It started with a horrible headache, the kind that won't go away. Like a never-ending series of phone calls from a particularly insistent telemarketer from Nevada who's somehow gotten a hold of your cell number and wants to offer you a way to reduce your credit card debt. Pain. That's what Jason Brewer felt the day his life changed.
Brewer's fellow Explorers Club bandmate Mike Williamson knew what would put an end to the skull-pounding horror show in Jason's head. Caffeine. And just like that, Jason Brewer did something he hadn't done in seven years. He jumped off the wagon. He had a caffeinated drink.
He has been drinking Diet Coke ever since.
Brewer, a heavy-set guy with a round face, rectangular eyeglasses, and a mod-ish mop of hair, relates this story as he sits down for an interview over a plate of fried chicken and green beans at Boulevard Diner. Joining him in the Explorers Club are multi-instrumentalists Dave Ellis and Jimmy Faust, keyboardists Stefan Rogenmoser and Williamson, drummer Neil Thomas, and bassist Wally Reddington. In addition to being a Diet Coke fan, he's also a darn good songwriter, singer, and guitarist, as well as the clear leader of the Explorers Club. And with his band, Brewer has discovered a pop painkiller for today's modern rock headache — catchy melodies and pitch-perfect harmonies.
According to Brewer, melody "is just not present in pop music anymore. And it bugs the crap out of me."
Generally speaking, you won't find an abundance of melody and harmony on the latest indie rock release, but you will find these two things in the songs of John Lennon and Paul McCartney or the singles produced by Phil Spector.
And make no mistake, Jason Brewer and company are heavily influenced by Motown and the Beatles. But if you queue up the Explorers Club debut, Freedom Wind, the only influence you'll hear — at least on the first listen —comes from sunny California — the Beach Boys. More specifically, the Beach Boys during Brian Wilson's mad-genius years when he was crafting his masterpiece, Pet Sounds, and bungling its follow up, Smile.
Pet Sounds is a must-listen record, and for good reason. It inspires and awes. "Pet Sounds opened up this thing in my brain — singing, vocals, vocal groups — that's what groups my age don't do. That's where I can get an edge with music," Brewer says. "Nobody goes out there with five guys and does multi-layered harmonies over rock 'n' roll anymore. I'm going to do that."
And that's exactly what Brewer and his bandmates have done with Freedom Wind, a collection of pop in the pre-Summer of Love vein, back before the psychedelics took hold and the rock 'n' roll world got lost in bat county. "I wasn't trying to make an indie rock record. I was trying to make a well-crafted, well-produced — even over-produced — pop record," says Brewer, who cowrote much of Freedom Wind with Troy Stains and Stephen Nichols. "I wasn't trying to hit the top of the charts by throwing in dance beats — I might though."
During lunch, Brewer tells us he's currently writing songs with Andy Paley, a successful musician and producer who has worked with Jonathan Richman, Jerry Lee Lewis, Madonna, and, yes, Brian Wilson. Paley was also a member of Richman's Modern Lovers and the Paley Brothers, a duo he formed with his brother.
Brewer is also on friendly terms with Darian Sahanaja, a member of the psychedelic pop band the Wondermints and more importantly, a member of Wilson's band. Sahanaja and the 'Mints not only tour with Brian Wilson, but they provided much of the musical heft to 2004's Smile, which the Beach Boy originally began working on in 1966.
Upon returning from a later songwriting trip to Los Angeles, Brewer mentions that Paley took him to Wilson's house, where he met the architect of Pet Sounds, a rare honor for any pop music fan, but especially for Brewer, a talent who has so clearly modeled himself and his band after Wilson and the Beach Boys.
And therein lies the rub. The Beach Boys aren't cool, and they haven't been since LBJ left office. Yes, you can borrow bits here and there from the Beach Boys, as do Of Montreal, the Fleet Foxes, or Dr. Dog, but you can't co-opt the overall sound — the same way countless metal bands do with Slayer's Reign in Blood and Pantera's Vulgar Display of Power. That's not cool.
