"Let us, then, be up and doing, With a heart for any fate; Still achieving, still pursuing, Learn to labor and to wait" -Longfellow

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Thems the Breaks: 10 Questions with Chuck Kerr (BAD BREAKS)

"We promise, this won't hurt." Bad Breaks: Chuck Kerr, Alex Wash, Marcus Rubio, Ryan Teter

The incestuous San Antonio "indie" music milieu (as depicted in this handy Venn diagram) manages to be mad fresh and diverse, despite errrybody being in errrybody's band. Chalk it up, I reckon, to the players' wealth of creativity coupled with musical intuition and (for many) formal training. The Bad Breaks project, and its first fruiting the Bad Breaks album, is headed by multi-instrumentalist singer-songwriter Chuck Kerr, who has had his hand in some of SA's best musical projects over the last 3 or 4 years. With his whole life up until now (he's 28) being filled with music, particularly drumming and various collaborative work, Chuck has developed a hyper-keen sense of musical movement and song form- both of which are hallmarks of this album. There's a night-crawling, smoky-room-surveying, almost groove-surfing cockiness to these songs... a sense of busy darkness alive with possibilities, but never chaotic. These elements spring in part from Kerr's jazz roots, but this is far from a jazz record. Bad Breaks is full of shifts in tempo and genre, organically rhythmic at its core and singularly precise in terms of arrangements and lyrical content. With this debut release, we are treated to a cool and calculated brand of chameleon-like indie-pop... a slightly formulaic sound that's familiar enough to endear itself quickly and deep enough to reward and move you after many listens. Check out my review of the album for the San Antonio Current HERE and buy the album HERE. Below: read the text of my email Q&A with Chuck, stream the album and watch a video of Bad Breaks performing. Lastly... PLEASE get yourself to 502 Bar for the Album release show this Saturday (8/4/12)... there will be plenty of face-melting to go around.

1. I feel like you’ve ‘been around’ the SA music scene for way more years than your young age would seem to allow... How long have you been playing in bands? Who have you played with and what efforts, in terms of albums or bands, are you proudest of?
I’ve been playing the drums since I was about 3 years old, and I’m 28 now — so I’ve been playing music for roughly 25 years. I’ve only been in the local rock music scene since 2008 though. Before that I was more interested in playing jazz; I led a jazz quartet in college and later was a core member of the SA Jazz Workshop with Jordan Pollard, Andy Peck, and Curtis Mayfield. The SAJW was all about writing and performing original tunes and unique arrangements; we’d do Coltrane and then turn around and cover Radiohead. Fun stuff. Around that time I met Marcus Rubio, he was at the height of his Gospel Choir of Pillows phase and when he needed a new drummer I basically shoved my way into his band. Back in 2010 I started playing with Chris Maddin (of Blowing Trees) at the Broadway 5050 on Wednesday nights, doing indie/classic rock covers — which eventually morphed into the live album cover shows we did and the recent Tiago Splitters album. Most recently I joined We Leave at Midnight and have been playing drums with Nicolette Good. Somebody once said that I must not be very choosy about who I play with since I gig with lots of different bands, but the opposite is actually true — these guys are all really talented musicians, otherwise I wouldn’t be there.

2. As a kind of follow up to that question... Bad Breaks is the first (to my knowledge) release of songs you’ve written... You spend a lot of time helping other people make their songs sound great from behind the drums... How did this project come about? Tell us about the roles and contributions of the players as well.
I’ve always been interested in songwriting and I learned a lot about how chords and melodies work studying jazz at at St. Mary’s University. I used to write songs for the SA Jazz Workshop, and some of them had structures more similar to pop than modern jazz. Jazz and improvisation is still a big influence, but I’ve always loved rock and pop music, and after playing with Marcus Rubio for a while I started getting ideas for what would become Bad Breaks songs. I like playing other people’s music, but Bad Breaks is an outlet for my own ideas and musical values. 

The original 2009 incarnation featured Marcus on bass and Jackson Albracht (Cartographers) on guitar. I sang and played drums and keys, often at the same time. This was the “larval stage” of the band, we did a handful of shows before Jackson resigned to concentrate on Cartographers. By this point I was starting to work on newer, “better” material (some of which made it to this record) but didn’t want to rebuild the band until I found the right people. About a year went by and when Alex Wash arrived in SA to play keys for We Leave at Midnight in 2010, I knew I had at least one “right person” for the group. Marcus was game to play if he could switch to guitar. Ryan Teter (Mission Complete!) rounds out the quartet on bass. Each person has a deep skill set — formally trained, fast learners, good improvisers, endlessly creative. And they have great instincts for knowing where they fit into an ensemble. 

