Chris Brokaw knows how to make an entrance.
It’s the week after Christmas, and I am at local watering hole The Plough and Stars, shoulder to shoulder with a hoarde of Brokaw fans waiting for the one time Boston legend to take the stage. In this town we hate to let go of any rocker who has ever lived on our streets. So even though Brokaw came to us from Ohio and left us for New York, and now Seattle, nobody here holds a grudge. You were once from Boston, you’re always from Boston. So the room is dotted with not only fans of Brokaw’s career with Codeine, Come, and his solo work, but also with ex-bandmates, ex-roommates, old friends and family.
Despite this hip, “private party” feeling, the crowd is getting restless. We’ve waited through an unremarkable opener, and now Brokaw’s ex-bandmate from Come, Thalia Zedek, is taking her gorgeously soulful rasp out for a spin, but it’s a school night in our college town and the crowd is getting sleepy. So by the time the unassuming, argyle-sweatered Brokaw is tuning up I hear a guy next to me promise his girlfriend “We’ll just stay for the first few songs, then we can go home.” The joke here though, is from the moment Brokaw hits his opening chord, it’s plainly obvious nobody is going home. With that one motion the guitarist freezes time, and the venue is brought to complete silence as the crowd stand rooted, basking in the sonic glory Brokaw’s little 3 piece bash out with effortless precision. Whenever I have seen Brokaw this is always how it goes: an inconspicuous fellow makes a low key stride to the stage, there’s a brief tune-up, and time and time again he holds an entire venue transfixed for the next hour or so, as a spellbinding hurricane of sound is unleashed.
Coming by for his interview at Rocker’s HQ, Brokaw makes an entirely different entrance, arriving half frozen due to one of the only severe moments of an otherwise balmy New England winter. Clothed in a thin fall jacket he’s flummoxed that he somehow hasn’t packed correctly for the weather – the problems of living out of a suitcase. But he has brought his own can of Mountain Dew, and a cool new record to show us. So after a brief thawing out, we begin.
Rocker: I was talking to your sister at your show the other night, and she said she had a photo of you in ninth grade playing in a band in a high school auditorium. Is that where the Chris Brokaw story starts, or is it earlier than that?
Chris Brokaw: It starts a little earlier than that, I started playing guitar and then drums when I was in junior high, but one of the earliest shows I remember playing was with another guitar player and a drummer. We didn’t sing at all, we just played these instrumentals that we had written, and we played in the junior high cafeteria on the last day of school, and there was a total riot! Everyone went insane and completely trashed the cafeteria. I mean soda machines, trays,… it was really fun. . It was maybe the best show I’ve ever played! Everything’s been kind of anticlimactic after that. So that’s where it all started, I guess.
Rocker: Did you always think you’d go into music professionally?
Chris Brokaw: For a long time, I thought I was going to be a fiction writer, or maybe a journalist because I was an English major. I guess I didn’t know if it would be possible to make a living from music, and I think for a long time, it almost seemed sort of unrealistic to me. I didn’t entertain that as an option until I’d been playing semi-professionally for a while.
Rocker: When did you have the realization it could work?
Chris Brokaw: I don’t know if I’ve even had that realization yet! I have been making a living playing music for about 10 years now. I’d been doing it for a really long time before I reached a point when I thought I could actually do it, or that I was doing enough things that I could support myself. There wasn’t a backup plan, but it was just an imperative from since I was 12, I guess.
Rocker: You seem to tour nearly incessantly. How many days in a year are you usually on the road?
Chris Brokaw: It averages around 100 shows a year, I would say, and that could be anywhere from 90 to 130 or something. I think the most was like 160 or something, which was a lot.
Rocker: Do you love it, or does it make you crazy?
Chris Brokaw: (Puts head in hands then holds up two fingers indicating “both”) I really like it. I like going out and actually physically playing. I think making something happen in a room,… there’s nothing like it. I like traveling, and at this point, I have a lot of friends all over the place, so it’s really nice to just go see people.
I love making records, and all the record stores are closing all over the world, so I’m starting to feel like if I don’t go out and sell these things to people, they’re just not going to know that they even exist. So that’s part of it, too. I’ve been really prolific, particularly in the last several years, I’ve been making a lot of stuff, and I feel like I have to get it out there and let people know it exists.
Rocker: It’s sad to hear that retail disappearing an international problem.
