Interview: The Brute Chorus

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Confrontational, unabashed, decadent, ironic, whimsical and totally sweat-drenched honest, The Brute Chorus are a London folk blues rock band that walks on the intellectual side of heavy-guitar music. From the countryside to the gloomy city’s streets and dive bars, this band has been winning over fans and critics alike with their often morbid tales of harden lives. JUICE has a word with lead singer and guitarist James Steel. Indie be damned!

What were you doing prior to reading this question?
I’ve been making Spotify playlists on our band’s account so people can see the sort of music that makes us tick. I’ve always been a compulsive compiler of music from mix tapes to CDs, iTunes playlists and now Spotify. I’ve only made a couple so far. One’s a collection of songs to help people get in the mood for when our next album drops, influences and stuff like a musical swatch book. The other’s a surf-noir mix I like to listen to at the end of a long day. The problem with seemingly limitless choice is knowing when to stop. With a C90 cassette you had 45 minutes a side and that would shape what you put on. Now there’s no break point, no end point…

Some of you were in a band called Low Sparks before this. What happened to that band?
Well we were all changing as people. Musical tastes were changing, some wanted to quit and move on to different things. We just decided to change-up, re-brand and start again. I guess we all just grew up.

You guys are often compared to Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds. How accurate is this comparison in your opinion and what are you’re musical influences?
It’s very flattering when we people say that, however I shudder to think what real Nick Cave fans would think. We’re not as dark as they are. There’re some similarities but there’s a pop sensibility to the Brutes that you don’t find in Bad Seeds music. We recently played a show with Lydia Lunch which is probably as close as we’ll ever come to a Cave crowd and it went really well. A record night at the merch table! I’m a big fan myself. I’ve met him and all the Bad Seeds now, I even stood, nervously, on the side of the stage as Grinderman played ATP a couple of years ago so of course there’s an influence in the music but the band brings so many other influences to the table when we write and perform that any Nick Cave comparisons are probably selling us short to a lot of people.

You guys come from different parts of the country but are now based in London. How did you meet?
Mat (drums) and Nick (guitar) have played together since they were at school. I met Nick at university in London. When we were starting The Brute Chorus and looking for a bass player we advertised everywhere and were asking around a lot. A few friends kept recommending this guy in Hackney to us. Meanwhile Dave saw our ad on gumtree and got in touch. It turned out he was the guy everyone had been recommending. So I guess it was fate that ultimately brought us together but the band had been gestating for the best part of fifteen years.

Do you ever miss the countryside?
I’m back here now actually, resting up between festival sets and album release/autumn tour. Eating, sleeping, making playlists, answering questionnaires… I don’t miss it too much. I like to come back for two or three days a couple of times a year but I miss the pace and stimuli of London. I love it there. It’s been my home for eleven years which is the longest I’ve lived anywhere so instead of feeling like a country boy in the big city it’s the other way around now.

Your self-titled debut album was recorded live at The Roundhouse last year. Was it a conscious decision to capture the band’s live presence or was it due to budget constrains?
We’d been finding the studio a really frustrating place to be and we were trying to come up with ways around this problem that would allow us to finally make our album. Our manager and I came up with the idea while getting very drunk one night. The next day he rang me up and reminded me of what I’d said and that he thought we should go through with it. A whole album in one take!?The task was daunting to all of us but it was such an obvious choice for the band to make. The Brutes always respond to a challenge so we set about rehearsing and things began to come together. We had Choque Hosein in for four weeks of rehearsal to get us match fit. Victor Van Vugt (who produced Nick Cave, Sons & Daughters, Gogol Bordello etc) came on board to mix. We got the venue and the promoters lined up and then the press around the show not to mention it sold out! All these things propelled us. The album’s great. It’s a moment in time for us and the fans who were there and an important step for the band. That’s not to say it didn’t cost. We all had to beg borrow and steal to make it happen but it was worth it. A night we will never forget.

What’s the significance of the baited koi fish and rising sun on the cover of ‘Could This Be Love?’
It’s an image from the song “…I’m dancing like a fish on a line…”. The song’s all about being pulled into love like someone who’s dying might be drawn to the light. Irresistably, holy, compelling, it seemed like a good analogy when I wrote the song so I asked for it to be drawn for the cover art. We’ve done the others. Heaven has a devil on a drum and so on.

