Jonathan Bree’s A Little Night Music unlike most current after-hours albums out is not meant to put you in the mood for a night out at the club or anything like his fellow Kiwi and DJ tastemaker Myles Hendrik’s club mixes. It is decidedly less hip and in Bree’s own words ‘something you put on after a failed Tinder date’ but that’s not to say it doesn’t have a lot of charm.
Bree broke out of the New Zealand scene with The Brunettes, a duo known for their cutesy pop. They were signed to the Sub Pop label and had toured with such early noughties indie stalwarts such as The Postal Service, Rilo Kiley and The Shins. The latter even offered the duo use of their Portland studio to record their album, Structure & Cosmetics. Most of the album was recorded piecemeal in the back of a touring van and some of it back home but it still managed to deliver sartorial-pop gems such as “Her Hairagami Set”and “Brunettes Against Bubblegum Youth”.
If Bree’s music with The Brunettes was twee then his first solo album Primrose Path was anything but. The tendency for poppy melodies was still there but the structures were far more complex, layered and drawn out. With his second solo album A Little Night Music seeking inspiration in the most unlikely place -the dissonance of Hungarian composer Bela Bartok, Bree goes further down the path of ’70s orchestral pop and beyond. The result is Bowie-esque in its mood and breadth of artistic expression.
“Drones & Satellites” is cinematic with Bree’s baritone detached like a satellite swinging out of its axis. “Time Will Tell” has that cache late-night vibe – you could easily imagine a remix with more synths and a kicking bassline, and it could surely moonlight on a Future Classic or Ghostly compilation. But there’s ample Brooklyn-hipsters already drinking that kool-aid.
“Murder” with its off-key piano intro evokes misty old haunted houses in the daytime – all cobwebs and dusty white cloths hiding dated furniture and other untoward secrets. It’s video featuring soprano Ella Smith is the stuff of nightmares or ‘Twilight Zone’ spooky at least.
“Weird Hardcore” which has knowing strains of Pulp and echoes of the arrangements on Blur’s “Out of Time” is far more complex than either, with a slow, meandering melody that in parts, opens up with Bree’s Jarvis Cocker-like vocals, heightened by the swells of strings prompting the most pleasant of feelings to wash over you.
Spending some time with A Little Light Music is like stepping into a Kate Bush song with quiet histrionics, poppy flourishes, banshee wails and a symphony of classical instruments from a string quartet, to the kettle drums and twinkling celesta. It’s a spellbinding trip that can be frightening. But one worth taking.
In an e-mail interview with atombash.com, Bree who lives in Auckland where he runs one of New Zealand’s premiere independent labels, Lil Chief Records reveals the inspiration for the intriguing video “Weird Hardcore” and what it’s like running a label from the far reaches of Middle Earth.
Examiner: What time is it in Auckland now, and what have you been up to? Did you watch the recent Rugby World Cup?
Jonathan Bree: It’s morning coffee time. I just fed Winston (my cat) and checked my phone…nothing much I guess. Yeah, I watched it. Last World Cup I happened to be living outside NZ and it passed by without me noticing. It’s near impossible to not get swept up by it if you live here though.
Examiner: How are you celebrating the release of your second solo album, ‘A Little Night Music’?
JB: I think I forgot to do that. Sorry that’s a depressing answer isn’t it. I guess when you are your only band member, manager and label then you don’t…I did have a drink and listen to the vinyl copy when they arrived in the country. That was ceremonious enough.
Examiner: What mood do you want to put your listener in when they listen to ‘A Little Night Music’?
JB: Well, it’s not night music to listen to before going out, or at the club, it’s something to come back from your failed Tinder date to.
Examiner: This is further down the beaten path of the orchestral-pop path that you had already treaded with your first solo album, ‘Primrose Path’ and a bit less of that grade A-pop that has been used to describe your music with The Brunettes. How did this interest in classical music come about, is it really as simple as inheriting some old Tchaikovsky and Bela Bartok Records?
JB: I guess the interest in listening to more classical pieces stemmed from my fondness of one particular instrument, the celeste (or celesta). I was listening to Tchaikovsky’s ‘dance of the sugar plum fairy’ and thought the celeste is just so magical, how is it then that the classical world isn’t full of pieces written and performed showcasing it like this. Unfortunately after a lot of seeking out I still think it’s an underused instrument. That search did lead me to discover Bela Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. His use of dissonance blew me away. I’m still find myself writing 3 and a half minute pop structured songs but often now my primary instrument for writing is the celeste, and using dissonance to create something that is both pretty and creepy at the same time is appealing to me.
