Three Cheers for my Morose and Grieving Pals: Thirteen Years and an Evening with Brand New

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By the time this piece runs, it will have been over a month since seeing Brand New and Modest Mouse on their stop in Detroit for their co-headlining tour across the U.S. While I thought that the buffer of being somewhat removed from the experience would help bring some clarity to writing about it, and diminish the unabashed fanboy bias, it has seems that time has had little effect. While the nature of captivation and obsession has changed, I remain as enthralled with Brand New as ever.

My introduction to Brand New came at the impressionable age of 15. My friend, Mr. Jordan Ivins (holla at yo boi!), had discussed them in passing to me among a litany of other bands. At that time in life, it was hard to keep track of all the bands Jordan listened to. He was that kid everyone seems to have in their life who was the first to be fully aware of a music scene outside of what existed on local alternative radio. I secretly made a mental list of band names written on the folder for his biology homework to check out. Among bands such of Alkaline Trio, Hot Rod Circuit, Hey Mercedes, Taking Back Sunday, and Silverstein (talk about an emo-gasm) the name Brand New slipped in the under the radar among all those claiming their own stake of my young musical palate.

Late in the summer 0f 2003, while living up to the stereotype of a teenager wasting away the end of his summer watching MTV, I happened upon a music video for the single “The Quiet Things No One Ever Knows.” Having decided that music was going to be my thing (I had come to the realization early that my athletic capabilities were severely limited), I immediately went out and bought the Deja Entendu album. I took it home eager to brag to my friends about what I had just discovered. I put in the record and started from track 1 … and it just wasn’t clicking. Maybe I just hadn’t come into my own musical taste yet. Maybe I was hung up on expecting something different. Whatever it was, I did what I had done most of my life. I’d occasionally pull out the album, listen to the one single I knew, confuse hormones for destiny, then go back to a very uncomplicated life.

Fast forward six months later. I am sitting in history class. I am the only sophomore in a class full of much older juniors who are the sure path to the middle. Among the clamor of greatly exaggerated weekend romps of the baseball team, I am waiting for the clock to strike 2:15 so I could go home and greatly exaggerate how terrible my 16-year-old life was at that point. I used to carry around a big CD binder in my backpack, the kind that held 64 or so. I would pull it out of my backpack so nonchalantly you would think I was pulling out some textbook to catch up on some light reading of creative writing. Looking for some relief before I would be allowed to escape hearing Bro A telling Bro B who they tapped that weekend, I flipped through my modest collection. I came across Deja Entendu and decided to give it another go. This time, it stuck.

There are those few moments in time where you can pinpoint where things changed course. The end of 4th period on an average Tuesday in the fall of 2003 was one such time for me. I pressed play and things would never be the same. Around the bridge of “I Will Play My Game Beneath the Spin Light is where I found myself thinking, “How the hell did they think to write lyrics like this?” By days end, I think I had listened to the album three times through. Jesse Lacey and co. had found a way to explain life to me in a way that no one else could, all while putting it to a tune. In all honesty, Jesse Lacey’s lyrics is what inspired my passion for writing. I just hope my mediocrity as writer never reflects poorly on him. Given the command of the crowd a couple weeks ago, I am confident that he has inspired much better work than my few futile attempts at being a sort of new wave muse.

As I trudged the emo-adolescent hell of high school, I could always count on Brand New to validate my over reaction to perceived heart break and devastation. Being the oldest of four children, I needed some type of guide to help me navigate the illogical landscape that is the high school experience. Brand New often took the place of that older brother that I never had. I stuck with them, they stuck with me.

