by Ryan Dembinsky (@itsathinkpiece)
After being raised on endless lore about the record label being the proverbial bad guy of the music world, it’s really starting to feel like the tide is shifting in the age of the internet. While in the past, the label was more known for pushing artists in more commercial directions; shelving artists who couldn’t turn a profit; and holding bands hostage for multi-record deals even after relationships soured. More and more though in today’s day and age, the exact opposite seems to be becoming more prevalent. As artist-driven collectives and DIY passion projects become more prominent, even the bigger guys are starting to follow suit.
We recently learned of a story that follows this line of reasoning in speaking with Ross Flournoy of Apex Manor, whose latest effort, Heartbreak City, came about in admirable turn of loyalty with his longtime label, Merge. Apex Manor last released an album on Merge in 2011 with The Year of Magical Drinking, and since went relatively dark. As you might expect with the title, The Year of Magical Drinking, both a riff on the acclaimed book on grieving A Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion and obviously heavy drinking, the years surrounding the release of that album we’re less than sanguine for Flournoy. He suffered a bout of rough depression and decided to take time off from the road to get himself sober and happy.
When Apex Manor got back in the studio for this year’s release of Heartbreak City, Merge didn’t bat an eye and not only welcomed Apex Manor back on the label, but they also helped set Ross Flournoy up with opening gigs for Strand of Oaks. He even joined the touring band on guitar. Let’s be clear: it’s damn hard for labels to make money in the Spotify economy, so this type of loyalty in my mind is pretty darn cool.
The resulting album is a win-win-win for everyone involved: Merge, Apex Manor, and fans. Heartbreak City is a powerhouse of a record that falls somewhere in-between the catchier tunes in the Dinosaur Jr./Mascis catalog and the hardest rocking tunes in the National catalog. We caught up with Ross to talk about the new record, his eight-year hiatus - he did a lot of really cool TV and film work including the theme music for The Lead with Jake Tapper on CNN and licensing music to the Office and Grey’s Anatomy - and all sorts of other goodies.
Ross Flournoy: One of the reasons I decided to do this – playing guitar with Strand of Oaks – is that I had never just gotten to play guitar before. That was my first love, playing guitar. So, I kind of thought that would be fun to go out and not have to worry about fronting a band. I did open a week of the shows in the Midwest, but it was so nice to just worry about showing up on time, sound-checking and getting up and playing.
It’s such a different beast having to worry about being the front man as opposed to just a side man. Honestly, I’ve never really been super comfortable being onstage as a front man. I definitely had to start psyching myself up when it came time to play my shows. Somebody pointed out to me that having a couple weeks to just play was really good to help get me warmed up to being onstage. It helped prep me for not completely sucking when it came time to do to the front-man thing [laughs].
Post-Trash: One thing that seemed like an interesting place to start was the somewhat somber narrative around the messaging side of the album, but at the same time it rocks rather hard. So, I wondered how you thought about the overall feeling or vibe you were shooting for? Or maybe a better question would be, what do you envision people doing when they go to listen to the whole album?
Ross Flournoy: Somebody at my label Merge said that she thought it was a really good driving record. Because I’m dim-witted, it hadn’t really occurred to me, but once she mentioned it, I tend to agree [laughs]. I feel like some of the songs are good for driving during the day, while some of the songs are much more nocturnal. I certainly didn’t think about that while we were making the record.
Sonically, the record ended up being a lot different than what I intended, and I was extremely grateful for that. Originally, the demos I recorded somehow had this almost Bryan Adams 80s feel to them. But when we went in with the producer Rob, he envisioned it much more as a Dinosaur Jr. power trio type of thing. So, we started rehearsing the songs that way, and I quickly realized, “Oh wow, this is definitely a lot better.”
We recorded the entire album almost live. I overdubbed my vocals obviously, but virtually all of the bass and drums as well as most of the guitars were recorded live playing in a room together. To my ear, I feel like I can hear that it sounds more like a live band record as opposed to something that was tracked to a click on a grid in Pro Tools where everything is quantized and shit like that.
When I listen to the songs, I can sort of hear Dan the drummer, who is amazing, speeding up and slowing down, which I love. If you listen to Zeppelin records, Bonham will start a song in one tempo and end it quite a bit different. You really don’t hear that as much these days because everything is meant to be so perfect. I’ve strayed far off from the original question [laughs], but to my ear, the record has sort of a raucousness and an energy to it that I was not anticipating and that became a nice surprise.
Post-Trash: Definitely, that’s exactly what I was getting at: it sort of sets you up for more of a REM-type of feeling, but it’s really a pretty upbeat, in-your-face album, which is great.
Ross Flournoy: Absolutely, I have to give credit to Rob, our producer for that, as that was definitely at his direction that we ended up going that way. I’m really happy he saw the material that way and we went in that direction as opposed to my initial vision.
Post-Trash: In terms of the music and gear – and feel free to dork out here to whatever extent you feel like here – you’ve been away from formal recording for Apex Manor for quite a long time, so I was curious what are some of the things you’ve learned in recent years, new tricks and progressions, new pedals, musical concepts, and things like that?
Ross Flournoy: Interesting question: While I haven’t [been] recording for Apex Manor, I have been writing and recording all throughout but more for other stuff. As is the case with anything in life, regardless of what your profession might be - whether you are a musician, a writer, or a butcher – you hope that over time you get better at what you’re doing. I feel like in that time, I’ve gotten a lot better at knowing how to make a record, which is ironic since I haven’t actually made a record, but I felt a lot more comfortable in the studio and with recording.
