Back in 2002, Slow Runner lead singer Michael Flynn started writing melancholy songs about lust, frustration, and the end of adolescence. Fresh out of college and chafing at a dead-end job at Kinko's, he had no idea those songs were about himself.
"The trick is, what I learned the hard way, is even when you think you're writing fiction, you're not," Flynn says, looking back on the lyrics that would eventually become his band's debut album, No Disassemble. "I'll write something that has nothing to do with anything specific in my life — I think — and then I look back on it a year later, and I'm like, 'Wow, that was totally about this thing I was thinking at the time and trying not to think about.'"
In the 10 years since penning that lucid eulogy for youth, Flynn, one-man rhythm section Josh Kaler, and an ever-rotating team of musical accomplices from the Charleston scene have churned out gleefully glitchy, synth-laden indie-pop under the banner of Slow Runner. Theirs are the songs of the wallflower, the shy late-night regretter, the lovelorn headphones-in-the-bedroom mixtape-maker. In short, they have written a lot of songs about girls.
So what happens when the hopeless romantic enters his 30s and the old wells of angst start running dry? Flynn is married now, and Kaler is in a long-term relationship. "I've come back around to the point where I need to at least not think autobiographical when I write, because it's just boring," Flynn says. "It's not so much that I don't want to write about my personal life as much as my personal life is kind of settled and happy." The band's most recent album, 2011's Damage Points, includes scraps of autobiography, whether intentional or not. The title itself is a nod to Flynn's other job, composing songs for smartphone games, while the opening lines on the track "Auto-Happy" encapsulate what happens when the emo kid finally does cheer up: "Don't smile at me / Don't smile at me / I'm trying to be dark and brooding."
Flynn and Kaler are sitting catty-corner at a table in The Rarebit, the buzzing new breakfast-all-day joint on King Street where the bartender instantly recognizes Kaler upon entering. The pair have set down roots in the Charleston music scene, and Kaler works a second dream job producing records at Hello Telescope, a studio he runs in a paint-chipped house on Radcliffe Street with former Jump Little Children frontman Jay Clifford. Kaler, a Minnesota native, originally met Flynn in a songwriters' group at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, where Flynn says he went "to escape adulthood" after graduating from the College of Charleston with an English degree.
At the time, Flynn was heavy into the song catalogs of Tom Waits and Randy Newman, and writing songs accordingly. The bleeps and bloops that Slow Runner fans would come to love did not enter his arsenal until the two-man band moved to Charleston in 2002. "I feel like it probably could be traced back to a specific Casio," Flynn says.
Specifically, it was an early-'80s Casiotone MT-40, cased in off-white plastic with tiny knobs and a handful of chintzy instrument voices. The band was practicing in a North Charleston warehouse that several bands shared ("the kind of place you go to hide bodies," Flynn says) when Flynn's eyes locked on the tiny synthesizer, which belonged to a member of the band Almost Steve. Flynn asked to borrow it, and the scales fell from his music-school ears.
Kaler, who has co-produced every Slow Runner record with Flynn, also remembers the discovery of the Casio as a turning point. "Any time you get a new instrument in the palette, at least with us, new stuff just — it's immediate inspiration that you didn't have before ... It's funny, though, that palette is still present in every record we've made. Quirky keyboard sounds, if they were not in the songs, then it would feel a lot less like a Slow Runner song."
For a band that started with decidedly lo-fi recordings and now resides, as Kaler says, in "mid-fi" territory, the MT-40's warmed-over robot tones are a sonic staple. Flynn eventually bought the keyboard from Almost Steve, and he uses it to this day in live shows and recordings. He has since acquired another Casio, built one year later than the original, but he doesn't dally with modern synths. "There's just a sweet spot there in the mid-'80s where technology was still bad enough but was getting better enough that it could do more complex things," Flynn says. "But it was still shitty enough to sound awesome today."
Slow Runner is a band that works well with limitations. Although they signed a brief and ill-fated record deal with Sony Music after No Disassemble came out in 2004, they've produced all four of their full-length records independently. Flynn labors within constraints at his day job, too, writing in 30-second loops to play on iPhone speakers for games like Critter Escape. And when it comes to songwriting, Flynn realized back in 2002 that he was up against his own inhibitions.
A new album is in the works, to be released sometime in the second half of the year. In the meantime, the band recently re-issued No Disassemble at Bandcamp.com with a slew of remix and cover tracks by musician friends. Priced at $5, it's a fitting testament to the sort of career Slow Runner has built. Their rise can hardly be called meteoric — a few songs placed on TV shows, a loyal following of shoegazing fans — but after a decade, Flynn has never had to return to slinging copies, and both he and Kaler have skirted the dreaded 9-to-5.
"It never really felt like a career except for during the label years, but then if you look back, that's what it has been," Flynn says. "The accumulated amount of things we have done — that counts."