Brick Briscoe was editing his TV show at his home studio in Petersburg, Indiana, when I called last week, needing it submitted by Sunday night ahead of an air date of February 11th.
“I’m almost done – get off my back, man! Ha!”
Am I adding to the pressure from up top?
“Just from the network. No big deal. It’s the game I chose to play for rock’n’roll.”
This talented singer/songwriter and guitarist with a passion for film (he also produces commercials and other TV and film-based projects from his studio base) also produces and hosts The Song Show for PBS/NPR affiliate public radio station WNIN, serving the Indiana, Illinois and Kentucky tri-state area, showcasing his true passion for music, mining the deep history of song by relating common themes across genres and time periods in each episode, his guests the musicians and songwriters he comes across playing music or picks up the phone to call.
“Actually, we were going to call the TV show The Song Show TV, but I decided it was going to be a music and travel show, travelling around the world, looking at culture and music in every little spot, deciding we’d just go anywhere, so we decided to call it Any Road.”
But then, a worldwide pandemic surfaced.
“Oh, my God. We were getting ready to film season two in Europe, leaving on March 21st. Obviously, that didn’t happen. I had to adjust, making a two-part two-hour series called Music is Dead, about the state of the industry, filming everybody who’s been on the show, talking about all that … and then this happened. Now part two is totally different to how it was planned.”
At the risk of an ‘Ooh, I bet you’ve seen some changes’ type question, the music industry has shifted immeasurably in the last couple of decades.
“Oh yeah, completely. You used to imagine you could make money on records, and still can … but right now, you can’t. We’re so used to selling in person, after a show or during a show. Records, t-shirts, whatever. It’s interesting that people still buy CDs at shows, maybe as a memento.”
I brought up with an interviewee a while ago how I’d seen an online discussion involving Billy Bragg, someone on his Facebook page questioning why he was selling early years memorabilia, more or less saying, ‘You can’t be hard up, surely’. But there’s a fella who makes his living on the road, and hasn’t been able to do that. Some people don’t seem to get that.
“I don’t think they do. I saw someone giving him guff about selling some posters or something, saying, ‘I thought you were a socialist’. What the hell, man? It’s not like he’s Elon Musk. We’re talking about a guy who’s worked his ass off 200 days a year, you know.”
Scheduled to be in Europe to work on television and music, Brick instead found himself with nothing but time on his hands, stuck in Petersburg, where he was born and raised, revealing, “I buried myself in my home studio and dreamed in pictures, trying to find the colours on my guitar. The words were easy, the script was already written. And, to paraphrase filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, I spent the next weeks ‘sculpting in time’.
“This was one of the first projects I’ve done where the music came first. After I had the sounds the lyrics came naturally. I drew on my past life and found inspiration. Most don’t know that my first career move was to be a film director. It seemed like a responsible move when I was 18!
“So with that in mind, I started writing lyrics that reflected ideas for films, both personal and remote, that I always knew I was going to make. And the one that came closest to actually happening was called ‘My Favorite Los Angeles Restaurant’. So the journey began. I’ll let the listener decide if some of these ‘films’ have the same characters or if the whole record is just one big movie.
“I loved living in Los Angeles. I really miss it and as I was working on this, I tried to put myself in the mindset I had when I did live there. It’s a place close to my heart, not so much for filmmaking, but my daughter was born there, so it feels like home. And I learned more about who I am and what it takes to get anything done from the constant trials and tribulations I endured while trying to make films. I don’t know why, but it makes me laugh now.
“I hope the romance of cinema shows up subversively in the record. It isn’t an homage to Hollywood, but an homage to how the mixture of how I feel when I see a film with the realities that music is something I can actually do in a practical sense. I was working with the tagline, ‘I was going to make a film about you, but the money wasn’t there’ when I started the project. I love the feel of that. I wanted to make a film, but all I could afford was this postcard, or this piece of pie, or these songs. And hopefully, no matter how you cut it, it isn’t cheap.”
