The Heroes of Toolik are a New York City band who have been recording songs and releasing albums since 2010—but they more resemble a New York band from the 1980s, with all the confidence, unpredictability, and versatility. They have, on their forthcoming studio album Like Night, a remarkable rhythm section, the kind of rhythm section that people who care about rock and roll bands dream about, namely Billy Ficca (of Television) on drums, and Ernie Brooks (of the Modern Lovers) on bass. As you can imagine from the pedigree, the album that results is crisp and remarkably tight.
But the melody section, which consists here of guitar, violin, and trombone, is just as sparkling. Arad Evans, who like Ficca and Brooks, seems to have played with everyone of note in New York in the last few decades, is a truly inventive and surprising guitar player, his solos with a sort of sinewy and serpentine quality that might distantly be related to the excellent Nels Cline, but with a little Richard Lloyd or Robert Quine mixed in. And Jennifer Coates (who is a great painter, too), plays a sort of Old Time violin that somehow rises up in the stew of influences here to seem ominous, sad, and elegiac. There’s also a trombone player on Like Night. The position seems to have been variously occupied over the years, and is presently held by John Speck, but Peter Zummo (once of the Lounge Lizards) also appears on the finished recording.
The songs of Like Night, as with Toolik recordings past (notably Aquarium School), are all over the place. They are upbeat and crisp, and they are adventurous and strange. The lyrics, uniformly, are excellent, allusive, avoidant of romantic cliché, influenced perhaps by the neo-French modernism of Tom Verlaine or the cut-ups of Bowie, or the elusive lines of middle-period Talking Heads.
Arad Evans, Jennifer Coates, and Ernie Brooks all sing some, and both Evans and Brooks are more declamatory than anything else, but Coates’s voice has a robust post-punk quality, like Siouxsie Sioux transported back into turn of the last century Kentucky. Coates’s voice is the secret weapon of the Heroes of Toolik, and her songs are the most fully realized (though there is one truly extraordinary instrumental on Like Night, called “Warm,” which is without a doubt one of my favorite pieces of music this year). That doesn’t mean that there aren’t great moments throughout, because there are, as on Ernie Brooks’s very lovely “Crazy Doll,” which seems like it could have been written in 1978, and Evans’s “Say Virginia,” in which trombone and violin vie for supremacy. Everywhere there is sterling musicianship, of the original, unexpected sort.
Why do this sort of thing now? Why try to make a band out of stringed instruments and drums (and a little brass, and accordion) and the human voice, when most people are trying to make their music with apps? Is there still an audience for this kind of thing? For a band that has great constituent parts, and which has rehearsed itself into a condition lovely, confident, eccentric, and original? Can a band like this still exist in 2016?
For me, the metaphor for Heroes of Toolik is that term that one hears a lot about in the visual arts world these days, and that is “social practice.” Heroes of Toolik exists in order to be collaborative, to be a bunch of musicians bent on playing together, and in a way this signifies, for a bunch of adults, a commitment to an idea of music-making, an idea of music as a practice among people. If the songs on Like Night are often filled with moments of the wistful or even sad, the project, the musicians playing together and performing together, is the treatment for what ails.
In thinking about how to frame what I like about this band, I decided to talk to Ernie Brooks, the bass player, because I have admired his work going all the way back to the original Modern Lovers line-up, the one that first recorded “Roadrunner” and “Hospital,” etc. (The lineup that also featured Jerry Harrison of the Talking Heads, and Dave Robinson of the Cars, as well as the very legendary Jonathan Richman.) I’d met Ernie once or twice before, and was always interested in the fact that he was at Harvard as an undergrad while the Modern Lovers were first doing their thing—in fact, just before doing this interview I had occasion to hear a Modern Lovers bootleg that was recorded at some kind of Harvard social event, from sometime before the Modern Lovers album was recorded, and it was amazing: loose, unrehearsed, provocative, original. What follows, then, was recorded at a café in Long Island City, where Brooks has lived for forty years, and where he sat on the school board, and where he has participated in civic life with an admirable zeal. Though the Democratic primaries were winding down, Brooks was wearing a Bernie Sanders baseball cap, and had a lot to say about politics along the idealistic axis. He’s incredibly youthful and fun to talk to, not like a guy who’s been playing music for forty years, but like a guy who still cares about the world, and wants to make a mark on it, like a practitioner of a worthy social practice.
