Interview with Todd Brunner

Submitted by Aubergina Cucumbas on Thu, 04/11/2019 - 15:31

Hi everyone! I recently did an interview with Todd Brunner for my podcast, Can You Fund My Gap Year?, and we had a really great talk, replete with lots of shared likes and dislikes. We talked a lot about Todd's upcoming album, Cloud Control, which I had the pleasure of hearing final mixes of shortly before its release, and lots of other stuff as well. It was a great afternoon's conversation, and I felt like I'd made a friend.

Unfortunately the interview never aired, because a few days later I split up with my boyfriend, who was producer and engineer of our show. And thus ended the relationship and the podcast, all in one giant life crushing shitstorm.

So, cutting a long and painful story short, with Todd's blessing I am publishing part of that interview here at Sublamental as text instead of audio. I say "part" because I have cut most of the conversation out, making it more of a straight interview. I thought this might be the best approach as, unlike the listeners of my poor dead podcast, none of you know who I am. I have also edited it to focus mostly on Cloud Control, so it can serve as a bit of a companion piece for the release.

If you have not yet heard Cloud Control, it would probably be a good idea to listen to it before proceeding.

So here we go ...

Aubergina Cucumbas: Thanks for coming on the podcast Todd. Especially as, prior to my contacting you, you didn't know who I was. And thanks for sending a total stranger pre-release mixes of your upcoming album.

Todd Brunner: My pleasure. I did a deep dive on your show after you contacted me. I like it. Do I call you Gina, by the way?

AC: Please. I generally go by Gina. You would too if your parents had named you after a vegetable.

TB: Haha! No comment.

AC: So I've had a chance to listen to Cloud Control, and my first impression is that this is much denser music than on your previous record. By that I mean music that will take longer to assimilate, thereby requiring more listening to really get it. Is this a reasonable response?

TB: Yeah I think so. I would consider it to be a much more free album than the previous two. I am not adhering to a simple song format like on those records. I see them as more singer/songwriter type works and Cloud Control as more of a rock n' roll album. But it's not really as simple as that because I am also letting in a lot of more diverse influences that I might have not allowed on the previous stuff. So I guess it's just MORE of everything! Haha!

AC: Yes, it relates back more to your earlier work than the previous two.

TB: Probably. I had no parameters when writing or recording it, whereas I did have self imposed parameters on the previous ones. Similarly my earlier stuff from the 90s and early 2000s had absolutely no parameters either.

AC: So what made you impose these parameters on your process with Discoid Fever and Walter Under the Bridge?

TB: I was going through this period of really embracing what it means to be a good songwriter. To be fully invested in the craft of song writing. So I was really getting in touch with what it means to be able to do a really good job at that. I wanted to just concentrate on simple songs with maximum meaning, maximum emotional impact and little fuss. This was especially important to me after having just returned to music after an absence of many years.

AC: That's interesting. Are you pleased with the results on those records?

TB: Mostly. I am 100% pleased with Walter, and 50% pleased with Discoid. There are three great songs on Discoid and three that should never have been on the album or even recorded at all. This is the kind of mistake you make when wading back into music so tentatively that you don't really consider the end result. I've been much more focused since then.

AC: Are you saying then that those three "bad" songs didn't conform to the "simple songs" ideology the way you wanted?

TB: That is correct. They dated from an earlier time, and really shouldn't have been included. Plus they're just bad songs.

AC: Then I'm pretty sure I know which ones they are.

TB: I'm sure you do. They stick out like turds on a pizza.

The inconspicuous back entrance to The Enclave.
The inconspicuous back entrance to The Enclave, where Cloud Control was recorded. Note the guitar amp speaker cabinet to the lower right.

AC: Haha! So after Walter you wanted to stretch out a bit on the next record?

TB: It wasn't really a conscious thing. It just happened in the process of writing the songs. The only conscious decision was to write all the songs on electric guitar as opposed to acoustic. So I suppose that alone propelled the project in a certain direction.

AC: I want to get deeper into Cloud Control, but first can I ask you why you only release six song albums?

TB: Sure. I simply can't handle working on more than that at once. It takes too long to do say, 12 songs. By the time the record is finished, so much time has passed that the songs are no longer relevant to me. And it's crucially important to me now that I release stuff while it still has big meaning for me. Six is a do-able number to achieve this, considering my own personal workflow. In fact, six is pretty fucking exhausting!

