Another Life I Am Living In - Flickerstick's Welcoming Home The Astronauts turns 20




Fuck you. We’re not playing fucking “Supersonic Dreamer.”


It’s a Tuesday night in the middle of February and Brandin Lea is mad. 


And at the time, 20 years ago, when I was all of 18, I thought that this was funny—a short, somewhat surprising, very memorable exchange had with the artist on stage, and me, the person in the front row, repeated yelling something toward the band, in the silences that occur in between songs. 


I recognize and understand now that it isn’t funny at all. It’s incredibly rude. But I am too young at the time to know anything about concert etiquette; too young to know that I should try harder to not look like absolutely obnoxious piece of shit in public. 


It’s a Tuesday night in the middle of February and Brandin Lea, the dynamic frontman for the group Flickerstick, is mad, and he does not want to play the song “Supersonic Dreamer.” After he barks his response to me, the band’s guitarist, and co-founder, Cory Kreig, humors me, by strumming the song’s guitar riff quickly and singing the tune’s opening lyrics. 


I cheer loudly. 


It’s a Tuesday night in the middle of February, 2002, and Flickerstick, three months removed from the release of their only major label album, Welcoming Home The Astronauts, are touring in support of the record. I am standing as close as I can to the stage at the Eagle’s Ballroom, or what is also known as The Rave—but not the larger stage in a more cavernous part of the venue, where, in high school, I saw bands like the Deftones1 or A Perfect Circle; no, Flickerstick are on a smaller, secondary stage I didn’t even know existed until that evening. 


The song in question I keep shouting the name of, “Supersonic Dreamer,” is not included in the tracklist to Welcoming Home The Astronauts. It isn’t on either or version of the album—the original edition, released by the Texas label 226 Records, in the year 2000, or on the remixed edition of the record, issued by Epic in November 2001. It’s an oddity—on out of context blast of pure power pop that I find floating in the actual ether2 during my freshman year in college, using the file sharing service Audio Galaxy to download music onto the computer of the girl I am in a relationship with at the time.


That girl is with me at the concert, as is a good friend of ours, and another person—someone I could really only safely call an acquaintance—a little flaky, a little volatile at times, she’s the kind of “friend” you make during your first year in college. 


The kind of friend you more or less lose touch with or distance yourself from in the next three years and never see or speak to after that. 


She has a car, though, and was interested in going to this show with us. She was willing to drive us there, from Dubuque, Iowa, across the midwest into Milwaukee, Wisconsin.


Fuck you, we’re not playing fucking “Supersonic Dreamer.”


It’s a Tuesday night in the middle of February and Brandin Lea is mad, or at least visibly irritated, and he has every right to be.


There is an element of novelty to “Supersonic Dreamer,” but Flickerstick are not a “novelty” band—they, in fact, might have taken themselves too seriously at times, especially in this early portion of their somewhat brief tenure. It isn’t something I was able to articulate, or maybe even understand when I was in my late teens, or early 20s, but setting aside some of the more pretentious, “artistic” moments on Astronauts, there are a number of songs that do have a sense of humor, or are intended to, possibly, be taken a little less seriously. 


There are a number of songs from the album that, much like “Supersonic Dreamer,” albeit constructed with a little more intention—like “You’re So Hollywood,” or “Hey, or, When The Drugs Wear Off”—that are enormous, infectious slices of guitar driven, powerful pop music. 


There are songs that you can refer to as being inherently fun to listen to. 


All that power pop, though, cannot compare to the exuberance and whimsy of “Supersonic Dreamer,” which in that moment, in the audience, on a Tuesday night in the middle of February, I get the impression it is a tune the band is doing their best to distance themselves from.



So it comes as somewhat of a surprise that, two decades later, released somewhat in conjunction with the vinyl reissue of Welcoming Home The Astronauts, “Supersonic Dreamer” is included in the tracklist of a “b-sides and rarities” anthology—When We Were Young, that the band, long since broken up, is self-releasing. 


The anthology is announced via Flickerstick’s relatively new social media presence—accounts that are seemingly the most active on Instagram and Facebook. On Instagram, I comment underneath the photo of this collection’s cover art—“Supersonic Dreamer tho.”


Whoever is running the band’s accounts responds to me with surprising positivity and enthusiasm—“Old school!”


*


At the beginning of each new year, for at least the last few years, I create a new “Sticky Note” on the desktop of my computer, and I begin to compile a list of albums that, within the calendar year, will be celebrating a milestone anniversary of some sort—usually ten, or twenty years. 


Sometimes, at the beginning of each new year, the list is long, or maybe a little ambitious, and as the weeks become months, I’ll begin to get a feeling for what albums I have the time, and am actually in a place to, articulately reflect on and write about. 


In January of 2021, which now seems like a lifetime ago for myriad reasons, among the albums I listed was Welcoming Home The Astronauts by Flickerstick—and of all the albums that made it onto the list that were eventually removed for whatever reason, it remained important to me to take the time, before autumn slowly turns into winter, to reflect on what this album—both the independently issued version, as well as the slightly maligned major label turn—as well as the band itself, meant to me in 2001, when I was all of 18 years old.


And it was out of an internet search done from sheer curiosity and hope, a few months ago, that I learned the band—four out of the five original members—had partnered with NTX Vinyl to reissue the album (the Epic Records version) on vinyl for the first time via the “DFW Legacy Series,” in celebration of its twentieth anniversary. 


It was after I had recorded an episode of the Anhedonic Headphones podcast where I was my own guest, and my wife facilitated the conversation; I had selected the Flickerstick song “Coke” as a tune I wanted to discuss within a segment of the episode about “giving people their flowers,” which is to mean I had wanted to talk about music that had made a huge impact on me at one point, or another, within my life, but the artists I selected—Flickerstick, Longpigs, and Wheat—were specifically chosen cult favorites that spent their active years always on the cusp; chasing something that was just slightly out of their reach.


Artists that I have always felt deserved more recognition and attention than they received during their active years. 


I was editing the episode together when I searched “Flickerstick” + “Welcoming Home The Astronauts” + “20th anniversary,” which, to my surprise, was how I found an archived Facebook Live virtual meeting between four members of the band, and a representative from NTX Vinyl, and the link to pre-order the vinyl reissue, which I did without batting an eyelash.


