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Q&A: Braid's Bob Nanna On Frame And Canvas, The Meaning Of "Emo," And Making People Appreciate Weird Time Signatures

Q&A: Braid's Bob Nanna On Frame And Canvas, The Meaning Of "Emo," And Making People Appreciate Weird Time Signatures

The rock subgenre known as "emo"—or at least a watered-down version of it—got kind of big in the early 2000s. But before then, a slew of bands were crafting post-hardcore with twisting time signatures, dynamic shifts in tempo and loudness, and alternatingly sung/screamed vocals. Braid was one of the best from the Midwest, and the 1998 release Frame and Canvas was the band's best (and, as it turned out, final) album; the record stepped it up in terms of production (recorded by J. Robbins at D.C.'s Inner Ear), songwriting, and quality of singing. Frame and Canvas still sounds amazing 14 years on, and old-fart fans and newbies will get to hear the whole thing live during a short tour that the band's members managed to squeeze in between job and family obligations. SOTC reached singer/guitarist Bob Nanna on the phone in advance of his band's arrival in New York.

Where are you right now?

Somewhere in the middle of Pennsylvania. We're on our way to New York.

It's a real pleasure to talk to you. Frame and Canvas was a really important college album for me.

Oh, awesome. Cool, thank you.

Take us back to your general frame of mind around the time of writing and recording Frame and Canvas.

Frame and Canvas came out in '98. I was 23 at that time. I had basically just finished college. I'm from Chicago, but I went to school in Champaign-Urbana, which is about two and a half hours away. That's where Braid started. When I was in school, any sort of break that I had or Chris [Broach] had, because he was going to school there too, we would go on tour. So spring breaks... any sort of holidays or summer, we were always on tour. I graduated in '97, and immediately after I graduated... we probably had a tour booked for the week after I graduated. At that time, we just toured nonstop. That next year, '98, we toured like 200 days. It was this frantic time of, finally we're free, Bob doesn't have to go to school anymore, let's just tour as much as possible. So most of the album... was written on tour. A lot of it was just Chris and I playing our guitars before shows. I'm sure all the lyrics were written on the road too because I always brought journals and stuff. Then when we recorded the album in December of '97, I believe, at Inner Ear in D.C. We toured down there to record and we only had five days to record and mix the whole record. So basically it was fast, fast, fast-paced lifestyle.

Can you still relate to the themes and topics of the album?

Yeah, what I was describing earlier kind of translates into the album. It's sort of kids that are forced into the question of; do you keep playing or not keep playing? And if you keep playing, you go crazy and play as much as you want and really get out there and work, work, work. That alone probably fueled a lot of songs thematically. In terms of playing it now, a lot of it still resonates. To be honest, some of the things, I don't remember what state of mind I was in or we were in when we were writing it. For the purposes of now, I put it in the context of right now. You look at really good music (and I'm not saying our album is good music), but I listen to Jawbreaker and put it in the context of my life. So I'm becoming a fan of the record. I don't remember what the hell I was thinking when we wrote "Ariel," but now I've got enough experiences to back it up with something I care about now.

I grew up on the east coast, went to school on the west coast. There were all these great '90s bands coming out of the Midwest, and on the album there's all these Midwest references I was trying to figure out. Was that intentional?

Very much unintentional. It was sort of writing what you know about. I was talking yesterday about "I Keep A Diary" with somebody. That was obviously written on tour because it takes place in Wyoming. We wrote about where we were and what we knew and put situations in the context of Urbana or Chicago or Milwaukee.

When the album was released, it was such a big leap forward, musically and thematically, from the band's previous releases. Do you agree with that and did you set out to push the band forward in new directions?

Looking back on it I can agree with it, but at the time, no, it really didn't occur to us. The major thing that did happen before Frame and Canvas was Damon [Atkinson] joined the band. The first song we wrote with Damon was "A Dozen Roses." When we wrote that song, it was like, wow, this is different. But we never thought here's Damon; let's write different kinds of songs. We always just wrote how we felt at the time.

 

Braid, "The New Nathan Detroits" (live in 1999)

Do you think the album was a few years ahead of its time for greater commercial success? If it was released a few years later in the early 2000s, do you think it could have gotten more commercial radio play, MTV?

Maybe, but it never... Right now, when I look back, wish that Frame and Canvas came out earlier. I look at all of the albums... Some of my favorite albums around that time that my friends were doing, like Cap'n Jazz, Promise Ring, Karate, Boy's Life, Hoover, or Fugazi even, I almost feel like we were copying all those bands. I never really thought of our band having much mainstream radio allure or potential. My dream was to make people appreciate weird time signatures more. I never lamented the fact that we were before that sort of exploded.

