Chris Brokaw has his fingers in so many indie-rock pies it’s bordering on the ridiculous. Having started off slowly in the early 90's, drumming with slo-core pioneers Codeine and moving onto guitar and song-writing duties with Thalia Zedek in Come, he has played in several bands since then, including New Year and Consonant. That’s not to mention the numerous contributions to albums by his friends like Steve Wynn and Evan Dando (Brokaw wrote ‘My Idea’ for Dando, one of the best tracks on his ‘Baby I’m Bored’ album), his solo work and two film scores. To Brokaw, it seems that indie rock is a full-time job.

Even as he sets out on a solo tour across Europe, he’s starting a new project with Doug McCombs, who he worked with in the band Pullman.

“We talked about it for a long time and then last year we finally started working on music together,” Brokaw explains, speaking from his Boston home. “We both wanted to do something where we were playing electric guitar. We practiced a few times last year and then we finally booked a show in Chicago for a few weeks from now. I’m going out to Chicago next week and we’re going to practice for a week and discuss what stuff we’re going to play at the show, but I think it’ll be quite a while before we put anything on record or anything like that.”

Over the course of his own four solo albums, Brokaw has explored a range of styles, from the tense, layered, guitar-based instrumentals of his debut ‘Red Cities’ to the grungy, sophisticated rock of ‘My Confidante+3’.

“It hasn’t been really deliberate, like I’ve done this record, now I have to do something completely different,” he says. “In a way I’m kind of glad that I’ve done four albums and that they’re all kind of different from each other, but I think they all sound like me, I think that they’re consistent. I played a show this weekend with the band and we played songs from all the records and it all made sense together. It didn’t sound schizophrenic or anything like that.”

His latest record, ‘Incredible Love’ takes him in yet another direction with its folk and alt-country influenced songs, reminiscent in places of Evan Dando and ‘Being There’ era Wilco. Within those songs, elements of Brokaw’s indie heritage have seeped in, from Codeine to Consonant. According to Brokaw, the album is a mixture of material written gradually while touring his other albums.

“After ‘Red Cities’ came out I was touring a lot and I was playing solo a lot, and I’d sing a few songs, then I started writing more. I was really into the acoustic guitar, but I wanted to try it out with a band. I wanted to be able to make a record that once it came out I could play live with a band or I could play acoustic and still reproduce the essence of the record.”

This lead to Brokaw forming the Chris Brokaw Rock Band, with Jeff Goddard and Kevin Coultas (ex- Karate and Rodan respectively), which give certain songs on the record a sort of folk/art-rock hybrid sound, the odd discord and unorthodox arrangement hinting at a bubbling undercurrent of post-rock.

That said, compared to the tense instrumentals of ‘Red Cities’ or the angry fuzz of ‘My Confidante’, the record feels a lot looser and laid-back than the usual Brokaw fare.

“Even like three of the songs that turned up on the record were demos. It was more relaxed in that way, like the stuff on ‘Red Cities’ I had demoed a lot and I had rehearsed a lot, I was really focused on it. I guess also that I had experiences recording myself singing when I was happier with the way my voice sounded if I leaned back a little bit, than if I sort of leaned into it, so that was pretty deliberate. Sort of laying back a little bit seems to suit my voice better.”

That it does. Brokaw’s voice sounds great on ‘Incredible Love’, his lazy, gravely tone bringing to mind a cross between ‘E’ of Eels and Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy. The album also closes on his own version of the excellent ‘My Idea’, the song he co-wrote with Tom Morgan for Evan Dando.

“Tom gave him like 30 seconds of ‘My Idea’, just a few chords and some lyrics, but he hadn’t finished the song. He said ‘Either you or Chris should finish this song’, so Evan didn’t and I did,” Brokaw says, chuckling to himself. “I finished it the day we recorded it. We were about to go in and I thought, I really need to get this song done, so I finished it really quickly.”

