Gloom Balloon’s Patrick Fleming: Make It Stranger | Feature Interview

By most contemporary, state-of-the-industry standards, it would be hard to call Patrick Tape Fleming a failure.

Iowa quintet The Poison Control Center, for which Fleming was one-fourth of the power-pop outfit’s songwriting machine,  put out six solid full-lengths, releasing at least two in the midst of their sprawling “never ending tour,” which spanned 200-some shows across the United States and Canada from 2008-2010, including dates with The Apples in Stereo and Head of Femur.

Their albums were reviewed on Pitchfork, they did radio performances in New York City, they played CMJ Music Marathon twice—benchmarks that, at least when read together, demarcate some measure of success, even if modest. Certainly not failure.

Still, he sings that he failed at being in a rock ‘n’ roll band on one of the first lyrics from 2013’s You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Disaster, the sole full-length from Fleming’s current project Gloom Balloon. The album is available on Maximum Ames Records.

PCC quit the road in 2011 and have since only played a couple homestate shows a year.

“I thought we were just kind of hitting our stride, but we were actually kind of coming to an end,” Fleming says. “You give a year of your life to something, then when it’s done you look back and wonder, ‘Did I fail? Did I not succeed?’”

For Fleming, who continued writing songs, that came with a slow realization that perhaps his work was now to no particular end, scrawling deeply personal lyrics into the void. Emily Dickinsons, the recluses whose genius is only maybe discovered post-mortem, are rare. Creative impulse cannot be sated in a vacuum.

So he set out to record what would be a solo project and found producer Chris Ford, a longtime friend and the brain behind Christopher the Conquered’s jazzy piano rock.

“I guess what I should say is he’s my favorite musician in Iowa and I totally respect him. But actually, he owed me,” Fleming says.

Gloom Balloon and Christopher the Conquered play at Duffy’s Tavern tomorrow night as part of Lincoln Calling. More on the schedule here.

About 30 seconds before Fleming laments his failed rock stardom in our interview, he calls himself “the luckiest motherfucker in the world” in about six different ways, each really meaning one thing when taken with the failure line: this is a contradiction.

“A balloon, once you blow it up, it’s destined to die,” Fleming says. “It has both aspects of happiness and death, I think.”

And that feeling pervades through every facet of Gloom Balloon: the titular painting of a black balloon, the barely-hanging-in-there desperation in Fleming’s voice over what might otherwise be intricate, sunshine-and-soul production, the live shows where Fleming looks like he might fall to his knees for the hopeless state of all things while Ford dances cheerily around the room. Right down to Ford’s trumpet, that rich, buoyant brass instrument. The bell on his trumpet takes a gentle turn downward like a slightly deflated balloon animal.

The live show is like an improvised theatrical production. There is a point here — an artist with something to say, perhaps something very hefty, but no one, audience or performer (these positions might be interchangeable) can quite get a proper grasp on what it is among the sensory overload.

“I wanted to make it stranger, which actually made it feel more at home,” Fleming says. “When you’re playing music, you want to present yourself as how you actually feel. That’s the hardest thing.”

Fleming and Ford, often rolling somewhere around a grimy barroom floor, chant and shout, sing, occasionally play instruments. A screen broadcasts strange PSA-like videos from another era, while the duo swings audience members in and out of their orbit. All they know is that something is there and you either get it or you don’t.

Like an unhinged motivational speaker telling you how to get through the tough shit: the answer is you just do, or maybe you don’t. Tough shit.

Read the full Q&A with Patrick Fleming below.

Hear Nebraska: Before we get to Gloom Balloon, I wanted to start somewhere maybe obvious, something I couldn’t find definitively online. Is The Poison Control Center still together?

Patrick Tape Fleming: Yeah, we’re still trading demos and stuff back and forth. We’re spread out about as far as you can be spread out in the country right now.

We played a friend’s wedding earlier this year and we always play the booking agent of The Vaudeville Mews’s birthday party every year. So we’ve only played two shows this year, which is a drastic change from a few years ago. But we’re all still sending each other demos and talking about recording. So I think that means we’re still together. But I don’t think it’s holding anybody back from doing anything else. We’re always still doing stuff together, just not really playing together.

HN: Not hitting the road for a year at a time any more.

