Brace/Choir :: Interview presents:
Hailing from Berlin, Brace/Choir create a dreamy mix with touches of psychedelia and warm, pulsating beats. Their debut EP, Brace/Choir, arrived fully formed earlier this year and has been a favorite around here since. Legendary producer, musician, and provocateur Kramer saw fit to christen their maiden voyage as "f***ing amazing." Heady praise indeed … Brace/Choir took some time out from ramping up for their full-length to give us the skinny on all things Brace/Choir; an upcoming "soundtrack" project for the novella Le Diable amourex, living and creating in Berlin, instrument swapping, and attending a Satanic wedding …
Brace/Choir is Maxfield Gassmann, Alex Samuels, Dave Youssef, and Christoph Adrian.
First off, congratulations on Brace/Choir. I'd say it's f***ing amazing, but Kramer beat me to the punch … Can I ask the usual bit about how you all came together? How did you end up in Berlin? I got to say you arrived fully baked out of the oven …
Alex: Max and I grew up together outside Boston and have been close friends since the 3rd grade and playing music together since 7th grade. Our first gig actually happened to be in the living room of Henry Louis Gates Jr., whose daughter Maggie was celebrating her birthday (we went to school together). At the end of the night Skip Gates had had a little too much red wine and told me that I was the white Jimi Hendrix and that he was going to introduce Max to Max Roach – no bulls**t! But that never happened … and now Max Roach is dead, so that’s a promise he’ll never be able to keep, but it’s all good.
That's a keeper.
Max: At the time, one of our friend’s had already come up with the lyrics for Our Dog, which was his rendition of the church classic Our God. Alex and I played in a couple other projects throughout high school, but had mostly concentrated on jazz, believe it or not. After high school we parted ways but ended up meeting again in Berlin (Alex by way of Chicago, Max by way of San Francisco) in 2002. My dad’s German and I wanted to learn the language so I took advantage of having a friend in Berlin and ended up staying.
Alex: I moved to Berlin in 2000 to study and ended up staying and finishing my degree here.
Adri: I was born and raised in Berlin and had been playing in a bunch of different bands before Brace/Choir. I actually met Max first as he and I had overlapping circles of friends. We would run into each other at parties and discovered a mutual interest in the darker sides of rock and roll. We had made tentative plans to play music together, which only ended up happening after I met Alex (who had moved in with my girlfriend at the time). Long story short — there was lots of music talk and drink and record playing. Max and Alex had already been playing with Dave, who I ended up replacing after he moved back to L.A.
Dave: I first met Max at a fake black market in Berlin some years back where we were all videotaped trying to sell fake coal (they still have coal ovens in some apartments here) to one another and then running from the police. Max gave me a book that turned out to be Alex’s. A while later I met Alex randomly at some lesbian cafe and after talking for a while he asked me if I could play bass. Days later, I borrowed a child-size bass from a friend — smaller than a Mustang — and we were all writing songs in our practice room fueled by all sorts of goodies, really trying to push it a bit. Unfortunately, I had to return to California for some years, but two years ago came back here to start playing with these guys again.
Do you purposefully look elsewhere from the influences people associate with Berlin? There's a definite "Western" group of flourishes through your music … or Brace/Choir is filtered through them. I'm thinking specifically about Body on Loan and Pyro's Dream. To be perfectly honest, when I first heard you, I wouldn't have pegged you being based in Berlin … though I can hear that in there …
Alex: I think what we do is pretty anomalous for Berlin, despite the influences of older German bands. Berlin has lots of great electronic music and a history of great avant-rock bands (of different genres) like Cluster, Malaria, Mutter, or the Einstürzende Neubauten, which fit the city’s extreme political culture and lack of a proper rock and roll scene, in the conventional sense. My musical interests are constantly changing and going off in different directions, so their influence on how I play and listen also changes. I tend to get obsessed with bands and genres but then find something that turns me off about them …
Adri: Berlin isn’t famous for its great rock and roll musicianship … but its weird geography and dead space (mostly the aftermath of war, city-planning failures and the Wall) is inspiring. Musically, my inspirations however had little to do with what was happening where I had grown up. I was much more strongly influenced by British music — beat and psychedelia from the 60’s to the 90’s — especially the 90’s.
