I meet Ryan Zombotron, Lucas Tashey, and Nick Dehmlow of Chicago punk band Flesh Panthers at the base of the Illinois Centennial Monument in Logan Square. Circling the column are scenes and figures from Illinois’ mythos: marble-faced miniatures of Daniel Boone, Hiawatha, the goddess Ceres. A sculpted eagle perches atop the pillar. Flesh Panthers recline on the steps below, sipping tall-boys from black bags, cigarettes fuming gently into the dark.
Ghost Track: Let’s start at the beginning. Can you tell me a bit about the history of the band––how you got started?
Lucas: We met at a trailer park, rockin’ the guitars. You ever seen that show “Trailer Park Boys”?
Ryan: That’s us.
Lucas: Well, it’s Canadian, so we’re the less Canadian version.
GT: Where was the trailer park?
Lucas: It’s actually in Chicago.
Ryan: In your mind.
Lucas: It’s actually a mental trailer park. It’s the Logan Square Trailer Park, it’s the whatever. It’s a figurative trailer park.
GT: So this whole interview is going to be in metaphor.
Lucas: You’ll figure it out. It’s mysterious.
GT: So you met in Chicago. Are you all from Chicago originally?
Lucas: I’m originally from California, but me and Mike (Van Buren, drummer), who’s not here, both went to CPS, so we’ve been here for a while. These guys came around a couple years later.
Nick: I’m from the west suburbs.
Ryan: I’m from the north suburbs.
GT: What’s the Chicago music scene like in your eyes?
Ryan: It was really cool a couple years ago.
Lucas: No, it’s still really cool… every neighborhood has a different scene. There’s a scene in Pilsen that we’re all sort of a part of, but we don’t live there, so it’s hard to get to the shows regularly, but Logan Square has something that you can always walk to every night, because we live here. But it’s cool, there’s a lot of good bands, there’s a lot of good house venues. They come and go… some good bars, whatever. It’s not hard to be in a band right now.
Ryan: It’s too easy.
Lucas: Yeah, there’s people that want bands. So that’s cool.
Nick: Now and when we started, it’s completely changed. But it’s way more than it was, even three years ago. Which is good.
GT: So there are way more bands in Chicago now, and that’s a good thing.
Ryan: It’s endless.
Nick: It’s a great thing. The only downside is on any given night of the week there’s at least two or three shows going on.
Ryan: There’s always competition.
Lucas: Like, “I would want to go to all of these things, but… I’m playing a show.”
GT: You said house venues come and go. Favorite house venue that no longer exists?
Ryan: Animal Kingdom.
Lucas: [FeelTrip] still exists in a different sense… it’s like, a label.
Ryan: Wally World is good.
Nick: Wally World is still going strong. They keep saying they’re going to have to move out, but they’re still there.
GT: Sometime in my first couple of weeks here, I happened across you guys playing at Wally World with The Tsunamis. That was my first experience with the Chicago DIY scene.
Ryan: Yeah, that was a good DIY show.
Lucas: That was a good show, good night. It gets really crowded in there. I’m pretty sure I saw Betsy (of the Tsunamis) get knocked across the room.
Ryan: She like, flew into a bass drum during our set.
GT: How would you characterize a good DIY show?
Ryan: No rules!
Nick: Lots of crowd surfing.
Lucas: No rules goes like, 99-percent of the way. There was one time when we were at Wally World––it’s sort of a no rules situation––uh, a patron decided it would be really fun to tear the bass drum, the whole drum set away––you know, we’re all drunk and partying––but at some point it’s like, well you know now we can’t really play anymore… And it’s one thing if we knock down our own shit, but if somebody else decides to… but you know whatever, it was still cool.
GT: So, your latest album came out in May: Ngc 2632
Lucas: The beehive cluster.
Lucas: It’s a cluster of stars! Ngc 2632 is the categorization of it. It’s like the Dewey Decimal system, but for.. not a library, it’s for stars.
Ryan: You can Google it. It has a Wikipedia page.
GT: How did that come to be the title of the record?
Lucas: There’s a lot of circling moods and themes in the record, and that’s sort of just one of the themes. And insects, and space. I don’t know. There’s a lot of recurring themes in the record.
GT: What was the process of making that record like? Where did you record it?
Lucas: Two States Audio, with Brian Fox.
Ryan: It was a process, we learned a lot.
Lucas: We did a bunch of stuff live, and then a bunch of stuff that was tracked. Just playing back and forth with it, seeing what you can get from a studio experience.
Ryan: We learned that live is the way to go.
GT: The single is called “Teethe.” And you did a video for that, which was kind of a wacky video.
Lucas: That’s a FeelTrip video.
GT: So they’re a label now, but not your label?
Lucas: We’re associated with them in the sense that they’re friends of ours… they got a good thing going, they’re friends of ours… we were like, “Let’s come together and collaborate.”
Ryan: Because they own a camera. We’re like “You guys own a camera. Let’s make a video.”
Nick: They had the idea for everything, too.
Ryan: We were like, “you do whatever you want.”
Nick: They had a vision, we just showed up.
