As part of the release of Digcast X, the third installment of my NYC music series, I'm posting on each band in the podcast. Today we start it all off with Beat Radio.
Follow the link above to listen to Brian Sendrowitz discuss "Hurricanes, XO," killer track ones, and some things he digs about NYC.
Also, come check out Beat Radio this Friday at our next TWD Presents showcase!
Blogging isn't always easy for me. There are a lot of reasons, but lately, the biggest thing has been feeling like I'm struggling to keep up given the limited time I can devote to this pursuit and therefore am not getting to really think or be excited about what I share. I also would be lying if I said my enthusiasm has not wavered as the perception that anyone even reads or is interested in these posts diminishes. However, I mainly do this because I love music and want an outlet to express what it means to me regardless of readership. I don't know how well I always achieve the latter, but I do know the former is what truly sustains me.
I know that because when I hear a song like "Hurricanes, XO," it makes blogging all worth it. Experiencing those beautiful moments when everything about a piece of music works and evokes a deep, gut-level response, where it reminds you of what you love (here, traces of "Frontwards" by Pavement in Bryan Bruchman's soaring guitar, the shambling glow and intimidate widescreen of Broken Social Scene, the poetic lyrics, and that impressive, heart-stopping ability to acknowledge pain AND the chance of healing) while still going somewhere new, and when it either resonates with feelings you weren't quite fully aware of or voices sentiments you couldn't exactly say but absolutely, completely feel and understand… that's what keeps me going. It's the best. Maybe it won't work for everyone they way it works for me, but I feel like I have this blog so that hopefully just one other person can fall in love with "Hurricanes, XO" and the rest of the fantastic new album from Beat Radio called Hard Times, Go!
If you are a long-time reader of the blog, you should be familiar with this great band, as we've featured them many times in the past. If not, Beat Radio, the recording moniker of Brian Sendrowitz and his friend Brian Ver Straten, is a band worth loving. This is the best album I've heard this year so far and each listen gives even more gifts. Brian and I had an extensive conversation which you can read below that reveals a lot of things I like in many of the songs, whether lyrics that hit me hard or cool things going on musically, but here are a few reasons I'm so drawn in. It's creative in a conceptual way, it speaks to our times, and most importantly it comes from a personal place. It's very well-written lyrically, straddling the line between mysterious and concrete with aplomb. It provides the sense I'm listening to music by someone who loves all my favorite bands, which, given the references throughout our conversation, turned out to be true. And through the recognition of things I feel or struggle with or hope for, it provides a powerful sense of human connection and maybe even some clarity on living life, too. Yeah. It's a good one.
You can buy the album in various forms on bandcamp. You can follow Beat Radio on Facebook and Twitter. You should come see them play our next TWD showcase Friday at Muchmore's in Williamsburg. Here's their website once again (which links to even more social media) and a link to watch a cool live session they did recently.
Besides the new album, Brian and I talked about many other things when we met at Matt Torrey's bar in Williamsburg. Brian is a smart, passionate guy and has a lot of great insights into relationships, the creative process, engaging people, and more. I found it to be very stimulating and rewarding discussion and hope you do too.
Steve: I liked that you wrote the liner notes. People should do that more I think. You don't have to explain everything, but sometimes it's nice to get a little background and context. Anyways, you had mentioned that the struggle is prevalent to this album.
Brian: I felt like it was a good time to write about that because every day you turn on the news, that's what people are talking about. But also, I think even I said it in the liner notes, I wanted to move past a romanticized version. Music was always an escape for me. My favorite singer is Van Morrison, where it's all about this dreamy place and romantic. I feel like there's still some of that, but I wanted to also be more honest about personal struggles and address some adult kinds of issues. We definitely went through hard times and we had people close to us go through horrible times. I wanted to write about what we were all going through and not shy away from it. It felt like a challenge to be able to do. But it was cool how it made the songs feel more natural than ever. It's also a way of catharsis to put it into a song.
S: That's probably why I was having the responses I was having. Not that I didn't feel a certain way about your previous music, but maybe it's just a closer experience to what I'm going through. You would never say, though, there's not any point at which you would not play music, right?
B: At this point, there really isn't. We have this remix EP, or basically a bonus EP of other stuff that I recorded last year that didn't make the album because we couldn't fit on there. And my friend posted, "Don't ever stop" (laughs) when I posted this real melodramatic comment. But I was like, "No, it's too late to stop now." Music's always been a passion of mine. Although I've always worked and always had a day job, I always viewed it as my life's work. I've had times where it seemed like it could be something that could substitute for my day job. But usually those were the times when it got really stressful and wasn't as fun. I'm lucky I have the support of my wife. She understands it.
S: Is she a musician?
B: She's not. Right now her main thing is she's a yoga instructor. She got certified and is continuing to grow into that. But she helped write some songs.
S: Yeah, that's why I asked, it seemed like she's involved in your creative process.
