An Interview with Brad Brooks

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Video Premiere: Brad Brooks Documentary “God Save The City” • Americana  Highways

At this point, I’ve done a bunch of these interviews (over 150), and I can honestly say that I’ve enjoyed them all. Each one is special in its own way. Each artist has their own personality. That said, some interviews really stand out more than others. Now, when I say that, I don’t mean that some “hit” and resonate with the public. No, I mean that some of these interviews stand out to me personally. When taking on a project like this, there is a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes, and sometimes you go into a sort of factory worker/assembly line mode and just start pumping them out, but sometimes, I’ll be reading along and I get stopped right in my tracks. The assembly line shuts down, and I am forced…no…I am implored by my subconscious to stop and listen (read) carefully. This interview was one of those times.

What can I say about Brad Brooks? For starters, the man is a badass. Faced with a throat cancer diagnosis (scary for anyone, but especially devastating for a singer), he stared the disease directly in the face a handled it head on. Resilient, Brad Brooks came out the other side and proceeded to make what amounts to the album of his career with God Save the City, an album that in my opinion, is not only the album of his career, but is THE album to define 2020. This album has it all. It covers the entire gamut we’ve all just xcfinished (hopefully) running.

As I read this interview, I found my stopping time and time again, wishing I could shake Brad’s hand. Starting with his love for Keith Richards, Talk Is Cheap, and the song off that album, ‘How I Wish,’ which is one of my favorite albums and songs ever, and on to his love for vinyl, record collecting, tapes and CDs. Musical kinship aside, it’s Brad’s viewpoint on our outgoing dumpster fire of an administration, and his reminder that white privilege is definitely real, and a huge problem that we all need to own up to and fix. Brad mused about that being the part of the interview where he loses people. Well, if that the case, I’m OK with it. We’ll lose those types together and be better for it in the end.

All told, this interview is a reminder of the good still left in this world. That there is still true humanity left out there. From a musical standpoint, if you’re looking for an “album of the year” or an album to “define 2020” for you, look no further- God Save the City is that album. Open your mind to what Brad has to say and listen. Most importantly, own your shit. Don’t take for granted how lucky you are to be where you are. There are a lot of people out there who literally kill to have the advantages that some have. The world is not an equal and balanced place. Not even close. Going forward, it’s our job to change that. Music can help. Brad Brooks’ God Save the City WILL help, if you allow it to. Head over to Brad’s website here to learn more about him as an artist, and to his Bandcamp here to grab a copy of God Save the City and begin listening. In the meantime, if you’re still with me, check this interview out. It’s the best one yet.

Andrew:
Brad, thank you for taking the time to speak with us. It’s been a very odd year, hasn’t it? What have you been doing to pass the time?

Brad:
I feel like people and myself included are just trying to process what they’ve been going through since March and that’s taken some time to even understand the complexities of being isolated, and staying apart from each other. Music is such an inclusive experience especially “live” and the fact that everyone is missing that energy that goes with performing or even being an audience member, it’s really been difficult to navigate what to do with that energy. Hopefully when things get back to some type of normal that there will just be this explosion of energy, creativity and joy. For the most part, besides helping raise my 8 year old twins, I’ve been involved with getting the new record God Save The City out into the world and making sure that folks give it a listen and get to know what it’s all about. It was going to come out in 2020 before COVID, but as it turns out, it’s speaking to the times that we live in now and I’m so glad that it’s on vinyl and is building some momentum. The folks over at Kindercore Vinyl in Athens, GA did a killer job with the whole package, and since people have been forced to stay at home more, I think that vinyl has even exploded more since COVID. I know that I’ve bought and listened to more records this year, and I’m a pretty avid collector and fan. There has been a lot of great records coming out of the Bay Area this year too.

Andrew:
Tell us a bit about your musical origins. How did you get into music?

