Visqueen’s Rachel Flotard on life, death, decking the halls and jicama

Rachel Flotard by Kristy Cameron
Rachel Flotard :: photo by Kristy Cameron

If Rachel Flotard were a fruit she wouldn’t be a jicama, especially if her tastebuds have any say in the matter. The animated singer for Visqueen jokingly almost gagged after her first bite of the bland, nearly tasteless root fruit and bland and tasteless are definitely not words to use when describing the vivacious Visqueener and her band’s latest record Message to Garcia.

Flotard wrote the album while she was caring for her father who died of cancer and although death loomed over the creation of what turned out to be one of the best local releases of the year, Message to Garcia isn’t a downer of a record. Garcia’s message is as far removed from depression and sadness as the fiery red color of Flotard’s hair is from the pasty white hue of a jicama. It’s an inspiring and uplifting album that packs a mighty musical punch in the form of 11 songs that are as fun and spirited as they are emotional and heartfelt.

Flotard will end her 2009 in Seattle at the WaMu Theatre Tuesday night when Visqueen opens the sold-out Deck The Hall Ball, the annual holiday concert hosted by 107.7 The End (KNDD). Visqueen is the only local band on the six-act bill that features a crop of buzzed groups (Vampire Weekend, Phoenix, Metric, 30 Seconds to Mars) and one big-name headliner in U.K. trio Muse. Previous Decks have seen the likes of Death Cab For Cutie, Modest Mouse and other notable locals grace its holiday stage so playing the commercial radio event could be a pivotal point in the band’s 10-year career.

The concert will be Visqueen’s last of many high-profile local shows this year. The band debuted almost all of Message To Garcia live at Bumbershoot one day before the record was released, played a benefit show for The Service Board at the Crocodile last month and packed The Tractor Tavern opening for Shonen Knife in October. While the exposure from Deck will likely help raise the profile of Visqueen, the band will have to wait until next year to see whether it will find a national audience. This is not due to the concert happening so close to the new year. Ten hours after Visqueen finishes its set Tuesday Flotard will be boarding a plane making its way to Asia. She’s spending two weeks abroad where she will spend time helping install a floor at an elementary school in Laos.

I caught up with Flotard last week and we discussed her band, Message to Garcia, her upcoming tip to Laos and shared our first encounters with jicama. Here’s a snippet of the conversation we had over a lunch that included granola, yogurt and, you guessed it, some jicama.

You took a bit of a hiatus between albums while you were taking care of your father. What do you think that did for the band?

I couldn’t tour for a while, a couple of years really. On and off I would go out with Neko (Case) or Visqueen would have short runs but the type of touring that is required for putting a new record out is lengthy so I wasn’t able to do those type of things taking care of my dad. Next year I will actually be able to go but I also have to book the tour (laughs). So, we’ll see. I think it will be okay. You’ve got to have faith.

One of the things I pick up on while listening to Message to Garcia is real positive encouragement … It’s just a fun record and knowing the story behind the album it seems like faith and perseverance is a big theme behind the album.

That’s so awesome. Thank you. And absolutely it is a huge thread. I wanted to make a record I wanted to listen to and be happy even though some of the fibers of it are sad or the story is a little sad. That’s just a part of it and personally I wanted to make a fun record.

The mixing process was great with Kurt Bloch. We went through every part of it, every line, and we made it shine. I tested it dozens of times. Does this song make me want to click forward or do I want to skip over anything and at a certain point I didn’t skip over anything. Each song became its own little mini-portrait and I loved it. So I was like, okay I’m ready to let it go. Ben (Hooker, the band’s drummer) was like “We have to release something. We have to let it go.” And I just wasn’t ready.

It takes energy to move and finish a product. You don’t want to start something you can’t finish. It takes energy to out and play shows to support a record and I couldn’t have done that while taking care of dad and now I can. I can do this because of him. So the whole thing is positive.

As for the story itself … Life is a transition and very temporary. You get these either short moments or super long moments to be with a certain person or be in a certain environment and, you know, definitely living with him changed my perspective on really taking advantage of the time you have with people. I’m probably jumping all over the place here but, I don’t know, it kind of all gets into one big giant knot of love in my head.

And now that love is out into the world for people to enjoy.

I hope so. I hope people dig it and it makes them as happy me … I can’t wait to play it live for everyone. We are able to pull of this whole record live and it sounds killer . I mean it’s totally selfish for me but it’s totally fun to do and it’s what I want to do as my job.

Was Bumbershoot the first time you played those songs live? You played the entire thing, didn’t you?

It was and we played everything except “So Long.” When you can do that (play an entire record live) it’s pretty great. It’s something that has never happened to me before. Like, “Let’s go play King Me back to back, or Sunset on Dateline, ”(Visqueen’s previous two albums) with this one it was just, bang we played it. Every song we really got into what we were doing. I think it has to do with the lineup and feeling really solid about this record.

(Pointing to a sliced piece of jicama) Try that. What is that, jicama?

Whatever it is, it doesn’t really have a taste. It’s like the tofu of fruit.

I know. It almost made me gag. (laughs) I think it’s jicama and I want you to work that into what you end up writing.

Will do. How did the current lineup of Visqueen get together? I know you’ve been playing with Ben for a long time but how did the rest of the band come together?

