Hi Brendan, welcome to VENTS! How have you been?
Can you talk to us more about your single “We Can Beat Mercury”?
This was the first song written for the album and the first one we recorded. What I kind of loved about it from the moment I wrote it was that it felt unique and a little bit quirky. Not many songs that I know mention tarot card readings or talk about Mercury retrograde ruining your road trip. It doesn’t even really have a chorus. And the tone being one of optimism and hopefulness definitely sets it apart from the bulk of my catalog. That said, I felt like if I had one opportunity to get a new listener interested in the project, Mercury would be my best candidate. The interplay between the steel and electric guitar during the intro, and Jon Yudkin’s string work—the violin solo and the little cello run coming out of the breakdown—are among my favorite moments off the entire record.
Did any event in particular inspire you to write this song?
In the spring of 2016 I quit my job, moved out of my apartment and into an RV with the woman I was seeing, a violinist, to tour the country playing music for an indefinite amount of time. I don’t think we were even a week into it when we started having domestic problems. One morning after an argument, she mentioned that Mercury had just gone into retrograde. I didn’t know what that meant and had to research it. I learned that people who are into astrology blame this phenomenon for communication getting garbled and plans—particularly those involving travel—going awry. I didn’t really believe in that kind of stuff… I thought a better explanation was that two people who fundamentally didn’t belong together crammed into a confined space with two daschunds and not enough money never really stood a chance. It was an interesting coincidence though. So one afternoon a few weeks later, I decided to take on the perspective of someone who DID believe it and write the song.
How was the filming process and experience behind the video?
I’d never made a music video before so this was a big step forward. Omeri Monroe directed and he and I collaborated on the concept. We had a pretty great chemistry … he knew when to listen to my ideas and when to tell me if they were stupid. We shot at the Riviera Theatre in North Tonawanda, NY, which was built in 1926. Cast members ranged from long-time friends and family members to friends of friends I’d never actually met until they walked up on set. Some of them lived down the street, others flew in from out of state. I was kind of amazed at how quickly and efficiently everything went. The entire on-stage portion was shot in a couple hours, when I had more or less expected it would take an entire night, especially since the atmosphere was chaos by design. But all the actors were fantastic … they just did their thing when it was their turn and everybody really shined and contributed something memorable. My band had only been a band for a month at that point, so filming and watching this back was a big, fun bonding experience for us.
The single comes off your new album Are We Sure The Dawn Is Coming? – what’s the story behind the title?
I’ve always gravitated toward naming an album after a non-title line from one of its songs, and the line “Are we sure the dawn is coming?” is taken from the chorus of “Turn Your Luck.” It’s actually the last lyric line that appears on the album, which definitely helps it resonate. To me, those words best summed up the years and experiences written about in these songs. Every dark time that I went through, I would tell myself “Hey, it can’t get any worse, right?” but somehow it did. And that lasted a while. So honestly, I never considered calling the record anything else. It was written about a personal life under a microscope … I never could have imagined the broader cultural climate I’d be releasing it into. I don’t know how you go about submitting an official slogan for 2020, but this might be a pretty great one.
How was the recording and writing process?
90% of the album was recorded in one 10-hour day with a session band at County Q in Nashville, before my current band came into my life. It was a“lightning in a bottle” sort of experience. It was incredible … and a little uncomfortable because I’ve always been a planner. To kind of let go of the reigns, trust a roomful of strangers, and let it all happen spontaneously was a completely new and different method for me. But Paul Scholten, the studio manager, did an excellent job selecting the group. These guys were right at home genre-wise and had wonderful instincts. They honed in on all the built-in melodic nuances and stuff, and the things that they improvised sounded like they had always belonged there. While we tracked the band, I sang scratch vocals but just for the hell of it, they set up a nice Neumann mic for me in case the performances were good enough to keep, and about half of them were. The lead vocal you’re hearing on the álbum is me singing live with the band, and having that live energy is something I’ve always wanted to capture. The writing process was a little easier and more fluid than previous projects. I’ve traditionally been a reviser and a self-censor to a fault, but these songs came in single sittings and for the most part were allowed to see the light of day in their initial, raw forms. I didn’t get too hung up on anything. I’d get an idea, run with it, then move on to the next one.
