Feature: Wednesday, October 29, 2003
‘all the stuff we weren’t supposed \r\nto do back then, we’re still doing now.’
Flickerstick Flames On

Past the stumbling block of fame, they’re still carrying the torch.

By Anthony Mariani

Flashback to a couple of years ago: VH-1’s Bands on the Run, one of the most-watched reality tv shows in the country, is revolving around the antics of a rock outfit called Flickerstick, which had been plucked from little ol’ Cowtown by industry suits and settled in front of fields of cameras for your viewing pleasure. The musicians’ proclivity for getting properly shit-hammered and causing mini-catastrophes resonates with a lot of viewers. “This,” your average remote-control joe thinks, “is what rock ’n’ roll is supposed to be about.” That Flickerstick also manages to deliver righteous modern rock only adds to the band’s appeal: They’re cocky because they’re good, and they’re good because they’re cocky. Radio program directors across the country are jonesing for Flickerstick product to spin. Major record labels are lining up for a juicy slab of that Flickerstick pie.

Cut to the summer of 2003: Flickerstick is performing before its hometown crowd on a Sunday at the Ridglea Theater as part of the Fort Worth Weekly Music Awards. (The band won every award it was nominated for. The guys needed a wheelbarrow to cart off their trophies.) There are no VH-1 cameras in the venue. No major-label honchos waiting in the wings with contracts in hand. No Rolling Stone writers looking for exclusives. No limos outside waiting to sweep the band away to some exotic destination. Just Flickerstick, their music, and a decent crowd for a school night.

About 700 people.

These fans aren’t here just because Flickerstick is homegrown. (The band regularly sells out similarly sized venues nationwide.) These fans (kids, mostly — tweens, teens, and young adults) are here tonight because they’ve never fallen out of love with the group or its music. Flickerstick, like its cultish followers, has kept trudging along, even after that fancy boat loaded with all the rewards of mass success has sailed and the rest of the world has gone on to the next Next Big Thing. Some bands might have thrown their hands up in despair after almost reaching the peak of the mountain only to slide back down to sea level with a thud. Some bands. Not this one.

“They’re a special band,” said Peter Robinson, former senior vice-president of Artists and Repertoire at Epic Records who now runs Benevolent Management and who once worked closely with Flickerstick. “To do what they do and do it really well, especially in the face of adversity, and just keep on keepin’ on, writing and recording — I’ve seen other bands crumble under some circumstances. But these guys just keep doing it. I love it.”

And unlike most other rock outfits in the world, Flickerstick will probably always be on the comeback trail, simply because of the VH-1 program, which frontman Brandin Lea calls the band’s “biggest blessing and biggest curse.” The show, according to Lea, was supposed to be about the inner mechanisms of hard-working young rockers on the verge. (Which is why nearly every North Texas band auditioned for the gig. The program sounded “legit.”) What it ended up being was a game show, with four “contestants,” including Flickerstick, pitted against one another throughout various Survivor-esque missions. To some observers, especially serious music lovers and culture snobs, Flickerstick didn’t even have to show their faces on screen to lose credibility; they were, by association, already just another desperate bunch of self-aggrandizing rock star wannabes bending over and grabbing their ankles for exposure. (And if there’s one thing that can piss off a serious music lover, like the type of guy or gal whom a seriously artistic band like Flickerstick would want to reach, it’s an artist who “sells out.”) The fellas from Flickerstick salvaged whatever little good rep they had left by simply being themselves — or, at least, by self-consciously heightening their already rock ’n’ roll-ish/rebellious personality traits for the camera — and hoping that talk of their misbehavior would help them transcend the inanity of the circumstances. On the show, the boys were sometimes ornery, sometimes happy-go-lucky. Sometimes self-involved, sometimes charitable. Sometimes smart, sometimes stupid. Almost always snockered. You could say they made the best out of a bad situation (without taking legal action). That, and they rocked hard every time they jammed: The quality of the music, especially compared to that of the three other contestants, could not be denied. Ask anyone who watched the show: The band’s “victory” was well-deserved. That Flickerstick, on the heels of the program, landed a major record label deal — which, contrary to popular belief, was not part of the prize package — certainly validates their talent.