B: She's become more and more. We both went to SUNY Purchase. She went for visual art and I went for creative writing. She's definitely an artistic, creative person. She's musical, but she never wrote before. I was trying to finish writing songs and was like "Help me with this." Also, the idea of having an intimate relationship, the male-female thing if you're writing love songs and relationship-type songs, it seemed like a no-brainer. Also to hear a female perspective when you're writing about different characters, that seemed pretty priceless to take advantage of. That was cool.
But yeah, music absolutely is something I think I'll always do. For me, the struggle is always doing as much as I can but having it fit within the life that I lead and finding balance between the mad scientist working on recording something and also being present with being a dad and stuff.
S: How does that work for you typically? You record at home?
B: We do. Now the band has been just me and my drummer Brian. Part of that is out of the convenience of being able to negotiate the schedules of everybody and rehearsals are easy because we kind of just know. We don't really have to practice much. That makes it more fun for me because it feels more spontaneous. Recording at home, I don't think I could be productive without having that convenience. Thankfully I have a basement and made it into a studio. We have a lot of instruments and drums down there. I just work in Pro Tools. It's pretty simple, all computer-based stuff. The kids go to bed, I can go downstairs at like 10:00 and finish a mix. If I didn't have that, to make a record in a studio – and I've done it before – it requires a lot more time away from home and it gets harder for sure.
S: Would you say a lot of your time to create is after your kids go to bed?
B: Yeah. I used to be, on probably like the second and third record, much more manic with it. I would just not sleep and stay up and work on stuff. The last couple years I've tried to find a balance where I'll schedule stuff. On the weekend I'll get a certain couple hours and just take that time. But I still do a lot at night. I record fast, too. I like that. There are some things that make music take a really long time and one is when it's a band of like four guys who all make decisions together. It takes forever because everybody has to have their input and you have to discuss decisions. When it's one person making a lot of the decisions, it's easier. Brian and I trust each other, so I know what he's going to like. It's pretty much like "Ok, it's done." It's like when you go to the store and you pick out something and you leave. It really changes it. The other thing is digital audio technologies. You can edit things to death and spend so much time.
S: That's true for anything you create. "When is it done?"
B: Exactly. I'm definitely of the mindset – and Jack White talks about it – I think like the song "Little Room" by the White Stripes is about giving yourself limitations. That whole band for him was like "I'm only going to have two people. I'm going to use this guitar that doesn't quite stay in tune. We're going to wear these few colors."
S: There's definitely a freedom in that sometimes.
B: There is, yeah, when giving yourself those limitations. So with recording and in Pro Tools, even though we do a lot of tracks and it can be a big sound at times, I try not to do a lot of takes. I'll usually just do one or two vocal takes. I guess that just comes with time, not being a perfectionist and knowing how to articulate the sound that we want.
S: Sure. I think the record, now that I'm thinking about it when you're saying that, feels like it's got a fairly big sound, yet at the same time it feels intimate. I guess maybe "big" isn't the right word so much as you're feeling a lot. It's a wall of sound but at the same time it feels personal. It's coming from one person and the spontaneity and maybe the less labored-upon practice, it feels immediate, which I like.
B: That's cool. Another good thing about recording at home, I might just finish a draft of lyrics and I'll have my phone and I'll be reading them so there's a little bit of anxiety that goes into the performance of that and it just makes it feel more emotionally charged than something you've sung 100 times.
S: That's true.
B: I've always loved bands demos for that reason. They're more pure. There was an article I read the other day talking about Dave Grohl's movie Sound City.
S: I saw that.
B: I haven't seen the movie but I listened to this podcast with Dave Grohl talking, I really want to see it. I read Tape Op Magazine, which is this recording studio dork thing, it's the creative recording magazine. They were saying their only problem with movie is part of the movie seems to be a critique of Pro Tools and the way records are made now. The thing I took is, sure, you can do 100 takes with Pro Tools, but you can still also just do one take, the way they did on tape. But it's really tempting.
S: It seemed like that's definitely a part of it. It's pro-analog. The way they make the case for it, like the intimacy of the room…
B: And the actual board, the old technology.
S: Yeah, right. I think their biggest issue isn't so much talented people making a lot of tracks as it is giving a lot of people a justification to not practice and not even play maybe, just manipulate. Also the fact that you don't even need to go anywhere and it destroys those spaces. As someone who's interested in city planning and sociology and all that, I do think anything that creates a space where you can have those accidental moments is good. Apparently Sound City was a big reason why Fleetwood Mac got Buckingham and Nicks because they crossed paths there. That's not going to happen.
B: That's true, everybody's isolated now.
S: But at the same time digital, it does open up a lot. Someone can post something and someone else could see it. You never know.
B: I definitely have to see the movie. And Dave Grohl just seems like a great guy. He was talking about McCartney…
S: Oh yeah, that was cool.
B: He was saying how McCartney just started playing something and they were joking like "Oh, it's always that easy. You're Paul McCartney." And Paul's like, "No, it is always that easy." I think it was because Paul knew with the Beatles, they were these crazy individuals, but their recordings were just them playing in a room and he knew the power of those personalities. If you just be yourself, you can create this magical thing.
