Interview with Brooks Strause

I caught up with Brooks Strause after his performance at Codfish Hollow on July 23, 2016. He started about an hour later than scheduled. He was held up because there had been two tornado sightings and a forty-five-minute downpour before they decided to let him play. The barn was less than half full. But those who were there got a much more intimate show then they would have if things would have gone smoothly. Brooks started the show sitting on a chair about five feet back from the edge of the stage. After a few songs, he moved down and sat on the stages edge. He remained there for all but his last song, when he returned to the chair. It seemed less like a concert and more like sitting around a campfire listening to a friend play his guitar and sing. The small crowd concentrated on each word and gave a good round of applause after each song. The weather had been very hot and humid for a couple days. After the rain the temperature dropped about twenty degrees. So we stood outside next to the barn and talked.

Billy Rose: I’d like to start out by getting some background on your musical influences from an early age. Do you have anything that comes to mind?
Brooks Strause: One of my earliest memories of music, when I was a kid, is the Ben E. King song Stand By Me. I remember hearing that and being really deeply affected by it, emotionally. I was a really little kid. I didn’t really know what he was saying, I didn’t really get it. But I could tell that he really meant it. It just really got to me.
BR: So it was an old song that kind of hit you.
BS: Yeah, my mom used to listen to oldies station a lot when I was a kid. That’s definitely where I draw most of my influence from. The old stuff influenced me early on and even to this day, I’m influenced by the old music from the sixties and seventies.
BR: How old were you when music became a bigger part of your life?
BS: I really got into music just before high school. So I was into the music of the nineties at that time. But I came back to the older music shortly after that. I’ve been drawing from stuff from before I was born.
BR: So your mom introduced you to oldies music from the radio. Did she play any instruments or sing?
BS: No, she didn’t. My dad played guitar. That’s when I first started playing guitar, I took my dad’s guitar out of the closet and just started fooling with it.
BR: So did your dad play outside of the house? Were there any others in your family who played music.
BS: No, dad just played, like Christmas songs. He would get his guitar out and just play Christmas tunes. He didn’t play it very often. But when I was in junior high school I started listening to a lot of music, and I realized that it was something I wanted to do. My brother is a musician too. We kind of came into it about the same time. He is a little younger than me, and he can play any instrument. We play a lot of music together. He plays drums in my band. He used to play accordion in another band of mine.
BR: How old were you when you started getting your dad’s guitar out and playing with it?
BS: I was fourteen. Yeah, I didn’t know how to play anything. I wrote a song the first time I picked it up. I didn’t know how to play, didn’t know any chords or anything. I just found some notes and started playing and singing.
BR: So you were into song writing right away then.
BS: Yeah, I just wanted to play songs and record my own songs, like within the first couple days of playing music. It was all bad, I made really bad music for years and years. They were all bad, I wrote a thousand bad songs by the time I was twenty. I didn’t write one good song by the time I was twenty. But I’ve got a few now that I think are pretty good.
BR: Were you in any bands in high school?
BS: Yeah, I started my first band in like, freshman or sophomore year in high school. It was like, punk rock and metal and pop rock. We didn’t really have any direction. Just any song I could come up with, we played. Then I had a punk band when I was just done with high school. Then I got into roots rock. When I was in my early twenties I started a band called Old Scratch Revival. It was a like a big dark full band drawing a lot from ragtime and music from the twenties.
BR: So is that pretty much were your influences come from now, old music instead of new stuff?
BS: Well, at this point my favorite music is from the sixties and early seventies. But I like The Great American Songbook, I’ve been trying to capture some of that more recently. I’ve always been really fond of that stuff. Just thinking of songwriting as an art form, that’s where I’m trying to reach for. Just trying to keep getting better. Drawing from the people who were really masters of the craft.
BR: So who are some of your favorite artists?
