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The Fleshtones Re-Invent The Wheel

When singer Peter Zaremba learned of legendary New York punk producer Marty Thau’s passing February 13, it hit home personally. In 1978 Thau had taken a chance on Zaremba’s band The Fleshtones – who had only just formed a few years earlier in Whitestone, New York – and signed the band to his Red Star Records label. While it didn’t propel them to the heights of success of some of the other bands Thau worked with (New York Dolls, the Ramones and Suicide) and although he was just one of many producers and labels they’d have, the experience helped form a strong base to build off of and get the gears spinning.

Bursting forth with elements of rock and roll, R&B and more (sometimes dubbed “super rock”), the Fleshtones found success not really in major label success (barely missing it several times) but by grinding it out each day to make music that moved people and not giving into music trends. Early on they found new fans through playing house parties and at venues like CBGBs and Max’s Kansas City. With a current lineup of Zaremba (vocals, harmonica, and organ), Keith Streng (guitar and vocals), Bill Milhizer (drums and vocals), and Ken Fox (bass and vocals), the band’s chemistry is as strong as ever. So much that they titled their latest album Wheel of Talent. Following its release, I talked with Zaremba by phone to find out more about the album and band’s eventful history.

The band’s been busy touring lately. Any recent stories or moments that had lasting impact on you or the band?

Well, you know, it’s always interesting. We just got back from almost a month in Spain. So every day over there was an adventure. The shows, people would come. They’d expect a lot from us; they expect a lot of action and over the top entertainment and hard rock and roll. So it was great. Sold out cities over there like Madrid, fabulous place.

What got the gears turning for Wheel of Talent?

The Wheel of Talent was in effect every night we were playing on stage. That’s one of our things. And every night we’d get that Wheel of Talent spinning, which is basically us. Most of the time the Wheel of Talent points to me, as I’m the lead singer, but the Wheel will point to Keith a lot – he has a lot of good songs on the album – and the Wheel of Talent even points to Kenny who sang a few tunes and even once in awhile to Bill, who has even gotten down to doing drum solos.

Although, believe me, nothing like the drum solos I suffered through as a teenager. When I went to see Led Zeppelin and people like that…nothing I say can detract from their stature…but my girlfriend at the time convinced me to see Led Zeppelin in Madison Square Garden and when John Bonham launched into this long drum solo and the rest of the band left the stage I figured ‘why does the audience have to stick around if not even the band will stick around for the thing?’ And I was right, it went on for 15 minutes. So you learn from that stuff.

I tend to digress because we’ve experienced a lot. For us it’s a been there and we’ve done a lot of stuff.

So you aren’t a fan of bands that showboat?

Showboating is good, because I’m a big fan of pro-wrestling. So I am a huge fan of showboating. But the showboating has to be to the point. Very early on I realized I was not a fan of arena rock at all. I craved, I don’t want to say an intimate experience, but I want to say I craved being reached. I craved a performer who could reach out to me. My first job was working in Central Park for a music festival in the early 70s. So I was exposed to a lot of bands that normally I would like their records but when I saw them live I wasn’t interested. And also I saw a lot of bands at Fillmore East and stuff like that and what they call progressive rock, very early on I realized I didn’t like. Whereas the Kinks in the late 60s and like them a lot. Even though they were the worst performing band at that time in the world I kind of liked that. I liked that they had these songs and had trouble getting through them but putting a lot energy and fun into it. I was pretty impressed by that.

Where did you record the new album?

This album was record in four different studios, maybe five. The bulk of it was recorded in Detroit at our friend Jim Diamond’s studio Ghetto Recorders, which is one of my favorite studios in the world and one of my favorite recorders in the world. Jim just really understands rock and roll and what we do, he’s great. Other tracks were recorded in our friend’s studio in Gijón, Spain. Jorge [Muñoz-Cobo Gonzalez] from Dr. Explosion has a studio there. We recorded two key tracks there, one called “Available” and “How to Say Goodbye.” And those two are the ones that have string sections. We recorded three or four tracks at our friend’s studio in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. He has a home studio in his living room. CCP Recording Studio. The vocals that Mary Huff did for the song “For a Smile,” was recorded at Kudzu Ranch, another of our favorite studios. It’s a studio run by Southern Culture on the Skids’ Rick Miller, down in North Carolina. There might have been some other recording.

An album is a collection. It’s a collection of songs recorded in various places and is not necessarily something that’s done all in one place and all at one time. That’s a late 60s idea and early 70s idea. It’s a collection of things. But we’re pretty clever and it holds together nice.

Is that how albums typically come together for this band?

The last few albums that we’ve been doing for Yep Roc [Records], some of them have been split between doing them with say Jim Diamond and doing them with Rick Miller at Kudzu Ranch or something like that. The Spanish language EP we did in Gijón, Spain with our friend [Jorge]. The albums before Yep Roc tended to be done all in one place. We’d do them with Steve Albini or Peter Buck. But we don’t feel the need, we just try to get in recording whenever we can and whenever we have some ideas. And that’s worked pretty well for us. And like I said, that’s more of the idea of the album, like an album is a collection of things, like a photo album, right? You try to organize the photo album in a sensible way but they’re photos taken in various places representing various things.