For the band in 2003, every day is another day further from the show and another day to capitalize on the distance. A lot of people have already “forgiven” Flickerstick for the past, but, truthfully, many others haven’t. So, are the mainstream music masses who know about photogenic Flick’s history ready to give the band another chance? The answer may come when Flickerstick releases its first full-length c.d. in three years. (The disc’s actual release date, Lea said, depends on whether or not any major labels show interest.) The hope is that the people who know of Flick only as that “band on the run” will forget everything that’s happened to the group thus far once the jukebox starts spinning the new full-length (which, as of this writing, is still without a title) as well as To Madagascar and Back, a six-song e.p./DVD that the band released a couple of months ago and that’s only available at shows and from the web site, www.flickerstick.com. “We don’t want to not keep going as Flickerstick,” Lea said. “We have to continue to tour and make good records. If the new record’s not on the radio, I don’t think it’s a bust. ... We’re already more successful now than we’ve already been. If we stopped now, I’d be completely happy.”

Second chances in the entertainment industry are not only tough to come by but tough to take advantage of. The trick is to continue working your ass off so that if one of those very important persons steps down from 20,000 feet to lend you an ear, you’re ready. Ike Turner wasn’t ready. Elvis was.

Flickerstick is ready — they’ve actually always been. An old saying posits that an empire that’s not expanding is dying. Same with rock bands: If you and your brothers in rock aren’t trying to conquer more minds, primarily by making better music, then you’re all headed for a career in Cubicleville alongside the rest of us worker bees. In summary: Flickerstick is doing damn fine now. It’s just that remaining Flickerstick is going to require as much energy (if not more) as was spent on becoming Flickerstick. Reaching that proverbial “next level” now is just a matter of old-fashioned elbow grease and luck. Fort Worthians who care have their fingers crossed. Being home to a major rock act would just be such a nice feather in this town’s cap. And then there’s all that stuff about a high tide raising all the boats etc.

One thing’s for certain: Flickerstick ain’t no victim act. They do not want you to feel their pain. Nor are they martyrs. They didn’t take one for the team or anything. Flickerstick is just a quartet of talented, hard-working musicians whose name, unfortunately, precedes their music. A smart businessman would say, “Everyone knows the name, eh? Well, the battle’s half won!” A pragmatist, on the contrary, would consider all the angles and say, “Well, it depends on how these people heard the name and what they associate with it.” In Flickerstick’s case, the name came straight from the boob tube, where sadistic VH-1 producers were making workaday musicians demean themselves for pats on the head. Someday “Flickerstick” and Bands on the Run might be two phrases you never see in the same sentence. Someday, just not now.

“We were aware of how much lack of integrity the show had,” Lea said. “At the same time, it’s such a hard time being in music these days. We figured, if the show’s gonna help, then whatever. If not, we’ll take the shot in the leg and hopefully prevail.”

So let’s say that Flickerstick signs with a major label sometime in the next few months. Would anybody really be surprised? Anyone who’s ever bobbed his head along to an uptempo, bone-rattling beat or whistled along to a handsome melody could easily get sucked into Flickerstick’s art. “I think [Flickerstick] is indicative of the DFW scene,” said Todd Pipes, of Deep Blue Something and Bass Propulsion Laboratories, a studio he runs with his brother and bandmate Toby Pipes. “Most scenes have a particular sound, but the DFW scene has no particular sound. Flickerstick is so good, yet they don’t sound like anyone else.” Most of Flickerstick’s lyrical content concerns rising above or sinking below to get a better handle on Life, and the way in which Lea inhabits the lyrics and sings ’em like he means ’em is one of the great miracles of North Texas rock. In most of Flickerstick’s best songs, Lea and co-writer/guitarist Cory Kreig go beyond merely shining light on dark paths for wayward souls (or estranged girlfriends). The duo manages to ponder mystical, universal themes in a plainspoken language that’s built primarily on lightheartedness and the simplest of rhyme schemes. Call me corny, but Flickerstick’s is the kind of deep, dripping-with-emotion, human music that can really touch people, especially those of us trapped in the evil pinball machine that’s this crazy age.

The band is definitely a collaborative effort, and Kreig is a large reason why Flickerstick sounds the way it does, but the whole shebang begins and ends with its spokesperson and spiritual leader Lea.

