Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Sidewalk Talk Show - with Guest Brian Speaker

Hello and welcome to the online edition of The Sidewalk Talk Show. While these conversations originally were held as live talks from the stage at Sidewalk, during the time that the club is closed and the open mic is being held in exile, we are holding some of these interviews on this site.

My guest today is Brian Speaker, who is involved with the scene surrounding Sidewalk Cafe on many fronts. Brian is a songwriter and performer, proprietor of the music venue Brooklyn Tea Party, and operator of his own recording studio.

Anything else I'm forgetting, Brian?

I think that's a pretty good start.

First off, although I want to talk about a lot of other things, since you originally were going to be in charge of upgrading the sound system and backline at Sidewalk, I wonder if there's anything new to say about what's going on there at the moment in terms of the future of the music activities there.

Well, there is in fact an update. Before Pini got the can, Ben and I spoke in great detail about what the club’s needs were. We made a few lists, one being absolutes, one being upgrades, and one being the dream list. Since that time, many things have gone down regarding the Sidewalk employees and Pini, but the list makes sense to whomever is in charge, and as it was well thought out, it has been seen by the new GM and he agrees with our proposed assessment. We've been approved to go ahead with the negotiated terms we had with Pini.

Well, that's comforting to hear. So, I guess that means that the renovation is proceeding and the intentions are to keep things flowing in the back room.

The back room has long been in need of an overhaul. New clubs like Rockwood, or not so new now a days, are changing the game for live music in small venues in NYC. When I worked at Sidewalk it was always thought that the back room needed a lift, and now, after all of this, it seems we're finally going to get it. It’s not going to be an elite system, but it will be better than most people will be expecting.

Any further sense of how long the process will take from your end or from theirs?

I'm sure that information will find its way to people once the renovations get a little further along. I mean, by the looks of things, the place is being torn apart to the bare bones, to build it back up again. They want to eliminate any low grades from past health or city codes. They want the place to be respectable from the ground up. However long that takes, is up to the construction of the renovations.

Ok, so, now on to other things--Brooklyn Tea Party, the venue that you run from your home in Bushwick [and which has nothing to do with the similar-sounding political group]. I have enjoyed many shows there, and what I especially like is the combination of a party and performance. There's something so enjoyable about the intimate scale of the place and the feeling of hospitality that goes along with the music. I'm wondering, for those who might not be familiar with BTP, if you could give a short run down of its history.

BTP began with Dan Costello, Rachel Devlin, Brook Pridemore and Michael David Campbell. They moved in together with the intent on having a place to practice, perform and party. They built the stage in the living room and put in place the basic touches of wiring and sound so the place could be used for their own music. Later it became a venue, when they started inviting friends to play and perform.

And then how did you get involved?

I moved into BTP in the spring of 2008. Brook was out on tour, as the usual for him those days, and so I began to sublet his room. As I was living there, it was discussed that the other folks were ready to move out come August. The space was and is perfect for my recording studio set up, so Brook and I took over the lease until Brook eventually moved out. Scott Loving moved in sometime before that, and now he and I reside here with his girlfriend, Assylia.

So, it's great that you kept things going with the performances there. One of the things that I like about it is the underground nature of it--I guess really what that means is that yes, you have to know about it from friends, or whatever, but also that no one is really trying to make money from what goes on there. But I know it takes a lot of work for you to put on those shows. Can you talk about why you do this and what your general kind of idea or aesthetic for the place is?

Well, I too want and need a place to practice. It’s great to be able to have The Everybody Knows over in the middle of an afternoon and work on songs, or record an album in an environment where we're not watching the clock. But, first and foremost, I loved this place before I lived here. I got what those guys were doing and I knew coming into this space, it was meant to be used for shows. The vibe is good, the sound has been upgraded since I moved in, and I wanted to keep the place going. When I began doing shows here, it was costing us money, so we cut back shows from two a month to once a month. As the financials of the days began to get worse, we knew we had to make some changes to keep the place going. We began by putting a $5 donation at the door. This ensures we're going to be able to pay the bands something at the end of the night. Then, Scott and I decided to offer cheap beer for a donation in order to put towards our electric bill. That way, we can give the $5 donation tally to the bands, and we have a chance to put a small amount of money towards our bills. It’s not much, but in this day and age, every little bit counts.

