvet Monkeys circa 1982; Elaine Barnes, Don Fleming, Jay Spiegel and Steven Soles

Earlier this spring I mentioned the upcoming digital reissue of The Velvet Monkeys' seminal 1982 cassette release, Everything Is Right. The album is now available for download from the usual suspects (iTunes, eMusic, Amazon, etc.) and at long last is available on a format other than cassette. Additionally, on July 5th the album will be issued as a limited edition CD.

I had a chat with Velvet Monkey frontman Don Fleming about the reissue and other topics. I think Don appreciated my sense of humor in basing my earlier post around my search for the so-called "Missing Link" or "Fifth Monkey," Dr. Rhythm, the band's original drummer (who was in fact an early analog Roland drum machine--sorry folks, there is only so long I can milk a gag). And when I was offered the opportunity to interview Don, I jumped at the chance.

Don Fleming hardly needs any introduction, in addition to fronting the Velvet Monkeys, Don later led B.A.L.L. and Gumball, and was a member of Half Japanese, Dinosaur Jr., the Richard Hell led supergroup Dim Stars, as well as Tom Smith's To Live And Shave In L.A. He's also produced albums for artists as diverse as Teenage Fanclub, The Posies, The Screaming Trees, Alice Cooper, Pete Yorn, Sonic Youth, Andrew W.K., Hole, Jenni Muldaur, Joan Jett, and Nancy Sinatra. More impressive than the diversity of talent he's produced is the fact that a surprisingly high percentage of the time Don managed to coax career defining performances out of these artists.

Before I get into the interview, I wanted to say a few words about the music on Everything Is Right, as some of my readers may be wondering why I am making such a big deal about the reissue of a cassette only release from the early 80s.

The short answer is "because it is a big deal." When Everything Is Right was first issued in July of 1982, the American rock underground was still in its infancy. The network of independent record labels and local scenes that would eventually coalesce into what is often called "alternative" or "indie" rock was in a state equivalent to a primordial soup. There were a wide variety of different sounds and ideas floating around, bumping into each other, and creating new sounds and ideas on a daily basis. It was an exciting time.

In addition, the DIY aesthetic of punk had only recently made it feasible for bands to self-release music, and new independent record labels were cropping up across the United States to document newly fertile local music scenes. And right there in the middle of one of the most fertile local music scenes of the early 80s, the Washington D.C. scene that produced harDCore, Go-Go Music, as well as an arty mix of punk, garage rock and pop, were the Velvet Monkeys.

What most strikes me listening to Everything Is Right in the year 2011 is how much more vital and open it sounds than so much of the "alternative" rock that followed. Of course, no one was calling the music of the Velvet Monkeys "alternative rock" in 1982. I don't think anyone knew exactly what to call it, and even today Don himself struggles a bit when pressed for words to characterize it. (He calls the music of the Velvet Monkeys "arty" which it is, but "arty" often implies pretentious, which it most certainly is not.) In short, Everything Is Right is what indie rock sounded like before there was a codified set of "rules" that determined what indie rock should sound like, and the music is all the more exciting and vibrant for that fact.

Velvet Monkeys - Any Day Now

In the music of the Velvet Monkeys you can hear a pre-echo of many of the musical styles that dominated the American independent scene during the late 80s and early 90s, but they are mixed together in ways that would be almost impossible later. For example, there is an obvious 60s garage rock vibe to much of the music, but can you imagine garage rock purists like The Cynics or The Chesterfield Kings working drum machine patterns into their music? It would have been considered sacrilege! Likewise, the heavy distortion, mondo reverb, and guitar riffing present in many of the songs on the album anticipates the sound of grunge rock (listen to the opening riff of "Velvet Monkeys Theme Song" and for a second you might think the band is about to kick into "Touch Me I'm Sick"), but it's mixed with the unabashed pop catchiness that characterized power-pop. Everything Is Right sounds at once vaguely like all of these styles, and yet distinctly like none of them. It's music that is adventurous and (yes) arty, but at the same time fun and accessible. I'm very glad that it is once again available to be rediscovered by discerning music lovers. Now, on with the interview...

Me: So you're reissuing the Everything Is Right cassette digitally?

Don: Yes, that's the plan. It's the first release that we did. And you did the blog piece on it right?

Me: I did, yeah.

Don: That was really hilarious man. The Dr. Rhythm thing is great, because in reality Elaine did run off with Dr. Rhythm! [Laughs] She left me with the empty box.

Me: I suppose I intuited that somehow.

Don: I think you did, I know, that’s amazing.

