Features, Interviews

Flagships, Whiskey, and U2: A Conversation with Drake Margolnick

It’s a surprisingly warm October night in the usually quiet little town of Mill Valley. With the annual film festival going on and celebrities like Emma Stone hanging around, there are more people than I’ve ever seen in this town. From the moment I meet him, I can tell that Drake has a knack for making friends. When I find the singer-songwriter at the bar, he’s engaged in a lively conversation with the guy sitting next to him, seemingly fitting right in with the locals. He hands me his drink to try a sip, before he heads to the bar to grab another drink. Considering he was just hanging out with Michael Polish and Kate Bosworth the other week, he’s incredibly casual and laid back.

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That’s Drake on the right and Michael [Finster] on the left.

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“Great place to be. I’ve been here for about a month now.” Drake Margolnick tells me, as I ask him about how he’s liking the sleepy little town of Mill Valley. We’re sitting outside on the string light strewn patio at the hottest new restaurant in town, where a private party for the film festival keeps making toasts every hour. “I came for music videos this time and once we wrapped them up, Tiffanie and Scott asked me if I felt like staying longer and so here I am. I’ve been pushing my leaving date back and back because they keep on taking me to fun things. We went to the U2 show last night and that was incredible.”

Reina Shinohara: Because Tiffanie is U2’s biggest fan, right?

Drake Margolnick: Yes, she really is. I’m right there behind her. We might be tied? I don’t know. But yeah, it’s been really great. I love it here very much. I’ve spent a lot of time becoming a regular local Mill Valley person. It’s been fun getting to know everybody that works here and lives here. It’s very easy to fit in with the locals. Definitely no complaints about hanging around here, except that I have to leave at some point.

RS: You said you were in town to shoot music videos?

DM: We shot three videos for our new record that’s coming out.

RS: Wow, in the span of…?

DM: Something like seven days? Maybe less. We did it with this really talented director, Michael Polish, and then for the last video he had his wife, Kate Bosworth, in it, which was so much fun. We all clicked real quick and it’s been real fun to kind of develop friendships and get to know more and more good people. So it’s just been a really great experience and this whole record has been kind of like that. There’s something special about this one. I mean, that’s how you always feel, but this time it’s for real.

RS: How long have you guys been working on this new record?

DM: Well, we started writing for it last September. We perfected the songs and recorded them late November, December, and January. Then we mixed and finalized it in February. And we’ll be releasing it this coming February. So it’s been a long process. But nothing good comes quickly, so it’s all worth it. But for right now, I’m enjoying having fun while I’m on my vacation, you know? Well, it’s more like… an extended stay that started out with business.

RS: So what kind of business have you been up to lately, other than shooting the music videos?

DM: Collecting all the album assets. Doing photoshoots and videos. We added an extra song, so we recorded that recently. Making sure all the album artwork is right, making sure that it all looks good and sounds good. It’s a long process.

RS: Do you guys have a theme for your album?

DM: Well, the album is called The Electric Man and it’s dedicated to our friend who used to be in our band, Grant Harding. He passed on the 14th of this month, so it’s almost been a year. So we’re dedicating the album to him. He’s missed but I think we did a good thing and made a good record for our friend.

RS: Going back in the history of your band, I know that you’ve been in a number of different bands over the years and also do your own solo thing, but can you give a little overview of where you started and where you’ve ended up?

DM: Do you have three hours? No? I can try and do it quickly. This is probably my 11th or 12th year of pursuing this dream. It started off as Flagship Brigade, which was my first band. Since then there have probably been six or seven different versions of Flagship and it’s always kind of been mine. A lot of really good friends have come and gone, and over the years, I got tired of it and went solo, strictly solo. Then I met the wonderful boys from Campbell the band and then they became a band with me, and Flagship was reborn. That happened around 2011 or 2012. And then life happened. Grant passed. Chris moved somewhere else, and it ended up just being me and Michael. Honestly, it’s the best thing that could have happened because it’s really hard to maintain a big band these days, but i wouldn’t have traded any of the paths to get here either. All the nice people and good friends that we got to play with. I intend to be in as many bands as I can be in and do as much as I can do. There’s a lot of time in a day.

