Interview: Patrick Flegel / Cindy Lee
Photos: Madeline Cohen
Patrick Flegel is a Canadian musician, now living in Durham, North Carolina. They’re known as the former front-person of the band Women, as well as for solo recordings and drag performance under the name Cindy Lee. Patrick and I chatted over the phone, reconnecting several times after losing signal, as they were on their way to Denver for Cindy Lee’s 11/10/23 show at the Hi-Dive.
You’re in Kansas still, I guess?
Yeah, we just crossed the border into Colorado. We were in Kansas City last night. It’s been a nice, sunny day - everything’s been cool. We’re all from Alberta, so we’re used to just driving through the prairies forever.
Do you like touring?
I love performing, it’s just - you don’t sleep a lot when you’re on tour, is kind of the main thing. Just ‘cause of driving, checkout times, load-in times, and this sort of thing - the carny shit. But it’s no sob story, man, it’s just a grind, and you take the good parts with the bad. I didn’t really tour much at all, but I did a tour maybe a year ago now, with Preoccupations, my brother’s band, and I started meeting people who were coming to the shows, and they were all really sweet. That kinda emboldened me to tour more.
Had you toured Canada fairly extensively before crossing the border, or is it all on pretty much one route?
The whole thing, mostly, is that it’s a pain in the ass to fuckin’ tour down here because you gotta get a work visa, right? Or do it illegitimately, which I wouldn’t do. It’s kinda expensive, and there’s a lot of paperwork you gotta do to perform down here. But I finally did that three years ago - I’ve been living in North Carolina for the last three years, so I’ve been down here on a legitimate musician visa for the last three years.
Durham, right? I'm from southeast Virginia.
Yeah, I saw that on the phone thing. I’ve spent a bit of time in Richmond, it’s fun as hell. My buddy’s playing in a band Black Button, and I went to see them. I loved the other bands on the bill too, but I don’t know what they were called. Same thing with North Carolina, actually; half the stuff I’ve gone to see was like thrash and kind of heavier stuff. I’ll go see anything - there’s a place called The Blue Note in Durham that I’ve been to a bunch of times, and that’s just old folks jamming out, you know?
Do you feel tied into the Durham scene?
Nah, not at all. I never felt too… in Vancouver, I felt that way, where I went and saw so many amazing concerts while I was there. But I feel like in Durham and Calgary, I don’t really have much to do with anything, or anybody. Like Durham, I’m just kind of doing my own thing. I just played there for the first time, though, and it was really fun. I just wanted to see what it’s like - I definitely like the weather better than Canada, that’s for sure. But the people are great. I live really slow, so it suits me. But it might be too slow, I might have to go back to another city, maybe.
Watching from afar, it seemed like there was a sort of unified retromania going on in Toronto at one point - yourself and Women, U.S Girls, Dirty Beaches all kind of sprung up calling back to similar stuff.
I don’t really look at it like that, you know what I mean? I don’t really - my friend sent me the U.S. Girls record and I was like “aw man, sounds awesome” [laughs]. I’m not writing about it, you know? But I like all those bands a lot. I actually just saw a movie with that guy in it that was cool - what’s his name, Alex from Dirty Beaches. It was kind of this mellow art movie, he was really self-involved at the start but then he starts volunteering and hangin’ with people, and he feels better or something. But anyways, I like all that music. U.S. Girls are fuckin’ awesome, I played with them once in Toronto and that was really fun. They had a huge band and the whole deal. Anytime she puts a record out, I’ll listen to it.
Growing up in, I assume, the ‘90s, I can't imagine you were inundated with '60s pop.
Yeah, I was born in 1985, so I was a kid in the ‘90s. I just loved the radio, like AM radio. There was a station called 66 CFR in Calgary, it stands for Calgary Flames Radio. They’d do oldies in the day, and then the games at night. I’d just keep it on there a lot of the time, but the radio music at the time was really awesome too. Dance music, C+C Music Factory, rap, shit like Beck and stuff that I was really into. Soundgarden and stuff, I loved all that. I guess I’ve been playing guitar for 28 years or something, so it’s hard to go “oh yeah, this is what made me love this shit.” But it really goes back to that old stuff, the Everly Brothers and the Supremes, really basic.
