On the first night of its fall 2015 tour, just 20 minutes before going on stage, Charlotte rock band Flagship learned of the death of former member and co-founder, 27-year-old Grant Harding, who had remained close to the band.
Drummer Michael Finster had known Harding since they were 12 and they’d started the long-running Campbell the Band with guitarist Matthew Padgett when they were still in high school, before then joining forces with singer-songwriter Drake Margolnick to form Flagship.
They played the show opening for A Silent Film that night, but cancelled the next few dates and flew home to Charlotte for the funeral.
“It was very surreal. I was still very much in shock,” Finster says of that show. “I’d never had anything like that happen before. You don’t really know how to be. Maybe you know certain reactions from what you’ve seen or read in a book or seen in a movie. You don’t know what to do. It’s almost like you don’t know what’s appropriate or something because you don’t know how to deal with your feelings.”
Flagship’s current national tour, with In the Valley Below, stops at the Underground Sunday night.
Finster and Margolnick – already the only remaining permanent band members (they tour with additional players) were already working on the follow-up to Flagship’s self-titled debut for California-based independent label Bright Antennae (home to Middle Class Rut, the Wombats). They entered the studio with producer and star session musician Joey Waronker (R.E.M., Thom Yorke’s Atoms for Peace, Beck) in Los Angeles in December.
“Recording the album was almost an escape,” Finster says. “I was very grateful for making the record at that moment because I needed something to keep my mind occupied.”
The album, “The Electric Man,” which references Harding, was released this spring and the lead single “Mexican Jackpot” was placed in heavy rotation at SiriusXM’s taste-making AltNation channel.
Although the title is a reference to Harding’s charisma and personality, the album isn’t a dark rumination on death.
“There were some lyrical shifts. Melodies and ideas were written prior, and then Drake made the lyrics more about that,” he says. “The album is not really about him per se. We just wanted to dedicate it to him in a way by naming it that. It’s a reference to him being a very electric person. He was eclectic and vibrant, a very special guy.”
Flagship was already building momentum when Harding and Padgett left the band – Harding to pursue other musical interests under the name Jesus Junior, and Padgett as an engineer with a wife and twins. Given the support of the label and SiriusXM, Margolnick and Finster didn’t want to give up on the band.
“You could feel it in the air that people were ready to move along in their lives to other things,” he says. “When you feel that, you definitely go, ‘Is this the overall dissolution of this?’ But when it came to the music side, Drake and I were the ones that would keep making music either way, so we were like, ‘Why don’t we continue what we’ve built?’ There’s no point in tossing this if we’ve got good stuff going on. I put so much time and effort in building my life as a musician, starting from scratch was almost terrifying.”
That momentum has continued with “The Electric Man.” “Big Sur” director Michael Polish made a handful of music videos with the band, one of which stars actress Kate Bosworth – his wife.
“He surprised us with her being the female lead in the video,” Finster says.
Overall, making the album and the videos was a positive experience, but they knew honoring Harding opened them up to discussing a painful, uncomfortable loss publicly.
“We knew making an album that had to do with him would entail us continually talking about it. It can be difficult for Drake and I. It’s not some kind of PR boost. I get it. It doesn’t make it easier,” he says. “It is weird to tell someone to download an album and you feel like you’re standing over a flooded city selling canoes. You don’t want to be some schmuck salesman profiting off an event like that. We should’ve known it would be more of a factor. That’s part of what developed us as people and as individuals. It’s only tricky when it’s tied in with something that feels shallow.”
Adds Finster: “When someone passes away, if it’s a grandparent or an elderly person, it’s more part of the natural flow. But when someone who has been your friend since you were 12 who is also your age passes, it warps your perspective. It still has an effect on how I see life.”
When: 8 p.m. Sunday.
Where: The Underground, 1000 NC Music Factory Blvd.