Flasher interview: "What we were trying to do on the record is start from the most accessible place, only to mutilate or contort it."
This summer Washington DC trio Flasher released their debut album Constant Image via Domino Records. They were capping off a great year by heading out on their first ever tour of Europe, which included a stop supporting Parquet Courts at their show at London’s Roundhouse, where I got to sit down with the threesome: guitarist/singer Taylor Mulitz, bassist Daniel Saperstein and drummer Emma Baker.
In our conversation we discuss the tour, recording the album with Nicolas Vernhes, some of the lyrical inspirations on Constant Image and what’s keeping them entertained in their down time. What impressed me was their commitment to being hands-on with their music and tours, despite new access to facilities and opportunities offered by being on Domino. In conversation they also acted like three heads of the same beast, even when having slight discrepancies in memory, which proved why their noted method of writing lyrics collaboratively has paid off so well in their music.
This tripod-like structure and strength was slammed home later that evening in their performance; on stage they smoothly jammed through all the stellar cuts from Constant Image, directing their energy just as much to each other as to the audience who had made it in time to see them. It was a hugely confident performance from a band who’s not used to playing in those size rooms – and a definite indication that they could reach those levels.
Flasher are not likely to get ahead of themselves or grow big heads though. They’re comfortably realistic about life, and are happy to take things as they come without too much expectation, which makes for refreshing reading in the conversation below.
How does it feel to be doing your first UK tour?
Taylor: Good! It's exciting!
Have you been talking to the people who come out to the shows?
Daniel: Yeah, that's the best part. There haven't been that many, but the people who come are pretty enthusiastic and personable. Mostly the other bands that we've been playing with, we're so lucky to play with.
Do you always go out and watch who's playing before you?
Taylor: Yeah, I spent hours emailing people to try and get the groups that we wanted.
Oh, so it's pretty DIY?
Daniel: This tour we were recommended a bunch of people, but then Taylor worked their ass off to make sure we chose bands that we actually wanted to play with - and that has actually been the best part, it actually feels like our peers, people we want to play with on stage.
That's important to you then, to ensure a good bill?
Taylor: Absolutely. We've made the mistake on a couple of tours in the States, only because we didn't have that much time, we're so busy doing other shit, to spend the time to get the good local acts to play with us. It makes a huge difference; it makes the show much more fun.
And the fans that you've been speaking to, what do they say?
Daniel: How cool we are; how much they like us [laughs].
Taylor: No off-colour comments, which is good. There was one kid who was like 18 that came to see us in Glasgow who said that he had seen us on Tiny Desk, which is the first time anyone has ever said that, it was like "wow, cool!" So one press item paid off. He was really nice.
Let's go back and talk about the record, which came out in the summer. How did Domino come into the picture? It seems like quite a big leap from Sister Polygon.
Emma: That is a good question, we're still trying to figure that out.
Taylor: I think you can trace it back to SXSW 2017, the A&R person saw us there - which is funny, because South By doesn't seem like the kind of place to make connections anymore; it's more like you play the Twix Stage and hope they make money. So we got lucky.
Were you excited to sign to Domino?
Emma: Yeah, definitely.
Daniel: It's been a really collaborative effort, and has allowed us to do a lot of stuff we wouldn't have been able to do otherwise. Which, for us, was the most important part of why we wanted to work with them in the first place. We just wanted some new experiences, and we want to keep doing them, and it's definitely made that possible. They've been really great and supportive.
Was it also your desire for new experiences that led you to working with producer Nicolas Vernhes?
Taylor: Yeah. We've always recorded ourselves in the past, and [Domino] kind of politely suggested that maybe we consider working with a producer. They didn't push it on us, but they were like "here's some names, listen to their stuff, see if you're interested." We had also had some friends who had recently worked with him, our buddies in Ought had recorded there, this band B Boys from New York had also just recorded at the studio with his assistant Gabe Wax, who has also recorded Palehound....
Emma: Soccer Mommy, that last record...
Taylor: So he [Gabe] was there for the first week assisting Nicolas, which was really cool, he's younger than us.
Emma: He's a virtuoso.
That's the terrible thing about getting older is everyone is suddenly younger than you.
Taylor: I know!
Emma: At some point it's gonna stop being surprising.
I'm 30 and it's still surprising, especially watching sports, like "how is that super tall super jacked guy 18???" Anyway, what did these guys bring to your sound in the studio?
Daniel: He had a real Juno...
Taylor: [laughs] A lot of cool stuff.
Emma: A cool sounding room... Everything was drastically different.
Did it come out sounding different to what you expected?
Taylor: Yeah. But to be fair I didn't have a clear cut idea in my mind of what it was going to sound like. So many of the songs were not completely finished being written, so it was hard for me to have a fully-formed idea of what the product would be.
Daniel: One of the reasons we decided to work with him in the first place was out of the list of possible engineers his body of work was the most diverse. We really wanted the production and engineering to be as thoroughly original as the songs themselves. That was really important to us.
So you've said they were incomplete before the studio; what state were they in?
Emma: There were like a handful of demos, like 5 songs or something.
Taylor: There's definitely a few that stayed true to the demos.
