Grateful Web Interview with Brett Dennen

Article Contributed by Joshua Huver | Published on Tuesday, July 26, 2016

On his 6th studio release, Por Favor¸ Northern California-native Brett Dennen makes a point to strip away any semblance of polished artistry for a more raw, less calculated expression of his own human nature.

Ten tracks float together like smoke in a still vacuum, unmarred by external forces. It carries uncertainties, sharps, flats and learning curves alike. As the songs are all freshly written, Por Favor marks many of these songs’ earliest forms. Clocking in at just under 40 minutes, the album makes for a perfect siesta relaxation companion.

Opening with a light, upbeat and bubbly tune called “What’s The Secret”, Dennen evokes the mysterious essence of what makes an artist as he imagines the late Janis Joplin as a close friend, a phone call away. Like much of the record, it is the music is surprisingly light considering the weight of the lyrics.

On the albums’ second longest song, “Cassidy”, Dennen’s early Grateful Dead influence shines as the tune bops and grooves along. “Stand Up For It” is reminiscent of classic Bob Marley in its powerful simplicity. “Bonfire” talks about living in the excitement of whatever moment you find yourself in and encourages listeners to not fear being naked, physically or emotionally exposed to loved ones.

“Where We Left Off” is slow, reflective and discordant like a lullaby, sang in “an empty room with a head full of thought”.  The mood shifts abruptly into the next track’s whistle led jaunt down the beach in “Burning Spirit”, with Dennen trying to “remember what my spirit already knows.”

“Tengboche”, the only song over the five minute mark, and “By Your Side” round out the last two track of the disc. “Tengboche” features the most action on the album musically, with a powering bass line and even an electric guitar riff that echoes a theme from Spaghetti Western XYZ. “By Your Side” brings the listener back to the sublime reality that the album began with.

Much of the album exists in a space similar to a picture frame or a snap shot from a baby’s photo album that can be reflected upon and marked for measuring the growth of both song and songwriter. It is intentionally naked and proud of the nuanced discrepancies it carries, knowing it is not a definitive interpretation with room to grow.

I had an opportunity to talk with Dennen about the record, his musical influences and the penetrating California soul that the music envelopes and nurtures.

JOSHUA HUVER: Hey Brett! My name is Joshua Huver, I’m calling today on behalf of the Grateful Web, thanks for taking the time to talk to me today man.

BRETT DENNEN: Yea man, no problem.

GW: To get things rolling, I want to get on about something we picked up in your latest release, Por Favor, which came out in May of this year. There’s a track called “Strawberry Road” that talks about “putting on some Jerry and drifting away” and being the Grateful Web, we tend to perk our ears up for all things Jerry.

BD: Haha, nice.

GW: So I guess my first question is, how did you get introduced to the Grateful Dead?

BD: Well the Grateful Dead was kind of always there, at least, I was always aware of the Grateful Dead growing up. I knew my dad was a fan. The hits, the early hits and even into the 80s hits, they were always around and in my psyche cause they were everywhere. Like they were just songs that I liked the same way that I liked, I don’t know, Steve Miller or something. It’s just on the radio and on around the house. But I didn’t really understand it until I was probably 13 or 14 when I heard – actually – it wasn’t even the Grateful Dead it was the Garcia/Grisman stuff, especially The Pizza Tapes, that was the hook for me, like my portal into it.

GW: Very cool! It took me a lot longer to personally warm up to the Dead; they are around everywhere and especially today in music it’s hard to avoid their influence.

BD: Yea, there’s a bunch of bands out there in the collective music world that I think are great but they’ve never like, you know Steve Miller is a great example, even Jimi Hendrix – I love Jimi Hendrix – but he never spoke to my soul the way that I was spoken to when I first heard the Garcia/Grisman stuff.

GW: Do you have any particular tracks that are some of your favorites?

BD: Well my all-time favorite Grateful Dead song is “Dire Wolf”. I don’t know why I love that song so much but like, that’s the song I put on when I want to like, drift away I guess. When I want to just unwind, when I want to soothe, when I want to be soothed… *dogs start barking in the background* That’s the song I play. Dang dogs are going crazy right now, the mailman must be here.

GW: Or they just heard you talking about the dire wolf! But sweet, that’s cool. I’ve got a copy of your new record and I’ve really enjoyed it.

BD: Oh, thank you!

GW: Absolutely. My first Brett Dennen experience was actually quite a while ago at Rothbury Music Festival in Michigan back in 2009. One thing that I really like about this newest disc though is it’s almost demo-quality, it’s so bare and raw. Your previous albums haven’t seen this level of stripped down tunes before, what inspired you to take that route on this record?

BD: I just wanted it to be, to feel, personal. I don’t know if intimate is the word, but not professional, I didn’t want it to be a polished work of art as much as I wanted it to sound up close, like as if you’re seeing somebody’s doodles over their masterpiece.

GW: I got the same kind of vibe listening to your record that I did when I first heard the Nirvana box set With The Lights Out that came out a while back with alternate bedroom recordings that Kurt did on his own time before they were fleshed out with a band.