*


Taken


On a Tuesday afternoon in November of 2001, I stood in a room on the third floor of the dorm I lived in during my first and second years in college—and having borrowed someone’s car to leave campus, I returned from at trip to the Target in Dubuque with a copy of the Epic Records version of Welcoming Home The Astronauts in hand—the original edition of the album, released independently the year prior, was filed among the CDs I brought with me to school. 


Outside of the inclusion of a “new”3 song, “Smile” (two “new” songs if you include “Execution By Christmas Lights,” a 12th track on the CD, but unlisted on the back cover), the removal of the soaring, bombastic “Right Way to Fly,” and the shuffling of some of the songs within the album’s sequencing, I was initially uncertain, at the time, what to anticipate in terms of noticeable changes, if any, between editions of the record.


Some of the differences between the two are subtle, or at least if they were not all that subtle, they weren’t, like, incredibly obtrusive or off-putting—e.g. the way the album’s ostentatious opening track, “Lift,” comes to a conclusion, and in this form, ends with a quiet synthesizer drone that, then, carries itself slickly and seamlessly into track, two, “Got a Feeling.”  


Taken with my girl


Some of the differences, or changes, were far from subtle, and I can remember being startled by a few things, right away, when the song “Coke” began. 


Sequenced as the fifth track on the Epic Records edition (the fourth on the original version from 226 Records), the new iteration of the song shaves off roughly 10 seconds from the running time—pairing it down to 4:48, as opposed to the five minutes and change that it was in the past. This might seem arbitrary, but for a song that was one of the three tracks originally eyed by executives at the label to be marketed as a radio single, trimming the length down, any amount at all was huge at the time4. 


There is what could be called an “intro” to the song, and in the version I had grown accustomed to listening to at this point, there is a moment before all of the instrumentation comes tumbling in, when you hear a heavily warbled voice singing, “Oh yeah,” over the top of the gentle tapping of cymbals and the slow, rumbling, steady bass line from Brandin Lea’s younger brother, Fletcher. 


This intro ends with the warbled voice almost whispering a Coca Cola tagline from the 1970s—“It’s the real thing.”


In what I was hearing coming from my stereo, in my dorm room, on a Tuesday afternoon in November, that utterance was gone. 


As the thundering percussion from drummer Dominic Weir built the song’s rhythm, and main guitar riff began, in the few seconds before Brandin Lea’s voice comes in with the opening lines, I was startled, and sometimes still am, so many years removed, by the dual pick slides across the strings of crunchy electric guitar strings, absolutely tearing through the just sewn fabric of the song.


Come on, I’d like to buy the world a Coke and lie here taken with my girl


And this comes up briefly in the Facebook Live interview held in the spring as a means to announced the impending reissue of Welcoming Home The Astronauts, and as there seems to be, at least amongst the band’s already dedicated fan base, a resurgence and renewed interest in talking about Flickerstick, maybe it is something discussed in some of the radio or podcast interviews Brandin Lea has done recently, where he enthusiastically recalls tales from his days fronting the band—but there is an old interview from 2002 with the band’s lead guitarist at this time, the charismatic Rex James Ewing, and he explains the band’s reasoning behind altering one word in the chorus to the song “Coke.”



And I hadn’t thought of it at the time, when I was 18, but what I can now liken it to is Thom Yorke’s decision—which he later publicly admitted to regretting—of booking studio time to record the line, “You’re so very special,” which was then copied and pasted into Radiohead’s “Creep,” replacing the original “so fucking special”—a small act that helped catapult it to the success it found on MTV and alternative radio at the time.


On a Tuesday afternoon, in November, in a dorm room in Dubuque, I was not prepared to hear Lea sing the phrase “taken with my girl,” another clear copy and paste—and like the minor alteration to “Creep,” it felt a little shoehorned and sounded out of place—erasing the song’s original lyric, “Come on, I’d like to buy the world a Coke and lie here naked with my girl.”


*


The easiest way to describe “Bands on The Run” to someone who didn’t watch it, or perhaps has never heard of it, is to call it a proto-reality show. 


In part, “Bands on The Run” was the kind of thing that presented “reality” in the way that “reality television” did at the time—a camera crew documenting events as they transpired, cut together with confessionals and talking head reflections on what was depicted within the episode. 


This was filmed in 2000, and aired in 2001—a few years before what “reality TV” would become, and well before what it has turned into now. 


It was also, in part, a competition that involved eventual eliminations and regular challenges for the contestants—the program, running once a week, for three months, on VH-1 in the spring of 2001, pitted four independent bands against each other in various cities across the country, vying for a cash prize, gear from one of the show’s sponsors, Guitar Center, and the opportunity to perform at an A&R Showcase, with the hope that performance would lead to a major label record deal.


Josh Dodes, now, according to Psychology Today, is a therapist, but 20 years ago, he was the frontman for the aptly titled Josh Dodes band—the quintet, comprised of a Dodes on piano, a drummer, bassist, and two female vocalists, released one album a few years before being a last minute addition to the “Bands on The Run” competition. 


The series’ pilot was filmed with three bands, and the Josh Dodes Band was brought in once the show was picked up by VH-1. Described within their profile on Discogs as a “jazz-fusion/pop rock band from New York,” the act was also the first to be eliminated on the series. Dodes himself released one album under his own name, sans “the band,” in 2003.


Harlow, the punk/goth leaning girl group were the next band to eventually be eliminated.


Founded in Los Angeles by Amanda Rootes, formerly of the English punk outfit Fluffy, the four-piece self-released one album, Harlowland, in 2001, and even in the age of the internet, there is little, if any, information about what happened to the group following their departure from the show, or when they eventually disbanded. 


In a recent podcast interview, Brandin Lea explains that, even from the beginning when their manager at the time asked the band to send in audition tape for what would become “Bands on The Run,” Flickerstick never took it seriously—their penchant for refusing to follow rules, or do the things asked of them at call-backs for the show, as well as their already well-curated taste for debauchery, apparently painted them as “lovable fuckups” who could serve as a foil of sorts to the other bands, charming their way into the basic cable viewing hearts of America. 


The final episodes of “Bands on The Run” found Flickerstick in direct competition with Soulcracker—based out of San Diego, the group had an alternative rock sound, but a little harder, or heavier, and a lot more ramshackle. Soulcracker had formed roughly seven years before appearing on the show, and of all four acts in the competition, it was clear they took everything as seriously as they could, specifically the original conceit of the show, that the band, in the end, with the most revenue generated from merchandise and tickets sold to performances, would be dubbed the winner. 