BS: The Beatles, The Kinks and The Bee Gees and singer songwriters like Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and Harry Nilsson. I listen to a really broad range, but I tend to focus on psychedelic stuff and Glam rock and classic singer songwriters.
BR: When you said The Kinks, I was like yeah. Ray Davies, in my book is the ultimate songwriter.
BS: (Laughs) Yeah. And I really like Randy Newman. I think there are parallels between those guys. Like writing very satirically. Just like saying something no one would say in a song.
BR: Unusual subjects. Do you try to write like that? Using unusual subject matter.
BS: I relate to that because I try to write about things that other people aren’t writing about. That’s my goal, to write songs that make people think. Think a little harder about stuff that they take for granted. So I feel a connection to people that write from different perspectives. From people that are living different lives than they are. I’m not very good at that, so I don’t do a whole lot of that myself. But I do think that my songs end up drawing from material that other people aren’t drawing from in life. Just trying to explore the deeper corners of philosophical questions that aren’t usually captured in songs.
BR: How many recording have you made now?
BS: I just finished recording my ninth solo album. There were two Old Scratch Revival albums. Uh, I recorded a few things with my bands before that. This current project, I’ve been playing and recording solo albums since 2007. My ninth should be out early next year.
BR: How did you get hooked up with Bob Herrington at Cartouche Records?
BS: My seventh album was produced by Pat Stolley, and when it was done he showed it to Bob. Bob liked it and he got a hold of me.
BR: Oh, so that was pretty easy.
BS: (laughs) Yeah, that was really easy.
BR: Do you play with a band very often?
BS: Every couple of months, I bring the band out. Most of my recordings are band style recordings. But in the studio I play most of the instruments myself usually. But I have a rock and roll band with horns. Two saxophones’, electric guitar, bass and drums. We play kind of energetic versions of my songs. We do that every couple of months.
BR: How do you prefer doing a live gig? Alone or with a band.
BS: I’ve gotten a lot better at doing it alone because I’ve done it so much more. I’ve toured solo a few times recently. I feel like I have a lot more control, when I’m playing by myself, at this point. But there were many years that I was playing by myself, and wanted desperately to put a band together. Just to have a bigger sound and not have all of the concentration being on me. I used to have a three-hour gig at a restaurant in Iowa City for a few months, after playing to people who were having conversations and eating dinner, and just trying to get their attention. That made me feel differently about what I do. It helped me not worry about it. I can still do what I do, even being alone on the stage.
BR: So how do you write songs. Do you just write continuously?
BS: Yeah. I had about three months of not writing a song, earlier this year. That was the longest I had gone for a while. It was while I was recording this album. I just didn’t write anything while I was recording.
BR: So you already had the stuff you were going to record for the next album.
BS: Yeah.
BR: Is the new one going to be on Cartouche Records?
BS: Hopefully, I don’t really know. Bob said he would look at their schedule and see if he could do it. See if he had room for it.
BR: How do you like Iowa City as compared to Muscatine?
BS: I like Iowa City a lot. I moved away from Muscatine in my early twenties, and lived in Cedar Falls and Waterloo for about six years. So Muscatine is pretty far removed at this point. My parents are still there, but it’s just a place I go and visit. But I really like living in Iowa City. Downtown is like really crazy on the weekends, so I just don’t go down there on weekends. I live far enough from campus that it’s pretty mellow most of the time. But it’s a good town.
BR: Are you already planning another album after this new one comes out.
BS: I have about half of one done. I also wrote an opera about two years ago. A Folk rock opera, that I never recorded. I feel like I need to start recording that pretty soon.
BR: Is that your first attempt at something like that?
BS: Yeah. I had an idea on a long drive one time. I just thought of the whole story for the opera, and then spent a month writing it. And then I haven’t done anything with it since. I play a song or two off of it sometimes, but I need to record it.
BR: So we got some new stuff to forward to in the future. It was nice to meet you Brooks. Good luck with your music.
BS: Yeah, thanks. Nice to meet you too.

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