Panache and personality are two things that Shaun Fleming has in spades. Following earlier stints as a Disney voice actor and Foxygen drummer, his near three year run as Diane Coffee has seen him and his Good Dogs cover a lot of ground and challenge a lot of conceptions. Fleming is a performer at his core, but his approach to the consciousness should be noted as well - a beguiling sort of romanticism with a hint of jocularity - he's a new age amalgamation of David Bowie, Kevin Barnes, Prince, and Meatloaf, but with his own psychedelic sensibilities. Diane Coffee's live sets precede the band's reputation (arguably one of the best live bands on the tour circuit), and Transverso spoke with Fleming before he embarked upon yet another journey of "a lot of peace, a lot of love, a lot of happiness, and a lot of costume changes" this summer tour.
TRANSVERSO: How are you enjoying the last day before kicking off your tour in Lexington tomorrow?
SHAUN FLEMING: I’m doing alright man, [it's] nice hanging out in the backyard. I’m in Bloomington, Indiana. We actually have a couple days off, so I’m just hanging out at home - I’ve been living here for close to three years now.
How do you like it?
I love it man! I really, really love it. It's definitely a lot different than New York/LA, and all of those other places. But it’s a great spot, it's really cool.
I’ve heard it’s a great spot, there’s a lot of cool music up there – yourself included.
So Diane Coffee is a singular name, but you play with a backing band – I think you’ve referred to them as The Good Dogs.
Oh yeah, yeah. They’re my Good Dogs.
So do they make Diane Coffee a full-blown solo act that happens to have a backing band, or do you consider it to be more of a collective entity?
Um, Yes. [Laughs] It’s a little bit of both, you know? Diane Coffee – the name is kind of a way to put a label on a feeling. It's that feeling that I get – and a lot of people get – when I’m performing. Its that performance element. It's that same kind of person and you're at a show – maybe you’re quiet at home, but then you’re in that element where that sort of voodoo comes over you and you just start singing at the top of your lungs, moving and grooving. Its that, and it just so happens that [Diane Coffee] is the name I’ve given it. It's something that I’ve definitely embodied, but its also The Good Dogs, we’re all for Diane Coffee, and the audience at a show, they’re Diane Coffee, we’re all Diane Coffee.
Do you ever have shows where people come up to you after a set having expected someone other than who you are?
I mean, not so much any more. There were a lot of people who came when we first started playing that came and were like “Oh, my friend told me to come and see this band and I thought it was going to be some female lounge singer,” but, not so much any more. I mean, band names aren’t really that important – at least to me – they’re usually all pretty bad, including mine. I mean, even The Beatles – that’s just a stupid pun – it's like it doesn’t matter, because they’re made fantastic music, and that at the end of the day is what I think is the most important thing. I mean [The Beatles] could have gotten away with anything at this point. But so not that much any more because we’ve been around long enough to where we’ve gained enough of a reputation that people come in knowing the whole deal.
What can you tell me about Harem Scare ‘Em?
Whoa… Whoa dude! Good on you! Good on you doing your research! [Laughs] Harem Scare ‘Em, that’s my very first – I’ll call it a band, but we were like a cover band. We had one or two originals that we tried, but they were just really, really bad, so we just decided to not do that. So it was high school, and we had a talent show coming up, and we were all like “Hey, we all play music, let’s play the show!” But I could barely play the guitar, so I was just front man vibes. We did [The Beatles'] “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” and we won the talent show. Our principal was like this old hippie, and he was like [imitating voice] “Yeah, we’d love have you do a whole concert of this stuff!” So we were like “Oh god! Okay!” So we learned like an hour of all sorts of – pretty much, we were like a Beatles, Pink Floyd, and Jimi Hendrix cover band – so many things. We did like a 27-minute Beatles medley, which was insane and quite an accomplishment at the time. So we did that, and it was fun, and we were like “the high school band” and it's continued on, and whenever we’re all in town together today we’ll just go to a bar and book a show as Harem Scare ‘Em and do like three hours of covers. It's great, man. I love those guys. Actually, the guitar player’s dad, is the one who arranged all the strings for [Everybody’s a Good Dog]. Steve Hansen is his name. It was great man. It was really cool to work with him, and just kind of have more family connections. I mean, it’s a family album [laughs]. Yeah, so that’s Harem Scare ‘Em – those guys are all great, and they’re just some of the best musicians I’ve ever met.
