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Chris Brokaw's Experiment In Pop

With a career that includes stints in groundbreaking post-punk bands like Codeine and Come, lead-guitar duties for barn-burning trad rocker Steve Wynn, drumming complex, alternate time signatures for the New Year, then picking up guitar for Clint Conley's melodic, hard-edged Consonant, plus writing film scores, accompanying dance projects and, along the way, recording a handful of understated, finely-wrought solo albums, Chris Brokaw has, to put it mildly, done a lot of things.

"The variety of what I'm doing is exactly what I want to be doing," Brokaw said in a recent telephone interview. "As far as building a career and a following, there's definitely something to be said for finding one thing that you do well and just doing that. But I want to do some other things."

Right now, Brokaw's touring following the release of his fourth solo album, Incredible Love, a subtle and intelligently made collection of songs that Brokaw calls his "pop record," but which is nonetheless complex and politically engaged.

Incredible Love was finished in the fall of 2004 and reflects Brokaw's growing frustration with the war in Iraq. "The Information Age," one of the album's most overt protest songs, emerged out of Brokaw's work with Highway Ulysses, an opera put on by the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Brokaw explained that the opera, though loosely based on the Ulysses myth, really focused on war veterans and their families, a theme of "The Information Age" as well. Yet events in the Middle East also had an impact.

"I had this sense that, especially within the first year of the war of Iraq starting, I felt like no one was writing about it," he said. "I felt like no one was singing about it. Which seems weird to me. It seemed like it was this thing that everyone was talking about and no one was singing about."

While contemporary songwriters hung back, Brokaw said, it was left to old-style political artists to attack the issue. "I was playing a show in Athens, Georgia, maybe about six weeks after September 11th," he recalled. "I was playing at one club and Eugene Chadbourne was playing up the street. So I went to hear him play and it was like... his entire set was about our new war on terror. He had all these new songs about things like buying Cipro on eBay and anthrax spores showing up in your mailbox. It was so of the moment."

Later Brokaw had a similar epiphany at a Suicide show in Boston a few months after the war started. "Those guys spent the whole set just railing about the war... the whole set was an anti-war tirade," Brokaw said. "And I was like, 'Fuckin' A, this is so great.' And leave it to these two old punk-rockers."

The next day, Brokaw went out to replace a lost copy of Suicide's first album, and, in the process, found the song that yielded the name of his latest album. "There were two songs on the CD that I was listening to over and over, 'I Remember' and 'Keep Your Dreams.'" he said. "I was just listening to those two songs over and over and over. I was driving to do a radio show, and I was like, 'I'm going to play one of these songs today.'"

Because he had just bought a flanger, which makes the wild, wheeling sound on the original, he ended up picking "I Remember," which contains the "incredible love" phrase that titles his album.

Brokaw explained that he saw Incredible Love as a bit of a departure. "To me it's kind of a pop record, which I think is pretty different from the ones I've done before," he said. "The first album was sort of an all-instrumental rock record. The second one was this solo acoustic record that I really did just to document what I was doing live at the time. The third was more of a film score. And then I came to my pop record. I just sort of reached... I had enough songs that I was singing that I just thought this was the kind of record I wanted to make."

Perhaps the most "pop" of all the songs on Incredible Love is "Move," the hard-rocking single. Brokaw played all the instruments on this cut, laying them down one by one in Paul Kolderie's Camp Street Studio. Brokaw said the drums came first: "I just sort of counted it off and played the song through my mind and played the drum part," he said. "And then what I'll do is play along with the acoustic guitar with that, and see if the whole thing holds together. As long as... as long as the drum track is OK, that's sort of the bedrock you work from... or that I do... and I can add everything else. So then I'll put on acoustic guitar, then bass, then electric guitar, then vocals."

The result is an extremely aggressive, propulsive sound, with acoustic guitar at its center. "I wanted to have the acoustic guitar be the main instrument, but I wanted it to sound tougher, so I put some distortion on the bass and then we overdrove the drums a little bit."

He added that it was Kolderie — the legendary producer whose credits include The Pixies, Radiohead and others — who identified the additional "something" that made the song work. "I sort of turned to Paul and said, 'We have to make the drums sound a little more rock,'" Brokaw said. "He was like, 'OK,' and he pressed, like, the 'rock' button on the compressors, and suddenly the whole thing sounded more rock."

Although Brokaw completed "Move" on his own, he drew on a variety of other musicians to round out other tracks. Brokaw said that when he wrote the song "Cranberries," he felt that he personally couldn't do the kind of drumming that the song required. He ran into Kevin Coultas, who had played in Come as well as the post-rock band Rodan, and found the solution. "Kevin's style in drumming with Rodan was sort of like drumming as an Olympic sport, so I thought that he would be really good for that song," Brokaw said.

