Chris Brokaw has had a career in underground music that sounds like it can't possibly be true: He went to Oberlin College in the '80s, where he met Sooyoung Park, Liz Phair, John McEntire and Stephen Immerwahr. After graduation he played drums briefly with GG Allin, and from there he more or less helped to found the influential cult band Codeine. In doing so, he pioneered an expressive, textural drumming style oft-imitated.
Concurrent with Codeine, Brokaw played in Come with former Live Skull vocalist Thalia Zedek. Since that band broke up, Brokaw has pursued even more diverse musical paths, playing a stint with former Dream Syndicate frontman Steve Wynn, as a sideman with Thurston Moore, and in Consonant with Mission of Burma's Clint Conley -- this in addition to an eclectic and prolific output of music under his own name and in his various musical collaborations. We recently spoke with Brokaw about his long career in music, including his most high-profile gigs and his most recent records.
Westword: You got your start playing music in middle school. How did you get started playing live outside of that context?
Chris Brokaw: I remember, for some reason, being able to play in the cafeteria a lot in both middle school and high school, and even starting to play in rock clubs and stuff. This was all in New York, when I was around fifteen. Somehow it was easier then to play in bars and go to bars when you were fifteen than it is now.
What kind of shows did you play back then, and did you play with anyone you maybe rubbed shoulders with later on in life?
When I first started playing in bars, I was playing in cover bands. In junior high, I was in a cover band at a time I was starting to listen to punk rock. But I didn't really differentiate between different kinds of music that I'd listen to. We would play a Dead Boys song, and then we would play a song by the Band. Then we would play "King Tut" by Steve Martin or something. It was all good, you know what I mean. If we liked the song, we just liked it. I think twelve- or thirteen-year-olds tend to be that way.
How did you end up playing drums with GG Allin, and what was that like?
I had moved to Boston after going to college in Ohio. I had moved to Boston with a band that I was playing guitar in, and our drummer left. We had a really hard time finding a drummer, and eventually I decided to get back into drumming. One of the first things I saw was an advert for GG Allin looking for a drummer. I was sort of vaguely familiar with his work at the time. It turned out that his brother lived right around the corner from me, so I went over to his house and checked out the records and stuff like that.
Let's just say I was in a somewhat more confrontational period in my life at the time. So I enjoyed the fact [that Allin was confrontational, too]. All of my friends were horrified that I considered playing with him. People were really freaked out about it. I thought he was a good songwriter. I only played with him for a couple of months, really. We did a lot of rehearsing, and we recorded one seven-inch for Homestead, and then he had to go kind of underground for a while.
About a year and a half later, he called me up and asked if I would do a show with him. It was August of 1989 at the Middle East in Boston. It was fairly atypical, actually. I was friends with the people who ran the Middle East, so I said to GG, "I really don't want to do a show if the place is going to get destroyed or people are going to get hurt or something."
He said, "No, no, I really want to play a show where I sing a whole set of songs." He said that, at that point, he hadn't played a show in six years that lasted more than two minutes. So we did the show under an assumed name, and we were all in drag. Some stuff got broken, but I guess by his standards, it was a fairly sedate show.
Obviously you'd been playing bars when you were a teenager. Did you go and see music in New York when you were that age, as well, considering the more lax age restrictions of that time?
Oh, yeah. My father lived in Manhattan at the time, so I got to see tons of amazing stuff when I was in high school. I used to go see Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers a lot. For some reason, I saw Iggy Pop a lot when I was in high school. Suicide, the Voidoids and that whole crowd of stuff. Then when I was a senior in high school, it was more bands like the Contortions, the Bush Tetras and the Bad Brains. So I got to see tons of amazing music at a really young age.
Did you ever get to play shows with any of those bands?
Some of those bands I got to play with later on, like when I was in Come. Oddly enough, we ended up dong shows with both the Contortions and the Bush Tetras, which was amazing, too. To play some shows with your heroes.
Did you ever get to see Live Skull? Though that would probably be more your college years...
Yeah, I saw Live Skull a bunch. Both before Thalia Zedek was in the band, and once she had joined the band -- which was right about the time that we became friends.
How did you meet Thalia?
I met her through mutual friends in Boston -- some guys I went to high school with. Around the time she joined Live Skull, she was in this other band, Uzi, that only played a couple of shows. I was friends with the other guys in that band. They were around the house one day just to hang out and play music.
So the first time I met Thalia, we actually played guitar for a couple of hours. It was really amazing, and the two of us had a really great rapport immediately. She was busy with Uzi and Live Skull for a while, but she and I would get together sometimes and play guitar for two or three days at a time. Finally Live Skull split up, and she came back to Boston from New York and said, "You and I should try to put something together." So we put Come together after that.
How did you work together with her as another guitarist?
