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Don’t Get Too Comfortable
By Erik Hage
PHOTOS BY JOE PUTROCK

From charming to moody to jittery and off-kilter, Brent Gorton’s music fits his personality

 

Brent Gorton is standing in his Delaware Avenue kitchen (known in local-music lore as the kitchen in which the Kamikaze Hearts recorded an entire LP) trying to explain his forthcoming album. “It’s more dense,” he says by way of differentiation from his previous effort, San Diego. He then fidgets, offers an awkwardly dismissive laugh and scratches at himself. “That’s the only way I can really describe it: It’s a little more [scratch, scratch] . . . what’s the word I’m looking for? It coalesced a little bit better [scratch, scratch].”

Gorton’s discomfort is only partly due to the interrogative confines of the interview; he’s also coping with the remnants of a poison-oak affliction that covered a good portion of his body after a recent visit to northern California. (Gorton and his girlfriend-bassist, Kellie Steele, a petite redhead with punkishly cropped hair, hiked up a scenic ridge near a beach, unaware that the place was lousy with the stuff.) He rolls up a pant leg by way of illustration, baring one chapped, flaky shin and noting that things were much worse the previous week. “I could only wear my bathing suit because it was the only thing that was comfortable,” he recalls. “He had cartoon hands,” chimes in Steele, just off her own bout of poison oak.

Gorton—clad in black T-shirt, black pants, and comically white canvas sneakers—has thankfully put the bathing suit and Mickey Mouse hands behind him. But, itchiness aside, he does seem a little uncomfortable lowering the microscope on himself. In fact, anyone who has seen Gorton cut loose and charm an audience (or exorcise demons) on stage with his keenly twisted, brightly skewed pop might be surprised at how self-deprecating he comes off in conversation.

He has a kind of modest, almost (but not quite) shy manner about him, primarily keeping his head and eyes angled toward the floor. Sometimes he sarcastically pokes fun at his own responses, offering a sort of wry, running edit. At other times, he unfurls self-directed sarcasm or trails out of explanations with edgy, unsettled punctuations of laughter.

It’s almost as if Gorton isn’t fully comfortable with the interview process. Asked if he has any looming influences, Gorton, eyes trained on the floor, makes a sound through his nose. “Ennhhh . . . I’m sure there are, but I don’t think about it when I’m writing a song or doing anything.” Gorton does ultimately concede a love for ’60s band the Zombies.

He also often tries to divert attention from himself by asking his rhythm section—Steele and drummer Brooke Degener—for input. (The two women, placidly observing Gorton’s squirmings from across the kitchen, occasionally swoop to the rescue.) He even takes a few swipes at the journalism process itself. “Are you going to pad the article with stuff like ‘Brent was looking hot in his all-black outfit’?” he cagily asks at one point.

But Gorton lights up when ushering me into a small side room and ersatz studio off the kitchen to play the latest home-recorded mix of his song “Feedback.” Like much of Gorton’s work, the song is hooky, rhythmically infectious and densely tracked, like a classic pop song turned in on itself and filtered through the Cuisinart of Gorton’s oddball sensibilities.

His forthcoming, as-yet-untitled album has all kinds of off-kilter touches: Some tunes emerge from a haze of distortion before bouncing along as ear-pleasing ditties; others have all kinds of abstract and concrete sounds built into them. For example, the toll of a real church bell is buried in the mix of “Albany Is the End of the Line,” Gorton’s moody, pretty lament to his hometown. “I [record] the traffic a lot for things,” he notes. “And—I don’t know—just whatever, like kids walking by sometimes.”

Gorton, who some might remember from the now-defunct band the Stars of Rock, has been toiling with his latest album for about two years, arduously eight-tracking layers in his home in self-described fits of “O.C.D.” “I do have to learn how to walk away from things sometimes,” he admits. “Because I do have a tendency to obsess.” But then—ever self-critiquing and conscious of overrepresenting himself as a possessed, Brian Wilson-ish Svengali—he comically demurs, “Really, it’s been two years of me every once in a while going in the room and moving some dials around and then, like, taking a nap.”

