Getting in the Onion with Brainstory
I sat down with Kevin Martin, songwriter and guitarist for Brainstory, in Long Beach, CA the night before he leaves for a show in New York. He’s procrastinating on packing, but it’s a trip he’s become accustomed to and, turns out, procrastination is a powerful player in his creative process. This once-small band from Rialto, California is growing quickly, but the tight knit trio, including bass player Tony Martin (Kevin’s brother) and drummer Eric Hagstrom, are only getting better. We talk about the pressures of growing success, the music that influences their jazz-tinged, retro-soul sound, and how cannabis can alter more than just the mind.
The Chronical: So you're going to New York to start recording?
Kevin Martin: We were supposed to be in New York recording, but now we're just going there to play a show.
TC: You guys are working on something new?
KM: Yeah, yeah. We have a new album in the works. I'd say it’s like 70% done. We just need the last chunk, you know, last couple songs to get done. But yeah, we usually record in New York, but we're gonna just have to finish it here in Long Beach.Then we'll just kind of send it back and forth through email and stuff like that.
TC: What should we know about the new record?
KM: It's produced by Leon Michels, El Michel's Affair, who's our tremendous friend and mentor. And he also co-owns the label that we're on, which is Big Crown Records. And yeah, I mean, it's been fun so far, making it. Compared to our first record that we made with Leon, we never really set foot in a real studio before–or an analog studio with, you know, old junk. Yeah, not junk, but old tape machines and preamps, vintage preamps and all that kind of crazy gear stuff.
TC: What was the first one that you did with him?
KM: Buck. We didn't know anything about even playing in a studio. I think for the most part we've been a live performance-based kind of band. Over the years we've gotten a little bit more time in the studio and getting better at that. When you first go into a studio, I always felt really nervous and I didn’t really know what was going on other than I have to not fuck it up.
TC: Yeah, well, especially if it's analog. Isn't everything more expensive when it's analog?
KM: Yeah, I guess, yeah. The pressure's on. “Wait, am I gonna mess up?” But that's what it feels like, yeah. “Okay, rolling the tape. Okay, let's do it.” But it's also kinda cool because for us as the band, we're from a jazz background so we wanna do too much all the time. But learning how to record and make it sound good helped us tremendously to narrow it down and make better compositional choices.
TC: He [Leon] kind of reigns you guys in.
KM: Yeah, he kind of was like, “I'm gonna just simplify everything that you do. So don't be offended by that.” And we respect his work and we really like his work a lot.
TC: Do you feel like this album is going to sound different from the previous ones? Because Buck was really jazzy and soulful. And the last one, RIPE, felt hip-hop influenced.
“RIPE was one we recorded here in Long Beach in the pandemic. So when we went to New York and did Buck, we were like, minds blown–I can't believe our music can sound like this.”
KM: Definitely yeah, but instrumental music and still kind of jazz. That jazzier one, RIPE was one we recorded here in Long Beach in the pandemic. So when we went to New York and did Buck, we were like, minds blown–I can't believe our music can sound like this. And it really hit our drummer, Eric, a lot. He got obsessed with gear and learning how to record. For all of us in those sessions for Buck, it was mind-blowing how good it sounded. I think for the new record we're just more comfortable in that situation.
TC: What are the musical influences of the new one?
KM: That's always hard to pinpoint. More ‘70s jazz references. More funk soul jazz stuff. Like 1970 to 1974 stuff going on. I got really heavily into the Sylvers. They were an LA family band compared to the Jacksons.
TC: I know that song “Misdemeanor.”
KM: Yes, Foster Sylvers. That's one of the kids in the family, but I got really into their first two albums.
TC: What else?
KM: Oh! Some kind of Dylan stuff happening. Not so much Americana, but acoustic. I guess I would say some acoustic. I don't think anybody's heard that side of Brainstory. What I like to do is just make a whole plethora of things for an album, because I don't just listen to just one thing.
TC: It all subconsciously finds its way in.
KM: Yeah, all of it does. That's why it kind of becomes a mixed bag of things. But I think that's what it’s about these days. When you look at what an album's life is like. It used to be, “It's a vinyl,” you know? And the experience of the album is side A, oh shit, flip it, side B. You know what I mean? Now we just stream it, and what that's done is change how people consume an album. They might just find the one song and never go listen to the album. I think it's easy for an album to get lost in the sauce.
