The Brute Chorus Interview
London based 4-piece The Brute Chorus have been setting tongues wagging; their unusual blend of old-style blues and folk has impressed the likes of Zane Lowe, Steve Lamacq and Mark Radcliffe and has won them a loyal fan base. Their stage presence and raw energy have also made them one of the live bands to see this year. Contact music.com met up with them after their Black Cab Session at the Secret Garden Party. We chatted to the band about their inception, not wanting to put a label on their sound and the brave decision to record their debut album live in front of their fans.
Hailing from all over the country, the band is based on long-term friendships, with drummer Matthew Day and Nick Foots (who plays guitar, keyboards and synths) both meeting at school. Lead singer James Steel joined them at college and 'we found Dave (bassist) on the internet.on some pervy website' laughs Matthew. The Brute Chorus have since made London their home and started playing a residency at the infamous Hawley Arms. The people at the Hawley were so impressed with their sound that they created a label to facilitate the release of their first two singles.
Although the band has a definite blues element to their sound, they are all keen for it not to be labelled as 'blues'. Their music stems from something quite different from the standard blues of the 70s and more recent years. 'We had an interview yesterday and the woman said, 'So, blues rock?' and I don't like blues rock at all, that makes us sound like Eric Clapton!' says Nick 'We'd rather say we were a folk band than a blues band, strictly speaking because the blues that we would identify with is folk music'. 'It's become so bastardized...the blues that we listen to is like Robert Johnson', explains James.
This more folk-based sound is evident in the band's lyrics too. It stems from lyricist James's childhood; he grew up with his father singing him story-based folk songs. So The Brute Chorus lyrics follow a similar vein being narrative rather than the standard more personal experiences; 'I'm into telling stories rather than getting too personal, expressing myself too emotively - I'd rather sidestep that' he explains. So it's obviously difficult to put a label on this band and when Contactmusic.com asks them if they can describe their own sound, Nick replies with 'I think you just have to come and watch it!' But that might not be possible for all our readers, so Contactmusic.com hazarded a guess with a quote we saw that we thought described their music perfectly - 'psyched out garage-folk' - and it seems that one does go down a little better! 'That's the best so far' says James; 'We'll take that one!' agreed Nick. And it seems the 'psyched out' bit hits a chord with the experimental style of their music. They often use unusual instruments and techniques to achieve their sound, 'We have keyboards that do strange things like feedback through amps and stuff making odd weird wobbly noises that nobody has really heard before' says Nick. 'Yeah, it's experimental.with the emphasis on mental' agrees a grinning Matthew.
Essentially it's a very stripped back sound but doesn't lack impact. This rawness means it is quite rhythmic and Nick feels that's why they are often related to blues music. When creating their songs, the band tends to look back to the roots of the music. 'The way I always got into music is I found something I liked and I've always been interested to know where that music came from.I got into Ocean Colour Scene and they got me into Neil Young, who in turn got me into Bob Dylan, which going a little further back got me into Woody Guthrie and American Folk.when we put together our songs, we try not to put the Ocean Colour Scene into the song, we try to put in the thing before the thing before and work with the raw material'. But in doing that is there a risk they might sound retro and a bit clichÃ©d? 'We try not to be too retro; we do want to make stuff that sounds new, that's not current but contemporary' ensures James. You only have to see them live to see that it works, what they produce is unique to them, a real fresh twist to old style blues.
Their live shows too have become the stuff of legend with one newspaper citing their secret Camden Crawl gig at the Hawley Arms and the Yeah Yeah Yeah's epic performance as the two best events of the festival. The unusual way that The Brute Chorus's songs develop over the course of playing them live means that the band as a whole are happier on stage than in the studio and it also seems to suit their raw impassioned sound better. However, it was still a surprise when they announced that they were going to record their debut album live in one take in front of an audience of fans - certainly not a easy option, no matter how comfortable you are on stage! James explains the thought process behind it; 'We spent so much time as the band has gone along just playing in front of people and that's the way the music has come together that a lot of that feel would get lost if we just went away to a studio and did it there. Rather than spend two weeks trying to get a song right, we'd just do it in one hit in front of everybody and record the mistakes' So after rehearsing twice a day for five weeks, they headed down to the FreeDM recording studio in the Roundhouse in Camden and recorded it in one take in front of around 300 fans.
In today's market where bands are clambering over one and other to try to made an impression on the record buying public, the live album could have been seen as a bit of a gimmick but James soon dispels that myth; 'We can see it might have looked like that, but it just really felt like us' he assures. With the live reputation they have, Contactmusic.com can see why they decided to do it and the finished result is far from the typical 'live album' that you would expect. 'When you hear it, it doesn't sound like 2 microphones have been stuck up in a room, it was really close mic'd and we spent 3-4 weeks mixing it and the producer we used was Victor Van Vugt (Nick Cave, Gogol Bordello, PJ Harvey) and he took it back to his studio in New York and we mixed it by email and he spent a lot of time on it. We've played it to a couple of friends and they say you forget it's a live album when the songs are on and then you hear the crowd in between the songs. So it's a bit of a weird album to listen to in that respect, but it sounds great' says James.
With the album release taking a little longer than they had expected, The Brute Chorus are already busy writing new material and are recording in George Martin's Air Studios this week. 'The idea is to have as many new songs as possible to have for after the album comes.just to follow it with some completely new stuff and move on' says James. So can we expect more of the same from the new material? 'In my head the sound's going to be quite different' explains James. Although they will be sticking to their musical roots and their unusual but tried and tested method of developing their songs, they hope to record the next album in a conventional studio. '.some of the songs on the album are two years old now.and some are two months old but hopefully what we want from the new stuff is a bit of progression' says James.
It seems no matter how they progress, they will not forget their roots and you can still find them playing the odd intimate gig in The Hawley Arms - and it's definitely worth watching out for..