GT: What was their vision as they articulated it to you?
Lucas: Diana works in this dental facility––
Nick: Dentist’s office.
Lucas: Dentist’s office, yeah that’s what you call it. So we were like, “We don’t have any ideas,” and they were like, “You should use this dentist’s office for ‘Teethe.’” And it just ended up working out really well, and the finished product really goes in line with the song and the lyrics. It was a fun time, it’s a fun video, it’s a fun song.
Ryan: It’s about transformation.
Nick: This girl gets her braces off, and she becomes a babe.
Ryan: It’s a theme of the album.
GT: Your tagline is “Punk Rock For Everybody.” Does that mean you make punk rock for non-punks?
Ryan: In the past, “punk” has been such an exclusive term. And I feel like it’s more universal than that. Some people might not come and want to hang out at a show because they don’t think they fit in terms of “the mold” or something like that, but I think we’re more inclusive.
Lucas: It can be intimidating, you know. “Big tough people in leather and spikes.” That’s cool too, but it doesn’t have to just be that. It can be whatever. You can wear your tie-dye shirt and still have some punk aesthetics, or punk mentalities. It’s where you come from but also where you are.
Ryan: It’s universal.
GT: What does “punk” mean to you, then?
Lucas: For me it’s like a state of mind. It’s sort of anti-establishment… I mean, we’re all living month-to-month.
Ryan: It’s like folk music…
Lucas: I can’t see how anything is more punk than living month to month. Being a fuckin’ broke guy trying to pay for beers, you know?
Ryan: It’s like protest music with electrified guitars.
Nick: Kind of a stripped down mentality.
Lucas: Bare bones, not so high production.
GT: And a lack of pretension, right?
Nick: Yeah, definitely that, for sure.
Ryan: Then again, some punk bands…
Lucas: Yeah, we’re approachable dudes. We wanna talk to everybody, make friends.
GT: Some bands that are identified as punk––Fugazi is one example––are what you might call highly principled bands.
Ryan: I guess that’s cool for them… but I would never want to be like that.
Lucas: Anything is a spectrum. You can’t nail punk to be… I’m sure you’ve got conservative people calling themselves punk, and liberals, and whatever…
Ryan: Political affiliations…
Lucas: It’s whatever.
GT: You’ve all got day jobs, right?
Lucas: I work in a kitchen.
Ryan: I work at a dog day-care.
Nick: I work in an office.
GT: Ngc 2632 was a co-release with Dumpster Tapes and Tall Pat. What’s your relationship like with each of these labels, and what do you see them doing for the local music scene?
Lucas: We did an earlier tape with Dumpster Tapes and met them that way, and Tall Pat, he released our first 7″, so we met him that way… and everyone became really close friends through these other previous projects. And they’re doing other stuff with other local bands, like Dumpster Tape’s got a crop of local bands. They’ve even got a couple German releases that they did. And Pat’s really good for the scene in Chicago, he’s putting out a lot of cool local friends of ours.
Ryan: He’s got the money; he pays for the records.
GT: He’s just a guy? He’s “Tall Pat.”
Lucas: He’s Tall Pat, yeah.
Nick: He’s a guy.
Lucas: He loves Rocket From the Crypt, he’s got a beard. He lives over there [points east down Logan Boulevard].
Nick: Over there actually [points north].
Ryan: He used to live over there.
Lucas: It’s all neighborhood folks that are out here doing the same thing… and it’s like, let’s link up and be friends and do the same thing together. Join forces and be a bigger thing than just yourself.
Ryan: It’s “Do-It-Together,” not “Do-It-Yourself”
Lucas: I don’t know how serious it is, but there’s this thing called BOCRL, which is “The Benevolent Order of Chicago Record Labels,” which is just Tall Pat, Dumpster Tapes, Hozac I think, maybe FeelTrip, Randy Records, Maximum Pelt, EyeVibe, these people that are just doing it on their own, they’re like “we can also get together and help each other and fulfill a greater purpose.”
GT: A greater purpose.
Lucas: More like socialism…but I’m the dictator.
GT: What are some of your current favorite places to play in the city?
Lucas: Bric-A-Brac Records. They do great stuff for touring bands coming through. Like, usually if a band’s playing at the Empty Bottle, which is also a favorite of ours, they’ll stop [at Bric-A-Brac] and play there first at five or six, so we’ve done a bunch of those. It’s always real cool to be real intimate with people.
Ryan: It’s early and no one’s drunk yet.
Lucas: Yeah, so you can actually really talk before it’s 11 o’clock and everyone’s about business and about drinking and partying. There, the Empty Bottle, Cole’s.
GT: I read a review of the new album that talked about a shift between Ngc 2632 and previous tapes, saying that the new material was less violent, more positive, more communal––party anthems, in a way. Is this accurate?
Lucas: Sure… I don’t think there was anything violent, maybe darker. It’s always been like, partying.
Ryan: Our first tape was kinda out there. But that’s buried now. You can’t find it… When we first started, things were sort of archaic, the subject matter was a little different.
GT: What do you mean by “archaic?”
