Franklin Bruno kindly answers questions about his music and the like
by dave heaton
Franklin Bruno is one prolific songwriter, from his numerous solo releases (on Shrimper, Simple Machines and other labels) to his power-pop trio Nothing Painted Blue's many great releases. Bruno's solo albums don't "rock" like the Nothing Painted Blue albums, but the songs are just as worthwhile. His lyrics always have me transfixed, and at times racking my brain to understand what he might mean by them (That's a compliment, if you couldn't tell. Personally I think confusion is a great state for a music listener to be in, when it's the right kind of confusion, the kind that gets you thinking).
Franklin Bruno's latest CD, Kiss Without Makeup, is another showcase for his songs, and it's an excellent one. Overall I find the songs here to be his most moving yet. It's partly because of the music, which is gentle and pretty, mostly with acoustic guitar and piano, but it's also because I think the songs include really articulate depictions of and insights into how people act towards each other, and why.
Recently I had the opportunity to ask Franklin Bruno some questions over e-mail, about his new album and other topics. Everything I asked was answered in a complete, detailed, super-friendly manner, and that made me happy.
Here are my questions (in red), and Franklin Bruno's answers (not in red):
You have a fairly new CD out, Kiss Without Makeup (which, by the way, I think is beautiful). First off, I was wondering if you could tell me some details about when the songs were written/recorded, and under what circumstances. Your A Bedroom Community liner notes indicated that those songs were written over 10 years' time; is this new CD the same way or are the songs all fairly new?
Two ("Clean Needle" and "Narrow Shoulders") were recorded about 3 years ago because a drummer friend happened to be in town. (His name is Lyle Hysen--he was in a good band called Das Damen in the 80s, and works at Matador now.) Most of the rest was recorded at a friend's 16-track in Hollywood--the basic tracks only took a couple of days, but I was very slow getting to the overdubs and vocals. The instrumental/ experimental bits that start and end the record are made up of source material that I recorded (a song called "La Radia" which had previously come out on a German 7"), which I gave my friend Ted Apel, who works at a computer music studio at UC San Diego, free rein to deconstruct. (I could go into a pretentious spiel here about what the point of this was, but listeners should draw their own conclusions.) And the bonus track was recorded in Connecticut about 2 years ago; it previously came out on a Christmas compilation on Tarquin Records, but I liked the recording a lot and thought it deserved another shot.
Most of the songs are now 2-3 years old, b/c of the slow recording process. Exceptions: "Clean Needle," which I wrote in about 1987; an early 4-track version appeared on one of the early Shrimper cassettes. My friend Dorian Dawson kept demanding to hear it live, which eventually led to this version."Just Because It's Dying" was written after I had done most of the recording, but seemed to fit. (Sonically, this song sounds closer to what I was aiming for than some of the rest of the record--I think that we were using a different bass.) I should also mention that the songs make up about 1/2 of what I've been playing live for the past 2-3 years. I had enough songs for 2 records, but had some specific ideas about how I wanted to record the ones that aren't on this record. So this album is probably a little less coherent, thematically and sonically, than the next one will be. (I hope.)
Kiss Without Makeup is on Absolutely Kosher Records, a label I'm not familiar with. What can you tell me about that label and how you hooked up with them? Is it a new label (I noticed your CD is their fifth release, so I'm assuming so)?
Absolutely Kosher is run by a smart, kind, enthusiastic guy named Cory Brown out of San Francisco. He was starting the label anyway, but after he did, he got a job doing distribution at Nu Gruv Alliance, which mostly handles rap, so now he does the label through that company. I guess we hooked up b/c I knew him previously when he was working somewhere else, and he was a fan of my previous records. Not a very colorful story, I'm afraid. The label's other releases so far have all been excellent: Virginia Dare, P.E.E., Optigonally Yours, and Thingy (who I just saw last night--terrific and loud). He's also going to put out the next Mountain Goats record, partly as a result of a show that he put on for which myself and John Darnielle (aka The Mountain Goats) reactivated our long-defunct duo The Extra Glenns.
On the new CD, you play guitar, keyboards, and xylophone. What was the first instrument you ever learned to play (and do you still like to play it)? This might be a silly question, but as far as recording your songs go, how do you make decisions about playing guitar versus keyboards on a particular song or, in general, about which instruments to use on a song? Is it generally what you had in mind when you wrote the song, or does that change?