Brokaw has worked with so many well-known figures in American indie that it’s not surprising that he is viewed as such a veteran of underground rock. He believes that working with other people both as a songwriter and a supporting band member has taught him a lot when it comes to making music on his own.

“I think it’s given me the sense that for one thing, you can make music out of anything” he says. “There are lots of differents as far as what you do onstage and what you bring to a room full of people. There’s all kinds of different ways for a show to be effective and there’s different ways of making something happen.”

It has also shaped how he views music made by other bands.

“In some ways I may be more sympathetic with all different kinds of people playing music and in other ways it’s made me less so. Sometimes I’ll go and see a band and I’ll think these motherfuckers just aren’t trying out there, I don’t know, or they’re just taking the easy way out or something. But mostly I think more so than that it’s given me more sympathy; I give people credit for trying to do what they want to do. I guess it’s given me the sense that you can make something really powerful or really special happen with any combination of people and any different combination of instruments. I’ve seen solo performers who were one hundred times more powerful than big rock bands. I do still get excited seeing certain rock bands, though. I still think hard rock can still be exciting, I don’t think it’s a dead language at all.”

One of the most interesting collaborations of Brokaw’s career (at least in my humble opinion) is his work with Mission of Burma’s Clint Conley in Consonant. The emergence of Conley’s first new band in almost twenty years was a great moment for many Burma fans.

“It’s funny because I’ve known Clint for a long time, and at the point when he asked me to play with him I was really busy. I was playing in three bands, and I was trying to get my own shit happening, and trying to get ‘Red Cities’ recorded and I was like I can’t join any more bands, I had to put a limit on it,” Brokaw says. “Then Clint asked me and at that point Burma wasn’t playing again yet, and he hadn’t played in so long I just thought to myself, how can I say no to him? He’s such a talented guy I just had to say yes."

“In general I feel really lucky that I’ve been able to play with a lot of really amazing people, that I’ve been able to play with Thalia Zedek for as long as I did and play with John (Engle) and Steve (Immerwahr) from Codeine. I learned so much about music from playing with those guys, and by touring with people like Evan Dando and Steve Wynn who are like really, really professional people. A lot of people think that Evan Dando’s kind of a nut and unpredictable, all that stuff, but he’s like a really savvy entertainer, much more than people give him credit for. I would say I’ve been able to learn all kinds of good stuff from them, so I feel like I’ve been really lucky. Could you hold on one second?”

Brokaw puts down the phone and runs over to his dog to shut it up. It has been barking incessantly for the last few minutes. His stern cries of “No!” reach the phone from the other side of the room. This is surprising, considering that at times during the interview he is so softly spoken he is almost inaudible, which is kind of what you expect from a guy who used to be in one of the definitive slo-core bands. “Sorry about that,” says Brokaw, back on the phone with dog problem sorted. “My flatmate had just got back and my dog got worked up.”

Brokaw was brought up in New York. His father, a be-bop drummer, encouraged him to learn guitar and drums when he was around 12 years old. Brokaw’s first successful band, Codeine, couldn’t be more different to the music his father taught him. When asked if he saw the irony in the son of a be-bop drummer playing exclusively slow tempos, Brokaw laughs:

“It was definitely ironic. I remember the first time he came to see us play, he couldn’t believe the music. I think he hated it. He was completely bewildered by it. It was so totally different from what he knew and what he recognised as exciting, crowd-pleasing music."

“He was just like ‘I can’t believe how slow it is, I can’t believe you guys just stand there and play. I can’t believe people pay to watch you play.’ I think he was just flabbergasted. It was kind of funny. He was into jazz, but he was also into rock music, and like Codeine’s music was like completely the opposite of that. There isn’t really going to be the big rock pay-off. It wasn’t weak music at all, but it wasn’t going to rock out in a party kind of way. It was very metric, very restrained music, which was really like an experiment. I always thought of the band as an experiment.”

He insists, however, that the experiment had nothing to do with the tempos of the band’s songs.

