"A Fun, Giddy Sort of Dare": An Interview with Chris Brokaw of Codeine and Come
Codeine. Come. Pullman. The New Year. A quick glance through Chris Brokaw's career is nothing short of intimidating, but after a successful reunion with Codeine, Brokaw sits down to talk to us about Come, the band's legacy, their new reissues and so much more ...
Chris Brokaw has put together a dizzying resume in over 20 years of very active music-making. The past two years have been busy by even his standards, including multiple tours of North America and Europe as a member of the reunited Codeine and as a solo artist in support of 2012's very noteworthy Gambler's Ecstasy (including almost two months of shows in the Fall of 2012 opening for Mono). 2013 now finds him with the reunited Come, the powerhouse Boston quartet that he formed in 1990 with Thalia Zedek, Sean O'Brien, and Arthur Johnson. This summer, he'll play a group of East Coast shows as a guitarist with The Lemonheads, then a handful of more Come reunion shows and then more solo playing into the Fall. As any one who has kept tabs on Brokaw over the years knows, he possesses an endlessly infectious enthusiasm for playing music and the bottom line is that he just never stops working.
His main focus currently is Come, who saw their best-known work, 1992's Eleven: Eleven, was reissued this year on Matador Records in America and Glitterhouse Records in Europe. "I'm particularly grateful to Glitterhouse Records in Germany," Brokaw says. "They're the ones who got the ball rolling and once that was going, we went to Matador and said, 'Glitterhouse is going to be reissuing this overseas, how would you feel about it doing it here,' and they said, 'Yes, we would like to do it.'" The double-vinyl, double-CD reissue is appropriately lavish, packaged with a recording of a live performance from the band's face-melting prime and the songs from their initial 7" release with Matador. Above all, it helps reinforce Come's standing as a major band from the '90s worth paying attention to and it will hopefully bring new listeners to their music.
Come formed in Boston in 1990, ultimately releasing four albums (1992's Eleven: Eleven, 1994's Don't Ask Don't Tell, 1996's Near Life Experience, and 1998's Gently Down the Stream) of dense, chaotic guitar rock centered around frontwoman Thalia Zedek's pulverizing lead vocals and the careening guitar lines she played with Brokaw, before amicably calling it quits. They initially launched with some underground fanfare, owing to Brokaw's involvement in Codeine and multiple other bands and Zedek's playing with the bands Uzi, Live Skull, and Dangerous Birds.
"When the four of us got together and started playing," says Brokaw, "we never had any conversations about, 'Well, let's have this kind of a band or this kind of a band.' There was a period when Thalia and I first met around 1988 and we first started playing guitars together where we talked a bit about wanting to form a band and have it be more of sort of a traditional rock and roll band. She was singing in Live Skull at the time, and I was playing drums in this band called 7 or 8 Worm Hearts, which is sort of an avant-garde kind of pop band. We both wanted to do something that felt more like a rock and roll band, using reference points like the Rolling Stones, The Only Ones, Gun Club, Nikki Sudden, and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds."
Eleven: Eleven's mania has aged remarkably well and retains a push and pull immediacy that makes for a jarring ride of a listen. The Trouser Press writes that Come heaps "tension atop tension, rarely providing even a semblance of release," and the description is dead-on. Songs like "William" not only jump around between half- and double-time feels but also throw in brief passes with triplet feels, never giving the listener a secure place to stand.
Throughout the album, drummer Arthur Johnson never stops moving. On "Power Failure," he engages in a kind of call-and-response with Zedek's vocals, tearing across portions of the song where beats come and go in rapid fire. He turns in a uniquely powerful performance throughout. Come's music was heavy and hardcore in that it aimed for a direct emotional impact and in Zedek's howl it's hard not to hear a cry for connection, as well. "Come's music is really high drama music," says Brokaw. "It felt really natural to get back into but I don't play a lot of music these days that has that level of drama to it. So, it was very bracing. But, that's exciting."
The band was largely adored by critics, were known as a powerful live act, and were courted by major labels during a very strange period of time when dense, chaotic, guitar-centered rock bands were seeing large amounts of money directed their way. "We were offered several major label deals," he says. "We got taken out for some really great meals. And none of it made sense to us. I kept saying to these people, 'Who are the people who are going to buy these records?' Because they would say, 'We feel confident we can sell 250 or 300,000 copies of your next record,' and I was always like, 'To who? Tell me who you're going to sell these things to.'
"It felt, at the time, like the only people who were going to be able to pull it off were people who already had a really big following. People like Sonic Youth, or Mike Watt. People who were playing for at least 1,000 people a night. I felt like those bands had a chance of coming out okay with the whole major label thing and I felt like everyone else was on thin ice. And more to the point, it seemed like Matador was a really good place for us. That they would let us make the records exactly the way we wanted to make them and have the artwork look exactly the way we wanted it to and they would help us along with all of that. That it would just be a good place for us to make the art that we wanted to make."