Think of the millions you could have pulled in.

[laughs] Oh, my God. I wouldn't be in Pennsylvania right now.

What brought about the decision to tour the album, and is this a financially lucrative thing for Braid to be doing right now?

Well, probably not because we're all missing work. [laughs] But in terms of [touring] the record, Chris and I had played this little show... where we did Frame and Canvas, just him and I with guest musicians in Chicago. It was a charity thing. So we relearned all these songs we hadn't played in a while. The reason why we're doing the tour now is this is the only time all of our schedules line up. Todd [Bell] is a teacher, Damon is a production manager at Warped Tour. Chris and I have jobs as well that we can take off from.

What are your jobs?

Chris works for Cars.com and I work for Threadless.com. So because we had August to work with, we wanted to go to as many of the bigger places as possible now. We'll probably play more shows in December.

Was it difficult to relearn the songs?

No. A few of the songs, like "Consolation Prize Fighter," I don't think we ever played live with Damon. It was probably the toughest for him on that song. There were only three songs we sort of haven't played in a long time, but you sort of start picking up the guitar and being like, OK, here's where I know the song started. What would I do next?

Do you have a favorite song from the album to play live?

I love playing "A Dozen Roses," and I love playing "Milwaukee Skyrocket." Those are for two different reasons. "Milwaukee Skyrocket" is very high energy and I don't have to sing it, and "A Dozen Roses," I really like singing that one.

How many shows have you played so far on this tour?

One in Cleveland last night.

What was the crowd reaction like? I'm picturing people in their 30s who were into the album came out and younger fans who were kids when the album came out.

It was a mix, but I think it was more older fans. They were still into it and energetic, but... Not old like I'm old, but late 20s, that sort of thing. But it was a really fun, energetic show.

 

Braid, "First Day Back" (live in 1998)

Are you surprised at the album's longevity?

[long pause] Yes. Because when we finished recording it, it was just our next album. I never thought it would be our swan song, this is gonna be what everyone has to remember you by because it's the last one. We still like the album a lot, obviously, people still respond to it. I'm happy that people still like it. But I wanna feel like we've got more albums in us. I'd like to push ourselves to make the real album that people wanna remember. [laughs]

Are you comfortable with the term "emo," and with being pegged as an emo band?

Yeah, it's really whatever anyone wants to say. I can't control what people say about Braid. They can characterize us however they want. I don't really use the term anymore. I never really understood what it was. I think emo meant more about the live experience than the actual music. To be honest, I don't think it bothers many people anymore. I think there's a good amount of people trying to reclaim it. I'll just stay neutral.

Have you guys ever licensed any songs or been approached about licensing any songs?

No and no. Our publishing company [tracks] when shows pick up our music. We never specifically licensed a song to a company. I know that there's one German Animal Planet-esque show that loves Hey Mercedes. That's cool; we get pretty small royalties for that. No one can sell a car to "Consolation Prize Fighter."

Besides music, what have you been up to since the last Braid reunion?

Well, a lot. You said other than music, but most it is music. Damon and I played in a band called Certain People I Know for a little while. That's not a band that's active. I did a few solo tours. I'm in a band now called Jack & Ace with girlfriend, Lauren [LoPicollo]. I got a job at Threadless, and I've been working there for about seven years. All four of us probably have laundry lists of what we've done. Damon's working for Warped Tour. He lives in Nashville. Todd got married, has a daughter now, he's living in Milwaukee. Chris is getting married and works at Cars.com.

Are things different in the tour van nowadays?

No. It's all the same, everyone getting slap-happy and annoyed and happy and pissy. It's all the same. But we're older now, so we maybe brush it off a little more.

Can you name some of your favorite bands from the late '90s and from now?

Back then I loved At The Drive-In, Cap'n Jazz, Brainiac, Jawbreaker, Fugazi. Those were the things I was religiously listening to. Now I'm way into Maps & Atlases, Aloha is one of my favorite bands, the Velvet Teen is a band I love, and then I like the new Dirty Projectors album too.

Are you aware that there's a country band from Texas called Braid?

We were just talking about this. I'm not familiar with them, but someone forwarded me their website. Yeah, they'll be hearing from our lawyer. [laughs] No, I don't care. We were just like, in this day and age, all you gotta do is look online when you're naming your band. But whatever, it's a common word, I guess.

Braid play the Bowery Ballroom tonight and the Music Hall of Williamsburg on Saturday.

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