“It wasn’t even a thing of let’s see how slow we can play because Swans had done that at that point, even like the slow angle. It wasn’t like the central element in that band. That was part of it, but that was one of several parts. We were really interested in what a song was supposed to deliver, like what the role of the bass player is, what the role of the drums are, what role the guitar plays and we spent a lot of time so everything we did was really deliberate and really thought out.”

Although Codeine had moderate success during their career, in recent years their profile has heightened with bands like Mogwai (‘Incredible Love’ has been released on their Rock Action label in the UK) frequently praising the band and citing them as a prime influence. Brokaw finds the sudden belated interest in the band slightly bemusing.

“Certainly this is more of a recent thing,” he says. “There seems to be more people either discovering the band or just talking about it in the last few years. I mean the band stopped playing in 1994, and there were several years when they were pretty much never heard about. Then people started to get more interested and sort of talking about it a bit more. It’s nice, you know, flattering. I think that Steve is a very talented songwriter, I don’t think his songs sound like anybody else.”

Brokaw left the band in 1992 to concentrate on his second band, Come, which he formed with New York no-waver Thalia Zedek. Their sound was far removed from Codeine, peddling a dirty blues sound that was initially compared to the Birthday Party. In Come, Brokaw switched to guitar and occasional vocals, writing and recording his own songs for the first time in a professional band.

“That was the band where I was really writing songs, a regular song-writing collaboration between me and Thalia. For about two years I was able to play with both bands, which was really fun and really exciting. I thought that Codeine had great songs and I’d never been able to record stuff for a record before; that was great. Then the first Come record came out and I knew that we were going to be on tour for like six months and it didn’t seem fair to try to play in both, so I left Codeine. I think they were pretty bummed that I left, but they understood and they were both into Come, so it was ok.”

Since then, Brokaw has expanded his horizons somewhat. As well as the numerous bands he’s been in over the last few years, Brokaw has also scored a couple of independent films, ‘I was Born But…’ and ‘ROAD’. Brokaw says that scoring a film wasn’t as difficult as expected.

“With the first movie, ‘I was Born But…’ I just did it in a really intuitive way. The filmmaker didn’t really give me any instructions at all; he just gave me the movie. He knew my work and he trusted me basically, so he gave me the movie and I gave myself a month, so I spent like a month just watching the movie and recording pieces of music. I’d do some music and then I wouldn’t do anything for a couple of days, then I’d go back to it, so it was really pretty relaxed. It was fun, actually.

“The second film was a lot more work, because the director had a much more specific idea of what she wanted for it. She wanted a theme song, and she wanted certain variations on that theme song and she wanted songs to kind of dovetail and slightly alter the previous song you had already heard, so it was much more task oriented, which was fun to have an assignment to achieve. I hardly ever get given assignments, so to get given a job to do was good. With both movies I’ve done it with directors who are film people but who also have been into punk rock and different kind of music for a long time and who also know what my music is like and what I do. They’re not expecting me to give them something that sounds like the Beta Band or Britney Spears. They asked me specifically, so they are expecting to get something that sounds like me.”

Just looking at the list of bands that he has been in over the years, it’s obvious that Brokaw is a man who lives and breathes music, actively seeking out new people to work with and new ways to challenge his creativity.

“I definitely made a pretty conscious decision eight or ten years ago that I wanted to try doing different things. Having played specifically in indie-rock bands for several years, which was cool, I still do enjoy playing with rock bands, but I wanted to try other things. I wanted to try more acoustic music and more instrumental music and I wanted to write music specifically for film and for dancing, and stuff like that.”

It is almost impossible to predict how Brokaw will follow up ‘Incredible Love’. Though he definitely has a musical identity of his own, based in both experimental indie rock and folk, blues and jazz. It is hard to imagine Brokaw ever repeating himself.

“I’d love to [score] a horror movie! Not like a slasher movie but just a really fucking scary movie. I love stuff like ‘The Ring’. I think right now that’d be my dream job, to work on a horror movie.”















Related Links:


http://www.chrisbrokaw.com/
https://www.facebook.com/chris.brokaw.5


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