That Last Train Is Back Again: A Conversation with Cindy Lee
Who is not born what they will become? How often do we look in the mirror and see someone we hate and someone we love? We understand, yet have no idea what we’ll do next? Are we still becoming? Or are the cards in our pocket the only deck we have? Every morning you rise to lay one down. Sometimes you get one back, sometimes it’s gone, and when you reach into your pocket there’s a little more room. Room for improvement? Room for a train to pass that has come and gone. Your hand reaches out and feels nothing. A fog descends and the sun rises. The moon is blue and under every streetlight, a desire. A fantasy. Cindy Lee, where are you?
Born Patrick Flegel, musician Cindy Lee walks around Seattle chain smoking cigarettes while his brother’s band, Preoccupations, plays a set for KEXP. He is surrounded by huge concrete slabs and dons an orange ski cap. We spoke via Zoom and for a while, we couldn’t see or hear him. When we do, he sort of looks like someone without a cellphone. Someone who walked into the last Radioshack and stole a few things. He is not in drag. Not yet. He looks like a man. Lips and hips are wonderful things.
We see them play at the Echoplex in Los Angeles. Cindy Lee is beautiful. He wears a wig, and sports lipstick, eyeliner, and a touch of blush. He sings as if every unsigned girl group of the sixties committed suicide and found peace in his throat. He plays guitar simply, and then he plays like Jimi Hendrix. The audience is throwing roses and Cindy Lee smiles in a gold dress, sparkling like a bottle of champagne in a Vegas vault. Cindy Lee says he has a double album. Cindy Lee says he’s blue. Cindy Lee is one of the great artists of our time. We hear something so classic, yet completely avant-garde. Beautiful and haunting. Cindy Lee rises, tops our charts, yet our friends have never heard of him. He has released four albums, and there is nothing not to like. We’re back in Seattle now. Cindy Lee lights his fourth cigarette. It feels like that last train is coming back again. We can hear it. | n matsas
Aquarium Drunkard: Where are you right now?
Cindy Lee: Seattle. Preoccupations are doing a KEXP session.
AD: Oh, nice. You’re in that civic center or something?
Cindy Lee: The hockey arena is right here, Climate Pledge Arena.
AD: Climate Pledge, very nice. I used to live in Seattle, actually, before I moved down here to LA.
Cindy Lee: Me too.
AD: What was the first thing you thought about today?
Cindy Lee: Anger. I’m very angry in the morning. Exceptionally angry. So, just let out a string of profanity and then another string of profanity and another one. And then I was like ‘coffee.’ Pretty typical.
AD: And that’s every morning for you? Just pissed?
Cindy Lee: Yeah, definitely.
AD: What are some of the things that you say? Is it just like, “fuck, fuck, fuck?” And do you say them out loud?
Cindy Lee: Yeah, I do. It’s pretty rough, to be honest.
AD: Why are you so angry in the morning?
Cindy Lee: I have no idea. I’ve always been like that forever.
AD: Even when you were little?
Cindy Lee: Oh yeah.
AD: When’s the first time you had coffee?
Cindy Lee: Church. When? I don’t know, I was a kid, but we just drank coffee. There’s like a fellowship time after the service, and then they would have all these kinds of cookies and wafers, et cetera. There would be an old guy that would reach his hand out and then you would shake his hand and then you would take your hand away and you would have a candy in your hand.
AD: The little styrofoam cups.
Cindy Lee: Yeah, exactly.
AD: Are you a religious person?
Cindy Lee: I’m not personally, but perhaps in a kind of vague way.
Cindy Lee: Yeah, I think so.
AD: Sun Ra, John Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders? Are these religious figures?
Cindy Lee: Yeah. I just dabbled helplessly to undo what I believed when I was a kid or something. So, it’s going to be there no matter what. Kind of pinned that on different fixtures and fix fixations.
But I believe in magic. I don’t know why we would know what’s going on. So, yeah, it’s pretty typical metaphysical, big spirituality. But definitely, I don’t know. There’s something beyond us. Absolutely.
AD: After you were angry this morning, what was the next thing? What was your first…
Cindy Lee: My first thought was… We drove from Montreal to Seattle in probably 10 days or eight days or something. So my motivation this morning was to try and be professional, wake up on time, be at the van at the right time, and then be kind of in a good mood and play some uplifting music so that these guys, before they do their session, try and get them wired. Definitely, Dr. Music. That’s kind of what was on my mind. I was like, “Oh, I want to be in a good mood for my friends and family… Creedence Clearwater Revival.”
