In case you missed him, former Codeine drummer and Come guitarist Chris Brokaw lived in Seattle for about six years this decade before returning to his previous Boston home base in 2017. While here, he created a lot of music and played a lot of shows in many configurations, spanning disciplined rock (Gambler's Ecstasy), contemplative folk, drone, noise (The Periscope Twins for Gerard Cosloy's 12XU label), film scores (e.g., the Loren Connors-esque Now, Forager), and covers of Prince and David Bowie songs played in a classical-guitar style (The Hand That Wrote This Letter). To get an idea of Brokaw's dizzying versatility and productivity, peruse his discography, which includes collabs with Rhys Chatham, Thurston Moore, Thalia Zedek, the Dream Syndicate's Steve Wynn and stints with the Lemonheads, the New Year, Karate, Cobra Verde, and many more. These activities just scratch the surface.
This year, Brokaw released one of the finest recordings of his long career with The End of the Night (VDSQ/tak:til). In a review of the title track on Slog, I wrote of the album: "End of the Night captures the nocturnal contemplativeness that its title promises. One's sense of existential gravity peaks at night's end, and the 10 instrumentals on this record assist in those thought processes, while offering consoling melodies whose beauty unspools in methodical intervals." Cellist Lori Goldston, trumpeter Greg Kelley, Diminished Men's drummer Dave Abramson, and drummer Luther Gray will join Brokaw for his October 10 show at Clock-Out Lounge. I interviewed the busy musician via email in advance of what should be his triumphant return to Seattle.
The Stranger: How did living in Seattle affect your music-making?
Chris Brokaw: It made it more insular. Moving out West felt daunting and I don't think I handled it very well. I didn't know how to "jump into a scene" that was sort of baffling to me, and my response was to retreat. I sort of scuttled around the edges of stuff there.
The West has always felt really mysterious and unknowable to me and that didn't change. I continued playing a lot nationally and internationally, but when I was home in Seattle, I tended to hole up and make music alone. I made a lot of noise and drone-type music—I was getting into that music a lot as a listener—and I made a lot of handmade-type tapes, CD-rs. In the last year I lived there, things opened up and I started playing quite a bit with Lori Goldston and with Greg Kelley. I think the environment and my circumstances at the time in Seattle were probably reflected in my music. I almost entirely stopped writing lyrics, which has resumed since leaving. I'm not exactly sure what that says!
Do you think you gained a lot from this city’s music scene during your time here?
Honestly, I didn't connect with the music scene there as well as I could have, but I think that's more my fault than Seattle's. I got to participate in the Rock Lottery, play at Bumbershoot, and play live on KEXP, and those things meant a lot to me. I formed some great bonds with Lori and Greg and I'm excited about working with them further. I also started teaching guitar and drums a lot more while [in Seattle], and in particular my work teaching children there felt genuinely transformative.
What made you decide to move back to Boston?
It felt like the right move. I'm definitely an East Coast guy, and for many reasons it made sense for me to go back.
How has it been working out of there since you returned?
Things have been going great. I've been extremely fortunate and I landed really well going back. I'd gone through a difficult period personally and I didn't know how things might pan out, but like I said, I've been very fortunate.
I live in Cambridge, which is tiny and compact, a little village, so wildly different from the sprawl and spread of Seattle and the West in general. I grew up in New York, but have lived much of my adult life in Boston, and I think of them both as my home cities. Everything about it feels more right for me.
I'm more focused lately on home, community, and family life, maybe more so than on my work/career, which feels like a shift. That said, I'm really busy with music. I released End of the Night this year, as well as Varshons II by the Lemonheads, with whom I toured for about 12 weeks earlier this year. In a couple of weeks I'm going to Japan with Thalia Zedek to play shows of solo and duo sets. Then I'm doing a week of shows in Europe with my new band Charnel Ground, which is me on guitar plus Doug McCombs (Tortoise, Brokeback) on bass and Kid Millions (Oneida, Man Forever) on drums.
I've been working for the last year or so doing music on a multimedia arts project in Stavanger, Norway with an arts group there, FindlaySandsmark, and we have performances of a new piece, "Florida Lowlands," in Bergen in late November. In December I'm touring the West Coast again playing guitar in Brokeback (December 12 at Clock-Out Lounge). In February/March I'll be touring solo in Italy, Switzerland and Holland, and then doing a 10-day living room tour in the US with Geoff Farina.
