The indie legend has no intentions of stopping…
BY MIKE SHANLEY
Stephin Merritt, musical auteur of Magnetic Fields among others, isn’t exactly known for a tendency to dish out compliments to his peers. But in a recent interview, this writer brought up the name of Franklin Bruno as someone equally as adept with couplets as Mr. Merritt. He responded by recalling a song that he heard Bruno sing at a 1993 CMJ Music Marathon showcase —and proceeded to sing the chorus of “Growth Spurt,” melody and lyrics virtually intact. “It’s been almost 20 years and I still remember it,” Merritt said.
The fact that Merritt could recall a tune that he heard a few years before composing 69 Love Songs not only says something about his musical mind but something about the gift of Franklin Bruno’s songcraft. On a handful of albums, singles and compilation tracks with the indie pop trio Nothing Painted Blue, he clearly has a way with both words and hooks that draw on a lot more brain power than many other bands of that style. While anyone can drop pop culture references in their songs, Bruno clearly wasn’t doing it to elicit cheap laughs. (One Nothing Painted Blue song actually rhymed “Messiah” with “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” indicting that awful Billy Joel song in the process. But more on that later.)
Realizing that Nothing Painted Blue wasn’t going to help them earn a living, the band from Upland, California (just east of Los Angeles) continued its academic pursuits between albums and tours, with Bruno working towards a doctorate in Philosophy. Taste the Flavor, their last album, appeared in 2006 and Bruno continued an occasional solo project that began amidst the trio’s lifetime, and collaborated with longtime friends Jenny Toomey and the Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle.
But a life of academia can’t keep him away from his guitar for too long. While he was teaching at Northwestern University in 2007, Bruno recorded Civics under the name Human Hearts, feeling that the album’s participants contributed too much to the sound for him take all the credit. He taught at Bard College in 2006 and decided to make the East Coast his new home. The Human Hearts, which by now includes full time drummer Matt Houser and a handful of friends, released Another in November. The album came out as both a self-released double-10” with silk screened covers, and on CD from the folks Shrimper, a label whose affiliation with the singer-guitarist dates back to the earliest days of Nothing Painted Blue.
With another online-only release, the Flag Pin EP, showing him in fine singing and writing form, it seems like will Bruno will keep reappearing as it feels good to keep playing. But he chuckles at that idea. “I don’t know if it’s always a matter of feeling good. Sometimes it’s questionable,” he says with a trademark dry wit. “I think I’m going to keep doing it in some form as long as I feel I write some decent songs with some regularity. Or even if that doesn’t happen, very often I’ll just collect them and record them.”
When it comes to songwriting, it might not be an exact analogy, but Bruno compares himself to an artist who sketches every day or an author who keeps a daily journal. “I work on songs,” he says. “Eventually some of them get finished and some of them get played a lot. Some of them don’t get played much. Some of them are clearly standouts, some of them are weird stepchildren. And then when it comes time to figure out how to make a record, there might be a number of different reasons why you’ll select some songs rather than others: thematic or what musicians you’re playing with.”
In both Nothing Painted Blue and his solo work, the songs have always seemed to deal with relationships but in metaphorical set-ups that it go way beyond a simple boy-meets-girl dynamics. “Swivelchair”— a single on the Shimmy-Disc offshoot label Kokopop which was closest the band came to a college radio hit — framed the relationship in the context of working with office supplies. (It also deftly rhymed “Cutty Sark” with “industrial park.”) “Register” staged the scenario in a supermarket, where tattoos blurred with UPC codes and fantasies of long-term relationships were doused by a cart has too many items from the express lane. Musically, Bruno can be all over the map too, from thrashy power chords to sweet indie pop, peppering songs with jazzy, bossa nova chords or country twang.
At the same time, Bruno has no high-minded ideas about his skill with words. “The ability to use metaphors and the ability to explain things to oneself or others, in terms of something else, it seems like it’s a really basic human capacity,” he says. “It’s right up there with narrative as something that we do and we make things meaningful to each other. I think everybody does this. And I don’t necessarily think all of the metaphors are super original.”
But they do come with a fresh spin. “Cheap Sunglasses” from the Human Hearts’ Another album, presents a perfect example. Although the title had already been used by ZZ Top, this mid-tempo song compares the shades to people, and the way they can be disregarded. “The idea of the metaphor — talking about the way that someone treats people in terms of the way they treat things, in terms of disposability or dispensability — that in itself is not unstandard,” he says. “It’s probably the way lots of us have thought about somebody. Just by saying the common phrase, ‘You used me,’ or, ‘He’s a user.’ That’s the basic idea. You just make this concrete.”
Aspiring songwriters will note how it all started simply enough. “I don’t remember how I wrote that, where I knew it was going to an explicit statement at the end of the song,” he says. “I pictured this big drug store, this Big Save-on in Upland with these parking spaces in front of it and racks of those rotating sunglasses. It somehow came out of that.”
While appropriating the name of a classic rock song might be a bold move, a more audacious one comes by naming a song after a musical icon. The Human Hearts’ Flag Pin does that with an extremely melancholy, piano-and-strings tune called “Nick Cave.” Less about the former Birthday Party singer and more about the feelings of an adoring fan, the restrained arrangement captures has the heartbreak of a Magnetic Fields ballad, as Bruno describes the scenario of hero worship, vividly dropping references to TDK cassettes and a few Cave songs.
