Don Fleming Interview: Remastering the Velvet Monkeys

By: Brady Lavin

Every musician wants their music to be heard by as many people as possible, even record producers who’ve worked with Joan Jett, Andrew W.K., Sonic Youth, Hole, the Posies, and more. Producer Don Fleming, who has produced albums for these big names and many others, is now using his equipment and expertise to bring his early music back to the shelves and, for the first time, to the digital world.

Starting his musical career in Williamsburg, Virginia, Fleming ended up moving to Washington D.C. to form the Velvet Monkeys from the ashes of his new wave band, Citizen 23. Armed with a Dr. Rhythm drum machine and a sense of humor, the threesome (and soon thereafter, a foursome) stormed the scene with a dark art punk sound and a certain playfulness that won the hearts of many.

Their first release, Everything is Right was a completely DIY effort. Only out on cassette and not sold in stores. Not many people have had the chance to hear this music compared to their later albums. Until now.

On June 7th, a remastered version of Everything is Right will be available from Fleming’s own Instant Mayhem Records. It will include all the original tracks plus three never-before-heard live tracks from Don’s personal collection.

Guitar International recently sat down with Don Fleming to talk about the Velvet Monkeys, remastering Everything is Right and Andrew W. K.

Velvet Monkees

Velvet Monkeys

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Brady Lavin: Can you start out by talking about how exactly the reissue of Everything is Right came to be?

Don Fleming: Well for some time I’ve wanted to really go back and transfer all the old master tapes that I have, and get new restored copies of them. So I started with that.

And I started doing it, you know, I figured that it’d probably make sense to get some of that stuff out there again. I had a label called Instant Mayhem on and off throughout the years. So I just figured I’d revive that and start re-releasing some of the stuff that I have, as well as putting out the new stuff that I’m doing. So that’s really what the idea was like.

I did a deal with Iota, one of the indie distributers. They’ll get it up in iTunes and eMusic and stuff like that. And then for the different releases that I’m doing I’m gonna try to partner with different labels that want to do vinyl or CDs, or even cassette, maybe.

We were talking about doing a cassette of this first one because it was originally a cassette release. There’s a label called Thick Syrup who’s gonna put out the CD version of this Velvet Monkeys release. And I thought I’d start with the first one we did, since that was the first release and I’ll just bring it up to date from there.

Brady: What was it like to revisit your old material from back in your twenties?

Don Fleming: It was more fun than I expected. I kinda had a sense of dread, like “Oooh, I gotta listen through all this.” I have like dozens and dozens of cassette tapes, and many, many reel-to-reels. I went back and started with the earlier stuff, and it was interesting, especially the progression of how we changed. Mainly the physical members of the band, but we also went from this weird sound with a drum machine in the beginning to a drummer.

He’s an insanely good drummer who’s the farthest thing from a drum machine you can imagine. And we tried to meld the two. We forced Jay for a while to use the drum machine and use this snare drum we had. It was cool because it did make for a different kind of sound. I’ve realized that ultimately, Jay won. He won that battle. [Laughs] He did, he kept it alive for the real drummers.

Brady: For our readers unfamiliar with the process, what exactly do you do when you remaster an album?

Don Fleming: Well, in this kind of thing, we were looking at very, very old tape. One of the reasons I wanted to do it and was into doing it myself is that for the last ten years, most of my work has been doing restoration. I work at the Allan Lomax Archives, where his collection was transferred. And they were all reel-to-reel.

I’ve done these projects for Hunter Thompson’s estate and Ken Kesey’s collection, transferring reel-to-reel or cassettes that are twenty or thirty years old. So I have a good set-up for doing it. Basically, the key thing is to have a great analog-to-digital converter, so you really just get the best digital reproduction that you can off it. ‘Cause that, to me, is where it fails.

I’m an analog person. I love analog. I did most of my production work on analog tape. I basically stopped doing it when ProTools first came around. I found it annoying. [Laughs] And I found the sound annoying. I think it’s much improved since then, but I didn’t want to work with it at all at first. The converters sucked, and it just sounded shitty to me.

But, you know, I now use it all the time, because the convenience and the trickery that we used to have to take hours to pull off in the studio you can certainly do quicker. But basically, I have a variety of old analog machines, and I figure out which one’s best for each collection that I’m dealing with.

For mine, I re-bought a machine that I had recorded a lot of the stuff on, and I wanted to use the same tape format and head format. It just makes sense to use the same tape machine. So I start there, and I just dump it in, no kind of processing of any kind, just the raw track. If it sounds good or it sounds bad, you just dump it in and get the highest res files you can get.

