Brasstronaut: Traveling Musical Landscapes
Building a Better Album
By Aaron Binder
Photo by Erin Burrell
Originally Published in Lithium Magazine – June 2012
Can we just get over it already?
It’s not like some sort of comet is headed for earth, we can all calm down and resume our normal lives, whatever that means. Put the revolver down, you don’t need to be playing anything with the words Russian or roulette in the name. Let’s place our swords back on the mantle, in fact, toss your paddles up there too if that’s your thing and once you’re done, we’ll all say it together:
There is no Canadian sound. There never has been, there isn’t and there probably never will be.
For a country of almost 35 million people we seem to be ever effacing ourselves into believing that we will never create anything as great as America, deep as Scandinavia, raw as Germany, ridiculous as England, or sexy as Argentina. We’ve taught ourselves to believe that, for some terrible and fucked up reason, we’re just not ever going to have our own identity.
Then it kicks you in the procreative areas, as Canadians we are some of the greatest cultural observers in the world and girl do we ever build on top of that.
Because of our natural tendency for curiosity, it is a pleasure to introduce you to one of the best bands you have probably never heard – Brasstronaut. Born in 2008 on the west coast of Canada, in a city known as Vancouver, this group of musicians came together in some sort of freak accident of a jam session, which as you being a curious and inquisitive person wanting to know, is actually something that happens more often than you’d expect.
After releasing their piano-heavy debut, Old World Lies, it seemed as though the band was destined for a pensive, serious relationship with listeners. In 2010, the release of their full-length, Mt. Chimaera, proved a band can provide a serious relationship while keeping it light, melodic and polygamous with the inclusion of 20 different instruments and some of the best damned songwriting out there.
And while so many would be content calling their sound Canadian, they’d be so wrong. Listen to it and you’re going to hear some things that excite your senses. The deep house is going to excite your loins and ears in ways they haven’t been touched in years. While you’re being drawn into the gaze of slick vocals and lyrics, the guitar and bass are constantly caressing your gentle ears and whispering exactly everything you want to hear at that single moment in time.
Yeah, this music is like sex, but only the great kind. By integrating so many cultures and styles into their latest album, Mean Sun, the band has redefined itself. The best part is that you’re probably going to like it, too. I had the chance to sit down with vocalist/keyboardist Edo Van Breeman during NXNE, in the bowels of the Gladstone Hotel, and the results are nothing short of stupendous.
Aaron: So you guys have been touring a bit lately, yeah?
Aaron: So how’s that been?
Edo: Pretty good. It’s been a really good tour. So far I can’t complain. I mean, we haven’t toured in Canada for about a year and a half and its going good. And we’re touring with Utidur, this Icelandic band.
Aaron: They’re a 12-piece right?
Edo: They’re actually playing as an 8-piece on this tour, but there’s 6 people in our band plus our video productionist so we’ve got like 15 people on the road right now. And it’s been really nice. I mean, the drives of Canadian touring are not very pleasant sometimes, but it’s pretty beautiful driving above Superior and around that part of the world.
Aaron: Certainly, especially night time driving through that region. It’s gorgeous. You’ve got all the stars.
Edo: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Aaron: Actually, that’s one thing I was actually going to ask you about because I know you’re integrating a little more visual into the live show these days and you yourself have been getting into a little more of the film recently.
Aaron: How does it all come about? Did you just go to the band one day and say, ‘Hey, why don’t we have a show going on in the background?’
Edo: We/I kind of knew we wanted to do something more than just like appear on stage playing our instruments, because I think the music comes from visual cues a lot of the time – (they) were the inspiration for the songs, for me at least. And I thought that when I go to a show I like to watch, as long as the video feed isn’t taking away from the music and it’s kind of like adding to it. So a friend, Micheal Markowsky, is the guy doing all the visuals. We met him at a band centre and he’s a really great artist and he’s kind of known for painting in moving vehicles or from airplanes, like painting moving landscapes. So I thought it would make sense for him to work with us. So we did a few like trial shows last year, which were pretty like way over the top – too many things that might not have necessarily worked very well, but then we stripped it down and now it’s just more kind of abstract like kaleidoscope type thing. Every night it’s different because he’s uploading stuff in the van, or like cutting bits and pieces out of movies. It’s beautiful. I love it now.
Aaron: So it’s actually ongoing?
Edo: Yeah, it’s being developed all the time and we’re probably going to take him to Europe with us as well, in the fall.