That was a rather depressing single you recorded for Christmas. Do you guys consider yourselves religious? What instrument would Jesus play if he were in a band?
It was all quite tongue in cheek but Christmas can be a depressing time for a lot of people. Loners, the broken hearted… I was taken with the idea of a man freezing in his bedsit with pictures of golden beaches and palm trees torn from the travel supplements covering his walls. Hanging himself by the fire, like a stocking, he would write a suicide note asking to be buried in Hawaii. As a kid Bing Crosby’s White Christmas album was a family favourite and it had a song called Hawaiian Christmas on it so the association was already there for me and then the word play came really easily. Aloha sounds like Hallelujah for example, and turning phrases from The Night Before Christmas and Little Donkey. That song was recorded live too. None of us in the band are religious though Mat and I were certainly raised that way. His father was a Quaker and mine was a C of E Vicar. I was raised on bible stories in the church with Christian morals at home. I was church organist between the ages of fifteen and eighteen. I even had to play a funeral on my eighteenth birthday.

If Jesus was in a band he’d have to be the lead singer right? He was a man of great charisma. Must’ve been. There’s no way he could sit at the back and play drums. He’d be the ultimate ‘comeback artist’ too: Unregarded in his time but selling out the O2 on a nostalgia tour. ‘Too young to catch him the first time round? See him now performing his greatest hits!’ Bigger than The Beatles (sorry John). He’d’ve knocked Jacko’s Christ-complex into a cocked hat!

How long did it take to record your new album How The Caged Bird Sings? And what are your hopes for it?
Longer than we’d planned! We gave ourselves eight days to record in a village hall in the Lake District in January. The heating had bust the night before which really slowed things down. We played for eight days in a hall where the temperature never rose above 6C. We ran out of time to cut the vocals so we gave ourselves three days in The Strongroom in London to do them. That’s when my relationship with my fiancée went into melt down. I couldn’t sing, let alone finish off the songs that didn’t have complete lyrics. Nick and I went to our producer Choque’s house in Leeds for three days to do them the following week but I was still in bits. The two of them literally pushed me into the vocal booth and wouldn’t let me out until I’d done what needed doing. A lot of the lyrics on the album ended up improvised and pretty raw. Then we had five days back in London for mix down. Our money was running out and so it was a race against time to get it done but it sounds great. You can hear the reverb of that Victorian hall all over it. The playing’s great. The mood’s dark and cold. A marked change from the first album which is a good thing in my book. It shows a progression.

You seem to know a lot about depression and yearning. What advice would you give to a buddy who just got dumped?
Move on. Get that other person out of your hair as soon as you can. And get out of theirs in return. Do the both of you a favour. Go out, get laid, get pissed, do whatever you have to do. The pain won’t last forever. I was unlucky in that I lost my flat as well so I decided to stop writing for a time, fearing I’d become this hideous cliché. I was heading for country rock hell! I’d lost my girl, my house, soon my crops would fail and my dog would die. I just got the hell out. The band went on the road through France and Germany and that was the best thing I could’ve done. I screamed louder, whispered quiter, danced harder and slept less for the sheer catharsis. It’s working so far.

Any plans to tour Asia, particularly South East Asia where Malaysia is located, in the future?
There’s nowhere on earth we don’t want to take our music. It’s just a matter of time and being able to afford it. I spent a day and a night in Kuala Lumpur. I was so jet lagged the whole experience was quite psychedelic but it was an amazing place. I’d love to go back.

Use 4 words to describe the indie rock scene in the UK…
Same old, same old….

Did the band name come from the Will Oldham song ‘The Brute Choir’? If you had to change you’re band’s name for every album, what would it be at the moment?
In Aristotle’s work on the nature of tragedy he talked about the Greek plays which depict great tragedy (for example Oedipus, discarding all that mother stuff, he had a long and terrible life). These plays featured a chorus, a group of people wearing masks who’s role it was to comment on the action taking place and direct the audience to how they should be feeling by filling in the gaps in the action and narrating etc. The audience, through observing this, would deal cathartically with the tragedy taking place before them. We liked the adjective ‘brute’ as it suggested unrefined, savage, visceral etc which fits us well in all senses of the word in our approach to music, the skill with which we play it and how we live our lives generally.

Also I am a Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy fan. If we had to change it…? That would have to go before the committee. Don’t expect a quick response!

How The Caged Bird Sings (TAPE) is due to drop on 13 September 2010. For more Brute checkout Watch their video for ‘Heaven’ here.