Kramer, Don Fleming and The Rummager resurrect their alt-rock era exercise in musical chaos. Abetted by Bob Bert, they storm Manhattan this weekend. What more could we possibly wish for? (Pictured above: a promo shot taken at JFK Airport in 1989. As Kramer himself puts it—“Whoah…”)
BY MIKE SHANLEY
Don Fleming yelled that opening Beatles line into the microphone a couple times. Next to him, Kramer turned on what looks like a kid’s cassette player, which emitted something through the p.a. that can only be described as circus music ran amok. The bassist then emptied a garbage bag full of balloons into the audience, with a comedic, rubber-faced expression. Behind the drums, Jay Spiegel —“The Rummager” to anyone in the know —swaps his glasses for a pair of shades, and the trio launches into their first song with all three singing together:
“I had a bird/ it had a name/ I can’t remember that bird’s name/when I was young I read a book/ it changed my life, To Kill a Man.”
Some things stick with you, decades later. For me, this is one of them. The year was 1989 at the CMJ Music Marathon and the band onstage at New York’s Pyramid Lounge was B.A.L.L. Originally a four-piece unit (with second drummer David Licht) by this time, they were a power trio. Much like their records, this performance teetered at the brink of chaos, never falling into but dipping its toe in it. When Fleming went into a screaming guitar solo, Kramer was just as likely to go to the upper range of his Hofner Beatle bass, which was perpetually distorted and played without a strap since it was so light. Between songs he shot silly string into the crowd, like some manic vaudeville performer. At one point he set down his bass, feedback howling, to haphazardly duct-tape an American flag to the wall behind the Rummager. Once he finished, he opined that it was made by an underpaid factory worker, so why couldn’t he burn it? (This was a hot-button political topic that year.)
That night, it was easy to wonder how long this musical chaos could last. The answer came roughly 15 minutes into the set. Fleming’s Marshall stack tumbled backwards and the head fell down a trapped door in the stage that lead to the dressing room. Borrowed from openers the Afghan Whigs, who had just signed to Sub Pop, the amp shattered. “OK, we’re done,” Fleming said.
A few months later, the same could be said about the whole band. On tour in Europe, the volatility of the band became too much and Kramer quit. Ball Four – Hardball came out on Kramer’s Shimmy-Disc label the following spring, their fourth album in three years. Despite the fact that half of it consisted of instrumentals which they never finished, it stands as the group’s most focused, solid rock album.
Fleming and the Rummager went on to form Gumball which released two underrated albums of heavy pop for Columbia. They also occasionally revamped the Velvet Monkeys, their garage pop band from their days in Washington, D.C. Kramer continued to run Shimmy-Disc throughout the next decade, making it one of the most diverse and iconoclastic indie rock labels in that time. Arguably the most popular band on the label was another one of his projects, the psychedelic Bongwater (which did end acrimoniously). He also released several solo albums and collaborated with musicians such as Jad Fair, the late Soft Machine bassist Hugh Hopper and one-time Soft Machine member and Gong founder Daevid Allen. He recently released Brill Building a tribute to the songs and composer of the legendary brick-and-mortar locale where numerous pop hits were written in the ‘50s and ‘60s.
So it came as a bit of a shock two months ago that Kramer posted on Facebook that B.A.L.L. was performing for the first time in 24 years, with Bob Bert (Sonic Youth, Pussy Galore) occupying the second drummer position. But in talking to both frontline members of the band, it’s not as if they’ve been giving each other the silent treatment since that fateful night in Belgium when Kramer left.
The origins of B.A.L.L. date back a few years before that CMJ show. Kramer joined Half Japanese, which included Fleming and Spiegel. The guitarist and bassist hit if off immediately and set their sights on starting a project together. “I always was a big fan of Kramer’s playing — and producing — but especially his playing,” Fleming says. “He doesn’t stick with the basic part. He’s a bit of a one-man orchestra and I love that. It gives it so much more dimension and dynamics. He’s messy and I am too. There are moments when it tends to fall apart because we’re off visiting Sun Ra for a minute. But then it comes back together. There’s not too many players that play bass that way.”