S: That's true.
B: But that's a good point about the community of a place like that being lost. There's no substitute for that. No matter how much the digital connection is good, there's something to be said for that.
S: They do kind of make the case it's a tool, it can be used good. Trent Reznor's involved with it and they point to him as someone who's still musically talented and he has done stuff in a way that really brings craft and musicianship to the digital.
B: He was always a pioneer pushing technology.
S: Dave Grohl's like "He's cool" (laughs). But I guess they don't like that someone can mimic their sound without being at their level.
B: You used to have to buy all these, like, tape echo pedals that were a 1000 bucks. Now you just have a plug-in that you can pirate off the Internet. There's good and bad. As an artist, you just have to figure out how to navigate your way through it and make the most of it and try to figure out the best way to present what you're doing and the best way to have people discover it.
S: Wouldn't you say that having the digital capabilities made it a lot easier for you to keep being a musician?
B: Yeah. Our first record came out and we had it on our website for free and it got downloaded by like 50,000 people.
S: Wow, that's a lot.
B: Yeah. It was a little before anybody was giving their album away for free, so there was sort of a novelty to that. It was before Radiohead did it with In Rainbows. It was 2006. That was awesome and it was really through music mp3 blogs and stuff. We had all these record labels coming out to see us. But at the same time, it was when they stopped selling records. We got their attention through the internet but because nobody was buying records anymore there was nowhere to really go from there. The money wasn't there for them to invest in anyone. If the record industry was still lucrative maybe we would have gotten a deal or gotten a tour or whatever. But I would never have been able to get it out there at all without the whole digital innovation. There's no sense in wondering if it's hurt or helped. For me, we wouldn't have been able to find an audience at all without it.
And if I hadn't found an audience for Beat Radio, there's no way I'd still be doing it. Even though you do it for the love of it and for yourself, for me, I love the process of making it but I love the process of people connecting with it. If it wasn't those two parts working together…. I've had so many friends how have lost interest, some who are really brilliant, but if they don't find the way to. I enjoy the process of social media. But if somebody is shy about that, they just get lost. Nobody's going to promote your band for you, unless you pay them. And even then, they're not going to promote it with the same passion that you can. It's a blessing, for sure.
With this record, to take it a step further, "Hurricanes" was a song where I wrote it with this guy who is an English teacher in Indiana, he's a poet. He had a poetry blog and he would comment on my old blog when I would post demos. We, exclusively through the internet became friends, or at least were in communication. Then we collaborated on a poem last year and then "Hurricanes, XO" I was like "I'll send him a demo, maybe we can try to write a song together." He helped write the lyrics to that. The girl Maia who sings the harmony on that, via Dropbox she recorded her parts.
S: She's on another track, too, towards the end right?
B: Yeah, "Stars Collided In Our Hearts." I met her a few times. She works for BreakThru Radio, we did a session for them recently. I met her a few years back, but really the main way we're in touch in via Instagram and Facebook and email. I've met her twice, but she sang on two songs, without even…
S: So that contradicts what we were talking about earlier, it's the positive side of it.
B: It does. That's the good side. I don't know if it replaces the idea of sitting in a bar and talking to somebody, but…
S: It still is a good workaround for sure.
B: It is. I've had relationships that have started out that way and then have turned in to like good friendships. I think it can be a good thing. I think people are really quick to say that social media is not really communicating with people. But it can be.
S: I think it's all really in how you use it.
B: Yeah, it just is what is. The world changes and you have to find your way through it, I guess.
S: I found it pretty interesting that you talked about Robyn being an inspiration. For one thing, I'm curious, you said you really analyzed her music in detail. What did you take from that? How did you do that?
B: I think the thing about Robyn, people have this idea of great songwriters being like this sort of Bob Dylan, singer-songwriter, acoustic guitar type. Or maybe it's like Elton John, it doesn't have to be a guitar. But I consider Robyn to be a really great songwriter. I'm definitely drawn to pop music. For me, it's like a grail quest for the perfect three and a half pop song. I feel like a lot of guys who write songs feel that way, it's an ambition. Even if you never reach it, in striving towards it, you create something interesting by trying to do that.
With her, I feel like a song like "Call Your Girlfriend," there's so much narrative – and I came from a creative writing background – but there's so much detail and character development within this catchy dance beat. And it's very concise and sculpted in a way to me that's amazing. And that coupled with the fact that she also writes from an emotional place so there's an emotional connection to it, too. The beats are fun, the sounds are fun. I was a kid in the era of Madonna, Prince, you know, Cyndi Lauper, so those sounds are fun to me. It's probably nostalgia for it really because it reminds me of being five years old. So that part of it I'm drawn to also, and I like the idea of pushing the parameters of what Beat Radio can be.
So Robyn became that. And it's something my wife and I share together, we're both like "Ah, this is amazing!" It was fun to discover a kind of pop music that I can really admire the craft of it in totally not a guilty pleasure way, totally earnest. Sometimes I feel like people think it's a joke. Totally not. Body Talk was just a great album. She's somebody I admire, she's kind of done it her own way.