Aaron: That’s really cool. Speaking about landscapes, you yourself are quite a traveler; I mean you’ve been around the world throughout your whole life. A few of your other band members have the same thing.
Aaron: Personally, I notice a lot of that portrayed in your music. What are some of the favourite landscapes you see when you’re going out there into the world?
Edo: I think recently, probably Eastern Europe, like the back roads of Poland and Hungary and Czech, and this album was written in between tours where we were – and we were in Croatia. But also, for me, open Canadian landscapes like mountains, and I do a lot of hiking and try to camp when I can in BC. I mean, I actually grew up in Miami so water is a big part of it and maybe there’s just some sort of tropical bug left over in me that comes out sometimes.
Aaron: I know when you were talking about the Mean Sun album, initially in some interviews from earlier this year you were mentioning Berlin and you were mentioning Scandinavian deep, deep techno stuff, and I know a lot of people that were a little put off by that.
Aaron: Well, you know, you guys had a really cool sound with Mount Chimera.
Edo: Uh huh. Had a cool sound? (Laughs)
Aaron: And now you don’t so (Both laughing)
But it was a distinctly different sound that seems to have evolved now and integrated a completely different style of music. You could tell there were pangs of it in Mount Chimera, but it really seems that Mean Sun has developed Brasstronaut’s craft. You brought in some of the other members as songwriters. How do you feel over all that the experience was for Mean Sun as compared to Mount Chimera?
Edo: Well, I think Mean Sun is reflective of a band writing music that’s being jammed as they’re developed, whereas Mount Chimera was much more of a contemplative process of putting things together like patchwork, and I think it wasn’t as much fun to make that album as this one. This one we just had these ideas sitting around and it was written pretty quickly and recorded quickly, as well. I think that these songs actually translate really well live, like they can be bigger where they need to be. They’re really fun to play. I think like for us right now it’s evolving into something and that’s what’s exciting, to see like where a project will go if you just let it do that. And I have faith in the songwriting like abilities of this band. Maybe this album is just more noisy and darker and rhythmic in a lot of ways but I like it. I know that while that might affect people in the Canadian Indie Music scene adversely, we don’t feel like we want to make Indie Rock Pop. I fucking hate it sometimes. I just get really disgusted with this whole pandering to this club of making Indie Rock music for a particular audience and I don’t think that’s art. I don’t want to be like pretentious about it, but I feel like the people in my band are really technically skilled and if you’re not challenging yourself and trying to push your project to some other place then you become like a commercial jukebox or something like that.
Aaron: That’s actually a really interesting statement because you know a lot of bands do tend to pigeonhole themselves into a sound and they try to appeal to their core listeners, but really a successful band does expand outward from that and they experiment with new things as you guys are doing here, and that really is what creates a successful group that’s happy about their product in the end. So, you guys basically started out with a just a jam session with you and one other guy?
Edo: Yeah. We were like a psychedelic jam session basically.
Aaron: And from there you’ve gone from Old World Lies to Mount Chimera to this Mean Sun album which is just a banger. It’s an absolute monster because it isn’t the melody of Mount Chimera. It’s got a lot of deeper elements to it. When you take a look at a song like “Falklands”, it starts out really nicely and then it just builds and builds and builds and I think that was a really impressive track because it was near the end and normally you’d experience that near the beginning. So as you guys were placing the songs through out the album, what kind of flow were you trying to create?
Edo: I was really aware of putting a hooky song. It’s the first time I really had to think very hard about track listing because there was so many ways you could present the album. I don’t necessarily want it to build in like a big arc. I want people to be affected by a variety of emotions when they hear the album. It’s why we don’t make folk, like a one colour folk album. With Old World Lies it was a lot more just piano and that was great. I’m glad that we did that, but that’s not the music. I’d like to have one of those songs juxtaposed with a song like Revelstoke Dam where you’ve just got crazy loops of noise and stuff, and I think my favourite bands can do this – can bring you through different colours and emotions when you’re listening to the record and to make them subtle enough that you want to listen to it again and again, not just kill with hooks.
Aaron: Kasia (the PR agent) and I were actually just talking about Caribou for a very brief period of time – a really great Canadian, a bit of a similar vein actually. So you take a look at Caribou and you take a look at you guys and you can take a look at any other number of bands from Canada and it seems as though we’re very obsessed with promoting the national identity for our music. We’re very obsessed with that in our country. How do you guys (do it), and you know I actually wrote about this in my review, of how you guys pieced together a different mosaic from around the world.