When I listened to The Devil and God are Raging Inside Me, it was yet another point in time where I look back and objectively say things changed for me. While the examination and reflection on coming home from a Mormon mission is another discussion for another time, the theme and feel of The Devil and God were far deeper than I had ever expected and again gave sound and voice to something very personal I was wrestling with. Up to that point, Brand New represented the angst, frustration, and humorous mellow drama of the coming-of-age experience. The Devil and God brought up themes that many of us, especially those who grew up is strong faith-oriented communities, are reluctant or even ashamed to discuss. It described that aspect of the human condition which I had never heard a band or artist even venture into attempting to describe. It also touched on some type of conflict happening within myself, realizing the full weight of the album’s departing line: “It’s hard to be a better man when you forget you’re trying / It’s hard to be a better man when you’re still lying….” I found it fascinating that the booklet that came with the album contained no lyrics. There was very little direction or context given to what the songs were trying to drive home. In retrospect, that may have been their way of giving us the album in it’s purest form. No pretext or prose as to what song meant, just creating music that had the ability to take on a life of its own after they eventually walk away from it. At least once a year, I still take the time to sit down somewhere quiet and listen to the whole album, beginning to end. I do so to appreciate how far I have come in confronting whatever badness might exist within me. It also makes me realize just how far I still have to go.

Just as Brand New was a guiding voice for me during those trivial teenage years, they remained a constant as I wandered and stumbled my way into adulthood. I hear people talk about how their favorite artist seem to grow with them over time, as if the band is reacting the growth of the listener. For me, I would say I grew with Brand New. Shedding the mellow drama to dig deeper into examining one’s soul, it prompted a multitude of questions which I realized I had to answer, or at the very least contemplate, about myself. It’s what drives the craze of my anticipation for new music from them. It sets the stage for the questions I need to start asking myself. Much like that older sibling, a part of who I am is made up from the perspective they have shared. While I am still relatively young, I have lived enough of life to know that those who mold your life the most are those who guide you to ask the important questions, not a list of prescriptive anecdotes. For me, Brand New has provided many of those questions.

Fast forward to a month ago. My wife and I are taking a two-hour drive down to Detroit for what will certainly be the highlight of my summer. This is also the first time I will get to experience a Brand New show with my wife by my side. Up to this point, it has always been hard to entirely communicate to her the experience of seeing them live and translating that into how formative they have been in my life. I am hoping that tonight provides that context. As I am driving, I realize that around this time ten years ago was my first time seeing Brand New live. Nostalgia fills my mind as I mentally cycle through my favorite snippets of that experience. That first concert I ended up attending solo. This concert I am attending with my wife. In a weird way, it feels like a completion, the coming of a full circle.

So much about me has changed in those ten years since I sweated in the summer sun to experience a condensed two-hour version of my teenage life. In a lot of ways, I wonder what my 18-year-old self would think. I wanted to work in the music industry; I ended up majoring in business and moving onto grad school (I’m such a sell-out). I got married (I was as shocked as anyone). I couldn’t have been more uninterested in sports, now I will watch just about anything that comes on ESPN (what the hell happened to me?). Most days I wear khakis, not jeans (…look at you). I traded in my array of band hoodies for a baseball hat collection (…unbelievable). However, when I am honest with myself, there are a multitude of things that haven’t changed. I still am as over-analytic as ever, I tend to overreact when misfortune falls upon me, I still order the bacon breakfast burrito at Betos, and the awe which is created inside me when I listen to Brand New hasn’t changed.

The show starts off with a solid set from Modest Mouse. While I have always enjoyed their music, I am pained with some regret as most of their set is over my head due to the fact I never devoted a lot of attention to their albums. I really just wanted to hear “3rd Planet,” “Trailer Trash,” “Ocean Breathes Salty,” and “Custom Concern” (kind of a stretch). I went zero for four on my wish list. You win some, you lose some. In between sets I sit nervously with my wife, wondering if the guy next to me paid $40 bucks to come in here and chain smoke. At least have the decency to vape like the rest of these morons around us. I start refining my mental list of what I hope to hear, then they hit the lights and the things I was hoping for become irrelevant…

As Jesse, Vinny, Garrett, and Brian take the stage, it has the feel of running into an old friend. I am the kind of person that gets excited about running into people I haven’t seen in ages and catching up on everything and enjoying a laugh like old times. In many ways, that is exactly what is happening. I haven’t seen these guys in almost 4 years, and I just want to hear what they have been up to. The set starts off with “Sink.” I can’t think of a better song to start with. As Jesse launches into the first chorus, you start to get the sense that this isn’t just any set. Something else is happening here.

