Flashbulb Fires on the new album and adjusting to life as a three-piece without a bassist

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Flashbulb Fires (due this Saturday, May 12, at the hi-dive, with Princess Music and Shirley) has endured some changes and been rather active in the past year. Now a trio -- the act parted ways with its bassist last summer and opted not to replace him -- the act split its time between touring and recording a new album, Gasconader. We recently spoke with the guys -- Patrick McGuire, Michael James and Chris Sturniolo -- about the new album and adjusting to being a three-piece.

Westword: In the past year, how has your career changed? What's new? What's different? You've got a new album out and you're touring, but as musicians and artists, what's changed for you?

Michael James: I would say the biggest thing for us has been going from a four-piece to a three-piece. I know that when you saw us we were a three-piece, but that was probably...I think it was our first show as a three-piece ever. We originally started out as a four-piece, and along the way we lost our bass player. We had another guy that filled in for a little while, but rather than go down the road of auditioning and trying to find another guy to fit in and fill the role, we used it as a creative challenge to reinvent ourselves a little bit.

We had goals to record a new album and to advance our sound and sync into a little bit more of who were as a band and our individuality, but at the same time, we had to really figure out how to function and find our way as a three-piece. I think that's the biggest change. Truthfully, in a lot of ways, we even feel like we're a different band -- even though it's the same band and the same project and everything, the way we reformed things and reformatted things, it's a different band in a lot of ways.

That makes total sense. You're not exactly one instrument down, because I'm sure you guys have picked it up in other ways, but when you're a four-piece and you lose 25 percent of your band, it's a substantial difference.

MJ: Yeah, absolutely.

How, then, has that translated to your performances?

MJ: Well, it's made us be more creative and more adventurous with the instrumentation we use. There's something pretty standard about a four-piece rock band -- we were a little different because we've always had piano of some kind -- but piano, guitar, drums, bass is a pretty standard four-piece setup. And when you switch to a three-piece and take out the bass, we had to creatively figure out how to fill that gap at the low end of the musical spectrum, so to speak. I think it's just made us be more creative and take more risks and be a little braver in what we're doing.

So have any of you guys felt like you had to do double duty to fill that void [left by the bass player] on stage and even off stage?

CS: I would say off stage not at all. We never really had a fourth member who was pulling a ton of weight in that regard. I do think on stage we've had to pick up some stuff, with some extra percussion and glockenspiels and stuff like that that we use a lot. Each of us plays at least one extra instrument on stage, and some of us more than one. I don't know if it's covering for what we're missing from having a different lineup, but what ends up happening is that the sound became a lot thicker actually when we lost a member, and we had to accommodate that. We could have brought on someone else, but it's kind of interesting to see how much you can pull off on stage.

In working with each other and working off of each other, and especially experimenting, like Mike was saying, what do you feel like you can pull off the best, and what do you feel you can pull off the worst?

MJ: Well, I was speaking earlier how in some ways we feel it's a different band. I would say our older music, the stuff from Glory, which we're all pretty still proud of and we like, it becomes a challenge to really pull it off the way we would like to. It's different instrumentation -- you can sort of make up for it in some ways, but in other ways, it's just like treading over old ground. It almost doesn't seem worth it in some ways. As far as the things that are tough and challenging in this setup, it's music that has been written prior to us going to this format.

As far as what we can pull really well, surprisingly, when we wrote this record, we wrote the record and wanted it to sound how we envisioned it in our heads. We didn't really pay too much attention to pulling it off live before we got to that point. And when we finally did go down that road, I'm really proud of us for what we've been able to do live.

I think Chris sort of alluded to it: Even though we're a three-piece now, I think the sound is much, much bigger. Even in the back of our minds we felt like we had to make things bigger -- like my guitar tones, for example, I try to make more epic than a simple guitar tone -- because we were just going with a different sound in some ways. I really think that the new stuff sounds great live. For my stuff, too, not having that fourth bass player and not having that fourth vocalist actually opened up a lot of space for us to create more intricate space.

Patrick McGuire: I think this incarnation of our band is the... basically, the core of the band has always been us three, and now that it is just us three, that has formed the writing of the new record, feeling a little braver and more secure as writers just being us three. Also, I think in terms of the sounds on stage, I feel like we want to show up on stage and have people say, "Wow! How are three dudes making that sound? How are they making a soundscape that vast and thick?

Yeah, I agree. There's definitely a strong difference between Glory and this album in a lot of ways, especially sonically. There's a different kind of confidence in this one. But before talk about the new album and the recording process and all of that, I do want to know: What happened to your fourth guy?

