Under the radar
A year ago, Cory Kreig would have found it hard to believe that his band, Flickerstick, would be headlining at Trees, especially on a weekend night. The group seemed stuck in Fort Worth without a map, unable to find a way into Deep Ellum that didn't lead through three-bands-for-three-bucks gigs on Tuesday nights, playing in front of a handful of friends who were willing to make the trip. Now that Flickerstick is a big enough draw that it regularly commands top billing almost every weekend, Kreig wouldn't mind playing earlier for a change. The lean, dark-haired guitarist-keyboardist-vocalist will be relieved if he can demote his group's headlining status on October 9 at said venue to the middle slot. Let The Adventures of Jet go on last; the members of Flickerstick would rather have their rest.
"They [Trees] weren't really too keen on it at first," he admits. "It's gonna be a great lineup, but we just need a break. We don't want to be up playing until 2 a.m. for once."
Flickerstick ranks among the best-kept secrets in the Dallas-Fort Worth music scene, which means you haven't heard of them, but surely one of your better-informed, much hipper friends has; after all, the band packs regional watering holes and music halls around the metroplex with its blend of hard psych-pop and theatrical, eye-catching stage show. Still, with little to no radio play, no record deal -- hell, no record even -- it isn't difficult to understand why this little-hyped, high-energy combo hasn't yet registered a blip on the mainstream consciousness. The young four-piece (all the members are in their early to mid-20s) has built up a steadily growing loyal following the hardest, yet most reliable, way: by word of mouth.
They've been at it for years now, even if it seems as though Flickerstick only recently emerged onto the scene. Kreig and vocalist-guitarist Brandin Lea met while they were classmates at Southwest High School in Fort Worth. After graduating in 1995, the pair spent the better part of the next two years jamming together in various projects that, like a car with a dead battery, frustratingly refused to leave the garage. Before long, the two recruited Brandin's younger brother, Fletcher, on bass guitar, forming a primordial version of the band that would later evolve into Flickerstick.
With Fletcher and drummer Jeff Lowe in tow, the band plodded along around the Fort Worth scene for about a year or so, playing local rock hangouts, among them the now-defunct Impala and Dog Star Café. But steady gigs in Fort Worth weren't all the group was after. The members of Flickerstick knew that if they wanted to be successful, they had to branch out. The quartet, however, remained quarantined from the live-music mecca in Deep Ellum, separated by more than just the half-hour drive down I-30.
"We had heard horror stories from [Fort Worth] bands that had gone into Dallas and played Tuesday- and Wednesday-night gigs in Deep Ellum, didn't draw anybody, and then were never asked back," explains Brandin. "We didn't want to play those 'bullshit nights' in Dallas. We were scared because we knew we'd probably only have one chance to make that first impression."
As luck would have it, the neophyte combo caught the attention of fledgling rock promoter and drummer Dominic Weir, late of longtime Deep Ellum pop-meisters Stranger Than Fiction. Weir, Kreig says, was "blown away" by what the group was doing on stage, after watching an endless stream of bands that had all the stage presence of a microphone stand. Flickerstick was different, if only because Kreig and Lea were convinced that they wouldn't be another local group that trudged through its sets staring at their shoes. Weir offered to help the band get some gigs in Dallas, and within weeks, he found himself auditioning for a role behind the drum kit, a position that hadn't yet been vacated.
The band was caught between the pressure of realizing their collective rock-and-roll fantasy and sticking by an old friend -- which is like being handed a multiple-choice test on which the answers are a, a, and a, so the group decided to ditch drummer Jeff Lowe. Both Kreig and Lea consider Weir's induction to be the official genesis of Flickerstick. "May 23, 1998," remembers Kreig with uncanny precision. "That was technically the first Flickerstick show."
For the next six months, the band honed its live sound while moving up the bills at local rock venues in both Fort Worth and Dallas. Jettisoning their original mix of power punk and grunge-lite, the group found new influences within the local music scene, and at the same time, started to uncover newfound emotional depth in their songwriting brought about by the respect felt for such British bands as Radiohead and Spiritualized. Brandin Lea is not at all sheepish when running down the list of bands that Flickerstick takes its cues from.
"I know it's not considered cool to acknowledge being influenced by bands that are still around and kicking it, not to mention bands that are from your hometown, but I've always been into the sounds coming out of Denton and Dallas," confesses Lea. "I grew up on Tripping Daisy, Brutal Juice, and the Toadies, not to mention Centro-matic. They're awesome! I always buy local music first, and then maybe some English stuff."
