Videos by American Songwriter
An Interview with The Brothers Burn Mountain
by Brian Skinness (and Doug MacRostie)
Like the gathering energy of an improvisational musical peak, is the thrill of discovering music and musicians who bring a new and inspirational facet to our world. The Brothers Burn Mountain are that subtle force pushing irresistibly through the jaded soil of the music world and sprouting life in the minds and hearts of those who listen and hear.
My journey with The Brothers Burn Mountain began the day they inquired about playing my venue, Terrapin Station, in Nevis, Minnesota. I listened to The Brothers Burn Mountain on MySpace and about 30 minutes later “came up for air”. I absolutely wanted them to play and it became my most anticipated show of the year. Each song was like a small masterpiece…many less than 3 minutes, but perfectly complete. Realizing that they could not duplicate the number of instruments and sounds overdubbed on their studio work, I was very interested to hear them live. I was not disappointed. Their live show features the heart of the song performed with their engagingly deliberate passion. After the show, though rainy and dark, they declined our invitation for over night accommodations, preferring instead to seek a place in the woods to pitch their tents and rejuvenate their spirit.
The following interview was conducted by Doug MacRostie for KAXE Centerstage Minnesota. It has been transcribed, and rearranged slightly with a couple of my own questions added in.
Doug: Brothers Ryan and Jesse Dermody are The Brothers Burn Mountain, an experimental folk-rock band and their latest release, Wild Cat Road has a unique and interesting sound with haunting vocals, melodic instrumentation and pulsating rhythms. They push songwriting boundaries with music that is poetically and sonically reflective of images and sounds of nature through spontaneous music creation. How did you guys get started?
Ryan: Well, we’re brothers. We were born from the same family, so we’ve known each other since we were children. We’ve been playing music together for the last 9 or 10 years or so and that just came naturally. A progression from brotherhood into music.
Jesse: I’d been writing poetry for several years before we came together musically and Ryan had been playing music in some different bands. It was one of the sweetest surprises of my life when – what seemed like a tragedy – one of his bands broke up, and there he was alone, and I was alone…creating…and it was truly the most natural thing for us to come together.
Doug: Which of you does what?
Ryan: I sing and play guitar, percussions and bass guitar on the recordings. Jesse plays drums and also, he is the lyricist, poet of the band.
Jesse: The distinctions are clear, but very intermingling between “who does what”. I’m more on the poetic side and my brother is more on the music and musical instrument side. And we help one another. We work alone and then we come together and help one another. He helps me put finishing touches on the poems and I try and put finishing touches on songs.
Ryan: And also, we try not to theorize too much about it, so we don’t draw too many lines, so that in the future we are creatively free.
Brian: What’s it like to be a band in your position?
Jesse: For us it’s more like being two separate human beings who happen to be brothers by blood and have a mutual affinity for the music of poetry and the poetry of music, so I don’t go around thinking of myself and Ryan as being a band. That’s a foreign thought to me. The complexity of being near someone so different from myself, yet with so many similar tastes in artwork is rather amazing. Even when it seems we’re getting along the least, and feel the most friction and pain from one another, that’s often just before and when we do our best work. Our songs sometimes feel as though they’re imbued with feather dust that’s been stolen off the backs of hawks’ wings mid flap. To get to that point, there’s a certain soaring involved. Poetic flights rejuved toward the juice of the sun. Sunlight grapefruita-twinkle. We don’t like to know too much exactly where we’re going, especially when playing music. We let the wind guide us:
And I don’t know how
and I don’t know where
we’re a-goin’ to now,
but we’re gettin’ there,
wild wind in our hair
wild wind in our hair…
That’s from an unreleased song “When the Cookin’ ‘s Done”–an open welcoming to death, a fierce love of life. That’s why we love Hesse so much. He had the taste of death on his tongue, so that many of his words were beautifully death-laden. It gives a gritty heart pulse inside the throat, the kind that Hank Williams had when he sang “I’m
so Lonesome I could Cry”. That song makes me weep.
Doug: Is there a story to the name?