But neither is Jason Brewer.
Not only does he listen to Burt Bacharach, Glenn Miller, Glen Campbell, and the '40s and '50s station on XM radio, but Brewer bows down before '80s chart-topping duo Hall and Oates. Make no mistake, Brewer is serious when he says, "Hall and Oates is one of the greatest pop bands ever."
These are all admissions. But perhaps none is as uncool as his feelings about Paul McCartney's post-Fab Four band Wings. "I like that more than the Beatles," Brewer says. "I don't think the songs are nearly as awesome, but it's more fun because I love those old synthesizers."
Yes, it's a ridiculous assertion on the surface, but doggone it if that Moog synthesizer on Wings' Band on the Run isn't pretty badass. Doubt it? Just give "Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Five" a spin and you'll see. It's as time-capsule trippy as such futuristic, B-movie classics as Logan's Run or Zardoz.
The fact of the matter is, Jason Brewer just wasn't made for these times. As the Explorers Club mastermind himself explains, "I'm like a grandpa. You have to understand that."
On the deck of the Windjammer, a group of men in golf shirts puff cigars and toss back drinks on a late August night. Inside, the crowd that had shown up for a gig sponsored by a local country station still lingers. A chick wearing hip-huggers and a tank top that's a little too small circles a pool table, sticking her belly out again and again, creating the illusion, at least temporarily, that's she's got a bun in the oven. The rest of the bar is filled out with sun-baked tourists and fresh-faced twenty-somethings. There's a good variety of folks here, and that's a testament to the unique charm of the Windjammer. This is the world in which Jason Brewer and company must succeed.
Around 11 p.m., the Explorers Club takes the stage, kicking things off with "Honey, I Don't Know Why." Dave Ellis, who looks like the love child of Jeff Spicoli and Grizzly Adams, is on vocals. "Honey" is a raucous number that Ellis sings with enthusiasm, as he plays both the tambourine and the guitar.
It quickly becomes apparent that live, at least, Ellis is the frontman for the group. It's his job to talk to the crowd and provide a visual point of reference for the audience. Tonight Brewer is just one of six guys on stage, albeit a guy who delivers the day-dreamy chorus to "Honey" and who, more often than not, sings lead.
And that's perfectly fine. For this is one band that operates as a single unified force. The harmonies are tight, and the playing is even tighter. What's particularly amazing is how well the band is able to duplicate the sound of Freedom Wind live, given the record's complexity. It's not identical, but it's pretty damn close, and pretty frickin' unbelievable.
Later, Ellis sings the band's closer "Proud Mary" and takes ownership of the second chorus on "Freedom Wind." Brewer sings the main chorus and verses of the song. "Wind" is the highlight of the Explorers Club's debut and a sign of where the band might be headed — it's the one tune that comes close to abandoning the Beach Boys' template, and in doing so, the group finds what may be its true voice. Whether that happens or not remains to be seen.
As the Explorers Club plays, a few of the Boomers in the crowd appear entranced by the music, with one white-haired, older gentleman watching the boys with a bemused grin on his face, as if he just woke up back in 1966. He gets it. The younger crowd? Not so much. Yes, some listen intently while others appear to like what they're hearing. But there doesn't seem to be that connection. For these listeners, the Explorers Club is just the band that provides background music while you and your friends toss back Jägerbombs. At least on this night.
This is the Explorers Club biggest challenge. If the band can't win over young people — aside from those music obsessives who mine the rock 'n' roll vault for every landmark album, discovering not only Pet Sounds, but something like the Zombies' Odessey and Oracle or the two Nuggets box sets — how will they have a future?
Marc Nathan is a senior A&R director at Capitol Music. He's not the band's manager, but he's extended his hand to the Explorers Club, loaning Brewer and the boys cash to pay for a "Do You Love Me?" video and introducing them to fellow music industry insiders. He has faith in the future of the Explorers Club.