Edo: Okay, yeah, yeah.
Aaron: How do you feel that affected some of your long term fans then?
Edo: You mean like not really…….
Aaron: Yeah, like going bigger than just what we’re doing in our country.
Edo: Well, I just like music that comes out of Canada because it’s really unpredictable. You have like guys like The Weeknd coming out of Toronto and then The Constantines or you know Caribou, like it’s just so there is no such thing as a Canadian. I don’t think there’s such thing as a Canadian sound. It’s just like saying there’s an American sound or something. When really big bands start coming out of Canada it sort of like surprises the world, but that’s been happening forever, like with Neil Young or whatever. I’m really lucky that people in other parts of the world have been able to like get hold of our music and we go to where it resonates. But we haven’t released this record in Europe yet. It’s getting a full release in every country and that will be a very interesting thing to follow through with because there’s a lot of branding that happens in the North American music scene. I think there’s like a deeper level of niches for audiences in Europe.
Aaron: So you mentioned the difference between North Americana and European bands, briefly. I don’t know if you’ve heard of White Cowbell Oklahoma, they’re this totally wild band from Toronto.
Edo: No, I haven’t.
Aaron: They have chainsaws, and burlesque dancers on stage. They’re just nuts.
Edo: Wow. Yeah.
Aaron: They’ll play in Toronto for about 300 people; then go to Europe and play for 3000 people in packed theatres. There’s this big difference it seems because when you go to Europe, people want to go out and see music. So how do you feel your music is received there? I mean, you’re going full release with Mean Sun. That’s kind of a big deal.
Edo: Right. Yeah.
Aaron: So obviously people are a little more receptive, but do you find gaining traction over there is a little more difficult?
Edo: No, it’s been so much easier. We’ve played sold out tours in Germany and Poland and Slovakia, and was before we even had a release. It’s not that the people here don’t understand what we’re doing, but when you play in Thunderbay and there’s people out to see music and they’re like, ‘What is this a rock show?’ I think we cleared the room in Sault Ste. Maire. It was amazing because we’re watching people leave.
Aaron: So what do you like most about the new album?
Edo: I really enjoy the challenge it presents to play the songs live. I’ve had to practice my vocals a lot more. I feel like we’ve had to understand our gear better. We’ve purchased new things to enable us to play some of these flares. I can listen to it over again – I can’t listen to Mount Chimera anymore. And I feel really happy with the way it sounds. And a lot of it is working with Colin Stewart at the Hive. Working with him in a studio where I didn’t have to do any of the engineering was really nice. It was like just basically playing around with different plugins and pro tools.
Aaron: Well, you had a little more engineering input on Mount Chimera, right?
Edo: I had just as much probably as on this album, but at least this album I understand like mixing a lot better. I’ve learned so much about how to go from a start point with a microphone and an instrument to a position within a song for texture. It’s really, really rewarding. With Colin it’s great because he has a lot of great analog hardware, a nice old school mixing board and all of the stuff just kind of gels very well when you go to that mixing stage.
Aaron: That’s actually one of the interesting things I noticed about the production side of things on the album is that there’s a lot of reverb on some stuff but there’s also a lot of clarity on other things. When it comes to the drums, it’s often quite clear and crisp and I haven’t been able to get that Falklands beat out of my head. It’s just so infectious. Where do you draw the line there?
Edo: I think it’s a matter of intuition really and nurturing it. We spent almost two days per song mixing. I like the idea of going into a recording process in a very loose way and then just like tightening up.
Aaron: Do you find that works very well when you use a shorter time period that you guys were in the studio for?
Edo: Yeah. It was interesting. I don’t think we’ll make another record like this again. I’m already thinking of a much more premeditative way of writing the next record so we’re songwriting now; trading ideas. We’re working more like how we worked with Mount Chimera.
Aaron: So just one last question for you – what do you like most about Brasstronaut as a whole? It seems like you’ve invited a lot of people into the writing circle more recently so you’ve got a lot more creative input. What do you like from that aspect?
Edo: I like that we’re understanding more and more. I’m feeling’s like there’s less of a pressure to make music but take some sort of expectation in the Indie world and just like go and find our own path and be comfortable with that and be with five of my best friends. A lot of the internal social conflicts; when we have to solve a problem we work really quickly and well together.
Aaron: Well, thanks a lot again.
Edo: Yeah. Thank you.