While drum and bass duo Brick + Mortar, my personal favorite music discovery of 2013, might have seemed a bit out of place opening for acoustic acts Anthony Green and Dave Davison (of Maps & Atlases) at El Rey Theatre on November 22nd, they won over the audience within the first couple of songs and continued to add to their growing fan base throughout the set. The big, infectious, high-energy tracks of the New Jersey act (comprising Brandon Asraf and John Tacon) were matched by both their stage presence and their involvement with the audience.
As a fan, I knew what to expect from the music, but having never seeing them live, it was hard to imagine how they would replicate so much sound with just two people. Let me say I still don’t know how they do it, but I can tell you they make it look easy. I was particularly impressed when John got up from the drums while their backing track was playing to get the crowd even more involved by encouraging them to chant “HEY!” along to the song.
By the end of Brick + Mortar’s set, they had played through pretty much the entire Bangs EP as well as a few tracks that I hadn’t heard before, but the one song that stuck out to me and that really got the audience involved was “Keep This Place Beautiful.” By the end of the song, Brandon had the entire crowd singing along and chanting “keep this place beautiful,” which is exactly what the band did for that wonderful night of music.
After Brick + Mortar’s set, I had a chance to meet with Brandon and John (I had a bit of a fan boy moment here, but I tried to keep it together as much as possible) to ask them a few questions about the tour with Anthony Green, the formation of Brick + Mortar, and the evolution of their sound for the full-length album coming out next year.
Check out their answers below, and if you haven’t listened to Brick + Mortar yet, now’s your chance to be on the ground floor of one of the best bands coming up today.
For anybody who didn’t make it out to the show but wants to know a little bit more about Brick + Mortar, how did you guys get your start?
BRANDON: Well, I met John when I was 14. He basically was just really good at the drums and was in a bunch of bands when he was young. He told me to start playing, so in the beginning we just played instrumentally, from 14 probably to 22 or 23. Around 24, 25, we were like, “Let’s try to write a song.” We decided to switch our name, switch our whole vibe, and try to write songs. Then we put out our first EP ourselves. That was four years ago, so we only started singing and writing songs 4 or 5 years ago.
We’ve never written a song that we haven’t put out. We thought that bands just wrote songs and put ‘em out. We didn’t know you wrote 20 songs and then you picked 13. We just were like, “Well, yeah, why the fuck would I write a song if I’m not gonna put it out? That’s crazy.” We didn’t know it’s a funny joke that everybody says that the drummer and the bassist could never write a song. But we are a drummer and bassist. That’s where we started. In the beginning we knew nothing. It was just all trying to figure it out.
So at first you were just writing songs and putting them out?
JOHN: We always put out what we feel.
BRANDON: It started out us being like, “Okay, we know the singing part’s cool. This singing part feels good. Let’s do this again.” I’ll be like, “Oh wait, if you repeat something, it’s probably a chorus.” We literally learned from the bottom what a song was.
You truly learned from the work put into writing?
BRANDON: Yeah, just from working. We’re kind of in a bubble. Everyone goes, “How come you sound like you have this genre-bending style?” and it’s really ’cause I never played with anybody else. We’ve been a bubble with each other.
That leads me to my follow-up. What would you say are some of your influences as far as music goes?
JOHN: I grew up listening to a lot of heavy stuff. I played in a heavier band, so the style of the intense drumming and stuff was really apparent to me at a younger age. Then I just kind of threw it to Brandon.
BRANDON: I was like, “I love these drum parts, but I hate this fucking guy yelling. I don’t give a shit about this guy yelling.”
JOHN: That was my old band. He was just like screaming over everything.
BRANDON: I didn’t grow up in a scene. I wasn’t accepted by all his hardcore friends when we were young. I was like the outsider friends would take on. I was into like TLC and shit. I was lame. I didn’t have any cool brothers and sisters, so I just started playing ’cause it felt good. I didn’t really have a preference of what I liked. I just was like, “Oh, I like this, I like hip hop, I like that.” But really it was just funny ’cause that heavy influence of the bigness of music is pretty much what we agree on. We both like big music. Whether it’s aggressive or just epic and diva-ish or whatever it is, we like the big.
