The meeting place was a weather-beaten pocket of the city near the South Street Seaport; a small alleyway filled with empty picnic tables that felt miles away from the hum of the 4Knots crowd. Quiet and secluded, the only signs of life were the whispers and creaks of the faded, nautical buildings and the salty air creeping in between the bricks. “This is kind of crazy,” grinned Shaun Fleming as he took it in with bright eyes, a vibrant mural behind him now struggling to compete with the presence of Diane Coffee. Before he specified the crazy part, he seemed to instantly reel himself in. “I’ve got answers for days,” he said suddenly, with the kind of creative intensity that could make someone forget all the questions. So the interview began.
“I don’t know if it’s a different character. I think it’s just another piece of myself,” the singer said, unwrapping the unique stage persona that frequently finds him covered in glitter and drowning in the hands of his fans. “You know, I’ll call it Diane Coffee, but it’s the performer, it’s that piece that comes out. Like when you’re at a concert, maybe you’re a reserved, quiet-type. But when you’re at a show,” he said, distinguishing the two with great care, “you’re feeling a community presence, you’re screaming these lyrics at the top of your lungs, and you feel free. And that is what I’ve deemed Diane Coffee. That’s what I am trying to represent onstage.”
Shaun’s manner of speaking has an earnest, old-fashioned rhythm to it that hearkens back to Christopher Reeve’s Superman. It’s a trait you may miss if you only know his high-energy Diane Coffee performances, where he’s more often chanting messages of love and theatrical interjections faster than an auctioneer. “It’s that feeling of… I wouldn’t necessarily say escapism, but a way to just kind of shed any ill-feelings or fear, you know? Whatever it is. And just kind of let loose,” he explained genially. “Speaking to an entire performance, I want to kind of guide people through that, in a way. Just create the whole experience that I want to provide.”
That whole experience, which can involve dramatic costume changes and special themes for each show (his 4Knots set that day would feature a robust maritime motif), is still very much a DIY effort. “I’ve always been a fan of big theatrics, and I would love to put on as big of a show as I possibly can. I’ve got a little more money to burn on costumes and stuff like that. But I still want to do even more,” said Shaun. “I’m working within my means and kind of building what I can from scratch. I’ve spent a lot of time at the Hobby Lobby,” he added, with a private smile that seemed to hint at many long hours of sorting sequins and gluing feathers.
But his labor has been paying off. A few years ago, he was already collaborating with Killer Mike and El-P and landing a slick feature, “Crown,” on the critically-acclaimed Run the Jewels 2, an experience he described as “super relaxed, really easy.” He shed some light on the their freeform process. “I didn’t even see Killer Mike. It was just me and Jaime [El-P] working. I went upstate and just had two nights in this really amazing studio. And he was pretty much like, ‘I love the way you layer vocals. Here’s a track idea that I’ve got. Here’s a beat. So… figure it out, do your thing.’” Shaun recalled with a laugh. “We did a whole bunch of different layering, stuff like that. And he chopped up what he wanted and created it – I mean, that’s what they do. I don’t even know what happened. I spent a day doing a whole bunch of stuff and then I left, and I didn’t hear anything until it was released.”
And though he’d probably put the credit right back on the jewel runners if prodded, Shaun’s description of his contributions is humble – much like the bigger goal that inspires them. “I think the show, right now, is preaching a lot about love and acceptance, and a feeling of community,” he explained. “But I just want the audience to have an experience that is maybe different than they are used to. I mean, anything. That could be complete disdain. That could just total, like, ‘I hate what this is, I want to go see some shoegaze music.’ And that’s totally fine! As long as you had some feeling, some reaction. I mean, that’s art. And that’s what I like.”
Article: Olivia Isenhart
Photos: Shayne Hanley