Cindy Lee

From Calgary to Montreal

Patrick Flegel traces his journey from frontman of underground post-punk sensation Women to enignmatic drag performer Cindy Lee.

April 30, 2020

When the widely-acclaimed Calgary-based indie quartet Women officially broke up in 2012 after a much-publicized fight onstage in 2010, no one could predict the places those young adults would go, least of all themselves. After guitarist Chris Reimer tragically passed away in 2012, bassist Matt Flegel and drummer Mike Wallace formed the band Preoccupations (formerly known as Viet Cong) to continue their path in post-punk art rock. Pat Flegel began to perform in various projects in drag before releasing his first album under the new moniker of Cindy Lee in 2012. Following lo-fi interests, Cindy Lee has followed a prolific path, releasing two albums already this year: What’s Tonight to Eternity in February, and Cat O’ Nine Tails last week. Our editor Young Fenimore Lee sat for a virtual interview with Patrick to get his thoughts on the new record as well as memories of indie fame past.

Young Fenimore Lee: First off, what have you been listening to lately?

Patrick Flegel: My friend just sent me a bunch of Arab music that’s awesome. This lady Fairouz is a star over there. He sent me a bunch of stuff… Just this morning, I listened to The Vogues and Peter and Gordon. Some easy listening stuff, basically. Freak Heat Waves just gave me their new record, and it’s incredible. I’m freaking out about that. I’ve known those guys forever, but it’s one of those things where you’re hanging out and go eat a sandwich or something and you forget that they’re a genius? You know? Besides that, I’ve been making a few mixes, anything from Tegan and Sara, like, "I Was a Fool”, or, like, Joni Mitchell. And then I got into some Motörhead, too. It’s kind of all over the place here.

Young: I wanted to ask you about some stuff from the Women era. We’re just coming up on the 10th anniversary of when you guys broke up. How do you remember that era?

Patrick: It feels like another lifetime, to be honest, but it’s just sweet. I think partially because Chris died, I would ease up on my criticisms or hangups of what we were doing or how we were doing it… It’s more of this sweet sentimental thing where I just think about all the good aspects of it, most of which don’t have anything to do with the music. That’s all we ever wanted to do when we were young. I met Chris when I was 12 or 13, I knew Mike the drummer since I was 10, I met him in grade 5, and then the other member of the band was my brother. So all we ever wanted to do – it’s kind of an escapist thing – was to leave Calgary. Just go on tour and have a record or whatever. And we managed to do it.

Young: Do you have any thoughts on the breakup? What can you tell me about the breakup and how you guys felt about it?

Patrick: Publicly, there are these snapshots of where you’re at, with these ridiculous interviews you do, or a story where you break up on stage, or something like that. But I just think touring was all we ever wanted to do, and it was hard. The first tour I went on was when I was 16. It’s kind of a way of conning your way to getting out of Calgary, you know? Thomas and Steve from Freak Heat Waves booked a tour across Canada with their old band, and then we went on a tour together, and that was our first tour. I think that was in 2007, or ’08.

Once we started touring, that really threw a wrench in my whole life. It’s just incredibly disruptive and infantilizing. You’re drinking a lot, you’re quitting your job, you’re leaving whatever apartment, and it just throws a wrench in stuff. Then you come back and work for 10 months or something, and whatever. It just kind of fucks you up. The last tour we did, I was burnt out, and I didn’t know how to take care of myself. My standards for what I needed to exist day-to-day were very low, and so I sort of deteriorated.

I don’t feel good about that last show. I think it was really sad, actually. Mostly just because of the way I was treating people. I lost my mind. I don’t mean, like, I was having a bad day. I was delusional. I was confrontational. I wanted to fight people. It was genuinely insane. I thought I was people reincarnated. And there’s these religious fixations; I thought I could hypnotize people, and I drew a pentagram on my wrist, etc. That was all sparked because in San Francisco, we played this place called the Hemlock Tavern, and the next day, we went to a tourist trap on the harbor. I smoked something with this homeless guy, and I don’t know what it was, but it was something speedy. And it threw me off the walls. I just needed to sleep for two weeks, but we had a week more of shows to play. It was just ridiculous. I just think of that: “Oh man, I should have taken better care of myself.”

Young: I heard the story that you met a woman named Cindy Lee and adopted that as your drag name. Can you talk more about how you started doing drag?

Patrick: I started crossdressing in 2010 almost immediately at the end of the last Women tour. There was a show in Vancouver, and I just got out of the van and stayed there. Mike stayed behind with me, and the rest of the band went back to Calgary. I had only done it once before, when I was 16. I was dating this girl, we were going to this Christmas party, and we were both getting all dressed up. She was like, you should dress up in drag! And I was like, definitely. I didn’t really think about it again until 2010. At that time, I was still pretty shaky mentally, and I had this conviction that I identified as female.