PF: Yeah. Families and stuff. Don (Curtis), our drummer, has two babies. Joe (Terry) has a kid. I’m of the age where that can be happening. We’re the married ones. But not stopping, we’ll do it again.

HN: So how did your time with The Poison Control Center, spending all this time on the road, factor into your work with Gloom Balloon?

PF: Some of the songs that came out on the record talk a lot about being on the road, being in a band. There’s a line in the record that says “I failed at being in a rock and roll band so I’m just looking for some place to land where someone understands.”

That’s how I feel after we got done with our big tour. I thought we were just kind of hitting our stride, but we were actually kind of coming to an end. You give a year of your life to something, then when it’s done you look back and wonder, “Did I fail? Did I not succeed?”

We’re all still friends, we made money and we didn’t kill each other. But when you realize you’re not going to do it anymore for a while, there are a lot of pondering things.

HN: Talking about being free of this entity that has defined your life — is that encouraging or terrifying?

PF: The latter, I think. Or somewhere in between, which maybe is, like, depressing or something. Every song I wrote from the time I was 18 to 32 or 33 was for these other few people to play. Knowing that, I wouldn’t worry about figuring out a guitar solo, because Devin (Frank) could do that, or a bassline or how the drums would go because I trust these people so much. When you don’t have that, you have to figure out what you’re going to do.

HN: In terms of writing then, how do you draw a line from writing for Poison Control Center to writing for Gloom Balloon?

PF: When I started writing Gloom Balloon stuff, I just figured it was Poison Control Center. I was slowly realizing that I was writing a lot and I needed to do something for my own sanity. I can’t wait around to do something with people that can’t do it. I get itching to do stuff all the time if I don’t have something I’m working on. I get bummed out.

HN: How did Chris Ford come to be a part of this?

PF: I guess what I should say is he’s my favorite musician in Iowa and I totally respect him. But actually, he owed me. I recorded records of his and helped him do music videos. I went to him and said I wanted to do a 7-inch and have him produce it, to have an outside person look at it that I respected and would be honest with me. He said “yes” and if he wouldn’t have, I was going to be like “you owe me.”

HN: The two of you do a lot of rolling around on the floor in performance, laying on top of each other, I remember seeing a lot of that — very physically intimate performance routines. Does that stem from your friendship or was that built in?

PF: I think it just morphed into the show because the music has this strange tension to it. When you’re playing songs that are not lyrically the happiest songs, but you’re playing them in an upbeat fashion, maybe it just turns into—we like to think of it as a psychedelic dance party, but maybe it just turns into sexual frustration.

I was laying on the floor and the next thing Chris was laying on top of me playing his trumpet. It became something that happened more. We have a great relationship, nothing sexual, but maybe you’d think that watching the show.

HN: My impression was that you’re two guys who are creatively very comfortable with each other.

PF: That is definitely the case.

HN: I always read that before Gloom Balloon was a band or a performance piece, it was a painting. Can you tell me about that?

PF: Me and my wife went and bought these massive canvasses that we had to strap to our car. I was working a lot and I wasn’t playing any shows and PCC was done touring and stuff. So I got it into my head to do this painting. I’ve always liked visual art and my wife actually does visual art. She’s really great at it and I have no talent at it, but it’s really fun.

We got to get big canvasses … six feet tall or something, and started throwing paint on it. I was listening to a lot of Badfinger at the time and they use the word “gloom” a lot. I painted a balloon on this thing. It was black and then I painted a bunch of colors over it. I thought it was cool.

It’s kind of like life. A balloon, once you blow it up, it’s destined to die, but it can also bring the most joy to a little kid and if it floats away they’ll scream. It has both aspects of happiness and death, I think.

HN: That anecdote always sticks out to me because your performance is not like seeing a rock band. It’s much more like performance art. It begins with painting, goes onto a record and emerges as this piece of performance art.

PF: If we could, I would love to play it only in museums and perform it as performance art. Sometimes I think when you portray it as a band, people kind of think “Jeez, Pat, you’re hardly playing any instruments.”

There’s a guy locally who writes for a weekly. He came to one of our first shows. We were still kind of working out the kinks and figuring out what we were doing. He wrote something kind of like: “Two people from bands that have played a lot in Des Moines and have gotten together and toured a lot…you just paid five bucks to watch two guys screw around. Why didn’t Pat play guitar and Chris play piano?” Something like that.