AD: You played CCR? Which song?
Cindy Lee: “Lodi”.
AD: Whose idea was it to tour?
Cindy Lee: My brother’s. I’ve been pretty blue. Just missed my friends. And he knew it would be good for me to hang out and get some love from people. People have been coming to the shows and in Chicago some folks threw some flowers on the stage. I got Morrissey-ed, which is kind of awesome.
AD: Should I do that at the LA Show? I do have tickets.
Cindy Lee: Yeah. Flowers. Thank you. Thanks for buying a ticket. Thank you. It’s been amazing talking to people. Everything I do is really in solitude, so yeah, I used to be really self-centered when it came to music and stuff—not care about anything. But now I feel really great about it, chatting with people and people driving to come see the show. Makes me feel awesome. So, yeah.
AD: Isn’t it funny how when you’re blue and the worst thing that you could possibly think of would be to be around other people. Yet, you get dragged out and after being around people for 30 minutes you start to feel good?
Cindy Lee: Yeah. I think there was a time where I just wouldn’t say anything to people or do anything. And then there was a time where I thought it was a weird form of manipulation—of saying, “No, I don’t want to,” and then having to be coerced into stuff. Now, I’m just realizing it’s great to ask for help, reach out to people. And sometimes it’s good to press people a bit. I encourage them, and this tour is definitely of that nature. And then sure enough, actually been enjoying it. It’s nice because I feel like, “Oh, I want to entertain people. I want to make people feel good.” And if it’s a Tuesday night and someone’s on the grind and they’re out at a bar, it excites me that, “oh, maybe I could make them feel good.” Or maybe they’ll walk away. I’m definitely not a natural entertainer, but I kind of stopped caring… I’m 37 now and that feels really good. I used to have wild stage fright, and now I’m just leaning into it.
AD: I was nervous before this.
Cindy Lee: Yeah. It’s weird too, when you’re familiar with someone’s music or their writing or whatever. You almost feel like you’ve been reading their diary and then you’re actually talking to the person and they are humanized. I feel like I do interviews to promote my music and sell it. But I feel like I’ve already made the mistake of revealing personal information in interviews. So, it’s funny you say that because to me it’s like you’re in a certain mood one day. And I’ve done a lot of interviews where I was very squirrely. Like there’s one I did recently where I just quit smoking. So, it was insane. Talked to this person for three hours, just totally punished them—just rambling, incoherent shit. And then I know from reading other people’s interviews, you like, think it’s a statement.
AD: What’s funny is my friend Eddie O’Keefe actually interviewed you for AD and you put the kibosh on it.
Cindy Lee: I felt bad because I did the interview with Eddie and yeah, I ended up talking about my sexuality, my financial situation, personal stuff.
AD: You gave your credit card number.
Cindy Lee: (laughs) Exactly! My social security…They were kind enough. You make a deal when you do an interview with somebody and you take their time and their effort. But I was like, “man, that’s too much.” I’m talking about all kinds of shit. There’s an art to doing interviews.
AD: I like to be loose. I don’t write down any questions and I look nothing up. Anything I want to look up I’ll just ask you.
Cindy Lee: Yeah, it’s all good. I’m enjoying this conversation, but I’m primed, you know what I mean? I was kind of squirrelly and out of it and then, yeah. But yeah, it’s fine man. Ask me whatever you want.
AD: Do you have new music coming out soon?
Cindy Lee: Yeah, there’s so much. It’s been hard to corral it into records. I dumped…I think it was two and a half hours of material recently and that was eight months ago. I wanted to do a double record. But yeah, it’s just this thing where I’m trying to go rogue and do…
AD: Are you on a label?
Cindy Lee: Superior Viaduct has got the rights to a couple of my records and they’re repressing both of them. So, What’s Tonight to Eternity and Model Express are going to be available again pretty soon. That was backed up for a year and a half or so.
AD: I recently watched that for the first time on Vimeo.
Cindy Lee: “Kromax”?
Cindy Lee: My friend Danny made that movie. He is awesome. I love that guy. He followed through. He gets things done…very under the radar. We hit it off right away and then he wrote that movie and got his friends to be in it and stuff. It was awesome. Model Express. That’s a store in Vancouver actually. And I named the record after it. I named a song about it. I named a song after it without their permission.
AD: What do they sell?
