Interview: A Chat with Tommy & Clay of Brothers Past
A few weeks back, I caught a great Brothers Past show at Brooklyn Bowl (you can check out my original post with setlist, photos, and video here).
But before BP kicked things off at Brooklyn Bowl, I actually had the pleasure of linking up with band members Tom Hamilton (guitar/vocals/laptop) and Clay Parnell (bass, vocals) for an informal interview. I joined Tommy and Clay in their van outside the venue — since even the bands aren’t allowed to smoke indoors in NYC — and we spoke about their current status as a band, their touring plans for 2010-2011, and their forthcoming album (which is tentatively slated for release later this Fall). Brothers Past reunited with original drummer Rick Lowenberg in late 2008, after taking a couple years off for other projects and while drummer Rick got his law degree. Since then, they’ve gradually been re-building their momentum and have begun working on the follow-up to their 2005 album This Feeling’s Called Goodbye, which won them a nice bunch of praise as one of the more cohesive albums ever coming out of the jam scene.
Brothers Past recently released a third podcast, with a few solid segments from shows in February, including the Brooklyn Bowl show I attended. They’ll be playing at a charity event called Rock the Ribbon this Saturday (3/27) at the Regal Ballroom in Philly, and then they head out to Colorado for four-night run at the beginning of April.
Read on for my chat with Tommy and Clay…
(Editor’s note: Because this was more of an informal chat, the nature of our conversation didn’t really lend itself all that well to the standard Q&A format. Luckily, I was able to capture the audio with my iphone, so I’ve tried my best to transcribe the majority of our conversation below by trimming some of the random banter and natural back and forth of our conversation. But I didn’t feel compelled to do a full transcription, so I’ve included the audio for the official record. The audio isn’t bad, but it does include some ambient noise and a bit of high-level clipping. If you’re so inclined, you can download it or stream it via the site’s flash player.)
LMB: So talk to me about the status of band. Is Rick back for good or just until he passes the bar?
TH: He’s been back since last year. He graduated law school. He took the bar. He passed. He’s a lawyer.
LMB: So he’s the band’s lawyer and you guys are moving on now?
TH: Basically, yeah, we took a two-year pit stop so he could get his law degree. Yeah, shut his parents up.
CP: Yeah, now promoters pay us….it seals the deal when you have a lawyer in the band.
TH: (in business voice) “Have you met our attorney? He plays four-on-the-floor.”
LMB: So, what I’m asking is are you guys back and ready to be a full-time band?
TH: Yeah, well, we’re working. One of things we learned from what we’ve done is that touring without a purpose is fuckin’ stupid. Right now, we’re not touring. We’re playing shows to workout ideas and to get our chemistry back and all that stuff. But we’re not going to do a tour until there’s a record to support and a reason to be out there doing it for 10 weeks or whatever. When we sat down last year (prior to 2008-2009 NYE) to talk about doing this again, we laid out a year. “You know, Rick, if we’re going to do this, what are we going to do during this time?” Let’s start just by re-hitting our major markets; don’t play a lot; do a lot of rehearsing; not a lot of playing out; and we wanted to start making a new record. And we accomplished all of our goals. This was prior to 2008-2009 NYE.
LMB: Ok…I was there by the way. That was fun.
TH: The Westchester one?
LMB: Yeah, the Westchester one.
TH: Oh alright, well it was like ok, step one, let’s sell out this show. And we killed it. So we basically booked from New Year’s 08-09 all the way to New Year’s 09-10….knowing exactly what we were doing and what was going to happen where.
LMB: So it was very strategic?
TH: Yeah, it was deliberate. And it went well. You know, we went from a 400-person room, sold-out (for NYE 2008-2009 at The Note in Westchester, PA) to a year later playing a 900-person room with 800 people in it (at the TLA in Philly) — which was pretty fuckin’ good — and now we have half of a record.
LMB: Yeah, so you guys basically re-energized the base that you had back in 05-06?
CP: That’s been a lot of what these shows have been about. In addition to getting our new ideas out…just getting the base fired back up.
