City of Hits: Rocker and jazz man Tim Brickley 

Hit City Recording, 707 E. 54th St., Monday, 9:15 p.m.

A white wooden door stands between the outside world and a musician’s private playground. Inside, an impressive trail of pianos, keyboards, amps and cannibalized drum kits leads to a secret lair: the studio control room.

The ovular room, with its windshield-like soundproof glass, feels like the cabin of a ’50s-style rocket ship, piloted by rocker cum jazz aficionado Tim Brickley, who sits at the recording console in cutoffs and tennis shoes, one leg tucked tightly underneath him. Vintage desk lamps give the room a dark, night-clubby ambience, while two burning candles add a touch of the mystical, perhaps to summon the muses.

“We’re just scratchin’ tracks tonight,” he says, eyes peering up from beneath a thick crop of black hair. Across from him sits Bleeding Hearts bassist Mark Kocher poised to record.

A track rolls — a tasty rock ballad written nearly 10 years ago by Brickley and cohort David Rheins. Kocher, without music, finds his bearings, closes his eyes and begins reaching for notes to support the prerecorded piano, vocal and drums.

“I call this arranging by default,” Brickley says wryly. “I just wind him up, let him go, record everything he does and get him out the door.”

Tonight’s session represents the current phase of Brickley’s interesting and diverse musical career: the effort to record that elusive second full-length Bleeding Hearts album.

Born and raised in a San Francisco working-class suburb, Brickley grew up with the ocean virtually in his back yard. “I could look down on the Pacific from a huge 300-feet cliff. It was pretty dramatic.”

His older brother and sister — Charles, a musician, and Catherine, an artist and photographer — were his early creative influences.

“I grew up with Charles practicing the sax in the little house we lived in,” he says, recalling John Coltrane and Red Garland records lying around. “Good memories.” Catherine supplied him with music and books, and both introduced him to the Beatles.

“They had all their albums,” he recalls. “The Beatles became one of my loves.” His mother loved Broadway, so Brickley grew up amidst a backdrop of rock, jazz, show tunes and crashing waves.

In the early 1970s, his family moved to Indianapolis, near the Jewish Community Center. “I went from an Asian and mixed lower-middle class thing to the suburbs with all my new Jewish brothers. I became an honorary Jew,” he says, claiming to have attended more bar mitzvahs than anyone he knows.

Moving to the Midwest had its challenges, however. The music he was passionate about — from the Beatles to Iggy Pop and the whole Velvet Ballroom scene — got labeled “fag music.”

“People here were listening to country rock,” he says.

So, it seems fated that Brickley and new neighbor David Rheins, a fellow Beatles fan and Bob Dylan “fanatic,” would become best friends. Right away they developed a kind of productive synchronicity.

“As teens we just started writing songs,” Brickley says — to date, they’ve collaborated on over 150. While at North Central they also ran the school newspaper. “We were always writing.”

After attending Indiana University together — where Brickley received a BA in telecom, Rheins a BA in journalism — their paths diverged: Brickley returning here to write, perform and record music and Rheins going east to work for Rolling Stone, Spin and, currently, Time Warner. Although the physical distance between them has been great, they remain spiritually close. “He and I are still buddies and we still write songs,” Brickley says.

While at IU, Brickley wrote and video-taped a musical which needed a soundtrack. Calling on his former guitar teacher, Dave Langfitt, who owned a small home-studio, Brickley recorded the soundtrack and planted seeds for a partnership that would be fruitful for years.

“Dave became my total mentor,” Brickley says about the gifted guitar player and electronics whiz. “He taught me how to do a little bit of everything.” The little studio, which Langfitt dubbed Hit City, didn’t even own a mixing console. After persuading his father to co-sign a loan to buy a $2,000 mixer for the studio, Brickley became an instant partner. “I got a key and started sweeping up.”

Around this time, Brickley began venturing out to the Patio and Vogue, performing in experimental rock bands and playing solo to the accompaniment of a sequencer. In the mid-’80s, he became a member of punk/new-wave band Today’s Icons who, at their zenith, opened for Boy George in Louisville before 12,000 fans. “We were little guys, you know, going for it.”

In 1986, Hit City moved to its current, expansive location and business began to pick up. Along with multiple radio and television spots, the studio’s then large staff of engineers, including guru Paul Mahern, now at Bloomington’s Echo Park, produced album projects for lots of area alternative bands, including the Zero Boys, Johnny Socko and the Vulgar Boatmen.

However, Brickley says, “I never wanted to have a studio specifically to make income, cause you might as well have a hardware store, you could make more money doing that. It’s more important just to be able to have a facility to work in.”

A labor of love, from its inception Hit City was built piecemeal, as time and money would allow. It wasn’t uncommon for a band to defray recording costs by pitching in around the studio. Brickley recalls that Toxic Reasons paid off their second album, which ultimately sold 15,000 copies, “by helping to put the floor in downstairs.”

