Loose and Free: An Interview with Brian Lambert

When I spoke to Brian Lambert back in December, he was well into his 52-week song challenge. Designed to showcase his skills as a songwriter, the challenge has also given Lambert a showcase for his ever-increasing skill as a music producer. Songs like “We Are OK” and the more recent “Heroes at the Dawn of Time,” “In Your Face,” “Kids,” “Hang Out with You,” and Lambert’s cover of the Replacements’ “Unsatisfied” reflect a wide range of influences while allowing his craftsmanship to shine. As he nears the finish line, I thought I’d drop him a line to see what the year-long experience has meant to him.

Fifty-two songs in fifty-two weeks! How does it feel?

Thank you, Marc, for this opportunity to talk about what was a pretty epic adventure in music making.   As you can imagine there is quite the range of emotions: relief, excitement, a bit of sadness.  Overall, I‘m very proud of climbing this mountain I set out to climb.  In some sense, though, I’m really still so close to it that it’s hard to really put into words what the whole experience means.  I don’t know if I can until it’s a bit further in the rear view mirror.

Yeah, I guess it’s hard to have perspective when you’re still so close… Were you ever tempted to give up? What kept you going?

I don’t know if I was ever tempted to give up per se.  There were some outside pressures with money that made me question whether finishing this was the right thing to do, but by that point I was almost at the end and people were cheering me on.  It didn’t make sense to stop then.  More than that was the question of whether I could get the music done in time to keep on the song-a-week schedule.  I took a fall and injured myself which caused me to get behind.  The music takes the amount of time it takes to make and it created some anxiety around being able to complete it in the time I had set out for myself. It  was important to finish though, and working on music is the one thing I can do regardless of my mood or disposition.

I’m curious as to whether the parameters or even the purpose of the challenge changed for you over the course of the year. Did you go in expecting one thing and getting another?

I was intentional at the beginning about being loose with the parameters. It was such a huge undertaking I wanted to give myself as much grace as possible.  The purpose was to realize my potential in terms of songwriting, performance on a recording, and my production/mixing mastering skills.  I knew I wanted to write new songs in new ways, I knew I wanted to do some cover tunes and write a couple of instrumentals, but besides that it was really get a song a week out to the world every week for 52 weeks straight.   I view things a bit differently now, but do feel confident about my ability to express myself in the studio.

What did you learn about yourself as a result of this challenge? 

One, I love music.  There were times where I had to sit down and play when I wasn’t feeling it but afterwards I was almost always glad I did.  I’m not tired of music and am ready to start working on new music. I suppose the biggest thing is that I don’t have to be perfect, that I’m perfectly alright just the way I am.  Not sure how I came about that realization in the process, but I do feel that way now.   The other part is becoming less cerebral about the whole process.  Thinking doesn’t make good music, it’s more of a feel thing.  I honestly don’t remember how I did much of the last part of the challenge. There was a lot of just hitting record and letting it rip.  I think that’s how you get the right feel, loose and free.

What about your evolution as a songwriter?

I’m definitely more of a melody/music first songwriter now than I was before.  There were lots of times during the process later on when I would have all the music but no vocals or lyrics and then come up with them listening to the track.  Before this I would need a fully composed song on the guitar before starting.  This has been freeing in a lot of ways and allows me to kind of compose lyrics to the overall vibe of the track as opposed to feeling like I have to be able to sit down with a guitar and play the whole thing out.

Listening to your most recent tracks, I’m struck by your exponential growth as a music producer. What are some ways you’ve evolved in that regard? Any tricks or tips you can share with readers? 

 I think that is a result of listening with the mindset of an objective listener. After doing so many tracks, it gets easier to notice when you start to get bored with the song.  Like a more passive than active listening where if I start to lose interest, I think about what I can do to keep my attention. So much is about what you take out at certain parts than what you put in.  Creating subtle dynamics with volume or eq is one way to do that, but I’ve found arrangement is probably the most effective way to keep listeners interested over the course of a song.

I’m also thinking about the sheer number of songs you’ve released. Do you think of them all as being of a single piece—like one massive album—or do different songs fit into different categories and represent different sides of who you are as an artist? 

I think of the project of going through some distinct phases.  Phase one was just getting a sense of things and experimenting, I’d say up to about up to “On Your Side,” which was song 16.  I really just kind of played around with different approaches and ways of doing things.  Phase two was definitely an indie pop/rock stage which is most encapsulated in the We Are Ok album that I released only on Bandcamp.  By that time I felt like I had a specific method and was going for more or less a unified sound with an album in mind.  Next I decided to explore one-mic recordings and getting a great performance without hiding behind production.  It seemed to me that was the element that was still lacking for me.  I had always been told I was way better live than on recordings and I wanted to finally get over that hump. So I basically just sang take after take until I got it right.  The last phase was the last 12 songs which to me make up an album and was really me taking everything I had learned and putting it all together.  There is a bit of a grungy aspect to some of the songs because I was just feeling that. The last 12 saw me do a collaboration, wink, a co-write, and three of the songs were inspired by Twitter friends.  I was really happy with how all of them came out and really feel like the best work was right there at the end.

