Brandin Lea has probably told the story a few thousand times, but it goes like this: “We had a show at Irving Plaza on 9/11. The label was going to launch ‘Coke’ as the next single — it was supposed to be huge — and then the planes hit, and the music industry went into freefall. A lot of bands were on the chopping block. Epic kept us, but they didn’t do any promotion, and when our A&R guy got fired, I knew it was over with the label support.”
Epic offered Lea and company a buyout: The band could either sell the record to Epic for $120,000 or buy it back for half that amount.
The band went with Option B.
And for a while, Flickerstick went on as it had been, playing shows, writing, rehearsing, doing some touring, packing lots of houses, and, of course, pounding some booze. But something was irrevocably different. Flickerstick fired Weir and replaced him with former Doosu drummer Todd Harwell. And then Kreig, who co-wrote all of the songs with Lea and whose wife was now pregnant, quit.
“She pretty much told him he had to go unless we were going to start making real money,” Lea recalled. “They would see us get on the bus and be gone for a couple months, play packed houses, and then come back and say, ‘Here’s 2K, babe. Sorry, I was gone for eight weeks.’ ”
Calhoun’s Tim Locke filled in for a bit, but then Fletcher, who had one kid and another on the way, enlisted. He ended up spending 13 months in Iraq.
Lea knew Flickerstick’s time had come.
But before the band had totally dissolved, Lea had become a partner in The Chat Room Pub, talked into investing in the grungy dive –– and this was long before the Near Southside boom –– by friend Higgs. Lea was part-owner for about five years until he was bought out by current owners Jon Carney, who also co-owns Lola’s, and Brad Hensarling, who also owns The Usual.
All of the money Lea made from the sale went back into the bottle pretty much –– around the time of Flickerstick’s slow demise, Lea’s girlfriend of several years broke up with him.
“It’s no wonder he hit the booze so hard,” Carney said.
The only thing Lea knew how to do was make music. Toward the tail end of Flickerstick, he started a side project with multi-instrumentalist Jordan Roberts, who would go on to be co-songwriter in Calhoun, and two other scene stalwarts: drummer Austin Green, who would go on to join Telegraph Canyon, and bassist and singer-songwriter Taylor Craig Mills.
The February Chorus, Lea said, was “basically a manifestation of aimlessness. It was a jam that got out of control.”
Roberts remembers The Feb Chor as something fun that quickly grew frustrating. “I was 24 or 25, and this guy who is arguably a local rockstar comes and asks me to start a band with him. Of course I said yes.”
But it didn’t take Roberts long to realize that Lea was more interested in the show and after-party than writing and rehearsing.
“Calhoun was getting more serious, and I also kind of wanted to grow up, get a real job, curb my partying,” Roberts said. “I kind of drifted away.”
Lea kept The February Chorus on life support for some time, but it also drifted away the deeper he fell into the bottle. It’s hard to be a rockstar without a band, and without any music, he was just a drunk.
“Remember when he was always hurt?” Carney said. “When he quit playing music, all he did was drink, and it seemed like you’d always see him with a bandage on his head or walking on crutches.”
Roberts remembers all too clearly. “You’d hear stories third-hand,” he said. “They’d start with ‘Did you hear about Brandin?’ And for a while they were like a tragic comedy of errors, where he came out of a bar and fell on his face or whatever, but then I started thinking, ‘Oh shit. This is the one where he crashed his car or choked on his own vomit or died in some other horrible alcoholic way.’ ”
But at that point, Roberts, like many of Lea’s friends, had distanced himself.
“I kind of saw it happen a little when I was playing with him,” Roberts said, “but I just never had the spine to tell him he was getting out of control.”
Higgs, who struggles with alcohol himself, has more or less seen it all with Brandin Lea and accepts responsibility for never saying anything.
“There was this one time,” Higgs said, “we’d been on a bender or whatever, and it’s 5 a.m. I’m drinking on my porch. Brandin comes out at 7 a.m. to have a cigarette, but then he starts vomiting, and the vomit is full of blood. And I will never forgive myself for not taking him to the hospital right then. Instead, I asked if he wanted another beer, and we drank until [nearby] Woody’s [Tavern] opened.”