Brickley formed the rock band Bleeding Hearts in the late 1980s primarily to perform the music of he and Rheins. Still together after several incarnations, the band received regional acclaim following the,1995 release of its first album, Be Apart.

Recorded at Hit City, the album contains 11 solid and well-executed originals. The songs — about love, going home and, as the title suggests, a sort of modern isolation and angst — and their tastefully sculpted arrangements, often nod unashamedly to the Beatles or Dylan, yet make original statements. Brickley did all the singing on the album, often with a British flair, and contributed on guitar and keyboards.

Monday, 10:15 p.m.

Veteran Bleeding Hearts member John Byrne arrives with guitar case in one hand and venti Starbucks in the other, his dog Fargo in tow. The tri-colored terrier bounces from person to person expecting, and receiving, love. “He’s needy,” Byrne says, plugging in. Brickley observes the dog with apprehension.

“I’m usually a cat person,” he says. But looking down, holding its face in his hands, he relents, “But you’ve got mojo.” A connection is made, and Fargo curls up under the mixing console, at Brickley’s feet, as Byrne prepares to record his first pass.

A friend of Brickley’s for over 20 years — he was with him in Louisville in front of those 12,000 fans — Byrne joined the Bleeding Hearts in 1993, after an extended stint as lead guitarist for the Bloomington-based rock band Mere Mortals. Having performed so long with a band whose members were practically treated as gods, he remembers the transition to Hearts as “ego-crushing.”

“I was just convinced everything I played was right and appropriate, thought my ideas were nothing but great,” he says.

But during an early Hearts recording session, after listening to a playback of one of his “great” run-throughs, Byrne recalls, “Tim would say, ‘Let’s break this down. What do you think you played that supported the song, or the vocal?’” He laughs. “It was arranging 101.”

Byrne knew how to rock but says Brickley showed him how to leave space in his music, how to “breathe.” Around this time Brickley and Byrne, who had been freelance writers for NUVO, launched the independent music paper Different Beat, which for about two years did stories on area bands and musicians and their music, including, of course, the Bleeding Hearts.

The success of the Hearts’ Be Apart inspired plans for an immediate sequel, which never materialized. This was partly due to the financial strain of buying out partner Langfitt in 1996, which made Brickley sole owner of Hit City. But it was mostly due to the left turn his musical trajectory took.

“It was time to sort of pump the jazz up a little bit,” he says. Brickley remembers it like this: “It was Christmas Eve and I had just broken up with somebody and was mopin’ around the Red Key, and Nat King Cole’s ‘Sweet Lorraine’ came on.” He became fascinated. “It sounded like it had been recorded yesterday.”

It was 1988, and he was playing an acoustic gig at J. Whits on Alabama, his “entrée into the beloved Mass. Avenue district.” After the gig, he and Bleeding Hearts drummer Jeff Chapin would hang at the Chatterbox to hear jazz and more Nat King Cole.

“I started really loving the music and studying it, going to the library every week and taping stuff,” he says.

To look and sound more “jazz,” he bought a Gibson L125 guitar. “Along with my acoustic stuff, I mixed in (laughs) my little versions of these jazz standards, and it started going over.” Chatterbox owner David Andrichik, familiar with Brickley’s work, offered him a weekend single, prior to the late-night jazz. “His music is fun to listen to,” he says. “I had confidence he’d be able to get a following at the Box.”

Within a couple years, the “single” had grown into a quintet. “As I got better, I was able to attract better players,” Brickley says.

Soon jazz keyboardist Kevin Anker came aboard. “I didn’t have to play guitar anymore,” Brickley says. Although he often prefers to play electric bass, it was a revelation for him to focus only on singing. “I learned a lot about breathing and expressing emotion; how to ‘tell the story.’

“Rock was my first love,” he says. “I fell in love with jazz pretty late. It’s a lot harder, but mostly I approach it as a singer and as a songwriter, which is the side of jazz I got drawn into to begin with.”

Now nearly ubiquitous in the Indy nightclub scene, his quintet has had a residency at Rick’s Boatyard since it opened and performs regularly at Dunaways, the Rathskeller and the Chatterbox, to mention a few. It occasionally expands into a full-fledged big band for private events.

As the size of the ensemble and its schedule of engagements grew, so did its repertoire.

On a family trip to England, Brickley got exposed to the growing jump-swing subculture there and added tunes of that genre to his mix. “I really fell in love with the music of Louis Jordan, Cab Calloway and even Cole Porter from that era, 1938-’45.” • • •

On a Friday in March, Brickley, donning a black vintage suit, fronts his jazz band for Swing Night at the Fountain Square Theatre. Over 200 people, mostly high-schoolers — guys in suspenders and girls in semi-formal — have come to dance in the style of their grandparents in the spacious 75-year-old, wonderfully restored theater.

