Rock Interview: The Flesh Eaters Redux

By Scott McLennan

The Flesh Eaters have returned with renewed vitality, after it hit some troughs and sputtered to a near stop.

The Flesh Eaters: L-R: John Doe, Dave Alvin, Chris D., Bill Bateman, Steve Berlin, DJ Bonebrake Photo: Frank Lee Drennen.

When reached by phone last month, Chris Desjardins wanted to set the record straight about his band the Flesh Eaters, an influential punk rock group, formed in 1977, that has returned with renewed vitality, after it hit some troughs and sputtered to a near stop.

A band bio posted on the music-streaming site Spotify claimed something to the effect that Desjardins’ “poor social skills led to many lineups.”

“That’s not true,” Desjardins retorts. “I had many lineups because the players all came from other bands. My poor social skills had more to do with women. I’ve been married twice.”

That bio has since been changed to honestly reflect the current state of the Flesh Eaters. The band is showcasing a new album, recorded by what is considered  by many to be the group’s “classic” lineup: Desjardins (better known by his nom de roque Chris D.) on vocals; guitarist Dave Alvin and drummer Bill Bateman from the Blasters; bassist John Doe and drummer and marimba player DJ Bonebrake from X; and saxophone player Steve Berlin from Los Lobos.

This was the crew that made the Flesh Eaters’ riveting 1981 album A Minute to Pray, a Second to Die, before they scattered back to their other projects, Desjardins included, who was writing poetry and articles about music for alternative publications as well as producing albums for the Gun Club, Green on Red and the Dream Syndicate, among others. The 1981 lineup reconvened in 2006 at the behest of Mudhoney’s Mark Arm when he was curating the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in England. Desjardins tried to pull off more shows with the Minute to Pray crew, but found it impossible to sync everyone’s schedules.

In 2015, the Superior Viaduct record label reissued A Minute to Pray, a Second to Die, and that sparked the group from the acclaimed record to do a few shows.

“We had so much fun that we vowed to get together again and started planning for shows in 2017,” Desjardins said, crediting Dave Alvin’s manager for keeping the project on track as well as opening the door to a record deal with Yep Roc, which has been releasing Alvin’s music output for the last several years. Julie Christensen, one of Desjardins’ former wives and band mate in Divine Horsemen, also sings on the new album.

“It’s all very synchronistic,” Desjardins said. “There’s a chemistry with the band and a camaraderie among the guys. We all respect each other as equals even though the guys kind of acknowledge me as the leader of this group. But, in reality, any one of the other guys’ opinions is taken seriously.”

The Flesh Eaters are squeezing out a brief spring tour that brings the band to City Winery in Boston on Thursday, March 14.

The elements that made the band fascinating in 1981 are on full display in 2019. With the Flesh Eaters, Desjardins crafted a brand of punk rock that combined dark, literary themes of dread with splashes of hazy mysticism in a macabre mash-up of rock ‘n’ roll fundamentals. In the context ofLos Angeles rock bands, the Flesh Eaters function like a bridge between the Doors and Black Flag.

“The thing that works in the band’s favor is that Dave, Steve, and John have a grounding in roots music,” Desjardins explains. “I’ve always been attracted to the basics, and don’t really care about genre. If it’s genuine and it moves me, I like it.”

The Flesh Eaters recently released the album I Used to Be Pretty. It contains two new compositions, a couple of cover tunes, and new versions of songs originally cut over the years by other Flesh Eaters lineups.

But don’t mistake I Used to Be Pretty as some sort of cut-and-paste rush to market. It convincingly makes the case that the counter-culture expressions of alienation and anxiety expressed in the first wave of punk were not a symptom of youthful angst but expressions of a more deeply seated mistrust of the status quo that have resonated well into adulthood.

Desjardins’ lyrics, while sharp and cryptic, don’t always rail against the norm, but they continually subvert the conventional. The new “Black Temptation” smolders with Desjardins’ rattling delivery of lines about losing one’s moral grip. The other new song on the album, “Ghost Cave Lament,”  is a sprawling tone poem (of sorts) about love, pain and lament whose transposition of flamenco riffs creates a sweepingly morose musical landscape.

The record isn’t all deep-thinking punk poetry. Some it simply rocks with abandon. Alvin uncorks some wonderfully sinister sounding guitar work on the old Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac song “The Green Manalishi.” And, on a couple of points on a new version of the Flesh Eaters’ “Youngest Profession,” Desjardins barks “Go crazy”  — prompting first Alvin and then Berlin to comply with frenetic solos.

Desjardins is very aware of the difficulty involved in keeping this group together, given the commitments of its other members. He too is working on music for Divine Horsemen.

“All these guys are busy, I’m resigned to that fate,” he says. “However the cards play out, we’ll do this as we can, as long as our health holds out and the United States hasn’t collapsed.”

Scott McLennan covered music for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette from 1993 to 2008. He then contributed music reviews and features to The Boston Globe, The Providence Journal, The Portland Press Herald and WGBH, as well as to the Arts Fuse. He also operated the NE Metal blog to provide in-depth coverage of the region’s heavy metal scene.

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