Cindy Lee: It’s just a place where you could get kind of like a kink store or you could buy stripper boots. But that’s the first store where, oh, everything I want is here. So, they have plus size shoes and sashes and wigs, et cetera.
AD: What’s your favorite color?
Cindy Lee: My impulse is to say orange. But I really love mint green. Yeah, mint green.
AD: Do you remember the last dream you had?
Cindy Lee: Yeah, but I can’t discuss it. Not here. It was pretty wild. I was with Royal Trux, and I’ll say no more…but it was bizarre and it felt like it lasted like a decade. But I was with Jennifer Herrema and Neil Haggerty.
AD: Their last record was great.
Cindy Lee: To be honest, I haven’t listened to it. Twin Infinitives is a masterpiece as far as I’m concerned.
AD: Yeah. Isn’t it wild that there was a point in time where the music industry said, “here’s a million dollars, Royal Trux.”
Cindy Lee: Yeah, that’s my dream. Everybody’s dream. It’s amazing.
AD: Do you want to be number one?
Cindy Lee: I would love that. But I can’t pay the price to do that. I don’t have thick enough skin for it and the music… I’m just talking in a fantasy world. I don’t have thick enough skin to do that… I don’t think…I saw Royal Trux live…I’m pretty obsessive.
AD: Their last record is great. White Stuff. Check it out. Remember CDs?
Cindy Lee: I think of a CD book back in the day. I wouldn’t have everybody’s CD, it would just be one CD by one artist just over and over again.
AD: I remember friends who had cars, and I ranked them based on what was in their CD book. What would make me excited is like, “Oh, Alex is picking us up. He’s got the best twelve CDs.”
Cindy Lee: Yeah. But I got to say, I mean I always just listen to the radio all the time anyways. And that’s essentially what I use my phone for.
AD: Do you have a favorite radio station when you’re driving around on tour?
Cindy Lee: Yeah, there’s FOXY. I forget what the hell the band number is. FOXY is like a R&B station in Durham. And then you got just right Radio Oldies Station and there’s the University Station. Classical station. But yeah, probably just radio.
AD: Have you ever heard yourself on the radio?
Cindy Lee: No. Oh, with the old band. I went to a get coffee or something and it was playing there. It was pretty crazy. Some place in Vancouver, I can’t remember. But yeah, that was cool. That stuff used to make me squirm. Now I just smile.
AD: The first time I heard you was on the radio. I was in Chicago and the Northwestern University College radio Station played you.
Cindy Lee: Where is that?
AD: Evanston, Illinois. It borders Chicago. They have a radio station. It’s student run. I was just like, what the fuck is this? And I thought Cindy Lee, I thought it was a girl group. I thought they were like, that was Cindy Lee. And I was looking for you. I remember I couldn’t find you, because I was expecting a skinny black ladies. When did Cindy Lee, when did the name Cindy Lee arrive? When was the first time?
Cindy Lee: That was one I had when I was into crossdress and I had a lot of names for myself. So, first it was Lady Warland… This book, The Master and Margarita, The Devil comes to Moscow and hypnotizes all the people. The whole thing is an allegory for the regimes there and all this stuff that I make no claim to understand or have any knowledge of .But the religious aspects of that book were what really hit me. So, it was kind of like, these people don’t believe in it anymore. No one believes in the devil, and then the devil comes to town and just breaks everyone’s world. Everybody, from what I remember, I haven’t read it since then, but everybody who sees the devil ends up in the mental institution. They get institutionalized. But there’s a scene in the book where Lady Warland does this performance and they’re a magician. And I just loved that. I was thinking about hypnotism a lot when I started the thing, especially on the street, when people can walk up to you and give you these cues and kind of just work you over. I don’t know if that makes sense.
Cindy Lee: The kind of situation where someone comes up to you, starts speaking to you, and then half an hour goes by and you realize that you were just kind of disarmed or something like that. But anyways, yeah, that was the original name.
AD: I hope you don’t feel that way now.
Cindy Lee: What?
AD: That I’ve taken away your gun.
Cindy Lee: No, I feel disarmed in a good way. I think that’s good.
AD: Are you a big reader?
Cindy Lee: Not really. I struggle. I listen to the radio most of the time. I listen to a lot of talk radio, AM radio. But I did actually, a friend of mine, I read a couple of science fiction books that Ursula K. Le Guin wrote. Pretty iconic science fiction writer. But I just read Left Hand of Darkness and the Dispossess. And it was cool. It made me feel good, especially the Dispossessed, just from a creative perspective, just thinking about the challenges or what it takes to make records and do everything on your own.
