“In a strange way, pimento cheese kind of saved my life and turned things around for me.” While this sentiment may sound like Apex Manor frontman Ross Flournoy is just trying to be amusingly aloof, there’s certainly some truth in his assessment of what guided him through an extended period of difficulties and out the other side with everything he needed to craft his newest album, Heartbreak City (out May 31 on Merge Records).
After the buzzed-about release of Apex Manor’s 2011 album The Year of Magical Drinking – which critics declared “whipsaws between pure-pop jingle-jangle, lo-fi droning, and pensive acoustics, all of it as catchy as it is manic” (SPIN) and praised for “taking influences like The Replacements or Wilco and then cranking up the ‘Accessibility Dial’ to 11” (Consequence of Sound) – Flournoy’s tongue-in-cheek album title turned into a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“It felt like that record was cursed in a way,” states Flournoy. “Tours got canceled. I almost had a nervous breakdown due to a combination of deep depression and alcoholism. I just hit a wall. At that point, I had already been a serious drinker for about 10 years. One morning I woke up and started drinking at about 10 in the morning and I thought to myself, this is not going to work anymore. I was spiraling, and I just wanted to avoid the darkness.”
At the recommendation of a friend, Flournoy traveled from Pasadena, CA back home to Memphis, TN to live with his parents and check into rehab. “My father had gotten sober in 2009, so I ended up going to the same place that he did,” says Flournoy. “This wasn’t a Promises in Malibu kind of place. It had more of a One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest vibe. But I really wanted and needed to go, and it was probably the best thing that ever happened to me.”
After a week of in-patient treatment, Flournoy started a six-week out-patient program with plans to head back to Los Angeles upon its completion. However, his father – who Flournoy playfully calls his “sober Sherpa” – had just started a homemade pimento cheese business that was quickly taking off in the local farmers markets and grocery stores. “My dad showed me how it was possible to live without drinking – which was an impossibility in my mind – and I started helping out with the business,” says Flournoy, who ended up staying in Memphis for two and a half years. “It was the most profound shift in my life and I never saw it coming.”
Even with his newfound sobriety and the success of the pimento cheese business taking up a lot of his time and energy, Flournoy never stopped making music while in Memphis. He got work composing instrumental music, scoring a web series, and he even wrote the theme song for the CNN daily news show “The Lead with Jake Tapper.” The music-without-lyrics part came easy for Flournoy and the anonymity was an enticing draw as he learned to navigate a life without alcohol.
“I always knew I wanted to make another Apex Manor record though,” revels Flournoy. “It was always on the table, I just didn’t know when it was going to happen.” However, there seemed to be a disconnect between the ease with which he composed instrumental music and the “previously overcome with alcohol” obstacles he faced every time he tried to write a new song for an Apex Manor album. “When I first got out of rehab, I tried writing songs, but something wasn’t working. I didn’t have much experience writing songs being fully sober.”
Finally, in 2016, two years after moving back to Los Angeles and scoring a couple of movies and a short film, Flournoy wrote his first new Apex Manor song since The Year of Magical Drinking. “It took me five or six years to learn how to rewrite songs or at least how to write them sober. But in a span of nine months I wrote something like 35 songs,” smiles Flournoy.
Just a few short months into that prolific writing process, Flournoy reached out to his label Merge Records and set everything in motion to record a new album. “It’s funny, very few of those songs from that period actually ended up on the record,” laughs Flournoy. “But I had been involved with Merge for like 12 years at that point. They’ve always felt like family to me and I feel so lucky to be involved with them.”
After a short stint in the recording studio with producer Rob Barbados, Flournoy emerged with a vibrant and energetic collection of songs he’s titled Heartbreak City. But just in case you’re expecting songs about the existential insights uncovered in rehab, the unique power of familial bonds, or even pimento cheese, Flournoy wants to save you some time: “My records don’t really have direct themes or concepts. They’re just a snapshot of where I am at that point in my life.”
Instead, the 11 tracks on Heartbreak City feature lyrics that deal with universal topics (break-ups, selfishness, relationships) and extemporaneous abstractions, both of which are parameters that welcome listeners in and allow them to apply their own meanings: “Some songs I write are more about a feeling or an atmosphere that I’m trying to evoke. The clarity of the narrative is not as important to me as how the sound of the words dance with the melody and the music.”
However, the most notable exception to that rule may be the title track: “The song ‘Heartbreak City’ is a love letter to Los Angeles. It’s my favorite city on the planet. It can feel like a very lonely place because it’s not teeming with humanity like New York. In LA, there are days where you can go without seeing anyone at all if you’d like.”
The songs on Heartbreak City furiously rumble with Dinosaur Jr.-esque guitars (“Asked & Answered,” “Nervous Wreck,” “Where My Mind Goes,” “The Long Goodbye”) and float on the synth-work of bands like The Killers (“Sara Now,” “Diamond in the Dark”). Flournoy also invited two friends to help flesh out some of the extra sonic splashes on a few of the songs. Singer-songwriter Courtney Jaye can be heard adding ethereal background vocals to “Diamond in the Dark,” “Sara Now,” and “Nervous Wreck,” while talented multi-instrumentalist Meg Duffy (Hand Habits, The War on Drugs, Kevin Morby) added some shimmering guitar work to “Diamond in the Dark” and “Sara Now.”
For Flournoy, the release of Heartbreak City is not so much a literal culmination of the dramatic twists and turns that transpired over the last eight years between Apex Manor albums, it’s more about celebrating the place that those events led him to: “I didn’t want to try to track the journey verbatim. Rehab, the pimento cheese business, living life without alcohol – all those things were means that allowed me to get to the end result of being in a place where I could write songs again. This thing that I feared might be gone forever finally reemerged and I feel profoundly lucky.”