Below, you can read our interview with artist Donatas Ramanauskas of Dead Freddie and listen to their self-titled album. Check out our full music review of Dead Freddie, HERE.
Q: Originally formed back in 1979, you guys tore sh*# up back in the day! What led to your break-up; and what ultimately inspired the comeback in 2013?
A: The original line-up of Dead Freddie Band in 1980: co-founder Vainis Aleksa (guitar, backing vocals), Al Plioplys (lead guitar), Vitas Plioplys (bass guitar, backing vocals), Juozas (Joey) Mikužis (drums), and co-founder Donatas Ramanauskas (lead vocalist). Donatas (me, the guy answering these interview questions) was the first to transition out of the band, as he completed his Chemistry MS degree (De Paul, Chicago, 1981) and moved to Detroit for a job and for love. While Donatas made the occasional trip back to Chicago for a few performances, the band continued with Vainis Aleksa taking over on lead vocals, with a rare wacky assist from Vitas Plioplys.
At some point in 1982-83, as the other members started or graduated from college, each moved in their own direction. Decisions were made to become scientists, engineers, accountants and teachers rather than try to make the band the full-time life activity. I think we were lucky to last as long as we did, considering the life expectancy of typical punk bands back in the day.
Vainis Aleksa finished with an English degree (after switching from math/computer programming) from “Circle” (now known as University of Illinois at Chicago) c1982 and moved to Germany for a number of years to teach at Vasario 16 Gimnazija (a.k.a. V-16) High School—a Lithuanian high school that remained open after all but a handful of the displaced-person camp diaspora moved throughout Europe and to the US, Canada, Australia and South America. It is also where he met his future spouse Laima. Al Plioplys and his younger brother Vitas took over their father’s metal-working and die business (59th and Claremont, Chicago) for a few years before selling it and moving on to other careers. Joey Mikužis got in to automotive sales, first at a shop specializing in Corvettes, then moving on to a dealership that sells exotic/high-end performance vehicles. Al, Vitas and Joey all sold their gear and were never in any other bands. Vainis continues to occasionally play acoustic guitar. He continues to write poetry, in English as well as Lithuanian. While Vainis has said in a different time, in a different life, he would love to be in Dead Freddie again. His workload as head of the writing tutors at UIC, plus a large family, precludes any involvement in bigger musical projects.
I tried to reunite the original members in 2000 for the 20-year anniversary and again in 2005 for the 25th anniversary with no luck due to lack of interest, fear, lack of time, so I let it go. I decided to try again in 2011. A number of Lithuanian Scout leaders, who remembered the original Dead Freddie asked if Dead Freddie would reunite for a fundraising concert in February 2012, pretty much on a dare, that I wouldn’t have the guts to try and pull it off. I agreed, only to run into the same responses from the original members as previously. I was not to be deterred. I recruited my daughter (Regina Ramanauskas) to play guitar and one of my junior scout leaders, Terrence “TJ” Petry to play bass. I asked another young scout leader, Mykolas Saulis, to play drums, with the idea that the original “Dead Freddie” (Donatas) would be supported by a new generation of musicians. Mykolas initially said OK, then got cold feet. Fortunately, his father Ed Saulis (who I also knew from previous scouting experiences) was interested in helping out. Not only did he volunteer to play lead guitar and provide a rehearsal space, he also recruited his friend Thomas “Mulz” Mulhern, to play drums. The intention was to do a one-off show for the fundraiser in 2012. The fundraiser was a success and we had so much fun and invested a good deal of time and energy learning all the original Dead Freddie songs, that we volunteered to do a repeat performance in 2013. For the second fundraiser, “Mulz” was unavailable, so we recruited Ziggy Mikužis (older brother of original drummer Joey). Ziggy’s claim to fame was his drumming part on Aliotta Haynes and Jeremiah’s hit record “Lakeshore Drive”. Ziggy had played in the Neo-Liths Orchestra (wedding band) for almost 20 years before putting away the sticks. He had been at the 2012 fundraiser and revealed later that he had gotten the “itch” again. After the 2013 fundraiser, he went on to join Greg’s Fender Benders (cover band) and quit only recently. It was great to have Ziggy, even if it was only for a single show.
