Chris Brokaw is a peripatetic, shapeshifting, musical force!! A grad of Oberlin (that’s in Ohio, friends!), a compadre of Liz Phair in her formative moments (“her “Johnny Sunshine” is rumored to be about him), he is best known for his work in the 1990s with Come and Codeine. Since then, he has been in more bands than you can shake a drum stick at, including The New Year, Pullman, Rivulets, Consonant, Empty House Collective, and Dirtmusic, and has accompanied an astonishingly diverse roster of artists, including Thurston Moore, Rhys Chatham, and GG Allin.
He’s also found time to put out critically acclaimed solo releases (including “Incredible Love,” 2005), write film scores, start a record label, and tour relentlessly. His latest solo effort, “Gambler’s Ecstasy,” is a monster and should not be missed!
Chris generously greed to answer questions by email from the road, where he has been touring with Jennifer O’Connor.
To buy music and check tour dates: chrisbrokaw.com
Chris Brokaw, you never stop moving!
Mmm, I don’t know. I’m staying home a lot these days. My fiancee (!!) and I recently bought a house in Seattle and it’s beautiful, a totally amazing place, high on a hill overlooking Lake Washington. I am really hoping to do more film scoring, because I want to spend more time working at home than working on the road!
Can we catch up with you a little in terms of how the tour with Jennifer O’Connor came about and how it’s going?
Jennifer and I have been friends for several years. We met, oddly enough, at Avery Fisher Hall, at a tribute night to Bob Dylan. I was playing slide guitar with Bob Mould, for one song; Jennifer was playing with Patti Smith and Ramblin’ Jack Elliot. We hit it off, and shortly thereafter did a little touring together (each playing solo); sometime after that I played some shows being the guitarist in her band. We’re just good buddies and love working together. My fiancee and I recently sang one of Jennifer’s songs at a friend’s wedding – we’re big fans. J’s latest album is great.
Tell us about the genesis of “Gambler’s Ecstasy?” Was the process much different from “Incredible Love”?
“Gambler’s Ecstasy” took a really long time to finish. I recorded three songs in Chicago in May 2008, with John Herndon on drums and Doug McCombs on bass – new songs that I really wanted to try with those dudes. And then that recording just sat on a shelf for almost 2 years. The rest of the album I recorded in Denton, Texas (with me playing everything) and then mixed later in Seattle…ultimately, what took so long was finishing the lyrics to this nine-minute song called “The Appetites.” The song was very loosely based, or inspired, by my friend Caroline Knapp (RIP)’s book “Appetites: Why Women Want.” I was really interested in covering the difference between what you want and what you need, and how appetites effect you. Which, obviously, is a pretty broad topic. And I really got stuck. I couldn’t finish the words; I was daunted by the enormity of what I wanted to accomplish. I finally finished it after driving cross country from Boston to Seattle, when I moved there in January 2011; much of the lyrics are based on that drive. At the end of the day, I think the album is somewhat messy and complex, but, life is like that, too….and I think it has some of my best songs ever. “Incredible Love” is a pop album, I think. ‘Gambler’s Ecstasy’ is much more rock, and I think a bit darker.
This is a tale that always gets told everytime the line grows cold.
We lay in the sun til we fried, and spent all we had til we cried.
Caroline laughed as she spoke: “I think we’re going up in smoke”.
“How will you stop? How will I?” Taking our dogs for a ride.
I looked at the sky, and uttered the name: the clouds all looked the same.
I offered a prayer to our health. Talking again to myself.
Speaking in words, just like I told. No one should ever know.
When you take it outside, something dies: a terrible pain behind the eyes.
Back to the start: numbered days. Showing us different ways.
We’ve moved underground, with the dead; taking the words, and take all we’re fed.
I threw all my clothes in the back of my car. I looked back up at the stars.
The cities at night hold the claim, and ruin the light, and bury the name;
The voices of gods are varied and late, out along the interstate.
The road unwinds, and grows slow; there’s only one way where I need to go.
