A conversation with Jonathan Bree
Interview by Adam McKibbin
Aided by inescapably catchy indie-pop songs like "Mars Loves Venus" and "B-A-B-Y" (and the new "Red Rollerskates"), New Zealand's Brunettes often make a charming and immediate first impression, which has helped them win over crowds full of Rilo Kiley and Shins fans over the years. Their newly released Paper Dolls proves that they have staying power, too, even if a certian prominent American label didn't agree. Jonathan Bree and Heather Mansfield may not get a chance to tour the States this time around, but hopefully that won't deter fans from finding their way to what may be the duo's best album yet.
Bree took some time recently to catch us up on all things Brunettes, including strange shows, scarecrow love, and shady record label behavior.
I was first introduced to your music back on Mars Loves Venus. The title track won me over right away, and it probably will always be my favorite Brunettes song just because, well, first loves can be hard to shake. Do you have a favorite song(s) in your catalog or is it one of those things where they’re all your children and it’s impossible to make a Sophie’s Choice?
I think I definitely have favorites, or ones that I’m more proud of. They might not bring home ‘A’ grade marked assignments but I’m very fond of them. "Mars Loves Venus" is the first Brunettes song, actually, our eldest, off to junior high next year I suppose.
Despite my affinity for that song, I think Paper Dolls will stand up as my favorite Brunettes record so far. Not a question – just an addendum.
Thanks. Nice of you to say.
I saw you in concert around the same time, opening for Rilo Kiley and Feist at the Wiltern Theatre here in LA. I wrote then that I was impressed by how well you connected with the crowd, especially given the venue size and the fact that you were relatively unknown. Do you enjoy those challenges, and are you as comfortable up there as you look?
When we are opening for someone whose audience can appreciate our 30 minutes or whatever then, yes, I like playing support. It’s exciting when you know you are making first impressions. The only time it’s a bummer is when you are treated badly by in-house staff, road crew, sometimes even the headliner, because ‘you’re just the support" and you get terrible sound, yelled at to get on and off the stage. It’s crushing to realize you’ve worked really hard to travel to the other side of the world only to be made into a lame support for far more important human beings. Fortunately, that hasn’t often been the case for the Brunettes.
I read a charming story about you and Heather playing at a rest home for about 40 war veterans a couple years ago; it sounds like you came away with a few new fans, which is fantastic. Is that the most unusual setting in which you’ve played a show?
Ha. One of the more unusual, definitely. It’s hard to gague if your show’s going well when you are looking at the faces of unfortunate stroke victims. We played a primary school a few months ago and that was fun. The kids had all learned our song "B-A-B-Y" and were all dancing and singing along.
I think the most unusual setting for me was playing inside a go go dancer's cage while the rest of the band played over the other side of the room. Wish I could remember the venue...that was an unusual show anyway.
While there is more heaviness than some probably realize, the overriding vibe of Brunettes albums is, put simply, feel-good. When you yourself need a pick-me-up, where do you turn in your music collection?
Jonathan Richman. Most music for me is a pick-me-up anyway, regardless of its nature. However, I don’t usually choose Leonard Cohen first thing in the morning.
Choosing the right song to blast out to blogs is, I think, an underrated part of the modern marketing of bands. Was “Red Rollerskates” an easy choice?
Yeah. I think there’s a few catchy tunes on the new album but that one seemed to get stuck in heads on first listen. Normally a good sign.
And let’s mention the video, which has its nice twist at the end. More inspired by Mannequin or Lars and the Real Girl… or none of the above?
I was supposed to watch both those films in research for that music video but no, I have yet to see them. The main inspiration...it probably never screened in America but when I was a kid my favorite show was called Worzel Gummidge. It freaked me out but I was addicted to watching it. It was about a scarecrow that was in love with a life-size fairground doll ‘Aunt Sally’. The BBC cancelled it after one season but the show was so strangely popular here in New Zealand that our country made a couple more seasons of it when it got cancelled in the UK.
For the guy-girl call-and-responses that are one of the Brunettes’ signatures in songs like “If I,” how are those approached from a songwriting perspective? Are you generally each writing your own lyrics?
No, I tend to write it all. In the case of "If I," though, I was writing something that I hope was honest for the both of us.
When we last heard from the Brunettes, it was on Structure & Cosmetics and there was a fair bit of interest in the seemingly whirlwind romance with Sub Pop. That seemed like a great way to get exposure in the States, but it turned out to be a one-album romance. I don’t know whether it’s a touchy subject – but what happened?
It’s a long story. The quick, relatively concise version was it was nice to have our music focused on a little more because obviously the name Sub Pop brings with it a bit of clout. Within a short time of Structure coming out, though, the name association seemed to be one of the very few benefits of signing with them. Business is business and I’m sure they were disappointed with the initial sales of Structure.
The thing that left a bad taste in my mouth was that instead of being honest and upfront about it, I had to listen to crap about going solo or about how the lack of communication from their end wasn’t based on mediocre album reviews or poor sales. Classic record company textbook horseshit. Rather than drop a band, you shamelessly tell their main songwriter to go solo and watch the band self destruct. Ha. Basically lots of things could of been handled better but weren’t. It’s a shame because I liked [Sub Pop co-founder] Jonathan Poneman, he came to New Zealand three or four Christmases in a row to hang out and we were friends before we had to do business together.
Last but certainly not least, what else should new fans and old fans alike have on their radar for 2010? Are there tour plans?
Ah plans for 2010? Heather is flying back to go live in NY in a few weeks. She’s a greencard holder now so that’s pretty great for her. I definitely would love to tour North America again. We’ll have to see, though. Last year was nasty for maxing out credit cards, while we talked to new managers, lawyers, new companies. Due to some horrendous timing over the past few years, there’s a good chance future touring isn’t possible.