In Bad Breaks, I write all four instrumental parts during the demo stage (Garageband is my best friend), but it’s kind of like a screenplay — it needs good performers to make it “sing.” Like a good TV cast, I’ve been trying to write to their individual strengths more and more.

3. As a drummer, what do you feel distinguishes your approach to a song newly forming? What sensibilities do you think are unique to your approach? What is your relationship to songwriting? How long have you been at it and who has taught you the most in that arena?
I usually think about rhythm before melody and harmony. I’m really hardwired for groove and “feel” — the pulse of a particular song. Sometime I get an idea for a drum pattern or bassline, and I have to find the melody and chords that complement it. Other times I get into a melody or a chord progression and have to find the beat it goes to. But I think that’s how it happens for most people, probably. 

As a composer, I do try to make the decision of how a song “feels” early on, though — like, what kind of character it will have. Each song should feel like a unique thing, and not just different chords and words. A lot of potential songs don’t make it past this stage, they’re either retreads or they lack one of the three things — values, I guess — I am looking for in a song (solid rhythmic feel, strong melody, interesting chords). I like to think I’m getting better at songwriting (or at least better at recognizing when I have a dud on my hands), and I’m really happy with how the songs on the debut LP work together. Some of them are from as early as 2009 (“Victoria,” “Seppuku,” “Chapter and Verse,” “Only Distance”) and the newest song is “The Way Things Are,” written late last year and recorded at the last minute. Maybe there’s an evolution there, but hopefully they share the elements I want in a good song.

I picked up some formal knowledge of composition from my professors in college, particularly Dr. John Rankin, Audra Menconi, and Cecil Carter. I think other big influences are the musicians and bands I love — listening to songs over and over to figure out why they’re so “good.”

4. The material on Bad Breaks has a very sharp and definitive sound; it’s crisp and only dreamy when it needs to be. What would you say are the key elements of the Bad Breaks sound? What/who are some of your creative inspirations?
I think you can trace back a pretty clear line from Bad Breaks to artists like Spoon and Elvis Costello, definitely. Both bands have really, really strong rhythm sections — Jim Eno’s slow and steady drive in Spoon, and Pete Thomas’s explosive yet tasteful drumming with the Attractions. I also appreciate both bands’ stripped-down, no frills 4-piece lineup: guitar, bass, keys, drums. I think that’s the bare minimum you need to get a wide range of textures, colors, and sounds. These bands can go big but also go small, which is something a larger group can’t do as well. Paul Simon is also a big influence, mostly his incredible melodic phrasing and willingness to experiment with genre when the song calls for it. 

I hope that Bad Breaks songs are always built on a solid, distinctive “feel,” coupled with a strong melody and colorful chords. This is a really vague set of criteria, and I’ve been trying to experiment with touching on different genres but keeping those elements intact. Like, there’s an obvious difference in genre between the Talking Heads-style rock of “Chapter and Verse” and the smooth ’70s pop of “The Way Things Are,” but hopefully they still touch on the core values that make up a “good song.” The diversity there isn’t just tourism — I love David Byrne as well as Daryl Hall.  One thing I love about pop/rock records of the late ’70s/early ’80s is that is they often covered diverse tempos and emotions. I’ve seen so many bands — successful, popular bands — that have two settings: “angry” and “sad.” They also have two tempos: “medium fast” and “fast.” There are so many different emotions you could work with, and so many different tempos and grooves, and I want to continue exploring these in the context of the four-piece band.

5. Lyrically speaking, what are some of your concerns? Do you feel like lyrics are central to your songs or are they more like secondary adornments?
I tend to think about lyrics late in the game, after the groove, chords, and melody has been roughly worked out. I usually make up some phrases during the demo stage, trying to find words and ideas that fit the character of the song and are evocative without being too specific. Some of these end up sticking around, but a lot of them change — often from performance to performance, sometimes on the spot. I never sat down and wrote the lyrics for the songs on Bad Breaks, most of the words just kind of came out during the demo stage and then were refined over time. I am not sure why this works better for me, occasionally I wish I was like those songwriters who can sit down with a blank paper/screen and craft lyrics like poetry. But when I try it, I feel like I can get too clever/wordy for my own good. Something about that feels contrived to me, and some of my favorite lines were pulled from my subconscious during rehearsal or a gig. I even almost called the album Automatic Writing — how “psychics” claimed to channel the words of spirits — but that was way too hokey for me.

