Live at the Decommissioned Power Plant in Florli, Norway is the new cassette release from veteran guitarist Chris Brokaw. In 2018, the once and current member of Codeine and Come was invited to participate in a multimedia project titled Florida Lowlands with the arts group Rimi/Imir in Stavanger, Norway. Brokaw wrote that the couple behind the project, Iver Findlay and Marit Sandsmark, “were smart, ambitious, elliptical, hard-working”.
In 2022, he was invited to participate in a small festival in Florli, a small municipality accessible only by ferry and with a year-round population hovering just at the double-digit mark. Still, Florli has its charms, including a 4,444-step staircase running up the side of a mountain.
What had been sold as a festival was something else entirely and culminated in the marriage of Findlay and Sandsmark as well as two sets from Brokaw: one electric and one acoustic. The electric one was captured by Jim Dawson, and the acoustic one was a gift only for those in Florli at the time.
The resultant four-piece cassette finds Brokaw, who issued the superb Puritan, in fine form, exploring sonic and compositional dynamics on pieces such as “Our Fathers”, the dreamlike “Go Foragers”, and the epic, 13-minute slab of delight, “Slaughterhouse 4444”. (The 180-copy tape is rounded out by “I’m The Only One For You”.)
Chatting with PopMatters from his home in the greater Boston area on a late winter’s evening, Brokaw fields questions covering a range of topics, from the recording of this latest set to recent live work with Codeine and Come (the latter is the subject of a recent reissue campaign from Fire Records), to future projects.
Concerning the last, he says that his life since 2020 has been rewarding on a personal front, though he’s done little in the way of writing for new solo material — but that hasn’t stopped him from working on a variety of projects, including live dates with both the aforementioned bands. At the moment, he notes that he’s content to continue making music with people he likes, spend time with his family, teach, record, and field the occasional film project.
Tell me a little bit about the making of this recording.
Since 2018 I was doing a lot of work with an arts group based in Stavanger, Norway. It’s a couple: An American guy and a Norwegian woman; they had this arts group going for a while in New York, and then they realized that they could move to Norway, work as artists, and have probably have it easier and have a much better standard of living. Arts funding in Norway, in particular, is pretty outstanding at the moment. They run an arts center there and also do their own work. They asked me, five years ago, I guess, if I would be willing to do music for a piece that they were working on. It was kind of a combination of dance and video and text and music and sound. It was something where I would be part of the performances as well.
I started going there a lot and working with them. I like them a lot; they’re really smart, really interesting people. Super cool. So, we did some performances in Oslo and Stavanger and in Bergen, and then the pandemic started. That shut everything down. There were some attempts at one point to try and do it in Kansas City, and then more COVID crap was happening.
Eventually, they got in touch and said that they were going to be doing what they described as a festival in this super remote town about an hour from Stavanger. They asked if I’d be interested in participating. I said of course. I went out there, and it turned out to be more like an artists’ retreat than a festival. There was arts stuff going on all weekend which culminated in these two getting married.
I didn’t realize that that was going to be part of the weekend but was a really nice part of the weekend. They showed me the room, this really huge decommissioned power station. I tailored what I was going to do for that space. I wanted to do more expansive electric guitar stuff for that space. It was great.
When you were walking into this space for the first time, were you thinking that you’d do a series of improvisations, or did you plan on playing material you already had?
Three of the things I did are pieces I’ve recorded before. One is from my last record, Puritan, “Our Fathers” was on the record before that, “End of the Night”, and “Go Forager” was something I did in a film score called Now Forager. But even those three had a lot of improvisation, particularly in these performances. They’re expanded versions of those songs. The fourth piece is an improvisation from the power station.
It seemed like about five years ago, there was this trend of musicians going into wells and echo chambers and performing and figuring out how the natural properties of the room played into the compositions and thinking about how the natural delays would impact the performance.
The room must have offered some dictations about the playing itself.
It played into a little bit, but I didn’t really have the chance to practice in there. Everything really was on the spot. Knowing what those acoustics can be like, it might have been more interesting if I had done something much more minimal and just seeing how the room worked with that. But I was too nervous and in the moment. And probably too loud, so I couldn’t get the best sense of what the sound was like. I think other people in the room got a better sense of what the sound was like than I did.
Did I just hear a guitarist say that they thought they were too loud?
[laughs] You did. I guess also not knowing what the audience was going to be like, especially working in the rock milieu, your first impulse is just to be loud, just to be sure that you’re going to drown people out. I did a little tour one time with Vic Chesnutt, about a week of shows. He was playing through three Fender Twins and 20 delay pedals or something. It was just [imitates high volume]. I said, “So, Vic, what’s up with all the firepower?” He said, “You know, I just got so tired of hearing all those motherfuckers talking.”
You sort of go to that. I think that’s a natural impulse for a lot of people.
Your performance at the power station was recorded; was it always your intention to release it?
