D.C.-area jazz group Brûlée won the Takoma Park Jazz Fest Brawl and will make their Beans In The Belfry debut at 7 p.m. Saturday. We recently caught up with guitarist Louis Matza through email to discuss how the band formed, what we can expect from their upcoming performance and how hard it is to record a record in a timely fashion.
I read on your website that this band essentially came from a New Year’s resolution. Can you take us through that process? It’s nearly 10 years after that resolution now, and has the band met those initial expectations and goals thus far?
On January 1, 2006, my wife and I were having breakfast on our honeymoon on the island of Yap in Micronesia. We were talking about New Year’s resolutions. I think I’ve forgotten every other New Year’s resolution I have made, but I still remember this one. At the time, I had not played guitar in about two years due to some carpal tunnel problems, and I missed everything about it. I missed the way daily hassles seem to vanish as soon as you pick up the instrument. I missed writing songs as a way to preserve memories. I missed the way you could be lifted in the middle of playing a perfect three-minute pop song in a crowded room. I missed the strange connection that comes only when you play music with other people. I missed the sense of community that forms around a band that manages to stay together for a while. So my New Year’s resolution was to pick up the guitar, find a singer, write some new songs, and start a band. All of these things were accomplished.
At the time, I had no particular goals regarding what would happen once the band got started. Now that we have such a strong set of songs and our band is sounding so good, I’d really like more people to hear this music. So I think I need some new goals.
Have you been to Beans in the Belfry before? If so, what’s your impression of it? If not, what are you looking forward to the most?
I haven’t actually been there, but our singer Aura is a local in the Frederick area, and she LOVES Beans in the Belfry.
Aura says about Beans: “When I was growing up in Jefferson, my dad would take the train into D.C. from Brunswick every day. My memory is that it had a bar called “My Sister’s Place” that caused me endless confusion as a child (his sister lived in California, so why she had a place near the train was rather confusing), but beyond that, there wasn’t much in Brunswick other than a neat train museum. While Frederick had a renaissance with endless new restaurants and shops, Brunswick remained much as it had been in my childhood. Then Beans in the Belfry came along. I couldn’t have dreamed up a cooler spot, from the beautiful repurposed church building to the eclectic antiques and creative feel. I had long wanted to play there, but when our bass player came across it and started raving about it, we got serious about booking.”
You’re based in D.C. Can you tell us about a few musicians who we might not already know about here in Frederick?
There’s so many good musicians that it’s kind of hard to know where to start. There’s a piano player named Harry Appelman and a sax player named Lyle Link who I’ve found to be particularly thrilling recently. And check out the website of bass player and singer Nicole Saphos. She’s really impressive. Also, I was recently introduced to a local band called the Bumper Jacksons, and the music on their website is really cool.
I would have had a better answer to this question when I first moved to D.C. in 2001. For a few years, I lived close to U Street, and I went out to hear local music several nights each week. I became familiar with the bands and jazz musicians playing regularly in the area. Back then, the Nicki Gonzalez Band was my favorite (especially her guitarist, who I think also played in a great band called Truth Groove), but I don’t know if she’s even playing anymore. My wife and I also love the local songwriter Rene Moffatt, who wrote a fantastically D.C.-centric song called Route 42 about two years ago. Rene is still writing music, but I think he moved to Texas recently.
Since having a daughter though, most of my nights are more about the bedtime routine than about discovering new music (no regrets though — I consider this a very worthwhile trade-off). I still go out to hear music, but not nearly as often, which means I’m usually seeing people I already know are great (like Jason Isbell last month) instead of experimenting on unknown local music. I guess it’s a little hypocritical of me because I appreciate it so much when people come out to hear a local band like us, but it’s just hard to find the time as a working parent. Now, when I’m out late at night, it’s usually for a gig with my own band.
You said you recorded your record in two day-long sessions. How did that go? It’s incredibly difficult to hop into the studio and churn out a finished product in such a short amount of time. How did you accomplish that?
With our tiny recording budget, we had to be quite well-rehearsed and ready for those two days of recording. It’s true that the basic tracks were recorded in those two day-long sessions, and most of the songs on the CD are the sound of the four of us (sometimes five when Tom Anderson joined on sax) playing together live and simultaneously during those two primary sessions.