Lea was born in Dallas but spent his first two and a half years being toted around the country by his parents, who were both Broadway-experienced dancers. By his third birthday, the family had spread roof in Fort Worth, in the TCU vicinity of The Hop (now the Aardvark), the site where Lea’s father had proposed. Before long, Lea’s parents had opened a dance studio, and nearly every cent the studio earned, according to Lea, was spent on sending Lea and his younger brother Fletcher to Trinity Valley, a private elementary school with a reputation for pumping out fine upstanding citizens. Said Lea: “We hated it.” The two were always in trouble.

One of the problems was that the little Leas’ neighborhood friends were all in public school. So when the time came for high school, the brothers’ wish to be removed from Trinity Valley and placed in a public institution among their pals was granted. The school of their dreams: Southwest. “It was gang-ridden and horrible,” Lea said. “But I loved it.”

All the while, the Lea boys were polishing up their Broadway chops — Brandin Lea is down in the Fort Worth history books as the first dancer to win the local “Stairway to the Stars” talent competition, and he was a theatrical madman at Southwest, choreographing and starring in all the year-end musicals. The brothers knew they were going to be entertainers; they just weren’t sure exactly what type.

Rock wasn’t a hobby option until Lea heard Duran Duran and Pink Floyd. An uncle, a Vietnam vet, schooled Lea on the finer points of appreciating psychedelic rock. (He couldn’t help the youngster with the Duran Duran.) “While all my friends were listing to Wham!,” Lea said, “I was listening to Dark Side of the Moon. My friends made fun of it. They said I was listening to ‘their dads’ music.’” Soon, Lea and Fletcher were deciphering instruments like drums and electric guitars. The living room of the Lea residence became ground zero for endless Brandin-’n’-Fletcher iterations of Cream songs.

Lea, still unsure of his direction, took up TCJC (now Tarrant County College) on its offer of a theater scholarship. During his freshman year, he formed Oxsyde Daisy, with his brother on bass, good friend Jeff Lowe on drums, and a charismatic guy named Jason Lindley out front. They were moderately successful, opening for some pretty heavy-hitting local outfits of the day at The Hop and the Impala. The “success” proved intoxicating. Lea said this was when he knew he “wanted to be a singer-songwriter.”

He transferred from TCJC to the University of North Texas to study film alongside Kreig, whom Lea had known since elementary school. (Side note: Kreig played in Oxsyde Daisy for a few minutes.) With Fletcher in tow, the amigos duly immersed themselves in the happening Denton rock scene. They saw every kick-ass band twice if not 19 times: The Toadies, Funland, Tripping Daisy, Doosu, Baboon. And Lea, for one, immersed himself in other stuff too: “UNT was an easy school. I spent a lot of time experimenting with psychedelic drugs.”

Film and theater classes were looking like a one-way ticket to the rat race. Music was what really pumped Lea up.

Oxsyde Daisy eventually folded in the mid-1990s. A few months later, a rough draft of Flickerstick formed. Getting a gig in Denton was pretty much impossible, so the guys made Fort Worth their living room. Their first professional show as Flickerstick was at the Dogstar (now The Moon, on West Berry Street). The place was packed. “A lot of our friends were there,” Lea said, “and, ya know, there were a lot of pretty girls.”

The goal was to build a huge following in Fort Worth, then branch out into other parts of the region. A year and a half passed before Flickerstick was Big Time enough to land a Deep Ellum gig. (With no Curtain Club and no Gypsy Tea Room, that scene wasn’t what it is now, but it was still a major, major market.) Then one day the boys looked up, and their living room had expanded to encompass both Dallas and Denton. All Flickerstick did, apparently, was play, play, play. And they played so often they didn’t have time to record a decent demo. All they had was a cassette tape — yes, an actual cassette tape — of three songs. The band’s ability to pack houses merely by word of mouth baffled friends, fans, and enemies. “People say we only draw now ’cause of the tv show,” said Lea. “We were packing 400 people in the Aardvark before the tv show.” Lea left college his senior year to pursue Flickerstick full-time. Advice from his father helped Lea make the decision: “He told me to follow this.” (Among Flickerstick’s inner circle, Lea’s father is now often referred to as “The Godfather,” and Lea himself is called “The Pope.” Being Italian and Catholic will attract obvious jokes like that.)