This is, however, not what occurred, and when there was an additional, surprise $5,000 given to the winner of the final “Battle of The Bands,” which Flickerstick won, thus winning the competition; the members of Soulcracker, to this day probably, still allege the finale was fixed against their favor—that they were always meant to lose. 


With already a few albums and EPs to their name heading into the taping of the show, the group released an album in 2001 following their stint on “Bands on The Run,” before splitting up in 2003—an abandoned Facebook page for the band indicates there was a reunion show in 2012, and that at some point, the members of the group had gone one to either careers in other fields, or other musical projects.


*


There was a long form piece on Pitchfork in late September about the vinyl reissue market—specifically, for classic or iconic hip-hop records. 


The article, which is worth reading if this kind of thing is of interest to you, spends time discussing the roles both economics and racial politics play in this “industry,” as well as the unsurprising revelation that there are reissues manufactured and released without any involvement (or consent) from the artists themselves. 


There is part in the piece detailing how the customer base for vinyl reissues—and really, it could be reissues of any genre, not just hip-hop, has quickly become more knowledgeable about the end product—and asks questions of that product—e.g. if the sleeve was created from the original artwork separations, or if it just a JPEG of questionable resolution, blown up and stretched to fit a 12” by 12” square.


They ask questions of that product, like what is the source material for the pressing—is it the original masters of the recording? How was it pressed? Where was it pressed? 


During the NTX Vinyl Facebook Live about the reissue, GI Sanders, the moderator of the discussion and representative for the DFW Legacy imprint, stated, if I’m remembering this correctly, that for the Welcoming Home The Astronauts reissue, they’d be rebuilding the album’s artwork from scratch. 


The band, specifically co-founder, guitarist, and keyboard player Cory Kreig, explained in the same conversation that the group had famously bought themselves out of their deal with Epic well before the release of their second (and final) full-length, Tarantula, released in 2004; in doing so, they owned the rights to the master recordings—but he confessed that they were uncertain where those masters were. 


If the master recordings to the Epic Records edition of Astronauts are in a warehouse, or vault somewhere, and were not used as the source material for this vinyl reissue, what was used to create this reissue?


For an album that gives a liner note credit to someone for mastering the album for the vinyl release, but not remastering, and using an undisclosed source of audio, the twentieth anniversary edition of Welcoming Home The Astronauts doesn’t have a lot stacked against it in terms of possible sound quality concerns, but there’s enough reasonable doubt that this could, in fact, sound like absolute shit the needle hits the translucent blue5 record on the turntable. 


Thankfully, and perhaps surprisingly, it sounds impressive. It admittedly, to me, lacks some of the robustness and warmth that is possible, sonically speaking, that something pressed on vinyl and created through the usage of its original master recordings—regardless, it has robustness and warmth to spare, and perhaps unsurprisingly, breathes enthusiastic new life into this set of songs—songs that meant a lot to me two decades ago, and songs that I had not sat down with to listen to, from beginning to end, in a very long time. 


Spread across two LPs, the sequencing handles the album’s structure as thoughtfully as it can—distributing the “hits” pretty evenly between the first and second sides, storing the power pop pomp of deep cuts like “Talk Show Host” and “Hey, or When The Drugs Wear Off” on the third side, and saves the woozy, torrential, wildly indulgent closing track, “Direct Line to The Telepathic,” as well as the slow burning hidden track, “Execution by Christmas Lights,” for the fourth side. 


The artwork, unfortunately, at least to my eye, does not seem like it was rebuilt from scratch, as promised. 


From far enough away, like maybe 10 feet, it doesn’t look bad, or like something is obviously amiss—it looks just like a larger version of the 5” by 5” square from the jewel case that has been filed in the “Fs” of my CD collection for two decades. But the issues become apparent the closer you get, and the more time you spend looking at both the front and back cover, along with the images in the sleeve’s gatefold—the cover image itself of the boy in an astronaut costume, grainier when magnified to this size; the title of the record and even the band’s name, muddied with clouds of distortion surrounding each letter.


The photograph of the band on the back cover—stretched out until there is a mere fragment of clarity left from the image that is, now, barely hanging on; the photos from the inside gatefold—stock images that lean into the space travel aesthetic, suffer a similar fate.


This, I guess, is a minor detail to focus on—perhaps we should not judge a reissue by its cover, thought it was the first thing I noticed once I opened up the cardboard mailer the album arrived in.


In the Facebook group for the band—The Flickerstick Reunion Concert Social Media Experiment—members have been sharing photos of their copies of the reissue, and nearly all of the posts are about how good the pressing sounds, or how grateful these fans are that this album, after 20 years, is now available in this format.


None of the posts, at least that I have read, say anything about the artwork and layout, or the truncated album credits, or liner notes, printed on the gatefold inside. 


*


I spend a lot of my time, both within my life itself, but also within the things I write, dealing in the business of specific things—the business of nostalgia is one of those things. 


And what I have found, or least come to have a better understanding of, especially within the last few years, is that when ruminating on and then speaking about your nostalgic feelings connected to music—a specific band, or a album that is inherently representative of a different time in your life, far removed from where you are now—there are the albums, or artists, that grow with you; you take those things through time, and whatever you found in it then, or whatever it offered you then, it still offers that regularly when you return to it. 


There are the bands, or albums, that despite how much you might have loved them at the time, or how impactful they might have been within those moments, they, for whatever reason, do not grow with you. You don’t necessarily “outgrow” them, but you find yourself not taking them with you in the figurative sense—and when you return to them at a later time, you are able to identify and appreciate it for what it was, but that connection is either no longer there, or is very faint, and it remains a part of the past. 


Going into this, there is a lot of personal uncertainty in my ability to determine where Flickerstick, and specifically Welcoming Home The Astronauts, falls into these two categories; even now, after spending the last month re-immersing myself in, as much as I have been able in the band—between the reissue of their major label debut, the anthology of b-sides and rarities, and the seemingly unrelenting enthusiasm of the members that post within the aforementioned Facebook group.


What might have drawn me to them in the first place, over 20 years ago; what kept me listening for as long as I did when Flickerstick were still an active band; and when did I began to feel my interest waning.


