Before I get started today I have to get something off my chest. If you are in a band and you put out a album/EP we applaud you. But when you want to have that piece of music reviewed you must realize that some writers will love your music and others will not. You must have thick skin in the music biz or you better pursue another career. As long as more people like your music than dislike, you will be okay. Now my guest today, Erik Brandt, has an album out ‘The Long Winter’ which I happen to love. You might know Erik from The Urban Hillbilly Quartet out of the Twin Cities. Erik has beeb doing music for over 20 years and he just keeps getting better. I am excited to have such a talent on Skope as we talk about his longevity, the new album, being solo versus in a band, and much more.
Stoli: Where are we talking from today and are you excited for summer?
Erik Brandt: Good ol’ St. Paul, Minnesota. I’m excited about summer because I get more time to play with my kids, catch up on all the stuff I never get around to during the school year and play lots of music.
Stoli: You have been doing music for over 20+ years. How do you explain your longevity and constant creative drive to make music?
Erik Brandt: I think I can explain my longevity in a few ways. #1 I have supportive and amazing musical friends and bandmates who help me bring my songs to life. The Twin Cities music scene is wonderful, #2 I am blessed to have a very supportive wife and family, #3 my goal has never been to become famous–I’m just trying to make art of lasting value–which is a life-long pursuit and, finally, #4 music is what I do–and when I don’t do it I feel incomplete. I have a restless spirit that is soothed by making music.
Stoli: What made you decide to go solo on this new album, ‘The Long Winter’ and were the guys in Urban Hillbilly Quartet supportive?
Erik Brandt: My last three albums have been solo albums and I’ve gone this route out of sheer practicality. The longer we’re at this music thing the more we all enter the “have homes and families” stage of life and it’s difficult to always get the same core people to gigs. This allows me the freedom to show up to gigs as a solo/duo or full band. When I’m touring with the full band, the shows are always “Erik Brandt and the Urban Hillbilly Quartet” shows. Regarding this album, the guys were totally supportive and many of them are on it–most notably Jeremy Szopinski (co-producer, electric guitars), Dave Strahan (banjo, electric guitar) and Noah Riemer (drums). We play songs off UHQ and Erik albums at live shows and it flows together well–I’ve been the primary songwriter all along anyway.
Stoli: What are some pros and cons to going solo on this album instead of working with the guys in Urban Hillbilly Quartet?
Erik Brandt: Any time a band does an album there’s an unspoken obligation that every member of the band plays on every track and weighs in on arrangements and production. While a lot of amazing music can come out of that combination of ideas, I did not hear the “full band” sound for many of the songs on this album. Also, I was hearing sounds–like clarinet–that are not part of our band’s line-up that I couldn’t really do outside of the context of a solo album. That said, I did have many current and past members of the UHQ play on the album and the songs are better for their contributions.
Stoli: How long were you writing & recording these 11 tracks and where did you do most recording?
Erik Brandt: Some of the songs came to me only weeks before the recording started in July 2011 (“Wherever You Go” for example) while others I have been working on for at least 6 years (“A Poison Tree”). This album is my 12th recording and this was the first time that I really sat down after writing the songs and took the time to dissect the lyrics fully and consider if I was communicating my message with the best words and rhythm possible. I even decided to make some songs fit a certain meter and had to radically revise the lyrics to fit the patterns I created. After doing that, I went back to the structures of each song and debated every chorus, bridge, verse and intro. Did I really need to play a “G” there? What if I used a different chord? What if this song didn’t really need a bridge after all? etc. etc. By the time we started recording I had these songs fully figured out and I knew I was going to be tracking something that I would still be proud of in 10 years.
Regarding where we did our recording, let me just say that it really helps to have good and well-connected friends. Our amazing producer Alex Oana (www.AlexOana.com – check him out!) from LA worked for Vintage King at the time and between them, his music contacts in the Twin Cities, my gear and Dave Strahan’s ProTools rig, we had a $200,000 professional studio set up in my home. We cleared out all the furniture from the first floor and captured the natural reverb and sounds of my home. After getting set up, we spent 6 inspiring (and sweaty) days tracking and tracking and tracking. It was the most comfortable studio setting I’ve ever had–especially since it was in my home! The best place to hear the album is actually in my living room with the speakers cranked up. C’mon by and have a listen!
Stoli: What kind of mood/setting do you write your best music under?
Erik Brandt: I’ve been at this long enough that I no longer need the beer-in-hand-with-a-candle-burning-at-midnight ambiance to write a song. Plus I have little kids and a million other things going on all the time. When it’s time to write a song, I find whatever I can at hand and start cranking it out. Leading up the recording of The Long Winter, I put in a lot of extra hours working on these songs and holing up in the basement to pore over lyrics, instruments and chord progressions.
Stoli: I really love the song “Anywhere But Here.” What are you talking about in that song?
Erik Brandt: Thank you–I love, too, how it turned out on the album. There are a couple things going on there lyrically. The beginning lines “You tell me not to leave / if I don’t have direction / what you don’t know / I’ve done some reflection” basically came directly from something a parent once told me at parent-teacher conferences (when I’m not playing music I teach English at a wonderful inner city school in St. Paul) about advice she always gave her children “Now don’t leave home if you don’t have direction!” I took that phrase and gave it to a character who is not me, but shares some feelings I was having at that time about wanting to be living elsewhere. My family and I had just returned from living in Hungary for a year and I was going through some very serious reverse culture shock and simply wanted to be living overseas again. While the character in the song is ready to cash in everything to find the escape he seeks, I’m not that guy.
Stoli: How is the music scene in the Twin-Cities and what are some spots where you play live?
Erik Brandt: Absolutely amazing. We have a great thing going here and the music scene is diverse and vibrant. Some of our favorite places to play live are the 331 Club in Mpls and The Amsterdam in St. Paul. We’ve played just about every room in town over the years and probably our favorite would have to be The Turf Club in St. Paul.
Stoli: Besides music do you have job/school and a family that you need to attend to as well?
I do. I teach English and am an IB Coordinator at Harding High in St. Paul. I also have a wonderful family. Both of these provide me with infinite inspiration.
Stoli: Not to get too political but do you feel the US government has the interests of their citizens anymore?
Erik Brandt: Wow. That’s a bit of a jump from the previous questions! I will say this–I work at an inner-city high school where 90% of the students live at or below the poverty line. Since I started teaching in 1995, I’ve only seen the poor get poorer and the desperate get more desperate. I know this next idea runs counter to the “rugged individualistic, pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” nature of American society…but it seems to me that everyone does better when everyone does better and sometimes government has to intervene to help make that happen. We need to take care of the poor and make sure all kids and adults have equal access to quality education, healthcare and safe housing. I think our government does a lot of good currently, and could do much more–but that the core of the problem lies within the American approach to life and what your average American expects their government to provide.
Stoli: What is the most exciting thing about being a musician in this digital and social media age?
Erik Brandt: I can find info, music and videos for my favorite artists just about anytime! I also enjoy having a greater rapport with my listeners and fans.
Stoli: What’s coming up for Erik Brandt and where you @ online?
Erik Brandt: Lots of shows supporting The Long Winter (and previous albums too!) around the Midwest and elsewhere. Looking to get into some upcoming festivals as well. Jeremy and I are planning on doing some experimental music in the fall–stuff that’s radically different from what the UHQ normally does. We’ll see what happens!
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Photo By: Darin Back