Flasher Find Grace Under PressureRolling Stone — Simon Vozick-Levinson
In the fall of 2017, Flasher were close to a breaking point. The Washington, D.C. punk group had traveled to Brooklyn to make their first full-length album, and it wasn’t going very well. Before entering the studio, they’d had an idea of what Flasher was; now they were ripping at that idea’s seams, trying to invent something new. “It was kind of traumatic, honestly,” says guitarist Taylor Mulitz, 27, who is one of three songwriters in the band, along with bassist Daniel Saperstein, 28, and drummer Emma Baker, 27. “We had to go to therapy together.”
The product of that tension is Constant Image, one of 2018’s most surprisingly excellent debuts. Anyone who heard Flasher’s self-titled 2016 EP could have told you that a strong LP was in their future — that’s not the surprising part. It’s how completely they reinvented themselves, quantum-leaping past the grayscale post-punk of the EP into a world of color and heat. You’ll find yourself humming the melodies from Constant Image for days and thinking over its lyrics weeks later.
When I meet the trio for sushi in Bushwick the day after a show, they’re at ease and eager to talk. The friendships in Flasher are much older than the band, and it shows. In Baker’s and Saperstein’s case, the connection goes back to their respective dads’ time together at a New York rabbinical school. “The first band I ever played in was me and Danny at the very end of high school,” Baker says. “We were called the Sad Bones. We had a loud set where we were a Dinosaur Jr.-worshippy kind of band, and then a quieter set because we were really into Gillian Welch.”
Mulitz got to know them after seeing a Sad Bones house show circa 2007. By the time they came together as Flasher eight years later, all three had left D.C. to attend college, come back to the region, started hanging out together again and joined or started one or more other bands. Most notably, Mulitz was playing bass in Priests, who were winning national acclaim with releases like 2014’s superb Bodies and Control and Money and Power.
He balanced both roles for a while, self-releasing the 2016 Flasher EP through Sister Polygon, the label he runs with Priests’ other members. That spring in Austin, Texas, the two bands played SXSW as a double bill, with Mulitz switching from guitar to bass at the changeover. “That was crazy,” he says. “I played 11 shows in three days between the two bands. I’m too old for that now.”
By last summer, Flasher had signed to the respected indie label Domino Records, and with a European tour looming for Priests, Mulitz reluctantly quit that band. “It was really hard to have to choose,” he says. “I love playing in Priests — they’re my second family. I invested five years of my life into that project. Leaving them high and dry was not something that I wanted to do. But once Flasher signed with Domino, it was like, ‘There’s going to come a time when you physically can’t be in two places at once, and it’s not fair to either group to ask them to wait.'”
After that, getting Flasher back into a studio felt newly urgent. “It had been a year or so since we had put out anything substantial,” Saperstein says. “We knew we had to make a move. We took it as a challenge.”
Mulitz, Saperstein and Baker spent about a month workshopping songs in a hurry before heading to Rare Book Room in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, where they dove into recording with producer Nicolas Vernhes — their first time ever working with a collaborator outside the band. “It created a lot of friction between us as a group,” Mulitz says. “Just having another person in the room when you’ve just met, and working on something so intensely with them.”
Vernhes, who’s helped Deerhunter, Speedy Ortiz, the War on Drugs and others make career-best records, encouraged the band to keep pursuing the best possible version of Constant Image. “Flasher’s songs are both catchy and unusual, my favorite combination,” he says in an email. “Although they hadn’t worked in a traditional studio environment with a producer or engineer, they knew what they wanted to accomplish, and, after some conversations, were open to try new approaches to get there… After a few days of getting to know each other, we were able to really dig in and discover what this record was becoming.”
Together, they radically reworked songs like “XYZ” and “Harsh Light,” pushing toward new arrangements that reflect their love of Broadcast, Stereolab and the B-52s. “We took out the main melodies and chords that were the foundation of the song — just extricated them completely,” Saperstein says. “Then we wrote around them, and what was left became the song, which is the most exciting and scary thing you can do.”
After returning to the D.C. area to mix Constant Image in early January, the band booked a session with a family therapist. “We were reeling,” Saperstein says. “We couldn’t just pretend we could move forward. It wasn’t that we were angry at each other, per se — we just had stuff we needed to work through.”
While they only had time for that one session, it was enough to get them through to the album’s release this summer, and the touring that followed. “It was really helpful,” Baker says. “I think we all intend on going back to see him.”
Months later, Flasher are still puzzling over the songs from Constant Image, perfecting live arrangements for studio-born highlights like “Sun Come and Golden” and “Business Unusual.” (“Not because they’re too complicated,” Saperstein says. “We just haven’t had time to work on them.”) They recently finished an outtake from the sessions, “Terms and Conditions,” as their contribution to a three-way split 7″ for the tour they start on November 30th with Brooklyn’s Public Practice and the great lo-fi blues duo Gong Gong Gong, from Beijing.
“It started one really late night over a year ago in my parents’ basement at 6 in the morning,” says Saperstein. “I was teaching myself how to use some synthesizers. It wasn’t a song song, more like an experiment.”
“Now it’s like Nine Inch Nails,” Mulitz says.
Saperstein smiles. “It’s definitely a new threshold for what we could do.”