I took piano lessons as a kid, but didn't really enjoy playing until high school, when I learned how to play from sketchy chord charts in the jazz band. I took up guitar in high school as well, because most of the music I was listening to then was by guitar bands, and it's hard to play gigs (even at high school parties) if all you play is piano. I'm self-taught on guitar, but I found it much easier to write songs with, probably b/c of my limited skill. More recently, I write songs on either, depending on what kind of song it is. It's easier to write a country song on guitar, and a Tin Pan Alley/standard-style song on piano. Once in a great while the main instrument will change from what I wrote it on--the electric piano is dominant on "Charlottesville," but the song began on guitar.
On a similar note, on Kiss Without Makeup, there are some songs that seem try on different musical styles, like country on "Thin, Weak Smile," light bossa nova on "Just Because It's Dying" or sort-of jazz on "Clean Needle." Were these conscious attempts to try out different styles or did they evolve with the songs as they were written?
"Thin, Weak Smile" is self-consciously a country song. (There are a couple of others in the stockpile, but I didn't want to bias the record too heavily that way.) "Clean Needle," as I said, was written a long time ago--in the original, it's got a typical guy-with-a-4-track sound. The fact that I started playing shows with a double bass player, and that the chord progression lent itself to a certain 'feel' and slower rhythm, turned the song toward pseudo-jazz. (I have too much respect for real jazz musicians to pretend that it's jazz.) "Just B/C It's Dying" isn't especially bossa nova-ish in its chord changes, and the lyrical content isn't typical for the style, but I will admit that I've been listening to some Joao Gilberto and Tom Jobim. In this case, it was just a guitar rhythm that fit well against the melody.
All that said, yes, I do often think in terms of genres now, because the form of the song (which is a big aspect of genre) both influences the content and colors how people interpret it. You can work with it, or against it. As I've become more interested in the history of pop songwriting, I've also wanted to try my hand at specific types of songs. This comes out a lot more on solo material than with the band--certain kinds of song (angular, with sudden shifts in rhythm or dynamics) that suits itself to a rock trio, while others don't.
Generalizing a bit about your music (which is seldom fair to do, I know...), I tend to think of your songs as looking closely at human behavior, at trying to understand how people act/talk/relate to each other and why. Do you think this is fair? Are there lyrical themes that you find yourself coming back to a lot when you write new songs?
I misunderstood your question at first--I thought you meant, 'Is it fair to look closely at human relationships?' (Yes.) But I assume you mean, 'Is this a fair assessment of what you're doing?' Yeah, I guess so. I've sometimes thought that a lot of pop music (even, or especially, 'indie pop') is escapist, where as mine is, depending on how you think about it, realistic or analytical. I'm not that interested in giving an idealized depiction of love, or of a nihilistic, hopeless one. So that's probably why I've written a number of songs about love triangles (from a variety of perspectives), and about self-deception. One thing that I can't entirely explain to myself is the fact that a lot of my early songs had various kinds of currency/money/exchange imagery ("Masonic Eye," "Ghost Postage," "Rightful Heir"), but that's fallen away lately. I do think my songwriting used to be a little more theory-driven, and maybe more politically aware; I might return to those things, but lately, yes, there's an emphasis on personal themes. (Not that the two are always easily distinguished, and not that 'personal' means 'about me.')
When you write songs, what leads you to decide to use a song on your solo releases versus bringing them to Nothing Painted Blue? (I guess a related question is what is the band songwriting process like with Nothing Painted Blue and how is writing your solo material similar or different?)
I partially answered this in the fourth question, above. I used to say that songs that were definitely about me became solo songs because it didn't seem fair to make Kyle and Peter the vehicle for those sentiments, but I don't think that works anymore. I guess that if I want it to be rockin', or if the point is more in the riff than the lyric, it will be a Nothing Painted Blue song. Also, 0PB has specific instrumental limitations--I'm not going to play a song at the piano at an 0PB show--whereas solo material, at least in theory, could be recorded by any kind of ensemble I choose. So that has something to do with it. But in both cases, the song is just about complete (at least the guitar and vocal part) before anyone else learns it. To be honest, I would like to try to write collectively in the future, in the rock-band context--I never really intended to be a 'songwriter,' but I wanted to start a band, and a band needs material. I do like a lot of things like The Fall, The Blue Aeroplanes, The Minutemen, Yo La Tengo--all of these are very different, but they share a working method other than that of the 'lone songwriter.'
