The Rise & Fall of Black Velvet Flag: Fred "Flag" Stesney & Jeff Musser from Lounge-core Pioneers Black Velvet Flag (The Witzard Interview)
When you start a band, you not only don't know how it will turn out, you, also, don't know how or when it will end. Black Velvet Flag (B.V.F.) has had a few revivals of interest over the years, so it's still not really over. I notice it because I see spikes in the downloads of the documentary [The Rise & Fall of Black Velvet Flag] and the music. We are not talking about big spikes, but spikes they are. As an art project over time, the trajectory of the band's rise and fall coincided with the culture's capacity to embrace irony and self-reflection.
For a brief two years in the mid-1990’s, the NY music scene and the Indie band industry of its time was thrilled to see a show and let the listener reflect and to laugh at one's self, to ponder the contradictions, and to imagine all the iterations where similar ironic self-reflexive cultural activity was happening. I think a culture gets to that place when people at large feel the future ahead is promising. It takes some optimism about one's self to laugh and satire one's own past. Remember, two of the three B.V.F. bandmates were Punks in the 1980's, then, they went to college, got jobs, and, then, created the band B.V.F. as a way to wonder, "WTF did I just live through these last 10 years? How did I get from moshing in a trashy club with no money to my name to being a high-paid creative at an ad agency?"
We shot the film simultaneously with the band's trajectory with production and [post-production] always a little behind their progress. I knew I had to wrap production and get the film done when the culture changed. A big pause in irony in American culture was 9/11. That's when I felt the moment had passed and people wanted answers to other kinds of questions that a Lounge Punk band or any self-reflexive humor project did not so easily answer. The zeitgeist of irony and humor begins with giving oneself the space to laugh at oneself. B.V.F. did that very well. It took 10 years before the first revival of interest. That was around late 2012 when The Recession gave way to [President] Obama's second term and comedy found its way into the universe of streaming by video and audio.
People remembered the band and their music and the film got heard and seen online. Now, 10 years later, a new interest has returned. I think this time around, it isn't just because B.V.F. was funny and ironic, but because B.V.F. lived through a cycle of life of growing up with a youth sub-culture identity (Punk) and joining a band that, for the current generation, does not exist anymore. Do teens really have such distinct culturally defined identities defined by music as the youth in the past? You be the judge. B.V.F. created a phenomenon of interest through live performance and the Alternative culture press of NY that no longer exists. No one does that anymore in quite the same way. Social media is the path. The landscape has changed.
People are now curious how band-making and identity definition was done so long ago when there was only paper-based Alternative media, hole-in-the-wall clubs, cassette tapes, and DVD's. No Internet or streaming and no social media. The film and band laid out a path that had been trodden many times, but, now, has been almost forgotten. Each to their own of course, but for what it is worth, the history of how young people make popular culture in America is fascinating to me and the courage and innovation that Fred [Stesney], Jason [Zasky,] and Jeff [Musser] shared with the world is worth remembering for future generations to think about, imagine, and learn from.
- The Rise & Fall of Black Velvet Flag Director Sheldon Schiffer
I. Please, introduce yourselves and share your role within Black Velvet Flag during their heyday.
Fred "Flag" Stesney: Frontman, crooner, drum machine operator, lyrics.
Jeff Musser: Bass and maracas, graphic designer.
Jason Zasky: Guitar, "fancy" chords.
II. When, where, and how did Black Velvet Flag initially form?
Fred "Flag" Stesney: It was New York in the early 1990's. I met Jeff [Musser] at a party. We'd both been So-Cal Punk Rock kids. It was Jeff's concept. Neither of us were active musicians, so I called my cousin, Jason [Zasky]. He'd been to a guitar school in LA where he learned the "fancy" chords we needed to interpret the songs.
Jeff Musser: Our expectations were low. Our sights were only to play one gig at a local club—The Mercury Lounge—so we could say that we had "played a club." But we got a second gig as part of a record release party for Esquivel and, then, we were suddenly on MTV.
