The story of drummer-turned-lead yields mixed results. Best-case scenario, it’s Karen Carpenter. Worst-case, Dave Grohl (the Pacific Northwest is still trying to make amends for this one, most recently with Josh Tillman’s rise from Fleet Foxes drummer to the venerable Father John Misty). But the traditional tale pales in comparison to that of Shaun Fleming, founding member of Diane Coffee. Back in Foxygen, Fleming shadowed frontmen Sam France and Jonathan Rado with silence in all the right spots. His solo project presents a new challenge: to be seen and heard, all the while captivating. He succeeds in ways his percussionist peers never have.
Drums were not Fleming’s first instrument, but they’ve become a real asset; he writes Diane Coffee songs by beginning with a drum beat. This habit has cleared the way for rhythm as a driving force, particularly on the band’s second album, Everybody’s A Good Dog. That’s where its Motown influence settles in, fixed with the same lush harmonies Fleming fell for in his high school choir days. He synchronizes all of his inspirations in perfect time, so the psychedelic experiences relayed by Foxygen are not lost in Diane Coffee. They’re just framed by the Four Tops.
There’s some lingering ambiguity as to who the ‘Diane Coffee’ moniker refers to. Fleming says she is an embodiment of many things, including—but not limited to—himself. Onstage, it doesn’t seem to matter. Fleming’s performance dismantles archetypes and expectations with a voice so overpowering, it’s anything but ambiguous. It’s brilliant. The band will set out on a headlining tour this month, stopping to grace The Echo with Los Angeles Police Department on Feb. 26. —Cory Lomberg
Are you in Bloomington?
Shaun Fleming: I am.
How long have you lived there for?
Shaun Fleming: I think I’ve been living here officially for two and a half years now. I love it. I think it’s great. I grew up in Agoura Hills, and that’s about an hour or an hour and a half outside Los Angeles. Just inland of Malibu. Bloomington is a really nice community, and it has that small town feel but you can always escape up to Indianapolis. It’s a good place to escape to after touring just to relax.
Did you write and record Everybody’s a Good Dog in Bloomington?
Shaun Fleming: Yeah, I did. We had like three months off in between Foxygen tours, so I wrote it in that time here. I could just really relax and think about what I was doing this time around. We had some great studios out here too. I had my good friend Tim Smiley, who does all the sound engineering for Foxygen’s live shows, engineer and produce the record with me.
Was the recording of that album a collaborative process?
Shaun Fleming: Well, we did it in like three different studios and I got a bunch of my Bloomington friends as well as the touring band from the previous record, My Friend Fish. They came down from New York and laid down some stuff and Sam [France] and [Jonathan] Rado [of Foxygen] recorded some stuff and then even some of the people who work at Jagjaguwar and Secretly Canadian because they’re based in Bloomington as well. They came out and recorded some stuff on there too. Some little guest appearances. But yeah, I definitely wanted more people to be involved with this record since that first record was pretty much solely mine.
I think the first time I heard you was on Run the Jewels 2. How did you end up on that?
Shaun Fleming: So the bass player of the My Friend Fish touring band, my friend Emily Panic—she also did the backup dancing for Foxygen on the …And Star Power tour—she is dating El-P. That’s how I first met and got in touch with him. He expressed to me that he was a big fan of how I layer vocals and stuff like that, and he said he had a project coming up that he wanted me to be a part of. That’s kind of before I realized it was RTJ2. Both he and Killer Mike are two of the hardest working, most prolific people that I’ve had the honor of meeting and working with. It was really fun and it kind of just came out of nowhere, so I’m honored to have been a part of it.
I’m not surprised that he was impressed with the way you layer your vocals. Your voice is incredible. How did you start singing?
Shaun Fleming: I had always liked to sing, but probably in like the third grade, I got in contact with this opera coach. He came to do something at school and wanted me to come in for lessons and stuff. So that’s how I started with music, but I dropped out of it because I was a little kid so I just wanted to play with toy cars or whatever. Then in high school I joined a choir class. Actually, my choir teacher was my math teacher and sort of, well—he was an incredibly brilliant man, but terrifying. He knew I could sing, so he kind of blackmailed me into joining his choir. He told me he’d fail me if I didn’t join the next year, so I reluctantly signed up.
But that was this huge moment where I realized I wanted music to be a part of my life. Just listening to the way all those voices come together and make a sound you can’t replicate. That room full of voices in harmony is one of the most beautiful sounds I’ve ever heard. And I think that plays a lot into why I am big about getting a lot of voices on there, and that big Beatles, Beach Boys harmony sound.
You have a very distinct performance style too. How did you develop that personality?
Shaun Fleming: I’ve always really liked to get in front of an audience in any capacity, like through theater and band stuff. But in high school I was really into improv comedy. We had a comedy troupe and it really helped me break out of my shell because I was actually pretty reserved in middle school. It got me in front of an audience and allowed me to be ridiculous and big and bold and I think I’ve taken a lot from my improv experience, not only in my performance but just in my day-to-day life. That’s probably where I developed my show style, more than any other place. And I know it’s still developing, the more I get onstage. I don’t think it’s ever going to stop. I kind of always play on a show-to-show basis, based on what it needs.
In Foxygen, you don’t really want to see the drummer acting insane. You want to focus on, well, Sam, in that case. He’s the lead. Sam and Rado. It just didn’t call for it. So you just keep playing. You kind of stay in the shadow, and it’s great, it’s nice. It works. And for this, it’s the first time I’ve been the one to get huge and do the kind of stuff I really like to do as well, stuff that reminds me of improv.
Is Diane Coffee your own persona or would you say the whole band embodies her?
Shaun Fleming: I’d say it’s a little bit of both. I definitely embody Diane Coffee and the band embodies Diane Coffee and the audience does too. You’re Diane Coffee, I’m Diane Coffee, they’re Diane Coffee—it’s a little hard to explain because I do and I don’t. I definitely feel like I become something else when I’m onstage, but it’s just another part of me. It’s not like an alter ego or another person. I’m just allowed to tap into this other piece that’s always there. It’s exaggerated as a performer. I just gave that the name ‘Diane Coffee’ and I think everyone you see onstage becomes someone a little different. You get excited, maybe you’ll sing and dance a way you wouldn’t in any other place. That’s your Diane Coffee, and I think everyone gets a bit of that—the band, me, and the audience.
Do you write lyrics as Shaun?
Shaun Fleming: Lyrically, I guess I write as me. It’s definitely stuff I’ve seen and experienced in my day-to-day life. But I’ve also written as other people, just stories that I’ve heard that have moved me. But with this last record specifically, I was thinking about actually performing. I wanted to make sure I was writing an album that was possible to pull off live. In that way, I’m writing with Diane Coffee in mind. It’s still me, just an exaggerated portion of me.
I think the feminine archetype I play into is something that’s been around for a long time. And, as you can tell, especially on that first record, it wasn’t like I was creating a persona. It was already there in a lot of stuff I was writing. I definitely feel like I am in a place where I can embrace it and play in it and that’s Diane Coffee. I think it’s healthy that we all explore those other parts of our psyche and our being and this is just the way I do it.
Are there any musical influences that helped shape that?
Shaun Fleming: I grew up listening to the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and I was also in choir and jazz so we were listening to people like Nat King Cole. So there’s jazz stuff and ‘70s stuff and I also grew up listening to ‘90s pop radio, so my first favorite band was Third Eye Blind, you know? I just love music, but I’m also inspired by travel and art and friends. I was really inspired by Foxygen. Sam and Rado—just growing up with them. I was just learning how to play the guitar and starting to write songs that were pretty brutal at the time, but hearing their stuff, while they were in middle school and I’m in the middle of high school, I was like, ‘These kids are amazing! I gotta get on the ball, I gotta learn how to play better or listen to something else because this is awesome.’
So those guys continue to inspire me, and a lot of newer acts like St. Vincent and Sufjan Stevens. We just got off of tour with of Montreal. It’s amazing to play with your heroes. Then there’s all the Motown stuff, like Diana Ross. That’s where ‘Diane’ comes from.