We were invited to be part of a third fundraiser in 2014 and agreed. With Ziggy gone and TJ away at Western Illinois University and Ed jumping over to the Fender benders, we had some gaps to fill. I was approached by two former members of the band Steak, Leonas Putrius (who I also knew through Lith Scouts) and Gintas Buinevicius (lifelong friend of Leonas), offering services to Dead Freddie as guitarist (Leonas) and drummer (Gintas). We also recruited Julius Lietuvninkas (junior scout leader and former guitarist in Skyline, while attending Michigan State University) to play bass, replacing TJ. We gelled well and played a great set at the 2014 fundraiser, making no plans for the future.
On a lark and a dare, I queried whether Ed, Gintas, Leonas and Julius would be interested playing at the big pre-Christmas open mic at EvenFlow (Geneva, IL) in 2014, a few months after the third fundraiser. All but Julius was available (on a Florida vacation with family). We played the open mic with Regina filling in on bass guitar and had a great time and a fantastic reception from all gathered, mostly (as is the case with most open mics) other musicians. A few weeks later, in January 2015, we met to discuss the possibility of a permanent band, playing more than one show per year. Donatas, Gintas, Leonas, Ed and Julius attended this meeting, and agreed to form Dead Freddie, simply Dead Freddie: no appendages “and Friends” or “Band”, once again to separate this line-up from previous ones, while still maintaining the root. This decision was only made after another discussion as to what would be the nature of this band: a cover band or one that plays originals. It was unanimous, that this line-up would focus on original Dead Freddie “legacy” material (written 1979-81) and add new songs written with a similar “vibe” to the old songs, with the rare, occasional cover tune thrown into the mix. We rehearsed twice a week and really honed in on the material. During 2015 we frequented numerous open mics in the Chicago area to develop our stage presence and eventually booked a handful of club gigs. These successes convinced us that the effort was worth it and we have continued on a steady basis, albeit with additional line-up changes since then.
Q: Since the late 70’s, the “music industry” has done a complete 180 with a few sharp right & left turns in there as well! (I.E.: Vinyl, 8-tracks, cassettes, CDs, MP3s, streaming, and the sudden resurgence of the importance of live shows.) What are the greatest obstacles you’ve encountered since your comeback while navigating the music universe? What do you like/dislike about the 70 vs. today?
A: Greatest obstacles? Life gets complicated. As we get older, we all develop important commitments outside the band, so it takes real dedication to devote time, energy and money to keep the band alive. Even scheduling rehearsals on a regular basis can be tricky! As a group of older musicians playing all original material in the punk vein (with all those sub-genres mixed in) it is also difficult to find opportunities to perform, compared to cover bands in our demographic. Plus, Chicago has so many great bands, there is tremendous competition for available gig slots! After over five years of fairly regular gigging, networking (fans, clubs, other musicians/bands) and leveraging our social media as best we can, we are finally getting to be recognized and respected by others in the music community. Because we tend towards Punk as our main handle, we find ourselves booking/getting booked with other Punk bands, most of them decades younger than us. Heads are scratched when we show up to a new venue with a bunch of younger bands wondering “Who are these old F***s?” The proof is in the music and the energy and we are all lifelong friends at the end of the night.
What I liked about the late 70’s, when we first got started, was all the great music that was happening at the time (of course, I think every generation thinks the same thing about THEIR music). Also, it was a HUGE adrenaline and psychic rush to form a band and play for your friends. (That is STILL the case!). But back then it was a new experience for all of us. We were green, naïve and had no clue on how to do anything other than play our songs, and, with no manager, had no idea to make more things happen. While we still do not have a manager per se (I handle just about all the administrative duties), we like to think we are a little older and wiser, with some life experiences to guide us on our musical path.