That actually inspired me to make it even more weird, more strange and un-band-like because people were getting offended by it or something, which is kind of nice, from a creative point-of-view.

If you’re playing in a rock ‘n’ roll band, unless you’re like Sid Vicious, giving the rest of your bandmates crabs on purpose, it’s pretty hard to make someone pissed off about what you’re doing. So I wanted to make it stranger, which actually made it feel more at home.

When you’re playing music, you want to present yourself as how you actually feel. That’s the hardest thing. There are few people I think who really do that, like Bright Eyes for example. Those early Bright Eyes recordings, he was doing that. He was so young. You either loved it or hated it and the only reason you hated it is because you knew how fucking good it was.

I’m around the same age as Conor and we both are from the Midwest. I really latched onto it. There’s not that many people who can portray feelings like that. I’m not comparing us to that, but hopefully we’re portraying our feelings in an honest fashion.

HN: Were you able to do that in Poison Control Center?

PF: With that band, we had four different songwriters. Most of the songs of PCC, it doesn’t matter who was writing them, it was pretty much just love songs. All of mine are about my wife or my girlfriend and all of theirs are probably about the same. It’s hard to be a side-man to somebody else’s life. Whoever wrote the song, we tried to make it the band’s song. But with four songwriters, it’s hard to tell the whole story of your feelings when you only have three or four tracks on an album. Compare that to Elliott Smith or something where he’s writing all the songs and has 14 tracks.

HN: You’re talking about how hard it is in a PCC-type setting to tell one strong emotional narrative. The Gloom Balloon record, to me, and the live show, allows you to do that. You put it on and you get to weave in and out of someone else’s own emotional experience. Do you feel like it has allowed you to do that?

PF: Definitely. I’d written about 20-some songs. Originally it was just going to be a 7-inch, like let’s just get something out. The 7-inch morphed into the first side of the record. So I wanted to kind of tell a story. That was around the time that Bill Doss passed away of The Olivia Tremor Control, my favorite band.

I wrote a few songs about that. They fit in. I thought it would be good for me to give something back to him, even though he’s not around. I wanted it to be a definite narrative of what was going on in my life as he was leaving his.

I knew Bill. He was on tour with The Apples in Stereo when we went on tour. I met him at a wedding, he was always very sweet to me. He knew I was a big fan and he never pushed the fanboy away and talked to me about weird songs on their record. He was at the point where he hadn’t done much in a while. Olivia Tremor Control played their first reunion show after I met him and I booked my solo tour around that because I’d never seen them before.

The last time I saw him was on his birthday. They were playing in Minneapolis and my wife and I went and saw him. He came out before the show and gave me a big hug and talked to me.

While they were on stage he invited me up to sing “Jumping Fences” with him because he did that with PCC while we were on tour with Apples. I’d beg him every night to do it with us. Finally we were in Dallas and we did it. You can imagine your band backing your favorite song ever, it was pretty special. And then having him invite me up to sing it was pretty amazing.

The weird thing that a lot of people don’t know is that when he passed away, PCC was actually booked to open for Jeff Mangum and Olivia Tremor Control in Ames at Maximum Ames Music Festival. Right before he passed away, OTC said they couldn’t do it. They were going to focus on finishing the records.

I ended up getting to pick Jeff up from the airport. I was a little freaked out. The guy he was with was the sound guy. Pretty awesome. Jeff was pretty quiet on the way up, but very cordial. On the way home it was just me and him. We talked a lot about OTC and Bill. It was pretty special to hear him talk about one of his best friends. I was just like “Olivia Tremor Control is my favorite band ever” and Jeff was like, “Mine too.”

HN: Does a Gloom Balloon record then help you to process these feelings of losing someone you really respect and look up to?

PF: I’ve been pretty lucky in my life not to have had a lot of death in it. So yeah, it has. There are a bunch of other songs around that time that will hopefully come out at some point. Gloom Balloon is going to continue to be a very personal project. It’s nice to have a recorded diary.

HN: I came across a Poison Control Center radio interview in New York and the host was asking you guys about Iowa. You could tell he didn’t really have any idea what Iowa was like—the whole “Iowa, cornfields, right?” kind of thing—but you talked about how there was something special in Iowa that other people didn’t really know about. But you really believed in it.