*


In what ever iteration of Welcoming Home The Astronauts you favor, or have access to, it is bookended by a pair of audacious songs—both of them dramatic and theatrical in their own ways. I don’t think I quite fully grasped this when I was a teenager, but as someone who spends most of their free time in the analysis of popular music, it is very clear that as seemingly brazen as it might be to open your album with a sprawling six minute track, it is probably even more so to conclude it with a song that runs over nine minutes in length.


These are songs that were more or less written, or at least constructed, to open and close the record.


Astronauts begins with the simmering, explosive, and ever shifting “Lift,” and because I had never listened to this album with a critical or analytical ear before—only listening as a fan—I can see the decision to sequence both “Lift” and the punched-up version of “Got a Feeling” included in the Epic Records release of this album back to back to create both a contrast in tone and explore how dynamic of a band Flickerstick was capable of being. 


At six minutes in length, which is objectively not that long, but maybe a little long when it’s the first song on your debut album—the label apparently was not thrilled by this but the band pushed back—“Lift,” even in the deliberately slow way Fletcher Lea’s bass line comes rolling in over the top of various atmospheric noises, never feels too long, or tests your patience as a listener, because it continues to shift directions throughout its running time. 


From the slinking way it opens, to the explosive, guitar driven bursts that punctuate the space between the song’s verses, or the borderline “classic” rock or at the very least, psychedelically influenced soloing that appears, running in tandem with how it turns into a dramatic, hopeful, slow motion tumble toward the finish, there is a restlessness from the band to just keep pushing the song forward, but always in a different direction. 


It sets a tone, certain, of things to come on the record, and there’s a kind of unabashed enthusiasm you can still hear, 20 years later, as the song continues to soar into the end. 


“Lift” is a fine opening track (it was, during the tours in support of Astronauts, often found as the first song on their setlist), but it was never a song I would just pick, out of context, to listen to they way I would, and could, with others. 


Listening to “Lift” is making the commitment to sitting down with the album from start to finish, and there is a moment, when the song effortlessly shifts into its final act, when Brandin Lea’s voice rises all the guitar theatrics and crisp drumming, singing, “I’m on the ground—I’m off the ground,” that, when hearing this album again, in its entirety, for the first time in a long time, reminded me—it is a moment like that, where everything comes together in a beautiful, chaotic swirl…this is one of the reasons I absolutely loved this band.


Retrospectively, it seems saccharine, but there is a real, palpable sense of youthful hope, however fleeting, in the way Lea sings, “Don’t you get it—we’re alive….with love, we will survive,” the gravity of which never truly registered before now. 




On the recently released anthology of rarities, When We Were Young, the original “226” version of “Got a Feeling” is included within the tracklist—and in comparing its early incarnation to the way it was rebuilt for the Epic Records release of Astronauts, I hadn’t really realized just how much of it was changed—or, at the very least, magnified, and crafted to sound exponentially more precise. Lea’s vocals, sounding like they were re-tracked, have a lot more vigor to them, and all the instrumentation—specifically the guitars—are much more impactful and snarling in the energy they create to give it the power pop momentum that the song wasn’t lacking prior to this, but is more than apparent now.


One of the singles used to promote the record around the time of its release, Astronauts’ third track, and the tune that closes out the first side of the reissue, is the to this day infectious “Beautiful.” And, similarly to “Got a Feeling,” it was rebuilt or restructured to sound a little tighter, and a little larger, than its 226 counterpart—most noticeably in some changes to the usage of background vocals provided by the album’s original producer, Todd Pipes (of Deep Blue Something), and some re-recorded and heavily effected guitar tracks. 


*


There as a time around two years ago when I was convinced my co-worker’s Google Music algorithm was reading my mind.


Wesley and I worked in extremely close proximity to one another a lot of the time, and he would often play music, streamed off of his phone—never anything super specific, usually the “radio” playlist that would be generated by a certain artist or song, like Better Than Ezra’s “Desperately, Wanting,” or “Kiss Me,” by Sixpence None The Richer. 


Or, once me began making a hard pivot into “girl pop” as 2019 turned into 2020, “Baby…One More Time,” by Britney Spears. 


There was a day, in the fall of 2019, underneath the sound of vegetables being chopped, something sizzling on the stove-top, or the water that I was perpetually running to prep cases of kale, lettuce, or cilantro—there was a day when I could hear the hypnotic opening guitar rhythm to Flickerstick’s, “Sorry….Wrong Trajectory.” 


A live version, pulled from the group’s 2002 live album Causing A Catastrophe, recorded in Dallas, Texas to a hometown crowd, I was surprised to hear a song, so familiar to me, having found its way into one of Wesley’s auto-generated playlists.


There had been moments where one song the algorithm would give us would cause us to remember then reminisce about another song, similar in sound or style, from that era (most often the late 1990s and early 2000s.) And because the algorithm was always listening, that sound would then, later, appear on a playlist.


Wesley had never heard of Flickerstick, and to his knowledge, “Sorry…Wrong Trajectory,” or any other song by the band, had ever appeared on one of his “radio” stations before. He liked what he heard, but I told him that while I had never said anything aloud in the confines of the kitchen at work, I had recently been thinking about Flickerstick, and we were certain Google Music’s algorithm was intercepting my thoughts, shuffling them into the soundtrack for the morning.


He liked what he was hearing enough to be receptive to a Beginner’s Guide To the group that I put together and burned onto a CD for him to listen on his commutes to and from work—sending me further down the road of nostalgia for Flickerstick’s other output—live versions of “new” songs that, at the time, were in the running for placement on the second album but ultimately abandoned, like “Telling All of The World” and “Believe,” and the sprawling, melancholic “Blue,” pulled from the group’s 2003 EP, To Madagascar and Back.


Included, also, was the 226 version of “Coke.”


There were mornings at work when Wesley, aware that I was maybe not mentally prepared for it, would, regardless, begin his musical selection for the day with the live version of “Coke,” from either the Causing A Catastrophe album, or the slightly more unhinged rendition of it pulled from the group’s final output, Live From Atlanta.


I would tell Wesley he was an emotional terrorist for doing this to me, so early in the morning.


I stop short of saying the Epic Records version of Welcoming Home The Astronauts, up until recently, was a “lost album,” but it was an album that hadn’t, for whatever reasons, been given the chance to catch up to how music in 2021 is consumed. There are certainly a number of longtime Flickerstick fans (like myself) who still have their copy on CD, but it is an album that was released during the earliest days of the shift from physical media (CDs, really, at this point) to digital downloads from a place like iTunes. 