Emma: But then the rest of it was like nothing [before the studio], just a guitar part and some lyrics.
Daniel: I think we just changed a lot of stuff. We had the songs.
Emma: None of them were finished.
Taylor: But there were 5 that stayed true to the demos, and the others changed pretty drastically.
Did you enjoy working with that pressure? Would you do that again or would you rather go in prepared?
Emma: Definitely prepared.
Taylor: The thing is we're all unfortunately procrastinators, but we really don't want to be [laughs].
Emma: Yeah, we're pretty scarred by that experience, we wouldn't wanna do that again.
Taylor: We've definitely been working on stuff as we've gone on anyway, so it would be totally different even now. Part of [our unpreparedness] was because we were all in other bands, I was travelling with this other band, so there was only a month to write the record, whereas now we've been doing this for this solid year, so there isn't that stress of finding the time.
A lot of people have remarked about the unique way you write lyrics, doing it as altogether as a trio, is that something you'll continue to do?
Emma: Probably, yeah.
Taylor: We like writing stuff together, but we're also very opinionated, so having that type of collaboration feels kind of necessary.
Daniel: Checks and balances.
Taylor: Definitely if someone brought a fully written song and we thought the lyrics totally suck, it might need some re-examining.
But you wouldn't be afraid to tell that to each other?
Emma: We would [tell each other], but we wouldn’t want to [laughs]. Also, none of the lyrics suck.
Taylor: Also, for better or worse, when writing music, generally speaking it starts with the instrumentation, so the lyrics always come after. I don't think that that's a bad thing, but I would like to try and have lyrics totally written and bring them to the table and fit them to the music. But sometimes the mood isn't right and you try to stick something on top of it and it doesn't work.
Are any of you scribbling down ideas for lyrics that could be used later?
Daniel: We do it as we go.
Taylor: I have notebooks full of stuff and then I kind of piece them together as it's necessary.
Constant Image is definitely a political album, but it doesn't really touch on any big buzzwords or headline stories - is that a thing that you purposefully avoid?
Daniel: Definitely. Our politics are not memes... I don't know, they're uniquely ours and they're the product of an actual living experience that we share and have come from.
You don't feel like you need to put a message out.
Taylor: I think there is a message, but it's not so overt, it's not sloganeering. There's definitely ideas in there, just maybe not as easy to slap on a tote bag.
That's funny, have you thought about merchandising?
Taylor: Oh yeah, we've got tote bags coming. There might be lyrics on there but people won't know what the fuck it means.
It's esoteric, that makes it cooler, I think. Anyway, let me ask you about a few specific lines. The first words on the album are about doing drugs at midnight, was that a case of being brave? Or stupid? Or being like "fuck it, it doesn't matter"?
Emma: The third one [laughs].
You didn't think about it being the first line, that it might put some people off?
Taylor: We did definitely think about it, like "is this silly?" But honestly it's a really earnest song.
Daniel: To be honest, the song isn't about doing drugs. But I think we decided that we were gonna not play it safe. What we were trying to do on the whole record is start from the most accessible place only to mutilate or contort what's accessible about it as you're relating to it. So we wanted something that was like starting the record off with a trap door down into the well of personal, visceral, bodily experiences - we don't want to hold anyone's hand. And then we can be like "here you go!" there's a trampoline down there back up to the weird and pretty stuff.
Very cool. Where's the trampoline then?
Emma: 'Pressure' is the second song...
Daniel: Definitely 'Pressure'. We planned it exactly like that. Although it's a kind of slide into it.
Taylor: But lyrically it's also kind of dark... maybe 'Sun Come and Golden' is the trampoline.
Daniel: That's definitely more anchored.
Making your vocals front and centre and pristine, was that part of the attempt for accessibility?
Daniel: I love cool effects, we all do, but our favourite records and a lot of the records that we were most influenced by going into this [keep the vocals clear] - whether it was the B-52s or Broadcast or Stereolab. We saw it as a challenge for ourselves to try and have them up front and pretty pristine, but also not double tracked, which is often a way to bolster something that doesn't cut it. We tried to use the tools of the imperfections of our voices, to make it something more relatable. I think it felt really vulnerable to do that, and in the end I think I can hear so much of the imperfection in a way that I'll relate to for longer.
Interesting. That's true there's a lot of double tracking voices these days...
Taylor: Honestly, Parquet Courts is a good example of a band that never double tracks their vocals, and it's so much of their sound, it's so close.
We have to mention the video for 'Material' - how long did that take?
Emma: Two days...
Taylor: But it took a lot of time in editing.
Emma: And the two days were really long too.
Whose idea was it?
Daniel: Nick Roney.
Taylor: The director. He submitted a treatment and we were like "whoa! This is crazy! I don't know how we're going to pull this off, but let's try..."
Daniel: He was very convincing. On the way to the airport we had a phone call with him, it was the first time we'd talked, and he was like "let me tell you how it's gonna work," and off the top of his head he walked us through every single shot in order. For something as complex as that, it was so impressive.
Taylor: The treatment he submitted was very thoughtful. Sometimes you get one and it's just like a word document with a few pictures pasted in in no particular order, but his was designed like a YouTube clip, it had all of that in there. He put so much work into it, we've really gotta give him the credit.
