Showing posts with label Kelly Hogan. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Kelly Hogan. Show all posts

Nov 13, 2020

The Flat Five: Another World, indeed

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!

Oh, but it gets better! “This’ll Be The Day,” about a girl who dies in a car wreck. And that’s just the first half of the album! They sound fun, till you dig into lyrics. Would you like to dish on any of those?

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. 

So, yes. 

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. AmazonSpotify.

Oct 14, 2016

Kelly Hogan of The Flat Five: Going for Positive Broke In a World of Love and Hope

Going for Positive Broke
In a World of Love and Hope

By Kevin Broughton

“Okay, I’m almost ready,” says Kelly Hogan. “I was driving, waiting for your call, now I just have to pull over and find a parking space.” She eases into a comfortable play-by-play: “I may just turn off on this side street…almost there…well, why don’t you just go ahead and start to talk?”

Hogan has, according to her hometown Chicago Tribune, “the range of a gospel belter, the phrasing of a jazz diva, a bit of a country twang, and a taste for humor that make her something of a difficult fit in these category-obsessed times.” If she’s tough to pigeonhole into a genre – and she very much is – then it’s doubly tough to pin down a category for The Flat Five, the Windy City super group she formed with Scott Ligon, Nora O’Connor, Alex Hall and Casey McDonough. Their debut album, It’s a World of Love and Hope, drops today on Bloodshot Records; fitting, as that label has always been home to the genre-bending misfits of independent music. Ligon and McDonough are themselves members of NRBQ, a fluid band – founded 50 years hence – that has always defied classification.

But, to take a stab at Flat Five comparisons: Late 60s/early 70s harmony-laden pop with a slight bubblegum flavor, reminiscent of The Carpenters, Beach Boys and Beatles. Some Manhattan Transfer. Or maybe that’s a little off? “Yeah, it reminds me of childhood, hearing the AM radio in the Rambler station wagon,” Hogan says. “All of those sounds like Sly and The Family Stone, The 5th Dimension, Spanky and Our Gang…and The Archies! Definitely The Archies.”

Yeah, that’s better. And, oh, the harmonies; five parts’ worth sometimes. Groovy electric piano.  It’s pure, unadulterated, unmitigated, undeniable joy. This can’t be overstated; it’s an album of existential happiness, as the campy title suggests. Each of the album’s dozen songs were penned by Ligon’s older brother Chris, and if you drill down a little into that dude’s catalog, you’ll want to throw in They Might Be Giants and Dr. Demento when making comparisons. As joyfully bouncy and bubbly as this record is, there’s also a lot of downright quirky, head-scratching humor.

But the joy overrides all. You want to feel better right now, when the whole country and world are spiraling downward into hades? Turn off Twitter and Facebook. Turn off the news. Listen to this album a couple times through, and you’ll be physically happy. Heck, it’s impossible not to be happy after 20 minutes on the phone with “Leather Lungs” Hogan, after she finds a parking spot. Her mood is as infectious as The Flat Five’s music. 

You’ve worn a lot of hats in a bunch of different bands/side projects, etc. This Flat Five record certainly has a distinctive flavor to it. How has working on this project differed from, say, The Pine Valley Cosmonauts or any of your other endeavors?

Well, a lot of the things I did with Pine Valley Cosmonauts, I was like a ninja. I’d come in real quick and record one song and be done. The Flat Five, we’re a band. It’s gross. We love each other so much, it’s gross. We’ve been doing this since 2005 or something. I started out playing with Scott Ligon, then we got Nora O’Connor into it; I knew her from when we both sang in Andrew Bird’s band. It just sort of picked up, like a rolling stone…wait, a rolling stone doesn’t gather moss. (Laughs) We snowballed, that’s what I mean to say.

We just really love to sing together. And even with our five separate, crazy schedules and the stuff we do with other bands, we’ve always made time for this. We just love it.

When did y’all decide “Okay, we’re gonna do an album,” and how and when did that process finally come together?

I guess a couple years in, we made a commitment to play quarterly. That’s a time commitment and everybody has to block out time on their schedules. We started talking about playing more often and how we would do it. And we were warming up to the idea of doing an album of Chris Ligon’s music, because we had already been doing several of his songs [live].

