Interview Date: 02/18/2010
Run Date: 03/19/2010
God love guys like Findlay Brown. Fighting the good fight along with fellow traditionalist Richard Hawley, Brown is an unabashed fan of Roy Orbison and Phil Spector. That may not sound terribly sexy from a commercial standpoint, but then again, Chris Isaak has mined gold from that sound for decades, and Isaak hasn’t penned anything as catchy as the title track to Brown’s new album Love Will Find You in ages. Bullz-Eye caught up with Brown to talk about knocking David Letterman off his feet, the decision to leave his folky past behind, and Ewok cathedral music. And no, that last bit was not a typo.
Bullz-Eye: I’ve been saying for years that I wanted to write a simple, throwback kind of pop song, and you, sir, just wrote the song that’s been vaguely floating around in my head all this time. So thank you.
Findlay Brown: Oh, good! (Laughs)
BE: I heard your new album first and then went back to hear the first one, and was surprised at how different it was. What inspired the dramatic shift in direction?
FB: Actually, my first album is more of a departure from what my usual influences would be. The roundabout answer is, the first record had a purpose, which was it was a bit of an olive branch for my then-girlfriend, now-ex, to make amends. I’d been a bit of an asshole, really. It had to sound a certain way to convey those kinds of intimate feelings. This new record is the kind of music I’ve always wanted to make. I had immersed myself in Roy Orbison and Phil Spector stuff, Serge Gainsbourg and things like that, a bit more than usual. I don’t know if you’ve heard the story that I recently broke my leg…
FB: I broke my leg. I was run over by a taxi.
FB: Must have been about a year and a half ago.
BE: Oh. I thought you were going to say last week.
FB: No, no. My sister looked after me and nursed me back to health. I was living on the 21st floor of a big apartment block, and the lift was out, and it was winter, and I had crutches, so I wasn’t excited about getting up and down that on a broken leg. So I was on my sister’s couch for about three months, and didn’t have any of my records with me at all. But I had my laptop, so I just downloaded stuff on iTunes, and it took me on a bit of a journey. You start with one artist, and then you realize they’re on this label, and they’re on a compilation with another artist, and before you know it, you’ve downloaded about 30 tracks in half an hour. That’s what I was doing. It was lots from Chess Records, lots of Roy Orbison, Phil Spector, early rock ‘n roll. Matt Monro, the Everly Brothers…and I just got really hooked on that sound. Once I digested it a bit, I sat down and started working out what those songs were doing, you know, rhythmically and chords and all that. I became a student again and started studying those songs. I wrote three quarters of the record there, on this beaten, old classical acoustic guitar that my sister has, and which I actually learned on. You can barely get it in tune, but it has some kind of magic to it. Whenever I go around there, I tend to write something on it. It’s got a kind of funky energy to it.
BE: The video for “Love Will Find You” might be the sweetest, cutest clip I’ve ever seen.
FB: (Chuckles) Yeah.
BE: Do you find yourself getting hugged by strange women on the street?
FB: Oh yeah, all the time. But I’ve always had that problem.
BE: Did you even meet any of the women in the video? It looks as though those bits were shot separately.
FB: I didn’t meet any of them, but it’s funny, I was walking through a train station, Liverpool Street, a massive train station in London. And everything goes a-blur and I see this figure walking the same line as me towards me, and I’m like, “I know that face somewhere.” And she’s looking at me as if to say, “I know that face from somewhere.” And it turned out it was one of the girls from the video.
BE: Ha! Which one?
FB: It was the one in the pajamas in the bedroom. And I got a MySpace message from one of the other girls as well.
BE: Talk about working with Bernard Butler. Did you have any Suede records growing up?
FB: No I didn’t, actually, but my sister did. She was a massive Suede fan. I actually thought they were a bit camp, but I was a bit of a lad growing up. I wasn’t really into music as a kid. I was into shooting my air guns, and driving motorbikes, and making rope swings, playing Army, knives, things like that.
BE: Your bio on AllMusic.com was eye-opening. It said you were a brawler and looking at a life in jail.
