TOM BROSSEAU: BREAK SOMETHING
The birds were chirping on a sunny day in Echo Park where Tom Brosseau sat on a bench by the lake, eating a nice big soft chocolate cookie, watching ducks dive underwater between comatose plants. After listening to Brosseau’s new album Grass Punks, one can’t help but romanticize little moments like that, imagining them as melodies or brief little stories to crawl into during a daydream. This interview by Daiana Feuer.
Grass Punks takes you on a little journey. It felt like traveling to different points in your life.
There’s a lot of truth to that. The songs were written over five or six years. I think you go back to these events in your life over and over again because it tends to be what works. You can branch out here and then, but I think the point is to do the same thing over and over again. I was thinking about this notion because a friend of mine showed me a tape—it was somebody introducing Flannery O’Connor, one of the greatest American short story writers. He introduced her to the stage saying Flannery never repeated herself. That was his opinion but in my mind it was so untrue. In a way the short story itself is repeated over and over again as a form and on top of that she is almost telling the same story over and over again—that thing that she is good at, standing at a different angle of the situation. This is a recent discovery of mine, that I go back to those events and try to open them back up again.
Opening them up in the sense of thinking about them in a new way or in the sense of literally repeating them in your life?
Maybe in doing one I do the other.
How did you choose what songs ended up on the record?
There was a process where I brought the songs to Sean Watkins, who produced the record, and the two of us picked the songs that ended up on the record. We narrowed it down to nine. I had a whole bunch of songs. Sean in a way was at the wheel. I think he gravitated toward the more simple structure song. Like ‘Cradle Your Device,’ it’s a song in the key of E but it’s like a blues song—it goes to A and B. They’re all just basic chords like that and for the most part there’s no chorus, there’s no bridge, and they’re all two and a half minutes or less. The whole record is 24 minutes or something. We were able to cut it to 45 instead of 33 1/3 since it’s so short. Actually we would sit down at the table and I would play him the structure of a song and maybe I would sing a little or maybe not. He was very thoughtful about the choices on the guitar.
Does he know you well?
This whole project really brought us together as friends. We’ve actually known each other maybe ten years, but not more than we would see each other once in a while—maybe at Largo or amongst our music community. But now we’ve done something together and it’s touched my heart a little bit. So I feel like we’re friends now. This is not always the case. You have your friends from whatever art it is that you do and you don’t necessarily do anything social with, you just get together and play music and then there’s your core friends. That might help with your sanity though, having two different sets of friends. But being around people who don’t do music can be difficult. Hanging around writers or hanging around movie people, it tends to be there’s a world you live in.
Hanging out with people outside your world, do you ever feel like an alien? Not necessarily in a bad way, but like you’re there on a visit from another planet?
Yes, it’s true. It might be helpful to your sanity on the one hand but then again I remember a couple times hanging out with people who weren’t into music and all I wanted to do was break something. Or get really drunk. There’s real worth in being this alien that you’re talking about. In certain situations, people tend to not know you exist, and so it’s a wonderful opportunity to observe. That’s what I do as a songwriter. I observe and pick out phrases from what people use in their everyday talk and branch out from that. Like something you hear on the bus. ‘Cradle Your Device’ came to me in that way, being in the alien-ghost position. You hear stuff like this all the time: ‘I was at this place last night and everybody had their heads bowed down at the table with their phones.’ So the idea came about and I held on to it for a little while, you know … protect it, leave it for a little bit and then started figuring it out. My mom or my aunt will all the time say, ‘Oh my gosh, Tom, you should write a song about this or that.’ … when people get a notion of what kind of songwriter you are, first of all they think you should be able to write on command and be interested in whatever it is and that it comes so easily.
Well … doesn’t it?
It could, I suppose, but it comes when you least expect it and you’re open to it. It can’t come because you try. I believe in a routine. I believe in getting up and working at it. You know, like in baseball you hear them say, ‘You’re trying too hard. That guy was trying too hard and then he hit a slump.’ Did you see The Fan? Wesley Snipes’ character says he just stops caring—he stops giving a fuck and the pressure is gone and he opens up and starts playing well. Anyway … I just feel that in order to perform well, it’s good to be open.