S: Yeah, she was kind of big maybe ten or so years ago then kind of went away and retooled.
B: Yeah. She was like a Britney Spears. The guy who wrote songs for Britney Spears produced her and she was on a major label. I think she's very much a rebel at heart and she didn't like being told what to do. I think she has a really independent spirit but also has a real love for pop music.
S: It's a pretty good fusion.
B: Sometimes music just hits you. And I've had it happen with a lot of different people. A lot of times albums of ours have been inspired heavily by just one or two artists or albums that just kind of knocked me out over the course of a year or so.
S: What was another example of that?
B: I think the first record, and it's going to sound weird because it doesn't sound anything like her, but I first heard Joanna Newsome in 2004 or whenever she came out. I do love her other albums, but it was that first record, there was just something about her lyricism. I don't know, we were listening to Broken Social Scene and more 90s indie rock when we recorded it, but just that Milk Eyed Mender album inspired. Sometimes things just strike a chord. Like you were saying when you hear a song that strikes a chord in you. For me, I try to take that energy and put it into writing something even if it's not directly.
S: You still channel it in your own way.
B: Yeah, you take that sort of emotion and you try to let it create something.
S: That's cool.
B: That was definitely big for that one. Then, a couple of good friends of mine have this band called The Digs. They're not really together anymore, but that was that around the same time and that was more indie rock. They had been in a band with me and then they started this band of their own and I was like, "Oh my god, they're amazing." It wasn't a competition but I was trying to raise the bar up to what they were doing. I remember hearing in college, something like good artists become great artists by surrounding themselves with other really good artists. I believe in that. It's not competition as much, but support. You kind of push each other.
S: Totally. I think that's true for a lot of things. That concept of being inspired. Not like you want to take them down on your way up, but there is some sort of drive.
B: You want to keep raising the bar together. I think Paul McCartney talks about that with Brian Wilson. Rubber Soul came out and Brian Wilson heard that and he did Pet Sounds. And then Paul McCartney heard Pet Sounds and they made Sgt. Pepper. I don't know if they were trying to best each other but they were trying to exist in that same wavelength. It's pretty cool.
S: I think that's really interesting. You never want it to be like "What's your biggest influence?" and cheapen it, but I love that concept of how you take something that affects you and channel it into something else.
B: I got obsessed with Robyn and I wanted to use the rhythms of dance music and maybe the melodies of dance music, but I don't want to do it with all synthesizers. I want to do it with organic sounds and maybe the sonic palette that I've used in the past. It could be sample-based, but it's more organic with live drums and stuff. I think I started with that. "Dreaming Wide Awake," I feel like I achieved that.
S: Yes! I was going to say that's one that was very Robyn to me.
B: Yeah, that's the most obvious one.
S: The other one I felt like was "Chasing a Phantom," on that chorus part. Your vocal performance feels like a real pop delivery.
B: Yes. It's kind of arpeggiated. I think I always try to write pop songs. When I started out I was obsessed with Bob Dylan and Van Morrison, so it never comes out feeling the same way – plus the sounds are weird – but I feel like maybe I create something interesting trying to stretch towards that. I started out really earnest trying to make, not a dance record, but really dance-oriented. Then I sort of followed the inspiration of the some of the other songs were going. "Stars Collided in Our Hearts" is based on an arpreggiated thing, but it's so melancholy it doesn't feel that way. And then also, Brian as a drummer changes it because he does his own thing, that sort of counterbalances it.
S: I thought on that concept of that possible Exile on Main Street – Exile in Guyville with Robyn, that's something that gets me going. I mean, I want the thing itself to be good and emotionally appealing, but I am a big person on the concept and idea, especially if it's sort of referential. I really get into that.
B: I like that too.
S: At a certain point, you can be like "This is kind of extreme." But part of me was like "Oh, I wonder what that would have been like." It seems like you were starting down the path and then realized, "Ok…"
B: Yeah, I started in that direction and then the songs just kind of happened the way the did. But I'm drawn to that too. Sometimes after writing and playing music for a long time, I find I have to give myself like assignments to be productive. Otherwise, days can pass into weeks. Because the only pressure comes from yourself as far as creating it goes. I feel a sense of responsibility to people who like the band and want to hear more music of course. Giving these funny, weird little assignments like that, if at the end of the day I'm tired and not inspired to write some kind of poem or whatever, I can go downstairs and use the more mathematical part of my brain. "Alright, I can make a beat with this kind of sound or this rhythm." It's from a more cerebral place, but that can inspire something creative. It's like putting yourself in harm's way to have some kind of inspiration.
S: I think being able to jump off of that stuff too is good. Sometimes the danger is getting too involved in the structure and less involved in the content of it.
B: Yeah, you can get lost in that too and end up with something that doesn't feel inspired.
S: But yeah, "Dreaming Wide Awake" was the one where I was like "Oh, this one seems Robyn." But it also takes it in a different way.