MJ: It's a very long and confusing story, but basically, he got to the point where he just was no longer interested. It was really a touring thing. After we released Glory in the December of '09, we spent most of 2010 on the road. It's pretty grueling. We're not on tour buses and hotel rooms every night. It's all booked ourselves. It's a pretty grueling thing when you're a young band getting started on the road. It just got to be too much for him; he just decided he didn't want to do it anymore. It definitely put a kink in what we were doing.

PM: We canceled some tours.

MJ: Yeah, we canceled some tours and canceled some legs and stuff. That's the long and short of it.

Thank you. It's always so interesting to hear about, at least briefly, the reason for someone leaving or someone joining. Sometimes we don't always hear about that, but it's still always interesting. So when you talked about the touring period between Glory and now, you said you had a very specific idea in mind -- or at least a formulated idea -- of what you wanted the new album to sound like. Could you explain that idea?

CS: When we first started, we definitely didn't have an idea of what it would sound like. I think we thought it would grow the things we liked from Glory into something more. But I guess what ended up happening was, once we settled on a basic instrumentation, we kind of decided to go for a more... Glory had a lot of piano and acoustic guitars and stuff, and we decided to go for something more organ-based. Even some synths and stuff like that.

So once we came to that conclusion, and Mike developed these new guitar tones, too, that were just huge -- actually some of the guitar tones sound like a church organ, sometimes you can't even tell on the album whether it's the organ or the guitar -- but once we decided on that instrumentation, the album started developing and stuff. I would say, after we wrote two or three songs, we had a bit of a vision. Really, it wasn't realized until a week before we finished the album - then you can kind of see the full picture of it. Luckily, through all of that, it came out pretty cohesive, more so than Glory I think even.

MJ: I think you can definitely tell the difference between this album and Glory, as far as the cohesiveness goes. Glory was still, in some ways, shilling diverse influence; there's some stuff that seems like it fits together, then there's some random songs in there that are seemingly almost a different genre or different band. It's definitely not as cohesive as this one. That was definitely a goal from the onset, even if we didn't have a true picture in our mind of how it would end up.

With something as big as producing an album and creating this body of work, it just doesn't happen over night. You're going to start with something, then finish with -- not necessarily something different -- something more evolved than what you had initially thought. I think this is a great example of that.

MJ: It is amazing how when it starts you have a vision. Obviously when you start it you have a vision of what you think you want it to be, but then it grows almost on its own. You're putting in the work, and you're trying to develop it and stuff, but at some point it just gets a life of its own, to a certain degree.

How far into the recording process did it take for this album to take on a life of its own, would you say?

CS: The recording process itself took -- [to Mike and Patrick] how long? We started last January maybe...

MJ: Yeah.

CS: And finished within a year. So maybe around April or May [2011], a few months in. A lot of that was not even really recording. A lot of that was sitting around and writing, trying stuff out.

MJ: Chris and I actually had this weekend where we were just in the house where we did the album, and we just spent, like, all day and all night re-working some songs that we had rough ideas -- it just wasn't hitting how we wanted it to hit -- and I think that's where a lot of it developed. That weekend. Chris alluded to guitar tones and stuff like that that I came up with -- that was all born on that weekend; it really took shape.

CS: It was almost as simple as when we hit on those big, lush guitar tones -- that don't really sound like a guitar a lot of the time -- and, for lack of a better term, the hip-hop type beats, really progressive beats, actually made writing some of the other songs actually pretty easy because we kind of knew the direction.

What kind of music inspired you to create those initial new sounds? Because they are different than Glory. What had you been listening to?

MJ: What were we listening to?

It was a long time ago, huh?

CS: Something that we listened to a lot during that time... Deerhunter was one of them, and what was the--

MJ: It was one of the kids.

CS: Kid, kids... It's like two dudes. I'm totally spacing on the name. We listened to it that weekend.

PM: I was even listening to that Gnarls Barkeley a lot, for a lot of the background vocals and shit.

...Oh, MGMT!

MJ: We listened to a couple from MGMT, and that was just, like, I don't know... we took something from that -- sort of more modern, kind of electronic element.

As a point of clarification, because MGMT sounds quite different from album one and album two, were you listening to...

PM: We were listening to the first one.

Although you may have found that the album itself took a life of its own four months in, that doesn't necessarily mean you were finished. So when did you finish the album?

CS: We finished a lot of the tracking shortly after that, and then started fixating and putting stuff together. And this is how it worked for Glory, too, at that point we just decided what stuff was good and what stuff needed to be reworked a little bit. We kept recording and had a couple technical issues with some gear that slowed us down for about a month, around October, then picked it up strong after that. Finished up some final stuff and then I was mixing in December. We finished mixing in December. All said, it took about a year.

