Buddyhead Interview with Brian Cook
Ever since James Brown hot-stepped it out of this mortal coil and into that coked-up key party in the sky, we’ve been left with an unanswered question: Who’s the H.W.M.I.S.B. (if you don’t Spreken ze Rad that’s “Hardest Working Man in Show Business”)? Well, we’re not sure what dude sits on the top of that pile nor where he scores his meth, but we do know that musician and journalist Brian Cook, formerly of ancient Buddyhead favorite Botch, currently of Russian Circles, These Arms Are Snakes and Roy, is somewhere in the top 5% of said pile. If you trim the herd and make it the “Hardest Working GAY Man in Show Business”, he’s probably even further up there. When the number of rad bands you’ve been in exceeds the number of gashes the average Pitchfork writer has ever seen, at least in real time, Buddyhead figures that you’re the right person to talk to about what’s going on in music. We sat down with Brian (and by sat down I mean we were sitting when we typed and emailed these questions and he was likely sitting when he answered them later) to pick his brain about what he’s up to, what life is like for a workingclass musician, what bands he’s gotten into lately, and how much he loves Crabcore. Here’s what he had to say:
Buddyhead: You recently finished recording the new Russian Circles record Geneva. How did your role in the writing process for this record differ, if at all, from Station? What musical directions does RC go in on Geneva that might be new to long time RC fans?
Brian Cook: There wasn’t a lot of time to work on Station. The band had one song prepared with the original line-up, then wrote the remainder of the music in a short flurry of activity right after they parted ways with their original bass player and right before they headed out to Seattle to record. It was less than two months of preparation time. I was originally only signing on to fill in on recording duties, so I only rehearsed with the band a few times before heading into the studio and tried to keep shit pretty simple. Knowing Mike, I’m sure he was sitting around on the riffs for that record for quite awhile, but for the most part it was written and recorded very quickly with very little time to reevaluate the material. With Geneva, I’m a full-time member of the band, and we had way more time to prep the material. The songs evolved quite a bit, we did a bunch of demos, and we were able to do a lot more editing and refining. Knowing that we were going to have more time to plot things out and record, we wrote the material with a lot more layers and additional instrumentation in mind. We definitely wanted to make a more textural record with more elaborate production values.
BH: We’re assuming Geneva is after the city in Switzerland? Why are you calling the record that? Are you dudes way psyched on clocks, conventions and neutrality?
BC: There are a few reasons for the title. Some of it pertains to the context under which the record was made, some of it pertains to the general theme we were aiming for. But, ultimately, I think we’re keeping our lips sealed on this one, at least for the time being.
BH: How does your experience in Russian Circles differ from your work in These Arms Are Snakes? Is it a challenge to play bass in two incredibly different sounding bands?
BC: Well, both bands are pretty egalitarian and diplomatic in the songwriting process, but there’s a different creative dynamic in both bands. Russian Circles generally works off of material that Mike brings to the table, where as I tend to provide a lot of the initial ideas for These Arms. I actually like the two variations. It’s nice to switch between more active and passive participation. I’m a versatile dude. And I’m fully aware of the double entendre involved in that statement.
BH: How often, on average, does someone come up to you after an RC show and say something like “You guys are so awesome…have you ever considered getting a singer”?
BH: Do you think audiences are more receptive to an all instrumental band these days than say 10-12 years ago, when Botch was in its prime? Do you ever feel at a disadvantage in terms of access to media/tours etc being an all instrumental group?
BC: I don’t know. Seems like Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Don Caballero, Rachels, Tortoise, Dirty Three, and Mogwai were a pretty big deal 10 years ago. And there was always groups like Neu! Maybe it’s just that it’s a newer thing for more rock driven bands to drop the singer. It almost seems like people are more prone to lump all instrumental bands together these days, as if the tone and timbre of their music isn’t as much of a classifying trait as their choice to go sans vocals. Not that i’m really bitching, because, ultimately, I don’t think the lack of vocals holds us back or pigeonholes us. If anything, it forces people to pay more attention to the instrumentation and probably makes people actually appreciate the music more.