I was really lucky that I have a really musical family. My grandpa played guitar, and all of his brothers played accordion, and mandolin, and guitar. Those guys are all from Saskatchewan, I wanna say it’s like an hour and a half away from Moose Jaw? I’m probably getting that wrong, but anyways, that’s where my dad grew up. They all played music together, my dad played accordion when he was a kid and then he played bass in a polka band when I was an infant, to make extra money on the side. Apparently they raked it in, just playing polka music. Long story short, like Chet Atkins says, “if you’re really lucky, someone will put a guitar in your hands,” I was very lucky. He just had guitars around, so me and my brother just dove into it. It was really normalized in our family, to hang out and play guitar at family reunions and shit. Everybody would get kinda cut and then blast through all these songs together, people singing and playing. Then me and my brother, growing up together, we’d just play for hours, shredding. Doing Nirvana shit, you learn one part and the other guy learns the next. My mom would sing all the time, in the church choir and stuff.
Did you and Matt have pretty parallel musical paths, or did you diverge?
We really did - at one point I got into really crazy-ass metal and he wasn’t down. That’s about the only time, then he got into that shit too. We both have gone through every kind of phase you could imagine, as far as music goes, and at this point I just enjoy everything. I don’t have any guilty pleasures, I don’t believe in that. We just love music.
You gotta remember, too, very few bands would come through fuckin’ Alberta. But I remember I saw this band The End, from Ontario, and it was just fuckin’ insane [laughs]. It was like nonsense, you had no idea what was going on. There was another band in Calgary called Thorazine, which was more of a grind band. They were really crazy, and they were older dudes that were kinda scary, you know what I mean? I was like 16 when I saw them. Stuff like that, that felt kind of dangerous and angsty. Then even the basic stuff like Metallica, Slayer, these kinds of things.
It’s just kinda fucking ridiculous to tour in Canada. Vancouver to Calgary is 13 hours, and then you’ve got Edmonton that’s three hours away. And then you go east from there, and it’s these massive drives. A lot of bigger artists, if you’re driving through the prairies and stuff, it’s nonsense to do it. Especially if you’re from America or Europe, it just didn’t make any sense. But bigger artists would pop in - David Bowie, Smashing Pumpkins, and stuff. Radiohead came there, me and Matt saw Radiohead once. But it was an anomaly; a lot of people wouldn’t go there.
Did you ever take any big trips to catch somebody out of town, or were you mostly stuck?
We would do that to go on tour, but yeah people would drive 13 hours to go to a concert in Vancouver sometimes. When I left home, I remember going to an internet cafe - I didn’t have internet at my house - and you could kind of steal individual tracks. That’s when those blogs popped up, I don’t know if you remember this shit. There were all these blogs that were writing about… kind of record collector shit, but it was more just about “here’s this thing you might like.” And I remember reading fucking magazines. Like Mojo, I remember that’s how I found out about Orange Juice and Josef K. The Fire Engines was through Uncut, or one of these British super-fan magazines. I remember going to the library, too, and getting all kinds of shit. I got this Chess Records CD box-set from the library that was fuckin’ amazing, some kind of power-pop CD. Every once in a while, you’d just find these things that were unusual or cool. That was probably the most inquisitive I was about music my whole life, in my early 20s when I’d been out of the house for a few years.
I reached out to you via your geocities site, which is kind of a classic internet-era child thing to have, but you said you didn’t really have access as a kid?
Not until, like, grade 10. No, it was grade 11 - I had internet access because I did internet school. I didn’t go in grade 10, and they were like “well you don’t wanna come, so don’t fuckin’ come back.” It was like the dawn of internet school in Airdrie, which is this small school north of Calgary, and going to school wasn’t happening. So I signed up for that, and like every technology right at it’s dawn, there are just major flaws, right? So it was amazing, because it’s kind of a formality. It was a total joke, but it allowed me to play guitar all the time, and I did end up managing to graduate. I finished at an alternative school, did like two year’s worth of work at the end there to get caught up. So that was cool, because there was a lot of pressure to do that. So I had the internet, I remember going on some message boards, stuff like that, but I don’t remember it being nearly as vast as it is now. There just wasn’t a lot going on - you’d check the band’s website and they’d be like “we’re going on tour!” They’d say that once a year and there’d be, like, no updates.
