Alex Gage’s Flagship Leaves Port For Proverbial High Seas of Art Rock

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There’s a lot of bands out there trying to make it today – maybe now more than ever. 

Some of these artists are cognizant of their trajectory to where they would like to be in the scheme of things, whether it be becoming a solid live act with a local following that simply pays the bills, or aiming to be the… yes, the “greatest rock band of all time”.

This aspiration to be considered some of the greatest musical geniuses that ever walked the earth is a level of ambition that some artists seem to possess, and which is more common than the self-identified plebeians among us might imagine.

As well, there are – and these are probably the majority of artists to be frank – those that really have no clue what they’re trying to achieve career-wise or in terms of some grand artistic vision, if anything. 

These ego-less noodlers are content to play a song or two in their bedroom with an old dusty guitar, or serenade aunts and uncles at family reunions.  This, perhaps, is preferrable to these modest music makers.  Not everyone wants to be Bono and The Edge.

Either way, there’s a lot of people making music these days, on various scales.  Some care a lot about what they’re doing, considering it rather important, and some don’t care much at all, considering it transitory and trifling (even if they don’t know what either of those words mean). 

Musical expression – it’s all interpreted on an individual basis, of course, just like everything else in life.  I’m not here to judge!

Just kidding, I’m a bitter, jaded blogger hiding behind a screen, of course I’m here to judge.  🙂 

Also, let me stress again that there are artists out there on the musical landscape who clearly have more drive than others to create forms of expression which try to say more, with bigger artistic goals in mind.  Artists that think that Bono and The Edge are merely “ok”, or might even say “they suck” (gasp!).

These more ambitious people may simply have an undeniable artistic vision that they are pursuing, while still others want to make a grand artistic statement and also get handed a big bag of cash and hang out with the Robert Palmer girls (or Robert himself if you are a girl, I guess).  The fame!  The fortune!  The cars!  The yachts!  Simon LeBon!  Yes!  Yes!  YES!

In any case, there’s really no denying that some artists seem driven to achieve something on a level that perhaps few artists can muster.  And kudos to those people, because without them, we would get some of our favourite albums.

Alex Gage’s Flagship Introduce “Lifeboat” EP Via Live Debut

Enter Alex Gage (pictured below) and his new musical project the Flagship, and their new “Lifeboat” EP.

Now there’s a little word called pretentiousness and you hear it when people speak of what is sometimes called “art rock”. 

Alex Gage, a member of the funky trio The Magnetic Revelators who generally kick out the crowd-pleasing jams in their hometown of Kitchener, Ontario, has now crossed the line into a new realm of expression, which is…I dare say…art rock. 

Could it be that Alex Gage is pulling a Prince, mic’ing his entire home, and recording a concept album on the toilet with a Tele and the red light on?

Having known Alex for a little while and spoken with him many times, I’ve really never known Alex to really ooze pretentiousness.  Musically skilled, yep.  Energetic, quite.  Full of ideas, indeed. 

But now, having revealed to me a new side of himself which I must admit is rather musically progressive and experimental in nature, there is always the fear that art rock will cast a spell of smugness on this normally beautiful, free-spirited soul who seems to love music for its intrinsic values, and isn’t hell bent on being the next Kanye West.

Curiosity piqued, I had to know what was up with the project Alex has referred to lately as Flagship, or rather Alex Gage’s Flagship, as he is the project leader of a host of talented musicians coming from diverse musical backgrounds.  The more I heard about the project, the more I gathered that it was rather ambitious in scope. 

Here is a recent pic of the Flagship working on material.  

From the sounds of it, these people know what they’re doing.  I began to wonder – is Alex on his way to creating the next “Lulu” (Metallica meets Lou Reed, if you recall), or is this going to be something really cool that will blow our minds?

With a debut live show at a venue called The Jazz Room in the Canadian university town of Waterloo, Ontario imminent this Saturday, July 14th, the time is coming to see what Alex Gage has in store for listeners in terms of his new EP. 

In the meantime, I conducted an interview with Alex to see what he had to say about this new project, which he has been working on diligently with his new band, but keeping things under wraps…until now. 

Enjoy our chat!

YC: So, Alex, I hear you got a new band together.  What’s that all about?