Q: Your sound has been described as a blend of garage, glam, punk, post-punk, power pop, ska and rock’n’roll. Do you agree or would you use another descriptor? Like you guys, those genres are super high-energy! How do you stay in that high-energy mode constantly?
A: We coined ourselves “Chicago’s Punk Pop Phenomena”, as we feel that captures the essence of our vibe, that includes all the sub-genres. How do we stay in high-energy mode? We do not over-rehearse and we do not play too many shows, so when it’s time to perform we are charged up. Generally, we play 30-40 minutes, so we proverbially light our hair on fire and go! That said, we do have different songs at various tempos, so it’s not all rama-rama 185bpm on every tune.
Q: You’ve listed some iconic influences, such as, Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Ramones, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, David Bowie, The Who, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Beatles and Bruce Springsteen. Have you guys ever had the chance to share stages with any of these guys?
A: All the bands listed are really huge or the main players are no longer around, so no, we have not shared stages with any of them.
Q: How is Chicago treating Dead Freddie these days? What is your favorite Chicago venue to perform live? Tell us a killer gig story!
A: Chicago has so many great live music venues, everything from corner bars to mega-stadiums. We tend towards the former-the smaller venues. Of the larger venues, we have played Reggie’s Rock Club twice. On the first occasion, in 2017, we opened for San Francisco Punks, The Dickies. The second time, in 2019, we opened for our beloved Power Pop idols, Off Broadway USA. I have followed the band since their earliest days in the late 70’s. They were, in fact, one of the inspirations for starting the original Dead Freddie Band in 1979. So, it was a thrill to play in front of them and in front of their audience and be so warmly received. Most of the members are very friendly and we spoke at length before and after the show. We are always looking to be part of any future line-ups with them.
Q: Let’s talk about the latest album, the self-titled, “Dead Freddie”. How has it done out in the world? How is it being received? Tell us some recording session stories with the new band! Any near-future recording plans?
A: Matt Mercado is owner/operator of Sonic Palace. He was the sound engineer and producer for the LP, released on vinyl (custom purple with white splatter) and CD. Matt Mercado opened the studio in 2002 after transitioning out of the band Daisy Chain and later Mind Bomb. Due to Matt’s packed schedule, the recording of the twelve tracks stretched from November 2017 until May 2018. While there were many long sessions to make sure everything sounded just right, one of the most memorable is when we had Max Crawford, of Poi Dog Pondering, guest on two tracks. He played three horn parts on each song, making it sound like we had a full horn section! Two songs, two hours-a real Pro! The 12” vinyl was pressed at Third Man Pressing (owned by Jack White of White Stripes) in Detroit with a limited 500-piece custom edition. Gintas and Donatas drove from Chicago to Detroit to pick it up in late October 2018, followed by our record release event in mid-November 2018. Many of the 200 CDs have sold and perhaps 100 of the LPs have been purchased.
While we probably have just about enough material for at least a new EP, we are currently on a forced hiatus due to the corona virus pandemic. We continue to write and rehearse at home until such time that it is safe to come together once again. At that point, we will decide whether to drop the occasional single, put out an EP or a new LP.
Q: Perhaps in some unspecified amount of time, your musical career explodes in the best of ways…what does that look like for you?
A: In the perfect Dead Freddie world, our networking would connect us with bigger bands (including national touring bands) at bigger venues to help spread the Dead Freddie “vibe”. Once every one or two months we would do a weekend run to out-of-town shows, starting in the Midwest: Milwaukee, Madison, Minneapolis, Detroit, Cleveland. Eventually, fly out to weekend shows at more distant locations (East Coast, West Coast) and open for major acts, followed by short tours (2 weeks). As things progressed further, head overseas for short tours (2 weeks) opening for major acts. Get signed by a major record label and record a few more albums. Play some national and international music festivals, starting with Riot Fest and Lollapalooza in Chicago.
Q: You get to collaborate with anyone of your choosing. Who is it?
A: Jim Peterik (Ides of March, Survivor)
Q: Your favorite album of all time?