“I didn’t pursue the swing people, and it took a while for them to find me, but once they did we sort of got adopted by all the young dancers,” he says.

Couples converge onto a large, congested oak-plank dance floor where they hold hands, practice dance steps in tandem and, mostly, chatter nervously as the band prepares to start.

“It’s funny to me,” Brickley says about the jump-music resurgence. “It’s what I’d already been doing, and will do till I’m an old man in Miami Beach singing to divorcees.”

Gripping his bass, Brickley kicks the band into Lester Young’s “Jumpin’ With Symphony Sid” — the horn section playing an energetic once-through to set up his vocal — and the static mass of dancers begins to oscillate, which is all space will allow.

Feet splayed, head bowed, Brickley croons these old songs with a fetching youthful purity — his long, loose body swaying and bobbing from downbeat to final chord, as if current flowed through it in quarter-note pulses.

The music is smooth, relaxing swing with few surprises, and the dancers love every minute of it. Several ascend to the mezzanine in search of more room. “Hey mezzanine, what’s up?” Brickley calls. The kids shout and wave their kudos.

• • • Ironically, Brickley first aspired to a life behind the scenes, writing, performing and recording in the quiet, controlled ambience of a studio.

“I came as close as possible to making a career out of playing for no one,” he says.

To get his music heard, to get it disseminated, he needed to peddle it before the precarious atmosphere of a live audience. But, in order to do that, he had to overcome an immense stage fright.

“It was a triumph of the will,” he says. “It’s probably my least favorite part of the business and probably why I’m not more successful.”

In many ways, Brickley, a bachelor, is a very private person who has been sort of destined to lead a public life. Although blessed with a sharp intellect and a good, often self-deprecating, sense of humor, he doesn’t reveal himself easily. His essence, however, comes across naturally in the passion with which he speaks about and, especially, creates music.

This musical creation extends beyond his multiple weekly performances. For example, he does work for the Phoenix Theatre, in collaboration with director Bryan Fonseca.

“I compose whenever they need original music,” he says. Among many other projects, he wrote a soundtrack for last season’s Savant, a play about a young jazz piano player, and served as producer and musical director for the very popular Bat Boy: The Musical. “That was like actually doing a Broadway show. It had a huge cast and a huge amount of music and live musicians,” he says. “It’s a lot of stress while it’s happening, but completely enjoyable when it’s done.”

He has even acted in one or two productions. “Theater has been one of the spokes in the wheel for a long time,” he says. “I love that.” He’s also scored several broadcast documentaries for Channel 20 and one for the Learning Channel; he composed the current theme for Across Indiana.

And his work gets recognized. A public service announcement for the Indianapolis Day Center, which ran on MTV, won Brickley an Ad Club “Addy,” and a documentary about basketball in the 1950s called Hoosier Hoops: The Golden Era, hosted by Mike Ahern, won a regional Emmy, proudly displayed in the Hit City control room. “I did all the composing, for live band, and scored it to picture,” he says.

Brickley also co-wrote a song featured in another 1950s production, the movie Going All The Way, based on Hoosier author Dan Wakefield’s coming-of-age novel set in Indianapolis.

In his spare time, Brickley engages other musicians — as many as 80 some weeks, including original rock acts for his Weekend Special at the Bourbon Street Distillery. He reads a lot, recently artist bios and the poetry of Gary Snyder, and accumulates antiques; he has every guitar he ever owned, tons of vintage furniture, including his family’s 1903 upright piano, 30 years of Down Beat magazines starting from the 1930s and, his most recent acquisition, three bar stools retired from the Chatterbox. “It’s just nice having the junk around,” he says.

Now, eight years after the release of Be Apart, Brickley has squeezed in yet another major project: He and his Bleeding Hearts have begun playing out, wood-shedding and recording music for that long-delayed second album. The first in a series whereby he plans to release an ambitious 60 originals over the next two years, this album will feature what he considers to be the band’s “12 best” songs.

Ultimately, he hopes to record every song he and Rheins ever wrote. And after that, well, he says, “I intend to do both [jazz and rock] until I’m tired, which I don’t see happening anytime soon.” It’s a rigorous pace, but that’s apparently nothing new for the artist.

“I’ve been doing this for a long time,” Brickley says, then reflects, “Funny how quickly it becomes a long time.” One benefit to getting older, he maintains, is that you become less angst-ridden. “You just learn to count your blessings every day, because tomorrow you could be ... landscaping … in this business.”

11:30 p.m.

Several beers, tangents and takes later, a foot-tapping Kocher and virtually motionless Byrne lay down a final pass. The untitled song is really starting to gel; its contagious hook will linger for hours. Brickley, looking away, listening pensively, nods frequently in approval, then turns to cue the musicians out of the song. “Yeah!” he says. “We’re almost there guys.”

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