Chris Brokaw: Totally.
Part of it is that people buy things online now rather than actually going out to a store. I think there’s less of an active culture in terms of just record store culture, meaning you used go to the record store and you’d hang around and you say, “What’s this?” I’ve discovered tons of stuff that way, all my life. When I was 13, there was a record store where I was listening to KISS and Ted Nugent, and they handed me the Buzzcocks’ first seven-inch, and they handed me Raw Power by the Stooges and that stuff, and it totally changed my life.
But now record stores are closing and labels are going out of business. Everyone wants vinyl now instead of CDs, so there’s a glut of vinyl because of that. It’s a glut in the same way that it used to be that every band that you were friends with would make 500 CDs. Now they’ll make 200 LPs. That’s what everyone is doing.
Rocker: That’s including you! I noticed your records are often in limited batches. Is the idea to make them collector’s items?
Chris Brokaw: Some of it is just to get people excited about it, and some of it is just that it’s hard to sell much of anything now. When people talk about vinyl becoming a huge thing, saying, “What was the biggest selling vinyl record in America last year,” I remember a year or two ago, the biggest one was Radiohead, which was like 13,000 records, which is not that much.
Rocker: When people buy your music through your site, it seems they’re just dealing directly with you. you’re putting it in the mail and everything.
Chris Brokaw: Correct.
A few years ago, I started my own label, called Capitan Records, and I started putting out some things just because I was putting out so much stuff at one point that it was just exhausting to bring the fourth thing that I wanted to put out that year to another label and be like, “Will you put out my weird acoustic guitar record that has 20 minutes of feedback on it?” So I just decided to put out some stuff myself, which was fun to do.
I’d been living in New York for a couple of years and I met a couple of really key people who I observed recording something and then putting it out the following week, and I thought that was really cool. So I started finding out how you could do that. I was living a couple of miles from this place called Brooklyn Phono that would do runs of like 100 copies of a record or something. So I have put out some stuff on my own but also I am still working with labels. It’s nice that there are still labels that want to do things.
Rocker: But you’re not into the concept of doing it all yourself.
Chris Brokaw: No. I don’t even have a website for my label. And I think if I ever do, I’m going to state very clearly, “This is the worst label on earth.” I mean, I’m fine at promoting myself, but a couple of people have said to me, “Would you put my thing out?” and I’m like, “No, you don’t want me to put out your record. That’s a really bad idea.”
It’s weird, because the business has changed so much… I’ll read a lot of articles where they’ll say, “This is a really empowering time for musicians. The whole record industry and classic label infrastructure is collapsing, and it’s going to be really great and really empowering for musicians because they can just sell the stuff themselves.” But that brings the assumption, A: Musicians want to do that, and B: That they are capable on any level of doing that. I know a lot of musicians who are really capable people, and I’ve met plenty of artists who fill the more classic model of they can’t even balance their own checkbook. They should not be in the business of sales and marketing. That’s not their strength. I don’t think it’s my strength, either. I’ve just tried to observe people around me to see how they do it, but it’s not something I really want to do, I don’t want to be running a label half the day, or even a quarter of the day.
Booking is the same way. I booked a west coast tour six months ago, and it was a nightmare, I hated it so much. It took so long to book seven shows on the west coast, it took forever, and I thought I was going to hang myself. That’s one of the things where I think it’s definitely a job for professionals and not for me.
(You can Buy this Record Store Day release at the Numero Group website)
Rocker: You have a lot coming up this year. Was your career always you doing so many projects at once?
Chris Brokaw: It grew incrementally, but I thought about it not long ago and remembered that even when I was a senior in high school, I was playing in three bands.
I went through a period, especially when I was playing with Come, where I was the guitar player. That’s what I did, and I really just focused on that, I wasn’t doing anything else, But after a while I really wanted to play other kinds of music, and I wanted to play with different people, so I started looking into that, and also people started asking me to do stuff. But in the indie rock world where I was coming from, I didn’t see a lot of examples of people doing that. But at the time, I was getting really into listening to jazz music – I didn’t really have any interest in playing it, I just wanted to listen to it and check it out – and what I would observe is that jazz guys play in a million groups and put out 12 records every year, which I thought was fascinating. So I started getting into the whole noise field, and bands like Wolf Eyes put out records like every day. So I started seeing that there were just different models besides put out one record, tour on it for a year, work on another record, put that out, tour on it for another year and a half. I thought for a while that that was the only model of how to do things, and then I started seeing, mostly through other genres of music, or subsets of music, that there were other ways of doing it.