"Clean Needle" and "Nickname Stuck" on the new CD both reference drug addiction... sometimes when I listen to them it seems like they are literal references, songs about drug addicts, while other times, especially with "Clean Needle," it seems that you're using drug addiction as a metaphor for other things regarding relationships between people. I like the fact that I don't know which it is, or what exactly the songs are about, but still I'm wondering if you'd mind telling me something about those songs, about the motivations and intentions behind them.
Well, if you like that fact, I may ruin it: "Clean Needle" is totally imaginary/metaphorical --as I said, I wrote it when I was 19, before I knew anyone who did anything stronger than pot. (This was also a time early in the AIDS epidemic, and the image seemed very timely and powerful.) "Nickname Stuck" is about as true-to-life as my songs get--it directly expresses my anger at a junkie friend. That doesn't mean it's not metaphorical as well. (I was going to spell out how here, but I'll resist the urge to interpret the songs for others.)
Here's a similar question. Two of my favorite songs on Kiss Without Makeup are "Just Because It's Dying" and "Nurse." Both deal with death, sickness, decay, etc. Is this subject, mortality, something you're concerned about, something you think about often? What can you tell me about what influenced you to write "Just Because It's Dying"? It sounds like it's written as a response to someone or something in particular.
That's an interesting observation--I actually hadn't thought of them as linked in that way. "Nurse" was semi-tossed off; if it's about anything, it's about my attempts to quit smoking. (Also, it seems like it maybe should have been a band song--I'm not sure if the choppy rhythm works w/o drums, though I like Daniel's playing on it.) "Dying" could be read a number of ways, but in all honesty, the line first came to me in the context of defending (to myself) why I kept wanting to write -songs- in the traditional sense at a time when the independent music scene was beginning to move towards other kinds of experimentation. (I'm thinking of everything from post-rock to electronica.) I grappled for a while with whether I was doing something that was 'dead' (the same way critics used to say 'the novel is dead'), but came to the conclusion that, I just have to pursue music in the way that it comes to me, whether it seems 'relevant' or not. I enjoy a lot of music that's organized around other principles (especially free jazz), but that's not where my talents lie--though I reserve the right to try out other things. I know that a sociologist or musicologist would say that what I write is determined by my class, historical location, and all that, but it -feels- like something I intend to do, and I can't shake that so easily, so that's what I do. But I digress: That was the impetus for the song, but I don't think I would have finished it if I hadn't been able to apply it to other contexts--the death of romance as well as actual physical mortality. I should add that I was lucky to know all 4 of my grandparents well into my adulthood; two of them passed away in the last couple of years (my mother's father had passed somewhat earlier), and that was on my mind as well. More broadly, it's probably not death as such that interests me as much as finality or closure--I'm thinking of "Firedrill" and "The Death of Vaudeville" on the last record, as well as an unrecorded 0PB song called "The Last Day," which is quite literally apocalyptic.
At times over the years I've read some articles you've written as a music critic, in Puncture and CMJ. Do you still write for those publications, or others? Have you been writing about music for a long time? How do you decide what to write about?
Yes, I still write regularly for CMJ and occasionally for Puncture. I've also written for The Village Voice (not for some time), The Boston Phoenix (just did a long Belle & Sebastian feature), and Time Out New York (mostly short reviews). Interested readers can find a long article I did on 'catchiness' in music at www.feedmag.com (you'll have to search my name). In the last year, writing has become a third career in addition to teaching/academia and music, and probably takes up more time, currently, than the latter. I sort of fell into it because of my musical connections, but now I'm probably as much a critic as a musician. I enjoy writing, but I must admit that the fact that it's a -lot- easier to make money at it (at least for me) has something to do with this. Very few of my recordings or tours have turned a profit; at this point, I'm using writing to subsidize future recording projects. That doesn't mean it isn't intrinsically rewarding--though it's hard to miss the irony in the fact that I can make more money off of someone else's album than my own! I did write about music for my high school and college papers, but never thought of doing it for pay until fairly recently. I'll pretty much review anything I'm assigned, b/c there's something worth saying about just about any music, but if I have my choice, I'll write about artists that I think are undeservedly obscure, or whose music actually warrants some real thought or explanation--especially over a long career.
