The Fleshtones’ “The Band Drinks For Free”: The Tulip Frenzy Review + Bonus Exclusive Interview With Peter Zaremba

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You’re walking down a darkened street when you hear the first sounds of a party in a loft above.  You are not in a glamorous neighborhood, there’s a bit of danger in the air, but the sound of a live band playing is intriguing. Wait, you say, is that Ten Year’s After’s “Love Like A Man”?  The band sounds pretty good so you follow the music up the stairs.  Inside the loft, the party’s in full swing, the guitarist and bass player are standing on top of the kitchen counter and while the singer alternatively plays Farfisa and his harmonica, the drummer is pounding away from his perch on the dining room table.  Someone hands you a drink and you take it, but the guy clutches your arm when you try walking away.  He points to the musicians, by now leading a conga line around the disheveled loft.  “The band drinks for free,” he says with a smile and wink.  You get it, and reach in your pocket to pay up.

Fleshtones

The Fleshtones celebrated their 40th Anniversary in May, and The Band Drinks For Free is their 21st album.  While this mythical, celebrated, hard-luck institution — memorialized by a great book (Sweat: The Story Of the Fleshtones, America’s Garage Band), a terrific movie (Pardon Us For Living But The Graveyard Is Full), and still out there on the road many weeks of each year — may be immortalized in cool cats’ memories principally as the most entertaining live band in history, the fact is that they have, over the decades, produced a string of incredible studio albums. We are pleased to report, based on intimate study of the group, that this new ‘un, out today from venerable YepRoc Records, ranks among their very finest.  By that we mean it ranks with The Fleshtones Vs. Reality, and clearly is on a par with other platters of miraculous songwriting and boss performances such as Beautiful Light and even Roman Gods.  It is unquestionably better than that last moment when the fickle spotlight swung the Fleshtones’ way, when Take A Good Look (2008) came out and provided a well-deserved opportunity for rock critters across the land to do what should have been done long before: pronounce the Fleshtones living gods.  It is hard to believe, but trust us when we say: the Fleshtones in 2016 are every bit as vital as they were in ’76, ’86, and ’96.

(There is only band with the longevity and storyline remotely similar to the Fleshtones, and it’s the Mekons, AFAWK the last continuously performing, semi-intact band from that magical late ’70s era.  But the Mekons have had shifting membership and while we pray they continue forever, it’s not the same thing — the Mekons seem to need a concept to record a new album (hey, let’s go to a Scottish island, or perform around a single mike in a Brooklyn club), while the Fleshtones, their line-up intact for more than a quarter century, just go on, and on, and thank Heavens they do.  Fleshtones songs, on some of their 21 albums, might seem rushed, or they might not fully gel, but they are never generic.  And unlike another band that goes on and on — the Rolling Stones — while we can’t wait for Mick and Keith to hang it up and go sit on the beach and count their Bitcoins, we pray the Fleshtones never hang up their plectrums.)

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The Band Drinks For Free sports fours songs by lead singer Peter Zaremba, four by guitarist Keith Streng, two songs by bass player Ken Fox, and two covers, including Alvin Lee’s great “Love Like A Man.”  Let’s focus on that cover for a moment, because it tells the uninitiated (wait, how can there be uninitiated when it comes to the ‘Tones? they’ve been around since the Carter Administration…what the Hell’s the matter with you?) much you need to know. How the Fleshtones approach “Love Like A Man” tells you a lot about their cock-eyed approach.  The original, from Cricklewood Green, Ten Years After’s great post-Woodstock album, is ponderous, lacks swing, though it is undeniably tuneful and great.  The Fleshtones treat it as a garage rock gem, a party song cut down from nearly eight minutes to 3:30.  It sets the tone for what’s to come.

On TBDFF, Peter Zaremba contributes some of the most fun songs of the band’s storied career, with “Rick Wakeman’s Cape” sounding like a cross between the Stones’ “2120 Michigan Avenue” and ? and the Mysterians.  On his songs plus the two written by Keith and Ken that he gets to sing, his voice is in fine fettle.  Keith Streng, who has stepped up almost as a coequal vocalist in recent years, has a remarkable voice — he’s like an athlete still able to roll along because he protected his body in the early years — and on the incredible “Respect Our Love,” he has the anthem he’s waited 21 albums to sing.

