The Rumpus Interview with Jeremy Thal of Briars of North America
Jeremy Thal, who serves as a band leader for Briars of North America, is one of my oldest friends. We took Suzuki violin lessons together in Madison, Wisconsin, and our first instruments were fruit roll-up boxes with rulers taped on them.
He went on to French horn and studied music at Northwestern. I ended up pursuing arts journalism. After I moved away from Madison, Wisconsin, in the late 80s we didn’t speak much, but then we both found ourselves in Brooklyn in the late aughts, which is when we reconnected.
I first heard Briars when they played for a poetry reading I hosted. The collective features endearing vocals from all of the members at time (at least if memory serves), horns, mandolin, both electric and acoustic guitar, electric and acoustic bass, as well as keyboards and drums. He’s been a session musician for the National, recently played horns for Jeff Mangum at Coachella and is the founder of Found Sound Nation.
Last fall the Briars of North America self-released their debut Orisis, which is available here through Bandcamp. Jeremy answered my questions via email from his home in Brooklyn, and then from Haiti, where he was participating in a music education program.
The Rumpus: What is your earliest musical memory?
Jeremy Thal: Growing up I remember listening to my parents’ records (or were they tapes?)—Joan Baez, Emmylou Harris, James Taylor, Dylan, the Beatles. The first time I played an instrument was in Ms. Schumacher’s Suzuki violin class, where I began my ultimately unsuccessful attempt to catch up with you. I remember they first gave us cardboard-box violins and wooden dowels for bows, contraptions that mercifully made very little sound, but, when torn apart, yielded a bounty of fruit rollups. As a kid I didn’t like lessons or practicing very much—I once in a lesson insisted on playing my latest book four assignment while lying on the floor—but I always was humming some sort of original tune. I have always had a very bad memory for music and lyrics, so to keep my head filled with tunes, I’ve had to invent things.
Rumpus: How did the Briars of North America come together as a band?
Thal: The Briars is the brainchild of my cousin and friend Gideon and myself. The two of us really met as adults, when we both moved to Brooklyn after living in the Midwest and East Asia. We have been a part of several groups: the free improv collective the Hadacol (after the imaginary cough syrup Father Christmas drinks in Brent Green’s Califone video), and then became part of the New York version of the Instruments, with bandleader Heather McIntosh, who is an inspiring creative spirit for us, (and, incidentally later went on to play bass for Gnarls Barkley and L’il Wayne). When Heather left Brooklyn for the big time, we started our own project, at first by improvising songs in Gideon’s old place in Ditmas Park. At one point Gideon sent me a few tracks he had edited together and they showed up in my itunes as being by the “Briars of North America.” I immediately liked the name—though have at times doubted it over the intervening years—it struck the right kind of chord, it hinted at something of the bucolic post-Americana that we were trying to conjure. It was intended to be part of collective of ‘North America’ bands, in the style of the Elephant 6 collective, although the original member, Bob Doto’s ‘Thistles of North America” hasn’t made much noise in a while, but should!
Rumpus: What makes your music distinct?
Thal: I’m not very good at keeping track of all the musical trends that swirl around the worlds of indie rock/folk/classical, so maybe there are a lot of folks doing what what we are trying to do: which is to mix a sort of roots americana sound—shape note singing, old-timey string music, and classic folk and country songs—within experimental, new classical, and electronic music frameworks. So in our music there’s a bit of Robert Wyatt, Brahms, Walt Whitman, Jeff Mangum, a touch of dubstep, all the music that’s been filtering into our heads over our lives. In the end this album ends up feeling unique to me because it’s personal; it draws directly from our stories, major life events, the friends and music that surrounded gideon and me in Brooklyn and in Hudson, NY, where Gideon and I spent the last year.
Rumpus: How did you develop your singing voice?