RS: So then was it kind of a natural process? Coming together with all the guys in Campbell?

DM: Extremely natural. It just happened. We went to this festival in Illinois and I tagged along as a friend. There were some open slots at the festival so I asked them if they would back me up for my solo music and they did, and we had such a good time playing together that we said why the hell wouldn’t we play together? So then we decided to be a band and then Flagship was reborn. It was a good moment. It was just one of those things. Effortless and totally natural. It just… happened.

RS: On your solo albums, it sounds like you have a ton of people playing, with lots of sonic layers and depth. Did you play all of the different parts yourself?

DM: On the first one, I played everything, and on this new one, I had one other friend programming some drums and helping out as well. His name is Leo Solis and he was a big part of our new Flagship record too.

RS: What instruments do you play?

DM: You know, I’m not a master at any one instrument, but I can play guitar and piano as my primary instruments. I started playing bass, so I can play bass pretty well now. I can play the drums if I have to. It’s probably my weakest link. But I like to play it all. I like to play anything I can pick up. That’s the thing. I think once you know and understand music, you can pretty much pick anything up and figure it out. Just like John Lennon said, “Give me a tuba and I’ll give you a song.” Or something like that. You just pick it up and make sure it’s in the right key and then you play it.

RS: Where did the name Flagship come from?

DM: I’ve always had an obsession with the sea. I’ve always been obsessed since i was a kid. I guess I was googling a bunch of terms and phrases that had to do with nautical things and Flagship showed up and I thought, “that works!” I also like the meaning of Flagship. It’s the ship that’s leading the way, in charge of the whole fleet, which is cheesy and corny, but I wanted to make a band that did that and was important and special. Not to sound like an asshole or anything, but I wanted to be in a band that was important and I wanted to create that, so the name fit.

RS: What got you so into nautical stuff?

DM: You know, I don’t know. I always drew ships when I was a kid. I just liked to draw ships. I’ve always been obsessed with ships. I don’t know why. But it’s just something that’s iconic to me, and the visual aesthetic of dudes building ships out of trees and sailing thousands of miles is incredible. The whole thing is just… I’m obsessed with it. I think in some past life I was on a ship. There’s more water and ocean than there is land, and it makes you think and wonder what’s down there and what’s going on. And it’s the most treacherous place you can find yourself at times. And all of that imagery is why I like it so much.

RS: You’re from North Carolina? Is that where you grew up?

DM: Pretty much, yeah, in Charlotte. I wasn’t born there but I was raised there. I talk a lot of shit about it, but I do love it. Right now is an interesting time to be in the South. There’s a lot of division that wasn’t there when I was growing up. Like the riots that have been happening in my city and the hatred, and also a lot of love happening. So it’s this interesting clash of cultures and ideals. It’s a good place. It’s home, but at the same time, I am thrilled and happy to spend less and less time there. I’ve been there for so long and it’s time to experience everything else as much as possible while I’m still in my 20’s.

RS: Speaking of experiencing things, what was it like working with Michael Polish on your new music videos?

DM: Oh it was great. We were all friends immediately. We’ve worked with tons of different people and lots of great people that we are friends with, but this was the first time that was ever immediate friendship. And I mean immediately. When we met Michael for a kind of meet and greet a couple of weeks before the video shoot, we just hit it off–me and Michael, and Michael, the two Michaels involved. I’m actually named Michael too, but I go by my middle name, Drake. I just took him to the bar, got him Eagle Rare–which was one of his favorite whiskeys–and the rest is history. We text almost every day now. So it was probably one of the best experiences I’ve ever had–outside of being in a studio–in music. We started in a studio, then we did one at the LA fair, which was a blast. And then we rode the train from LA to San Francisco, which is part of the same video as the LA Fair. Then we did one all over San Francisco, a lot at the Fairmont Hotel and just all around the city. It was kind of guerrilla style and super natural, and basically they filmed us having a great time, so it was very easy and fun. We write the songs and we like to work with people who can listen to that and envision visual aesthetics, so Michael did that and he’s extremely talented so really, it was very easy. I’ve never had such an easy time being an actor, if you can even call it that. I usually don’t like being the center of attention, unless I’m on a stage, but he made it a lot of fun, so I have nothing but a lot of great things to say. Which reminds me, also, the guy who produced our record, Joey Waronker, had the same exact vibe. He became an instant friend and I would like to make another record with him one day. He’s probably one of the most talented musicians I’ve ever met in my life. This record has just been all about meeting people that I have looked up to in some form or fashion over the course of growing up, whether I knew who it was or not. Just the things that these guys have done just blows my mind. It’s been just a surreal time in my life.

