Asbury Park’s own Brick+Mortar have quickly risen from scene juggernauts to major label players on the rise, marrying a effortless pop sensibility to a dynamite, genre-hopping, two-man set up, exploding stages across the country with an unforgettable live show, and a heavy, layered sound that seems to speak to anyone with a pulse. If you haven’t heard/seen them yet, please remedy that at your nearest convenience.
Pop-Break’s Jason Kundrath spoke with singer/bassist Brandon Asraf last month, and got an unguarded peek inside the head of the talented frontman, discussing the band’s past, present, and future, as well as touching on such diverse topics as musical monogamy, 90’s R&B, and gun violence. Along the way, Asraf gets some bad advice on what to eat for dinner. Overall, it’s a fascinating portrait of a man who’s band could be a household name over the next few years.
Pop-Break: Your band manages to whip up an astounding level of energy on stage for only two people. How long did it take the two of you to develop your sound and your live show?
Brandon Asraf: I’ve never been in a band with anyone else. I’ve only been in a band with [John] Tacon. We started playing when we were 14. We’re 28 now, so a really long time. [laughs]. But originally we were just instrumental. We didn’t sing or anything. The onstage presence thing is something we only became aware of a couple years ago. We just realized that if you’re not giving 150% to the audience, you’re ripping them off a little bit. I think that if you’re playing music, you gotta provide some sort of a show. It doesn’t have to be something big and fake, it can just be an extension of who you are in the song and why you wrote it. Just bring that to the live show. We decided we had to step that up and start really performing the shows and not just play the songs.
PB: And speaking of your shows, you’ve done the most extensive touring of your career this year, and played to some of your biggest crowds. How has that experience affected you as an artist? Has your show had to change with the crowds?
BA: Well yeah. We’ve had to figure out that what works for a small club doesn’t work for a big, open area. You kinda have to figure out what to do in each situation and apply that by ear while you’re playing. Because each crowd’s a little bit different, so you have to be able to interact with them and make each show special. But it can’t be forced, y’know? So you kinda have to read your surroundings and make sure certain things can work. So all the shows we’ve played have definitely taught us how to play in front of all kinds of crowds, not just one type.
PB: Have you been able to connect with the larger crowds in a similar way to the smaller ones?
BA: Oh yeah definitely. Everything’s just gotta be bigger when everything’s bigger. You can’t just put your hands in the air. Your hand’s gotta be all the way up in the air. [laughs]
PB: You guys completely pour yourself into every performance, and somehow you manage to capture that energy on record. Is that a challenge to achieve without an audience with you in the studio?
BA: Yes. It’s hard to do that. I mean, I think we’ve come close to doing it. I think we’ll do it one day, but I don’t think we’ve done it yet. We’ve come close though, but it is hard. [Playing] live is the most exciting part just because its interaction. When you’re making a record in the studio, it’s a collaboration with people, but it’s not as much of an interaction because you’re all on the same team. With a show, it’s like two different things: the band and the audience. You play these songs and come to a common ground.
PB: You just wrapped up recording the follow-up to the Bangs EP. Who were you working with in the studio, and what can we expect from the new record?
BA: There are two producers – Shep Goodman and Aaron Aceta – who we’ve been working with. Basically [people can expect] big songs . We’ve had a couple of songs that we’ve wanted to do for awhile that ended up on there. And a bunch of new ones, too. It’s going to be – hopefully – just a bunch of good songs. We’re trying to provide a little bit of everything. People can expect big songs. Pretty much we just tried to make the best group of songs that we could, because we’ve never really made an album before. We’re a young band, as far as that goes. We’ve been playing together forever, but we just figured out how to be a band and write songs two EP’s ago. [laughs] So we’re excited.
PB: Speaking of your songs, I personally love the fact that you have such a unique and inventive sound that draws on different genres, but at the same time there’s this ear-pleasing, hooky element that runs through everything that’s really, unmistakably pop. Is it fair to say you have an appreciation for pop music?
BA: Yeah. Growing up, I wasn’t in a bunch of bands, and I didn’t play tons and tons of shows. It wasn’t like I even grew up in the scene seeing shows. I was kinda in my own bubble, and I listened to pop music when I was young. I had a TLC record. [laughs] John was really the one when I was young who was listening to metal and all this stuff and then showing me. He was a hardcore kid when we were younger. And I started getting into all kinds of stuff when I got older, but really I never sat home and listened to my favorite records on repeat. I started playing because John said, “Hey, you should play bass.” And I just started playing. Then we started writing instrumental songs. Everything went from there. So I didn’t really have that kind of chip on my shoulder. We could kinda do whatever we wanted. Pop didn’t feel like a bad thing.
PB: Would you ever consider writing for other artists?
BA: I don’t think so. Me right now wouldn’t. Maybe me-in-ten-years would. I think I have a lot of songs to write for myself. Although I do write some silly shit sometimes in my house, when I’m like feeding my dog, or I’m stoned, walking around my house doing chores. I will sing some stupid shit that I don’t think I’d ever put on a Brick+Mortar record that I”m like, “Yeah, I could sell this to Sean Kingston or something.” Yeah. Maybe I should do that. [laughs] So maybe. Maybe I’ll sell a jingle. [laughs]
PB: You’re a talented visual artist as well as a musician, and you’ve managed to integrate those two passions on album covers and t-shirts…
BA: [interrupting] Well I’m just somebody who goes, “Hey, friend-of-mine-who-I-think’s-totally-talented, can you help me do this?” I’m not really responsible for how cool everything looks. I’m just smart enough to ask people for help. Just so you know.