Do you have any general overriding concept for the type of shows you put on? Or is it just that you look at who's out there and pick what you think you would like to hear?

Mostly, we want to put shows together that give a bit of variety. I mean, how many times have you been to a show of 5 acts and you can see that same show every month, or every other month? It gets old quick. Mixing and matching is fun, but in the end, Scott and I have to enjoy the night, because it’s our home, our party. We don't put ourselves on the bill at every show like the old guard used to do either. That was important for me to feel like we are doing this for others and enjoying it for ourselves. We also like to put new people on so our audience gets a chance at seeing someone we respect, who might not be very well known.

Are there any shows or moments that stand out as highlights for you either since you've been running BTP or before?

You know Herb, my favorite moments at any show, are those where I literally get lost in the music. It used to happen to me when I would come here before I moved in, and it still happens for me, more often here than anywhere else. I'll climb up to the loft area and sit behind the lights and just transcend. That being said, my favorite performers are the ones that are really, really good at music!

Why, how diplomatic of you, Brian.

But I know what you mean. There are definitely times at BTP where I've gotten totally caught up in the performances.

In my own case I remember some amazing Schwervon! shows, Debe's live concert recording, and the shows of that first July 4 extravaganza (couldn't make it to the second one).

The Fools, Toby Goodshank, Barry Bliss...
Debe's live concert, I just recently mixed and mastered after all this time, and it is truly wonderful!

I can't wait to get my hands on it.

Sometimes the openers are the best part of the night for me. Scott Rudd, Charles Mansfield, Emily Einhorn... I mean these are the beginning of the night and it’s like WOW, where do you go after that?

So, in Ben K's interview he said that he tries to stay aware of what's going on at other venues so as to not program events that will conflict. I have to admit that early on in BTP's history I was not altogether thrilled when they hosted Jeff Lewis on the same night I was playing at Sidewalk (because otherwise I'm sure my show would have been overflowing). I guess this is a little less of an issue now with fewer shows, but how do you feel about this question of "competition" within our community of performers and venues?

In my opinion, its not competition. This is NYC, and this is Brooklyn. You are swimming in a sea of things to do, shows, arts, culture, fireworks. There are always going to be other things going on, and sure, attendance will vary because of that. That being said, BK and I do talk about upcoming shows, but we try not to be concerned too much if someone else is having an event on the same night.

Any specific plans for the future with BTP you'd like to mention or anything else you'd like to say about it?

Yeah, I would like to say, we need community support. We need people to support our shows because, it’s such a fragile thing. The world is in such a financial shut down, and we feel it here. We try to keep this place going, and allow folks to have good nights with great music for not a lot of money. Places are closing down, and we don't want to.

Also, there is a magic that happens here and I don't want that to end. My favorite part of any night is when a performer takes me aside and is awe of what just happened. They thank me and say, when and if they can play here again, they would like to, and that makes me feel great!

Well, you've got a great show coming up this Friday which I'll bet a lot of people will attend: Rebecca Seatle, Crazy & the Brains, Prewar Yardsale--and a special unannounced guest, right?

Yeah, that's this weekend!

Any hints about the special guest???????

It’s going to be fucking amazing!!!

Prewar Yardsale hasn't played together in front of an audience in over one year. It’s like a reunion show.

So... no hints!

Ok--well, I think you summed up the BTP experience well when talking about the magic of the place, and I hope anyone not familiar with it will come out and see for him or herself. I want to move on and talk a little about what you do during the day there--which includes running a full-fledged recording studio, right? I know you recorded The Everybody Knows's album, and Debe's recording, and did some work for Eric Wolfson and others. How are things going with that?

Things are going pretty well. I am making, and helping to make some pretty incredible records. I've recently invested in some new pieces, including a 1959 Wurlitzer electric piano, that is absolutely amazing. And then I have this 1940's electric guitar amp that has such a unique sound. I'm currently looking for an analog tape machine. I've always wanted to be proficient on an analog machine, and now i have the chance to do that. i just have to find the right fit.

Maybe you should tell people about your overall setup.

I run Protools with wave plug-ins, a focusrite octopre, which means I can record 16 tracks simultaneously, and I have a few really nice mics and preamps. My main line is a Neumann U87 microphone through a Universal Audio LA-610 preamp. The live room has a lot of character and we can use the three bedrooms for isolation in recording full bands with very little bleed. You can check out some of the audio samples on the new bandcamp page...

