Enigmatic Heroes 

Indie-rock icons Brando

Indie-rock icons Brando

Derek Richey, the stubble-faced leader of indie-rock heroes Brando, takes a hit off a cigarette as he tries to explain his songwriting method. “In the songs, I cover it all up with this analyzation of others: how shallow they are, how corrupt they are; how self-involved they are, but it’s just a cover for my own insecurities, probably,” he says.

“If you want me to be honest, I’m angry because I just don’t feel like I deserve to be unsatisfied. I’m sad because I think I have things to offer, but I haven’t found the one person I’m compatible with ... I’m cynical because I think this will go on forever. But that’s life, really. These are things a lot of people can relate to, I think, but I would never cry about any of these things through a whole song. That would be whiney melodrama. I’m more interested in taking snapshots of life and its passengers.”

For more than a decade, and so many personnel changes that it’s hard to tally them all, Brando’s music has gone through plenty of stylistic transformations and attitudinal shifts. The one constant theme has been a keen observational eye for the untidy nature of human relationships. They’re not simple observations, or even observations that make sense, but they’re bird’s-eye views of how people interact with each other.

“I drag everything into the songs,” Richey says. “Situations that may or may not have happened in snapshots that might represent amorousness, jealousy, disappointment, self-righteousness. The songs are just full of these snapshots. My brain works in snapshots. So do the songs. If you put all the snapshots together, you can make sense of the songs. But none of the lyrics tell a seamless, heart-on-sleeve tale. There is emotion there, but it’s buried in the images.

“It’s not my role, I don’t think, to try to serenade someone or something. I figure this is my trip, and I’m going to tell it like I see it. Life isn’t like some seamless emotional blathering, one melodramatic blurb after another; so why should music always have to be so melodramatic? Why does every song have to feature ‘me’ or ‘I’? There can be a lot more drama in ‘you’ or ‘they’ as well. And you can tell a story with stills and snapshots. Thankfully, songs don’t have to run like some never-ending movie scene.”

Directed by Kurosawa

If the music of Brando were compared to a movie, it wouldn’t be a film starring its recently deceased iconic namesake. It wouldn’t be a Hollywood blockbuster project full of explosions and chases. If the multilayered, dense, pop music of Brando was made into a movie, it would be directed by Akira Kurosawa, the Japanese master responsible for Rashomon, the classic study of ambiguity and the philosophy of truth.

Just as the film presents simultaneous and differing viewpoints of the same events without drawing any conclusions, Brando’s music is equally inscrutable. A listener can read into it what he or she chooses without having any certainty that their analysis is correct. C

ritics nationwide — who have been more receptive to Brando’s music than their local counterparts — have created dozens of theories about “the Brando sound.” At various times in the band’s existence, they’ve been compared to Guided By Voices, the Beatles, Pavement, David Bowie, Blur, Built To Spill, Galaxie 500 and late-period John Lennon. Just about the only things all those artists have in common is a devotion to unraveling the Gordian knots of truth and an equal devotion to the structure of classic pop music.

On their fourth, and latest, album, 943 Recluse, the group somehow cobbles together a dizzying array of musical styles and lyrical themes. Self-referential and ambivalent throughout, it represents a bold new step for the band, away from its overtly psychedelic material and their indie-pop sound of the 1990s.

“Seine to the Rhine” is full of bombast and energy, while “Seamstress At Night” and “Brooklyn” adopt a more traditional pop sensibility. Elsewhere, there are ballads, understated rockers and songs that encompass all of those categories.

In short, while it’s somewhat different than their 2001 classic The Headless Horseman Is a Preacher, the same off-kilter aesthetic permeates both. The success of Headless Horseman, which received ecstatic reviews from the indie-rock press upon its release, has become somewhat of an albatross for the band, Richey admits. “I don’t think I’ll ever live Headless down,” he says.

“There are lo-fi lovers out there who think it’s the best thing since sliced bread and have downplayed everything else I’ve done — said it didn’t live up to Headless and showed no progress. Recluse, in some very minor ways, was an attempt to get back to the more ‘off the cuff’ implications of Headless that [2002’s] Single Crown Postcard completely abandoned. So, Recluse doesn’t eclipse Headless, but I do think the next one will.”

The next album, which will have an accompanying DVD, is called The Strangler and is set for release this fall. “It takes into account all the best parts of experimentation and planned chaos possible. And it isn’t even lo-fi,” Richey says.

The constant labeling of the group’s music as “low-fi” is somewhat of a sore point for Richey. The term implies some sort of official connection with the master of the genre, Guided By Voice’s Bob Pollard, who also releases his solo albums on Brando’s label, Luna Music of Indianapolis.

“We’re not lo-fi because we want to be,” Richey says. “We’re poor!” He continues, “Everybody in this room has gone to Robert Pollard shows, and we all love him, but I don’t think we’ve ever sat down and tried to write a song like one of his. When you say a band’s ‘low-fi,’ people think they’re either like Robert Pollard or pretentious little art-rockers. The thing it comes down to is building context for the song. I don’t like the idea of sitting around the studio and recording a song 50,000 times. It kills it.”

Four track at home

That kind of spontaneity has been a hallmark of the band, which has gone through many personnel changes since its formation in a South Walnut Street basement in Bloomington in 1991. In 1993, Richey joined the band and its core was set for several more years. Several more recordings were made with more or less ad hoc lineups.

