The Flesh Eaters Offer Observations on Sobriety, Fanaticism With "Miss Muerte" (premiere + interview)
Legendary Los Angeles punk supergroup, the Flesh Eaters issue a new video ahead of touring, while vocalist/founding member Chris D. discusses outfit's ongoing evolution and future.
"Everything this past year has been kind of like a dream," says Chris Desjardins, vocalist and founding member of legendary Los Angeles punk group the Flesh Eaters. Perhaps best known by his nom de rock, Chris D., the musician has worked in a variety of professional guises, including poet, historian, professor, and music critic.
Speaking on a late winter afternoon from his home in Los Angeles, Desjardins is ostensibly on the line to discuss the latest video from the band he formed in 1977, "Miss Muerte". The song appears on the first Flesh Eaters album since 2004, I Used to Be Pretty (Yep Roc), released on 18 January.
The record reunites one of the most beloved lineups of Desjardins' band, the one that recorded the classic 1981 effort, A Minute to Pray, a Second to Die. Joining him on that earlier recording were Dave Alvin (guitar) and Bill Bateman (drums) of the Blasters, John Doe (bass) and D.J. Bonebrake (marimba and percussion) of X, as well as Steve Berlin (saxophones) from the aforementioned Blasters, the Plugz, and Los Lobos, the same players who have recombined for I Used to Be Pretty.
"After 1981, I never thought this lineup would get together again," Desjardins offers. "I was still friends with all the guys, but it didn't seem likely we'd get everyone in one place for another record."
In truth, the path to these new recordings was one paved with obstacles and unexpected turns. By early 2000, Desjardins had almost set music aside altogether. He worked as a film programmer at the American Cinematheque and taught Film History in San Francisco.
There was a 2004 Flesh Eaters set, Miss Muerte (which featured the original rendition of the single/video) and, in 2006, a short-lived coming together of the Minute to Pray configuration.
That year, Mark Arm of Mudhoney phoned John Doe to see if the Flesh Eaters would perform on a Mudhoney-curated bill at All Tomorrow's Parties. Any version of the band would be fine, Arm said, but there was a premium on the 1981 unit with Doe, Berlin et al. As luck would have it, all six members were available and up for the gig. With a handful of warm-up shows under their belt, they traveled to ATP and delivered, by all accounts, a remarkable set.
"We all had so much fun that we wanted to do something again soon," Desjardins recalls. A 2007 gathering was slated but quickly set aside as calendars filled up. Once more, the vocalist pushed aside hopes of any more activity from the 1981 sextet.
Flash forward to 2014 and circumstances once more opened the door. "Two things happened," Desjardins remembers. "I was unemployed for the first time in 15 years, and the Superior Viaduct label was going to release reissues for A Minute to Pray, a Second to Die and its follow-up, Forever Came Today. I called the guys and said it would be really great if we did some shows. I was going stir crazy, and it seemed perfect with the reissues coming out. We wound up doing five dates on the West Coast in 2015. We didn't want to let it go again."
Along the way, Desjardins says, he knew it was important to capture the music as soon as possible. "I realized that we sounded incredibly tight. Reception from the audiences was so volcanic and overwhelming. I thought, 'We've got to go into the studio and record what we sound like now.' I felt like we sounded just as remarkable as we did on the Minute to Pray album and in some ways better because we were more seasoned. We were more comfortable playing that music."
The result is the aforementioned I Used to Be Pretty, which features a smattering of covers as well as some re-worked classics from past Flesh Eaters efforts and fresh material written by Alvin and Desjardins. The music, regardless of origin, crackles with vitality and newness, as if 2019 and 1981 were separated only by weeks and not decades.
Among those re-recorded/re-imagined for the new LP is "Miss Muerte."
Its gestation from the original to the current configuration, Desjardins offers, is remarkable. He first wrote and tracked it in 2002 with a studio-only version of the band. The focus, he adds, was first on the guitar duo of Bobby Bones and the late Don Thomas. The singer now views the initial go as "Maybe a little less dynamic" than the 2019 reading. (Incidentally, his ex-wife and longtime collaborator Julie Christensen appears on both the original and current renditions.)
Across various gigs, the Minute to Pray/Used to be Pretty lineup incorporated "Miss Muerte" in sets. The new take provides a marked difference. "It's recognizable as the same song, but the instrumentation and arrangement are naturally different," the vocalist remembers. "Adding Steve on sax and DJ on marimba/vibes changed the feel significantly. Also, Dave really made the signature guitar riff his own, using a much more retro, finely-tuned distortion."