What are your upcoming plans, music wise, as far as touring or recording, either solo or with Nothing Painted Blue? What are you up to these days?
Nothing Painted Blue is no longer a touring band. We play locally (L.A. and Claremont), and are planning to record another album this November--we hope to do this with Don Depew (Cobra Verde) in Cleveland, but it's not nailed down. Solo, I'm going to do a short West Coast tour in September, and an East Coast tour in October, ending at the Absolutely Kosher showcase at CMJ--Oct. 19 at Brownie's, I think. Some of these shows will be with The Mountain Goats/The Extra Glenns. I'm also going to start recording the -other- half of the last batch of solo material this July in Arizona with John and Joey from Calexico--again, the schedule isn't completely worked out. Also, the 'musical' (or at least, a bunch of songs telling a story) I wrote with Jenny Toomey is close to completion--I recorded my piano and vocal parts this January, and Jenny's been busily organizing the instrumental overdubs (there are some terrific horn and string parts) and guest vocalists (3 members of Ida, and her father!) out in D.C.. Finally, John Darnielle and I are trying to figure out when and how to finally make an Extra Glenns record. Honestly, I had taken a pretty long break from music before this record, but I'm more enthusiastic now than I was a while ago. I'm scheduled to take my pre-dissertation oral exam in 2-3 weeks, and I expect to feel more relaxed and creative afterwards than I have in a while. Until I start trying to write the damn thesis, that is.
Just about every time I read a review of a Franklin Bruno or Nothing Painted Blue album, the writer inevitably writes about you as making brainy music for the academic-minded, or something to that effect. For example, The Trouser Press Guide to '90s Rock refers to Nothing Painted Blue as "logorrheic eggheads." How do you feel about that sort of labeling?
I hate it. The only thing I hate more is the word 'quirky.' 1) Even if it's true, it's almost invariably an excuse for not actually figuring out what the lyrics are about. That's just sloppy, irresponsible writing. (I try not to do that when I review records!) 2) I honestly think our music is far less intellectualized than say, Tortoise or Stereolab or something. A lot of it is directly emotional in a way that is neither sophisticated nor difficult to get. In fact, if anything, it's extremely un-postmodern--it 'means it.' 3) Did I start making records to be called the same kind of names bullies called me in high school, except this time by people (rock critics) who are probably as geeky as me? Fuck no. I absolutely reject the image of 'the nerd' that musicians from Jad Fair to Jim O'Rourke have played on or played with--I am absolutely nothing but a person with a normal range of interests and emotions, with a modicum of ability to articulate them in highly compressed forms. We may have brought -some- of this upon ourselves, just by using words and rhymes that don't typically appear in rock songs. But is this really as deeply as critics can respond to something?
One last question: what albums have you been enjoying so far this year?
Let's see...There are obvious ones: Yo La Tengo's new one (I'm too lazy to get up and copy the title), Sleater-Kinney's All Hands On The Bad One, Belle & Sebastian's Fold Your Hands... (which is better than ...Arab Strap and ends w/ 3 perfect Stuart Murdoch songs). Lesser-known rock: Destroyer Thief and Mark Szabo Chocolate Covered Bad Things, which I guess both could be lumped together as quasi-Marxist pop from Vancouver, though they sound pretty different, and a band from Minneapolis called Lifter Puller, who write great wigger raps and aren't as jokey as Paul Barman. And then there's stuff that's not indie-rock at all: Elias Regina and Jobim's version of "Waters Of March" (I don't know the Portuguese title), Steve Lacy and Roswell Rudd's School Days and Monk's Dream (and a live set last March), Blossom Dearie (cabaretish jazz singer/pianist who's been around since the 50's), a version of Schwartz & Dietz's "Rhode Island Is Famous For You" sung by Alice Faye (30's musical star who's a better singer than a lot of better-known ones), and a lot of Kurt Weill for an article I was writing. And things that I come back to every so often: Wire Chairs Missing, Minutemen Double Nickles On The Dime, the Magazine catalog.... You didn't ask, but I also listen to a lot of radio drama on a local station here, esp. Dragnet, and the book I've enjoyed most in recent memory is Mary McCarthy's novel The Group.