In 1980, two brothers from Milwaukee named Jimmy and Dennis Flemion formed a band called The Frogs. Eight years, a few thousand dollars, and a self-titled debut album later, they took a call from Gerard Cosloy of Homestead Records. Cosloy wanted to sign The Frogs, but he wasn't interested in their album. Instead, the then frontman of Big Black, Steve Albini, had passed him a tape of The Frogs' brilliantly funny, mostly improvised and home-recorded songs about things like child abduction and homosexuality, and Cosloy wanted to put those out instead. This was supposed to be in The Larfs Issue, but we ran out of space, so you can read it here.
1989's gay supremacy record It's Only Right And Natural and 1996's My Daughter The Broad—featuring songs called "Children Run Away (The Man with the Candy)" and "Grandma Sitting In The Corner With A Penis In Her Hand Going 'No, No, No, No, No'"—won The Frogs the patronage of some of the biggest stars in what people, at the time, had no qualms calling alternative rock.
More controversial still was Racially Yours, an album about race relations with a cover featuring Dennis done up in full blackface, which no label would approach for a decade. Much of The Frogs' material has long been out of print, but they've recently dusted down their back catalogue for iTunes, and last year played their first ever UK show at the Breeders ATP. Since they've just been confirmed to play next May's Animal Collective-curated ATP, we called up Jimmy to find out what The Frogs have been up to for the last decade.
Vice: Hi Jimmy. So, would you consider The Frogs a comedy band?
Jimmy Flemion: Well, no. We put out our first album five and a half months before It's Only Right And Natural, and it confused people, because the two albums are so different. We made up those songs for our own enjoyment at home—we didn't necessarily set out to be "that band." I admire the best comedians; someone like Jerry Lewis, you can see how well studied it is, the genius behind it. But to be bandied with that word, you know, we're not Weird Al, but people think like that sometimes.
There's something really endearing about your made-up songs, though. The bits on "I've Got Drugs (Out of the Mist)" where you're both on the verge of corpsing for example.
Sure. That element where you're stepping into new territory with every strum of the guitar. One person says something that sparks something in the other.
So where did the costumes, like the bat wings and the on-stage fireworks come from?
We wore normal attire onstage up until 1982, but when I started writing songs about death and Dungeons & Dragons we decided to get costumes. I got the wings, and there was a Fangoria Magazine that had a costume with these scary hands and I was going to wear them but cut out the fingers so I could still play guitar. We had a song called "Voodoo Doll" which goes, "The vat is being filled with sulphuric acid, have a nice swim!" and then a flash bomb goes off. We had shows where the bomb knocked out the sound system, or our fog machine flooded the venue. But during Racially Yours we dropped all that stuff. Dennis had his blackface thing, and I was shirtless with white pants and make-up.
The thing about Racially Yours is that bits of it are funny, but it isn't really played for laughs. It's quite sincere, there's a sad undercurrent.
It was controversial, at the time.
I guess so, but really, in hindsight, it's not as explosive as someone might think it is. It's pretty straightforward. All the songs speak of different points of view, and I think they capture a lot of different angles, the feelings of the time. We didn't set out to upset anybody, that's never been the point. But the songs get written, and then they're interpreted a certain way. You know, Tommy, by The Who—nobody had a problem with "Cousin Kevin." It's just a character.
It's been nearly ten years since your last record. Is there new material in the pipeline?
Yeah, it's called The Sad LP. There are things people are used to hearing from us, but also things people aren't so accustomed to. It's quite moving. You know, I don't know how affected people are, emotionally, by our stuff. But I think this is more likely to get you there.