BRAINSTORY: OUR SOULS ARE INFINITE
photography by FUNAKI
Brainstory‘s Kevin and Tony Martin grew up in Rialto, California, part of the suburban wasteland of the Inland Empire, and their first exposure to the psychedelic experience came through the church. Every Sunday their gospel singer father performed with a band designed to incite altered states in the congregation, and people ran through the pews speaking in tongues before collapsing in ecstasy. There they learned the transformative power of music, and now with longtime bandmate Eric Hagstrom, they write jazz-y psychedelic songs about—and for—reflection, love, and generally tripping out by contemplating the universe. Their new self-titled mini-album came out in May and was produced by Chicano Batman’s Eduardo Arenas. We sat down at my kitchen table to talk about it. Tony Martin arrived strapped with an acoustic bass strapped, playing from the moment he walked in until the minute he left. It made for a gentle soundtrack to our conversation, which got pretty deep. They perform on Thurs., July 20, at the Levitt Pavilion in MacArthur Park and at the Music Tastes Good festival this fall. This interview by Daiana Feuer.
You grew up around religious music.
Tony Martin (bass, vocals): Church was so big in my parents world. Our dad was a gospel singer. He was/is a soloist.
Can you describe a particularly psychedelic gospel experience?
TM: Oh man, easily—we had so many. People would literally be jumping off the balcony to the first floor, speaking in tongues, falling in ecstasy, running around the pews.
Kevin Martin (guitar, vocals): My grandma … her brother made a church, here in East L.A. They were apostolic pentecostal. They have a lot of rules. Ladies aren’t allowed to wear pants. It’s all about dimming the woman. Very strange.
TM: Kinda culty. My parents got out of it eventually—that’s the truth.
KM: But the music that they played was Baptist style, Hammond organ, improvisation, then the bass line kicks in and everybody gets the holy ghost—they go crazy, running in the aisles. It’s a lot like punk. The beat, it’s fast. And the musicians are amazing. But as they progressed towards what we call ‘liberal’ Christian music, the music was so whack.
TM: My dad struggled in that. He was trying to tell them, ‘Feel the spirit. What is this?’
KM: It was the mega churches. The money-making churches.
TM: I call them stadium churches. It’s just corporate. He did not fit in.
KM: He was miserable. He hated it. Among the lines, he felt like a slave. He told the choir director—who was actually his friend—that they weren’t feeding them when they were making them rehearse a shit-ton because this big guest was coming to the church. And they’re not getting paid.
TM: The music that we did, even though we stopped going to church, it’s all tied to the same thing. John Coltrane is the same thing. Fiery, improvisational, just seeking-salvation stuff.
When music decides to separate from the church and just be music.
TM: And it still reaches the goal. That’s why I think the gospel element of our music is not necessarily the notes we’re playing—it’s how we’re playing it. The goal is still reaching God or the universe, whatever you want to call it. That feeling of infinity that’s in everybody because we’re all essentially little blips of light.
KM: Our souls are infinite.
TM: So yeah—we had many crazy experiences.
KM: But our dad was also really into R&B, soul, jazz. He liked a lot of music.
TM: He was a musician’s musician too. I remember one time he was talking about Janis Joplin and analyzing her singing. ‘Her tone is so raw. She sings with this part of her voice. Listen to her melody right here and how she variated it from the one before.’
KM: He has ears, yeah. Natural talent.
TM: Hell yeah. When I got into music he bought me a bass from the swap meet and an instructional video from the 1980s.
That’s how you got your first bass?
TM: Yeah—then I started playing bass.
KM: He always really encouraged us. Once he saw us into music he just jumped on it and started giving us random shit. He’s always like, ‘Hey, I saw this at the swap meet.’ He’s a bargain hunter. He goes on a regular basis to his normal spots and he just comes up. He got a whole stove that was supposed to be $4,000 for $150.
TM: He got a Fender Rhodes Electric Piano on his wedding for $25 at the swap meet.
KM: On his wedding day.
He went to the swap meet on his wedding day?
KM: And for $25 he got one on his wedding day. He’s crazy like that. He would just bring home stuff from the swap meet. I got into the wah-wah pedal, and that’s a big element to our music. When I was 12 he just came up with a wah-wah starter pack. He used to come home with these big plastic bags. He gave me an original crybaby wah-wah pedal. And it was old. It was all squeaky and shitty. But it still worked. And then a Jimi Hendrix live in Berkeley 1971 tape.