LMB: Yeah, it’s amazing…you take a year or two off. You can kind of lose the momentum. It’s all about consistency, if you want to grow…
TH: Yeah I mean, we lost the momentum even in that last year playing with Ilya (Rick Lowenberg’s 2006-2007 replacement). The wheels of the train kinda started to slow…
CP: By no fault of Ilya’s. He was an amazing drummer.
LMB:…well he was a great drummer. You still played some great shows. He just wasn’t the right fit. And Rick was…he is.
TH: Right, he helped define what Brothers Past is.
CP: There’s no substitute for 750 shows (with Rick); 1400 – 1500 sets. There’s just no substitute for that kind of experience.
LMB: Right, exactly. So talk to me about the new album. Is it done?
TH: No. We are about seven songs in. We have seven tunes that are written and a good amount already recorded. We have another three or four tunes in the pipeline that we’re fleshing out.
LMB: Is this a totally new batch of songs? Like, none of these have been played live?
TH: Yeah. Well, New Year’s Eve 2009-2010, we did three sets and in our second set we did five songs from this forthcoming record.
LMB: And those are?
TH/CP: “Who’s Gonna Love Me Now”
“Deer in the Headlights”
“Staring at the Sun”
“One Day I’ll Disappear” (which may change to “A Serious Man”)
“Charity Starts at Home
TH: Yeah, ya know, it’s cool. It’s different. Besides “Charity Starts at Home,” we wrote everything as we were recording it. So we had to learn how to play all this shit for New Year’s and apparently, we’re kind of writing like a proggy type of record. It’s very out. It’s definitely very different than the last record (This Feeling’s Called Goodbye). It’s not another electro-pop record.
LMB: That was going to be my question. Ok, so A Wonderful Day was a concept album, and This Feeling’s Called Goodbye was a thematic album…would you call it that? You’d call it a pop record; electro-pop?
CP: Yeah, it was singles-oriented.
TH: Yeah, we were looking at how long songs were.
CP: We were trying to deliver what we were doing a little more concisely that time…
LMB: Well, it worked. I mean, I remember a lot of accolades on that one…
TH: That record did a lot good for us man. And it’s a damn good album. We figured out a lot about who we were in the studio because of that album. Our roles became defined. Our way of recording just became clearer…
CP: The shit we learned how to do there, Tommy and I are building on now. We’re engineering this new record, which is cool because we’re able to try all the shit we were kinda thinking about on the last two records but had somebody else kinda calling the shots or…
TH: Yeah, now we get to call the shots.
LMB: So this is all you guys?
TH: Yeah, we’re producing it. It’s all us. Which is fun. I mean, This Feelings Calles Goodbye was a reaction to A Wonderful Day. A Wonderful Day was this long, drawn-out concept record. And we said “well fuck that, what’s the opposite of that?” That would be a record full of short pop songs. With a producer; a slick sound. So this record is a reaction to This Feeling’s called Goodbye. It’s definitely weird. We’re doing it all ourselves…
LMB: Well there’s weird shit happening in pop music….I mean, we’re here in Williamsburg. This is the home of….you know this is like “Hipster Haven” right here.
TH: Well, this definitely isn’t a record full of hooks. It’s full of….
CP: ….full of vibes.
TH: Yeah, vibes. It’s an onion, a lot of layers.
LMB: Interesting. What does that mean sonically? Any comparisons?
TH: No. It just sounds like us.
LMB: So it’s pretty much you and Mckee are doing all the writing?
TH: Yeah, so me and Tom (McKee) are doing most of the writing. A lot of the process is me and Tom going through ideas and then me and Clay recording it.
LMB: Any influences? Anything that you’re listening to now that is shaping this? Any current artists?
CP: All sorts of shit. On some level, I mean, it’s not an influence. But its funny, you said “prog,” and I think this would probably go down as our Genesis-ish record. And I mean early Genesis. Well, don’t quote me on that. Well, I guess you’re going to quote me, that’s why we’re here. That’s the point of this but….
LMB: Actually, that’s intriguing.
TH: Personally, this is the first Brothers Past record where I don’t have anything in mind. Like making A Wonderful Day, I was way into Radiohead and Pink Floyd, and making This Feeling’s Called Goodbye, I was way into the Flaming Lips and…. Radiohead. This record, personally, on my end of the writing…I’m just like whatever. I just want to be very abstract.