In the course of the conversation, I also learned a bit about Ernie Brooks’s poetry, in which he studied while at Harvard, and we include, at the end of the conversation, three poems by Ernie Brooks, bass player extraordinaire, never before published in this country. Don’t quit before you get to the poems, therefore. They are earthy, compact, astringent, and great.
The Rumpus: How did you end up in Long Island City?
Ernie Brooks: I don’t know if you remember the Talking Heads…
Rumpus: Oh right, Chris (Frantz) and Tina (Weymouth) lived here…
Brooks: Yeah, Tina’s older brother found this building (he was an architect); I think it was the first hipster contingent in Queens. You know, Queens is Archie Bunker land.
Rumpus: Those rows of houses…
Brooks: Anyway, they moved in a few years before me. They had these spaces; Jerry Harrison and I moved in at the same time. Also Don and Moki Cherry with their kids Neneh and Eagle-Eye took the loft next to me on the other side from Jerry.
Rumpus: And you just stayed?
Brooks: I just stayed; I can’t afford anyplace else. Chris and Tina moved to Westport and that’s another thing, that’s something you and I have in common: we grew up in New Canaan (CT).
Rumpus: Wait, you grew up in New Canaan?
Brooks: I say I’m a New Yorker because I was born on the Upper East Side and I was so jealous of my older siblings because they got to grow up in the city.
Rumpus: So how long were you in New Canaan?
Brooks: Too long! Until I was fourteen and I couldn’t take being at home so I went to boarding school in Vermont.
Rumpus: What boarding school was that?
Rumpus: I had a very similar journey. I went to Saxe Middle School in New Canaan and then I went to New Hampshire. Did your family leave New Canaan after that?
Brooks: They stayed… After my father passed away, my mother stayed—to use Robert Lowell’s line—like someone who stayed on a train one stop past her destination. She was rattling around that house for years and my wife and I went there and lived there for a while after having a daughter. And thought: “Could we stay here?”
When did you leave?
Rumpus: I left in ’75. My mother’s dad lived in Pelham, my parents got divorced, my grandfather died, and my mother got his house. So she left Connecticut right when I went away to boarding school. I never went back. My brother moved to Wilton so he went back and has recreated the suburban experience with the three kids.
Brooks: I was visiting my brother over the weekend; he’s an architect and teaches at the architecture school at Yale. My family’s so tied up in all that stuff. We used to talk about moving to Wilton because of the more bohemian people…
Rumpus: Keith Richards!
Brooks: Oh, this was before that; these were poetic, artistic types that my parents knew but, in New Canaan now, there’s none of those people left.
Rumpus: I always feel I’m behind enemy lines when I go out there. When they were shooting The Ice Storm, I went out there some.
Brooks: They filmed two movies there: that and the remake of The Stepford Wives.
Rumpus: I don’t like being there; it makes me really uncomfortable. Not into it. And, personally speaking, I wouldn’t want to have kids growing up there.
Brooks: That’s why I started this story. I took our daughter; she was four. She started at this school in the New Canaan Nature Center; my father was an environmentalist and had had something to do with setting it up. It seemed perfect; the teachers were wonderful. I remember going to the first meeting and there were all these mothers all in white tennis outfits with gleaming teeth! And I was just terrified. Made me want to go back to France, where my wife and I had lived for a while (she’s French) but we just came back to Long Island City.
Rumpus: We’re in Astoria, now, under the Triborough Bridge, more or less.
Brooks: I could talk for two hours about this neighborhood because I’ve been here so long and had gotten involved in the public school system; our daughter went to a place called the Baccalaureate School, which is in Astoria. It’s a public high school with a rigorous curriculum; she worked really hard. She’s about to go to Bard, which I’m a little worried about. Seems to be a great place, but is it worth it? I don’t know about college.
Rumpus: Well, you went to Harvard, right? What was your major at Harvard?