What do you think about this body of work that didn’t exist a year ago?

I feel great about it and, ironically enough, about the work I released prior to it as well.  This process was about growth and learning to accept myself, and I accomplished that.   It’s still really a ton to process.  I wish I had some really great insight that I could share about the whole experience, but I think whenever you do something this big, the scale of what you’ve done won’t make sense until a little further down the road.  I guess in a rambling way I’m saying I’m still too close to it to have perspective.  I know that for the first time I listen to my own work and really enjoy it and for me that’s a huge win.

Definitely a huge win! What’s the plan now that you’ve met the challenge? 

Gosh, I need to figure out the whole how do I make a living thing.   I’m looking at ways to do it from art but the reality that I need to add some dollars to the bottom line is ever present, so figuring that out is a priority.   Artistically, I have a remix that I did for Scoopski coming out soon and then another collaboration with Marc Schuster* that I am super excited about.  I need to release some of the songs in album form.  I’d like to do more collaborations and just contribute to other projects and help people realize a bit more of their own visions, but nothing concrete as of the moment.

Do you think you’ll do it again?

No, not intentionally in any case.  I’ve proven what I need to myself in terms of my ability to write and produce quality work.  I wouldn’t be surprised if at some point in time working with other people that I surpassed that output but as for creating challenges that have to do with a volume of work in a set amount of time that challenge has been met.

Thanks for taking the time to chat with me, Brian! 

It was my pleasure Marc, thank you for the opportunity to reflect on the huge journey that I just completed.

*Hey! That’s me!

Catching Up…

I love interviewing indie musicians on this blog, but I’m always wondering what my previous guests are up to. Here’s what a handful of them had to say when I dropped them a line to find out…

Saves the Witch: We recently decided to turn all profits from merch to benefit Ukraine.

The Smashing Times: We’ve been busy gearing up for the CA tour and we have a couple gigs coming up in the area. Between that and getting the LP ready we are pretty much living the dream. Not too much has changed since we last spoke, we are just putting those things into action. Zelda and I recorded some tracks last summer and I am considering releasing that. I also need to master the Midden Heap EP so we can have those cassettes when we get to the sunshine state. Everyone who has helped us out so far has been sooo amazing! Shout out to Brenden from Semitrucks and Britta and Stanley from Children Maybe Later. See you soon!

Megazillion: I just finished Megazillion’s debut album “Triple Phoenix” which now needs to be mastered. I spent a year and a half making it with the Secret Weapon on drums. Very excited!! You can expect a mix of rock, shoegaze, punk, doom, post punk, even a little electro. Hoping for a late spring release!   I will be making a few music videos for it as well. Not long after that I will be releasing an EP of acoustic guitar based ambient music. Very pretty, hypnotic and chill. Then a remix EP of my song “The Sea and We.”

Also, I am starting a series called “Low-fi High” which is going to be releases of experimental music I used to make with my old 4-track. I never really put any of it out besides one release and it’s a huge archive. Also, we will start tracking the follow up full length album with the more “song” related material ASAP, the drummer and I have about seven tunes we already play, plus a bunch of songs that need to have the layout finished and I got some beats that need vocals, might end up being enough for two albums. Find me on Twitter, IG, Bandcamp and YouTube! I have a bunch of videos and singles already available from 2020! Please check it out!

Eric Linden: I’ve got a new song called “All and Everything.” It’s a song about that thrilling feeling of finally having a breakthrough after years of searching. This is a really personal song for me. It was inspired by my wife, Jenner. I overheard her talking to her sister on the phone and she was so excited that her business was starting to take off that she could hardly get the words out. She told her sister “It’s all… It’s everything I’ve been working for all these years.” About two hours later I brought my acoustic guitar upstairs and played her this song. I could hardly get through it I was so emotional. I was so happy for her time to shine.

Jeff Willet of Table for 26: I’ve been busy planning for the next Table for 26 release! We’re recording (and filming) nine cover songs this time with an even larger string section, so it’s a huge endeavor but we’re already seeing some great results! I’m also anxiously awaiting the late-April release of a film by filmmaker John Welsh (Rare Light Media) that I scored, wrapping up the recording of drums and percussion for a video game, as well as continuing to make great progress mixing my own solo album!

Photo courtesy of The Smashing Times.

