Flesh Panthers: Chicago Rock’s Best-Kept Secret (But Not For Long)
New album “Willow’s Weep” from Maximum Pelt, a new drummer & a new sound
by Katie Ingegneri
Photography by Andrew Lee & Brian Fox
If someone asked you which Chicago band today most exemplifies the dirty, wild, gritty, unpredictable energy of Chicago rock n roll, you might say Twin Peaks, you might say The Orwells. Unless you’re privy to the local Chicago scene, in which case you might say: Flesh Panthers.
From the first time I experienced them as the headlining “special guest” at local Chicago DIY label Dumpster Tapes’ “Monster Compilation Vol. 1” release party back in February 2015, at the go-to garage rock spot of Cole’s Bar in Logan Square when I got drunk and moshed with a bunch of strangers (all people I know now, I’m sure), to watching them rock a bunch of sober teenagers at the Urban Outfitters in downtown Chicago while I drank free beer and danced to their cover of the Velvet Underground’s subversive “Sister Ray,” Flesh Panthers have become a kind of quintessential Chicago rock band to me and many other Midwestern rock fans.
Given their established rank in the garage rock scene when I came into it, I assumed that they had been logging time in the scene for a while. But it’s only been a few years at this point, and their status comes from constantly playing shows around town and the Midwest, supporting their friends in other bands, embodying the energetic Chicago DIY mentality, and their general good-time party exuberance. Rock n roll indeed. Comprised of Lucas Tashey, Nick Dehmlow, Ryan Zombotron, and their new drummer as of 2016, Frankie “Mars” Gunner, Flesh Panthers are that reliably unpredictable rock n roll band where you might not technically remember their set the next day (if it weren’t for my own social media content I would have very little memory of most of their shows, at least the ones they headline) but you know you had a great time.
We sat down at classic Chicago rock dive the Empty Bottle back in April for this interview before a show they were playing, as they plan for the release of their upcoming album “Willow’s Weep” through local label Maximum Pelt Records, and had recently replaced their drummer, ginger punk & man-about-town Michael Van Buren, with lady drummer Frankie (or “Mars”). Before we went down to the green room to talk I watched them set up and soundcheck, and then we did some shots of that quintessential Chicago liqueur Malört. Considering that was my first time ever in the Empty Bottle green room and getting to do an interview as well, it was a special night for this Chicago rock nerd at one of my favorite venues.
A month later, I ran into Nick and Lucas at the end of the Twin Peaks in-store afternoon show at Reckless Records in Wicker Park. They handed me an open bottle of red wine they had been drinking, which I finished on the street in front of that sushi restaurant on the corner with people staring. We found Frankie and Ryan down the street in Ragstock, shopping for appropriately 60s/70s rock looks for their video shoot on a farm the next day, the results of which you can see in their video for “Last I Heard” off the new album:
I am truly excited for the world to hear their new LP from Maximum Pelt, “Willow’s Weep.” Flesh Panthers released an LP last year on Tall Pat Records, “NGC 2632,” full of the blistering punk rock energy of their live shows, and I had assumed that the new one would be more of the same. While all the energy is there, the songs are beautifully crafted jams, more mellow rock n roll than punk. Incredibly catchy melodies and hooks, deeper emotionality and a certain wistfulness pervade this tight collection of wonderful songs.
Like fellow Chicago rockers Twin Peaks’ latest release “Down in Heaven,” Flesh Panthers are taking a step back from brash garage energy in favor of something a little more “mature” (heavy emphasis on the quotes). With more atmospheric moodiness in the album lead-in and outro, “Willow’s Weep” is much more meticulous and coherent than straight garage rock assault, bringing to mind late-60s Rolling Stones more so than 70s punk. It surprises me every time I listen to it, not because I didn’t think they were capable (their live versions of some of my favorite songs by the likes of Velvet Underground and Bob Dylan showcase their tightness and versatility), but because they’ve made such a remarkable transition from their high-energy garage punk into these really beautiful, compelling rock songs.
I really love Flesh Panthers. They’re a brilliant inside secret of the Chicago rock scene that deserves far wider exposure. With “Willow’s Weep,” they’re proving they’re a force to be reckoned with beyond our city walls.
Keep reading for a peek into our Empty Bottle green room chat, full of the silly and earnest rock n roll vibes that make me love them and the Midwestern rock scene in general, as we discuss the Chicago DIY scene including Mars’ old venue Pound Town, their band history, and what was probably not a serious call for a rock n roll intern to help with booking, but I think some ambitious music biz student should jump on that.