Things have, within the last handful of years, shifted again—for many people, the need to “have” an album, or a song, is no longer a necessity, and the emphasis has been placed onto streaming platforms like Spotify and Apple Music.


Up until a few months ago, the only music from Flickerstick you would be able to find digitally—either through downloads, or streaming, were their live albums, and their final studio album, Tarantula. 


I am uncertain if it introduced them to a new audience, or if it is just appeasing their older fans that might not have hung onto their compact discs over the last 20 years, but again, as part of the anniversary of Welcoming Home The Astronauts, in August, the album was finally added to digital platforms like Spotify. 


*


Before I went to college, and had access to whatever high speed internet was available to a small, liberal arts school in the year 2001, the way I got onto the internet was through a dial-up modem, and America Online. 


There’s a good chance that the computer I used growing up wouldn’t have been able to store the file if even knew to do so, but at the age of 18, I was unaware that I could right click on a link to an mp3, and select “save as” to download it; truthfully, there is certainly no way I would have easily been able to download an mp3 using a dial-up connection, so there were a number of days, in July of 2001 and into August, before leaving for college, and before my copy of the 226 version of Welcoming Home The Astronauts had arrived in the mail, that I would attempt to play the media files Flickerstick had on their website at this time. 


“Coke” was one of those songs, as was “Smile”—at the time a “new” song, or at least a song not included on this iteration of the record that would, only a few months later, turn up as the fourth track on the Epic Records re-release, and as one of the singles (completely with a music video) issued to promote the band and the record. 


I think they talk about it in the Facebook Live interview, but there is a quip about a producer the group was working with referring to “Smile” as a song without a chorus. And I had never really thought about its structure in that sense before, but that is accurate. Opening the second side of the vinyl reissue, “Smile” is a song that begins quietly, delicately, and beautifully before it builds itself into an explosive frenzy—and within roughly three minutes, manages to resolve itself.



There was a time—it was in both high school, and throughout most of college for sure, that I was unable to withstand “professional” music criticism of artists and bands that, at the time, I adored. Welcoming Home The Astronauts wasn’t panned by critics, but it also wasn’t welcomed warmly—a piss take review from Pitchfork6, published at the start of 2002, gives it a 4.5 out of 10, and was posted when the site was more or less in its infancy, took itself way too seriously, and often allowed writers to get away with the kind of scathing vitriol the site, or music writing in general, rarely sees today. Spin, in a piece published in the spring, referred to the album as having “boner-like intensity,” which I am still, after 20 years, uncertain is a good thing.


It’s been scrubbed from their site, but a brief snippet of the Rolling Stone piece on Astronauts lives on via Metacritic—the magazine gave it three out of a possible five stars, and a pull quote from the review states that the group “doesn’t exactly have a lot of new ideas about what a rock song should sound like.”


The Pitchfork review tackles this as well, albeit with a more biting sense of humor that, now, comes off as a kind of High Fidelity level of snobbery, but the Rolling Stone review, I remember, pointed out a lot of Lea’s lyricism, specifically within the song “Smile,” and that it was a little presumptuous for him, on the band’s debut, to be touting what the reviewer deemed a messiah complex from the song’s line, “Follow me, thinking I can save them.”


The thing that I have recently figured out, specifically with Welcoming Home The Astronauts, and specifically through this, very intentional listen through, hearing the album with analytical ears, is that while I am still very nostalgic for this band, and this record, and many of these songs, it is okay to admit it if parts of it don’t hold up, or haven’t aged well. 


“Smile,” if you begin to pick it apart, isn’t going to work. A lyric like “Follow me…thinking I can turn a frown into a smile,” isn’t profound but the thing is—it doesn’t need to be because it works as a part of the whole. “Smile” works as a dramatic, three minute burst—a guitar driven, pop leaning song that begins slowly, and simmers as the band gradually grows until it detonates. And even upon detonation, the group never lets it get away from them, and perhaps it speaks to how tight of a band Flickerstick had grown into, and had to grow into quickly, but it never even sounds like it’s on the verge of falling apart—it just keeps soaring until it reaches the end.


I don’t know if I would ever describe a lot of what the band was doing at this point, or at any point before deciding to split up in early 2009, as sounding “somber,” but the vinyl reissue’s second side concludes with the pensive, “Sorry…Wrong Trajectory”—wistful and but not exactly remorseful in its lyrics, the song is swirling and mesmerizing in the unrelenting acoustic guitar rhythm that keeps it moving forward at the tempo it does, and when the rest of the instrumentation finds its way into the structure of the song, it becomes grand and sweeping, thanks to the interplay between three different guitar lines, and the soaring, layered vocals at the end, and a chorus that is both dramatic, anthemic, and memorable. 


*


Up until now, I had never noticed how deliberate the album’s sequencing is—something that is very obvious in the vinyl reissue as the third side of the double LP set also marks the second half of the record. And what I maybe didn’t fully understand 20 years ago is that while the first portion of the album isn’t exactly “front loaded” with its best material, it is made up of the songs that are among the album’s slowest to burn, as well as the three tunes poised to be singles. 


The songs that are the slowest to burn aren’t inaccessible by any means, but the album’s most accessible, and pop oriented tunes are found after the halfway point. It’s kind of a big shift in tone, and the energy level, across this third side of the reissue, just continues to build until the final notes of “Hey, or When The Drugs Wear Off are finished reverberating and the needle skates into the dead wax surrounding the LP’s center label. 


They accessibility to this run of four songs, though, just means that the exuberance and an overall feeling of fun is heightened before Astronauts descends into its self-indulgent, cacophonic conclusion—it doesn’t mean that these are, like, the “best” tunes of this set, and the infectious nature with which they are structured will only get them so far.


The topic of “cancel culture” comes up very briefly during the NTX Vinyl/DFW Legacy Series interview with members of the band—specifically around the song that has aged the worst of the bunch. Opening up the third side to Welcoming Home The Astronauts is “Chloroform The One You Love,” which, even with how problematic the title is alone (let alone the lyrics7), Cory Kreig swears that this is a “love song.” 


Some of these more pop oriented songs are among the oldest in the band’s catalog—“Chloroform” dates back to 1997, appearing as the titular track on a self-released EP, and a still-developing demo version of “You’re So Hollywood,” from 1998, was included on the When We Were Young collection.


