Boston’s Ragged Old Flag is mash-up of punk/ska legends from such bands as Jaya the Cat and Stray Bullets, who originally formed as a punk/rock/country band in 2003. The foursome consists of Dave Smith (vocals/guitar), Geoff O’Connor (guitar/vocals), Ben Murphy (bass/vocals), and Jesse Von Kenmore Meyer (drums). A couple weeks ago, I got to sit down with Jesse and Ben to catch up on where they’ve been as a band, and what we can expect from them next. I’ve been sort of letting the interview brew in my head since then—these guys had a LOT to say, all of it fascinating and really inspiring. The conversation drifted from music to kids to tattoos to addiction, so read on and see how it all comes together in the absolute badassery that is the sound of Ragged Old Flag.
GV: How did Ragged Old Flag get started?
BM: Dave [Smith] and I started playing acoustic in his garage. Our first songs were all over the place; “Before I Go” was the first country song. We knew that was the sound we wanted. Then we went out to find the best drummer, and Jesse is the best rock drummer in Boston.
GV: You guys were all formerly in punk/ska bands. What made you switch gears to a more country sound?
BM: It was a conscious decision to move away from punk. Dave and I practiced on acoustic guitars, and that led to the sound. Dave was basically bottoming out when he was writing these songs. He had planned to quit music to go pour concrete.
JM: Rockabilly is the “retirement plan” for punk rockers.
GV: Describe the process of going from garage practices to being a band again. [Ben shows me a tattoo on his calf of a sailor with a guitar and a banner that says, “Never Again.”]
BM: It’s damaging to not do what you love to do. I had to start being involved in music again—not for notoriety, but for love. There were no more “have-to’s” for us, we were back to being 12 [years old] and playing. People ate it up. We became a real band, real quick.
Ragged Old Flag went on hiatus in late 2004, reuniting in 2012. Jesse and Dave kept working together in the interim, starting another rockabilly band called Dry Country Sorrow.
GV: What made you start things up again? Were you surprised to regain that momentum?
JM: Everything we were working on sounded like a lesser version of Ragged Old Flag. We started to appreciate what we had.
BM: Dave sent us scratch demos, and we recorded again over Thanksgiving of 2012.
JM: [Laughs.] We went into the studio as a way to get away from our families at Thanksgiving.
GV: How do you get ideas for songs? Describe your songwriting process.
BM: We practice a songwriting economy—less is more. People-pleasing is over.
JM: There’s freedom in knowing that nobody cares what we do.
GV: Who writes the songs?
BM: Dave writes the lyrics, and we add in our own parts.
GV: How does the band’s sobriety influence your songs?
BM: Dave writes about his struggle; when he started writing Ragged Old Flag songs he had just gotten sober–he didn’t have a “pause” button. Jesse related to that. I sort of flipped the switch to being sober. The clarity led to a new vibe, a real frenzy on the record.
GV: Is it hard to communicate those ideas with one of your bandmates living in Tennessee?
BM: No. We knew exactly what to do with what Dave gave us. We only had 2 rehearsals before heading into the studio. We wanted it raw.
GV: How is the new stuff different?
BM: Dave writes songs about finding hope through guilt, shame, and remorse. There was no pressure, no stress, it was just fun.
JM: The first album sounded desperate; we transitioned from sounding like we had a gun to our head to sounding like we have a gun in our hand. The new EP is my favorite recording, out of 10 records in 10 years. The new stuff adds variety—it’ll bring our set up and down, and take you on a better journey. There was some repetition of playing the old stuff live, it felt “samey.” The new stuff is different.
BM: There are imperfections on the new record. We record in analog; we don’t use ProTools, to keep it raw.
I didn’t ask, but Jesse threw in his opinion of his 3 favorite songs on the new EP.
JM: “Here She Lies” and “Tear it Down,” and my third favorite is “Bottom.” “Bottom” could’ve been corny, but it turned out right.
BM: We are proud of every song we put out.
Easily the coolest thing about these guys is the obvious respect they have for eachother as musicians. Ben calls Jesse the best rock drummer in Boston. Jesse retorts that he has an “egregious lack of fundamentals.” Both Ben and Jesse praised Dave for his unique, signature sound. Jesse sang Ben’s praises as a bassist, which Ben shrugged off, saying simply, “When I play, you know it’s me.”
Geoff and Dave weren’t present for the interview, but their presence was felt as we discussed Dave’s songwriting. About Geoff, Ben says, “hes the guy that is the most easy going, coolest laid-back guitarist ever. He hangs back and just does his thing…no drama, no bullshit, no additives, no preservatives. When you have 3 maniacs throwing ideas all over the place, it’s awesome to just have the guy that just hits that huge G chord or whatever and rounds everything out…he’s like the perfectly spread condiment on your sandwich.”
GV: Who are you guys listening to now?
JM: Nothing. [Pause.] Old ska—Desmond Dekker, reggae.
BM: Mumford and Sons. [I assume he’s joking, and laugh. He’s serious. Shit.] They’re organic, they’re a real band. Of Monsters and Men—you can hear the pick on the guitar strings, you can hear them breathing. There are nuances, it’s not processed in ProTools.
Somehow, and I daresay inevitably, the conversation drifted to all-time great rock records. Jesse unleashed.
JM: The White Stripes, Lucinda Williams, Steve Earl, Social Distortion’s “White Light, White Heat, White Trash”–it’s personal, nastier. The Hives. Turbo Negro—I’d give my left nut to be their drummer. Tim Armstrong’s “Life Won’t Wait.” The Buzzcocks, the Sex Pistols… Little Richard—he’s the gutsiest, most punk rock guy of all time; he had balls.
GV: You’re technically a “Boston band.” Does that influence your sound?
JM: We’re not discernible as a Boston band. We don’t want to be pigeon-holed.
GV: What’s next for Ragged Old Flag?
JM: We have a new EP, which may be the first half of a 2nd record. We already have more material ready to go.
BM: We’re playing the Boston Tattoo Convention. Even if Dave lived nearby, we’d still only play in Boston 4 times a year. We want to make every show an event.
GV: What do you want to say to fans or potential fans?
BM: Don’t just listen on an iPod, you’re not getting the experience. Eventually, we hope to release a record on vinyl. Either like us or don’t. But if you do, don’t be shy.
You can find Ragged Old Flag on Country Rebel Records, and on iTunes. Catch these guys live at the 2013 Boston Tattoo Convention on Labor Day Weekend, AND in an Electric Lighthouse Recordings production at the Midway Café on August 2nd with The Slaughterhouse Chorus, Southern Lust Club, and the Radicals.