Max: Growing up skateboarding Alex and I listened to lots of skate-music — which is a pretty mixed collection of bands — mostly bands whose t-shirts were advertised in the back of Thrasher. Our parents' record collections were also a big influence from an early age.
I would say what we play almost has nothing to do with what’s happening in Berlin today or in the past 10 years, although the city itself certainly has had an influence on what we do. Musically and lyrically Pyro’s Dream andBody on Loan are sustained by a certain patience and repetition, which are qualities that can be found all over the place, certainly in German rock from the 60’s and 70’s but also in folk and blues and early rock and roll. But these qualities really can be found all over the place, from Sleep and Ride, to John Lennon and B.A.L.L.
Dave: I used to be oriented much more in a blues and folk direction, playing mostly acoustic guitar, but with the hope of integrating more dissonant elements and using open-tunings to generate different chords. I like combining these styles with rock n’ roll, while still maintaining a tension between interesting composition and an openness within the songs to follow different impulses and the stuff that occurs more spontaneously.
What's your idea of a "proper rock and roll scene?" From where I stand, listening to you guys, I'd say there's a great scene … or do you see that vacuum as an opportunity that you can fill? Max, that's interesting what you said about the city influencing what you do … can you take that a little further?
Max: I came to Berlin in early Autumn so my first impressions were grey and breezy. This continues to be an influence. The other thing that is inspiring to me is how the city is continually changing. I can still turn a corner and have the experience of having never seen a particular place. Buildings, structures, light and perspective are altered. The seasons and the shift of the landscapes change the perception and keep me creating here.
Alex: I guess for me it would mean that there are bands that are both good and well-known beyond the city. Here it seems like there is some interesting stuff happening, but it remains provincial. Or, on the other hand, uninteresting stuff is happening and it gets pretty popular.
Dave: Berlin as a city has a lot to offer in terms of unconventional places to have shows, whether its abandoned hospitals, factory rooftops or moldy basements. There’s a certain excitement you can have playing really undeveloped places for people who don’t know what to expect. But this always stays pretty insular, revolving around certain smaller groups of people.
You said in an earlier conversation that you all play each others' instruments. Was that a choice, or out of necessity to get where you wanted to go? Does that democratize the whole process?
Max: At first it was a necessity, as Dave and Adri were gone and Alex and I had to play everything ourselves. We then realized how inspirational it was to write stuff with “foreign” instruments, which, after a lot of wood-shedding, stopped being foreign and started being our own … although there remained the unconventional, untaught approach to playing. It’s become invaluable to the song writing process because we all approach the instruments really differently. When playing live makes it can be hard to warm up with a given instrument — but we’ve tried to find solutions by putting the set list together in instrument blocks …
Alex: Each instrument really ends up speaking with different voices and that ends up being an important part of how we think and play — although we do tend to gravitate towards certain instruments. I grew up playing guitar but live I end up playing just about every goddamn thing. Max grew up playing drums, but is on organ and guitar for half the set. Dave ends up taking up most of the complicated guitar/bass duties and Adri plays everything really proficiently.
Adri: Often, single song ideas will develop after we’ve swapped instruments a couple of times — the result is that the music stays the same but the execution keeps changing.
I think I said it before, but there's a real elasticity to Brace/Choir. It sounds like your approach to the instruments play into that.
Dave: I’m definitely the one who switches instruments the least, staying primarily on bass and guitar. But for me it’s interesting how different I will play a bass or guitar line depending who’s on drums. The type of things I accent are totally different, which I really like. Although I’ve played guitar for many years, I really like the bass for songwriting process. If you find the right line, it can really tie everything together in unexpected ways.