TC: Do you mind that? Do you prefer that people listen to it all the way through?
KM: No, no, I don't think there's any one way to listen to anything. But the way I've experienced albums like, CD era and tape era, it made it this continuous thing.
TC: Yeah. You didn't have the choice.
KM: You don't have the choice. So, formatted and easy-to-listen-to music on your phone makes it a little bit different for people to dive into a whole record. But my point is I'd like to try to put different things out there for different types of people so they all gravitate to it. I think that's ideal.
TC: So, a mixtape?
KM: Yes. Yeah. Bingo.
“[Cannabis] just kind of focuses me, I think. I’m able to calculate without thinking. I tap in a little bit more to intuitive things when I'm playing. I can dissect the feeling that I'm after.”
TC: Okay, I have to ask, how does cannabis inform your creative process?
KM: I actually haven't been smoking as much as I used to. I’ve been going through a lot of different changes and I realized it wasn't serving me in most situations, or not all situations, like it used to. So, I kind of took a step back from it for a little bit and now it's mostly when I want to create I'll get stoned. Because for me–it just kind of focuses me, I think. I’m able to calculate without thinking. I tap in a little bit more to intuitive things when I'm playing. I can dissect the feeling that I'm after. If I drink too much coffee and try to make a song, it's like I'm bouncing around too hard and I don't get into the onion of the idea. If that makes any sense. I don't know what that means.
TC: In the onion.
KM: Yeah, it helps me do that. I also enjoy some of the effects it has on my voice. I like the way it gives me a deeper voice sometimes and I'm not a tall person so I can't get that naturally.
TC: I was thinking your voice sounds kind of like Smokey Robinson. Do you hear that?
KM: Yeah, I love Smokey Robinson. And I was really listening to a lot of Smokey Robinson. I think I like doing impressions. I like hearing sounds and trying to replicate them with my voice. I've always liked that. I'll watch something and I'll hear someone say something a certain way and, if I'm by myself, I'll say it back.
I like trying different things with my voice. Leon knows a couple of my different voices. We have them noted. He's like, “You got this Michael McDonald thing that you can do. You got this like, Sly Stone thing you could do. You got the Smokey thing you could do.” So sometimes on this new record, he was like, “Uh, do Smokey, okay,” and then I'll do it. I also like to try to sound like a woman. It never really works out very good.
TC: What about the songwriting, the lyrics?
KM: Sometimes I'm prepared, sometimes I'm not. Like this last session I had two songs written, but I wasn't really confident nor did I really like it so I had to rewrite them on the spot and I found that to be pretty helpful for me. But I've been kind of in a weird rut not knowing what to say. Feeling pressure I think, since our band is getting more and more…I feel a little…it's just kind of scary.
TC: Yeah, like, Oh people are gonna actually listen to it.
KM: Yes. So it's kind of scary. And that's been kind of psyching me out a bit. But writing with Leon it’s been cool because I've realized that oh, it's okay if I procrastinate because I can [write] on the spot pretty good. It kind of increases your presence in the moment.
“…Part of what I try to do with the music is maybe give it a little bit of purpose and practicality. But also think that I just need to hear that. When I’m in spiritual cheerleading song mode, it's usually just for me.”
TC: I feel like lyrically, Braintory has reminded me a bit of George Harrison. A lot of songs that are like spiritual cheerleading as opposed to “I was walking down the street”...
KM: Yeah, I mean I loved All Things Must Pass. That was like a big deal for me. And all his songs in The Beatles. I guess that's like, kind of a part of what I try to do with the music is maybe give it a little bit of purpose and practicality. But also think that I just need to hear that. When I’m in spiritual cheerleading song mode, it's usually just for me.
TC: You're writing the song that you need to hear.
KM: Yeah. And I hope it never comes off as self-righteous. But it's just like, I'm not a perfect person. Nobody is. But sometimes you just need someone to tell you like, ‘Hey... I'm not a perfect person.’
TC: Sings, “I’m not a perfect person…” - Hoobastank’s “The Reason”
KM: Yeah. Hoobastank's a really big influence on this new album.
Catch Brainstory live August 19 at The Fonda Theater in Los Angeles.
Get into an onion of your own and listen to a playlist crafted by Kevin Martin for The Chronical below.
This interview has been revised and condensed for clarity.