Tour DC with the rock band behind one of 2018's best albums
Sylvia Plath’s ponytail hangs in Washington, DC’s National Portrait Gallery. It’s a thick, dirty-brown plait housed in a glass box, and as unsettling as it is to look at a piece of Plath’s corporeal form while thinking about her short and tragic life, Taylor Mulitz is equally fascinated and weirded out by it. He leads me over to the ponytail the second we enter the gallery, silently gesturing toward it with both hands, as if to say: “Ta-DA!”
Mulitz is the guitarist in the local band Flasher. His bandmates and childhood friends, bassist Daniel Saperstein and drummer Emma Baker, are here with us, admiring other bits of memorabilia. Soon, we will head upstairs to see the recently-unveiled portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama, but for now we’re staring at Sylvia Plath’s ponytail and quietly contemplating the stuff people leave behind, the things that make up a life.
It’s a fitting start to the day. Over the course of a muggy Wednesday afternoon in the capital, the members of Flasher will take me on a tour of their hometown, and by extension, their lives. The National Portrait Gallery is the only conventional landmark we will visit. Flasher played a show here once, sure, but the basements they’ve recorded in, the restaurants they’ve worked at, and the venues they’ve been hanging out in for years say way more about this band than some typical DC tourist destination ever could.
Flasher is a relatively new band, and their forthcoming debut full-length, Constant Image, is one of the best albums of the year. It’s fiery and melodic rock music that borrows from post-punk, new wave, shoegaze, indie-pop, and avoids being pegged to any one genre. This album celebrates the triumphs and tribulations of the day-to-day, elevated by hooks on hooks on hooks. They’re songs that make you happy simply because they are so good, but they’re also songs that make you think, driven by personal ideology and politically-oriented musings that slip in and out of focus.
“He’s the one who got stuck in the bathtub, right?” she asks.
This feels refreshing. Over the past year, narratives surrounding new music releases have grown increasingly linked to the current political situation. Some of those are self-imposed, others are media-driven, almost as if any music that isn’t obviously tied to What’s Happening Now loses its relevance. The 24-hour news cycle is brutal, and sometimes it’s difficult to get something to stick without pegging it to whatever current event dominates the feed. To put it plainly: Standing up for something is in vogue.
As tied to this place as Flasher are, the music they’re writing doesn’t take aim at tangible targets and they don’t make calls-to-action. Trumpism is a symptom of a greater social disease, one that manifests itself in every aspect of their lives in ways both seen and unseen.
“The reactionary politics of the moment [make people think that] Trump, for all his fucked-uped-ness, is the reason why we should be [promoting] a more anti-racist position. Maybe that’s not a sustainable kind of politics, to be constantly, like, deciding it’s justified to see your whole life as political just because it has cultural capital,” Saperstein will tell me later. “And that isn’t to say — you know, Trump should die, that’s for sure — but what I really care about is racism dying. And that is like … it’s so much bigger than Trump. He just happens to preside over the entire institution of it right now.”
To Saperstein, the most overlooked moments in one’s life can be the most politically-charged. “When I go to work at a restaurant and have to stand at the counter where I get the food and think about how I’m talking to the kitchen staff and how every single person working in the kitchen is not white, it’s already a political zone,” Saperstein gives an example. “I’m not saying that changing consciousness is enough, I’m just trying to encourage people to remember that shit can always be political.”
“Most of our friends at home, all of them, we play music together. That’s like the nature of almost everyone that we know,” Saperstein explains. When we go to the venue Black Cat at the end of the day, I’ll see what they mean. Almost every person in the bar is a familiar — from the bartender to the fellow musicians smoking outside waiting for the show to start. When I’m introduced to people they all ask me some variation of: “So how do you know Flasher?”
After graduating from different high schools in DC, the three parted ways. Baker went to McGill before transferring to a nearby university to finish her degree in chemistry. She plays in another DC-based band called Big Hush. Saperstein went to Guilford College, a Quaker school in North Carolina where they majored in ceramics. Mulitz took a less conventional path, studying graphic design on a scholarship at Parsons in New York City before transferring to MICA in Baltimore because he found it hard to keep up with living expenses in New York. (Mulitz designed the Constant Image artwork.) He eventually dropped out of school entirely in order to play bass full-time in the band Priests and help them run their label Sister Polygon.