III. Who came up with the idea to cover Punk/Hardcore songs in a Lounge-leaning style? What motivated you to do so?
Musser: I had put together a little band when I was in art school just to play a party doing cover songs—everything from Spın̈al Tap to T.V. jingles. The singer had this crooner-type voice, so I thought it would be great to sing ["New York's Alright If You Like Saxophones"] by FEAR. But he wouldn't sing, "I just want to f**k some sl*t" because his girlfriend was going to be there. So, the idea just stuck with me. When I met Fred, I shared the idea and the rest just fell into place. Jason brought this whole other sensibility because he didn't have any attachment to the original songs and a very high level of musicianship.
IV. Did you ever receive any kind of feedback from the bands you covered and re-interpreted? If so, what did they have to say about your renditions?
Stesney: The Adolescents liked what we were doing and we started a collaboration that never saw fruition. Lee Ving [FEAR] said something positive about us—literally in-passing—at SXSW. Greg Ginn [Black Flag] just wanted his royalties. I think we sent him $75.00.
V. How did you end up getting involved with Sheldon Schiffer, who directed your now-infamous interactive documentary, The Rise & Fall of Black Velvet Flag?
Musser: I've known Sheldon since middle school. He and I have collaborated on various projects over the years. Being as he is an award-winning documentary film-maker, I thought he'd be a good addition to the team. At the time, Sheldon & I were working together developing interactive content and websites, so it was a natural fit to extend into this project.
VI. What types of inspiration and influence do you think similarly-minded modern bands, such as Scott Bradlee's Post Modern Jukebox, Richard Cheese & Lounge Against The Machine, Franks & Deans, Me First & The Gimme Gimmes, and Puddles Pity Party may have drawn from Black Velvet Flag?
Stesney: They probably haven't heard of us. Some of our detractors accused us of "ripping off" the band's concept from the movie Repo Man (1984.) In it, The Circle Jerks do a cameo as a Lounge band. I saw the movie when it came out and didn't remember that part.
Musser: I, too, doubt we had any influence. I think Richard Cheese was already around when we were.
VII. For those reading who may be blissfully unaware, what were your primary sources of inspiration behind the Come Recline with Black Velvet Flag album cover artwork?
Musser: The entire album is an homage to [documentary] The Decline of Western Civilization (1981.) So, we posed Fred in the same position as [The Germs'] Darby [Crash] is on the cover of that [soundtrack] album. That's, also, the reason for Come Recline... as the title and the interviews that pepper the album.
VIII. What can you tell us about the roles of The Satin Bags and briefly-acting drummers Ringo "Yamaha DD-12" & Tom "The Drummer" Kunz?
Stesney: I'd always wanted to be a drummer and bought the DD-12 when virtual drums became a thing. We, also, played with Anne Maegli, a saxophone player we brought on so we could cover FEAR's "New York's Alright If You Like Saxophones."
Musser: The Satin Bags were the back-up singers on the live album. One of them, Juditta [Musette], was a friend of my ex-wife's, who sang in bands in Providence, Rhode Island. I don't recall how we met Beth [Heller], the other singer. Tom [Kunz] was a work friend of mine, who played in various bands. We did a reunion show at Tramps in NYC after not playing together for a year or so and we thought it would be good to mix it up with a live drummer. Tom sat in for that and did a great job. All of our other shows featured Ringo.
IX. What have all of you been up to in the years since the sudden demise of Black Velvet Flag?
Stesney: When Jeff left the band, I saw the value of a bass player and took up the instrument myself. I was too old to Rock "N" Roll, so I joined a Honky-tonk Country band and, later, a Folk/Americana group. It was in the latter that I did my best work, both as a song-writer and studio player. I, also, did a short stint as the live bassist for an Art/Goth project.
Musser: I played briefly in a band called Big Girl, but it didn't go anywhere. I kind of soured on the whole band dynamic, so started writing music on my own. So, I learned how to program a drum machine, learned a little guitar, and started recording stuff on my own. It was mostly in the realm of hobby. I moved to [San Francisco] shortly thereafter and didn't do much with music for a while. Now, I do my own cover versions of all kinds of music on ukulele and have learned to play drums. Most of my creative energy goes into my day job, as I own and run a small advertising agency.
X. How far along did you get recording/creating the follow-up to Come Recline with Black Velvet Flag? Why was it never properly released to the masses?