Another friend, bass player Jeff Goddard (ex of Karate), made up the rhythm section for most of the tracks. Matt Kadane of Bedhead and the New Year plays piano on "The Information Age," while David Michael Curry of the Willard Grant Conspiracy sweetens "My Idea" with viola.

One of the best songs, "Xs for Eyes," gains some of its mournful heft from a modest chamber orchestra: Noah Chasin on violin, Curry again playing viola, and Jonah Sacks on cello. The string arrangements, which are quite effective, evolved organically out of a long rehearsal session, Brokaw said. "I gathered the three guys and sat them down in the studio and they all sort of looked at me and said, 'OK, what do you want us to play?' and I was like, 'I don't know,'" he recalled. "Then I said, 'I'll just start playing the song and singing it and you guys can start playing and when you do something that I like, I'll let you know.' And so we kind of did that over and over for two or three hours, until the whole thing came together."

Incredible Love is packaged beautifully, with a 28-page booklet that includes the lyrics and credits to all the songs and a series of photos taken by Brokaw himself. The booklet is tastefully minimalist with each photo facing a full page of blank space. Brokaw said that it might not have gone over so well at 12XU a few years ago, but the current climate has shifted to favor album art again. "I guess it's a fortunate time to be wanting to do a big booklet, because labels are having to think about that a lot more now," he said. "From what I understand, labels are thinking much more about what kind of cool packaging can we have, what can we have to go with albums."

He added, "It was fine with Gerard [Cosloy], but when I sent it to the British label, they wrote back, "You do know that every other page is blank?'"

Brokaw's solo work grows out of a long and diverse career, starting in the 1970s when he first picked up guitar and drums as a pre-teenager. His first real band, however, was Codeine, a three-piece with John Engle and Steve Immerwahr, whose approach to music Brokaw remembered as disciplined and intellectually grounded. "Codeine was a band that defined its work along guidelines that we could approach almost dispassionately," he said. "We spent a lot of time discussing what the role of the guitar is in a band, and what the role of the kick drum is... we really dissected the music. There was nothing accidental about anything that we did. It was a great... I learned a lot and it was a real honor to play that music."

By the early 1990s, however, Brokaw had also joined Come with Thalia Zedek; there, for the first time, he was writing songs. "I was playing with both bands for a couple of years, but it reached a point where both bands were getting busy enough that it wasn't really fair for me to keep playing with both," he said. "And Come was playing songs that Thalia and I were writing together... John and Steve from Codeine both realized this was more my baby and I should go with it. So that's what I did."

As Come began winding down in 2000, Brokaw began playing lead guitar with the Steve Wynn band, the first time since high school that he played in a more traditional rock set-up. "That was really like the first place where I could play guitar solos, sort of like in the traditional sense of verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge/now here's the guitar solo," he said. "I'm a huge Rolling Stones fan, so I know that style of music really well. I just hadn't done much of it, or not since high school. So it was really fun to play in that style."

Brokaw also hooked up with the Kadane brothers, Matt and Bubba, who had toured with Come as Bedhead and were starting a new project. That band, the New Year, has since put out two broodingly complex albums, Newness Ends and The End Is Near, with Brokaw behind the drum set. And, starting in about 2000, Brokaw and Matt Kadane began playing with Clint Conley's Consonant, this time with Kadane on drums and Brokaw on guitar.

Interspersed among all this work for other people, Brokaw has managed to put out four solo albums, including the highly regarded Red Cities in 2002 on Atavistic (and 12XU in Europe), Wandering on Water in 2003, the EP My Confidant + 3 in 2004 and the film score I Was Born But... later that year. Incredible Love followed late in 2005.

Brokaw, who has toured extensively with other people's bands, finally got a chance to take his own three-piece out on the road last fall. "That was really the first time that I was the front guy from a rock band, or the only singer from a rock band. That definitely takes some getting used to," he said. "I just have to kind of constantly tell myself that what we're doing musically is enough. I get self-conscious when we're on stage... is this interesting enough to look at?"

Brokaw admitted that his frontman skills aren't as theatrical as some — he has yet to incorporate Townshend's windmills or James Brown's splits. But he said he takes some comfort in a DVD of Jimi Hendrix's 1970 performance at the Isle of Wight. "When you listen to the recording of that and it's just like... it sounds like they're exploding the whole time," he said. "The playing is amazing and just on the edge of falling apart the whole time, and then you watch the video and it's like, he's just standing there chewing gum. There's not much to look at." So, as long as you can play like Jimi, it doesn't matter what you do onstage? I asked. "That's the challenge," he answered.

Fans can judge Brokaw's live show for themselves when he hits a series of cities fronting the three-piece Chris Brokaw Rock Band (with his album lineup of Jeff Goddard on bass and Kevin Coultas on drums), with a few late-January dates in the U.S., then a European tour starting February 8 in Madrid and winding through France, Italy and the UK through March. For complete dates visit his Web site. — Jennifer Kelly [Monday, January 23, 2006]

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