However, it actually took us much longer to arrive at the finished product. I labored over mixing in about five additional sessions spread out over about two years, often with breaks of up to six months between mixing sessions. We always intended to get it done more quickly, but I was trying to keep up with a pretty demanding non-music career and raising our daughter. So music was often put aside for more pressing responsibilities.
If you listen closely though, you can hear some overdubs that were added during the mixing process for about half of the songs. Some notable examples are Lex’s vibraphone on “Flamingos Above” and “Change it Down.” He also played vibraphone and marimba SIMULTANEOUSLY (with two mallets in each hand) for “Driftin’.” It was quite amazing to watch.
During mixing, I also added some extra lead guitar to the middle of “Peculiar Saints” and the end of “Byrdsong.” And I love adding extra rhythm guitar tracks for texture (check out “Change it Down” and “Byrdsong”). Guitar geeks like me listening through headphones will like this, but nobody else is likely to notice. For the record, the acoustic guitar overdubs on three songs were done with my 1941 Blonde Gibson L-4. All background vocals (mostly by Lex, but with Andrew’s help on “Jump In”) were also added during the mixing process, long after the original two sessions. To be clear, most of the songs are just the sound of the band playing live with no overdubs.
Can you describe the difference between performing onstage and working a day job? Is there one you prefer over the other? Why? Do you feel music is your calling?
These are four really hard questions, and I’m not sure that I’ve ever been a “calling” kind of guy. I’ll do my best to think it through.
I remember meeting people back in college who were absolutely certain of their life’s direction and single purpose. I’ve never been like that. I’m a professional research scientist during week days, but I’m also a musician, a songwriter, a dad, a husband, a scuba diver, a traveler, and a guy who’s always on the lookout for a good taco and some rare tropical fruit. I don’t think any one thing is my calling. I’m lucky enough to be able to fit all these things into this one little life.
I think Aura might say something similar, and this is one of the reasons she and I work so well together. Neither of us ever tried to make this band have a single identity or sound. From early on, we agreed that our band wouldn’t have to settle on one sound. We could have jazz chords, a little polish, some very quiet moments, some loud biting parts, some introspection, occasional goofiness, and any other sound that seems to fit the mood of the song we’re working on. I think it’s easier to market and book a band that fits a single category, but Brûlée wasn’t created for marketing purposes.
You asked about the band versus the day job: One major difference between the band and the day job is that I direct all my projects at work, whereas the band is a true democracy. At work, I have an amazing team of younger colleagues who I can always rely on, but I have to make the decisions that shape our research projects. The band, in contrast, has four people who always have to come to a consensus, which is not always easy. The four of us are all quite strong-willed people who take the music very seriously, even though it’s very unlikely to ever be a “job.” We debate quite vigorously about minor musical decisions (e.g., Should that chord really have a sharp 11th?). Democracy can be hard, but I like the musical results. Every one of our songs is more powerful than something any of us could have created on our own.
What are some of your career’s favorite, most accomplished memories so far?
I truly think our greatest accomplishment was the Takoma Park JazzFest Jazz Brawl just last month. It was a night when everything came together in front of a packed audience that was 100 percent with us all the way. We had a great set list of all original songs. We also had a fantastic saxophone player with us who had never rehearsed with the band before. This added an improvisational edge to our carefully constructed songs, and we were able to rely on the band chemistry, built over years, to pull us through. It was just really rewarding to see what this band could do with a truly attentive and appreciative audience.
There are so many other memories, like our first gig as a quartet on May 4, 2008. I remember the sound of the band exploding on “The Jefe,” and I knew Lex had completed our little band family. My wife was 8 ½ weeks pregnant at the gig, and she went into labor about two hours later. Our daughter was born in the morning.
Who are some of your biggest influences and why?
As a songwriter, I guess I’ve been influenced by some of the records that blended jazz chords with pop song structures, like the first Style Council album, Aztec Camera’s “High Land, Hard Rain,” and everything by the unknown but absolutely amazing Los Angeles band called Downy Mildew (Charlie Baldonado is a guitar playing role model for me).
I also have to mention the current songwriter Josh Rouse. He’s not the most expressive performer, but his songs are gorgeous, personal, catchy and unique. Every time I listen to his albums, it makes me want to go sit by myself and write songs for a few hours.
