By Kevin Broughton
With their precise harmonies and pitch-perfect melodies, Chicago supergroup The Flat Five splashed into autumn 2016 with It’s A World Of Love And Hope, a wonderful pop album that exuded joy. Four years later, the band (Scott Ligon, Nora O’Connor, Casey McDonough, Alex Hall and Kelly Hogan) is back with its sophomore offering, Another World. While the shimmering pop sensibility and vocal mastery remain, The Flat Five navigate through darker, more serious themes, telling stories of a different set of characters synthesized by Chris Ligon (Scott’s older brother,) the band’s lyricist and composer.
Oddly enough, the contrast wasn’t conceived of reflection upon current events.
Another World, a tightly packed, efficient record (11 songs, 35 minutes,) begins and ends bubbly and bouncy – hopeful even. In between, though, there’s some emotional heavy lifting – imagine a series of “Sam Stone” sad songs, buoyed by lilting, uplifting melodies and vocals. This album is a mirror image of the band’s first…maybe a funhouse-mirror image.
To dig into the wonderful, puzzling evolution between albums one and two, we first went back to Kelly “Leather Lungs” Hogan, our favorite resident of Wisconsin (“the northern South,” in her words.) The lady who compares her love of sad songs to a dog’s affinity for rolling in squirrel guts held forth on the sequencing of Ligon’s songs; how a musician’s life during Covid can resemble a blue jay repeatedly smashing into a window; and why The Flat Five may or may not be bellwethers of societal turmoil.
Next, we visited with the thoughtful, enigmatic Ligon to see how his creativity takes musical form, and the symbiosis between his writing and the band’s spot-on implementation of his vision.
First, Ms. Hogan:
We last spoke in the fall of 2016, and we both remarked on how crazy that year had been…
Oh, boy. Little did we know…
…and four years later, we have the second Flat Five record, when 2020 has been screaming “Hold my beer!” every other day. What the heck is going on with these quadrennial albums and national craziness?
We don’t dig it! (Laughs) We’re like “Why is this craziness happening?” Four years later, around another crazy election. We don’t know. We’re cursed! No, we’re not cursed, we’re blessed. (Laughs) We named the first record It’s A World Of Love And Hope in February of 2016, having no idea what was going to happen in October or November of that year. And for the last four years we’ve been clinging to the idea that yes, it’s still a world of love and hope.
This one we named Another World because our material’s gotten a little darker…
…Oh, really? I hadn’t noticed.
Shut up, man! (Laughs) But we named it in February before the pandemic; we didn’t name it after Covid. So yeah, here we are. Another world. Sorry. The Flat Five did it. It’s our fault. (Laughs.)
I remember what you told your bandmates about the title of the last album: “Let’s go for positive broke and call it It’s A World Of Love And Hope.” I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the title of the new record is Another World; it’s hard not to notice the contrast between this batch of songs and the last one, is it?
Yeah, because we vowed to be a positive band; that was Scott (Ligon’s) idea to be positive. And I love sad songs. There were times when I’d bring a sad song with cool three-part harmonies and the reaction was “let’s be positive.” But after a while “Up With People” will wear you out. I was in a band in Atlanta called the Rockateens; our first name was gonna be “Down With People.”
Before we get into songwriting, in the tonal or sonic sense, the two albums are quite similar: campy, fun, soothing and whimsical, with a throwback feel reaching to anywhere from the 1940s to the 70s. Does Chris just give y’all the lyrics and leave the melodies and arrangements to the band? Does he send demos?
No, no. That guy…he’s got melodies that are so sophisticated. He composes and puts lyrics to music. We get a song from him. We respect his melodies. Some of the songs on this album will also be on his new one. Like the song “I Don’t Even Care,” that was new for us when we were recording it in the Wilco Loft. Mine and Nora’s vocals on that one are just our scratch vocals from that day. Some songs on our new album have been around for a while. And we do respect his melodies. There was one song where I suggested, “Why don’t we do the minor key on the very last verse?” We thought about it, because we always get everybody’s ideas. We played around with it and decided, “Eh, let’s just be true to Chris’s vision.”
That said, the songs…
The record opens on a bouncy note with “Drip A Drop” and “Look At The Birdie,” then things take a decidedly dark turn. There’s “I Don’t Even Care,” about a woman abandoning an alcoholic spouse; “The Great State of Texas” from the point of view of a death row inmate…
(giggles) Right…good times!
Well, the lady in “I Don’t Even Care” buys the guy a puppy. She tried everything!
It was really a challenge to sequence this album, you know, trying not to put all the bummers together so people can make it through the record. But we love the bummers! I like to roll in a sad song like a dog rolls in a dead squirrel. But even in “The Great State of Texas,” there are funny moments. He says he heard his last Beatles song, “the one Ringo sang.” It’s a tiny bit of whimsy that really tells you about the character; he must be a Beatles fan. He lets you know it wasn’t “Hey, Jude.” “It might be Octopus’s Garden.” (Laughs)
Chris’s irony is off the charts.
