The band's Dennis Flemion talks about his famous fans, his chaotic MTV appearance and why he hates everyone for not making him a huge rock star.
Dennis and Jimmy Flemion seem like the luckiest guys on earth. Their band, The Frogs, has been publicly embraced by rock stars like Nirvana's Kurt Cobain, Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder and The Smashing Pumpkins' Billy Corgan. Beck sampled one of their songs on last year's "Where It's At." They've toured with Pearl Jam and The Smashing Pumpkins, and played a series of Lollapalooza dates. But after 17 years and literally thousands of unreleased songs, the Milwaukee-based Flemion brothers haven't sold a lot of records, and are perhaps more famous for what they haven't released (an album called Racially Yours, which is even more inflammatory than it sounds) than for what they have (a tiny handful of albums like the new Starjob EP and It's Only Right And Natural, in which the brothers assume the role of gay, folk-singing brothers/lovers). The Frogs' Dennis Flemion recently spoke to The Onion about all sorts of things, from fetus-fucking to why all new music is terrible.
The Onion: How much touring do you do outside of big amphitheater shows, as just The Frogs?
Dennis Flemion: Well, we've played every year since 1980, except for 1987 and 1990. We've played every year, and that's a lot of years to be playing rock and roll. We started out just playing regionally—in Minneapolis and places like that—and then we extended to the coasts. I think the most we've ever played in one year was, like, 25 shows. Part of that is because around here, the market couldn't hold any more. In Milwaukee, there's a burnout syndrome if you play that much. We'd play once a month or so, but people just wouldn't show up. That's the bottom line. We would be there, and they wouldn't come. Which is pretty funny, now. [Laughs.] Those fuckers. So we gave up on the city. I don't feel bad about it; we felt we gave it our all, playing here for 14 years. That's enough years. I mean, god damn. How many years do we have to play to 30 or 50 people? People would always say, like, "Oh, you're playing Friday. Such-and-such is in town." And like I give a shit. Who cares? You're up against them. I don't want to know who's in town. I don't care. We were like that through the entire '80s: I could care less about any other bands. I hated all the bands everywhere, more or less on the planet. We were the only band in our eyes. We've always been into being super-opinionated—right or wrong, it's fun. It gets us off. I guess that when that's expressed publicly, it's looked upon with scorn and disdain.
O: How have you handled the scorn and disdain? You've been lashed out against by the gay and lesbian community…
DF: Not as much as you would think. Maybe it makes better press to say we have. Let's say we have. But honestly, no. I don't know if we've been embraced by any community… [Laughs.] Put it that way. Actually, we have: Let's say we've been embraced by the alterna-culture.
O: By every famous rock star who's ever walked the earth. By Eddie Vedder, and…
DF: Yeah, but we started before they called it alternative, before all that happened.
O: It's odd, though, how a sort of who's-who of alternative rock has embraced The Frogs as its pet project.
DF: Yeah, but all these other groups have "made it," while we haven't. That's the weird thing. I keep likening us to… I'm not trying to get racial here, but old bluesmen, where everybody takes their material, and they're kind of shunned and shunted over to the side, and nobody cares. I'm thinking, "Well, that's us, because we don't get publishing, and we don't have this stuff going for us. Apparently everybody likes us, but here we are sitting at the bottom. Hope the rest of you are having fun."
O: How does it feel to—
DF: It feels good. [Laughs.]
O: I mean, you've been playing for 17 years—
DF: Well, yeah. Do you have any idea how long that is to play in the underground? Except we got a foot up from Billy Corgan and Eddie Vedder helping us out eventually, after 13 years. I likened it to us being a drowning man, and they put a hand out for us. They approached us, and we said we'd try it, because we always wanted to tour on a big scale in stadiums, and have a major following. This was kind of second-hand, because we're not the main act—we're the opener, but you get to see what that's like. It was an eye-opener.
O: How did you fill out an amphitheater sound?
DF: Well, we mostly played electric for a bigger sound, because [audiences] often won't sit through it otherwise. We played maybe half-and-half on both tours, because we didn't care that much. But we didn't want to commit commercial suicide and flop in front of an audience. And unless they know the act and you're established, people don't want to listen. So in our case, I felt like we had something to offer: We had some content, and I felt like a lot of them really didn't give us a chance and listen to what we do. But I understand that; it just made me think back to when I was 15 and didn't care. I wanted the opening act on and off.
O: What did people think of you?
DF: Just pure, unadulterated love. [Laughs.] Honestly, I don't know. It depended on the crowd. It was half and half. Actually, on the Pearl Jam tour, it was love and hate to the extreme: Either they really liked us or they really hated us. They booed quite a lot at the Pearl Jam shows. At that time, I had the mindset where I was ready for them. I've said since then that [the Pearl Jam tour] kind of tamed the beast with me a bit, only because so many people have been so nice. Now that we've gotten to see how the other side lives… We learned that you have to earn it. You have to be good enough… I think we have the songs, and the songwriting skills.