As far as guitar stuff, Rob pushed me to go outside my comfort zone and tried to keep me playing really raw. He was someone who would never let me do more than two or three takes if I was overdubbing a guitar part. He wanted to keep everything fresh and spontaneous. One thing I learned was how to be a lot less precious about stuff. For example, I sang almost the entire record in one take. He sent me out into the control room after we recorded the roughs, and he told me we were recording vocals just as a guide so we could have a sense of the songs. He kind of tricked me though. I sang the whole record and we ended up keeping probably 80% of those vocals.
One of the things I learned was being that idea of being not worrying about every vocal being perfect and being okay with that rawness. In the past, I probably would have autotuned that shit, but I really let go of that idea of everything being so perfect. He got me to loosen up a little bit.
Post-Trash: Are there things you might point people to that were happy accidents or parts of songs that came out really cool?
Ross Flournoy: We made this record almost a year and a half ago, so it’s been a while, but what I think is cool is a lot of the songs themselves and how they sound were happy accidents. It was that feeling of being in the room with Dan who played drums and Rob who played bass and the three of us playing live. We would often change things literally right before the tape rolled. SO, there was a real sense of spontaneity. I had no idea exactly how it would sound.
There was one part in the song “The Long Goodbye” where Dan does this thing underneath a solo where he does this just amazing fill. There are a lot of moments, especially with Dan that are just fucking amazing. He’s been playing with Brian Jonestown Massacre for ten years and now his new thing is playing with Cass McCombs, and he is just a fantastic drummer. A lot of my favorite moments on the record are the things he did. Again, he just did things in the moment that would just blow my mind.
Post-Trash: Lyrically, I’ll just leave it pretty open-ended, so you can kind of take this wherever you want, but it almost feels like maybe there is an arc where you come in franticly at the beginning of the album and it really ramps up into a climax and then resolves to almost a “finding peace” sentiment for lack of a better cliché [laughs]. Is that way off or is there perhaps something to that?
Ross Flournoy: I like that reading! Let’s go with that. I’m not very deliberate or methodical about lyrics – I wish I were. I think there is a current that streams through the record: roughly speaking, it’s kind of a snapshot of a single dude in his late thirties living in Los Angeles. If I were going to impart some deeper meaning to the lyrics, I’d say it was about my attempts at confronting and dealing with rejection, and about not knowing exactly what my path was.
Post-Trash: I was curious, regarding the song “Where My Mind Goes,” for perhaps the dumbest sounding question of all time, where does your mind go if you don’t mind me asking [laughs]?
Ross Flournoy: No, that’s a great question. That title and that whole song is about my anxiety – more specifically, about my tendency to always go to the darkest possible outcome for any given situation. I’ve been working on that in therapy, but I’ve long had a tendency to jump to the worst conclusion – to expect the worst. I’m trying to be more vigilant about NOT doing that.
Post-Trash: In terms of influences, this question comes courtesy Neil Gaiman from of one of those Masterclass courses that you can take online. He makes a point that artists of any kind should pay a lot more attention to their influences outside the specific genre where they create art, like writers should think about the musicians or actors or painters that inspire them. So, who or what would you cite as powerful influences outside of the world of music?
Ross Flournoy: That’s another great question. In the case of this record, I thought a lot about LA at night. And that means I was thinking about movies like Drive and Collateral and Heat…not that this record sounds ANYTHING at all like those movies and/or their scores. But I would say each of those movies had some effect in how I conceptualized this record. In more general terms, I’d say I’m influenced by stuff I read in college. There’s a poet named Robert Lowell whom I’m a fan of, and sometimes if I was feeling stuck when writing I would pick up his Selected Poems and kinda leaf through it.
Post-Trash: You mentioned earlier about recording music for other endeavors outside of Apex Manor and the focus of recording albums or playing live. What have been some of your most rewarding projects to create music for along those lines, such as film soundtracks or TV placements?
Ross Flournoy: I especially love writing music to picture, whether it’s for a commercial demo or a short film or a feature…whatever form it might take. I’ve been lucky enough to have quite a few placements, but one in particular sticks out in terms of what I thought was a good usage. It’s this sex scene from the show ‘Shameless’, and it really just felt like the song and the scene worked so well together.
Post-Trash: Finally, I read in your press materials that this was really your first album and tour since getting sober. So, congratulations first and foremost. What led you to give up drinking and how hard was it for you to be on the road for a long tour without having booze and whatever else to help with the anxiety, stage fright, and tiredness?
Ross Flournoy: Well, I was a pretty bad alcoholic, much as it pains me to say. Because I wish I weren’t, so I could drink again! It’s a long, winding story, but the short version is I had what they called comorbidity – a dual diagnosis of alcohol dependence and major depressive disorder. I was super-duper depressed, and just drinking my fucking balls off… I guess as a way to cope with the depression. But that comorbidity is some nasty, double-helix shit – the alcoholism and depression start feeding off and reinforcing one another, making each worse and worse. Anyway, I just reached this breaking point. I quite literally fell apart and was more or less suicidal. This was summer of 2011. One of my oldest friends, Adam Vine, put me on a plane home to Memphis so I could be with my folks. Within four days, I was in rehab, where I desperately wanted to go. I spent six weeks doing outpatient, then ended up living in Memphis for almost three years. I haven’t had a drink in over 8 years.
But lest you think I’m a complete teetotaler, I still get down with THC. Not really into smoking joints, but I like edibles. And my amazing psychiatrist Dr. Goldberg prescribed me Klonopin – I’d take half of one of those puppies before I’d hit the stage during this tour and was ready to rock and not freak the fuck out. And even though I said at the top I wished I could drink again, I don’t miss it – at all, really. From time to time, I’d love to have a martini, but more than anything I’m a creature of habit, and I’ve totally habituated myself to a life without alcohol.