TM: It’s so perfect!
It sounds like your parents really support what you’re doing.
TM: Yeah, but it’s been a journey for sure though to that point, ya know? They just had to see how serious we were about it. It’s not just like, ‘Oh, I want to be an artist, and I’m stoned all the time, and not getting a job…’
KM: ‘And not doing shit.’
TM: I don’t want to live that way. This is my life and everything stems from that.
[Hagstrom is tapping on his phone, playing the drumbeat of a familiar song … ]
TM: What was that you were playing? Was that Aaliyah?
Eric Hagstrom (drums): That’s pretty good, Tony!
It’s a classic.
KM: It gives me a certain feeling every time it comes on. At least it gives me the feeling of when I was watching it on The Box.
The box … of TV?
KM: Ha! It was a channel called The Box where you call in and request music video.
TM: We watched it all the time. I know all those songs.
It’s amazing to think about the songs that we all know by default, ingrained in the fiber of our beings …
KM: Like Outkast …
TM: ‘Everybaahdy, yeaaah!’
EH: For Tony it’s Spice Girls. It comes on and he knows all the words.
TM: I don’t even know the names of the songs—but I know them all.
EH: All those songs … they figured out how to make you learn the songs after hearing it one time. Everybody can sing the words to those boy bands.
That’s an interesting point of entry to talk about your music. If you compare Backstreet Boys to what you’re doing …
EH: It’s almost exactly the same.
If it is, it’s the way more stretched-out version. When I was listening to the album, I felt like it was distilling one thought and stretching it out like putty—altering the pace of my mind.
KM: I think the songwriting process is very much about that—that deep thought. Deliberately making sure that you’re saying something that not only rhythmically sounds good—so it goes with the music—but that actually has meaning. I revise my songs so there’s more deliberation with each word. And then maybe you have to revise it rhythmically because you come up with a different line. So I think it comes from a place of deep thought.
EH: We aren’t trying to fit into a three-minute thing. We just feel it out. ‘Evil Cowboy’ is almost eight minutes long. That comes from our jazz background. One of the most famous jazz songs is nine minutes long.
TM: That atmosphere of creative thinking allows more room for you to unwind. Pop music is just supposed to … at least how people make money with it is they make songs that are pleasing to everyone to digest. That’s the focus of their composition. Because we aren’t bound by that, there’s more room to be creative.
Do you take liberties with your rules?
TM: Oh hell yeah. ‘Evil Cowboy’ doesn’t have a verse per se. It’s not A-B-A. There’s no chorus. Usually the chorus is the hook of a song. I don’t repeat. The chorus doesn’t develop like (sings) ‘Everybaahdy…’ There’s no part like that. ‘The First Yesterday’ is like that too.
EH: That’s going to be the title of our article: ‘Psychedelic Backstreet Boys.’
Did you guys split songwriting on this album?
KM: I only wrote two: ‘Fruitless Trees’ and ‘Moth Love.’ Tony wrote the rest. As opposed to our first record—I wrote most of those. We worked on this batch for about six months, playing them live, switching them up.
EH: We’ve played them a lot more since we recorded them and what’s funny is that we keep changing them. When we listen to the record and look at how we play them now, it’s interesting how different they are. The tempo is a big thing, the beat a little … things get rearranged. The song ‘Water’ is arranged very differently.
Your songs could be considered more a platform—you’re not expected to play them the same way every time.
KM: Totally. Sometimes the way we play it on the record … it doesn’t flow that way in real life. At a show, you have an audience and you want them to have the best time and keep their attention.
EH: It’s more fresh like that too. Some bands play their songs exactly like their records and then people come to expect that. We aren’t trying to do that at all.
KM: I think we’re moving out of an era where it’s been all about ‘the record.’ Now that you can download that shit from anywhere … at least for a band like us, our live show has been our money-maker. It’s how people remember us. We improvise, we have parts that aren’t on the album—it brings the recording to life, and yet it’s different every time.
EH: It keeps us excited about the music and that translates to people.
Do you identify with garage rock?