So about average. A question for each one of you: Which track is your favorite from the album and why? Real simple.

MJ: Okay, we'll start with Chris [laughs].

CS: Ummm... My favorite track is probably "The Whale." The reason why is just because, honestly, you have some baggage attached to it because you've written it and stuff -- it's hard to have perspective -- but it was the one that, just, everything seemed to work when we did it. It didn't take much reworking or thinking too hard about it. It was just simple arrangement, a really simple song, and I think it came out really nice.

PM: I would probably say, for me, "Dark Ghost." It's hard for me to separate myself, like Chris was saying, from the song and the lyrical content and everything like that. I think there's music that you listen to sometimes where you can say, "Hey, how are you feeling today?" And you play "Helicopter" by Deerhunter.

A lot of the time, I think, if someone was like, "How are you feeling?" I would probably play that song ["Dark Ghost"]. It represents where I'm at as a person sometimes or how I feel -- even though, obviously, I'm not the narrator of that song. It's narrated by a character I made up, but I think everyone at some point feels isolated or lonely or out of place.

MJ: For me, and for the sake of just being different, I'm going to choose "Cult Life." The reason I choose that one is because I think that from my perspective, from the perspective of the guitar, I think that song, more than any other song, forms the entire tone of the album and the entire feel of where the album was born. When we first came up with that in rehearsals, it was just like, "Wow, this is really different. This is really cool." It's not like anything I've heard, which has always been, personally, a goal of mine -- to be different in my guitar playing and come up with new stuff. For me that song was the beginning of it.

Mike, even though you did choose a different one, which one would you have chosen for the sake of not being different?

MJ: Either "The Whale" or "Dark Ghost," honestly -- I would probably say "Dark Ghoest," even though "The Whale," like Chris said, came together so easily, and I love that element of it; it's just one of those songs that works. But for me, "Dark Ghost" has a soft spot in my heart because of when it was written and how it was written, and it also just turned out so great. Even though it went through some tweaks and changes, especially from a guitar point of view -- it started at a very different place than it ended up, but the finish product, I'm really, really proud of it. I think it's some of our best work.

Is there a song that you can all agree on that was difficult to create together? Is there one that kind of stands out in that way?

CS: There's probably a few that stand out that way. "I Beat My Body Down" -- that one actually didn't get fully realized until a week before we went to mastering with the CD, I think.

MJ: That one, unlike a lot of what we'd done in the past with our writing methods and things like that, started with a guitar part and a drumbeat. So Patrick came in afterwards and did the melody and the lyrical work -- that was a very different way of writing for us. It was definitely challenging and went through some ups and downs. When we first wrote it, we thought it was pretty cool, then it went through this really dark period where we didn't even think it was going to make the album. That's definitely one that stands out.

CS: Even a month before we finished mixing, I thought it wasn't going to make the album. Now it's one of my favorites, especially to play live -- I really like to play that song live.

PM: I don't know how other bands function, but for us to produce anything or put out anything is really difficult. Even with "The Whale" we're saying, "Oh, it just came together, blah, blah, blah" -- and it's true, it did -- but something that helps with us that I think also makes us good and makes us interesting is that every little thing we do is discussed and thought about. Everything we do is deliberate musically. So that means -- and this album is relatively short -- everything you hear on there is just frantically, just painfully thought about.

I think that's a good point to make. How many other people outside of you three were involved in this album or the production of it?

MJ: We had two guest musicians. We had a guy who plays trumpet, John Wake, and a violin player, Rachel Fleicher, but other than that, no that's it.

CS: And we wrote those parts.

MJ: Yeah, we wrote both parts and, as far as production, we were the only ones involved.

PM: The bus stops here.

I think that's a testament to why it took so long -- it's a lot of work. I think you're right, even though "The Whale" did come together -- maybe piece by piece or all at once -- even so, there's more to recording than people realize.

MJ: There's an incredible amount to it, and most people just don't have a clue as to what actually goes into it. It's a very different thing than playing live. A live show is a different medium and a different beast than recording. What you do to make things sound good live is pretty much 180 degrees to what you do to make them sound good recorded a lot of the times.

And that's a perfect segue into my next question. How do you feel your songs differ live from what's on the recording?

CS: I don't know... there is some different stuff arrangement-wise, just because we don't travel with a violin player and a trumpet. I would say, actually, for the most part, on this album we're keeping keep mainly on the course of the album. Which is something we were thinking about too when we were making it. Because of our limitations as just a three--piece, we didn't want to get out there and have somebody hear the song and have them have a completely different experience at home. Hopefully it's just really high energy, I guess.

PM: I think we put a lot of effort into having the role of really energetic and really passionate performers.

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