The government is shut down. Republicans are spitting at Democrats. And Trump is probably running off to one of his most expensive properties as his way of displacing blame. Somehow, he still managed to make the Women’s March all about him. Meanwhile, art is becoming ever critical to exposing the truth; protest music is especially important these days. Like many singers, songwriters and musicians frustrated over the 2016 election and Russian meddling in our everyday lives, Brendan Hines channeled his outrage into song. “President Roulette,” which opens his latest studio record, Qualms, his first in five years, bounds with a leap, scratchy guitars and crashing drums clobbering the brain. “We deserve everything we’re going to get,” Hines labors, his voice dripping with understated malice. “Every promise was a lie.”
Written with David Poe (Regina Spektor) the morning after the election, the song was originally “far more disgusted and hateful,” Hines tells B-Sides & Badlands. “We toned it down a little bit. I had no intention of putting in on the record until the band poured gasoline all over that song and lit it up, and that’s what you hear on the album.”
The majority of the new record, often gritty and unrelenting (“Average Is,” “New Hat”), other times solemn and introspective (“Math,” “Out of Town”), was produced by Al Sgro (who has composed for such TV shows as Rush Hour and Cougar Town) and engineered by Marshall Craigmyle (inside Dan Joeright’s converted barn recording studio called Gatos Trail in Joshua Tree) and is anchored with a swath of talented players, including Chris Barnett (keyboards) and Jonathan Flaugher (bass). Poe and Hines also play guitars throughout. “There was a distinct sense of urgency to that session. These chamber folk arrangements we had rehearsed became big drums, rude guitars, cranked amplifiers,” Hines remembers.
“I rewrote a lot of the lyrics and tweaked the songs in the desert to make them more relevant to what we were all feeling right then. The songs took on this recurring theme of a deeply malevolent force capable of rendering decent people powerless, which, of course, is what Trump and his supporters endeavor to be,” he continues, chronicling the album’s crushing forlorn undercurrents. Admittedly, the album doesn’t stand nearly as tall as “the work of heroes of protest music like [Woody] Guthrie, [Pete] Seeger, [Billy] Bragg or Neil Young,” he says, “but it’s our exhortation to the like-minded majority to resist and endure.”
“You bite your tongue / And we’ll bite the bullet / The canary is a talkative bird,” Hines attacks in “Minus the Facts,” dangerously walking a tightrope between downplayed contemplation and combustible indignation, which later comes to a boiling head by the bridge. That uncontrollable fury, however, almost cost them those initial recording sessions. “I almost cancelled the whole session after the election because at the time, recording an album seemed self-indulgent or irrelevant,” Hines says. “All six of us were pissed and shocked. But once we got to the desert we just started playing the song ‘Average Is.’ I sang some improvised new lyrics, and it was suddenly louder, angrier. We decided to lean into every song like that.”
Qualms also extensively investigates death, rooted in Hines’ own fascinations. “I think about death a lot. Not in a morbid way. I think about the way we talk about people after they die and how or if it changes over time,” he says. “Everyone has a legacy. Some are grander and more universally-known than others, but everyone leaves memories and creates work they leave behind that serves to define and defend them after they no longer can. The holes they leave tell stories, too.”
His curiosity is buried in heartbreaking experiences. “I never met either of my grandfathers. My father died unexpectedly eight and a half years ago while I was out of the country. Apart from my family, two of the most important and defining friendships of my life were with friends who died very young. Both of them killed themselves,” he describes. In stark album cut “Math,” this grim focus is crystal clear. “That’s everybody who’s going to cry when you’re dead,” he croons, laying out life and our relationships, both good and bad, like some macabre math problem. “When all’s said and done, only their eyes will be wet and red / Were you worth the money, the time, the pain and the song?”
He continues to explain death’s role, saying, “So, for at least half of my life, I have been thinking about that particular kind of death and that degree of despair. Telling stories is a way to understand them and remember them. I sneak references to all of them into songs that aren’t necessarily about them just to keep them around and introduce them to people without them knowing it.”
Every artist’s output is an existential manifesto, of sorts. “Recording a particular performance or version of a song means that, ideally, it will live on after you die. If I were about to die and had only written songs about parties and happiness and dancing, I would be so pissed at myself,” he says.
Below, Hines (currently staring in Amazon’s The Tick) discusses the influence of Joshua Tree, time’s impact on recording and getting the songs just right.
What role did the environment of Joshua Tree play in the music?
We had no neighbors we could see or hear. The cell service was not good, and we had a really good reason to avoid the day-to-day news cycle. I asked the band and our engineer to refrain from talking about the news, although, of course, that wasn’t completely possible. But we were able to isolate and focus solely on recording for days. Wake up, eat, record all day, open multiple bottles of wine, make a fire, bullshit and go back to recording well into the night. We were there during a supermoon, which was pretty to look at and, according to some people, may have also had some unquantifiable effect on our behavior.