Were you instantly obsessive once you picked up the guitar, or did you have other interests going on as a kid? Did you play hockey?
[laughs] Oh yeah, we played road hockey in front of our house every fuckin’ day for years, which is pretty typical in Canada. That went by the wayside once I got really into music, and then I had this whole thing where they’re totally at odds, and you hate all athletics, and I went fully into music. But yeah, I played guitar constantly - if I could go back and do it over again I would’ve quit school and just played more guitar. But I did play a lot of guitar, because I barely went to school. So it all worked out [laughs].
We always made movies when we were teenagers, so the only thing I wanted to do was film school. And then it was like 23 grand, and I’m like “ok, fuck that.” And then I got a job at a warehouse. But if I was gonna do a degree right now, I feel like I’d do either a trade, something really practical. But I think music’s my trade now, so I’m gonna roll with that. Probably like an English thing, or even indigenous studies, history… these kinds of things, that don’t lead to a job after but are just interesting. I feel like I’d be into that.
What was drawing you from place to place throughout Canada as you moved around?
I went from Calgary, Vancouver, and then I went to the Interior BC… Toronto, Montreal. I just wanted to get out of Vancouver for a bit. It was awesome, but I just needed a change, so I bolted. And it ended up being really good, actually. I saw some amazing fucking music in Toronto - both Vancouver and Toronto, I saw some of the best shows I ever saw in my whole life. Just weird shit, one-off stuff even. Some stoner dudes and his buddies, and it’d be one of the best shows you ever saw [laughs]. Really cool stuff. I was just kinda bouncin’ around for a long time, up until about five years ago. Pretty sloppy, moving a lot, not really holdin’ it down very much.
I know a lot is made of the Canadian government’s arts funding and all that. For lack of a better word, is that… real? Does it keep things any less transient?
Oh, it’s definitely real man. I worked at a fucking plant in Toronto where you just shrink-wrap and put inserts in records. And where they printed the art and stuff. Basically the whole operation, half the records I’d be like “who is this?” And then I’d realize that it’s almost all grant-funded people who are just getting a boost. What I’m getting at is that it seemed like the grant system was bankrolling most of what this one pressing thing was producing. It’s a huge thing, different styles of bands and stuff. Even Women benefited from that a lot, because we were on the legit label, Flemish Eye. That’s part of why American labels like signing Canadian bands too, it’s shit that they don’t have to pay for. Yeah, that’s really real, but Cindy Lee I’ve never leaned into that stuff. It’s more just the red tape aspect of it, where I don’t have the patience. But honestly, it’s really smart - it’s just free money, but then you’ve gotta jump through a bunch of hoops, so I get kinda surly. But you can cash in big time if you get certain grants, like even to tour over in Europe. You can get it bankrolled, or at least you’ll break even no matter what.
Is that enough to carry over into actual stable community, or is it still kind of fraught?
Man, Vancouver was wild for that stuff. When I was there, that was in probably 2010 ‘til 2016, it was amazing. It was all in a really condensed area, but you could go to all the bars - The Astoria, The Cobalt - but then there’d be these straight up fire trap kind of venues that were really fun and debaucherous. There was a lot of that, but I’ve travel so much in the last year and it seems like it’s the same story in every city. Eventually those places get shut down, and it’s just kind of part of the deal. That’s why everyone moved to New York in the ‘70s, ‘cause it was derelict. Everyone was just like “oh, we’ll just stay in this fuckin’ empty warehouse or whatever" [laughs].
[away from the phone] Are you ready Thomas?! Oh no, he’s pumping the gas. Sorry, go ahead. I don’t mean to - I just woke up from my nap and I was in the back seat of the car, so I was a bit sassy. I’m sinking into this now though.
Did my call specifically wake you up, or did you wake up and think “ah shit, in 45 seconds this guy’s gonna call”?
No no, I set an alarm.
I was interested in how your 2020 records came out - Cat o’ Nine Tails [self-released, available by direct download only on the Cindy Lee site], you had to be aware on some level would reach a much smaller audience than What's Tonight to Eternity [released digitally via Superior Viaduct]. Did that inform the creation of the records themselves, or was it arbitrary?