Conversation with Flesh Panthers at The Empty Bottle, Chicago: April 2016
Lucas Tashey: Thanks for having us, thanks for doing your thing for Chicago!
Katie Ingegneri: Oh thank you! Well you guys were one of the first bands I saw at Cole’s, for the Dumpster Tapes release party, I think you were the special guests or something. The tape compilation. I just remember getting drunk and moshing…I’ve been trying to come to a lot of your shows. And you have a new member…
Frankie “Mars” Gunner: Howdy.
So no more MVB.
Lucas: He’s still around, he’s still a friend, part of the scene.
So how long have you been playing with these guys?
Mars: Almost 2 months, maybe. Not very long.
Did you do the new recordings with them?
Mars: I am on one track — the title track, “Willow’s Weep.”
Ryan Zombotron: The titular track, if you will.
When does that come out?
Probably August? [Editor’s note — looking like September-ish, I believe.]
Oh okay, and that’s Maximum Pelt?
Yeah, we’re gonna be sending it out to the plant fairly soon.
Nick Dehmlow: We should hopefully have a video with a new song coming out before that, though.
I really dig the new album, it sounds really good. It’s very catchy.
Ryan or Lucas: Yeah, I didn’t think that was gonna happen.
So many Roling Stones vibes happening.
We’ve always covered their songs, like 60s and 70s rock n roll.
So do you guys all write the songs together?
Lucas: Pretty much, definitely somebody comes with an idea and it changes, sometimes it changes too much, but you know…
Ryan: There’s a couple where one person was like the main person writing it, but we all come together —
Mars: And add the layers —
Lucas: Orchestrate it, yeah.
Ryan: There’s not really one person who’s like, “it should be this way” or anything like that. It’s all natural and organic.
This is your second album?
Yeah, there’ve been several cassette EPs, and one record before this one.
How long has Flesh Panthers been in existence?
Almost 5 years. But this is it now.
So where do you guys come from? I’m so curious cause I don’t know the full backstory.
Lucas: I mean, me and Ryan met also through music, like Ryan and Nick had a band a long time ago together —
Ryan: Yeah, we had like a failed soul band.
Lucas: And I was in this other band at the time, and Ryan sorta like — they didn’t poach me, but they were like “come record with us, be in our band,” and sorta the same thing with Mars.
Ryan: She’s on the first track of the last album, so she was already in our world, so to speak.
Mars: Slowly making it.
So were you in another band before this?
Mars: I’m still in currently in a band called Mr. Ma’am, and it’s actually how I met these dudes, playing shows together, having them play in my basement.
Lucas: Living the rock n roll lifestyle, “I like you guys!”
Ryan: We were already in cahoots. We were like come and sing on this track and she was like yeah, of course, and then we were like “now you’re in our band.” [laughter]
“You’re ours now.” So do you have a DIY venue?
Mars: I used to run a DIY venue out of my basement, it was called Pound Town, it was like a year long we had it.
Lucas: It was called Pound Town cause Mars had a great dog that ran around.
Mars: Every floor had a pet, we had like 2 dogs upstairs, and my dog, and it was basically the house of dogs. Pound Town — so, dogs, and it was kinda sexual at the same time, so it was appropriate.
Yeah, that’s a great name.
It had a pretty short shelf life but we had some really great shows and met some great humans in bands.
Where was that?
It was in Humboldt Park.
Down the street [from the Bottle], not too far off.
Yeah, we need more venues.
Lucas: Also that place where she lived at Pound Town, the guy who does a lot of our recordings, they lived together too, so it was cool…Brian Fox who records all our stuff, at Two States Audio in Jefferson Park.
So are you guys gonna be out touring and stuff?
Yeah we’ll probably going out in August, September…
Ryan: Coming to the south!
Mars: Not too far after the record release.
Lucas: Can’t tour without the record.
You guys were playing a bunch of random dates outside of Chicago.
Lucas: Yeah, we’ve done like a couple, 10, 12, 15-day tours…
Nick: We’ll probably shoot over to Detroit a few times this summer.
Lucas: The weekenders are super easy, like Midwest.
Ryan: Detroit, Cincinatti…
Lucas: Detroit’s a really cool town.
Nick: We haven’t played Minneapolis, yet.
Ryan: Yep, we’re gonna hang out with Frankie Teardrop and all those weirdos out there.
Is there anything you wanna talk about with the new lineup, the new album, the new anything…
Lucas: Everything is suh, everything is suh awesome. That’s just the new Internet word, right, everyone’s saying it.
Ryan: I’m not sure if they are.
Mars: Maybe not to the extent that we are.
Lucas: What’s up with Houseshow for the future?