Brooks: My degree doesn’t buy me a cup of coffee! [Laughs] It was English Literature.
Rumpus: That’s what I thought.
Brooks: That was when (Robert) Lowell taught there and I was so excited to finally get in his class and then he had a breakdown and was packed off to McLean’s but Elizabeth Bishop took over the class.
Rumpus: You wrote poems in Elizabeth Bishop’s class?
Rumpus: What was she like as a teacher?
Brooks: I just remember that she paid great attention to detail and form; she had us write villanelles and sestinas. It makes sense because what else can you really teach? I also, from the year before, remember sitting in on Lowell’s class and he had a cigarette in his hand the whole time which he kept almost lighting but he’d just hold it. [Recites some Lowell]
Rumpus: There aren’t too many bass players who would come to the interview and recite Lowell. It’s pretty amazing.
Brooks: He was a big influence. And Robert Creeley.
Rumpus: Was Creeley at Harvard also?
Brooks: He taught a summer school course and I got to know him and, in fact, when The Modern Lovers played (we played only a couple gigs in California, fairly disastrous ones—most of our shows were). We played in this biker bar in Berkeley—the Longbranch Saloon. Actually, there’s a live album that I put together from that which is the best album.
Rumpus: Wait, which album is that?
Brooks: It’s called Precise Modern Lovers Order: The Modern Lovers Live in Berkeley and Boston. It’s pretty obscure. Anyway, I remember driving up to the coast to Bolinas. Creeley was there with his wife (this was in 1972) and they were looking out at the sunset and Ferlinghetti came over with his dog, Homer, and Robert and his wife, Bobbie, were both tripping and they said “Let’s get in the car! Let’s go somewhere!”
Rumpus: I met Creeley one time; I introduced him at a reading. I thought he was the most incredible guy. He was really there; he’s the emblem of American poetry of the last fifty years.
Brooks: He wrote the best line in a love poem:
Love, if you love me,
lie next to me.
Be for me, like rain,
the getting out
of the tiredness, the fatuousness, the semi-
lust of intentional indifference.
with a decent happiness.
I always thought the “semi-lust of intentional indifference” was it, somehow, for me.
Rumpus: Do you still write poems?
Brooks: I do. I had a little bit of stuff published in France in Digraph, a fringe literary journal, though that was years ago.
Rumpus: Can we talk about Heroes of Toolik a bit? I think Like Night is a great record.
Brooks: Oh, good. I haven’t yet listened to the album in its final form. Obviously I played on it and was involved with some mixing but I didn’t carry all the way through on that.
Rumpus: I think it’s really interesting and unusual. It’s weird! It’s a very singular diverse set of interests. There are odd twists and turns. The trombone almost gives it a New Orleans something or other, but then the guitar sounds so New York in the eighties. And the rhythm section is really remarkable. Had you played with Billy Ficca before?
Brooks: Yeah, actually I have played with him off and on for quite a while. He was pretty much my neighbor, living in the no man’s land of 11th Street in Long Island City. 11th Street on the other side of the bridge gets very funky and has not been gentrified yet. Unfortunately his place is finally scheduled for destruction so he’s moving to the Lower East Side. I played with him probably most frequently in a band with Gary Lucas.
Rumpus: In Gods and Monsters?
Brooks: He’s been part of that ensemble. You know, it’s funny because Billy is one of the most idiosyncratic drummers I’ve ever worked with. Sometimes you feel like he’s never going to come back to the one; it’s his sense of suspension. But yeah, when we’re feeling all right, which is a lot of the time, then I think I can catch it and his willingness to try odd things works out. Whenever he’s in the car with me, he switches the radio dial to a very obscure jazz station. It’s always jazz. Nothing else. That’s what he really loves. Changing the time is interesting. There’s a place in that song “Warm,” the instrumental, where the bass changes back and forth (imitates jazz sounds) between 4/4 and 3/4, guitar plays 4/4 and 3/4 at same time, violin and accordion are in 3/8 and trombone stays in 4/4. The feeling is almost as if time has moved; you feel like it’s slowing down or speeding up but it’s not. It’s just how much the subdivision of time affects the feel, which is obvious but is always surprising.