Examiner: Tell us a bit about the song “Blur” – it’s got a dancey, let’s-shake-our-hips kind of vibe? It was inspired by the HBO show, “Girls” – what about it resonated with you?
JB: Ha, yeah I guess it’s the radio friendly single from the album if there is one. Hmmm, it’s not really inspired by the show, but I was watching an episode and the perverted boyfriend character in it said something like “my world would blur if you weren’t in it”. I thought it was such a great line, simply put and original…so I totally stole it.
Examiner: I love the video for Weird Hardcore – what inspired it? It reminds me of an old TV show ‘Sapphire & Steel’, did you ever see that?
JB: Yes! Great reference. Simon Ward the video director for both Weird Hardcore and Murder shares a mutual love for weird ’70s tv from the BBC. The idea developed to make it like the “Old Grey Whistle Test” meets “Sapphire & Steel”.
Examiner: What truly inspires you with your solo work as oppose to when you were in The Brunettes?
JB: Apart from atonal classical I’m still inspired by a lot of the same things. Not necessarily having a duo formula to write for anymore lead me away from the cute into the creepy. I’ve been listening to old film score music too, like Maurice Jarre’s soundtrack for “Eyes Without A Face”. It’s brilliant.
Examiner: In your career, you’ve gone by necessity it would seem from developing your music in your bedroom, to when touring the US with The Brunettes writing music on your laptop in touring van – how did being where you are affect how A Little Night Music was recorded?
JB: Funnily it was recorded in the same flat where I recorded Mars Loves Venus, the Brunettes second album. Not a lot has changed in that respect. I’ve always preferred to make albums based in NZ and to record with local musicians as opposed to a laptop inside a tour van. Working with a virtually non-existent budget though, you just do what you can to keep creating.
Examiner: What do you think Americans think of when you say you’re a musician from New Zealand?
JB: Ha. I think in the ten years since I first went to the states it’s gone full circle. The verbal response to the answer of where I’m from went from “Lord of the Rings!” to “Flight of the Concords!” back to “Lord of the Rings!”…I suppose now it might just be “Lorde!” …Of course there’s always been those pretentious campus types that just say “Have you heard of The Clean?”
Examiner: When you first started the Lil Chief Records label in 2002 there was a trend towards guitar bands but that tide has since turned with electronic music being king, how has music – being in a band as well as running a label from Auckland, changed for you in the last 13 years?
JB: A lot of obstacles that frustrated me about the industry and being in a band stuck at the bottom of the world have in many ways seemingly disappeared…but then again they haven’t at all. Now there is just more underlying static than ever, so those that use old connected institutions still tend to rise above the pool of artists who are wanting to reach their potential audience. Our record label can use the internet to reach potential fans in other countries which seemed impossible 13 years ago, but if you don’t somehow get traction within days of a release then more media outlets discard it as stale. Turn over is ferocious and I suspect a lot of great albums that are being made but are overlooked simply because an editor or program director didn’t get to them in time. Never coming to the party is preferable to arriving late. This creates a pretty bad business model where established artists with a team of publishers, publicists, booking agents and distributors still keep well on top. I’m personally just thankful that I can create freely these days. I’ve been extremely lucky to experience touring outside of NZ. I think it is a shame for aspiring young artists in NZ though because as a label manager trying to help new acts, timing an album campaign is ridiculous. There used to be an idea that the internet would make the music industry playing field more even and diverse but I’m not totally convinced that’s true…meh…rant over
Examiner: Do you think you will tour for this album?
JB: No. I would like to but it’s not a priority, so unless something crazy happened that made it financially possible I can’t see it happening. I’d rather use the time and energy to create the next album anyway.
Examiner: What advise do you have for bands/acts who are added to your roster when it comes to making it big or just getting their music heard by would-be fans across the globe?
JB: Timing is more important than ever. Teeing up a promotional plan and rolling it out with as few hitches as possible is so important. Being “fresh” is probably the strongest currency that they hold outside of their talent…. Unfortunately I say that but know many artists that have been sitting on fantastic albums for years trying to tee up booking agents, publicists and distribution and won’t release until all three come together. So in someways you can struggle to piece together a campaign using a very cautious non committal industry, or you could make a quirky music video and maybe fluke going viral on you tube.
A Little Night Music is available from Lil Chief Records, to purchase please click here.