If there’s one thing that The Clash taught the world, it’s that eclecticism and innovation are what move a genre forward. The best punk and ska bands are the ones that find ways to fuse their sound with other genres. And, if there’s any modern band that’s taken that lesson to heart, it’s the Mississippi ska innovators Flying Raccoon Suit.
While the band have always been known for their diverse sound, their new album Moonflower—out now from rising ska powerhouse Bad Time Records—sees the band taking their unique ska fusion style to a new level, bringing in everything from New Orleans big-band jazz to heavy metal. Flying Raccoon Suit guitarist Andrew Heaton, drummer Derek Kerley, and lead vocalist Jessica Jeansonne sat down with New Noise to discuss Moonflower.
Nothing against your first two albums, but Moonflower really feels like your breakout album. Was there anything that felt different about writing and recording this one?
Jessica Jeansonne: Definitely! It felt like more of a challenge for us to break out of our shells and be more of ourselves and evolve our own sound, our eclectic genre blending, fine tuning what we like to do ourselves.
Derek Kerley: I would say yes and no. Different for sure because we’ve had this lineup now for quite a while and I feel like it was actually an easier-going process. In my opinion, I think the writing and the recording process was pretty solid this time around. And everybody seemed to really bring their A-game this time to, which is awesome.
Andrew Heaton: Yeah, a lot more people (brought) songs to the table, because we all have different backgrounds. Kerley is our metalhead; he brought his first song to the table for this album. Half of us have done southern brass band stuff in our background, and we’re able to touch on that for the first time on an album for the for the opener (“Vidalia”), hitting New Orleans jazz and stuff. So yeah, a lot more of all the members’ backgrounds.
And that brings me to what I wanted to ask next which is: What does the writing process look like? Do you have entire songs finished and then add in lyrics? Or do you come up with the music and lyrics at the same time?
JJ: Well it varies (with) each song. Andy has a whole backlog of songs from 10 to 15 years ago. But there are songs like “Take This With You” (which) we came up with at a surprise birthday party that Andrew and Brandon threw for me. He came up with a riff while we were sitting on my couch. Stuff like that. We’ve played with old ones and then we brought new ones in.
AH: Yeah, it’s different each time. I’ll bring skeletons of songs. There’s some songs like “Pinwheel” and “Axe to Grind” I’ll bring to the table fully finished with lyrics and horns, even if I’m not singing them. Or other times, I’ll bring a chord progression and then Jessica does the lyrics and our horn players—mainly Brandon—brought the horn parts. They’re all different. Anybody can bring a song. Brandon and Kerley have brought songs they’ve written. Jessica had the idea for “Witch’s Streak” and I brought music, but then the concept was all hers. Yeah, each song is different.
As a seven-person band, does it make it hard to make decisions as a group and come to consensus about things?
JJ: Surprisingly, no. We were split on very, very minute details like art for singles, but other than that we don’t really have anything like that. We don’t have any differences.
DK: Yeah, one thing with this go around, being in the band together for so long, we just trust each other enough to, if Andy’s got a cool idea for a song or a vibe in a song that’s written, and he’s like, I hear it this way, it’s like, alright, let’s go with it and move on because, at this point, he’s done that so many times, and we’ve believed and trusted him enough to where it’s always a good idea. We learned to lean on each other in that way where, (if) Brandon has got a stellar idea for a song or a part, we know it’s going to be a banger in the end.
JJ: Yeah, we take each other’s ideas or little structures and piece them together like friendship bracelets, like little woven pieces of a bracelet.
DK: That’s fucking adorable!
JJ: It is, though! It really is that way!
AH: Song-wise, I don’t think we really turn each other’s ideas down that much. The most disagreement we’ve had is everybody had different opinions for what the single should be. And then typically when t-shirt ideas come around, we’ll have different opinions for that.
JJ: Yeah, that’s what I was saying with the art.
AH: Yeah, so that doesn’t apply. We all unanimously agreed the album art ruled. So yeah, nothing about the album really.
It’s a gorgeous album cover. Where did this come from, by the way, the album cover?