A: “Dance Craze—The Best of British Ska…LIVE” (1980)
Q: Your favorite song of all time?
A: “Rebel, Rebel” by David Bowie
Q: What would you like fans to know about you that they’re most likely unaware of?
A: All the original members of Dead Freddie Band grew up in the Marquette Park neighborhood, on the southwest side of Chicago, around 71st St & California Ave.
Earliest musical influences in our pre-teen years were Lithuanian folk music. We all attended Donelaitis Lithuanian School (A.K.A. McKay Elementary School Mon-Fri) on Saturdays and/or Nativity BVM Elementary School (69th & Washtenaw Ave.), where language, history, literature, geography, folk dancing and folk/patriotic songs were all part of the curriculum. We begrudged our “American” friends who could watch Saturday morning cartoons, while we were attending school a sixth day every week. As first-generation offspring of parents that had emigrated from Lithuania after the Second World War, the mission statement of the émigrés was to maintain the culture and prepare for the return to the homeland when the world reversed Soviet aggression of occupied states. While we occasionally had art & music at elementary (“American”) school, with classics such as “She’ll be Comin’ ‘Round the Mountain”, and, “There’s a Hole in the Bucket”, we learned countless Lithuanian tunes, an easy way (in retrospect) to learn words, form phrases as well as carry a tune.
Vainis and Donatas were selected to part of a small (12-member) choir composed of Lithuanian Cub Scouts in 1966. They were on the album “Tra-Lia-Lia”, released in 1968, by the Lithuanian Scouts Association, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Scout Movement in Lithuania and internationally. The tracks on the album are a mix of Lithuanian folk songs and more modern scout-themed songs (about camping, etc.).
I am the only original member of Dead Freddie Band that remains in Dead Freddie. I have the encouragement and permission of my lifelong friend and band mate Vainis Aleksa to perform and record the original Dead Freddie tracks.
Fast-forwarding to 2020, the two main contributors to Dead Freddie music are Donatas Ramanauskas and Gintas Buinevicius. They remain from the line-up first formed in 2015. In those periods when players go missing for whatever reason, Gintas and Donatas carry on as the Dead Freddie Acoustic Duo, adapting Dead Freddie tunes from the Punk Pop arrangements to stripped-down versions with greater emphasis on guitar and accordion. The duo also gives Gintas a chance to handle some of the lead vocals while Donatas lays back and gets to noodle on the accordion keys.
Q: Any shout-outs you wanna make?
A: Thank you to my significant other, Rasa, for being so patient and supportive. Thanks to daughter Regina who helped bring Dead Freddie back to life in 2011. Thanks to Gintas Buinevicius for being the second longest tenured band member and for his continuing input of new music and graphic designs. Thanks to Vainis Aleksa for getting this journey started so long ago. There are so many more, but I will stop there.
Q: Anything else you’d like to add?
A: Why do I still do it? I always felt something was missing and left undone with the original line-up. In the “Rocky” movie “Rocky Balboa”, Rocky’s brother-in-law asks Rocky, why, at this late date, does he still want to get in a ring with a much younger fighter, the current champion. Rocky’s response was that he still has “something in the basement”, gesturing towards his stomach, meaning that he still feels something about fighting. When things began to come together in 2011 for the second coming of Dead Freddie, I too felt like I still had “something in the basement”. And to quote the Poi Dog Pondering song, “Gonna get it right this time”, I began looking for closure: to record the “legacy” material of Dead Freddie; to spread the Dead Freddie “vibe” in the greater musical community of Chicago (and possibly beyond). It’s been a long road, but we are still on the bus driving down that road. Most importantly, I think we still all get a charge when the music works, whether in a basement or on stage, and it connects with those around us, whether it’s just our band mates or a huge audience. It’s still fun.
When will I stop? I will be ready to let go when we play a small-ish club, packed with die-hard supporters, that know all the words to all the songs and sing along on every one. That’s when I’ll know that I’ve touched someone with our music and that’s what it’s really all about.