Brad:
I really started out in the desert hotbed of Tucson Arizona, and although I absorbed a lot of things as a kid when I was younger in Memphis Tennessee, I really didn’t start wanting to sing or be in bands until coming out of High School in Tucson. People don’t realize it but it really was a great place to get started because it’s a college town, there were a lot of places to play, and you needed to make your own fun. It’s got some ‘freak’ to it musically and when it’s that fucking hot out, weird things tend to come about. I ended up lead singing and writing lyrics for a bunch of different bands and one in particular was this Punk/Funk band with the strange name of Pollo Elastico from Tucson, which actually made a bit of noise out there and in LA and had it’s close call with infamy. But as happens with most bands, it unfortunately didn’t happen. It wasn’t until I moved to San Francisco afterwards that I started to really figure out my voice not only as a singer but as a lyric writer, and then it wasn’t until deciding that I’d had enough of writing words to other people’s music that I started learning to play guitar/piano and wrote my own songs. Mostly out of necessity and being pissed off that the bands that I was in, would work their asses off, grind, and then break up. Usually right as some good things were happening. Ya know, the usual story.

Andrew:
Coming up as an artist, who were some of your biggest influences?

Brad:
My musical influences are pretty wide and I feel like everything that I listen to has influenced me in some kind of way whether consciously or unconsciously. From a production standpoint or song structures, or grooves. Unfortunately it seems everything has to be so specified with playlists and how you put out your music and what genre that you put it under, and to me that’s just fucking boring. I love words and lyric writers, so some of the people that I admire are Bob Dylan (of course), Elvis Costello, Ray Davies, Ian Hunter (greatly underappreciated), Nick Lowe, Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Rob Tyner, John Darnielle (Mountain Goats), Howe Gelb. I’m not saying that I’m anywhere close to them, but these are the folks that I’m inspired lyrically by. Because I write on guitar and piano, those inspirations tend to come out more by what the song was written on as well as vocally. What I cut my teeth on were Stevie Wonder, Queen, Mavis Staples, Todd Rundgren, Hall & Oates. Honestly for God Save The City, I was really trying to make my version of a Frankie Miller record, especially the first one with Nick Lowe & Brinsley Schwarz called Once In A Blue Moon or Keith Richards’ first solo record, Talk Is Cheap.  Just soulful and rockin’ with a shit ton of vibe!

Brad Brooks — Jay Siegan Presents

Andrew:
In 2012, you released the incredible Harmony of Passing Light. Tell us about that album.

Harmony Of Passing Light is a lush record with some incredible players stretching out and creating textures, and we made it on 2 inch tape and with my good friends Paul Hoaglin and Shay Scott who produced it along with Cake’s drummer, Todd Roper. It’s probably the first of my records that I felt like we captured the essence of a full album from the first song to the last. It has strings on it, some inventive playing on it by Paul, Shay and Todd, and it grooves. A strange hybrid of Beatles/Stones/Queen type of elements. Songs about some things that were going on and trying to stretch out into some different areas. It’s a bit psychedelic and it’s out there for folks to check out via all the usual suspects digitally. I do have a plan to put it out on vinyl in 2021 as I’ve sold out of all the physical copies. It’s a record that has a lot of ear candy in it. Headphones required.

Andrew:
It is my understanding that shortly after the release of Harmony of Passing Light, you had a health scare over the last few years. How are you now? It must have been frustrating to have to pause your music career.

Brad:
It’s almost a miracle in itself that the new record is out because I never plan to take that long between records but sometimes there’s a certain amount of living that you need to do in order to make it real and tangible to the truth of what’s going on in your head, in your life, and in the world. This record really took a lot out of me, as I started it right around the time that I was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2015 after a trip to the dentist when they discovered a lump in my neck. I had surgery and then 30 radiation treatments, and it was the most difficult time of my life just dealing with it physically and mentally. I also lost about 40 lbs but I was back singing about 5 months after my treatment, and that really forms the essence of the joy and immediacy that this record has. So for it to even be out and especially in the crazy times that the world is in, is quite frankly something that I don’t take for granted. I’m at the 5 year mark since having cancer and that’s one of the markers that you can be considered “cancer free” and so far so good. But once you go through something like this, there is a little part in the back of your mind that’s always there like a little shadow.  

Andrew:
This year, you’ve finally released your long-awaited new album, God Save The City, and it is fantastic. There is so much emotional depth there. After eight years, I am sure you had a lot to say. Tell us about this album.