With the question of Dr. Rhythm's "mysterious" departure from the Velvet Monkeys finally resolved, Don and I were able to move onto to a wide range of other subjects including the reissue of Everything Is Right, Don's current work with the Alan Lomax Archives, the D.C. music scene during the early 80s, digital distribution, and new ways of discovering music.

When the Velvet Monkeys first released Everything Is Right on their own Monkey Business label in 1982, the line up consisted of Don on vocals and guitar, Elaine Barnes on vocals and keyboards, Steven Soles on bass, and Jay Spiegel on drums (with occasional contributions from Dr. Rhythm). When I spoke to him, Don was eager to stress that that the idea behind this digital reissue was to take things back as closely as possible to the original cassette release from that lineup.

Don: The other thing that is interesting is that when we first put it [Everything Is Right] out it was a black cassette. It was the same design, but in black, and with a slightly different lineup of songs. There was a song on it called "The Creeper" which was an instrumental done by the Ventures. And before we put out our first album, Future, we did a second edition of the cassette, but by that point we had a new bass player, Steven had left the band, and Charles Steck was in the band. We had already started recording with Charles, so we snuck in a couple of tracks that were the Charles tracks.

Bassist Steven Soles

But I wanted this re-release to be exactly like the first edition of the cassette, but with some extra tracks. The idea was to keep it all Steven, instead of having any of the Charles tracks. That’s why I didn’t include "Evelyn Marble," which was on the second edition of the cassette. I just wanted to keep it pure, get it back to the original.

Me: This is the first time it’s ever actually been reissued, isn't it?

Don: Yeah. It's the first time it's come out on anything other than cassette. And the first time since that orange second edition of the cassette that it's been out.

Me: So will this feature all of the original mixes? You didn't go back and remix?

Don: [emphatically] No, no. I'm not into that. I like to just remaster it. The tapes that are that old get a little dull on the top end, so it was good to be able to remaster it. But that was the main thing, I went back to all the original tapes and I've been transferring stuff. My "real job" now is that I work at the Alan Lomax Archive. And so I've done other consulting work where I transfer people's collections. I've got a really good system for that with a really heavy-duty A/D [analog to digital] converter. So I wanted to restore it to optimum sound. That was what got me behind this, I wanted to finally do [to my own music] what I've been doing with other collections. I did a bunch of work for Hunter S. Thompson's estate, and transferred a bunch of his audio tapes. I just did a collection of Ken Kesey stuff. So I've got all these tape decks and hi-rez digital equipment. So the idea was to restore the stuff and start putting some of it out again.

Me: What kind of shape were the tapes actually in?

Don: They're in surprisingly good shape so far. When you get into some later tapes, you do find some that shed, but I haven't hit any of those. So far I've been really lucky. I've always stored them pretty well. So far so good. Once in a while I get something that has a bit of a squeak to it. They get this syndrome where they're a little bit dried out and they don't shed, but they squeak. "Sticky shed" is the real problem you have to worry about.

Me: That's when you need to bake the tapes, right? Have you had to do that?

Don: No. Not yet. I've found with the Lomax stuff that you can transfer stuff from the 50s and 60s, and that never happens.

Me: Right, the problems start in the 70s, right?

Don: Yeah, they started getting cheap with the formula then. But you never know until you put the tape up. But we may have skipped the worst of that era with the Velvet Monkeys stuff.

Me: Is there any chance we'll see some of the other Velvet Monkeys' releases, like Future come out?

Don: Oh, yeah, yeah. That will be next. I've decided to go chronologically, although I don't know how much I'll stick to that. But that's definitely the idea, to go through the whole catalog and do all the singles we had put out maybe as one. I own all the masters for that stuff, and most of the Gumball stuff, except for what's on Columbia. So that's my plan. It takes a little work to process it all and get it ready. But over the next couple years I want to get everything up and running again.

It gives me the chance to back it up, restore it, and preserve it. That's the good thing about this IODA [Independent Online Distribution Alliance] thing, for me it's like what I used to do back when I first started the cassette label…just do it yourself…and now I'm back to that. I can bypass the labels again.

Me: So you feel like this new distribution model can get you back to that?

Don: Yeah, at least it makes it easier for me to do it, and not have to go through a third person to get it done. I'm as bad as anyone with just downloading stuff that's super-rare that turns up on somebody's blog. So I don’t expect there to be big cash money coming in from doing this, but I think it's good just to get it out there. Personally, I still love vinyl more than anything, I'm not the biggest fan of digital editions. But that's the reality, and what I've learned from my Lomax experience is that that's what an archive does--it's about dissemination--the more you make it available, the more it's got a chance of surviving. So in a way, to give it away is as good as anything. I don't even mind the idea of people appropriating it in whatever way they do. And if they want to buy it off iTunes or eMusic, then great. But that's my master plan for disseminating the archives.

