INTERVIEW: Chris Brokaw on The Martha's Vineyard Ferries & his past, present and future

INTERVIEW: Chris Brokaw on The Martha's Vineyard Ferries & his past, present and future 1
Credit: Jimena Bermejo

Recently, The Martha's Vineyard Ferries released “Suns Out, Guns Out” – their newest LP and the first in eight years. Dan Volohov sits down with the drummer of  The Martha's Vineyard Ferries, founder of Codeine and Come, Consonant and Pullman, and member of The Lemonheads – Chris Brokaw.

Chris looks back on his days in Codeine and the formation of Come, the transition to solo-creativity and the importance of The Martha's Vineyard Ferries for his career, reveals some facts about his upcoming releases, and talks about live shows.

Even though you’ve always been a multi-instrumentalist, The Martha's Vineyard Ferries was the project that brought you back to band-type-of- interaction. What it was like when you started working with Bob Weston and Elisha Wiesner?

CB: Well, I’ve been friends with both of those guys for a long time, and I had played some music with Elisha. He has his band called Kahoots. I had done some drumming with them, and I have been really good friends with them. When they asked me to play some drums with them, I said: “Of course that would be awesome!”.  I said this to someone the other day – I think I write songs a little bit different with this band. I think of those guys when I write songs, and I want to bring them something. Because I write songs on guitar, I show them to Elisha…I don’t know! I love playing with them.

After leaving Codeine, you fully switched on to electric guitar, occasionally contributing to the recording as a drummer – like with “Incredible Love”. What dictates this number of roles you may take in the process of writing and recording? 

CB: I think it’s gone through different cycles for me, like the Incredible Love album. I think some songs I’ve written where I could hear all the parts in my head, and I thought it would make sense for me to go to the studio and play everything myself. Other songs on that record – I had a certain style of drumming in mind that I couldn’t play myself. That’s why I invited Kevin Coultas to play the drums. There’s the song on Incredible Love called “Cranberries” I really wanted the end of it to be like the song “Aja” by Steely Dan, which is this super Olympic, very fancy drum marathon.

Kevin and I are both fans of that music. I can’t play, but he can actually play. So I said, “I need you to do an Aja-like ending on this song…”. And he knew exactly what I was talking about. Like with this new album – “Puritan”, I really like playing with this drummer, Pete Koeplin. I lived on the West Coast for several years, and I moved back here four or five years ago. I immediately asked Pete if he wanted to play. So, he and I have been working on some of those songs for a long time. With this group of songs, I was just more curious to see what other people would bring to them. As I said, I practised with them and with the bass player - Dave Carlson, for quite a long time. That felt more like a band effort, and I was pleased with it.

Since the very beginning of your career with Codeine, you used to switch from drums to guitar. Wasn’t it a difficult transition for you?

CB: No, it wasn’t. The only difficult thing was to not play in Codeine anymore. Because I really love that music, and I love playing with John and Steve. I was in both bands for a year or two. It just reached the point where both bands were getting too busy, and I had to choose between the two. Come was more of a band where I was writing the music. So, I felt I need to focus on that one. As far as playing the drums: I didn’t mind stopping playing drums. That was ok.

Commenting on your college years, you noticed that you didn’t have as much understanding of what you say lyrically as you did have musically. When did these come into an equal position?

CB: I don’t know if they have ( laughs) I don’t even know if they reached an equal status now. I like writing lyrics, and I like writing songs with lyrics, but I still don’t think it’s my main focus. I think it’s one of the things I like to do. But yeah, in some ways, I still don’t know what I’m best at. And I don’t know if it is necessary to make sense for me to just focus on one thing, because I like writing songs with lyrics and singing them and I like making instrumental music, I like doing film scores, I like playing the drums in a rock band.  There are a few different things I like to do. That’s what just makes sense to me.

Speaking about your scoring work or records like “The End Of The Night”, How different is your set of musical rules in the case of instrumental music?