Alex: Well, truth be told, it’s been a Chinese Democracy years in the making. By that I mean it was something I was theoretically getting ready for – personally – for a long time before I was capable of the business of actually pulling it off. I write a decent amount and the majority of it isn’t fit for what The Magnetic Revelators (my regular band) do. I’m only a third to a half of the personality in that group so I wanted to create something to serve as a flagship (beg your pardon) for my creative personality and this armada of compositions I’ve accumulated over time. I was craving an unmediated vehicle of expression. It started this time as a recording project. This band was – and still is – my conception of a solo project, but the ideas were bigger than what I could pull off alone – especially live now; it takes seven people to pull off this music without drastically reducing the complexity of the arrangements. I mean, I played a lot of the parts you hear on the album but, even so, I needed a rhythm section in-studio with the chops to hold my ideas together from the outside and the objective curiosity to humour flights of fancy that, honestly, only work in theory  (or the fancies that make no theoretical sense but worked anyways). I guess I’m lying when I say I didn’t want my creativity mediated in any way – it is far more exciting, both in the final musical product and in the process itself as artist, to have collaborators to spark in-the-moment inspirations. But what my Flagship is about is giving me a chance to really captain the ship (again, apologies) and put myself out there artistically; to write whatever I want, for the band to play what I feel strongly about, to be uncompromising live – and to have final edit on everything! to be able to decide what kind of environment, what kind of chemistry, I want to set off. I multi-tracked the hell out of the recordings all by my lonesome but every bandmember really has contributed so much to the live incarnations of these songs. We’re not “playing the album” that’s coming out at the launch show, just its songs. I get to do the mad-scientist thing now with my pick of the elements I think best reanimate my music. Here, that means putting seven very different musicians into one cramped rehearsal space with the songs and…. seeing what happens. I still reserve the license to make executive decisions afterwards about what experiments live and which ones to take out back behind the shed to be shot and never spoken of again. That’s with respects to the “band” aspect of the project.

YC: I hear what you’re saying with recordings vs. live band – they’re two different things, really.  In terms of the live band, who do you have on board, what do they do, and where’d you find them?

Alex: With one exception, these are all Toronto-based musicians, people I met in the music program at York University.

Lennox Campbell-Berzins is one of our guitarists – he’s the one doing all the structurally-necessary guitar parts on the EP – I guess you call that rhythm guitar. He’s my oldest schoolfellow, we fell in fast over prog rock in first year and have played in a few bands together over the years. He’s teaching just about every instrument now, gigging, and just recently retired his main band to work with me on the Flagship and start his new Broken Wolves band (which I am reciprocally a member of). Thick as thieves we are, even if we can’t cowrite a damn thing because of how much we bicker over musical nit-pickings.

Sarah Thawer’s the drummer – and I mean THE drummer. I met her through our other guitarist, Laurent, for a band Lennox and I tried to put together in a past life. We did manage one show together before folding. She’s one of my favourite drummers (and not just of “people that I know”) because of how deeply her inventive playing speaks. She has folded so many genres and cultural traditions into her musical voice. She played the TD Toronto Jazz Festival with her own group last month, she’s sponsored, she plays full-time around the world – actually, I think her arrival from what I believe is two weeks of touring in Portugal is only the day before our show.

Laurent Bergeron isn’t on-record but his guitar playing is indispensable to managing this beast live. I actually met him first at an IMC rock camp when I was a teenager. I was impressed by his speed with highly technical riffs, even then, and he thought I had a good voice. Him being a couple years younger than me, it wasn’t until a few years later that we tried that aforementioned band (though I did sing one show with a band he had as a high school senior the fall after that camp). He and Sarah were quad-mates in residence at York; neither minded the other’s practicing coming through the walls. I knew I needed a gunslinger and since I’d already used up Lennox, Laurent was top of list.

James Atin-Godden is another wizard I met in my first year though we didn’t start to hang out at all until later on. He’s playing bass and keyboards/piano in the live band. I knew him then as a zany piano player and composer of wonderful, quirky, rich fusion tunes for a band he had called Copycat. He’s really a stylistically versatile multi-instrumentalist. He’s savvy on the other side of the studio glass as well; he mixed “Lifeboat” and did a bang-up job, I think. To top it off, the guy loves playing bass and it just so happened that I needed somebody able to switch between piano and bass to take the instrumental pressure off me during songs that were difficult to sing. In addition to composing and teaching he also tours playing keys for The Pick Brothers Band.