B: Yeah, I wanted to use that loopy thing…
S: What is that texture, is that a horn?
B: It's a sample of a mellotron, which is like a primitive synthesizer. The Beatles used it on "Strawberry Fields Forever." So it's a sample of a flute, but it's from a mellotron. It was an analog recording, they would have flute sounds, like little tape cassettes, and those were the samples. I have a sample palette of that instrument being sampled. I figured that Robyn would have a sample like that, but she would use a synth. So I figured if could use it with sounds that remind me of weird old pop music, it would be a different texture but with the same kind of rhythm.
S: The other thing too, and you mentioned this already, but when I was thinking about what Robyn means to me, besides the concise stories, there's often a directness in pop music that you don't always get in other genres.
B: I know.
S: Where it's more, "I'm going be ironic," or "I'm going to be symbolic."
B: Or impressionistic.
S: Yeah. Which is cool, which I like. And sometimes pop music goes too far and it's like "here's the picture" and it's a clunky metaphor.
B: Commercial country, that's all they do, it's so direct.
S: But Robyn I think does do a good job with that.
B: She balances that.
S: And your song feels that way too. It does have that emotional directness to it.
B: It's a pretty direct narrative. And that's definitely my wife's influence too, because she likes that. She likes country music that's just really straightforward. Some really good stuff, but some really simple stuff that might feel cheesy or whatever. I think that's why we connect on Robyn. You know what the songs are about. She tells you but does it an artful way. I love impressionistic lyrics. We were talking about "Mr. Tambourine Man" I feel like that's the epitome of this dreamy, hazy, "What is he really saying?" You don't know what the words are, you can't define what they're saying, but it's beautiful and the feeling comes across.
S: I was going to say you definitely have that going on.
S: I was reading the lyrics on Bandcamp. For some reason I couldn't tell you exactly what it meant in a way, but there were a lot of moments in all the songs where, if somehow you try to parse it, you might be like "Huh?" but just hearing it and feeling the song, you get it. I like that a lot.
B: It's fun to write that way. Jeff Tweedy's really good at that, from Wilco. I heard him talk about it, they were saying his lyrics have gotten more and more impressionistic. And he's like it's just getting older and not having any attention span for anything else (laughs). But yeah, it's more fun to write that way.
S: "Strange Harmonies," talking about staying awake for seven days and the names on paper bags, I don't really know what that means but there's some strong feeling I got from it.
B: That's cool. I don't know what it means either. I suppose "we wrote our names on paper bags," that's kind of a weird one, but it just reminded me of being a kid.
S: Pavement was a band…
B: Pavement was great with that, yeah. You're right.
S: So many of their songs, I love their words but I'm like "What does this really mean?" But somehow he knew how to find the exact words to fit his voice and the music.
B: I always kind of liked Pavement when I was younger cause they were a 90s band but I always felt they were smartasses. I think I was so into Bob Dylan and Van Morrison when I was 18, 19, I didn't realize that a guy like Stephen Malkmus can be disaffected and have that attitude of slacker whatever, but still be earnest. It's really just in the last couple years where they've become one of my favorite bands. It's still emotional, even though the lyrics feel weird. It's still beautiful, he's still speaking an emotional truth even if he's not saying "She broke my heart" or whatever. I'm fascinated by the fact that I didn't get that and now I'm in my 30s and love it. Maybe it's just you're ready to hear a certain sound or whatever it is. I always loved "Cut Your Hair" and that Crooked Rain album even then.
And Netural Milk Hotel…
S: I can see that vocally, too, in a way.
B: I think it's a similar school of, sort of the stream of conscious lyrics but also not really worrying about trying to sing pretty.
S: For me he [Jeff Mangum] is one of the absolute masters of speaking to you. Everything he says, even if you're not always getting it – cause he's got the impressionistic thing down as well – but just the emotion and the delivery.
B: Yeah, it's stunning.
S: Straight to it. I feel you have a similar thing to that, like you're trying to speak to somebody and the words have to come out.
B: There's definitely that. "Hurricanes," when we finished that song, there was an urgency to it. Some songs have more of a laid back feel where you express something in a different way. But that song, when we recorded it, I wanted there to be almost a punk rock song, more upbeat like that. From the music it had that really urgent feel and I think that inspired the lyrics.
S: Another thing I get in a lot of the album is the idea of a relationship where it seems like there's a lot of possibilities of something that's not where it should be and can you get back to what it was? And also, wanting to be on your own versus knowing you need somebody else. Those seemed like common themes and something I think about all the time. How do you know when something is worth saving, for example, or it's just done? So "Never Let You Down" is kind of like that to me.
B: That's funny.
S: That song made me think of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind a little bit. The line "When there's nothing left, there's nothing left to lose." It may be screwed up, but it meant something. Also, I was into the idea of if you always let someone down or you never let someone down. You're going back and forth between that and you're probably never going to do either one.