Brian-when we first met--if you remember way back--it was when Eric Wolfson, Vin Caccione and I disrupted your work by taking over the stage at Sidewalk for a rogue photo shoot while you were maintaining some of the audio equipment there. So as long as I've known you--in addition to performing and running BTP--you seem to have had a fascination with capturing sound--Is there anyway to put into words what it is about this that you find so interesting.

By the way, I think you were pretty pissed off at us. I hope you've forgiven us.

Capturing sound, yes, I do have a fascination with that, but moreso I have a fascination with the sound and its source. When you hear a voice so unique as Julie LaMendola, sailing along in your living room, it’s magic. When you hear the incredible vibe of a Vincent Caccione's guitar leads, when you hear the slippery keys of a Preston Spurlock, or the abrasive smash of the perfrect snare, you want to capture what you hear. You want it to sound on record the way you hear it in your ears and reverberating around in your head. That is truly awesome and I want to capture it!

I vaguely remember that the Sidewalk back then was truly a fucking disaster. The lack of maintenance of their system and the dirt and gunk, made it hard to fix things and to do my job. You guys coming in to disrupt that was also something I learned was part of the gig. 

So, it's not a matter of playing around with cool gear?

Of course its about the gear too! I LOVE gear, but more than anything I LOVE knowing how to use it, and how, when someone tells me what they hear in their head, I can make said thing happen. Sometimes it’s gear, sometimes it’s experiment, sometimes it’s accident, but the sonics must be represented. The process is also the best part.

Well, from what I can tell you've been doing a good job at that. I'm looking forward to hearing more of your work--although  the snippets I heard of The Everybody Knows's album the other night sounded really good.

Also, check out Boo Hoo's record, Afghan Hounds. That is still one of my favorite records to be released that i've ever been involved in.

Cool. I will....So, thanks for hanging on with me through this with all the typing and everything--I'm sure I could go on for a while--but I do at least want to get to your songwriting, especially The Mars Chronicles. You put a ton of work over a long period into creating what is essentially an opera or a musical having to do with exploration of Mars and a cast of characters from earth and space. I think you've presented it in full at least twice with a large cast and a quite lovely sequined costume that you wear. For one, I was suprised to realize that you must have an affinity for musicals to some extent--but in any event can you tell me what inspired you in creating The Mars Chronicles?

The Mars Chronicles began with my song a day project, Spiral Notebook. I guess about 25 songs in, I thought it would be fun to have a story to continue if I felt like it. Also, I was watching the NASA rovers land on Mars. This was big news at the time, so the story was based on the idea that folks have talked about for a long time: "when are we going to Mars?" As the story continued, it took different turns and began to become something in itself. After 13 songs, I had to set the project aside because it was very apparent, it needed its own head space and some time to find the rest of the story. Once I finished Spiral Notebook, I came back to The Mars Chronicles and began performing it as a concert Space Rock Opera. Now, it’s in consideration for the NY Fringe Festival, and I'm working with two partners, Dan Costello and Jason Surratt to try and complete the story so it can be ready for full production by this summer.

So, you guys are writing more songs?

I've written and finished two other songs for the album, which I plan to release sometime later this year as a concept record. There are several other songs that I've written, but Dan and Jason are helping primarily with the story. But, yes, there are going to be several other songs written for the show. In the end, it will be a full length musical/space rock opera for the stage.

So, I recently learned of your involvement as a teenager with a hard rock band that played around at fraternity parties, etc, but did you have any previous experience or interest in using music theatrically. Or did you you secretly spend a lot of time listening to Evita and Cats and stuff as a kid?

After my high school rock band broke up, I was a little lost and in search of something that wasn't going to fall out beneath me. I mean the band breaking up was something i did not want to happen, and I had absolutely no control over. So, being a bit of a choir nerd, I loved singing in our high school shows and such. I began to take voice lessons and even took a role in a community theater show in my home town. I decided to study theater at Purdue University, where I absorbed as much about lights and sound as anything else. I did listen to and learn to sing a lot of rock musical tunes and still love them to this day, but more like Chess, Les Mis and Tommy. On a whim I auditioned for Busch Gardens, Williamsburg and got the job. I spent the spring/summer doing 635 performances as Northrup, a one man, musical magic show in Virginia.

