The Explorers Club: A Five-Star Hotel (part one)

Beach Boys fans the world over – or at least the ones lucky enough to know about it – hailed Freedom Wind, the 2008 debut release from Charleston SC sextet The Explorers Club. Led by songwriter/arranger Jason Brewer, the group successfully conjured the best qualities of the Beach Boys’ work. Their sound picked up conceptually where hits like “Darlin” (a perennial onstage favorite for The Explorers Club) left off.

Yet on their sophomore release, Grand Hotel, the band takes a sure-footed step forward, proving that they’re no mere bunch of one-note stylistic copyists. Grand Hotel‘s all-original songs conjure the best of AM radio pop. Not, mind you, the schlocky end of the dial, either. Songs like “Bluebird” evoke fond memories of better-than-history-would-have-you-think artists like Anne Murray. Elsewhere on the record one hears tunes that sound as if they could have been included on the soundtrack of Midnight Cowboy. The group aims for the arranging styles used so effectively on records by Harry Nilsson, B.J Thomas and other mainstream hitmakers of the early 70s.

After catching a live show by the band, I took the opportunity to speak with Jason Brewer about the band, their albums, and their whole approach. Observing that Brewer himself is a young (thirtyish) lad, I couldn’t help but wonder how he had developed such a keen and complete understanding of the genre within which he’s chosen to work.

Bill Kopp: Generally when I interview an artist, I try to not focus unduly on the whole “influences” thing. I hope you’ll forgive me if I make an exception in your case. Because of the nature of your music, I think it’s critical to understand where you’re coming from. I’m very interested to know about your musical background: your training, the stuff your parents played around the house when you were a kid, that sort of thing.

Jason Brewer: My parents both sang in choirs, and sang in church their whole lives. And I do that, too. From the very beginning, I sang a lot of old gospel music – not like Southern gospel; more traditional gospel. All kinds of stuff; not too different, probably, from what Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash would have sang in church when they were young. And that came from my grandparents, really.

Beyond that, my mom and dad are children of the seventies, essentially; they were born in the mid-fifties. They definitely grew up on the music of the late sixties and early seventies. My mom is into The Beach Boys and things like that; she’s from Miami, and that surf-y stuff was pretty popular. My dad is a total Leon Russell and Elton John guy. So I heard a lot of that. And he likes the early Doobie Brothers stuff, too. So that’s what my parents were into, and I loved that stuff.

We were going to the beach one time when I was five or six, and my mom got me a Beach Boys cassette tape. So we listened to it in the car, with the whole family. That got me really hooked. But my really big musical breakthrough was through a neighbor who lived behind us. He was about eight years older than my parents. He let me hear – on headphones – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band…in mono. I was only six or seven years old, but it totally blew me away. I got him to make me a cassette of it. He put Sgt. Pepper on one side, and on the other side he put his favorite songs from the White Album. I think I still have that cassette.

So it was between hearing all the oldies radio, and hearing The Beatles and Motown from my neighbor. I liked some of the music that was going on in the 80s when I was little; I enjoyed Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen and the pop Genesis hits. And I still like that stuff. But hearing the Beatles when I was six or seven, I knew, “That’s what I want to do.” So I would do chores around the house to save up money in my piggy bank, so I could buy all of the Beatles albums on cassette. I collected ’em all by the time I was seven or eight. CDs were around then, I guess, but a little kid didn’t carry around a CD player. I had a Walkman. And it was easy to play cassettes in the car, too.

I had some other stuff, too. I remember I had a Temptations cassette. I stumbled across some of that stuff recently; I was cleaning out my closet. And I thought, “Wow, I really have been listening to this music all my life.”

I started playing guitar when I was ten, eleven years old. I started writing songs when I was fifteen. I learned a lot of Beatles songs. I remember a live Paul McCartney album that came out in ’88 or ’89 [Tripping the Live Fantastic]. I loved it; that one was a big deal for me. I played basketball on a church league, and I would put that tape on my boombox while I was practicing shooting free throws.

I always had to have music wherever I went. Even riding in the car, going out to dinner with the family, I’d bring a a cassette. Now, I drive my wife crazy playing music in the car. She loves music, too – she’s a singer and a great musician too – but she says, “Sometimes we need to have a quiet car ride.”