"I'm a pop guy. I love harmonies. I love polished vocals," the 50-something Nathan says. "I believe that Jason Brewer is a very talented songwriter, and I think his 'Good Vibrations' may still be in his head. I don't think he's peaked on the first record."
But even Nathan acknowledges the trouble with finding an audience for the Explorers Club.
For one, booking tour dates is a considerable challenge. "It's six or seven guys up on stage," Nathan says. "They're not in a position where they can financially make a go of it as a full-time thing. Everything has to be worked around their work schedules." In addition, few artists are willing to take a six- or seven-piece band out on tour.
And two, Nathan believes that the audience that would be the most receptive to the Explorers Club is difficult to reach. "I have a great belief that there are a number of people my age who are starving for this kind of music, but since nobody actively promotes and markets to them, how in the hell would they know it's available?"
Nathan also points out one glaringly obvious obstacle when it comes to connecting with the folks who pay good money to see Brian Wilson in concert or the current Mike Love-led Beach Boys. "You can't throw them out there on an oldies tour because they're not an oldies act," he says.
There are other possibilities. Nathan believes that the Explorers Club could begin to find a foothold in the marketplace if the band could land a spot in a children's movie, a successful move for acts like Smash Mouth and Jack Johnson.
"A lot of today's stuff is very challenging, and I don't think the Explorers Club is particularly challenging at all. It's like cherry cough syrup, and it's not necessarily sugar free. It goes down pretty well," Nathan says, adding that the Explorers Club can potentially write the kind of song that appeals to 10-year-olds but isn't offensive to 40-year-olds.
Phil Waldorf, the label manager of Dead Oceans, the company that released Freedom Wind, acknowledges that reaching an older demo could propel the Explorers Club. "I do think it's folks who are not kids, maybe over 30, over 40, people who still like new music but are fans of the classics," Waldorf says.
According to Waldorf, the Explorers Club has already won over one older fan — his mom. He says, "In terms of playing music around the house, I'm sure that the Explorers Club is the only Dead Oceans release that has ever been played at my mom's party. No question."
That said, Waldorf points out a difference between the Explorers Club and other bands incorporating classic sounds. Groups like the Fleet Foxes, Dr. Dog, and My Morning Jacket are still indie rockers at their cores, but Brewer and his band aren't. "It's the real thing," Waldorf says, explaining what he felt after he saw the Explorers Club for the first time at the South by Southwest Festival in Austin. "It wasn't indie kids trying to lift from the past. It felt timeless."
He adds, "This is not a covers band. They are a band that is borrowing some really classic elements and reappropriating them as their own."
One factor that may be preventing the Explorers Club from finding fans among the indie rock set — they aren't super-hip. "This music is not cutting edge," the label manager says. "This is not a band that is likely to be the Pitchfork flavor of the month. It's more classic than that."
The first time Jason Brewer listened to Pet Sounds he was 17. He didn't get it. And he still didn't after the second and third spins. He recalls, "I thought that this is one of the weirdest records I've ever heard. It sounds like something my grandparents would like, but it also sounds like psychedelic rock.
"I was fascinated by it, but I didn't understand it." He put it away.
Years later, as a student at Charleston Southern University, Brewer gave the definitive Beach Boys album another shot. "I turned out all the lights in my room and lit a candle. I know it sounds so theatrical, but that's what I did," he explains. "I lit one candle, put the headphones on, and went, whoa. It totally blew my head off. It totally knocked it out of the park. It was like, OK, I suck at music."
Imagine a kid doing that in today's world where TV ads are propelled by pop songs new and old, the computer has replaced not only the record player but the CD player as well, and Guitar Hero has turned the listening experience into a frantic game. It's inconceivable that today's young listeners would even think about getting away from the constant sonic onslaught. Doing so would simply be too unnerving.
But Jason Brewer has gotten away from the noise. He's found a way to return to a time when pop music was something you intimately connected with. And he's doing it in the most rock 'n' roll way imaginable — he's making the music he wants to hear.
Who cares if your grandpa likes it too?