After hearing their name frequently referenced over the years as an influence to many bands, I didn’t first listen to The Flesh Eaters until I came across vocalist Mark Lanegan’s “Bakers Dozen” feature in The Quietus. Lanegan said of the bands 1981 album A Minute to Pray, A Second to Die: “It’s a perfect record, in my opinion, from start to finish. It doesn’t sound like anything else because of Chris D’s unhinged way of singing as well as the massive amount of lyrics that he fits into a small space.” That was all I needed to hear to immediately check it out. Instantly, I loved it. Mostly because it didn’t sound at all like what I was expecting. Being known as first wave LA punk, I expected something…more punk. But, this was something rooted in punk, but more of a sprawling, epic amalgamation of art, horror, and feral abandon.
As I dived deeper into the album, naturally the liner notes were a revelation. John Doe and DJ Bonebrake of LA punk legends X played bass and marimba, respectively. Further, Dave Alvin (guitar), Bill Bateman (drums), and Steve Berlin (sax, who would later go on to join Los Lobos) of the Blasters were also in the fold. This iteration of The Flesh Eaters was a punk super-group decades before some corporate stooge came up with the term “super-group.”
This lineup of the band would initially regroup for 2006’s All Tomorrow’s Parties, then later in 2015, and several shows last year. This inevitably led to their latest album I Used To Be Pretty, that was released last month. The first Flesh Eaters album in 15 years, and the first with this lineup of the band in more than 35 years, I’ve had Pretty in constant rotation since it came out. More than three decades may have passed since the band recorded A Minute to Pray, but I Used To Be Pretty still has that particular fire that made the former album a cult classic.
When the opportunity came for an interview with band leader Chris Desjardin (aka Chris D), I jumped at the chance to learn more about the album, as well as his history in LA punk and how this incredible lineup of the band first came together. The Flesh Eaters play Dallas on Sunday February 24th at Club DaDa. There’s simply no good reason why you shouldn’t be in attendance.
the void report: Congrats on this new album. I’ve been listening to it for a couple of weeks straight and I’m really loving it.
Chris Desjardin: Oh, good. I’m glad you like it. I’m very happy with it and the guys are too.
the void report: There’s so much history with you and the other members of the band. I wanted to go back to those early days of the LA punk scene. How do you first meet these guys?
Chris Desjardin: There were two different things I kind of wanted to do with my life. One, the priority was be a film director. After I got my MFA, I’d taught school for about six months, a private high school. I was teaching English. That was during the time I discovered Slash Magazine and started writing for them. When Slash Magazine came around and I was going to the Masque all the time, I ran into John (Doe) playing in X.
So, I knew these guy’s from back then. I hadn’t become friends with them, we just knew each other. But, when I started seeing them at the Masque, and I saw X, I just was blown away, and I thought, “Oh my god, these guys are so great,” and I started giving them good reviews in Slash, and we became friendly, and I was already starting, trying to get the Flesh Eaters together. I had periodic lineups of the Flesh Eaters, but I really couldn’t keep the band together, because generally I would have guitarists in the band who would want to be front people in their own band.
John and Exene (Cervenka) and I went down to a party in 1980 at the Blasters’ house. Because John and Exene had become friendly with them. I was really astonished that Dave Alvin was a fan of the first Flesh Eaters album, No Questions Asked. Because of the writing and the lyrics and stuff, Dave was a fan of the album. And I thought it was so unusual that this guy, who was in kind of more of a roots rock band, was into it.
This was also at a time I was becoming friends with Jeffrey Lee Pierce and the Gun Club, because he was writing for Slash. Keith Morris, who was the original singer in Black Flag, and eventually started the Circle Jerks, was a part of our kind of circle with John and X and the Blasters and Jeffrey. Jeffrey Lee Piece and Keith Morris were close friends.
When I decided to do the Minute to Pray, Second to Die album, I wanted to try something different. I had been listening to a lot of indigenous African music, like tribal music, that was made up of chants and African drumming. I was listening to a lot of Link Wray and Bo Diddley and John Lee Hooker and people like that, as well as punk rock.