The other infectious, highly energized songs found on side three of the reissue are thankfully much less inherently problematic in their content—not to confuse it with the Radiohead song of the same name, “Talk Show Host,” once the album’s second track in its 226 configuration, appears here near the end, and receives a small makeover, providing it absolutely enormous sounding guitar chords that plow through the shout-a-long chorus.


It’s ironic, though unintentionally so, that 20 years later, the vinyl crackle sound effect that begins the album’s proper closing track, “Direct Line to The Telepathic,” is not so much lost now, but combines effortlessly with the crackle of the very real needle skating across the final side to Welcoming Home The Astronauts.


If, out of all these songs, there was ever a “go for broke” moment, “Direct Line” would be it, simply with how it allows itself to play with the tension and release throughout its indulgent nine minute running time. Opening with the resonation of a strummed acoustic guitar, it gives way to Lea’s woozy, and at times almost ominous lyrics, as the patient, steady drumming from Dominic Weir and a slithering, heavy bass line from Fletcher Lea rumbles underneath it all. 



Like “Smile,” and in truth, probably like a lot of these songs the more time you spend analyzing them, “Direct Line to The Telepathic” is more about creating an atmosphere, or a feeling, that in turn, takes over absolutely everything in its path. Lea’s lyrics are fragmented and seemingly, at times, non-sequiturs—the whole thing more or less constructed to explode, as the band continues to play with the give and take built through dirge and an absolute torrent of sound. 


There is, too, the moment when the band—and I guess canonically, there are a handful of other examples where they would do this—borrows heavily from the very notion of “psychedelic” music, in the instrumental break before the final “big” moment in the song, when you can hear both a bong rip, and the sound of someone dialing a phone—the call, returned with the robotic voice altering you to the fact that it cannot be completed as dialed.


“Direct Line,” within its final minute, careens into borderline dissonance and chaos from keyboard blasts and distorted guitar squalls, and on a Tuesday night in mid-February, 2002, from the stage at The Rave, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I, temporarily, irritated Brandin Lea—“Fuck you,” he snapped at me. “We’re not playing fucking ‘Supersonic Dreamer.’” And so much time has passed that I wish I could remember, exactly, what Flickerstick did play that night8.


I remember that once the lights dimmed, the band slowly made their way onto the stage to “Pure Imagination,” from Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory, before opening with the double shot of “Lift,” and “Got a Feeling.” There is a good possibility the played almost all of Welcoming Home The Astronauts—saving room for what, at the time, was a brand new song, “Believe,” and because it was more or less a mainstay of their setlist at the time, their cover of the iconic Mazzy Star swooning ballad, “Fade into You.”


And what I can’t remember is if the band’s blistering set ended with, or if the encore began with, Brandin Lea alone on stage, with a 12-string acoustic guitar, playing a stripped down version of the unlisted track from Astronauts, “Execution by Christmas Lights”; but I am positive the final song of the night was a completely unhinged version of “Direct Line” that ending in chaos with the band’s logo being projected on a screen behind the drum kit, the members of the group sauntering off one by one, eventually leaving Cory Kreig on his knees by his pedal board, frantically wailing on the guitar strings, creating a deafening wall of noise.


*


“Direct Line” is a tough act to follow, and arriving quietly with an undercurrent of glitchy, skittering sounds, “Execution by Christmas Lights” is Welcoming Home The Astronauts’ epilogue. 


Slowly, and meticulously built over the course of six minutes, the unlisted track is strummed over a gauzy electric guitar, weighed down by swirling delay and echo, and even if it is still difficult, at times, for me to determine if this album, and this band, was something that grew with me over the last 20 years, or if it’s something that stayed a part of my past that I can look back on with a wistfulness now, but if there are Flickerstick songs that have, without a doubt, grown with me over the last two decades.


“Execution by Christmas Lights” is one of them.


There is a palpable sadness, and darkness that runs throughout “Execution,” even though there are flashes of hope as the song begins its ascent to an unrivaled dramatic, emotional climax. And there are probably allusions to a very real desperation, or longing, throughout a number of the band’s songs, but this is where that kind of visceral need is front and center. 


Of all the theatrical moments on Astronauts, this is arguably the most theatrical in terms of how self-aware the band is with the structure of the song—working with the notion of tension, release, and patience. 


Lea’s lyrics, here, are ambiguous and shadowy—strung together in evocative fragments like, “Counting all your 12-step tries,” and “Washing your hands of the methadone,” which give hints to something serious at the heart of the song, though the narrative never opts to elaborate more. And there is, of course, the song’s incredible build up, where the rest of the band finds their way into the atmosphere created—and there is a moment, shortly after the bass drum thumping from Weir forms a pulse for the song, that it seems like it isn’t going to work—like there isn’t clear way to hold this song together long enough to get it to the place it needs to be as it ends. 




But they make it to the moment where it all pays off—full of gorgeous, heartbreaking grandeur as everything slowly comes tumbling down around you until, like its predecessor, it concludes in a burst of guitar feedback—albeit much shorter, before slowly receding back into silence. 


And there is a specific line from “Execution by Christmas Lights,” or an idea, that, aside from the sheer scope of the song’s emotional spectrum, has resonated with me since the very first time I heard it—the cynic, or the music “critic” in me, partially finds it cloying now, but there is something still incredibly moving, and fleeting in its buoyancy, about the lyric that Lea sings that cues the rest of the band coming into the song—“Take all of your tiny wishes and dump them all overboard with me tonight.”


* 


There’s a lyric in “Direct Line to The Telepathic” that hadn’t really resonated until now—until revisiting this album, the band, and my relationship with both, and it’s a lyric that unintentionally summarizes the brief, wondrous career of Flickestick: “I just might see you and me—the excess of your own celebration.”


In 2015, Brandin Lea launched a new (and ultimately short lived) band, Jetta in The Ghost Tree, and in a long interview about his return to music (six years after Flickerstick disbanded), it goes into great detail about his alcoholism, how he nearly died because of it, and his journey to sobriety—at the time, he hesitated to use terms like “clean” and “sober” because he admittedly smoked a lot of pot, which he concedes is something a lot of people with drinking problems do while they are in recovery.  


Flickerstick’s love of alcohol was well documented—the group was notorious for taking pulls from a bottle of Jagermeister throughout live performances, and their alcohol-fueled antics made for compelling television when they were competing on “Bands on The Run.”


