Comprised of remarkable singers that have collectively toured with the likes of the Decemberists, Andrew Bird, Mavis Staples, and more, the Flat Five recently went from performing annual one-off holiday concerts to having just released a well-received debut album It's a World of Love and Hope. Kelly Hogan, one of the Chicago-based power-pop group's members, is about to again head out on tour with Neko Case. But before she hit the road, she spoke with Music Direct about the Flat Five's record, remaining optimistic, and more.
The Flat Five's self-described sound is "twisted sunshine pop." Can you elaborate on what that phrase means and how it applies to the music?
Our friend Scott McCaughey, who's in the Minus 5 and [was in] R.E.M, said that when he first heard our record and so we were like, "Yeah, that's exactly what we are." We're like a sunshiny day but there's a little twist to it, you know? There's a little salt on the cookie. It's not too sweet, it won't make your teeth hurt. We sound like the Partridge Family but then there's a little dry humor in there. It's kind of like Chris Ligon's songs – all the songs on the record are by our bandmate Scott's brother, Chris – and his songs always have some little twist in there. So it's a little wabi-sabi.
Considering you all have crazy schedules, what was the biggest challenge with coordinating time to record and release this debut?
Oh my god, it was so hard. Scott and Casey (McDonough) are in NRBQ and they tour, and then Nora (O'Connor) and I for most of the recording were on tour with the Decemberists and gone all the time. Though I guess the biggest challenge might be that our drummer Alex (Hall) is kind of a Luddite and he doesn't really do electronic calendars. So the biggest challenge was getting him to bring his paper calendar to the studio so we could pin him down.
In light of recent political and cultural events, how do you think the album title reflects what's happening right now?
Well, we weren't planning it that way. We decided what we were going to call it back in the spring and we ended up thinking about some of the lyrics – [It's a World of Love and Hope] is a lyric from the song "This Is Your Night" – and it goes along with the fact that we did consciously decide to be a positive band, but it definitely relates to all the stuff that's going on. Bad stuff is always happening but good stuff is always happening. We choose to look at dogs and autumn leaves. We're not hiding our head in the sand. In fact, our eyes are even more wide open because you can see the good that's going on. So it's kind of like, "In your face, it's a world of love and hope. Choke on this!"
In a recent interview with the Chicago Tribune, you mentioned how it was refreshing to work on something uniformly optimistic.
Yeah because I'm a moper, I'm a moper in general, and my last record was called I Like to Keep Myself in Pain. For me, it's kind of a challenge because I'll hear a cool song that I think would be good for our repertoire and then I'll realize the lyrics are really sad and I'm like, "Dang it." So it's a challenge, it's fun, and it's a different way to think about things. I like it, there's some air in it. It makes it feel buoyant.
Would you say the Flat Five is an escape for you? Does it help keep you balanced?
I'm a total junkie for singing with these people. I really crave it. It's one of my favorite things in the world and I take all kinds of pains to do it. I pretty much moved back to Chicago because of it because I was living in Wisconsin for eight years. So I traded the prairie for harmony. It's definitely what I was intimating in my response before: It's a different way to come at things for me because I'm more of a sad-song moper. It definitely balances me out.
Since the Flat Five has been such a passion project for more than a decade, how does it feel to finally have a tangible product out there?
It's so crazy. It took us so long to do it because of everybody's schedule. It's very satisfying, and the fact that we did it all ourselves – we played everything, we sang everything, we arranged everything, we mixed everything, and paid for everything ourselves – we have no regrets, we're very proud of it. In fact, we gave Scott Ligon production credit. The songs are super close to his heart because they're his brother's songs. We would let the final aesthetic calls go down to Scott, and after a while we kind of had to pry it out of his hands, like "Scott, it's done. The record is done." We've been playing together for over 10 years so it's nice to have something you can hold in your hands.
A tour is finally on the horizon. What are some aspects personally would want to incorporate and what would hope to get out of touring together?
We get along really well together and we're all old people, so there's not really much drama, but there are a lot of pee stops. Nobody's on drugs, everybody's gotten all kinds of crazy [expletive] out of their system, so now we just stop at the Cracker Barrel or something. So I'm looking forward to it. It's going to be a challenge [in that] the singing is really demanding. Night after night, we have to plan for stuff like that and factor in sleep, but it's going to fun and cool to play outside of our geographic comfort zone.
Looking ahead to 2017, what would you say is your biggest goal?
Well, I definitely want the Flat Five to do a little bit of touring. It was hard enough for us to make the record in Chicago, so touring is really difficult but we all committed in advance to maybe just doing four regions. We're doing the pacific northwest first, maybe try to start something in L.A., and then I'm from Atlanta so we might go to the south in May and do a tour down there. I just feel like we owe it to our Flat Five record to kind of take it door to door like a salesman and let people hear it and see us live.