The three members of Flasher sit in a basement studio in a Brookland house on chairs scavenged from the side of the road, sipping on Bulleit bourbon and connecting the dots between their various endeavors.
Drummer Emma Baker moonlights in Big Hush. Bassist Danny Saperstein plays in Bless. Until last fall, guitarist Taylor Mulitz played bass in standout D.C. act Priests; he met Baker and Saperstein in high school, when they were “two really cool, intimidating people playing acoustic guitars” in the attic of a house party. He attended that party with a friend who played bass in a band with Owen Wuerker, whose house they are all sitting in now.
For an outsider, that who’s who of band mates and side projects might take a ball of yarn and some pushpins to figure out. But for Flasher, it’s all they’ve ever known. The friend-of-a-friend hopscotch is typical of the D.C. punk scene, of which Flasher is one of the most vital cogs. The three members grew up in the D.C. area and spent their formative years attending punk and hardcore shows at off-the-beaten-path venues such as the Kay Spiritual Life Center at American University, the Electric Maid in Takoma Park and the Warehouse Next Door in downtown Washington, where a sense of community was valued as much as the music.
This was especially true of a group house in the 16th Street Heights neighborhood called Girl Cave, where punk shows were as common as organizing meetings. Baker started hanging out there even before she was in high school. “All the people that lived there were so cool. The music they played was awesome; they were so welcoming, even though I was little kid,” Baker recalls.
As Saperstein explains, “In every instance of looking for people to look up to, there was no way to untether why they were cool, mature, nice, welcoming, inspired, motivated and creative from their making music and commitment to these bands.”
Intrinsic to these bands of friends was also their politics. The takeaway for Saperstein was that “the place we get together to play music — the most sacred thing we do — should be negotiated through overt politics” that considered race, gender and class. “It was the veil through which I got to know the world.” Still, their lessons weren’t politics by polemic. “A lot of it was inferred,” says Mulitz. “It was so ingrained in the scene, there was no way to avoid it.”
Following that education by osmosis, the members of Flasher eventually dispersed after finishing high school: Baker to McGill University in Montreal, Saperstein to Guilford College in North Carolina, Mulitz to Parsons School of Design in New York. But they weren’t able to recapture the magic of the D.C. punk community in their college towns.
“I felt really lost, like the rug had been pulled out from underneath me,” says Mulitz. Baker remembers cherishing summer breaks because she was able to play music with her friends. She eventually decided to come home, for good: “I prioritized making music as something that I need to live, to stay alive.”
When the three friends started Flasher, they didn’t have a genre or specific sound in mind. “Sustaining that sense of openness, of not having a plan, has been a guiding force for us,” Saperstein explains, adding that the band tries to embrace “being deliberate without being intentional.”
“We’re trying to be really exploratory, speculative and personal, and if it’s really personal, it’s really hard to explain to other people — that’s why we make music,” Saperstein adds, admitting that it’s “a little abstract.”
Mulitz finds a reasonable metaphor: “It’s like having a baby with someone that you’re not romantically in love with.”
And Baker adds the punchline: “That’s probably most people’s experience with having a baby.”
The resulting (loveless?) child amalgamates elements of post-punk, shoegaze and the music from the District and elsewhere that inspires them. The band’s self-titled debut, released in 2016, was alternatingly noisy and dissonant, melodic and romantic, and put them on the map. The band tightened up and flexed its jangly, ’90s-indie-rock side on a 2017 single, “Winnie,” and they’ve brought it all together on their first full-length album, “Constant Image,” which is out now on Domino Records, a label that’s home to acts such as Arctic Monkeys and Franz Ferdinand.
This time around, the vocals have more verve than drone, putting more emphasis on the trio’s lyrics. Mulitz and Saperstein share lead vocals and most often trade in impressionist poems that could be about moving through states of consciousness and clutching sinking-ship relationships.
Flasher saves the explicit (or as explicit as they get) for the album’s final track, “Business Unusual.” A self-reflexive satire of white-male patriarchy, the song asks a “boy in blue,” “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?”
“That’s a really earnest question I want to ask myself and others,” Mulitz says of the lyric. It’s a challenging note on which to end an album that is mostly absent of overt politics — and exactly the type of subversion Flasher is after. As Saperstein says, “Why we consider ourselves punk is how it is useful to be arbitrarily provocative.”
That way of being punk — more than a style or sound that must be perpetuated ad infinitum — is the key lesson Flasher learned from the D.C. scene they grew up in, and one they continue to foster.
“We’re really trying to hold ourselves to a standard that’s about respecting the fact that other people have come before us, and to use the form they used,” Saperstein says. The band recognizes that the scene here is unlike anywhere else. They’ve toured enough to see that not every such scene is as diverse along racial and gender lines, or as supportive, as it is in Washington.
“The place that I want to be is the place that I am, and that’s super validating,” says Mulitz. All three are glad they left for school and realized what they had left behind at home. “If we had just stayed around, it wouldn’t feel the same,” he says.
Or as Baker puts it, her voice heavy with derision: “We’d be a New York band.”