From jamming sessions and rocking school assemblies to songwriting and recording in LA, UK band Flashfires are rising stars on the music scene. iSing’s ALEXA TERRY caught up with the boys: Fraser Roskilly (guitar), Toby Bartlett (drums), Alex Gonzato (vocals), Jon Cullis (guitar) and Liam Kinslow (bass).
How would you describe Flashfires, and who are your biggest musical influences?
Fraser & Liam: If you had to put a name on it, we would describe Flashfires as “rock”. In terms of influence: as individuals we all have our own tastes and, when we bring that to rehearsal, we find ourselves adding elements of indie, alternative rock and even country.
Fraser: I enjoy listening to and take influence from Coldplay and Kings of Leon. In terms of bands that our style resonates with, then I would say Arctic Monkeys and bands with big front men like Queen and The Rolling Stones. Alex is pretty extravagant!
Jon: Alex and I went to see The Rolling Stones in May and it was amazing. You can imagine what they were like in their prime and it was awesome to see them rocking out. For me, being a guitar player, I’m really in to Led Zeppelin and The Foo Fighters, too.
Liam: My love for music began in the noughties, post garage, and I have always loved David Bowie and The Strokes.
Alex: Def Leppard’s Phil Collen, told me that I remind him of Michael Hutchence and, since, In XS have become a big influence for me, as well as Freddie Mercury and Mick Jagger.
Alex, when you perform live there is definitely essence of Mick Jagger in your delivery. When you were younger you were involved in amateur dramatics and theatre productions. Did this help you to develop your front man persona?
A: Definitely! When we first started I was on guitar, but our manager made the suggestion that I be the front man. I always knew I could do it, but when the guitar comes off, you have no shield. I didn’t know what to do with my hands, but it seemed to come pretty naturally. My Mum and Godfather were involved in the arts and I think this helped me massively, especially as a singer. I went through a phase where I would come offstage with a tired throat and I don’t know how I would have survived performing night after night. When I started being the front man, I took singing lessons with my Godfather. Using your voice theatrically and singing in a rock band are completely different, but learning vocal technique has been really important.
You visited Sacramento, California, to spend time at J Street Recorders Studio. How did you benefit from these visits? How did it compare to working in the UK?
J: In the US there seems to be an extra enthusiasm for our type of music. It was quite nice to go over and experience being in a studio as a band, and just being in that environment. We definitely learnt a lot; it made us feel more professional and that we were taken seriously as artists.
A: Our songwriting definitely benefited. Our producer would bring in songs and we would spend the day workshopping them to help us understand how to structure and improve our creative process.
F: I found that I got really into the nitty gritty of the production and recording side of things. Having an interest in equipment and experimenting with different microphones and pedals, for example, has really helped with our live sound, I think.
A: In America, the audiences are really geared up and seem to have a different mentality. Playing in London is the hardest, sometimes. On weekends, there are gigs in bars everywhere – it’s such a big market. There are bands just like us who are going down to London and playing which is why, on our recent tour, we have branched out to venues on the outskirts and into places like Bristol to reach audiences.
F: A manager of another band said: “there are too many bands, too many venues and not enough people to go to them.”
Tell us more about your songwriting process. How do you get started and where do you draw inspiration from?
F: Normally, either the guitarists will come up with riffs and chords minus the vocals and melody, and we will build something from there adding lyrics last – a bit like a jam. Or Alex and Toby will start with vocals and an acoustic guitar, write things from there and we will then build parts around them.
F & L: There is so much on the radio you feel like you’ve heard before. We are quite aware when we start creating; if one of us thinks it starts to sound like another song we have already heard, we will take the time to work it out and make it different. We want to make sure that each track we write has a “Flashfires” stamp on it, and that our sound can be recognised.
A: From my point of view, when it comes to inspiration, I don’t write internally anymore. I feel we are now writing more universally and performing songs that can connect us to our audience via our life experiences. We find that we attract an older audience a lot of the time.
J: I think that comes from our influences which seems to open up to a bigger demographic.
What was the highlight of your recent national tour? How do you cope with low points when you’re on the road?
J: We played a Saturday night gig at Mr Wolfs in Bristol which was really good fun. I think the audience stumbled upon us and got really in to it.
A: We supported a band called No Hot Ashes at The Boileroom in Guildford which was also really good. Southampton wasn’t so good.