So how are you able to think about this as your job?
Right—so how do you work in writing songs for money into the equation? I have written a jingle for a commercial before, and I suppose if I put myself out there more I could get some opportunities, and maybe if I did twenty I would land one. But I just don’t find that enjoyable. It doesn’t feel good to me. I can’t get into it. It’s always been a sacred, private, special thing for me to be able to sit down and devote time to writing something. So if I have to do it for money—for me—it just seems kind of cheap. I just can’t pull it off.
It’s not very grass punk.
Not at all. Very un-grass punk. Then again we all have to pick something that we love to do and make money at it. Hopefully! Granted there’s a lot of people out there making money that don’t love what they’re doing and maybe that’s why we have hobbies.
Do you have a preference between venues and non-traditional venues?
There are pros and cons with each. If it’s a nontraditional venue then you probably won’t have an amplifier. And maybe you have chops to play without one or maybe you don’t. I like churches because of the natural acoustics. At a bar you’re in an atmosphere that you can’t control. You need amplification, you need a sound man. It becomes kind of unnatural, when the genesis of a song was just you playing with a guitar and really in my case that’s how it should be. When I’m up on a stage with a bunch of microphones and plugged in, the acoustical aspects are taken away and then you have this big fat microphone in front of your face. I’m not saying that I don’t enjoy it. There are many things you can do when you’re plugged in.
Maybe you should get a headpiece microphone?
Like Bobby Brown? Garth Brooks.
You could dance too.
I’m actually a really good dancer. I’m not trained or anything but I have agility. I like the 1980s moves. Daryl Hall had this Elvis thing—not too many dance moves but he was good. I want to do things like that when I watch Justin Timberlake. He’s so fluid. It’s a beautiful thing to see someone dance like that. I always think, ‘Man, I could do that.’ I like ‘Cry Me A River.’
I think it’s fun to look at yourself dancing in the mirror.
At a certain point we don’t want to be silly anymore.
Got to hold out against that as long as possible. How are you ever supposed to grow up?
Whenever I go back home, I never talk to my cousins—I just end up playing with the kids the whole time. I hope they don’t think I’m the weirdo but when you get older and you’re tired and all you want to do is eat and drink and snooze and watch TV—I can’t do that. Then you’ve got these little beings that are just waiting to be activated. I suppose I have a little of that in me still. I want to get out and not be the adult.
I don’t know what being an adult is like.
You probably have some sense of responsibility, but you just don’t act like what you think a normal adult would act like. I think for me a lot of it has to do with my job. I’m not around a lot of people that act like adults. So I never do. I change five or six times a day. I don’t wear a suit and tie. I never think about what the adult world thinks about. I don’t have a mortgage. I don’t think about different ways I can get tax breaks. Even some political issues, I keep up to speed but I don’t know, people … it’s kind of boring.
I’ve asked you a lot of questions but I’m not sure whether we’ve stayed on subject.
Oh, I think it all really pertains to this record. I feel like it’s an excuse to have a conversation, too. It’s so boring to ask people questions about where they wrote songs. Only I would find that interesting.
I find that interesting!
I like it when songwriters reference things they’ve written about in years gone by. What I love most about art is going back to the same place and looking at it from a different angle.
You’ve mentioned this. What do you mean?
There’s a song—Bob Dylan gets so much credit for songwriting, and he’s such a good songwriter too. He had a song that was big a couple years ago called ‘Things Have Changed’ and I think it was an answer to ‘Times They Are A’Changin.’ That’s all I’m doing really.
Do these new songs take you to any songs of the past?