“I wish I stuck it out because now I have more student debt and no degree ’cause I had to drop out of school after three years,” Mulitz says. “I didn’t have to, but I did to do Priests. I started playing with them in the middle of the transfer and I was just gone every single weekend. I got terrible grades. So I was like, ‘Well, if I wanna play music, I’m just gonna do that.'”
But Mulitz officially left Priests last fall in order to focus his energy on Flasher. Around that time, I saw Priests perform at Basilica SoundScape, where Merchandise’s Carson Cox filled in for Mulitz. His absence was noticed, and there were certainly murmurings over whether or not Mulitz was still in Priests.
Back in DC, Flasher were trying to piece together their debut album. They’d been signed by Domino Records after putting out a 7″ in May 2017, the follow-up to their introductory self-titled EP, which came out the year before and garnered a significant amount of attention. Mulitz, Saperstein, and Baker were on a time crunch.
“We wrote most of the record a month before we went and recorded it. And really wrote, I would say, a quarter of it while we were tracking and mixing,” Saperstein pauses for a moment. “But I think the record is better for it.”
“DC is beautiful. There’s a national park in the middle of the city, the arboretum on the east side,” Saperstein says, explaining what made them want to move back to DC after college. It is, after all, among the most expensive cities in the country that a musician could choose to live in. Gentrification is one of the consequences of that. “In DC, you gotta move around the city to make it work. It means you’re moving into neighborhoods that were always segregated, that were always relegated for black folks, mostly. There’s responsibility in that, in terms of how you’re a neighbor. I really appreciate that, not being able to take it for granted. The conditions of making it work in DC are something you have to necessarily share with other people, people of color.”
Though all of the members of Flasher have spent time living in other cities, DC is where they’re from and it’s the only home they can really imagine for the time being; it’s familiar and beautiful and tied to personal history.
Saperstein’s mom is Ellen Weiss, a radio producer who helmed NPR’s All Things Considered for years. Saperstein spent their childhood in the public radio offices, cataloguing CDs for Bob Boilen years before All Songs Considered launched. Some of their earliest memories of discovering canonical music for the first time comes from those hours spent listening to and labeling music for NPR.
“I used to go and sit in the engineering studio and watch [engineers] direct. It’s definitely something that made me wanna record,” Saperstein says as we drive past the NPR headquarters.
Now, Saperstein shares a studio with Baker’s partner and Big Hush bandmate Owen Wuerker. It’s in the basement of some friends’ brick home in Brookland, a Northeastern neighborhood that’s considered one of the city’s more diverse. It’s been changing in recent years, though, as real estate developers capitalize on the artistic communities that took root here and the effects of gentrification have bled into neighboring Edgewood, a historically black part of town. Saperstein just moved into a small house nearby. Their room is the attic, and it’s gotten really hot over the past week or two. The landlord isn’t responding to any calls asking that he fix the house’s central A/C.
As the four of us make it down the basement stairs into the studio, Saperstein immediately takes a seat behind the board. It’s clear that this is where they’re most comfortable — mixing until the early hours of the morning, exacerbating a back injury they got in a car accident a few years back by hunching over all the time.
Flasher made their self-titled debut EP here, and it used to be their practice space until they started renting out of Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty’s former studio space.
“It was surreal. You would walk around and Brendan has all of these really unique percussion instruments and the cracked Fugazi bell is there. You would be in these dark rooms and there would be tupperware containers with cassettes and there would be Fugazi demos. They had practice demos from like 1993, shit like that,” Saperstein remembers.
“But then the building got bought out by a weed farm,” Mulitz quips.
The anti-commercial, DIY-leanings of DC’s storied hardcore scene still run deep in this city. Mulitz and Baker speak fondly of “the Dischord crew,” who they’ve befriended over the years playing shows around town. Though Flasher didn’t grow up with DC hardcore as a formative influence, they certainly benefited from the scene in more ways than they can really quantify. All-ages showspaces that those older musicians advocated for are still the norm here, without which the three of them wouldn’t have seen nearly as much live music growing up.