The Process Is the Motivation: An Interview with the Jasmine Monk (aka “Jaz”) of The Smashing Times

Thanks once again to Janglepop Hub for turning me on to another great band! This time around, it’s The Smashing Times. What really grabbed me about this band – even before I heard their music – was the fact that they were releasing their songs as singles on 45 RPM seven-inch vinyl. Given the price point, it’s the kind of move that takes more than a bit of chutzpah, but when I gave the music a listen, I ponied up and ordered the record, whose echoing, twangy guitars and plaintive vocals made me nostalgic for the days of my youth when the seven-inch single was the coin of the realm for indie bands. What really piqued my interest, though, was the fact that I couldn’t find any trace of the band on social media beyond their Instagram page, so I dropped them a line to find out more…

Who’s in The Smashing Times? How did you get together? What’s your working relationship like?

Myself – Jaz – Ole and Zelda/Anais. Ole and I knew each other from a now defunct punk house in Bellingham, Washington, that was called D. Street and I think may have even been on a street with a similar name to that. Anais and I go way back and similarly met at various occasions in odd places in those shabby early twenties bohemian party scene days. It’s interesting how being young and poor sort of deposits you in buildings that have gone without updates. It’s as if bohemia really does exist in some static dimension.

We sort of conceptualize what we want to do. When Ole and I first met again here in Baltimore we were sitting at Asian Taste talking about the Yardbirds and Mod Revival stuff, Squire, Purple Hearts, The Jam etc… For us the Television Personalities are really the perfect intersection between the punk DIY, irreverence, and the sick riffs of Petula Clark’s session musicians. Then Ole turned me on to The Times single “Red with Purple Flashes.” Holy moly, that single is everything. Our name is sort of a portmanteau of The Times and the single “Smashing Time,” also that film.

When we started, we wanted to be a mod revival band, but Anais had never drummed before and Ole hadn’t played bass in nine years or something. So, I wrote tunes that were carried by the vocals and guitar. We were drawing heavy from Cleaners from Venus, The Times, and TVPs on the first EP.

One thing I love about The Smashing Times is that I feel like you’re really going all-in on a kind of DIY nostalgia: seven-inch records, cassette releases, general avoidance of social media. Is that all part of a single conscious decision with respect to how the band presents itself, or is it just organic to who you are?

We are lucky to have inherited this concept from Crass. I’m so sick of perfect things and cleanliness. I want to make something with no motivation other than to make it. Like an Enso circle, the brush stroke is the art, the process is the motivation.

Ole is the largest contributor to our tactile and visual aesthetic, he is like our Gee Vaucher. Part of it is tradition, part of it is convenience and habit. I think on my last count I have been in 15 or 16 bands. And it’s like, here we go again, gotta get the tape out and then a single and try to get somebody to finance an LP. The price point on a single is about the same as a cassette but you can get a smaller batch of cassettes made and don’t have to sit on them for as long. Summer Inside happened because we were couped up for so long and couldn’t play shows so we were just like, lets make some tunes and keep putting out mixtapes.

It feels really good to me to have so much control over it. Ole and I started playing music during the Napster days, but people still bought CDs and LPs. It’s been awesome to have access to so much music but at the same time it has become really devalued. Having a tactile thing is like an offering to people who listen to the music. It’s like, hey you found us, good job, here is a thing most people can’t appreciate, but you listened, so here is a delightful bauble which, for your perseverance, you deserve to enjoy.  

We have another single in the bag but we are learning that the plants are still so backlogged with the success of Mcartney III that they don’t want to do singles anymore. They don’t really make money for the plant, labels, or for the bands. So yea, we do it so that little you, the listener, can enjoy the experience. Here is the single, get ready for the LP… “Big A, Little A, bouncing be. The system might have got you but it won’t get me.”

I mean, even the sleeve for the 45 I bought (“Dreams on Union”) is, I think, a hand-folded, photocopied sheet of letter-sized paper, just like the indie records I used to buy from bands when I was in college. I’m picturing the band hunched over a dinner table, folding the sleeves by hand and sliding each record into the package. Is that accurate, or am I romanticizing things?

It literally does happen across the kitchen table. I will try to get a pic for you.

The decision to photocopy it has to do with the early TVPs singles and the O-Level stuff. It’s sort of a shibboleth. Basically Ole sat me down with his collection of old stuff and said “look what Dan Treacy did, let’s do this.”

I know you work with the independent label Painter Man Records. How did that relationship come about? Broadly speaking, what does your deal look like, if you don’t mind me asking? I’m also curious about the choice to release cassettes and seven-inch singles. Was that their idea or yours—or is it more the result of a dialog between the artist and the label?

Technically the cassettes are on Heavy Numbers Choons, Painter Man distributes those. In truth the single is self-released. We like the Painter Man logo so we were fine with it being on there.