J: Our whole attitude is “play as if someone is there who could potentially change your life”, and I think this helps no matter what crowd we end up playing for.
F: Being friends before being music partners means we can bring each other up and bounce off each other. If you surround yourself with good people then they can help lift your spirits when things aren’t quite going your way.
Alex, as lead singer, what are the things you do to maintain a healthy and reliable voice?
A: I have learned from experience that I can’t have dairy before a gig. I stick to Manuka honey and lemon, or water. I found that I used to warm up too much, and go on stage and be tired. So, now I have a different warm up regime that works for me. I find it much easier to sing night after night now that I have developed the stamina. I used to have the awful fear of going on stage and losing my voice whereas, now, I can rely on the technique that I have built.
Previously, iSing spoke with top guitarist, songwriter and producer David LaBruyere about the role of the bass guitarist and how this instrument can often be overlooked. How well do you know each others instruments? How important do you think it is in order to communicate with each other?
L: I think it’s important, especially if you have brought a song to the table that you have written and have a particular sound in mind for. We can all play each others’ instruments on a basic level and it gives you an awareness of how everything fits together. Quite a lot of the time, myself and the drummer will meet up and have our own rehearsal, so we can ensure that we are always in sync.
F: Beyond our own individual amplifiers, we don’t tend to amplify anything else when we are in rehearsal, other than vocals. Also, having an interest in the production side of things and testing out different pieces of equipment has helped.
L: We find that thinking as a band rather than thinking about how you sound specifically is the way to go.
You’ve played shows with bands like The Hoosiers and Catfish and the Bottlemen, and Led Zeppelin guitarist, Jimmy Page, came to one of your gigs. What is the best piece of advice that you have received from industry connections?
J: Our manager, Brian Wheat, has a lot of industry contacts in the US as his band Tesla are quite a big rock band. We have been lucky enough to be in a position where he’s played our songs to them and they seem to be impressed. But, success doesn’t happen overnight, and you have to keep grafting. If you have down moments or a gig that didn’t go so well, you have to just bounce off one another and come back stronger in the next one.
A: We were told: “It’s little victories” – and that is very true. We will inevitably get rejections, but when you have little victories, like a great gig, they should be celebrated.
Talk to me about the first time you heard your track Manshark on Radio 1’s BBC Introducing platform.
A: There’s a Berkshire DJ called Linda Serk and she’s played quite a few of our tracks in the past. We got a message to say that she would be taking Manshark onto Huw Stevens’ show. So we tuned in and heard our song, and it was a great feeling. Since, we have done a couple of acoustic sessions with BBC Introducing and it’s a great platform. So many bands use it, though, so it can become over-saturated, but we have found that it’s one of the only ways to get airplay.
What is the most beneficial thing that has helped you as musicians and collectively as a band?
L: We’ve got a really great team. We have Oliver Halfin and Brian Wheat who are working really hard.
A: Brian is amazing for us because he’s a musician and he’s done what we are doing – it’s cool to have that relationship and understanding. Oliver is really great with image, style, and social media.
L: I would say continuing to develop and maintaining your skills is really important, too. I still take guitar lessons with my teacher, Simon Barnard, and I do it because I want to always be better than I currently am. I’m also taking singing lessons to help musicality and to, hopefully, add another string to my bow.
A: We put ourselves in good environments and have really supportive families. They let us stay at home and they put up with coming back in the early hours of the morning from gigs. Also, being friends before being in a band together means we aren’t just business partners who create music. We actually hang out together and know each other on a personal level, so we can be there to support one another.
How do you ensure that Flashfires continues to be authentic, and that you aren’t manipulated by commercial industry moulds?
L: There are so few artists that make it to the high tier of popular music. We find the important thing is that we do it because we love it, rather than because we want to make money out of it. There is a really good interview with Kevin Parker of Tame Impala where he talks about how his Dad told him not to have a career in music because he would end up hating it. But he ignored it and because Parker never got to that place where it was for money, he still loves doing it.
What’s next for Flashfires?
J & L: We are looking to release songs on Spotify which is quite a big deal. If you can get playlisted then, the chances are, more people will hear about you. Hopefully we will get another string of dates for gigs soon. We have been in contact with a lot of different booking agents and basically plan to play the songs that will be released on Spotify to as many people as we can.