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Rob Trucks’s “Possibly 4th Street” expositions, in which he invites musicians to perform live and impromptu somewhere in New York City, run intermittently here at Sound of the City.
The Explorers Club plays the Mercury Lounge, February 5 and the following night at Maxwell’s in Hoboken.
photos by Rob Trucks
Possibly 4th Street
Number 26 (Part One)
The Explorers Club
by Rob Trucks
Call it refreshing when a band steps into the confessional willing, ready and able to acknowledge its sins of influence.
Not that the Explorers Club has a choice. For even school-of-rock dropouts will detect the Beach Boys’ orchestral shadow–frequent falsetto within four-part harmony on such retro-titled tunes as “Don’t Forget The Sun” and “Summer Air”– throughout the band’s aptly titled debut, Freedom Wind.
So what’s behind a contemporary Charleston, SC-based collective conjuring California pop from forty years before?
Well, in addition to the commonality of “very sunny and very hot” beaches, Club composer Jason Brewer believes the sound of seasonal sweetness “has not been done justice since the 60’s.” And that includes not only the pioneering and paternal Boys, but groups like “the Association, Jan and Dean, the Yellow Balloon, the Zombies, the Left Banke and many others.”
And just about thirty yards from the westernmost edge of Long Island (the Socrates Sculpture Park of Long Island City), the summer sun arrives on cue. But so does the similarly summery (and free) wind, which plays unambiguous and unharmonious havoc with our audio. Pardon our breathiness.
Possibly 4th Street
Number 26 (Part Two)
Explorers Club lead singer and primary songwriter Jason Brewer
Friday, June 6, 2008
Socrates Sculpture Park, alongside the East River in Queens
So how does a band from Charleston, South Carolina in 2008 so closely sound like a band in California from 1960?
I think it’s because a lot of us, especially myself, grew up going to the beach all the time. My grandparents live in Miami, Florida. I used to visit them. I still try to go visit when I can. They used to take me out on the boat when I was little. I mean, I’ve been surrounded by water my whole life. Because my mom grew up in South Florida, she loved Beach Boys when she was younger because their songs were peppy and they were fun in the ’60s when she was like in middle school.
And I used to listen to the Beatles all the time–still do–and I was listening to like Revolver or something in the car, and she popped in a Beach Boys tape and said, ‘You know, I like this a lot better than the Beatles.’ And it kind of just grew from there.
I’d go sometimes with my guitar, try to write songs, and it just came really naturally. And I got into like Phil Spector and all that Wall of Sound stuff, so it was just kind of a natural progression. And I also felt like there wasn’t anybody really doing four and five-part harmonies, and when you do that stuff you’re going to sound like the Beach Boys. You’re going to sound like the Association. If you’re doing rock music, or folky rock music behind it, there’s no way around it. I could probably try to get a little more creative with it, but I think it was the thing that came most naturally to me.
Are you the oldest child?
So it’s your mom’s taste in music that gets passed down rather than coming from an older brother or friend.
So if your mom’s like a Percy Faith fan, or the New Christy Minstrels fan, this thing could’ve turned out completely different.
Yeah. Both of my parents, they were both choir directors at our church when I was a kid, so I picked up a lot of harmony that way. My dad, when he was, like, 14 was in a Southern gospel quartet with his mom, his dad, and his brothers. It was a quintet. And they all played instruments and sang. And my mom, she used to sing. She was like an All-County, All-Whatever singer for college and high school and middle school and elementary school. And they both were music teachers. You know, they taught at church and stuff like that. And they owned a day care center where they taught music instead of, you know, other things, so music has been like my whole family.
Let’s talk about that four and five-part harmony. You’ve got some nice voices in your group, and you’re writing most, if not all, of the songs. Do you need to arrange the vocal parts when you’re bringing a song into the group, or are these guys able to pick it up on their own?
Well, some of the songs I’ll come in and I’ll have the arrangements completely done in my head. Right when I sit down and write the song I’ll go, ‘Okay, I want to do this, this and this.’ I can hear this part. And I kind of play off the chords. I kind of build the harmonies off of those things. Like a lot of this stuff on the new record, like half of it, we’d go in and I’d have the song done, but I didn’t have all the harmonies done and we’d kind of take from what’s in some of the other songs we’ve done. Like how we built those. Like how we were used to singing. They all knew their part and knew their range, and we’d put them together there in the studio.
So some of it’s a joint effort with just putting it together in the studio. It usually starts with a basic direction. It’s kind of like, ‘Well, I’ll sing this.’ You know, we build those harmonies together. I mean, I definitely deal out parts, but they give it their own spin.
