“I Recognize That Boston’s a Hard Sell”: An Interview With Chris Brokaw

Chris Brokaw

Chris Brokaw is one of the most searching, prolific, expressive musicians I know. Switching between guitar and drums, he’s left an indelible impression in bands like Codeine, Come, Charnel Ground, and The Martha’s Vineyard Ferries. He’s also been a sought after sideman with the likes of the Lemonheads and often tours the world playing solo, in between scoring independent films like I Was Born, But… 

He recently took an hour between giving music lessons to answer one of his biggest fan’s many questions.

What came first for you, guitar or drums?

I learned guitar when I was 12 and drums when I was 13. One right after another. There was a lot of rock music in my house growing up. My mom and dad listened to a lot of good music.

I saw the New York Dolls on television when I was 10. Part of me was like, this is weirdest thing I’ve ever seen. The other part of me was like, this easily eclipsed everything else I was obsessed with at the time, which was: Bruce Lee, Planet of the Apes, sharks, you know, stuff like Evel Knievel…so I got the second New York Dolls record and this Jeff Beck record that I liked a lot, called Beckola. And then I got the Kiss Alive album, and that’s what made me wanna play guitar.

Did the drums start the same way?

My father was a jazz drummer. Not professionally, just for fun. His drums were in the basement…I got really into the Sex Pistols album Never Mind the Bollocks and I just learned it start to finish on the drums. Taught myself just by playing a lot with it, over and over.

What was your first official band?

I had a band called Lizzie Borden. I know there were a thousand bands called Lizzie Borden, but we were thirteen and thought it was really rad. It was me and a guy named Doug just playing covers. We played a lot of Lou Reed songs. A lot of stuff off the Rock and Roll Animal record. It was loud and bombastic in retrospect, but I really loved it at the time.

Then I had another band where we would play, like—and this is what I find with kids I teach now—we would play a Dead Boys song, then a song by The Band, then “King Tut” by Steve Martin. We’d just play anything. There was no genre differentiation. We just liked the songs we liked. 

Kids are super open that way. There’s a girl named Cleo that I’m going to teach in a few hours. Her favorite song is “Mannish Boy” by Muddy Waters, but then she wanted to learn something by Billie Eilish next.

Do you enjoy teaching? Do you get something out of it for you?

Yeah, I really love it. For one thing, I’ve had to learn a ton of music for it. I’ve learned more about music, in part, because I’ve had to explain it to people. There’s things about playing music that I learned intuitively. There’s so much that I do with my right hand [on the guitar] that I’m not really aware of, that I have to sit down and explain in ways I never thought of before…

What are your own projects going now?

Come played four shows recently and that was really fun. Because we have all these reissues coming out. We signed a new deal with Fire Records in London and they’re rereleasing the whole catalogue over a couple years. As well as a Peel Sessions album that just came out in February. 

With how restricted things have been, due to COVID, I’m still out promoting my last solo record, Puritan, from last year. I was doing that with the bass player and drummer who played on the record for a while, but the drummer got really busy and the bass player doesn’t wanna play music anymore, so I’m not entirely sure what the status of the Chris Brokaw Rock Band is at the moment, but I’m going out and playing some solo shows. 

The Martha’s Vineyard Ferries had a record that came out last year and we’re gonna be doing some shows in July. Finally. We couldn’t do anything for a while because Elijah, the singer, has two young children who were unvaccinated, so that restricted things for a time. 

I just started playing in a band here in Boston called Lupo Citta, which means City of She-wolves. Sort of garage-y band with two women I met here named Sarah Black and Jenn Gori. Jenn plays drums and sings, her wife plays guitar and a little bass, and I play guitar. 

Is there ever a problem switching between all these projects? 

It’s not a problem to me. In high school I was in three different bands. I’ve been doing it this way for so long. It feels very natural to me.

I enjoy collaborating with people. I enjoy being a backup musician, serving someone else’s vision. And I enjoy playing my own songs. I like improvising…

I’ve always been fascinated by how you all do that. I’ve been a one-man-band for so long that I’m always fascinated how it works. Also…how it doesn’t.

Yeah, I mean sometimes you watch a band and there are four very different agendas on stage. But for some reason it all works together. 

I was learning some Duran Duran bass lines recently—for lessons, not for myself—I’m actually not that crazy about Duran Duran. But it’s interesting because you listen to them and the singer wants them to be Roxy Music and the bass player wants them to be Chic and the keyboard player probably wishes they were Kraftwerk and the guitar player, so far as I can tell, wishes they were Dokken…you wouldn’t necessarily think that if you add those things together it creates Duran Duran, but it does. It’s also cool when you see a band like Guitar Wolf who are obviously steeped in the same ideal together.