It’s cool to have a week or so to go to one studio and record a bunch of stuff. But then again the Fleshtones are the type of band that we could do that and then a few weeks later, a few months later, say “Hey wait a minute, we’re in the studio and have these ideas so let’s record something else.”

The band’s had a lot of types of producers…

You better believe it. Starting in 1977-78 with Marty Thau, the late Marty Thau unfortunately. Marty recording us…he said it was going to be Craig Leon but it wound up just being Marty and the Fleshtones which was a comical collection to produce our first album. But Marty was great that way, he just went with it. A lot of great people…. Richard Gottehrer was one of our heroes, a hero for me. I remember when I was a little kid and seeing him on TV dressed in his safari outfit with these guys hitting these large African drums and whatnot. It was a blast working with him in the mid 80s. Steve Albini. He gave me the best advice that anyone in the recording studio ever gave me. It was towards the end of recording our album Laboratory Of Sound. He turns to me in the studio and very seriously said, “Why do you guys need a producer?” And I was at a loss. From day on I realized that unless there’s a special reason we don’t need a producer. So no matter what I always thank Steve for that fabulous insight.

One of the songs on the album, “Remember the Ramones,” started as a b-side a few years ago.

It did. Again we recorded it with our buddy in Williamsburg, Florent Barbier. Keith, Florent and I had this idea to this great song about the Ramones. I thought it was a great song. I was like “We’ve got to record this right away because they’re making a movie about The Ramones and I want them to consider this song to the closing credits.” The song came to me while I was mowing the lawn. It’s like “Remem…ber the Ramones,” you know? The song all came to me at once, like all these images of that time. It was 1975 and 1976 and 1977 and at CBGB’s and Max’s. It’s not just about the Ramones, although we say a lot of pertinent things. I talk about our experience in those days and meeting Marty Thau and whatnot and hanging out at Max’s.

I still read these things that punk rock as started in London by the Sex Pistols and that just gulls the hell out of me. Because the Sex Pistols and The Clash and every other British band went to see the Ramones in the Roundhouse in London and before that they were playing glam rock and prog rock and whatever else they were doing. So it was all the Ramones. I don’t think enough bands tip their hats.

You know, I was confused, I was lost in the woods. It was the dark ages. I might have been trying to figure things out but I didn’t figure things out until I saw the Ramones. And I will happily admit that. Seeing the Ramones totally crystallized everything for me. It’s a very heartfelt song. It’s pretty good too, it’s rocks, right?

Yeah, definitely. What made you decide to bring it back and use it for this album?

We rerecorded it at the request of our bass player Ken, who said “You know this song shouldn’t just be a forgotten b-side on a limited edition 45 that was pressed 500 copies or whatever.” So we rerecorded it with Jim.

The song exemplifies the autobiographical theme in the album of looking back.

You know, this album surprisingly has a lot of content. Which surprises even me. People don’t expect that from the Fleshtones, out of a reputation of being a party band or whatever. Which is cool, I like that. I like a party, that’s why I like to play rock and roll. But then the album seems to be very autobiographical, even some social commentary – nothing hitting you over the head. We were big admirers of the Kinks albums that came out around 1966-67-68, stuff like that. Now we’re a little more comfortable with our…not comfortable, we’re just writing these types of songs now. Which is a great thing. Especially Keith, he came up with a bunch of dark but really funny songs, personal songs about his personal situation. There is some social observation on the record. Now, I don’t want to scare anybody away by pointing that out. It just happens to be there. I’m happy that you noticed it.

Overall we are a rock and roll band that wants everyone to have a good time with listening to the music or dancing or having a party or whatever. Because that’s how we got into rock and roll. That’s why we like it so ultimately that’s what we ought to do.

The press release makes it sound like the band’s felt it has had something to prove to the critics over the years.

The album I felt we had something to prove was…there were a couple. Two or three albums ago, Take a Good Look, I kind of felt we had something to prove. We saw people doing what we do and getting more attention for doing what we do then we get, so I felt we had something to prove there. When we did the album Hex-Breaker in the mid-80s, our then sax player and keyboard player Gordon Spaeth, who has since deceased, said “Yeah we’re going to make an album that scares people so great.” Well if it scared people maybe that’s not what we should be doing, scaring people. We went very over the top with that one. But for this one I felt we were really relaxed, not relaxed but comfortable about doing what we do. We just wanted to record all this music and do a great record and I don’t feel like we have trouble doing that. I’d be quite willing to go into a studio next week and record another album. We’re kind of on a roll.

Was part of the reason of criticism from critics about being more varied in sound than the typical New York garage rock band?

Everything we do is derived from traditional garage [rock] or is the way the traditional garage rockers would treat music. Garage rock was basically white kids attempt to play whatever was on the radio, be it R&B, soul music or rock and roll. We kind of applied that formula. We were those kids in the 60s listening to music and whatnot. So we applied that idea to music in general so it could be disco or funk or standard garage rock. We tend to get criticized from two directions. One direction is that we don’t really respect the garage rock from the 60s, so we’re not a nuggets kind of thing. And to that we say, “Uh, that’s not really music that has to be revered.” It was music for the most part that was kind of funny through misinterpretation of whatever it was. And then we also get criticized from the other end from people saying “Well you seem to be stuck in these times or something.” I don’t think that’s valid either. The fact is we’re not interested in making music that doesn’t interest us or excite us or entertain us. We’re not progressive rockers or anything like that.

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