How did time affect the recordings or your approach?
It defined the process completely. We only had three days to get everything we wanted. We had barely rehearsed before arriving in the desert and a bunch of the songs were unfinished, lyrically-speaking. It was hurried, but not frantic. We thought we’d come out of the weekend with four songs but we ended up leaving with nine.
Five years separated your previous album Small Mistakes and this one. What was your personal journey between those two points?
I was lucky enough to be working on various TV shows pretty steadily in that time. But that meant lots of traveling to other cities and spending weeks and months away from home. So, I was writing quite a bit but unable to find time to record anything, which has both benefits and drawbacks. I think I got better at revising and being more selective about what I wanted to say, but a handful of songs probably got lost along the way. If songs don’t find their way into a demo or a live set, they eventually evaporate, and it’s only when I start going through old notebooks and voice memos that I can resurrect them and see if they still have anything worthwhile to say.
What led you back to making music?
I missed playing live for strangers. It’s the same reason I love doing theater, but there are huge gaps of time when I just can’t afford to do it. I never stopped writing or playing out, but I finally had a little chunk of time to record before I began shooting ‘The Tick.’ I love playing live for new people, but I don’t get to do it much outside of Los Angeles or New York, so I hoped that recording some new songs could eventually lead to more touring.
You’ve described the album as a rock ‘n roll album, but there is plenty of Americana flourishes to be had. Were you aware of how diverse the music ended up?
I suppose it’s Americana, because I’m American, and I definitely write verse/chorus story songs. I’m not technically great as a singer, but in the classic folk tradition that’s not supposed to be the point. For me, it’s a rock album (at least “Side A” is) because there are drums and electric guitar, and I wrote the songs on guitar. Also, the faces that Jonny Flaugher makes when he’s playing bass tell you that it’s rock. I have a problem when it comes to describing my songs, not because they’re particularly unclassifiable but because as someone who has been pretty infatuated with music my whole life, I don’t think in terms of genre. I’m pretty binary about it: good music and bad music. But bad music has its place and good music can be downright unbearable.
Did you have concrete ambitions about what you wanted to do on this album, musically?
I can tell you what I didn’t want: I specifically wanted to avoid having it sound too much like my previous two records, hence the live band. But ultimately I wanted it to feel to people the way it felt to us in the room that weekend. It didn’t feel like a time to get quiet and introspective, but instead to alert others and scream and shout until you find allies.
Do you find any of your musical heroes were reflected on this collection?
I don’t sound particularly like any of them, but a few things that I would be honored to be accused of stealing from certain heroes would be: early [Elvis] Costello’s anger and love of pithy insulting couplets; [Tom] Waits’ unlovely lovely voice; [John] Prine’s heartbreaking simplicity; The Pogues’ storytelling and charm; Fats Waller’s humor and insouciance; and Billy Bragg’s guitar and politics.
“Minus the Facts” is one of the album’s darker, more brooding moments. What is the backstory there?
That was originally a song about temptation and blackmail that I started writing one night in New York before waking up with an unbearable hangover and an embarrassing flood of memories from the night before. It went through a bunch of permutations over a few years and finally, the day we were recording it, I started changing the feminine pronouns to masculine ones, and it suddenly felt as if it was about buyers remorse and applicable to either an object of desire or a scummy presidential candidate. Also, I’m a big Bee Gees fan, and they seem to have major 7 chords in all their songs. I had somehow never used one in a song, so I threw a Cmaj7 in there, and it makes me happy still.
“Math” is likewise such an honest, raw performance. Was there ever any difficulty getting this recording just right? Or any of the songs on the album for that matter?
When I first wrote “Math,” I used to play it in 3/4 time, which works with my default solo Irish drinking song bard sorts of performances. The band got a hold of it, and they made the very intuitive and helpful choice to play it in 4/4, which freed me up to take a little more time, vocally. I actually had to record the vocals to this song a couple of weeks later because my voice was absolutely ragged from the desert, the wine, the campfires and the loud rockers we very intelligently started the weekend off with.
What things did you learn about yourself, the president and music through writing and recording this record?
I learned nothing about the president because there is nothing to learn about the president. He’s the same insecure, malevolent, racist child everyone always knew him to be. We have always known everything we need to know about that person and his cohorts. With regard to myself and music, I was grateful to be reminded that I was incredibly privileged. To be able to escape the aftermath of the election for three days with five close friends who also happen to be great songwriters, musicians, producers and humans was a real gift, and the only thing better than that is getting the songs into the ears of people who dig them.
How do you think you’ve changed through this album?
Every time I’ve made a record, I’ve learned so much. I try to get better. To some extent, I think I’m making them just as an intensive way to learn and improve. These recordings were defined by a specific time ⎯⎯ a bad one. That time will soon pass, but the songs will hang around.