PF: When I moved to to Ames in 1999, there were hardly any music venues. This is actually cool to talk to you about because you live in a place that inspires this. I moved to Ames in 1999, there were hardly any music venues in Ames or Des Moines. There was a little bit of a DIY scene and stuff like that but nothing like what was going on in Omaha at the time.

That was really nice for Des Moines and Ames to see what was going on with the whole Saddle Creek thing. I can remember early PCC shows and going to Omaha and playing in basements and thinking like: “Oh my god, this town is like paved with gold.”

One of our first shows in Omaha we ever played, we played with Landon (Hedges) from Little Brazil. We played at Ted and Wally’s, the ice cream shop. I was like, “Holy shit, who is this fucking kid.” I had never heard of this guy and he’s like on par songwriting with Conor Oberst at the time. Jesus Christ, what is going on in this town?

It’s super inspiring from my point of view to see all these people in Omaha—and it’s the same thing that happened in Athens and Seattle—everybody is playing in each other’s bands, supporting each other, just listening to the music their friends are making and that’s what is inspiring them.

A few years ago it finally started to click into gear here. I came to the conclusion a few years ago that I mostly only bought and listened to music that was made locally. Bands from Iowa start going on tour and working on each other’s stuff and all of a sudden there are more music venues in town and more people to open a music venue, and then all of a sudden the DMMC (Des Moines Music Coalition) starts, and then you have the capital city putting money into trying to make the music scene work.

A lot of that, I think, was spawned by our neighbors to the west, Omaha, because they were doing similar things and providing places for people to play. Next thing you know, recording studios are starting, mastering facilities, places that can prosper in the business of music, which, as we all know, is hard.

My favorite bands right now are the ones I’m seeing every night at The Vaudeville Mews.

HN: With Ames and Des Moines down the road from each other, it kind of reminds me of Lincoln and Omaha. What kind of relationship is there between the two cities?

PF: Oh, fantastic. I don’t feel like they’re separate scenes. Ames and Des Moines are about a half hour apart. I think bands on tour could do shows in Ames and Des Moines and have different crowds, but that usually doesn’t happen. It’s one or the other. I work at The Vaudeville Mews a couple nights a week and there are just as many people from Ames as there are from Des Moines. That’s really the case for all of Iowa. Bands from Cedar Falls and Waterloo, we’re playing with them all the time up there and Iowa City. Everything is so close in Iowa.

I grew up in a small town in northwest Iowa where I’d have to drive four hours just to see a concert in Minneapolis. I never thought twice about driving a long way to see a show. When I moved to Ames I was in Chicago five times in the first two months. There was nothing holding me back from seeing Guided By Voices on a Tuesday night at The Metro.

I did get stuck in Minneapolis on a Tuesday. I was up there for a show and I had no money in my bank account. I called my mom collect and was like, “I’m in Minneapolis and I don’t have any money.” She wanted to know what I was doing in Minneapolis on a Tuesday and I was totally lying, saying I didn’t have school that day.

I tried to use my debit card and it didn’t have any money. I’d only left home like a month before, so she wanted to know where all my money went. I was like, “I dunno.” I discovered Chinese food and I could go to any concert I wanted.

HN: I did that a lot growing up in Central Nebraska: Leave Broken Bow at 3 p.m. to catch a 9 p.m. show in Omaha then turn around and get back by three in the morning for school the next day.

PF: And it’s so fucking great! From a musician’s standpoint, especially. I drove to see The Zombies in Lexington, Kentucky. I told them after the show that I drove 14 hours to see them and they were like, “You could drive across England five times in 14 hours.”

People said that to PCC, too. We know, since we’ve all done it, that a person who is driving four hours to a show, then driving four hours back and driving back to work the next day are working way harder than the people on stage. Probably eating real shitty food and going into work having the high from seeing a show, but also feeling dead to the world. Those are some of the best days ever.

HN: Last thing, name me a few Iowa bands everyone should check out.

PF: I really love Twins, Dylan Sires and Neighbors, Christopher the Conquered, Derek Lambert and the Prairie Fires, Kate Kennedy, Penny Hawk is another name she goes by. I think my favorite all time Iowa album is by Kate Kennedy, Circle Spiral Line. Love all those bands. There are a lot of great bands in Des Moines right now. Love Songs for Lonely Monsters, Wolves in the Attic. Max Jury is really cool. He just got signed to Rough Trade last year. Opening for Lana Del Rey and stuff.