The tone of the record is elegiac, not quite nostalgic, as the Fleshtones reflect on a long career while still showing they have a full tank o’ gas.  This album swings, showcasing one of the great rhythm sections in rock’n’roll history with Bill Milhizer and Ken Fox propelling the songs on which Keith’s guitar and Peter’s Farfisa lay down their signature lines.  The backup singing of Vibek Saugestad rounds out the familiar boy’s choir with emollient tones, and Lisa Kekaula of the Bel Rays brings home “Love Like A Man” with the intensity of Merry Clayton on “Gimme Shelter.”

Tulip Frenzy has been along for the ride with the Fleshtones since we first saw them at Maxwells that hot summer night in ’79, and we’ve traveled cross country to write about them, hung in the green room while they opened for the Police, hosted them for barbecues, and dragged dozens of instant converts to see ’em.  We know whereof we speak when we say, 21 albums in, the Fleshtones have, in The Band Drinks For Free, their best album in nearly 30 years.  These guys are still going strong.  They still exemplify real rock’n’roll.  They are still worthy of their breakout record, their Madison Square Garden gig, their star on Hollywood Boulevard.  Now’s your chance to help — download the album today.

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But wait, who’s that there sitting on the couch?  Why, it’s Peter Zaremba!  Before we go, let’s ask him a few questions about The Band Drinks For Free.

Hey Peter, congratulations on the 40th Anniversary of the Fleshtones and the release this week of “The Band Drinks For Free,” your 21st album.  The gang at Tulip Frenzy rank it up there with “The Fleshtones Vs. Reality”, “Beautiful Light,” and “Roman Gods,” and it’s the band’s best platter since “Take A Good Look.”  Tell us about the magic that took place with Florent Barbier in the studio.

Peter Zaremba: First of all, thank you, I’m really flattered. Some of the folks at Tulip Frenzy are notoriously hard to please. We’ve got a great rapport with Florent -he’s a long time fan. We got to know him well while touring France with the band the Roadrunners in the ’90s. He was their drummer. It’s pretty comfortable recording at his place in Williamsburg, at least for Keith and me. We can walk to Flo’s. We’ve gotten pretty relaxed recording and don’t have a producer breathing down our necks and making us nervous. And we were much more prepared for recording – which was stretched out over a year and a half. In the end we had too much material. We even left the title track ‘The Band Drinks For Free’ off the album. How’s that for a radical move?

On TBDFF, you and Keith each penned four songs, Ken penned two, and you’ve got two covers.  Is that the basic pattern of Fleshtones songwriting over the past several records?

PZ – hmmm, I hadn’t done the math. Looks about right though. Like I said, we came in with a lot of material, so this kind of balances out our contributions. And we can always do another record with what’s left. Song writing is seeming to flow easier now after 40 years, unlike how we had to labor over our early tunes. I believe it was you who tagged ‘Shadow Line’ as a ‘pastiche’ in a review. Of course you were right. Anyway, we’ve finally stopped torturing ourselves over the songs and are enjoying writing and recording more. About time!

One pretty significant change on Fleshtones records since the ‘90s is Keith singing more.  What a voice!  Is this a function of Keith writing more songs, or him having discovered, around the time you guys started covering “Communications Breakdown,” his inner Robert Plant?

PZ – Inner Robert Plant and more! Actually Keith singing more is the result of a little thinking. He sang about half of our first album ‘The Fleshtones Blast Off’ because these were the first songs he wrote and just heard them that way. Then we decided I should sing all the songs. I was the lead singer after all. But them we realized I had difficulty singing some of the material, so we decided to start letting whoever can sing a tune the best just sing it. This is a process we’re still working on -making use of all of our vocal abilities, but Keith did let me sing his ‘How To Make A Day’ on the new album, something I was very honored to do.

We were deliriously happy to hear you cover “Love Like A Man,” our second favorite song from “Cricklewood Green.”  What’s the connection between your covering a Ten Years After song and your writing a song referencing Rick Wakeman?