I call it ‘Soul and Roll’ because you can shake and scream to it while you’re contemplating what the fuck is going on! I’d like to think the main theme of it is perseverance under extreme times. Falling out of the darkness and stumbling into the light that’s hopefully not an oncoming train. Like a Saturday night record, that creeps (or drinks) into Sunday morning. It was produced by Adam Rossi and the title is obviously a nod to God Save The Queen, but stylistically it’s more Bowie/Stones/MC5/E Street Band vibe filtered through Frankie Miller (look him up) and some Philly Soul. It’s also a shot across the bow to people who can’t see beyond themselves or understand that we all bleed the same, no matter our differences, or how we look. With my cancer diagnosis hanging over me, we went into the studio to start the record and I really needed to get out what I need to get out as soon as possible because I wasn’t sure what shape my voice was gonna be in after the surgery and radiation. Also on my mind was the volatile cocktail of a US President (who had just gotten into office when I started the record) who didn’t give a fuck about anybody else but himself and who inflamed and celebrated racial tensions and discrimination. So it just became a record that had to be immediate and NOW because of what I was seeing and hearing from living in Oakland and the Bay Area. The title track, ‘God Save The City,’ also has Ralph Carney playing some ridiculous sax on it (he also played on ‘Why Do You Hurt’) and he’s a Bay Area legend, who unfortunately passed away a couple of years ago. So I’m really honored that we got him on a couple of songs before that happened, as he was one of kind and is really missed.

There’s also a weird song called ‘Lee Marvin’s Uzi’ which is a true tale of the time that I used to deliver bottled water to him in Tucson, and there was an uzi sitting on the patio. Lee was a badass in real life! But I really hope it speaks to trying to exercise and overcoming fear in all its ugly forms. The personal fears about anyone going through a cancer journey and the fear that the US exploited, antagonized and propagated. It’s a celebration of getting through all of that and coming out the other side stronger and with more perspective and gratitude for being able to do what I’ve been blessed and lucky enough to do. Lord knows it’s hard to get people to listen to new artists but I think if folks listen to this record that they will hopefully be inspired to get through any difficult times that they might be having.

Shows - Tom Dellinger Photography
Image credit: Tom Dellinger

Andrew:
Your music is generally rooted in Country, Folk and Americana. What do those genres mean to you? What draws you to them?

Brad:
Honestly genres don’t mean a thing to me and I just find it confusing to try to even think about them at all. I feel like it’s really just a way to control artists into these cute little boxes or algorithms which make no sense to me. Do I have styles that I’m fond of and love working in? Yes, but I let the songs dictate where they wanna go and I make no rules about where that is. It’s all Rock ‘N’ Roll Soul to me.  

Andrew:
Musically, what has changed for you over the years? What’s different now about your songwriting process compared to years past?

Brad:
I think in the past I tended to write more story songs with personal lines hinted about in code, and that now with more life experiences, I’m writing more from a personal observation, or about something that I went through, but with less hinting in the images. I still love story songs or songs that aren’t personal at all and there’s still coded imagery in there but it’s important for the listener to interpret and pick out what it means to them and the way they feel about it. From a musical standpoint, I’ve probably gotten less precious about perfection and more into how the song moves, or makes you move. Keeping the “happy accidents” in there to keep it real. I will say that the best songs I think come from my unconscious self and those I have no idea where they come from and I don’t question them. They just appear, if you let ’em.

Andrew:
You’ve touched on some in-depth themes within your music. For example, on this new album alone, we see themes of displacement, mortality and even civil rights. Does your songwriting come from a personal place, or are you just telling stories, so to speak?

Brad:
Well, some of that I answered in your last question, but the facing mortality part I’m definitely writing from a personal place, as anytime that you get faced with something as scary as any type of cancer, it tends to put your priorities in place. People don’t realize that the mental aspect of fighting cancer really can put you in a dark place, and for me it was important that I exercise that darkness through the art. There’s a song called ‘Burn It Off’ which is about going through radiation and the place that it takes you as you become disfigured. It was a very cathartic song to me in that it helped me get past a period of self loathing and pity which doesn’t do you any good in your recovery. But the other side of that is the joy that comes out of getting through it stronger. 

