Interview: Brakes

With a second album, The Beatific Visions, in stores on Monday, Brighton's favourite country-punkers Brakes are back with a vengence, including a recent show at Kilburn's The Luminaire. Chimpomatic caught up with front man Eamon Hamilton to talk about recording in Nashville, South By South West and David Niven... amongst other things.

Chimpomatic: Tell us a bit about your history and how you got together - where do British Sea Power and The Electric Soft Parade fit in to all this?

Eamon Hamilton: Brakes started in the autumn of 2002, in Power’s Bar in Brighton. I was supporting The Lonesome Organist there, playing a fifteen-minute acoustic set. After the gig, Tom, Alex and I were discussing how the songs needed a band - they offered their talents, and we drunkenly coerced Marc Beatty, who was playing with The Tenderfoot, into playing bass. From the first few minutes in a rehearsal room, we realised it was pretty special. A couple of months later, British Sea Power asked if I wanted to play keyboards for them live, and I said yes. Brakes tried to play whenever we got the chance, which wasn’t that often.

Chimpomatic: With new album The Beatific Visions, you seem like a much more permanent full-time band. Are the The Electric Soft Parade on the back burner for now?

Eamon Hamilton: No, not at all. ESP have just done a tour of the UK and recorded their third album (currently being mixed) which will be released early next year on Truck Records.

Chimpomatic: Much more than Electric Soft Parade or British Sea Power, Brakes have a very American sound – only occasionally punctuated with extreme Englishness. Was it a conscious decision to go in that direction, or is it a reaction to your previous bands?

Eamon Hamilton: It’s neither of those. I’m Canadian (I didn’t get British citizenship until I was 18), but I had my Canadian accent kicked out of me at secondary school. Maybe it’s a reaction to the refusal of my English schoolmates to accept difference in others, punctuated by a need for acceptance by my English peers, but it’s by no means a reaction to other English bands. My parent’s records were mostly North American - Leadbelly, Little Richard, Humphrey and the Dumptrucks, Doo Wop, Leonard Cohen, Gorden Lightfoot, which were obviously an influence on my young self.

Chimpomatic: I see a certain parallel between Brakes and The Broken Family Band in the way that Englishness is so successfully masked by a very American sound. What do the Americans think of you?

Eamon Hamilton: We played ‘Jackson’ in Grimey’s Basement in Nashville and after the gig a big Tennessee man put his arm around me and said ‘Boy, it takes a lot of balls to play a Johnny Cash song in Nashville, but you guys nailed it.’ We got them dancing and whooping, it was great. You get all ages at gigs in America, it’s not so demographically separated there, and shit do they go wild when you play well. We’ve sold out every gig we’ve played in New York so far, and the gigs in Texas we did went down really well, so it seems like they like us. They even like our song ‘Cheney’.

Chimpomatic: The recording story of The Beatific Visions reads like a History Of Rock documentary - from recording in studios graced by Elvis with Stuart Sykes of Cat Power and White Stripes fame to having it mixed in Radiohead's studio then mastered by Neil Young's engineer, not to mention the Nashville session musicians. What do you feel about the footsteps you are treading in?

Eamon Hamilton: Well, we must’ve been doing something right, we had all these legendary musicians actively wanting to help us out. We got David Briggs, who owned the studio and has played with everyone from Sammy Davis Jr to Elvis, to put down some barrel house piano on our song ‘If I Should Die’; “It’s a good song,” he said. Later on, our engineer Adam told us that it was the first time he’d played on a record for three years. It’s pretty flattering having people like that tell you you’re writing good songs, more flattering than any review could be.

Chimpomatic: What prompted you to move out to Nashville to record the album?

Eamon Hamilton: We’d struck up a friendship with Stuart Sykes at South By Southwest, recording a demo of Cease and Desist with him whilst we were there, and wanted to work with him. With the strength of the pound against the dollar, it worked out cheaper, even with flights, to do the album in the USA, and we settled on Nashville. Seth Riddle, Cerys Mathew’s husband and a good friend of Stuart’s, helped us find a place to live and offered us some good Southern hospitality.

Chimpomatic: At your recent live show at The Luminaire you played Porcupine or Pineapple and introduced it by saying you had recently visited Nashville and this is one of the songs you recorded there. The non-Nashville nature of this song in-particular made me wonder how you were received out there. It is an area steeped in tradition so to record the new album there must have raised a few eyebrows.

Eamon Hamilton: There’s a big underground music scene there- Be Your Own Pet, Kings Of Leon, Lambchop, loads of local bands, it’s not all soulless new country rubbish. The gigs we played went down amazingly. The southerners know how to let go.

Chimpomatic: You run a pretty tight ship on stage but still manage to keep a spontaneous energy. How important is playing live for developing your sound?