Rumpus: I suppose the whole is “art rock.” In general, Howard Wuelfing has used “art rock” to describe this record.
Brooks: Well, it’s literally art rock, because Jennifer Coates makes art. She’s a painter and teaches at U Penn. You probably know a whole world of painters, sculptors, and musicians. I also play with Robert Longo now.
Rumpus: Didn’t he play with Rhys Chatham too at one point? Like you did?
Brooks: He did. I think we played together at the old Kitchen in the mid 70s.
Rumpus: And can he actually play guitar?
Brooks: Yeah, he can play; he gets his parts down and he’s solid. The band features his wife, Barbara Sukowa, a great actress and singer.
Rumpus: So, how did you end up in Heroes of Toolik?
Brooks: Peter Zummo and I played together in the 70s with Arthur Russell. You must know something about Arthur Russell?
Brooks: If there’s anyone’s music I really treasure it’s his. He came to the last show of the Modern Lovers.
Rumpus: That’s kind of incredible.
Brooks: In New York City. I guess we kind of stumbled on for a while after that but we were already sort of broken up.
Rumpus: So that was what year?
Brooks: ‘74. I was still in Cambridge. Arthur and I quite quickly formed a band called The Flying Hearts with Larry Saltzman on guitar and Dave Van Tieghem on drums and I started coming down to New York for recording and I didn’t have a place so I slept in a rehearsal studio in Westbeth near the Hudson. It had this warren of basement rooms; it was where the Lurie Brothers, John and Evan, practiced and Merce Cunningham had his studio up on the first floor. Peter (Zummo) and Peter Gordon became the cruise missiles: Peter A and Peter B, the horn section on trombone and sax respectively.
Brooks: Peter’s a great musician. He has two records coming out soon.
Rumpus: Peter Zummo does?
Brooks: Yeah, that I’m involved with. Peter Gordon (another great musician with whom Peter Z. and I have been performing lately) has some work getting released soon that I’m on too. I also have one record out myself but that’s very hard to find.
Rumpus: I want to hear that!
Brooks: I’ll send you a couple songs, maybe.
Rumpus: Let’s finish this thread on how you got into this band.
Brooks: The band was pretty much there. [Arad] Evans had a bass player, another girl playing violin, and a different drummer. I guess they were looking to make changes so Peter Zummo suggested me and then I started playing with them. Peter quit after a while, which I understood; some of the places you play just get so depressing. Driving out to some god forsaken roadhouse in the wastelands of New Jersey and fifteen people show up and we’re like, “What are we doing?” But that’s the way the music scene is and we keep on doing it! But this thing has gotten some good attention. I quit once too, and then I came back, so I guess that I really do enjoy it more than I sometimes think I do.
Forgot to say that I first played with Evans back in the 80s in a guitar ensemble of Rhys Chatham’s. I got to know him touring Germany in a really dilapidated bus… I’ve always liked his playing and now I’m really impressed by his compositions…
Rumpus: It’s sort of star-studded at this point, and I think it shows on the recording.
Brooks: Unfortunately, that’s probably mostly impressive to people like you who think about those things or care about those things.
Rumpus: Perhaps true. I think it got mixed with the rhythm section way up because the way rhythm slip slides around is right in the center of the recording, you know? The drum sound is not obnoxious which so many drum sounds are in albums now. Billy plays much lighter than other drummers play.
Brooks: Well, that’s partly that jazz influence. It’s also a good studio where we did the recording: The Seaside Lounge.
Rumpus: I recorded there, actually. The New Pornographers made a bunch of records there, too. Those records sound really good. I mean, it’s a good room.
Brooks: What’s your band?
Rumpus: I was in this sort of post-modernist folk band for a while. Mostly acoustic with a real experimental edge to it. I wrote almost all the lyrics and I can play a tiny bit.