Bruno admits that it can be “a little nervy” to call a song “Nick Cave.” “But it could be about anyone,” he says. “And [it could] probably be a musician, but not even necessarily. It could be a celebrity or a writer that people really do put a lot their own identity into, someone who they think of at certain times in their life as speaking directly to them or for them. And that may or may not be the aim that that artist had in mind.”
Of course, the origin of the song had another factor. “I kind of started liking the fact that I was saying ‘Nick Cave’ an inordinate number of times,” Bruno admits. “It just kind of lent itself to this slow sad piano approach.”
While speaking over the phone, it becomes clear that Bruno has logged many hours in the classroom giving lectures. Like his lyrics, his thoughts on music are extensive in detail with bits of humor, some of it self-deprecating, added at the right moments. This was on his mind after a one-week tour that took him and Houser around the East Coast including at least one independent record store. “Sometimes I realize that the stuff I’m saying in between songs makes me seem even more like some professorial type that doesn’t really have any business playing rock and roll,” he says. “Sometimes I play to type. I realize that. People have this idea about me and I say things and think, ‘Ok, that’s not going to change anyone’s mind.”
Unlike a musician like Cave, Bruno never aspired to have an onstage, dark persona that differed from his offstage demeanor. “I don’t have the energy,” he says. “Even if I wanted it to it’d be a terrible mistake.” But when it’s mentioned that the song “Flag Pin” has an unusual sinister quality, he says he can be sinister if he tries. “People tend to associate me indie pop with the emphasis on the pop, which is fine because I love the pop forms,” he says. “But over the years we’ve deceived a lot people. Nothing Painted Blue would show up and be a lot more punk rock and aggressive than some of our recordings to the extent sometimes that we’d play with much twee-er bands and just sort of scare everyone.”
“Flag Pin” starts out with a heavy, minor riff and a vocal at the bottom of his range, bathed in tremolo, before breaking into a trademark Franklin Bruno chorus. It fits the mood of the song, whose protagonist pledges a number of All American commitments (“I will keep up the payments on my dues at the lodge/ I will vote in November in some neighbor’s garage… I will come to your picnic on the 4th of July/ I’ll watch all the contestants eating blueberry pie”) but refuses to wear the titular object.
“It’s a kind of impotent political song,” Bruno explains. “It’s sort of saying, ‘Look I’ll do this and this, I’ll go this far down the bourgeoisie road and seem patriotic and seem like the rest of you. But no, dammit, I draw the line here.’ When you think about it, if that’s all you’re doing, what does that amount to? It’s this purely personal, almost arbitrary place you’ve drawn the line.”
The set-up recalls something Bruno says earlier about the influences and the fruits of his songwriting. “If my songs are stories they’re more like dramatic monologues. You have to go back a step and figure out what the story would be that would make somebody sing these words,” he says.
FRANKLIN BRUNO MANDATORY LISTENING:
Written words can’t really do justice to Bruno’s sung words, and since his discography dates back over two decades, we would be remiss to not recommend a few examples of his glories, with a few lyrical quotes to boot….
Nothing Painted Blue – Emotional Discipline (Scat, 1997). Out of print but a necessity that should be sought immediately, this is the Upland trio’s Singles Going Steady. On singles, compilation tracks and a few unreleased gems, the band thrashes, reinvents pop hooks and, of course, lets fly with some brilliant rhymes. The machine-gun vocals of “Missed the Point,” offer the best example: “I was doing okay/doing nothing at all/ now I’m playing croquet with my head as the ball/ handed you a bouquet/ but you just let it fall.”
Franklin Bruno – Kiss Without Makeup (Absolutely Kosher, 2000). Bruno isn’t fond of the hodgepodge quality of this album, but the writing is solid, from wistful (“Charlottesville”) to his angriest (“Nickname Stuck”), convincing in both situations. When asked if he has an all-time favorite song, he mentions “Just Because It’s Dying,” which could be about a relationship, family member or career. Best couplet: “They say your tune is ‘Hey Big Spender,’/ if that’s true than I’m no contender.” (“Clean Needle,” which is not about turntables.)
Human Hearts – Another (Shrimper, 2012) The power chords feel familiar and comfortable, and lyrically, Bruno still sounds as sharp as ever. Laura Cantrell, Jenny Toomey and Molly Pope add a nice contrast in the vocal department, and ex-NPB bassist Peter Hughes joins the Bruno-Houser axis. Best lyric: “We cling to each other as still as water/ that’s starting to breed malaria/ Without you I’m nothing, without me you’re nothing/ between us there’s nothing scarier.” (“Disaster Area”)
Honorable mention: Nothing Painted Blue’s The Monte Carlo Method (Scat, 1998) wasn’t the band’s strongest album but it contained a few of Bruno’s finest lyrical moments, including the reference at the start of this article. The best: “They confiscated my library card when they found me in the stacks with a knife/ cutting pictures of Curtis LeMay from a 1950 volume of Life.” (“Collage Elements”)
[Top photo by Carol Lipnik]