CB: It's an interesting question. I mean, with film-scoring, essentially, I’m working for someone else. It's like an assignment, and I actually really like that. And fortunately, when I score movies, people have come to me expecting me to do something that sounds like what I usually do. It’s not like they come to me and say: “We need you to do the song that sounds like Lady Gaga…” – so I’m being asked to do something that comes naturally to me, but I’m serving someone else's vision. And I think, with other instrumental music – I don’t know how to answer that. In some ways, I think the albums where I write lyrics. I guess I take those a bit more seriously. I guess, in some ways, because I usually think about them as something that’s gonna appeal to more people.

Like there’s definitely instrumental records I’ve done. And certainly, more abstract music I’ve done where It’s only gonna be a certain number of people who’re interested in that. It doesn’t mean that I don’t take it seriously. But, I think, when I write lyrics and when I sing them, it’s much more vulnerable. Especially, I think, in the last several years. I really wanted to get the lyrics right. And I'm much more exacting and critical of my own lyrics and other peoples’ lyrics too. I really pay more attention now than I have in the past, and I’m much more critical. I hear the lyrics now, and I can’t believe they did that – so terrible ( laughter ). I think, in general, I’m much more critical about lyrics.

It has been over 30 years since the first records of yours got released. Since then, you contributed to numerous projects – even though many of them always captured a certain time. In this sense, do you consider them all being phases of your creativity?

CB: It’s all part of my story. And some of them, I think, are better than others. There were times when I’ve played on some records where I wasn’t particularly involved with it, but I contributed something to it. So I don’t know. I think it’s all interesting to me. I don't think there’s anything I’ve done that I don’t want to be associated with me now.

“Suns Out Guns Out” is the first, The Martha's Vineyard Ferries release in 8 years. What brought you back to work, and how did it feel to get back together?

CB: It was great! We recorded most of that record five years ago. It just took a long time to finish it. It’s really just because we were so busy and we live in different states. That’s the only obstacle. I think, if we all lived in the same city, we’d probably play together a lot more. I think the main thing is that Bob [Weston] runs a huge mastering business and plays in Shellac. So those things take up a lot of his time. In the previous records, we were like, “Oh, this is kind of a hobby we’d do with our good friends!”. And I feel with this record; we were taking it over seriously. Certainly, taking the whole thing more seriously than we did in the past.

I noticed one thing that would sound completely obscure. But sometimes, when people collaborate with somebody, they choose musicians who see the world through a different perspective – like Bill Laswell does, for instance. Within what you’re doing, the connection you have – in Come or within your own band is almost telepathic. What brings you to work with these people?

CB: Mostly, it's usually them asking me to do something or me asking them to do something. I’ve worked with many people who already had records and things that I respected and appreciated. It’s just mutually appreciating one another. Also, getting along with people. It’s interesting; I have some friends who are musicians, whom I really like as people, and I really like the music that they do. With a couple of people now, we’re trying to figure out how we can collaborate. Because what we do musically is so different ( laughs), I don’t even know if we could find a place to do something together that would actually make sense. There are a couple of people in my life right now. It’s almost like a dilemma. But generally, it’s just meeting people through music that I have a rapport with personally and whose work I like.

Your creative partnership with Thalia [Zedek] became the foundation of Come. At the same time, I’ve always been thinking about Come as a band. How did it feel after Sean and Arthur left Come and you recorded “Near-Life Experience” with different people?

CB: It was hard, and It was scary ( laughter ) Cause Sean and Arthur both left the band at the same time. So at that point, it was just Thalia and me. I think we felt a little unsure about ourselves, but at the same time, we both wanted to keep on doing this. It was tricky because we didn’t feel like we wanted to re-invent what we were doing. Simultaneously, we both thought that Arthur and Sean were both a huge part of the way the band sounded. So, we didn’t feel like it was easy to play any of the old songs without those guys for a while afterwards.