I noticed on your Spotify profile you only follow three artists – Isaac Hayes, The Isley Brothers, and The Miracles…
I have a Spotify profile!?
You do! And it says that you just follow Isaac Hayes, The Isely Brothers, and The Miracles.
That sounds about right.
Would you count those three as inspirations in some way to how Diane Coffee came about?
Well, I mean yeah, but I’d also count countless others. I mean, I’m influenced by everything that I hear, even if I don’t like it. It's like that would be something that I wouldn’t do, and that’s the only way I would be influenced by that. [Laughs] I mean those guys are definitely… I don’t know why. I don’t really use Spotify all that much, mainly just because my phone is kind of broken – my headphone jack is broken on my phone. I’ve been like listening to CDs in my car, which is cool. So I don’t really use Spotify, and I never really got into it that much, but I know I had to make one for some little promos for Spotify, so I had to have one. We’re kind of veering off point, but yeah, definitely those guys are influences, but I think some bigger influences for this project would be people like Sam Cooke, Diana Ross, people like Prince and Meatloaf and Bowie and The Beatles; these big people who have these really big stage shows and were very flamboyant and broad. I mean, I come from a heavy theatrical background, like a lot of musical theatre and stage shows and I did a lot of improv comedy, so I like a lot of that in performance – theatrics – and that’s something I really wanted at the start of this project. It's just sort of me in general too, it's not like its something that I can just stop doing.
So your stage presence - which is unparalleled in a lot of ways – is that inherent then? Almost kind of conditioned to be theatrical?
Yeah, I don’t know if its been conditioned… that’s the age old question like “Are you born this way or did you come up and figure it out?” I’ve always been wanting to put on little shows and get dressed up and put on my mom’s clothes and all that. Then I sort of came out of my shell in high school, as far as performing in public and I joined a lot of theatre classes and all that. So I don’t know if its always been that way. Wanting to perform and be flamboyant like that has always kind of been something has been a part of my life that I’ve never really gotten to have just free reign and kind of do whatever I really wanted to do until now. [Laughs] I want to make it as big as I can with the means that I have at this point.
Moving from the live set to the recorded and production side of your music – between your two records, My Friend Fish seems to explore darker musical tones through a lighter narrative lens while Everybody’s a Good Dog almost does the opposite, in the sense that it tackles more complex narrative themes but with a happier disposition. Is that a product of having more time to figure out what Diane Coffee is?
Yeah! Wow! Man, I really like the way you put that! That’s great! I’ve always kind of thought of these two records in the same way. You know, I don’t know if its intentional with that first record – I was kind of in a dark place, just being sick and in new surroundings, just being alone; so that’s kind of how that all came about. But lyrically its still pretty light. But with My Friend Fish I didn’t really know that I was doing a record. It was really quick, and it was more like I was just making songs to kill time. But with [Everybody’s a Good Dog] I got more time to keep thinking about the structure, though for me, [lyrics] are the very, very last thing I do. I always write the lyrics like the day before I put them down.
So, I mean, it's kind of weird – for me I don’t really go into it with an idea, I just kind of go into it with a feeling of the song, and the melody will kind of tell me what the song is about. Then I might kind of have a phrase that’s floating in my head and the whole thing will come from that one little phrase. I just think knowing that I was putting out this record, I wanted to just take a little more time and reflect a little bit more, and figure some more of what you said, more complex narratives. It's kind of hard to say why exactly that happened that way, too. It was just sort of the place I was when this record came out.
That makes total sense. On the same kick – I’ve always been interested in what the process is when someone is laying out the tracklist for a record, particularly the first and final tracks as possible “statements.” Did that notion come to mind when choosing “Spring Breathes” to open Everybody’s a Good Dog and then closing it with “Not That Easy?”
You know, I do like to spend a whole lot of time picking out the order of how these songs are going to appear on the record, but “Spring Breathes” sort of came to me… It's funny, it's like the only song that this has ever really happened to, it actually came to me – that whole intro - it came to me in a dream. I woke up, and I have the funniest voice memo recording of me kind of stumbling through in the middle of the night where I was trying to sing what was going on in my head and like how the song was going to go like [whispering] “Oh yeah, and then it's going to change and it's going to really fast, and then at this point its going to Latin sounding,” you know, [laughs] it was really weird. So I knew that that song – just because of all the changes and just how it was structured – it wouldn’t really fit anywhere else in the record. It kind of had to be first or be last, and that song is definitely kind of about starting over again, and kind of asking yourself these questions about whether or not you’re – in this case its about falling love, again, and whether or not you are in the right place to have another relationship, especially given your career or anything else that may be in your life. And that was kind of the same thing with “Not That Easy,” which was kind of accepting that you are always going to be coming home, and you’re going to have an atypical relationship. So in that way, those two made sense as the very beginning and very end of this huge journey for the record to come that kind of understanding.