O: On Starjob, you take the persona of rock stars, singing about how you hate your fans.
DF: That was straight-out. We meant that. [Laughs.] We fucking meant that. That was no joke. The only problem has been that we've never had the status of the major rock star. If Eddie Vedder sings it, it makes sense, but when we sing it, it comes off as this bitter thing. It comes off wrong, because we've always pictured ourselves in that position, of eventually making it. That's where that comes from; that's always where we were in our minds. We weren't there in any other sense, physical or otherwise, but in our minds, that's where it was written from. And those songs were written before we even met any famous people. That song ["I Only Play 4 Money"] is from 1985. When performed live, it comes off cool. "It's cool, he's shitting on us." They like that. People don't understand; they read it all wrong when it's released on disc. It's kind of like a wink at the audience. It's a love-and-hate relationship between the audience and the band—not just with us, but with any band that takes the stage. It's a battle, to see if you can win their love.
O: Are you guys misunderstood?
DF: [Laughs.] Yes we are, but that's neither here nor there. The bottom line: Nobody wants to hear us whining about that, but yeah, we are misunderstood. Maybe that'll change. Who knows?
O: What's the worst way you've ever been misunderstood? Go ahead and whine about it.
DF: Oh, God, I don't know. Just people reading into things, like we have some hidden agenda, some evil agenda to perpetrate upon the world. We play songs as if it's us speaking amongst ourselves privately; this is how people speak to one another. When you present that in a public forum, it takes on different meanings and different proportions. All these things get misconstrued. Somehow, when our songs come out, there's no gray area in the way people interpret them. And in reality, it's pretty gray. People like to paint everything black and white. So they paint us as the devil or the evil ones, or whatever they want to make us. And it's always just us; the arrows never point at them. It always faces outward. "These are the fuckers that are causing all the trouble."
O: You guys have—
DF: Thank you. [Laughs.]
O: You guys have played in blackface. You've taken on the persona of gay folksingers. You sing about rape. Is anything off-limits?
DF: [Pauses.] Mmmm. At this point, we probably wouldn't sing about that kind of stuff. A lot of those songs are old. At this point, you know, we've probably slayed just about every sacred cow you could put in front of us. I guess that's what we do, in a sense, and I guess that's why we feel we have the license to approach the truth and expose all the hypocrisies in culture. That's what we're known for, but that's not all we do. We do have thousands of songs. The ones we released are the sweetest ones, too. They are! We've got tougher ones than that.
O: What is the meanest, most off-limits song you've ever done?
DF: I think one of them would be "Fetus (It Rhymes With Venus)." That was about fetus-fucking. It was, like, going to the hospital and stealing fetuses to fuck, and then handing them back to the nurse. It's all absurdity, you know? It's sung with that voice I use where the guy's kind of liquored-up and slurred. I don't know, it's funny. People will be offended, and that's their right, God bless 'em.
O: Are you guys important?
DF: In terms of what?
O: In terms of the grand scheme of rock history.
DF: Yeah, I think. When all the books are written, who knows how we'll come off? The problem is that so much hasn't been released. If the black album (Racially Yours) had come out in 1993, who knows? Things didn't happen the way they should have. We started out in 1980, and we had intended to put out record after record, like any other group. But it never worked out that way. We didn't start recording what would become our first record until 1986, and it took two years, though in that time we also did It's Only Right And Natural. We have all this material nobody's heard, though people who heard us live during those years have heard some of it. After hearing so much, you go back and listen to it all, and try to figure out, well, what is it? I honestly can't tell you: One guy was telling us, "The Frogs aren't punk; they're more metal." And a lot of people think we're folk. We do everything. Reviewers, and people in general, just want a simple explanation for something; they just want to see it one way. "The folk duo that does that controversial stuff. That's who they are." I can't hold it against people, because I do it too. It's especially true when you've had previous ideas concerning people, and then you meet them in person, like with famous people. You have one notion, but when you meet them, it changes it entirely. I was against [touring with] Pearl Jam, because I figured they all had to do with the Seattle grunge thing, with them supposedly riding on the coattails of bands like Nirvana and Soundgarden.
O: What happened to Racially Yours? Is that album ever coming out?
DF: Yeah, it's going to come out. Everybody I approached passed on it. It was going to come out on El Recordo, but we couldn't agree to terms. They wanted to own it forever, but they were just a fledgling label, and I said, "Absolutely not. I'll give it to you for five or ten years, but then I want it back." I just wanted to get it out there; I said I'd give it to them for seven years, but they said no. Well, goddammit, if you can't move it in seven years, so what? I want it back after that time. We don't have the rights to Right And Natural; they're still owned by Homestead, which is doing absolutely nothing with it. And people have a hard time finding that record, which annoys me to no end.
