Music, of late, has been good to Skye Brooks. He spent much of April in Paris, drumming with singer-guitarist Ndidi Onukwulu’s band, and now he’s on his way home to a CD-release party for his own quintet, Copilots. But the travel gods have been less kind. When the Straight reaches him on his cellphone he’s tired, jet-lagged, and halfway through a seemingly interminable layover in the cheerless confines of Toronto’s Lester B. Pearson International Airport. Still, given the chance to talk about the new Copilots disc, Escape Through the Trees, he perks right up.
In fact, just about everyone who’s ever played with Brooks—and the list runs from songwriter Veda Hille to trance-jazz advocates Inhabitants to the latest edition of the NOW Orchestra—cites his positive nature as one of his chief assets, right next to his energetic yet detailed drumming. With Copilots, though, he’s taken on another role: frontman and singer-guitarist. He’s risen to this opportunity with aplomb. His singing can at times be artless, but it’s charmingly so, and the songs that he writes—along with those penned by bandmates Pete Schmitt and Chad MacQuarrie—occupy a quirky but comfortable niche somewhere between ’60s psychedelia, ’70s prog, and ’90s grunge.
And, not surprisingly, many of those songs deliver a noticeably positive message.
Escape Through the Trees, the second Copilots release on violinist Jesse Zubot’s Drip Audio imprint, is so new that I’ve not been able to listen to it more than half-a-dozen times. But the tracks that stand out include the album’s closer, “Drink the Moon”, a heartfelt endorsement of the ecstatic.
“That was just my way of reminding myself to seize the day and not get caught up in mundane things that kind of leach your enthusiasm,” Brooks explains. “Just to remember to have those great moments, you know.”
Bassist Schmitt’s “All That I Am” and Brooks’s own “Husk” take on darker subject matter: a mutual friend’s struggle with substance abuse. They’re more about friendly concern than condemnation, however. “I don’t want to hear about/How hard you’ve got it,” sings Brooks in the latter. “You have all you need/But you just can’t see it.”
“The person those songs are about is very close to us, both Pete and I, and it’s been really hard to deal with,” says Brooks, noting that he and Schmitt wrote their songs independently, neither knowing that the other was similarly occupied. “It’s someone who I grew up with, who I’ve known since I was nine. We’re the same age, and we went to high school together. But he went down very quickly, and it was kind of a real shocker to our old group of friends. It’s been rough.”
Asked if the songs have made any difference, Brooks lapses briefly into a funk. “No,” he said. “To be perfectly honest, I haven’t spoken to this person for a while, and I don’t think he’s even heard the songs.”
It’s typical, though, that Brooks and his bandmates are concerned with the plight of a friend, for their own working unit is a skein of long-term relationships. Brooks and Schmitt share rhythm-section duties in several other bands, including Inhabitants, Fond of Tigers, and DarkBlueWorld, and took their first “baby steps” in music together as teens in their hometown of Mission. Drummer Dylan Smith, who also painted the cover art for Escape Through the Trees, is Brooks’s half-brother; the new disc’s jubilant opener, “Long Hauling”, is about their shared, lifelong passion for musical adventure. Guitarist MacQuarrie is an old acquaintance, and the band’s newest member, keyboardist Karma Sohn, is Brooks’s girlfriend.
This isn’t so much a band as a family. And in its supportive embrace Brooks finds he’s getting more comfortable with his newfound role at the front of the stage—which isn’t quite as much of a stretch as it might seem to those who know him mainly as a drummer.
“I actually used to sing and play in rock bands when I was in high school,” he reveals. “I started playing guitar first; my mom taught me some little open chords and how to sing some folk songs when I was around nine. I was always very interested in the drums, though, and for some reason, when I started playing the drums, I completely dropped the guitar and didn’t pick it up again until I was in my early 20s, when I got kind of a hankering to try and write songs. And trying to figure out how to write songs has been a long, slow process. I’m still learning lots.”
On the evidence of Escape Through the Trees, the learning process is paying dividends for band and audience alike.