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

Don Fleming close up.jpg
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.

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