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Q & A: Don Fleming On The Grunge Years, Courtney Love's Work Ethic, The Velvet Monkeys And Being Sonic Youth's "Manager"

One of the more surreal moments in television history happened one superlate evening in 1989, when Sonic Youth appeared on the avant-garde-leaning music program Night Music on the severely avant-lacking NBC network. With downtown skuzz buddy Don Fleming playing SY's "manager on keyboards"—as introduced by easy-listening saxdork/host David Sanborn—they ripped "Silver Rocket" and the Stooges' "I Wanna Be Yr Dog" new assholes on national TV.

Fleming put his stamp on underground rock long before that night, though—first in D.C. and in Half Japanese, then downtown from the mid-80's and throughout the 90's. His psych-surf quirksters Velvet Monkeys were actually hot shit in D.C. as Minor Threat led the hardcore charge and Dischord became all the rage. Fleming eventually brought the Monkeys' kitschy pop to NYC and became a staple at CBGB and the old Knitting Factory. At the same time, he teamed up with Shimmy Disc honcho Kramer for art-noisemongers B.A.L.L., who upon disbanding, hilariously morphed into the grungy pop-freak group Gumball.

Ensconced in the scene with the SY folks and fellow cronies like Pussy Galore/Action Swingers/Free Kitten art-punker Julia Cafritz, Fleming collaborated with Thurston Moore on various projects (including the Richard Hell-fronted Dim Stars and the supergroup that provided music for the 1994 flick Backbeat), initially produced SY's major-label debut Goo, joined Dinosaur Jr for a second and recorded LPs by Hole, Screaming Trees, Teenage Fanclub, and The Posies.

Now Fleming is back with the digital reissue of Velvet Monkeys '81 cassette-only debut Everything is Right and a brand-new EP featuring Kim Gordon, Cafritz, and R. Stevie Moore. Sound of the City caught up with Fleming by phone while he took a break from his day job at the Alan Lomax archives.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of Velvet Monkeys' debut Everything is Right, which was originally released only on cassette. Is that why you've reissued it now?

Mainly because I finally got around to archiving my old collection. I have tons of tapes, reel-to-reels, multi-tracks and lots of cassettes of live shows. I've been doing a lot of archival work over the last decade for other people and I have all the gear. So I was like "Well, I need to start preserving my own stuff." As a result of that, I thought it would be nice to re-release some of the stuff. More and more, I am back to being DIY of where I started with it; finishing up and having it up and running on my own label. I did a digital-only deal for distribution and I try to find people for each of the releases who wanna do vinyl or CD and do whichever ones I can. I thought I'd start with that first one of the Monkeys because that's sorta where I started with the transfers; I went back to the earliest, oldest tapes.

Are all the Monkeys records out of print, like Rake?

Pretty much everything is out of print. I did at least have the foresight to retain all my masters when I was doing record deals, other than when Gumball was with Columbia (Records), I still controlled it all. Something that's great about the situation now is bands can post their own stuff—you're so much better off selling fewer but actually getting the money rather than selling a lot and never getting paid and still having a day job after three years on a label.

So you started the Monkeys in '81 in D.C.?

We started in late '80 and really got going in '81. That original lineup was a three-piece with a drum machine; it was me, Elaine Barnes and Stephen Soles. I had come up the East Coast from Georgia slowly and ended up hooking up with them. They lived near William & Mary and we started doing shows and making connections with people in D.C. and opened for some bands. We saw The Teen Idles, who came down to Virginia Beach for a show. We just decided like "Wow, this looks like a pretty cool scene here." I kinda thought I wanted to move to New York then but just making all those connections helped us to decide to bring it to D.C.

The hardcore and Dischord Records scene was just taking flight then, too.

It was an amazing, great time to be there—that and the go-go scene. There was a lot going on—weird, sorta arty bands and Sun Ra would come to town to play.

Did you feel part of that scene being in the Monkeys? Did you play hardcore shows with the likes of Minor Threat?

