Visqueen has just finished their set at Nashville's The Basement club. Visqueen's founder and frontwoman Rachel Flotard is hanging out at the band's merch table with bassist/vocalist Christina Bautista and cellist Barb Hunter while temp drummer Barrett Martin chats with family outside the venue. Visqueen's east coast tour is winding down but not before playing a 1:30 set at the Taste of Cincinnati.
"What is the Taste of Cincinnati?" Flotard asks, before answering her own question. "Tastes like early to me."
Welcome to the world of Visqueen, a world filled with hope and heartbreak, hooks and harmonies, guitars and girls, all of it filtered through the wisecracking Flotard. You can ask questions if you want but you don't have to. As Martin told me prior to the band's set, Flotard is the funniest person he's ever been on tour with. Traveling with Visqueen means listening to her do impromptu standup while seated in a van.
Asking an artist who their influences are is about the most useless, least interesting question a journalist can ask. I'm not feeling much like a journalist during this hastily arranged interview in no small part because I've never been less prepared for an interview in my life. I've heard Visqueen for the first time only a few hours earlier at their in-store appearance at the greatest independent music store in the universe, Grimey's. Despite my lack of preparation, I refuse to fall back on the "influences" crutch but somehow the conversation flows that direction.
"I don't even know what they are," Flotard says. "What I tell people is 'Tom & Jerry' and pretty much anyone chasing someone else with a giant mallet! That's what it feels like all the time. What's funnier than that shit?"
Now, see, if I knew I'd get good answers I might ask that to more artists. Now I understand what Martin meant about her standup comedy routine. She's not done. Having declared the famous cat-and-mouse as her musical influence, she's bound and determined to make this idea work.
"I think that's where I learned about music translating to feeling is those cartoons- they were orchestrated so beautifully and the music was a character in so much of it that you reacted to how hard someone was getting smacked in the face with a rake based on what the orchestra was doing. It totally was a musical event. My first musical influences were cartoon music."
Tom & Jerry may have been her first musical influence but the greatest impact on her life is her father. He didn't play a note on Visqueen's latest record Message To Garcia but the name of the album and the label that distributes it were both inspired by him. He also impacted the timing of the album's release.
"My dad moved out and lived with me right when King Me came out," Flotard says, mentioning Visqueen's first record, "so right around 2002-3. He was a prostate cancer patient and I lived with him and took care of him up until he died two years ago."
Visqueen released Sunset on Dateland a year after King Me but after that, caring for her father and coping with what he was experiencing made a third album more than she could think about.
"I couldn't finish our record," she said. "I tried it while he was alive and I just used it as some semblance of normalcy and habit — going to band practice — but I was a walking husk of a person because I was completely involved in somebody else's life."
"I would get to do cool little things with Neko Case, who is a hero of mine and also a pal. I traveled and sang backup for her all over the world. One minute I go on (The Tonight Show) Jay Leno with her and then I come home and I'm in Safeway buying Depends and Ex-Lax and a carton of smokes.
So my life 'ruled,'" she says, that last word dripping with a hint of gallows humor. "It was like that for a really long time and I wouldn't trade it."
The sarcasm disappears from her voice and she continues, "He was my best buddy in the whole wide world and I love him and miss him every minute of every day."
She wasn't ready to jump right back into the band after her father passed. While traveling southeast Asia she reflected on the unfinished business of Visqueen's third record and dedicated herself to it.
"All I can think about is my dad," she said. "He'd be like, 'I hope you make it, kid' and by that he just means being happy and doing what you say you're going to do. Me finishing the record was me doing what I said I was going to do."
As she set forth to finish the record she realized finishing was only one part of the problem. Whatever momentum the band had achieved with their first two records had vanished in the years she spent away and finding a label home in the crumbling music industry was getting harder, not easier. Once again Flotard turned to herself and her instincts and Local 638 Records was born.
"My gut told me name it Local 638 records after Dad," she said. "That's the union that fed me. I'm a fully functioning label that's distributed nationwide and digitally all by myself."
She's quick to point out that all by herself comes with the help of a lot of great and talented friends, in and out of the band. The path was long and filled with amazing highs and sorrowful lows but things felt right, and that feeling is what Flotard was relying on.
"I've never had tour support so I wouldn't know what that was like — other than Visa because 'it's everywhere you want to be,'" she says, laughing. While some might see those kinds of struggles as a sign things were going wrong, the lessons of watching her dad work hard his whole life have had a lasting impact on her and given her a perspective that makes her see Visqueen as something she's in for the long haul.
"I feel like we're on the right track because it feels natural to be where we are," she said. "I'm supposed to be in a trench. I'm supposed to be digging out sand. The connections I make are very powerful. Even if they happen slower than what a major label could break open into, mine just feel more rewarding. The connections I do make are really powerful and important to me and obviously to other people sometimes. It's just going to take me a lot longer to get there."
Those connections she refers to have come in ways she never could have imagined. As NPR, CNN, and other major media outlets have learned of Visqueen's music and Flotard's stories, people from around the world have responded to both. People write to her and share their own stories of caring for loved ones and watching as they battle cancer.
"The people that it is touching — they're writing me and telling me about their families and their story — and it is the most bizarre, awesome, crazy thing that has ever happened."
And that is Visqueen: they can make you laugh and cry, they can touch your heart and they can break it. There are a lot of villains in the music industry and one of their many great crimes has been the mass production of apathy among listeners the world over. Visqueen is a quintessential American story of the underdog looking to make good; this is Rocky Balboa racing up the stairs in Philly and Mary Tyler Moore tossing her hat into the air. This is Roadrunner, racing through the desert being chased by Wile E. Coyote.