Oh, for sure. Even in the happy songs, there are little “shivs.” And then you’re like “Ow! Do it again!” It’s a happy shiv.
And while we’re in the “let’s hang around at the hospice” mood, “World Missed Out” might be the most heartbreaking song I’ve ever heard. I mean, a 17-year-old throws a party, and just end up stacking empty chairs. I guess it’s just counterintuitive that the melody can so cool and the lyrics so sad. What’s it like recording songs with that kind of dichotomy?
Oh, I love the challenge of singing a happy-sounding melody with a little cream-filled bummer in the middle. I don’t know…each song I guess I try to take individually. I loved Chris Ligon’s music even before I met Scott Ligon. I trust Chris Ligon. If he wants a song to be this way, that’s what we’ll do.
But on “The World Missed Out,” I mean, it sounds like a Barry White make-out song. And it could be. We joked around in the studio, and actually one time sang it like Barry White: The world missed out, oh yeaaaaaaaaahhhhhh, baby. (Laughs) We put all the gravy on it. But the song is the boss, and the song didn’t want that on it. I’m not sure if that answers your question.
But on that first verse – there’s humor. The kid chewing on a Hot Wheels track…
I chewed on Hot Wheels tracks!
I did that, too! Mostly we chewed on the connectors…you know, those red things that look like a tongue?
|Hot Wheels track connectors, with what appear to be teeth marks|
Indeed I do.
Yeah, that early 1970s stuff that made us how we are.
What’s life been like for an established Chicago musician in the days of Covid? Are you able to play gigs?
Nooope, I’m not. (Laughs) Because I live in Southern Wisconsin and the rest of the band lives in Chicago. The rest of the guys, in terms of our band functions…Scott Ligon plays every instrument in the world; so does Alex Hall, our drummer. Casey, the same. Nora plays everything. All I play is tambourine and the occasional triangle. I just focus on the singing. So in the band, I do the booking and the social media stuff because I feel like they do all the heavy lifting. They’ve all been playing shows because, well, they play instruments. Nobody wants to hear anyone play the tambourine, I can tell you that right now. So I’m not able to do online shows.
We’ve done tiny things here and there; we did a benefit with the song “It’s Been A Delight” from the last album, for a charity in Chicago. But it was really difficult to do because of the Zoom lag. We did a band Zoom right after the lockdown in early March, and trying to sing together that way just does not work. So we had to make it an acoustic version; Scott played guitar and sang his part, then sent it to the rest of us. We didn’t know if it would work, but it came together.
Overall, though, it’s been tough; a lot of roller coasters. And I finally got to a point where I had to say, “I’ve quit music, at least for a while. I’m on a sabbatical,” because I was like a bird that kept flying into a window, thinking it’s the sky. And I was being tempted to make bad decisions, like “I’ll come down to Chicago, we’ll do a Zoom show with a grand piano and a film maker!” And then after two weeks we’re all like, “This is stupid, we can’t do this.” So it’s super frustrating, but I just had to stop flying into the window about it.
Before I ask a philosophical question I’ll stipulate that I’m a lifelong Republican who voted for Joe Biden…
Thank you, thank yoooouuuuu! What state are you in?
I’m in Georgia.
Oh my gosh! Thank you so muuuuuuuch! Wisconsin! I did that, you people! It was me!
(Laughs) My philosophical question is, is this still a world of love and hope?
(Pauses) Yes…yes it is. There are dogs…there are people. So, yes. It is a world of love and hope. I believe that. If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t be talking to you. I mean, there’s flowers and dirt and dogs. I’ve been blessed, even though I’m 10,000 percent unemployed (musically.) I’ve been working for my friend, Lynda Barry, an amazing artist, helping her run an etsy shop. We’ve raised a bunch of money for charities.
I can turn the recorder off, leave it on, or delete this question all together, but it’s hard not to notice that Bloodshot isn’t distributing this album, and the label’s last year or so of trouble is no secret. Care to comment?
Well, it was a really, really hard decision not to go with Bloodshot. They love us and we love them, but they basically advised us not to go with them for this release because of the uncertain future of the label. It was a nice friendly parting, but my heart’s broken for bloodshot. I don’t know what’s gonna happen and they don’t either. But I won’t comment on my personal feelings about that whole situation.
Kel, thanks for the time. I really enjoyed it…
Thank you for the Southern accent in my phone! It feels so good in my ear! I’m leanin’ on it!
So intrigued were we with the evolution of the Flat Five’s work, we went straight to the source, composer Chris Ligon, to dig a little deeper.
