ALEXIS FLEISIG: Kinetic Energy
ALEXIS FLEISIG is a drummer, designer and lover of almost anything aesthetically pleasing. He’s played in or with a wide range of seminal bands & recording artists: It all started in 1985, with Lünchmeat- his first Hardcore band, formed in Washington D.C. during the height of the city’s now legendary punk scene. Supported by the iconic record label: Dischord, the band eventually morphed into the much venerated and influential Soulside. In 1988, Alexis co-formed the successful post-hardcore band Girls Against Boys with two of his former band mates from Soulside (Johnny Temple & Scott McCloud). Alexis has also worked with Moby, Ben Lee, Angela McCluskey, Bellini, Paramount Styles & Obits. He once had an interesting foray into the showbiz world with Gina Gershon, but he’ll only tell you that story over a pint.
Interview by Melissa Unger
What initially sparked your desire to become a musician?
I always tapped and clicked on things as a kid as some sort of nervous habit and hopefully not some neurological deficiency. It drove my father crazy and after attempting to convince me to try any other instrument he finally relented and allowed a drum set in our house. Not only did a drum set seem like some magical enchanted object, it was also a vehicle for me to combat my shyness while still maintaining a protective shell around me. Odd that a shy person would pick an instrument that demands that people pay attention. I think I spend a lot of time trying to figure out ways to break out of my own little personal prisons of insecurity or sense of unbelonging. I find it pretty funny that I don’t feel comfortable in a lot of social situations so I try learning other languages so I can be even more uncomfortable in social situations where English is not the first language. I guess I better call a therapist.
You began playing in bands at an early age, why did you choose drums as instrument through which to express yourself?
I have no idea. Something about the drums just really moved me from a very early age. I grew up a classic rock kid so when I heard Keith Moon or Ringo Starr or John Bonham it spoke to me as the perfect language. Maybe it’s the accompaniment to other instruments in terms of clarification, definition and dynamics that I always appreciate. And some songs just sound better with drums. I play in bands where we often have musicians from other countries sit in with us. It’s fascinating to me that you can play with someone where the clearest communication is music and have things work out incredibly well. Getting the opportunity to play with someone who is intensively trained in a “real” traditional, complicated instrument (which I was not) from Poland, Spain, Italy, Belgium, Czech Republic or somewhere else and immediately begin working together naturally seems to me to be nearly unthinkable in any other profession. Of course, we are all working in the same 12 tone western scale so that’s a commonality.
Drums are likely the most ancient musical instrument; they have been used in ritual ceremonies, by shaman, and as a means of communication. How do you feel when you are playing drums? What ‘goes on’ in your head, in your body?
My language of drums is mostly based on contemporary music so I’m always thinking about the proper tempo, feel, push and pull and whether it sounds cheesy. It’s very easy to fall into playing in ways that sound familiar and I attempt to avoid that. It’s difficult when it seems like every combination of chords and patterns has been done already (and it probably has) to try to be original and fresh. Sometimes I think musicians are really just purveyors of taste like a magazine. We recycle what we hear in a way that displays our collection of likes so we can find others that think the same way we think. Maybe that’s the definition of cheesy: things that do not demonstrate correctly how we want to be defined.
In person, you are rather reserved and discrete yet you’ve played in some riotous hardcore bands, tell us a bit about how you experience this dichotomy. Also, did you ever have any fear with regards to playing on stage, and if so, how did you overcome it?