You’ll notice that a lot of my songs have a little open-string, jangle guitar sound (e.g., the chorus of “Begging Bowl” or the bridge of “Shower Curtain”). That sound always makes me feel like I’m flying, and it’s become a part of my musical personality. I think I learned those chords from obsessively listening to Downy Mildew’s “Broomtree” and the first four REM albums in the 1980s. I met Peter Buck at a restaurant years later, and I got to tell him how much he influenced me as a guitarist (although I don’t think I told him I was in a band). He was truly a great guy, and he was happy to sit there talking about guitars. After a few minutes though, I became overwhelmingly nervous with the growing realization that I was truly speaking with the great Peter Buck. So I had to excuse myself from the conversation. I hope he didn’t feel rejected.
My other guitar influences are, of course, the jazz players, like Kenny Burrell, Jim Hall, the Pizzarellis, Romero Lubamba and Pat Matheny. I love writing songs that have the jazz guitar sound in some parts, contrasted with jangle-pop, open-string chords in other parts. “Begging Bowl” is the best example you can hear on our website, but one of our newest songs called “Calendar Blues” is probably even better. We haven’t recorded it yet, but I’m sure we’ll play it at the show on Saturday.
Of course, I spent a lot of years listening to the classic jazz guys (Coltrane, Miles, Charlie Haden, Bill Evans), so I hope some of that has seeped in. Even in rock guitar solos, I can’t help but swing my eighth notes a little. This is probably why I’m not a very good rock lead guitar player.
I can’t deny the influence of Bruce Springsteen my songwriting. He just has an amazing body of work, and he’s shown that a good song can say almost anything more powerfully than you could say in words without music.
I should also mention that my primary musical education probably occurred at the acoustic weekend shows at McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, California. All the performers I saw there (especially Peter Case, Charles Duncan, the Dream Syndicate, Johnette Napolitano, and John Hiatt) showed me what can be done when combining great songwriting with an effort to communicate openly with the audience. It never hurts to make people laugh between songs.
And I haven’t even mentioned Laura Nyro, Gil-Scott Heron, Radiohead, Tom Waits, Bill Withers, Marisa Monte, Jackson Brown, and lots of others who have helped shape my musical development in some way. And the most recent Jason Isbell record really is quite thrilling.
I assume your question was targeting famous musicians that I’ve listened to, but actually, my greatest musical influences have probably been non-famous friends and musical co-conspirators over the past 25 years. Scott Saul (the now-famous author of “Becoming Richard Pryor”) and Yair Reiner first introduced me to the joy of playing, rather than just listening to music, and they genuinely changed my life as a result. Ken (“Grey”) Kolevzon opened my mind to the power of truly personal and unique song-writing. And David Abbott, my old partner in musical crime, taught me so much about attending to the inner-workings of each chord, as well as the humor, fun, and pure exuberance that you can find in musical detail and a musical connection with other people.
What does 2015 hold for Brûlée?
We have lots of gigs scheduled. We are quite excited about winning the Takoma Park JazzFest Brawl last month because it earned us a coveted spot at the Takoma Park JazzFest in June. We’re really looking forward to this one.
Also, I’ve made a little more booking effort lately, so we’re excited about all the new venues we’ll be playing in 2015, like Beans in the Belfry.
We’re hoping to record again soon. We have a ton of new songs since the first CD, and we really need to get them recorded. Recording is expensive though, and we need to raise money, hopefully by selling CDs at all these upcoming shows. I’m happy for people to listen to our songs in any way they can, so it’s great when they check us out online, but we really only raise a substantial amount of money for recording when people buy the CDs (especially if they buy them in person directly from us).
And of course, the biggest occasion for this band will occur in late June when our drummer, Lex, gets married on a boat in Salzburg, Austria. The rest of the band will be there to witness the event.
And finally, what can we expect from your show at Beans in the Belfry?
I’m expecting this to be a unique show for us. Hanna (who directs the music at Beans in the Belfry) said, “We like your story and I think the best fit would be Brûlée morphed into an acoustic Americana group with somebody telling your ‘story’ and the origins for your songs to the audience, coffee house style.” So I expect we’ll do a lot more talking with the audience than we usually would. Hopefully, we’ll get nice big crowd that comes to listen.
Also, our three most recent songs (“Calendar Blues,” “Part-Time Island Girl,” “Robbie’s Song”) are my favorites. They’re not on the CD or the website, but we’ll definitely be playing these. Maybe someone could bootleg them and put them on YouTube or something like that.