Live, the debt to Tripping Daisy is most apparent in the extensive lighting and multimedia presentations the band integrates into its set. Pooling their financial resources, the members decided to create the most exciting, visually stimulating show they could muster. Mixing film projections with carefully orchestrated lighting direction, they squeeze the most they can from their mini-arsenal of stage effects and 16mm film loops, accenting the dynamics of their shifting brew of homegrown rock. The end results are as pragmatic as they are artistic.
"After spending so many years in Fort Worth, seeing bands come and seeing them go, we realized that in order for us to rise above the 'shitty band syndrome' we had to make a difference, especially since we weren't going to impress anyone with our musical ability," clarifies Kreig. "I'm not gonna bowl anybody over with some crazy guitar solo. I'm not a trained musician. None of us are. We had to do something different. From day one, it's always been about the shows. We've never had anyone backing us financially. The shows were all we've ever had. It's not the most original thing. But part of being creative means taking an already established idea and twisting it, running with it."
Lea believes the band has run a long way from where it started, to the point that it's "entertaining enough where I don't have to call people up to come to our shows anymore." But he and the rest of the band know that they still haven't gone all the way. They can remember the times when they would look into the audience and recognize every face in the room. It proved that they had good friends, but it didn't let them know whether they had what it took to make it on their own. Even now, when they claim that most of their shows are played to clubs filled with strangers, they can't help but worry. "We still spend the day before a gig freaking out," Kreig says, laughing. "'What if nobody comes to the show?'"
That doesn't seem to be a problem tonight. It's an unusually busy Sunday evening in Deep Ellum. It looks and feels more like a Friday or Saturday within the smoky, well-lubricated halls of the Curtain Club. Onstage, Chaz from KEGL-FM (97.1) is wrapping up the between-set indignities that find a home during his weekly stint as host of the station's Local Show. Flickerstick is nestled in between Austin-based Arista recording artists Pushmonkey and local neo-grunge act Rehab, just slightly out of their element on a bill that sits more comfortably within the Korn-Creed-Limp Bizkit axis. Nevertheless, the foursome takes the stage without a hint of intimidation.
The opening measure is barely counted off before Brandin Lea launches into the first verse of "Supersonic Dreamer," accompanied only by his hyperactive rhythm guitar. The song is quickly ripped apart, however, propelled by drummer Weir and bassist Fletcher Lea's powerful yet precise assault on the chorus. Brandin's lyrics, after a foray into a bridge that wouldn't be out of place on an early Cheap Trick single, give way to Kreig's '80's-inspired synth line that echoes the melody before disappearing again. The song then effortlessly plops back where it started. Brandin continues to muscularly strum his semi-hollow-body throughout the entire 45-minute set, pausing only to tune it, incredulously, between every song.
But when the band is playing, he writhes as if possessed, his eyes occasionally rolling back into his skull. He contorts his compact frame, lurching toward the drum riser, pulling his guitar's neck above his head in an exaggerated display of rock-and-roll bravado, somehow making it back to the mike without missing a cue. Inevitable comparisons to Radiohead may be hard to shake, yet Lea's sturdy, gravely vocals bear little resemblance to Thom Yorke's. Think Jeff Buckley crossed with that guy from Superdrag (remember them?), mixed with a dash of Texas twang, and you might be a little closer.
For tonight, however, the motley crowd of dedicated Local Show acolytes and Pushmonkey fans seems mollified by the sheer energy and (gulp) professionalism of the quintet as they rush seamlessly through such tunes as "International", "Hey," and "Talk Show Host," songs that are, unfortunately, unavailable to the record-buying public.
"Right now, the shows are what the fans take home," reasons Brandin. "I mean, maybe it's come around to bite us on the ass, but after putting everything [financially] on the line for the stage production, we just don't have the cash to go into a proper studio right now and put out a CD. We used to sell a three-song demo tape at the shows, but we've moved on from that. As soon as that Mafia money comes in," he jokes, "we'll get that taken care of." Of course, Lea and the band changed their minds shortly after our interview: The group recently pressed a four-song demo EP for sale at shows.
For the moment, that will have to suffice. The band hopes to be in a studio by the end of the year, working on its first real recordings. Its widening reputation has caught the attention of major labels. Reportedly, Island, Capitol, and Universal are among the entertainment conglomerates interested in the band. But until then, the members of Flickerstick are content to continue polishing their live act, both around the metroplex and on the road. Just don't try stage-diving at one of their shows.
"We've gotten this reputation for having a lot of ladies at the shows, which is great, because where there's girls, there's gonna be guys too," Lea says, laughing. "But I've seen dudes who've tried to jump off the stage, and those girls move out of the way..."
T. Erich Scholz is occasionally known as Jody Powerchurch, bassist for The Tomorrowpeople. But we call him Trey.
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