By Anthony J. Hayesfrom DAILY CALIFORNIAN (U.C. Berkeley)
Friday, December 15, 1989
page 9, California ARTS section
Sun-baked synth pop hits the airwaves via Red Flag
Ah, the luxuries of big time Rock and Roll. Limousines, lavishly catered spreads and high tech interviews with MTV’s Kurt Loder. Well actually Mark and Chris Reynolds are Liverpool-born, Southern California-raised siblings who make up Red Flag arrived in a rented van for a recent gig at th Townsend in San Francisco. And there was no platter of liver pate’ or caviar back stage, only a small tub of iced, bottled water and beer. And it was me asking the questions, not Kurt and not in the MTV studios, but in a dark warehouse in the back of the club filled with stacks of water pipes, messy cans of paint and dusty ladders.
OK, so maybe Red Flag doesn’t match up yet with big time musical family acts of all-time like the Jackson 5 or the Osmonds — this was mirrored by the fact that the cavernous SoMa club was only about a third full when the band hit the stage that night. But call it the wrong venue, blame poor publicity, because by all accounts Red Flag is a band on the rise.
The duo’s brand of euro-influencd synth pop which has drawn comparisons to groups like Depeche Mode and O.M.D. has begun to create interest with dance club denizens and alternative radio listeners in this country and has seen Far east success in Japan and Hong Kong. The group’s first single, «Broken Heart» complete with backing vocals by disco siren Stacey Q broke into the Top 40 of Billboard’s Club Play chart in the summer of ’88 and their follow up «Russian Radio» peaked at No. 11 on the chart in January.
Red Flag’s debut album, Naive Art, released last February, includes their first two singles and was produced by Paul Robb of the Information Society and mixed by San Francisco’s Joseph Watt of Razormade [sic] Records fame.
But while their music has started to pick up speed, the siblings say poeple still have trouble figuring who’s who in the band. Blond older brother Mark, who sings and writes the lyrics recalls an appearance on the new American Bandstand show. «We told the host before the show who we were. But then he mixed us up twice on the air, so I think that may have thoroughly confused people who see us live,» Mark, devoid of any English accent said in between sips of mineral water. Just then, dark haired Chris, who’s younger by 18 months and writes most of the music and mans the synthesizers, appeared from the darkness to chim in, «Our names aren’t under the picture on the record, so people don’t know who we are sometimes. That’s the question we get most often in our fan mail, who’s who.
«Born into a military family — their father is British Naval officer — the Reynolds kids were constantly on the move while growing up. Being uprooted so often led to problems keeping lasting friendships with other children, so Mark and Chris, who also have an older sister, say they established a closer friendship between themselves than most brothers. «Oh that’s not to say we haven’t had our disagreements. We used to chase each other around with broomsticks, but there were no broken bones or limbs.» Mark laughed. «But we’ve never fought over the music. I’ve heard lots of bands say that tension is a creative force. But we don’t have that. There are separate talents. Chris is into the music and I’m the lyrics».
Now sitting by the open door of a lighted bathroom in the warehouse, the syncopated sounds of New Order and Dead or Alive blaring in the background, Chris recalls the family’s move to California in 1979. «I remember the day we left very clearly, I was distraught and a little frightened. There were some tough times when we first left England,» he said, in an accent more La Jollan than London. «But we quickly got settled, we are Americans, we are citizens of this country. We grew up in America for the most part, all our influences were gained in America. We do like British bands, but that’s not unusual.»
The Reynolds family first settled in Los Angeles and two years later relocated to San Diego, where they still live. Southern California, coincidentally was the place they first got interested in English synth-pop artists like Depeche Mode, Erasure and the Pet Shop Boys.
Using a simple electronic keyboard the duo first started dabbling in creating sounds at home. They recorded their first demo under the name Shades of May in 1984 when they were still in their teens. «Mom wanted us to go for it from the start, dad was a little more logical. I think he wanted me to follow in his footsteps,» Mark said. «We really like the technology and getting the drum machines to do weird things. But I think we are still paying for our first keyboard.»
The two acquired more advanced technology — synthesizers and a MIDI Synclavier are what they mainly use now — and began expanding their sound with the help of a few San Diego friends, first changing the band’s name to Naive Art and eventually Red Flag. Rumors have persisted that the name refers to an affinity for the Soviet Union. The brothers say however the name simply means a warning flag used in surfing. And that they wrote «Russian Radio» after people started drawing the Soviet connection. «We were aware of it, but it just seemed so irrelevant, I think to segregate things ideologically is wrong,» Mark said.
The Reynolds’ big break came in March of 1988 when dance producer Jon St. James, responsible for Stacey Q’s 1987 hit «Two of Hearts,» saw Red Flag perform at club DJ convention in Pacific Beach and offered to produce them. The result of an all day session was the single «Broken Heart.» The club success with that song led to a recording deal with independent Los Angeles label Synthicide Records and a marketing contract with Enigma Records.
Like most new bands, comparisons with established artists seems to be inevitable and Depeche Mode is the band Red Flag is often linked with. Some critics have labeled them Depeche clones. Though Red Flag has more advanced technology to work with than Depeche did when they started out 10 years ago and don’t use nearly the amount of industrial samples Depeche does. Red Flag’s current uptempo style is reminiscent of Depeche’s earlier dance material.
«It’s a compilment , you grow up listening to bands and some have more of an effect on you then others . What are we supposed to do — go in another direction,» Mark said. «We admit they’re a band we like. Are we supposed to go around telling a fib that we don’t like them? We don’t want to do that.»