RS: It sounds like for the most part, you’ve managed to become instant friends, but do you ever meet people that you look up to and feel completely starstruck?

DM: I always do research on anyone that I’m about to meet. I like to go into every situation knowing that I can have a conversation with anybody. I look at who these people are and you get a little sensation of “Man, this is cool! This is happening, I get to work with these people.” But then I don’t really carry that into it. You just shake hands and you talk. Everyone is just a person. I love people. And it’s funny because I used to be really shy and introverted, but now I’m just a fucking social butterfly. I can’t help but meet new people. I get a thrill out of it. The most important thing I think I can do is to experience other people’s lives through conversation. It helps for writing songs and for being creative, and not getting bored. Because everybody has a really cool story, everyone has at least one story that’s interesting, so it’s nice to hear those stories.

RS: What’s your most interesting story?

DM: There are too many that come to mind. There are a lot of embarrassing stories, like, the time when I shit myself on stage and I announced it over the mic. But we’re not going to go into that.

RS: Oh my god. I hope there’s an article on that. I’m going to look it up later.

DM: There actually is, I’ll show it to you later. But, I think the last year of my life has been surreal. I mean, Joey Waronker produced our record. He’s in a band with Thom Yorke and Flea, called Atoms for Peace. He’s been Beck’s drummer for…ever. He’s been in R.E.M.. He’s tracked for Paul McCartney and Adele, you know, this is an incredible person and it’s not just his achievements, he’s also one of the nicest people you will ever meet in your life. That in itself is something very special. We made this record with one of the best and it sounds like it. So… that’s a good story, I think.

RS: That is a good story. And it’s an interesting story. But I do want to hear about the uh, stage incident later.

DM: It’s because of a pot brownie and I didn’t know. Well, I did know, but I didn’t think it would be that bad. It was really bad, but everybody loves that story every time I tell it.

RS: I bet! So you kind of touched on writing, with meeting people and hearing their stories, and how it helps with your writing. Does your writing process differ with every song or record? What was the writing process like for this new album?

DM: Usually, I like to be in the studio with no sound restrictions, so I can be as loud as I want, and I surround myself with a lot of different instruments so that I can swivel around and pick up things. I basically come up with chord structures and sounds that I like, and then I’ll mumble my melodies over that. I’ll lock in the melodies that I like without words, then I’ll figure out what I want the song to be about and piece my words into those melodies. Sometimes those melodies shift as the words make them shift, but that’s usually the process. Drink some whiskey and get to work, you know? A lot of this record is about pain and sorrow, but also redemption and hope, and the human condition. Things that matter to me. Nothing very trivial. I wanted to make a record that people could be moved and impacted by. Not just to make them dance for a minute, though I would like that too. I want people to have fun listening to the record, but I wanted to say something that people would understand and be able to relate to. I also wanted to tell them something about my life, and that should be relatable, because we’re all the fucking same in some ways. We all face our versions of the same things, even though they are unique to us. I wanted people to be able to take my situations and the things that I am going through, and somehow be moved by it. I don’t know if that makes sense, but I guess that’s always the goal. I didn’t want to make a records that’s just… I didn’t want to add to the noise. There are so many bands out there, and so many great ones, but I didn’t want to just be another fucking band. I wanted to make a record that would maybe encourage people or just be a blanket when they are sad, just so they know that other people are sad. Sometimes that’s nice. Sadness can be okay.

RS: Back when there were a bunch of people in your band, did the writing process differ from the process on your newest album?