B: It's funny my kids were like "Dad, that doesn't make any sense" (laughs). For me, it was almost like a joke about marriage. It's always work and it's always a struggle, so it's like you're always trying to be a better a version of yourself – "Never let you down." I guess for me some of the personal struggles in my relationship with my wife is me having this sort of romanticized ideal of love and then sometimes just having to come down to the ground. "Alright, but do the dishes." Like, you live in a world. Everyone likes romance and all that, but also, that sort of pressure of what it should be in your head versus balancing that. So it was sort of coming to terms with that. It's going to be a let down from how you dream about it sometimes.
But at the same time, the struggle with that is beautiful, sort of working your way through that. That's kind of what it means to me and you always take liberties trying to tell a story that would be more universal. "Never Let You Down" for me is kind of funny. I think usually my delivery with songs, the way I sing, it's emotional is just the way it comes out. Even when songs have jokes in them – this one's not really a funny joke – just the way I sing, it comes across more earnest and emotional so it doesn't always translate that way. Which is fine, some people may not get it. Our song "Teenage Anthem for the Drunken Boat" is a better example. "Never Let You Down" is not as funny, but in my head it's an inside joke.
S: I can see that. Sort of the repetition of it. Is it looped or are you harmonizing with yourself?
S: I also like the part where you talk about how you want to be alone sometimes but you realize you can't be too much.
B: And you can get lost in it.
S: That's a struggle too.
B: It is. It's weird, I've been married for a long time, but in a relationship you still can feel lonesome.
S: How long?
B: I've been married for 12 years.
S: Married for 12 years, wow.
B: I'm 35, I got married right out of college. We got a head start. But you know, it gets better. You get better at it, you figure things out, but there's still times where you feel isolated or when you're going through your own personal struggles you still have work through the other stuff. It's complicated.
S: It's not necessarily something you have to be married to get. All relationships…
B: You're right, no, it could be any kind of relationship actually. I think when I first started Beat Radio, I had come from this singer-songwriter background, which was so heart on your sleeve, almost like journal entries. And Beat Radio, I always wanted to try to make it universal. It's still always going to be personal and everything comes from some sort of emotional, personal place, but I wanted to write songs where they could translate to different people's situations. That's what music should do I guess. I wanted to focus on that and it sort of became what Beat Radio was. That was the voice for it.
S: Do you find it's struggle to get out of your personal self when you're writing? Maybe it starts there and then it changes?
B: Sometimes it changes. I have found in the last couple years collaborating with other people helps with that. And also like I was saying before, giving yourself an assignment like the whole Liz Phair Exile On Main Street stuff, if you give yourself that, you can have more fun with it. It is weird, writing as a songwriter, it's still fairly introspective and sometimes you just get sick of yourself. Or writing impressionistic can be a nice escape from that too. You can have fun with words and that gets you out of the sort of sad, dark place or feeling self-absorbed.
S: Yeah, I think on that "Days Like Diamonds" song, you talk about "solving problems with melodies."
B: I've done that, yeah.
S: And I think what's cool about the song too, is it involves that theme of another person helping to make things better. Musically, it's an epic sound. I felt like it was sort of maybe a little bit of a nutshell creative song in a way about the process in a sense.
B: That's awesome. I think so. That's one of the things I've gotten into, I put in the liner notes "Writing songs is like lifelines." Going to the creative pursuit to get you through a hard time or to transcend a limitation of your life, or the idea if you can't control things that are going on in your life you can control what happens in a three and a half minute pop song. So that's cool that comes across with that one. We were talking about the impressionistic versus the Robyn straightforward, direct, that was the other song I wrote with my wife. She pretty much wrote the choruses which are direct so I was like "Alright, I just want to have fun to write weird impressionistic verses." There is a sort of dichotomy between the two. But that whole idea of having artistic pursuit as a redemption is something I keep going back to. It's a romantic idea.
S: Like a throughline.
B: It's a recurring theme.
S: One of the things I found most powerful is in "Hard Times, Go!" that passage talking about how you thought being quiet was being strong but then you learn that it's not. That's something I've definitely been feeling at times in my life. That's kind of my natural tendency. And then you're like, "Oh, maybe part of that is not the way I thought it was." And maybe sometimes it's a cop out. I found that really interesting.
B: I think that being a man in America, that's how we're taught to deal with stuff. Not in everybody's family, everybody's different, but it's a pretty strong cultural urge. Being a man is about keeping your emotions in check. You know, the strong silent type. There's definitely that pressure. There's a place for it, but it can totally wreak havoc in your relationships if you don't open yourself up and let yourself be vulnerable.
S: The other way I was taking it was the idea that in some ways being quiet means just dealing with the other person and not even that you're necessarily strong, just that you're not dealing with yourself. You think that putting someone else's needs first should be a position of strength, and that's where you're quiet because you aren't voicing yours, but then…
B: You become a martyr. Yeah, you avoid dealing with what you have to. And it's not just with your spouse or girlfriend. It could be with your dad.
S: Right, exactly. It's interesting too, the way that you title it with the exclamation point, like "Get outta here." It's more of a willing.