So that was kind of the impetus for the music, and when I presented the idea to Dave and John about doing this album with me as the Flesh Eaters and the understanding always was, this is gonna be a temporary thing. Dave and Bill had the Blasters, Steve Berlin was not permanently in any one band, he was playing with Top Jimmy, he was playing with… God, I can’t remember all the other bands he was playing with. He played with so many people. And eventually he joined Los Lobos in the early 80s, but that was yet to come.
That was how I got together with Dave and John and Steve and DJ and Bill for the initial Flesh Eaters Minute to Pray album. And that was the only Flesh Eaters album with that lineup for the longest time, and it looked like it would be the only one with that lineup. And we did live shows for about six months before the other guys had to really curtail it and go off and do their main things.
the void report: How did you end up reuniting the Minute to Pray line up?
Chris Desjardin: In 2006, John Doe got a call out of the blue. Mark Arm, from Mudhoney, didn’t know how to get in touch with me, but he knew John and he said, “You know, we’d really like to have the Flesh Eaters play this festival with us in England. We’re getting one day at All Tomorrow’s Parties where we’re the headliners and we get to curate that day. We get to be the booking agent, basically, for that one day. And book bands we’d really like to see play.” John got in touch with me and told me about it and I started talking to Mark. Between John, I, and Mark we got the contact information for All Tomorrow’s Parties. And we went out to the other guys, Dave and Steve and Bill and DJ and they were all really into the idea of doing a reunion thing for that festival.
Then in 2015 I asked those guys, “Do you guys want to try and do this again?” And to my surprise, all those guys were very enthusiastic about trying to do it again. And so we booked some shows. We booked five shows for January 2015. And that’s basically what started where we are now, because once again we had so much fun during those five shows in 2015 that we decided to do it again, much sooner.
the void report: Tell us how the songs on I Used To Be Pretty came together.
Chris Desjardin: “Cinderella,” the Sonics cover, was something we’d actually been doing since 1981, but we’d never recorded it back then. Because we actually started doing it after we had recorded the Minute to Pray album, so that never got recorded. And then we had time for Dave and I to work on a couple new songs, and we re-recorded a couple Flesh Eaters songs that this lineup didn’t play on, from the album that came afterwards, the Forever Came Today album. We did “My Life to Live” and “Wedding Dice,” which we were already doing at shows, and those were very popular Flesh Eaters songs.
the void report: Six tracks are re-recorded versions that appeared on other albums. Were those selected just because you had had them in the live set? Why did you pick those particular songs?
Chris Desjardin: “My Life To Live,” especially, was sounding quite different from the original version. The stuff that Steve was doing on sax and DJ was doing with the marimba. When I wasn’t singing, it was quite different from the way the original song sounded. I mean, the vocal melody’s the same, the lyrics are the same, and the song has got the same spirit and heavy sound. But, in some ways it’s a little more melodic because of the sax and the marimba. So, it was sounding quite different. And “Wedding Dice” is fairly close to the way it was originally played, but we actually played it so fast in the studio…it’s about twice as fast as the original version.
And all three of those, “Pony Dress,” “Wedding Dice,” “My Life to Live,” we were already doing in the live set. We were already rehearsed. “The Youngest Profession,” which is from a Flesh Eaters album from 1991 that was on SST, was kind of a blue shout song that I had come up with my guitar player at the time, Wayne Steinert.
The two new songs, “Black Temptation” and “Ghost Cave Lament,” the other guys had not really heard what Dave and I had been working on. So, the other guys were learning those three songs, the two new songs and “The Youngest Profession,” right there in the studio. And it was just, because those guys are such pros and we have this kind of chemistry together, they just kind of came together so easily.
But, like the “Black Temptation” song and “Ghost Cave Lament,” the guys just picked up on stuff so quickly. We worked the longest on “Black Temptation,” because there’s a time change. It was hard to execute when you’re doing it right off the bat and you’re trying to record it right away. If we’d had time, it wouldn’t have been such a struggle to get it right. But we did get it right, and it sounds on the album like we’ve been playing it for years.
