LA has been invaded by the 1981-era Flesh Eaters once again, and in 2019, these horrifying creatures are no throwbacks. This collection of serious players from the old school – comprised of Dave Alvin and Bill Bateman of the Blasters, John Doe and DJ Bonebrake of X, Steve Berlin from Los Lobos and vocalist and bandleader Chris D (nee Desjardins)- have emerged from the grave with what could be the most terrifying prospect imaginable: THE BELOVED OLD BAND WITH A NEW ALBUM! Like, be still my heart!
But Chris D, for his part, claims not to have botched it. On the phone from his home in LA he sounds positively giddy talking about the new album, I Used To Be Pretty, released today on Yep Roc. The band will be performing at the Echoplex this Saturday, January 19, along with Mudhoney, whose patronage inspired the first unlikely reformation of this crew back in 2006 via an invitation to perform on their curated bill at the All Tomorrow’s Parties Festival in the UK. Since then, there have been two additional sets of live shows, each featuring some minor modification to the set list. But 2018 marked the combo’s first return to the recording studio since making the earth-shattering LP A Minute To Pray, A Second To Die.
“I’ve thought about it,” Desjardins says when asked if he’s tried to get this band to record previously. “But I’ve always felt that it was going to involve too much wood shedding beforehand, and the guys weren’t going to have time.” That’s an understandable side effect of having players of this caliber, who all remain busy and popular.
“But what occurred to me about halfway through the last string of shows that we did in January 2018, up in San Francisco and Seattle, I thought we’ve gotta get into the studio and document how we sound right now. Because we sound just as good as we did in 1981, if not better. And we’re also sounding different. You know, all the Flesh Easters lineups have sounded somewhat different from each other. My being the control freak I am, I kind of melded the sound so they have some kind of consistency of tone.
“I hadn’t been in the studio since 2003, at least for recording… it had been fifteen years. But I looked at the amount of material that we had that this band had not played on, on record. We had played it in gigs but they hadn’t recorded it with me.” And so the first outlines of a possible new Flesh Eaters album began to form in Desjardins’ mind, and sessions began a couple of months later.
In the studio, Desjardins had the band tackle a handful of songs that originated with previous Flesh Eater incarnations. “We had new versions of ‘My Life to Live’ and ‘The Wedding Dice’, which these guys had never recorded with me before. Although Steve Berlin is on the original version of ‘The Wedding Dice’. Doing vaguely the same kind of sax stuff. But ‘My Life To Live’ has a little more of an, I don’t want to say arena rock, but it’s got a melodic hook with the guitar, sax and the marimbas when I’m not singing. That is unique, and was not on the original. I like that and I wanted to get the song out there in a new context.
‘We were doing a couple of songs from the 1999-2003 period already, ‘Miss Muerte’ and ‘House Amid the Thickets’, and I wanted to record those. ‘Miss Muerte’ was sounding like, you could tell it was the same song but with the sax in there blending the guitar and the way Dave was laying the riff, I thought it really warranted putting that version on record. It’s certainly, I think it’s probably a better version than even the original.”
He sounds especially excited about a new take on “The Youngest Profession”, which initially appeared on the SST-era album Dragstrip Riot.
“The original guitar player who did it with me, Wayne James, is no longer with us, but he and I came up with the music. It’s just one standard riff over and over. Dave felt we didn’t have the time to work it up last time last January for the live shows. But he liked it and it stuck in the back of his mind. And he really surprised me back in April, when we were recording… the rest of the stuff had gone so well, we were almost done.” The unplanned song got a shot in the recording room, and became an eight-minute epic.
“During these three instrumental sections where I’m not singing… Dave and Steve, on my command, really go nuts on the guitar and sax. They’re doing this kind of battle of the instruments, and each time they do it, it gets more frenzied. And then the last one is so over the top, it’s amazing.
“And I got to do a lot of real ‘singing’ type singing. I surprised myself. There’s a lot of room for improvisation, and dynamics in the vocals as well as the instruments.
“So it was just really startling how well it came together. And it was really exciting, and I’m glad Dave had kept that in the back of his mind because he was the one who suggested we try it since we had a little extra time. And it came out great so, bonus!”
There are a few covers among the new set, ravers that have been spicing up the band’s gigs. “The version that we’re doing of Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac ‘Green Manalishi’, the last song he recorded with the band, trying to exorcise the demons of that bad acid trip that he took when he was in Germany. That song has always fascinated me. I’ve listened to a lot of live versions on Youtube that are spectacular, much more so than the studio version that they did. And Dave Alvin was also a fan of the song and we had discussed other covers before we did those last live shows. This one had come together so spectacularly that I really wanted to get it recorded.
“I have been singing the Jeffrey (Lee Pierce) song ‘She’s Like Heroin to Me’ for at least five or six different Jeffrey Lee/ Gun Club tribute shows. Keith Morris was doing it for a while, and Rob Zabrecky, they would usually have a consistent rhythm section and then they would have a strong of vocalists going up doing from one to three songs. Sometimes I would do ‘She’s Like Heroin To Me’, ‘Ghost On The Highway’ and ‘Fire of Love’. Sometimes I would only do one song and that was always ‘She’s Like Heroin To Me’, so that seemed like a good one to also record. We were doing it live at all our shows, in 2018, and in 2015. And even back in 2006, we were doing it. So, that was one I wanted to get out there.”
There are also new songs, fleshed out in advance by Alvin and Desjardins, and learned by the other musicians mere moments before putting them on tape. “Those new songs, the rest of the guys had barely heard them when we were in the studio. I think Dave and I had sent them like, very poor quality phone video of us playing like, a bar or two of the song just so they kind of knew where they were going. And then Dave and I had to teach them those two songs when we were in the studio.”
Of the thirteen-minute composition “Ghost Cave Lament”, Desjardins notes, “it’s a song that’s very heavily influenced by flamenco music, but it’s prismed through the Flesh Eaters so it doesn’t really sound flamenco-ish. But you can certainly hear some of those riffs.”
The band’s current efforts found a natural home on Yep Roc, which was worked on multiple Alvin-involved releases. “Dave ran it by the owner of Yep Roc, he agreed without having heard anything …we had a label deal before we finished the basic tracks,” marvels Desjardins.
Considering what a furnace-blast the last several Flesh Eaters live experiences have been, we can’t recommend this show and album highly enough. We’ll be looking for you… in the boneyard.