Local music mainstay Stephen Gaylord (aka Gay Tastee), former leader of Beef and current leader of the Wasted (the band whose on-again, off-again Internet log has recently served as a popular, sometimes brutal flashpoint for local-music discussion), sums up the appeal of Gorton’s music. “I like it because it’s . . . I guess you’d call it ‘poppy.’ It’s real accessible to almost everyone. Even my young son likes it a lot. He played San Diego over and over. It’s something everyone can enjoy. . . . But then the lyrics are beyond the sort of basic, bland pop sort of schmaltz you hear out there.”

Gorton claims that on the new album he raised the bar for himself in another interesting way. “I didn’t want to use a lot of guitar, and it’s hard to make a rock song without a lot of guitar in it. I just wanted to kind of challenge myself.” He played a good portion of the instruments on his own, relying heavily on an old Wurlitzer that he had recently acquired, but he also recruited a bunch of local (call them “indie-rock” for lack of a better term) musicians to help him out, including unconventional youthful noise duo Lincoln Money Shot, Joey Russo from Brevator, and Gaven Richard, Matt Loiacono and Troy Pohl from the Kamikaze Hearts.

Pohl, along with the rhythm section of Steele and Degener, is also the guitarist in Gorton’s recently formed backing band, the Tender Breasts. But while Pohl has vast experience playing and touring, Steele and Degener are new to the game—really new. “Literally, we learned our instruments for the first show [in November at the Fuze Box],” Steele says. In fact, Steele remembers that she and Degener didn’t realize they were actually in the band at first. “We thought he was joking until he handed us the flyers [for the show].” Of their first performance, she recalls, “Brooke and I, throughout that entire show, just stared at each other, smiling maniacally. I was so nervous I accidentally hit Brent on the head with my bass.”

“She just donked me,” concurs Gorton from his corner of the kitchen, also noting that he’s really pleased with Steele’s and Degener’s development. “They have natural talent. They’re pretty amazing.”

Since that maiden performance, Gorton and the Tender Breasts have built up a nice reputation for their live performances in the area, shows that are perhaps best described by Gaylord: “It’s always an adventure really. It’s generally not subdued; there’s always something going on. It ranges from being, like, completely chaotic—sort of what I like, the punkish on-edge stuff—and then he does a really good job of bringing it back and making it sort of slower and moody.”

Gorton and co. have plans for a tour in late August and a couple of local shows in the near future. Otherwise, Gorton remains busy in his other role as producer-engineer for a bunch of local acts. Besides his work with the Kamikaze Hearts, he has recorded albums for such artists as Kitty Little, the Coal Palace Kings and Lincoln Money Shot. (Of the latter, Gorton remarks, “They’re good because I can try weird ideas with them. . . . They’re just like, ‘Suuurrre, put echo on the drums.’”)

Otherwise, he’s falling nicely into his role as titular leader of a new group. “Being in this band now is really great because [in the past] it’s always pretty much been myself and whoever I could pick up at the moment, [and that person has] always been in another band.”

Steele and Degener add that Gorton is a benevolent figurehead. “Very easygoing,” says Steele. “Too easygoing?” Gorton shoots back in his self-questioning way. “No, once we need you, you’re there,” Steele reassures him. “Very encouraging.”

The three musicians (the absent Pohl is preoccupied with a Kamikaze Hearts show) also agree that their performances put a different, if simplified, spin on Gorton’s densely mixed home recordings. “It’s funny with our band, because I can’t really teach anybody to play anything. That’s not a slight or a slap at anybody,” Gorton assures “I can’t say ‘Oh, play [mouthing a guitar part],’ because if something goes wrong and there’s a circuitry breakdown of the brain . . .” he trails off. “So we do kind of an interpretation of the recordings, which I think is much better than looking at charts and trying to do this whole [exact copy].”

Steele adds, “It’s ‘Brent-inspired,’ but each person has their own interpretation.”

“It’s a Brent Gorton cover band,” Gorton cracks, scratching at his arms, “that I just happen to be in.”

Brent Gorton & the Tender Breasts play Kings Tavern in Saratoga on Saturday June 25 at 9 PM.

 

photocap: Our vines have tender breasts: (l-r) Steele, Degener, Pohl, Gorton.

 


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