On Wednesday, September 24, JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound performed a live, one-hour set in the Plaza of Chicago’s John Hancock Building during our weekly, “Summer Concert Series,” sponsored by Music Dealers and Hearn. Before the performance, I spoke with frontman and vocalist JC Brooks on the band’s history, influences, and future projects, including a new album due to be recorded this winter.
Edited interview with JC Brooks of ‘JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound’ and Zach Miller of Music Dealers
Music Dealers: I found a cool story online about how you guys got started. According to the article, your guitarist, Bill Bungeroth, posted an ad on Craigslist saying “he had a vision of a multi-racial band that made sexy and political music you could dance to”. I thought that was an interesting description. Do you feel that you’ve, as a band, achieved that goal?
JCB: Yeah, for the most part. It hasn’t always been overtly political. And as much as we talk about politics amongst ourselves, it doesn’t come out in our music in the same ratio. But at the same time, I think we have. It’s weird thinking back to the original mission and what has grown from that idea.
Music Dealers: How do you feel you’ve grown from that original vision?
JCB: I think the most major way that’s changed - for me at least; the other members might give you different answers - is that when I write for the band, I am speaking more with my personal voice. When we started, I created JC Brooks as a character, because this was going to be supplanting my work in the theater scene, and I felt I needed some way to keep it engaging and exciting for people. So I made this character and for a couple of years I kind of got caught up or consumed with writing as a character and not necessarily speaking my heart or my truth through the lyrics. I feel that I’ve gotten a lot more comfortable with sharing Jason Brooks through JC Brooks as we’ve progressed.
Music Dealers: Once you sat down with ‘Howl’ and worked in Montreal with Howard Bilerman, was there a lot of discovery in that process?
JCB: There was a lot of refining. And it was kind of a weird process. It was a little fractured. Going into the studio has always been - or at least for an album; going in to do demos or a single or anything like that is far less pressure - but when going in to do an album, I get into this mental territory of ‘making it a permanent record’ and the perfectionist in me starts to override. As a result, I don’t really enjoy being in a studio and recording an album that much. I think Howard sensed that about me, and we ended up coming up with this system. I called it fractured because for the first half of the day, I would go in, and for the first four or five hours I would work with Howard, and then the rest of the band would come in and start tracking.
Music Dealers: It definitely sounds like it worked out for you. The album is fantastic. It’s interesting how it shifted away from both of the previous ones.
JCB: Yeah, especially from some of the party/ soul stuff.
Music Dealers: Exactly. With all of those different sounds, not just from ‘Howl’ but in all of your work, and in live performances, how do you manage the various influences, genres, and sounds that comprise your music?
JCB: When we initially started, we were definitely like ‘We are doing post-punk solely,’ with influences like Otis, Wilson Pickett, Talking Heads, and Gang of Four, and we were steaming forward with that. But the more we toured, the more time we spent together, and the more music we would talk about, we found out that we love so many other things. I think that as we grew from album-to-album, we were less slavish about it sticking or it needing to sound like this thing, like this era, like these groups, and it definitely opened the doors to more synth work and —- like that. And just different playing styles. Like Bill, our guitarist, he loves Johnny Marr, and we get to hear a little bit of that in ‘Not Alone’ on ‘Howl’. I think that at this point we’ve made our bones with the whole soul thing. The Numero Group Twinight concert was kind of like our crucible for learning that style, and we felt more comfortable with exploring other genres and other styles, because, really, no one can tell us that we can’t do old soul anymore. We’ve done a lot of work in that territory, and we needed to expand the palette before that just got stale or hokey. We still nod to it in our set. Mostly, I just don’t want to be doing any one thing forever. I like something that’s growing; because if it’s not growing, it’s dead.
Music Dealers: We were talking outside a bit about how it’s nice for you guys to be back home and all. How does being a Chicago band affect your guys’ sound?
JCB: It’s hard to say, only because this is such an eclectic city for music. I know it definitely affects my writing. This is kind of a magnet for all of the freaks from the Midwest; if you don’t fit in in your small town, get your ass to Chicago. This city is drawing from such a large creative pool. You can always hear something different if you go out to a club or if you get band recommendations from friends. Anyways, I find myself being inspired, almost to a point of envy, by other bands.
Music Dealers: I was looking through your past projects, including the theater performance ‘Passing Strange’. I’m sure you’ve talked a lot about it already in previous interviews, but what was that like as an actor returning to the stage? And further, what was it like to perform it as a band?