I've been collaborating a lot with a dancer/performance artist in Cambridge named Jimena Bermejo, and we have a project in February in Dallas. I've recorded duo albums with the guitarist Jeff Barsky (aka Insect Factory) as well as Boston drummer Chris Guttmacher [ex-Cul De Sac drummer], and we hope to get those out next year. I recorded something with [Body/Head's] Bill Nace a couple of weeks ago I'd like to get out. My band Martha's Vineyard Ferries, with Bob Weston (Shellac) and Elisha Wiesner (Kahoots) as well as my rock/vocal trio (with Pete Koeplin and Dave Carlson) have new albums completed and hopefully those come out in 2020, too. I scored the movies Buck Run and Mother's Garden. And I've really dug into teaching guitar and drums... it's become incredibly satisfying for me.
Most people probably know you as the drummer in Codeine and the guitarist in Come. They may be surprised by how intimate and non-rocking End of the Night is. But maybe this album is a natural progression from those Codeine records—where you strip things down to essentials, using minimal means to provoke maximal emotions. Do you see End of the Night in that way—besides the overarching concept for it that’s outlined on your Bandcamp page?
I think End of the Night shares a couple of elements with Codeine—delicacy, patience—but overall it feels like a different thing, and something new for me. Codeine's music was so specific, and while this album is going for a specific mood or vibe or time, the way there was a lot more open. I allowed other players to help shape the music on some songs, and even on the ones where it was mostly me, I allowed for a more unknown thing to take shape. I didn't recognize the album when it was done, which felt strange but I welcomed it. (To be fair: The song "Step Outside" definitely has a Codeine vibe and I felt more or less entitled to do that. But just that one.)
Why do you think certain kinds of melancholy music make people feel so good?
I've never known how to answer that question, but I think the landscape has changed around it, in ways I don't entirely understand. When I first heard Leonard Cohen, in college, it was considered this super-dreary music for depressed people. Nowadays, lots of people tend to view that music as some of the warmest, most romantic feel-good music ever made, and I don't think that was Leonard Cohen changing (I also don't think it was "Hallelujah").
Codeine were largely viewed as total weirdos when we started out; the music was seen as impossibly slow... Come were seen as this crazy suicide drug "blues" music. Nowadays, I hear a lot of both bands in different places, and while I don't necessarily think we changed the culture, I think the culture did change. I don't know, why does so much "happy music" make people want to rip their eyeballs out? I like tons of happy music and melancholy music, and the endgame isn't necessarily about feeling good. Like J Mascis said, "Playing rock music isn't about having fun. That's not what it's about."
Of all the projects/bands you’ve worked on/with in your long and varied career, which is your favorite one and why?
I don't have a favorite. I think maybe my best was/is my collaboration with Thalia Zedek in Come. Genuine alchemy. I'm also really proud of my collaboration with the late poet Holly Anderson, The Night She Slept With a Bear—kind of a star-crossed project but worth tracking down.
I love playing with Doug McCombs; we've worked in a crazy number of projects together (Brokeback, Pullman, Charnel Ground, 11th Dream Day, Chris Brokaw Rock Band, Rhys Chatham Ensemble, Alan Licht and the Pricks, fFlashlights). It was an honor to work with [Mission of Burma's] Clint Conley in our band Consonant. Ditto the Kadane Brothers in the New Year. John and Steve from Codeine are two of my best friends and I learned more about the (de)construction of rock music from them than maybe anyone. Evan Dando has also taught me a lot about music, songs, and singing. I've been playing music with my buddy Dave Curry, mostly in his house, for like 20 years, and it's always good for me. Roddy Bogawa and Julia Halperin/Jason Cortlund have been awesome filmmakers to work with on multiple projects... I've just been very lucky to work with a lot of great artists.
What material will you be playing for this show? Will it be all End of the Night songs, or other stuff? Bowie and Prince covers?
All of End of the Night, maybe one or two from Gambler's Ecstasy, maybe one from Red Cities. I will sing at least one song!