Interview: Brazil (Part 1)

The drama of the music industry—we’ve all heard about it to some degree as artists that we follow change record labels, go independent, struggle to make it and so on. But hey, nobody ever said that mixing artistic integrity and the nature of business was easy.

Stealing some space to keep warm from the looming winter cold, frontman Jonathan Newby of Brazil and I were able to sit down before the band’s acoustic performance catch up on what’s happening. As he spoke, Newby speaks frankly about the band’s biggest musical disappointment, the hope of a new record and working with super-producer Dave Fridmann (Flaming Lips, Sleater-Kinney, Modest Mouse).

With a new record, this has to be quite a busy time. Tell us about what’s happening.

The Philosophy of Velocity is our new record, and this particular point of the year is very busy for us. It’s kind of scary for us because we’ve pushed a record before, and we know a lot of the things involved—both good and bad to pushing a record—so there’s some things that are actually kind of frightening about it. But it’s the most ambitious record we’ve done to date. We were really lucky to be in the studio with someone as adventurous sonically as we wanted to be.

You worked with Dave Fridmann, which obviously there are some pretty impressive credentials there. How did that come about?

It’s funny because we had this other producer all lined up to do the record, and we had studio time nearly booked and everything. Literally about a week before that was supposed to happen, we lost all funding for the record, and we switched record labels. They wanted to get us into the studio as soon as possible because we were already geared up to do a record. We had a couple guys somewhat interested and were going to go with one guy in particular out of California.

Who was that?

His name is Brad Wood. He did a lot of big 90’s bands like Smashing Pumpkins and stuff like that. And he does a lot of MewithoutYou records. But on a whim, a guy from our label just thought, “I’ll give Dave Fridmann’s management a call and see what happens. He does good stuff.”

So they sent him some demos, and he thought it would be interesting to work with us. Literally a week before we hopped in the van and drove to New York, we had that phone call with Dave and just said, “Here’s what we want to do.” And he said, “Okay, let’s do it.”

What do you say in a phone call like that?

First you say a lot of gibberish. (Laughs). Then when you regain your senses and you start to be able to focus … Basically ,in calls like that with anybody, once you get over that, you say, “This is my idea for the record. This is my vision for what we want to do.”

What is that vision for what you want to do, and how does that initial phone conversation compare with the finished product?

Well, we wanted to have a record that had old-fashioned production values that sound not-so-crystal-clear.

Slickly produced.

Yes, slickly produced, compressed, quantized and all that stuff. Records today sound so smashed, and the sound really turns us off. We wanted something that was wide open, and we told him we wanted to branch away from the technical, tight, polished sound of a lot of bands who people consider our contemporaries and go for the blurred edges—sort of an impressionistic feel. Just more of a noise factor. He totally got it, and he was able to help bring that out in the studio.

Do you think he’s achieved that before with other bands?

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Yeah. At least from my interaction with him, he doesn’t seem to be one of the most technically minded people when it comes to music. He’s more … he takes a step back and sees the bigger picture. He views music with all the sounds and all the decibelage as one just one complete whole and then sculpts the sound.

When you listen to a CD like ours or even the newest Sleater-Kinney record, you know it got a lot of criticism and praise for being so noisy. What he’s able to do with just noise and make it so that the noise helps along the record and helps tell the story of the record, I guess.

How do you technically accomplish that in the studio?

For us, it was leaning our guitars against our amps and getting ear-splitting feedback and running a whole track of that through every song twice and mixing it in. We did all kinds of weird micing things. We took an old mic that was a taxi dispatch mic.

A what?

An old taxi dispatch mic. You know, like, “Hey, go pick up this guy or whatever.” (Laughs). We took one of those and ran it through pedals and an old Leslie or whatever. The goal was to make sounds that people would listen to on the record that would make sense, but would be like, “What was that sound? I can’t even decipher what that sound was.”

I listen to a lot of Flaming Lips records, and there’s a lot of sounds like that. It’s like a big daisy chain of this ran through it, and it makes this weird, other-worldly, Martian sound.

Next week we’ll have part two of our interview with Brazil’s Jonathan Newby as the frontman shares the struggle surrounding the creation of their latest epic.

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