What do you want? What do I need? (It’s nothing to a guy like me)
I paint a line in the sand, and conjur a map on the back of your hand.
Pie in the sky, superstar: we know where you live, we know where you are.
Trucks are ablaze, citywide; coyotes call, and watch from outside.
I’m back on the road, driving again: I’m moving on, my friend.
The mountains at night form a frame, catching my breath, holding my name.
What would you give just to ignore moods and ruins, appetites you’ve had before?
My breathing is full, full and sure. You tell me I’m good. I’m good with the score. I’m taking hold with both of my hands.
I love hearing about your process with these lyrics. Can you tell us a little about how you overcame that block?
I had a clutch of the lyrics, for a while; but they were fragments, bits. Check out the lyrics – everything that involves driving came after this trip I took, moving to Seattle. Somehow….the drive became the conduit, or the glue. I don’t really understand it. I don’t necessarily think that the drive was a metaphor….or another appetite unto itself….I don’t know, I really don’t. It just became a way of finishing it. and perhaps in time more truths will be revealed to me. I write a lot of lyrics that I don’t entirely understand; I trust the process enough to be ok with that, knowing that I may know more about the meaning later….or not. More and more, I am enjoying the feeling that the songs take over. I especially enjoy that when performing live, like the songs are really giving ME a good workout, rather than the other way around.
Are there lyricists whose work you really admire?
Tim Foljahn; David Berman; Azita; Leonard Cohen; Berthold Brecht; Joey Ramone; Iggy Pop; Townes Van Zandt. Lots of others. Lyrics are becoming more and more important to me. I think i’m happier with the lyrics on this record than maybe anything I’ve done before. I enjoyed doing the song “Criminals” as an acrostic:
All the girls are crying tonight.
Criminals are plotting our lives tonight.
Off the shore swims a whore
Making his way to the bottom.
Praying to a god
Above the land of nod
Somewhere warm – somewhere green –
Somewhere in the distance
Awake and blinking up
Nothing seems enough
Driving through, I wake with you
And you’re all I can imagine.
And if I fail,
Reverse the gale
To measure my resistance.
with a compass and a heart
I could tear someone apart
It forms the phrase ‘”A COMPASS AND A HEART” just before it reaches that actual line.
I want to ask you a little about your voice; I find myself trusting you more as a narrator when you sing because I believe you absolutely will not perform for listeners in the way that say, Nick Cave would. Because of your restraint and a quality in your voice that I want to characterize as honesty or humility, I feel like a song like “I Remember” comes off as even more moving than it would otherwise. Can you talk a little about your singing style, your development as a vocalist particularly on this new record, and your view on how you use your voice in your songs?
What I’ve learned about my voice is: it just sounds better when I lean back. It sounds really strident and awful when I lean into it. So – this is just what works for me.
It gets harder to do that if, say, I’m singing in a higher key. Therefore, certain keys work much better for the way I feel I can best present my singing voice. It took a long time to find this. I feel like I’m only just learning how best to use my singing voice.
Some of it is: I think that if I sing in a quiet or somewhat leaning- back way, I can draw people in more. And I feel that what I’m doing with it is actually rare or somehow unique. I’m very glad you noticed! not many people talk about my voice or my approaches to singing.
Well this is really interesting to me because in your language of ‘leaning back’ vs ‘leaning into’ you are already discussing your voice with some distance, like it’s a powerful wind, say, and that seems like unusual relationship to have with one’s voice for a singer/songwriter. Often the voice is described as this delicate and demanding instrument that lives within the singer, a sort of temperamental baby that has to be rested and soothed. And of course in being this internal baby it is also a stand-in for the self, and this is exactly the quality I find intriguing in your singing in that you seem totally uninterested in using your voice as a sort of mini-me, and instead you seem focused on trying to recite/sing your poetry as if the meaning of the words themselves is enough. This brings me back to your statement about wanting to be worked by your songs rather than working them. Can you speak to this idea in your work? And maybe tell us how you got to this place?