If everyone is instrument hopping, there must be a huge range of influences or personal tastes brought to the table … I for one am intrigued by the love of Bongwater …
Alex: Bongwater happens to be my current obsession — but yeah, we all listen to tons o’ stuff. Kramer actually wrote us on myspace and since then I have been going through his immense and (often) brilliant back catalogue. The thing about Bongwater that blows me away is how it is able to walk a fine line between avant-garde and pop sensibilities — with a lot of humor. Soundwise, I wouldn’t count Bongwater as an influence — more so in how to think about transgressing borders and what can and can’t be done. At the moment however, The Big Sell Out is pretty much a permanent part of my current daily routine … And we recently covered their cover of Roky Erickson’sYou Don’t Love Me Yet … Covering a cover — pretty Kramer-ish …
Max: I often notice how important is to not listen to music in order to stay in touch with your own noise, kind of like eavesdropping on yourself.
Adri: My parents’ record collection is and was a huge influence. Their collection wasn’t so extensive because they didn’t have easy access to foreign records living in East Berlin — except on the black market and there the prices were ridiculously inflated. As a result they had no more than a couple Rolling Stones, Beatles and Beach Boys albums — but we listened to them over and over and over again.
As a teenager, Manchester stuff and was a huge inspiration, as well as the stuff that emerged from that scene. At some point then Joy Division became the measure of all things. Being classically trained, Bach also remains a big influence.
Dave: Growing up in Southern California, I was kind of caught between an incredibly beautiful landscape and a wretched social environment (with some pretty big exceptions). I think this manifested for a while in an attraction to music that was able to mix angry dissonance with euphoric harmonies. Fugazi stands out here as a pretty big one, also for there intricate compositions. After a while I became pretty turned off by their brand of dogmatism in the lyrics, though. Certain jazz artists, like Archie Shepp and Don Cherry, who I was introduced to by my friend’s step-dad, also had this dimension — good driving music too.
Indulge me … with such a wide range of interests to bring to the table, there must be some real guilty pleasure gems lurking in your closets… ?
Dave: The Magnetic Fields
Alex: Too many to name … I'm the sort of listener that gets really obsessive about bands, goes through their whole catalogue, enjoys it, then starts to find flaws in it and finally turns away from it. In that sense, I'm a pretty disloyal listener … But I always eventually come back to the stuff I really love.
Brace/Choir is a very relaxed affair. I don't mean that it's listless, or lacks energy. It's feisty … but it feels very at ease with itself, or you do. Organic … rolling … warm. Do you think that's a result of eschewing excessive bleeps and blips that are found everywhere? You seem to have found a way of moving forward by keeping an eye on the past … or tradition?
Alex: For me, influences are often recognized in hindsight. I try not to think before I write, although I sometimes notice direct, unambiguous inspiration. I like blips and bleeps when I go dancing, but I don’t have any relation to that stuff when I play. But yeah, it’s rare that I hear new music that I like. I think there aren’t more than a handful of bands I listen to that play today …
As for looking to the past: I think our instrumentation may point in one direction, but compositionally I think we often point to something else entirely. In the end, the strength of good music is in the songwriting and no amount of weird instruments/instrumentation, effects, or referencing is gonna allow you to shine s**t.
Adri: When we started out, we were playing much faster music than today. But the foundation of keeping things reduced and minimal has remained a constant. Patience also plays a big role — making sure the ideas and especially the lyrics have room to breathe and express themselves fully.
Dave: Yeah, for certain songs, especially the longer ones, I think there’s a kind of storytelling at work. You don’t want be impatient and rush your way through because a lot of the power is in the smaller details. It’s important to be patient enough to let things unravel on their own time.
Max: Partying in Berlin and working in the Berghain for the past few years have given me plenty of exposure to bleeps, blips and electronic stuff. I find the narrative qualities of electronic music inspirational, but not necessarily the music itself. In terms of writing, we sometimes find ourselves caught between wanting to create a controlled atmosphere while still maintaining more raw energy — there’s often a really tenuous balance between the two. We often let loose in the studio and then try to craft what we’ve done into something more focused, without preventing it from meandering. I think our raw power comes through more in a live context and as of yet our studio work tries to filter this raw energy into something slightly calmer but still with a certain intensity. Taking a lot of time to mix down and doing a lot of the studio work is really important for us. Working together with friend and producer Malte Pott from Normal.Bias studios has been enormously helpful. The guy has golden ears and does shit so fast, it’s astounding.