That definitely left, came and went out of my life over the years. I’m only talking about myself here - it’s kind of politicized and moralistic sometimes, when you talk about this stuff, but I don’t think it’s to be compared to anyone else.

I think there were some kind of deep-seated, dark things going on that I was compensating for; rejecting masculinity, and maybe just hating myself for who I had been as a man, or [hating] men in my life. There were a lot of men in my life who couldn’t be trusted.

Young: When did crossdressing start interacting with your musical life?

Patrick: Probably two years later. I played in a band called Phil’s Knapsack with a couple friends of mine, and I played a couple of concerts where I’d crossdress. That was the blueprint for what’s going on now. 2012 was when I did the first Cindy Lee record. From that point on, I played with a band, and that was the name of the band. I had these other drag names, but obviously if I’m singing in drag and the thing’s called Cindy Lee, people are going to think that’s my name, so that’s how that worked out.

In the context of modern drag, the way I do drag is so tame, conventional, basic, and traditional. When people ask what kind of drag I do, I’m like, 60’s closet queen drag. I’m coming from the same place. It’s a tradition of diva archetypes, like Pasty Cline, Tammy Wynette, Diana Ross, Flo Ballard, and Mary Wells. Or even like Faye Dunaway. I just think any perceived novelty to what I’m doing is kind of crazy to me, because I feel like it’s so conventional and traditional.

Young: What’s interesting about that, though – how you guys perceived it may have been different at the time – is that Women is remembered as this cerebral noise rock experiment. But then you moved over to doing Cindy Lee, which seems more directly pop influenced. Do you think the new musical act in drag changed what you were taking influence from? Why do you think all of that coincided with you starting to perform in drag?

Patrick: Uh, I don’t feel like my interests are any different, or that my inspirations are any different. It might be different names, or different groups, but it’s really the same spirit, which is just AM Gold, which I grew up on, and then everything else. In terms of style, I don’t feel like there’s that much difference between what’s going on with the Women music and what I’m doing now. It might be different measures of the same ingredients or something.

Young: I just ask because my friends were interested in you taking influence from Phil Spector and all these other people, and I was just curious.

Patrick: Those recordings are awesome! But so were all of those old recordings. Those were huge big budget studios. I feel like across the board, I just like all of that stuff. Especially when you get into the lyrics of all these old songs, it’s pretty dark content. The ideals in those songs are really poisonous, in terms of being an independent person, being a strong person, taking care of yourself. Most of those songs hinge on the institution of marriage, “’til the end of time,” “in sickness and in health,” “I’ll die for you,” “I’ll be a slave for you,” anything, anything I can do to have you. Songs of submission and resignation. If I’m listening to the oldies station in Calgary every single day of my life, it’s kind of crazy to consider the actual content of the songs and how that shapes you.

Young: I’m interested in your lyrics, on that topic. Are you parodying this sentiment? Are you channeling it, or speaking against it? How do you think you lyrically function with respect to all of that?

Patrick: I think what I’m saying about those old songs is kind of a criticism, or something I’m weary of in my own lyrics. I think there’s some fundamental connective thing with people to those feelings. Deep down, we have that desperation, too, and I think you can’t just disregard that either. There are parts of us that just feel that way, that kind of guttural lizard brain stuff. So I think for the songs to be dramatic or heavy handed or irrational, that makes sense too, you know? I feel like my lyrics in the past have been that, circling around taboo subjects, or darker corners of your brain.

But I’ve been less interested in that where, lately, I’ve been thinking of stepping in and wanting to be strong and have a positive message. I still want to be acknowledging all this heavy stuff, but ultimately, I don’t want to just be dressing up in drag and singing these songs of victimization. I’d hope that it comes across as strong and emboldening. I have hurt feelings and these other things going on, but that’s where things are headed. More pleasant stuff.

Young: I was looking at the liner notes for Cat O’ Nine Tails, and there’s a long, religiously-themed monologue. Could you talk about what exactly your intention was with putting that there?

Patrick: Yeah, there’s a Dr. Bronner’s vibe on that thing. I grew up religious, so the biblical speech and mock biblical things are interesting to me. I feel like that’s why we’re attracted to that stuff, the drama – it’s real. I thought of the Cat O’ Nine Tails as a tool of self-flagellation. It’s supposed to be a concept record where it’s a trajectory of self-mutilation and self-victimization, and it’s all rooted in these real things that happened to me, but it’s also a cautionary thing about a trend I saw in my life, and that I saw in a lot of men in my life who are creative. This martyr complex, this kind of exceptionalism, like, “my pain is exceptional,” this self pitying drunk archetype. And I don’t mean to pass any judgment, but it’s just a real stage I’ve been through.