Ah, I see. Some but not all of your music is on Spotify and other streaming services. How do you decide what to release on Spotify and what to hold back, as it were?

We do it in batches and the single didn’t make it in the first batch.

You mentioned in our correspondence a while back that you’re based in Seattle. The city is legendary among music lovers for its indie music scene in the 1990s. What’s the scene like today?

We are from various parts of Washington. Inevitably you end up in Seattle. We are mostly from the northern-most part of the state and centered around Bellingham which is near the border with BC. Because of this we had a lock on Vancouver as well as Seattle and could help distros and touring bands facilitate the crossing. I played with Jay Arner in his old group Fine Mist up there and got deported the night we opened for Hercules and Love Affair. DEPORTED. They had us in this holding vestibule and they wouldn’t let my friend Rachel go to the bathroom. Imagine having to pee in the vestibule.

Seattle has become Amazon’s town and is basically unlivable for bohemians. We all moved to Baltimore in 2018 and then Covid happened. Seattle bands that I like are Super Crush and Shine. Baltimore bands that I like are Corduroy and Posmic. It’s cool to be in a new town and meet all these local characters and hear new music.

I’ll have to check them out! In terms of your music, one thing I really love about “Dreams on Union” is your effective use of pauses. They build a tiny amount of tension that propels the music forward like a little sonic slingshot. And, of course, there’s plenty of jangle and echo, which I also love. Can you say a little bit about how you record your songs—how you approach production and arrangements?

That is good to hear. I worried they might be too progressive. It happens differently every song. I write all the parts and have a general sense of arrangement. Anais has had a bigger hand in arrangement on our newer stuff. The arrangement is big part of the value of having band members is. Everyone has suggested things at one time or another that have worked out beautifully to my mind.

I wrote and arranged “Dreams.” Anais really did not want to learn it and hates playing it. That is probably where the tension came from. The drums on it are the first take. She just got up and walked out so we had to make do. I think it turned out well, I love idiomatic art and music. I feel like on the middle 8 bass part you can picture Ole being like “oh shit, what is next?” and that to me recreates the spontaneity of fabulous improvisation like the Velvets and Miles Davis but without the burden of all that horrid skill.

We have three Shure SM57s and some kind of Shure drum mic. I’ve learned a lot about how to use them and EQ and so on and so forth. I think you can really hear the progress. It’s slow going, I’m more of a tactile and intuitive person so rather than looking up a youtube video on how to do things I just dig in and learn from the mistakes as they happen. Those recordings are gloriously imperfect but that was where we were at the time and honestly it’s what we are going for.

I feel like that Sad Eyed Beatniks person really gets the indeterminacy thing. I listened to a bit of one of their tapes on Bandcamp, I heard the drums drop the beat, I’m having that. I bought all the tapes. Similarly, but not nearly as cool, check out the guitar solo on “Heart of Stone” by the Rolling Stones, Keith Richards frets out. He fucks up the solo and they keep it and it sells millions of copies. Because the imperfection is attractive.

What about writing? What moves you? What, to your ears, makes a good song?

I think we are all sort of coming to this realization that modern life is bunk. Anais and I are in our early thirties. They say you realize there is no future. Even if you can pay your bills, what is the point? That being said, vague lyrics about your condition are bound to strike a chord with someone, I think good poetry needs to be vague enough for a sort of empathic bond to be formed between the speaker and listener. Our shared suffering is where we form solidarity and understanding. The aughts were all about shrugging and racing to be the first one to say “I am detached.” But then we got around to watching Manufacturing Consent, it matters, art matters and solidarity matters, and it seems like awareness is beginning to grow. Pay it forward, you know?

The real challenge is marrying modern day problems with a wide array of 60s-90s British pop culture references and giving you that warm feeling in bottom of your belly like the first time you heard Ride or The Creation. I’ll never be able to do that like Mick Trouble does. Have you heard that LP? Amazing.

I’ll have to look for that one! I imagine playing live is a big part of how you’ve developed a fan base. Any chance you’ll tour anytime in the near future?

We are planning some gigs on the West Coast this June hopefully with Semitrucks from LA. Paul from Expert Alterations/Corduroy will be filling in on drums. We are pretty excited to hit the road again after the last couple years.

Any other plans?

We are wrapping up an EP and will be shopping an LP this summer! Our mastering dude says there are 18 month wait times on vinyl so look for the EP in 2023.

I am working with Blake from Corduroy on a second Midden Heap EP and Anais and I recorded an album in summer of 2021 under the name Roshan Gosh.

Sounds like you’re pretty busy these days! Thanks for taking the time to chat with me! 

Thanks for having me. It means a lot that there are people interested in representing underground music.