“We used to go to shows at AU [American University] all the time when we were kids — it was where like all the hardcore shows were. That was the big thing when we were in middle and early high school. There’d be all these beefy-ass hardcore dudes that would just be like… so sweet to us,” Baker remembers. “I just went to shows three nights a week or something and at some point I was like ‘Wait why don’t I play in a band?’ I don’t even play an instrument, but what the hell. And then we started a band.”
“It’s a lot easier when you have supportive parents who are dropping you off at Fort Reno or venues at a really young age,” Mulitz reflects on how fortunate he and the other members of the band were to have parents who fostered their love of music. “And then they’re like: ‘OK that makes sense, and I can afford to buy you a guitar.'”
To make Constant Image, Flasher decided to abandon their DIY upbringing and worked with a producer for the first time, mostly because they could afford and were expected to now that they were officially signed to Domino. They ended up choosing to work with Nicolas Vernhe (Animal Collective, Deerhunter, the War On Drugs) at Rare Book Room in Brooklyn.
Constant Image both does and doesn’t sound like it was made in a hurry. Lyrically, the album is all internal monologue, words mishmashed together in seemingly random combinations so as to derive some kind of meaning of spontaneity. Recent single “Pressure” talks of “keeping pace in a stasis,” of the teeming fears that circle through your mind time and again as you’re trying to fall asleep. This is an anxious album, one that doesn’t try to mask its own insecurity, but it’s also wildly fun, the product of three people who really get one another and know how to elevate their individual strengths to create a singular vision.
“We write the lyrics collaboratively a lot of the time. There’s definitely certain songs where it’s like more one person’s writing, but it gets the stamp of approval from all of us,” Mulitz explains. “It’s very democratic in that way, which can be tough, but I think in the end it’s good because everyone feels like some sort of connection to it.”
“And connection to it that doesn’t have to do with ownership,” Saperstein chimes in.
Baker describes the process as being similar to playing “exquisite corpse,” a kind of parlor game invented by surrealists. It involves folding a paper into three sections — one for the head, the torso, and the legs — with a different illustrator taking on each without knowing what was drawn in the other section. The result is a contorted take of the human form, a body that’s often warped beyond recognition. It’s designed to inspire a new way of thinking about something you might look at every day without questioning.
Mulitz and Saperstein share lead vocal duties on Flasher’s songs, with Baker joining in on certain harmonies. During a live performance the three are locked in-step, trading off vocal parts so as to maximize their dynamism.
“If the music is hard to relate to — as if you’re trying to relate to someone’s vision — it’s cause it’s not someone’s vision. It’s three people’s visions, literally wrapped up with each other,” Saperstein says.
On a particularly difficult day in the studio the band rallied around a source of inspiration they could all connect with: The Goofy Movie. It’s a kids film they all watched growing up that features a fictional band called Powerline. The vocal melody on “XYZ,” a song rooted in materialistic desires, was directly inspired by one of Powerline’s songs. When Baker tells me about this moment she describes it as an especially happy memory, one that showcases the way this band works, how they create music based on shared experience.
“A lot of [art is] built around that idea of the cult of personality,” Mulitz says. “Sometimes it’s anxiety-inducing when there is a spotlight being shown on this [project] or any of us.”
Constant Image is founded on a collectivist spirit, and though the album encompasses various themes, there is a throughline that connects them: surviving and subverting capitalism.
“We all work full-time jobs, you know, and we would love to do this full-time also, but we also like to work. I think a lot of our music has to do with the experience of working,” Saperstein muses when they consider what it’d be like to quit their day job. “I wonder what we’re gonna talk about in our music when all we’re doing is playing music and not having other stuff to do.”
“It’ll be about our internet persona,” Baker suggests jokingly, seeing as how the band basically has no online footprint.
Saperstein isn’t talking about their job specifically — they’re talking about the process of performing labor that isn’t somehow connected to spiritual or artistic growth. There comes a moment in every artist’s career when they’re made to choose between pursuits that some might consider financially irresponsible, or the safer career path with a pre-mapped trajectory. Flasher are still young — Mulitz and Baker are 26, Saperstein is 27 — but they’re at the age now where being in a band is what they do, it’s not just a holdover hobby from college.