AC: When I was listening to Cloud Control with my boyfriend, he loudly exclaimed at one point, "This is not an album, it's only got six songs."

TB: Well that would certainly have been the case 30 years ago, or would be now if I wanted to release vinyl and get the pricing right. All that shit goes away when you release for free. What constitutes an "album"? Who cares? Without the physical media these things are meaningless.

AC: So you mentioned before we started recording that Cloud Control is a conceptual work of sorts. I hesitate to say "concept album".

TB: No you can say it. No one knows what that means anyway. In this case, it's just a very loose concept. It is a selection of observations or rantings about today's world sandwiched between a song of despair and a song of hope.

AC: So the order of the tracks is important?

TB: Well if you're going to listen to all six tracks, then yes, they were placed very deliberately in that particular order. But if you're listening to individual tracks, I hope they each stand on their own.

AC: "Wrestled to the Floor" is a bonkers track! It runs around like a chicken with its head cut off, and then it ends. You pack a lot into those three minutes.

TB: Haha! Cheers Gina ... I think.

AC: And the lyrics are incredibly dark within this crazy pop framework. What were you thinking?

TB: Well the song didn't start off quite so crazy. It was simpler in terms of how I imagined it being arranged before I recorded it. But it had this crazy chorus that not only switches to half time, but also slows down in tempo and then snaps back to full speed again. This didn't seem so strange to me when I was writing the song, but when I started recording it became apparent that the song was bonkers, as you say. So I then embraced this as a counterpoint to the bleak lyrics. Sort of darkness in a light setting. The vocals were all originally sang and not spoken, but I thought the talking aspect further lightened it up. I really like this idea of darkness within light. I'm very pleased with the song.

AC: Are the lyrics autobiographical?

TB: Yes they are, but probably not in the way you think. It is not necessarily a song about growing old. That's all I'm prepared to say. I don't really want to discuss the specifics of any lyrics. People can infer what they want.

AC: I can't help thinking James Bond when I hear "Lala". Were you thinking of that with the guitar riff?

TB: Not at all. But the John Barry scores of the early films are so ingrained in me that it probably comes out when I don't even realise it. A more intentional use would be way back on "Mum Married Young" off of Cheap Red Wine.

AC: I don't think I've heard that one yet. I'm still working my way through your catalogue.

TB: Wonderful! Take your time, it's not going anywhere.

AC: So moving on, would it be safe to assume that "Louder Than You" is about trolls on the internet?

TB: Well I don't think there's a lot of mystery there on the surface, but it could also suggest something a bit bigger, if one were inclined to go there. Not that anyone has to do that. Just take the song however you want. I'm not really one of these people who needs to feel his lyrics are completely understood as intended. As long as I am satisfied that I said exactly what I wanted to say in a way that I'm happy with, I'm good.

AC: I thought you might say that. So the lyrics are cathartic for you.

TB: Oh yeah, very much so. It's all cathartic. Writing and recording an album as I do is like giving birth, only slightly less painful, and I get to rest for a while afterwards. Haha! I pack everything I feel about everything into these six little bombs and then drop them on the world. And no one even notices. Welcome to 2019!

AC: Hey, I noticed.

TB: You're very sweet, Gina. Thank you.

AC: So that brings us to the instrumental track "Royal Orchid Grower", which is maybe my favourite track on the album. Surely this was not written on guitar?

TB: No it certainly wasn't. We started with some drum loops that Rosemary's Baby brought in. There are actually 37 different drum and percussion loops on that piece. I started with a synth bass line on just one section and then imagined this percussive but melodic arpeggio going over that. Once I'd worked out and recorded that section, the piece grew as a series of contrasts, i.e. after the arpeggio section a funk section, and after the funk section a solo cello section, etc. It was the first piece I started recording for Cloud Control and the last to finish.

AC: So you don't work on one piece at a time?

TB: Good Lord no! I move from piece to piece constantly, trying to give myself some distance during the recording process. I might work for a couple of days on one piece, then switch. This will always yield better results than working on one piece solely from start to finish. That's a terrible way to work.

AC: Speaking of contrast, I love when the guitar solo comes in after the string section. Where did that come from?