Ryan: Well, that was before [Lucas and Nick] were in the band. It was just me and two other guys, and they were real doped up, and it was just garbage music, you know. So happier times, happier songs, in a way.
GT: Who are some of your musical heroes? What got you into playing?
Lucas: Mine’s kinda weird, but… I was in a ska band in high school, because ska was, you know, “cool” and sucked… The bass player’s dad burned me a Chicago record, and literally, that record got me into music. It was like, “Oh, I can play the trumpet and not be in a silly ska band.” Because ska was always sort of silly… it was not so serious. But then, that changed the way I looked at things. Other than that, I’m a big Tom Waits fan. I like his weirdness.
Ryan: I always liked older music, like Motown stuff. I used to always be in a band that had a guitar sound that sounded like horns actually. I like Little Richard and Chuck Berry.
Nick: When I first started playing guitar I was a freshman in high school, so that’s when I first got into punk music. I was into older punk like Ramones and The Clash and stuff, but then Rancid too. Our drummer loves Rancid. But I think all of us have changed in what we listen to.
Ryan: I wouldn’t say changed…
Nick: I don’t know, I don’t draw influences from that stuff much at all.
Ryan: I think there was a time that ability was a big thing for me, like, I really want to make this kind of music, but I have to settle for something that’s expressive, which punk is…
Lucas: It’s easy to be bad at your instrument and be like, “Okay, we’re a punk band!” But then you start to get a little better, and you’re like, “Well, I listen to more music than simple three chord punk songs.”
Ryan: I got into punk as like, “I didn’t know how to play music, but I just started a band anyway.” I was like, “that’s fucking…you can do that?! I’m gonna do that.” That’s what drew me to that type of music, was that anybody could do it. And I thought… well, I’ll do it too.
GT: So again, your brand of punk is about inclusiveness?
Lucas: All music is good. There’s place for dubstep… I don’t even know what I’m saying anymore. We even slow it down and listen old country rock, or folk songs, or whatever… if it’s got the right mentality about it…
Ryan: Bands like The Clash, all the bands they covered were opened up a lot. I say like, Chuck Berry and stuff––I didn’t ever know about Tooth and the Maytalls, and stuff like that. Even like, The Kinks, and Small Faces. British punk opened the door for that, for me.
Lucas: We’re big Faces fans, Kinks fans. I feel like, being a musician, you can’t help but get into music history. So when you have a band that you like, and you’re learning about that band––
Nick: You trace their stuff––
Lucas: And you find new other bands––what came next or what came before. Talk about Devo, like that was a proto-punk band…
Ryan: I heard The Velvet Underground, and then T. Rex, because they covered songs from [the Velvet Underground]. I was like, “These bands are cool too.”
GT: In that vein, what are some bands you’re really into that you don’t think are evident in the music you play?
Nick: I love country rock… it doesn’t really come out as much in the music… Flying Burrito Brothers, Gram Parsons’ stuff.
Lucas: I said Tom Waits earlier. I love him, I don’t know how the hell he makes music that sounds like that. I don’t even know how to go about it. Dissonance, but not… I listen to it, but I don’t know if it comes out in playing, because I don’t know where he’s coming from half the time.
GT: Yeah, he’s completely bizarre. He’s awesome in the way that he’s fused his stage personality with the music, and they seem to go hand in hand. So he almost pushes the medium in a way, because you kind of have to see what he’s doing. I remember watching a 70s performance he did at Austin City Limits where the stage was set up like a gas station, and he was standing there smoking a cigarette, doing spoken word poetry––then he’d go into a song, then get out of it and back into spoken-word.
Lucas: Let’s be real, live music is a performance––it’s “performance art.” You want to able to look at something and enjoy it visually as well as you enjoy it [aurally]. And I think we try to do that––
Ryan: We try to make it so people have an experience, a good time. It’s not just like going and watching a band get up and play their songs.
Lucas: Make it an event, make it a happening. Something that’s like, I want to go because it’s gonna be a theatrical thing, and enjoyable––
Ryan: We have fun so everybody else can have fun. It’ s not just us being like, “I wrote this fucking song, I think it’s really fucking good.” It’s a little different than that.
GT: Scenario: Sony offers you a bunch of money to make your next record, but there’s one stipulation: you have to change your band’s name to either “Flesh” or “Panthers.” Which one is it going to be?
Ryan: “Panthers?” I guess it would just be “Panthers.” “Flesh” doesn’t make any sense.
Lucas: Could we switch them and make it Panther Flesh? I’d be like, “Fuck you Sony, split the difference.”
GT: Lastly: if Flesh Panthers were a feature film––
Lucas: Who would direct it? John Carpenter. [laughs]
Ryan: Terry Gilliam.
Lucas: Or Terry Gilliam, that’s cool. But Carpenter would definitely do the music. It would be real brooding, he would do some electronicky versions of “Bleed Black Leather” (Flesh Panthers song from last year’s Dumpster Tapes Cassette), maybe. It would be real dark, but uplifting and cool. Maybe Roddy Piper comes back from the dead and fights in an alley.
Ryan: He already did come back from the dead.
Lucas: I don’t know.