So that idea developed, and we all got really excited about it, because one, we love his music and two, we want more people to hear it. So in lieu of going door-to-door (laughs), we knew we needed to record. That required us all to pledge allegiance to each other and commit. And so it’s taken us right at two years; we first went into the studio in September 2014. We financed the whole thing ourselves, so occasionally it was, “Well, we’re out of money, so we gotta play a show.” And luckily we were able to record it at our drummer’s studio, and he engineered it. There was just a lot of goodwill and teamwork involved.

This album bubbles up joy. Can you describe how much fun it was to record?

We made a conscious decision as a band, led by Scott, that we were gonna do a positive album. And I mean, I love sad songs. I’ve heard great songs with awesome harmony, but it’s like “My baby died in December.” (Laughs) So we tried to make it a cohesive thread, and all positive. Because everything’s so heavy, you know? You said “bubbles,” and not every song sounds effervescent, but the material and the message are designed to lift people, you know? Mavis Staples just did that on her last album.

And we were trying to decide what to call this record, and I said, “Dude, let’s just go for positive broke and call it ‘It’s a World of Love and Hope.’” In the face of all this evidence to the contrary; there’s so much going on to be sad and mad about. And all of us in the band, we’re all mad and sad and scared. This is just a little respite. I mean, I’m on the street in Chicago. The trees have colored leaves and people are walking their dogs…it’s Halloween. That’s just as real as all the bad stuff.

I just…well, I’ve never heard anything like it.

Well, we are weird, you know…

(Laughs) Well, I don’t mean just because it’s a little off and has some tongue-in-cheek…

…People try to describe us. Right now Nora and I are trying to book a tour and folks ask us, “Well, what kind of band are you?” And we’re like, uhhhhhhhh, well…

I think we’re like a pack of Life Savers. You’ll get an orange and a lime, and all the different flavors. We just love it all; we love all kinds of music.

Do you have a favorite cut on the album?

(Pauses) Uh…gosh I don’t know. It’s so hard for me to pick from all the different flavors. I don’t think I do. I can’t pick a favorite puppy! I love them all, and they are all different. Some of them were more difficult to get right in the studio than others. I do love the magic of “Bug Light.” I like “Bluebirds in Michigan;” I love that really weird string/bass/flute arrangement.

I’m curious, and this is a Kelly Hogan-centric question. I discovered you as the voice of Cassie Gaines on DBT’s Southern Rock Opera. Do you hear that every now and again, maybe from folks down South?

Oh! Awesome. I love that’s the case; I really love that album and I love those guys so hard. But yeah, a few, a few, definitely. That always makes me feel so proud. We did that at (Mike) Cooley’s house and I was in the dining room with a microphone, drinking a PBR and they were all in the kitchen. I finished a take and I heard some screaming and I found out they were screaming because they liked it. That was really cute.

That album…well, “Angels and Fuselage” makes me weep to this day.

Think about how hard it is to sing it! Because I sit in with them sometimes, and I try to do it – like every song I do – like I’m living it. And those lyrics…it’s just such an honor to be on that record. And you know, hearing your Southern accent, I’m just leaning into it because I love those accents so much. Any excuse to call Patterson (Hood), I’ll do it, just to hear that voice.

What else would you like folks to know about It’s a World of Love and Hope?

Um, it’s definitely an album made by friends who really love singing together. We love it so much we’ve all made time to do it over the last dozen years. We’re the kind of band that will practice together for seven hours and it seems like seven minutes. I mean, if we were at a club to play a show and nobody showed up, we would still play the show! We do this because it’s so much fun. And that’s the spirit It’s a World of Love and Hope was made in.

Because it is a world of love and hope. Sometimes I might be feeling really shitty (giggles) but I’ll just say, “It’s a world of love and hope!” It’s become my mantra. It was made by five friends who can’t not do this.  And I hope people can hear that in the record.

Final note: I’ve not played an album over and over like this one in recent memory and subsequently tried to figure out why. I’m still not sure, but what’s exceptional is this wonderful Venn diagram of the underappreciated Chicago music scene. In fact, when you put elite-level talents like these together – all of whom share such a passion for the craft and an unselfish love for one another – greatness shouldn’t be surprising. –JKB


It's a World of Love and Hope is available today on iTunes, Amazon, Bandcamp, etc.


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