What role does Buffalo play in your music?
Most Buffalonians have a chip on their shoulder about something, and it makes sense cause the rest of the country looks at this place sort of like it’s New York City’s fuck-off little brother. Even if it’s a voice in our own head, someone’s always whispering “You can’t do it … you’re not good enough,” and we want nothing more than to prove them wrong and shut them up. That’s been a part of me as long as I’ve been a self-aware human being, and it filters into my music for sure, which people have been telling me since I was 16 is not a viable career option. In the last 10 years Buffalo’s undergone a pretty amazing cultural and economic renaissance. That’s the reason I moved back here after living in other cities. It felt like I was getting in on the ground floor of something special, surrounded by a city flourishing and realizing its full potential. And there’s a pretty interesting parallel to be drawn with where my career is at currently—supported by the best group of players I’ve ever worked with, churning out some of the best songs I’ve ever written, I feel like the table is completely set for me right now. And I couldn’t tell you why, but I’ve always had an easier time writing here than anyplace else. Something in the air, or the water, or wherever you want to put it really gets my creative wheels spinning.
How has the likes of Jason Isbell and Drive By Truckers influenced your writing?
Jason Isbell was a major influence as far as production and arrangements for the record. “Something More Than Free” in particular, which is one of my favorite albums of the last decade, was a reference point I kept turning back to. I wasn’t necessarily trying to copy the sound, but I really wanted this project to FEEL similar. As far as writing specifically, he’s somebody I’ve always looked to who seems to be on a similar trajectory in terms of subject matter. My career up to this point has featured a lot of “My relationships are a mess… and so am I,” and I’m at a point now where I’m more or less burnt out on all that, and I feel like it’s been sufficiently exorcised. I’m writing some new stuff I’m really excited about, and the topics are a little more universal and a little less personal. I keep coming back to the line from “Hope the High Road”: “I’ve heard enough of the white man’s blues/I’ve sang enough about myself” and it’s kind of become my mantra for writing the next record. So don’t expect more messy relationship songs … maybe one.
What aspect of desperation did you get to explore on this record?
Having my dream of traveling and playing music full-time seemingly within reach, sinking every last resource into it, and wanting it bad enough to endure a toxic partnership that finally landed me homeless and broke. Slipping further and further into drinking as a numbing agent, with the loss of control culminating in a rehab stint. A second toxic partnership that ended with police, courtrooms, a restraining order, and an online smear campaign which broke up my band at the time and led a contingent of local musicians and venues to swear off working with me forever. Accruing credit card debt I’ll be paying off into my 50s in order to create and promote the project. All this set against the backdrop of getting older every day, and to this point, in general, nobody having heard of me.
Where else did you find the inspiration for the songs and lyrics?
Touring. It’s something of a badge of honor that the songs are set (based on actual time spent) in and mention, I think, seven different states. Each song is very much its own chapter from its own corner of the country, making up a bigger story from the road. I can look at a map and remember “Oh yeah… I was THERE when that was happening.”
What else is happening next in Brendan & The Strangest Ways’ world?
This summer, my very good friend D.B. Rouse suggested we start a weekly songwriting club, where each week (sometimes two weeks) one of us suggests a topic or phrase to write a song about, then we exchange and critique them. I’ve already written a couple of things I really like a lot, and the 10 or 12 best songs to come out of this are going to become the next record. My drummer, Pete Wilson, and I have started to work on co-writing a couple things. All these avenues for getting other people involved are kind of new and exciting, cause for me writing has always been a very personal, sort of private process. So I’m interested to see where things go from here … In the meantime, the band is working to help preserve some landmark music venues in Buffalo, which the state government has banned from putting on shows in the wake of people not following rules and forming a mosh pit at a major pop concert I guess. I don’t know what any of that has to do with a 200-capacity local venue effectively following every health and safety protocol being allowed to support itself and stay open, but hey, I don’t make the rules. I just provide “incidental entertainment” for folks who happen to be out on the town for a nice hot dog dinner.