Catching Up With Diane Coffee's Shaun Fleming

Music Features Diane Coffee
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Most people prefer to spend excessive amounts of time in bed with bowls of chicken noodle soup and never-ending streams of Netflix episodes to watch when they feel under the weather. However, when Shaun Fleming gets sick, he makes music.

The California-bred musician has spent the last couple of years touring as the drummer for the indie band Foxygen, the glam-rock lovechild of Jonathan Rado and Sam France—friends he’d made growing up in Agoura Hills.

Last December, Fleming packed up his belongings and headed to New York City, where he planned to stay for the next several months in Rado’s apartment during a break between Foxygen tours. The move took a toll on his health and by the time he made it to the city, he had gotten so sick that all he could do was rest, holed up in the apartment for two weeks.

A natural-born performer, Fleming—who received his first taste of the spotlight as a child and voice actor for Disney channel films and TV series like Kim Possible—soon developed a serious case of cabin fever. To abate his boredom and restlessness as he recovered, Fleming began to experiment with the instruments in the apartment as well as his iPhone’s music-making applications.

Two weeks later, Fleming had produced a collection of songs—about the people and memories he’d left behind in California as well as the occurrences he observed from his bedroom window. These songs became the foundation for My Friend Fish, the inaugural record for Diane Coffee, Fleming’s solo side-project.

My Friend Fish came out yesterday via Western Vinyl. Diane Coffee will spend the next few months touring with Those Darlins to promote the new record, which pays homage to the masters of paisley-infused psychedelic rock that have influenced Fleming.

Fleming took a break from preparing for the record release and tour to talk about the creative process behind My Friend Fish as well as the birth of Diane Coffee.

Paste :So, you’ve been playing with Foxygen for a while, and I was wondering what spurred you to start doing solo stuff with Diane Coffee. Can you talk a little bit about the genesis of your side project?
Shaun Fleming: Oh sure. Me and the Foxygen guys have been playing for a long time together in our hometown, and we’ve always been writing solo stuff. Everyone always writes, and I’ve been doing stuff for a long time. I guess Diane Coffee kind of came about during a break between Foxygen tours. I was just writing like I always do, and I had two weeks off, got really sick and just moved up to New York. Before you knew it, I had just a bunch of songs and I wanted to release it. I guess the songwriting didn’t just happen overnight. I’d been doing that for a long time. Diane Coffee? I knew [Foxygen was] going to have a break from touring for a while, and I wanted to continue being on the road.

Paste : What excites you about being on the road?
Fleming: I really like to travel. I like performing. I know it’s not usually for everyone, but there’s something really exciting and kind of romantic about just kind of living on the road, seeing the world. Performing is what makes me the happiest. I know the Foxygen guys like recording more than they do playing live. I think, for me, I like performing more than recording.

Paste : Why do you like performing so much?
Fleming: I think with albums—I hope—it’s bringing pleasure to people. But, when you perform live, you get to see that instantly. [It’s] not like a nice Tweet or anything like that. You can kind of see someone having a good time. It’s like throwing a mini party each night that goes really well.

Paste : What inspired you to write the songs on My Friend Fish? Did you have anything in particular in mind when writing?
Fleming: You know, like I said, I’d just moved to New York. I got really sick. I stayed inside. I didn’t really know anyone yet. I just started coming down with cabin fever, so I just started writing. A lot of the songs on there are about just some of the people I had left behind in LA. A lot of it was based on stuff that I was just observing around. There’s a track called “The Stupid Girl Who Runs a Lot” and that was about this girl who’d run in the middle of winter and wear almost absolutely nothing. I’d just watch her everyday. It was stuff like that.

I didn’t have a lot of gear at my disposal, so I had to make up different ways to actually record these songs. That also influenced the sound and what I was writing. I could only write with the stuff that I had.

Paste : Can you talk a little bit about the different ways you came up with to record these songs?
Fleming: Well, I was staying at Rado’s place, and he had taken a bunch of stuff back to LA where he was going to spend the weeks off. I had half of a drum set. I had a bunch of broken cymbals. I kind of stacked those all on top of each other just to get some sort of sound. [I had a] bunch of pots and pans. I had only one vocal mic and it sounded pretty awful for recording the drums, so I ended up just doing the iPhone voice memo app [to record] all the drums. I didn’t have a bass guitar, so I just detuned a guitar and kind of did it that way. I was actually really into all those sounds. The bass doesn’t really sound like a real bass. It’s like super wobbly. The drums—because [they’re] all done on an iPhone—are pretty crunchy and almost 2D. I like it. I like the way the sounds turned out. [I did] a lot of voice layering because I didn’t really have any keyboards at the time. I went back and added some keyboard stuff on top right before we printed the album. Yeah, stuff like that.

