Diane Coffee :: The AD Interview

Internet Arms, Shaun Fleming’s third full-length as Diane Coffee, is his most fully realized work to date. Grappling with technology and our relation to it, the artist chose to embrace the open-ended questions that our society seems hesitant to tackle — even at our own peril.

Speaking from his home in Bloomington, Indiana, Fleming opened up about who the album is addressed to, the not-quite a-ha moments that were the impetus for the record, and his embrace of a “clean, pop” sound

Aquarium Drunkard: How would you characterize your process conceptualizing and creating Internet Arms, compared to your two previous records?

Shaun Fleming: I knew when I went into it that I wanted to work with more of a clean, pop-production sound. It ended up being more like a positive feedback loop: the content begat the sound and the sound begat the content. I knew that I wanted to speak a little about our relationship with technology these days. Even though not every song is about that subject, the sound of the record comes from approaching with that mindset.

AD: When you say “pop,” do you mean in reflection of current pop music, or a pop version of what you had already done?

Shaun Fleming: A little bit of both. I don’t really know anything about pop production, or getting a clean sound, I’m still learning a lot about the recording process. The first record [2013’s My Friend Fish] was almost a series of demos, recorded on whatever I had. The second [2015’s Everybody’s a Good Dog] was my first studio experience, but we were still running stuff through tape. This one, it’s all digital. I was trying to use a lot of synthesizers, which I hadn’t really used before. Even though this doesn’t sound like a modern pop record, I was trying to make it sound like a modern pop record, and this is what happened when I tried.

AD: Were there influences, either artists or sounds, informing you? Ones you strove for which you had not previously?

Shaun Fleming: There’s were certainly people I was listening to at the time. I was trying to do my research – all these pop cats are coming out with stuff, Robyn just came out with that “Honey.” Even people like John Mayer, who has a new, super-clean production sound that’s great. I was looking at some producers who are doing cool stuff, like Danger Mouse has done a lot of clean production. I didn’t hear a record or a producer in particular and say, “I want to do that.” It’s just something I’ve always been fascinated with, current music trends, and I hadn’t really tried to jump into that world yet.

AD: You took some time last year to perform as King Herod in Lyric Opera’s staging of Jesus Christ Superstar. Knowing that you come from a theatrical background even before then, and knowing that your work as Diane Coffee has always had a theatric element, I’m wondering how how much of creating this music is performative?

Shaun Fleming: With each record, I think they’ve all had that element. Because I’m now aiming with a concept, and the two previous records were more songs tied together through production, yeah, it’s a more performative record. As far as the live show goes, every tour that I went on had its own theme, I’ve always tried to bring a theatrical element. With Everybody’s a Good Dog, a lot of those songs are very theatrical in nature and sound. I don’t know if getting back into the theater helped direct me into a more thematic record, but it could have – I hadn’t really thought about it. I’ve wanted to write a musical or a full-on concept record, and maybe this is a stepping stone to doing that, dipping my big toe into the deep-end to see how cold that water actually is.

AD: I’ve always heard Diane Coffee as having a very confident sound, willing to do a number of styles. Is your confidence growing? Did a conceptualized record lend itself towards stretching yourself out?

Shaun Fleming: I’d like to always hope that, with every record, I’m maturing in some way. Whether that be confidence in my style of writing or… I definitely feel like this is, lyrically, my most confident album to date. I’ve always been incredibly timid with my lyrics, even talking about. My wife always says, “I love your lyrics! They’re great!” But I’ve always been kinda down on that side of things, leaving it to the very, very last minute. I’m in the studio with the mic turned on and I’m still writing – it’s always been a hard thing for me to do. With this record, I was very happy with… trying to create… I don’t know if I want to go as far as saying a conceptual album, but just something that had a little more structure, required me to take a little more time and put a little more effort into it.

AD: You address a lot of of the record to a “you.” As a writing device or a concept, why did you choose to address so much of the record to a “you” as opposed to a self, or an individual more personalized?

Shaun Fleming: I didn’t even really realize… I think because this record is like a conversation, because I’m asking questions about society’s tangled relationship with tech, it’s almost like a conversational record. I’m asking a lot of questions to the listener. The track “Internet Arms,” “I am the mother computer” speaking to the “you” was, in my eyes, speaking to myself. It’s still a conversational record, giving my insight and asking “you” questions. Thinking more like a theatrical piece, where I’m on stage, talking to an audience, maybe that’s where it came from. There’s a couple of tracks where there’s an underlying “show” element that hopefully will show up in the live show. I didn’t really think about how many “you’s” there were in this! Now I’m going through all these lyrics in my head going, “ah shit, yeah, there is a lot of that.”

AD: Yeah, but sometimes you hear a record and it’s addressed to one person, not the audience. It didn’t feel like that here. For some writers it can kinda be a crutch.

Shaun Fleming: Definitely. Now I’m thinking about it in comparison to the other records and this one speaks the most directly to the audience.

AD: Is that something that goes back to the confidence piece? Earlier stuff couldn’t do that because you didn’t know if there was an audience there to listen?