CP: We’re kinda letting it go where it goes.
LMB: Do you feel like you’re separating American Babies material from this because you have that going on too, right? (American Babies is Hamilton’s side project)?
TH: Yeah. Well, that’s sort of helped with the BP thing. At the beginning of ’09 I started making a Babies record. Towards the end of that is when we started the BP record. By the time I had done Babies record….you know, it’s a rock n roll record. It’s an Americana record. It made it so I got that out of my system. Because, I have all that shit in me. So it made it so, when we started doing a BP record, I didn’t have any aspirations to make anything like that.
CP: You scratched your itch with the Babies butt. (laughter)
TH: Now, with Brothers Past record, I’m not afraid to be weird. I’m not afraid to NOT worry about song structure. Personally, I have a freedom that I’m enjoying when it comes to this stuff. It doesn’t have to be a fucking pop record.
LMB: But are you conscious of where it’s going to go? Like, do you want to write that big MGMT record or that….
TH: Nah, fuck those guys. And not fuck those guys. But everybody is doing that. Everybody wants to sound like those guys. Everyone wants to sound like the Fleet Foxes if they’re acoustic or MGMT if they’re Indie. It’s like, “no, I’m good.”
CP: I think we can be edgier just letting the chips fall where they may. We’re more likely to get a better result just doing us than us trying to be somebody else.
TH: Like, I personally won’t listen to any of that stuff. Not because it’s not great. I think it’s amazing. That Fleet Foxes record is stellar. That Grizzly Bear record is stellar. MGMT, Vampire Weekend. All those records are fucking great records.
LMB: It’s just not…Brothers Past?
TH: Yeah, it’s not and it could be. I feel like most people I know that are in bands right now are all trying to sound like one of those bands. And you know what? I don’t want to be a part of that. So I basically deprive myself of listening to those records. It’s not even trying to sound like something else. That shit just gets in your brain. It’s in there and all of the sudden it just comes out in your stuff. I personally don’t want to be influenced by that stuff at all. I’m still listening to bare-bones Dylan or Johnny Cash…because that has nothing to do with what Brothers Past. There’s no way that’s going to influence, like, my “electronic” brain.
LMB: Onto another topic….Your current sound compared to a year ago? Has it evolved? Or, is it the same BP, you’re just trying to get back into a groove?
TH: Since the New Year, we’ve been doing new stuff live. I feel like we’ve been getting into things we haven’t done. We’ve been getting out of our comfort zone, really opening shit up and truly improvising. The first year of us being back together was definitely us re-learning how to play with each other… finding that rhythm and finding that chemistry. Like we did this stealth show at Silk City in Philly (an all instrumental show).
LMB: Yeah, I put that (download) up on the site.
TH: Oh yeah. And we had never done that before. It opened a lot of doors for us…creatively.
LMB: Was that Clay playing a midi bass?
TH: Yeah, Clay brought that in from Biodeisel (his side project with drummer Johnnny Rabb). It’s stellar. You know, it really opened up a new palette of colors.
LMB: Coming from sort of a gear-head standpoint, do you have any other stuff you’re throwing into the mix?
CP: Yeah, there’s some other new stuff there. Mckee’s got a new Roland synth. Which is a pretty bangin’ little unit. Rick — as opposed to using his old configuration of e-drum units — he’s on to the Roland. He’s using an SPD-S now with stuff he can load and all that. It can be any sound you want to put on it. Which is a little different than before…usually it was just modifying existing sounds. I have the midi. I think Mckee’s got a USB keyboard now…
TH: Yeah, he’s running stuff off his computer, which definitely opens it up.
LMB: So basically, Mckee’s on a laptop, you’re on a laptop, he’s on a midi, he’s on e-drums….
CP: Yeah, computers have kind of become ubiquitous in music these days…
TH: Yeah, seriously. Every show with every band in the scene looks like a fucking Mac ad.
LMB: But it’s not about the tools, it’s about the sound.
CP: Yeah, there’s a difference between four dudes with four laptops and four dudes with four laptops plus an entire traditional band set-up. It’s all about having the best of both worlds.