Paste : Can you talk about your biggest influences behind your sound?
Fleming: I always listen to a lot of ‘60s and ‘70s and ‘50s music, but I was kind of pulling inspiration from all over. Definitely ‘60s stuff. I was listening to a lot of Beatles, Bowie and Beach Boys and that definitely shines through. But I was also listening to a lot of Motown stuff, some Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, so I think some of those [shine through], especially [on] “Hymn” and “Green.” There [are] some Bowie-influenced-by-Motown songs, like “All the Young Girls” [which is] very kind of theatrical. I was also listening to a lot of St. Vincent and Feist and even Asteroid Galaxy Tour. I really like what they’re doing now. I was listening to a lot of Damien Jurado. I literally spun Maraqopa once or twice a day. He’s like the biggest inspiration as far as storytelling goes.

Paste : What are you listening to right now?
Fleming: I guess I’ve been listening to a lot of Ray Charles. It really kind of comes in waves. What have I been listening to? You know, it’s funny because I’m doing a DJ set for Brooklyn Bowl and I had to run through my entire iTunes library and pick out DJ songs. Like, my mind is completely spun—I’m just pulling out weird stuff. The Yeezus record is pretty rad. I’m actually super into that. My biggest influence is Donovan, and I took a break from Donovan for a couple of months right after I recorded the album, and I just recently picked it back up. Since high school, he’s probably one of the biggest reasons I started writing music.

Paste : I know you said the creative process behind the songwriting for My Friend Fish was cabin fever-inspired, but usually, what inspires you to write songs?
Fleming: I guess stuff that I see day to day. It could be a lot of things. I mean, travel really helps. Art, friends. But, a lot of times, it’s just stuff I see. Like “Tale of a Dead Dog” kind of started by me passing a dead dog on the side of the road and then that got kind of twisted into about how more fragile life can be, how something we think can always be there. You never expect a dog to be killed. You hope they’re going to be around forever as well as a lot of things like dreams you have, friends, aspirations, as sure as you think they’re always going to be there, just as quickly they can be taken without warning. It can be something as simple as that and then it gets totally warped and changed. Sometimes, I’ll just start yelling certain words over songs. With me, the way I write, I’ll begin to play. I’ll create the song, I’ll have a melody, and I’ll just start to say kind of random things that come to mind with that melody or with that song. Eventually, I’ll hit upon a key word or something and the whole song will be based around that one lyric or that word or that one idea. I think that more so than me going in with a game plan. I never go in with a game plan of something I really want to write about. It’s always a melody that inspires a memory.

Mostly why I like this album is because I didn’t really think about it at all. I just let it all come out. It happened super, super fast. It’s super raw. It’s very loose, but it’s fun. I’d never really done an album like this before. I overthought a lot of things before this album.

Paste : Where would you like to see Diane Coffee go?
Fleming: I guess someone once asked me what it was I wanted to get out of music that I wrote and it took me a while to think of the best way to respond to this. I guess what I want with my music and Diane Coffee is to be someone else’s inspiration. That would make me really happy—if someone really enjoyed the music and made more music or art or anything with Diane Coffee as a jumping point. I mean, I love music so much and all these artists who’ve inspired me mean so much to me as I’m sure they mean to a lot of people, and I’d love to be that for that someone else. I’d love to give someone that sort of happiness or inspiration.

Paste : I’m sure a lot of people have asked you this, but the name Diane Coffee: is that a Twin Peaks reference per chance?
Fleming: It is not a Twin Peaks ref at all. It’s actually quite a long story ‘cause there are a bunch of factors that were involved. So, a couple of things.

One, there was a singer/songwriter named Nathan Pelkey, and this is a story that I heard when I was playing with this band Infantry out of LA. We were managed by the same guy who was then managing Devendra Banhart. This kid Nathan escapes from his house and runs away from home pretty young. His father was a pastor and forced him how to play the church organ. This kid runs away and hitchhikes from Texas to LA, and he somehow finds Devendra’s house and knocks on his door and he and his manager open up. And he’s like, “I just have an accordion and I want to play my songs for you” and they said, “Sure, come in, let’s do this.” And they recorded this three-song tape and I don’t know if it was ever released in any capacity. I just got it from those guys, and I hope it was. It was some of the most innocent, lovely singer/songwriter music I’d ever heard—something that sparks that sort of childlike, totally freeing joy. I’d never really heard anything that made me smile so big. One of the songs was called “Mr. Coffee” and from what I heard through the grapevine, his father found out where he was and he was institutionalized. But, I never heard anything else from this kid and so I really wanted to pay homage to a wonderful singer/songwriter that never was. So, that’s the coffee. “Mr. Coffee.”

I wanted Mr. Coffee to have a female name for a couple reasons: I had been thinking a lot about the masculine and feminine sides of all the socio-archetypes and I think at around 17, when I started writing music and started performing, I think one of the big aspects of the performance the showmanship is inherently [that it brings out] my more feminine side. I think I really dug deep into that for all the songwriting and I kind of have been exploring that with Diane Coffee and kind of allowing myself to unite both masculine and feminine to create the whole. The Diane just came out of [the fact that] I was listening to a lot of Diana Ross at the time, and that’s the big old genderless being that is Diane Coffee. She’s quite a lady.

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