"Sure, there were a lot of reservations. We didn't know if it would be a career killer or a career booster — how we were going to be portrayed, how the show would do, or if we would be compromising what we got into bands for in the first place."
Brandon Lea, vocalist for Texas quintet Flickerstick, is remembering his band's decision to appear on VH-1's touted reality/competition series Bands on the Run. Where most of the 1,700-or-so groups that submitted for the show undoubtedly did so with little or no regard for future consequences, Lea recalls Flickerstick enduring the lengthy audition process with no small amount of trepidation.
"We were very concerned," he says. "We didn't know what it was, and didn't even know if we should be doing it."
Lea, brother/bassist Fletcher, guitarist Corey Kreig, guitarist Rex Ewing, and drummer Dominic Weir were understandably wary about gambling their collective future on the musical version of Survivor. Richard Hatch may be content to pitch SlimFast or perhaps provide the decisive answer in a heated game of Hollywood Squares, but he's not exactly trying to build a credible career within the entertainment industry. That's the thing about novelty fame — it wears off. Do you remember Reign Dance, the band fronted by Andre of first-season Real World fame? Of course you don't (and if you do, I wouldn't mention it to anybody).
In the end, the lure of "20-million dollars' worth" of opportunity, however dubious, proved too much to pass up.
"When that contract's lying at your feet it's hard to say no when you're obviously not famous by any means and still waiting tables, just touring as much as you can and still working day jobs," says Lea. "There's no way to get that much publicity for your band, that much exposure. It's definitely an opportunity to do something else. We decided to chance it, and thank God we did."
Indeed. The Dallas/Fort Worth-based quintet immediately established themselves as the viewers' favorite, jumping out to an early lead in the network's online poll, a lead that increased steadily throughout the season's run. They held on while half of the four competing groups fell away, and were judged the winners following a decisive Battle of the Bands victory in South Florida during the last episode.
In taking first prize, Flickerstick managed to send an inspiring and ironic message, given its vehicle in Bands on the Run: to wit, the music itself actually still matters. They sold the least amount of merchandise. They spent the least amount of time flyering and otherwise hustling up an audience. They copped the fewest bonus opportunities to pad their earnings. They did, by far, the most boozing, banging, infighting and general dramatizing. And they still won, solely on the strength of their live performance. Flickerstick took top honors in all three of the series' Battle of the Bands segments (judged by both industry folk and casual audience members) — a feat that at first only kept them in the running, then later put them over the top.
"When you're in a band, you want to sell T-shirts and merchandise, but that's not your goal. It's not your first priority. Your first priority is to have the passion and the fire to get up onstage and give it your all," Lea affirms. "That's why we're in a band. So that came first for us.
"We never thought we'd make it to the end. So when we won, and in the way that we won, it was just great. I think it definitely pissed off at least one of the other bands," he laughs, "but it's good. We couldn't have won the show in a better way."
It's only been four months or so since the program's first season wound down, and Flickerstick may very well be headed for the trivial obscurity that usually follows such brief pop-culture infatuations; the members of Soulcracker are probably waiting there with sharpened sticks and high-voltage nipple-clamps.
But at least Flickerstick will get a shot at making it stick. Epic Records has signed the band, and on Nov. 6 will release a souped-up version of its originally self-produced full-length, Welcoming Home the Astronauts. The album delivers a dynamic, soaring style that meanders somewhere between classic U2 and Radiohead's Pablo Honey. It also showcases a songwriting savvy not apparent in the brief-but-intense live clips from Bands on the Run (the ones that prompted this writer, a bit perfunctorily, to call Flickerstick the competitor that "sucked the least"). In addition, the video for "Smile," itself part of the BOTR prize package, is still receiving airplay on VH-1, and recent tours have met with resounding success.
For an endeavor that could easily have stopped their progress cold, the Bands on the Run experience seems to agree with Flickerstick.
"We're fortunate to be seeing the positive results that we have been," says Lea, "because not all of the bands are experiencing it. In fact, some of them are getting the negative side of it, and they're probably kicking themselves in the ass for ever doing the show."
He's quick to credit the show with helping the group's career along but balks at the idea that Epic signed them simply to capitalize on some television exposure. Several labels approached Flickerstick only to admit that their appearance on the show was a deterrent. Few were willing to associate their company with what might've turned out to be simply more evidence of pop America's withering attention span.
"We were getting looked at before Bands on the Run. I'm not going to say (the record deal) didn't have anything to do with the show; of course it did. It helped, but trust me, no A&R is gonna put their job on the line if they're not into the music," Lea assures. "There were a lot of people scared to take a chance, thinking that it would be better to stay away from it. Our guy has gone out on a limb, taken a risk to sign us. ..."
It's a risk Flickerstick themselves took just by being on the TV show, something they're well aware of. They know that critics will be ready to dismiss them without having heard a note. That cred-mongers will pillory them without judging the live set for themselves. That the label could decide it made a mistake and yank the magic carpet out from under them at any time. But, really, these are hazards that all national acts face, Bands on the Run or no. And, thus far, things seem to be moving along nicely. So if it does all come crashing down tomorrow, will Flickerstick point the finger at their decision to do the program?
"No, we wouldn't blame it," says Lea. "My favorite bands get dropped from labels all the time. Getting dropped involves so much politics and bullshit. We're just glad to get a shot at preventing it from happening.
"But if it does," he adds with a chuckle, "we'll just go down with the rest of the good bands."