And then just thinking about this entire universe and world that this person, religions, customs, values, geography, languages, et cetera. So, that was really inspiring to me. And then, even just fantasies of how things could potentially work that are completely outside of the framework. Everyone feels kind of trapped in, I guess.
AD: I have a recommendation then for you. There’s a book called Ubik. Whenever you get a chance, read that. Have you heard of that book?
Cindy Lee: No, I’ve never heard of it.
AD: Philip K. Dick. It’s about this group of people who break into a corporation and a bomb goes off. And the way that this bomb works is that you don’t die or anything. It’s not like an explosion, but you start to go back in time, your world, everything you see, you start to go back in time until you find this thing called Ubik, which is a hairspray. And they have to spray it in their face and it brings them back to the present. And then they slowly digress again. And the whole book is about them trying to find more Ubik. I don’t know if that sounds interesting to you.
Cindy Lee: I’m like, tough on that. It’s tough for me to just pick something up. It’s just all about timing. I did read Deliverance recently, which I thought was amazing. And I read, what the hell is it called? Naked and Garden Hills by Harry Cruz. And I read a bunch of interviews with him and stuff like that. But yeah, just kind of relevant to moving to North Carolina in some ways.
AD: Are you in Durham?
Cindy Lee: Yeah. I moved from Montreal, Quebec to Durham, North Carolina.
AD: Where are you from originally?
Cindy Lee: Calgary, Alberta. I was born in Lethbridge, then I was raised in Calgary, then I moved to Vancouver, then I moved to the COOs, then I moved to Toronto, then I moved to Montreal, lived in Seattle for a stretch. And now I’m in North Carolina.
AD: I’ve heard people say that Alberta is kind of like Canada’s Texas?
Cindy Lee: I’ve heard people say that. I’ve got to say, culturally or socially in a lot of respects, North Carolina. I can’t tell the difference between a lot of people I’ve hung out with or my partner’s family and my own cousins and aunts and uncles in a lot of respects. But it’s also completely different. It’s such a broad stroke to say they’re the same or whatever.
Cindy Lee: That seems like, yeah, it’s a typical kind of…I’ve heard a lot of Americans say that Canada is slightly strange. Politely strange. Just to the left. I love Vancouver though.
AD: Great town. What was the last great song you heard? What’s on the turntable?
Cindy Lee: I do not have a turntable, but yeah, the last great song I heard was, I’m trying to think, Man. Oh “Big Boy” by Sparks is fantastic. That’s kind of the tour. Gloria Taylor. And then there’s also actually a bunch of Russian stuff. Like this singer, Edith PCA. I’ve been listening to her a lot. It’s really soft, beautiful music. No idea what she’s saying, but it’s good stuff.
AD: Are you familiar with the band’s Zvuki Mu?i
Cindy Lee: No. No?
AD: Are you familiar with the Spark song, Sherlock Holmes?
Cindy Lee: Yeah, I’ve heard that one. Yeah, for sure.
AD: That’s a great tune. I haven’t seen that documentary.
Cindy Lee: It’s cool. It’s about persistence. I watched the Tina one too. I like those movies.
AD: Has a documentary ever swayed you drastically about how you view a band or artist?
Cindy Lee: No. If anything it just seems more relatable. Some people are better off than you. Some people are worse off than you. But just, yeah, I always like it. Cause the people are kind of on this mission. And it’s a strange mission.
AD: How long have you been on your mission?
Cindy Lee: Since I was a kid.
AD: Do you remember the first song you heard?
Cindy Lee: I was just going to say that the Black Sabbath guys, they were like, “Why’d you start a band?” And they just said they didn’t want to work in a factory. Just trying to escape real life.
AD: I’m in construction.
Cindy Lee: Yeah, there you go. Ok, first song I heard? The first song I heard where I really felt it was working on me was “Broken Glass” by Annie Lennox. I don’t know how old. I was very young though. It must have been early 90s.
AD: I recently listened to the Eurhythmics’ score of 1984. Have you ever listened to that?
Cindy Lee: I watched that film a few years ago.
AD: That score, that soundtrack is incredible. It is so good.
Cindy Lee: Yeah, they’re great. I love them. We listened and threw on a few of their tracks the other day.
