When his former band The Broken West broke up in 2009, frontman Ross Flournoy relocated to Pasadena, California, but suffered a bad case of writer's block. However, an online songwriting contest for NPR's Monitor Mix drove Flournoy out of his rut. The contest, started by blogger/guitarist/Portlandia star Carrie Brownstein, challenged participants to write, record, and upload an original song over the course of one weekend. Flournoy came up with the song “Under the Gun,” and started to put together a new band (which included former Broken West bassist Brian Whelan). More than 25 songs were written, with nearly a third co-written by Flournoy's friend and studio engineer Adam Vine. The name “Apex Manor” came about from the nickname of Vine's apartment. Eventually they went on to record the album entitled The Year of Magical Drinking, which was recorded at three different studios around LA and produced by Dan Long (Film School, Local Natives) and Brian Whelan. The album was released on Merge Records in January of 2011.
Alcohol and rock and roll are no strangers to one another. For many musicians, it's completely normal to have a couple of drinks before a concert, maybe a beer or two on stage, and then get drunk at an after party. But where do you draw the line? After Apex Manor released their 2011 album, The Year Of Magical Drinking, frontman Ross Flournoy faced the hard truth—he wasn't just a social drinker, he was an alcoholic and it was starting to get seriously out of control. Last August, Flournoy made the decision to enter treatment for drinking. His close friend and studio engineer, Adam Vine, helped set up an e-mail address on Apex Manor's website for what was deemed 'The Year Of Sober Living,' to allow fans to show their support and share stories. Now over eight months sober, Flournoy opened up to us about what finally prompted him to enter treatment, how alcohol affected his music, and what's on the horizon for Apex Manor.
Band of the Day: Question: Can you tell me more about the concept of The Year Of Sober Living, and what ultimately prompted you to take that leap and enter treatment for alcoholism?
Ross Flournoy: One of my best friends, Adam [Vine, who's also part of Apex Manor], set up the e-mail address. I went in [to treatment] for severe depression, so my first goal was to not be so depressed. But also, you know, I was drinking way, way, way too much. I had reached a point where I felt like the drinking had definitely gotten out of control, and I knew that I needed to do something. In treatment they tell you that quitting drinking is pretty much the only option to treat depression. You can't get rid of depression if you're still drinking a fifth of Jack Daniels every two days. So I went in, and I've been sober for about 8 months now, and it's good. It's been...it was hard at first, because drinking had become so woven into the fabric of my daily life. I started at a certain time every day. It's been sort of strange [being sober], that feeling of not knowing what to do with yourself without a buzz. It takes getting used to. But now I have a new pattern, a new routine without drinking, so it's gotten easier. There are still times when I'm out at dinner and wish I could have a drink, but at this point I feel like I have a streak, and I don't wanna jeopardize that. And if I start again, I know where it's gonna take me, where I was before, and I don't wanna go back there.
Band of the Day: When you were writing your album, The Year Of Magical Drinking, how much did alcohol come into play?
Ross: I don't think I ever wrote a song when I was completely shit-faced. But I've definitely written songs after I've been drinking, and I'd been doing that for years and years. There's this song I have called “Southern Decline” that's really about being an alcoholic. Which I knew I was early on, but I just didn't want to quit drinking. That song is very literally about the compulsion and not being able to stop. But because of my situation, I didn't have a day job, it was music, I could set my own schedule and drink when I wanted, so it was part of my process. So at this point, it's still kind of a challenge, I still feel like I have to relearn how to write songs without drinking. But yeah, I'd say alcohol is a very central part of that record. I liked the title because it was very funny and clever [it's a play off of Joan Didion's 2005 book, The Year Of Magical Thinking], but it was also very true.
Band of the Day: So what's your relationship to these songs now that you're sober?
Ross: I don't really know...I don't listen to the record. I very rarely listen to a record after I've recorded it. I listen to it while recording and mixing it, but very rarely after it gets out into the world. I have a weird self-consciousness about listening to myself, so I don't do it. But there's a song on the record called “Souther Decline” that, in hindsight now, seems very prophetic. And I can't remember specifically, but I think there were other threads throughout that record, at least the way I think of it, there were undercurrents of depression and a sort of desperation. This was a document of where I was, and a signpost of where I was going.
