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Synthesizer Waves Supreme for Pop-Rock Group Red Flag

Times Staff Writer

Red Flag’s budding success in high-tech, synthesizer pop can be traced to a slick sales pitch by a musical instrument dealer.

The target of the sales talk was Mark Reynolds, who walked into a music shop one day in 1982 on what should have been a simple enough errand: pick up a set of acoustic guitar strings for his younger brother, Chris. But, being a teen-ager and a music lover, and having saved up a good sum from his job at a restaurant, Reynolds wasn’t about to make this a routine stop. He began to do some serious browsing.

“I was looking at electric guitars, and I really wanted to get one. Instead, the salesman sold me a keyboard. He was a really good salesman,” Reynolds said with a grin, recalling how he got hooked into laying out $1,200 for a Roland Juno 60 synthesizer. What was the sales line that hooked him? “He told me his best friend’s name was Mark Reynolds.”

Since then, the two brothers from San Diego who make up Red Flag haven’t had much need for guitars. The keyboard that Mark brought home that day--and hid under the bunk bed he shared with Chris because they didn’t want their parents to know about his extravagance--became the starting point in Red Flag’s foray into computerized, keyboard-triggered sound.

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“It was pure fun, discovering sounds and writing melodies. (Chris) would be at one end of the keyboard, and I’d be at the other end,” Mark recalled during an interview this week. With his brother sitting beside him, he began playing an invisible piano to show how they used to do it.

It was one of the more effusive moments for the British-born brothers. Both of them speak in gentle, controlled tones, just a few decibels above a whisper--except when the conversation turns to the actual processes of music-making. It’s a favorite topic, capable of setting off such lively displays as Mark Reynolds’ air-arpeggios on an invisible synthesizer.

From its clandestine origins under a bunk bed, Red Flag’s music has begun to spread to a national audience. The duo’s first single, “Broken Heart,” appeared on Billboard’s chart of dance-music hits last month, on the strength of a catchy melody and a melancholy, romantic lyric set to a peppy beat. A second single, “Russian Radio,” is about to be released, and the group’s debut album will follow in February. Red Flag, which plays tonight at Club Postnuclear in Laguna Beach, just finished its first national tour, a 12-day series of dance-club shows. The duo will play larger venues later this month as opening act for three Southern California concerts by Thomas Dolby.

The brothers, both in their early 20s, grew up in Liverpool, but they pulled up roots often as their father, a shipbuilding engineer, took jobs in such places as Gibraltar, Algiers and Seattle. The family landed in Southern California about 10 years ago. Mark, the duo’s singer, still retains a trace of his British accent, while Chris, a year younger, could pass as a lifelong Californian.

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Red Flag drew most of its musical influences from England, picking up on synth-pop bands like Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark and Depeche Mode, and the seminal West German techno-rock band, Kraftwerk. In 1984, after a San Diego radio station picked one of their songs for a local rock compilation album, the brothers moved out of the bedroom and onto club stages as a keyboard duo backed by a drum machine. Eventually, Mark Reynolds moved out from behind his keyboard to give the show more of a visual focus. With computer-based keyboard technology, Chris generates all of the music himself.

Red Flag’s break came early this year when Jon St. James, the Orange County-based dance-pop producer, stumbled upon them at a San Diego club date.

“I was drinking a beer, talking to my friends, and all of a sudden the music turned me around and took me toward the stage,” recalled St. James, who has produced hit singles for Stacey Q and Bardeux.

St. James was looking for talent for a newly-formed record label, Synthicide. The Reynolds’ quickly took up his offer to record at his studio in La Habra. The result was “Broken Heart,” co-produced by St. James and Stacey Q.

The brothers, who had played under a variety of other band names before signing with Synthicide, said they chose Red Flag because, as Mark put it, “it’s a little pop name that we liked because it was colorful.” The duo isn’t trying to make any political statement, he said, even though its record jackets play on the Soviet connection: a red star adorns the cover of the 12-inch single for “Broken Heart,” and a hammer and sickle will appear on the cover of the new release, “Russian Radio.” The new song isn’t specifically about Russia or about politics, Mark Reynolds said, but about the mistrust that is common to both romantic relations and international relations.

With the release of its album, Red Flag is hoping to show that it can do more than lay down a beat-based sound track for the dance clubs.

“I think because we play in dance clubs we’re labeled as a dance band, and we’re not,” Mark Reynolds said. “I can’t dance a stitch. I kind of wiggle around a bit.”

So far, Red Flag has played 30-minute sets in clubs where the audience comes primarily to dance rather than to hear a concert. “We try to bring the tempo down, do some of our moodier things, and we find it doesn’t always work,” Chris Reynolds said. “That’s why we’re looking forward to these theater gigs” with Dolby, including a Nov. 12 show in the gym at Cal State Fullerton.

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One of the brothers’ most satisfying moments so far was a July performance at Disneyland’s Videopolis dance stage. It was the first time that their father, who had urged them to find more reliable career paths than pop music, had ever seen them perform.

“For him to see us up on stage, performing at Disneyland, I think he really enjoyed that,” Chris Reynolds said. “He could see we were actually going some place.”

Red Flag and Tapestry play at 9 tonight at Club Postnuclear, 775 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach. Admission: $10.50. Information: (714) 497-6532.


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