BD:  Yea a lot of it was recorded very simply on a lot of old fashioned gear. We didn’t fuss over takes and we didn’t rehearse anything - we just played it and we relied on the magic of spontaneity and we didn’t second guess ourselves. We just rolled through and treated the whole thing with the essence of what we just talked about, the rawness. I wanted the vocals to sound like I’m bearing my soul more than like I was trying to sound good.

GW: Right on, I think it definitely comes across really well in that regard. Do you have an approach in mind for when you take these songs to the stage? Are you going to aim for the same kind of vibe or will they be stretched out and embellished upon?

BD: No, no, I think it’s impossible to aim for the same kind of vibe. I mean we can strip some of the stuff down and other things we’ve built up, but it’s impossible to recreate that because those moments those songs were recorded in were when the songs had just been written and everybody had just learned the songs. By now we’ve played all of them over a hundred times and some of the quirky mistakes that give the track so much character, those are going to be avoided because you can’t just purposely make a mistake or purposely recreate whatever the magic of whatever the nuance is. It’s different. And I think it has to be, any time you play songs live I think you’ve got to aim for something different. What we’re going for is more of a dynamic show that has some really stripped down personal moments and some big, loud, everybody dance moments.

GW: Awesome! Ok. I know you’ve got some shows coming up around the Bay Area, having just relocated to Santa Cruz I’m excited about your upcoming show at the Rio.

BD: Very neat, I lived in Santa Cruz for six years, I’m hoping to move back there someday soon.

GW: Yea it’s a beautiful place. I can’t imagine living anywhere else right now. Going back to the recording though, do you have any special guitars that you used for this record? Maybe an old bedroom acoustic that doesn’t see tour or something like that?

BD: Well, no, when I record, I record with whatever guitar sounds big and has a lot of presence and just easily comes through on a microphone. On this record I did everything on a vintage Martin from the 70s. It’s kind of a small scale, it looks like a classical guitar and it’s even got nylon strings but it’s not classical. I also have a seven year old Martin E-35, I did almost all of my acoustic stuff on that. I have a bunch of different guitars but I use them mainly for writing. I tour with just a couple guitars because they’re sturdy and solid and if they break I’m not going to be too miffed that they’re broken. I’ve got some guitars that are a bit more finicky, but they have a quality about them that brings out a different nature in me when I’m writing.

GW: Do you have any cool stories about any of your guitars?

BD: Cool stories? I have guitars that have been broken in half and glued back together, um, I have a Martin electric guitar which they only made for a couple of years.

GW: Wow I didn’t even know Martin dabbled in electrics!

BD: Yea it’s a 1979 solid body all-wood martin, it’s crazy heavy but a great guitar. One guitar I actually broke the neck off of, in Santa Cruz up on Empire Grade, before the fire station way up there near the airport. I was living up there and just walking around the house jamming, and I was in the bathroom looking at myself in the mirror singing, which, I don’t know if you’ve ever done, *laughs* but I was just watching you know, and the guitar just slips out of my hand and hits the tile counter and the sink and just cracks the neck, breaks the headstock off. It was a bummer day, but I got it glued back together. I ended up using that guitar to record my very first record though, and it’s still going strong.

GW: Is that a guitar you still keep around to write with?

BD: Well I keep it in New York. My manager lives in New York and I go to New York all of the time to do promos and stuff so I keep it at his house; he can play it whenever he wants or if I need a guitar for something while I’m in town it’s there for me to use. So I only see it once or twice a year.

GW: But it’s a sweet reunion every time?

BD: It is a sweet reunion, yes, because it has got so many memories. I bought it at a music store just over the hill, maybe in Mountain View? No, it’s in Palo Alto. There’s a great music store called Griffin’s. It’s amazing. They have so many amazing pieces. Sylvan, at the intersection of Bay just before you turn to go up to the college there in Santa Cruz is phenomenal as well.

GW: What’s your favorite part of the Bay Area? When you get to come back and chill, where and what do you like to see?

BD: Well, I’ve been really getting into Sonoma County because my parents just moved there and my sister has been there for about ten years now so that’s a fun place for me to explore. I know it’s not really the Bay Area, but it’s only an hour away.

GW: Truth be told I consider even Santa Cruz to be part of the Bay Area. Especially being new to the area, when I ask people that I meet if they’re from around here, I’m really asking if they are from California, but when they go “Oh no, I’m from an hour away,” I’m like well, I’m from Michigan haha an hour away is still “around here”.

BD: Haha yea. Have you spent any time in Aptos or Watsonville? There’s a really great fruit stand maybe the next exit after the airport, I want to say Riverside Drive? There’s a big old house, I think it’s red and it’s surrounded by strawberry fields. It’s near a gas station but there’s a great organic food stand right there.

GD: Nice! I’ll have to check it out. There’s really great fruit everywhere out here haha.  But yea, that about wraps up everything I had prepared, I really appreciate you taking the time to speak with me!

BD: It’s all good man, no worries.

GW: I’m looking forward to catching you at the Rio in a few months!

BD: It’s going to be a lot of fun, for sure.