The result of his locked-down labours, My Favorite Los Angeles Restaurant, Brick Briscoe’s 13th LP, was released last week on our side of the Atlantic, produced by Brick with Brian Sherman and recorded at The Spider Cave (aka La Cueva de la Araña), Petersburg, with further recording in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Middletown, Delaware. Is he pleased with the transatlantic reaction so far?
“Oh, my! It’s really been cool to see the different takes on what I do, and the songs some radio stations are playing. It’s like, ‘What? That’s what they chose?’. Really interesting.
“It almost makes me feel like a progressive rocker. Over here, I’d be more known as someone with that indie-punk thing going on, and I come from a punk rock generation, so it would make sense that would hang on. But they’ve picked up on the more cinematic songs.”
Although initially wanting to do nothing more than be in a rock band, he was coerced into attending university, and after taking a class at Indiana University on the complete works of Charles Chaplin, he decided to try to make films. Then, during a stint at Southern Illinois University the following year, he discovered Truffaut, Godard and Tarkovsky, his fate sealed.
During a journey of personal and financial ruin, Brick moved to New York, then Los Angeles, and finally back to New York chasing the cinema. Influenced greatly by Cassavetes, Truffaut, Rohmer, Cukor and a host of others, he pitched films all over both cities (with several near misses) until he moved back to his hometown, deeming cinema dead.
It does seem, I put to him, that he’s had to adapt his game, with career rethinks en route, not least perhaps moving away from dreams of making it primarily as a filmmaker with a budget, instead adapting your cinematic vision to soundscapes of sorts.
“Yeah, for sure. I’ve tried to weasel my way into scoring films, and I’ve been lucky enough to score some things, although not big movies as I would imagine. Being a filmmaker, I kind of think in those picaresque moments of travelling, so it would make sense that those big cinematic moments would show up in my music eventually.”
A few months ago, I told Brick, I spoke to California-based filmmaker Saunder Jurriaans about his success scoring for films and TV and his own adaptation to make the most of a difficult situation amid the pandemic, in his case finally releasing a solo album he’s wanted to for some time. I guess you’ve had to think similarly.
“I think that’s true. I was supposed to be over there (Europe) for eight weeks, and wasn’t just gonna sit around and mope, so used that time to work on my record, rather than wait to get back. I was probably going to start this record about now.
“I’ve written so much stuff. We actually started my next record last Thursday. But what you said about not being able to do certain things, I think it’s radically different over here. I’m very cautious because I’m in remission from cancer, but overall in the Midwest, bar bands are still playing. Cover bands, that is. Original bands aren’t out there. We get asked to play all the time, and it’s like, ‘No!’.
“But everyone’s real cool about it. They get it. I understand these places need to keep making money and somehow keep their employees, but I would feel awful if someone came to my show, caught the COVID, and died. Or If I brought it home to my wife or grandkid.
“We’ve filmed a couple of concerts though, and they came off really well, in front of no audience for the LP. I weaned my way into this historic opera house in a placed called New Harmony, Indiana, with an amazing history of utopianism – a really fascinating story. “
That was with his band The Skinny.And I like the sound of New Harmony, Indiana, for a start, I told him. And Thrall’s Opera House.
“Oh yeah, it’s a town of around 800 people, but it’s incredible, and they have this beautiful opera house. We just set up on the stage in a circle, playing to each other, with just a crew with us. That came off great, so we decided, ‘Let’s do it again’, went to this big warehouse, filmed a bunch of my older songs, a little more rock’n’roll, kind of did that the same way.
“That’s been great for us and kept us in people’s eyes a little bit. And we’re gonna do more. We’re actually filming all these recording sessions. That’s what we have to do, y’know!”
In another interview, Brick revealed, “I spent years chasing the cinema dragon in NYC and Los Angeles. I came up pretty empty and sometime around 1996 I decided rock’n’roll was easier to manifest. With that in mind, I decided to make some of the films I thought I were going to make me the ‘auteur’ I imagined I was. I’d rewrite them with lyrics, guitars and piano. It all started with a romance, ‘Woke Up Beside You’, and then the pulse of the title track jump started the process”.