Eamon Hamilton: We’ve played live most of this year, and it has tightened us up. We know the boundaries of the songs now, so we can push them and pull them around a bit depending on how we feel.

Chimpomatic: Does the recording process have a similar urgency and immediacy as the live show or is it much more considered - and was it different for each album?

Eamon Hamilton: We record live straight on to tape, which gives it that human energy. The difference in recording was that we had only five days to record the first one, but we had two weeks to record the second, so we could try a whole lot more takes until we hit the one we were happy with.

Chimpomatic: How are song-writing duties split on the Brakes albums? With these other projects going on it must be hard to work together for long periods.

Eamon Hamilton: We’ve always been instinctive with each other, and some times, songs come out when we’re playing together. Other times, I’ll take a song to Tom, Alex and Marc and watch as they tear it apart and rearrange it. We split the royalties 25%.

Chimpomatic: Both albums seem to span many genres of music. What are some of your main influences?

Eamon Hamilton: Big Bill Broonzy, Hank Williams, Sarah Records, Teenage Fanclub, Sunn O))), Yo La Tengo, Trojan Records, Kent Records, Jeffrey Lewis, Vee Jay Records, Dr Dog, John Cale, Sex Pistols, The Lilac Time, Art Brut, Broken Social Scene. Is this sounding a bit like ‘myspace’?

Chimpomatic: There are less 30 second songs on The Beatific Visions, but it still clocks in at 28 minutes. Are you drifting towards a more standard song format or is the short, sharp punk format something you want to explore some more?

Eamon Hamilton: It’s hard to know where you’re drifting to when you’re on a raft. We’ll just let the sea take us to whever it will and keep finding new ways to cook fish.

Chimpomatic: Heard About Your Band really sums up the current music/fashion/celebrity name dropping culture we live in and how anyone can be in band now. Is it hypothetical, or based on a certain person and what do you think about the music scene at the moment?

Eamon Hamilton: It was based on a real encounter, whilst watching Yeah Yeah Yeahs, McClusky and Liars at the Garage in London. The song’s lyrics are pretty much word for word what he shouted at me. There seem to be hundreds of bands around at the moment, but quantity doesn’t always mean quality.

Chimpomatic: How easy was it to get permission to record Johnny Cash's Jackson?

Eamon Hamilton: We just did it. Any royalties go straight to his estate.

Chimpomatic: What did you think of the Walk The Line movie?

Eamon Hamilton: I liked seeing how they toured and played in those days, no monitors and just vocal P.A.s.

Chimpomatic: You’ve toured extensively before and after your first record. Who are some of the bands you’ve enjoyed playing with?

Eamon Hamilton: Belle and Sebastion were great, their rhythm section are party monsters. Editors were really fun, they dressed up as pantomime horses and clopped on stage whilst we were playing ‘NY Pie’ in Birmingham.

Chimpomatic: How was the SXSW festival?

Eamon Hamilton: We gigged every day! It was great, it’s warm and there is a massive buzz all over the city. There’s a bar called Maggie Mays on the main strip which has a great roof top terrace, we hung out there mostly.

Chimpomatic: Who are some of the young upcoming bands that you have caught your attention?

Eamon Hamilton: There’s a Montreal band called Pony Up who’re very good. Misty’s Big Adventure. Blood Red Shoes.

Chimpomatic: The Beatific Visions is looking like a favourite album of ours for 2006, along with Tapes ‘n Tapes, Band of Horses, Yo La Tengo and The Early Years. What albums have worked for you over the last year?

Eamon Hamilton: My favourites so far:
Lets Get Out Of this Country by Camera Obscura
The Greatest by Cat Power

Pop Quiz:
Chimpomatic: What are some of your all-time favourite albums?

Eamon Hamilton:
Dusty In Memphis - Dusty Springfield
Psychocandy - Jesus and Mary chain
Blood On The Tracks - Bob Dylan

Chimpomatic: What song do you wish you had written?

Eamon Hamilton: Yesterday by the Beatles - I’d be minted.

Chimpomatic: Brighton or Nashville?

Eamon Hamilton: Nashville was like a dream come true - swapping riffs and chords with other musicians on porches in the warm evening light, rocking in rocking chairs and watching fireflies buzz about. Brighton’s home though, and it’s a great city.

Chimpomatic: Nashville or Short Cuts?

Eamon Hamilton: These are Robert Altman films aren’t they? I haven’t seen either. But my favourite film is A Matter Of Life And Death.

Chimpomatic: Mods or Rockers?

Eamon Hamilton: Mods had better clothes, rockers had better bikes. I don’t know.

Chimpomatic: Black Flag or the Sex Pistols?

Eamon Hamilton: Never Mind The Bollocks was the first album I bought, so I’ll go with them.


Rough Trade
Chimpomatic Review: The Beatific Visions
Chimpomatic Review: Lumiere, London
Chimpomatic Review: Give Blood



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