‘Gregory Page of San Diego’ is a song about Gregory Page but I sort of placed myself in his shoes and wrote the song for him. It was a newer attempt of writing a song about him. I’ve written about him before. He was born in England but has been in San Diego his whole life. I became friends with him because he plays music. When I first moved to San Diego he helped me out a bit and was a mentor. He’s older. I just find him to be a fascinating character because he’s been living in the same apartment for fifteen years. He never leaves San Diego. He just stays and plays in San Diego. He’s their treasure. They love him. He has a legacy. His great-grandfather taught music down there and other family members. I’d have to pull his tooth to get him to come up here. He’ll go to another country to play though. I just find him to be a fascinating character to write about. So that’s one of them. ‘Today Is A Bright New Day’ goes back to a few songs I’ve written about an event that happened a long time ago. A relationship gone wrong. It’s pretty dark. ‘Tammy’ is another one. She’s real … then again, how can you really say that? When you go back to that pillar that you’re looking at to figure out what it is, a little of it rubs off on you and from that you build. So it’s kind of not real in a way. It becomes kind of made up, even if it comes from the same wellspring.
When I listen to ‘Cradle Your Device’—you must realize, even if that song is not about you, whoever hears it is going to think of you naked.
I suppose that’s right! There’s a certain level of ambiguity to it but it’s funny. Somebody came up to me and said, ‘I can’t believe you would write a song about your girlfriend using a dildo.’ I had to stop myself from saying, ‘No, it’s actually…’ because a device can mean many things of course. There’s an old song about a whatsit this person takes wherever she goes.
What’s her whatsit?
That’s the thing you don’t really know, but you think you know. It could be a number of things. [Sings:] ‘She takes her little whatsit where she goes.’ See, that’s the challenge then as a writer. It’s easy to write a song about how annoying Facebook is but it’s going to get old—it’s going to date itself. So if it’s a little open or ambiguous then it can last longer.
It can apply to whatever device people are cradling in the future! I’d say you did it in a way that’s tasteful. You pay attention to words.
Songwriting is a craft so I tend to take my time writing. I slash a lot of stuff out and edit it down. What I try to go for is that if you remove the music, then you would have a little anecdote. It might be pointless but that’s not what I’m concerned about. I am concerned about keeping true to whatever pricked my ear in the beginning and not steering too far from there. You can get there right away in a conversation but when you go back and listen to a conversation it’s a huge mess. You say ‘like’ a hundred times, you use the wrong word, there’s no grammar. So it’s not just as natural as conversation. And then you’ve got chorus and bridge and even rhyme sometimes—it’s easy to do. If you ask somebody what is the next line in this sentence, ‘I’m down on my knees,’ someone will probably say, ‘I’m begging you please.’ You’re limited by rhyme in a way. I find that rhyme is very good if you want to reference all of the thousands of folk songs and rock songs that have used that cliché. In those cases that’s really cool. Part of what I love about music is carrying the torch of these things in songs.
One would have to imagine there are other phrases that could fit. You don’t pick words out of the shallow end of the collective consciousness. So I guess that makes you a songwriter person.
I do find that fulfilling. But maybe I single myself out and some people won’t find it pleasing right away. Maybe I’m challenging people a little bit.
As long as you can sing along, most people are fine. Otherwise you would be writing a poem or a story. You’re writing a song and songs are for singing and dancing. Even when you’re just listening, your imagination is dancing and singing with the music.
I have this thing where I always imagine a person dancing. When I’m talking to people. I will be talking to people and I wonder what they look like when they’re dancing. It’s a lot like Pennies From Heaven. It’s a movie with Christopher Walken and Steve Martin. I think it was considered a bomb. I just like to imagine what it would look like if people just let go and start moving. I think it’s impossible—the things I’m thinking people can do are very impossible. I ascribe this fluidity that’s not real. In reality, I have a good leg move and then I’ll be clumsy on the next eight moves.
TOM BROSSEAU WITH SHELBY EARL AND SUNNY WAR ON FRI., MAR. 7, AT THE SANCTUARY, 235 HILL ST., SANTA MONICA. 7 PM / $5-$10 DONATION / ALL AGES. FACEBOOK.COM/THESANCTUARYSANTAMONICA. AND WITH MOSES SUMNEY ON MON., MAR. 10, AT THE BOOTLEG, 2220 BEVERLY BLVD., LOS ANGELES. 9 PM / FREE / 21+. FOLDSILVERLAKE.COM. TOM BROSSEAU’S GRASS PUNKS IS AVAILABLE NOW FROM CROSSBILL RECORDS. TOMBROSSEAU.COM.