Big Brutus talks 'America Circa'
Singer, songwriter, and guitarist Sean Bryant's third album opens a window into the psyche of modern America
Released Friday, October 6, America Circa is Big Brutus' third full-length album, although it's the second album to arrive in 2017 bearing the project's name. The album falls on the heels of The Odd Willow, released in March, and finds singer, songwriter, and guitarist Sean Bryant's storytelling and conceptual approach growing by leaps and bounds. Each of the album's 10 songs are inspired by the people and the stories that Bryant encountered this year while trekking across the country on a bicycle tour, armed only with an acoustic guitar.
Part of America Circa's beauty lies in the quiet candor in Bryant's voice, mirrored by deceptively minimal arrangements and bold imagery. As the song "Consumer Machine' moves from a simmering whisper to a cacophonous brass roar, the album reaches its stride, opening a window into the psyche of modern America, where acute mental stimulation and espousing one's social and personal politics in fiery terms is the order of the day. Bryant took a few minutes to talk about the album and what he had in mind putting it all together.
In the simplest of terms, what is the underlying theme that drives America Circa?
Reflection on American history. I didn't necessarily intend to write a new album, I just wanted to talk with people along the way about their individual American experience, and after so much time alone on the road, I started writing it down.
I guess the idea is that it doesn't matter the "when" of when you jump into American history, the same themes are prevalent, and it'll require us to understand the past before we can fight for a better future.
It all started with a picture of a lynching I saw in a civil rights museum. Then biking through old Civil War battlefields while simultaneously the news is talking about Trump and Jeff Sessions, and the rolling back of civil liberties and the muddling of science with very right wing Christian beliefs. It just got to me I suppose.
The material stories and memories that you used for this album come from the people you encountered while you were out on the road, touring on your bike?
Yes sir they did. Some were older tunes I rewrote lyrics too, but it all came out of the road. I wrote most of it at the end in Brooklyn, after reflecting on it all. All the current events, the daily news cycle, the beautiful people I'd meet, the beautiful sites I'd see. It was all just very moving.
Is there a song on the album that you think of as the thesis one that really embodies what you are trying to get across with the album?
My favorite song is "I Was Just Leaving.' It's a sort of an inverted love song based on the Loving civil rights case, and the picture of that lynching I found. But it also deals with being complicit by inaction as well, hence the first chorus, "I was just leaving when they strung him up."
Thematically it's gotta be "America Circa,' that's the heart of the album. It dives directly into everything that I had been dancing around with the rest of the album. It's a pretty long song at 10 minutes, but I was writing from a mindset of being on a bike all day, so 10 minutes didn't actually feel too long. Hopefully it doesn't feel that way!
The word "America' in the title, and how it all came together makes me want to say "Americana,' but that would be misleading.
Ha ha, yes. You and everybody else!
But the word "Americana' and how it is perceived in a musical context is two different things.
That is a good point. When I was on the road I was listening to a lot of Tom Waits and Bob Dylan, so the comparison is definitely there. But I just wanted to make something quick and dirty, and steeped in horns and sax, because what's more American than jazz?
Were you listening to Tom Waits and Bob Dylan specifically for their lyrics, or were you honing in on the impressionism in their songs a bigger picture context?
Well ... I was just listening to a lot of stuff because I'd put music on while I was on my bike; kill time and listen to full albums which is something that is important to me. But yeah, Dylan and his way of approaching writing definitely made me want to come from that same place. That kind of "hop a train, 'this machine kills fascists'" Woody Guthrie kind of place.
Who else plays on the record?
Some good friends play with me! Ryan York who's played on every album, Scott Box on sax, Rachel Wright on vocals for consumer, Ivory Williams on flute and vocals, Jason Collier of the Soulphonics on the title track, Gardner Beson on bass, Kyle Bennett on piano, my old guitar teacher Jimmy Galloway on the song "Fall". I love getting as many creative minds together as possible. I have general outlines of what I hear, but I want their voices to shine through as well.
You rode your bike from from Boca Raton, Florida, to Eau Claire, Wisconsin 1,600 miles correct?
Nah, it changed but there was a forest fire and I injured myself so all in all I did Boca Raton to Richmond and then Richmond to Philadelphia. So I did almost 1000 miles, but not quite. I went to meet Ari Fouriezos in New York and help her move into her new place.
All while injured?
Well, I developed a popping joint in my right hand and got ridden off the road once, but I was okay, more or less.
Getting ridden off of the road sounds horrifying.
It was definitely an adrenaline rush! It all narrowed down to this dam and there was no side of the road so I had to just slam into the guard post. Then I had to cross over the bridge in front of an 18 wheeler. It was embarrassing haha!
It sounds like a harrowing experience.
Hardly. Harrowing is Indiana Jones getting chased by a boulder. This was just poor planning.
That's an intense bike ride. How would you plan for it?
You don't, I guess. You just start pedaling and hope for the best!
Big Brutus plays Plasma Fest 2017 w/ Loudermilk & Moon, Grand Prize Winners From Last Year, MonteQarlo, LONER, the Prblm, the Queendom, and World's Greatest Dad. $5. 6 p.m. (doors). Sat., Oct. 14. 420 McDonough Blvd SE.