Rocker: You’ve been in a lot of bands that have broken up, but it seems like you’ve continued on amicably with these people after the splits. Like, what was the catalyst for Codeine splitting, and is it just that time goes by and everything’s cool?
Chris Brokaw: The catalyst for that was that I was playing with both Codeine and Come for about two years, which was really exciting, because I really loved both bands, and I thought were doing really significantly different kinds of music. But in Come, I was really doing a lot of the songwriting, whereas in Codeine, it was Steve Immerwahr who wrote all the songs. So, in a way, Come was more sort of my project, and it reached a point where the first Come record came out, and we were going to go on tour for six or eight months and I just didn’t think it was fair to either band for me to continue being in both, so I left Codeine, very sadly, and John and Steve totally understood it. They got another drummer and continued on for another almost two years after that, made one more record, and I think they did a lot of touring.
Rocker: When I see you play here in Boston, Thalia Zedek (of Come) is usually there, you always seem to have ex-bandmates hanging around. So many artists have these hurt feeling breakups with bands…
Chris Brokaw: I haven’t had that experience. I really haven’t. It’s hard for me to think of any band I was in where I wouldn’t talk to the people or anything like that.
Rocker: You and Thalia are doing a song on the upcoming Jeffrey Lee Pierce (of The Gun Club) tribute record The Journey Is Long. Can you tell me more about that?
Chris Brokaw: It’s kind of a weird project, and everything around it is kind of bizarre. This dude, Cypress Grove, got in touch with me a few years ago. He’s a guy from Los Angeles, who had been playing with Jeffrey Lee Pierce for the last couple of years of his life, and he got in touch with me and said, “There are all these songs that Jeffrey had written that never really got recorded properly,” and he’s trying to organize a compilation of people covering these songs, and I was like, “OK, send me some completed songs,” Some of the demos sounded very pro, and I said, “Why don’t you just put this stuff out?” and he was like, “Oh, they’re tied up in legal,” and some of the songs were half-finished, and he was like, “You and Thalia could finish the song,” and I was like, “I don’t want to finish Jeffrey Lee Pierce’s song, that’s too weird,” so I kind of passed on it, and they ended up doing this compilation for Glitterhouse Records called We Are Only Writers, that did really well, so he came back to me again and was like, “We’re going to do a new edition of this, we have some more songs, and we’d still really like you and Thalia to be involved.” So he sent me a bunch of songs, and I just kept listening and I was like, “I’m not feeling this,” and I finally listened to this one song, and this light bulb went over my head, and I went, “Oh, I know how to do this song,” and I got back to him and said, “We want to do this song called ‘Zona Rose,’” and he said, “Oh man, I already gave that to [14:45], let me see what I can do,” and he wrestled it back and let Thalia and I do it. I recorded all the music in Seattle and sent the files to Thalia and she put vocals on. That’s supposed to come out this winter, and Nick Cave did some songs for it, Mark Lanegan, Isabel Campbell, Kid Congo, Steve Wynn, Exene Cervenka, and Debbie Harry and a bunch of other people.
Rocker: Were you a fan of the Gun Club?
Chris Brokaw: Yeah, I was a huge fan of the Gun Club. I was a really big fan. Thalia and I both were. In fact, Come once did this show for [Legendary Boston nightclub promoter] Billy Ruane’s birthday, because Billy was a huge Gun Club fan, and so we did this thing called the Come Club, where we just played Gun Club songs as a birthday present for him.
Rocker: He must have been very excited.
Chris Brokaw: He was psyched. He was really mad at me, though, because I didn’t know all the lyrics to “Sex Beat,” and I was kind of flubbing it and I could see that he was just freaking out. That’s how it goes!
Rocker: Is it more fulfilling for you to have the approach you have now, with so many pursuits at once? Do you ever get overwhelmed?
Chris Brokaw: Yeah, for sure. This spring is looking kind of crazy. All of the stuff is cool and I’m excited about it, but I want to do a good job with each thing, and I want to do it right. But mostly it’s just exciting. I’m glad to have the opportunity to work with a lot of really interesting people, is what a lot of it boils down to.