We’re trying to get to the bottom of how Brasstronaut builds its music, near the end of a discursive and entertaining 40-minute chat, when singer-guitarist Tariq Hussain has a sudden inspiration. Diving suddenly off-course, he selects an image from the natural world: the humble caddis fly, whose green, shrimplike larvae are among nature’s master architects.
“I remember this from working as a park naturalist once,” Hussain says, on the line from his Fraserview home. “It’s kind of a little creature that lives in ponds, and what it does is gather up stuff and build itself a house. It’s like a shell, except that it’s made of sticks and stuff. That thing is so crazy! So when we’re writing music we’re like a bunch of caddis flies coming back together, where you bring your own things that you’ve gathered, and you sit in the jam room, and you’re like, ‘What have you been doing, little bug, for six months?’ ”
Or four years, that being the interval between Brasstronaut’s sophomore effort, Mean Sun, and the new, self-titled album it releases this week. Many things have been gathered, some have been discarded, and the end result is a record more rhythmically potent than previous Brasstronaut affairs, but retaining the subtle electronic shimmerings and sensuous beats that have always characterized the band’s hybrid sound.
At the root of the songwriting process, Hussain reveals, is the respect that all six members—with the others being singer-keyboardist Edo Van Breemen, clarinet and wind-synth specialist Sam Davidson, bassist John Walsh, drummer Brennan Saul, and trumpeter Bryan Davies—have for each other.
“It’s really about collaboration, in a lot of ways,” he explains. “And it’s gotten more and more collaborative over the years. It started with us just being friends and working together, but also being in a band in itself is kind of a collaborative thing. And then, as we move forward, everyone brings more ideas to the table.
“For this last record,” he continues, “even before we had any songs or had rehearsed anything, the mandate was ‘Everybody bring two ideas to the next jam.’ So everyone went off and made little demos of different ideas, and then we worked on those.”
Not all of Brasstronaut’s core ideas were arrived at during solo exploration. Hussain and Davidson had some productive long-distance writing sessions via Skype or the phone, working on the basis that “it’s easier to get creative stuff done when you put more brains into it rather than put it all on the shoulders of one person.”
And everyone in the band felt a light bulb or two switch on when they played the Vancouver Folk Music Festival in the summer of 2014.
“There was a woman called Noura Mint Seymali, from Mauritania, and she was amazing,” Hussain says. “I think we were all pretty fascinated: we did a workshop with them, actually, and I loved the guitar stuff that the guy who was playing in her band was doing. That weird phase or chorus-pedal sound… It’s almost repetitive at times, and I kind of copped that idea as best as I could.”
The result can be heard on Brasstronaut tracks “Desert Rock” and album highlight “Tricky”, strong, propulsive efforts that also showcase the larger lesson that Brasstronaut took away from the folk fest: it’s fun to make people dance. Although a seemingly counterintuitive booking, siting Brasstronaut’s dreamy soundscapes under the deciduous trees of Jericho Beach Park was a winning combination for audience and band alike.
“We had a couple of new, upbeat songs that year,” Hussain says. “And just the feeling of having people up and dancing to our music, being really energetic, made us think, ‘We need to have a few more of these!’ ”
It was not, he adds, that much of a stretch for Brasstronaut’s members, despite Mean Sun’s generally dystopic tone or the spacy, trip-hop-inspired vibe of earlier concerts. “There’s a certain fun-ness to being in this band,” Hussain says with obvious affection. “There’s a certain levity just in the day-to-day. That’s why I like hanging out with these guys. When we get together it’s always like we’re cracking up about some stupid thing, and that maintains itself somehow in the music. It isn’t heavy-handed.”
And besides, there are always more ways to decorate that caddis fly shell.
“We really all bring something different,” Hussain stresses. “I come from a singer-songwriter background, and that’s the last thing that Edo listens to on a day-to-day basis. I can play him Father John Misty and he’ll be like, ‘Oh, that’s pretty cool,’ but he’s not going to go out and dig up the next singer-songwriter. And then Sam likes Miles Davis; he has crazy-cool interests that I’d never otherwise listen to, like fusion-y stuff from the ’70s.
“Sometimes we make fun of each other in the van: ‘Turn that fucking thing off!’ ” he adds, laughing. “But when you go into a band where you have to be open-minded about everyone else’s tastes, you allow those influences to come into your music—and then you don’t have to compartmentalize yourself in any way.”
Brasstronaut plays Fortune Sound Club on Friday (November 25).