PB: So am I mistaken that you’ve contributed original artwork to the project? Do you do visual art?
BA: I don’t do visual art. The cover is Richie Brown. Since the beginning we’ve been working with this artist. He’s a local artist from New Jersey. We just incorporate his stuff into everything. That’s what we’ve done. And what we do is that we try to create a community of people who are good at specific niches. Like, “this guy’s good at video, this guy’s good at artwork, or painting, or making actual, physical props and whatnot.” And we usually use the same people for everything that we do. [Brown] is a person we use. And our music video was actually made by our group of friends that we grew up with that have their own production company.
PB: What’s the name of the production company?
BA: They don’t actually have a name right now. They just made the “Bangs” video, and didn’t make a name yet. They’ll have a name before the next video that we’re doing.
PB: So the Bangs EP was distributed by an imprint through Island / Def Jam. (Photo Finish Records) What does being on a major label mean today for you guys?
BA: It just means that there’s like a couple more opportunities that you didn’t have before, but still doing a lot of stuff yourself. We’re still as hands-on as we were before, but you just have to give up some of that control and trust that other people are gonna do a good job. We’re happy with where we’re at right now. It’s hard, though. It’s a hard industry right now. People don’t sell records like they used to sell records. I mean, people are gonna steal records from me. I don’t care. But in my opinion, if you download my song, maybe you’ll come to my show. I don’t know. I can’t stop anybody.
PB: You mentioned that you and John have been playing together since you’re early teens. Do you consider each other best friends as well as collaborators?
BA: Oh yeah. For sure. Best friends to the fullest. We hate each other. It’s great. [laughs] I don’t know. I could get in a fight with John [pauses] We could say whatever [pauses] We could probably shoot each other, and then heal, and be like, “alright, let’s go do this tour.” [laughs]
PB: That’s pretty intense.
BA: I think that would happen. Nobody else. I would never do it again. I can tell you that much. Only once, man! [laughs] If me and John ever break up, or like kill each other, or one of us died or something, the next guy? He’s not getting my heart. Only once, man! [laughs]
PB: Real traditional. I like it.
BA: Yeah, I’m a monogamist. [laughs]
PB: Musically monogamist. Let’s see. What else did I want to ask you?
BA: Should we go to Outback Steakhouse?
PB: Is that what I wanted to ask you?
BA: I’m asking you. We were going to eat healthy, but would you go, if you were me? Or should I just continue to eat salads?
PB: No, you should definitely, definitely treat yourself to a steak. At Outback.
BA: Treat myself to steak? Alright. Okay, so that’s what we’re gonna do.
PB: Do it. Do it up. How long will you be out for this tour? [Editorial Note: At the time of the interview, Brick+Mortar was on Anthony Green’s Young Legs Tour]
BA: About a month.
PB: How are you traveling? You have a van assumably?
BA: We got a fuckin’ Santa Fe, man. With all of our stuff.
PB: There’s a very efficient dynamic with a two-piece band. Would you ever consider adding another person to the lineup?
BA: Maybe. We’re not against it; we’re just not ready for it right now.
PB: How’d you get hooked up with [producers] Shep Goodman and Aaron Acetta?
BA: We were working with a bunch of different producers. The label was like, “do a song with this guy, do a song with that guy.” So we did a song with a few different people, and the one that we did [with Goodman and Acetta] came out really well. And we just decided to do a bunch with them.
PB: Did you all write together? Or did you have the songs worked out before going into the studio?
BA: For most of it we pretty much have the skeleton done and the gist of what the song’s gonna be, and then we make everything bigger with them when we go in there. But one [song] recently, we did differently where we did it from scratch. It was kinda cool. We like to try everything. I usually do things hands-on, totally by myself, but as an artist I also want to see what’s it like. Like, alright, since I’ve always been in a bubble with John, new experiences are good. Or you’re just gonna stay the same.
PB: So you’re monogamists, but you also have elements of an open relationship.
BA: Pretty much. Well I just love John. He’s my best friend, y’know? I don’t think I’d ever argue with somebody like I argue with John. Because we started out. We’ve seen each other. It’s not like meeting some guy where there’s a mutual respect, like, you’re a musician, he’s a musician, you’re gonna talk to each other. Me and John just say mean shit if we’re mad.
BA: You know what I’m saying? Because we’ve known each other for too long. But as a band, though, we don’t want to fuck ourselves and not be open to change and not be open to challenge. If you feel weird doing something, it’s probably a good idea to try doing it musically.
PB: Who do you see as contemporaries? Are there other artists who you see as kindred spirits in a sense?
BA: A lot of stuff that’s coming out right now makes you feel the same way as us. Like Lorde. Just how it’s weird. You’re like, “Is this pop? What is this?” A bunch of stuff, really. Even some of the Imagine Dragons stuff is like that. I don’t know if these are contemporaries, but it’s just that modern music is more open and genre-less than it was before.
PB: Thanks for talking to me. It was a pleasure.
BA: Thanks, man.
PB: Best of luck on the road, and try not to shoot each other.
BA: Alright, I will try not to shoot John.
PB: Enjoy your steak.