Ryan: Let’s turn this interview into an interview.
I know, right? I dunno, I’m working on Troy Anderson, younger kid coming up…
Lucas: Yeah we’re friends with Troy.
Oh yeah totally, he’s great.
Ryan: He tried out for the band.
Lucas: Yeah, he was almost the drummer.
Ryan: Then we came here after and Mars was here and I was like “this is so awkward,” at the time in my head I already knew Mars was gonna join the band, and I was here with this other person, and we were talking to Mars…I didn’t want Troy to overhear, not that he’d be jealous, but like “what the fuck you’d have me play drums with you guys for, if you already knew what you were gonna do.”
Like two dates at the same time.
Ryan: Yeah like you’re on a date and you see the person you just went on a date with.
Yeah it’s interesting getting to know all the younger kids who are coming up versus like the more established Chicago people. I mean, I’ve only been here 2 1/2 years. Are you guys all from the area?
Lucas: I went to CPS. I’m originally from California, but moved here at like 11 and have bounced around a couple other places but ended up back here. The homies.
Yeah Chicago’s great, I love it here, I’m so glad I moved here.
You’re from Boston, right?
Yeah, I’m from the suburbs.
I wish, no.
Lucas: We played in Cambridge.
Ryan: They had the WORST vegetarian burgers there.
We played there with Gym Shorts.
I think Chicago is the best scene.
Lucas: Sure, we talk about it all the time, like there’s a good band coming through Chicago, and maybe you’re not so familiar with them and you know them to be a good band, and you go and check them out and you’re like, “man, Chicago’s got some really good bands.” [laughter]
Ryan: Are you talking about specific examples? You see a band in person and you’re like “man, Chicago’s got a BETTER band.” [laughter]
I mean, if you guys wanna shit talk, that’s cool…
Lucas: No, no, we’re only appreciative.
Ryan: I think that would be…audacious.
Audacious? [laughter, jumble]
Ryan: Ty Segall came to our show the other day.
Wait, he came to your show?
We played at the Emporium, and he was there.
We took the high road, and we didn’t take pictures with him.
They were here, and they played that secret Hideout show — how did people find out about that?
Mars: Probably Twitter.
Yeah, it’s always Twitter! It’s where bands are gonna put their secret shit, or like “party here right now.”
Mars: Isn’t that what it was originally used for in England or something? Like Tweet where the underground parties would be, raves, yeah.
Yeah, that makes sense.
Ryan: Top 10 favorite raves, go.
Are there other bands you’re looking to tour with, or play with?
Do you know them? They’re playing in Chicago on Friday.
No, I don’t know them.
Yeah, they’re cool, they’re like a country-western group from Nashville.
But they’re touring and doing a live band set with Liquor Store…we played with them once in New York.
Liquor Store, yeah. They’re cool.
I feel like you guys play with a lot of different bands.
Lucas: Yeah we’ll definitely do like, “we’re open to touring with anybody!”
Ryan: “Anybody with a 16-passenger van!”
Lucas: Maybe we’ll do it with a local band, maybe we’ll do it with a not-local band, maybe we’ll do it by ourselves. Who wants to book it for us?
Yeah, it sounds complicated, the more I learn about it.
Lucas: I mean we’ve done it a couple times, but it’s not easy. It’s a lot of messaging people again and again and again. Like, “I don’t know how annoying I am to you right now, probably a lot, hopefully you don’t care.”
Ryan: That’s why it’s good to have somebody else do it for you.
Lucas: Who wants to be an intern — come on board, join the Panthers.
I’m sure you could find plenty of kids looking to do that. I mean I don’t know if they’d have the connections, but they’d probably work hard.
It’s too bad Wally’s [World] is dead.
Mars: It had a good life though. Four years is a long fuckin’ time for a DIY space.
It seems like a lot of them go out of business real fast.
Mars: DIY spaces have a shelf life, it’s just the reality of it.
Ryan: Anyone who says they’re gonna last for a thousand years is an asshole…delusional…
[loud music starts from upstairs]
Who is this upstairs?
Lucas: It’s the Dumpster Babies, live! Record release soundcheck, you’re hearing it first!
This isn’t the all-girl band…who am I thinking of? [long pause]
Mars: Blizzard Babies.
Oh yeah, Blizzard Babies.
Ryan: We played with them in your basement.
And Priests from DC, at Animal Kingdom, RIP.
Oh yeah, I never got to go there…Do you guys all live in Logan and Humboldt?
Ryan: We all live in the same house.
Lucas: Well, me and Ryan do, Nick is a couple blocks away and Mars is a couple blocks away in the other direction, so we’re all pretty close.