Brooks: You know that I come from a world where technique and expertise are not what’s most important! In the Modern Lovers, the one with the most expertise was probably David Robinson. Jerry (Harrison) was good too and had played in several bands. I was a little behind. When I first saw Jonathan, he had only two strings on his guitar which meant a lot of songs were built around different ways of banging on one chord, E minor, which was kind of genius. With the stuff we did for Warner Brothers, we just sort of played our set in the studio; we never thought it was very good. I mean, it’s all right: without an audience…
Rumpus: I heard this great early bootleg of the Modern Lovers recently. I didn’t know any of the songs, which is crazy because I feel like I know all of the songs. There’s a lot of Jonathan talking through stuff and, it seemed, making verses up on the spot.
Brooks: I remember one show—he was an artist—where he drew a picture and said, “This is the hospital” and, “This is me walking down the street.” Illustrating the songs. The last time I saw him play was a month or so ago at The Bell House…
Rumpus: By himself?
Brooks: He played with this drummer who’s a really good drummer but was very much in the background: Tommy Larkin. He is from somewhere out in the west. I had my annual conversation with Jonathan: “Let’s play again.” The last time I played with him—the only time since the breakup of the original band—was at Joey Ramone’s fiftieth birthday where we did two songs.
Rumpus: What two songs?
Brooks: Just me and the drummer and Jonathan. We did “Girlfriend” and “Roadrunner” and that was because Joey requested them. I believe Joey was already sick. I think I saw it on YouTube but I’m not sure if it’s still there.
Jonathan always says, “No, it wouldn’t work” and then he says, “I’m happy doing what I’m doing.” I think it’s because he likes the absolute liberty to stop and to start, change tempos, use different chords, things like that. I understand that. I still think we could all do something interesting together.
Rumpus: It’d be incredible.
Brooks: My argument is always: “Jonathan: you would make a difference!” thinking that would appeal to his sense of destiny or morality or something.
Rumpus: In interviews, I’ve seen him say: “I can only play those songs when I’m lonely.” Or something to that effect. Like, he’s not in that space emotionally.
Brooks: Of course we would want to play the old songs but we could play new songs too. We could do a whole new album! What I always say is that what’s great is the tension in a band; that’s what sometimes yields exciting music.
Rumpus: Was it a lot of tension?
Brooks: I think at that time we all kind of loved where the others were coming from but when it came to actually playing the music, there were problems. Like, David Robinson loved bubblegum music, you know: 1910 Fruitgum Company (mimics drum sounds). Everything had to be spot-on and precise. It’s actually hard to do that. Jerry and I liked that too but it was difficult getting it right. We were all into the Stooges and the Velvets and brought that into the sound but our styles of living were very different and we were all together in this house in Hollywood that Warner had rented for us. Jonathan was early into health food, rejecting chemicals, including soap, that kind of thing, all part of what led to big problems when he started to reject anything but acoustic music. I suppose Jerry and I were the most reasonable ones; we both ended up trying to be shuttle diplomats between the record company and the group. I’m sort of humble now. At the time, I thought, “I’m verbal and smart. I can resolve differences.” I’d fail and I’ve failed many times since.
Brooks: For example, recently a band came together to play Arthur Russell’s music and it was called Arthur’s Landing. To myself, I said “Christ! We’re all sixty… and more! Now we’re going to be mature!” But no. We had a record deal and were supposed to go on a tour.
Rumpus: It fell apart?
Brooks: The guy who was one of the singers started attacking the girl who sang. We were all people who had worked with Arthur and loved the music so it was unbelievable this happened. I couldn’t mend that rift so I decided to relax and just play now with people I can trust totally. But it’s still not easy.
Rumpus: How do you feel in retrospect about The Modern Lovers stuff?
Brooks: I think that, lyrically, Jonathan really tapped into something. I started to appreciate it partly because of my background of loving words, loving poetry. He’s still writing good songs.
Rumpus: I have absolutely loved some of the later stuff, even when it’s odd in ways that I would not normally take a shine to.
Brooks: I think that I probably had an attitude when he started changing and started going for acoustic music and claimed that electric guitars hurt babies’ ears and that electricity itself was the work of the devil because we burn carbon fuel to create electricity. I could’ve followed him more into that music but I was too worried about being cool; I wasn’t going to go, “Hey there, little insect,” or sing “I’m a little airplane.” [Laughs] I was too cool for that. Jerry and I both. And it’s frustrating because a few years ago Steve Albini called me and said, “Ernie, can’t you try one more time and get the group together and play this festival, etc.” I have to be frank; I would like to do it. There were some great songs and we had moments where the band really had a sound.