With Brick rooted in the US Midwest – with a twist on but an ultimate nod to a big hit for R. Dean Taylor – I put it to him that maybe Indiana wants him, and he can’t get away now.
“Right! A little bit. I remember that song as a kid, thinking, ‘Oh wow! He’s singing about us!’ It didn’t mean much to me then, but heck, yeah. I’ve been all over this country but came back here, for some godforsaken reason.”
However, New York City is also where the heart is, yeah?
“I did not, unfortunately. I was still in college then, totally broke at the time. But I have a lot of friends who were there. Frank Funaro, who played and produced one of my records and was in the band Cracker and (the later version of) Camper Van Beethoven, he was there.
“He was actually in Joey Ramone’s band for his solo record, and the Del Lords, and the Dictators. He became great friends when I was in New York, telling me all about that scene.”
Well, tell him next time you see him that I’ll never tire of Camper Van Beethoven’s ‘Take The Skinheads Bowling’. A perfect recipe for world peace, I’d say.
“Oh! I’ve seen him play that song a bunch of times.”
The press release that comes with the new LP suggests quite rightly that the songs ‘move between punk rock edge and a curious freeform adventure, with Brick’s buzzsaw and angular guitar riffs cutting a trail for his lyrics to find an unsettling safe house’. I can’t argue with that, and seeing as he mentioned Television, I tell him there’s a real Tom Verlaine quality to his voice in places.
“I’ve seen that comparison before … although not to my vocals. But I’ll take that.”
Perhaps it’s your inferences. And they were a mighty influence, it would seem.
“Marquee Moon in particular was a profound influence for me. But I have to be honest, I thought those guys were so good that I didn’t ever try to imitate what they did! To hear Verlaine and (Richard) Lloyd play together is like, ‘Oh, my God!’ They know what notes they’re playing!”
I got to at least talk a little about New York punk with Chris Stein of Blondie in 2017. But you were too young to be part of that CBGB’s scene, weren’t you?
“Well, that was what I was digging at high school, but I wasn’t there when it happened. The high point though was when I was standing backstage at CBGB’s in one of the last years it was open, The Dictators were playing, and I felt this presence right next to me, and it was Joey Ramone!
“I’m tall, but this guy was really tall. My God, he looks so sick … but that’s just how he was. These beautiful girls were just coming up, fawning over him. I’m like, ‘My gosh – this is what being a rock star means.
“Then the coolest thing happened. He walked out on stage and sang a bunch of Who songs with The Dictators, me standing there, right by the side of the stage. A great rock’n’roll moment.
“I got to talk to him a little backstage after the show. I wasn’t going to play fan-boy, although I was in my heart! But that’s something living in LA and New York teaches you – you don’t do that. It doesn’t play well!”
“I’d say Paul Weller was my biggest influence. And growing up a lower middle-class kid – my Dad was a teacher – guys like Ray Davies, Pete Townshend and Paul Weller sang about us better than our guys did. Everybody was hippies and all that stuff until punk rock happened, then REM came around. I just didn’t identify with all that. I got the angst from the British guys!”
I’m sure a number of Irish influences deserve a mention too. And, I put it to him, The Beatles were heavily influenced by US rock’n’roll and soul, the Rolling Stones by the Blues, and so on, that back and forth nature of music – one side of the Atlantic inspiring those on the other side – going on for so long now. Similarly, there’s the influence on the punk bands over here of the psychedelic scene, Lenny Kaye’s Nuggets and all that.
“I think the US and the UK have this amazing thing, musically, this amazing culture going on. We absolutely love what’s going on. We take it, then make it our own … then we send it back! Like you did with the Blues.”
I suppose The Beatles and The Beach Boys did that too – inspiring each other to go that little bit further.
