Former child actor Shaun Fleming fell in love with music after his high school music teacher not-so-subtly encouraged him to join the choir his freshman year.
I got blackmailed by my music teacher [John Mosely] to join choir and every other music class. He was my math teacher my freshman year...I had my shell, I hadn't broken out yet. He needed male singers and he knew I could sing, and he told me he would fail me in math if I didn't join choir next year. He was the most intense and brilliant man I ever met. When I did join that choir class, the first day, it was that a-ha moment. This is what I want to do with the rest of my life, I never knew voice could do that. That really turned me on to music.
He finally got his first taste of the industry by playing drums for the indie rock band Foxygen — Fleming grew up in Southern California and went to Agoura Hills High with the group’s two principal members, Jonathan Rado and Sam French.
But he wasn’t satisfied with just sitting behind a drum kit.
In 2013, he released his first solo album titled “My Friend Fish” under the moniker Diane Coffee. The name is a mash-up of singer Diana Ross and a song called “Mr. Coffee" by obscure singer/songwriter Nathan Pekley. Now Fleming is releasing his second album, “Everybody’s A Good Dog.”
Fleming has moved around since his California days, first to New York and now to Bloomington, Indiana. He joined the Frame to talk about how he became the drummer for Foxygen, how he writes songs for Diane Coffee and how a sense of place affects his songwriting.
How does the city you're living in affect your music? I noticed this new album is a bit cheerier than your previous one:
I think New York is a relatively dark place, especially Manhattan when you're living there, I mean, a broke musician in a closet, essentially. Eating ramen with Sriracha. Fish in a can is fantastic, tuna, lived off that and hard-boiled eggs. But with "Everybody's A Good Dog," I'm living in Bloomington, Indiana, and the sunshine definitely came through there. I say still lyrically it may be a little sadder than "My Friend Fish," but it's in a nice cheery package.
The first song of a record sets the tone for the entire album, why did you choose "Spring Breeze" and what was its genesis?
This whole first half of the song came to me in a dream, I remember waking up my partner and taking out my cellphone and doing those little voice memos that you have on the iPhone. I listened to it the next day and after I got through the sleepiness of it, it sounded awesome. And I didn't remember doing it the night before. It seemed like as one of the first songs I wrote for this record it should come first. And with a song like that, it's kinda hard to put it anywhere else on the record.
So if New York influenced what you were writing about in "My Friend Fish," how did Indiana influence "Everybody's A Good Dog," and why did you move there?
Well I moved to Indiana because I really didn't like New York. It's everything that New York isn't. I met my partner out there and we moved in together and had a little house. With "Everybody's A Good Dog," I was able to actually spend some time really working on these songs whereas the "My Friend Fish" one was done so quickly. I wasn't even thinking I was writing an album. I think this one is a little bit more realized than the last one.
How do you split your time between Foxygen and Diane Coffee?
Foxygen is done, they're going to be writing their next record, so that's the perfect time to start touring. The last tour for "My Friend Fish" happened in the same way. Diane Coffee is my project, it's where I can actually be truly creative, whereas in Foxygen I am just a session musician. Everyone says this is a Foxygen side project, but I don't write with them. This is something that I have been working towards my whole life. This is my baby.
Tell us about your songwriting process:
I always do the instrumentation first. I'll maybe have a melody in mind, but lyrically everything comes last. That's always last, and I think it's because I'm not as secure about writing. I don't feel as comfortable with my lyrics quite yet.
Were there drummers that you liked who were singers or did you gravitate toward singers then figured out drums later?
Drums was actually a really new instrument for me. When I signed on to play with Foxygen, I had never played drums. They were trying to start a band and they said, 'Hey Shaun, you know how to play, like, a beat. We know you. So, just play our show.' Then one show lead to another and then, yeah, it's a small tour, and 'hey can you figure out how to play this song? Yeah, just be the drummer,' and I just had to learn by playing shows how to play. My dad played drums, so I had rhythm watching him, I guess. That's where I get it from. I mean, I'm doing everything completely wrong, I know that. I have calluses on my elbows that aren't supposed to be there. But it works and I'm feeling good about it now. It's actually my favorite instrument to play. I can get out amazing aggression. Whenever I'm feeling down I can go smack something.
More Diane Coffee for your ear holes: