|Left to right: Ben Smith, Robert Russell, and Nick Heller. [Photo by Jay Lajoie]|
Lee Greenfeld sits down with The Brought Low's Ben Smith to discuss the band, and their stellar new EP, out now on Coextinction Records.
Roses On Your Grave: For those unfamiliar with the band, can you give us some background and history?
Ben Smith: Me and Nick were in Sweet Diesel, a '90s-era punk band who put out a few records and toured a lot. After they broke up I played with Bob in The Kill Van Kull, which was a post-hardcore band on Eyeball Records. By around 1999 I was sick of playing basements to snotty punk-rock kids and going hoarse screaming. I wanted to do a band that just fucking rocked like Humble Pie or MC5 but was also rootsy and soulful. Dean from Murphy's Law had produced the Diesel stuff and was our first bass player. Tee Pee Records put out The Brought Low, our debut in late-2001. Dean quit and Tanner from Harvey Milk filled-in until Bob joined in 2003 and he's thankfully been with us ever since. We also got a second guitarist, Kevin 11 from The Murder Junkies. We hooked up with Detroit's Small Stone Records for our second record, 2006's Right On Time. Kevin moved to Virginia right as it came out so we became a trio again. We worked with producer Andrew Schneider on 2010's Third Record, also on Small Stone, and toured to SXSW and back. And that brings us to the present and the new three-song digital EP on Coextinction Records.
ROYG: Tell us a bit about the new release and the label?
BS: Coextinction Recordings is run by Andrew Schneider, Dave and Chris from Unsane, and Jim from Fresh Kills, who was in Kill Van Kull with me and Bob. The idea is to go into Schneider's recording studio Translator Audio and record one-off EPs where bands can just be creative. They've done one a month since they launched in November 2011 and so far have done Unsane, Shrinebuilder and Citizens Arrest, among others, and will be doing Big Business and Totimoshi in the near future. For ours we wanted to cut it as live as possible, set-up all in the same room, let everything bleed together, and keep overdubs to a minimum. 95% of what you hear is what we played live. It's like a Brought Low album sampler with a fast rocker, a mid-tempo stomper and a slow weeper and we love the way it came out.
ROYG: Is there a chance that these recordings will be released on CD, or better yet, vinyl?
BS: Hopefully, yes, but right now they're only set up to do them as downloads. They're available for $2.99 for the whole EP at the Coextinction website. There's definitely a demand though for some of them to come out in hard copy, so they're looking into how they could get them out. I would love to put out either the two shorter songs on a 45 single, or put all 3 on a 10", however, vinyl costs money, so for now we'll have to wait and see.
ROYG: While your songs have a strong Southern-rock influence, being from the boroughs of NYC seems to have had am equally big influence as well. Also, while the music you play could be considered "hard-rock," you also have a lot of less obvious influences like The Who, and you've covered bands as disparate as the Small Faces and Blitz.
BS: Early on people started calling us "Brooklyn's best southern rock band," but being a kid from Queens I wasn't going to start writing songs about 'sitting on grandma's porch eating peach cobbler.' My songs are about things I've seen or people I knew growing up in the city. I think people think we sound "southern" because we combine big guitars with blues and country influences, though I do love the Allmans, Lynyrd Skynyrd and ZZ Top too, so it's not completely off base. Skynyrd are a good way to separate the men from the boys. If you don't like them, chances are you got smacked around in high school and dug Depeche Mode and if you can't see the genius of Ronnie Van Zandt as a songwriter you're an idiot. That dude is like Walt Whitman or Mark Twain, a great American. As far as the covers, we're fans of all eras of rock, from the '50s though the '60s to punk, hardcore, metal... just all of it. Initially we were reaching further back to the classic-rock stuff for inspiration but over the years I started revisiting my punk records so that's seeped into the sound.
ROYG: So would you say the city itself is your biggest lyrical inspiration, or is there anyone specific that inspires you?
BS: It's up there. You see a lot of crazy shit growing up in New York and I write about things that happened to me and my friends. I also draw a lot of inspiration from blues and country and their use of religious imagery and storytelling. Also Chuck Berry, his storytelling and the turns of phrase he uses. Lyrics need to sound cool as much as they need to mean something. It's funny, I do spend a lot of time on my lyrics but ultimately it's music and the lyrics are just a part of the whole, no more important than the bass line or the rhythm... I don't even know the lyrics to a lot of my favorite songs.
ROYG: How do you feel about the label "stoner-rock" and getting lumped in with bands that proudly fly that flag?
BS: I never really thought of us as a stoner rock band though that scene has shown us a lot of love over the years for which I am very grateful. I think around the time of the first album we fit in that scene more though now what's thought of as "stoner rock" is all the doom stuff which we have less in common with. We kept getting faster and more rock n'roll as everyone else got slower and heavier. At the last Emissions From The Monolith Festival we played, which Sunn0))) headlined, someone said "in a weekend full of Sabbath you guys were The Who," which sums it up. Also, the term itself is just kind of corny... Hell, I don't even smoke pot.
ROYG: You've always had a great guitar sound and tone; who are your biggest influences?
BS: Man, I've been waiting 20 years for someone to ask me that question! My playing is a combination of the classic rock guys with the blues guys, and then the punk guys. I learned to play listening to all those British blues-rock dudes, Mick Taylor, Jeff Beck, Clapton in The Bluesbreakers, etc. From them I started checking out the real folk blues, guys like John Lee Hooker and Hubert Sumlin, where it's about vibe and feel. And then I got into the punk rock. James Williamson, Johnny Thunders, Greg Ginn are all in the mix, their aggression and attack. I also took a lot from the Allmans and Television, so that's in there as well. My guitar tone benchmark is the AC/DC or Pete Townshend Live At Leeds sound, which is basically a high wattage amp cranked through a 4x12, still pretty clean but with the natural overdrive that comes as the tubes heat up. I've never been a big fuzz guy or into using lots of pedals, though I do like them for recording.
ROYG: Recently your old band Sweet Diesel reformed to do some shows. What was that like, and are there any future plans?
BS: It was great and lots of fun. It came about because Mark Ryan from Supertouch asked us to play their reunion show last February. We'd been talking about doing a reunion show for a couple years, but never got it together and this was finally the opportunity. Since then we've played a few more shows with friend's bands like Unsane and Live Ones. As for the future, no firm plans though if show offers come in, and they sound fun, then we'll play them. We've also talked about maybe re-recording some of the stuff off our last record which is out of print, or maybe doing a couple covers but nothing definite.
ROYG: What's next for The Brought Low?
BS: The Coextinction thing was great as it jump started the writing process for us. One of the reasons we only put out a record every four to five years, is we're busy guys with full lives, and that's how long it takes us to put together an album's worth of material. Hopefully we can keep the momentum up and get a new record written by next year. As far as shows, we're playing the Small Stone showcase at Philly Fest on September 24th, and Union Hall in November, and would like to set up some more shows around the East Coast for the fall. We're also always talking about trying to get over to Europe sometime for some shows in the future, as we have people over there who've been asking us to come over for years.
ROYG: What's been the highlight of being in The Brought Low thus far... And low-point?
BS: I suppose playing in front of 3,500 people opening for Them Crooked Vultures was a high point. We're also all really happy with the last album, Third Record, and working with Schneider, so that rates up there as well... I can't really think of any low points or maybe I can, but I don't want to talk about them. [laughs]