“Ghost Cave Lament,” I had this very long Manitas De Plata piece that I was using as inspiration. And originally I wanted to do a song with those flamenco riffs that was more of a kind of noisy, free jazz punk rock thing, like the song “So Long” from Minute to Pray. Kind of an unusual rhythm. But playing it very distorted and playing those flamenco riffs, very distorted guitar, and have it be very noisy and have it be kind of a long song, but a little more complicated with the riff.
the void report: Well that’s definitely a highlight of the album, for me at least. And you know, when you’re working with the musicians that you’re working with, it’s not entirely shocking that it’d come together like that.
Chris Desjardin: And that song really came together in the studio, because Dave and I showed them the song and we played about a 20 minute version of it on the first day. And I was surprised how good it came out. It was like wow, there’s a lot of really great stuff here, but it’s pretty messy and it’s a little bit aimless in a few places. And I thought, okay, by the fourth or fifth take we’re gonna get this. But we did a second take that was the song that’s on the album. The take that’s on the album. And I just was astonished that we got it on the second try.
the void report: When I listened to the album the first time, “Ghost Cave Lament” was immediately my favorite track on there. And when I listened to it the first time, I immediately just started it over to listen to it again. And when I did that, I saw that it was 13 minutes and I was like, “Wait a minute. That was 13 minutes?!?“
Chris Desjardin: Yeah. That’s what’s astonishing about it. Because it doesn’t seem that long. That’s always a good sign, when something’s that long and it doesn’t seem that long.
the void report: And then that song also brought the question to mind for me, and maybe this applies to your writing in general for songs, is that something where you have the lyrics beforehand? Or did you write those after you had the music put together?
Chris Desjardin: I had lyrics for that song. But they were quite different when Dave and I started it. I had some basic core lyrics, like the chorus, for instance. But I really wasn’t sure what I was gonna put in the verses, what I was gonna keep and what I was gonna throw out. ‘Cause I had a lot of lyrics. I had, there were three very long poems that I’d written in the 2008-2009 period, that ended up at the end of my Minute to Pray collection of writing. And I took some lines from each of those. There’s actually a really long poem in that book called “Ghost Cave Lament” that has a couple lines that I used in the song. But, it’s a very different poem, it’s not really similar to “Ghost Cave Lament” the song.
the void report: What can fans can expect on this upcoming tour?
Chris Desjardin: I don’t really know what to say except that last time that I was there in Dallas as the Flesh Eaters was in 1982. And I was with Forever Came Today/Hard Road to Follow lineup. And I don’t remember much about it. I remember, we did okay. But, I don’t remember too much. And then Divine Horsemen played Dallas several times in the mid ’80s. The ’86, ’87 period. But, that’s the last time I played music in Dallas. So it’ll be fascinating to see, you know, to be there in Texas and play music again. I always enjoyed playing Texas before, when I was in Divine Horsemen, and the few times that we played as the Flesh Eaters there.
the void report: Is the setlist mainly songs from I Used To Be Pretty? Or what else is in the mix?
Chris Desjardin: Well, we’re still gonna do most of the songs from Minute to Pray, and then we’re gonna do the songs on the album. I don’t know if we’re gonna do every song on the new album. We probably won’t do “Youngest Profession.” I’m not sure if we will or not. We might do it in some shows if we have a lot of encores or something. But, we’re gonna do most of the songs on the new album.
the void report: What does the future hold for the Flesh Eaters?
Chris Desjardin: We do have an option with the label to do another album somewhere down the line, which I hope we get to do. I don’t know if it’s gonna be later this year or 2020 or something, but I’m hoping we get to do that. And also, Julie (Christensen) and I are gonna try and record a new Divine Horsemen album later this year also. So hopefully all that stuff will come together as easily as all this has come together this past year.
Thurs., Feb. 21 HOUSTON, TX Continental Club
Fri.-Sat., Feb. 22-23 AUSTIN, TX Continental Club
Sun., Feb. 24 DALLAS, TX Club Dada
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, NY Bowery Ballroom