Years before reality TV splintered into shows about outlandish cakes and the real housewives who love them, the genre was little more than MTV’s The Real World and ABC’s Survivor.
VH1 sort of combined both shows into one. As part of Bands on the Run, four carefully selected, unknown yet up-and-coming rock groups had to travel all over the country and jump through a bunch of silly hoops for $100,000 in Guitar Center gear, $50,000 in cash, a showcase for major-label execs, and a video to be aired on the network. Flickerstick openly refused to participate. Lea said that he and his bandmates were offered the chance to star in a documentary, not a reality game show. Perhaps because of their refusal to play along, they ended up earning the most call-in votes and “winning.”
Lea laughs about it now. “The producers wanted us to get kicked off first,” he said.
Compared to the other competing groups, who were very businesslike, Flickerstick looked like Mötley Crüe at the Crazy Horse Saloon with Donald Trump’s black AmEx card.
“We never thought we drank any more than any other North Texas band,” Lea recalled.
But, well, they kind of did. And they kind of did a lot of other stuff.
“They made us sign agreements that we wouldn’t do anything illegal, but we were buying drugs from the crew,” Lea said.
One band member almost overdosed in a hotel bathtub.
“It got pretty fucked up toward the end,” Lea said.
By Day 60, Flickerstick was “fried.”
“We were drinking the whole time,” he recalled. “It got so bad, by the last two weeks, we were all getting DT symptoms. It was my first experience with that much,” and with this, Lea began pantomiming uncontrollably shaky hands. “I’m like, ‘What is all this?’ ”
The band returned to North Texas on Christmas Day after being on the road since Halloween.
“All of us should have been in the hospital,” he said. “We all had fevers, the shakes. We were calling each other, saying, ‘Dude, I’m not right.’ ”
And yet. Lea quickly got acclimated to the lifestyle of the frontman of a touring band known –– and perhaps loved –– for getting hammered.
Lea, however, reserved his partying for after the last note.
“He’d have a few beers or shots before the show, but he always gave his all,” recalled longtime friend and current roommate Ryan Higgs, co-owner of Lola’s Saloon. “He really didn’t get into party mode until the show was done.”
As corny and outlandish as the TV show was, the prizes were still very real, and the Flickerstick guys soon found themselves courting labels –– as well as dealing with the music industry’s unpleasant machinations.
“A common misconception is that we were all rich after that, that we got a record deal, and that’s not true at all,” Lea said.
The video for the song “Beautiful” cost $260,000, Lea said. “It had helicopters in it, for God’s sake! I fought them on it the whole time, asking, ‘Could you just do it for $40,000? Let us live on the rest of that money if you’re gonna spend it anyway?’ ”
The answer was “Nope!” And thus the Flickerstick boys soldiered on, playing the industry game as best they could. Opening for the incredibly popular (at the time) Cranberries forced Flick to rent a bus to keep up with the Irish pop band’s seven-bus motorcade.
“The Cranberries had something like 80 grand for touring,” Lea said. “Their label gave us $1,000. That wasn’t even enough to get us to Montreal for the first show, but we were like, ‘Fuck it,’ I guess.”
The touring did pay off enough to get bids from Volcano Records and Epic Records. The band went with Epic. The Sony Music subsidiary was initially helpful. Market tests revealed four potential hits from Flickerstick’s debut album, Welcome Home the Astronauts. Epic released “Beautiful” first. It charted at No. 14.
But then it all came crashing down
Along with the Twin Towers.