The band’s line-up was solidified by the late-1990s — Lea, Fletcher, Kreig, drummer Dominic Weir, and guitarist Rex Ewing. Around this time they started touring regionally. (Not feeling sympathetic toward these guys yet? Well, their mode of transportation was a piece-of-shit van called “The Butter Bus,” a fitting name considering there wasn’t any AC on board. “We’d just lay there in our boxers,” Lea said, “and the sweat would lather up on you like butter.”)

Some towns were cool. A lot weren’t. Folks in those deeply rednecked parts of Texas weren’t buying Flickerstick’s psych-rock-on-the-radio-friendly-tip music. That 8-minute, Syd Barrett-influenced sonic hallucination the band typically opened with in hostile waters probably didn’t help, either.

In 1999, a Dallas-based manager saw Flickerstick perform and must have liked what he had seen. The band was the first signee to Paul Bassman Management, a company that has since taken on such renowned talents as Drowning Pool and Radiant. The Pipes had also seen something in Flickerstick. The brothers first asked the band to open for Deep Blue, then asked them to think about recording at the newly built studio BPL. Flickerstick said yes and yes. “I had heard [the guys in Flickerstick] were unhappy with their demos,” Todd Pipes said. “I told them to come down, ‘We’ll do a song or two.’ ... We had a good time, and they said, ‘Let’s do a record.’” Three weeks and less than $12,000 later, Welcoming Home the Astronauts was finished. It was released in 2000 on 226 Records, a label begun by Bassman and the band but largely run by Bassman.

Lea said he never thought Astronauts would see the light of radio. Then Flickerstick got “the call,” which was actually an e-mail to Bassman from Viacom. The message said that the Viacom offices were abuzz with talk of a new tv show and could you please send us a press packet? The next call was Viacom asking for a videotape of the band responding to a few prepared questions. The next call, the one Lea said “we didn’t think we’d get,” was Viacom congratulating Flickerstick on making the “Top 100” on the list of potential subjects.

The next step was auditions, which were happening across the country in the hotspots of different regions. The southwest’s was in Austin. Each band was told to prepare two originals and a cover of a song that wasn’t representative of the band’s style (like Flickerstick covering, say, 50 Cent). Flick chose “Don’t Speak” by No Doubt. Rebels forever, they played “Rape Me” by Nirvana. Seems that the days leading up to the audition for which Flickerstick was supposed to be rehearsing were spent partying. “Rape Me” was all Lea could think of on the spot. “They loved that,” Lea said. “Already, we were breaking the rules.”

After the audition, each Flickerstick member was taken into a room and asked questions, like “Do you get along with the other guys in the band?” and “Do you drink a lot?” “I’m sure Cory and Dom talked shit on each other,” Lea said. “And the Viacom people were probably thinking, ‘That’s great tv!’”

So Flick returned to North Texas, not too worried about getting a call back. (“We’re so pessimistic,” Lea said.) Then came the message that Flickerstick had made the “Top 10” and that there was a finalists’ audition taking place in Santa Monica: 10 bands, 30-minute sets each, no crowd except for Viacom suits and hangers-on, and the requirement that each band watch the other bands’ sets. It was here that Lea had a flashback to an important ASCAP showcase that he and his band played at CBGB’s in New York City a couple of years earlier. The band members had grown accustomed to getting up on stage smashed, but for some reason, for the CBGB’s show, they decided to stay sober. They bombed. Now in Santa Monica, the men of Flickerstick weren’t going to let a little sobriety ruin another golden opportunity. So instead of hanging around and watching and supporting the other bands, the Flickerstick guys (batting eighth) vacated the premises and hit the nearest bar. They returned hours later in fine form, and their set was appropriately riotous.

Viacom asses thoroughly kicked, the band returned to the Metroplex to play a few more dates ... and wait.

The call came: Flickerstick was one of four bands chosen to film a pilot for a series about unsigned bands at work. “That sounds good to us,” Lea recalled saying. “It’s what we’re doing anyway.”

Kreig said, “It looked like a great idea. All these bands, like a documentary. It was all good except Survivor was the No. 1 show in the country” — the point being that any tv station that wasn’t playing Survivor or something like it was losing the ratings war.