You went to Oberlin, right? What was the idea there? What did you study?

I don’t know. My “goal’ was just to go to college…I was an English major and I had a vague idea of becoming a writer, maybe a journalist. Neither of which I ever became. I thought of being a playwright. But I ended up playing music instead.

Part of the reason I went there was it had a really strong music conservatory. There was great music on campus all the time. You see a flier and follow it to some classroom and there’d be a world-class gamelan group from Bali playing there. I had a radio show, DJ’d at the discotheque, played in bands. 

Did Codeine start after you left?

Yeah, I met Steve when I was still there, but didn’t start playing with him and John till three years after I graduated, in 1989.

Would you call that your first major band?

I played in a band in college called Pay the Man. We never recorded or anything but I was pretty serious about that. But, yeah, Codeine was the band I seriously pursued playing with. But I went on tour with Pay the Man on the East Coast before and we played at The Rat in Boston and I thought it was really cool. When I finished at Oberlin, I wanted to be on the East Coast, but not in New York, where I grew up. I grew up outside the City. Most of my friends were in New York, but I just wanted to be somewhere else. Some place besides there.

You’re one of the very, very few people I know that loves Boston.

I didn’t like it at first. I found it really uptight and parochial. I thought about moving to Seattle or Chicago, but couldn’t get it together. I moved back to New York for a few months in order to quit drinking, then moved back to Boston because I wanted to play music with Thalia Zedek, who was also moving back to Boston after playing with Live Skull in New York. 

I met Thalia in 1988. We got together and jammed and it was one of the greatest nights of my life. We instantly had this rapport. But she was busy with Live Skull and a band called Via at the time. Then, in 1989, she told me Live Skull was going to be taking a break and that we should start a band.

I met Arthur and Sean through friends and it turned out Thalia knew Arthur from his time in the B-B-Q Killers and we all got together in 1990 and started making music.

Come was a band that was really important to me in the 90s. I’d moved back to Boston and started driving a cab and that was one of the bands I’d park the cab and take a break to see. Saved my mind a little bit.

Thanks. I recognize that Boston’s a hard sell but I’ve grown to love Cambridge and New England over time. 

You’ve got a whole community of musicians you work with. That makes all the difference.

That’s true. But a lot of my favorite music people are in New York or Chicago or LA. I’d say my community of music people is pretty spread out. Which is tough. I play in a couple bands where the members are all over the place. I’ve started to find it kind of annoying. I wish they all lived here! One of the nice things about Lupo Citta is they live here. We can play whenever we want. I’ve decided I’m not starting any multi-city bands anymore. I’m sick of that shit.

Is Charnel Ground still a thing?

We’ve been really hamstrung by the pandemic. We live in three different cities and John just had a kid, so he’s busy with that. We did some recording with Doug McCombs, who’s now the bass player, which sounds really great, so I hope we can do more sometime in the future.

We’ve lived through pandemics before, but I haven’t and don’t know anyone who has. They’d have to be 120 years old by now. I wish there was a guide book for how to get back into the world again. 

There was a period about twenty years ago when I was really obsessed with learning everything about the influenza epidemic of 1918. That one dwarfs what’s going on right now. So one of my thoughts about the pandemic is I’m glad it wasn’t worse than it was…hopefully the next one won’t be worse.

Who the hell knows? So if you’re off the Spanish Flu, what’s keeping your interest these days?

I just got a book in the mail about DJ Screw. I’m looking forward to getting into that. He was a key figure in the Houston hip-hop scene. He had this style of remixing records and making things super slow. A lot of the people in the scene were really into drinking Codeine cough syrup. I think the sound was supposed to reflect that. 

Do you remember a band called Cop Shoot Cop? The singer in that band, Todd Ashley, subsequently had a band called Firewater. He wrote a novel a couple years ago called Banging the Monkey, which I just ordered.

My girlfriend, her son, and I are going to Mexico for ten days. She grew up there and tries to go back at least once a year. Psyched to see Mexico City and Oaxaca. 

We’re gonna go to the Cape. Because that’s what one does here.

I’ve heard that. Haven’t been there in at least 20 years. But I’ll be in Boston next weekend. I’ll text you and see if you’re around.

Please do. 

Do you ever consider doing more writing?

I started writing something about a year ago. It was sort of memoir-ish. There were different musicians writing biographies and I thought, who fuckin’ cares about your book, you know? I didn’t wanna be another one of those guys. But I thought I could write a book to demonstrate that if you decide to pursue playing rock music, you could have some really weird experiences. 

I would read that book.


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