The Flavor That Kills have only been together since 2012, but they've gone through an impressive amount of change between then and now. With members of Awesome Car Funmaker and Screamin' Cyn Cyn & the Pons, two hilarious bands from Madison's past, it's no surprise that the group began as a humorous homage to '70s rock. But soon the squealing guitars and florid falsetto vocals evolved into something with genuine heart and soul. I asked drummer Eric Hartz and keyboardist Emry Linster about this transition and an album due out this spring that will show off their latest sound.
What are some of the band's milestones so far?
Hartz: It all started with [guitarist and vocalist] Ryan Corcoran from Awesome Car Funmaker playing in a band called Lake Delton with [bassist] Christian Burnson from the Pons. That wasn't really going anywhere, and I was just finishing up with Hum Machine. Eventually Ryan and I started talking about doing some '70s-style disco stuff. We found a bass player and then discovered a girl who played sax, and the band the Labor That Kills came out of that collaboration.
Long story short, there was a marriage and then a divorce within the Labor That Kills, and we decided not to use that group's name anymore. Then the Pons' singer moved to New York, and we picked up Christian.... He was friends with a guy who played Rhodes [electric piano]; that's Emry. So by April of this year we'd really gotten rolling.
I sense a '70s rock vibe in your early music, like the songs on last spring's Save for You EP, and something vaguely Southern as well. Were you listening to a lot of Skynyrd when you started out?
Hartz: The more we all got to play with each other, the more we started morphing our sound into more of a '70s soul sound with blues-guitar riffs and a soulful backbeat. We put the Rhodes over the top to give the songs a distinctive sound.
Why did '70s soul triumph over '70s rock?
Hartz: Christian and I are fans of Curtis Mayfield, and we're all big fans of the Motown movement. Trends come and go, but soul is music that people can always attach to. You can dance to it, and it really catches people's emotions.
Linster: Playing it really well is challenging. It sounds better the less you put in, the more minimal you make it. One of the toughest things is stripping it down.
On Bandcamp, below the link to your song "Save for You," there's a note that says, "This song is about leaving a loved one and knowing you will never be together again." This seems like a tiny jab at interviewers who ask, "What's your song about?" I know that question can be really annoying for musicians to answer. Why do you think that is?
Hartz: The note really is about that! Ryan has got a lot of songs that aren't about anything. He concentrates on the melody. Like we have a song called "Glory Hole," but it's not about what most people think of when they hear that term.
Do the four of you write songs together, or is one person the primary songwriter?
Hartz: All four of us can write, so we like to come up with the songs together. Like Christian will come up with a good lick or riff, and then we build around that with a rhythm. The lyrics usually come last, after we've settled on the music. But some bands are completely the opposite.
The intro to "Stoned Epicure" reminds me of the opening to "Yellow Ledbetter" by Pearl Jam. Was that intentional?
Hartz: No, but other people have told us the same thing. That line is actually a blues lick Pearl Jam took. It's been played over and over since the 1930s.
Linster: We have another song that's essentially a Captain & Tennille song. When we realized it and told Ryan, and he didn't really care. We come up with the songs ourselves, and we play them in our own way, so they don't really sound like anyone else.
Why should people come to your show on Dec. 20?
Hartz: We're getting really tight as a band, and it's worth it to see Ryan perform. He's an amazing singer and completely crazy onstage. And come hungry, because we'll have fruit merchandise.
Hartz: We don't have T-shirts to sell, so instead we have fruit with stickers that say "The Flavor That Kills." There are apples and peppers and baskets of fruit. So you can get a holiday gift at the show, too.