Side projects are a time-honored tradition in Pop music. But how many of them are truly inspired, unique additions to the landscape and not just vanity projects largely given attention due to the creators’ better-known musical outlets?
Don’t count Diane Coffee, the alter ego of Foxygen drummer Shaun Fleming, among the less successful of those seeking to scratch their own creative itch. Fleming’s one-man-band debut album as Coffee, the curiously titled My Friend Fish, is an unexpectedly lush affair, an album bursting with addictive harmonies, varied guitar tones and emotive vocals that wouldn’t sound out of place next to everything from a ’60s Motown record to a Psych-kissed version of The Beach Boys to Bowie in the ’70s.
My Friend Fish is unexpected for a number of reasons, the most obvious being the conditions under which it was birthed. Fleming — a lifelong Californian and child actor who voiced multiple Disney productions before joining Foxygen — moved to New York City last winter on a whim. The move, coupled with a sickness that left him hopelessly homebound, resulted in two weeks of writing and recording with little more than a makeshift drum set, a couple of detuned guitars and a MacBook Pro.
CityBeat recently tracked down Fleming via phone to discuss his Coffee creation (the touring version is complemented by a quartet of friends), which was released by indie label Western Vinyl last October.
CityBeat: What’s it been like to move from behind the drum kit to frontman duties?
Shaun Fleming: It’s definitely been a crazy transition, although before I started Foxygen I never really considered myself a drummer. I think the drumming was more of an interesting transition, because when I was in other bands and joke projects I was always fronting and writing. This feels more like back to business as usual, however on a much larger scale. The drumming thing felt far more strange than this feels.
CB: How did your move to New York inform the writing of My Friend Fish?
SF: I’ve always been writing, but I definitely got a big creative boost when I moved.
That was very inspiring. I don’t know if the songs would have been exactly the same, but something would have happened. Before the move to New York I had a computer-and-a-half of this weird material and this is just kind of the stuff I chose to put out. Whether it would have been the My Friend Fish we all know? It probably wouldn’t have been. It probably would have been something different. It’s kind of hard to say. I just really like how that one little moment turned out.
CB: How did the various constraints — no budget, few instruments at your disposal, minimal recording devices — impact the recording?
SF: I guess it definitely made it sound more lo-fi. Or more ’70s. I mean, I only had a few instruments, so I had to improvise a lot. I love harmonies, but there’s probably a lot more on this album than I’ve ever done before just because I was using that to kind of fill out the sound. It was very fun. I think I had to do some things that I wouldn’t have normally done, just to get the sound I was going for.
Sometimes I would change a song because there was no possible way that I could do the things that I wanted to do — like weird synths or even like a good, solid drum tone. All those drums were done on a voice memo app thing that didn’t have a mic or the ability to get a good sound. The songs sounded kind of crazy. It’s like digital lo-fi, which I kinda was into.
CB: Listening to it before I knew anything about the context in which it was recorded, I would never have guessed it was done on the cheap. It actually sounds pretty layered and kind of lush.
SF: Thanks. I nitpicked, though. That whole thing was done on GarageBand. I’ve gotten so good at GarageBand now, so I did a good amount of layering. I recorded it in two weeks, but when I realized it was going to be released I sat down for a couple more weeks and really produced it out a little bit, really made sure everything was how I wanted it to sound.
CB: I read that you started writing each song on the drums. How did that influence the songwriting process?
SF: The whole album is very groove-based. I had to do the drums first. I would just wake up and start to play the drums because I only had this small window of time to record loud stuff, so it was just kind of out of necessity that I had to do that. It was the first time I really felt like a solid drummer, just having played with Foxygen enough to know how to play drums finally. So I was really excited to play and to record. I think there are so many melodies constantly running through my head and so many little riffs. I don’t know if I can’t start with anything else anymore. All the new stuff I’ve been writing is the same way. It’s easier for me to have a form down already.
CB: How did your work as an actor impact the album? Did you see Diane Coffee as a character you were inhabiting?SF: Most definitely. The whole Diane Coffee thing kind of came about just because, at the time, I began studying the masculine and feminine archetypes and how they played into my life. I kind of wanted this character to be a sort of theatrical, feminine character. I guess her stage presence has always been there. It’s kind of like flipping a switch. I wouldn’t say I’m as big and bold as Diane is on the stage when I’m off. I like to think I’m a little more reserved off the stage. It’s been fun really getting into character. You feel like because you’re not necessarily yourself that you can be free to do whatever it is that you want, act in a way that you wouldn’t act otherwise.
DIANE COFFEE performs a free show at Over-the-Rhine's MOTR Pub on Thursday, Jan. 16. Click here for details.