Thal: I have learned a lot from Gideon, who’s been singing in groups since he was a youngin’ way up in northern Vermont. As an teenager I was a pretty dedicated French horn player (much to Frau Schumacher’s disappointment), and didn’t singing much outside of choir and musical theater in high school. I think I worked on my singing most when i was living in an apartment in Sunset Park,and my roommate Jessica regularly insisted that I sing for her. I quickly realized that I had a repertoire of two or three songs, so I learned songs that she and other friends requested. Eventually I found some element of my voice that I liked. It’s a very fragile thing—it comes and goes a lot. I often feel that my voice is quite plain and blank, but every once and a while it takes on a special aspect, and that’s when i know that I’m in the right headspace to sing. I find that singing is a sort of a barometer for how my life is going at any moment.
Rumpus: How did these songs come together?
Thal: These songs each have their own stories: Some are purely Gideon’s (“Orisis,” “Died to Heaven”), some are purely mine (“Annalee,” “Mischevious Child)” and others are a mix. For Sunnytown, Gideon came up with the framework and I came up with the lyrics and melody, for Liza Jane it was the inverse. Part of the joy of working with Gideon and our other band members (a rotating cast: Greg Chudzik, Otto Hauser, Simon Jermyn, and others!), is that you bring in a song with a certain sort of intention, and they help make it weirder or deeper or groovier or spacier, and you end up with a much more fleshed-out and multi-dimensional version of the song.
Rumpus: What are you doing to try and get the album out into the world?
Thal: We are not very good self promoters. Anyone want to help? (wink wink!) Right now the album is up on Bandcamp and Facebook. As of yet we have no label, haven’t scratched on the doors of Pitchfork or the like. So for the album has been spreading by word of mouth. One of the things that heartens me a lot is that our friends and family who have the album seem to listen to it a lot, and know the songs. We’ve got a lot of incredibly touching feedback. So although I’m shy about saying this sort of thing, I hope lots more people hear the album, and it helps them figure out something that’s happening in their brains/hearts/souls. That’s a big sort of goal, but that’s why I think we all make music.
Rumpus: Why did you switch from violin to French horn?
Thal: I switched to horn because I wanted to be in the school band, and I needed an excuse to stop going to violin lessons, which I dreaded. I’m sure my teacher dreaded them too, as sometimes I would insist on playing my Suzuki tunes while lying on the floor. To her credit, Mrs. Schumacher let me do this. Also I could never keep up with the Widder sisters, who seemed to effortlessly glide through Suzuki’s mystical landscape. Perhaps I sensed something rougher and more hodgepodge in brass pedagogy, maybe it was something in the metal itself that called me to it, a different sort of elemental resonance. Or it could have simply been that I thought the saxophone was cool, and when they wouldn’t let me play sax I settled for the oddly shaped French horn, which my 6th grade band teacher said I had a ‘good lip’ for.
Rumpus: How is singing different from playing an instrument?
Thal: Singing is fun because I’ve never been trained. I feel my ability to sing links directly to my state of mind. In singing I can tell a story; I can mix poetry and melody. Vocal harmony triggers a different sort of psychological response. When playing the French horn I always know what note I’m playing—I have a personal relationship to each note, each one has a color, flavor, ideology; some are curmudgeonly and others promiscuous. When singing I have no concept of note; I focus more on story, the authenticity of telling it. But there are similarities too: coordination of breathing, diaphragm support, learning to relax…
Rumpus: Talk about what you remember of having Suzuki violin lessons together.
Thal: I remember they first gave us cardboard-box violins and wooden-dowel bows that mercifully made no sound. When we graduated to actual eighth-size violins we tore apart the boxes and devoured the fruit-rolls ups they contained. I remember that you were always rather stoic and focused and at the top of our class by far… it was like you were from a family of master minstrels and I was a philistine. This may have contributed to my boyhood crush on you. (This was of course a few years before I met Matt your awesome husband.)
Rumpus: Briars is a Brooklyn band and although you and Gideon are cousins you didn’t really come together until Brooklyn. Describe how Brooklyn is important to your music.