Aniqa Qadir, same year at York. She’s a dedicated singer. Again, we were on good terms but didn’t hang out much outside of crossing paths in class, at shows, or on the 196 express bus between campus and subway (a commuter’s run-in which happened surprisingly many times, now that I think about it). A deft singer. As a person, she’s modest but factual, compassionate but takes no shit. Her technical ability, her ear, and her vocal range are of such breadth (how low she can sing is truly mortifying coming out of her small frame) that, since she can sing pretty well anything, she’s spends more time than most singers deciding what she ought to sing. Call it an impeccable exercise of taste rather than dumb muscle, even when she uses plenty of muscle. Recently she released two beautiful albums as the group Aniqa Dear (A project James was also central to).

Luke Griffin is the hometown exception to this Toronto roster. You’ll hear him singing, playing acoustic guitar, and even holding down a little bass. My oldest friend with whom I still maintain an active friendship with – I won’t do the math on how long. He’s basically my arch-foil. We’ve had a theoretical band for years. One summer we did actually gig as an acoustic duo; we had a residency at The Little Bean (R.I.P.) which led to me working there for a season. Most of our playing together was in high school in jazz band and the like. He’s a self-described “saxophone enthusiast,” he plays tenor and we used to take over rehearsals by inciting endless jams of Herbie Hancock’s “Chameleon.” Luke has an annoyingly great pitch awareness and is one of the few male singers I know who’ll follow me almost all the way up into that soprano register. Our voices are so similar when we sing in harmony it really feels as if we become a single sympathetic instrument. I lose track of which voice is coming out of my mouth. It is a difficult experience to describe but it’s a beautiful sympathy.

Clearly, I don’t feel I can say enough about the musicians I’ve roped into this endeavour. I got my first picks across the board and it’s excitement itself to witness and hear the result of them finding their individual voice’s place in the ensemble and within each composition. I approached each person for a reason and have not once been disappointed by a single member.

YC: Sounds like quite the line-up!  How many shows do you plan to do around this album, and when might that happen?

Alex: So, here’s the thing about a line-up like that: It’s really hard to coordinate and schedule. Right now we’ve got two shows booked; The Jazz Room show in Waterloo to officially fire off everything with a solid hometown show (even though I’m technically from Kitchener), and one show in August about a month later…. the 18th, at Duffy’s Tavern, to introduce the band and the album to what still feels like my adoptive city – and is the legitimate HQ of 5 members. I plan on getting more shows booked in the fall but it’s a lot to manage, putting out an album independently, so I’ve pushed that task into the after-launch future. It was important to launch with this lineup for the sake of the EP and some of the live members’ contributions to it but it was always in my mind to give this music the “living document” treatment in stage conditions. For practical considerations I’ll be doing shows with varying configurations of the current band based who I can get at any given time. Otherwise, we’d never perform. It was hell just to book the first two shows and, even then, Duffy’s Tavern will see us slightly leaner and meaner! I have an LP follow-up half-baked on my computer, I was going to try and have it out in September, but I’ll probably push it back to give this album more breathing room and to keep its motif going for the live shows a bit longer. But the live set is honestly already about more than just the album. 30 minutes is long for an EP but makes for a weak live set, so we’ve extended the live show with songs you’ll hear on the LP and some carefully chosen covers, including a wicked medley I won’t spoil (but I will tell you, it’s liable to make the Grand River Jazz Society’s tech – GRJS does the sound/light at the Jazz Room – weep disdainful tears of sorrow while delighting any old prog fans in the room).

YC: I’m sure it will be quite the event!  What styles / bands are you taking influence from on this whole thing?  Like, is this supposed to be a jazz thing, a rock thing, a jazz-rock thing?  A Yoko Ono wacky art project thing?

