Interview: Josh Flagg & The Obligations

brent johnson chats with the namesake of power-poppers Josh Flagg & The Obligations …

So many love songs are about star-crossed sweethearts, long-distance couples and heartbroken romantics.

But how many are about the walking dead?

Josh Flagg & The Obligations have one. It’s called ‘Bring Him Back To Life,’ and you’ll find it on Devastate Me, the New York rockers’ new album.

“A zombie in love — that’s what brings him back to life,” Flagg, a 33-year-old native of the Philadelphia suburbs, explains about the track. “I’ve been writing songs for a long time, and I get really bored with the regular lovey-dovey songs.”

Subverting pop-music stereotypes is the norm for Flagg and his bandmates — guitarist Jamie Tanner, drummer Scott Campbell, bassist Marty Fowler and keyboardist Rebecca Haviland. They’re not the kind of rock band that fixates on winding guitar solos or 10-minute epics. They prefer tight, energetic tunes. That are sometimes about poisonous water supplies and cancer cells — like if Elvis Costello suddenly became fixated with graphic novels.

Josh Flagg has a song about a zombie in love, which is pretty amazing.
Photo: Craig LaCourt

After spending years rotating through different bands, Flagg and the Obligations released a four-song EP in 2009. Devastate Me is their first full-length. They’ll bring their catchy, quick-fire sound to The Saint In Asbury Park, N.J., tomorrow night and The Trash Bar in Brooklyn on June 24.

Pop-Break’s Brent Johnson spoke with Flagg over the phone about his band’s cutting album cover, their offbeat songs and why sometimes a 35-minute live show is all you need.

Pop-Break: The cover art for the album is very striking. What was the idea behind it?

Josh Flagg: The record is tied together by ideas of disasters. My friend Craig LaCourt took the pictures — he’s a great photographer. I gave him the record and just sort of talked to him about the record. I told him to listen to it and that I wanted a striking picture. We like the picture. I think it worked out a lot.

PB: Now when you say the record is about disasters, what do you mean?

JF: Jamie, the guitar player, and I, have played in lots of bands together and done a lot of writing. In the course of writing, we were just sort of drawn to those metaphors. We kept thinking of catchy, love-related choruses — but when you listen to the lyrics, they’re not about love at all. Just disasters personal and physical.

The song ‘Seeing Red’ — we read this story about something being in the water in this town. Everybody was sort of getting poisoned. It just sort of took off from there. ‘256’ is more of a song about a cancer or a disease. Something that just keeps going and going and going.

PB: So, what number record is this for you guys?

JF: Well, that’s kind of a weird question to answer. The guitar player, the drummer and I have been in bands for over a decade. We used to be in a band called Automatic. And when we got back together, we didn’t want to have it be automatic. We needed a band name, and it just sort of came about to put it in my name. Which wasn’t my first idea, but that’s just how it happened.

We put out a four-song EP in 2009. And I was thinking I wanted to keep putting out EPs because the business is different. We just wanted to keep putting songs out. Making a record you’re really proud of takes a long time. But then, we have seven or eight songs that we really liked. It finally made sense to make a record.

PB: The first instrument you played was a mandolin?

JF: My father is a virtuoso mandolin player. So the first thing I wanted to play was a mandolin. I started playing that, but once I got into high school and started playing bands, playing a mandolin? I don’t know. It made more sense to play guitar.

PB: What artists or records were your main influences?

Photo: Alissa Umansky

JF: A lot of power pop stuff for me. I guess it’s a weird kind of thing to call it. People don’t know what it means. But to me, it means The Animals and The Replacements. Just concise, three-minute interesting songs. I think more recent touchstones for us are The Posies and Superdrag. Just good pop writing. Rock writing.

PB: I read that you don’t really want big solos, that you prefer to play quick shows without too much rambling. Why is that important to you to stay concise and not meander?

JF: I’ve played in a lot of bands, and I’ve done a lot of touring, and after playing 200 shows a year with some bands, just seeing so many bands play the unwieldy solos or the eight-minute opus — it never really appealed to us. We’re a rock band. And we want to be a light-attack-mode rock band. I want it to be 30 minutes of punches to the gut and get out of there.

I’ve got nothing against guitar solos. But if there’s going to be a solo, I want it to be like a Paul McCartney bassline. I want to sing it. I want it to be part of the song. And if it’s not, it’s meaningless to me. We just want our songs to be nice and tight.

For more on Josh Flagg & The Obligations, visit their website.