No life spent in rock & roll comes without its share of close calls and run-ins with the law, and Josh Flagg's is no different. A lifetime musician - he started playing mandolin under his father's tutelage before he was out of grade school and was playing all-ages shows in Philadelphia ahead of Orange 9mm at the ripe old age of 13 - Flagg encountered no shortage of unsavory characters. "I remember I had been playing with this other band and we did a show in Virginia," he recalls. "We were all sitting at the bar drinking, and I get a call from our lead singer. She was trapped in the van outside and some guy with a swastika carved into his forehead had chased her out of the bar and was banging on the van trying to get her." The situation doesn't improve on his home turf: a recent get-together of old high school friends quickly turned precarious. "There was a guy at the bar who, for some reason, decided he wanted to fight me," he laughs. "I don't even know why – he didn't like the cut of my jib, I guess. I didn't even find out until the next day. One of my friends called me and said, 'Seriously, man, that guy wanted to kill you.' Meanwhile, I'd been putting my arm around him, laughing right in his ear…"
This kind of physicality goes hand-in-hand with a very particular kind of music, but what’s surprising is that Flagg's music isn't some rough & tumble contrivance of snarling boozer attitude topped with strung-out narratives of rock debauchery. It's the exact opposite: taut, perfectly-constructed glistening power pop that summons a more muscular Cheap Trick, Big Star on a bender or the Foo Fighters with frontloaded melodies. Flagg's got a rough, ragged voice, and it scrapes against the songs' jagged guitars and deftly counteracts the bright, soaring harmonies. Throughout, Devastate Me is the perfect balance of sweet and sour. Like the man himself, Flagg's songs are brawlers with busted noses, but hearts of gold.
Fittingly, Flagg has no patience for rock bloat. "One thing I really respect in a band is keep the solos either nonexistent or very short," Flagg says. "I don’t want to hear the singer give a speech. I'm not looking for a 2.5 hour show. I want a band that has their shit together and can kill it for 35 minutes. That’s our mind frame; take no prisoners and don’t let it get old."
And while Flagg's songs are certainly characterized by their impressive velocity, what impresses most is the record's sonic range. "256," which recalls The Cure's "Push" (a slow-builder), progresses steadily from sedate beginning to full-bloom chorus with the song gradually opening to full stride and Flagg swearing "We won't grow old, we can never be controlled" over a high-arcing, crystalline guitar. The title track is all muscle and sinew, a tense guitar strum and Flagg's voice barreling up the center. "Come Back To Me" offsets sly, sinister lyrics written from the perspective of a comic book villain ("I can't believe it's been another year since you escaped from my secret lair") with a desperate vocal melody and anxious, clawing guitars. The record is an unlikely, but masterful fusion: guitar-driven pop songs that exude rock attitude.
"I don’t like the You-Me-Girl aspect to songwriting," Flagg says. "It's a little cloying. I wanted to take those same sentiments and subvert them. Take really cliché choruses, but have them, when you listen to the lyrics, turn out to be about zombies – or written from the perspective of a cancer cell. It's an interesting way to undermine the classic pop format. I mean, 'Bring Me Back To Life' is about a zombie looking for his girlfriend, more or less."
It's that very counter intuitiveness that powers Devastate Me - songs that barrel their way into your brain with a bruiser's charm and a pop savant's golden ear for melody. "This record is the purest representation of who we are as a band right now," Flagg says. It's a fantastic contradiction: a breathtaking showdown that pits pop hooks against right hooks.