“Yeah! Absolutely, and it’s a beautiful thing.”
I’ve yet to catch Brick live, but word has it that his live shows are fittingly intense.
“I’m really lucky I’ve got a band, yet it’s almost like I’m playing a solo show – they just get what I’m about to do. They know when I’m gonna slow down or when I’m going to get quieter or throw my guitar at ‘em … although that’s never happened!
“I’m not a real friendly guy before I go on. I hate to say this, but I try to get in character for those songs. But after the show, man, I’m so happy … even if we sucked! That’s over, and it’s like, ‘Let’s hang, have a beer. Let me cry to you about how we were bad tonight, and you tell me we were great!’. Nobody knows when you’re being bad, y’know … unless you’re terrible! Not that that’s ever happened either!”
Is that right that half of your 2018 LP, IV (which I pronounce ‘four’) was recorded in a hospital bed?
“Yeah, and I love that you called it that … because really it’s ‘IV’ (‘eye-vee’), and I did that on purpose but didn’t want to draw too much attention to it. The picture on the front of the album – go look at it sometime – is actually a close-up of the wound where my chemo port goes. But maybe some people thought that was a flower or something.”
So, IV as in intravenous?
“Yeah, but what I did – when I got diagnosed – my old drummer, from Phoenix, Arizona, flew home and brought me a drumkit, set up my studio, my old bass player from here came too, and we recorded half the record. I had to go to do chemo, then we recorded the other half in my studio.
“They allowed me to set up in the hospital. I was scoring at the time a documentary on NPR, with a deadline looming, so they let me camp out. I started recording and writing new songs, recording almost all the guitar parts and a lot of the vocals in hospital.
“You’ll be shocked how well soundproofed hospital rooms are … but I think that’s on purpose. You don’t want to hear other people crying, particularly on the oncology ward.
“I never thought I was going to die, although there was a possibility. But I heard people who were … crying to go home at night. That probably influenced a lot of what I was doing.”
I guess music provided the additional medicine and therapy that ultimately pulled you through.
“Well, absolutely. I would say at that point – although I’m never one to have had a bucket-list – you start realising what your legacy might be, so I just felt, ‘Why wait?’. I may not have any energy, but …
“As soon as I got out of the hospital, I had no feeling in my fingers, and I never thought I’d play guitar again. The chemo gives you neuropathy. I still can’t really feel my feet, although it doesn’t affect my walking. I could not feel my fingers in months.”
It clearly takes more than the big C to keep you down.
“I hope that’s true for everybody. It’s like this in any aspect of life – attitude is almost everything. I’m lucky, but my parents were such optimistic, hard-working people, I’m optimistic too and know that if I don’t do stuff, the pay-off in the negative is awful if you just hold yourself back.
“People cared that I had cancer, and that I might die, but they wouldn’t have cared about what angst I was going through, so I might as well put it out there as art … then they might care.”
Talking of optimistic vibes, while the pandemic continues to rage, with plenty of ignorance and misinformation doing the rounds out there, the vaccines are on the way and there’s a new president in office, the orange one finally gone and set to stand trial. It seems that there are reasons to feel positive again right now.
“I think so. My wife and I watched the inauguration all day, and we wept and all that. I’m not foolish enough to think there weren’t people within a three-iron of my house who weren’t as mad as hell that this guy got elected though, and we’re so divided in this country.
“We have so many people who believe conspiracy theories that are so outlandish. They’re not going to let go of it. It’s gonna take some patience. But you’re right – I believe we’re going to get a handle on COVID, and if this goes well, you’ll see me the end of this year or beginning of next year over there.”
Well, let’s be honest, we’ve got our fair amount of nutters here. Again, it seems pretty much a 50/50 split in various respects.
“Yeah, I’ve been watching closely, and guess it started with Brexit and all that, right? Although I don’t live there, it seems like a strange situation. I can’t judge so much what they’re doing, but boy, it doesn’t look smart.