What the cameras didn’t shows and what Lea alludes to in the interview with Fort Worth Weekly is that the “Bands on The Run” crew were selling them drugs while filming (the band was supposed to abstain from that during production) and one member of Flickerstick (he does not say who) almost overdosed in a hotel bathroom.


And perhaps it was the combination of the somewhat volatile temperament of five people, unrelenting tours, and an unhealthy lifestyle, but Flickerstick began to fall apart around the release of Tarantula—while Weir is credited as playing the drums on the record, he was dismissed from the group, and replaced with Todd Harwell by the time of the album’s release.


The following year, Kreig, married with a child on the way, left because it wasn’t financial sustainable to remain in the band and support his growing family. 


Even before founding members of the group began to leave, either through their own accord or otherwise, Flickerstick’s sound and tone began to shift with the material released on the 2003 To Madagascar and Back EP, and their final full-length—the song titles painted a bleak picture of debauchery—“Teenage Dope Fiend,” “Girls and Pills,” and “Money and Dealers.” And there are songs from this era that have stuck with me—that I ruminate on, or still listen to, like the enthusiastic but melancholic opening track from Tarantula, “Catholic Scars9 and Chocolate Bars,” the dreamy “When You Were Young,” or the sprawling, harrowing “Blue,” which is the centerpiece to the Madagascar EP. 


The sonic makeup of the band, though, had started to shift. 


Gone was whatever major label money and moderately high profile producers Flickerstick worked with while revisiting Welcoming Home The Astronauts for its re-release. Paul Williams and Keith Cleversley were at the helm for the group’s 2003 and 2004 output, and to me, their work with both producers didn’t so much push the band’s literal dynamic further, but seemed to flatten it, or compress it down—eliminating the depth that was once there. 


There’s a fine line between capturing the unhinged, unpredictability of a live show, and the slick, recording studio trickery that helped make Astronauts sound so huge. And what I wasn’t able to accurately identify at the time, outside of the lingering notion that the music wasn’t hitting the same, is that the change in production, and shift in songwriting, contributed to me gradually listening, and following what the band was doing, less and less.


*


In the 2002 interview with “Concert Livewire10,” Flickerstick’s lead guitarist Rex James Ewing, explains the reason that the band changed the lyric from “naked with my girl,” to “taken with my girl,” on the Epic Records re-release of Welcoming Home The Astronauts is because of the Coca-Cola corporation itself. 


He’s a little glib within the conversation, as its transcribed, saying the soda giant was playing “hardball” with the band, and the group was worried they’d have to remove the song from the record completely before Coca-Cola suggested they just change the lyric slightly.


We really wanted the song on the record and we still sing it normal live and all that,” Ewing states. “To me, it’s a slight change. I don’t think it really changes the structure of the dynamics of the song. But we had to do it.”


I think there’s a part of me that never got used to the change, however small it might be, or however slight the band thought it was in order to secure the song’s place on the album. There is an irony, though, that isn’t lost me, with this specific predicament, contrasted against another lyric found on the album, in “Got a Feeling”—“Don’t sell out…you compromise every word you say.”


And even if it is still difficult, at times, for me to determine if this album, and this band, was something that grew with me over the last 20 years, or if it’s something that stayed a part of my past that I can look back on with a wistfulness now, but if there are Flickerstick songs that have, without a doubt, grown with me over the last two decades. 


“Coke,” at least the 226 version, is one of those songs—a song I could safely say is one of my favorite, or at least one of the most emotionally impactful of the last 20+ years of my life.


The further away the band got from the original release of Welcoming Home The Astronauts, the more raucous “Coke” became—perhaps they quickly grew weary of it, and would have rather not included it in the setlist night after night, but as one of the group’s arguably most popular, or best received songs, perhaps there was a sense of obligation.



You can hear the way it shifts, though, the subsequently released live versions in 2002, and 2007—the song moving along at a little faster pace, weighed down with more guitar theatrics that drown out the original clarity of the iconic (at least to me) guitar riff that runs throughout a bulk of the song.


The “taken” version of the song doesn’t completely do away with the gravity, or sentiment of the original, but all of that does get lost slightly within the major label bombast that made the song sound so immense. 


The heartbeat of the song, or what lies at its core, is the strongest in its original iteration.


Musically it’s crafted not so much with patience, but with the understanding amongst the members of the group that the song is going to take just a little bit of time to build its momentum—initially opening with just Fletcher Lea’s rumbling bass notes, before the cymbal taps and the swirling, disembodied voice coast in; the pacing is then found with the thundering rhythm and song’s main guitar riff—more or less a string by string variant of the D chord. And there’s a powerful and dramatic quality to it all—the way the song’s arranging and instrumentation has a give and take in between verses and the chorus. I stop short of wanting to call it a “ballad,” but there is a heightened emotional quality to it, similar to the way other, very histrionic “alternative rock”11 songs of this era were capable of playing out. 


The lyrics, of course, help to both expound upon and sell this theatricality.


She’s got another life that I am living in, my friend,” Brandin Lea sings in the song’s opening line. “Through and through, she says it’s nothing I can change—I always was the one.”


There is a starkness, or a seriousness, that is very present in “Coke” that is missing in a lot of Flickerstick’s other songs—there’s enough detail to give the song a narrative, but ambiguous enough to leave you curious about that narrative. And in that starkness, or seriousness, there is also a desperation, a longing, and a melancholy—“The celebration ends without a sound,” the first verse begins. “And your friends—they’re not around; and you find you’re all alone, talking to yourself again. You promised it’s the end, just one night—you’ll be fine. But in the end, the dreams you dream, are all you ever were.”


I feel like the intent with that line, as well as with the song’s chorus (“Come on, I’d like to buy the world a Coke and lie here naked with my girl”) is to create a flash of hope—similar to the brief glimmer that appears near the end of “Execution by Christmas Lights,” but even after 20 years, I am uncertain if I believe that. I feel like there’s the desperation, and longing, and melancholy, and within all of that, there is, regardless of how difficult it might be, an acceptance. 


*


Even though it’s stretched out beyond the capacity of its low resolution, the photograph of the band on the back of the LP sleeve reminded me of something I had, more or less, forgotten about—outside of the impact Flickerstick’s music had on me when I was in my late teens and very early 20s, there was a time when the band’s sense of style—specifically that of Brandin Lea, had also made an impression. 