Lyrically we’re influenced by old stuff, like the Doors, Pink Floyd. I like lyrics that are ambiguous, that could be applied to many things, but musically we’re really schizophrenic. We like electronic stuff. We like indie bands. We like a lot of hip hop. We’ll go through periods of time when we just listen to classical for five hours on the road.
JOHN: Yeah, definitely the most soothing music to drive to.
BRANDON: But we’re definitely guilty of being in a bubble. We always aim to do something that we can’t quite put our finger on. We like doing that.
That’s one of the things that I loved about the EP — I hadn’t heard anything like it. I always look for that in music, not that someone is necessarily trying to do something new, but it just happens.
JOHN: That’s how it is with us. It just kind of falls out. It’s really cool. The style that I’ve learned from Brandon is that we wanna get the best sound possible, whether it be running through an old tape player or doing it on an iPhone and then running it through his effects, or him inspiring me from this vocal melody that triggers this whole fucking thing in my brain. It’s a really cool way of writing music. It’s fun. He’s my best friend, too, so it’s always fun.
BRANDON: Yeah, so we can argue. When we first started —
JOHN: “Dude, this is awesome.” “No, that sucks.”
BRANDON: No, when we first started, I remember after one of the first songs I sang — I’ll never forget it — he turned to me, and he’s like, “Dude, people are either gonna like this or think your voice is terrible. I don’t know.”
No one had heard them, the first things we were doing. It was just one of those things where we were friends since so young, and we argued so much and got in fights and blah blah blah, that it’s easy. It’s easy to argue. I see other bands write stuff, and there’s more of a diplomatic approach — it’s not like that. It’s like, “John, that shitty part you do, we could do that part, or we could do another one. I don’t mean ‘shitty.’ I just mean not as great as the part that comes after it…”
JOHN: That’s how we communicate. We’re essentially like brothers in that regard.
BRANDON: It’s really fast, almost violent, the way we talk to each other. Throw in, throw out, change this, this, that. It’s a very fast, passionate kind of a dialogue.
JOHN: It’s for the song. There’s no personal attachment to anything. In that lies the problem of, “Oh, well, I have to have this part in the song or else I’ll be pissed off.”
BRANDON: When we first started doing this project, Brick + Mortar, we sat down and were like, “All right, we’re gonna do this, but the only way to do this is for us to just agree that we can’t be personally upset. If you say that I suck at something, I can argue with you and say that that part doesn’t suck,” and we could argue back and forth.
If somebody intellectually makes their point, and you come to the conclusion that it is good or not good, that’s all that matters. Your personal emotions, you have to try to keep them far away. It’s the hardest thing to do in the world, but you got to.
Well, especially when it comes to art. It’s always subjective.
BRANDON: Oh yeah, but you got to. You gotta argue, but you also gotta be like, “Okay, am I sticking to this because I think it’s good and I did it? Or because the song needs it?” We’ve gotten so good at it now that we hardly argue about what songs need anymore.
Kind of sticking on the focus of songs, you guys have such a big sound for only two people. Was it hard at first to translate that to live settings? Or did you kind of have an idea going into it of “this is how we’re gonna do it”?
BRANDON: Well, at first it was definitely hard.
JOHN: Yeah, when we first got the sampler, it was like Greek to us.
BRANDON: In the beginning, we had to learn. I don’t wanna do it like a band where I’m standing there, I whip my hair and all that shit. That’s not me. I’d rather have it be this weird carnival.
JOHN: And when you tour, too, you play the set every night. You kind of put your mind in other places because the set’s so dialed in, and you know exactly what you’re doing. Your mind can wander in how you want the live show to go and how it actually happens.