I played in bands since I was fourteen, fifteen years old. I had a band that wanted to be The Who, but that never really worked out. We couldn’t find a front man. We did have the drummer, though. And in high school, when indie rock came out, I listened to Wilco, Flaming Lips, early My Morning Jacket. But I was always totally into Brian Wilson, Paul McCartney and Burt Bacharach. I was devastated back in high school when the local oldies radio station changed format. They had already started phasing out the fifties stuff; in my town [Charleston SC] you can’t hear Chuck Berry or Elvis or the Beach Boys on the radio. You can still hear The Beatles on the classic rock station every once in a while, but it’s only the Abbey Road stuff. Than god for Sirius XM.

I’m a radio guy; I really am. I love records; I collect records like crazy. Bootlegs, you name it: I’ve got it all. But I still love to be able to turn on the radio and hear the songs I like. My musical vocabulary is all over the place; I’m a music geek. The thing I love the most is that really well-produced fifties, sixties and early seventies sound. That was the height of rock’n’roll, the height of pop music in my opinion. With the band now, that’s what we want to do: we want to fit in with that.

BK: These songs wouldn’t be what they are were it not for the arrangements. Your music is about as far from the “jam band” aesthetic as one can imagine. How carefully do you plot out what each player does on the album?

JB: For the most part, it’s routined. On the first record we did [2008’s Freedom Wind], I was super-detailed on every little part. On Grand Hotel, we mapped out arrangements, but there are some little accidental things going on.

The new record is really influenced by A&M Records stuff. If you know the history of that label, they had a jazz label called CTI. They had weird stuff like Antonio Carlos Jobim and Walt Wanderley. Some of that was a sort of weird, west-coast, free-form, bossa-nova influenced jazz.

And if you listen to Grand Hotel, there are a few moments like that: at the end of “Run Run Run,” the classical guitar and electric piano are kind of trading off. None of that was planned. I played the electric piano on the end of that, and I told the guitarist, “Hey, just goof off. Whatever. Just do it, and we’ll take the best parts.”

The same goes for the end of “Summer Days, Summer Nights.” It’s a total Sergio Mendes thing. We wanted it to sound like a party by the pool in 1960s California, maybe on the border of Mexico.

BK: It reminds me a bit – in terms of feel, if not sound – of the impromptu jam The Beatles did when they appeared on David Frost‘s TV show.

JB: I know what you mean: the little thing they did right before they played “Hey Jude.” That could have been in there subconsciously. You’ve got to understand, my sophomore year of high school is when Anthology came out. Already being a Beatles fanatic, I inhaled that stuff.

One thing with this new record that was really out of bounds, out of the box, was that I really gravitate toward things like sixties Frank Sinatra, Herb Alpert, Burt Bacharach, Dionne Warwick, Ricky Nelson

BK: AM radio pop, basically. That was AM radio music of the early seventies.

JB: Yeah. The arrangements on that stuff were, I imagine, done by old-school jazz and big band guys who were just trying to stay in the the game. They were taking their skills and applying them to the new rock and pop music. These really trained, really brilliant musical minds met the teenage feel.

When we were making Grand Hotel, we were listening to the Andy Williams record with “Music to Watch Girls By” on it. And Bob Crewe Generation…that kind of stuff. That stuff is so cool, because it’s the expansive Bacharach and Wilson sort of chords with crazy, over-the-top singing. I love that.

BK: You bring up an interesting point about the arrangers on that kind of material. Those guys – and they were, for the most part, guys – were schooled not only in creating catchy, clever, sophisticated arrangements, but also in doing so in such a way that would sound good over a cheesy little monophonic AM radio speaker. I mean, sure: if you had quadrophonic sound (like we had briefly in the early 70s) you could make most anything sound good. You had a higher sonic quality that allowed many of the subtleties to come out. But in crafting music for AM radio, one had to arrange the songs very carefully so they didn’t sound muddy. And that’s why I think that the horn lines on Tijuana Brass records and such really cut through the mix. And you’ve completely captured that essence on Grand Hotel.

JB: That was a conscious production effort with this record. If you listen to pop-jazz from that era, or even the guitar solo from “Surfin’ USA,” or any of the A Hard Day’s Night era Beatles material, the solos float over the mix. And that was just so they’d stand out. I think on Grand Hotel, there are some moments where some things really pop out of the mix. We recorded it that way, but then when Mark Linett mixed the record, I gave him notes that said, “I really want this [prominent] in the mix; I want this-much compression,” and so on. Of course, he’s a genius, and he knew how to do what I was looking for.

BK: How did you come to work with Mark Linett?

JB: Our manager heard what we thought was the finished record, and he emailed a bunch of mix guys. Mark Linett was the first to respond. I said, “Absolutely: he’s the guy.” Mark heard the stuff and said, “Yeah. I can make this right.” And he did.

Click to continue to Part Two

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