I don’t know how it comes across, but it was just supposed to be a caution. Because I know a lot of younger boys listen to my music, I’ve gathered that much. I think it’s supposed to be a caution against this exceptionalism and martyrdom that comes with creativity. And it’s really glorified, in stories of other people, people that we kind of hero-worship or admire.

Young: Tell me about your label, Realistik.

Patrick: It started as CCQSK, and then I just sort of named the studio Realistik. And now, more recently, I just decided to call the whole thing Realistik studios. It’s just me. If someone’s ordering a record or downloading a record, that’s me on the other side.

Young: I was curious about the title tracks on the new record, the three title tracks. They’re super dense synth tracks that sound like neoclassical organ. Where did the inspiration for that stuff come from?

Patri That came from me, that’s a classical guitar track I wrote. All the instrumental stuff on there I wrote on the guitar, and if I had it my way, I would learn how to write classical music. So this is just me flirting with that. I transcribed this long elaborate guitar part – I was hanging with my friend Morgan Greenwood in Calgary last summer when I was trying to quit smoking, and he works in MIDI. So he put some chords into MIDI, and I was like, “woah!” So I transcribed this long fucking thing, I put every single note into MIDI and then jacked it through all this shit. So that’s what those tracks are. It’s just different arpeggiators going wild, and trem, and it’s blasting through a 4x12. You could probably hear that at the end of the street from the shed where I record now. It was really loud, a 100-watt amp.

Young: Do you have a day job nowadays or do you mostly do musical work?

Patrick: I was on disability for mental health for 5-and-a-half years, and I was working while I was on it. I’m very grateful that it existed, since I was on the fringe of functionality. Often, when you lose your shit, the job is the first thing to go. I was working here and there –I’ve done all kinds of shit, you name it.

Pretty recently, I was washing dishes and doing janitorial stuff, and I was just thinking about music. I released Act of Tenderness by myself in 2015, I did 300 copies of that on LP. I did Model Express cassette myself, and I was proud of it… While I was doing these jobs, I just realized, why can’t I just put a record out every 3-4 months? You know? And labels don’t want you to do that. I had to wait a year to put What’s Tonight to Eternity out, and basically, I was just like, fuck this shit. I love making music, I love recording music, I want to release stuff as I go, as I do it, this is what I do. I’m fucking 34 years old. What else am I supposed to be doing? And if I weed out these streaming services, I can make enough money to pay my rent and get groceries. And I live very frugally. I’ve lived below the poverty line my entire adult life. By choice, it’s not a sob story, but I’ve learned to manage. I’m not unique in that – everyone I know who’s a musician or a creative person lives like that.

Then I did Cat O’ Nine Tails by myself and ditched the record label. Super cool people who’re just trying to run a business, but people are sending me money for the downloads, and the record sold out, and it means so much to me because that’s paying my fucking bills. I’m working on a new record already called Diamond Jubilee that’s coming out in probably 3 or 4 months. And I’m really excited about that. And I’m shipping out Cat O’ Nine Tails in the next week. And it looks good, man. It’s screen-printed. Nice xerox insert, and a photo in there, and it’s like, that’s what I’m doing for work. I’m just doing music right now.

Young: Lastly, tell me about the album covers. Act of Tenderness’s album cover was a photo, but then What’s Tonight to Eternity had a dense, amazing drawing. I was curious where you got all these from.

Patrick: Act of Tenderness, that was a photo my friend Andrea Lukic took, and she’s probably my favorite artist. She was in Nü Sensae, she did all their art. That’s a photo she took, it’s a double exposure. The drummer of the band, Daniel, who’s got that mask on, and it’s two of him. The still on the back of the record is from a video she made of me called “Christine Nicole.” When she started doing the Nü Sensae art, it was this crass style, this xerox letraset thing. Over the years, she just got more into illustration, and it just keeps getting more and more amazing. She’s got these comics she does called Journal of Smack, and What’s Tonight to Eternity is taken from one of those comics. It’s just an image I saw, and I was just like, that’s it. So I asked her if I could use it, and she let me. I think it’s amazing. I love it.

Young: It’s been great talking. Take care, stay safe, and thanks so much!

Patrick: Take care. Bye for now.

To support the music of Patrick Flegel / Cindy Lee, purchase Cat O’ Nine Tails through Realistik Studios. Please consider supporting artists through direct purchases during this pandemic.