From The Desk Of The Flat Five: The Barista Is Everything

In music, a flat five is a passing chord that harmonizes well with almost any sound. The singers in Chicago’s Flat Five—Kelly Hogan, Nora O’Connor, Scott Ligon, Casey McDonough and Alex Hall—are as versatile as the name of their group implies. They’re all well-known songwriters, musicians and side-persons in their own right, but when they sing as the Flat Five, they touch on something transcendent. Their complex, intertwining harmonies bring to mind the shimmering sounds of the Four Freshmen, Beach Boys, Lambert, Hendricks And Ross, Harry Nilsson and the Everly Brothers—singers who could create breathtaking emotional effects using nothing but their voices. The Flat Five will be guest editing all week. Read our brand-new feature with them.

Ligon: I’m an espresso junkie. Some might call me a coffee snob. But I’m not a snob; it’s just very important that we get this right. Actually, my whole day depends on it. A badly pulled shot of espresso can ruin me. Once I’ve had the bad shot, there’s no undoing it. There’s no amount of perfectly pulled espresso that will fix my chemistry now. I’m going to be this angry-screwed up version of myself until I’ve slept it off. That’s why the barista is everything.

I’ve had shots pulled by two different baristas in the same coffee shop on the same day that were completely different. It’s frustrating. Apparently one of them just didn’t care as much. Don’t they know that my mood hangs in the balance? We have to get this right people! More importantly, my bandmates need you to get this right!

It’s 11 a.m., and somehow I need to be at my best about eight or nine hours from now. Only coffee—expertly grown, picked, roasted, poured and consumed at the exact right intervals—is going to enable this miracle to happen.

I don’t like it when I can tell that I know more about espresso than my barista does. I try to avoid this whenever possible, but sometimes it just doesn’t work out that way. The first sign of trouble is if the espresso machine is a push-button, pre-determined pour. I’ll walk into a cafe, and the first thing I do is check out their machine. If it’s a fully automatic, push-button shot, I’m gone. “I gotta get outta here” is my typical exit line. Hell, they almost ruined the show tonight!

If a barista asks, “Do you want anything in your espresso: sugar or milk or anything?” then I know I’m in trouble. Anyone who can’t fathom the idea of drinking a shot of espresso without anything in it has no business being in this business. I’m sorry, get a job at Dairy Queen if you want to make milkshakes!

Also, please don’t think you’re doing me a favor by pulling me an extra long shot. You’re not. If I wanted a regular cup of coffee I would have asked for it. The perfect shot of espresso should be no more than one or two ounces, between 92 and 98 degrees Celsius, and served in a ceramic espresso cup.

I had a friend ask his barista to stop his shot short when he realized that the guy was pulling it way too long and the barista said, “Don’t you want the crema?” But my friend put it perfectly, “The crema starts with drop one!” Of course, that’s absolutely true. The crema isn’t hanging around at the very end just waiting to be released! Also, if the barista calls it “expresso” forget it. “I gotta get outta here.”

As far as I’m concerned, the snootier the coffee shop the better. I don’t care if the barista is a complete and utter asshole, just as long as they get my shot right. Go ahead, tattoo yourself, grow your beard, judge me as soon as I walk in—I don’t care. Just give me the good stuff!

Being a traveling musician means that you’re going to be bouncing around in a vehicle all day, sometimes for five or six hours—and once you finally reach your destination your job is just getting started. Getting the caffeine balance is essential to group harmony and sustainability. That is why I firmly believe that when it comes to being a traveling musician, the barista is everything!