As they continue to play, I start to realize that this set list is entirely built around what they want to play. Rather than playing the fan favorites, they were playing their own favorites. The set has perfect ebb and flow, with hardly any break or chatter in between songs. As Jesse is swooning on “The Boy Who Blocked His Own Shot,” I come to the conclusion that this might be one of my all time favorite songs heard live. As I sit back and soak in the experience, my wife is splitting her attention between the stage and the memorized look on my face. In this moment, she all of a sudden knows me at every age. She is seeing me at 15, 17, 19, 22 and so on. I think she finally gets it.

The most intimate moment of the set comes during “Limousine.” After the line, “In the choir I saw a sad messiah / He was bored and tired of my laments / He said I died for you one time but never again / never again / never again,” Jesse just keeps screaming, “Never again….” He probably only repeated it five times but it felt like a statement in itself. Over the years, everyone has commented on Jesse Lacey and his reservation when it comes to wearing his heart of his sleeve. He never gave into the calls for explaining himself or his art. He just created it and left it to us to figure it out. In this moment, I am realizing he always was sharing the most honest part of himself. He is laying it all out there on the stage. Tonight he is being paid to spill his guts, and he is holding up his end of the bargain.

Each song feels like you’ve lived a year in their shoes but the set seems to be over all too soon. I had the list of songs that I was hoping to hear but by the end of the set that wishlist is as forgotten as a high school crush (you know who you are … and my apologies for the melodrama). I couldn’t have asked for anything more honest and pure from them.  As the end of the encore nears, they transition into “You Won’t Know.” As soon as the intro drops into the first verse, at the moment when the song explodes into a fury of exorcism, the thought crosses my mind, “This could be it.” At first I feel like I am realizing that this is the end of the show, but as the song keeps going and the energy exuding from the stage keeps rising, I realize that thought, in it’s entirety: “This really might be it. This might be goodbye.”

The outro to that song may have gone on an additional five minutes. It delved into an artistic display of chaos, the kind that alludes to the dark themes of human experience. Maybe I was alone in sensing this, but it felt like this was the final exorcism of Brand New. They fought off the demons. They fought the good fight. They finally saw it through to the other side. It was finished.

When I was 23, I entered into one of the darkest times in my life. While in the process of taking apart my head and the demons up in the attic of my consciousness, I started a blog. While the writing was incoherent and overly dramatic, at times it was the only way I could express what was going on to those who couldn’t understand. It took close to a year to get back on my feet, both literally and figuratively, and through the whole process I just wrote. I was writing because there was still some void that needed to be filled.  I published pretty consistently on my blog, trying to make it a thing among the million of Mormon-mommy blogs that were advertising a staged reality. While there was certainly vanity in some of my writing, the main focus behind it was the struggle of just trying to figure things out. Then one Wednesday, I ran into Kennan Hamblin (who now is my wife) at a little burrito place and I didn’t need to write anymore. The void was filled. I had found the home I looking for. I figured it out. I put the pen down and moved on.

While I don’t know any of the guys in Brand New personally, I wonder if that is the point they have reached. Whatever void that had existed for them, either individually or collectively, has been filled. They let us in on the experience of them figuring it out and now, there is nothing new to talk about. They are going out on their terms, and no matter what anyone says, they are still the kings. They created something that will continue on long after they disappear. I can’t do anything but be grateful to them for letting me in on what was going on inside themselves.

Who knows, this all may be a bluff. This ode to Brand New may be ten years too early. There has never been an act as cryptic as these boys from Long Island. But, if this is really it, I would be remiss if I didn’t spell out what this band has meant to me over the years. So Jesse, Vinny, Garret, and Brian, whatever awaits you guys individually or collectively, I wish for nothing but the best. Keep the blood in your head and your feet on the ground. And if it’s any consolation, your words were never wasted on lower cases and capitals, at least to me. Your noise made sense. Thank you for that.

 

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