I felt like neither of us played lead or rhythm. I don't know how exactly we approached it, but there was no delineation in terms of lead and rhythm guitar.
How did you come to join Codeine, and did you have to teach yourself or create a different style of drumming than you had before in other bands?
I had been sort of acquaintances of Stephen Immerwahr, the main songwriter, when we were in college. Then a guy named Sooyoung Park, from the bands Seam and Bitch Magnet, gave me a tape of some of the songs Steve had written. I thought the stuff was really great, so I got in touch with Steve and told him as much. Steve was living in New York, and I was living in Boston, and he had this idea for a band and said he wanted to call it Codeine and wanted to know if I wanted to be involved in it.
Originally, I thought I might be the second guitar player, and we were gonna have [Mike McMackin] play drums, but we decided it would be simpler to have three people instead of four. So yeah, I really had to rethink drumming in a lot of different ways based upon the way we were trying to approach that music.
I think the three of us spent a lot of time discussing what the role of guitar is in a band, what the role of kick drum is in a band, and we really dissected the music and put it back together. I think we were all approaching our instruments and the way we played them in new ways, unlike what we had done before.
With the drums in that band, rather than a more conventional rock approach, when you said you were dissecting it a bit, what were some things you talked about that you definitely wanted to do with the band differently?
Doing something with a lot of restraint. Doing something that was pretty spare. We weren't really interested in having sort of a cathartic experience by playing rock music. I think a lot of rock music tends to have a kind of cathartic effect. And I think we were almost doing the opposite of that. Which was deliberate and quite specific. That was all new to us.
What was it like recording in Mali, and did you get to visit Timbuktu while you were there?
I'll answer the second part first: We passed through Timbuktu. We went there specifically to play a festival in the desert. So what you do is you fly from Paris to Bamako and from Bamako to Timbuktu. From there, you take a jeep sixty kilometers into the desert. So we were in Timbuktu very briefly. My sense of it is that it's a city that's one of the great seats of study. It has some of the oldest and most important libraries there.
But the city has really fallen on hard times. It's super-poor there. Unfortunately, a lot of stuff has been destroyed in uprisings by Ansar Dine just in the last six months. But then when we came back the second time, we recorded in Bamako at this studio called Studio Boglolan, which was Ali Farka Touré's old studio. It has a pretty cool vibe to it, and it's also pretty beat to shit. The equipment there is pretty ratty. We had to bring in a lot of compressors and microphones and stuff like that to get a decent recording out of it. Recording there is amazing. Bamako is definitely one of the most exciting music cities I've ever been to.
What makes it so?
There's just music everywhere. Besides recording there, we would go out every night and you can go hear music for free all over town, and a lot of the music I heard there is not stuff I've heard recordings of. The stuff that they play in the bars there tends to be really minimal and repetitive and hypnotic and kind of atonal.
There's a really incredible music scene there. My sense is that there are great music scenes all over the country. The music that's played in Kidal is totally different from what's played in Bamako which is totally different from what's played Gao. The music from the Dogon country is totally different. It's an incredibly rich music culture there.
On your Wikipedia page it said you "kickstarted" Liz Phair's career. That seems vague. So how do you know Liz, and how did you help in getting her going?
Well, I don't think I really "kickstarted" her career, but I encouraged her. We were just kind of acquaintances in college. Then I spent some time with her in San Francisco a couple of years after I graduated from school. I was out there visiting some friends, and she was roommates with someone I was visiting out there.
Liz and I ended up spending a lot of time together out there. I played her some new songs I was working on, and I had no idea she played any music at all. She sat down and played me a couple of songs, and the songs were amazing. Basically, I just said, "Would you make me a tape of some of your songs?" And she said, "Okay."
So about a month later, she sent me this cassette of about fourteen songs, and they were just incredible. Then, about two weeks later, she sent me a tape with another fourteen songs. So I made a few copies of these things and gave them to a couple of friends.
I think the guy who really spread that music around was a guy named Tae [Won Yu], who had played in a band called Kicking Giant. She had given him a copy of this stuff, as well, and he made literally a hundred copies of this thing and sent them to everyone he knew. Eventually she signed to Matador. I think I just encouraged her because I was totally knocked out by the songs.
This year, you put out Hidden Tooth, and in some of the press for that, you mentioned having become interested in noise and bands like Wolf Eyes. What got you interested in that kind of music, and then making your own?
I don't know. I started getting into noisier stuff when I was living in New York for a while. There was a record store called Hospital Productions that I started going to a lot and buying a lot of stuff. Hidden Tooth is just me and my best friend David Curry. He and I have had this group called the Empty House Cooperative for a number of years. Which is more of a sort of improv, sort of chamber group. But Hidden Tooth is just he and I making noise.
Would you say the stuff you've done for Tidal Mud is kind of related to that sort of experimentation with atmosphere and texture?
