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coverpic flag US - New York - Full Moon 226 - 02/04/15

Chris Brokaw
- on his new album The Periscope Twins

Stepping into the void - an interview with Chris Brokaw

Chris Brokaw certainly has been around the block a few times. Over the course of the last 25 years, the American multi-instrumentalist was a member of Codeine, founded Come together with Thalia Zedek, formed a blues duo with Geoff Farina, played with members of Tortoise and Sonic Youth and currently is a member of the Lemonheads as well - and that is just the tip of the iceberg, really. But as different as all of these bands and projects are: They are all centered around songs. In recent years however, Chris has also developed an interest in more free form styles of music, both as part of Wrekmeister Harmonies and with a number of low-key limited edition releases under his own name. Now, the 12XU label releases The Periscope Twins, a fascinating, ambitious double album that, according to the press release, sees Chris step fully into the void. The beautifully packaged album offers two 45 minute experimental pieces over four sides of vinyl and Luna Kafé caught up with its maker to find out more about it.

Luna Kafé: I guess it's fair to say that most people know you through your song-based music. So when did you first get into abstract music and noise? Maybe you could you name a few highlights - artists or records - that were sort of stepping stones for you in that field?
CB: "Around 2006-2009 I was living in Brooklyn, NY, and started spending a lot of time hanging around the tiny Manhattan record store of the record label HOSPITAL PRODUCTIONS. It was run by one guy, Dominick Fernow, who records under the names Prurient, Vatican Shadow, Exploring Jezebel, etc., etc. I got really into his music, and he turned me on to a lot of stuff, and I was really inspired by his music and his work ethics (i.e. record something, make the packaging really cool, and release it IMMEDIATELY in small batches). I didn't know much about 'the noise scene' (and still don't) but I grew to really love a lot of the music, particular Dominick's as well as the work of people like Wolf Eyes, Vertonen, Kevin Drumm and Rene Hell. -- Also, in 1996 I saw a show in Boston by Merzbow and Masonna that was pretty life-changing, especially Masonna's set, which lasted about 7 minutes. It really offered new ideas about both music and performance that have stuck with me. many, many hours spent at the record stores Twisted Village and Weirdo Records, both in Boston, were very important to exposing me to experimental and abstract musics."

Luna Kafé: What attracts you to that type of music?
CB: "I don't know. It feels good? It feels right? It feels right in all the ways that rock and roll and punk and jazz and country blues felt to me when I got into those."

Luna Kafé: I know a few people who teach music to kids on the side and think that it's a nice balance to their more creative songwriting work, because they kind of use different parts of their brain. Do you think something similar is true for you when you pursue very different styles of music/approaches to music?
CB: "No. I mean it literally all feels the same to me. There was one week a few years ago where I played 3 shows in Belgium with Stephen O'Malley (Sunn O)))), just playing very high energy free jazz metal noise music...and 3 days later I played pre-WWII country blues songs to very old people at 2 public libraries in Washington state, in the middle of the afternoon; and all of it felt right to me. Everything I do feels right to me, it all makes sense to me."

Luna Kafé: You've put out a number of decidedly left-field releases before, but most, if not all of those were on CD-Rs or tapes and only meant for a very small audience. What sets The Periscope Twins apart that the album demanded a wider release?
coverpic CB: "I did originally release it as a cassette (20 copies); but started thinking: "man, this could make an amazing double album. What a cool thing to have." It just struck me, and I sent it to Gerard at 12XU and said "you can tell me if I'm crazy but I want to release this as a double album", and he loved it and said he wanted to do it. And basically I got tired of making what I thought was abstract but very powerful music, and only a handful of people hearing it. I want more people to hear this part of what I do."