Rumpus: I feel like “Roadrunner,” to me, is utterly remarkable. It’s as good as a rock and roll song gets. Maybe even one of the greatest rock and roll songs ever written. But Jonathan is sort of like Alex Chilton in that way. There are certain people for whom the lightning strikes and then they don’t want to prove that they can do it again.
Brooks: My daughter just found—I think she found it herself—Big Star, “Thirteen” and “September Gurls.”
Rumpus: Did you ever meet Chilton?
Brooks: I remember running into him in the clubs in NYC. I guess in Jonathan’s case I never quite understood whether he was actually rejecting his former self as being negative, too judgmental. If that’s what he was saying, that he was too judgmental and this is a kinder, nicer Jonathan, I can understand. That’s his prerogative.
Rumpus: If that’s what really is going on.
Brooks: He used to tell me that he had dreams of The Stooges playing at Nazi rallies. Jonathan had some fascination with that, but of course wouldn’t quite accept being drawn to that; I don’t think that’s that unusual. Of course he loved the Velvets’ first album. Again, it’s incredibly artful but there’s a darkness there. He has that song “Let Her Go into the Darkness,” which is a beautiful song. There’s much to think about regarding Jonathan and darkness…
Rumpus: How about your writing? You have one song on this record “Crazy Doll,” which I like a lot. Do you write songs a lot now? Do you still write songs?
Brooks: I’m pretty slow. I made this one album that was mostly my songs in 1990. It came out in France and the company kind of went under but I was sort of happy because I don’t really like it. I have quite a few songs. I never resolved the problem between writing poetry and writing songs, figuring out which I should do—or can do…
Rumpus: Do you write the lyrics first?
Brooks: You know, I don’t think I’ve ever done that. I think it’s always been simultaneous.
That’s part of the thing that’s frustrating; I have songs that I’ve written two verses to, not enough. Of course, maybe it is enough. I think I feel too obligated to fill up a song with words. I think that song on the CD could be sparer but I’m glad you like it. It’s still a mystery because it seems that the most successful lines are ones where the melody and the words arrive together. Somehow, the melody supports words that might not stand alone on the page. They sound weightier or more mysterious.
Rumpus: I always write the words first just because that’s how I am. Though, I too, often will get stuck where I have the lyric and can’t come up with the melody. Usually I give them to someone else in that circumstance.
Brooks: And do you like what they do?
Rumpus: Sometimes. Sometimes it’s a disaster and I just surrender. The thing that works best for me is if I don’t write the songs on an instrument. Like, I actually just sing a melody and write lyrics to the sung melody because I can play piano pretty well but I always go back to the same approaches to the instrument.
Brooks: Arthur Russell was an amazing musician but he would write melodies and words but without the chords. He’d play the melody and then he would put in chords and the chord changes are often complicated—as are the bar lengths. It’s like a bar of three, bar of five, and a bar of four, a bar of four… determined as they are by the melody.
Rumpus: He was classically trained though, right?
Brooks: Yes. This piece we’ve been playing a lot lately and doing some touring behind is a piece called Instrumentals and it’s just instrumental but, again, it’s incredibly melodic. We’re still not really playing it as well as we should be playing it partly because if you miss one change then you fall off.
Rumpus: It’s like with Rhys Chatham’s pieces, like Guitar Trio.
Brooks: That’s all E Minor all the time.
Rumpus: I had a friend who played it live. He said it was easy to get lost.
Brooks: That’s true. When I played with the drummer, Jonathan Kane, who’s a friend, we share a studio over by PS1 (he’s a really good drummer). Our job, basically, was to not get lost and sometimes we’d have to count 128 measures or six groups of twelve. I don’t know if you heard any of those multi, hundred guitar pieces…
Rumpus: Yeah, I love those pieces.
Brooks: The one, An Angel Moves Too Fast to See…
Rumpus: I love that piece! Wait, did you play on that?
Brooks: I played on one recording of it that I know of.