No, I did it because it was kind of an emergency situation that’s personal, but basically I needed money. I got ahold of the label, like “aw man, I gotta put a record out,” and they were like “you can’t do that, you just put a record out.” Well, ok [laughs]. But I had to put it out, you know what I mean?
And then also, I’ve been feeling increasingly sassy about the showbiz shit too. When you hit a certain point, there’s certain things that you might not need, or that I don’t want, you know? Like 50-50 on digital royalties to me is insane, especially when you make more on that then physical sales. Like when you make vinyl, you gotta put all this money on the line. That’s what the whole label thing is about - lending you the money to make physical records, right? It’s a bank, but it’s a bunch of chill dudes or whatever [laughs].
Which is totally fine, too - it serves its purpose, I couldn’t do what I’m doing now if Superior Viaduct didn’t do my records. The dude who works for them is a total sweetheart, but just where I’m at right now I feel like goin’ rogue. I think everyone should take their music off streaming platforms. Not even strike, just take it off. They’re begging for a penny a play, and it’s pitiful. Fuck these guys, that Daniel Ek guy is a piece of shit. It’s kinda similar to every other job, where you think you should get a raise, and you probably should, and you just don’t. I don’t think it’s exceptional to music, but it still is bullshit.
I’m actually really lucky - if you’re a new band, you can’t afford to do that. The hardest part of the whole thing is getting anybody to even give a shit. That’s the hard part, which is a total crapshoot in terms of style or trends, or whatever. But where I’m at now, in my mind, you just need some regulars. Some people who’ve got your back, are into what you’re doing. And then just try… my kind of manifesto lately is that I want to try and make high-quality stuff that’s really worth it, and then just make less. I don’t need to bankroll 2000 records or whatever, you know what I mean? Make a smaller amount that you put a lot of effort into. My frustration with the label was that they’ve got all of these other things going on, and that’s why they couldn’t facilitate that, and I only had one thing goin’ on. And that’s my whole thing. It’s not demonizing the industry people or some shit, it’s that if I can swing it on my own, I’d much rather bet on myself and have total control, not be emailing with someone 100 times about some shit that I could just figure out by myself anyways.
Compositionally, then, is it just you currently?
Yeah, just me, but that’s starting to get a bit tired. I just did a collaboration with Freak Heat Waves, and that was really fun. It was fun as hell, and actually creative - it’s not some crazy solo mission. I just wanna purge a bunch of this stuff that I’ve got, which is a lot of material, get that out of my system, and prioritize rippin’ around, hanging with different friends, and making EPs and records like that. That’d be the dream, do a double record and another compilation. Get that figured out, and I gotta move again, and getting the label figured out. But long game, that’s what I’d like to do - go visit my brother in New York, or my buddies in Victoria, and make a record.
Would that be under the auspices of the Cindy Lee project, or require some new configuration?
Nah, I feel like that would work. I think it depends on what we’re doing, you know?
I noticed, in some other interviews, that you can be reluctant to get too personal.
Back in the day, when you did an interview, it’d just be in some weekly rag and disappear two weeks later, you know? But now it’s there forever. All I’m gettin’ at is that I made the mistake - because I want to see what I’m saying, you know. My brother’s like “never, ever read your own press,” but I would check it because I want to see how it’s coming across. But just realizing, sometimes you’re kinda caught off guard when you’re on the phone with somebody and you say shit about your personal life that you don’t want anyone to know. Or that’s not anybody’s business.
Was that something you had to overcome with regards to lyrics? That can be a bit more oblique, but obviously still super personal.
Well, that’s kinda the whole thing, is that I feel like it’s all in there, you know what I mean? Obviously music’s incredibly personal, but… there’s one in particular where this dude interviewed me, and the way it went together I found kind of embarrassing and insulting, so I was wary. There was other stuff, you’ve gotta answer for it. But I don’t take it as seriously now, because it’s fucking whatever, man - I try not to take myself very seriously. It’s just press, you know what I mean?
What’s drawn you to noise, or harsher textures, in the music you’ve produced?