Jesse: There’s no logical thought behind it. It’s just something we like the sound of. It’s instinctive. It has just the right ambiguous feel to my ears, anyhow The Brothers Burn Mountain. It’s not like starting a fire in the woods on a mountain, it has more to do with what’s going on inside ourselves spiritually. It’s our imagination letting go and free and finally coming up with a name that, at least for the moment, sticks.
Doug: So tell me about this album “Wild Cat Road”
Ryan: Well maybe it would help to describe the process. It was recorded over about a span of a year. We have our own studio and we do our own recording, and mixing, and producing. We rent small cottages around the neighborhood, the area where we live and we set up our studio makeshift ourselves and we recorded it in about 4 different places over the span of a year. It worked out well for us.
Jesse: I would consider it an album of self reliance, because every part of the album we did ourselves…the production, the creation of the poems and songs, mixing, engineering, everything we did ourselves and rather inexpensively. We were just trying to prove to ourselves that we didn’t need to have a whole bunch of money to be creative and make an album of music.
Doug: How about the name Wild Cat Road?
Brothers: The first time I heard the word combination “Wild Cat Road” I was enamored with it. Because we feel that we’re fighting for our wildness left and right to keep it. And if we keep our wildness, we keep our spontaneous, creative imaginative side you know, the procreation within us. I feel part Wild Cat.
Doug: Tell me about the song “Popeye Poemster” on the CD.
Jesse: I can maybe delve a little bit into the words side. That poem is just a whole bunch of sunrises put together that I studied and saw over the Mediterranean Sea, while spending a bunch of time in nature. It was an unexpected poem of more lyrical qualities that came because of those sunrises and the force that I feel within myself because of them.
Ryan: That’s a good answer. I think it definitely has pieces of the traveling that we’ve done along the Mediterranean, for me as well in the music that I put to Jesse’s poetry. And the sunrises were so beautiful.
Doug: I’d like you to describe the song “Where We May Meet,” either lyrically or musically.
Jesse: I think that every single song that is on this album, this one included, is a song of surprising us. Just having our nets ready for a good fish that might happen to snag our lines or bite our bait. My net for me is my pocket notebook and my pen, Ryan’s net for him is his guitar and his pick, and of course our minds and bodies and hearts. That song, like most of the other songs, we want to see what happens when we just play. We don’t say the words “Let’s go for it and see what happens. ”We already know one another well enough to not have to say those words. Sometimes those songs are literally the first time I’ve ever played drums with Ryan, the first time we’ve ever really played them together and we’re discovering them as we go along. Even the form just seems to really fit and we didn’t have to think about it, it just came out of us that way. Where we may meet is just us playing.
Ryan: There is truly something spontaneous that we…it wasn’t even a thought process really.
Doug: One of the draws for me to this album is that there is a lot to listen to, there are layers or textures in the music and yet there’s still room to breathe and you can hear everything so well. Is that something you thought about when you were putting this together?
Ryan: The recording process is something that we avoid thinking about in order to keep that element of spontaneity, because without that we seem to fall flat, but with that we seem to find sounds rightly and I find the melodies to Jesse’s poetry if we’re lucky enough.
Doug: From the album it seems like the songs are written from various perspectives, I don’t have a lyric sheet, but am I right about this?
Jesse: Yes, it’s interesting that you ask this question. We go on walks in nature everyday. We have to figure out “how do we keep ourselves fresh creatively” and there’s nothing more refreshing to us than the actual breezes and limbs touching our skin and the sounds of streams trickling into our ears and now its melting snow forming temporary rivulets and all the sounds of the birds and all the animals.
Doug: I was curious if there is a single person who this is through the eyes of…
Jesse: Each one is probably from several different perspectives at once and it’s an imaginative conglomeration of folk and folks that kind of push and light up the words. I was just thinking today while I was walking in the hunters grounds, in the nature, about this old saying…It’s supposed to be a blessing, “May the Sun always be at your back” and I thought bahhgh it seems more like a curse to me because the sun was so vibrant today and the trail was really meandering like a deer trail and the sun was hitting me and making shadows at all different angles and each of the angles interests me more than the sun coming at my back all the time, always having my shadow right in front of me leading the way. Sometimes I like my body to be in front and I like my shadow to be off kilter to the side.