Tell me about the compositional process of “If You Go.” Where are you when you have the idea and what’s the trigger? Is it the music first, lyrics first, or does it all come together?
That one was the melody first. I was just kind of singing this melody. I had no words or anything. I’d been listening to a lot of country music and a little bit of like R&B, too, actually. I’d been listening to like Gram Parsons and Glen Campbell, and a little bit of Smokey Robinson, too, that week. And all that stuff was hitting me because all three of those guys, whether they’re singing them or writing them, really put across a great sad song. Like a sad, heartfelt song. And I felt like, “Well, okay, my personal life is actually going great, but, ‘What if?'” I put myself in a hypothetical situation and said, “Now what would I do in a scenario where, you know, I felt like I was being neglected within a relationship?” Which has never happened, thankfully, but I kind of put that spin on it, because I know, more often than not, almost anyone can relate to that from some point in their life. So I was like, ‘Okay, if you go, you know, well, I’m not going to cry about it.’ It’s one of those songs where you’re manning up a little bit when you have to. But underneath that surface of manning up, you know, you’ve got a lot of sadness underneath.
So I wrote kind of the first verse of those lyrics, and then I wrote those choruses, lyrically speaking, but I collaborated on the lyrics with a friend of mine who’s a great little poet, writer. His name is Stephen Nichols, and he kind of finished off the lyrics on that. But as far as like musically speaking, I had the melody going forever in my head, and I sat at the piano and put the chords down. And initially the chords came out kind of like a Burt Bacharach/’60s Adult Contemporary almost. But I wanted to give it more of a folky spin, so when we did the record, instead of doing the piano the Bacharach way I initially had wanted to do it, I did it with acoustic guitars, lap steel and baritone guitar, giving it like that late ’60s, early ’70s kind of middle of the road pop, country, whatever you want to call it.
How close does the finished recording match the sound that you had in your head when you first started singing the melody?
It was a lot different, actually. Sometimes it comes out the way exactly I hear it. With this one, like I said, it was a mix of that like Gram Parsons, Glen Campbell and Smokey Robinson combination, then it went from that to almost like a Burt Bacharach/Dionne Warwick kind of thing, and then it ended up with kind of all of those things put together. And so I was debating, I played it faster for a while and then I slowed it way down, and then it started dragging, so I played around with that song for a long time.
But you’re happy with it now?
I love how it turned out because there’s a lot of good guitar interplay. It’s the only song on the record with a string arrangement. It’s probably, if not my favorite, one of my favorites I’ve ever written just because it’s not . . . I mean, it’s not as Beach Boys-influenced. It’s just a little bit different direction, a little deviation. Some people say it’s kind of a sleeper, but it’s meant to be melancholy and like reflective. It’s not a, you know, “Come out and grab you.” It’s one of those growers.
You mentioned the Beach Boys in kind of a defensive way, and I completely understand, but have you heard, ‘Hey, you sound like the Beach Boys,’ enough from people like me that it’s starting to be an irritant?
No, actually it doesn’t bother me at all because I think the answer I’ve come to on that, from a lot of my interviews and everything else, is that, ‘Well, yes, a lot of our stuff definitely does sound like the Beach Boys.’ I’m not ashamed of that. I’m not hiding it.
I think there’s a couple of things that comes into play with that. I think that surf rock, California sound was a sound. It was a style, just as like folk rock or indie rock or like, you know, punk rock, whatever. Those are styles. I mean, Green Day or whoever sounds just like, you know, Stiff Little Fingers or the Ramones. But back then they had Jan & Dean. They had the Association. There’s just a lot of surf rock, California. I mean, there were groups naming themselves after Beach Boys songs, you know. Like that instrumental band, that band The Safaris, they heard ‘Surfin’ Safari’ and they did ‘Wipeout,’ you know, and said, ‘Okay, we’re going to call ourselves The Safaris.’ I think that was like a whole sound.
We were listening to this thing in the van recently called ‘The History of Rock ‘n Roll’ by this Los Angeles radio station and it talked about the whole surf rock, rock ‘n roll, California sound. And they went from the girl groups all the way through the Brian Wilson stuff. And if you listen to all of that it has that stacked harmonies. It’s got tons of orchestration, kind of over the top pop, you know. Sugary and sweet and bombastic at the same time and a lot of low end, too. So I felt like the Explorers Club, I wanted it to be a continuation of that whole style, that whole sound. You know, there are guys, Animal Collective, Panda Bear, all that stuff, taking the Brian Wilson influence. Well, I wanted to just be a pop vocal band, and so it ended up, I mean, I kind of modeled it after the best one.