Do you look at how to evolve and change things that do and don’t work?
BRANDON: Yeah, we try to make it to where it’s a spontaneous thing, but at the same time, playing the songs as best we can. We don’t want you to feel like you went to one show and then you go to another one, and it’s like, “This is the same thing every fucking time.” We try to switch it up with what we do in between.
Once we started playing shows and started getting fans out, we were like, “All right, we really wanna do something more than just play.” We wanna make it so when you come to the show, you’re part of it, and if you don’t wanna be part of a show, maybe you shouldn’t come. That’s kind of the whole feel of our shows.
JOHN: People wanna be a part of something. They wanna be at a show where they wanna feel like they’re up there with the band instead of just watching the band. That’s at least how we feel about it.
BRANDON: Yeah, people want an escape. You go to work every day. I figure if you’re paying money to see a show, if me and John aren’t dying by the end, we’re pretty much being lazy bitches.
I’m assuming a lot of this crowd probably didn’t know you guys coming into this.
BRANDON: No, not at all.
But by the end of it, they were chanting with you, they were singing along with you, and everybody was into it.
JOHN: That kind of happens pretty much every show.
BRANDON: But that’s definitely planned. We talked about it. In the beginning, it was like, “Oh, it would be great if people did this.” Then we realized, “Okay, these little spots where there’s freedom from the sampler, you gotta go up and make the crowd do this chant. Then when you come in…”
The song on the record doesn’t do that, obviously, but doing those little things makes a huge difference. Within two or three songs, you can get a crowd to know you if you do the little things. But people need a push.
That’s what I noticed. As the set went on, more and more people were involved in chanting and singing along.
JOHN: People that don’t know us, they see two guys, and they don’t know what to expect, so we just try to get them in our world as much as possible.
So what has the tour been like so far for you guys? How has the reception of the audience been?
BRANDON: It’s been really good. We didn’t know how they’d take it ’cause they’re Anthony Green fans, and it’s a certain genre of music, but they’ve been really, really, really receptive. Anthony’s been super nice about making them receptive by supporting us, and John goes up and does this drum part with him. It’s been a really, really good tour experience, and Anthony always makes sure that we get a sound check, and we have everything we need. We’re grateful because we didn’t know what to expect, but it’s really awesome.
So you guys are currently working on a full-length album now as well. When can we expect that, and what else can we expect as far as the evolution of the band’s sound goes?
BRANDON: First couple months of next year. As far as evolution of sound, all the songs on the new record sound different from each other, but they still have the big aspects to them, like mixing a lot of electronic drums like we do, but trying to find beats that we haven’t used.
JOHN: And different textures.
BRANDON: Yeah, different textures. We basically dive into the world a little bit more, pull out different kinds of nostalgia. I think there’s even some ’80s synthesizer going on with some of the new stuff. A lot of piano.
JOHN: For a couple songs, we stepped out of our comfort zone and got really good results. Every song takes on a whole different personality.
BRANDON: I think I might have written my first ballad, which I wanted to always do, but it doesn’t sound like a regular ballad.
A Brick + Mortar ballad?
BRANDON: It’s the first one because, well, like I said, we don’t know what the fuck we’re doing. We do, but we don’t. We just know, “Oh, this is a big vocal. Let’s do this.” Basically we’re one of those bands that’s always gonna try to go different places. Hopefully the people that support us are going to be cool about that. If you’re not, that’s fine. Who likes every movie a director does? You gotta try to get better.
A lot of what you guys continue to do on a regular basis is push those comfort zones and say, “Okay, we haven’t tried this before. Let’s give it a shot.”
BRANDON: Yeah, we’re so young as a band. We’ve only put out this EP and ones that we did ourselves that are only a couple songs each. As songwriters, everything’s new to us, so we don’t exactly know what our sound is. I think we’re gonna try to keep not knowing ’cause I like it better that way.
JOHN: It’s just big. That’s all it is. Big.
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