(photo : Anthony Saffery)
Chris Brokaw is the consummate underground rock musician. In a career spanning thirty-plus years he has been in countless bands (Come, Charnel Ground, Codeine, The Lemonheads, to name a few) has been a sideman with everyone from Thurston Moore to GG Allin, pounded countless stages on nonstop tours, and played on over seventy recordings. ‘Puritan’ is his tenth solo album and it’s a killer.
From the hypnotic repetition on the extended instrumental outro of title-track opener ‘Puritan’, the wounded grace of ‘Depending’, to the fragile beauty of the Velvets-esque duet with Claudia Groom, ‘I’m the Only One for You’, and the ghost of Alex Chilton echoing through ‘The Bragging Rights’, onto the GBV-like firestorm of ‘Periscope Kids’, and ending with the ‘On The Beach’ era Neil Young minimal strum of his cover of Karl Hendricks’ “The Night Has No Eyes”, Brokaw has crafted an understated masterpiece. ‘Puritan’ is an album that is all heartache and rebirth, resignation and joy, the kind of record that is so needed but all too rare these days. A classic from front to back.
– Mark Lanegan 2020
Q&A with Chris Brokaw on ‘Puritan’
Q: How long has it been since your last solo record and what have you been doing in the time between?
A : My last solo record “End Of The Night” came out in May 2019. Since then I finished up some Lemonheads touring, toured the west coast with a band playing my new record (Lori Goldston on cello, Greg Kelley on trumpet, Luther Gray on drums, Dave Abramson on drums, me on guitar), toured Japan with Thalia Zedek (solos + duos), toured Europe with my band Charnel Ground (me +Doug McCombs and Kid Millions), toured the west coast again playing guitar in Doug McCombs’ band Brokeback, played a duo gig with Mike IX Williams in Boston…and then the plague hit. I’ve just been teaching guitar + drums on Skype since then, recording a little, laying low in Cambridge.
The last album I did of rock songs, with vocals and lyrics, was in 2013, and I guess I’ve been gathering material since then.
Q: Can you tell me a little about your songwriting method?
CB : Most of them take a long time. Sometimes I’ll have 8 seconds of a song, totally realized, I can hear a whole band doing it in my head as if it’s on a record….and then I just wait, and eventually form the rest of the song around it.
I’ve written some songs using mesostics and/or acrostics, tho none on this record.
“The Heart of Human Trafficking” took a long time, and I had to take a leap of faith to conclude that it was actually done, that the particular form it took was finished.
“Puritan” I wrote about a week before we recorded it. The band totally nailed it in the studio but I was still writing the lyrics at the microphone. I had to make it a crowd of voices, sort of tripping over one another, trying to form a path.
In both these songs I was really happy to have the results be surprising. At this point I most happily await things from myself that I don’t totally recognize.
“I’m The Only One For You” I wrote originally for a movie, a short ghost story called ‘Mother’s Garden’. The song is kind of a period piece, but then I fell in love with it. Originally it was pretty short but one night I was playing it with my trio in this cavernous brewery in Massachusetts and was like, what happens if we just stretch this out…in this room with this huge high ceiling…
“Report To An Academy” was named after a Rudyard Kipling story of the same name. I tried to use some of the ideas in the story, specifically the thoughts of a creature trying to imitate humans, as a jumping off point, but I couldn’t fit a vocal or lyrics into the song, and it stayed an instrumental. I was going through a period where I felt like I was imitating humans….negotiating some changes.
“Periscope Kids” I was trying to get something really sand- blasted-sounding. I’m a big fan of Nico and I was thinking of her a lot on this one. The Periscope Kids were a couple I knew in Seattle and they were bad news and that whole song is bad news.
My songs aren’t like Johnny Cash songs, most of them only I will probably know what they’re really all about. That’s ok, for better or worse I think that’s how it has to be. Whatever people get out of them, that’s great. Much of what’s in them is literal for me but maybe not for the listener.
Q) How long have these songs been gestating?
CB : “Periscope Kids” is oldest, I think around 2014. “Puritan” one week old. Everything else in between.
Q) Can you pick a couple songs that hold particular meaning to you and talk about them?
CB: “Depending” is probably my favorite. So far it seems to be everyone’s favorite. It feels stately, and it’s nice to just step into that.
There’s a line in “Depending” where I say:
“I never thought, moving my lot alone across a prairie
I’d have the thought to give up my bones unto the birds to carry
whether I drive, whether I park and wait a few,
it won’t depend on you”
And I mean that was me literally driving a truck with all my shit across the country from Seattle to Boston in 2017, extremely uncertain about what was ahead after a pretty disasterous period out west…and thinking at one point, in some part of the country where you don’t see any cars or trucks or houses for hours, maybe I should just drive off a cliff and let the vultures pick my bones clean….And whether I do or not… that’s my call! Sort of a declaration of independence. – Which I thought was grim and insane and funny all at once. It still cracks me up.
“I’m The Only One For You”, like I said, went from being a sort of pastiche to this kind of lush romanticism I’ve only dreamed of. My friend Claudia Groom (formerly of the Seattle band Juned) did such an amazing vocal on it…it fucking kills me, the band plays so beautifully…I’m very happy with it.
“The Night Has No Eyes” is the one cover, written by a dude from Pittsburgh named Karl Hendricks who passed away in 2017. I did the song originally for a tribute/benefit album, but re-recorded it with Thalia for this. It closes the album with a voice that feels about forgiveness and/or acceptance, and while that voice is essentially an outsider’s it seemed like a conciliatory way to end an album that is working through a bunch of other shit.
CB: I’ve come to love playing and singing, but came sort of late to a lot of it, so I feel like I’m still finding my way in it. It’s one of a few different things I do. Like I said earlier I’m always happy to get surprised by the songs that come out. I wrote “Puritan” right before we recorded and it’s definitely about moving back to New England, a place I’m not from (I grew up in New York) but one I’ve fallen in love with and I think found my place in. I think saying “Chris Brokaw: Puritan” is deliberately funny but maybe I’ll be the only one laughing on that. The album is definitely threaded with ideas about how people judge one another, but….I don’t know, I don’t want to explain shit. Explaining art is terrible.
(photo : Andy Hong)
The Chris Brokaw Rock Band :
Chris Brokaw guitar, vocals
Dave Carlson – bass guitar
Pete Koeplin – drums
with special guests :
Tricia Adelmann – vocal on “I Can’t Sleep”
Claudia Groom – vocal on “I’m The Only One For You”
Thalia Zedek – vocal, guitar on “The Bragging Rights” and “The Night Has No Eyes”
Recorded and mixed by Andy Hong at Kimchee, Cambridge MA 2019/2020. “Bragging Rights” and “The Night Has No Eyes”, recorded by Britt Robischeaux at Cloudland, Fort Worth, TX, November 2019. Mastered at Chicago Mastering Service by Matthew Barnhart.
All songs written by Chris Brokaw except “The Night Has No Eyes” (written by Karl Hendricks, lyrics used by permission). LP layout and design by James Keeler. Front cover photo by Sasha Syeed.