The boys knew there was prize money involved but were fuzzy on precisely how that money was to be “won.” They had no idea that they’d be forced to hawk their own merchandise to strangers in strange towns for “points,” with the idea that the band with the lowest points would get kicked off, or that they’d actually have to go instrument to instrument against the musicians in the other bands to prove who was the better guitarist or drummer. These details were revealed to the band slowly, according to Lea, and long after Flickerstick had already signed on. Once filming began, Lea said that he and his bandmates “tried to save as much integrity as possible by sticking to the music,” he said. “If we can’t stay on, because we can’t sell enough merch, then we get kicked off. That’s fine.” True to their word, Flickerstick failed all of its “missions.” The reason the band never got the boot was the music. The rules said that if you came in last place in your mission, you could still stay on the show by winning one of three battles of the bands. While Flickerstick might not have sold as many t-shirts as their fiercest competition Soulcracker, North Texas’ own won every battle of the bands. Then they won the whole damn thing.

After 54 days of living among cameras and cameramen in unfamiliar terra firma across the nation, the Flickerstick guys returned home “in shambles.” They were sick and tired and sick ’n’ tired. Worse for their egos, they couldn’t even tell anyone they had won; the show wasn’t scheduled to air for another three months, and its secret had to remain under wraps, for drama’s sake.

After a few weeks’ rest, it was right back to what Flickerstick did best — tour. The difference now was that instead of being Flickerstick from East Kabumfuck, Texas, they were Flickerstick. “It was mayhem everywhere we went,” Lea said. “Good and bad.”

Their first year of touring was, according to Lea, “like a rocket ship blasting off.” Here was a tv band with talent. Or was it just a tv band? (Now the $64,000 question: If tv was solely responsible for Flickerstick’s success, then why didn’t the idiot box do anything for Soulcracker or the other two groups from the show, whatever the hell their names were? Answer: ’Cause the other bands a) sucked, b) were nerdy, and c) sucked.)

Eventually, the fans who knew of Flick from Bands on the Run were largely replaced at shows by fans who knew of the band from “Beautiful,” Flick’s first and only Top-40 hit. Lea said he could recognize the difference in fans by listening closely to what was said to him after performances: Instead of hearing, “Hey, man! I saw you guys on tv!” Lea said he heard, “Hey, man! I heard your song on the radio!” The transition took about a year.

By that time, Flickerstick had signed with major label Epic Records, which had put “Beautiful” on the radio and re-mixed and re-released Welcoming Home the Astronauts. There was a lot of buzz on Flick at around the time that a huge show in New York City at Irving Plaza came up on the tour itinerary. The date of the gig: Sept. 11, 2001.

The night before, Lea had holed up in his hotel room, battling strep throat, while the rest of the boys were out partying with Jane magazine writers. Everyone woke up the next day to the image of two commercial airliners burning caverns into the Twin Towers. The show was cancelled and never rescheduled. A few months later, after the resulting economic downturn infected every facet of American life, Flick and Epic parted ways. It wasn’t that Epic was necessarily unhappy with Flickerstick; it was that Flickerstick was unhappy with being treated like a step-child, being made promises that were never fulfilled. “Coke,” slated to be the band’s second single, was never released. (The good news for Flick was that the song was already getting some airplay in certain markets.)

The only thing to do, in Flickerstick’s opinion, was keep touring. “Touring was a money machine,” Lea said, “especially for a band of our stature.

“We should have stopped and recorded an album,” he continued. “But the money was just too good.”

This is why it’s taken Flickerstick three years to make a record. The tour that started at the tail end of Bands on the Run in 2000 simply became an endless road. And if it weren’t for the fact that Lea and company were desperate for the scenery to quit changing, they’d probably still be a-ramblin’ on.

So last spring, after playing seemingly billions of towns here and in the U.K. and recording and releasing a live album, Causing a Catastrophe — Live, the band members decided they’d had enough. It was time to park it and let Lea and Kreig start writing new material. Within a few months, tunes for both To Madagascar and Back and the new LP were ready. Madagascar was produced locally, at Last Beat Records. For the new, untitled c.d., the band shopped around for producers for a while before finally settling on Keith Cleversley (Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev, Spiritualized). And Lea doesn’t mean this as an indictment of Last Beat’s facilities and professionals as much as a compliment to Cleversley: The producer’s handiwork, in Lea’s opinion, makes the magnificent Madagascar “sound like a demo.” Bolstering this point, Cleversley himself ranks the record among the top five he’s ever produced — and Flickerstick among the tippy top of bands he’s ever worked with (“I adore those guys,” he said).