FB: Yeah, I’m not sure how true that is. I mean, I was definitely in and out of trouble quite a lot. I had a bit of a shady past, but nothing major.
BE: All right. So, Bernard Butler…
FB: Right. So yeah, never really been a big Suede fan, but the last couple of years, with music in general, I started looking at different things, different songs, and different periods as well, with a different eye. I think that the more you do music, and learn the craft of songwriting, you start to appreciate different aspects of songs. I’ve basically grown to like a lot of things that I quite hated as a kid, because I didn’t understand. I think Suede are a fantastic band now, looking back, especially Bernard’s guitar playing. But the first thing that really got me with Bernard was this project he did called McAlmont & Butler. I don’t know if you know that.
BE: I know of it, but haven’t heard it.
FB: It was really good. It was a guy called Mark McAlmont [Note: his first name is actually David], and it had this soul thing, like Phil Spector, Wall of Sound sort of ‘60s sound. So that was the first time I realized [Butler] was doing that sort of thing. And then obviously I heard the Duffy record (Rockferry), and was really drawn to the production. But it was actually an A&R guy, a friend at the record company, who suggested working with Bernard.
BE: Did you ever hear the version of “Diamonds Are Forever” that David McAlmont did?
FB: Yeah, yeah, fantastic. Right, David McAlmont, not Mark, sorry. I think he’s got an amazing voice. He’s a very interesting character, I think. He’s quite androgynous, isn’t he?
BE: Honestly, I can’t say I’d know. I’ve just heard him sing, but that makes sense, with that big tenor.
FB: Yeah. I didn’t know if he was a woman or not when I heard his voice, but killer, killer singer.
BE: How long have you been in the United States?
FB: We moved over between Christmas and New Year’s.
BE: What was the biggest culture shock when you first came here?
FB: Biggest culture shock… [Pause] You’re just overwhelmed all the time when you’re here [in New York City], because you feel like you’re in a movie. A lot of my friends, when they come over, they say the same thing, especially in New York, but anywhere in America, really. But in New York, you just walk the streets and you feel like you’re in a movie the whole time. The hardest thing for me to get used to is having a good cup of tea. I like me the workman’s tea, the builder’s tea. I have actually found a place in Williamsburg that sells this brand called Yorkshire Tea, which is very good. So we’re slowly getting over that problem. I’m from Yorkshire, and we like our cups of tea, especially first thing in the morning.
BE: Tell us about your adopted home of Brooklyn. There are hundreds of bands from Brooklyn right now. Are you familiar with the other musicians that live in the neighborhood?
FB: Well, I’m not sure how many of these bands are actually from Brooklyn, but yeah, TV on the Radio and MGMT, I think they’re fantastic. Brooklyn is one of the most creative places in the world at the moment for music.
BE: Every other press release I get is about a band that’s “from” Brooklyn. They’re a lot like you; they came from somewhere else, and settled in Brooklyn.
FB: Yeah. But I’m sure there’s a lot of crap as well. It all comes in waves, doesn’t it? There’s a bit of cream at the top, but there’s also a lot of shite that comes with it.
BE: Sad but true. What are your expectations for how the album performs on this side of the pond? The American charts have been rather hostile to UK pop acts in the last few years.
FB: That’s not really my job. I don’t know what’s supposed to sell and what’s not. You know, I just come over and do my thing. My team thinks that [America’s] a good place for me. And it seems to be going down well, so far. I’m getting good response at shows, and people have warmed to the music, so you just keep on going.
BE: I saw your performance on Letterman. That had to have been a big rush.
FB: It was, it was. My people were quite surprised by his response, saying that it was quite unusual. It’s funny, because one of the great things about coming over here is…how can I put this…you don’t have the limitations that you might have in your own country, where you know all the media routes so well. You’ve grown up with these TV shows and these magazines, so you’re a bit more restricted in your mind, in a sense. There’s more freedom when it’s the unknown; it’s not a big deal, so you don’t get nervous about it. And that was the same about Letterman. To be honest, I’ve never watched [his show] before. But once I started to realize the gravity of it, and they told me he has this amount of viewers, and la da da, then it started getting quite nerve-wracking. And then I spent the last half an hour before the show on the toilet. But it was a rush. It was like jumping out of an airplane.