B: Bruce Springsteen wrote a song with that lyric "hard times come, hard times go." But it's a colloquialism, it's part of our language. I guess that was a little bit of a joke with that double meaning. They will go or we're telling them to go. And the exclamation point always feels like a silly thing to do when titling anything. But it was fun. I wanted to try dealing with serious or potentially dark subject matter, but put a fun spin on it.
S: "East Coast" was a song I found to be really beautiful and heartbreaking and powerful. I think it's something we all get caught up in, "If I can only just get that fresh start." Really life is about accepting that you can't. Or that if it is a true fresh start it's going to mean some real big losses and changes.
B: There's that whole thing too, I've watched people in my life come into hard times and maybe move away or run away from problems. But they always end up coming back. You don't escape anything. Your troubles will follow you unless you deal head on with what's causing them, whether it's emotional distress or money, whatever it is.
That song came really quickly. I didn't really think about this writing it, but I had this friend who lives in LA. He's from Connecticut. He posted it on his tumblr and was like "I wonder if this is how everybody feels when they come back [to LA]." He's sort of transplanted out there and he's on his own. There's the line "I came in from the east coast and nobody's laughing at my jokes." And just feeling like you're this stranger. It's cool because I didn't even anticipate that but it kind of fits perfectly with the idea. Being out there and feeling disconnected in a strange place. That was a happy accident but it was cool. I almost like it better now with that idea.
S: That's the beauty of it, right? How there are different bits to pick out and they can be taken in different ways?
B: Yeah. That's the biggest reward of it for me. It's like you said, it's the two prongs, the process and also making that connection with people, even if it's small. It validates, it feels like "Alright, I did it for a reason," instead of just for vanity or money or whatever.
S: And yet at the same time it seems that you can't really worry too much about how it is going to connect. It almost has to just be organic for it to work. You have to put yourself into what you're doing and kind of hope for the best. Cause stuff that's more calculated or pandering…
B: It's a product, it's not the same.
S: It's this weird paradox.
B: Yeah, it's a balance. You can put thought into how you stylize something, but it has to be real. That's one thing that's been cool about the way we've been able to exist as a band. We're self-sufficient, we don't have to invest money into the process of what we do. We've been really lucky, we've been able to put records out on vinyl. But if we had to appease a lable, we would have to worry about moving units. I feel like bands that do that successfully probably just shut that off and do what they do and they're smart about marketing it. That's after the process. You almost have to turn one part of your brain off while you're working and then turn it back on. But for us, there's sort of nothing to lose, it's pretty pure. We figured out a way to make records, we figured out a sound we like and just do whatever the hell we want. We don't have to think about it or worry about it. We just try to get something we're excited by.
S: Are you, or does it depend on the song, sort of music first or words first? Does it go back and forth?
B: It goes back and forth. But in the last few years, especially doing home studio stuff, usually I come up with a beat and write to that. Sometimes it's just a chord progression on guitar. More often than not I'll have sort of dummy lyrics and a melody and I'll try to obsess over the lyrics to get them more of a crafted place. That's the part that takes a really long time, lyrics.
S: I imagine that comes from having the writing background
B: I feel like I wouldn't be able to sing something if I didn't really believe in it. I've been writing songs since like 15 and on one hand it gets easier because you get better at it, you develop vocabulary and you develop a skill set to write lyrics. But on the other hand it gets harder because you've set a bar for yourself you feel you have to live up to every time. Usually the finished product lives up to that, but when you're just starting it can be overwhelming. There is no judging it, nobody can say what that bar is. I just know I won't remember the lyrics or feel right singing them if I don't really believe in it or connect with it. So that takes sometimes forever, but sometimes less. With this album, some of the songs were easier, especially collaborating or trying to write a really direct pop song, it's a different kind of challenge. Sometimes finding the right rhyme is like doing a crossword puzzle. But I definitely, if there's any place I obsess over, it's with a notebook trying to write words out.
S: You briefly mentioned them, but one of my favorite bands is Broken Social Scene. I feel like there's a similar vibe to what you're doing in the sense of it's musically involved, there's layers and textures and it's sort of in an indie rock tradition but it's not always easy to pin down and the lyrics have that real emotional impressionistic element but also a directness. I was getting a lot of what I like about them in a lot of what I liked about this.
B: That's cool. They were a band, especially on our first record, me and the guy who produced it whose name was Bill, that was our biggest touchstone. When You Forgot it in People came out, nothing sounded like that before that. Even though they were using elements of Dinosaur Jr. or whoever, they took the freedom of a home studio environment and really raised the bar.
S: Yeah, it's an amazing album.
B: The sounds are incredible and the production is so abrasive and dirty at times and they just didn't care. There's a lot of freedom to it where they didn't really follow any rules for stuff that had come before. It sounds so cliche to say. Also, they pushed the idea of indie rock. Broken Social Scene, for me, what I heard from that was, they just pushed what would be acceptable with the sort of different textures and sounds. You couldn't categorize it. I was always drawn to that. And the idea of how much can you get away with and still have it feel like it's Beat Radio. I don't know, it keeps you interested sort of searching for that. Pushing your own limitations of what feels cool or like you. But that's cool, I'm glad. I still love them, I really like all their records.