Man-musicals and magic-you and I should go on the road. I'll have to talk to you more offline about the magic stuff.

The magic was the mutli-million dollar theater.

I have to admit that in the past I've had mixed feelings about "rock operas," which is kind of weird in a way since I'm such a big fan of musicals. I've always liked Tommy because I love The Who and I think some of those songs are great, but then again there was a point where some of the stuff that followed Tommy got to be pompous and overbearing-I can't think of any specifics at the moment but you probably know what I'm talking about. But then again I loved Rent, although I consider that more of a musical than an opera. I guess some of the lines are blurring really, but where this is leading is to whether there's anything you can say as to what it is about the form of the piece--the idea of a "rock opera”--that interests you--and also if there are any specific themes in what you've written that you are trying to deal with or if it is just kind of what it seems to be about on the surface. Yikes--a long question....

The Mars Chronicles is about Love and Inter-Galactic Peace on the "surface," but it also has some deep rooted social and political currents that are very much in step with what's going on in our world today. The rest of the show, was always part of the plan. Finding exactly how to say it and where to take it, has been the windfall. Barry Bliss recently asked me if I was ever going to be "finished" with it, or if it was something I would be working on for the rest of my life. I think if you ask anyone today working on, essentially a novel set to music, the word "finished" isn't in the vocabulary for the first five years. Just ask Phoebe Kreutz who has been immersed in a team of writers on her musical which I had the good privilege of seeing in a showcase. Amazing! It’s been years in the works.

I do, however, plan on releasing the record as its own piece, like Tommy was a concept record before it became a "complete show.” But unlike Tommy, The Mars Chronicles was meant to be a full story. I just haven't finished the entire songwriting part of it yet 

Yeah, it would be good to have a recording of it. I'm looking forward to that. Although I'd like to see more performances of it too. I just had a flash of Ariel singing that song about the United Nations Space Organization.. Also that whole press conference section I really like--just to name two parts--Anyway, good luck with the NY Fringe Festival--that's cool to hear it's up for consideration there. By the way, in the course of this you mentioned your song-a-day project--which was a very cool thing. I remember thinking at the time that it would be hard to keep writing good songs under those kind of circumstances, but I remember any number of very interesting pieces that you devised and sang at Sidewalk around then. Anything you want to say about that experience.

It was a challenge, it was hard, it was frustrating, it was time consuming and it was worth it. I think experience is the key word. It taught me a lot about myself and it changed me for the better. I plan on releasing that catalogue as an all in one DVD very soon. It’s long overdue.

Wow, we're covering a lot of ground here.

Ok-one more thing-I know that earlier you were working doing professional voice over work--then I heard you on TV as the voice of a fruity drink--are you still doing any of that kind of stuff?

I partake in the occasional audition and even a job from time to time, but the truth is, that industry, like so many others, has changed dramatically over these past few years. I used to go to casting offices all over the city, where I was up against 25 of the the top guys in NY. Now I go to my agent’s office, where I'm up against 10 guys in my office along with 10 guys in every office from NY to LA. I'm now up against upwards of 500 people for one job. Big or small, experience does not matter in that realm. It’s only if your voice matches the voice in someone else's head. It’s frustrating, but that world gave me the gift of being able to afford a comfortable life in NYC for so many years, and honestly, 6 years of voicing that juice drink, bought my recording studio, which is where my life is headed. I will do voice work as its available to me. I really do love it. I've had the chance to be in some AMAZING recording studios and work with superstars. It’s a privilege.

OK--well, I know we've been at this a while now--and thanks so much for your time--My last thought is something I come back to all the time and it is about the community of folks connected to our scene. I have a feeling that connection to a community of that nature is something that also is of value to you and so to finish things up is there anything you'd like to say about that or anything else before we sign off.

In a place like NYC, where there are so many people scratching out a life in art and  music, it is nice to feel like I'm part of something. This is a tough scene to understand sometimes, just like its name, it's hard to define. But, the littlest bit of support can mean a whole lot to a lot of people.

OK Brian--thanks a lot for your time and the thought put into this. See you soon.

Cool, thanks for your interest Herb. I'm glad to take part.