Neo Nuthin'

You'd expect that phrases like "washed up" and "over the hill" would apply to every band that's been at it for 16 albums and more than 25 years. Mostly you'd be right, but not in the case of the Fleshtones. The Queens, New York, band's new album, Do You Swing?, is the best since their career-defining Hexbreaker of 20 years ago. Sure, the Fleshtones have been around long enough to have literally fathered most of the bands in the latest so-called garage-rock revival, but that doesn't mean they can't still show their spiritual offspring a thing or three.

"If someone says they've never heard our music, I'd say they probably have, by other people and by somebody they like," declares Fleshtones singer/organist/ harmonica player Peter Zaremba. "We're kind of a distillation of all the stuff that people nowadays are saying is the garage-rock thing. We're psychedelia, we're American frat-rock party.

"I'd say we're the one band that makes it exciting and fun; you never know what's gonna happen in a Fleshtones show. I think a lot of bands have been influenced by us -- anyone from the Hives to R.E.M., which is a bizarre mixture."

Their recorded output is substantial in both volume and quality, but the majority of their reputation has been built on their live shows.

"We're definitely action guys," Zaremba says. "You gotta expect a lot of action -- kind of like a wrestling match. You can't predict it except that you know that justice will prevail. Maybe nowhere else in the rest of the world but in professional wrestling and our show, justice will prevail."

And it's not just a search for justice that drives these aging superheroes. It's also beer, speed and a refusal to suffer fools and foolishness gladly.

"We're more beer-party-oriented and we have a higher amphetamine inflection than a lot of the other bands. We're definitely an action quartet with a little inspiration from the Kinks and the Yardbirds. These are all common denominators these days, but in 1976 there weren't that many bands that could make that claim, especially going into the 1980s with the new-wave garbage and new romantic nonsense."

They've been around long enough to epitomize both hip and square and hip again. It all happens so fast -- hipsters can never tell if they're cool or not.

"We were always on the periphery of great success, but we were always kind of laughed at," Zaremba says of the '80s. "All that other stuff was going on, with the funny haircuts and costumes. People couldn't figure us out 'cause we dressed like human beings, but really there is nothing to figure out -- we're four real men on stage grooving just through sheer will power. Forget talent, forget physical ability, we just will this to exist."

Although they sprung up in New York City at the dawn of punk rock, they're not usually associated with bands of that era. Their contemporary, Andy Shernoff, the bass player and mastermind of proto-punkers the Dictators, commented on where the 'Tones legacy fits into the much fabled NYC scene.

"Even though they started in the '70s, I don't see them as a '70s band. They didn't quite fit in, 'cause they weren't that wise-guys punk rock like the Dictators, Ramones or Dead Boys-style. And they weren't as arty as Talking Heads or Television. They really became more successful in the 1980s when they were huge in Europe and Peter had his MTV show [The Cutting Edge] in America. They rarely got mentioned in the CBGBs scene. They're kind of skipped over even though they were around.

"Actually they're more contemporary today. A lot of the new garage bands, like the Hives, the White Stripes -- I don't know if they listened to the Fleshtones, but the Fleshtones were certainly treading that water back in the late-'70s and '80s. Guitar sound-wise, texture-wise, they're an influence on them."

Aside from Zaremba, the current Fleshtones lineup consists of fellow founding member Keith Streng on guitar, Bill Milhizer, who's held down the drum chair for 22 years, and Ken Fox, who joined on bass in 1992.

The new record continues their venerable party-central theme. The disc is awash with fuzzy patches of woolly guitar, yelps of yowling harmonica, and plenty of boot-stomping and tambourine-shaking, all of which is shot through a Dumpster vibe. This blessed cacophony adds up to their patented iconoclastic retro-rock groove, wherein they salute their favorite dive ("Destination Greenpoint"), their favorite chord progression ("One Four Five") and their favorite gender ("Headlock on My Heart," "Right On Woman").

Oddly, these dyed-in-the-wool New Yorkers recorded Do You Swing? in the North Carolina studio of Southern Culture on the Skids front man Rick Miller.

"Rick Miller, that hick, that hayseed?" Zaremba laughs. "We met him at a three-card monte game in Times Square. He said, 'Aw, shucks,' and we said, 'Well, if you like that, why don't you invite us down to your ranch?'"

Zaremba then gets serious. "He really understands where we're coming from. We're not purists, we're not trying to sound like Son House, we'd rather sound like Son House after he watched some Liberace movies and then teamed up with Steve Albini or somebody. The more juxtaposition you get, the more fun it is. None of this stuff was meant to be revered or respected."

Zaremba has little patience for keepers of the holy shrines of garage rock. "We just take all this type of music we like and mash it together," he says. "I know that offends some garage purists. We don't have bowl haircuts or play Vox guitars. We don't mummify the material. Some people were kind of flipped out that we had a Led Zeppelin song on this record. We reprocessed it into our own garage ethics, and to us that's what the whole thing is about. If you go way back to the real original garage bands, what we used to call punk in the '60s, they were just white kids trying to play Top 40 or R&B to the best of their ability, which was usually limited, and that's the beauty of it. There's a certain beauty in these things, because people couldn't do any better or couldn't afford another take."

Bring up the state of rock and roll today, and Zaremba vents like a busted high-pressure steam pipe. "This must be the umpteenth garage-rock revival, none of which did us any good whatsoever," he opens. From there, he grows ever more furious.

"I'm sure this one won't do us any good. All of the purists and all of the people that are riding this train to clownsville and piles of money do their best to ignore us. When it comes down to it, I remember seeing all of these jerks ten years ago sitting slack-jawed in the front row watching us. Even though they might say they weren't, I saw them, and if they deny it, they're lying. When they get bored and go back to synthesizers or whatever, we'll still be doing what we're doing, 'cause we can reinvent what we do, every time we go on the stage."

Why continue on after all these years, especially when third- or fourth-generation bands are getting rich playing pale imitations of their music?

It's all about the gigs. "At the end of the evening I feel purged, I feel revived, almost like Pentecostalism or something," Zaremba says. "I know the whole band does, too."

And you can ask any movie producer -- where justice prevails, the fans go home happy, too.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Timothy J. O'Brien