We didn’t want just to find a  drummer and bass player and say: “Ok! You have to learn those parts! Just like they did!” – we wanted to keep playing rock music. So, it was tricky. At the same time, once we decided we wanted to continue, there was also excitement. We’ve played with Rodan for a while and thought: “What if we’d ask Tara Jane [O'Neil] and Kevin [Coultas] to play with us ?” – so we asked them, and they both said “Yes!”. We were like, “Oh, my God! This is incredible!” and we thought “, What if we’d ask Mac [McNeilly] from The Jesus Lizard to play the drums on this stuff ?” And he said, “Yes!” “Oh, My God! This is great!” (laughter). I was really close with Bundy Brown, I asked him, and he said: “Yes!” – so it was fascinating in that regard. To pick some of our favourite musicians and ask them. So Near-Life Experience was kind of surreal. But it was great to record with those guys. We did some touring with Kevin and Tara Jane after that. Then we found Winston [Bramen] and Daniel [Coughlin], who lived here in Boston. And we wanted to play with people who’re actually lived in the same town as us so that we could rehearse with them and stuff like that. It ended up being ok.

Chris Brokaw
Credit: Dave Curry

Even though you’re still occasionally working together, “Gently, Down The Stream” became the last record you recorded as Come. What made you pass this chapter, and what do you feel about getting together these days?

CB: At that time, we did Gently, Down The Stream, and we did a bunch of touring afterwards. I remember the tours were really hard. We came home, and we were kind of burned out, so we took some time off from it, and I think both Thalia and I started writing stuff we wanted to be solo records – I started writing music that ended up becoming my solo album Red Cities. I started writing and thought: “I don’t know what this is, but I don’t want it to become a comeback record. I want it to be something else” – we’d just put the band on hold, and finally, we were: “What if we’d just say “We’ve broken up?” – I was sad about that. But I was also pleased with Gently, Down The Stream and thought it was a good last record—a good way to go out. Also, thinking about how long do most rock bands usually last…I thought: “Yeah. It’s cool!”. We’ve gotten together, and we’ve played some shows since then. It’s always really nice when we do. I see Thalia a lot. Our friendship is really good these days. And we’re actually working on the reissues right now. They’re gonna start coming out in October.

After all these years of playing in bands, how did it feel to become a solo artist? 

CB: It was really exciting and frightening ( laughs ). I think I didn’t have as much confidence as maybe would be best for my career. But I had enough confidence to actually make a record and find somebody to put it out and play shows and stuff like that. So, I was happy with the record. And glad I did it! It got me becoming a solo artist, and that’s been cool - I enjoy doing that.

This spring, you have the newest release coming out – the collaboration with Jeff Barsky of Insect Fields – “Sunset To The Sea”. How does it feel to work with someone like Jeff, who mostly creates sonic sound landscapes rather than certain structures?

CB: It's great! I love what Jeff does! He’s a super-nice guy, really easy to work with. I listen to a lot of experimental music and more abstract music. I guess I’m interested in that, probably more as a listener than as a player. I think probably what I’m best at is playing the guitar. There isn’t a lot of guitars that show up in a lot of the music I’m interested in. But Jeff and I are both interested in guitar-based music that sounds like guitars, which doesn’t sound like anything. We’re both ok with bringing both sides of that to the recordings. We did the album pretty quickly in the studio in Maryl, and I was really happy with how it came out. It’s been sitting for a while. But now it’s finally coming out.

A lot of your shows are acoustically driven. Others – quite electric and presented differently. Does it always have to deal with what you’re feeling at the moment of creation, or rather with the feedback you want to get from your listeners?

CB: It was a combination of things. When Red Cities came out, the way I thought about that record was that there are two ways to play those songs accurately. One was to play them with a six- or seven-piece band, and the other way is to play it solo. I didn’t think that the songs on there would make sense with a trio or anything like that. So, I put a seven-piece band together, and we played a couple of shows on the East Coast. For the rest of it, I did touring solo. And I guess, when I started playing solo, I was really interested in the process of it because it was so frightening at first to play solo.