As for civil rights and displacement, that to me just goes back to basic humanity and what it means to be a human being. I don’t believe anyone can see the brutality that goes on towards people of color by certain aspects of law enforcement and not see that there needs to be a change. There’s a song on the record called ‘Strange Fruit Numb’ which was about Philando Castile who was killed in Minneapolis 4 years ago, and if you fast forward to what happened with George Floyd, what changed? Nothing that I can see. So what’s going to happen in the future? This perpetuating cycle has to be brought to light and changed, and no one should be sitting on the sidelines because it’s about humanity and how we treat each other. That’s also why I think it’s important to recognize what “white privilege” is and own up to it, as well as the history of how our country was built. Folks seem to have a hard time with that one, and this is probably where I’ll lose some fans in the interview, but it’s what I believe. Also as a Bay Area resident and living in Oakland, I’ve definitely seen the wealth displacement that occurs in San Francisco and how it relates to Oakland, and with COVID, that’s only become more extreme. 

Music | Brad Brooks

Andrew:
This has been a very intense year on multiple levels. Did the goings on around us have any effect on your songwriting for this album?

I don’t think things that happened this year were part of the songwriting at all because it was written and ready to be put out at the start of the year, but I will say that a lot of things that are touched on in the record have become even more exacerbated since the onset of COVID. Which is a really strange feeling. There were signs of what the future held in some of the things that I’ve already mentioned, but the pandemic portion is still shocking and I think once we’re able to process it, we will be even more shocked as to how everyone hopefully made it through with their sanity and health. The artwork for the record though was definitely part of this year’s story which is why I’m wearing a mask on the cover. It was also to protect my friend Mark Kitaoka (an amazing photographer) who shot most of the photos. It also affected my ability to get together with my band, who did an excellent job on this record, and when it came time to shoot the video for ‘God Save The City,’ it had to be filmed individually, which was a challenge, but it came out probably for the better in the end.

Andrew:
Are you into vinyl? Tapes? CDs? Or are you all digital now? Where do you like to shop for music?

Brad:
I love, love, love collecting records and it’s one of my favorite things to do. I just think the listening experience is so different from digital or CD, and it actually forces me to sit, listen, and relax. There’s something about holding vinyl and the ritual of putting it on, cleaning it, placing the needle down and having to turning it over. There’s that pause in between sides that I think is important. Also there’s nothing like sitting with headphones and listening to vinyl. Which is why I think it’s made a resurgence this year in particular because most everyone is forced to stay home during these COVID times. I basically have every record that I ever bought, as well as CDs and even cassettes. When I get to travel, I love checking out different record stores throughout the country, and around the world in some cases, and then I log ’em into Discogs because I’m just that crazy and obsessive about it. It also is a good way to know exactly what I have, or don’t have.

In the Bay Area, there’s an excellent array of places that I go to. Dave’s Records, Open Mind Music, Econo Jam, Mod Lang, 1-2-3-4 Go Records in Oakland/Berkeley. Groove Merchant, Amoeba in San Francisco, and one of my favorite stores is one up in Auburn, CA called Cherry Records.

Andrew:
This may be a difficult question, but what are a few albums that mean the most to you and why?

Brad:
You’re right-this is a really hard question and could take hours for me to describe. I can’t really pick, but I’ll try and keep it short, and I’ll lean toward what inspired God Save The City and some of the music that we talked about while making it.

Frankie Miller, Once In A Blue Moon. For the uninitiated, Frankie Miller is a Soul singer from Glasgow, Scotland who started out in the late 60’s and had one of the most soulful voices on the planet. He influenced a lot the British Rock singers like Rod Stewart and Paul Rodgers. This first record was made with the Brinsley Schwarz guys which included Nick Lowe. There’s a song called, ‘I Can’t Change It,’ that Ray Charles heard and recorded on his record, Brother Ray Is At It Again. I’m a huge Frankie fan if you can’t tell already!