It seems like a positive prospect at the beginning – it doesn’t necessarily become negative – but it's certainly more spectral gazing in a sense at the end.
Yeah, for sure. I mean there are bunch of songs that… The record is loosely – there are a few tracks that maybe have slightly differing themes, but for the most part, this record is kind of about examining me personally. My love life, my relationships, entangled with my career, and both things I don’t want to live without. So it's very hard, because they both take up an incredible amount of time and energy, and I don’t want to sacrifice any time on either. You know what I mean?
Oh yeah, absolutely.
And it's something that everyone – it doesn’t matter if they’re doing something else – experiences; there’s almost always going to be something they really love that does the same thing. I’d love to say that I would give everything up for either thing, but its just not true.
I’m sure that’s far more relevant than you could possibly fathom.
[Laughs] I think a lot of people go through that, be it artists, or anyone whose maybe got a hobby that takes up a lot of their time.
I wholeheartedly agree. As far as bookending tacks are concerned – “Hymn” and “Green” on My Friend Fish is one of my favorite beginning/ending pairings on a record.
Thanks man! [Laughing/fake yelling] You’re damn right! You’re damn right!
So with the theatrical inspirations for your live set – you’re a very snappy dresser on stage.
Of course. I assume the background in theatre plays some sort of role in that facet of your live set?
Oh yeah, sure! As far as all the theatrics on stage, I’ve been working a lot with my partner, Melinda Danielson – she goes by Nature’s Whether. She pretty much designs all those costumes. She’s kind of a jack-of-all-trades. You know it sounds kind of bad to say “well she’s just an artist,” you know what I mean? But its true, she does a lot of sort of performance art stuff and then she also does design work for me, and I work very closely with her when we’re coming up with themes for these shows. Like this last one, where I was in this gold costume – and we finally retired that one – but that was all about battling with the masculine and feminine archetypes and halfway through you shed and open up. She pretty much put that whole thing together. So that’s something that we can both do together, and how we both sort of share our artwork. We can both be working, but also have a fun time when we get together. I love what she does. So it's really, really fun to be able to work with someone you love, or with family.
I bet. I’d figure it probably helps further solidify the relationships, in a sense.
Yeah! I don’t know if you knew this, but we did this tour with of Montreal, and David [Barnes, Kevin Barnes’ brother] does all of the costuming and stuff; he’s kind of in charge of that whole world. It's like Kevin’s music and David is art.
Right. Yeah, I saw you guys on that tour.
Yeah man, that was so great. Those guys are so much fun. I love them to death. So that’s really cool that they’re both able to do that – it's like a family affair. So that’s kind of what I’m trying to do with Melinda.
Awesome. I don’t want to try and pull any spoilers or anything – but what can people expect this time around in terms of thematic elements?
You know, this time around – it's still really in the early stages – we wanted to try and get one more thing for summer, but its been hard because we’ve been out on the road so much, so its hard to find time to work something completely new. But the idea behind this new one is that we’re kind of sailors exploring the ethos and we crash land on this crazy island, and we start to learn. It's about acceptance and being able to understand someone else’s culture or ideals and be able to really dive headfirst into that. It's basically like walking in someone else’s shoes. So it's kind of like a journey of discovery and acceptance [laughs] that’s kind of the long and short of it, but still trying to work it out.
Down to the eleventh hour it sounds like.
Yeah, it's like when you’re trying to work out a new song on the road – the only time you have to really practice is like the 10 minutes you have during sound check – so it's like you’re just “I’m going to keep doing this. Maybe it's not ready yet, but I’m going to keep running through it. No we have to fix that, we’ll have to do it tomorrow.” So you’re kind of adding more as you go along, and hopefully it really pans out, but its fun. We ran a version of it just the other night, and it was pretty fun. It gets the audience interaction and it's pretty cool. Its going to be this sort of ever-evolving show; it keeps us on our toes.
So what should we expect from the tour this summer?
It's going to be a journey. A lot of peace, a lot of love, a lot of happiness, and a lot of costume changes.