S: Yeah, me too. It's hard to pick a favorite band. But they've been really big for me.
B: The self-titled one was great too, that would have come out when we made our first album. We had been obsessed with the first… I guess You Forgot it in People was their second.
S: Yeah Feel Good Lost is totally different. It's still really good. It's very instrumental.
B: I saw them at the Bowery Ballroom right when You Forgot It In People came out and it was amazing.
S: Oh cool.
B: The sense of community, even though Beat Radio is two guys, bringing in other friends and stuff, I would like to try to get more and more like that. This album, I got to do that a little bit more than in the past. So that's fun. I'm like the constant member. It's changed a lot. We've tried to say it's a collective, but it never really was. This time it really felt like I had different friends that brought a lot to it.
S: Yeah it's a cool approach.
B: Totally got that from them. It's ambitious in a fun way.
On his All-Time Top Five List for TWD (read here)
B: I'm obsessed with Bob Dylan. When I first heard the Rolling Thunder, that bootleg series, I was just blown away. I had the earlier bootleg stuff and I was obsessed with all his records, but I didn't realize he was ever that great live to be honest with you. Maybe because I've only seen him in 2000 and beyond. There was always a certain degree of disappointment for me in the live show. I even love Time Out of Mind and Love and Theft. He just plays so many shows and he's plays for so long.
S: I heard it can be hit or miss.
B: Yeah. But the live '75, that whole Rolling Thunder thing, it became one of my favorite periods for Dylan. The way he does "Tambourine Man"…it's a great record. It's one of my favorite Dylan albums even though it's not a proper record.
S: I feel like I've barely scratched the surface with him. I've listened to a decent amount of it, but there's so much. And I feel…it's weird to say this, but almost like how I felt about coming to New York, I felt about Bob Dylan. Where do you even start? How does it become personal? But then when it finally does…
B: A certain song will hit you.
S: Yeah. Bob Dylan is for everyone. There are so many songs. That sometimes is deterimental in a way to your own enjoyment.
B: You're right, because you've been told what you should think about it.
S: Or you hear stuff out of context. But then when it finally happens – which it does, you can't spend time with him and not have that happen, he's just so talented as a songwriter, as a lyricist, as a performer. Same with New York, I always thought it was such a daunting city, I never thought I would be here. And then all of a sudden I'm here and you kind of get it.
On living in NYC vs. living elsewhere
B: Part of me loves the idea [of moving] cause you can get a house for so cheap. As far as the idea of making music and maybe trying to do more touring, it could be feasible without having the pressure of living here. But at the same time, I don't know if I would get really stir crazy without having all this here.
S: There are things that are nice about smaller places besides the cost of living. I think you can build it and find it here but it just seems harder, especially if you're coming a little bit later in life, to build community. It's just the way people are. No one has time because there's so much to do and so much happening.
B: You're right. People have to create a culture of their stuff to do. On Long Island everyone has the city, no one does anything. There's no good shows or anything. If we lived far away, you'd be forced to create your own little scene. It's not a complaint because we have Brooklyn, which is great. It depends where, but in a small city I feel like people make more personal connections. Everybody knows each other.
S: You can make that here, it just seems a little higher degree of difficulty.
B: It is. In New York you have to work so hard to make ends meet, so there's that pressure too.
Other pop culture Brian likes
Writers & Books
B: We talked about Jack Kerouac. The Beat Generation writers, when I named the band I was trying to reference that. Jack Kerouac is definitely a favorite. Henry Miller has become in the last couple years. I've taken a lot of that sort of great impressionistic, beautiful language. Tropic of Capricorn. I love some more current writers like Junot Diaz. I don't know if I would say I take anything from that other than feeling inspired. But Jack Kerouac is someone I definitely go back to, almost in a similar way to Bob Dylan or Van Morrison. That feels part of the DNA of how being an artist for me is. That's a big part of it for sure. I guess it relates to writing lyrics. I'm thinking of music but also that sensibility of "What would Jack Kerouac do?" And there's just an ethos of how those guys approached being an artist and being a man in America that I'm drawn to and inspired by.
I just read the Junot Diaz short story collection This Is How You Lose Her. That was really good. And I read Joan Didion's Year of Magical Thinking, which is a few years old but I finally got around to it. And that was good. I like reading about music a lot too. That Neutral Milk Hotel book from the 33 1/3 series is great, I definitely recommend it
TV & Film
B: I watch New Girl, this season is really good. And the AV Club's great all around. I love Mad Men. As far as film, I'm really into, probably just my generation but like Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson. The two Andersons. I don't know, all kinds of stuff. We don't watch a ton of TV, but there's some things we get into. We watch Parenthood. We watched the whole series of Friday Night Lights. It's the best. It's the best show ever.