In the photograph on the back cover of Welcoming Home The Astronauts, Brandin, front and center in the group shot, can be seen wearing his infamous white belt. The Fort Worth Weekly piece refers to the belt in an aside to the reader as being “much maligned”—but there were moments throughout my college years when the band’s aesthetic inspired my penchant for vintage t-shirts that might have been a little too tight for my physique at the time; for button down shirts, untucked, and a necktie that perhaps clashed, or made the entire look a little too loud; for wearing thrift store blazers over thrifted t-shirts that still may have been, like, a size too small; of trying to wear an ascot but never really having the confidence to pull it off; of trying to dye my very flat, dark brown hair red, then carefully coif it so it looked effortlessly tousled. 


There are internet search results in my browsing history, right now, for “men’s vegan leather white belt.” 


*


There is something undeniably invigorating about revisiting Welcoming Home The Astronauts, like this, 20 years after the fact—maybe it’s the frenzy of the band not exactly “reuniting,” but of working together12 enough to reissue the album on vinyl, adding it to streaming platforms, and of collecting a batch of rare tracks for the anthology. 


Maybe it’s the band’s active social media presence, and the small hope that there will be some kind of reunion show, or tour, in the near future. 


Maybe it’s the nostalgia and enthusiasm of the members who regularly post memories and stories in the Facebook group. 


At the beginning of each new year, I create a new “Sticky Note” on the desktop of my computer, and I begin to compile a list of albums that, within the calendar year, will be celebrating a milestone anniversary of some sort—usually ten, or twenty years. 


Sometimes, at the beginning of each new year, the list is long, or maybe a little ambitious, and as the weeks become months, I’ll begin to get a feeling for what albums I have the time, and am actually in a place to, articulately reflect on and write about. 


In January of 2021, among the albums I listed was Welcoming Home The Astronauts by Flickerstick—and of all the albums that made it onto the list that were eventually removed for whatever reason, it remained on the list because it was important to me to make the time to reflect on what this album—as well as the band itself, meant to me in 2001, when I was all of 18 years old.


I spend a lot of my time, both within my life itself, but also within the things I write, dealing in the business of nostalgia. And what I have found is that when ruminating on and then speaking about your nostalgic feelings connected to music—a specific band, or a album that is inherently representative of a different time in your life, far removed from where you are now—there are the albums, or artists, that grow with you; you take those things through time, and whatever you found in it then, or whatever it offered you then, it still offers that regularly when you return to it. 


There are the bands, or albums, that despite how much you might have loved them at the time, or how impactful they might have been within those moments, they, for whatever reason, do not grow with you. You don’t necessarily “outgrow” them, but you find yourself not taking them with you in the figurative sense—and when you return to them at a later time, you are able to identify and appreciate it for what it was, but that connection is either no longer there, or is very faint, and it remains a part of the past.


I still don’t know if I can answer my own question—about if Flickerstick was something that I wholeheartedly carried with me, and grew with me, to the place where I am now, or if it was something that I can look at now and appreciate for what it meant at that time, but that it really remains a part of the past.


Flickerstick is a part of another life I am living in, and maybe it’s a question that doesn’t need to be answered. 




1- In the fall of 2000, I went to see the Deftones at The Eagle’s Ballroom. I often tell people it was my first “real” concert, but the first concert I actually went to was to see the New Kids on The Block when I was in 2nd grade. 


2- 20 years ago, I was completely unaware that this song was more or less a demo, or an early single, recorded by the band, roughly a year before recording Welcoming Home the Astronauts.


3- From what I have been able to glean, “Smile” was not really a new song—it appears on the band’s self-released, self-titled demo cassette, from 1996. I just mean “new” as in it’s a song that wasn’t on the record originally, and had been featured during “Bands on The Run” performances. 


4- This is probably not the case anymore since commercial FM radio is, like, a dying industry, but in 1990s, shaving off any time at all from a song’s length meant you could cram more advertisements within an hour of content. 


5- Within that Pitchfork piece there is a link to another article about how vinyl of color is a contentious issue for listeners. 


6- I was truthfully surprised that Welcoming Home The Astronauts was even reviewed the by the site, and that it wasn’t scrubbed when they redesigned their layout a few years ago following the buyout from Conde Nast.


7- “She’s only 18, but such a beautiful dream” is wildly problematic, as is, like the rest of the song’s content. 


8- A quick aside to mention that the band Abandoned Pools were the opening act on this tour. Founded by Tommy Walter, once a member of the Eels, I had immersed myself in Walter’s debut as Abandoned Pools, Humanistic, prior to the concert. I bought an A.P. shirt with a robot on it from the merchandise table (foolishly not buying any Flickerstick merchandise, though) and I have no idea what happened to that shirt. It’d be entirely too large for me now, but there are times when I wish I still had it.


9- During my first three years of college, I was in a relationship with a girl who could, at times, be pretty religious; when we broke up, we made attempts to still remain friends. I’m uncertain how much of a fan of Flickerstick she actually had been, but when Tarantula was released, I had either made her a copy of it, or included the song “Catholic Scars and Chocolate Bars” on a mix of some kind. I remember asking her if she liked the new Flickerstick stuff, and she specifically said she didn’t like that song. And enough time has passed that I understand why she didn’t. 


10- I understand that this is a website from 2002, but the site’s layout is unintentionally hilarious.


11- When I was writing this, the first song that came to mind that has a similar feeling is “Shimmer,” by Fuel. 


12- The flamboyant Rex James Ewing has been noticeably absent from all things pertaining to this reissue. Occasionally this comes up in posts or comments within the Facebook group about the band, and it seems that Rex really no longer plays music, may or may not be working as a bartender somewhere in Texas, is incredibly private, and wants to leave Flickerstick in the past.




The 226 version of Welcoming Home The Astronauts can be found from sellers on Amazon; the Epic Records CD, long out of production, can be found from sellers on Discogs, or to buy digitally here, or stream here. The vinyl reissue of Welcoming Home The Astronauts was limited to 600 copies, and sold out prior to the release date. The band has alleged a second, larger pressing will be happening soon.  

Comments

  1. Fuck you! We're not playing fucking "Supersonic Dreamer"!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Fuck you! We're not playing fucking Supersonic Dreamer!

    ReplyDelete

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