Ben and I have been playing together for more than a decade. Christina Bautista (bassist) is amazing. She just fell out of the effing sky. And Tom Cummings (guitarist) it’s like the same thing with him.

Christina was originally a big Visqueen fan and her band, Paxil Rose, opened up for Visqueen years ago at the University of Washington. When it was time to look for someone to fill in on a permanent level, because Barrett Jones who had produced a couple of records with me had stepped in to play bass, Christina was sent to me by a friend to try out and she worked perfectly. She can sing all the parts. She is absolutely beautiful inside and out and she’s just a wonderful person. Plus she plays a bass that is about as big as she is. I also can’t say enough good things about Tom Cummings who is just like this super, quiet and shy amazing guitar player. He’s become a real asset to me personally and he is just a lovely, lovely human being.

It’s very rare that a band comes together and gets along as good as people like we do but that has always sort of been our thing. If you’re in Visqueen you’re probably a pretty cool dude. We definitely go for personality over performance a lot of times (laughs).

Did you do a lot of writing for Message to Garcia when your father was sick or did you do the writing after his death? What was the process there?

Those songs came together over a couple of years. I wrote them all while he was alive and I demoed them several times so they were kicking around for a while. There’s no real set process. I hear a word or start humming something. They’re like little puzzles. That’s how I think of songs, like little fun puzzles. Start singing. Start playing guitar. Okay, now the puzzle starts taking shape and, you know, you kind of lace it with meaning.

I didn’t set out to write an album about dying and my dad and all this stuff. It was a very haphazard process. Especially the recording, which would happen during the last few years, which would come together when he was his sickest and I would use the recording time to break away and feel normal, even though it was the most abnormal thing that there could be. I was distracted. I was upset. I was fighting to have my old life, which I didn’t have anymore because, you know, I lived with a 70-year-old man for seven years. I found out that your life changes but it was by far the best thing I have ever done. Hands down. It sucked and it was awesome.

There’s nothing else to say except all of those songs came out of that time of being pissed off, being happy, being scared and being sad, just like anybody else’s life. I haven’t written too much since he died and I feel it. It’s like this little volcano building up inside and I’m beginning to map out in my head the next chapter, but I still want to go play these goddamn songs live.

I understand the part about it sucking, having to deal with your father dying. Explain the awesome.

The awesome part is that if my dad didn’t get sick I, and my sister, would have never the opportunity to get so close with him and become such a tight little unit. If he wasn’t sick he would’ve stayed in New Jersey he would have stayed in his house alone. The only thing left to do was think about the good and hilarious parts. It was awesome because my dad made me laugh so hard and he was so cool. He was my biggest supporter and my best friend.

It changed the whole course of events. I can say awesome now, I guess, because I got to see what it’s like to get sick and die. Most people don’t get to see it … but for me it was this thing loomed over me for so long. I’m no different from anyone else. People have parents who die and kids who die. Death is a very big, human thing to wrestle with but for me it was like it could come any day and that feeling of not knowing, that stress, you end up living like Chicken Little I guess, and that’s how I lived. And now that it’s over it’s awesome in a sense that we had that time. All of those little things that sucked at the time I will never, ever forget.

Next week you’re going to be playing at WaMu Theatre in front of a sold-out crowd of around 5,000 people and then 10 hours later you’re going to be on a plane headed to Asia. Tell me about your trip.

Let the record show I’m smiling right now. We’re so excited to play this show.

Tuesday I play a rock show and then I get on a very, very long flight. I couldn’t have set it up any better. Last year in November I went to Laos with a friend of mine,Justin Nonthaveth, and I asked to see the elementary school. We brought pens, pencils and medical supplies. We brought tons of stuff from the U.S. and this school has no floor, no glass windows, no nothing. It’s real rural and ramshackle and they knew we were coming back to visit this year so we asked them repeatedly what they wanted. They said a soccer ball. We said you have to go bigger than that. So then they said we want a floor.

A floor is $600 with labor so we threw a big dance party here in Seattle called Footlaos inspired by Footloose with Kevin Bacon and we raised enough money to build four of those floors. So we’re going to Laos to build it and we’re also going to buy schoolbooks, pencils, pens and lots of other stuff to outfit these little guys just because we can. The object is to go there and feel great and visit people that personally touched me and changed my life.

I visited them six months or so after my dad died. They do not speak English and I do not speak Laotian but I was crying when I left. I did not want to leave. I was moved by how little you can have physically and how much you can have in love with your family … I needed a wakeup call after death and this totally reinvigorated me.

That trip, plus my father, kickstarted my life again. When I left Laos and the village I stayed in, three women tied strings around my wrists as part of a ceremonial thing they do to wish you a safe blessing and safe travel. It was really emotional and I still have those strings in a little cup in my bathroom to remember them. I asked Justin to translate and he said the strings were to bring me back to them. And so I’m going to get like 500 more of those strings tied to me and then, you know, hope it does the same kind of thing to reinvigorate me and inspire me to tackle wanting to play music in 20101 which is not easy. I mean this is a gift.

So yeah, it’s rock ‘n’ roll party to trip to Cambodia in the space of 24 hours and I couldn’t have set it up any better. Literally I had the trip booked and then they asked if I wanted to play Deck the Hall and I was like yup, I sure do. So I get to say goodbye to my town and hopefully rock everyone’s faces off.

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