From there, there’s certainly work to be done. Sometimes tapes lose some high end over the years. And sometimes there’s flutter. It’s forensics, a little bit. Once you have the raw data, you figure out what it needs. Is it a lot or a little? Approach it with the right tools for that. I just use a bunch of different stuff. In most cases it helps a lot, for me, to be able to do the transfer and do the remastering all in-house, and not need a label. I’m sort of back to where I started with this back when I first released this particular cassette in 1981. It was total do-it-yourself. We were the label, we were the producers. It was our band.

I wish we’d had the digital, worldwide resources that we have now. That’s what I think is cool about CD Baby and Tunecore, and those kind of things where the artist is better off just doing it themselves. I’m all for this revolution. It’s me joining the digital revolution. [Laughs]

Don Fleming Velvet Monkeys 1981

Don Fleming Velvet Monkeys 1981

Brady: Your guitar tone on the newly remastered Everything is Right is awesomely jagged, especially on “Velvet Monkeys Theme Song.” Do you remember what gear you used to pump that out?

Don Fleming: Oh yeah, yeah, I have most of that still. Back my set-up was a Fender Jaguar, which was I guess maybe a ’67. I can’t remember. I’m not great with the years of my guitars. But it was a really sweet one.

I go through a Vox fuzz into a Vox amp, so it was a very Vox-heavy sound. Some of the songs I played in a 5-string tuning, and I had a Silvertone that I used on that. It was a Sears Silvertone, the one that came in the case with the amp inside. It was definitely jagged, the Silvertone had a jagged sound. But you know, it was the fuzz. As they said, “It’s what’s happenin’!” It had that sound.

And we had that Ace Tone organ. The two of those together worked really well to me. It was a good blend.

Brady: How did you choose the live tracks to add to the reissue of Everything is Right?

Don Fleming: One of ‘em was a song we were doing at the time that didn’t make it onto the original track list for the first release. That was “Evelyn Marble.”

“Drive In” was just a really different version. This is getting back to when we used to force Jay to try to do more of the drum machine stuff. It had this sort of drum machine breakdown in the middle of it, which we thought was a good idea at the time. [Laughs] But it didn’t end up in the song. It was one of the only sort of historical versions of us doing it that way, so I thought it would be good to throw in.

I know there was already a studio version of “Favorite Day” on there, but that was, out of all those songs, the one live version I thought it would be cool to throw on.

All three of those songs came from the same show, too. I thought that was good to do. It was a New Year’s Eve show we had done in 1981, and it was not long after Jay joined the band. The first half of ’81 we had the drum machine or this other drummer, and then Jay came along. I heard the early part of the year with the drum machine stuff in the tapes, and it was cool but once he joined the energy level completely changed. It gave me a new appreciation.

I’m a big drum guy. I always look at the drummer. A great drummer makes a great band really, really, really good, but a weak drummer can make a great band just average, you know? Anyone else in the band, you can be a little sloppy here and there, but with the drummer it’s a whole other thing for me.

So I went back and heard stuff I hadn’t listened to since then, probably, and realized, “Wow! That’s when we got good. When Jay got in the band.”

Brady: What kind of approach do you take to producing material you wrote as opposed to the other artists you have produced?

Don Fleming: What I do with most people I produce is more thought-through, I think. I rarely will do anything when I’m recording myself where I’ll do more than one take. I’m kinda of a first take kind of guy. I like it to be more fucked-up when I’m doing it myself. With certain other people I will do that, but with my own stuff, I don’t want it to be smoothed out at all. Whereas I like it more smoothed out when I’m working with other people. And generally, they like it more smoothed out. They don’t want to do what I do. [Laughs]

Brady: The name “Velvet Monkeys” comes from a combination of the Velvet Underground and the Monkeys I have read, at least. Why did you choose those two bands to combine to form your band name?

Don Fleming: [Laughs] Yeah, I probably said that at some point. I thought of us as a mix of something heavy and darker, like the Velvet Underground, but then at the same time with a sense of humor. I’m a big Spinal Tap guy. I like the Monkeys. Part of the reason I like ‘em is cause they’re actually real bands that play music as well as being characters. To me Tap’s the ultimate KISS type of band, or something.

So I’m fans of both of those bands from sort of different ends of the spectrum, and thought of us as their baby. The baby of those two bands.

Brady: Since you have produced Andrew W.K. on Close Calls With Brick Walls, can you put to rest any of the rumors that he is a corporate construction and that someone else really writes his music?

Don Fleming: [Laughs] The whole story line, I think, is something he’s laughing at. And certainly we made our record there was no label. He had a guy from Sony in Japan who wanted to do the record, but he never showed up. He wasn’t a presence on the record.

Andrew is of his own construction. [Laughs] You know, I would put Andrew more into the Monkeys side ’cause of that kind of imagery. I’m sure there’s always some kind of truth somewhere behind something, but that’s my experience with Andrew. He’s a self-made man.

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