Band of the Day: What about when you're playing live?
Ross: I haven't played live since I've been sober. I was thinking about that the other day, I haven't been on stage in, oh God, ten months or something. Eventually at some point I'm gonna get back up there, so it'll be interesting to see what that's like.
Band of the Day: Do you think you'll be pretty nervous? Do you get stage fright?
Ross: Oh yeah! One of the reasons I'd drink when I'd play live is that I have really bad stage fright. And it's something I never got over. I didn't have to, I could just take 2 or 3 shots before a show. So to do it stone cold sober will be a new experience, and something I'm kind of scared of.
Band of the Day: Do you relate to other artists who also deal with issues like depression?
Ross: Definitely. One of my favorite songs of all time is a song by Nick Lowe called “Lately I've Let Things Slide.” It's about a guy who's trying to turn his life around, to quit smoking and stuff, but he keeps getting drunk and making the same mistakes over and over again. And that's something that sounds like it came from a real experience. When I hear Nick Lowe sing that song, it sounds like he lived that. You know, there's a whole canon of guys writing songs about getting drunk, or being sad, and I think I probably relate a little too well to all of them.
Band of the Day: What kind of feedback have you gotten from fans, for The Year Of Sober Living?
Ross: Everybody has been incredibly supportive, people I've worked with in the music business and fans, and it's been really, really wonderful. If you really reach a low point, it's nice to have people who care. 'Cause one of the things about depression is that you just don't care anymore. So it's nice to counter that misperception with the reality which is, you know, that people do care.
Band of the Day: Did that surprise you?
Ross: I guess a little bit, but in a good way. Kind of, and I hate to use this word, heartwarming.
Band of the Day: Where would you say you do your best songwriting?
Ross: Usually I have to be at home, but really for me, I mean, ideas will come at any time, and so I really rely on the voice memo app that's built into every iPhone. So if I start humming some melody or anything, I'll pick the phone up and hum it into there. And also, I think a lot of songwriters feel this way, when I'm driving. And walking, too. There's something about being in motion that really kind of opens my brain up.
Band of the Day: What would you say is the first meaningful music experience you ever had?
Ross: Oh man, that's tough. I would say there's two. On the one hand, when I got my first guitar when I was 11. But also, a family friend of ours, who's like an older brother to me, took me to see Lynyrd Skynyrd when I was 11 or 12. That was the first concert I really remember, other than maybe the Beach Boys or something when I was even younger, but I don't really remember. But being in the crowd and sniffing pot smoke, but not really knowing what it was, seeing all of the lighters, and hearing them play “Free Bird”...I mean, what could be a better first concert experience than actually seeing the guys who actually sang “Free Bird”? I mean you spend the rest of your life going to so many concerts that have idiots yelling out to play “Free Bird” [laughs], so seeing the actual band was cool. That was a lot of fun.
Band of the Day: What's the best part of making an album for you?
Ross: To be honest, it's all exciting. The hardest, or least exciting or most frustrating, thing is the songwriting. But the other side of the coin is once you have the idea, a song that's completely fleshed out, that you're really excited about and can listen to on repeat and love it, there nothing more thrilling in life than that feeling...that moment of creating a song and being happy with it.
Band of the Day: Ultimately, what do you hope people will get out of listening to Apex Manor?
Ross: Gosh, I dunno...I hope it makes 'em happy. That's kind of it. I hope people listen, and on some level, whatever level that might be, they'll relate to something. Above all else, that they'll turn it on and it'll make them smile.
Band of the Day: Finally, who is your Band of the Day today and why?
Ross: The last thing I listened to was this Australian band from the 70s, that I know nothing about, and have only one song of, called The Angels. the angels. They have song called, “Am I Ever Gonna See Your Face Again?” which is kinda perfect from start to finish.
Band of the Day: How did you hear about it?
Ross: I think I went to my wish list in iTunes, and the song was in there. I must've put it in about a year ago, I'm sure I was shit-faced at the time [laughs]. I was thinking about that the other day, I was like, “how did I hear about this song?!” So if anybody sees this or reads this and remembers telling me about that song, please contact me because I'd really like to know [laughs]!