Doug: Tell me about the song “Out of Sight.”
Ryan: Well it’s also the part where I come in and if I can feel Jesse’s poetry and if I can come from that spot that he wrote it, then maybe I can sing it well. In that song, I feel like I understood and I could feel well, and, where did it come from you Jesse?
Jesse: I was trying to think of what was one of the main ingredients, or catalysts, for the songs that we decided to share on this album and grief is probably one of the main catalysts for our creative spirit. And this is certainly a song of loss and grief.
Doug: What is your live show like compared to this CD?
Ryan: They’re the same songs, but much different. As spontaneous, but Jesse’s on drums and I’m on guitar and the recordings are different because of all the overdubbing, but it’s still a full sound at our shows.
Doug: So what do you bring with you?
Jesse: It’s a drum kit that’s as simplified as I can possibly have it, probably more compact and smaller than most drum kits that you see in bands, but I like the sound of each and every cymbal and each and every drum head. I like it, I like it the way we have it.
Doug: You guys have a high appreciation and are influenced by nature and the world around you. Would you talk a little more about that?
Jesse: I love the nature poets and those who I can tell the melodies and vibes of nature are completely permeated into their songs and poems. Like obviously Thoreau and Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson and more recent poets like Robert Bly…and Radiohead, for crying out loud. You can just tell their eyes are really bright to the imperfect waverings of nature. Nature is the earth’s expression of eternity and we don’t try and imitate nature or anything, we just try and let those melodies and vibes flow into us. If they flow into us, then they can flow back out of us in the forms of poems and songs. And songs and poems are at least our effort to express eternity in our own particular ways.
Brian: Can you describe how nature influences your melodies or musical approach?
Ryan: I feel like wherever I am whatever and whoever I’m in contact with I can’t help but be influenced by it. We just happen to spend a lot of our time in nature. So, that influence is probably one of our biggest. What do you mean by musical approach? I think for me making music is a discipline. It undoubtedly takes a lot of work and
concentration to do it well. Nature is such a good place to work because you can find solitude there. There are less distractions and more things at hand to spark the imagination.
Brian: What are the elements that you seek to achieve in your music?
Ryan: I would take good energy over technical perfection almost any day. Though, the technical side of things is important to us too. So far, we haven’t sought to achieve any certain kind of a sound or style or genre, or tried to imitate anyone else’s sound. We just want to make music that is truly and all the way original.
Doug: Wild Cat Road is an outstanding album. It is complex, and yet it is really simple to enjoy, if that makes sense. Finally talk a little about “I Sleep All Night.”
Ryan: I love blues and I love slide guitar and that just happened naturally. We actually recorded the music without the words…without even knowing that those were going to be the words first. Afterwards I looked through Jesse’s book of poems and those words just seemed to fit so well. Jesse, maybe you’d like to talk about the words.
Jesse: It almost seems that I’ve spoken too much about the words already because both the songs and the words have to fend for themselves once they were born from us and now they are grown up enough to…It’s fine for me to be listened to and I appreciate it a whole bunch, but I think that poems and the songs are more important than my and Ryan’s interpretation of them. I welcome anybody to interpret it.
Brian: Your music has been compared to the feeling that one might have standing in the middle of the salt flats, or in a desert, where it appears barren and open, but when you sit and look closely, you see incredible detail and even complexity. Do you have any thoughts about the complexity and simplicity of your music?
Ryan: Yeah, we like to keep it simple. That reminds me of something Luther Perkins once said when he was asked a question about the simplicity of his guitar playing compared to the playing of other well known more contemporary, fast picking guitarists. He just smiled and said, they’re still looking for what I’ve already found. That made me chuckle to myself. I can really relate to what he said.
I suppose the complexity part of a song just happens when you put all these simple parts together, they just start intermingling and working together toward one whole and larger sound. I’ve seen something similar in the way one of my favorite painters, Rembrandt, worked. If you stand back to look at one of his paintings, the complexity and depth of form and color can be almost overwhelming, but if you look more closely at each individual brush stroke, everyone of them seems so pure and simple. Our songs are paintings. Each instrument, each sound is like a brush stroke.
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