I had no intention of recording it. But there was a guy there who was helping with audio, and he recorded the whole thing on his phone. He told me about it afterward, and I said, “Oh great!” He got what I thought was a pretty good recording. He was able to master it and temper some of [the wilder parts] and edit some of the places where it overloaded. I was really glad because it was an exciting performance. But I didn’t have any intention of [making a record] going in.
You had also done an acoustic set at that time. Did that get captured? Will we see that in the future?
I don’t think it did, and, in a way, I sort of didn’t want that one to be captured. I really wanted that to be sort of private. I wanted it to be very much a gift to the bride and groom. I just wanted that one to be for the people who were there.
I’m really struck by the dynamics in your playing: There are spare passages followed by more voluminous ones. Do you have a sense of where that came from?
That’s a good question, and I’m not sure. Certainly, the work that I did with Codeine changed a lot of how I think music normally sounds. I guess I’ve been thinking about this more because Codeine’s been playing shows the last couple of weeks, but we really examined almost every note that we played. We basically talked about what the purpose of each one was. That stuff definitely affected me. And just hearing more and more music and hearing how effective pairing things back can be. And definitely from film scoring, which I’ve done a little bit of. You find with film stuff that a little can really go a long way. You only need a couple of notes in some scenes. You have to allow yourself and others to fill in the spaces.
It’s like a sculptor who takes three pieces of yarn and puts them in a room, floor to ceiling. With those three pieces, you can see that there might be a triangle that’s formed. You can see the rest of it; it doesn’t take much on the part of the artist to make that happen.
But, as I said, it’s not always that easy to have the discipline to scale it back that much.
It’s almost like the jazz adage about the spaces between the notes matter almost as much as the notes themselves.
Yeah. I listened to jazz pretty exclusively for a while, and I don’t know how that impacted my playing. Through the 1990s, I was mostly listening to jazz. It was 1960s and 1970s stuff. The first time I heard groups like AMM and hearing the sparseness of people like John Tilbury had a big impact.
Tell me a little bit about your work with film scoring. How did you get into that sphere? Was it something where a friend said, “Hey, I’ve got a film, maybe you could do something with it?”
That was really how the first one went. I knew this guy, Roddy Bogawa, not all that well at the time, but he approached me at a gig. He was really drunk and said, “I’ve just finished my movie, and I want you to score it!” I said, “OK.” That was an instance where he gave me the movie and said, “Come up with whatever you like. Put it anywhere you want.” Which is not how most filmmakers work. At all.
I did a score for him that was mostly electric guitar but [had] a few other instruments as well. I gave him suggestions about where the [pieces] should be, and then I went to the premiere of the film, and he’d put music in completely different places and sometimes superimposed two pieces on each other!
But, essentially, [the work I’ve gotten] has all been word of mouth and mostly based upon the work that I’ve done making my own records. More and more, though, it’s been because people have seen one of the movies that I’ve done, liked it, then asked me to do something.
I haven’t gotten an agent, and I haven’t really known how most film composers do it, either technically or career/hustle-wise. I wish I was a little better at hustling it, but I’ve scored like eight movies now. I love it. It’s really fun. And it’s great if people aren’t expecting me to be Danny Elfman or anything like that. They’re expecting me to do what I do.
There was one film called La Barracuda that was set in Texas and the filmmaker said, “We really want pedal steel in the opening and closing credits.” So I was able to hire a pedal steel player that I knew and kind of conduct him. That was really cool. But mostly I play all the instruments myself and I do it all at home.
I’ve heard that film scoring can be addictive in a way. It also sounds like it’s a new learning experience.
It’s addictive, but when I scored the movie Barracuda, it’s a pretty intense movie. The stuff that I was doing for it was fairly intense. You’d spend six hours working on some really intense murder scene and then just say, “I have to go for a walk!” [laughs] But it’s great. It’s not a bad experience; it’s an intense experience.
What was it like to put Codeine together again and play these gigs? Have you seen a change in the audience? I feel like sometimes a band goes away for a while, and there’s a new generation of fans that embrace the music in the band’s absence.
When got back together in 2012 when Numero did this box set and double albums of the three records. I think that time around was more surreal than it is this time around. I think at that point, I thought, “This is kind of a time warp; this is really weird.” I feel like Codeine’s music and Come’s music are forever for me. I think there was a period where I felt like it just from one period in my life and that I had moved on from that. But, for better or worse, I think that stuff is with me for life. I love that music, and I’m really proud of it. I really love the people that I made it with. Revisiting it is cool with me. When Codeine did our shows in 2012, it was very easy and natural to get back into the songs, and it was very hard for me to leave the songs again. When it stopped again? That was weird to me. I can’t explain it any better than that. It was strange to have those songs stop again.
With the shows that we’ve done in the last couple of weeks, the audience is definitely younger than I expected. Some youth have gotten into Codeine which I think is great. I had no expectations about that. With Come, it’s probably more of the same audience we had before. In some places, maybe there are more of them. We did some shows in Europe last year, and I went on stage for the first show in Brussels and said, “Everyone’s got white hair!” [laughs]
I thought, “What happened?” But there were more of them than last time around, so that’s good.