Live in the Clubs: Illness of Rachel Flotard’s father slowed but inspired Visqueen

For Visqueen’s third studio album and first in five years, singer-songwriter Rachel Flotard simply f

For Visqueen’s third studio album and first in five years, singer-songwriter Rachel Flotard simply followed her guts.

The approach has certainly paid off. “Message to Garcia,” released in September of last year, has been garnering rave reviews and landed the band exposure via NPR’s “Morning Edition” and a slot on this year’s South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, among others.

But this success didn’t come without a struggle. During the band’s five-year hiatus between the album and 2004’s “Sunset on Dateland,” Flotard was taking care of her father, who died of prostate cancer on April 7, 2008. While living with him in Seattle, the New Jersey-born Flotard wrote the bulk of the songs that would become “Message to Garcia.”

“I lived with my dad for seven years — he had prostate cancer, and the last three years, he was pretty sick, So I was kind of juggling my fate, not being able to go far from home,” Flotard said from Seattle.

“My band took on kind of a whole different thing for me — I would get to practice when I could, trying to keep up appearances. If I acted like everything was OK, it meant everything was still OK, even though at the time I was dealing with some pretty heady issues. And while I was writing and playing on and off through the years, at the same time I was doing stuff with Neko Case, some crazy fun shows. But at the same time, I would come back a minute later and be in cancer town.”

Finishing the job

During this time, recording sessions for the album went slowly, and for a while after her father died, Flotard “couldn’t listen to it for a while.” Finally, something clicked.

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For Gazette music writer Brian McElhiney’s review of this show, click here.

“Right around February before the album came out, I went back in and just decided to pull it apart and add cello, pedal steel guitar, and finish it,” she said. “The plan was to finish the job, whether anything happened or not. I need to finish it for myself, and for my dad — he was a huge influence; he would kick my ass if I didn’t finish what I started.”

She is now in the middle of Visqueen’s longest tour in a couple years, a three-week jaunt across the country that began this week in Montana and will wind up at Valentine’s on Tuesday night. As the band is now self-released on its own label, Local 638 Records (another tribute to Flotard’s father, who was part of the New York City Steamfitters Union), Flotard ended up booking all of the shows herself.

“I’m excited; I haven’t done it in a long time,” she said. “It’s a miracle I’m even able to do it — it’s a recession, and I don’t know if you know this, but musicians are always broke. But I’m just saying screw it — it’s a thank-you to all the people who are into the record on the East Coast.”

3-Piece at Valentine’s

For these shows, the band’s lineup will be a bit different — longtime drummer Ben Hooker, who also played with Flotard in Hafacat in the ’90s, has a son celebrating his first birthday during the tour, while guitarist Tom Cummings has other commitments. So for the first time since the group’s early days, Visqueen will be a three-piece, with current bassist Cristina Bautista and former Screaming Trees drummer Barrett Martin behind the kit.

“It’s like if 30 Dave Grohls joined the band,” Flotard said of Martin. “We’re practicing again as a three-piece, and it’s the heaviest, coolest thing I’ve ever played in. Barrett feels like a runaway locomotive. . . . I don’t think I’ve smiled this much in practice in a long time.”

While the tour is shaping up to be a stripped-down affair, “Message to Garcia” is anything but, featuring lush horn arrangements, strings, piano and slide guitar on songs such as “Hand Me Down” and “Summer Snow,” while still retaining the energetic, raw pop-punk feel of the group’s first two albums.

“I just heard it in my head, and I also felt like I wanted something a little bit more textured,” Flotard said. “I love straight-ahead rock — guitar, bass, drums. . . . But I wanted to really do something more, even if I couldn’t replicate it, even if I didn’t have the pedal steel all the time. Some [songs] just needed it.”

Working with Neko Case and her pedal steel player, Jon Rauhouse, also influenced her to branch out with instrumentation.

“Working with Neko and Jon, meeting these tremendous players, made me want to expand my own arranging and songwriting,” she said. “Some people were like, ‘You’re straight-ahead; why even put flugelhorn on it?’ Who the hell is the boss of this? I love that I did it and took liberties and chances with it, because, who the hell cares?”

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