We'd do shows shows with [Government Issue] and Minor Threat sometimes but not usually. Those [shows] would be a mixed bill. Those bands liked being on mixed bills but we weren't gonna be on the hardcore bill. We'd often be at those shows watching'em (laughing) and those people would sorta be at our shows. It was interesting in that in the very early days there was an all-girl band called Chalk Circle that came out of the punk scene. They just put out an LP on Mississippi Records recently of all their stuff and I wrote the liner notes for it and I talk about it in there. There was this very early scene where girls were a big part of the crowd at the early punk shows and then it sorta codified and became all guys—more and more guys who were just there to thrash and it changed the nature of it. The main people in those scenes didn't care anything about other music. But most of the guys who were in the bands did because they were from the earliest part of it where people just knew each other and were playing. With the people I knew, there was a lot of interaction.

After Minor Threat broke up, the first show Ian [MacKaye] and Jeff [Nelson] did was [play on the same bill] with this psychedelic improv thing we were doing at the time called Deathcamp 2000. I think we played at the 9:30 Club with the two of them and they joined in. There were people in the crowd who were there to see their new punk band who were just mystified like, "What were they doing there?" if [Ian and Jeff] had joined the Grateful Dead or something. They were very good-natured about it; some of the crowd, less so.

 

Velvet Monkeys, "Everything Is Right" (public access, 1981)

Everything is Right was also recorded by Don Zientara, the go-to recorder guy for tons of Dischord LP's.

We did it at his original studio he had in Arlington in the basement of his house where all those early punk things were done—just about any indie band in D.C. wanted to record at his place. Don was so fun to work with and he got good results. At that time, just about any other professional studio you could do would be telling you to turn the amps down. He was just right for the music; he got it and was very creative. He's still at it.

When did you move to New York?

I moved up in '86. I would come up (to New York) to record. I was doing stuff with Kramer, who had this label Shimmy Disc. We recorded a Half Japanese record with him. Half Jap was one of the bands I played in a lot in D.C. the Eighties. I was a big fan of Shockabilly and I liked Kramer's production style a lot. So I decided to do a one-off thing that turned into four albums and several tours, which was B.A.L.L.

Basically in '86, I had the opportunity to move up and I did it. My wife got a job up here and it was just like "this was the time to go."

Were B.A.L.L. and Velvet Monkeys active at the same time?

Velvet Monkeys kept on extending through that; they never officially stopped. The Monkeys just go into hibernation. It was me and "The Rummager" (Jay Spiegel) from the Monkeys—it was the two of us—and basically after B.A.L.L., we went on to do Gumball. In the midst of all that, occasionally we'd do a Velvet Monkeys project.

Did you think your bands seemed more likely to fit in with the NYC downtown scene?

Yeah! D.C. was much more like you did everybody who had a band in town; you were aware of them in some way. [In New York], that was impossible. You knew about the bands and the scene you were in but it was a bit different. I loved it. There were lots of good opportunities for shows and good bands to go see we liked and play with. I used to love playing The Pyramid Club and all the dives. They were awesome to play. And I loved the old Knitting Factory.

Do you still live in NYC?

I live outside the city and work in the city. I still see shows here. There's still plenty of great places to go see bands. It just sorta changes.

As a downtown staple from the mid-'80s on, what are your impressions of its transformation?

Well, it doesn't bug me that much. It's certainly weird to go into where CB's was and see that store there. It's bizarre. But, that's the nature of it. It's almost better sometimes for a place to close so then you are more like "It was awesome!" It gives a more historic quality after it's gone.

 

Dim Stars, "She Wants To Die"

Were you already friends with Sonic Youth when you moved here in '86?

Back in the early '80s, I had a cassette label in D.C. for a while. The first Velvet Monkeys thing we put out was cassette only. I hooked up with Thurston (Moore) when I had to make copies for him of a Lydia Lunch cassette or something—I can't even remember what the hell it was. I never saw them (SY) back then or played together. It was after we moved up and B.A.L.L. was happening, they asked us to open shows for them. That's when we hit it off.

Kim Gordon makes an appearance on your new EP, Don Fleming 4.

It was one of those things I kind of constructed. Kim gave me a CD with a bunch of music she had recorded in her basement—guitar riffs she was experimenting with. I made sort of a track using them and then added stuff on after that. I loved it because it's so much her sound. It was really fun for me and it's one of the reasons I did these particular ones with Julie Cafritz and R. Stevie (Moore). I love their vibe and to collaborate with them on it, I didn't want it to be like "Here's my song; put a lead guitar on it." I like the challenge of collaborating on stuff they wrote. Then I realized this may not have been the greatest idea because I can't play any of these live (laughing). I don't know the tunings or how they played them. I guess there's ways to pull it off. The last time I did a solo record, I did a few shows where I used the backing tapes and just sang to that. It's a challenge; I'll have to figure that out.