AD: If you could go anywhere right now, where would you go?
Cindy Lee: Probably Durham. I’d be home with my partner and two cats. I’d probably be hanging out. I’d probably be on the couch playing guitar, watching Golden Girls or something. Or maybe hockey, I don’t know.
That’s been a strange turn that has happened as a kind of counterpoint to all this esoteric, vague, mystical fantasy world of creativity. Athletics have crept back into my life as some kind of counter thing, you know?
AD: That’s crazy you say that because last year right after the pandemic it crept back for me as well. I try to watch the NBA every night, and keep up with Hockey.
Cindy Lee: What team do you go for in hockey?
AD: Chicago Blackhawks. And I was going to ask you, are you Flames?
Cindy Lee: Oh, all the way. Yeah, die hard.
AD: So is that where the orange comes from then as your favorite color?
Cindy Lee: Well, I got this hat on.
AD: Are you a Blue Jays and Raptors fan?
Cindy Lee: I do mostly hockey and baseball. It’s a pretty typical Canadian kind of mix. The whole country cheers for the Blue Jays.
AD: Roger Clemens. David Wells, was he on the Blue Jays?
Cindy Lee: Yeah. And Roy Holiday was another guy. Like those ace pitchers.
AD: So no basketball.
Cindy Lee: I like watching basketball when it’s on, but I don’t have the kind of comprehension where I can see the game under the game. I can with hockey or I’m learning about baseball so I can’t fully appreciate it. You know what I’m saying?
Cindy Lee: I did watch that playoff run with the Raptors. Was inescapable in Montreal. Everyone was watching it. And then I just remember seeing that Steph Curry guy, I was pretty blown away because he was so consistent. Which was shocking when there’s literally millions of people watching you and to follow through is really impressive to me.
AD: I also really like that he can be down 15 and he doesn’t freak out.
Cindy Lee: Yeah. Composure. I think it’s pretty typical of creative types to be self-sabotaging and self-defeating. Which relates to my life. This kind of self-centered spotlight thing.
AD: I’ve done that with alcohol.
Cindy Lee: Yeah. I’m not drinking. But the real art is just being able to dial it in anyways and there’s calls there that are hard for people to break through. I think. Yeah, I mean drugs and creativity have gone together for probably a millions of years.
AD: I don’t believe in drugs. Jimi Hendrix’s is dead. Drugs are for the audience.
Cindy Lee: Jimi Hendrix was truly one of a kind. You can’t even wrap your head around that kind of magic. He just worked it, man. What is fascinating to me is these old school people who would play hundreds and hundreds of shows. I guess he was on the chitlin’ circuit, our whatever circuit.
AD: He was in Little Richard’s band, I believe.
Cindy Lee: Yeah, exactly. And then just melting that, just deep frying that process and then just smashing it to pieces. You know what I mean?
Cindy Lee: Three years. I love Jimi Hendrix’s so much. But that’s just the craziest thing to me is how short that time span actually was.
AD: Yeah. A lot of bands from that era were flash’s in a pan. Cream comes to mind. Do you like Cream?
Cindy Lee: Yeah, They’re alright. Not a big fan of Eric Clapton. That’s not a political statement. I like Ginger Baker. I love those guys. Mitch Mitchell is like that. Where they idolize these jazz drummers and again kind of filtered it or whatever. Yeah. I love that style of drumming. I think Ginger Baker’s amazing.
AD: I love Ginger Baker’s Air Force.
Cindy Lee: I like “I Feel Free”. That’s a really beautiful song. It is a good one. Motivational lyrics these days.
AD: Are you writing motivational lyrics?
Cindy Lee: Yeah. Hell yeah! I got a lot of new songs about friendship and friends and missing friends and how friends are important.
AD: Can we get one new lyric right now? One new lyric?
Cindy Lee: The other day I could have sworn I heard you call my name. I hear the melodies of Til Kingdom Come. Don’t tell me it’s the end. I only want to see your face again. But yeah, just listening to friends music and missing them.
AD: Well Patrick, I don’t want to hold you too much longer.
Cindy Lee: I’m good man. Honestly, I prefer a long form interview where you can get kind of loose and it’s not just sound bites.
AD: Fuck that shit, man.
Cindy Lee: It’s fine. It’s fine. I mean it’s just the nature of it. But I like the old school style. That’s why I like Aquarium Drunkard actually. Because from what I’ve seen, it’s just what the people said.