- The Frogs, sporting their Easter finest.
Today's backslide toward ever-younger demographics has created an abyss of bottom-line consumer-based artlessness. As unnerving as this current state may be to anyone with even a passing interest in music as art, it's hardly a new trend. Just ask Frogs drummer Dennis Flemion. Complaints about the dumbing-down of music have been going on for as long as rock and roll has existed, and yet Flemion still gets riled up about it.
"I've been at odds with the popular fucking culture for the past 20 years or more," growls Flemion, who is half of the bizarre force (brother Jimmy being the other half) that is the Frogs, one of rock's most unusual and idiosyncratic bands. "It's always been fucked up and totally sold-out, but right now it's the worst. There's nothing out there -- or there's very little -- that's entertaining or interesting. You've got to dig just for spicks and specks that might turn you on."
Flemion, who is in his mid-to-late forties, could probably be passed off as just another old fart who doesn't "get it" anymore. In fact, it would be easy (and probably accurate) to peg most of his fellow midlife curmudgeons as such. Of course, most folks his age don't happen to front an intriguing band that has an uncanny knack for consistently making the sort of smart "pop" music that aims to disarm the unambitious and slovenly nature of the prevailing mainstream, as well as that of the music business itself.
Since forming the Frogs in Milwaukee some 20 years ago, the Flemion brothers have dedicated themselves to exactly that. With a legacy of intelligent, funny, poignant, frightening, satirical, and -- above all -- ambitious songs that catalog into the near thousands, the Frogs have turned batches of homemade recordings (early songs and bits circulated via cassettes, most of which have by now found their way onto the band's CDs) into a legitimate career. A series of nearly anonymous, underground CDs (including the band's striking new album, Hopscotch Lollipop Sunday Surprise) are filled with moments of brilliance. But underground is clearly not a status that Flemion cherishes.
"We never set out to be 'underground.' I mean, who the fuck would?" he fumes. "We always wanted to be a pop band, a good pop band. We'd really always sort of set our sights to be as good as the Beatles, you know, that sort of thing. And obviously, we want to be heard. That really was and is the goal."
On the surface, though, the Frogs couldn't have come from a place any further away from pop music. The band's first notable release, 1989's It's Only Right and Natural, was a nefarious pastiche of odd pop musings and strange anthems that coiled around an in-your-face homosexual motif (the band was dubbed by some the world's first "gay supremacist folk duo"). The record collected attention, even garnering a review in People magazine, and purportedly became a favorite of Kurt Cobain and Pearl Jam, who are said to have played it over the PA system prior to shows. It resulted in the predictably endless questions about the group's sexuality that ultimately brought home the band's more furtive and satirical point.
Following the minor success of Right and Natural, the Frogs didn't let up. Heading off into the even more sensitive area of race on their subsequent weirdly ambitious project, Racially Yours, they unleashed a set of caustic tunes that alternated between "white perspective" and "black perspective" (the band took the idea even further with its live shows by performing in character -- one in whiteface, the other in blackface makeup). But predictably, no record label had the fortitude to tackle such ambitious fare, and the disc didn't see the light of day until a limited release last year on Chicago's 4Alarm records. As the band's mordant satire became more biting as well as more obvious, the Frogs quickly became tagged as a "joke" band -- a satirical troupe of goofy what-will-they-do-next absurdists who shouldn't be taken seriously.
"Yeah, it bothers me," Flemion says. "I mean, I suppose it's our own fault in a sense, but it all goes back to the biz and getting support and that sort of thing. If we'd ever had the right kind of support, we'd probably have worked in a studio proper, recorded a 'real' album, and maybe none of that other stuff would have ever been released. But it didn't work out that way. None of this was calculated by any means, but after a while, I just said, 'Fuck it, I'm gonna stay true to my own vision, and to hell with the rest of it.' It'll either fall into place or it won't. Life's too short."
The "biz" can be unkind, particularly to strange visionaries who don't understand -- or want to understand -- the way things are expected to be. Hopscotch Lollipop Sunday Surprise is a departure, then, in the sense that it retains the sounds of a band raging on in the face of obscurity, but tones down the sarcasm prevalent in most of the band's previous work. And although the record is more of what the Frogs' music has always been -- a collection of songs that have littered shows and homemade recordings, now gathered up and released for consumption -- it has a distinct aura of having "cleaned up" a bit, sounding a tad more gentle and wanting of acceptance.
"Basically, once again, we are just trying to play catch-up with this record," Flemion explains. "Most of the songs on this new record are 'old' -- at least five years old. They were part of our live set, and I'm just putting them out on the marketplace now because I feel it's our work to do that, and this is some of our strongest songwriting, so I wanted them to have a place. And they're pop songs, of course. That's what we are -- a pop band really."
Yes, pop songs such as "Bad Mommy" and "Bad Daddy" wrestle against an anguished cover of Bob Dylan's "Billy," while a fairly straightforward love song, "Whisper," tries to take the edge off of proclamations of "Better Than God" or the simple and direct "Fuck Off." The band's indie credibility remains (Smashing Pumpkin Billy Corgan even produces one track). Under the pseudonym Johnny Goat, Corgan also produced the band's brilliant 1997 release StarJob. Hopscotch offers some of the subtlest, most proficient, and even accessible Frogs songs ever. But that's of little consolation to Flemion.
"I just never knew how to play the game," he says, half-proud of being so defiant. "Hell, we were never offered to even be a part of the game, and I was so naive, I didn't know anybody played the fucking game. The ones at the top, I didn't think they played the game; the ones who were my rock and roll heroes, I didn't think they played the game -- I just thought they were cool. But, you know what? Everyone plays the fucking game. I found out along the way that they all do it -- even the ones I respected so much, and that's lame as shit. It's pathetic. You'd think there would be an end to it, but there isn't. It just goes on and on."