Zen and the Art of Flashlight O

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Flashlight O

Perhaps you have heard of Flashlight O, the musical project of Colin Alexander. Maybe, like me, you thought his first single, “Happy Baby Pose”, was the perfect groove. Then maybe you were moved by “TV Time”. Finally you might have wondered, “Who is this smiling kid who seems to only have one picture of himself that is suddenly popping up all over the Internet?”

I arranged to meet Alexander at Baked in Brooklyn, a pottery studio in Williamsburg. Alexander recently graduated from the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) as a painting major with a concentration in sustainability. “A practicing artist who is also aware of shit,” is how Alexander describes the ideal graduate of this major. He proves to be a very aware dude, indeed, but I will get to that later.

As we pick our pieces to paint, Alexander tells me that he recently finished a ceramics course, so seeing all of the finished pieces without experiencing their production is a bit eerie. After being tempted by a large bowl, Alexander finally decides on a soap dispenser while I settle on two light switch covers. We request colors with titles such as Vanilla Bean, Melancholy, and Grape Jelly, and begin creating our masterpieces.

Alexander unconsciously guides our talk, chronologically walking me through his childhood, his high school years, and his college art career. As my interruptions threaten to throw the conversation off course, he subtly leads us back on track.

Alexander’s family moved from the suburbs of Cleveland to the suburbs of New Jersey, where at Ridgewood High School he met his future bandmate Dave Benton. Alexander describes the mid-2000s Ridgewood, NJ music scene as “Mostly just kids being like, 'Wow, Titus Andronicus is sick. Wow, Real Estate is sick,'” and found this attitude to be “an indication that you could do something.” Right as his older friends graduated and began attending SUNY Purchase, Alexander and Benton formed Spook Houses.

Spook Houses recorded several EPs before Alexander moved to Baltimore to study at MICA. Although Alexander and Benton had been in a long-distance musical relationship, Alexander had an increasingly difficult time finding musical inspiration after the release of their only LP, Trying. “I don’t know why it was easier to write songs from that distance,” he says, “but slowly writing songs got a little harder to do.” In 2013, Spook Houses did a two-song split with Fat History Month. Alexander counts his contribution, the heartbreaking “Black Dog”, as “the first time I actually tried to figure out some sort of recording process by myself.”

Alexander credits Benton for carefully pushing him to continue creating music. Benton began a tape club through Double Double Whammy that Alexander says was “a good way to kick my ass, to just keep doing dumb little recordings. It was just six songs a year, but it was a nice reminder every two months to write something.”

So while others self-release their music constantly, Alexander is more bashful. “I’m much more comfortable with a visual arts practice [and] the music thing has always felt a little bit outsider to me,” he admits. “So where I feel like some people have that way of sitting in their room and writing songs, I never really had that.”

Alexander’s visual and musical aesthetics merge as Flashlight O, a name he picked after a year of performing as Colin Alexander. The decision was spurred by a desire to separate his “performative personality” and reality. “The idea of the Flashlight O moniker was to make a drawing of the beam of light from a flashlight that lands on the wall using text, so the 'O' in the name is actually a drawing of a space being pointed to with the light,” he explains. “I like the idea of walking through a space with a group of people with one flashlight, so there’s this collective observation, kind of experiencing the world in some shared way, everyone following the light. It was also partially a nod towards my favorite Mount Eerie record, No Flashlight, where a lot of what he’s talking about is in reference to being in the dark with no flashlight, so that your senses amplify and become a lot more nuanced, but my own idea of identifying more with the reversal of that.”

The Truman Sho is Alexander’s first formal solo release, out now on Benton and Mike Caridi’s label Double Double Whammy. Alexander describes the album as so “self-referential that it keeps going back in on itself.” The songs that form The Truman Sho had been in Alexander’s pocket for awhile. The first track, “Wooden Flooring”, was the first song he did for the tape club. Alexander says he is maybe most happy with that one out of all because of his own “personal love for Mount Eerie.” The album certainly does garner Phil Elvrum comparisons. The Truman Sho is composed of careful guitar pop songs with striking lyrics that hit you right in the chest. Alexander delivers these lyrics in a stream-of-consciousness style that ensures its sincerity.

Two women at the table next to us pop open a bottle of champagne around the time I ask Alexander how his music and his art relate to each other. “In the last year, I have been making a lot more connections between what Beat Happening does and the things I make,” he says. This includes exploring “the melodies that really get you, the chords that tug at your heart,” and realizing that the minimal can be the most powerful.

Like his music, Alexander’s art finds itself on the side of amateurism and minimalism. I think of his piece “my name submerged in the ground”, a paper mache sculpture that shows just the tips of his name peeking out of the ground. The piece represents everything I hear when listening to Alexander’s music: simplicity, cleverness, and the fingerprints of the artist.

At this point, our meeting has devolved from an interview to the type of conversation you might have with friends on a porch late in the evening. We discuss our own personal philosophies, question many unanswerable concepts, and basically admit that we both have a lot to learn. At one point we discuss Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values, a novel that we both have read and enjoyed. Though the book is chock-full of Zen Buddhist quotes, one in particular seems to summarize my time with Alexander: “We’re in such a hurry most of the time we never get much chance to talk. The result is a kind of endless day-to-day shallowness, a monotony that leaves a person wondering years later where all the time went and sorry that it’s all gone.” The fact that we have both taken time out of our busy schedules to chat has taken on a certain unexpected significance.

Alexander talks about art, music, and Buddhism in similar terms. “For the music stuff, [Buddhism] relates more to the process of being an amateur and the process of discovering and being in the world in a way that has some sort of a turn where you’re interacting and giving out as much as you are taking back in,” he says. “The term I was using for awhile is being a method actor, like playing yourself but playing the role of yourself in a way that you’re really aware of everything that you’re doing, with a little bit less of the ego. You’re playing the role of yourself but also being yourself.”

Like myself, Alexander’s personal interest in Zen is based around “caring about your attention to action as a way of spiritual communion with the non-dualistic world (i.e., where time is less of a factor and each object or thing has an inherent and inseparable relationship with every other object or thing in 'the world'), one that is less interested in the Eastern cultural context that usually comes bundled with that stuff so we can just talk about how we live and care for others.” As I watch him paint small, precise squiggles on his soap dispenser, I believe that Alexander is a truly caring individual.

Alexander’s college graduation has left him feeling full of doubt, so of course I ask him the question that every recent grad wants to hear: “What’s next?” Alexander says that he plans on staying in Baltimore, citing an emotional connection to the city’s music and art. He and his housemates hope to continue their monthly brunch show, Noise Waffle Sunday, in which they cook up hundreds of waffles for anywhere between 30 and 50 people and generally offer up a cool place to hang out and hear music. Art-wise, one of Alexander’s paintings was recently picked by art critic Jerry Saltz for the Chatauqua 57th Annual Exhibition of Contemporary Art.

But what’s next for Alexander and I as we vacate the pottery studio are móle french fries, a discussion about Calvin Johnson, and, simply, the pleasantries of good company.