Luna Kafé: There's a bit of a concept involved, considering that each of the two records features a different approach, one record being recorded with electronics, one with electric guitar. Was that the idea from day one or did you only realize later that these two pieces would work well together on one album?
CB: "For the original cassette, I gave myself two templates (electronics, and electric guitar) and said to myself: play for 45 minutes, just to see what happens. No overdubs, no 2nd takes...just hit record and play. I had been doing these shows in Portland, Oregon, playing periodically at this movie theater, where I would play guitar (no singing) for 4 hours, from 8pm to midnight. And by the 4th hour my playing started to get weird and interesting. So that informed this album...marathon playing, if you will, to see what happens. Luckily, I was very happy with the results."

Luna Kafé: So I know how "regular" songs usually get written and why, but I'm curious to know how something like the electronic piece comes about. Are you just experimenting with noises and once you find something that sounds interesting you run with it or is it more like that you hear something in everyday life that you then try to transport to musical forum?
CB: "Partly it's just messing around with the right gear, but, in fact I've been trying to make records (maybe for the first time) that are records I want to buy but can't find. There's more work I want to do in this direction (very, very simple low-end music) but this was part of this impulse. I want to hear something, and I'm not hearing it, so I'm making it myself."

Luna Kafé: Where's the difference between doing long atmospheric tracks like the guitar piece and just sitting down and playing as a way of finding new melodies, chord changes and hooks for more song-based numbers?
CB: "Conventional songs, like on "Gambler's Ecstasy" or something, take me a long time to write. Almost all of them. "The Appetites" literally took me 4 years to write. Improvised music, however, I can sit down and do pretty quickly, when the mood hits me, and I usually go with my first takes, my first attempts. When I'm ready, I'm ready and then it just happens. Some of the cassettes I released in 2013 took considerable crafting, of multiple layers, but most were done very quickly and without much tweaking or re-doing."

Luna Kafé: As for the song titles: You obviously felt that they needed to be as long and 'out there' as the music?
CB: "I only wrote one vocal song last year, and it's called The Periscope Twins. All of the song titles are lyrics from that song, which I hope to eventually release either as a 7" or as part of... the next rock record?"

Luna Kafé: Let's talk a bit about the artwork as well. I've mentioned several times in the past that I'm a big fan of the sleeves that feature your photos, but this - and I've only seen the front - is definitely my favorite so far. What a fantastic photo! I think it captures the spirit of the album very, very well. How did it get chosen? Had it just been sitting there waiting for the perfect record that it could grace or did you just sort of stumble upon it going through your files? If it was taken in Mali it must be, what, 5 years old? The look of the kids' face kind of implies that there's a story behind it?
CB: "Well, it's just a great picture. I was very, very happy with it; and I think it actually appeared as part of the collage on the inside of BKO by Dirtmusic. But I wanted the front and back covers and picture sleeves to be full-bleed, 4-color 12x12" photos of mine... And I just thought: Holy fuck, this picture would amazing as the cover. The back cover is another kid, maybe her brother: a little more of a badass, wearing shades and holding a motorbike, but still pretty young. The duality of them plays into the title and the double album concept. I'm so glad you like it! I can't wait to see it, to hold the finished album (they haven't arrived here yet). I think they're going to look incredible and I hope they'll draw people in. I really want people to think of this as a great piece of art to hold and look at and listen to. I want that more than anything."

Luna Kafé: Last question: The album will be out next week - and then?
CB: "And then I, hopefully, tour a ton on this record. I want to perform this stuff live - maybe cutting the pieces in half. Live, I think 20 minutes of each will be plenty. But mix it in with my old stuff, too. I don't know. Maybe I'll play some avant garde festivals where it makes sense to just play this music? That would be great. I also hope to work a lot this year with The Lemonheads and Wrekmeister Harmonies, my two favorite bands to play in right now. The year is still shaping up, getting booked, coming into focus...I want to play shows that just slay people. I want to get better and better at what I do. I don't want my shows to be casual, I really want to work at making something heavy and magical happen. And surprises. I want fucking surprises so much."

Copyright © 2015 Carsten Wohlfeld e-mail address

You may also want to check out our Chris Brokaw articles/reviews: An interview with..., The Codeine story, The Codeine story, The Periscope Twins.

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