“For the record, I don’t like working at a restaurant. Personally. But sometimes it is nice to go to work and not have to feel like it takes any sort of creative energy to make something that you feel proud of, but instead it’s literally about just mindlessly going through [the motions],” Mulitz clarifies. “I think the goal is to figure out a way of doing [music full-time] that feels like it’s on our own terms. But you have to like kind of do the shitty grunt work to put yourself in a position where you can say no to certain things in the future.”
This is the same parking lot Flasher would hang out in as teenagers, and that hasn’t changed much since. Each corner of the lot has a different name, Baker explains. There’s “the hole,” a patch of dirt next to a dumpster where one is able to sit down on a ledge and take a quick smoke break; across the lot is the “California corner,” a more idyllic (for a parking lot) patch of grass surrounded by trees.
Comet Ping Pong is a pizzeria that doubles as a venue. It hosts intimate shows and subscribes to a safe spaces mentality and hires a lot of queer artists and musicians. Nationally, Comet Ping Pong is best known for being at the center of the #Pizzagate conspiracy theory involving John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, and a non-existent child pornography ring. Comet Ping Pong received threatening phone calls for weeks on end in the fall of 2016, and some of its employees were personally harassed on social media. That December, a man armed with an AR-15-style rifle entered the establishment and fired.
Though no one was injured in the attack and none of the members of Flasher were working, they hesitate to talk about the incident. The harassment hasn’t exactly stopped in the years since it happened and they’re not eager to build the band’s narrative on a very real, very scary experience that’s been trivialized as ultra-right-wing buffoonery gone awry.
“Both the cause and the consequence of it is just how queerphobic it really is. Suspicion and accusations of pedophilia on a conspiratorial level have always gone hand in hand with accusations of people being gay. ‘If you’re gay, what’s wrong with that is that you’re a fucking pedophile,'” Saperstein explains. “Queerphobic tactics [are used] to separate, confuse, and mess up the livelihoods of other working class people that are in collective safe spaces like Comet is.”
The band is protective of this place. This job will welcome them back when they return from a tour and its staff is made up of friends they’d just as soon hang out with outside of work. Next door, at Buck’s, we sit at the bar and drink Amaretto Sours, an almost-too-sweet drink Mulitz has been talking up all day. As we sip, he points out who everyone in the restaurant is, as if they’re all somehow connected to the story of this band. These are the people who cover shifts while Flasher’s on tour, who make the daily grind of working a bearable if not borderline-pleasant experience. When Baker talks about “the industry,” she isn’t talking about the music industry. She’s talking about the restaurant industry, one that Flasher’s been embedded in for more time than they’ve been on the same label as Arctic Monkeys.
When Baker and Mulitz briefly lived together in Baltimore they formed a project called Young Trynas alongside Eva Moolchan of Sneaks. They released a song called “$” on their 2013 EP Probably Music, a lo-fi punk track that crests on static noise. “I need a job (Where’s my job)/ I wanna work hard/ When’s payday?/ It’s been too long/ I need money,” the lyrics go.
“I think Flasher was a response to that band,” Mulitz says when I bring up Young Trynas’ short-lived career. That band’s lyricism was straightforward, intentionally on-the-nose and shameless in its delivery. There are a lot of songs about love and loss and heartache. There aren’t nearly enough about trying to make a living.
“For this band [the one thing] that’s been really important is the reality of what it’s like to survive capitalism from underneath. I think we’re trying to collapse into the personal space,” Saperstein says. “There is a lot of solidarity in talking about the most mundane minutiae of everyday life. That’s the stuff we’re talking about in Flasher.”
There’s a lyric on Constant Image that best exemplifies that sentiment. “The world spins before it falls,” Mulitz sings toward the end of “Harsh Light.” It’s a small suggestion that no matter how aggressively bad things can get, you still have to go about your business in order to make it to tomorrow. You have to pay your bills and your rent and go grocery shopping and make it into work on time in order to do all of the rest of it.
“Sometimes just like, surviving it at all is also a kind of resistance,” Saperstein pauses. “As white folks it’s easy for us to [say], ‘We demand a future that we all deserve.’ But it takes a lot of privilege to imagine that future, because it means that you’re building off something that’s given to you, that you want to work toward. You can imagine it because it’s in the cards for you. You just want it to be better than the cards that you have.”
