Secure in 'obscurity'


June 13, 2003


While they never scored a hit single like the '60s pioneers who inspired them, and it's been a long time since they were media darlings like current heroes the White Stripes, the Hives or the Mooney Suzuki, a case can be made that the Fleshtones are the greatest garage band in rock history.

The long-running group formed in Queens in 1976, the best of a handful of bands (including the Slickee Boys from Washington, D.C., the Mighty Mofos from Minneapolis and the Chesterfield Kings from upstate New York) who sought in the wake of punk to revive the energy, sounds and attitude of the '60s garage bands that had been celebrated on Lenny Kaye's "Nuggets" compilation--snarling but tuneful groups such as the Seeds, the Standells and the Kingsmen.

Now, 27 years and 16 albums later, founding members Peter Zaremba (vocals and Farfisa organ), Keith Streng (guitar) and Bill Milhizer (drums)--along with Kenny Fox (a relative newcomer on bass dating back to the mid-1980s)--have weathered two or three garage revivals, and they're still going strong with a solid new album ("Do You Swing?" on the Southern indie Yep Roc) and live shows that are justly famous for stopping one step before a debauched bacchanal.


*10 p.m. Saturday
*Double Door, 1572 N. Milwaukee
*Tickets, $10
*(773) 489-3160

"During a good show--or even a really, really bad show--something just takes over," Zaremba says of his stage persona as the ultimate speed-freak party animal. "In fundamentalist religious circles, it's called the spirit, and I'm most definitely possessed. Sometimes I have trouble explaining that to people, but it's not an act. Something happens, and I'm usually disappointed if it doesn't happen."

Like their '60s heroes, the Fleshtones have had a career that has largely been a comedy of errors. In the early '80s, they signed to IRS Records, then the hippest label in the world and home to their pals in R.E.M. For a time, Zaremba was also on his way to rock celebrity as the host of MTV's "The Cutting Edge" (before the show became "120 Minutes" and the music video channel turned away from music).

Now the classic discs that the group recorded for IRS--including '81's "Roman Gods" and '83's "Hexbreaker"--are long since out of print, as are a strong string of albums that the group made in the '90s for the Telstar label.

"All the stuff we did in the '90s was impounded by the feds because the company went out of business and they were bought by somebody else who also went out of business," Zaremba says. "It's part of our continuing history of obscurity--we're everyone's favorite frustratingly obscure band."

There's a key difference between the Fleshtones and the forgotten legends on "Nuggets," though. "We've kept at it!" Zaremba says.

To record "Do You Swing?" the group drove down to North Carolina to work with Rick Miller of Southern Culture on the Skids in his cinder-block studio, the Kudzu Ranch, formerly a commercial garage. "He was sort of a natural to work with us," Zaremba says. "Not just that he knows the band--he's been a fan since he was a kid--but he knows where we draw from."

In addition to their undeniable talents--Zaremba's soulful growl, Streng's fuzz-driven fury and Milhizer's tribal pounding--the Fleshtones' strength is that they've always viewed garage as an attitude more than a particular sound. Rather than slavishly trying to recreate the past, they try to bring the garage spirit into the present, whether transforming unlikely covers (they've been known to tackle everyone from disco hero Sylvester to Led Zeppelin) or churning out their own timeless anthems (including "Screaming Skull" from the classic "Hexbreaker" album, or the title track of their latest disc).

"Garage was an attitude, a process," Zaremba says. "It was a way that these bands worked. Why did we like these bands? Why did we like what they did as it was happening? These guys were just covering the Sylvesters of their time. It wasn't that they set out to sound like they did; they just played to the best of their sometimes limited abilities, but they were inspired and they wanted to do it.

"When we cover a song by another artist, it becomes a Fleshtones song. We're great believers in, 'What were these bands trying to do?' When we did 'Communications Breakdown' on 'Do You Swing?' we were trying to do a Led Zeppelin song as the Yardbirds would have done it, because they very well might have--that might have been one of the songs that they were kicking around before they called it quits. If the Standells were around at the time, they may well have done a Sylvester song, but they'd have done it their way."

Zaremba and his bandmates have long since resigned themselves to the fact that the Fleshtones will never be superstars--"I always say there is no trend that will ever help the Fleshtones," the singer says--but they're more than content to balance their ongoing status as underground rock gods with pay-the-rent day jobs. (Zaremba is now a travel and food writer who contributes to the New York Daily News, Modern Bride and Time Out New York.)

"Our ups and downs through the years do give me a weird perspective on the music business," Zaremba says, "although it must be obvious at this point that we never took it seriously enough to either capitalize on any of that stuff or to feel that bad when it was over. A lot of bands would probably just break up. We were never desperate to make a lot of money--and I'm not saying that we don't want money--but we were never desperate enough to compromise what we were doing.

"As for where we fit in now, man, I don't know, even if we helped start it in a way. It's more that we enjoy it and we know that a certain amount of people really enjoy it. I see a lot of bands that you can tell are just going through the motions--it's like a chore or a job. This isn't a job for us. Enough people come up to me and tell me that we're the best band in the world. Well, whether that's true or not, that's a great thing to be told."


And speaking of '60s revivals, our town plays host over the next few days to The ModChicago Weekender, a series of gigs celebrating the once-again vibrant mod scene. Events include an dance party starting at 9 tonight at the Note, 1565 N. Milwaukee, with DJs featuring New Jersey super mod and fanzine publisher Bill Luther (cover, $8; call 773-489-0011) and a mod/garage sale and record swap at Delilah's, 2771 N. Lincoln, from noon until 6 p.m. Saturday.

The highlight of the weekend, though, is Saturday's rare local performance by Minneapolis legends the Funseekers at the Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western. The Chains and the Civilize Age open the show, which starts at 9 p.m. Cover, $12; call (773) 276-3600.