Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Conversation With Keith Streng of The Fleshtones

When the Fleshtones formed in 1976, they couldn't have comprehended the rock and roll journey that they were about to embark on.

Their very first live gig was performed at CBGB, which had opened just a few years earlier. As a young band, they shared a practice space with The Cramps on Bowery Street in New York City. They toured with the likes of The Dictators, REM, Chuck Berry and Iggy Pop. Once they even opened for James Brown.

They played at the magical complex at the top of the World Trade Center called Windows On the World just a few weeks before the building was destroyed by the attacks of 9/11. Their music has been featured in soundtracks to movies, and they have been tabbed to perform on tribute albums for the likes of the Dictators, Link Wray, James Brown, Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, and the Kinks. The Fleshtones themselves have released over 20 studio records, and were a vital part of CBGB's closing ceremonies when the punk palace closed in 2006. They remain the only band from the "CBGB Era" that has remained intact for all these years.

And despite this incredible resume, the Fleshtones have somehow managed to keep themselves under the radar of hip and popular culture. But judging  the state that the music industry has become, that's probably not a bad thing.

The Fleshtones will glide into Iowa City this Friday to headline an explosive lineup at the Firecracker 500 Rock Fest.

The Fleshtones perform at the 2013 Ink and Iron Festival in Long Beach.
(Photo by Jon David.)

The Fleshtones got their start after you all moved into an apartment and there were some instruments left behind from previous tenants. At that point you decided to form a band.. Is that an accurate assessment?

It's basically true. It wasn't an apartment, it was a house. The house had a basement. it was a private house in Whitestone, Queens but that's kinda why the band started. Yes.

So did you already know how to play the instruments? 

Well uh, Not really. I was a drummer already but then I decided to play guitar after seeing the Ramones but it's very true. We rented the house and went down to the basement and there was a Japanese guitar and bass just left there, you know in very bad condition, but they were playable. That's kind of what started the Fleshtones. 

Then your first gig was played at CBGB? 

Yeah. Um.. we played "Audition Night" which was every Tuesday night back then. I can even tell you the phone number... It's 212-982-4052. I called it so many times that I still remember it.

You also played the last gig at CBGB along with the Dictators and your friend Andy Shernoff? 

Yeah we were ALMOST the last night. There was one more night after us I believe I think that Patti Smith played. But we were the next to last night.

Keith Streng. Photo by Bigfoot Diareis

Ok... Gotcha. And you shared a rehearsal space with the Cramps. Do you have any stories that maybe other media sources haven't picked up on yet? 

I do remember we shared a space with the Cramps for a year and a half and there was one time the rehearsal space flooded and their equipment got destroyed. But we were in the back room and the flood did not reach us. So the Fleshtones were lucky for once! So maybe that's a story the mainstream news doesn't know. 

How was Lux Interior as a person in a rehearsal space as opposed to how he was onstage?

Oh he was just an avid rock and roll fan, a horror movie fan, a really nice guy. I'm the one who got the Fleshtones into the rehearsal space because I was friends with Lux and Ivy when they lived in New York City. They lived in New York City for a few years and then they moved to L.A. I used to go up to thier apartment sometimes. Their apartment was like a used record store! You walk in there are there were like racks and racks of singles and albums. Anyway, it was a lot of fun. He was a very nice guy and Ivy was very nice also.

What an incredible band, for sure.

Yes they were. Probably my favorite live show ever, was seeing the Cramps first show... Their very first show in New York City, I was at it. There was maybe another 35 people there at Max's Kansas City as well on a Tuesday night and it was incredible!

Wow. How cool. I saw them in Minneapolis a few years before Lux died and it really changed the way I look at live music. I'd even say that it was life changing. 

Ah good. Same for me.
Photo by Cveckian (Bigfoot Diaries)

So tell me about... The Fleshtones opened for James Brown once? 

Yes, in Paris. That was a long time ago. The audience actually accepted us, we already had a pretty good following in France and Paris. We did OK. It was at the Zenith, a pretty big place. We played, I don't know a half an hour and we of course did not meet James Brown but some of his band members were interested in us and we were talking to, and I did get a very upfront seat to see James Brown perform so that was the good part of it.

Nice. So what is the secret to longevity? 

I think the secret is you have to like what you are doing. You have to like playing live, and you have to of course like the other guys in the band and also, having a record label that is going to release a new album... If you make a new album and release it every two years and you go out and promote it, that's how a band stays around. You have to make new records, but of course you have to like what you are doing and who you are doing it with.

Of course... Right. Got a question from left field for ya... Where do the Fleshtones buy their clothes at?

Where do we buy our clothes? Oh God... Well, we don't shop together.


There was a time we used to shop together, but that was decades ago. But personally speaking, most of my stuff is from... Everywhere. (Laughs.) You know, I have shoes from Madrid, Spain, I have shirts from France, I have pants from Sweden.. Pretty much if I see something, like if I have a day off and I see something, I buy it. As a result through the years, I have quite  a collection of shirts now and shoes and pants.

Yeah, you guys are one of the best dressed bands!

Oh thanks.

Have you been to Iowa before?

We have but it was a very long time ago. We played in I think, Iowa City? 


There is a college there, yes?

Yes. The University of Iowa.

Yeah we played there. We played there a couple of times but that was decades ago. It's been a long time. 

I have one more question for you and it's actually unrelated to what to what we have been talking about. The Master Plan... Will the Master Plan be putting out any more releases?

Master Plan: Maximum Respect
I don't know if we will do any more recordings, it's not so easy to get the band together. We are available to play live shows if there is something that is worth while we can reform the group and put it together pretty easy and be available. But I don't know about recording. It takes a lot more to put together a record than it does to put together a live set. So at this point doubtful for another record. I do have this other new side project that is releasing a new record, it's called The Split Squad and we are playing shows. In fact we have shows coming up that we are playing with the Fleshtones. The Split Squad has Eddie Muñoz from the Plimsouls in it, it has Clem Burke from Blondie in it on drums, It has Scott McCoy who is from the Young Fresh Fellows and who played with REM all these years, I'm in it of course, and it has Mike Giblin on bass, who is from the Parallax Project. He's the one who actually came up with the idea to put the band together and he wrote most of the songs. There is an album coming out soon... The Split Squad.... It's called "Now Hear This." So there you go. That's something new I'm doing.

Awesome. Thank you for your time. It means a lot to me.

No problem. I'll see you in Iowa City at the Firecracker.

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