BH: What’s shakin in the world of These Arms Are Snakes? Any new writing going on or are you focusing on supporting your most recent (and most excellent) album Tail Swallower and Dove?
BC: We want to get started working on new material, but it’s been such a busy spring and summer for me that we don’t have anything in the way of new material. And Chris is about to head into the studio, and a bunch of our equipment took a dump on us. So basically we’re licking our wounds and sitting on our hands until we head out on a U.S. trip in the fall. Steve and I have been brainstorming some concepts for the next record and I’m getting pretty stoked to reinvigorate the creative process. I feel pretty good about that last record, honestly, and I think we can proudly lay that particular side of the band to rest. We’re hoping that the new material will be a real mindfuck, but only
and where it came from?
BC: Ah yes. I had this rule after I bought my Gibson Grabber back in ’99: I never wanted to own a new bass. I wanted my basses to be second hand. There’s that old adage that a guitar can’t play the blues if it’s never been in a pawnshop. Well, First Act offered to build me a bass, and I just wasn’t really sold on playing anything besides a Gibson. But after seeing Nick from Daughters‘ monstrosity of a guitar that First Act built, I was convinced that I needed something. I’d always wanted a baritone guitar, but the options are pretty limited. So I asked First Act if they’d build me one, and we just kinda went for it. I didn’t want anything quite as gawdy as Nick’s 9-string, but I figured I had to take advantage of the opportunity to do something kinda unique. So I threw a couple of bears, as in fat bearded dudes, on the inlay of the fretboard. It’s now dubbed the Bearitone. It is pretty big and beefy, after all. I’m pretty in love with the thing. It’s a beautiful guitar. Now I have one of their Delgada basses as well. I’m still a sucker for those old Gibsons, but the First Act custom shop does some amazing work.
BH: Anything new going on with your more folk driven project, Roy? By the way is that by any chance pronounced “WAH” a la the legendary hockey goalie Patrick Roy?
BC: Nothing new with Roy. Dave is playing with Narrows and saving lives at his work. Cooper started a vinyl-only record label and is going out on tour this summer with his other band Canon Canyon. Ben started his own boutique amplifier company and is busy with his band Helms Alee. To be honest, I’d love to do another Roy record, but I feel like there are too many bearded indie folk bands these days, particularly in Seattle. If we were to do another record, it’d have to be the more fuzzed-out rock side of the band, because I’m really starting to loathe acoustic guitars.
disappointed with the progress of hardcore music in the years since Botch called it a day. think you see the influence of that record working today? Are you pleased or
BC: Well, we still get asked to play reunion shows on a regular basis, and “metalcore” still seems to be chugging along, so I guess the influence is still there. I’m flattered people still give a shit and talk about the record. I can’t really say I’m all that stoked on what’s become of that scene. I always loved the mediocre review Buddyhead gave of that record. One quote always stuck out in my mind: something along the lines of “this record doesn’t make me want to kick ass as much as it makes me just feel like I got my ass kicked.” I don’t think that was meant in a positive way at all, but I thought it was pretty awesome.
BH: Coalesce, who many would regard as a peer of Botch, recently put out their first record in ten years, “Ox”. Did you hear it? Do you think that record will have an impact in today’s hardcore scene?
BC: I heard about 30 seconds of it when These Arms stayed with Dan Askew of Second Nature earlier this year. Haven’t checked it out since then. It’s funny, I actually got a copy of Functioning on Impatience from Dan during that stay; I always liked that record but never had a copy. But truth be told, I just don’t really seek out that kind of music these days. I was sorta over-inundated with it. I still like heavy music. I listen to the old records. and I still keep up with current stuff by bands like Converge and Trap Them because they’re friends. But I’ve kinda tuned out most of the stuff that is in the same general scene that Botch occupied. Part of the allure of that whole scene was that the stuff seemed so new and vicious back in the day. Being Deadguy at their peak versus sounding like Deadguy 15 years after the fact is a pretty crucial difference. I’d rather find bands that make me feel like that stuff did back then than find bands that just sound like it. Anyhow, I’m rambling. I have no comment on “Ox” because I haven’t heard enough of it.