I really had to rehearse a lot. And I think I was at the point where playing in rock bands I thought I don’t really have to practice. I needed just to show up and do it. But if I had a solo show coming out, I thought, “Oh, my God! I got to practice every day and get it together!”. Playing solo is totally different. Playing solo live – whether I’m playing electric guitar or acoustic guitar, it’s completely different than playing in rock bands. In a way, it was really challenging for me. But I felt like I needed that challenge at the time. So, I really got into it that way. And then some of it was the economics of it. Going out and touring, I found that I’d get paid the same whether it’s just me or whether it’s the whole band and me. So, I could go on tour solo and actually bring all the money. And if I would have a band, we wouldn't make anything. So, the economics of it might have affected it too.

I could also book stuff, and I don’t have to worry about other peoples’ schedules. ‘Cause, I have booking agents. But everything else, I’d set up by myself like train schedules, tour schedules and the stuff like that. In a way, it was just easier to do that. I did that for years. I was still enjoying it in some ways, but I think I’ve got a little bit tired of travelling by myself, which I did for a really long time. And then, at a certain point, I was like: I still like playing solo, but I don’t like travelling alone as much as I used to. So, I don’t know what’s gonna happen after we get back to normal life. I’m sure I’d go out and do some solo-touring. I definitely want to tour with Pete and Dave, the guys I’m playing on the new record. And I don’t know how much flexibilities they have, ‘cause they have other jobs. But we’ll see.

I really like your recently released “Puritan” tracks like “The Heart Of Human Trafficking”. Having so many acoustic-oriented tracks, what drives you to explore something different?

CB: For me, a lot of this record is lyrically and musically a part about leaving the West Coast and coming back to the East Coast. I lived out there for several years. And kind of went through a lot of different stuff out there. The song “The Heart Of Human Trafficking” is about Seattle. Which, at that point, was the heart of human trafficking in North America. I think, musically, I was thinking about different aspects of music that I heard out there. Even the reverb and delay was a sound I seemed to hear everywhere when I was out there. So, I was definitely thinking about the Pacific Northwest a little bit. I wasn’t trying to be specific or deliberate but more of creating a vibe. I think it probably came out in that song.

What are you working on right now?

CB: I’m not working on anything now (laughs). Honestly, I haven’t been writing a lot. I’ve been teaching a lot. I teach guitar, drums and bass on Skype to people all over the world. That’s been my job since the pandemic started. So, I have mostly been studying music and teaching it. Which I really enjoy, and that’s a different thing for me to do. I’m certainly waiting for the next batch of songs to come. I don’t know when it’s gonna happen.

Several years ago, I recorded an acoustic version of a song by a French black-metal group called Vlad Tepes called “Drink the Poetry of the Celtic Disciple”. And I put that on a solo record of mine called Canaris. People from that band approached me and said: “We really like that version of that song!” – it’s really one main guy who’s become a friend now. He and this label, based in France, want to do an album that’s kind of split between me and his new project, reinterpreting different Vlad Tepes songs. It’s like a 13-minute song I did. They only used that. But also asked if I could do a couple more songs for them. That’s the only project happening right now ( laughs). There are a couple of things, a couple of possible collaborations right now, but I wouldn’t talk about them until they’d actually done.

In one of your interviews, you mentioned that the music business changed so much – which is obviously true. But at the same time, if you’re working with indie labels, their methods of work, attitude, and principles are far from majors. How do you think is it possible to follow the same principles indie labels had back in the days in today's world? 

CB: I think all the things that obviously could have changed; I would say they have changed. In lots of ways, what I do, how I do and what I hope to achieve with it haven’t really changed at all. And I’m still working with some of the people I’ve worked with when I first started making records. I work with this label 12XU; I put out a lot of records with them. 12XU is run by Cerard Cosloy, who also runs Matador. So I’ve been making records with Gerard literally for 29 years. And there are clubs I play; I’ve been playing almost that long, which is great! I really like that aspect of it. I love meeting new people and getting into new stuff as well. But it’s also great to work with people. It's the same with friendships that last a long time.

There are a richness and the appreciation of having gone through different cycles together. Many of these things are the same: you go and play music in a room for people. That aspect of things hasn’t changed. How you monetized, that has changed but in terms of how people buy music. But my own sense of how it’s gonna work in my life hasn’t changed, really.

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