Thal: Brooklyn, for better or worse, was the incubating hen of the Briars; it was born of improvisatory jams in Ditmas Park. When I first moved to New York I was given a set at the Tank, and convened an improbable ensemble of almost everyone I knew in the city at that point: Heather McIntosh (my roommate at the time who became a close friend, and is an incredible composer, cellist, and bass player), the stellar percussionist Joe Bergen (now of Mantra Percussion), Isabel O’Connell (the world-class Irish pianist), and my second cousin Gideon, who I knew was a wonderful singer, but who I’d never really met, as he had grown up in Vermont and I in wisconsin. At my grandfather’s memorial in 2006, Gideon’s charismatic father Steve let me know that Gideon and I were both living in Brooklyn (less than a mile apart as it turned out) and he assured me that if I did not hang out with Gideon in Brooklyn, he would come there personally and kill us both. He said this without smiling. Since then Gideon has become one of my closest musical collaborators and friends, and it’s our combined vision that created the Briars, but we owe a lot to our early collaborators and the others we have played with over the years: Otto Hauser (of Vetiver and countless other great bands), Greg Chudzik (a stupidly, freakishly awesome bass player and solid dude), Simon Jermyn (a super sensitive and inventive bass and guitar player), Chris Marianetti and Cameron Steele (my brothers in the production universe) who crafted the album into something a bit more hip and listenable), and others. All of these elements came together in Brooklyn in the context of the new music, old time, indie rock, and DIY scenes. But the album itself came together in Hudson, NY, the place that on many levels has become our band’s spiritual hub. The album reflects a desire to return to a life of simplicity, a sort of reinvention of the rural, the small town, a way to reorganize human relations outside the context of apocalyptic capitalism. These seem to be common notions among our upstate crew of friends. As one of our mentors Meshell up there says, Simplicity is the new wealth. Our crew of friends up there has been incredibly supportive, when we play up there people sing along and we feel the love (big ups to Shannekia. Cara, Sara(s), Sam(s), Kaya, Rob, Andrea, and many more).
Rumpus: Why do you play music?
Thal: I play music because it draws together all the disintegrating strands of life into something palatable, comprehensible, moving—it conjures the spirit behind all or disparate suffering and joy and holds it for a second, a kind of unique singularity in an expanding cosmos. Plus, it’s a good way to spend time, to communicate with people. If I can get people to dance or cry, I feel like we’ve spoken deeply, even if we have nothing to say to each other in normal life. Music exists in a ceremonial space, where certain kinds of emotionally crystallized structures become malleable.
Rumpus: You’ve been a session musician for the National. What was that like?
Thal: The National is a great band, real pros and hard-working musicians. I’ve learned a lot from their perfectionism and laid-backness. I particularly like Matt’s lyrics, and once asked him how he writes them, thinking that they all must come to him at once. He said, ‘I write all day, and then I throw away all but a couple of lines.’ This gave me a certain confidence in my own writing, as I realized that it’s not simply talent that makes a good song, but dedication and constant revision (or, this is one valid way of approaching songwriting).
Rumpus: Do you feel like you have to participate in a scene in order to be a musician/have your music heard? And if so, what is that like?
Thal: I’ve never been much for scenes… and am not sure what scene I’m in now. I think to be heard you have to find your way into the lives of many groups of friends, many people’s iPods, and the music cortexes of their brains. I’ve heard that the key to getting heard is visibility, how much you tour and play, how much your name appears on blogs and tweets and Facebook posts. Gideon and I are very lazy in these departments, and have no record label or publicist so we exist really only within the very small scene of our extended friend family…
Rumpus: Where do you live right now? What are you doing to pay the bills?
Thal: I’m back in Brooklyn, in Sunset Park. I had mixed feelings about this, as I love the clean air and beautiful bike rides that the Hudson Valley has to offer. But I’m also excited about this new project I am working on: OneBeat (1beat.org), which is a project of my other major musical project in life, Found Sound Nation (foundsoundnation.org). Found Sound, which runs music composition and production programs, has been paying the bills of late, and I’m grateful for that, these projects exercise a different part of my brain, while staying in the musical realm.