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A smashing success for young rockers

They couldn't quit their day jobs, but band members got noticed after spot on 'Casual' compilation

Chad Swiatecki

Shiny and new, the albums sat on the floor of Max Vandever's Austin apartment last February. The copies of "Casual Victim Pile," a high-profile compilation album of the Austin music scene curated by Matador Records founder Gerard Cosloy, contained one of the first recordings of Vandever's punk band, the Flesh Lights, and spoke to the promise of the group that had formed less than a year prior.

It was a mile marker moment for the then 19-year-old singer/guitarist and his bandmates, drummer Elissa Ussery and bassist Jeremy Steen.

How did they celebrate it?

"It was late at night, I think after (bar) closing time, when Jeremy came over and we have this sort of ritual of smashing records when we get tired of them or think they're no good," Vandever recalls. "So we had these broken records by Social Distortion, Jay Reatard and some others laying around when we looked at the copies sitting there. We knew what we had to do, and we put our heads together while our friend smashed one of our first copies of ‘Casual Victim Pile' over our heads."

The band that gleefully obliterated a totem of its first brush with success is also the band that's become one of the most exciting live acts on Austin stages. A handful of recent headlining bows at Red 7 and Beerland confirm the promise Cosloy first saw in the band at one of its first shows in mid-2009.

"Their show that night was kind of a revelation — Max already had a pretty amazing pile of songs under his belt," Cosloy said by e-mail recently. "The three of them have uncanny chemistry onstage — they rarely looked or sounded like a band that only been playing out for a few months. It does strike me that some folks in local booking-ville kinda missed the boat on this band."

Reserved but personable in conversation, Vandever sings and plays like a human-sized exposed nerve while on stage as his cousin Ussery pounds away with a measured abandon and Steen takes turns on vocals.

The result of the trio's energy and irreverence is a propulsive, twitchy type of punk rock that leans toward their shared love of the Dictators and MC5 with songs that are all smart-alecky frustration and excitement.

After playing as a duo, Vandever and Ussery plucked Steen from local art punks the Gospel Truth and felt bonded as a trio almost immediately.

"Max offered me a six-pack of beer and $60 to come in and audition, but after it was done I let him keep his money because it was the first time in a while where I felt like the mission was to be a great rock 'n' roll band," Steen said. "When we started writing, we were finishing each other's thoughts pretty much right away."

After recording "Crush on You" for Cosloy's release and putting out a pair of seven-inch singles, the Flesh Lights turned their attention toward the just-completed full-length album "Muscle Pop," with a release on local label Twistworthy Records sometime in the coming months.

At just over 29 minutes, the 12 songs — with titles like "Mr. Resistible" and "Free Drugs" and marked by wry tales of romantic and other mishaps — capture the force of the band's live shows and offer a close look at songs that can rush by in a blur in concert.

"It's a great picture of what we are live, but it's also a great studio record," Vandever said of the album completed in just 12 hours at Sweatbox Studios in Austin. "When (studio owner/producer) Mike Vasquez asked us what we wanted, I said we wanted to sound tough, and that's what we got. He recorded us super-hot and got this amazing drum sound that we weren't really able to get on our seven inches."

Looking ahead, the three want to continue to make the most of the good fortunes they've already had — "Getting on Gerard's comp definitely let us jump a few rungs on the ladder," Steen observes — with a tour planned for this summer, a handful of South by Southwest performances and as many local shows and whatever else they can fit into their work schedules.

Which brings up the matter of a prediction Vandever made last year not long after "Casual Victim Pile" was released.

"Max owes me $100 right now because he bet me that by the end of (last) year we'd be living entirely off of money from the band," Steen said, laughing. "I took that bet as quick as I could, because even though I feel great about this band I knew there was no way that was happening."

The two joke about renewing the wager given their continuing run of good luck, but Steen ups the ante.

"This time let's make it a thousand," he says with a grin.

Vandever starts to offer his hand to shake on it, but pauses. For now he's good with being $100 in the hole.

The big-time bets will have to wait until the pair are smashing gold or platinum records over their heads.