JCB: It was awesome. It was actually one of the most perfect opportunities. When we first formed in the spring of 2007, I had just opened a production of ‘Ragtime’ and I didn’t want to have any free time, because I do stupid things with free time. So, I answered Bill’s Craigslist ad and we got together and decided to form this band. But ‘Ragtime’ was a success and got extended twice and took us through the end of August, and I was already booked for a second show right after that. Then I had a third show. Then a remount of that second show. In the first year that we were together, we got to play about two or three shows, because I was so busy with theater. After that remount of ‘Songs for a New World’ I promised the guys, ‘I’m not going to do any more theater. This is going to be my focus.’ Only because I knew that if I was going to do a show, that was two months that the guys had to sit on their thumbs. So it was really great to not only go back to theater, but also to involve them.
Music Dealers: Another quote that I found was from you, saying, “Whenever I do a show, I try to add to some frenzy,” talking about when you guys perform live. I was reading about your live performances and watching a few on YouTube. You guys seem to really perform well in live audiences when you can have that face-to-face interaction. How has having such a strong live performance ability helped you guys grow?
JCB: Well it definitely costs less for us to advertise. When they’re engaged, when they have a positive experience, people take it upon themselves to tell their friends. So it’s like watering the grass. We’re grassroots basically. God bless them. I love it when someone other than my mom can get enthusiastic about our music. So, you know, putting on a good show definitely contributes to that.
Music Dealers: Listening back through each of your albums, you all really communicate that energy of a live performance into your recordings. I was wondering: what kind of intention do you take into the recording process in order to communicate that energy through?
JCB: That I don’t know. It might just be an issue of engineering. Because, as glib as it sounds, I go in there and just sing the songs the same as I would if I were in front of a live audience. But during recording, I do have that level of perfectionism when I’m listening to the listen-back. If I’m like, ‘Ooh, I can’t stand that tone,’ I’ll go back and fix it. So I think that, in my mind, that would detract from the “live-ness” of the experience. Because live, you know, you get warts and all. So, when I’m working on something in the studio, I try to give it not too much polish, but a happy medium between being a clean, permanent record and what I know is communicating honest, in-the-moment emotion.
Music Dealers: Outside, you mentioned that you guys are going into the studio next week to work on demos for the next project. Could you talk to me a little about that?
JCB: Sure. We’re planning on recording the album itself this winter. We’re looking around at producer and studio options, but right now we just want to get a few demos because we’re still developing. There’s a song that we’re going to be playing today and it’s going to be just the third time playing it. The first time we played it, it was one way. Then, the arrangement and structure and lyrics changed the second time we played it. And now they’ve changed again. So, you know, these songs are still definitely being developed, and I think having a solid demo to take home and listen to will aid in that process. It always does. Right now, we’re just writing and figuring —- out.
Music Dealers: And what was that song called, just so I can listen for it?
JCB: That’s another thing. One person calls it something, another calls it something else. It’s either called ‘Need No Money’ or ‘Edge of Night’ or, yeah.
Music Dealers: And is the anticipated title for the album similarly up in the air, or have you decided on a title?
JCB: We’ve decided on more of a theme, but not necessarily a title yet. It’s going to be about nightlife, basically a lot of songs about dancing and —-ing.
Music Dealers: Very different compared to ‘Howl’, which seems more about heartache and -.
JCB: Yeah, and that was kind of the point. We were just like, ‘Let’s make another party album.’ We still have that catalog to pull from during our live sets. Just having something that’s a little more - or a little bit less - ironically positive. That’s definitely what we’re shooting for. I just want to get some songs out there from a genuine place. Like even on ‘Howl’, ‘Before You Die’, which started out as a song about an EMT that holds a woman’s life hostage and tries to scam a number, kind of turned into this sort of song about people losing themselves to an image or trying to be something they’re not. Between that and ‘Not Alone’, these are songs that we use to try and communicate the idea that ‘you are enough’ and whatnot. I’m always going to have some amount of preachiness on stage, so it doesn’t necessarily need to be in the songs that much. So yeah, we just want to have something fun, and then in between I’ll talk about how we need to be kind to each other and how our entire system needs to be burnt down and rebuilt from the ground up.
Music Dealers: It seems you’ve got plenty of short-term goals, what with the album in winter and the international tour through this fall. Do you have any long-term goals as a songwriter, as an artist, or as a band that you’re working towards?
JCB: Just to keep getting better at what I do. That is my goal in everything, at least in every creative pursuit that I have. I just want to keep improving. This might sound really negative, but I don’t plan too far out, because tomorrow’s not really a promise. So I’d rather just kind of live it today.
By: Zach Miller, Music Dealers