In the end, the band hasn’t really lost much steam from being blasted over the years by such thoughtful, always well-written publications as Entertainment Weekly (“[Flickerstick’s] reliance on slight lyricism and meandering is painfully evident”), Rolling Stone (“The band doesn’t exactly have a lot of new ideas about what a rock song should sound like”), and that paragon of cultural criticism, E! Online (“Nothing here is gonna rock your world”). And Flick’s brand of trippy and loosely structured yet familiar and inviting modern rock still works. “Being through what we’ve been through,” Lea said, “we’ve learned a lot in five years.

“The thing we realized most,” he continued, “is that it’s hard to believe only what others tell you. You need to take control of your own career. You can’t rely on what people, the media, the labels say. That’ll derail you.”

A lot of bands tailor their sound to suit the flavor of the month. Not Flickerstick: “We’ve learned more about the business side,” Lea said. “We have the same outlook that we’ll make the music we like, not what people who surround us tell us is ‘better’ or ‘not better.’”

Also out of the question is backstage behavior modification. Only Kreig, a newlywed and new homeowner, has matured. “I was always geared toward the domestic life anyway,” Kreig said. “I still have more fun than the average person. I just have a wife and a house.” And Fletcher, according to Lea, is also a little more responsible than he’s been in the past — a baby boy will do that to you. But Lea and the other guys?!? “All the stuff we weren’t supposed to do back then,” Lea said, with a smile, “we’re still doing now.”

Now. Now’s a pretty high time for Flickerstick. With a great e.p./DVD in circulation, a new full-length on the way, and a lot of interest from industry bigwigs in the air, the band has a lot to look forward to. The nightmare for Lea is that if the status quo is maintained, the resulting dour mood might suck the life out of them. Yes, Brandin Lea dreads the day when a bandmate skips out on rehearsals or a night of schmoozing to go shopping for bed covers at Target. More than that, he fears getting on stage and waiting for a communal vibe from his bandmates that never comes.

“I hope that fire we had three years ago is still here,” Lea said. “It’s hard to tell because we’ve been off the road.

“It’s money,” he continued. “The more reward you have, the more motivated you are to do more. Bands can only stay broke, sleeping in vans, for so long, no matter how much you love it.

“I don’t mind if guys [in the band] get mature. I just hope that it doesn’t lead to where I can’t lead this lifestyle and be in a band and tour anymore.

“The odds are definitely against us,” he continued. “Chances are we won’t be bigger than before, ’cause we’ve already been down that road, and it’s hard for the industry to let you come back and try again, even if you’re at the top of your game.” Like Flickerstick.

A likely explanation for the one-shot theory: The cultural memory is short, and record labels just don’t have the money to invest long-term in artists. Then again, why should they? Why should companies that are in the business of making money spend dough trying to build relationships between artists and people like our friends and neighbors who can’t remember what they had for breakfast, let alone concentrate on something other than a football game for longer than two minutes? These blokes don’t know their Flickerstick from their Fastball from their next hot young band on the rise. Second chances, remember? They’re hard to come by, even harder to take advantage of.

“This record is what we wanted to do,” Kreig said. “We never got that chance to realize that musical dream. If nothing happens, we’ll always be able to have it and listen to it and know we accomplished, artistically, what we wanted.”

Flickerstick is definitely at a crossroads, though probably not like the one in that Ralph Macchio movie; more like the Camp Bowie/University/West Seventh intersection — ya know, happy little trees, a really cool-looking modern art museum, a few bars (of course), and some overpriced apartments all around. None of the roads, according to Lea, leads to the band’s break-up. Each path offers a trip to some variation on “success” — a highly ambiguous concept to be sure, but one that Lea thinks he has a firm grip on. “As much as I’d love to see us continue our success or make it greater, I think we’ve already accomplished a lot,” Lea said. “I think a lot of bands who put out a big LP never get to tour the U.S. four times. Everything after this is bonus points for us.”

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