Spiegel was the obvious choice for a drummer, but they also decided to bring in a second one, David Licht, who had been with Kramer since his days in Shockabilly and would also play in Bongwater. “I always wanted to do double drumming,” Kramer says. “Any time I even think of [George Harrison’s] Bangladesh concert [which included Ringo Starr and Jim Keltner], I start laughing. It’s my favorite thing in the world: two drummers doing almost exactly the same thing and I think it’s a wonderful, wonderful sound. You don’t get that from double tracking the drums in a recording, when one drummer is playing the same part twice.”
With a lineup in place, they went into Kramer’s Noise New York recording studio and let the magic transpire. “We never went in with any plan,” Kramer says. “B.A.L.L. was a rebellion against that over-produced nature of rock and roll and what it had become. Remember this was the ‘80s. It was a terrible, terrible time for popular music: Pat Benatar, Huey Lewis & The News. Punk was completely over by then, and it didn’t mean anything anymore. It was silly. We wanted to play and reinvent and live out what we felt was the very definition of the heart of rock and roll onstage.”
Fleming recalls a little more structure to the studio days. “I would have a certain amount of riffs, or what I thought was a song,” he says. “We would, on the spot, come up with arrangements. There probably aren’t that many that were straight-out improvs. They were definitely a few but it was a mix of things. There were a few that I brought in. There were a couple that were old Velvet Monkeys songs.”
As the band thumbed its nose at corporate rock, a zany sense of humor pervaded the lyrics too. Fleming could play it straight in a cover of the Pretty Things’ “I Can Never Say.” But he often talk-sang his way through his own songs, sounding like the cooler, tougher younger brother of Jad and David Fair on “My T.V. Is Broke,” or “Bird,” the song quoted above.
Their sense of humor manifested itself in what is arguably the greatest album cover homage (“parody” doesn’t seem to be appropriate) of all time. Bird, their second album, features the group recreating the Beatles’ Yesterday and Today “butcher cover,” right down to the facial expressions. The record itself also paid tribute, in a way, to Kramer’s Concert for Bangla Desh fixation with covers of “It Don’t Come Easy,” “Wah Wah,” “Bangla Desh” and, in “The Dylan Side” a three-minute reduction of Bob Dylan’s whole set at the concert.
Incidentally, the initials in the band name don’t stand for anything, according to Fleming. “We always would say it stood for ‘Bite my ass’ when people asked,” he says. “But other than that, no, it was purely fashion. A graphic statement. I think we struggled to find something it could stand for, but nothing ever worked.”
But that kind of musical situation is built on tension. Fleming sang most of the songs, adding lyrics after the basic tracks were laid down. “We’d sit down and listen to it and Don would sit there with a pad and paper and write lyrics,” Kramer says. “Then he’d go out to the microphone and lay down these vocals that made the songs sound like they had been worked on for months. I never worked with anyone better than that. The only guy similar in terms of being able to just listen and create lyrics was Jad Fair.” When that was done, Kramer handled all the production and mixing tasks, assembling 18 to 20 songs on each of the first three albums.
The difference between the studio process and the live band came to a head when the band was touring Europe in late 1989. Due to band dynamics, David Licht had already left the band during a previous European tour — literally stepping off a train before it pulled away with the rest of the band on it. This time it was Kramer that quit. Fleming “was kinda telling people that he produced B.A.L.L. and that pissed me off,” Kramer says. “And I told him I’d quit if he didn’t stop doing that. And he did it right in front of me in an interview, so I quit. That’s really how it happened. Not a complicated thing. And I regretted it like five minutes after I left town.”
Fleming recalls the dynamics in much the same way. “It was always volatile kind of situation for whatever reason,” he says. “A lot of bands have it, but I’ve never been another band that had that kind of tension. He wanted to run it, I wanted to run it. We both had big egos, I guess.”
But both of them say the breakup didn’t bring with it any animosity. Fleming describes it as more like a “mutual parting of ways” after a fruitful run that yielded four albums —a track record for which he’s proud. Kramer concurs. “I mean, the only real problem I had with him was the day I quit the band in Belgium,” he says. “When I came back, we looked at each other kind of….sort of sad, to tell you the truth.”