I don’t really look at it like that - to me it’s more being resourceful, thrifty, doing the best I could with whatever gear. It was just like “aw, ok, I’m recording now - hell yeah” [laughs]. But noise, I always liked feedback, if that’s what you mean. There’s that song “Devil’s Haircut” by Beck, and I remember the first time I heard that on the radio. Cobain had a lot of feedback, Jimi Hendrix of course. I’m fuckin’ down, I love Jimi Hendrix and Cobain. Washington boys. As far as the recording quality and shit goes, I’m actually trying to make it sound as good as I can, so thanks [laughs].
But I think just being angsty. I’m already kind of moving away from that - sometimes I call it “fuck you, dad” music when I go see a band like that. I hear one of my old songs, I’m like “oh, my god.” It’s just self-expression, so if you feel like you want to scream, you just scream. You know that guitar solo in “I Want You To Suffer”? That was really fun to do. I don’t know if you’d call that a solo, but yeah, self-expression. And then sometimes it’s kinda nasty in there.
Are you composing, demo-ing tracks on the guitar still?
Usually, yeah. I love playing guitar to this day, it’s like my favorite thing to do. So most of the writing comes on that. But it’s come all kinds of ways - I’ve done shit where I just play drums for three hours, recorded it, sang over top of it, took the drums out. You name it, sequencer shit. But a lot of it, guitar stuff is the foundation of it.
Talking about creative maturation, do you feel like you’ve aged into an understanding of what made Women end up splitting, or has made subsequent collaborations more sustainable?
I don’t look at it that way, I feel like the agenda is just to do whatever you want, whenever you want. Like for example, those Women records, people in the press would like “the songs are kinda different from each other, that’s so crazy,” and it’s like “what the fuck are you guys talking about?” The Beatles, do you remember that shit? [laughs] One kind of song, and then a different kind of song. So I feel like I’ve always been like that, any band I’ve been in there’s always been different styles. Even the Freak Heat Waves boys, each record they’re like “eh, this is what we feel like right now.” There’s no rules, that’s what you’re trying to get away from.
The record takes years, too - this is the other thing, as a listener it’s like “bang” and it hits you, it’s all in one shot. But in reality, it’s this really vast, residual thing. How much time and ideas, living situations and stuff leads up to it. So it’s not really this boiled-down, simple thing, someone I could pinpoint, or something. I could maybe remember what kind of mood I was in when I came up with a song, but there’s no rules in the Women band.
Do you listen to your past music, or kind of get away from it once it’s out there?
I’ve done that before when I was really frustrated, like recording. Like “ok, I’ve done this before,” and then I’d go back and listen to a Cindy Lee album and you’re like “how the fuck did I do that?” Closing out a record is really hard, so I’ve done that. Just to get ready for tours when I play more old stuff, gotta figure out the songs or whatever.
What’s the format of the current tour, just you?
Yeah, it’s just me, like a drag show. It’s me and backing tracks that I recorded, and then I sing and shred overtop of the backing tracks. Steve [Lind] and Thomas [Di Ninno, both of Freak Heat Waves] are playing on one song too, actually. Tom is kind of mixing the track as it goes, and Steve’s playing synthesizer.
Was drag always kind of at hand when you were growing up, or did you have to find your way to it somehow?
I saw some drag shows in Vancouver and a handful of shows in Toronto, actually; Toronto’s got some pretty good queens. Never saw any queens in Montreal, actually. But I would kind of focus in - there’s this lady I really like, my favorite queen ever, their name’s Akihiro Maruyama. They’re like a Japanese celebrity, but in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s, they were in two movies, and those two movies were iconic for me. Black Lizard and Black Rose Mansion, they starred in both those movies and they’re fucking amazing. But for me it’s more typical, where you’re just looking at different singers, just the diva thing. It’s not necessarily looking at drag queens, it’s more just looking at Faye Dunaway, the person I just mentioned, Karen Carpenter.