Me: I think it's good to for people to keep hearing this stuff. I do think that for something to remain relevant it has to be available.

Don: Yeah, exactly. And this is the new way. No one's quite comfortable with it yet, especially the people who try to make money off it, but it is the new way that people are going to collect music. But I'm also going to partner with people who want to do vinyl for certain things, and do some limited edition CDs. I'm going to do that with this one, I'm going to do a run of probably 200 CDs.

Me: I would definitely want that. I download digital music, but...and maybe this is just a factor of age...but somehow it doesn't feel as real to me unless I can have it my hand.
Don: Me too. I agree. But my kids wouldn't agree. My kids could give a hoot. It's kind of like the sadness of the way the technology takes over and always has. I'm sure it was the same with albums when they came along. I'm sure that people who liked 78s complained "what are these long-players." But now it's hard to get people to listen to an album, the sequence of an album, the technology tells you to just go in and pick the song you like and that's the one you download, you don't even download the album.

Me: I agree, I think that is something that's getting lost, and it's maybe unfortunate.

Don: But I think that our type of audience still do like to have something that you hold onto and look at and have notes to read. We'll accommodate that as much as possible, but certain things will be digital only. One of the things I'm going to put out is To Live And Shave In L.A., the most recent record that we recorded. I'm partnering with a label called Fan Death who are going to do the vinyl, so it will be just digital and vinyl. So that's the game plan. I'm even thinking about a cassette run of this first one. But I might stagger this stuff a bit. In most cases, once the digital is done, then I'll start looking around for other options.
Me: Speaking of new distribution channels, one of my favorite things on YouTube was uploaded by Malcolm Rivera, it's a video of the Velvet Monkeys lip synching "Everything Is Right" on an Arlington [Virginia] Public Access Station. That's awesome.

Don: Yeah, I love that footage too. I made a video of "Everything Is Right" that uses a bunch of photos from the time. I want to try to use that footage.




Me: Did you do any other Public Access appearances?

Don: No, I think there was maybe one other song from that same session. I don't think other than that there was too much. We did one with Half Japanese at the same place, I think, which is also up online. I think that was all part of the same thing. I should ask Malcolm, maybe he has it. I think maybe there is one other song from that.

Me: To me that is the thing that's actually really great about the new digital reality; that you can have this thing that was recorded 20, 30 years ago for a tiny audience, and maybe only a handful of people saw it at the time, and now anybody in the world can sort of take a peek through that window in time.

Don: Yeah, I love that too. Not to keep falling back into the Lomax thing, but we made a YouTube channel with a lot of Lomax videos and they get an amazing amount of hits. And we also have them on our website, and nobody finds them there. So there's these new avenues now, and I think it's a good thing. [Laughs] It's all good. It's like a virtual archive. It's different, we used to look for rarities in the back den of the record store, and this is just a different thing. You still have to make the effort to find them.

Me: That was in part the impetus for me starting my blog because I felt like some of this stuff was just going to get lost to time.

Don: Yeah, I’m so into blogs like yours. I spend a lot of time checking out music blogs. Again, I used to go to record stores all the time, and now instead I kind of do that. So it's not all bad, you miss certain parts of the experience, but at the same time there's a lot of good things about it.
Me: Yeah, there are. One thing for me, liking the kind of music that I like, I always felt a little isolated. I had a few friends who were into the same kind of music, but now I realize there are many more people than I could have imagined that share similar interests from all around the world.
Don Fleming in 1981

Don and I also discussed the fertile D.C. music scene of the early 1980s that gave birth to not only the Velvet Monkeys, but also the Dischord label and Go-Go music scenes.
Me: Back when you were in the D.C. area, what was the scene like at the time?

Don: Well, it was really fun. It was at the early part of the Dischord scene, and we would be at all those shows, and there would be a lot of co-mingling of styles, with the Go-Go scene as well. There was a lot of cross-pollination at the time. The punk scene changed a bit as time went on and it became more hard-headed boys. But the early punk scene--in '80 and '81--it was as many girls as guys. But it really started switching over in '82, '83. But all the sort of weird, arty bands that we fell into knew each other. You all played at the same places and there were a lot of shows where you would mix and match. It was really fun. It was a great time for music there. We were into all those bands, and we really enjoyed it.