Stesney: We recorded the whole thing and mixed it ourselves. I don't remember why Go-Kart [Records] wasn't behind the project or why we couldn’t get another record company interested.
Musser: I shot an album cover. I don't even remember if I sent it to Fred & Jason. It was a martini glass on fire, as the shape was reminiscent of the burning "X" from X's Los Angeles album.
XI. What can you tell us about the long-aborted Black Velvet Flag CD-ROM "Board" Game that would have accompanied your sophomore album?
Musser: Sheldon Schiffer & I designed and produced it. Basically, it was about surviving the cycle of Youth Culture. As you rolled the dice, you advanced around the circular board. On every space where you landed, you had to make a choice—shave your head, run away from home, have group sex, etc. Each space and decision used a little clip from our music to accent the theme. Based on your choices, you were scored as being "conformist" or "non-conformist." If you pegged out too "non-conformist," you lost and landed in Jail. If you were too "conformist," you lost and landed in Suburbia. Both places had bars on the windows. The idea was to find a comfortable middle ground. Certain choices, also, ate up or bolstered your vitality, as measured by the amount of booze in your cocktail glass. It was originally coded in some now-defunct programming language. Sheldon re-did it in Flash, but that has gone away now, too.
XII. In the many years since your disbandment, have there ever been talks of getting Black Velvet Flag together again?
Stesney: No. We live thousands of miles away from each other now... but, if we did, I'd like to switch things up: Jeff would play drums, I'd play bass, and we'd get a female vocalist.
Musser: That sounds pretty awesome, actually. I don't know if I'm a good enough drummer to be that Jazzy, though... but I've always been about limitations creating something unique. That was the Punk ethos that I still hold onto. To me, the best stuff always comes from people doing things they haven't been trained in, so they just do what feels right; innovation through ignorance. I do miss that feeling of putting on a great show and feeding off that energy of the audience. We had so many good shows together. There were a few clunkers in there, but they were super-memorable, too. Fred is still one of the best writers I've ever known. I think about the lyrics to our song, "Where Are The Cops?" regularly. So good.
XIII. Have you guys ever been approached by anyone to properly release Black Velvet Flag's as-yet-unreleased scrapped second album? If not, how do you feel about self-releasing it on your own?
Musser: I have not heard of any concrete interest. The album was being created during a rough spell with the band–mainly my leaving. With my departure, the relationship with the band's publicist and manager was stifled, as Felice Ecker at Girlie Action was a close friend of mine. I often refer to Felice as the "fourth" member of the band, as she was the conduit to most of our success and publicity and connections to the music industry. The landscape has changed so much since the mid-90's. I was laughing, as I came across an old email from Fred about making our MySpace page. I'm totally open to self-releasing the album, but I, honestly, don't even know what that means anymore. Our music is on the major streaming sources and available on Amazon & Apple Music, but we have no idea where any of those profits (if any) are even going.
Stesney: I have all the tracks on a computer, but, like Jeff said, we don't know who's looking after the first album [Come Recline with Black Velvet Flag]. Sometimes, I go on Apple Music and listen to my own songs. There are tracks on the "lost" album that I would check in with every once in a while.
Just in time to coincide with this very interview, which you're either just finishing and/or starting (depedning on which Adventure you've Chosen!) Black Velvet Flag's own Jeff Musser and The Rise & Fall of Black Velvet Flag director Sheldon Schiffer have effectively re-launched BlackVelvetFlag.com. Amazingly, it now appears just as it would have a staggering 26 years ago way back in 1996 with some added Flash emulator plug-ins, of course. So, head on over to B.V.F.'s new/old site, check out the pages upon pages of sheer nostalgia, listen to Come Recline with Black Velvet Flag on Spotify, watch The Rise & Fall of Black Velvet Flag on Vimeo, and play the Black Velvet Flag CD-ROM "Board" Game. We just wanted to take a minute to send some very special shout-outs and words of thanks to Carlos Ramirez (Black Army Jacket, Deny The Cross) at NO ECHO, Go-Kart Records' founder and owner Greg Ross, and The Rise & Fall of Black Velvet Flag director Sheldon Schiffer for helping set this whole thing up. Honestly, none of this would have been possible without each of their assistance and support!