Besides Kim, Julie and R. Stevie Moore, you also played with Richard Hell in Dim Stars back in 1992.

Richard was fantastic to work with. It's hard to coax him out to play. I give Thurston the credit for making that happen. We pushed and pushed until Richard did a couple of songs and then he liked it so we were able to do the whole album. He's a great, fun guy to hang with and so smart. Richard can't be bothered about playing or singing; he doesn't want to do it, for the most part. To get [Robert] Quine in it as well, was huge for us. To sit there in a studio and be playing along with the two of them at it at the same time was mind blowing.

You and Gordon co-produced Hole's Pretty on the Inside.

Working with Courtney was great at the time—it was before she even knew Kurt [Cobain]. She gave 180%. I've worked with some people that you've had to coax the performance out of them. With Courtney, there was no attitude. She was gonna give it all. And she did and it was really impressive to me. We made that record in seven days, including the mix. Kim and I co-produced it. I think it was really Courtney who wanted Kim to produce it, but Kim was like "I don't really produce." I had done stuff with Kim and she suggested we co-produce it and Courtney went along with it. I loved the whole band; they were a lot of fun. That early lineup of Hole—I felt they were the real deal. They were Hollywood misfits—all of them. I felt it really captured what they were (laughing).

Was that the first record you produced?

It was an early one. I was doing my own stuff and producing my bands for years. The first one I did was probably The Action Swingers, Ned Hayden's band. It was Julie on it and Johan [Kugelberg] on drums. That was really fun. So I started doing other bands that were friends in New York. I was doing most of those [records] at a place called Water Music on 14th Street—not what it is now, when it was still the Meatpacking District, full of tranny hookers and Izzy's Bagels was open 24/7. It then turned into friends of friends and local bands asking me to (produce) for them. And then, you know, Nirvana happened and all the big labels started signing tons of bands. It was an interesting time to go make records at really great studios. I always liked to go to places that have a history to them.

 

Dinosaur Jr, "Better Than Gone"

You produced a lot of records at the height of the grunge era.

Most of those were tons of fun. There's always the struggle, for me at least as a producer, to keep the managers, the labels, the girlfriends and boyfriends, away from the band while they're making their record so they can get really focused on it. To me, there's always distractions. I made it my job to isolate and put them in a bubble and let them make their record.

Do you feel responsible for helping create grunge? You produced some popular records.

Yeah...I dunno. I guess (laughing). I guess for some people, it's part of that sound. Somebody was pointing out [Dinosaur Jr's] "The Wagon" the other day—"that sound." I felt like [Teenage Fanclub's] Bandwagonesque and the Posies' [Frosting On The Beater]—for me, I was aiming for 1972 Badfinger, straight-up Todd Rundgren production. That's the sound I love. By doing that, what was the "grunge band" really worked. What they did had distortion to it, feedback and heavy. That kind of production worked really well. I like to push the levels and like it to be hot—going into the red. That's the way I record and mixed so it ends up sounds more over the top that way.

Speaking of the "The Wagon": you wrote the B-side for that single ["Better Than Gone"] when you were briefly in Dinosaur Jr.

For a couple of minutes (laughing). That was fun—I like that song. Jay and I had done several bands where we have double drummers and we had done that in B.A.L.L. so it was sort of the B.A.L.L. approach when we joined Dino.

I always found it funny you had a band called B.A.L.L., then the next one was Gumball.

That was a little bit tongue-in-cheek... "OK, we're going pop." The Monkeys were probably more pop than B.A.L.L. anyway, and not much different in a lot of ways. B.A.L.L. broke up because we were on tour and there was always tension with the band. I loved the band, liked what we did with all our records and liked working with Kramer. But it just reached its natural end at that point on a particular tour when Kramer went home (laughing). It was kinda like a battle who was gonna leave. We finished up the tour with a guy we recruited that day (laughing). I like Kramer and still want to re-release that [B.A.L.L.] stuff, and we're working on it.