Daniel: Working with him was a lot of fun, even though it was 14 hour days.
I can't believe you did that in two days... so many costume changes.
Taylor: Emma had to be in makeup for two hours for something that didn't make the cut...
Emma: I had a drumstick in my eye, it just didn't make the video.
As far as merchandising goes, the lyric "laughter in this century is a misery afterglow" from 'Material' would make a good tote or t-shirt.
Was there any particular thing that inspired that line or just a series of thoughts?
Daniel: I think it's just about nostalgia being something that holds close experiences or objects of love that once nourished you, but maybe now are just an afterthought. Every time you try to get juiced by them or reproduce them, they often bite you in the ass.
Awesome. I think 'Material' and 'XYZ' back to back is a good couplet, they seem thematically linked in their weariness of modern overload.
Taylor: Yeah, I would say so. 'XYZ' is about being overwhelmed by globalism, imagery, products, the internet...
You guys aren't hugely into social media are you?
Emma: We recently were forced to join the internet. We have Instagram and Twitter and Facebook...
You don't seem that enthusiastic about it.
Emma: Every once in a while we try, and then most of the time we don't.
Daniel: It can be fun...
Emma: We basically just try to be clowns... We have a lot of content and we just sprinkle it out there every now and again.
Taylor: I don't know what it is with promoters in Europe, but they're really into being like "can you make a video of yourself announcing the show.”
Emma: We made a really good one for Spain that's on our Instagram if you want to watch it.
Taylor: The one for France was weird...
So you do actually put some effort in when it comes down to it.
Taylor: We have quite a lot of time in the van...
I'm curious about the line in 'Who's Got Time?', "pull a shadow from my name," what does that refer to?
Taylor: That is about association in your own mind or in the minds of others, and how a lot of that can be negative or tied up in trying to pull apart what has really happened and what is just a compounded set of experiences that has led you to a place where you no longer relate to a person or an idea that someone has.
Wow, that's a lot deeper than most break up songs... 'Punching Up' is another favourite of mine, but how do you punch up love?
Taylor: Punching up is like an expression for punching above your weight - not like punching up a film script - but a lot of the lyrics are direct experiences of Emma's when she was in high school.
The part about passing out at school, is that yours Emma?
Emma: That was me. There was a period of time, pre-drugs time in life, where me and my friends were really into choking each other out. Then you'd have this brief moment where you felt like you were tripping for one second, and then you'd wake up... it was one of the stupider things that I was into.
Are there any particular writers and books, or other art forms, that inspire you?
Taylor: I recently read Agua Viva by Clarice Lispector, that was amazing. I'm reading James Joyce’s Portrait Of The Artist as A Young Man - better late than never, bit I feel like here in the UK is a good place.
How's it going? I tried reading Ulysses and that was the worst.
Taylor: I think this is a better entry point. It's short but it's dense. It's a lot about Catholicism, growing up in Ireland in the late 19th century.
Do you still relate to it in the modern day?
Taylor: Yeah! What's interesting about it is that the style of writing changes; it's told in the third person, but as the character ages the writing style shifts as he matures. It's quite lyrical and heavy. You see so many books now that imitate that format, so it's cool to see the thing that did it in the first place, and it's done so well. Also, Clarice Lispector, in terms of writing lyrics, she's inspirational, her writing's very philosophical.
Emma and Daniel would you like to shout out anything? Doesn't have to be books, could be TV, movies, music...
Daniel: Fred Moten's book, Black and Blur, it's the first of a trilogy that he released in one year. It's great. On this tour I've been listening to Crack Cloud, they're really incredible. They released a video for 'Uncanny Valley!' in March, it's the best video of the year.
Emma: It's an incredible music video. It must have taken so much work.
More than 'Material'?
Emma: Maybe more!
Daniel: I'm really impressed with it. They're from Vancouver and they're a big collective. They're really cool, I wanna be friends with them. I really respect their music; I can't stop listening to them.
Taylor: We found out about them because we did this radio interview in Hamburg. And right before the interview we were just sitting there with our headsets on and that was the song they played right before. We were like "what was that?!"
Anything you want to mention Emma?
Emma: I feel like I just watch so much TV I can't even think of anything.
Taylor: Haunting of Hill House?
Emma: Oh yeah, the ending is stupid but it's still worth watching. The new Sabrina on Netflix, I just finished watching that...
But I heard Salem doesn't even talk in it, so what the fuck?
Emma: That's true. There's a lot of things in it that have nothing to do with Sabrina at all, and in general I don't see any relation. It's much scarier and weirder. But it's good, I really liked it.
And finally, let's bring it back to Washington DC, which bands should we be looking out for from there?
Taylor: Clear Channel. It's Mary Regalado who plays bass in Downtown Boys, Carson Cox from Merchandise, and then Amad who's in a million different bands. They're so good.
Emma: They're definitely gonna have to change their name before anyone gets to hear their music [laughs].
Flasher’s debut album Constant Image is out now on Domino.
This article was originally published on The 405 - 10th December 2018.