Shaun Fleming: Yeah, I could see that being the case… it’s one of those things where there’s probably a lot of sub-conscious elements. I definitely feel that, creating this record, I had the most pressure on me because I knew that people were going to be listening. Even My Friend Fish — it made a… fish sized splash, it wasn’t too wild and out there yet, so I didn’t feel like I had that much pressure on the second record – I was more excited to “go do this in the studio, I have a budget, this is great.” With this one… I was seeing the fanbase grow, and I had something I wanted to say on this record. You’re right, I knew people were going to listen, so maybe that did help sculpt how I wrote some of these.

AD: One other lyrical element that jumped out to me: the song “Work It” is very uplifting, which a lot of the record is not. It’s followed by “Good Luck,” which is the exact opposite message, that no matter how hard you work, you’re in America, so it’s not gonna be so good. They’re sequenced back to back, and both a little less about technology and a bit more about… politics, or just America. Could you speak to the dichotomy of the messages there?

Shaun Fleming: Those two songs are coming from two different types of people: the defeatist, where it doesn’t matter what you do, and you’re bound by fate, it’s not enough to just work hard in America, the shit has hit the fan; and the voice of the positive attitude of the other side, “we can make it if we try,” “work it,” speaking towards, or for, the voice of the disenfranchised. That juxtaposition… it’s jarring. “Work It” stands out because it is, maybe, the only song on the record that has a positive message. Maybe I just couldn’t bring myself to make a whole album where there’s very little hope. I was also just going for the flow of the record, sonically. I knew I wanted “Company Man” to be last, and I knew I wanted “Not Ready To Go” to be first song, and I knew and I wanted “Good Luck” and “Work It” to be next to each other. I wanted “Internet Arms” and “Simulation” to be next to each other… maybe that speaks to this record being more mature than the other ones, or me just being wiser.

AD: Many “advances” in technology leave us feeling helpless or useless, but that’s not the sense I got listening to the record. “Simulation” stood out to me as an out-of-body yet still personally affecting, balancing on the line between helplessness and being helped by technology. Is there even a point is positive participation? Is it fruitless?

Shaun Fleming: It’s not pointless. The internet just turned thirty-years-old. Everyone was talking, “now has to move out of its parents’ house and get a real job.” Social media, all that stuff, it’s only ten-years-old. This is all very new to humankind. This album isn’t saying “technology is a bad thing,” that’s not what it’s about. It’s asking these questions. I’m trying to ask the question, how do we integrate this into our lives and make something sustainable? Cause right now, our human interaction is cut down to almost nothing. We have this idea of digital glam, this hyper glamorized version of ourselves that we project, it isn’t real. I’m wondering how long it’s gonna take before this thing bounces out. We haven’t even had a full generation that has gone through this new digital age. We don’t know what it’s gonna look like, how it will affect our psyche, affect us socially. This album has darker ideas and themes, but it’s not a gloom-and-doom record. You’re starting to see it pop up in culture: movies like Her, with a relationship between a simulated person and a real person. It’s not necessarily a “dark” movie, but it’s something we need to start to discuss and think about, because we’re in this new reality where it can actually start happening. Or how pop culture’s depiction is that A.I.’s coming and they’re gonna take over the world. It’s always been sci-fi and crazy, but right now we’re at the precipice of needing to make decisions. I guess (the record) is my response to all that, and dancing around with these questions that I have. Maybe there’s not many answers on this record, but it’s me grappling with these questions.

AD: As a departure from the content you’d tackled on previous records, was there an instigating-moment or impetus for choosing to grapple with those questions?

Shaun Fleming: I don’t know if there was an a-ha moment, though there was one story that stood out to me, and sort-of inspired “Simulation,” and got this whole train moving in terms of what this album would be about. It was about “deep fakes,” where this technology can take all these images of someone from their social media, and this algorithm does a really intense face-swap, and puts it in a new video. You could take your neighbors face and put it on your favorite porno, giving you this simulation… do you need consent for that? There was another story about doing real-time audio, taking all the speeches that Obama has ever given and putting it into a new creation, a new speech. Those stories combined, while living is the world of “fake news,” where we can’t trust what we’re looking at – it looks like this person, it sounds like this person, it’s acting like this person – it’s a crazy thing to grapple with. When I was hearing these stories, I started thinking, wow, we are advancing quickly into this new territory that is not explored. I’m not saying it’s wrong, I just want to hear more conversation about it. There are so many other things happening in this world, with climate change, politics, stuff like that. This gets put on the backburner, but it’s something that I found fascinating and have thought about a lot. I think that moment was when I knew that the next record was gonna be dabbling in that.

AD: It’s one thing to internalize all that and output it in lyrics, but at various points you chose to strategically use technology to accent the sound. For example, the word “simulation” in the song of the same name, is highly digitized, taking on a different contextual meaning.

Shaun Fleming: Yeah, but that goes to that same sort of thing I spoke about, that positive feedback loop. I knew that the song was about simulations, so within that I knew I wanted to use a sort-of vocoder, sending my analog voice “through the net,” and out came this digitized version of the sound. It’s also why I chose not to run any of this stuff through tape: I love that sound, but it doesn’t make sense for this record. The content guided the sound, but I knew I wanted a certain sound, so that guided the content. words / b kramer

Related: The Lagniappe Sessions :: Diane Coffee