A few years ago, Fleming and Kramer met for lunch in New York. Kramer had just remastered the B.A.L.L. albums and Fleming agreed to shop them around to labels, which at press time hasn’t yielded any takers. They kept in touch and, knowing that Kramer now visits his daughter at college in New York, the guitarist asked if he wanted to play a show with a band that included Bob Bert. When Kramer couldn’t take him up on the first offer, Fleming mentioned a May date and said Spiegel would be in the band too. “I had a funny feeling when it finally came to it, it was going include Rummager, and the moment that happened, it was B.A.L.L.,” Kramer says. “I think, without Don actually coming out and saying, ‘Wanna do a B.A.L.L. gig,’ that was probably his underlying desire, as it was mine.”
Neither of them has used the term “reunion” for the Bowery Electric show happening on May 25. Kramer in fact calls it simply “an opportunity for a gig.” And true to their approach from bygone days, they’re doing it with one rehearsal the night before.
Kramer says he already been receiving pleas for the band to tour, but don’t hold your breath. “For as much as I’d love to tour again, I’m not so stupid to forget that touring is one hour a day of ecstasy and 23 hours of potential hell,” Kramer says.
He admits touring can help him make connections for his ongoing business of recording, mixing and mastering music at his Noise Miami studio. “75% of my work is mastering and I love it to death,” he says. “It’s just the greatest combination of craft and technology and art. It’s like a microcosm of producing. It’s like producing a record for a month but doing it in a day. I just fucking love it.”
Brill Building (Tzadik, reviewed here at BLURT), was his first release in nine years, is marked by a return to vintage Kramer production style, with tape samples bookending songs, dismantling of classic hits while still paying tribute to them and evoking a little pathos in the process. “I wanted to recapture an era when songs had true meaning, yet also this was an era with silliness and meaninglessness, like ‘Do Wah Diddy Diddy,’” he says.
Calling the album the best production he’s ever made, Kramer nevertheless prefers collaborations to solo albums. “When I finish one of these records, I look and the mirror and go, ‘Eh, big deal.’ But when I finish a collaboration record or a production, which is what collaboration really is, and the artist is happy, then I look in the mirror and go, ‘Yeah, you did something good here,’” he says. “Creativity for me as a solo artist has never really come from a place of great contentment or joy. It always comes from trouble. It always comes from decay and decline.”
Fleming, who became a reputable producer in the 1990s with credits for Sonic Youth, the Posies and Screaming Trees, doesn’t do that kind of work too often anymore. “I love being in the studio but the routine of it after a while became boring. Dealing with the labels, the business end of it was not much fun,” he says. “It was just getting more tedious.”
For 12 years, he has worked for the Alan Lomax Archives, now serving as Executive Director. He also works as a consultant, frequently dealing with restoration and preservation of recordings. He admits the job doesn’t leave him much free time for his own musical projects, other than the occasional guest spot or a one-off project such as this. “But I feel really glad that it happened,” he says of his work. “It’s opened me up to the archival side of music which is important, and interesting. It’s pretty fun for me to go back and listen to the stuff and work on other people’s projects.”
As he looks back at the B.A.L.L. albums, Kramer still holds the band in high regard. “B.A.L.L. was certainly the best rock and roll band I was ever in. It’s the only band from many, many years ago that I can listen to records from beginning to end and feel really proud of. There’s a lot of other bands, like Bongwater — I can’t listen to that shit. And it’s not because of the lawsuit I had with Ann Magnuson. I just think some of it’s a little childish.”
Fleming concurs, scoffing at repeated comments that he and his collaborator needed to bury the hatchet to get back together. “I was happy with what we did and I’m happy now that we can do a show with it,” he says. “It’s been nice for me anyway, reconnecting with him in the last few years.”
The fKramer (Bongwater, Shimmy Disc), Jay Spiegel (Velvet Monkeys, Gumball), Don Fleming (Velvet Monkeys, Gumball), and Bob Bert (Sonic Youth, Pussy Galore) – takes place