DM: It was pretty much the same. I would write the chord structures and the melodies and lyrics. The only difference was I would play it for them and then they would write their parts. I would just make the skeleton and then they would put the meat and flesh and stuff on it. And now, the only difference is that me and Michael do that with the help of Chris, who was our old bass player. I write more of the parts than I used to, which I actually really like to do anyway, but it’s definitely always a group effort. We have a lot of help from a lot of really talented, incredible people.

RS: Do you guys ever disagree on anything?

DM: Sometimes, but it’s usually passive aggressive stuff that is usually killed within five minutes. The thing is, we’re all like brothers. Everybody works together in this thing. We’re all family, so sometimes brothers fight. Or, well, we argue. We never fight.

RS: Do you, or would you give each other input on your parts? Or constructive criticism of sorts?

DM: Oh yeah, absolutely. If I think a beat should go a certain way with Michael, I would let him know. And if it works, it works, and if it doesn’t, he keeps working on his own. I’m always asking him, “How do you like that lyric?” or “How do you like this melody?” “Is that the right chord?” We talk through it. The whole thing, all the time, every time. We’ve been doing it too long to ruin something like this in a moment. Family is family. We’ve been through the good times and hell, and there’s no reason that any one comment would upset that.

RS: So, I know this is a drab question, but in terms of your music, what would you cite as your main influences?

DM: No no, you have to ask that! It’s like a cardinal rule! It varies all the time. I guess I could start at the beginning. I saw Rattle and Hum by U2, it’s their movie that they put out the year I was born. That movie changed my life. I decided, yeah, I want to do that. That looks awesome. I was probably 16, 17 or something. I also saw Coldplay’s 2003 live DVD from Sydney and that just confirmed that yeah, this is it. I want to do this. As I got older and more well-listened, my influences grew and I grew to love Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and Bruce Springsteen, and Radiohead was a huge one. Somewhere in there, Third Eye Blind was a big band for me too. I tend to like emotionally charged music. Music with more than one purpose. Not just to get people on their feet, which is never a bad thing, but maybe also to talk to them and have a conversation. Talk about something that’s not just surface level bullshit. Talk about a little something more than sex, drugs, and alcohol, you know? Every now and then you can fit that in there, which I do, because that’s a part of life, but I want it to be all of the parts of being a human. Not just one specific area. That’s how you make it alive.

RS: When did you actually start playing music?

DM: My cousin, Chad, gave me my first guitar and I must have been 14 or 15, I think. I took two guitar lessons and didn’t like being taught because I’ve never liked teachers, ever. I like to learn things on my own, so I kind of taught myself. I was raised in church and a guy named Josh was one of the youth leaders at the church I went to, and he threw me up on stage and said “Play.” And so I did, and I just never stopped. Even though I’m not involved in any church now and I’m not very religious, I started there so I’ll always appreciate that.

RS: When did you first start listening to music? I mean, I guess you never really recognize when you first start to listen to music, but do you remember what was your first album?

DM: My first real album that wasn’t like shitty Christian music (not to sound terrible, but…), was Goo Goo Dolls’ Dizzy Up The Girl. It was the first one I bought for myself, and I wasn’t even allowed to have it. And U2 was my second album. I think it might have been U2’s Achtung Baby or All You Can’t Leave Behind. Yeah, I’m a big U2 fan. I’m not a huge fan of the new stuff, but I’ll always love them. I saw them last night and, god, I just love them.

RS: What have you been listening to lately?

DM: I’ve been listening to a lot of obscure music and new bands. Recently, on this trip to Mill Valley and San Francisco, I’ve gone back to some of my staples. The National. “Pink Rabbits” really sticks out.

RS: Oh! Tiffanie told me that her new book is inspired by that song.

DM: I listened to that song again because she told me to.

RS: I listened to that album because she told me to.

DM: It’s a really nice album. High Violet is really great too. I’ve been listening to Sigur Rós. Their Album Takk is really great. Their ( ) (parentheses) album. I’ve also been listening to a lot of Radio Dept. and Radiohead’s new album, A Moon Shaped Pool, I love that album. Beach House, their last two records I didn’t like at first, but now I love them a lot. So lots of different stuff.

RS: Other than the album coming out in February and all the music videos to follow, what’s next for you guys?