O: You guys have thousands of songs. Have you ever thought of releasing, like, a 100-CD Frogs box set?
DF: [Laughs.] If someone would put it out, absolutely. Get it all out there; it'd be out of my system. But we're not hooked up right now. We're trying to get hooked up. People assume that if you know famous people, you're all hooked up and making gobs of money. But we're not hooked up, and I'm kind of pissed about that. It's very frustrating. I don't know how these other people have done it. Maybe we need to get a manager or an agent. We've always laughed about that concept. We've heard rumors that there are people out there begrudging our success. Can you imagine that? After all these years, people are like, "Well, they don't deserve it, compared to us." I don't know. I think we just gave up in '93. We did the black album, and said, "That's it. If this doesn't work out, forget it. I'll stick with the day job. Fuck rock and roll. I think we're so good, and nobody recognizes us; nobody gets it, so fuck it. Just screw 'em all." Any time you take the stage, you're baring your soul. You give it all, and put yourself on the line, and if there's silence out there, you take it personally.
O: But you made the black album, and it's still not out. And you didn't give up.
DF: No, you're right. And when we said, "That's it," that's when Billy [Corgan] came along. It just goes to show you… I don't know. Maybe we should have decided to give up two years in. I don't know. [Changes subject.] There are too many bands out there already, and the new ones are shit. They are just below par. The standards have been lowered so far; it's below hell. I give them two or three seconds, and I can hear it in the sound: It's like, if they're so stupid that they couldn't spend more time to have an innovative sound, after 35 or however many fucking years of rock 'n' roll… You have the audacity to present me with that guitar sound, you idiot? It's an insult! It is! And they're all play-acting! You talk about wannabes—it's all wannabe shit these days. It's garbage. It's just total crap. [Laughs.] And most of the time, the songs are like five or five and a half… They're too long! Not to start cutting on Nirvana—I like them a lot—but we realized that right when the songs should end, they do a solo. That's we've gotta do, because our songs are short: Do another verse, repeat the chorus, and then end it. Tack on another minute and a half. But that's just silly. See, we're influenced by The Beatles in that way: simple, short pop songs, done.
O: What's the worst song on the radio right now?
DF: Um, I don't know. What's that silly one? That one I fucking… I don't know the names of them; I just hear them. I would never purchase their… If you're all listening, I would never purchase your shit, ever. I will never support you. And mind you, these bands are selling millions, so fuck 'em. At least the big ones like us. I don't know. And we're good! Why can't we get the throngs? What is with these idiots? Why won't they come? I don't know, you analyze all this stuff after a while. Maybe it's a sex thing; maybe our band has to be more sexual, have more sex appeal. If they like your face… Almost invariably, all the bands that succeed are the ones with a lead singer who's good-looking. It's funny that that's not dumped upon, that people don't say, "You know, that's played out. That's not cool anymore. If you do that, you're an asshole and an idiot. We're going to laugh at you, as if you were in Vegas. You've got a fuzz pedal? Phhht. Blow me. You've got a big amp? Get the fuck out. Ooh! You've got big amps! Ooh! I'm impressed. The lead singer's got his shirt off?" I don't know. Bring a gun. That's got to be the new thing in rock. After the millennium, there has to be a guaranteed one death per show. Not the rock star—it's in his court. You take a chance going to the rock show. Somebody's going to die that night, guaranteed. The lead singer runs out, the band's just starting to jam, and boom! He just shoots, and then starts singing. That'd be perfect for a video. I mean, we just did MTV, this Oddville show. The lamest thing on earth. I've watched MTV for so many years, and I swore to myself I would never go on it. But we did Oddville, and I'd never realized how structured and pre-planned this thing was. We said we wouldn't, but one thing led to another, and we all ended up going crazy on the show. I mean, it was mild, like candy-coated anarchy—and they edited it out. They cut the whole thing out at the end, where Jimmy went up on the desk. The producer went nuts: I guess he threw his clipboard across the room, and was bitching at all the people who came with us. Sebastian [Bach, from Skid Row] was riding on the host's back; we found out later that they consider [the host] part of the family, and he's got a bad back and two herniated disks or something. Oh, fuck me. We didn't know this. Maybe if they'd told us, "Don't go on the main guy's back," we wouldn't have. I guess Sebastian was dry-humping him or something, and [Bach] said [the host] was into it. He was laughing! He was into it. He was fine afterward. He was like, "Great, great show. Good energy. Come back again." That's what he said. I felt bad, though, because I gave them my word. But [other band members] just went off. If I'd have known they were going to do that, I'd have fucking went off. I mean, Kenan [Thompson] and Kel [Mitchell, from Good Burger] were on the show with us, and those guys were, like, high-fiving Jimmy. One of them went and danced on top of the desk with him. And MTV cut it all out. It hasn't been shown, which sucks. I want to see what it looks like. All the people who were there told me it was just a riot.