AH: Thank you. Jessica came up with the title Moonflower, and we have this artist out of New York, Brianna Martinsen, who has done shirts and flyers for us before. And they’ve been so good in the past (that) this time around, we went to them. And this was, I think, the first vinyl they said that they had designed, so they were extremely excited.
I gave them the prompts, like give us one that’s more literal and one that’s more abstract and whatever is in your head when you hear the word “moonflower,” because the moonflower is a real thing. So I sent pictures of that. It’s this vine that grows in the southeast and blooms at night. So Brianna sent back the literal ones and their take on the abstract ones. And just letting them have free reign was way better. The literal ones were really cool too.
JJ: It reminds me a lot of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours if you glance at it. It kind of has that vibe to me.
Then that does remind me, where does the title Moonflower come from? Why did you set on that as the album title?
JJ: It was a joke at first because we had a song called “Sunflower” and I was making a Pokémon sun and moon joke.
DK: Dorks! We’re dorks!
JJ: But, yeah, it was really just because we had a song called “Sunflower” and then come to find out Andy was like, Wait, a moonflower is a real thing, and it blooms at night. And I found that to be fascinating because I’m a night owl myself.
AH: Yeah, it ended up working out thematically, too, because the point of the album—which we try to set up in the intro song (“Vidalia”) which references “Longshot” and “Sunflower”—it’s either looking ahead with dread and anxiety or looking ahead with hope and happiness, which are two sides of the (same) coin. So trying to name the album, it sort of came to us that “Sunflower” (is) the bright, looking forward with hope song, and that moonflower being the opposite of it lends itself to the opposite side of that coin. So having light and dark imagery we thought was really fitting for the different types of songs on here.
JJ: Which we did on (our last album) Afterglow as well on accident.
DK: It’s kind of our thing, I guess.
I mainly want to focus on Moonflower, but one of my favorite things that you all did was your contribution of the recent Operation Ivy tribute album, Mooorree Than Just Another Comp, your big-band-style cover of “Missionary,” which was such a bizarre but awesome take on that song. It’s probably my favorite one on the comp next to Eichlers’ version of “Unity.” How did you come up with that really unique take on that song?
AH: So like I mentioned with “Vidalia” and some of our backgrounds, like half of us have done the southern brass band thing for most of our lives. Me, Brandon, Nevin, and also Kerley has been our fill in whenever we need anything like guitar, percussion, whatever. So we got asked to do the Operation Ivy tribute based on a previous tribute we had done for Sell the Heart records. And I sent the song list to our chat, like, Hey, what song do you guys want to cover? And it turns out this tribute was really popular and, by the next day, almost every song was taken by We Are the Union, Catbite, a bunch of bands. So I wasn’t really familiar with “Missionary.” I know Jess had heard it before.
JJ: Yeah, I didn’t expect it to go for like a brass song. But I tried to put my all into it. And I was bopping along having fun doing that one.
AH: Yeah, it’s hard to do a one-to-one cover of Operation Ivy, obviously, because half our band is horns. So we couldn’t do any melodies from any of their songs straight as they were. So we took the chord progression, and then the rest of it took liberties with. And Kerley did a lot of production choices that really lent itself to the southern brass band thing like room miking the drums, no sampling, very raw. Kerley played banjo on it and you can still hear the raw scratching around the bridge.
DK: Yeah, there were takes where it was cleaner, but I was comping into the tracker (and thought) I kind of like the rawness, the grittiness of the original production. And (I) kept a lot of the mistakes and shit in there just because it is more like the live brass vibe. And this is the first time I had played drums like that in anything. So it was interesting for me for sure because it’s like, oh, we’re doing a brass band thing on drums. I’m doing banjo. (I’ve) never produced anything like this. So it was awesome for me just to take on that challenge and I’m glad that people like it.
AH: Jessica crushed it, too. Anytime we tackle something that leans jazz like this or “Vidalia,” her takes are my favorite.
JJ: I love doing that Postmodern Jukebox kind of cabaret-style vocals. It’s, like, my favorite thing to do.