But I was definitely an anomaly, as far as that stuff goes. I knew one guy who was gay, and he was in the closet, in Calgary. It wasn’t like a thriving, uh… there was shit going on though, like you’d hear about these different bars and stuff. But I was never just by chance, because of who I grew up around and all that stuff, never exposed to any of that. So I didn’t even see any of that until I went to Vancouver for the first time, and then I’d see people who, like, visually, were kind of in-between. I had never really seen that before, or even just had the language for it. So when I moved to Vancouver it was amazing, because it was just, like, whatever - it was a real thing. But I was 25 when I moved there, which seems quite late or something.
Was it a natural fit incorporating that into your musical identity?
They didn’t really have anything to do with each other initially, they just kind of blended together. But that’s kind of a long game thing, where it’s not just some idea that I wrote down on paper - it’s just my life [laughs].
What about visual inspirations in the sense of album art? You’ve got a pretty well-formed style, I think.
I don’t really know - there’s some pop artists I like, like Ray Johnson. Tadanori Yokoo is a Japanese pop artist that’s amazing. But I only know like three artists [laughs], but they’re really great. Early days, I was actually talkin’ about this with Steve the other day, but there’s that No Wave book that came out about the New York musicians, and we were joking about how the art was so good, the music didn’t have to be good. Like “oh, this poster looks amazing, I guess whatever they’re doing is cool” [laughs]. That art, I really like - a lot of that black and white, xeroxed kind of art. I really like the Letraset style. If I had it my way, I’d have a xerox machine, but that’s insane. But doing it manually is really fun, if you can. I guess it’s just photocopy shit.
You know Ray Johnson was a Black Mountain guy.
Yeah for sure, and talk about some real hippie shit where it’s like “ok, your class today, actually for the next three weeks, is gonna be building this shed” [laughs]. And we’re not gonna pay you, also. But yeah, he did that, and then even his old, traditional, like he’s doin’ cubes and stuff - there’s this painting he did called Calm Center that’s just really beautiful, and it’s just… shapes, you know? That’s something he did a lot, which I’m into, where it’s just repetitive, what other people would think is very monotonous and boring processes. Just being into that, you know. Cutting individual letters out of a thing and trying to make it look sharp; you know, you don’t want to make it look like a ransom note. Anything like that, collaging, I’ve always really enjoyed.
How’d you end up finding him?
We played, like when I was really young, we played at some art center thing. And there was an older student guy running the show, and I remember he was telling me about this movie about Ray Johnson, called How to Draw a Bunny. I rented it and thought it was so fascinating - just the amount of work he got done blew my mind. He was kind of a brat too, like he’s definitely a troll. But I thought he was really funny. And handsome too, doesn’t hurt. So I got kind of fixated on him, just to be that expressive. Probably not that fun to be around at times because he’s trollin’ people so hard - kind of an Andy Kaufman vibe, I feel like, where it’s funny from really far away. It can get kind of hateful at a point, where you’re just manipulating people.
But on the whole, an awesome artist - tracking books down, ordering books, and then I actually got to go to his estate in New York, which was really cool. Everything he joked about actually happened, like he’s got these collages that say “Ray Johnson collages, ten million dollars each,” and , not that much, but he’s got pictures of these pieces in parking lots propped up against his Volkswagen that art selling for tens of thousands of dollars now. He’s been a big inspiration in my life, more just in terms of commitment to something. And that’s dangerous too, you know, because it’s good to try and have a whole life and not just be a full-on loner.
But yeah, he’s awesome, man. So I really like him, and on the visual stuff - actually, Andrea Lukic, she’s my favorite artist. She did the cover for What's Tonight to Eternity, but she’s a genius. She’s a real artist, and it’s been cool - I used to go see her bands all the time when I lived in Vancouver, and she was doing this kind of xerox art and then branched out to illustrations. Go to her website, just these really beautiful… I don’t even know how she does ‘em now, but you’ll see.
The Johnson thing is kind of a classic creative tension - you admire the outcome and maybe some of the steps of someone’s process, but can’t bring yourself to replicate it because it’s kind of terrible.
You just gotta figure out what works for you - I learned that the hard way, because there’s really no advice for people. Hero-worshiping these people that you know nothing about and putting these ideals on them is very dangerous, to me. Get your drugs dialed - that’s a big one. ‘Cause everybody takes drugs, but just figuring out what works for you in that department is a major step in your evolution as a person. Most people are still workin’ on it, myself included. But that’s just one example [laughs].