6. I must say... With a bunch of good SA music coming out this summer; Bad Breaks has some of the best hooks and refrains. What importance do you place on this aspect of lyric writing and in what order (choruses first, verses first, willy-nilly, etc.) did you compose these songs?
Most of the songs follow verse/chorus/verse/chorus structure, just by their nature as pop songs. I think a lot about how jazz tunes are structured, usually with an “A” section and a “B” section (or bridge), and then that form gets repeated. I feel like after the main “idea” is stated (the first verse and chorus, or “A” and “B”), I’m free to expand on that form and try to take it somewhere unexpected and build tension. “Won’t Come Home” has a short first verse and a long second verse, with a long instrumental bridge. “Something True” and “Good For Me” have extra-long choruses. “Keep My Promises” is all verses, with only one short bridge in the middle. “The Way Things Are” has long verses, and the “chorus” consists of long “oohs” to build maximum tension before bringing the verse back. So the songs follow verse/chorus up to a point, and then I try to have fun with it. 

7. With respect to the previous question, is it natural for you to express yourself in your lyrics? I know you do quite a bit of writing in other modes... do we take your lyrics as personal explorations or as the domain of the Bad Breaks “speaker”? 
It really isn’t natural for me to express myself in lyrics — probably why I end up thinking of them so late in the process. Without getting too specific, much of the lyrical content on Bad Breaks comes from thinking about people I know/knew, and some of it is personal and some of it just kind of fits the mood of the song. In regards to who the “speaker” is, most of the times it’s “me,” but occasionally it changes perspective suddenly. Sometimes this was 100% intentional, other times I only figured out who was “talking” after the fact. “Won’t Come Home” and “Good For Me” are two songs that are more like conversations than just one person’s point of view. But I didn’t start writing with that in mind, they just sort of came out that way. Sometimes I don’t know what I’m trying to say — or if I’m even saying anything, really — until after a song’s been written and performed a few times. 

8. The epically-stacked Bad Breaks album release show is on Saturday August 5th 2012... What other performances/projects do you have going on in the near future... will you be focusing more on Bad Breaks with the album out or letting it lie and focusing on other musical ventures?
I’m really stoked for the album release show — I was very lucky to get bands I admire to share the bill with us. Blowing Trees has been on hiatus for almost a year, and this is their first big show with their new trio lineup. They are going to debut brand-new material and I can’t wait to hear it. Education is another band that’s done a lot of great work in the past couple of years and they are all really cool guys. Their last record, Age Cage, is really great. The Rich Hands are an up-and-coming group that came to my attention through the San Antonio Current’s 2012 Music Issue readers’ poll. I’d never heard of them until they were voted Most Underrated Band, and after looking them up I was impressed by their ’60s garage-pop and high-energy live show. 

My goal is to play some more Bad Breaks shows this year, promote this record as much as I can, and see what happens. Maybe a mini Texas tour before the year is out, up I-35 to Denton and back. I’ll still be drumming with WLAM, Chris Maddin, and Nicolette Good, and I want to stay open to new collaborations if it looks like it could be something special. If anything, this first album has only increased my desire to start recording a follow-up as soon as possible. Once I get another batch of songs into shape I’d like to take another crack at it.

9. I always want to ask this of people who have strong abilities and passions for multiple artistic modes: how do you feel the visual and musical arts are linked in your mind? Does your activity and/or inspiration in one mode inspire or feed the other? If you’re going to be locked in solitary confinement for a month, do you take your art supplies or your drums?
I think the “visual” and “musical” parts of my brain are linked, and for some reason I know more than a few graphic designers who also play drums. Maybe it’s because design is concerned with form and visual patterns, and playing drums is all about form and rhythmic patterns. I think the sound of Bad Breaks definitely inspired the album artwork, which I designed around photos by photographer extraordinaire Josh Huskin. The music is minimal and bold with few frills, so the jacket design followed suit. There’s definitely a connection, but beyond that I have no idea, honestly. 

Solitary confinement for one month? I’d bring the drums. At the very least, after a month of practicing 12 hours a day I’ll have developed insane chops.

10. To end on a - possibly - lighter note... If I try to get philosophical about the band name, all kinds of interesting things come to mind. Sometimes, I know, these things have meanings and sometimes they are more arbitrary or of necessity... What is the significance of the name "Bad Breaks" to you?
The name "Bad Breaks" came to me a few years back and I liked it because it could mean different things to different people. The actual, very uncool origin: a bad break is a kind of typographical error (as illustrated on the album cover). In 2009, I hadn’t seen Breaking Bad yet (haven’t had cable in years), so back then if anyone asked me if I was paying tribute to the show I had plausible deniability. But Netflix changed all that and I am now just as hooked on the adventures of Walter White and Jesse Pinkman as everybody else. Now when people ask if it’s a shout-out to the show I say, “No ... but did you see last week’s episode?!” 

BAD BREAKS: facebook, twitter, bandcamp, chuckkerr.com

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