Yeah! Yeah. On records like Tidal Mud or Gracias Ghost of the Future, I'm just trying out some different things.
What got you interested in exploring the organ more on Tidal Mud?
That was a complete fluke. My girlfriend had a keyboard, and I started riffing around with it one day. I got good recordings I liked. That was it. I hardly play keyboards at all.
Yeah, a lot of stuff is just what you have access to in any given moment in terms of gear, and you learn to be creative with it and explore its possibilities.
Yeah. That's great.
You have a new album coming out next month?
I have a new album called Gambler's Ecstasy, which comes out October 2nd.
What kind of musical focus did you have for that record?
It's more like a rock record. More of a singer-songwriter record. I've been working on it sporadically for three or four years and finally finished it this spring. I'm really excited about it, and I started this tour about two weeks ago and playing a lot of these songs live. It's the kind of thing that I think is best served by playing with a band, but a lot of them I think I can play solo and pull it off okay. Right now, I'm out for a seven week tour opening for Mono. It's been going great and the shows have been amazing.
How did you end up touring with those guys, and how have their audiences responded to you?
The audiences have been really responsive. I'm friends with a guy named Fred Weaver who is managing them, and he turned them on to my music a while back. They ended up asking me if I'd be interested in touring with them on the West Coast -- I live in Seattle now. I said it sounded cool and that I'd be interested in doing even a few other shows besides the West Coast. They ended up coming back to me and asking if I'd like to do the entire tour. I hadn't done a really long U.S. tour in several years, and I really wanted to. It seemed like a really great opportunity.
You've played with Thurston Moore. What was it like playing music with him in terms of the creative dynamic you two had together?
It was really exciting. He's a really fun guy to play with. He expects you to learn what is often very difficult music almost instantly. It's funny, because for the shows we were doing, we were playing in three different tunings, and it was all tunings I had never used before. So it was almost like having to learn like three different languages instantly.
For the tours we were doing, he and I were both primarily playing acoustic guitars. A lot of what I was doing was doubling his parts. Some of it was kind of echoing or giving responses to his parts. So it was the kind of thing where we established that together with a really small amount of rehearsals.
It felt like the tours we did, every night, it was starting to grow a little more. It was a really great band, I thought. Me and Thurston and Steve Shelley playing drums. And Matt Heyner, who's a really amazing bass player. Samara Lubelski played violin. It was a really kickass band, and I wish we could have done more. But it was the sort of thing that felt like each night it would get a little more interesting. It was cool.
Is it true you played in Consonant with Clint Conley from Mission of Burma?
It is true. I've known Clint Conley for a long time. We'd met through mutual friends in Boston. He called me up one day and he was like -- this was before he had started up again with Burma -- "Man, I started writing songs again." I said, "Well, gee, Clint, that would be great." He asked, "Listen man, do you have a four-track I could borrow?" So I loaned him a four-track.
Then he asked if I could back some of those songs with him. I think he was so surprised to be playing music again. So I said, "Sure, of course." Then he said, "Maybe we should get a drummer or get a bass player." So I got my friend Matt from the New Year to play drums and my friend Winston to play bass.
So we kind of put this thing together around Clint's songs. We did the two Consonant records, and around that time, Burma started playing together again. Eventually he decided that he just wanted to do Burma. So we did those two records, and that was that. Clint's amazing, and it was so much fun playing with him. He's an absolute sweetheart.
You played with Steve Wynn for a bit, too?
Steve basically knew the music of Come, and he had done a few solo records where he would get a ton of different people who had never played together before to go into the studio with him. And I think he was really interested in making a record with an actual band backing him up. So he asked Come if we would do an album backing him up. So we did this album with him called Melting in the Dark. Subsequently, Thalia did a couple of tours with him, and then I continued playing guitar with him for four years after that.
You have a band with Stephen O'Malley called the Catamites. How did that come about, and what got you interested in playing with him?
Basically, I think we got into contact with each other because he started buying some records of mine through mail order. Then we started sending each other music. He sent me some Khanate CDs, and I thought that stuff was really amazing, and I was really interested in the guitar playing. I think he was sort of coming up with a whole new language for guitar playing.
We just started sending each other stuff a lot for a couple of years. Eventually he said, "We should try jamming together at some point." I think he recognized that we both know a lot of different people and have a lot of different interests. He lives in Paris now, and last year, I sort of set up the tour, so that I could finish the tour and go up to Paris for a couple of days and just try playing.
So I went up there and we jammed for a couple of days, and it was really fun. He was playing guitar, and I was playing drums half the time and guitar half the time. We booked some shows earlier this year. We did three shows in Belgium and one in Seattle -- all of which were super fun. Really, kind of high energy, kinetic music. He's super busy, but he just finished a SunnO))) tour last week, I think. So we're hoping to record something towards the end of the year. He's a really great guy.
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