Q & A: Don Fleming On The Grunge Years, Courtney Love's Work Ethic, The Velvet Monkeys And Being Sonic Youth's "Manager"
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 timeuntil the last onethey 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 itan instrumental that we do, so it's not a typical onetotal 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.