We set the timer and snuggle in with our favorite new bands in the Impound’s version of speed dating with a killer-diller soundtrack.
Brad Brooks is currently on a Southern singer-songwriter tour with Jeff Campbell and Clay Bell that hits Little Rock (4/16), Memphis (4/17), Nashville (4/18), and Atlanta (4/19) running through April 19th. Dates and details here.
The latest exceedingly well put together album from Brad Brooks begins, “Well, I’ve been twisted, misplayed, pissed and dismayed,” and eventually suggests, “Let’s quit our jobs and shit/ Spit out the chomping bit, deal it down/ Sell what we borrowed/ Donate what we stole, leave this town.” A palpable urgency to move on, heal and reflect permeates Harmony of Passing Light, but it’d be easy enough to miss amidst the doggedly catchy pop-rockin’ Brooks’ many big ideas and deeply etched emotions ride inside.
It’s a terrific bit of sleight-of-hand that puts this San Francisco artist in the same fine Bay Area company as chaps like Chuck Prophet and The Mother Hips (not to mention likeminded SoCal great Michael Penn), where the figurative hooks are just as barbed as the musical ones. However, Brooks is a bit like the modern equivalent to Sons of Champlin in this bunch, where he’s still clearly a rocker but there’s a lot of soul – the dance floor variety and the more spiritual sort – in this man and nary a hint of Summer of Love loose-limbed-ness. In fact, it’s Brooks’ facility with darker themes and knotted feelings that gives his finger-snappers staying power and appealing complications, the fruits awaiting those willing to move beyond the surface of his groove thang. There’s kindred strain to Badfinger’s Pete Ham and Elliott Smith with all the same tuneful bloodletting but much less despondency and ugly self-loathing. Brooks is just as real but what Harmony of Passing Light makes clear is there’s reason for hope even in the roughest of seasons.
Brad pulled up a chair for a healthy little chat about inspiration, shedding light on one’s troubles, and other juicy subjects.
Why do you think you’re a musician?
Strangely enough, I don’t think I was a guy born with a lot of talent but I do think I was born to play music. It’s something I’ve always had in my blood but I didn’t realize it until I started to feel like this was the only thing I wanted to do and could do the best. There’s that thing when you’re a kid and you want to play music and your parents will try and talk you out of it. Then, after 20 years or so of doing it, they’ll say, “Your aunt was a singer in the Metropolitan Opera.” I remember being kind of pissed off when I found that out. If they’d told me before at least I’d have a template from someone in my family who’d done it. I used to always lip-synch to songs and was always as much of a little entertainer as I could be.
You really go for it when you sing. You’re not one of those bold, everyone looks when you walk in personalities in your daily life but the way you sing reveals a real showman. There’s something in you that wants to get these songs out there in a really strong way.
It’s definitely a different part of my personality where something switches over. I grew up playing music in the late 80s/early 90s and saw a lot of punk rock during that time, and that meant just going for it – whatever that meant – and releasing energy and expression. I’ve grown into being able to do it, but it’s always been a different side of my personality from the one that’s quiet for the most part except for the occasional rude comment [laughs]. Mick Jagger and Stevie Wonder are two of my favorite singers.
There’s an emotional content to these two that’s strikingly different from modern mainstream vocalists. There’s a truthfulness that makes their work last. You can throw on their classic albums now and they feel as honest and relevant as ever. That seems the benchmark you’re going for in your music in general.
I went through some pretty heavy stuff for a few years and [Harmony of Passing Light] is coming out the other side of it and being able to express some things – even some dark things – and shed some light on them, whereas before I might have wallowed too much in it and made things darker than they were.
It’s a much less heavy record than your previous album [Spill Collateral Love (2007)]. This time there’s some light slipping through the cracks.
Yeah, yeah…also, the songs are much more honest. I love to create story songs and interject some personal things but there are some really deep things I went through and this is just a more personal record. There were some things I needed to say lyrically, and I also wanted it to groove more and be a little more rockin’. And that’s where Todd [Roper, drums], Paul [Hoaglin, multi-instrumentalist] and Shay [Scott, keyboards] came in. I can’t say enough about those guys.
You really couldn’t have handpicked a better group of guys from the Bay Area musical pool.
It was kind of organic. I’ve worked with Paul for a long time, and Roper I met through Greg Loiacono (The Mother Hips, Sensations). When Roper moved to Portland and Shay’s studio was up there it was a no-brainer for Paul and I to go up there and work on the record. We had a really good time. It was the four of us for the most part, and Paul produced and Shay kind of co-produced. Those guys pushed me and saw some things I didn’t see, and I can’t thank them enough for what they put into it. Being an artist, sometimes all you’re seeing is the forest and it’s nice to have people you trust when making a record. For me, it’s all about trust, both being able to fail but also being able to stretch out.
David Simon Baker gave the album a really nice mix.
He was the perfect guy to give it what it needed. He’s dogmatic about his approach. He just will not let it go until it’s right, and that’s the thing I love about working with him. And you’re working together but you’re having fun with DSB. He’s one of the funniest guys I know, but he’s very dry. That works for him, too.
I think the main thing I wanted to do with this record was to shine some light and let people know you can get past the hard times like I feel I’ve been able to. I like the imagery of two things coming together, which is where the title Harmony of Passing Light comes from.
That’s one of the roles of pop-rock, providing a tune one can hum even in the worst of it.
I’ve always thought lyrics were the most important part, so I’m always going to go on what someone is saying. That’s where I’ve always admired the Hips. Greg and Tim [Bluhm] are just such great lyric writers. That’s always the hardest thing for me, to find something interesting to say that also has some true nuggets that maybe you’ve thought about that others haven’t. I’m always searching for that. That’s where a song like “Farewell to Folderal” comes from. It’s an old word but when once I had the title the song sort of wrote itself.
I have a soft spot for cool language that needs to be dusted off a bit.
I like using words in songs that people don’t normally use. Sometimes I get smacked around a little because of it, but it makes it more unique.
There’s nothing to be gained by dumbing down the conversation. If the worst thing that happens is somebody has to do a word search because they don’t know what folderol means then you’ve helped chip away at the overwhelming ignorance out there. One of the things that draws me to your work is your active engagement with language, but always making sure things still wiggle a bit and there’s a good bridge and the chorus snaps. There’s plenty of smart people in rock ‘n’ roll who lord it others and you never do.
There’s a fine line between showing off with language and doing something interesting and different that still has heart in the way it communicates. You don’t want to get so wordy that it’s over some people’s heads, but if I’m using a word it’s because I feel it’s the best word for it. I’m never trying to prove how smart I am because I’m not [laughs].
There’s never the stink of book learnin’ to what you do, and any art benefits from raising the level of discourse…
…and you should! That’s what it’s about especially now where it’s hard to make a living making music. The one thing you can control is getting better and putting good stuff out there.
In the end run, what’s the worst thing that happens if fame, money, etc. don’t come? At least you’ve put something good out into the world and you can look at yourself in the mirror without flinching.
If you’re not doing your best then you might as well not do it. I’m not dead and I’m just going to keep playing. Some people know me, some don’t, but I kinda like the Chuck Prophet model where you just keep at it because you don’t feel you’ve quite gotten it just right yet.
So, what’s usually going through your head right before you go onstage?
Probably making sure everything is plugged in. I’m usually running around and wrangling the band so we’re all ready to get up there. Probably the last thing is checking if I’m plugged into my tuner. Yes? Okay, let’s go.