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- Shaun Fleming, a.k.a. Diane Coffee
New York City: not for Shaun Fleming.
"I didn't really like living in New York; I like New York to visit and hang out, but I can't really live there," says Fleming, who records as Diane Coffee, a psychedelic Bowie-esque songwriter with a madcap new record called Everybody's A Good Dog. But Bloomington felt like the place he grew up, California's suburban Agoura Hills. So Fleming – also the touring drummer in Foxygen – made a move.
What he found in Southern Indiana: a long-term partner; green spaces, and a musical community he dove straight into. And Tim Smiley, the perfect person with whom to make his new record.
Well – let's back up. Fleming actually already knew Smiley, who co-produced, recorded and mixed Diane Coffee's new record, out on Western Vinyl now. They first met when Smiley served as tour manager and sound engineer for Unknown Mortal Orchestra, another Jagjaguwar band that Foxygen, also signed to the Bloomington label, opened for. That was when Fleming was in the demoing process for his first Diane Coffee record My Friend Fish, recorded solo inside his New York apartment that he was looking to escape.
So when the chance to move to Southern Indiana emerged during a two-week Foxygen recording session in town, Fleming (hastily and happily) took it.
Then he set about making his dream record come true.
"I think the only vision I had for the record was I wanted it to sound like something proper in a studio, much more grand, a lot of strings, a lot of horns," Fleming says over the phone Monday, just at the end of a short tour, in the midst of preparing for another. "And I wanted to do it in Bloomington, I wanted to do it with Tim, and I wanted to have other people play on it."
Smiley, who majored in Recording Arts and minored in Physics at IU, worked his way up running sound at venues like Rhino's and The Bishop to touring as sound engineer with bands like Houndmouth and the aforementioned Unknown Mortal Orchestra and Foxygen. He juggles a collection of different touring commitments, including several jags with Foxygen last year, in between which he and Fleming would work on what would become Everybody's A Good Dog.
"I gave myself about three months to write, and I had that plus a little bit more to record in between Foxygen tours, which was great because that was plenty of time. I have a little studio in my place – a little room with some drums, an organ, tape machines, not really a studio proper, but it's great – and I would just hammer out [demos]," Fleming says.
"He had really intricate demos of every song already, so it was pretty easy to see where he wanted to go, so that was easy on my part. ... When we weren't on tour, I would bring over recording gear to his house and we would just mess around. The first thing we did was record a 'Soon to Be, Won't To Be' demo. That demo, we couldn't improve upon. So we ended up for the album just re-recording the drums better, and used all the original guitar track stuff from the original demo that we had first done," Smiley says.
"We'd set up in the living room and I would lay down a drum line, just whatever came to mind, or a bass line. You sort of do it right on the spot and see what happens," Fleming says. "['Soon To Be, Won't To Be'] happened, and just trying to recreate it in the studio it just didn't have that same vibe. That's why it sounds, I think, the most different from everything else on the record."
Although "Soon To Be, Won't To Be" does have a looser, scrappier vibe than the rest of Everybody's A Good Dog, the record contains of multitude of sounds, influences and vibes, spun out over 11 tracks Fleming describes as his Little Shop of Horrors meets Aladdin Sane vision. And that actually stems from a bit of a problem for Fleming – because did we mention he's a former child star and Disney voice actor? Yep, he spent his early days tracking voices for Kim Possible, Lilo and Stitch: The Series, Kingdom Hearts, among others. Every vocal part on Good Dog, besides a duet with Felicia Douglass aptly called "Duet," is Fleming's.
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- Fleming and Smiley (at right)
"[Voice acting] taught me how to manipulate my voice," Fleming says. "For the longest time I struggled with trying to find my voice. Trying to find what did I actually sound like, when I'm on record, or do I have to just pick a character and stick with it? That was kind of rough for a long time when I was starting to write right after high school. I could put on a country voice, maybe I'll just do country, or come out with a hip-hop album, I don't know [laughs]. I really didn't know what I wanted, because I was inspired by so much and was capable of voicing so many different types of things."
Because of his background in voice acting, Fleming was meticulous and labored while recording his vocal parts; Smiley, who says he prefers to record in large passes, sent him home with some gear so he could work as slowly as he'd like at home, then bring it back. "Basically we would have ... a pretty focused rough mix of instrumentals, and then I'd give him a bounce of it and he'd take it home and he'd record all his vocal parts and he'd bounce them out separately. So it'd be his lead vocal and all the separate background parts. He'd do that at night in his garage and bring it back to my house and we'd mix the song with the vocals, then do another mixdown of rough instrumental, and he could take that home."
Recording for Everybody's A Good Dog took place at three different studios: first, 10 days at Primary Sound Studios, then – because that wasn't quite enough – more at Smiley's home studio The Furnace Room and at Bloomington's Blockhouse, an event space/studio and media production house that also put together two videos for singles from the album.
