Heaven Tonight

Flesh Lights balance melody and power

Calf muscle: Vandever, Ussery, Steen
Calf muscle: Vandever, Ussery, Steen (Photo by Shelley Hiam)

Think back to 2011.

Sometime between Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords getting shot at a supermarket and the Pentagon's repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," Austin's Twistworthy Records issued a piece of vinyl. Housed in a deliberately ugly white sleeve, it resembled some clandestine bootleg. Depicted: a drum head atop which sit three Polaroids of grinning young faces – and a scrawl of Magic Marker capitals: "FLESH LIGHTS MUSCLE POP."

Needle to groove ... Armageddon. Twelve high-speed, trash-compactor odes to being drunk, horny, and livin' badly. Here, the difference between one and two minutes might as well be millennia.

"We had to play faster on the first one so [producer] Mike [Vasquez] wouldn't stop the tape," laughs bassist Jeremy Steen about the 2010 sessions at Sweatbox Studio. "He thought we were gonna do two songs, and before he knew it, we'd done six!"

In 28 minutes, Austin birthed an heir to New York's Devil Dogs, cranked up Nineties inheritors of the Dictators' scuzz-punk crown, and –

"I actually don't know that band well at all," injects singer/guitarist Max Vandever.

"I'm really not that into them," agrees Steen.

"I have one record by them," allows drummer Elissa Ussery.

Would you settle for the Angry Samoans?!

Most bands never cut a Muscle Pop, as fully realized a debut as any in punk. Beneath the distortion and propulsion, cousins Vandever and Ussery plus Steen play circles around their peers. Vandever's songwriting talent demands constant monitoring, while Steen's three tunes – "Allyson," "Mr. Resistible," and "Novel" – make him the threesome's John Entwistle: first-rate tunesmith in a group starring a great one.

"I'm a huge fan of Jeremy's songs," says Vandever. "I never know the lyrics until we record them, so I'm always blown away when I hear his finished product."

Flesh Lights, named after a locally produced sex toy, then did as any good band should. They packed Beerland on a regular basis, toured, and started stamping out singles. After their bow, two 45s and a double 7-inch EP added up to another LP-and-a-half's worth of material.

Then one day, Vandever awoke to a crazed text from Hotel Vegas kingpin Ben Tipton.

"He was in all caps: 'YOU GUYS ARE GONNA BE ON TOUR WITH THE HIVES! IT'S GONNA BE AWESOME!'"

Eric Davidson, onetime New Bomb Turk turned journalist, was asked by Sweden's garage-punk glory boys for a list of his favorite American bands. They needed opening acts. The Flesh Lights stood out. Vandever concedes the ensuing shows together might have brought the Austin trio new fans, but he mostly remembers the initial experience for a bad review: "One guy said we were a punk band fronted by a prep in 'Kings of Leon-esque shoes.'"

Before the glory, there was apprenticeship. Ussery, the older of the two San Antonio émigrés, discovered classic punk rock through her father's and older sister's record collections at age 12. A Mojo magazine listing 100 vintage punk 45s cinched her interest, so she passed it on to Vandever. The two had already banded together – she on drums, he on keyboards – for the family gathering circuit, and even boasted original tunes. Ussery has their first collaboration, "Snow Day," on her iPod.

Meanwhile Steen was just up the highway with his first band, the Beginners. The Austin native recalls his older brother taking him to his first show, a hardcore bill at local coffeehouse Another Cup, when he was 9. In 2009, that same sibling brought Vandever to see Steen's then-band the Gospel Truth. Vandever and Ussery had been looking for a bassist.

Five blistering years later, Flesh Lights' second full-length finally issues next week. Credit Gerard Cosloy's 12XU Records for Free Yourself, bearing Vandever's interest in Cheap Trick's own muscle pop. "Just About Due" and re-recorded summer single "No Longer" offer the same perfect balance of melody and power chords found on 1978's "Surrender" sponsor Heaven Tonight.

Steen cuts such as "Mandarin" apply darker, artier twists to the familiar bash-n-crash, while Ussery's "German Discs" most resembles the old thrashing – and it's about Nazis developing flying saucers.

"I wish you could record my book collection on World War II history," she muses over a Guinness.

Steen says Cosloy's involvement helped fast-track the release. His mixing suggestions were crucial, adds Vandever. For her part, Ussery simply plays like she's been transformed into Keith Moon.

If the long-awaited follow-up to Muscle Pop wasn't enough, there's Vandever's newfound fatherhood. His fiancée Leah Neiheisel gave birth at 28 weeks to the couple's first child, so their daughter remains in a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit until her original due date, Dec. 6. Caroline's early arrival will curtail touring at present.

"I think two days after we had Caroline, Leah asked, 'So, when are you going on tour again?'" recounts Vandever. "I was like, 'Babe, don't worry about it. We're not gonna do that.' And she's like, 'No, you have to!'"

"That's the reason why I wasn't like, 'Fuck! Max is having a baby – bye to everything!'" nods Ussery. "He's not in a situation where the girl is like, 'I've got you! You're trapped!'"

"She's the most supportive person ever," says Vandever.

"Except when we ask what she thinks of the songs," cracks Steen. "Then she's the most critical person ever!"

The three will channel their productivity toward the next song or next release while Vandever gets in some quality family time. They're nowhere near reaching Ussery's goal of full-time employment as a working band, or Steen's of becoming the next Black Keys. This much muscle growth, however, leaves everyone else time enough to bulk up alongside the Flesh Lights.


Flesh Lights appear in-store at End of an Ear at 6pm Monday, Nov. 3. Their release show is the following night at Hotel Vegas.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Flesh Lights, Max Vandever, Jeremy Steen, Elissa Ussery, Gerard Cosloy, 12XU, Hives, Hotel Vegas, Beerland, Black Keys

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