Toms River seems to be a musical gold mine of late. First, River City Extension exploded out of the sleepy little town, and now Brick + Mortar surface from an area known more for its proximity to Seaside Heights than anything else.
Brick + Mortar are a two-man team consisting of Brandon Asraf (bass guitar, vocals) and John Tacon (drums, electronic samples, vocals). Opting for a live setting of bass and drums, the duo forgoes guitars and other standard fare in favor of a gritty cornucopia of samples and infectious groove tracks. Brandon and John come from humble backgrounds, learning their trade through home hosted concerts and industry pros turned teachers.
Their short journey has been punctuated with highlights, including shows with Jimmy Eat World and SXSW at the prestigious House Of Creatives showcase. The duo signed with Anchor & Hope Music in 2010 (their publishing arm includes Glenn Tilbrook, Squeeze and River City Extension) before landing an interesting contract with Drexel U’s Mad Dragon Records, a label with distribution through Warner.
Their live show is an interactive frenzy and it seems like the buzz on this band is so strong that in my weathered opinion, a monster deal with a major label seems to be right around the corner. I caught up with Brandon Asraf last week and asked him a few questions on the true density of Brick + Mortar.
Why did you go with the structure of a two-piece band in a world of standard four and five-piece lineups?
It wasn’t really a choice we made. It was just what happened. John was my best friend and I was younger and he said to just start playing bass, so I took lessons for a couple years and we were just satisfied with the two of us. I thought it would be great if I could figure out how to do everything with just my best friend. We tried some different people early on because originally it was an instrumental thing but as it started to grow, it became a challenge to make all the songs complete and full the way we wanted them to sound. So once we figured out how to do it on our own, we just couldn’t go back, or try to find other members that thought the same way.
Your new release is on Mad Dragon Records, which is a school run label with distribution through Warner. Could you explain how you became affiliated with Drexel University?
We had been playing house shows in Philadelphia long before we started playing actual venues, and a lot of the kids that used to come out and see us came from Drexel and the music program. Once they had the opportunity to make bands part of their curriculum, they started pushing for us, so after all is said and done, we kind of got in because all these Drexel kids that couldn’t get into clubs really liked our house shows.
I watched the video for “Bangs.” It has an interesting style of Casino Royale meets Marathon Man. What was the inspiration for making the video?
I love film. My brother is a filmmaker, as are a couple of my friends. We wanted to do a real action film because it’s a challenging, but at the same time if you do it well, it hits people really hard. The song content was key and had to do with my father and his background. When I was growing up, he was kind of a con man and was involved in smuggling and other stuff. He was in and out of jail and jetting around the world, being a fugitive.
Every once in a while I’d go see him and that part of his life is something that’s fascinating to me and always talked about in my family and in my lyrics, which if you break them down, describes a lot about his adventures. So I really wanted to get a chance to act in something where I could be that character. It worked out to be around 30 people that volunteered to help make the whole thing and we were extremely lucky that people believed enough to do that because we aren’t a giant band with tons of money. People dedicated their time because they really cared about the song.
With today’s climate of senseless violence, was there ever any concern about featuring gunplay in a video that was produced by a college?
Drexel did produce the video but when we told them, I think they didn’t believe us when we said we were gonna make this video and it was gonna be just like a movie. We said we were gonna make the kind of video we wanted to see. And we told Drexel that and I don’t know if they had faith that we would do it, but when it came out they were like, “Wow, this looks amazing!” We were scared that they were gonna be kind of pissed, you know? But they were pretty cool about it.
We haven’t gotten too much backlash, but I guess when we made it, we didn’t think about how violent it was because all of us were so desensitized to that kind of stuff. I mean, think about it, you see it so much of it and you don’t think it’s that violent and then you hear, “Oh, that’s never gonna get a mention, you’ll never see that onscreen.” Then you think about some of the stuff that you have seen that makes it and it’s insane. But only a couple of people have mentioned the violence. So far it’s been people really liking it.
I’ve heard writers describe this latest recording as more “produced” than previous releases such as Heatstroke or Seven Years In The Mystic Room. Is that something you’re good with or do you feel like you need to explain this step to old school fans that might feel you’re changing commercially?
It’s funny that they say it’s more produced, because we went in and did everything in three days; In reality, it’s actually way less produced than the other stuff that we spent months making. I guess when something sounds polished or something sounds bigger, people say it’s more produced. It was a really raw process. We went in, got a bass sound, got our drums together, put the samples on, tweaked it a little bit, mixed it and it was done.
But I don’t know, we never really knew what our sound was going to be and also the fact that I don’t come from a background where I’ve been in a hundred bands so I don’t have a real giant chip on my shoulder about the sound I’m supposed to have, which I’ve run into with other musicians. They attach themselves to one idea or another because they’re concerned whether their fans are going to like it, but me and John have always been a bit schizophrenic so really, if writers think it’s overproduced, it’s all good to me; I don’t mind as long as people still get the feeling that the song is real.
Do you think there’s still a place for up-and-coming bands at festivals like SXSW? I mean, it seems like all the big corporate dogs muscled in on what was originally meant to be a platform for fledgling artists…
Our experience with SXSW was pretty good because we were part of a package, but I can imagine going there by myself, like in a band, trying to register and get my shit in, nobody would give a fuck. I think that it’s so oversaturated with people that are linked with corporate and if you’re not good friends with someone who has a lot of money, you’re not gonna get a good slot. I don’t know, I’d like to say it’s a festival that could change your life, but I don’t think anyone’s show can really change your life, you know?
Our own Tim Louie said in a piece he did last July that you have, “The energy, spirit, and unique sound that make Brick + Mortar’s potential limitless, even in today’s tough music business environment.” Is that something you keep in mind and try to convey to your fanbase every time you’re onstage?
We believe it because they (the fans) make it that way. It’s not us that has all the potential, it’s the people coming out to the show. When I play a show, I believe that I’m helping people enjoy themselves and I’m connecting with people and that’s the point. When I’m playing and I see that one person singing the lyrics, I go up to them and tell them thanks and I give them something from our band because I feel proud that they connect with what I was saying. I don’t think that any band is self-sufficient; I think it’s the fans that make a band who they really are.
Brick + Mortar will be at Joey Harrison’s Surf Club in Ortley Beach, NJ, on Aug. 31. For more information, go to brmr.net.