With Matt Vasquez of Delta Spirit, Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes and John McCauley of Deer Tick, Middle Brother is an indie-rock super-group of sorts. But as Paste’s Bonnie Stiernberg writes, “At times they sound so in tune with one another that the record starts to feel like a concept album, like a time capsule crafted by the trio of rock ‘n roll troubadours to document their rise to fame.” We caught up with Vasquez the morning after a massive earthquake produced the tsunami that overwhelmed Japan.
: Have you heard about all the tsunami stuff?
Matthew Vasquez: Yeah, it’s crazy. Normally, I wake up and put CNN on. I was getting coffee and it was like, “Oh, Japan! Whoa shit! Oh, God!”
: Yeah, it’s meant to hit San Diego, and considering you guys are from around there, do you know anybody who’s gonna be impacted?
Vasquez: Yeah, I know a lot of people across the whole coast line. We all live in Long Beach, and our beach is south-facing, and they’re on cliff faces so they should be okay. Or at least reasonable. There are a lot of cliffs in South California, but with a tsunami, I dunno… With a tsunami, it’s like the whole ocean behind it. It can knock that cliff down, so I dunno. I hope it won’t be too bad. There are a lot of bars I like.
: You wanna name-drop a few, they’d probably love to see it.
Vasquez: Captain Keno’s in Encinitas, Turk’s in Data Point. There’s a lot of ‘em. Those are my two favorites.
: Okay, we’ll get away from the really depressing tsunami stuff. Why’d you guys choose the name Middle Brother?
Vasquez: I feel like it was kinda by accident. It was a song that got written with Taylor, John and our friend Johnny Corndog, who’s just as much a member of this thing as any of us are. And the song is a fun, ramble song, and it’s kinda what the whole session felt like.
: What inspired you guys to all get together and do this?
Vasquez: John called Taylor; John and Taylor were on tour, and they said, “I wanna do a record with you,” and I overheard these conversations. And Taylor kinda stepped in and said, “You know Matt would love to do something like this.” They’d already been writing for the record, but I’d had a bunch of songs written, and so they let me in on it. But I landed the day of recording, and the first night, we did three songs. One for each person. And then every night we just kept tracking. There are multiple versions of songs, but altogether, there were 22 tracks we cut. It was really crazy, really fun. There was no overthought in it, just kind of real, real fast. It was like, “Oh, this song sounds like this song. We should do that,” and we just did it. Everything that we did and all the arrangements were the first inclination toward the song.
: I read that while you guys were recording, you pulled a lot of all-nighters.
Vasquez: We started at 4 p.m. But [the start time moved] to 6 or 8 p.m. But [the end time] would be like 1 a.m., the next night was 3 a.m., and the next night was 6 a.m. and it ended up at 7 a.m. or something. It was crazy; it just kept going.
: Would you say that impacted the music?
Vasquez: It was just so fun. And I think the fun part of it impacted the music. Everybody was just so on-board with having a good time and having access and being able to record.
: What do you think you guys learned from each other in terms of writing music?
Vasquez: We all [learned] from each other: songwriting decisions, lyric decisions, arrangement decisions, how to track a vocal. I think Taylor and I were just so impressed with John, especially his ability to come in and just nail a vocal… His ability, you just wouldn’t think it. He joke-sings a lot. He has one of those voices where you don’t think he’s gonna nail it, and he nails it every time. Timing, pitch, everything.
And with Taylor, it’s like “You want a guitar part? Okay.” Or piano, and it’s there, and it’s awesome, and you’re like, “Whoa! One-taker!”
: The record has a lot of balladry in it, kind of like “Ransom Man” off Delta Spirit’s last record [History From Above]. What do you enjoy about writing songs like that?
Vasquez: They’re the easiest to write. When you write a rock ‘n’ roll song, or anything upbeat, it’s a hundred times harder. Because you don’t want to be—there’s a certain sarcasm you can write with, and it’s really fun, but to get a point across with an upbeat song, it’s super tough. And usually you’re exhausted when you’re on tour, and the first thing you wanna play is something chilled out. And for that, a ballad is the best cure.
: Do you have a favorite song off Middle Brother?
Vasquez: I dunno. We’ve been playing ‘em all. I’ve been having a lot of fun playing “Me, Me, Me” off Middle Brother.
: Some artists don’t agree with the genres and labels critics give them, so if you could choose your own?
Vasquez: Americana, folk, bluegrass. Any of those. We’re all huge fans of those genres. Everybody loves Neil Young. Everybody who doesn’t play music that sounds like Neil Young, loves Neil Young. We’re not writing this as if we’re in Laurel Canyon in the ‘70s here. We’re not writing like Woodstock long-haired hippies protesting the Vietnam War. Which didn’t even work in the first place. It was really amazing and a really cool time, but that’s not our time.
Americana is the purists’ music. And we’re not purists; we don’t care. I think my favorite statement of these guys’ music is just that a song, in any way, stands for itself. The song in there, in each of our respective bands, stands for itself.
And no matter how you did it, if it’s direct and your first inclination or you brutally thought about the production, it’s still a song. And that’s what we care about. A great-sounding band in whatever we wanna take it. We love playing rock ‘n’ roll; we’re not ashamed of our influences, and we use every one of them at the same time, whether it be Kurt Cobain, Paul Westerberg, Jackson Brown, you know, there’s a lot of influences there. We’re all a bunch of music-heads.
So in terms of genre-specific, it isn’t.
: So what’s Middle Brother’s future in relation to you guys’ other bands. Is it a one-off thing, or is it going to have a future?
Vasquez: Right now, the future looks bleak because we’re all so busy. This isn’t like Monsters of Folk where it is a super-group because we’re not in super-bands other than—I think we’re in super bands. Other people think we’re in super bands. But we’re not on the cover of Paste or RollingStone or any of those things. And each of our respective bands have people we’ve gone with on tour and gotten to this point with. This thing is just a fun excuse to get together. If we can keep doing it, I hope we can. But we’re all super-pumped on doing our shows. Dawes is about to come up with a record. Deer Tick’s in the studio. My guys are in the studio right now. I recorded like 20 songs on acoustic guitar, and they’re in the studio working on each one.
: Do you guys have plans for each other to appear on each other’s next record?
Vasquez: That’s none of your business [laughs].
: We hear a lot about how awesome touring can be, parties and getting free drinks, but we don’t hear much about the downside of touring.
Vasquez: Like this morning? Yeah. It’s basically like you have a few stints where you just get beat-down. It’ s just geography, really.
Or our biggest major markets on the east coast all clumped together: Your D.C.s, your Phillies, your Providences, your New Yorks, your Bostons. And they’re all insane, crazy shows. And then you gotta cross the great dividing area where you start having long drives, and those long drives can take it out of you. And you get to a point where you feel like shit, and everybody’s sleeping backstage.
And then it’s like, you know what? As soon as you get in front of people, and the adrenaline kicks in, it’s all good. You spent all day exhausted, but you know what keeps us bitching about all that shit? There’re millions of people who want our job, and we love our job. And we wouldn’t be here if we didn’t believe in it. That’s why not a lot of people talk about it, because for all the shitty things—I just got a cold today, so what? I feel like shit, so what? I get to go to Toronto.
: Is there anything you’d like to add?
Vasquez: [shouts to Taylor] ‘Taylor, anything to add for Paste?’ [background noises] Taylor can’t think of anything.
I’ve got an iPod out, and I’ve got Mark Twain’s Huck Finn on the thing. We’re edu-ma-catin’ ourselves during the Great American Roadtrip.
Check out our photo gallery: A Day in the Life of Middle Brother.