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THE BRETON SOUND
How Recording in Cramped Spaces Illuminated The Band’s Latest EP
Wherever there’s a bar, there’s usually music involved, and that certainly applies to the drinking establishments throughout the French Quarter in New Orleans.
The Chart Room, a small joint at the corner of Chartres and Bienville, isn’t a go-to destination for live music. However, it has a pretty good jukebox, and on this Saturday morning in late June, the four members of the New Orleans-based rock band The Breton Sound are among its customers.▼ Article continues below ▼
It’s already sweltering by 11:30 a.m., and the uncomfortable weather conditions prompt the bandmates to wonder with dry humor and genuine sincerity how legend Allen Toussaint could ever play the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival — held in late April and early May, when it’s also quite warm — while wearing a suit and somehow appear not to sweat.
“Is there something that happens once you get a certain amount of money that you can go pay and get your sweat glands removed?” asks guitarist Stephen Turner, as a funky instrumental fills the room.
“I think so,” deadpans singer and fellow guitarist Jonathan Pretus.
Turner and Pretus, along with bassist Joe Bourgeois and drummer John Bourgeois (they’re twins), are also in tune with the doings of other musicians from the city. One New Orleans notable of more recent vintage has been The Breton Sound’s producer for all three of the band’s releases to date: Better Than Ezra bassist Tom Drummond.
“He’s so easy to work with because he’s a musician,” says Pretus. “He never says you can’t try something, and that’s really important. Half of what I think has made our band sound the way we do is us just experimenting and trying things, seeing what works and what doesn’t work.”
“He pushes us to stay more relevant than I think we would on our own,” adds Turner. “He’ll say, ‘Let’s put some technology into this.’ That’s allowed us, even in our live sound, to include things like samples and backing tracks. You don’t have to just be guitar, bass, drums and vocals.”
Keyboards and Mellotron are also featured on The Breton Sound’s latest release, and the title serves as a provocation, a policy and a promise of things to come: Don’t Be Afraid of Rock & Roll, Volume 1. It’s the third Breton Sound EP since Turner and Pretus formed the band in 2010.
“I would love nothing more than to put out a full-length album that has some kind of flow and theme to it,” Pretus says. “But for a band that’s building its name and reputation, we don’t have that luxury yet, unfortunately.”
There’s more to it than that. Pretus and Turner acknowledge it’s cost-effective to record an EP. They also like the idea of working really hard on a smaller batch of quality tunes, “so there’s zero filler,” Turner adds.
The five-song Don’t Be Afraid of Rock & Roll, Volume 1 gets off to a rowdy start with “Rivers Cuomo.” Coming from a band whose guitarists were in a Weezer cover act called Tweezer while in college (“It was the biggest thing in Baton Rouge for 10 minutes,” cracks Turner), it would be natural to assume the song is a superficial fanboy ode. Actually, the Weezer leader’s name plays a small role in the song’s overall lyrical theme, which was conceived by Pretus.
“It came about when I read this article that said as you age, you lose the ability to make the same connection to music,” says Pretus. “At the same time, I was reading a review of the recent Weezer record; the writer trashed it. And I was thinking: Aside from whatever connection this guy can’t make with it, is it a bad record? Is it the performer’s fault that as listeners age they can’t connect to it?”
The seeds for “Illuminate,” the EP’s first single, were planted shortly before John Bourgeois became the band’s drummer in 2013. The song really began to take shape after the addition of Joe Bourgeois, who was asked by Pretus in spring 2014 to replace Brian Pretus (his brother) on bass.
“Illuminate” initially featured a busy bass introduction, and with Joe coming off a musical hiatus, that helped him regain his chops. It was important for him to get back into shape fast because the band was two weeks away from starting to track a new EP at Ardent Studios in Memphis. Recording there was an easy sell for Pretus, a fan of the Ardent-associated power-pop band Big Star.
The Breton Sound tracked “Illuminate” (sans the busy bass intro, scrapped by producer Drummond) and “Love You More” (an acoustic duet) at spacious Ardent in May 2014. The following month, the band traveled to the Atlanta area’s much cozier Southern Ground to record “Rivers Cuomo” and the Foo Fighters-esque “Stitches.”
“It’s a real basement studio,” Pretus says. “We were all cramped in a room, playing live to each other. The air conditioner was broken, so it was unbelievably hot, but it made for great energy — everybody just in a circle, sweating and playing our asses off.”
In August 2014, the band recorded “Walking Backwards” and duet guest Cherie LeJeune’s vocals for “Love You More” back home in New Orleans at Music Shed Studios, whose past clients include Kermit Ruffins, R.E.M. and The Cure.
Back to the promise part of the new EP’s title: Pretus says the band’s plan from the start was to make a sequel, something to give the project “more of a hook. It feels like you can’t just put out music anymore. There has to be some sort of event to it.”
Recording Volume 2 will commence after Drummond finishes a summer tour with Better Than Ezra. Pretus expects his own band to play its share of shows before and after returning to the studio.
“We’re looking at a really busy fall,” he says.
For a band still building its name and reputation, there’s nothing uncomfortable about that long-range forecast.
Follow on Twitter @TheBretonSound
photography by Chris M. Junior