Rumpus: I love that piece. I love Rhys’s stuff in general.
Brooks: It’s interesting because I met Rhys (Chatham) in 1974 at the same time I met Arthur Russell; they were roommates and Rhys was the musical director at The Kitchen when it was on Mercer and then he handed that off to Arthur. The two of them were both important musical influences. Rhys has written some great, great pieces.
Rumpus: Could he actually play guitar when he was first writing those pieces?
Brooks: Initially not so much; the guitar was more of a tool and he played very little. Of course, the big thing was that he was a composer and conductor more than a guitar player. But in an early band, Theoretical Girls, together with Thurston Moore and Glenn Branca, he developed a unique guitar style, with the open tunings and incredibly rapid strumming which are an important feature of his compositions. He plays the trumpet also. He’s a flute player, originally. When I met him, he was a flute player and he’s been playing it again in Instrumentals because he played it in the 1975 performance of the piece. I just saw him when we performed at Moog Fest.
Rumpus: Does he still live in Paris?
Rumpus: He has a piece for gongs that I really like. An hour of gongs. I like all these pieces where people can be untrained musicians and still make really great pieces.
Brooks: Compared to most of the people that I’ve played with, I’m not a musician. I’ve gotten to the point where I can feel it and fit in and learn chord changes. I’m a terrible reader but sometimes one has to be able to read a little bit.
Rumpus: When you were playing in the Modern Lovers, did you take music lessons?
Brooks: Not since childhood. I played cello till I was fourteen and I wish I still had that cello! Arthur Russell was a serious cello player and he also did all this stuff in making it sound different: plucking it, running it through fuzz tones, often very loud.
Rumpus: So you learned to read from taking cello lessons, then?
Brooks: Yeah, but then I forgot it. At Putney, I played in the first rock band that I had with a friend, Thatcher Hurd, who came back from California full of The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane and had a Rickenbacker 12-string and this friend of mine, Andy Paley, a great drummer and singer. I played with him when I was in high school and then he got kicked out and we met later in Cambridge and had a band there for a while. He also played on recordings with Arthur and me.
Rumpus: So, what else are you doing besides Heroes of Toolik? You’re doing Arthur Russell shows?
Brooks: Some Arthur Russell, some Peter Zummo, and sometimes some of my music, and playing with Gary Lucas.“Little Tiger,” by Ernie Brooks. Recorded at Duckee Studio in NC, with Joyce Bowden on shadow fox and Steve Ineson on percussion.
Rumpus: How much does Gods and Monsters happen? Does that happen often?
Brooks: We did an Australian tour recently. We were actually doing music of Jeff Buckley and Tim Buckley.
Rumpus: Oh right, because Jeff Buckley was in Gods and Monsters, right?
Brooks: Right, we do it with different singers. I really liked Tim Buckley. I used to see him at Club 47 in Boston, in Cambridge. He played there a lot. That was a little club on a street behind Harvard Square. I don’t know if Gary Lucas knew Tim Buckley but he certainly knew Jeff and knew their story. It’s a sad story, too. I think Jeff only met his father once and spent two days with him. And the whole thing with how Jeff came to New York and no one really knew who he was and he came and performed at a memorial concert for his father, years after his father died, organized by Hal Willner.
Rumpus: And that’s how he got launched, kind of?
Brooks: People said, “Who is this kid?” And then they heard him sing.
Three Poems by Ernie Brooks
The two of us
As today winds down
it’s not impossible to imagine
at the bottom of the stairs
or the end of the hall
a room where the two of us sit
still pasting our murky logic
to a map of the stars
It’s a kind of picnic
at the hospital.
The girls in pajamas
line up with sticks in their hands
and wait their turn
to hold a hot dog to the flame.
the men’s room’s neon
hums almost below hearing
crackles randomly into pain.
You’re leaned against the concrete
bent, mouth open, but the scream stops.
Maybe it was the mild tropic stars
the great moon sinking
the truck where all lay sleeping
wrapped in bags and blankets
or else the armadillo
blundering from the thicket
like a small lost tank.
Feature image © George Kopp. Like Night cover art by M. Wohlforth. Additional photographs of band © Kevin Jones.