PZ – I’m deliriously happy to hear us cover it too, and really love our version español ‘Ama Como Un Hombre’ which is actually the version we play live (the 45 will be released for coming Black Friday). It was Keith’s idea to do ‘Love Like A Man’ as if a garage rock band was covering it, although I think I obsessed on taking the song to it’s garage rock limits. There’s no real connection to “Rick Wakeman’s Cape” (which came to me in a dream) except it’s wound up on the same album, but there are no coincidences, right?

And by the way, did you really steal Rick Wakeman’s cape from Madam Tussauds?

PZ – haha, just mashing up all the ridiculous Rick Wakman imagery in my head (of which there is plenty), you know, him posing with the wax dummies of Henry’s wives for the cover of his album. Weren’t those in Madame Tussauds? I was there a long time ago with my sister. All I remember is they had Telly Savalas and those ghastly murder victims in the chamber of horrors. Maybe the Beatles, but they never went in for capes. Now I do.

There are some great cameo appearances on TBDFF.  Tell us about the band’s bringing in Lisa Kekaula and Vibek Saugestad to help out with vox/piano.

PZ – Well we’re lucky that Vibeke is married to Ken Fox, so she can’t say no. She also does a lot of backing vocals and helped with working out the notes of some crucial riffs. She has a musical background, unlike the Fleshtones. It was Keith’s idea to get someone like Lisa Kekaula of The Bel Rays to sing the final verses of ‘Love Like A Man’ which were originally intended for him. So we figured why not just ask her? We’ve played a lot with the Bel Rays and form a small mutual admiration society. She said yes and absolutely nailed the part -kicking the track up into the next dimension just like it needed.

There’s a distinctive elegiac tone to the album — not quite nostalgia but fond looking back on your youth and the band’s earlier days.  Is the mood of the band, entering your fifth decade, looking back on the Fleshtones’ remarkable legacy as well as the future?

PZ – I’m glad ‘not quite’ nostalgic. The mood is there. We’ve been around for 40 years and as humans have experienced a lot. It’s only right that this should be imparted to our music. At this point I like the idea of projecting an image of a band who should know better.

“The Sinner” is, as far as I can tell, the first blues song you’ve recorded.  Is this your “Yer Blues?”

PZ – It’s the closest thing we’ve ever done to the ‘white English kids playing the blues’ stuff like the Stones and Yardbirds that we loved so much growing up, although we did record our ‘Worried Boy Blues’ for, I think “Beautiful Light’ or was it ‘Laboratory Of Sound’ album. I thought we were finally up to it, although the guys thought I was nuts. I just figured we had to avoid all the bad moves that mar all the bad blues that so many other white bands did, especially in the late 60’s and 70’s. How did we do?

You’re touring China??  Do tell!

PZ -We sure are touring China – a totally un-foreseen development. We needed to expand the Fleshtones fan base a bit. We tend to go back to the same (wonderful) places year after year. Japan seems oddly impossible for us, Brazil fell through because of the collapse of their currency. Danny Amis of Los Straightjackets did get us back to Mexico for the first time in over 20 years last June but we needed more. So I asked Eric Beaconstrip, a Frenchman in the British band King Salami & The Cumberland 3 for some suggestions. His band really gets around, mostly through a world-wide network of rock and roll supporters. He suggested contacts in many countries around the world including the band ‘Round Eye’ in China. Now, playing China was never in the career strategy of the Fleshtones but Catchy of Round Eye was really happy to hear from us. He put together the tour ASAP. Once again, this is a case of rock and roll fans being today’s life-spring of music, instead of the promoters (although there are a handful of promoters who are keeping music alive around the world. I’m very sad that we lost one of them recently – our friend Nicky Trifinynadidis who was responsible for bringing the Fleshtones and so many other bands to Greece). So, the Fleshtones are on our way to China, can’t wait to bring them ‘Super-Rock’ -they don’t know what they’ve been missing!

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So, people of the world, you don’t know what you’re missing if you haven’t heard The Band Drinks For Free.  Get off the stick and get this album by one of the surviving wonders of the world, the miraculous, magnificent Fleshtones.

 

 

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