Me: I think now when a lot of people think of the D.C. scene, they think of harDCore, and possibly Go-Go, but there was a lot of other stuff going on. There were bands like you and the Crippled Pilgrims, and Tommy Keene, who was doing a more pop-oriented thing.

Don: Yeah, and we fit in with them. We did a tour with Tommy Keene and the Slickee Boys at one point. A lot of that is due to Skip Groff and Yesterday and Today Records and his label, Limp. He was the one that introduced a lot of people among the different factions, and everyone would see each other at his record store. That was a real central hub of the scene. So you’d have interesting match ups like a Trouble Funk show with G.I. [Government Issue] on the bill. I think it helped everyone in those earlier days. Again, in time the hardcore scene got a little more isolated, but there was a lot going on.

Me: The sound of the Velvet Monkeys changed a lot around '85 or so when the lineup also changed. That later lineup hasn't been documented as well on recordings. Are there many recordings from that era? I have a couple singles, and I know the Houseparty CD came out.

Don: Yeah, that came out after the fact. That [Houseparty] is the main one. It kind of got chronicled more through singles and EPs. There was a double single we put out through Ecstatic Peace that was again released way after it was recorded. But at the time, you're right, stuff was not coming out except for the singles. But we were recording, and some of that stuff did come out eventually, but this will be a good way to take another look at those recordings.

We just step by step really became more of a rock band. [Laughs] I don't know what we were thinking. When Charles and Elaine left the band, and Malcom joined, that was our most radical move, because at the time we felt sort of complacent. We were tired of being popular. [Laughs] We were kind of popular on a certain level at the 9:30 Club. And we felt like we needed to shake things up, so that’s what we did. And initially we were doing totally ridiculous shows where we were lip synching to Sammy Davis Jr. songs, and wrestling, and just wanted to kind of wake up our core audience. They had gotten too complacent for us.

And then we got into a heavier rock thing. And that's when we were on the road more too. That's when we did a U.S. tour, and we did some shows with Gone. I think too it was just a sign of the times.

Me: It was probably a precursor to the whole grunge thing.

Don: Yeah, I guess it was. I think it was. We invented that! [Laughs] When we came through that tour in Seattle, I’ve heard stories of certain bands being there and being into that style that we were doing at the time. It was fun for us. It was a little bit Spinal Tap. We just went with it for the fun element. We didn’t want to be "serious" in that way that we had been before as more of an "arty" band. We wanted to just have fun with it, and that's what we were doing.

Me: I think that aspect of fun is something that got lost a bit as you move into the grunge period. Some of those bands had a sense of humor, like Mudhoney, but a lot of that stuff is, well..."serious."

Don: Yeah, I agree, and I think a lot of it is pretty pedestrian too. To me, a lot of those bands sound like Black Oak Arkansas. There wasn't a whole lot interesting to me about their sound. As time went on, the more things got copied...and they were only copying the lamer bands...everybody wanted to be Pearl Jam, who were Black Oak Arkansas. [Laughs] Not that there's anything wrong with Black Oak Arkansas. But it wasn't inventive, and it didn't have much of a sense of humor, which is why Mudhoney were about the best band of the lot.

Me: They were definitely my favorite. They were a lot of fun to go see. And there's something to be said for rock and roll music being fun.

Don: Yeah, exactly, and we loved playing with those guys.

Me: You also produced the Screaming Trees Sweet Oblivion album. You got a great sound out of them on that album.

Don: Yeah, that came out really good. I worked with them and with The Posies, who were from out there, although they were sort of outsiders to that [grunge] scene. I really enjoyed working with the Screaming Trees. They were a powerful band, for sure.

Me: Their drummer at that time, Barrett [Martin], was really powerful.

Don: Yeah, he’s a great drummer. That’s a key thing for me when I’m producing, is the drummer. The drummer is almost the key man in the band, because a weak drummer just can't make even good songs sound all that good, whereas a drummer like him just takes it up a notch.

Me: So we should probably wrap up, but speaking of great drummers, when is the last time you saw Dr. Rhythm?

Don: [Laughs] Wow. It would have been the late 80s. It's actually been really cool to reconnect with Elaine and Steven, but I haven't questioned her yet about the whereabouts of Dr. Rhythm.

Me: So you’re not Facebook friends with Dr. Rhythm?

Don: You know that would be a good idea. I think Dr. Rhythm does need a Facebook page. [Laughs] I liked your angle on the story, it was really good.

It was really great for me to get a chance to talk to Don about the Velvet Monkeys and other topics. I can't recommend this new reissue of Everything Is Right highly enough, and that's not just because Don is one of the few artists brave enough to talk to a guy with a blog named Flowering Toilet.

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