That was a huge appeal to me when you first came up on my radar: the open nature of the music, the controlled sprawl … all with that strong focus. Adri nailed it with the "room to breathe" comment. You avoid the curse of noodling for noodling's sake. Is a lot of the process for Brace/Choir in the editing of the work, throwing it all in there and then distilling it down? I think of it as very distilled … all of it … your obvious wide-range of influences and interests, even the instrument swapping.
Adri: When we suddenly come to a standstill in the song-writing process, it’s not simply that tons of musical ideas offer themselves to fill the gap; rather, it’s that what you want hasn’t happened yet.
Alex: I used to think the line between noodling and just being free with your instrument wasn’t fine at all but rather a really obvious thing. Now it seems to get blurrier and blurrier … Ears change, I guess.
Max: Patience is really important in music. It is hard to achieve. Being able to strip your lines down to only what is really necessary and finding elation in the concentration of playing just that one line without getting bored or feeling like it is too easy. Hearing in it all of the slight differences after it is repeated again and again. It is hard to do, especially for a certain kind of trained ear or if you were always taught to do otherwise.
Can you fill us in a bit on the Le Diable amourex project?
Alex: This is a project being put together by Per Faxneld, Satanism expert and co-owner of a little publishing house, Malört förlag, in evil Stockholm. He’s also the step-brother of my roommate, Swedish “ice diva” Molly Nilsson (check her out!). While visiting Berlin, Per took a listen to our stuff and really liked it — and then he asked Molly to ask us if we were interested.
Le Diable amoureux (1772) is one of the earliest works of occult literature and the beginning of the fantastique genre, in which the reality or fiction of the story’s often surreal events is left open. The novella is about a Spanish officer, Alvaro, who is stationed in Naples in the late 18th century (Spain controlled a number of Italian regions/cities back then) and is enticed by an older officer into dabbling in necromantics and the occult. He ends up calling forth the devil, who appears to him initially as a camel’s head, then becomes cocker spaniel, and eventually a servant/butler whose gender constantly changes back and forth. The demon is first made to serve Alavaro, but their relationship develops into one of dangerous mutual dependency and eventually centers around the dynamics of dominance and submission, gender-bending, and greed.
Per wanted to put out a compilation to accompany the publishing house’s new printing. We’re really excited to be involved — especially because the other contributors are so great, including John Zorn, Art Zoyd, Paul Roland, Jarboe, and The Tiger Lillies. The novella itself is interesting in that a lot of the surreal stuff that happens is described matter-of-factly or kind of slipped in without any preparation, which creates a very hallucinatory or dreamlike effect. We also tried to apply that to writing the song by just kind of slipping in the significant musical changes and thinking about the whole thing as a closed system with its own logic.
"Dreamlike." That's you … Are you familiar with the book I, Lucifer by Glen Duncan? The Real Tuesday Weld put together an album that was the soundtrack, or song cycle, to the book.
Max: I personally like the opening theme to A Thief in the Night.
Alex: Never heard of it. But I was at a Satanic wedding that took place here in Berlin — my roommate was the high priestess. She conducted the whole thing in Latin and everything. There were two big, naked muscle-men sprawled across red, velvety parlor sofas while she married this gay couple. Not nearly as frightening as I imagined it would be. The vows were short speeches read by the grooms which had nothing to do with blood, satan, demons or anything like that, etc … The whole affair was much more about embracing sexuality, sins of the flesh, embracing your desires — sexual, drug-related, whatever.
What's next for Brace/Choir? Are things moving ahead as you'd hoped?
Alex: Things are moving along — we'll have a longplayer out sometime around October, which is great. We'll also be playing together with Shrinebuilder in November, which we're all really looking forward to.
Max: … and heading out on tour sometime in the new year, see you soon in the USA.
:: Brace/Choir on MySpace
:: Review of Brace/Choir
:: Photos by Alisa Resnik
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September 21st, 2010
Posted In: Music Shows