That’s something that I’ve thought about a bit through the years. There is a lot of style that goes with substance in music. In the beginning I thought the style part was pretty stupid but I’ve been partially proven wrong through the years. People remember and associate with things that help define them. Style is a very powerful way to define who you are and what you feel you belong to. Photography and music and art all present a mythology of who and what people did and were that becomes a reality. You can’t ignore that. I always thought it was funny when people say to me, “You don’t look like a punk rock drummer,” or “when did you join the band?” My immediate thought is “Well, what does a punk rock drummer look like?” Or, “Wow, I managed to make such a huge impact that no one noticed I was in this band.” It might be a shame but I now think that style is something everyone in every aspect of life grapples with. How you dress or appear to others, how you behave and how you treat others defines you whether you like it or not. If that’s the case, then that is something mostly within your control unlike so many other things in life. This is probably obvious to a lot of others but it wasn’t to me. Mostly it seemed like posturing and to some degree it is but it also defines you. I guess my point to this question is that I’m ok being quiet in all of these bands, I prefer that people appreciate how I perform rather than that I threw a tv out of window or got thrown off a plane.
As for fear of going on stage, sometimes it creeps up on you. I’m lucky because I can hide behind my drums-the singer usually takes the brunt of the attention. It is funny though that I often have more fear playing to 30 people than I do to playing in front of 30,000. When it’s that many people it’s just like playing to a tv or a wall or something. And when 30,000 people clap mildly and without enthusiasm, it still sounds like a massive avalanche.
You currently play with a number of different bands, each group having a different musical style, internal dynamic and divergent personalities to adapt to- How are you able to flow from one creative experience to the next so effectively?
I try as hard as I can to play differently with each of these bands but in the end I’m still me. With Soulside, Girls Against Boys and Paramount Styles I’ve been playing with Scott (the singer/guitar player) since I was a teenager so we have a natural language and flow that we just fall into naturally. That is very comforting but also sometimes makes you lazy. With the other bands it can be very challenging: with Bellini there is a song structure and style that can be very complicated and I’ve learned a tremendous amount playing with them. It has really forced me out of my standard style and fallbacks which I didn’t realize I had until we began playing together. That’s been great for growth for me. For Obits, I want to try as hard as I can to play the way the old drummer Scott played. They have a certain sound and I want to try to be as faithful as I can to that and that is sometimes challenging but interesting at the same time. In the end, I want the music to sound as good as it can.
Also, my parents were divorced at a pretty early age so I’m pretty used to dealing with divergent personalities. One of the perks of divorce!
What is your favorite way to relax and ‘unplug’ from technology /information overload?
I have not yet mastered this. I am currently experiencing massive information overload. My friend just went to Sicily for 10 days without a cell phone or computer or anything and sat on a beach and read. This sounds like an excellent idea. I was once in Brittany without any access to phones or internet and my French was terrible and it rained constantly so I sat around reading every English book they had on their shelves. I read a lot of Hemmingway that week and I thought, “look at me, sitting in Brittany, holed up in a chateau, reading Hemmingway. Well, la di da!” That has to have been one of my all time favorite literary experiences-full immersion!
Other than playing music, is there another vehicle through which you express your imagination?
I am a photography and architecture junkie. I take photographs of pretty much everything I can. This is probably akin to being a drummer and just sitting and observing from the back. I sometimes think “Am I experiencing this event or am I photographing it so I can experience it at some other time?” Whatever, I love taking pictures and video and I try to do things with that medium. I think film and photography is such an interesting way to create something that is just a concept in your head. And I love architecture so whenever I’m on tour or at home I try to find all the interesting structures near me that I can.
You’ve spent over 20 years on and off the road, playing music in notoriously iconoclastic bands, what has been the most enriching aspect of this exuberant creative journey?
First off, I can’t believe it’s been that long. It has always been something that I thought I would do until I couldn’t do it anymore and apparently I can still do it. That is such a gift to be able to travel the world and do something that I love to do and meet people from everywhere and see things in a different way. When you are on tour working and seeing things and meeting people it is not the same as being a tourist. I am a very different person than when I first started out as a teenager and I always feel like I’m discovering something new about me and the way the world works. I love that because sometimes I get down and start thinking terrible things about the world and people and then I get surprised in a great way. And sometimes I get surprised in an awful way but what I learn is that nothing is predictable. People and the world are full of chaos and it can be a wonderful experience to be a part of that. And there is always something new to learn.
Published: July 2nd, 2013