BE: The rep who set up this call told me that you performed for the label people at 9:30 in the morning last week.
BE: Is that the earliest you’ve ever done a gig before? I can’t imagine that was easy to do.
FB: That wasn’t easy. I think it was the earliest [show I’ve ever done], yeah. I’m a bit of a nervous performer, really. I remember a Nick Cave quote, I don’t remember exactly what he said, but he was talking about how just before he goes onstage, he can’t even imagine it. He can’t imagine doing it, “there’s no way I can do this. How am I going to sing? I’m going to be an idiot,” blah blah blah. And I definitely relate to that. But as soon as you start singing, something spiritual happens, I think, and you relax and you enjoy it. But yeah, normally, I’ll have a beer or two before I go on, just to calm the nerves. But at 9:00 in the morning, that probably wasn’t going to be a good idea. Then you start feeling like an alcoholic.
But for a boardroom meeting gig, it was actually really warm. People were into it, and it was quite lively, actually. So I did enjoy it in the end, but the thought of it…I almost had a sleepless night, thinking, “This is going to be awful.” I almost find those situations harder than playing for a thousand people, because [I imagine the label people] saying, “Oh God, what did we spend our money on? This is shite. Oh, it’s the new guy, is it? God.”
BE: Well, it’s probably easier with a thousand people not to make eye contact with anybody. But in a situation like that, you can’t help but look at everybody.
FB: Yeah, exactly.
BE: Who is your favorite band from back home that we Americans need to know about?
FB: I’d like to say a friend, Johnny Flynn, who’s a good friend of my best friend from home, who’s also very talented. He’s called James Mathe, and he plays keys for Johnny Flynn. He’s like a modern-day Incredible String Band, but not as twee. It’s the folk/country thing.
BE: You’ve done a ‘70s folk record and a ‘60s Wall of Sound record. Where do you go from here?
FB: I think the next one’s going to be like, a sort of spaghetti western, um…[Pause] you know the end of “Return of the Jedi,” with the Ewok song? A bit of that, and then some cathedral element.
BE: Spaghetti western cathedral.
FB: Ewok cathedral music.
BE: I picture you throwing darts at a board that has all these genres on it.
FB: I used to be a lot worse. I used to be in a band called Bodekka, and it was predominantly psychedelia with old vintage synths and a couple of drum machines. An electronic psychedelic sort of thing. But we would literally sometimes want to put every single influence in one song. So Kraut rock, psychedelia, French electronica, disco, hip-hop, trip-hop [Laughs], all into one song. Sometimes it worked, but most of the time it was pretty horrific.
BE: That’s hilarious. What are your short-term plans? Are you going on the road?
FB: I’ve just come back from a tour with Nouvelle Vague, a little west coast tour. I’ve got about four or five gigs in and around New York, and I’m getting ready for South by Southwest, and after that I go on tour with Shelby Lynne, a nationwide tour. I think that’s going to be a solo acoustic tour.
BE: That was my next question. Do you have a band, or is it just you and a guitar?
FB: It varies. It depends on how much the record company wants to spend, the size of the venue, things like that. At the moment, I prefer to play with bands, because that’s the sound of the record. When I play solo, it’s like a mixture of the [first and second] records. It leans more to the folk/country thing.
BE: Well, I know it’s early in the morning to do an interview, so I appreciate you taking the time to talk with us. I really dig the record.
FB: Oh, brilliant. Thanks.
BE: I hope it sells well enough. That’s the tricky thing these days; nobody buys records anymore. If my kids told me they wanted to get into music, I’d say, “No way, don’t do it.”
FB: Yeah, be a doctor. Well, we’ve got to find other ways of making money now. I mean, money’s the biggest con that’s ever been given to us, anyway. I think the monetary system is completely and utterly corrupt. Money’s not my favorite thing, but obviously we need that to get by. Hopefully, something else will come along. I’ll be dead and buried by then, but…
BE: Well, thanks again, and best of luck on the Shelby Lynne tour.FB: Thanks, mate. Cheers