The release of Headless Horseman in 2001 saw a new lineup created to play shows. This group featured Jorma Whittaker (from Marmoset), Kenny Childers (of the Mysteries of Life) and Daniel Touw on drums. Whittaker was later replaced by Josh Bennett, and Tony Whitlock replaced Seib, who restarted his own band, Satellite 66.

While Brando’s recordings have historically been written, produced and most instruments played by Richey, Recluse features much more collaboration than past projects. Childers, especially, adds his own touches to the process, and the rest of the band joins in as well.

Like its predecessors, Recluse was primarily recorded on a four-track machine in Richey’s Bloomington home. “You can imagine that things were pretty relaxed,” Richey says. “There was lots of drinking and smoking and stretching out on the porch in between takes. The guys would come over and record the foundation tracks, and then go home. I’d sit around listening to the songs for days or weeks at a time. Inspiration might hit at any time, and suddenly I’d be adding two more guitars, a piano and then vocals.”

He says he prefers that kind of laid-back pace in recording. “It’s the glory of recording at home: You’re on your own schedule. It’s so different from studio recording. No one is squeezing you to suddenly become inspired. You’re not squeezing yourself. There are no time or artistic limitations.”

One of the ways in which Brando is similar to Guided By Voices is in the sheer volume of material Richey and the band writes. They combed through 70 songs for Recluse and have dozens, if not hundreds, of songs sitting, unreleased.

When asked to give a number, Richey says, “Too many.” But he says it works to the band’s benefit by giving them more options. “Over the last 10 years, I’d estimate we’ve all written at least 1,000 songs. Only about 20 percent of them are worth listening to. The rest are gallant attempts. And that’s OK. When you’re writing off the cuff like we do, you expect failure to be the norm and great songs to be rare. Some bands put out songs they wouldn’t be caught with alone in a hotel — we never feel that way, despite the reaction of others.”

Despite that, Richey says, “Being prolific is overrated.”

Who’s paying attention?

Brando’s music has been praised in national magazines and Web sites for years (see sidebar), but recognition in Indiana has been slow to come. The band recognizes that and is attempting to change it. Richey sees more fertile opportunities in Indianapolis rather than his home base of Bloomington.

“Indy comes out for the shows,” Richey says. “Sometimes there are a lot of new and confused faces. We aren’t immediately digestible. It takes a few bites. If we can win 10 percent of the audience over at a time, that works for us. But let’s not mince words here: Indy is the new home of indie rock in Indiana now. I live in Bloomington, but we don’t play there. Bloomington had a fall-out somewhere around 1998-’99. Indy has NUVO and a lot of great clubs. Bloomington, which used to be the indie rock capitol of Indiana in the early ’90s and before, lost its independent newspaper, many of its clubs and too many people have moved away.”

To that end, the group has stepped up its appearances in Indianapolis and plans a big show for this Saturday, July 31, at Radio Radio, its traditional Circle City home. Brando’s physical distance from Indianapolis and its small but significant national reputation, along with Richey’s personal shyness, have created some detractors.

One person approached for a quote for this story labeled Richey as “an arrogant prick.” Another recounted a personal encounter with the singer that went unpleasantly due to what he sees as Richey’s “egomania problem.” Richey responds, “The whole ‘prick’ thing is going to happen, especially now. No matter how nice you really are. And we’re really pretty nice as things go. Plain and simple, we’re all above average, friendly guys: small egos, and lacking the kind of superstar hubris you might find elsewhere.”

Kenny Childers is quick to defend his bandmate. “Derek isn’t particularly adept at making small talk for small talk’s sake. I think he sees verbal communication as something real, a deliberate means of connecting.” He continues, “He’s also far more sensitive than he lets on, which sometimes translates into a touch of defensiveness, particularly when addressing the subject of his art and music, which is usually the topic of discussion when people approach him in clubs. He is actually an incredibly friendly, patient and intelligent man once he feels comfortable around you. He’s very protective of himself and his art/music. There is no room in his head for trivialities.”

Childers adds that when Brando is not playing a show or Richey is not at work, he “literally spends every waking moment reading or sitting on his living room floor making music, usually by himself. “He is as reclusive as they come. Sometimes I believe that being in public for Derek is others’ equivalent of being on Mars. Perhaps not always, but definitely some of the time. I tell him this all the time, but it’s really true: He’s too smart for his own good.”

Stay tuned

Richey absorbs books on politics and history but shies away from making overtly political statements in his music. “I’m more interested in subtly exposing the lack of empathy the masses have for their fellow humans, and the lack of curiosity many have about our neighbors, politics, the whole world around us and history because they’re so used to focusing on themselves.

“There are masses of people out there living their lives without any social, historical or political context. How can anyone make good decisions about life without context? What we end up with are individuals making choices in a bubble. It’s very isolating. It’s a very ‘me’ world. We’re not very healthy on a micro or macro level right now. The good news is, there are countless great people out there who care about others, and are selfless human beings.”

Expect a higher profile from Brando in the weeks and months to come. They’re scheduled to play next month’s Midwest Music Summit, have made tentative plans to tour the Midwest and are planning a gala at Indianapolis’ Queensize Studios to premiere the film that accompanies their next album. Recluse is currently in rotation not only on Bloomington’s WFHB but is in the top 20 on college stations across the country from Massachusetts to California. Recluse is in its second pressing.

In typical understated fashion, Richey says, “I don’t have any real bluster or blather to incite the masses. Just stay tuned, I suppose.”

Where: Radio Radio, 1119 E. Prospect St. in Fountain Square
When: Saturday, July 31
Who: Brando, Extra Blue Kind, Walker Kong
Tickets: TBA; 955-0995

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