TB: That was planned right from the start. Once I had written the arpeggio and funk sections I was able to plan out the entire song, and that is basically the song you hear. I knew there would be a string break in the middle, even though I had not yet written a single note of it. And I knew that a guitar solo over the funk part would follow, and I knew the length of everything right at the start. It was just a matter of filling it all in.

AC: You make that sound easier than it was, surely?

TB: Yes I do. Haha!

AC: So what can you tell me about "Checked Out"?

A parade took place during the recording of the album. No one knows why.

TB: It turned out pretty much exactly as I wrote it apart from the piano in the bridge and tag, and of course the "White Rabbit" quote which came about spontaneously. There was never supposed to be any piano on the song at all, and I don't even remember what made me try this on those sections. It's just one of those serendipitous things, because now I think the piano makes the entire song. It's impossible to imagine the song without it. This kind of thing is one of the great joys of making music. The accidents that elevate your original idea into something beyond what you envisioned.

AC: And what about the "White Rabbit" quote?

TB: Well there's an interesting story attached to that. We were working on the bridge and tag sections and Chris was playing exactly the bass line for "White Rabbit" over the same chord changes as that song, but neither of us realised it. None of this was planned, and we'd actually finished putting down the tracks without ever twigging the "White Rabbit" thing at all. So I was doing overdubs later and suddenly it hit me. It was so obvious it just slapped me in the face, so naturally I thought I've got to quote the actual song in the fadeout. And naturally I'll have to do the guitar part as well. So I go and listen to the Jefferson Airplane track to figure out the guitar part. Now "Checked Out" is in the key of F#, which is a rather odd key for a pop song, so I'm thinking I'll have to transpose the guitar part to F# once I've learned it. Can you believe it? "White Rabbit" just happens to be in F# as well, and at an almost identical tempo! This really blew my mind because what are the chances of me writing a chord progression and Chris putting down a bass line that are exactly "White Rabbit", a song that neither of us had heard in many years, in the same key, at the same tempo, without either of us realising it at the time? It's pretty nuts! So this being the case, I could actually have just sampled the song itself and dropped it into the end of "Checked Out", and I did consider this, but elected to just sing and play it myself because it was literally faster and easier. That's the truth.

AC: What a great story! You also avoided copyright issues by not using a sample.

TB: Indeed. There is that.

AC: So from what you said, do you always overdub the bass rather than laying this down at the start?

TB: Yes. Every song starts with drums and a rough guitar. Bass is the first overdub. It's better for a bass player, or me when playing keyboard bass, to have the final drum track to play off of. This is the best way to work when you really don't have the time or money to rehearse a three piece band beforehand to do the basic tracks.

AC: So this brings us to the final track, "Anthro-fucking-pology". One of my friends described this as a "barnstormer" when I played it for her. Haha! But I like to think of it as an anthem.

TB: Yes, that's exactly how I think of it. I'm very pleased to hear you say that! It was written and visualised as an anthem right from the start, but I have never written a song like this before, so I was a little concerned that I could pull it off. As I said earlier, it is a song of hope to finish the album, and it is very much heartfelt. I guess you could say it's me pleading with my fellow humans in these deeply disturbing times.

AC: You definitely pulled it off. It totally kicks ass! It's really in your face and pounding home your points. There is no subtlety at all. It packs a fucking punch! I hope someone's listening.

TB: Thanks Gina. I hope so too, but I wouldn't count on it. Still, maybe it's catchy enough to stick in people's heads. Maybe people will sing along, if people still do that. It was written with that in mind.

AC: So before we wrap up, tell me about the other players on the album.

TB: Chris Christ and Rosemary's Baby are from an instrumental band called Laszlo Spatchcock, who are working on a record for Sublamental right now. They are one of the most interesting bands I've heard in a long time. And Anastasia Beaverhausen used to be the singer in a thrash rock band called Cyanide Slugs, who were also going to do an album for us, but they were a bit flummoxed when she left the band to have a baby, and stopped playing altogether. Now they are considering doing a complete 180 and playing acoustic music under the same name. If this happens, the record will appear on Sublamental. They are great musicians and we've become good friends. Anastasia, on the other hand, is happy just to be a mum and do the occasional session.

AC: Todd it's been a real pleasure talking to you. I hope we can do it again sometime.

TB: Cheers Gina. Thanks for having me, and I will definitely invite you on my podcast if I ever have one.

AC: Haha! See that you do!