The Meters, Fire On The Bayou. You want a record that’s gonna put you in a good mood immediately? This is the one. It’s as greasy as any good food is and you can shake off anything that ails ya. This is a record that you can actually taste and smell.

Stevie Wonder, Innervisons. There’s still nothing like this record to this day. From the way it sounds to the observations on ‘Living For The City’ and ‘Higher Ground,’ the beauty of ‘Visions’ and the humor and positive groove of ‘Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing’ and ending with a song that could have been written this year, ‘He’s Misstra Know It All.’

The MC5, High Time. This unfortunately was the last of the MC5 record releases, but it’s my favorite and they’re another band that just resonated so strongly with me and the current times. ‘Sister Anne’ and ‘Baby Won’t Ya’ all land in my wheelhouse. ‘Future/Now’ is another song that could have been written about this last year. Also Rob Tyner doesn’t get the credit he deserves for his lyrics, and of course Brother Wayne & Fred “Sonic” Smith and the band figured out how to get it on in the studio.

Keith Richards, Talk Is Cheap. To me, this is the last of the great Stones records and there’s just so much to love about this record. ‘You Just Don’t Move Me,’ ‘Take It So Hard’ and a song that we like to play live called ‘How I Wish.’ Steve Jordan, Waddy Wachtel, Ivan Neville, Charley Drayton, The Memphis Horns. What a shit hot band that was! Also happy 77th Keef. I have a philosophy that ever year a rock star dies, Keith gets another year. “That’s one more for me mate.”

Photo by Tom Dellinger
Image credit: Tom Dellinger

Andrew:
Once COVID-19 calms down, what’s next for you?

Brad:
I’d like to think that we’ll start performing again and I can’t wait to play this record out with the band. I’m very lucky as this group who played on the record (Adam Rossi, Erik Schramm, Vicki Randle, Andrew Griffin, Pie Fiorentino, Joey Dibono and Loralee Christensen) are some of the Bay Area’s best and we’re chomping at the bit to get out there, but only when it’s safe. I’m planning on a live stream at some point but only when I can get together with the whole band because this record deserves that. I know that there will be some writing and I’m obsessed with creating, and there is nothing like writing a new song and that feeling that you did create something essentially out of the air, or from your heart. I’m always trying to push myself to write or say something unique or to write a type of song that I’ve never written before and that’s what excites me about song writing, whether it’s a different sound or with a different instrument or style. So hopefully more of that.

Andrew:
Last question. You’ve had a long career, with many more years to go. Looking back, what are some of your fondest memories? Anything else you would like us to know?

Brad:
Mostly, I just feel the gratitude for even having the opportunity to do this and to sing after all that I’ve been through. I feel like the blind squirrel who gets a nut every now and then, and I’ve had some really fun shows along the way. Playing with all of the “Celebrating Bowie” folks right after Bowie passed with some of the members of his band was a big highlight. Playing with Phil Lesh on Dylan’s Blood On The Tracks was a good one. Doing a show of Jeff Buckley songs and meeting his mom along with meeting and becoming friends with Wayne Kramer has been kind of a dream and I’ve learned so much about music and life from him. So, I feel blessed that I’m still on the dusty trail so to speak. I think the last thing that I’d like folks to know is that music venues are really having some of the toughest times, and that the community is in danger of these amazing places becoming just memories, or gone from history. Once all of this passes, remember that music isn’t just dessert, but it’s food for the soul and that these places need your support as well as the musicians. 

IMG_4854 - with Andrew Griffin, Adam Rossi, Erik Schramm, Pie Fiorentino, Joey Dibono, special guest Jerry Becker

Want to learn more about the music of Brad Brooks? Check out the link below:

Dig this interview? Check out the full archives of Vinyl Writer Interviews, by Andrew Daly, here: www.vinylwritermusic.com/interviews

Published by Andrew Daly

Since he was a young child growing up on Long Island, NY, Andrew has always loved writing and collecting physical music. Present-day, Andrew is proud to share his love of music with the world through his writing, and the result is nothing short of beautiful: articles and interviews written by a music addict for fellow music addicts. Andrew lives on Long Island and works as a Horticultural Operations Manager by day and runs the Vinyl Writer Music website by night.

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