In the studios, a rotating cast of local players, plus Fleming's touring band from the My Friend Fish days were brought in to play.
"We had his old band that was all from New York that came and were the session players: that would be Emily [Panic], Jared [Walker], Joey [Lefitz] and Steve [Okonski]. Shaun had a friend's dad record and write all the arrangements [Steve Hampton, Emoto Studios] and he did some live string instruments and also some midi stuff and sent it over," Smiley says. (Fleming's Foxygen bandmates Sam France and Jonathan Rado pop up on the album, too.)
From Bloomington, Kyle Houpt, Glenn Myers and Alex Arnold sat in to record. "That is one of the coolest parts about Bloomington, how much music comes out of here," Fleming says. "I guess it's maybe because IU is a really great music school, and we've got the cool labels ... and there's a lot of good venues: it seems like it's just this really awesome cesspool of talent. Everywhere you look there's so many people making so much great music. That's why it was so easy when we were recording to [say], 'Let's get some cool bass players! Who do we know?' And Tim just opens up his phone and could touch any connection and someone would come over and lay something down.
One of those cool bass players, Glenn Myers, says: "I really enjoy playing soul/funk/Motown music, and that was the general vibe Shaun was going for, so it went pretty smoothly. Shaun had a really great vision for this one, and Tim did a great job mixing it together." (Myers is also presently working on records with Ace Yankee and Sleeping Bag. )
Arnold (!mindparade, Jefferson Street Parade Band) popped in to record horns on the album's second single "Mayflower."
"[Shaun] posted on Facebook one day he needed a horn player for a session, so I messaged him about doing some trumpet. He had seen my group Jefferson Street Parade Band previously, and asked me to come in the following day to the Blockhouse, where we did about four overdubs of trumpet choir on the track "Mayflower.' I like the record and am stoked to be a part of it! My favorite tracks are the more forward-pushing synthed-out ones like 'Too Much Space Man,' " Arnold says. "Overall I think it's a fun and interesting take on '70s psych, and I'm impressed with Tim Smiley's mixing prowess, which really shines on those tracks."
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- Diane Coffee
Those carefully scanning the liner notes will find two special guests as well: Chris Swanson and Dave Walter.
"Shaun writes and performs from that fearless place that very few musicians ever find, or if they do they're only able to stay there for a few short beats. He lives there," says Swanson, cofounder of Secretly Canadian and co-owner-operator of various associated businesses, who also solicited Smiley and Fleming to put together tracks for films he's music supervising. "Tim's one of the most passionate people I know. He works incredibly fast, something he learned from touring the world with bands where you need to make decisions fast and there's no re-dos. When he's not on the road and is able to focus his passion on a studio project it's very potent. He and Shaun are a dream team."
The finished product (mastered by Joe Lambert in Brooklyn) is featured at a long run of live shows, including one in Indianapolis on Thursday with of Montreal. Diane Coffee will stay with the Athens' pop collective for more than 20 dates – although it's not the first time Fleming and of Montreal mastermind Kevin Barnes have toured together.
"We toured with his other band, Foxygen, before," Barnes said in an early October interview. "Then I started listening to his last record [My Friend Fish]. Then when I heard he had a new record that he was going to go out in support of, I was really excited and happy that it worked out that we could do the tour together. I think it's going to be a fun tour, because 1) the music is great and 2) they all seem like really fun, nice people. I think the vibe's going to be really solid."
When asked what makes for a traditionally successful opener for an of Montreal show (notoriously theatrical pop experiments) Barnes says it's not about the kind of music – although Diane Coffee's psychedelic experiments do sonically fit nicely – but instead reliant on that solid vibe.
"We just like to bring people who are like-minded and who are doing something that we appreciate, that we want to listen to every night, and feel inspired by," he says. "The main thing is for us to get along with them as people and to really appreciate their music and what they do from night to night.
Fleming notes of Montreal serves as an inspiration for him as he develops his own live show, and he remembers their last tour together fondly.
"They're so accommodating, so friendly," Fleming says. "I'm looking forward to just hanging out almost more than playing with them. Their live show is just on point. It's the show that I would want to be involved in. Watching them do that every night was a huge inspiration for what I hope to – when financially able – do something like that as well."
Right now, he's bringing out locals Myers (bass), Ben Lumsdaine (drums) and Drake Ritter (guitar), plus Nashville's Caleb Hickman (keys). Smiley won't be able to come along as sound engineer; previous obligations with Houndmouth call, but he did set up a few shows where Diane Coffee and Houndmouth will take the stage together.
The project has consumed a large part of Fleming and Smiley's lives over the last year or so, in addition to all the other musical projects they juggle. But with lots of hands pitching in all along the way for various permutations of the project – like Blockhouse's marathon one-take video for “Mayflower,” (see above), which involved dozens of people – Fleming has tons of help to realize his creative vision in his new Hoosier home.
Plus: “When you're working with family, it's hardly work,” Fleming says.