LMB: Tommy, any new stuff?
TH: Nah, my rig is pretty much the same….but you know I use Reason on my laptop, which is how we do a lot of our improvised sequencing. I’ve just gotten better at it; learned some new tricks. I kind of have that on lock-down.
LMB: So talked to me about touring for the next year or so? Are you guys going to really go hard?
CP: Yeah, we’re going harder than last year. About three times as many shows as last year.
TH: Which still isn’t that much.
LMB: Little mini runs kind of like you’re doing now?
TH: Yeah. There are a lot things on the old chalkboard as far as releases go. We’re talking about doing a lot of things…releasing a lot of music towards the end of the year. And that’s when — like I was saying in the beginning — that’s when the purpose of touring comes into play. A lot of it is going to depend on that, ya know, how quickly that stuff comes together.
LMB: Is that geared up to the point where you’ll get a new management team and set-up a whole new world for BP? Are you guys still with SCI Fidelity (Records)?
TH: Yeah, well we can. We don’t know what we’re going to do with this record. SCI Fidelity definitely is a possibility to put it out again, but….
LMB: It’s a new world out there.
TH: Well, yeah, I mean I’m starting a new record label to put out some Babies stuff. If that goes well, I’m sure we all wouldn’t mind having complete control over putting out our record.
LMB: Yeah, the DIY thing is slowly but surely the way to go…
TH: Yeah, it’s just easy to get distribution now. It’s easy to get distribution digitally and in retail. There’s not a lot of overhead now because we have free studio time. It’s pretty feasible to make that type of shit happen now…
LMB: Yeah, so you basically just need booking and management…
TH: Right, well, we have a booking agent. Yeah, we just need the infrastructure to run it. What I’m doing right now on the other side of my creative stuff…with the Babies. I’m putting that together. Hopefully…I’m keeping my fingers crossed that it’s going to work out and be a feasible thing. I would love to be able…for us to be able to say “hey we want to put something out, and this when we’re going to do it, and this is how we’re going to do it.” You work with label — especially nowadays since people are losing their shirts — you don’t who’s doing what, people don’t have their eye on the ball, you don’t know who’s doing the job and who isn’t. You don’t find that out until a year after your record came out, and it didn’t do shit.
LMB: My take is you need you need a good manager, a good agent, and a good developer, maybe a designer…
TH: …a publicist. You know get people on the blogs and get people talking about it. So doing it yourself, having your own label, having your own infrastructure, makes it easier to know who’s doing the job; making sure people are doing their fucking job. So we don’t know what’s going on. There are a lot of great ideas. We have a pretty hefty archive of every show we’ve ever played. So who knows what we’ll do with that. It’s probably getting close to that time. We’ve never put a live record out really, maybe that’s an idea. There’s all sorts of cool things that we’re thinking about so I think 2010 is going to be a really fun year for us. The end of this year is going to be our 10 year anniversary. We’re definitely going to do some really fucking amazing shit for that, so you’ll hear about that soon as that comes together.
LMB: Do you think you guys will hit any festivals this year?
TH: Ah, I don’t know. It really depends on the album situation. A lot of festivals…
LMB: …they kind of already have their lineups.
TH: Well, there’s definitely the lower spots….All the festivals still have a few slots open. But festivals like it when bands are on tour supporting a record, that’s why we got a Bonnaroo or…
LMB: Right, when there’s some buzz. Well, fuck it, do your own thing….
TH: If it happens right now, it happens. If not, we’re not going to….we can go either way about it. Hold on a second (opens window, listens for opening band). We should probably head in. Just ’cause I don’t want to fuck these guys over…. (Tommy sat in with the opening band, Jounce, for a few songs)
Interview ends with standard thank-you’s and exchanges.
A big thanks to Tommy and Clay for taking the time to chat with me.
WHITperson -- aka Marc Whitman or simply "Whit" -- is a long-time LMB contributor known for his in-depth posting style and his knack for crafting interesting podcasts. Whit currently resides in Brooklyn, where he's building up his web development chops and hoping to put his technical skills towards something interesting in the music world. Follow his updates over at whitperson.com and on twitter @whitperson.
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