By Jordan Reisman
Photo by Adam Mautner.
The country follows you wherever you go, even in the most urban of environments. I’ll Be John Brown from Brooklyn would concede this, as they’ve made a burgeoning career for themselves forging a style of music that is all but lost in the city, simple blues-based country music. They are not alone in this either, as they continually made reference to the “Brooklyn country scene” which has since died down.
BTR was able to speak with the band’s lead singer and vocalist, Jason Gambrell and bassist Jason Holt face-to-face about getting older, the fluid nature of “the country” and bringing that feel to the city.
Both transplants to New York with Gambrell from South Carolina and Holt from New Jersey, but not the metropolitan Jersey, Holt refers to himself as “kind of a redneck from New Jersey.” The two shared their thoughts on the pervasiveness of Southern culture and how it manifests itself in the most unlikely of places.
“You get to the country in any state in the Union and you’re gonna find people who are really into pick-up trucks, country music and beer. I think there’s an interest in roots and pride from being from a small town,” Gambrell says.
With their roots from the South laid firmly, the band was ready to begin. Like most country projects, I’ll Be John Brown started humbly, with a case of beer and a friend’s couch in the East Village in 2005.
“We weren’t serious about it, neither one of us (him and a former member) was really into country music or knew much about playing country music. We just thought, ‘Hey, wouldn’t it be fun once a week for us to split a 12-pack of PBR and sit on your couch and try to figure this thing out?’” says Gambrell.
Holt joined forces soon after as he was roommates with the owner of the couch. Gambrell says that the band has expanded since those formative years into a five-piece, each member bringing “a flavor and aspect of what they do to what we do.”
Gambrell says he grew up listening to punk rock and metal in the South while Holt cut his teeth on jam. They both agree though, that at a certain point the country music that they were around resonated at a deeper level than any time before. Either getting tired of rebelling, headbanging or all of the above, the two of them came around to the music that they now play eventually.
“At a certain point in your life, it’s an age thing. It just starts to bubble up. There’s something about getting to a certain age that makes you want to play this mellow, expressive music. Actually I think you have to be almost a certain age to pull it off because it is blues music, that’s really what it boils down to. A nineteen-year-old singing about his problems and how the world has screwed him over, you don’t really take that seriously. You have to have some miles under your belt to really pull that off,” says Gambrell, Tim Allen-like.
Holt added his wisdom of growing up, “My whole thing is if you haven’t paid a bill in your life, I don’t wanna hear anything from you.”
The boys both agreed that when they reached this “certain age”, they wanted to be able to express themselves in a more “mellow way.” Holt says that since he had grown up around country but not necessarily listening to it, when he sat down with Gambrell it felt more natural and comfortable. And since this music is still blues, the inspiration to create it came from “weird life experiences” and “crappy jobs” and as Gambrell puts it, “When you realize that everything is not great, that’s sorta when you get to the point where you start singin’ the blues.” Well, I guess this is growing up…
By now you’ve asserted that I’ll Be John Brown plays crooning sad jams about murdered lovers, complete with Murder By Death-like minor chords. In a way, you’d be half right. Just listening to the first few seconds of “Wrong” from their latest release, The Wrong EP, though, it sounds like a song that’s just begging to be a bar anthem. But in the way that the guitars evoke pure jubilation and madness, the lyrics that Gambrell writes speak to another part of the country heart.
“When I personally write songs I almost try to mismatch the lyrics with the music. I’ll write a really happy musical structure and super depressing lyrics. No one has any idea. So people are dancing and I’m singing about someone overdosing,” admits Gambrell on the not-so-hidden lyrical content.
One would think that a Southern rock and country influenced band would be a “fish out of water” but just like the first wave of immigrants coming through Ellis Island and banding together, I’ll Be John Brown has found a little scene to call their own and lay their hat down.
“Being in Brooklyn, it’s definitely not like we’re out of place. There’s so many different kinds of bands that it’s probably hard for any band to look or feel or seem out of place,” says Holt.
They pointed to the “Brooklyn Country scene” which flourished in the mid-to-late 2000’s but has since “fizzled out.” The two described the scene as “kind of clique-y” and that they were “always sort of on the outside of that.” They referenced a Village Voice cover that exposed the Brooklyn Country scene, but it soon dissolved after that. I guess if Michael Musto knows your band, then you’ve truly sold out?
Since the “scene” died down though, John Brown is at peace with that. They’re “not trying to start a movement”, but instead “kind of doing our own thing.” And if they’re still standing after the crumble of Brooklyn Country, doesn’t that mean they’re at least doing something right?
Go do some ‘Wrong’ with I’ll Be John Brown by purchasing the EP here.
Check the interview and music of IBJB on the newest episode of Discovery Corner on BTR.