“And while we’re talking, a notice just popped up from Reuters on my phone saying, ‘UK surpasses 100,000 COVID-19 deaths’.”
Yes, a sad landmark. But let’s not go there right now. Instead, I see you married your high school sweetheart Marta in 1987, having started dating in 1978. Was that in Petersburg?
“Yeah, she moved into town from Phoenix, Arizona. I’d already gone through all the girls in our little town, so they wouldn’t talk to me! Ha! So when a new girl turned up, and she didn’t know me …”
I guess she’s knows you by now.
“Oh, my God! She got me through the cancer, for sure. I’ve got a daughter and granddaughter, that gives you reason to at least live, but Marta has been so important and supportive of everything I’ve done. And she has incredible patience.”
And hopefully soon you’ll be able to travel again, including your postponed return to France (the LP From Lucky Point to Pere Lachaise conceived while making a film there immediately after going into remission), maybe?
“Yeah, the thing that influenced me in art the most were the films of Godard and Truffaut, and Éric Rohmer. Those had profound influence, and I always imagined I’d got to France. Then, right after I got out of having cancer, I got the opportunity to go, make a documentary about World War One.
“I just fell in love with it all. This was like New York to me, this spirituality to the art. I could spend a year there, easily. I kind of have the same feeling about England, thinking of Weller, Morrissey and Marr … I’d love it there too. And we watch all your TV shows, y’know.”
Your travels down the years haven’t yet taken you to St Petersburg though?
I was thinking Russia, to be honest.
“No, but I had an opportunity when I left college. My grandmother had a bit of money at the time and said, ‘I’ll send you on a trip’. I wanted to go to Russia, thinking it would be fascinating artistically to see all the Cold War stuff. Then I realised I should take that money, move to New York, so that’s what I did instead.”
Clearly, with no regrets. Maybe next time instead.
“I would go there in a heartbeat. I’ve been to St Petersburg, Florida, but have a feeling that’s different!”
Talking of Petersburg, Indiana, the song that first drew me in from the LP was ‘The Blue Jean Bridge’, its Stan Ridgway-esque vibe building to angular guitar and a Pete Townshend-like song of two parts feel. There’s also a great promo video of Brick and his band the Damn Dudes playing the song – in a self-isolated style – out there, linked here. Is that song a good example of your imaginative storytelling, or is that a true story?
“The Blue Jean Bridge is an actual bridge, about two miles from my house, named after a politician from here’s nickname.
“Growing up here, it’s such a hard life, it’s a coalmining area going through an awful lot of upheaval, people here constantly losing their jobs, trying to figure out a way of getting back into it.
“I’ve seen people walking across that bridge and every time, ‘Are they thinking about jumping?’ That’s what that’s about.
“It’s a good example, but I’d say maybe (LP opener) ‘Cody Jarrett’ and ‘My Americana Lust’, those are maybe the songs … I like poetry more than novels, and try to create a vibe.”
I hadn’t picked up on the latter until after my interview, but it’s quickly become one of my favourites from his impressive new record, an early-‘70s-like Who feel met by a Ray Davies-esque vocal and songcraft.
And there for me lies the strength of the new LP, enough to make me want to head back through his catalogue. That last three-song salvo of ‘The Blue Jean Bridge’, ‘My Americana Lust’ – with added vocals from Cynthia Murray, who also contributes to the title track – and ‘Let’s Get Sick’ make for a thrilling finale, the last track building nicely, kind of Lenny Kravitz meets the Rolling Stones and Stevie Wonder.
I didn’t know that when we spoke though, so couldn’t tell Brick that at the time. Instead – time against us both – we wrapped up, me mentioning what a great line it had been between Lancashire and Indiana, the reception suggesting he might even be in the next room.
“It’s amazing. And no, I’m not, but if I am, I’m probably not supposed to be there.”
Good point. You’d be breaking our lockdown isolation bubble situation for a start.
“Well, there’s a real interview right there, buddy!”