Alex: It’s a rock thing. I’d call it a prog rock or an art rock thing. “Prog” these days seems to imply what I’d classify as, like, prog metal – and we’re definitely not a metal band of any description. But for me, it’s always important to take inspiration or influence from as many places as you can understand and make coherent. So, I mean, more directly influences you’ll hear will be bands like King Crimson and Queen but, stylistically, you’ll hear wisps of a few “popular music” genres like soul and folk and a snatch of the Brill Building, even. You can smell jazz chops a mile away, regardless of the genre (think of To Pimp A Butterfly or Blackstar) and, like I said, I’ve got a bunch of jazz cats playing in the band. But there’s also a lot of really subtly “classical” music influence in the way some of the songs are put together on a more technical level, the way we manipulate tempo in the recordings (no click), some of the harmony stuff in voicings and voice leading; I put some very oblique nods to a few of my favourite composers and one of the songs we do live but that I wrote just too late to make it on the record makes a pretty obvious nod to Beethoven. Ha! I’ve also been told there is a part or two of the EP that sound not unlike Nobuo Uematsu, best known for his work as the composer for the Final Fantasy games. But it’s definitely a rock thing in its simplest sense, hands down. A rock blender.

YC: So, for this Jazz Room show, how did that come about again?  Why the Jazz Room?

Alex: It turns out the Jazz Room doesn’t really care who you are or what you do. They just ask that your audience be thirsty and/or hungry enough to consume a grand in revenue for them. Which is alright; it’s attached to the Huether, so I for one am ordering supper towards that end. I kind of assumed there was a jazz bar (no pun intended) you had to live up to in order to play there but when I checked it out, I discovered they were really open-minded to whatever I wanted to do. I picked the Jazz Room because I wanted a venue that was geared towards live music, towards performing and listening to live music at a high level of engagement. This isn’t a band that’s going to work in a dive sports bar where half the people want to just watch the game and hear some Lynyrd Skynyrd (as much as I’d enjoy hearing some Lynyrd Skynyrd, myself), where we’re running our own sound – or off a basement or café floor where we don’t have a proper PA. There’s too many of us doing too many different things and the music is complex enough that the band cohesion would become dangerously tenuous in a bad sounding space – not to mention, I would feel like I ripped-off the audience if we came out to play some of these intricate arrangements and we couldn’t hear each other, and all the audience heard then was a gigantic fart of noise for an hour, coming in six-minute chunks. There are bands that do music that sound good anywhere and under any conditions, or sound even better in shitty conditions; where it’s way more enjoyable for everyone – the whole point really – to trash the space or make wherever the band is a dancefloor. Unfortunately, that’s not us – hopefully we can still move a few people bodily onto the dancefloor but, sound-wise, we’re needy when there’s seven of us! A place that’s experientially calibrated like The Jazz Room makes the night more fun for this kind of music, both for performer and for audience member, because everything will still be intelligible by the time the sound leaves the stage and reaches the listeners’ ears. Plus, it wasn’t prohibitively expensive for me to put a show on there!

YC: Ah that makes sense!  Well, I look forward to the show then ?  Anything else you’d like to add in closing here?

Alex: About this music? Nah, hopefully the rest can speak for itself in more than words on Saturday. Though, maybe in closing – can I get dense for a second? – I will say this on my own account, personally: that I hope this whole project can represent the fact that we, as individuals, must be free to be artists, and to be artists over craftsmen of cultural products (unless, of course, that is, in fact, your calling). Not unlike scientific pursuit, the best art is a manifestation of the process of asking a question, which is the earnest attempt at genuine engagement and understanding with the world and our existence within it, within ourselves, and within others – and all the vice versas of that network. The connection is a true one, an active one – whatever one says of the content transferred over it – so I think it is of the utmost importance for us to make quality art. In philosophy, East or West, the greatest questions tend, as a rule of thumb, to lack definitive answers. Therefore, I’m not saying we’ve got to have any profound solution to make quality art – just live in your question. It can be anything, so long as you mean it. It speaks to the fundamentally political element of art too: it’s not always about including pro- or protest lyrics; politics is all about the organization of relationships in society between people and resources and what-have-you. Well….so is art! so, by extension, all art is political in this way – even in its most abstract and absolute forms – through our engagement with it, (the same can be said of art’s relationship to its creator) when we encounter a work of art and ask it (as best as we can in the context of our individual matrices of being-in-the-world) ‘what the hell are you?’ There is a lot of political and existential disingenuity getting put out there – these days especially! – and that’ll really fuck a body up if you get trapped in the net of false connections that gets strung together. It’s incredibly hazardous to one’s mental, physical, and species’ health to become disconnected, insular, and unengaged (or engaged under false pretense). You don’t need a movement. Just ask good questions; make good art. This EP and our live show represents my best efforts. It’s a matter of survival.

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