It ended when Jay and I went into Dino because it was at a point where J [Mascis] was also grappling what to do next and it was around the time we were doing that Velvet Monkeys lineup that had J in it. So we had been playing together and J just thought [doing Dino] would be a good idea. I don't know what any of us were thinking. It seemed like a good idea for a moment. We practiced a bunch of songs and recorded those two and then we realized it was all sort of ridiculous.

 

Gumball, "Accelerator"

At what point was Gumball signed by Columbia? Were you swept up in the major label/Nirvana swallow?

I guess it would have been after because we were touring with Nirvana and Sonic Youth. I guess it was before that album (Nevermind) came out. I can't remember. We had our first Gumball album on an indie (Caroline Records) so it would have been that time. Like everyone else, I was making records for bands that had great budgets and I wanted to make a Gumball record with a great budget. I knew I needed to get us signed to one of the labels I was dealing with already. I almost did it with Geffen but ended up doing it with Columbia, which was fine. It was exactly what I expected it to be: we had a great time making both records and they came out sounding great to me. The first one was produced by Butch Vig and the second one I did with John Agnello. In the end, it (being on a major) did what I expected: we sold the same amount of records that we had as an indie. As an indie, it was fantastic; on a major label was not fantastic. I knew that would be the way it ran and it was fine.

Did Columbia understand Gumball's indie-minded status or were you pushed into more commercially friendly ground?

There was a small handful of people there (at Columbia) who liked us and were friends of ours. Howard [Wuelfing, Fleming's current promo guy] was working there. He was one of the reasons I wanted to go [to Columbia] because he was already working there and I could get him to work our records. Most of the people there didn't "get us," like any company that's that big. You only get the real push, the big push, if you're the one they're expecting to, you know, if you're dance music or the things they are selling the most of at that moment, which we clearly weren't. They were into it but I never had expectations like, "Oh, now we're gonna sell lots of records."

Gumball had some cool videos.

At least for most of the time—until the last one—they let us use who we wanted, which was Dave Markey who had done 1991: The Year Punk Broke. We'd basically have [Markey] follow us along on tours and shoot a bunch of footage and then go home and make something out of it. We didn't have any planned videos most of the time. Markey would have something planned, like, the day before (laughing) and we'd just set up for that kind of scene. That fit our style. They weren't typical but they worked for the market, at the time. Eventually by the end, [Columbia] were like 'Wait a minute, you have to have three different directors and treatments and then we all pick one." It came out OK, too, but we avoided most of that stuff as much as we could.

The 1991: The Year Punk Broke DVD is finally being reissued after years of being out of print.

Yup. It's just coming out or out now. There's a rock music film festival that Allison Anders is doing in L.A. and they just showed it a couple of nights ago.

And Gumball appeared in it?

We have one song in it—an instrumental that we do, so it's not a typical one—total noise out jam. People have always been confused by that. One guy one time said, "I first saw you guys in that movie and thought you were awesome and then I bought your record and it sucked, man! There weren't any other songs like that!" Yeah, well, what can I say?

When we played on that tour [for 1991: The Year Punk Broke], it was in Europe. We played a few shows there. It's always been fun to play with Sonic Youth and Nirvana were fun to hang with at the shows and I knew Dave [Grohl] from D.C. There was a lot of energy going on. It was an interesting time; we were certainly watching Nirvana take off, and it was very interesting to see all that happen.

You took part in one of television's iconic moments: Sonic Youth playing on NBC's late-night music program Night Music in 1989. How did you wind up playing with SY that night and being called their "manager" by host David Sanborn?

I think at the time Sonic Youth just gotten rid of a manager they had and had several people who wanted to be their manager who were courting them heavily for the gig. [Being called their manager] was just a buffer. I had been doing it with B.A.L.L. at the time; I had cards that said I was the manager. So I was like, "I'll be your manager for a while." We just did it and it was definitely a Spinal Tap move. Everyone thought I was the manager. We were at [Night Music] and other things with them at the time and I would be like "Yeah, where's the bottle of whiskey and where's this and where's this?" People would come running with it and the band was like 'Wow, you're a really good manager." Mainly I was there just for the fun of it.

Velvet Monkeys' Everything is Right and Don Fleming 4 are available at InstantMayhem.com.


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