Well….what I find is that the more lean back, the more soothing effect I can have with the vocal. And for some reason that is what I want more and more: for my voice to be soothing, to be a balm. To be a comfort. I want to give that, more and more. And that’s an agenda that feels entirely separate from whatever I’m doing with the lyrics at any given time. It’s not the case with all the songs – for example, “How to Listen”, on the new cd, is written and sung entirely from the perspective of my youngest sister:
HOW TO LISTEN
I’ve been trouble since I was eight.
Tired and rangy and slow.
The world hasn’t captured my promises.
I’ve been places you’ll never go.
And I already know how to listen.
I accepted a long time ago.
You could see if you paid close attention
How I’m replaying all of your shows.
You can hardly imagine
killing and breaking my lovers down.
I learned everything just how I saw it.
I love everything plainly and sound.
But I don’t share your fear of drowning.
It’s tired and it feels like a pose.
The words are all over my body,
and they burn their way out of my clothes.
I’ll see white when my plane hits the water
And I’m cool if it’s my time to go
I’m the last of your beautiful daughters
And I speak in a tongue you won’t know.
And this song I sing pretty stridently, for me. That’s what it needs!
That song is haunting! Do you feel like you are heading into darker, more experimental territory in general or is this just part and parcel of this new release?
My greatest hope right now as a writer is to be braver. To move into newer and more uncharted territory. It’s a struggle for me, because I don’t want to be willfully obscure, deliberately obtuse. I hate that shit. I have a dream of writing songs that practically don’t even read like proper English. I love lyrics that read, somewhat, like mangled translations of English. The best band I can think of that has done that are Bone Awl (who actually are English speakers) and Gore, an instrumental Dutch band from the 80’s who had lyric sheets, in English, of their instrumental songs (!!). The grammar is broken, the word choices are unexpected….it’s really thrilling.
Scott Walker’s new album “bish bosch” is hugely inspiring to me. So brave, so tough, so fucking badass!
I love how you are interested in stuff that is so blatantly non-commercial. What has it been like releasing your own work and what your feelings are about the process of selling music these days?
I started my own label (Capitan Records) in 2008 so i could release the glut of stuff I come up with. There are some records, like “Gambler’s Ecstasy,” where I really want “real record labels” working on them. And I’m very grateful to work with people like 12XU and Damnably on that record. 12XU is Gerard Cosloy, who also runs Matador. I’ve worked with Gerard since 1992 and there’s no one i’d rather work with – my trust, respect, and admiration for him are unmatched.
But then I also come up with stuff like, say, my newest release: “The Coyote of Deadhorse Canyon” (which came out on January 7). It’s about 22 minutes of spooky, drifting, ambient guitar music. I did an edition of 49 copies, on cassette. I really like doing this, too. It’s useful if, like me, you come up with a lot of stuff. In that sense I have moved more into the jazz/experimental model of releasing several works a year, rather than the rock model of, say, one big rock record every year or two. Or: maybe I am combining those 2 models. At this point it’s getting harder and harder for me to describe to people what I do. [There are] fans of my singin’ songs, and fans of my instrumental stuff, and fans of both. IT ALL MAKES SENSE TO ME, and I just hope people will trust me and come along.
When I was in new york in 2008-2009, I met a couple of people who really inspired me – musicians who would record something, and release it the following week. I thought that was amazing and exciting. Empowering.
I don’t think I’d be good for releasing “big records.” Promoting/selling/distributing records is not my forte. (I always tell people that Capitan is “The Worst Label On Earth”). It’s an interesting time, right now: musicians do have so many more means of releasing music themselves, than in the past, but, it’s not necessarily a given that they’d be any good at it.
Someone once asked the great jazz player, Steve Lacy, if he wouldn’t like to sell a million copies of one of his records. He said, “I’d rather make a million records, and sell one copy of each.” I continually think about that quote. It’s very inspiring, and a happy reminder that the whole point is about making the art.