Hail to Visqueen: Rachel Flotard Sends a Powerful Message
With dark clouds constantly hanging over the Emerald City, playing in a Seattle rock band must come with a warning label. Resist trying to break on through to the sunny side because you can’t even get your head above the clouds.
That’s the least of Rachel Flotard’s worries. The do-it-all frontwoman for power-popping, Seattle-based Visqueen is planning a fundraiser, promoting a record, running her own label, preparing for a trip to Southeast Asia in December and hustling to book a major tour for 2010.
The busiest of days, though, doesn’t go by without Flotard thinking about her dad George, a New Jersey native and construction worker who passed away April 7, 2008, after battling prostate cancer that was first diagnosed in 2001.
Visqueen’s return to the national marketplace was delayed for several years while lead singer/writer/
producer/guitarist Flotard got involved in other projects, including providing backup vocals for Neko Case on tour, on Letterman and in the studio.
Turning part of her home into a hospice didn’t fall neatly into any kind of category for Flotard. Being the primary caregiver practically became her full-time job. During that time, Rachel appeared with dad in Harp magazine (see the original photo – © Steven Dewall – on the left) and a video (see below), and performed whenever she could. Her younger sister, Sarah, who lives minutes away in Seattle, was also there to care for – and share life with – their terminally ill father.
The experience, Flotard answered in an extensive online interview, was “like a movie, and surreal now that I can rewind parts. There were amazing days, and really difficult days. We kept each other afloat and made sure to enjoy the time we spent as a trio. Looking back on it now, and even though I would have to tell myself over and over then (like when I found the cheese grater in dad’s bathroom that he was using on his feet), that being with him was a huge gift. And 1,000 percent, it was.
“Sarah and I miss him so much. The way we’ve rationalized it, if this didn’t happen, we wouldn’t have spent those years together. Life’s incredible. Even the shit parts.”
Yet Flotard remains a constant woman in motion, a whirling dervish with freckles as identifiable as the flaming red hair color on her head. She’ll keep moving forward, bringing along a Cheap Trick fixation, quick wit, deep thoughts, vivid imagination and benevolent nature. Somehow she’s able to think clearly while dealing with an overcrowded state of mind.
At the moment, she has a record to sell, one that’s been building buzz since its September release. While maintaining a fervent following in the Pacific Northwest since Visqueen’s birth in 2001, the fact that their third album, Message To Garcia, can win over cautious and caustic critics makes Flotard’s juggling act even more remarkable. Even conservative CNN (via Current.com’s Peter Grumbine) hails it as one of 2009’s top three records.
“My heart has grown to the size of a turkey,” Flotard said. “Putting Message To Garcia together is such a labor of love for our band. I wanted folks to feel as ELO about it (and I mean that in the way that ELO makes you feel lit up, or how ‘Xanadu’ might smell) as possible. Just to feel fantastic and maybe grow a harmless rock ‘n’ roll overbite. The fact that people seem to be dig it is beyond is amazing. I’m so thankful, it kills me, and the whole gang is floored.”
Kyla Fairchild, the publisher of Americana/roots music website NoDepression.com who is plugged into the Seattle music scene, has been following Visqueen since its inception, when Flotard and drummer Ben Hooker left behind Hafacat and joined forces with Kim Warnick (previously a member of one of Seattle’s finest, the Fastbacks).
“They’ve grown and evolved since then,” Fairchild said. “I do think they could find some national success with their new record.”
Of course, there are inherent challenges facing Flotard with Message To Garcia, Visqueen’s first album since 2004 and one that’s making its debut on her own label, Local 638 Records. With few nibbles while fishing for a record deal, Flotard decided to reel it in and cast her indie fate and credentials to the wind.
Lacking a major push from an outside force is “a bit of a disadvantage in some ways in terms of marketing and leveraging existing relationships for additional exposure,” Fairchild believes.
Flotard said she wouldn’t have it any other way, calling it “the coolest option,” then adding, “It became a matter of Visqueen moving forward, rather than waiting in limbo for a deal that never quite materialized. I think the real hurdles and obstacles aren’t going it independently, but keeping a band motivated and marginally sane and within the limits of the music business itself.”
Besides Hooker, that band on the edge includes guitarist Tom Cummings and bassist Cristina Bautista. Inspired by a Spinal Tap reference to its long line of drummers in the incomparable rock mockumentary, Flotard lists Bautista under a category called “Exploded Bassists to Date.”
Visqueen includes, from left: Ben Hooker, Tom Cummings, Cristina Bautista and Rachel Flotard. (Photo by Christopher Nelson)
Considered a trio at various times, Visqueen is now officially a gang of four, Flotard says, “Unless Cristina decides to pull a powder keg out.”
No need for that. The album, co-produced by Flotard’s longtime collaborator Barrett Jones (Nirvana, Foo Fighters), is powerful enough. The collection of 11 songs (all written by Flotard) contains a combustible combination of catchy hooks, singalong-worthy melodies and machine-gun rhythms, all coming together under Flotard’s commanding presence and industrial-strength vocals. Listen for her wondrous wail at the 2:08 mark of “Fight For Love” followed by a flurry of guitar fury, and you will understand the meaning of joyful noise in the 21st century.
Comparisons to Neko Case might be inevitable, but unfair. After all, Case’s solo act is more subdued and Visqueen is a cranked-up version of The New Pornographers, Case’s fabulous but all-too-infrequent side project. The two crooning soul sisters rely on each other, though, even if it merely involves Flotard stepping in and eating all the junk food on tour “simply so my girlfriend could remain untainted.”
