Some Feelings Are Here To Stay:
Brent Cash Is So Square He’s Cool
Brent Cash is a striking anomaly in the landscape of Georgia music, indeed in the current overall musical climate altogether. At one time a drummer for various unexceptional local bands, the most recent being Television Buzz, since that group’s 2008 diffusing Athens-based Cash has struck out on an altogether separate, distinct path, crafting ambitious, sophisticated solo albums inspired by and in the style of the orchestrated, breezy-listening, AM radio pop albums of the 1960s and ’70s. Think Bacharach, Brian Wilson, Carpenters, Jimmy Webb – those songwriter-driven projects that were immaculately arranged and rendered by largely faceless, nameless, highly talented studio musicians. They are classics of an era – one that seems so long ago and far away. Yet under Cash’s obsessive, meticulous care, they come alive again, fresh and new.
If 2008’s How Will I Know If I’m Awake was a an unexpected, riveting revelation, the forthcoming followup, How Strange It Seems (due out June 7th in the US, May 27th everywhere else, on German-based Marina Records), is at once more elaborate and far-reaching, with sweeping string sections, more complex arrangements, an overall feel that’s more lush yet also a little darker in spots. It’s a lovely creature, stirringly sung and perfectly performed by nearly 30 musicians and vocalists (including late Television Buzz frontman Kris Langley, who passed away in January 2010). It’s familiar yet unlike what any other contemporary artist I could name is doing right now. It’s so square, it’s cool.
Cash has never performed these masterpieces live, and while he’s not ruling it out, it’s not something he’s planning for the near future. So instead, track down his albums, load ’em up in the hi-fi, pour yourself a fizzy cocktail and sit back as we catch up with this man out of time…
You really went all-out on this recording. Full string section, full horn section, vocal group…
“Yeah, I had this strange desire to go into more debt.”
Mission accomplished, huh?
“Financially, it’s pretty hard. Actually, if I do anything in the future, that’s when I’m gonna have to start doing it as cheaply as I can. I kinda did not do that on these last two. The only saving grace was, I didn’t bring the orchestra in all at the same time, like they would’ve done in the early ’70s. It was all done with the violins one day, and maybe the woodwinds the next month, etc., the harp maybe the next month. Because these people need to be paid, and they should be. They’re used to playing weddings, things like that, so they’re not, you know, your friend coming over to jam on a 1-4-5 blues scale. It was over a period of time, and that’s probably what saved me.”
How do you finance something like this?
“My job itself really didn’t pay much for any of the record. The record was financed by Visa, MasterCard and a home equity loan. But I felt these songs on this second record were the best, just pure songs I’d ever had at one point all together. I felt they were the best chord changes, the best lyrics that weren’t oblique and made sense, like a Motown record would. So I kind of couldn’t cheapen the production on those. I wanted them to have nice clothes forever.”
Your records sound painstakingly crafted, with tremendous attention to detail. What’s the whole process like?
“It’s like pulling teeth. But I really, really wanted to get them out – that’s why I went to all the trouble. Generally, when I’m making a record, that’s the most fertile time for me, as far as writing goes. The ideas just seem to explode…I just picked the ones I thought I could pull off, so to speak. I put the lyrics to them, and once I knew I had the lyrics kind of in the bag, I just got the sequence together as far as how many verses, how many choruses, and I would lay down the drum tracks in silence…Then everything just got put on top of that. And once the rhythm tracks got going pretty well, I would spend my spare time doing the orchestral arrangements, which I’m really not qualified to do, I just kind of elbow my way into it and make it happen. I know enough about rhythms and pitches that I can find them on the keyboard. That really takes the most time – the arranging. If I were a Jimmie Haskell or Artie Butler I could knock it out in a week, but I’m a former drummer.”
Has it been difficult for you to find sympathetic, talented players who get what you’re going for?
“No, not at all. What I was going for on these two albums was, rather than self-contained groups, I was going in the opposite direction and trying to [make] faceless, producer-driven music. I’m sure the Association didn’t light up the crowd at Monterrey, even though they played there. The Association, basically they sang on their records, but they didn’t play anything. But those are the records that really grabbed my spirit, sometimes a lot more than some Beatles songs. I’ve never had a problem with being cool or any hang-ups like that. So, the players that I hired really didn’t have to be into it, so to speak, they just had to be really good musicians, because the parts were already written out for them. You can make notations on string parts if you want them to vibrate the frets or wobble the bow, pizzicato – I mean, you can tell them what to do, and it’ll come out sounding like a 5th Dimension record, which is what I wanted. So I didn’t have to worry about the players being sympathetic – they really just needed to get paid and be respected, and I was glad to do both.”
How did you get from playing drums in various bands to doing this?
“Well, I’ve always made up songs. Probably when I was six years old I would make up songs, so I’ve always had that going on inside of me. And I would always spend a lot of time looking at the catalogs, like I’m sure a lot of kids did – the JC Penney, the Sears catalogs, lookin’ at the guitars and the drums and everything, dreaming about having one. So it could’ve gone either way, but my mom, bless her heart, bought me my first set of drums, which I still own, and they’re the ones on the records you hear. But see, before I got the drum set, I’d always been moved by music, and not really rhythms. When I was a kid, I’d get these real visceral feelings about certain chord changes. I didn’t know how to verbalize it, but I knew something was going on when I’d hear something off Best of the Beach Boys, Volume 3, which I got in the cut-out bin probably in the mid ’70s. I knew something was going on inside of me when I heard those chord changes, but when you’re six you don’t know how to say ‘These chord changes are making me feel spiritual.’ So that nagging musical feeling never left me, even though I was playing rock ‘n’ roll and stuff.”
And you’ve always been attracted to this classic, orchestrated pop sound?
“I mean, I like the Stooges too, and Black Sabbath. But for me to express what I’m trying to express, it seemed like the orchestral way was the best way to go, because if I were to comment on myself, and what other people maybe think about me, I probably seem like I’m in my own world all the time. There’s a fine line between melancholy and reflective with me. It just seems to be a better way to represent what I’m feeling.”
What are some of your favorite artists and albums in this style?
“The first one that comes to mind is a guy named Bergen White. He’s a Nashville arranger, and he’s done every country artist you can imagine, and he made an album in 1970 called For Women Only, and it probably sold fewer copies than my first album did, ha ha ha! But it came out on a label called SSS, and actually my friend Mike Guthrie’s album came out on that label, under the name Arnold Bean, so I think that’s pretty cool too. But it’s unbelievable. He’s got all the great Nashville players on it, and he arranged it, and he sings, he’s got a great voice. He’s double-tracked, and he wrote some of the songs, I think, but he did some songs by David Gates that weren’t hits, and he picked a song by Townes Van Zandt that wasn’t a hit – he picked all the good songwriters, more obscure stuff, and he just did ’em up, and it blows me away, pretty much, when I hear it. So, that one, the Scott Walker stuff, I would say Laura Nyro’s first Columbia albums, they were epiphanies for me.”
Do you feel out of time? Are you ever self-conscious about practicing a style of pop music that most people consider outdated, or at the least nostalgic?
“No, I don’t think so. And I do think there’s a hunger, still, for some of this stuff. I don’t know how much over here, but in Europe and Japan, they tend to really love America’s past, more than we do. How many genres of music have been created, ever? Once it gets created, there’s always that following, whether it’s disco or bluegrass or whatever. This kind of stuff, I always think there’s gonna be a small cult that is going to hunger for more.”
Photo by Jason Thrasher.