The most intriguing thing to me about Another World is that the general sound is so similar to It’s A World of Love and Hope, yet the lyrical contrast couldn’t be more striking. Were you just in a different place when composing this time around?
I think to a degree I was. I don’t particularly like to think in terms of politics or what’s going on in the world; that’s really not what I do. I like to let things flow naturally and just be inspired by anything that comes to my head, rather than write for some “cause,” or because the world is a certain way. I would say that there were some instances that were intentional in that regard. But that’s really not what I like to do, you know?
Let me follow up on that, because about a year ago you gave an interview to Chicago Magazine, which described your songwriting technique as “hitting chords on the piano while meditating, waiting for images to appear.” Fair to say that a lot of dark images were forthcoming this time?
I would say this: I sometimes write in area that are darker than others, as a rule throughout the years. When I write, it’s not necessarily for The Flat Five. Sometimes I have; I’ll think, “Oh, this is a good Flat Five song.” I just write a lot of songs, and have done so for the last 40 years. There are some things that are darker than others, just in my history of writing.
But I didn’t sit down to write and intentionally think of turmoil in the world and think, “This would be a good way to go in terms of a Flat Five record. Now when they themselves sit down and assemble the album, that’s entirely their doing. I’ve presented them with songs sometimes that they didn’t feel like they wanted to record at the time, that they’ll just put in the back of their mind until later. I think it’s the Flat Five’s assembly of the songs, their choice of my songs – that maybe something darker, more solemn, a little less “party in the streets” – may be more appropriate at this time.
Although with the results of the election, it may have required more of a celebration; I don’t know. And the “Over And Out” song at the end, I thought that was kind of a risky thing because they didn’t know how the election was gonna turn out. I think it turned out much better, knowing that we seem to be going in a better direction as a planet.
The same article also called you “Chicago’s answer to Harry Nilsson,” which I’d assume you took as a compliment. Nilsson was an obvious free spirit and iconoclast, but his music wasn’t for everybody. I mean, the Beatles loved him; but is that a fair comparison?
I love him! I think it’s fair in the sense that I prefer to write music, record it and send it out there for people to hear it. And while I have done live shows over the past 30 years, they’ve been fairly sporadic. Especially over the last five years.
I believe Harry Nilsson was similar, in that he didn’t like to do live shows. I don’t know whether that was for the same reasons I have. I don’t know whether he had stage fright, or what his deal was. But for me personally, I love the writing aspect so much that I’ve cut back on doing live shows intentionally. In my case, when I have a live show on the horizon, I think about it almost exclusively and I prepare for it. I’m not a person like my brother, Scott, who can pick up a guitar after not holding one for a while and sound amazing. I have to really re-remember my songs. That’s how infrequently I play out. So I prefer not to have my mind cluttered, having to remember my old songs. I like to have an open mind about the new things I’m writing. It’s really hard for me to think about more than one thing at a time; I’m not good at juggling.
Mike Campbell once said of the Heartbreakers’ songwriting philosophy: “Don’t bore us; get to the chorus.” The bulk of your songs come in under two and a half minutes. Have you always placed a high value on being so concise?
Kind of. Occasionally a song will end up short just because I’ve become impatient with it and want to move on. Other times it’s more intentional. You know, there’s a Chicago band I really love, an avante-garde outfit called The Residents, and they put out an album in 1980. It was called The Commercial Album, and it was 40 songs, all one minute!
And it was great! There were so many ideas; you get to hear so many great melodies over 40 minutes. I’m not big on long-winded anthems. I’m not a person who likes to JAM and draw things out unnecessarily; I kind of like to just get in and get out, and leave people with the idea, leave them with the melody. I’ve always believed it’s better to leave an audience wanting more than to have people looking at their watches, wondering, “Is this about to wrap up?”
Humor and irony are big parts of your writing. I’m having a hard time divining who some of your influences are, other than maybe Dr. Demento.
Care to fill in some blanks?
Well, there are thousands. I’ve always loved music. My parents played a lot of records when I was a kid, so we had a lot of good stuff to hear: jazz records, pop vocalists. I heard a lot of music from the time I was born, and it was pretty eclectic stuff. So I have a great record collection, and so does my wife. We trade records and buy each other records.
But there are hundreds and thousands of people whose music I really love and who influence me. Sometimes it shows up obviously; other times it’s maybe something that I’ve thought of while sitting at the piano that pushed me to continue in this vein. Maybe it’s just a snippet of a verse, some chord that reminded me of a particular person’s stuff. I’m definitely influenced by tons of people; just not one particular person. It’s not that I’m following in one person’s footsteps. I just love all types of music.
The Flat Five’s Another World is out today on Pravda Records (the truth, wink, wink), wherever you purchase music. Bandcamp. Amazon. Spotify.