Flotard’s chockaholic gal pal returns the favor as one of the most formidable backup singers to play a guest-starring role on an album. Case’s prominent pipes are heard on five cuts, including the grand-opening “Hand Me Down.” Jon Rauhouse, Case’s valuable multi-instrumentalist, also is a welcomed presence on pedal steel guitar.
Flotard provides the spark and supplies the heat to keep this flame burning through a downpour. If Case decided to front The New Pornographers full-time, it might sound just like this: punk sensibilities, exquisite harmonies, whip-smart lyrics, synths that sound like horns and sophisticated shots of cello and Wurlitzer thrown in for good measure.
There’s only one true blue ballad. While “So Long,” Flotard admits, is definitely a paean to pa, haunting words on other songs suggest dying is a constant theme, albeit played as a high-energy assault on the senses. Consider as examples the beautifully reflective “Tall Grass” (“I read it all came down to giving your lives and burying loved ones”) and “Beautiful Amnesia” (“Big hand says that it’s time to go”).
Writing such personal prose for an album that plays at a frenzied pace could have been an exhausting examination, especially considering the emotional circumstances staring down Flotard. That was never an issue, she said.
“My favorite records are the ones that sound upbeat, but are situations unresolved. It’s like a Tom and Jerry button that you push so a frying pan hits you in the face, only you can’t stop pushing. Pavlov rock.”
Since the record is described as a “rock ‘n’ roll epitaph” to her father, what would George Edward Flotard Jr., a former New York City steamfitter who was certainly proud of his born-to-be-wild child (and wore a Visqueen shirt four out of seven days a week to prove it) think about Message To Garcia?
By jumping to the dark side of monster rock, Rachel, named Harp’s “Red Hot Crush” in 2006, might as well have been transformed into a Tasmanian She-Devil, like the ones whirling around on those classic Warner Bros. cartoons. “He did not get ‘the Visqueen music.’ He loved my willingness to go out and ‘Roadhouse it.’ This would make him pass out laughing,” Flotard said. “He imagined me out there like friggin’ Jeff Healy. Playing shows behind chicken wire, ducking beer bottles with Ben. (Actually, true).
“He was amazed that I made it back alive. ‘I’m so glad you’re home Ray.’ He would also say, ‘Why do you play that “pling pling pling” music? … Jesus Christ, that’s loud!’ kind of thing. Or, ‘You’re killing me.’
“He definitely loved the smoother gigs, like singing with Neko or vamping off some jazz standards with Jon Rauhouse.”
Rachel, who was born in Englewood, N.J., on July 14, 1972, and grew up in Closter, a sleepy suburb north of New York City on the other side of the Hudson, has lived in Seattle for almost 15 years. Perhaps inspired by Paul Revere or some other “lone-colonial-horseman-type,” Flotard said she rode out of town with “great haste.”
Yet with the small-town, blue-collar values passed down by her parents (Janet Flotard-Lukach “is still holding down the fort”), her deep Jersey Girl roots may still be showing. Flotard poignantly recalls the last days of her father’s life, and how they nearly coincided with the birth of Beatrice, her niece and Sarah’s daughter.
“Dad and Beatrice. That was some circle of life action,” Flotard related. “Dad got smaller as Sarah got bigger. Dad was also the only person who knew the sex of the baby. Sarah had the doctor write it down and give it to him in a sealed envelope. We knew he wasn’t going to be able to see ‘the kid’ (who was born May 20, 2008, six weeks after George’s death), but he could at least smile and lord a secret over us for his remaining time on Earth.
“In the end, I liked to call Dad and Beatrice meeting somewhere in the middle, ‘The Intergalactic High-Five.’ One goes out, one comes in. Hilarious and sad. That’s how the whole thing was.”
Hearing that should make somebody up there smile. All the while, George Edward Flotard Jr. is standing there, head held high above the clouds.
The video from CW11’s Underground at kstw.com profiles Visqueen and includes a clip (beginning at the 6:35 mark) of Rachel Flotard’s father, George:
In case you were wondering …
• Why Visqueen? A trademarked brand for a durable polyethylene sheeting, the name became a pop culture reference when Homeland Security director Tom Ridge recommended its use with duct tape as protection for Americans against bioterrorism. The group adopted the name “because Kim Warnick loved the word,” Flotard said. “Plus, it had Queen in it.”
• Why Local 638 Records? The name of the site (with an image shown at left) was taken from George Flotard’s New York City Steamfitters union, of which he was a dues-paying member from spring 1960 until the day he died.
• Why Message To Garcia? The 1899 essay written by Elbert Hubbard – about a soldier facing a daunting task – was so inspirational that George Flotard encouraged his daughter to read it. She apparently got the message. “I was motivated to finish the record and fired up to take on its responsibility at the thought of him,” Rachel said. “He believed in me, and it would be an insult not to try to finish what he saw me work so hard at.”
• Why Laos? Flotard is making a return trip in December after spending almost all of November 2008 in the Southeast Asia country (her diary and photos can be found at rachelflotard.blogspot.com), where she taught English and delivered medical and school supplies. She’ll also visit an orphanage in Cambodia.
• What’s Footlaos? A takeoff on the 1984 movie starring Kevin Bacon, it’s a dance party/fundraiser Flotard is throwing December 1 at Sole Repair Shop in Seattle to pay for a school floor in the village where she’s staying in Laos. The party starts at 9 p.m. and includes MC Queen Lucky, Darek Mazzone (KEXP) and DJ Colby B. Check her tweets and Facebook page for more details and updates.
Message To Garcia winner
Congrats to DPR, who wins a free promotional copy of the CD by being the first person to provide the correct answers to this question: What baseball-themed song did Visqueen cover, and who wrote it? It was “Centerfield” by John Fogerty.