DM: We probably won’t tour until next year. I’ve kind of got the rest of the year to do whatever the hell I want. That sounds bad. I’ll find ways to stay productive. I’m probably going to keep traveling and trying to build experiences, and have more ammunition to write better songs. I want to keep living life, you know? Also I need to get myself somewhat together.

RS: Well, you seem very put together.

DM: Appearances can be deceiving. I mean, I’m fine. I also want to make another solo EP, if the label will allow me to do it. I just want to keep making music all the time. I like to do licensing work. Making music for other things, besides the band. Commercials and stuff. I’d like to get more and more invested in that kind of work, because these days, you can’t just be in a band and make a decent living. You have to do everything you can think of. Licensing is the way that artists make money now. It’s like, the number one way. If you want to buy a house and do normal things, you license your music or you create original scores. You either do it or you’re just… already rich. So it’s a big part of our future and my future, to continue to do the work that we’re already doing. Everything helps everything, you know? Doing well at one thing within music, helps the other working parts too. You can’t really go wrong, unless you do nothing.

RS: On the topic of making money, what’s your take on streaming and giving away music for free?

DM: I mean, it’s fine. The thing is, it doesn’t matter what I think about it. It’s just how it is. You either do it, or no one knows who you are. At the end of the day, I think streaming companies are going to ruin the music industry, if they haven’t already done it yet. Because people only have to pay $10 a month to have access to every album that’s ever been made, which is kind of fucked up. But if you want to do anything now, you better put your stuff up there, or you’re just an idiot. We get not even a full penny’s worth for each stream on Spotify, which is a travesty in my opinion. I think it’s unfair. I know that these nerdy tech guys who run these streaming sites make way more money than the artists, and I think that’s kind of weird. They become rich off of our blood, sweat, and tears. So yeah, it bothers me, but at the same time, if we choose to give something away, I’m definitely ok with that. And I like to give things away, but everything shouldn’t be free. So I’m half and half on it. Certainly ok with giving our music away, but for those streaming companies, I think they need to revise their artist payouts. And they need to make it easier to access those funds, because right now you have to pull teeth just to get paid.. But as far as our label goes, I love them. Anything they want to give away, I will always stand behind. We are signed to one of the best record labels that exist, so they can do whatever they want. I buy my favorite records, but i’m guilty of stealing music sometimes too. I’ve done it, because every now and then you think, if I can’t beat then, i might as well join them. The bigger artists who have already made it, don’t need our help, but the bands that are trying to make it and are living off of ramen noodles and spaghetti o’s, they need our help. We need to buy their records. I’m not there anymore, but I certainly was poor for a long time, and I know what it’s like. I got lucky and a lot of the bands don’t get as lucky as I have been to meet people like Tiffanie and Scott and Braden and everyone at Bright Antenna.

RS: Do you ever feel like, given the opportunity, you would want to sign to a major label?

DM: No. Hell no. Not at all. They’re the worst. They are bad. Those are the suits  that you don’t want to come into contact with. The used to be cool, but now you want to run from them like they’re a grizzly bear. They’ll just eat you up and spit you out.

RS: When you were unsigned, what was it that made you want to sign with a label and not try to do it on your own?

DM: I like feeling like I’m a part of a team. And it’s a tough time to be on your own. I have a lot of drive and motivation, but I don’t think I had what it took to just do it all on my own. I don’t know. Maybe we could have done it by ourselves for a while, but we did what we did and it was the right thing. I don’t know how else to explain it. Some bands shouldn’t get signed. A lot of bands should try to do it on their own, but my life changed when I met these people, so I knew it was the right thing to do. And there’s nothing wrong with getting help. Sometimes the best thing you can do is to recognize that there are some things you can’t do on your own.

Drake Margolnick is a musician based out of Charlotte, North Carolina. He’s also half of the band Flagship, who are currently signed to Bright Antenna Records. They’ve got a new record and lots of cool stuff coming in February 2017. Find Drake here and Flagship here.

October 20, 2016

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Reina Shinohara Reina is a person who just found out she's from the snobbiest city in California. You can find her at a cafe sipping unreasonably priced artisan coffee writing a condescending tweet that will probably stay in her unpublished drafts.


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