The track takes its title from the '60s French/Spanish horror film of the same name, helmed by Jess Franco, though released as Diabolical Dr. Z in the U.S.
Reflecting upon the tune's lyrical origins, Desjardins says that he may have been unaware of its personal significance at first: "In retrospect, I think I was singing the song partly to myself. I had six years clean and sober at the time, and I was determined not to take that grace bestowed upon me for granted. But it was also about other people I knew still drinking and drugging on a full-steam-ahead-train-to-nowhere, some of whom eventually cleaned up their act, others who did not and are now consequently six feet under."
There is, he adds, a smattering of zeitgeist about it, citing religious fanaticism as an inspiration. He notes, "It's also very much about right-wing Christian/Jewish/Islamic fundamentalists trying to sucker their minions into believing they need this draconian, intolerant set of absurd rules to know God and to hate others not of their mindset," he says. "When really there is no wall, no middle-man you have to go through to know a so-called God or to commune with your own spirit, or to commune with the cosmos, or what-have-you."
The third video for the LP, following the tracks "Black Temptation" and "Ghost Cave Lament," "Miss Muerte" is different in approach from its predecessors. "The first two were very stylized in execution and shaped as deep, surrealistic dives into the tragic-love/sexual-trauma dream world of my tormented psyche," Desjardins adds with a laugh.
"In contrast, [this time], I wanted to go for a much more straightforward, performance-oriented presentation of the whole band. Even though it's lip-synched, it's still a good approximation of what you'll see if you catch this current incarnation of the Flesh Eaters at a live gig with a great mix and a great sound system."
He called upon the talents of friend Dave Markey, who'd previously helmed projects for SST bands, such as the Meat Puppets, in addition to directing the documentary 1991: The Year Punk Broke, which chronicled Sonic Youth and Nirvana across a groundbreaking tour that same year.
"I knew Dave was still very much into the DIY ethos and could do wonders on a small budget," Desjardins says, "I knew, too, he is a Flesh Eaters fan. He and his collaborator, editor Tony Berrios, really did a phenomenal job on this video with very limited resources, a very time-challenged schedule, and a super-quick turnaround. They accomplished a swell melding of both the rehearsal studio footage and the live stuff shot a few days later at our January 19th Echoplex show in Los Angeles."
To coincide with the new video, the group will undertake the second leg of a U.S. tour, winding through the Midwest and East Coast. "This lineup had not played outside the West Coast before, aside from All Tomorrow's Parties," Desjardins points out. "We see some people who were not around during the main period of the band in the '70s and '80s." He adds, "It's gratifying because there's been a lot written and a lot of word-of-mouth about the band."
There are those, he says, who praise his work outside the Flesh Eaters, noting his role as producer and mix supervisor on the first Gun Club album, Fire of Love, his role as producer on the Dream Syndicate's The Days of Wine and Roses and Green on Red's Gravity Talks. He is also, he points out, the person who remixed Walk Among Us, the 1982 Slash/Ruby Records effort from the Misfits, working with the group's vocalist, Glenn Danzig on the project. "They were not the easiest band to work with," he recalls. "That is the one record I still make some money from, which makes up for everything else."
As for the future of the Flesh Eaters, Desjardins remains optimistic, despite some projects that will cast in bandmates in different directions for much of 2019. "It'll be another year, maybe two years before we do another record," he says. "A year-and-a-half ago, I didn't think we'd do another album. Then we got together in April to record I Used to Be Pretty."
Between now and the next Flesh Eaters' recording, he'll work on a new effort with Divine Horsemen, featuring Christensen and guitarist Peter Andrus. "That'll come first, then maybe after that I'll get together with the guys, probably early next year."
Sat., March 9 SAINT PAUL, MN Turf Club
Sun., March 10 CHICAGO, IL Lincoln Hall
Mon., March 11 GRAND RAPIDS, MI The Pyramid Scheme
Tues., March 12 DETROIT, MI El Club
Thurs., March 14 BOSTON, MA City Winery Boston
Fri., March 15 PHILADELPHIA, PA Johnny Brenda's
Sat., March 16 WASHINGTON, DC Union Stage
Sun. March 17 NEW YORK Bowery Ballroom