BH: In addition to being a prolific musician, you’re also a married man. On the first Roy release a few years ago there was a song called “Reno I’m Coming Home” which addressed some of the difficulties of maintaining the relationship with your husband Reno while touring all the time. Has balancing your musical pursuits and your relationships and friendships gotten easier over the years or does it remain tricky?
BC: That’s always a weird question to address in this sort of public forum because I always wonder what Reno would think of the answer. I don’t think he really spends any time looking me up on the internet, so I guess I’ll be blunt. It can definitely be rough. There are large stretches of time where our lives are lived apart. That obviously has it’s drawbacks. But, it has always been the nature of our relationship, and I do think spending time apart allows us to renew our relationship every so often. He probably would’ve kicked my ass to the curb within the first year if I WASN’T gone half the time. I will admit that I do feel a little out of touch with Seattle as of late. Touring with These Arms at least has the benefit of traveling with other people from my community, so we all sort of fill each other in on what we’ve heard from our significant others or friends while we’re on the road. I’m not much of a phone person, so when i’m out with the Circles, I really feel pretty cut off from home. I suppose that’s my own damn fault though.
BH: Between all of your bands, your freelance journalism, your marriage, and maintaining a flawless beard, you’re clearly a busy dude and have been for a long time. What do you think drives you to push yourself so hard to make records and tour so much?
BC: Boredom. I hate it when a day goes by and I don’t feel like I’ve accomplished something.
BH: Outside of your own projects, what contemporary bands do you feel are making an impact in the various scenes you follow? Are there any interesting or disgusting musical trends you’ve noticed making a cultural impact lately? How do you feel about the recent indie rock press fixation on so-called “lo-fi” bands (i.e. Wavves, Vivian Girls, No Age etc)?
BC: I’ve got mixed feeling on the whole lo-fi thing. From a punk perspective, I’m all for it. I like the idea of people just going out there and doing it, even if they don’t have the technical ability or the access to higher-end gear. And i’m really really glad to see this desire to work outside the realm of the ProTooled, Beat Detected, Autotuned junk that’s domintating the musical landscape. Gimme Vivian Girls over Chiodos any day of the week. But the idea that “lo-fi” equals quality is obviously a dangerous notion. I mean, Calvin Johnson has never really been in a “good” band, but he manages to be a compelling artist because he’s so good at engaging the audience. Judging on the live reports I’ve heard about Wavves, I don’t think that’s the case for them. Ultimately, a band is either good or bad,
As for contemporary bands I like, I’ve been completely enamored with Stars of the Lid since I saw them a little over a year ago. Truth be told, I fucking love The Hold Steady and I’m glad to see them touring with huge arena rock bands. I feel like music is way too cliquey these days. There is no modern Beatles or Led Zeppelin, There is no collective band that the broader “rock” community all rallies behind. Well, maybe Radiohead, but they are still predominantly a band for music snobs. I just like that The Hold Steady manages to have this universal pop appeal, and lyrical content that really captures the 20-something age, while still being pretty damn sly and clever. In terms of smaller bands, I like The Liverhearts, Triumph of Lethargy, Gun Outfit, Young Widows, All the Saints, The Flaming Stars, and Harvey Milk. And that last Constantines record did not get the recognition it deserved.
BH: One final question: Are you familiar with “Crabcore” and Attack Attack!? If so, do you think it is the awesome-est thing of all time, or just the awesome-est thing thing to happen in the last 10 years or so?
BC: Oh god, so that’s what the kids are calling it? Yeah, Henry from Chunklet made us sit through that shit. There was speculation that Attack Attack! is actually just a one-man band and that the lone member was super-imposed into their videos playing all the different instruments. I mean, they all look identical. But Russian Circles played at the Picador in Iowa City the night after they played, and apparently it’s a real band. Also, apparently there were 300 people paid, 250 of which were under the age of 18. That tells you something right there