Saperstein says Flasher aims to make some of these ideas accessible rather than preachy. It’s important to them to live “as if you’re not already always engaged in some kind of process in which your politics are at stake. Not to make everything a dialectical, freaky Us vs. Imperial Capitalists crazy battle. You should just move the [idealism] goal post. From like, full communism — not that that wouldn’t be dope if it worked — to something like, ‘Oh, every minute I could be living in rejection of heteronormative white supremacists,’ just by not taking [privilege] for granted.”
“Yeah, I think it’s good to think about … to frame the record more like a conversation with your coworkers than like a manifesto about the way things are and how they should be. But as something that feels painfully aware of itself,” Mulitz says.
There is a lot of solidarity in talking about the most mundane minutiae of everyday life.
That’s what “Material” is about. It’s one of the album’s strongest, a B-52s-influenced tongue-twister helmed by Saperstein with a chorus that sounds like a nonsensical rallying cry that delights in its own absurdity: “Touch the physical/ Clutching typical crush/ Fuck the visible livable touching everyone.” It’s a reminder that some of the seemingly lofty ideas, the critical discourse that Flasher tends to engage with, is all rooted in tangible reality. That moving between the theoretical and the physical doesn’t have to be an exhaustive process.
Saperstein might be the more reliable historian in the group, but Baker has an anecdote for most of the places we visit. As we crest up and over a tree-lined street at sunset and arrive at Fort Reno, she interrupts the car chatter to share what Mulitz characterizes as a “factoid” about Constant Image.
“In the song ‘Punching Up’ there’s a line that goes: ‘Fake cop on a hill, driving right up,'” she starts. “It’s about this place. I was smoking weed with my friends and this older kid had bought this police car and he shined the light on us and he drove straight up the hill to scare us and I threw my bowl over the fence.”
Everyone laughs. After engaging in conversation with Saperstein and Mulitz about the heavier elements of Constant Image, Baker is a counterweight. “Punching Up” is an airy Smashing Pumpkins-indebted daydream, the kind of song that sounds like you’re watching your childhood run away from you in slow motion. Its lyrics were mostly inspired by Baker’s time at Wilson High School, which she attended decades after Ian MacKaye did. Fort Reno hosted dozens of Fugazi summer concerts over the years, and as we walk through the damp grass toward the modest wooden stage, Flasher recall some of the best shows they’ve seen and even played here with other bands, reminiscing the way old friends do.
“Surviving capitalism” might be the smarter, more intellectual framework through which to listen to Constant Image, but an even more accessible word comes to mind as we stand on this hill: camaraderie. These are songs of resilience made possible by people who stand by you during terrible times, who bring joy into your life when little else will. There’s an egolessness to this project that stands apart from the vast majority of rock bands. Most boast a charismatic frontperson and a backing band that doesn’t always get an opportunity to shine. Flasher wouldn’t really be possible if one of the members decided, for whatever reason, to call it quits.
You can hear that in the way they perform these songs. When Saperstein opens “Who’s Got Time?” they rip into the seams of a decaying relationship, letting all the feelings of inadequacy associated with a breakup hang out. “It’s not like I had a reason for leaving you/ Thought I wouldn’t be missing you/ All the things that we never do but could,” their voice quickens to breakneck pace, before Mulitz joins them. “If I show that I’m frightened and young would it take?” he asks. In that moment, a confessional meltdown becomes a burden they share, a celebration of the messiness of being alive.
“If [a song] is just ambiguous enough or just striking enough or just specific enough, it can keep creating new meaning for you. It can make you feel powerful,” Saperstein says.
While there are allusions to very private, very personal traumas on Constant Image, we don’t talk about any of that in the nine or so hours I spend with Flasher. Whenever the band starts detailing lyrics, they tend to stop short, baiting listeners with a small idea in the hopes that it’ll blossom into something wholly different than what originally inspired a song. They see music as an exchange, an opportunity to start a dialogue with friends and strangers.
“We don’t have a monopoly on what a song is supposed to be about,” Saperstein continues. “[This album is] a conversation we want to have with other people. A conversation means that it’s not finished. We don’t get the last word on it, and we want it to be that way.”