Since Come disbanded in 2001, Zedek and Brokaw have both remained incredibly busy as artists, Zedek releasing a series of notable albums under her own name on Matador, Kimchee, and Thrill Jockey records (most recently, 2013's Via) and Brokaw as a solo artist (seek out, in particular, 2012's Gambler's Ecstasy and 2005's Incredible Love), as a sideman with Thurston Moore and Evan Dando, and as a member of a number of bands, including Consonant with Mission of Burma's Clint Conley, The New Year with Matt and Bubba Kadane of Bedhead, and The Martha's Vineyard Ferries with Bob Weston of Shellac and Mission of Burma, and Elisha Wiesner (a new album is due this Fall on Kiam Records). His cover of Suicide's "I Remember" was featured in episodes of both Friday Night Lights and Eastbound & Down and he's recently moved into film scoring, including scores for Now, Forager, from directors Jason Cortlund and Julia Halperin, and Road, from director Leslie Mcleave. "I recognize," he says, "that that broadness may have the effect of diffusing my public profile, but, I think at the end of the day I have a more interesting year than people who do one thing and one thing only, though there's certainly nothing wrong with that."
Come's reunion began with a one-off show at 2008's Tanned Tin Festival in Spain but was jump-started when the original line-up was invited to play the 2010 Matador At 21 Festival in Las Vegas, celebrating the label's 21st anniversary. Come played the festival's second night, sharing the main stage with The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Cat Power, Perfume Genius, Girls, Superchunk, Spoon, and Belle and Sebastian. "We were flattered and grateful that they considered us to be part of the story,' Brokaw says, "because Matador put out a lot of records, so there were a lot of bands ... I don't know whether they didn't get invited or they weren't available, but there was a ton of other bands that could have been part of that weekend. We were just psyched that they did ask us."
This is the second band reunion of note that Brokaw has been involved in. Last year, Brokaw reunited with Stephen Immerwahr and John Engle in Codeine and toured America and Europe in support of the reissue of that band's catalog by the Numero Group. "I feel like I'm doing almost exactly what I did this time last year; revisiting music from 1992," Brokaw says, "so it's kind of surreal. All the Codeine shows last year were great, were really fun, and went really well. I think what was the strangest thing about it last year was really getting back into that music and then having it stop. It was strange enough to get back into that music again, but I feel like we all really got back into that music and then we did the last show and then it was gone again. And just, on an emotional level that was a really strange experience that I guess is unique to those kinds of situations." In the cases of both the Come and Codeine reunions, he says, "I think we all have a healthy respect for what we did then and are going back and trying to do it justice."
Staying fully active and engaged with music beyond your 30s and especially your 40s and into your 50s is a major accomplishment for any musician and sadly, even most listeners of music. There are simply too many pulls on your time, too many new priorities, and too many ways to get re-directed and this is overwhelmingly true for musicians forced to eke out a survival in a truly hostile environment for actually making money, "Twenty years ago it was SPIN and Rolling Stone and a couple other things," Brokaw says, "and right now it's Pitchfork and NPR. Getting covered in those two things can be the difference between your CD getting into stores and not even getting into stores at all. I think it's crazy that there's one online magazine that can make or break whether something even gets into stores. I think that's crazy.
"I think it's odd there aren't more alternatives to that. I think it's odd that there aren't two or three competing alternatives to iTunes or to Amazon or to Pitchfork. I feel like those three kind of exist in this plane where they seem to have no competition at all, which seems strange. Five years from now it could be totally different, in the same way a couple of years ago Facebook was absolutely crucial and five years before that MySpace was absolutely crucial. Two or three years from now, all the power structure could be totally different."
Bands and musicians, however, continue to find ways to make it work, and in a way that creates excitement, though you wish it didn't have to be so hard. It's an accomplishment worth celebrating when middle age finds them still completely plugged in and tunneling out pockets where they can survive and continue to develop. "One of the main ways that my relationship to music has changed over the last ten years," Brokaw writes, in a follow-up email to our phone conversation, "is that, starting in 2002, music became my livelihood. I had a ton of touring coming up, I decided to quit my job and just go for it, and that's been my job since. I can say without qualification that I have my dream job and I consider myself incredibly fortunate.
"I don't take anything about it for granted; I consider it kind of a fun, giddy sort of dare. Most of my income comes from playing live and I don't miss the irony of the fact that I now make a living primarily from my solo career, which has a way lower profile than that of Come or Codeine in our working prime. I continue to be a really voracious music listener, I'm constantly buying new music, and music continues to be exciting to me. I feel that I've been incredibly lucky and am deeply grateful for the opportunities I've had and the amazing people I've been able to collaborate with, especially in the last ten years. When I was much younger I was deeply ambivalent about the idea of making a living from music; now I just think it's amazing."