So this is your first album on Bad Time Records. So how did you connect with them? And how was your experience with them?
AH: It’s been great. So the way we connected with them sounds bad at first, but it is a good thing. We pitched our previous album Afterglow to Mike (Sosinski, owner of Bad Time Records). And he said no, which is okay because after that, we were like, Alright, let’s cast a wider net. We pitched to a ton of labels that either we never heard back or we heard, in two cases, “Yeah, I’ll take a listen to it,” and then never heard back. But Mike, saying no to us, he had clearly listened to the album. He had really nice, specific praise about it. And this was early in the days of Bad Time—it’s a five year old label—and he mentioned they had bandwidth issues at that point.
He only had so much money and albums were barely breaking even at that point. So he wanted to get us on something in the future. And based on that he had a compilation, The Shape of Ska Punk to Come Vol. II ,that we submitted our track “Run Away” to, because he said he did want to have us on something. And just knowing he was the only one to respond to us from our previous album, when this one came around, he was also the first one we pitched to. And he said he liked it and could do it.
JJ: And ever since then, everyone has been nothing but supportive. And it’s like we found our family; we found our little place.
Because I always thought of you as being Bad Time-adjacent even before that. You always seemed to be a band that was destined for Bad Time, who are also really on the rise right now as one of the best labels in ska.
AH: They’re doing great stuff. And We Are the Union, too, we love them. Our previous albums, since we weren’t on a label, we did a Kickstarter campaign, and we specifically based our Kickstarter campaign off of how We Are the Union did their Self Care campaign. We studied them, and we’re like, okay, it’s a music video every two weeks, and they’re selling vinyl for this much and yada yada. But we look up to them a lot.
JJ: Fun fac,t I own the most We Are the Union shirts out of any other band ever. It’s true.
All the music videos you put out for this were a lot of fun, but I think my favorite one has to be the one for “Eat the World” because it really showcases how you all seem to really have fun together. Was the video as much fun to make as it looks?
JJ: Oh, absolutely. That’s just how it is when we’re together, like the party scenes and me doing those dance moves. That’s just how we are.
AH: Kerley’s son was tortured that day. That’s who’s under the alien mask, just sweating. It was so fun, though.
DK: Yeah, it was one of the funnest days this year, period. Was that this year? Holy shit. It was one of the funnest days this year just because it was one of the rare moments where we get all together as a band. And it was work. It was a lot of work to completely destroy Andy’s house, but we just have fun hanging out. And it was one of the rare moments where both my kids are hanging out too. So I was like, Damn, this feels like an actual party. We’re just hanging out having a good time.
JJ: There was no A/C in the house at the moment, though, so it was a hot hellhole that day. But then that glowing shirt that I wore in the video was a complete accident, by the way. I had on like a completely different outfit and somehow underneath the lights, when I saw it back in the video, I saw that the shirt was glowing that I was wearing. We did that on accident completely.
It wasn’t a single exactly, but one of my favorite songs on the album is “Long in the Tooth.” First of all, who’s doing the other vocals on that one besides Jess?
DK: That’s me. Yeah.
How did you end up making like a ska-metal track, exactly?
DK: My musical backbone is metal, any metal genre, really. That’s what I really got into when I was learning music, just getting into the classics like Black Sabbath and thrash metal and stuff. And then I fronted a metalcore band for a long time called Defy Me. And Andy, for the past, I don’t know, five, six years—maybe even since the beginning of the band—has been asking me, Why don’t you write a song for the band? I’m like, Cool, I’ll do that. And then I’ll get 50 to 75% there and just be like, This doesn’t feel right, scrap it. And finally, I was like, Alright, for the next record, I’m going to buckle down and just write us a song with Kerley DNA all over it.
So this one, I actually got about 90% done where all the rhythm tracks and everything are done. And I was so close just to scrapping it because, I was listening back and I’m just like, This sounds too much like me and not enough Flying Raccoon Suit. And I had written out some horn arrangements and vocal parts, and just decided to completely scrap those and reach out to Andy and Jessica to fill in the horn parts and have Jessica do her own thing with the lyrics. And that was the secret sauce the song needed. That’s what makes every Flying Raccoon Suit song is it can’t just be one person, it has to have all the DNA and the workings from the other members. So it really came together at that last little stretch for me where it finally clicked. I was like, This fucking rules. I love it.
JJ: I came over at 11:00 in the morning, and we drank like two pots of coffee between the two of us.
AH: That song was the first time all three of us wrote lyrics for a song together, so that was really cool. And then the horn part was mostly me. But the part for the very ending outro that I wrote wasn’t working. So then Brandon and Nevin came up with that. So it ended up being a little bit of all of us, even though it didn’t start out that way. It was pretty cool.
You’ve described yourself as the only ska band in Mississippi. I’ve seen that in a few different places on your social media. First of all, are you certain of that? And second of all, did you have a hard time then getting started if there wasn’t really much of a ska scene?
AH: I have scoured the state. Also, I’m a huge nerd, so I’ve scoured the Internet. There was one other ska band before us (in Mississippi) called StereoHype and they let us get our start. And I love to bring them up whenever I can, because they existed just before the social media explosion, or else they’d probably end up on some of these lists, and probably be more well known. But yeah, when we were teenagers in high school, StereoHype, who are a few years older than us, were letting us get our start opening for them at VFW shows and all-ages shows and stuff like that, which is exactly the type of band you need because, when we were teenagers, we were not the best musicians. But people need to give you a chance so that you learn how to be a band, and then you get better and better over time. And we’ve been, ever since then, hoping that we can be that band for somebody else (and) help some other younger band get their bearings, figure out how to be a band and get better over time. But it’s just really barren.
So now it’s been a few weeks since the album’s out. What’s next for the band?
JJ: Hopefully, getting out to places we’ve never been to.
AH: We are planning the album tour for 2024. No booking agent so we’re doing it ourselves. So we are looking to do an album release tour here in the spring. We can’t announce it yet, obviously, because it’s not set in stone, but the gears are turning, so that’ll be what’s coming up. We have a couple album release shows in the local area. We’re doing one, December 1 in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, and one, December 2 in Pensacola, Florida, nearby. So that’s coming up immediately. But then yeah, the album release tour’s coming up.
JJ: And we’re always trying to cook up something in the writing process. There’s always something.
All right. So that’s pretty much all I want to go over. But I always like to add just like spot at the end if there’s anything else you wanted to say.
AH: Mainly just following us on socials. And if you can buy our album on Bad Time, that helps us a lot. It’s our first time being on a label, so we want to make sure it’s mutually beneficial, and, hopefully, that they’re not taking a loss on us. So if people want to support us from afar, grab a copy. Also, we begged Mike to do CDs because everybody online was asking for CDs, and in the preorder, we were hitting 300-400 vinyl sold. And then Mike sent me the numbers was like, Hey, we sold six CDs, like I told you.
JJ: I’ll go buy them all myself if I have to.
They do make the prettiest vinyl ever though. I have a few of their splatters and they’re always so pretty.
AH: That’s one of the benefits of being with Bad Time, at least for us, is that we don’t have to come up with the ideas for those; Mike has such a good eye for it. So we do all the social media nonsense and whatever else but luckily, Mike handles dimensions for sizing inserts or whatever other minutia is out there.
JJ: He’s very good at color coordination.
AH: Yeah, I’m colorblind. So I go to Jessica. I’m like, Does my outfit match? And she’s like, No, that’s green. And that’s yellow. Dammit.
JJ: That’s okay. You tried.
DK: Yeah, if I said anything else, it would just be a fucking huge thanks to everybody that’s been insanely vocal and supportive over the record. It means a lot, just logging into social media every day, and people are still popping off like, Man, this record rules, and it means a lot to me. And it means a lot to me. So thank you; we appreciate everybody that’s been showing the love. People showed up, and that’s all I ever want as an artist. People are excited to hear music that I helped make, and that means literally everything to me. So thank you guys.
JJ: Absolutely, what Kerley said.
Photo courtesy of Flying Raccoon Suit